The last hundred miles were always the time in which I’d surrender, when I’d breathe in the cool air in the parking lot of a motel in Orangeburg, South Carolina, pack my duffel bag into the car, make a last circuit of the room for left-behind items, and leave a few dollars for the maid. I’d slip the key into the stainless tray at the motel office, and would have the same old rush of regret that I’ve had since I was a child—
I will never be in the place again, in this moment.
The last hundred is when I can let it all out, when I can put on the saddest songs and reflect on the losses and the troubles, and this is how I do it, when I can make the trip. It is when I sing along to the most lonesome down-and-out songs I love, and when I stew in the losses, in all the failed crops and storm-beaten grain that never made it to this harvest festival time, when we come together to share what we reap over the length of our lives.
The highway is a dead one, old Route 301 tying my world to my father’s, and it’s a smooth ride as metaphors go. The traffic’s all since shifted to the roaring modern corridor of I-95, and year by year, the old loops and bends of 301 are being ironed out and forced into compliance, but this last stretch, connecting my overnight stop with the small Georgia town where we meet, is still almost as it was, and it’s a good place to be free—free to roll down the windows and sing yodeling, hiccuping country songs about love lost, free to open up all the neurons and cupboards in the brain to all the anxiety and frustrations and laments amid the relentless brush of pine forests along the way.
It is a part of why I love to travel alone, that; why I relish the morning and the last hundred miles, when I can just reflect without any filters at all. It is where the statistics add up, totaling up the people we’ve lost, the relationships that crashed and burned, the friends moved onward and elsewhere to new lives in which we are no longer part of the day-to-day.
I sing along to all the saddest songs in my worst and most earnest voice that cracks at the inadvisable high notes and mumbles off in the half-forgotten lyrics, wiping tears on the back of my hand, watching old familiar landscapes of a favorite in-between world rising and falling until we’re into the swamps, my car and me, a spark of hot nerves racing the morning sun along the abandoned causeway of the old road, built when this route was big and important and left to rust when life moved westward. I play out arguments, parting moments, the horrors of death and disaster, and it is a thing curiously full of warmth and love and celebration, the sea of dried stalks parting before the plow at the end of another season of emotional agriculture.
The South Carolina welcome center lies abandoned, too, just north of the border, a once modern building left to sag, and I’ll stop, sometimes, to pee in the unneeded privacy behind the place and peer through the windows at the half-dismantled racks of brochures bleached to a bloodless blue in the relentless sun before setting off again.
I think of you on the trip, and how and when I lost you, and of this you, and of that you, and of another you, and of how so many lights have gone out by now, when the grey hairs are sweeping in like winter weather, and how many voices have retreated into this place in my heart, where I’m the only one left to carry on the conversations, and that’s another pang, another heartache, and it’s all okay, because it’s the last hundred miles, when the crop is coming to harvest. The roads are dusted with tufts of cotton where the trucks have come and gone and left the land milled down to red clay and churned up roots, and it’s okay to end a season this way and let the harvest festival begin.
I will tell stories about you, and some will just make me smile a private smile when everyone’s all there, lush in life and rich with tales to tell and the comfort of a rare family gathering on this scale. The last hundred miles lets me let it all go, because one fine day, we will all die and be someone else’s burden on that journey, and someone’s well-deserved reward for the hard years spent tending, bringing water and nourishment, pruning, and recovering from the sudden hailstorms and unstoppable floods that wash over everything, leaving only ruination—
It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther . . . . And then one fine morning—
For the holiday, the harvesters lie silent in the fields, immense egg-beater blades standing in as way-stations to the starlings that sweep up from the quiet lands in sinuous clouds that I watch through the haze of melancholy, and I sing louder and surrender more, until I’m a ragged mass of nerve endings reaching for the light like sunflowers looking to their sun god, and then the fields start to have that old familiar feeling, the one that lifts me up, and brings me back to this moment, right here and right now, where everything is fine, and more than fine.
I park and carry my things in, crunching across the sandy soil, and let my fingers trail through the rosemary bushes, sending a cascade of that gorgeous evergreen scent into the air, and open the door and step into the warm embrace of love again.
Yet, even without the trip, as life moves and shifts and things that always happen become less regular and less dependable in the bustling riot of adulthood, this morning is still the last hundred miles. I’m standing in my kitchen, earphones singing heartbroke ballads into my senses, chopping asparagus and onions and washing broccoli and grating parmesan beside steaming pots and pies packed up for a shorter trip, and it’s just the onions, I swear—
And the food is that much better, and the stories are that much richer and funnier and more meaningful, and the faces are that much more beautiful, and the scampering run of children is that much more raucous and joyous, all because the harvest at the end of another long year is always the sweetest, juiciest fruit, all laid out for us by sacrifice and the bitter counterpoint of loss and revisitation, and so it’s not the onions, and it’s not the music or the last hundred miles, and it’s just everything everything everything and how we so seldom have the occasion to stop struggling long enough to just let the landscape rush by and reflect on how lucky we are and how much joy and wonder we’ve had in our hands, even if it’s never quite enough, and then we open the door to a steamy holiday kitchen full of voices and that rare golden autumn light that washes out almost everything but love.
With a rental car still in my possession, at least for another day and change, and sleep still just out of reach, I decided to take definitive action and go nowhere in particular.
“One album or two?” asked my imaginary friend, drifting out of memory and reminding me of our old means of regulating time spent on fruitless journeys.
One, I think. Itʼs almost midnight and Iʼm not a teenager anymore.
One album, back in my day, was about forty-five minutes long, or one side on a ninety minute TDK chromium dioxide cassette tape of assorted mixed-up wonders and clinkers from the era when one of the most personal and satisfying thing you could do for those you loved was to sit by the stereo with a stack of LPs, coming up with the perfect musical journey for the ear.
So one album it was, and I am not a teenager anymore, and am an entire teenager and an adolescent away from when I was. Is this the way we are, by nature, at this age, when friends and family accelerate along the curve of dying off, leaving us to marvel at all the time thatʼs gone by? Sometimes, though, it is more satisfying to surrender to that sense of things, and to the maudlin celebration of retraced steps along the way, and so I set off.
Plug the tiny music player into a cable, plug the cable into the car, select AUX on the controls, dial through the music for the album instead of the shaggy and nearly worn out cassettes from my day, and I call up Holger Czukayʼs On The Way To The Peak Of Normal, a mutual favorite of my imaginary friend and I on our way to the peak of nowhere, click on the headlights, and pull out.
I still live in the town where I grew up, albeit in town for the last twenty-six years instead of just outside, and the streets are crammed full of familiar faces, if only in my head as I pass sites still wired into the deepest parts of the old archive, and it seems strange to pass them in this strange, futuristic car that smells a bit too strongly of old church ladies and harsh cleansers, but the road unrolls like charts of probability and possibility nevertheless. I take the back way to Scaggsville, and linger in the old neighborhood long enough to name the houses by the people I knew, long since departed from the area.
Thereʼs Paulaʼs house, and Lindaʼs, and Anitaʼs, and Keithʼs, and thereʼs Mattʼs house with his horde of mean brothers, and Lelandʼs, now on a loop that didnʼt exist in my day, and I tuck back down to the sweeping road that runs to the reservoir. Thereʼs Robinʼs house, and I just found him last month after trying to track him down for years, only to find a cemetery entry, complete with a photo of a headstone from eight years ago, and so I pick up the pace, tracking the curves, racing to the lake with Czukay on six speakers of amazing sounding hi-fi goodness, then cut out, up Pineway. Thereʼs Nickʼs house, and I think where George Gee lived, and he was mean, but I think heʼs probably handsome now, and then Iʼm cutting over, diving down the huge hill and heading to my old Howard County stomping grounds.
“Where are we going?” asks my imaginary friend, and I shrug.
The roads are still the same, mostly, except where curves have been straightened to suit the minivans and SUVs belonging to all the new families that have crash-landed in garish vinyl-sided oversized faux colonials on tiny lots with no trace of interconnecting sidewalks, because in this world, we drive to meet, and strive to avoid doing so whenever we can, because, well, you know — good fences and all. The deer are everywhere, a sort of living series of speed cameras that work by fear of collision, and I am torn as to whether I should amble along at a relaxed pace or revel in the fact that Iʼve been talked into paying seventeen dollars and ninety-nine cents per day for full collision protection on the car in the same sort of fear lecture that underpins the timidity of most people these days.
I have hit two deer in my life thus far, and neither experience was particularly rewarding or worthy of further exploration, so I aim for the middle ground, generating excitement with more volume on the stereo until the car is just thrumming, a resonating tin can in which I am traveling in time.
Thereʼs my teacherʼs house, tucked away just off a side road from a side road. She changed everything for me, and I visited her back in the late nineties, then recently pondered doing it again until I found her, too, in a cemetery, since 2007. Her smile is always close, a brilliant point fixed in time and punctuated with lines at the corners of her eyes that only appear in her most genuine expressions of delight, and while I could frustrate her to the point of teeth-grinding exasperation, I could bring on that smile.
So long, Noreen, and thanks. Is “Noreen” okay, now that weʼre both grown-ups?
“Good Godfrey, Joe-B,” she says, “Are we really both grown-ups?” or at least I imagine she says, because sheʼs one of my imaginary friends now, too, along for the ride.
I whip through the old haunts. Allview and Simpsonville and Clarksville and Columbia, all familiar roads littered with the remains of old conversations Iʼve had. I pass the steep embankment I once drove down to show off to my friend Ruth, one of the ones I found alive and well and full of all the things I remembered treasuring about her, and then Iʼm on the big road, now more of a highway, then off, then into the strange landscape of the city thatʼs being built, all at once, where there were just farms not so long ago.
Route 216 still follows the same route once you pass the series of recent circles and shopping centers, and I am still there, all along the way, on my spindly, heavy old red metal-flake Schwinn Varsity Deluxe with a peach Nehi sweating in the bag under the seat and my blue Toshiba cassette player making me completely oblivious to the dangers of the seven-point-nine mile trip each way to my imaginary friendʼs house. My friend is there, too, either ahead of or just behind me on his yellow Keno, all of those trips just layered up like multiple exposures on a single frame of Kodachrome.
The giant power line tower is there, too, a single monopole capped by a surrealistic pentagon that now carries millions of volts to thousands of consumers, but when it was new, when I was still a fool, I unbolted the plate at the base, climbed inside, and made my way all the way to the base of the pentagon, thinking Iʼd stand there, triumphant, with my arms spread wide. Instead, I climbed out, immediately started crying, and yelled for my friend to call the fire department.
He didnʼt, of course, because that would have meant going to a strangerʼs house to make the request for access to a land line, and I got my nerve up to climb back down.
“I told you,” my imaginary friend said, and says, and he did.
The deer are everywhere, just munching the brush at the side of the road, and I keep it slow, and snake through the well-trodden routes. Here is where my Datsun flubbered to a stop with a flattening tire, there is where I rounded a corner on a hill in the same station wagon at a speed at which I became airborne, flew over a ditch, and touched down sideways in the yard of a house, cutting two staggeringly deep trenches before slicing through a row of well-tended privet. I was able to escape, though, too shaken to laugh until many minutes later.
In 2014, there is a galvanized guardrail there, and the privet finally matches again.
We make mistakes.
It occurs to me that I need to go rocketing across Brighton Dam at eighty miles an hour, something you did in your foolish youth because it lies at the base of a steep hill that will let even a Datsun station wagon accumulate that kind of speed and because it is one of the few places in Howard County where you are unlikely to hit a deer. I tuck and dart through the tree-tunnels on Brighton Dam Road until I reach the ridge, turn the music up until itʼs almost knocking my teeth out, and make the run.
You forget, almost, the way the dam looks just there, where all it would take was a blown tire to throw you either into the reservoir or over the wall, and the water is sparkling in the silver light of the full moon, and the rental car is from an era when economy cars no longer content themselves with fifty horsepower engines, so when the sound of the road changes on the dam, I am moving at ninety-two miles an hour and laughing in the way you laugh when there is nothing else but gleeful foolishness in front of you, and consequences just behind…if youʼre lucky.
“What kind of car is this, anyway?”
“Hyundai. I know, right?”
I live to fight another day, and the album ends, perfectly on cue, as I turn ninety-two miles an hour of forward momentum into four very hot brakes, and so I dial through my playlists for one thatʼs more energetic, pick out an appropriately facile and engaging pop hit and take off for New Hampshire Avenue and the miles of churches and temples and mosques and synagogues and spiritual centers that have, for some reason, been drawn to that spine of the regionʼs traffic. Itʼs a good enough location, still forested in parts despite the surges of suburbanization, and I feel the vibe of the divine there, too, though mine is less orthodox.
I meander back through the countryside, all the way back to the last surviving farms, then loop around past the barn on a tight corner that I marvel at never hitting with that old Datsun, then Iʼm on Route 29, heading south, and I go looking for the fire tower on the other side of the reservoir. The roadʼs all crazy now, rerouted when 29 stopped being a minor artery and became a major one, and now the fire towerʼs on the other side of the road somehow, and harder to reach, but I get close enough to see myself and a guy I knew a long time ago on the spindly metal stairs to the top, heading up to take in the amazing view of the area around the reservoir before climbing back down.
We sat in the dark in his impossibly large 1968 Cadillac Eldorado coupe, an absurd oxidizing black monster with one of its ugly ornamented headlight covers forever stuck halfway, giving it the face of a bloated drunken wrestler checking out the world with one bleary open eye, and talked about life and philosophy and religion and sex with Christian heavy metal grinding away on a cassette deck hanging under the dash like a sonic parasite. He smoked several cigarettes as we danced around that sort of aimless, intense, and yet completely idiotic conversation that is the province of boys of that age, in deeper exploration than our normal standard of discourse as we walked from our class at the community college to the distant parking lot.
I never smoked, but always loved watching people smoke. The orange tip of the cigarette floated in the air, darting like a firefly for emphasis.
“Doesnʼt it bother you that youʼre not living Godʼs plan for you?” he asked, over the screech of Godʼs plan for distorted guitars and shrill voices.
“No. I am as I was meant to be,” I said, feeling momentarily wise to have phrased something so philosophically over heavy metal and menthol smoke in an Eldorado.
“Huh. Do you think you were supposed to be the way you are?”
“Sure. What are you supposed to be?”
He shrugged, took a long, crackling drag, then flicked the cigarette out the window. “I keep hoping Jesus will make it clear.”
I rolled my eyes. It was the early mid-eighties and I was in my late mid-atheism, but he couldnʼt see the gesture, and suddenly, he was across the nylon brocade of the bench seat, almost on top of me. I could feel his breath, and then the bristles of his thin teenagerʼs mustache, and then lips, then tongue, and —
And it was a bit like kissing an ashtray, just like they say, but what an ashtray. He reached up, fingers meshing with the mass of wavy hair that I kept way too long in those days, and he twirled my little braided rattail around a single digit, and —
We drove off, out of conversation, some time later, and returned to where Iʼd left the Datsun, in the community college parking lot, and that was that, on the day when I first kissed a boy, and holy crap, did I ever like it.
“Iʼm sorry, man,” he said, finally, on our way out of class, after a week of studiously ignoring me. “I really fucked up. Iʼve been reading the scriptures all week and I fucked up.”
“Seemed okay to me,” I said.
“Well, it would, to you.”
He lit a cigarette and stalked off to the Eldorado, which sat there, winking at me, until it lumbered off, Stryper blaring on the stereo.
I donʼt remember his name. How can I remember all this and not that?
I noted how beautiful the spidery framework of the fire tower looked there, backlit in the cool wash of moonlight, and was sad that the floorʼs missing from the observation deck now, so there will never be another chance to survey the landscape from that perfect high point of nothing. I flipped on the headlights, put the rental car in gear, and headed north.
On the cut through to the back way home, I slowed down on a long hill, watching two small deer standing their ground in the middle of the lane, and slowed and slowed and slowed until I was right there, lighting them up in lush brown and white and black in the headlights, and they just stood. I just sat, they just stood, and the impasse continued.
I inched forward. They stood. Inched forward again, and they stood. My thumb rested lightly on the horn button, but I did not press.
With a mild grin, I inched forward, delicately, and bumped the smaller of the young deer, hearing the little thud of its hock on the plastic of the rental carʼs bumper. It looked up, then at the car, then back down.
This is my landscape.
The larger deer walked around, very slowly, from the front, hooves clicking on the asphalt like high heels on linoleum, until it was right at my window. It was lit grey in the moonlight, and suddenly, it ducked its head into my open window. Itʼs surprising how large even a small deerʼs head is when itʼs suddenly in your car, but it just looked in, huffing as it did.
I could feel its breath on my neck, and then it sniffed at the steering wheel.
“Is this really happening?” asked my imaginary friend, and I smiled at the thought.
“Would you be a deer and move on?” I said, out loud, laughing, and reached up, wondering if deer are prone to biting, to give it a poke, but it had already decided it was done with me and its little friend was, too, and so they both turned their attention back to the world, fixed their focus on something else as mysterious as the where and why of things, and walked off with the indifference of continents drifting.
I raced for home, pausing only to wonder if my seventeen dollars and ninety-nine cents of additional coverage would actually work if I stopped at the lake and pushed the rental car off the bank in one of those inexplicable grand gestures you only find in French movies about people who meet and fall in love and then go their separate ways forever, just because thatʼs just how things are, but I decided instead Iʼd rather just curl up in front of the TV and sleep. I unwound the roads, paused in front of the house in Scaggsville where Iʼd grown up to momentarily fantasize about it burning down, so it would forever just be our place, where lives were forged and explored and refined until things all fell apart, but that, too, is best saved for that celestial French new wave film, though I rubbed my lips with my thumb like Jean Paul Belmondo, thought of terrible Christian heavy metal music, and deer, and all the endless open roads that lie all around us, to carry us forward, or home, and that was enough.
“That was fun,” said my imaginary friend, and I smiled back, watched him fade away for a while, and headed for the bedroom, leaving my wrinkled clothes in a trail to where I flopped down, face first on the bed, socks still on, and slept the sleep of the damned.
It was fun.
[Reposted from my NowhereJoe blog]
The extraordinary in the ordinary.
Howdy, my lovelies!
I’m making a point to get myself out there in 2014, and to that end, I’m starting a pledge drive of a sort. I’ve been writing since…well, since always, almost, but I’ve been doing spoken word/storytelling performances, with and without music, for twenty years, keeping a regular online journal for thirteen years, making slow, quiet music, exploring strange new worlds, making silly videos, and otherwise sharing the things I love about being a citizen of reality, but I have to admit I’ve not done it in an organized, comprehensible way.
I’m knuckling down.
I’m consolidating and streamlining, trying out some new outlets, and working to make it easy for you, the folks who’ve encouraged my raconteurship over the years, and new friends who’ve just come aboard for the ride. I cut my teeth online at Livejournal, but unfortunately, Livejournal’s not what it used to be, so I’m going to be primarily posting new material on a few sites and making my LJ a private space for my friends and family. I’d also made a stab at using the blogger platform, under the monicker “bluestarlounge,” but I had a hard time getting traction there, so I’m concentrating on new modes.
I maintain an info site at joebelknapwall.com. You may notice that I now have a middle name, and I’m using it because it makes it easier to find me on Google and other search engines, for which “joe” and “wall” are awfully vague search terms. It’s all part of the whole “branding” thing, which make me scowl at myself, but if I can’t be found, I can’t get my work to new audiences. The site will continue to be a general news and biographical info site, with archives of some of my favorite material for various media, announcements of events, projects, and other useful data. My previous info site, joewall.com, now links into this site, with all of the original material, as well as new material.
To make it easier to keep up in the Facebook age, I’ve created a special Facebook page linked to my info site and my twitter account, at https://www.facebook.com/joebelknapwall, which is a simple one-stop-shop to get updates on all my projects, events, and twitter updates.
To find my day-to-day writings, stories, music, and other updates, I’m using several outlets, which I’ll list here:
• Twitter — https://twitter.com/joebelknapwall
I resisted Twitter for a long time and for the usual reasons, in large part because I’m fairly described as “verbose,” but it is a splendid platform for linking one’s work, sharing one’s favorite things, and otherwise honing the fine art of the perfect Dorothy Parkeresque one-line party zinger. My Twitter feed tends to be a bit surreal, often amusing, and it’s a great clearinghouse for letting people know what I’m up to right now. I promise it isn’t all just announcements of what I’m eating, wearing, or am mad about (well, there’s some of that).
• Tumblr — http://www.tumblr.com/blog/joebelknapwal
Tumblr is an excellent resource for sharing all sorts of things, from stories to news to photos to videos to music. It’s visually spare and simple, and a nice outlet for storytelling
• Medium — https://medium.com/@joebelknapwall
I’m a fan of what the developers of Medium are doing, which is to set up an adjunct to Twitter for more detailed writing, with a nice clean design and the additions of a system for collective curation of topics and a helpful tag on each post with an approximate time it’ll take you to read the posting. I’ll probably be simultaneously posting to both Tumblr and Medium, with Medium more focused on the shorter stories.
I’ve embarked on a new project, dubbed “Nowhere Joe,” which combines the pitch I made to a travel network for a travel program about going nowhere, or otherwise using the idea of travel to make everyday life more interesting, and a sort of household-hints journal loosely organized around the idea of living well on little money. It’s a bit different from some of the excellent sites out there on simple living in that it’s not a compendium of tips and tricks as much as it is a means of sharing the why of a humble, adventurous life. I’ll definitely share my own little methodologies, recipes, and shortcuts, but more than that, I want to cover the rewards of making the best with what you have on hand.
• Nowhere Joe — http://www.nowherejoe.com
I’ve also created a corresponding Facebook page specifically for the Nowhere Joe project, and you can find it at https://www.facebook.com/nowherejoe. Like my professional page listed above, it’ll pass along my updates, links to new stories on nowherejoe.com, and relevant info. In addition, there’s a nice mechanism built into the site that will help you to share any post you found entertaining or informative—just scroll to the bottom of the post, and there’s little set of icons to share the post with your friends on a number of outlets. The green icon at the end offers an even more fully expanded listing of ways to share, so if you like something, pass it around!
The easiest way to keep up, if you’re on Facebook, is to “like” my professional Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/joebelknapwall, which will get you notifications of things I’m doing, my Twitter updates, links to new material posted online, and listings of upcoming events and appearances, as well as updates on Nowhere Joe, my videos, and my musical projects. If you prefer to primarily engage with my Nowhere Joe blog project, “like” that Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/nowherejoe, which will be more specific, though there will be some cross-posting between the two.
There’s a mechanism on Nowhere Joe to collect email addresses (a bar at the bottom when you visit the site), and I will never sell or otherwise misuse your email, but if you sign up, I can email very occasional updates and announcements directly to you (and you can easily unsubscribe using the links in the email, should you decide to). I will probably be adding a similar email list to my professional site, and the two will be essentially connected.
Here’s my pitch—If you like what I do, and enjoy my stories, music, and other things, please “like” me on Facebook, “follow” me on Twitter, Tumblr, and Medium, sign up for my email list, and otherwise share share share anything of mine that you enjoy with anyone you know who might like it. It’s easy, it helps me to build an audience so I can eventually spend less time in my so-called “day job” and more time writing and performing and telling you stories.
Thanks for reading,
Love, your pal, Joe Belknap Wall