I’ve been listening to Lowell George off and on lately, and I keep flipping around to Willin’, which has always been an anthem of sorts to me. But of what?
If anthems are defining sacred texts, then Willin’ must be about as far from my life as a text could be, the words of a dogged but slightly reckless survivor, far removed from my cautious middle class existence:
I’ve been from Tucson to Tucumcari,
Tehachapi to Tonopah.
I’ve driven every kind of rig that’s ever been made,
Driven the back roads so I wouldn’t get weighed.
On a long strange trip once, when I was much younger, I stopped to pee and get gas in a small town called Rome, Ore. Small town doesn’t really capture Rome – I remember the gas station, and a house behind it and a couple of mobile homes and that’s it, out in the high dry eastern part of the state. The toilet was wedged in a corner of the restroom so that if you sat on it, your knees hit the wall. And there, right above where your knees would hit, in black pen on bare plywood, was this graffiti:
I love this place called Rome.
South from Rome, across the desert of Nevada, we eventually got to Tonopah. I was out of school and out of work, and I really didn’t know what the next thing was going to be. But I was 22 with camping gear and a pretty girl beside me – it was her car – and I don’t really remember this, but I imagine I had a song stuck in my head:
And I was out on the road, late at night,
Seen my pretty Alice, in every headlight.
Alice. Dallas Alice.
The first time I heard that song – likely not the first time I heard it, but the first time I really heard it – was upstairs in the Whitman College student union building ballroom. Gary Vaughn sang it, and I believed him when he said he’d be OK if we just gave him weed, whites and wine. Gary had charm and the air of long-haired rock singer recklessness about him that – what does Capt. Renault say in Casablanca? “Rick is the sort of man who, if I was a woman, I would be in love with Rick.”
Years later, I ended up camped with Gary on a bluff in Baja overlooking the Pacific on a night so dark and clear that I am sure we could see the edge of the universe.
Baked by the sun
Every time I go to Mexico.
And I’m still….
This must sound very Kerouac, and that’s the romantic notion I had when I was 22 peeing in that restroom in Rome – “to prove that no matter how you travel, how ‘successful’ your tour, or fore-shortened, you always learn something….” I was going to be a writer. (Not “I was a writer,” but “I was going to be….”) Here I am two decades later, and I am a writer, and it turns out to have been a very different thing than I had imagined. Not in a bad way, just different.
I’ve been kicked be the wind, robbed by the sleet
Had my head stoved in but I’m still on my feet and I’m willin’, oh I’m willin’
There’s a point where Interstate 10 – the Christopher Columbus Intercontinental Highway – spills out onto the Pacific Coast Highway in a big sweeping curve, Santa Monica, California, with a parkway of palm trees and homeless people and the vast Pacific Ocean to the west. Glance back over your shoulder, and there is the Santa Monica Pier, an amalgam of earnest midwestern tourists and beach scum. At night, you can go out to the end of the pier and watch the waves come in, dim broken white lines of foam. That was where my novel was going to be set – an apartment upstairs from the carousel on the pier; the bumper cars; the street kids.
My problem was that I never really figured out how to make stuff up. But the world seems content to offer up things that are far more than I could ever have imagined, so journalism seems a good fit, just sort of standing back and letting it all be, writing a bit down occasionally for posterity, noticing stuff that I think is worth sharing.
It’s a much more modest way of writing, with far less angst (this is a good thing) than the writer’s life I imagined, all Kerouac and dark archetypes. It’s less about me and more about the things the words circumscribe.
Gary’s gone, died last summer. He and has family had just built a place outside Missoula. I still treasure my fantasy of youth, think of it fondly, but real life is far more sad and painful and important than anything I could possibly have made up.
And if you give me: weed, whites, and wine
and you show me a sign
I’ll be willin’, to be movin’