Youth, Death and an Anthem to a Life I Never Lived

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’


  1. Nice to see you get personal & sentimental now and then — here you are a writer.

    I prefer Ronstadt’s rendition of Willin’. FWIW.


  2. Thanks.

    Lowell tells the story of how he cut a demo of “Willin'” and then went out on the road with the Mothers, and Linda Ronstadt and a bunch of other people started playing it at the Troubador, and it sorta caught on before he even knew it.

    The weird thing about this piece is that I wrote most of it late last spring, but it didn’t have an ending. That was before Gary Vaughn died.

  3. I’m the pretty girl in the car with the camping equipment and the young man in search of his dark creative genius. I’m wearing a denim skirt and a purple tie-dyed t-shirt and I’m thinking about eating Mother’s animal cookies—even though I know I shouldn’t. I’m thinking about how to be dark and mysterious enough to please this young man—the sweetest and funniest person in my world. I’m thinking about how I’d like to throw the camping equipment out the window and go drink cocktails at a nice hotel. But I can’t admit it.

    I’ve told the young man before—his search for sad and traumatic adventure isn’t right for him—for us—but I know he doesn’t believe me. I haven’t yet learned that these kind of epiphanies can’t be explained by someone else. And he doesn’t know that I’ve already experienced a lifetime of sadness and loss.

    Fast forward 24 years. I’m the redheaded mom with glasses in the 5-year old Buick sedan rocking out to the White Stripes with my first grade daughter. I’m the one discussing Kurt Cobain and Jimi Hendrix with my 13-year old son and trying to decide how to advise him about his first love. I’m also the woman on the way to the Fillmore to see Social Distortion with my husband. I wonder if I will be the oldest person there and ask myself why I should care anyway—I just want to rock.

    Late at night, alone at last, I read an old friend’s blog and think about youth and how different the world is now and marvel that I was able to deal with relationships at all, given my ignorance about other people and myself.

    I’m the woman who tries to search for meaning in the face of the expectations of my predictable suburban life. It’s what I chose, but it’s a different challenge than I expected. I love the friends who make me laugh, the people who appreciate my children, and those who accept the real me. I love my husband for taking on the obligations of this life and remaining true to himself. I am thrilled and amazed by my children every day. I search for connections and find one in the blog of an old love.

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