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Last Best PlacesLetter from Our Correspondent
Winter finds me in Big Sky, Montana, after 6,000 miles of the Western U.S. passed beneath me. 6,000 total miles. Bad for tire life. Temperature extremes of 95 degrees at Death Valley to -5 degrees at Bryce Canyon, Utah. Elevation changes from almost 9,000 feet in the Sierras and Rockies to -238 at Badwater, California. Highlights to be listed at the end of this communication.
I've been back in Montana for a week now. It's snowing like hell, and the average daily temperature has been soaring upwards of 10 to 20 degrees daily. I'm a cook at a place called The Whiskey Jack and I'll stay here at least until April, assuming I live until then.
I tried skiing yesterday. I am slowly regaining motor functions. This sport is best defined as jumping off a perfectly suitable piece of ground and trying to land on a piece of ice inclined at 50 degrees or worse and trying to slow as you plunge down 2,000 vertical feet to a chair that carries you over stunning scenery to a place where you repeat the process. That's just the advanced intermediate slope. I'm told that both my ability and the conditions will improve, but I don't know what that means. Steeper cliffs and less common sense?
I am still waiting for my personals to arrive. I don't do much writing or reading on the road (I'd be hit by cars, don't you know), and not a lot of paper products survive my moving around.
A few drunken nights ago the plans for a motorcycle, boat, and backpacking trip to Alaska were born. Such an infection cannot be cured by penicillin. It's along way to go and a long way from now, but it's a thought.
Thanksgiving. A few of the kind locals had us stay over for one of the finest dinners ever. Montana is called one of the last best places, and this is exactly right. I wonder how long it will last.
Night temps without wind chill have been -20 degrees for the past few days. Eyes water and eyebrows freeze together. I now own my own downhill skis, boots, and poles, all which have introduced me to the world of skiing injuries. Similar to skateboarding but at much higher speeds. Dwindling common sense and dangerous--nay, psychotic--friends. We need more snow.
I like cooking better than waiting tables, bit I need more bucks sometimes. I'm curious to see how much longer I can continue public service and service industry jobs before I kill someone. There is a cluelessness and bitterness and humor in people who wait on others that there is no where else in humanity. There is pettiness and self-defined superiority in those who demand servitude (not service) that is symptomatic of the downfall of the U.S. which is happening right now and will most likely not stop.
Try reading some Shakespeare. The ink in my pen freezes as I write these words. Much excluded at the advice of the little green man in your narrator's head.
Traveling without a definite destination is a little odd, like in dreamtime. Priorities change. Where will I sleep next, eat next? What will happen before I find those places? Clock time is not a real consideration. Light, dark, hot, cold, wet, altitude: those are the things that affect you.
You remember a lot of things like you remember dreams--a feeling of fear or joy or strangeness. Sometimes you wake up tired. Sometimes you can't wait to sleep again in hopes that the dreams will return.
Much of memory is staccato, episodic. It's like looking at a picture so long that you can't see the whole thing until you get some distance between it and yourself. Details fade in the distance.
With one night's exception (Halloween) I traveled exclusively during the day. I was aware of the motion, the curves of the road, the changes in the air. I have a picture of Western America in my head. I know how the coast is, how the mountains are, how the valleys spread. I don't know how you could get such a view any other way than doing what I have done.
This said, I submit to you episodes and attitudes that occurred in America's West in the Fall of 1993.
Last Best Places
LEWIS & CLARK CAVERNS, MT--Lewis and Clark never went here. Nothing like several thousand tons of rock above you. Limestone formations, shapes you never imagined existed but after you see them, you're glad they're there. BIG SKY, MT--Standing at a gas station, talking on a payphone on a cold night, two friends from Glacier drive by and say, "We're hot-tubbing up the mountain. You'd better come." Half an hour later, I'm mostly naked in an outdoor tub on a 20 degree night. Yes, I believe that I'll head back this way some time. CRATERS OF THE MOON, SOUTHERN ID--Volcanic flows in Idaho. Who knew? A pleasant place to camp after an atomic chicken dinner at The Pickle Diner in Arco, Idaho, the first town in the world powered by the abuse of atoms. SOUTHERN ID--A place the government doesn't really want you to be. BOISE, ID--A fine little town. The first town of significant proportion in some months. A good place if you have friends to show you around. EASTERN & CENTRAL OR--A desert where it rains. Everything for a few hundred miles named after some fellow named John Day who was mugged by natives on the way west. Cliffs collapse near camp in the middle of the night. Lots of spiders. PORTLAND, OR--Rainy. Good bookstore. A lot bigger than Boise. Lots of weirdos, and it occurs to me that towns, cities in particular, are human zoos for a properly conditioned, or unconditioned, observer. The better part of days spent very amused by unwitting entertainers. SEATTLE, WA--A very cool town with very uncool fish-throwing restrictions. A northwest New Orleans in many respects. Much street entertainment on weekend nights. University of Washington is too big and much more conservative than I imagined. A ferry across the sound to the Olympic Peninsula. Pleasant way to travel. West of Seattle is good. RAIN FOREST, WA--Aptly named. I have my most significant brush with death. Chemicals produced by my body flood my system and remain for two days. Long back-country hike in the National Park calms me. No folks for miles. Still raining. I arrive at the Pacific Coast. Good waves but unlawfully cold weather. DESTRUCTION ISLAND, WA--Cool lighthouse still in operation some miles off the coast. Rain forest--more stuff alive than any place I've ever been. Overpowering vibes. Return to Portland. Still raining, but promise of clearing up. COAST OF OR--Beautiful. Camp at Oregon Dunes and see more stars than are good for me. You can see satellites here. I realize that out of Seattle I did not speak for three days. When you see the night sky like this you worry about the fact that maybe we are not alone in the universe. Then you are worried by the fact that maybe we are. NORTHERN CA--Minor bike accident on a gas slick road and some strange people. REDWOOD NATIONAL PARK, CA--Trees wider than the road you are on. 300 feet tall. They don't die of old age. They don't die until their environment and physics lets them down. Today we ponder immortality and mortality. I suppose it mostly depends on whether or not you are a coward. NAPA VALLEY, CA--Another abnormally high concentration of spiders. I treat myself to a hotel for the night. California is a good place, but Californians in general are fucking lunatics of the highest order. California would be much better without them. AMERICAN CANYON & SAN FRANCISCO, CA--I stay with a very nice family, ride more ferries, and discuss the values of having a prehensile tail with a five year-old girl trying desperately to grow one. Visit Alcatraz again. Very cool as always. Met a former inmate who was signing a book he wrote and speaking in general. "I don't understand crime today," he said. "Sure we had to rob a few banks and kidnap some people, but we didn't kill people is we didn't have to. We had some style." I hope he makes a killing with his book. LAKE TAHOE, CA--The first very cold night. A good fire and a rude awakening by a Forest Ranger. TRUCKEE, CA--A broken clutch-cable at Dunner Pass. I run into an old friend and ride without a clutch to Reno for repairs. RENO (HELL), NV--My friend here is dead. Lousy bike shops. Choice comments on gambling available on request. 85 dollars a week hotel rooms that would make Henry Chinaski feel at home. Severe food poisoning and days of puking. A mad dash for the mountains and health (physical and mental). Cruise down the Sierra Nevadas and health returns. Camp near Mt. Whitney. Venture into The Valley of the Shadow of Death. Temperature in the teens in the mountains and in the 90s on arrival at Furnace Creek, Death Valley, below sea level. Spend some days hiking in the bad lands, hanging at the pool, exploring some mines; eat breakfast at a four-star hotel. Halloween night, ride out of the valley under a full moon through the Mojave Desert into the Sonoran Desert. If aliens are ever going to visit me, then it will be tonight. I sleep by the side of the road and wake up to an audience of cows. MESA, AZ--Into the land of the Mormons. Nice folks, but something not exactly right. PHOENIX, AZ--Very clean city. I turn north on the final leg of the trek. PRESCOTT, AZ--A cowboy town at the beginning of the mountains. I venture into the Grand Canyon. Very grand. Camping in the National Forest. The weather is crazy, the temperature had a nervous breakdown. Oil is too thick to start the bike until morning. Once again, I wake up with the cows cruising the neighborhood. NORTH RIM, AZ--Very cold. A perfect forest floor and a killer view of the rise of the Colorado Plateau. Dead deer everywhere. Hunting season--but they have enough road kill if they'd just stop and pick it up. Enter Utah, which I hated last time I was here. No disasters this time. ZION & BRYCE CANYON NATIONAL PARK, UT--Places I cannot explain. Just go there. Not really of this earth. Temperature -5 degrees at Bryce. Altitude headaches. More crazy stars and hallucinations? Abort trip to eastern Utah because of approaching storm. SALT LAKE CITY, UT--Nice town. Very Mormon. University of Utah very nice, rather preppy. Butch Cassidy's boyhood home. No motorcycle gang encounters this time. Storm closing in. Motorcycle trouble. LOGAN, UT--I weather the storm. Encounter my old friend the psychotic baritone, farmer, hotel auditor, and partner in some hiking disasters. A lake with twelve inches of ice. A beautiful blond and a night of caving under dangerous conditions. The friendliest Big Bad Wolf in the U.S. A night of sonatas and cantatas. Final run across Idaho back to Big Sky. My new home. Good bars, lots of skiing and cooking. Motorcycle stored and plans for Alaska in the works. The last frontier. You look around and there is no one left, so you go on a little longer.
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