IT IS FALL HERE NOW, MY FAVORITE OF THE FOUR seasons. We get all four here, and they come at us under the doors, in through the windows. One morning you wake and need blankets; you take the fan out of the window to see clouds that mist out by midmorning, only to reveal a naked blue coolness like God yawning.
September is perfect Oregon. The blocks line up like postcards and the rosebuds bloom into themselves like children at bedtime. And in Portland we are proud of our roses; year after year, we are proud of them. When they are done, we sit in the parks and read stories into the air, whispering the gardens to sleep.
I come here, to Palio Coffee, for the big windows. If I sit outside, the sun gets on my computer screen, so I come inside, to this same table, and sit alongside the giant panes of glass. And it is like a movie out there, like a big screen of green, and today there is a man in shepherd's clothes, a hippie, all dirty, with a downed bike in the circle lawn across the street. He is eating bread from the bakery and drinking from a metal camp cup. He is tapping the cup against his leg, sitting like a monk, all striped in fabric. I wonder if he is happy, his blanket strapped to the rack on his bike, his no home, his no job. I wonder if he has left it all because he hated it or because it hated him. It is true some do not do well with conventional life. They think outside things and can't make sense of following a line. They see no walls, only doors from open space to open space, and from open space, supposedly, to the mind of God, or at least this is what we hope for them, and what they hope for themselves.
I remember the sweet sensation of leaving, years ago, some ten now, leaving Texas for who knows where. I could not have known about this beautiful place, the Oregon I have come to love, this city of great people, this smell of coffee and these evergreens reaching up into a mist of sky, these sunsets spilling over the west hills to slide a red glow down the streets of my town.
And I could not have known then that if I had been born here, I would have left here, gone someplace south to deal with horses, to get on some open land where you can see tomorrow's storm brewing over a high desert. I could not have known then that everybody, every person, has to leave, has to change like seasons; they have to or they die. The seasons remind me that I must keep changing, and I want to change because it is God's way. All my life I have been changing. I changed from a baby to a child, from soft toys to play daggers. I changed into a teenager to drive a car, into a worker to spend some money. I will change into a husband to love a woman, into a father to love a child, change houses so we are near water, and again so we are near mountains, and again so we are near friends, keep changing with my wife, getting our love so it dies and gets born again and again, like a garden, fed by four seasons, a cycle of change. Everybody has to change, or they expire. Everybody has to leave, everybody has to leave their home and come back so they can love it again for all new reasons.
I want to keep my soul fertile for the changes, so things keep getting born in me, so things keep dying when it is time for things to die. I want to keep walking away from the person I was a moment ago, because a mind was made to figure things out, not to read the same page recurrently.
Only the good stories have the characters different at the end than they were at the beginning. And the closest thing I can liken life to is a book, the way it stretches out on paper, page after page, as if to trick the mind into thinking it isn't all happening at once.
Time has pressed you and me into a book, too, this tiny chapter we share together, this vapor of a scene, pulling our seconds into minutes and minutes into hours. Everything we were is no more, and what we will become, will become what was. This is from where story stems, the stuff of its construction lying at our feet like cut strips of philosophy. I sometimes look into the endless heavens, the cosmos of which we can't find the edge, and ask God what it means. Did You really do all of this to dazzle us? Do You really keep it shifting, rolling round the pinions to stave off boredom? God forbid Your glory would be our distraction. And God forbid we would ignore Your glory.
HERE IS SOMETHING I FOUND TO BE TRUE: YOU DON'T start processing death until you turn thirty. I live in visions, for instance, and they are cast out some fifty years, and just now, just last year I realized my visions were cast too far, they were out beyond my life span. It frightened me to think of it, that I passed up an early marriage or children to write these silly books, that I bought the lie that the academic life had to be separate from relational experience, as though God only wanted us to learn cognitive ideas, as if the heart of a man were only created to resonate with movies. No, life cannot be understood flat on a page. It has to be lived; a person has to get out of his head, has to fall in love, has to memorize poems, has to jump off bridges into rivers, has to stand in an empty desert and whisper sonnets under his breath:
I'll tell you how the sun rose
A ribbon at a time...
It's a living book, this life; it folds out in a million settings, cast with a billion beautiful characters, and it is almost over for you. It doesn't matter how old you are; it is coming to a close quickly, and soon the credits will roll and all your friends will fold out of your funeral and drive back to their homes in cold and still and silence. And they will make a fire and pour some wine and think about how you once were . . . and feel a kind of sickness at the idea you never again will be.
So soon you will be in that part of the book where you are holding the bulk of the pages in your left hand, and only a thin wisp of the story in your right. You will know by the page count, not by the narrative, that the Author is wrapping things up. You begin to mourn its ending, and want to pace yourself slowly toward its closure, knowing the last lines will speak of something beautiful, of the end of something long and earned, and you hope the thing closes out like last breaths, like whispers about how much and who the characters have come to love, and how authentic the sentiments feel when they have earned a hundred pages of qualification.
And so my prayer is that your story will have involved some leaving and some coming home, some summer and some winter, some roses blooming out like children in a play. My hope is your story will be about changing, about getting something beautiful born inside of you, about learning to love a woman or a man, about learning to love a child, about moving yourself around water, around mountains, around friends, about learning to love others more than we love ourselves, about learning oneness as a way of understanding God. We get one story, you and I, and one story alone. God has established the elements, the setting and the climax and the resolution. It would be a crime not to venture out, wouldn't it?
It might be time for you to go. It might be time to change, to shine out.
I want to repeat one word for you:
Roll the word around on your tongue for a bit. It is a beautiful word, isn't it? So strong and forceful, the way you have always wanted to be. And you will not be alone. You have never been alone. Don't worry. Everything will still be here when you get back. It is you who will have changed.
HOUSTON, TEXAS, AT NIGHT, AS SEEN FROM INTERSTATE 45, is something beautiful. The interstate approaches and collides with the city's center in a tight, second-level loop that hugs skyscrapers three-quarters around downtown before spinning off north toward Dallas and south toward the Gulf coast. It is, as you know, an enormous city, its skyline brilliant with architecture and light. A landlocked lighthouse on the flat surface of south Texas.
Tonight she shines. The towers are lit and the road is ours alone. A bank sign marks the time at 2:30 a.m., alternately flashing the temperature at seventy-three degrees. Houston has an empty feel to it at such an hour. Her size demands traffic and noise. But this is a southern city and people sleep at proper hours, leaving the landscape to changing street signals with nobody to obey their commands. Night travel is best. Mild, thick air pours through the windows like river water, flowing in circles around our heads. Paul and I are quiet, our thoughts muffled by the tin-can rattle of his 1971 Volkswagen camping van. We are traveling north toward Oklahoma and then, perhaps, the Grand Canyon. After that, we have no plans except to arrive in Oregon before we run out of money. We share a sense of excitement and freedom. Not a rebel freedom, rather, a deadline-free sort of peace. There is nowhere we have to be tomorrow. There is no particular road we have committed to take, and I suppose, if one of us could talk the other out of it, the canyon itself could be bypassed for some other pointof interest. Tonight we are travelers in the truest sense of the word, a slim notion of a final destination and no schedule to speak of. We are simply moving for motion's sake.
Our plans were shared with friends, but few understood. "Going off to find yourself" was the standard interpretation. I don't think that is really our point. We are shaped by our experiences. Our perception of joy, fear, pain, and beauty are sharpened or dulled by the way we rub against time. My senses have become dull and this trip is an effort to sharpen them.
"Does it snow much in Oregon?" I say to Paul in a voice loud enough to be heard over the wind and the engine. "Snows a couple feet every winter out in central Oregon. Not a whole lot along the Pacific, though," he says, reaching to adjust the driver's side mirror.
"Do you think there will still be snow on the ground when we get there?"
"I doubt it. Most of the snow melts off in March. We will get there a couple months too late. There might be some snow in the mountains. We will see."
My mind has been swimming in mountain landscapes. Paul lived in Oregon most of his life and he's told stories of the geography. From him, I know the look and feel of Jefferson Park, of the Three Sisters and Crater Lake, all of them stitched together by a Pacific Crest Trail running up the Sierra Nevadas and then the Cascades, from Mexico to Canada. They've got trout the size of sea bass, bars thick with pretty girls, a cliffbordered ocean, waterfalls, canyons, and just about anything Ernest Hemingway put in a novel. In Oregon, men live in the woods and let their beards grow. I know it happens the way Paul says it happens because he doesn't shift his eyes when he talks and his stories are never long.
Paul and a friend left Oregon several months ago and had been traveling around America in this van. Paul's friend found a girl in New Orleans and decided to stay, to play jazz on the street and try to make a new life in the South. Paul left New Orleans and made it, on his own, as far as Houston, which is where he ran out of money. He got a job at an oil refinery, walking along the top of tanker cars, checking valves to make sure they were closed securely, climbing the ladders of vertical pipe at the end of the evening to look out over the landscape of smokestacks and yellow light, to breathe the sulfur and salt and humidity as a way of noting its human beauty, but all this was done in a longing for his home, the way a man will hold the woman he has while thinking of the woman he loves. Somehow Paul met my friend Fred, and though he was only in Houston for a few months, we accepted him into our small group of friends. He was mostly quiet, but if you prodded him enough you could get him to talk about life in the Pacific Northwest, about the wilderness winding along river basins, along canyons, about the wildlife timidly footing through forests, still like statues when you came across them, flashing away like lightning when you raised your rifle. He'd talk like this a little and then get to missing it and just as soon shut up, passing the talking to someone else--someone from Houston who only had stories about bars and girls and football scores. His stories got inside me like Neverland. I knew anybody from a place like that could never stay in a place like this.
Houston is no city for a guy like Paul; he doesn't fit. Time moves quickly here; people are in a panic to catch up. Paul exists within time but is hardly aware of how it passes. I check my wrist every ten minutes out of habit, and I don't think he's ever owned a watch. He is a minimalist. Everything he needs is in this van. His gear includes a tool box, a camping stove, a backpack, and about ten Louis L'Amour books. I think he has a pair of jeans, some shorts, and tennis shoes stuffed behind the seat, but nothing more except the clothes he is wearing. He is living proof you can find contentment outside the accumulation of things. The closest I've come to this sort of thinking was pondering the writings of Hank Thoreau. But I went to Walden Pond a year ago, just to see and feel the place, just to walk alone around the water, and they've made a suburb out of it. It hurts to hear the traffic rolling in through the trees. People commute from the land of Thoreau's solitude to Boston, to work at banks, to work at law firms. And I wonder if Walden exists anymore. I am not talking about the real Walden, the one in Boston; I am talking about the earth God meant to speak before we finished His sentence.
PAUL AND I HAVEN'T KNOWN EACH OTHER VERY LONG. Fred brought him up to a beach house that some of the guys and I rent every year in the winter when the phosphorus in the water dies. You can walk along the empty beach in the middle of the night and the waves glow bright green. There are no lights out on Crystal Beach, just scattered houses along the dunes, and out in the pitch black of the Gulf your eye will find an oil rig, and then suddenly from the east, a stream of green, a naturally lit wave will light out west for a hundred yards before folding into its own floating glow. It's the liquid equivalent of the northern lights. You can walk along the wet sand and turn to see your footsteps glow and fade out, the ones in the distance glowing least, the ones at your feet shining out in active chemistry. My friend Kyle discovered the phenomenon a few years ago and so we go out there every year and make fires on the beach and drink beer and every once in a while one of us will get up and walk out toward the waves to ponder the natural wonder.
He was doing pull-ups on a beam under the house when I arrived. Who's the surfer? I thought to myself. Paul is Oregon at heart but looks like California. He has wild blond hair and a smile that endears him to women. He's framed tightly with muscle, carrying his midsize stature in efficient, able-bodied strides. A swimmer's arms, not bulky with excess, but efficient, thick, and sun weathered.
There were old friends to catch up with, so we didn't talk the first day. Night came and I slept in a hammock on the porch. I was awakened shortly after sunrise by someone dragging a kayak over the dunes and onto the beach. I watched as Paul lifted the kayak to his shoulder and stumbled fifty yards to the shore. He dropped the boat into the water, pulled the two-sided paddle from the inside, and lowered himself into the opening. He launched out, through the short breaks, and slid along the still side of the Gulf for a few minutes, getting a feel for the kayak; then he turned away and paddled into the ocean till I lost him in the horizon. A half hour or so passed and he didn't return. Concerned, I rolled out of my hammock and stood against the railing. Still no sign of him. I kept mistaking waves for him, before finally finding his paddling motion, the oar coming out of the water like a pump, shoving back in on one side, then the other.
That evening, around the fire, Paul told us about his morning ride. He said he had found a school of dolphins and ridden above them as they crisscrossed beneath the kayak, playing with him, surfacing less than ten feet from the boat, and then diving into the deep. "It was as if they wanted to race," he said. "They were gliding beside me the way a dog runs beside a moving car."
These sorts of exploits earned our admiration, and once assured he was not interested in our girlfriends, we included him on road trips. Paul was welcome company, and his van came in handy. We made weekend runs to New Braunfels and central Texas, only stopping to pee off bridges, always holding it in through the pain and torture until finally we would hit a river or an overpass and we would fold out and stand at attention along the railing, holding our heads up toward the sky and breathing sighs of relief.
Soon we began talking about an extended trip, one that would have us living in the van for months, meeting new people and discovering regions of the country we had never seen. We plotted hypothetical routes up the East Coast or north to the Great Lakes. We bought a map and traced back roads connecting Civil War battle sites. We considered the Bible Belt and the Florida Keys. We pictured ourselves in New York and actually made a call to inquire about Yankee tickets. Paul and I began to consider the trip seriously. We spent days on the Internet and at the library flipping through glossy pages of mountains and rivers and cities at night. When our dreams gave way to plans, our other friends faded back into thoughts of responsibility and comfort. They became apprehensive; it would mean leaving their jobs or taking a semester off from school. Soon, Paul and I were the only ones willing to go.
THERE WERE, IN OUR GOOD-BYES, SENTIMENTS OF permanence. Some good-byes were more substantial than others. Kristin's last embrace felt difficult. Our relationship had come to an end because of this trip. I could not ask her to accept a halfhearted promise of returning soon, so a few days before we left, I called it off.
We parted with dignity. In our last hours she had asked, again, my reasons for leaving. I told her of the need to travel, to gain memories, and to be, for a while, completely free. She could not understand but accepted my explanation with understanding and an assurance there was something better for her just as there was for me.
Our time together ended too soon. We were to be at a friend's house where our close-knit group had gathered to say good-bye. Paul's van was already there when Kris and I arrived. We could hear people talking inside, so we walked in without knocking. The room was filled with familiar faces. Paul was on the couch with Bob, Jim, and Kyle. He was vaguely answering a question about our itinerary. Tia, Heather, and Kurt were standing in the kitchen. Jeremy, who was sitting on the stairs, playing his guitar, was the first to notice us.
"You know, I never took you as the hippie type," Jeremy said.
"Never took myself as the hippie type," I said. He took his hand off his guitar and reached out for mine. Gripping my hand tightly and matching my eye, he said, "I'm going to miss you."
"I will miss you too," I replied.
Within seconds we were surrounded, and Kristin slid off into the kitchen to avoid the reality of the moment. There were sincere good-byes; tones of loss were in our voices. It felt good to be in the spotlight, I have to admit. We were vagabonds, drifters, rebels setting out to see America. There were stories and laughter and promises to write. Fred gave us silver crosses on leather straps, and Dan gave us wool blankets he took from his Coast Guard barrack. I sensed an innocent envy from the guys. We wished they could join us, and they wished likewise, but school and work owned their youth. Trips like ours are greener grass left unknown for fear of believing trite sayings, sayings that are sometimes true. But theirs is an existence under the weight and awareness of time, a place we are slowly escaping, a world growing fainter by the hour and the mile. Our letters will arrive like messages in bottles cast from the luminary of distant shores.
EACH MILE DRIVEN LESSENS THE WEIGHT IN MY CHEST. Our friends are back in their homes, long asleep. And we are fading from the familiar into the unknown. The glass towers have given way to suburbs and darkly lit shopping malls. We are in that part of Houston where the sons of the sons of cowboys live in master-planned communities and play golf on weekends. They married their high-school sweethearts and exchanged horses for Volvos, half of them Southern Baptists who aspire to be politicians.
The van moves slowly. I am able to focus on a reflector mounted to the concrete barrier separating the north from the southbound lanes. As we approach, I turn my head to watch its white brightness dim as we pass.
"At the rate we're going, we may not reach the Northwest till next winter," I observe.
Paul leans his weight into the gas pedal. "At this rate we may not even get out of Houston till winter."
Paul is more comfortable with the slow progress than I am. We are cruising at a sluggish fifty miles per hour, and when ascending an overpass, the van chugs and loses a few notches on the speedometer. From the passenger's seat, I can see into the console, where the miles are clocking at a snail's pace.
Paul has nicknamed his van "the road commode," and it's a fitting name. The box-shaped van barely passes state standards. Throwbacks from the sixties, these vans are mobile intimations of the Woodstock era. Volvo-encased couples pass us on the street, look into each other's eyes, and remember when. I understand why this is the hippie "vehicle of choice." The van can comfortably sleep four (five if you lay a board across the two front seats). Paul has reconstructed the sink cabinet with wood scraps. It sits directly behind the driver's seat. Beyond the sink, parallel with the back window, there is a bed folded in a bench. Another bed can be created by turning a crank that lifts a tentlike contraption on the roof. There are two boxes of books on the floor between the sink and the bench, and another box of groceries and utensils in the open space beneath the sink. Several blankets are folded and sitting on the bench, and both of our backpacks lean against the side seats where a person can easily get through to the back. The interior is a black, waxlike plastic and rubber. They built this van when plastic was a new material so it's more rigid than the stuff they make now. A working stereo hangs out of a hole in the dash, and there are a couple knobs that work vent directors within the console. The gearshift is long and comes out of the floor. Volkswagen vans have rear engines, so we are sitting at the absolute front of the van. A glimpse over the dash allows me to see the headlights and the front bumper with the road sliding beneath.
STRETCHED BEFORE US IS AN ENDLESS SYSTEM OF interstates, highways, and back roads, a trail system of sorts, connecting city to city and state to state, Home Depot to Starbucks. Every intersection passed is an artery leading to workplaces, schools, and homes. Small towns dot the interstate for more than fifty miles north of Houston. Each city its own world; high school football games, church picnics, and Boy Scout meetings keep lives moving in a comfortable rhythm. Tonight they are but clusters of streetlights strung from neighborhood to neighborhood. Each neighborhood with its homes, each home with its family, and each quiet soul sleeping one thin wall from another. Charles Dickens tells us every heart is a profound mystery to the heart beating nearest it, and I am starting to understand him. Watching the dark towns pass gives them a new significance. During the day the roads are clustered with cars at stoplights, but tonight the thick, dark lines simply separate one neighborhood from another, one socioeconomic group from the one it once was. And it is odd for me to consider the thousands of sleeping people, quiet in their homes, their clocks ticking on the walls, the dogs breathing at the feet of their masters' beds, and to realize there are six billion people living in six billion settings. These homes house families we don't know. So many sleeping people, all of them spirit, bound by flesh, held up by bone and trapped in time.
Rarely do I question the mystery of it all. We are atoms connected to create big, awkward, intelligent animals, animals complex in construction, equipped with minds, hearts, and the like. Spinning secretly around us is an intricate system of interconnected physical laws, completely dependent upon one another for effectiveness. And we are in the middle of it; actors on Shakespeare's stage, madmen in Nietzsche's streets, accidents in Sagan's universe, children in God's creation.
And I suppose part of my wanting to leave Houston is to attempt an understanding of this mystery. My life, this gift I have been given, has been wasted, thus far, attempting to answer meaningless questions. Recently I have come to believe there are more important questions than how questions: How do I get money, how do I get laid, how do I become happy, how do I have fun? On one of our trips to central Texas, I stood at the top of a desert hill and looked up into the endlessness of the heavens, deep into the inky blackness of the cosmos, those billion stars seeming to fall through the void from nowhere to nowhere. I stood there for twenty minutes, and as it had a few times that year, my mind fell across the question why?
The question terrified me at first. I had only recently begun questioning my faith in God, a kind of commercial, American version of spirituality. I had questions because of the silliness of its presuppositions. The rising question of why had been manifesting for some time, and had previously only been answered by Western Christianity's propositions of behavior modification. What is beauty? I would ask. Here are the five keys to a successful marriage, I would be given as an answer. It was as if nobody was listening to the question being groaned by all of creation, groaned through the pinings of our sexual tensions, our broken biochemistry, the blending of light and smog to make our glorious sunsets. I began to believe the Christian faith was a religious system invented within the human story rather than a series of true ideas that explained the story. Christianity was a pawn for politicians, a moral system to control our broken natures. The religion did seem to stem from something beautiful, for sure, but it had been dumbed down and Westernized. If it was a religious system that explained the human story, its adherents had lost the grandness of its explanation in exchange for its validation of their how lifestyles, to such a degree that the why questions seemed to be drowning in the drool of Pavlov's dogs. And it wasn't just the church that was drowning; it was all of humanity or, at least, all of the West. Our skyscrapers and sports teams, our malls and our master-planned neighborhoods, our idiot politics, our sultry media promising ecstasy with every use of a specific dishwashing detergent. What does all of this mean? Are we animals nesting? Are we rats in one giant cage, none of us able to think outside our instincts? And does my faith live within these instincts, always getting me to my happiness, or is it larger, explaining the why of life, the how a shallow afterthought?
It wasn't just my faith that was being shaken. I began to wonder what personal ideas I believed that weren't true. I believed I was not athletic enough; too stupid, I believed I had to go to college; I believed the Astros were a more important team than the Mets; I believed jeans that cost fifty dollars were better than jeans that cost thirty; I believed living in a certain part of town made you more important than living in another. I looked up at the cosmos and it had no scientific proof that any of this was true. The cosmos wasn't telling me I was stupid; it wasn't telling me one pair of jeans was better than another. The cosmos was just spinning around up there, as if to create beauty for beauty's sake, paying no attention to the frivolity of mankind. And I liked the cosmos. I liked the cosmos very much. It seemed that it understood something, perhaps, humanity did not understand.
And so in exchanging the how questions for the why questions I began to probe the validity of presuppositions. There wasn't a science stepping up to insist authority. All of these ideas seemed subjective, and once they seemed subjective, they began to feel subjective. Far from depressing, this led to something quite beautiful. Girls who I once ignored as not pretty enough became, to me, quite lovely, their gentle way and deep humility and tenderness and femininity, their true images no longer being compared to the lies of commercial propaganda. If I couldn't grasp an idea, I didn't fault myself as dense; the cosmos didn't seem to be suggesting there was any more value to a dumb person than an intellectual. And jeans got a lot cheaper too.
I confess I wanted to believe life was bigger, larger than my presuppositions. Out there under the cosmos, out in the desert of Texas, beneath those billion stars and the umbrella of pitch-black eons of nothingness, on top of that hill, I started wondering if life was something different than I thought it was, if there was some kind of raging beauty a person could find, that he could get caught up in the why of life. And I needed to believe beauty meant something, and I needed God to step off His self-help soapbox and be willing to say something eternally significant and intelligent and meaningful, more meaningful than the parroted lines from detergent commercials. I needed God to be larger than our free-market economy, larger than our two-for-one coupons, larger than our religious ideas.
"YOU FEELING TIRED YET, PAUL?" HE IS LOOKING groggy at the wheel.
"I've been tired for a while," he says.
"Why don't you pull over the next time you have the chance? I've got to use the restroom and we can switch."
Twenty miles pass and we see a rest area sign. Paul slows the van and coasts down the entrance past some trees and into the parking lot. A dozen or more tractor trailers are parked in long spaces. We pass them and pull into a spot near the restrooms. Paul turns off the engine, and we are immediately enveloped in the whistle and hum of a million crickets. Texas silence. I arch and stretch my back. Stepping out of the van, we are slow and road-travel weary as we move toward the restroom.
"I don't think I remember how to use my legs," Paul says, walking in an exaggerated wobbly motion.
"I'm pretty sure you just put one foot in front of the other, but it definitely doesn't feel right," I joke.
The temperature has dropped and a layer of moisture soaks the ground. Brainless june bugs make loud, fast dives at a light on the wall of the rest area. One broken-winged bug struggles on the sidewalk. I squash him under my boot and say softly, as if to myself, "All your questions are now answered."
Paul swings the heavy bathroom door open, and we are mugged by a foul stench.
"People really should eat better," he says.
We both hold our breath but can feel in the warmth of the room, in the moisture on the floor, the foul scent that surrounds us and seems to brush against our pant legs.
I beat Paul back to the outside world and gasp for air like a diver finding the surface of the ocean. Making my way across the lawn, I stretch out on a picnic table to flatten my back. The stars in this part of the country are distant and faded. They are grouped together in patches and encompassed in a hazy, humid-gray darkness. There are a few dark patches more milky than others that I recognize as high clouds, and they move slowly, engulfing twinkling stars, one at a time.
The road from Houston to Dallas cuts through the heart of the big thicket. We are encaged in a fence of tall pines. A blanket of pine needles and scattered cones lies across the lawn. Behind us, an island of trees is surrounded on four sides by the highway, the rest area, and its entrance and exit. Before us, across the parking lot, a dense forest, dark with shadows, extends perhaps as far as Nacogdoches. Save the choir of crickets, the air is silent and still, the truckers are asleep in their trucks, and the rest area is quiet and peaceful.
"Should we sleep here?" Paul asks.
We've not driven more than four hours, and we did that slowly. We've not made enough progress to stop, regardless of the time. I tell Paul I can probably make it through Dallas, and perhaps as far as Oklahoma. "Why don't you fold out the bed and sleep while I drive?" I suggest.
"Sounds good," Paul says, stretching his back and walking aimlessly around the picnic table. His jeans are faded and torn on one knee. They look like they've been through a cement mixer. I notice that one of the rips on the inside of his pant leg is patched with a red patterned cloth. "Is that a bandanna? You patched your jeans with a bandanna?"
He gives me a defensive look. "These are my favorite jeans."
"Did you do that yourself ?" I ask.
"Yeah, so what?"
"Nothing, just wondering, that's all." Paul comes back to the table and sits down. There is a short period of silence, then I speak up. "Paul."
"I was wondering. It's gonna get a little cold on the road, and I was hoping you could sew me a quilt or something, just maybe a scarf. Do you knit?"
Paul ignores me. I'm looking out into the sky, trying to find some stars. "It's going to get pretty cold out there, and I myself can't sew a stitch."
"Seems like you've got enough hot air," he says to me, walking over to the table, where he pushes me off so he can sit down. I fold down the bench of the table and into the wet grass. The ground is cold, but it is a refreshing change from the fixed-position seats of the van. Paul pulls a pipe out of his pocket and packs the tobacco with his thumb. He pulls out a lighter he told me his father gave him, some army issue contraption that was passed down from his grandfather. As he lights the pipe, the first plumes burn off white as cotton, and the smell of flowers and almonds drifts out across the lawn, back toward the van.
The highway has the ear of an ocean, trucks in distant hum roll close until their roaring engines push through our stretch of the highway, then fade off toward Dallas. A pair of headlights sweep like searchlights through the trees as a semi grinds slowly into the rest area and his brakes squeal and hiss as he maneuvers his truck into a space on the far side of the rest area.
He turns off his lights and the place darkens again.
"I suppose we should get moving," I say, still lying in the grass.
"I'm about to fall asleep," Paul tells me. "Can you drive?"
"I should be fine," I say, standing up and wiping the blades of grass off my back.
Paul opens the side door and folds out the bed. He lays himself on top of the mattress and closes the door behind him with his foot. I hear his boots drop in the space between the front seats as I climb through the driver's side door. I sit for a second and think about where we are going. To Dallas, then to Oklahoma, then to Arizona, then who knows. Whatever is between Arizona and Oregon.
The clutch pedal offers little resistance. I pin it against the floor with the weight of my foot alone. With the shifter in neutral, I try to start the van. It turns several times before I let off the ignition. No start. I pump the gas and try it again. Still no start. I once had an old Datsun that gave me the same trouble. The carburetor would flood every other time I went to start it. Remembering a trick I used on the Datsun, I hold the van's gas pedal to the floor for a few seconds to drain the carburetor and then pump it once. Turning the key, I hear the engine fire immediately. With the shifter in neutral, I move it over and back. The clutch grinds as it finds reverse and the engine whistles and ticks as I back out of the parking space. I enter the on-ramp, slowly, and even as I step the pedal to the floor, there is no surge of power. The van feels gutless and old. It is creating a hisslike whistle and there is a steady, quick tempo to the valves as they click. We enter the highway at a turtle's pace, like a semi pulling a full load. There is a largewinged, yellow-blooded insect stuck in the driver's side wiper. One wing shakes in the wind and the other is mostly steady as it is fastened to the wiper itself. I hadn't noticed it from the other seat.
The interstate is laid across slight, long hills. A lone truck's red taillights glow in the distance, disappearing and reappearing as we rise and descend. My headlights cast a ghostlike glow on the blurry road as white striped lines approach from the distance, slow at the outstretch of my headlights, then quickening as they near until they fire like lasers at my left wheel. Stately pines, keeping a careful, untrusting distance, slide by on the left and right. I half roll up my window as the air is coming in cool.
There is a solace in night travel that is absent in daylight. Daylight is broad and exposing; gas stations, factories, and forests are all brought to life under the sun. Night covers them. It is as though a cloth has been draped over the cares of the day, pouring them into our memories for meditation and reflection. It occurs to me, as it sometimes does, that this day is over and will never be lived again, that we are only the sum of days, and when those are spent, we will not come back to this place, to this time, to these people and these colors, and I wonder whether to be sad about this or to be happy, to trust that these hours are meant for some kind of enjoyment, as a kind of blessing. And it feels, tonight, as if there is much to think about, there is much we have been given and much we have left behind. The smell of freedom is as brisk as the air through the windows. And there is a feeling that time itself has been curtained by darkness.