A thunderhead of judgement was
Gathering in my gaze
And it made most people nervous
They just didn’t want to know
What I was seeing in the refuge of the roads…
Excerpt from Refuge of the Roads by Joni Mitchell
I guess there are many reasons that I picked the above quote to begin all this. The simplest is that I just like the song, and it is one of those compositions that occasionally pop into my head in fragments. These generally consists of bits of Mitchell’s lyrics delivered in that voice of glycerin and quicksilver, punctuated and counterpointed by the equally fluid play of Jaco Pastorius on his amazing, fretless bass. Plus, in many ways the memory of this tune comes from uncounted listenings on vinyl, and in an easier time when I was learning to play with light and driving from here to there in my VW Rabbit as if there were no bounds on what I could do.
There is also the fact that the album name- Hejira, is a word of Arabic and Muslim origins, and it relates to emigration and immigration and flight to safety, all of which seem to be topics of importance these days. There is, as well, the relationship of emigration to my most recent set of travels over this land and back- eastward was a dash to serve as guide and nutrient stores distributor for Wendy on a bunch of swims on a bunch of lakes- westward was a more leisurely ramble to fill in some blank spots in my on going pursuit of the story behind Horace Greeley’s 1859 journey from New York to San Francisco, and more specifically his dealings on a day’s travels between Genoa, Nevada and Placerville California with an incipient stagecoach driving legend, Hank Monk.
One cannot fail to make mention here of the image of a thunderhead, or in my case, an entire phalanx of them that taunted my last few days on the road. In one day’s travels, it seems as though there was a darkness on the horizon from somewhere around Susanville, CA all the way to Bend, Oregon, and it harbored and spawned innumerable spikes and bolts of lightning, either dead ahead or somewhere off in my starboard periphery as I made my way north along routes 395, 31 and 97. And when I put in for the evening at the Rainbow Motel (really) in Bend, the light show continued on into the evening in a manner I had never quite witnessed there before. Actually, I guess we did experience an afternoon of thunder and lightning up in the Cascade Lakes area just before a swim race years ago, but never anything of this duration and intensity.
Upon leaving Bend the next morning, I found the sun out and the weather turning drier as I headed due north to a spot on Lake Chelan for another of Wendy’s swim races, but this time it was all happening on this side of the Great Divide. Following the swim and after most of the trip back here to the green side, the weather definitely took a turn to the wetter, and as we sat on the dock to head back to this Island, a nearly self-same dark presence took up a looming residence to the nearby southwest, and as we drove up off the boat and onto the dock, an insistent rain began to fall. While no thunderheads were visible, it became fairly clear, fairly quickly that most of what was perhaps causing this abundant darkness and downpour might be directly related to a convergence of thunderheads over head, and not long after that we proceeded to experience the great Puget Sound lightning overload of 2019. I don’t know that it was auspicious- just kind of amazing.
And so, what of the space in between where I did not fly over this America? Compared to the progress of the westward emigrants of the late 1800’s, my speed on the roads might be considered a form of relative flying. Even the 120 or so miles I drove on dirt and gravel in Utah where the route I was on closely or exactly matched the path of those in covered wagons and stage coaches, I knocked out in a couple of hours, where the pioneers would have taken weeks even if all went well. But still, I did experience the dust and heat, as I mostly kept the windows open with the air conditioning off, even though my car thermometer at one point indicated that the ambient temperature had reached 100 degrees. I stopped to photograph the wild sunflowers that had naturalized in places along the road. I also stopped to view the wild horses that were in greater abundance than when I passed through here last year. I stopped at a few of the ruins of the Pony Express stations that I had missed last year after a series of wrong turns in the middle of nowhere. And I stopped right after I swerved to avoid what appeared to be a tan and brown checkered, straight line in the gravel that I determined, after stopping and slowly walking back to its position, to be a bull snake taking advantage of the last warmth of the day radiating back out of the road. It was the first and only snake I had seen on either of my transcontinental crossings in the past year, so I at least wanted to take its picture, and leave it to its own devices after that had been accomplished.
And so what else did I see out there? First of all, everything seemed wetter this year than last. After starting out with the recently burned over stretch of I-5 from Weed to Redding in California in September of 2018, it seemed that almost everywhere I drove west of the Mississippi showed some signs of drought or recent burning. This time however, everything seemed fresher than what I experienced the previous year. The only active burn I witnessed on this pass through was evidenced from a distance by a giant smoke plume coming out of south central Wyoming, and that fire had supposedly been started by a lightning strike. Both the Mississippi and the Missouri Rivers had left their banks by a good number of feet and the Marais Des Cygnes River in southeastern Kansas was overflowing as I made my way to Osawatomie last year. I did get a flash flood warning buzzing on my phone as I passed through a similar part of Kansas this year, but no floods were really in evidence anywhere. Everything most everywhere did look fresh, as if rain had been at least a sometime visitor to most regions. Even in the desert, which had looked parched and starved last year, looked as if someone had remembered to turn the sprinkler on at least a few times this time around. The sage brush had flushes of fresh, if not new growth, and everything had that subtle, pale yellow-green cast to it as if in Spring. As I drove back through the high desert of northern California and south central Oregon the fragrance of fresh Juniper and Sage was everywhere in the air, where in the past, passing through here either to or from Burning Man, the air had generally been filled with the smoke of wildfires or just the late summer parchedness of dried sage and dust.
It should be noted that in spite of our false and fake-newsed president’s proclamations about the carcinogenic malevolence of wind turbines, there seems to be an awful lot of them out there, turbines that is, and seemingly more around every corner. Perhaps this is so that at some point in the time before our extinction, certain members of the legal profession can gain fabulous wealth with an 800 number and a class action in this regard, or maybe it’s just that wind turbines are mostly for the good. I have seen and heard various things in both the pro- and anti-windmill stances, but I think they’re beautiful and would much rather see a farm of them than a stripped mountain with a coal fired plant nearby belching smoke. With the windmills, there are the dead birds that can’t outpace or misjudge the physics of the spinning blades, but in a list of the externalities that our current lifestyle generates as it “progresses”, I am guessing that some bird deaths by windmill are one of the least of our worries in a relative viewing of the evils of our time.
One of the curiosities to be seen out on the plains are the fields of multiple harvesting going on out there. For starters, there seem to be many new areas that are being freshly fracked. There are small areas where the dirt has been disturbed and a cluster of a few small tanks and some other hardware are in evidence. There are also those things that look like those drinking/dunking bird toys, forever bobbing in the fields while drawing some fossil fuel to the surface. There are many areas where these pumps have ceased to move, and where one can speculate that perhaps there is no more fuel to be tapped from these veins. And then there are the areas with the structures that look most like oil derricks and which seem to be the source point from where all of those fracking holes are sent threading through deep rock strata with potential for yielding gas or oil. It is places like this where the bee hive of activity is these days. These are the areas where tanker trucks are constantly on the move, hauling fracking fluids to who knows where. One of the roads I drove on in Wyoming last year seemed to be stained with brownish drippings, which one might assume was leakage from these trucks, but then again, it could have been the drippings from livestock trucks hauling lambs and piggies and the four-legged source of your next big whopper to its final grinding ground. I was told by a museum curator last year that he had recently been taken by a longtime resident of Green River, WY to a local spot known to have some still visible emigrant trails passing through it. When they got to where the trails should have been, all they found was newly disturbed soil and fracking equipment everywhere. All of the landmarks and traces of the trails had been bulldozed away. There was some irony in this latest phase of manifest destiny erasing a formative part of its history.
And so now it is time for the great sorting- I finally need to sit down and make a certain degree of sense out of this- arrange clusters of zeroes and ones into moving pictures of stage coaches and gold mines and western characters and show another bit of historical story telling about where we all came from. The other part to Greeley’s “Go West Young Man” statement is “…and grow up with the country.” His most famous stagecoach driver, Hank Monk, is known for telling Greeley on their coach ride from Genoa, NV to Placerville, CA: “Keep your seat Horace and I will get you there on time.” What Mark Twain claimed was the end of that statement is Monk’s simple caveat- “if the axles hold.” Both in the metaphorical land of manifest destiny and in the realm of high speed mountain stagecoach rides, that is a significant what if.