The following is excerpted from my book Eureka, Nevada. Names have been removed where necessary.
This sea reaches in on little waves and reclaims all. The overwhelming sensation of being a part of something is shown in the sounds, the sights, the smells and the moment, watching all the while as the Pacific Ocean calls and speaks out for you to become a part of it. Kerouac wrote a long speech poem at the end of Big Sur to express how the sea spoke to him. In real life, it drove him mad. He couldn't take the loneliness, the fame, the isolation and the clash of cultures and worlds that was going on in his alcoholic mind.
I cannot help but thinking of Jack as I arrive here, and I don't need Jack's voice in my car to remind me of what happened here. So much beauty. So much sadness. So much art. Wasn’t that what I once said that I wanted? With that, the sun set and the night came. There was nothing left for Jack’s past or my past except for the bitter end.
On a much different journey just over a year later, I faced from the Atlantic Ocean and stared back at England, pretending in my naiveté that I could see the place that I once lived. I walked the shores and felt homesick for England. I looked at the building faces of Atlantic City and saw they were empty. I looked at the face of my companion and wondered how I ended up there with him. Did I need friends so badly that I need to be in the presence of this blank empty person? I knew I didn’t, but I was stuck for the moment.
I knew that there were places that I wanted to be, and I knew that in August of 1998, staring from cliff tops at the waves and clouds that were falling on the edges of America. I knew that there were places that I needed to be, but only now do I understand something that is far greater than my untrained mind knew then.
I really just needed me to be who I had to be to find the one who would change everything. Nevertheless, she was still 9 years away from that day.
When I faced west from California, I felt nothing except for an overwhelming sense of how much is still out there. I could walk into the waves and play, but I would rather admire the waves and the gulls, soaring into the winds, descending gracefully to land on some rock or log along the shore. I took pictures of the moment in my mind and with my camera.
This is what I have left to remember of everything that was so special in that moment, but which is now just a series of rocks that have avalanched into the past of the first half of my life. They are gone, but the pictures are real, so the memory must be real as well.
But where is what I started for so long ago? And why is it yet unfound?
I watched the moon rise above the ocean and drove off as the darkness covered all, and I drove a little further, getting to a campground after closing time, setting up my tent as the world slept around me. There was nobody to collect money, and I fell asleep, sleeping for free in parking lots of rest stops, a habit that I became quite proficient at in my travels over the next several years, and drove off the following morning, having packed up the tent before anyone else awoke.
I drove up the coast, heading into San Fran on an overcast morning, eventually making it to my destination on Presidio Street to little fanfare. Nobody was home, so I ended up driving down to Fisherman’s Wharf and wandering around, staring at the sea lions, the Golden Gate Bridge, and Alcatraz Island. I wandered the shops, and I thought about what would be when I finally got to see my friend K.
Nothing really looked good. I was just killing time.
On that next trip west in 2000, K and I met up again, but by the time our friendship was over, everything vanished on a San Fransisco side street, a small hug devoid of passion, waving goodbye and then we both went our own ways. It wasn’t as harsh of a goodbye as it could have been, but it wasn’t as good a sendoff as it could have been. The ending was marred with clenched teeth fighting back her words that said that we were not meant to be friends, but it was certain that neither of us were the person the other person thought we were. I am sure that the anger and wasted time came after I left, in the same way that it came before the visit. I will concede her that feeling, and I will offer an apology to the wind, but sometimes these things are just over. The getting out can go either way, but it is still over and done with.
Our days together in 1998 seemed all right. We had our discussion, hung out, talked of life on two sides of the country, reminisced about England, I met her fiancé S, and then, she and I drove into the Sierra Nevada Mountains for a couple days.
We drove into the high country and headed towards Lassen Volcanic National Park. This we saw the second day after cruising around beautiful Lake Tahoe and camping at manmade, yet still enticing Lake Almanor. That night we pitched the tent, and we went swimming beneath a million stars in the chilly late summer Sierras. Kat took off on her own, swimming to the center of the lake, and I floated in the icy cold mountain lake water, staring up at the stars, occasionally swimming beneath the surface, but more mesmerized than anything by the majestic stars that popped out dozens at a time until the sky was filled with more piercing little dots than the eye could count. When the sky couldn’t hold any more stars, the Milky Way shone through and streaked the sky with a cotton candy iridescence that made the night complete.
By the time I got out of the water, it was dark and the 2 of us went into the tent, talking a little before we went to sleep. I don’t know what I wanted the night to be, but after that climactic moment in time, there was nothing Kat else that Kat could offer to the story of my life. Maybe I would have liked something amorous, but it didn’t come, and besides, I had no desire to take her away from her man. Maybe I would have wanted the friendship to stay intact, but it wasn’t to be. We said goodnight, and fell asleep.
On the second day, my 27th birthday, we packed up and went to Lassen Volcanic National Park. I was amazed at the whitecaps on the mountains, the ice on the lakes, and snow everywhere. We set to climb the Volcano, but my body couldn’t handle the heights, and kids and soccer moms passed me in a most embarrassing fashion. Eventually, we gave up rather than see me gasp for breath. If there was a final straw to the trip, that was most likely it. We left the park having taken a lot of pictures, not having said a lot of words, and drove to Lake Shasta for another swim and drove towards Mount Shasta, never really arriving, but seeing the 14,000 foot peak from about 30 miles away, which may sound far away, but it still looms impressively from that distance. There was no point in doing anything more except acknowledging the realization that the vacation was completely over.
When we got to her apartment again, we both crashed into our future lives. She called Scott, and I packed up.
The next morning, I left my friendship with K and drove back across the width of California towards the Sierra Nevadas, towards the salt plains of the Utah desert, and across to the loneliest town, Eureka, Nevada, which is located in the middle of a vast empty scarred patch of desert mountain known as the Great Basin on Highway 50, the Loneliest Highway in America. At the time, I only knew that I needed an oil change and to try to make Denver, Colorado, the next night so that I could see the Cubs play the Rockies, which getting ahead of myself, I can say that I never even tried to make it. I knew that I was going to see the Rocky Mountains, but I had no idea what to expect. And most of all, I knew that I was going to go all out to make it to St. Louis by Sunday morning so that I could be there and ready in case the game I wanted to go see against the Atlanta Braves was a 1 PM game. I also knew that I was giving up hours as I was going to cross back across to Rocky and Central times. The only other thing I knew was that I had a lot of driving to do, so it was time to stop thinking and to start doing.
In the summer of 1998, as I said previously, Mark McGwire was the man. Here was a baseball player that the country could get behind. As I stated before, in the beginning, it was Big Mac vs. Griffey, but as the summer went on, Sammy Sosa came into play and pushed Griffey into a corner that he never really got out of. From May 25 to June 23 of 1998, Sosa belted 21 home runs on his way to set a single month home run record. Perhaps we all thought this was aided by the Chicago air or the friendly confines of Wrigley Field and the sweet sight of the Bleacher Bums going crazy to the tune of a home run shot bouncing off of Waveland Avenue. Perhaps the cork bat incident of 2003 fueled speculation of a potential assisted effort, as did the rumors and the later confirmation of steroids. Perhaps it was just all in the cards for this smiling and happy-go-lucky Dominican guy who George W. Bush in another of his dumb-ass mistakes, sent from Texas to the White Sox, only to see him go on to the Cubs in another future trade. Would he have been able to do the summer of 1998 as the player he started out as? Most likely no, but life has a way of making things happen, and frankly, even steroids can’t give a player the hand-eye coordination to do what he did in those months of baseball glory. No matter what I felt and rooted against at the time, he was a most fitting competitor to McGwire, and even if the players never liked each other, their act made it all the better for all of us following the game.
Nevertheless, for all of the belated back slapping to Sosa’s legacy, I wasn't going to see him, and I definitely wasn't going to see Griffey. Nor was I going to see Andres Galarraga, who would blast 2 monster home runs that very same night. There was only one man that I was going to see, and that was The Man.
Back in my day to day life in Pennsylvania, when I went with friends to the bar for food and drinks, I would stare up at the screen and see what home run was or wasn’t hit that night. I didn't care if it was by friend or foe. Every home run was moving towards Maris. Who got there first would be the difference maker in the history of baseball.
Just like when I drove onto the Ohio turnpike to travel to Chicago, I was rewarded with the news of a Friday night grand slam. The morning paper would arrive in those days prior to the enormity of the Internet, and I and many other devout fans would look for the news in print, and I would also sit transfixed before the television to see what ESPN's Baseball Tonight or Sports Center could tell me. There was so much at stake. Ken Griffey Jr. and Sammy Sosa were sworn enemies. The only thing that mattered was to be there live and see what McGwire could make happen on August 30th.
When I was at K's, I begged to be allowed to sit in front of the television to catch up on home runs. I tried to explain the situation to her, but she didn't care and / or understand what it was all about, but she let me do it anyway. I was by myself in this one, but it didn't matter. You either love the game or you don't.
That month, McGwire's home runs were coming at a record pace up until number 45 on July 28th. After that he was slowed down with intentional walks, outside pitches, and various media people who didn't want to see the record fall. Each night was an interview on television based on what was or wasn't done. Things were getting ugly until the 19th of August when Big Mac got back on track. Sammy Sosa started taking interviews as well, and the two men took the heat together, Sosa playing along as the kid who was happy to be there, and then Mark seemed to get his happiness back. Until that time, I wasted a lot of extra change on newspapers in hopes that something good would be told to me. Now, things were getting back to where they needed to be, and I was heading east to see what it was that was going to come out of all of this.
So it was that I headed away from K being disgusted at not getting to Washington (the original place we were to travel) and out towards Sacramento, where I ended up stopping at Fairfield, gathering the necessary items and having the essential car maintenance performed. At about 4:30, I headed through to Reno, passing the Biggest Little City towards the junction that would prove fateful to my life as I missed the exit for Highway 50, and I headed up Highway 70, driving straight into the heart of the Black Rock Desert. I immediately knew that I had made a mistake, but in the desert, there are no quick exits to turn around on, and so I headed away from the setting sun, driving into nightfall, when over 40 miles later I finally found the highway (95) that would take me south to hook up with 50.
Making a mistake in the desert is a process that cuts straight into you. You know that you are wasting time, wasting gas and all of your precious resources, but you must trudge on regardless, moving towards a solution, and that is what I was doing. But what I was also doing was focusing on the problems that my decision had caused me and feeling a certain tenseness and stress welling up inside of me.
Within a short amount of time, the sun had set. I was driving into darkness, and I had no idea how long it would take to get to the next town, but I was optimistic to get there soon. I was beginning to notice that the gas gauge was dropping rapidly, and I also was beginning to notice the scores of dead insects (Mormon crickets, it turned out) that were accumulating on my windshield. I couldn't help it; they were dying like Camus' rats on the streets of Oran. Rapidly, I began to become obsessed in the paranoia that my mind is famous for, since the bugs were multiplying in ever increasing rates, and the distance between red and the gas gauge was thinning out towards a miniscule gap. What was worse was that the windshield wipers were doing nothing to alleviate the problem of not being able to see out of my windshield. The bugs were literally splayed across the glass, and their carcasses were being drug back and forth, up and down, leaving their green, nasty juices to impede my vision. All the while, the cloud of bugs that I was crashing into at 70 miles an hour was getting deeper and thicker. I was slowing down to try to concentrate on the destination, but there was no hope.
The bugs kept appearing.
Everything was desert. Everything was emptiness. What would happen first? Would the bugs stop, or would I run out of gas? And then what would happen?
Fortunately, the town of Fallon beckoned to me, its faint lights in the distance, an oasis or a mirage, I didn’t care. The hope of something redeeming was alive. Before I knew it, just like that, I was there, and I refueled. Looking over the damage, I saw that bugs were literally imbedded into my hood, a place that they stayed even after the car was properly washed and scrubbed, and they were still there on the day I sold the car 4 years later, a living reminder of a fateful evening. Even with the knowledge that this was the only stretch of road in the area with water, a helpful hint from a convenience store clerk (Leter Reservoir and Lake, Papoose Lake, Upper Lake, Big Indian Lake, Likes Lake, Old Reservoir, Oles Pond, and South Line Reservoir were just some of the bigger wet spots that dotted the northern Nevada desert), and even with being refueled and refreshed with soda and junk food, I was less alert and less enthused about the mountainous drive, but still I went on. I had no choice. Mark McGwire’s home run quest beckoned. The Rocky Mountains and the outside potential for the Cubs / Rockies game beckoned. Home called out as well, but I wasn’t listening to its paralyzing chants. There was much to do, and now I was just too tired to think about it. So still I went on.
I drove past the last chance stop for gambling and naked girls, always a combination that must be advertised lest one really feel that he lost out on something (and aren’t we all just wanting to get home to a naked woman that we currently love or have loved and lost from our past?). I drove on into the mountains, and I bid goodbye to Fallon and thought about the women and the whiskey, the men who sat there and tried to drown out what they were missing in life with cheap beer and gyrating women (and aren’t we all trying to find a nice place in our minds where we can feel comfortable and numb to the love and the touches that aren’t with us now?), the image of flesh and the desire for what was not allowed or offered, but there it was, and somehow, I just drove past it (and don’t we all just miss our chances for love and lust when we’re too tired to notice what’s going on around us?). But everything is fine in the confines of this Ford Escort. Step inside of this world, and let's go for a ride up into the mountains and see what the high life can offer us.
I drive on. Uncle Tupelo plays. Anodyne and Still Feel Gone, back to back as the voices of Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar alternate on my stereo as they still do on so many occasions. The country grunge and the acoustic honky-tonk sounds blend into one another as I sing along. The youthful angst that is the bastard son of Black Flag and Meryl Haggard bleeds through on acoustic and electric guitars as the words ring out from cigarette scarred throats. Anything at all to keep me awake is good, but Tupelo is fantastic. Everything in the moment; it’s all good. It’s all nice. The moment is perfect. They are the soundtrack to drunken summer nights beneath the stars. I’m not drunk or even with drink in me, but the sheer exhaustion of the drive has me completely numb to all pain except needing a comfortable spot to fall asleep.
And like that, somewhere in the sleep filled emptiness of the mountains and desert I am beginning to feel some bizarre extension of a moment from two nights ago in Lake Almanor, a moment spent night swimming beneath a puffy field of stars to look across to K as she swam in the deeper reaches of the lake, and I knew that everything in the universe was right, with or without her because the real life was coming at home. It was perfect in that place by the light of the moon. The stars came out to greet us, and the Milky Way shone through to our pale bodies, each of us individually absorbing the moment in some capacity that could be related to anyone who was willing to listen in that someday when we would both tell the story. Various campers in their tents, sitting on the edges of their trucks, gazing upon us, and it was all great.
"There was this time when I..."
I can hear the words of Woodie Guthrie, and I remembered back to a time when I was resting my head on a bed of California stars. Everything was wonderful and there was nothing at all that could possibly be wrong, even though I knew that when I woke up in the morning, I would turn 27, and I knew that I would still not be at the place that I need to be going to. Nevertheless, this was a good rest stop along the way. I knew that when I left in the morning, K and I would not be friends anymore, or at least we would not be what we were on that Bury St. Edmunds bridge 2 years earlier. There would be a few more letters, sparsely placed with no real feelings, the monologues of rambled and jumbled feelings long since gone, as well as the tales of people that neither of us had ever met or truly cared to know.
In the back of my mind, I thought about how we hiked the volcano at Mount Lassen National Park, and I felt so inconsequential, struggling to reach the top, but panting and gasping in the feeling of pure air at over 9,000 feet. We never reached the top, but the view was an acceptable form of lovely from where we did make it to (and I believed this). Scattered pines, the whiteness of the snow still lying on the ground, thicker and more beautiful as I ascended up the hill, witnessed the blue skies, and I know truthfully that I am in love with being alive! I am Ray Smith, the surrogate Kerouac in Dharma Bums, also failing to make it to the top as Japhy screams Yodalayeeho!!! I am rationalizing everything perfectly and in the written word, it all makes sense. The subjectivity of the moment is here, and I am here, too. The stars are tiny dots of brilliant glory lighting up everything I see, and I am going into the heart of a dream, and I couldn't be more anxious to see where it takes me, but I have also let go of the need to be there, a place that is anywhere other than here. I am just feeling a complete release, I am transcending into something completely different.
It is so nice to be here with you to share it, and there are so many good feelings, and these last few memories are good ones.
The morning after was not important, since this day is all about mountains and hills, fields and forests, lakes and rivers. I look at my America, and I am so in love with what I see! I am 27! Life is ahead of me. Mount Shasta is ahead of me. Its 14,000 feet of crowning glory still 40 miles away. In a way, it is another place I will not achieve, but it is there to see and to feel.
So why can’t that be enough? But what is this thought train that is now rumbling around in my head?
And at that moment, I realize what America is to me.
I have come to view America as a place that I have made a haven for poets and writers, musicians and baseball players, cityscapes and natural wonders, friends and their conversations, lyrical journeys into the heart of something only I and those closest to me will ever know. America is everything I would have never known and therefore given up if I would have stayed in England on that July morning of 1996.
And on that day, I had called the taxi and there was nothing left to do, but to sit around and try to think of last minute things I needed to remember, and all the last minute goodbyes that I wanted to say. All of my possessions that weren't sent home were sitting in a few bags around the living room.
I woke up that final day, but it was much sadder and it was something gray mounting on the horizon, and I was already in transition towards something unknown, but permanent. I had to keep moving, compelled by the hands of something to return to America, trying to reject it, but going all the same. I walked to the bank to get some cash for the trip and a final Woppa Boppa sandwich: chicken, mayonnaise, corn, and a huge roll with some "crisps," the final "crisps" I would eat before they reverted to potato chips, and I began to lose all of the British nature that I had ingested over 5 and a half years.
I walked through the Abbey Gardens, and I tried to think of some memories, but there were none there other than images in pictures and the factoids of the Magna Carta’s signature being inked roughly 3-4 blocks from where I lived. I took some final pictures to keep the day ingrained forever, and I could feel the emotions of the day building up over and over, and so I thought about nothing while walking through the graveyard one last time, only now, I wasn’t drunk and I wasn’t going to a mellow passing out at the end of a night downtown.
I walked home and there we were completely silent in memories.
A short while later, the taxi pulls up.
And all I can do is "Just go."
The words of Willie Nelson emanate from a lonely jukebox in the corner of a dingy old bar from a surreal dream. I sit on the seat, the skinny little man sitting and drinking with me. Our words echo what has happened in the past. The haze of the bar overtakes us both, and I can hear the scratchy, yet emotionally frail voice of the red-headed stranger singing.
If you had not have fallen, Then I would not have found you
Angel flying too close to the ground
And I patched up your broken wing, And hung around a while
Tried to keep your spirits up, While you were feelin' down
I knew someday that you would fly away
For love's the greatest healer to be found
So leave me if you need to, I will still remember
Angel flying too close to the ground
Fly on, fly on past the speed of sound
I'd rather see you up
Than see you down
Leave me if you need to, I will still remember
Angel flying too close to the ground
Now, I am back here in America, I am not back at that bar. I have sat in the taxi, Michael Stipe's voice unable to drown out the emotions, tears and the bastard taxi driver who is too dumb to understand what has happened. I have transferred to a bus and it felt a little better, but she wasn't there. Eventually, I went to the airport and it's still the same. She is gone, and before I knew it, I was at home, and the world is completely different. I ask myself the only other question that matters…
What is America to you (the question K asked me on that bridge 2 years earlier)?
Finally, 15 years later, I know the answer to that question, but it comes with the realizations of the next decade, a story that this book was never meant to enclose.
Many years ago, John Dos Passos said that:
"U.S.A. is the slice of a continent. U.S.A. is a group of holding companies, some aggregations of trade unions, a set of laws bound in calf, a radio network, a chain of moving picture theatres, a column of stock quotations rubbed out and written in by a Western Union boy on a blackboard, a public library full of old newspapers and dog-eared history books with protests scrawled on the margins in pencil. U.S.A. is the world's greatest river valley fringed with mountains and hills, U.S.A. is a set of bigmouthed officials with too many bank accounts. U.S.A. is a lot of men buried in their uniforms in Arlington Cemetery. U.S.A. is the letters at the end of an address when you are away from home. But mostly U.S.A. is the speech of the people."
So much is beneath the surface, and I wonder if I could express it that meaningfully. Suddenly, I realize what has happened. Here in the Toiyabe Mountains, I understand the truth that is America for the first time.
I have wandered through the cities, but I was meant to see something else. I see the cities as places of refuge until I can escape to the roadside towns of America that grace book pages and television advertisements. The real people are there. They have no pretense of being cultural or hip or extravagant. They just are who they are.
This is the moment when I can actually think of America as something real, something other than a mom who is there with her apple pie. This is the Promised Land, a place where the sun still rises beautifully in the morning as the gravestones of my heroes still reflect on the anecdotes and accomplishments of the things that are right about America. I will take their words and find people who can sing their songs and meanings in their own life.
I will walk in the places where they were inspired. I will see the vistas and mysterious worlds that they have known. I will find truth in natural beauty. I will be who I have to be, and I will help other people be who they have to be as well. All of that is the first step in rediscovering the world that the great explorers landed in 500 years ago. I will remake it as my own.
I had read poems of Williams, cummings, and Pound to K, but she did not understand and feel the same things that I did for these words. If she did not relate to this, then she would never understand the journey I had just accomplished to be with her momentarily, traveling across the Mojave Desert and on towards Bakersfield and the golden hills of southern California and on to eventually reach the coast and then twist and turn along highway 1 all along the California coast.
And I wonder to myself what is all of this leading to?
I have grown to love a chosen few, hate a few more, felt hated by others, and feel sadly insensitive to the plight of much of the faceless masses, but still I look for hope in the faces that come to stand out as having something that they choose to reveal to me. This feeling has become so rare that I have come to dislike the ennui that is the commonplace, the emptiness of the faceless and lifeless masses, the casual and uninteresting conversation of people who strive only for entertainment as a way of distraction and never think that life can be something better.
It is for this that I feel so good to be with me, and only me on this trip, which has come to be a journey inwards towards understanding, a place I could have never been if I was with someone else. I wonder where my friend B’s journey will take him, if I ever will see him again. Only time will tell.
As my English teacher Ron Borkert once made me understand, all stories seem to be a journey inwards or outwards. This journey is both.
I am headed towards something that is right in front of me. Can I grasp it?
Uncle Tupelo is playing again. I am driving into the mountains of the Toiyabe Range, and I am headed towards something, some monumental collision with the higher forces of the world that are set to divine their message to me. I am ready to receive, and yet I have no idea that I am an instrument of the will of some divine cosmic force.
The moment was simple and it was there.
Starting in the spring of 1998, I had begun to take honors classes at Reading Area Community College (RACC). The first one that I took was on the hero, and it was a huge paper, which was larger than all of the other papers I ever wrote except for my final paper for undergraduate and grad school. Grammatically, it was flawed, but in concept, there was much there that dealt with almost everything that I had learned in World Literature 1. At the end, I presented my topic to the class, and even though I hadn’t spoken to a group before this, I was in my element. That summer, I did a presentation on e.e. cummings, my favorite poet at the time. That paper was also flawed in that it served more as a biography than as an expression of how a single theme is used in all of his poetry or some other scholarly work. It didn’t matter because I got to teach it, and I got to show my love for literature and all that it could do for someone’s life.
It was just like music, only it was a series of words that you could do more things with since there was no sounds to discriminate against. It was about the imagination to see something in ways that you interpreted them to be. A movie is also impeding to a person in that it is defined with actors and the director’s orders. You either like it as it is, or you feel that the theme could be done a better way, or you don’t like it. Any way that you slice it into parts you can enjoy, but essentially, you get what you got. With a book, you are forced to see the words come to life. It’s a personal thing, and it’s an expression of an author’s life and visions rolled into 1. You feel them or you don’t. So when you feel them, they become intertwined with your life and visions and you replay them your own way as the movie you intend for them to be. However, once again, with movies, it’s the director’s and producer’s intentions and the actors’ and actresses’ expressions. Sometimes it is personal, but that is rare. Even the worst literature requires a personal participation from the reader at hand.
I wanted to share this.
I WANTED TO BE A TEACHER.
Outside of the town of Austin, Nevada, population not too many, I was getting tired, but I was still meditating on the thought, almost worn out from the excitement and intensity that was the clearness of that vision in my head.
You should become a teacher. You should share your love of literature and express to others how it made a difference in your life and offer them the same things that it offered you.
I kept driving. I kept thinking about this. And then, I hit the wall, and I needed to pull over. I was driving up a huge hill out of the town, realizing that nothing was there, and that if something didn’t appear quickly, I would just have to pull off to the side of the highway. Fortunately, a dirt road appeared to the left of Highway 50, and I pulled into it, noticing the camping sign as I did. When I got to the end of the road I was alone and there was a circular road that turned around on itself to lead one back out again. It was there that I parked and began to pitch my tent for the night.
Everything was darkness except for the stars and the Milky Way. The whiteness of the sky was beautiful, yet I still needed the headlights of my car to see. I hammered in the stakes and let the folding poles snap into place in their appropriate pegs. I thought about putting the tent’s rain fly on, but it was too beautiful a night to even think of that, so I just went in the car, turned off the beams and laid in the tent, looking up through the mesh. I had to leave the tent and see the stars one last time, and so it was that I wander'd off by myself, in the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time, look'd up in perfect silence at the stars.
I walked all around. I thought of everything in the past, I thought of everything in the future, and I thought of a baseball game in St. Louis, which was only 3 nights away. Tomorrow, I thought that I would drive across Utah and into Colorado and see the Rockies and the Cubs at Coors Field. It wasn’t to be, but that was still a day away.
Tonight was a million stars, and the words were filling my book as I wrote in the poorly lit light of the lamp that was sitting on my tent’s floor. Everything was beautiful, and the dreams I felt were wonderful too.
The next morning I awakened, packed up the tent and headed off towards the east and all that it had to offer. The desert of Nevada looks different in the day. I drove off, and the first town that I saw was Eureka, Nevada, which I only noticed for the sign that stated that I was entering into it.
"The Loneliest Town on the Loneliest Road"
The great poet e.e. cummings once wrote:
This expressed his belief that nobody sees things the way that you do. This had become my way of life, my expression for being. Suddenly, subconsciously, it all made sense. This town would become a symbol of who that I was, a place that 2 years later when D and I entered it again from the east, I would get out in the haze and fog that was lifting off the mountains from the quick rainstorm that we had just prior to arriving and take multiple pictures of the sign to prove that it really does exist.
In its early days during the 1860s, Eureka came to be as a result of silver strikes in the Silver State. By about 1878, the town had grown to be quite large as 9,000 people had come to live there, frequenting the saloons, gambling parlors and dens of prostitution, and the 3 opera houses that the city was full of at the time. Eureka was once so big that there were five volunteer fire companies in its premises.
At the height of its grandeur, Eureka processed 700 tons of silver, gold and zinc in a day, sending them across the country and to companies that operated abroad as well. However, by 1879, things were changing as floods caused the price of charcoal to drop, which saw the Carbonari, an Italian charcoal burner’s association, go on strike until they were ambushed. In the ensuing battle, five of these men died and many others were wounded. This signaled the beginning of the end, and in 1882, peak production occurred. By 1891, the most important mines were shut down.
When one looks at what Eureka was, and what Eureka is, it’s hard to tell the difference, since many of the buildings are refurbished to look as they did when Eureka was a bustling world of excitement, prosperity and hope. Somewhere in these buildings and hills lies a town, a shell of its former self, but definitely not a ghost town. It is a town that still exists and tells its story provided that the person traveling through wants to listen rather than to just keep driving through.
The only question is whether anyone wants to listen.
I drove on, across the salt plains of Utah that B had spoken of as being incredibly beautiful, but all I could see was the haze above the desert as something mirror-like that was stretched across the horizon, but I couldn’t really see what it was. I took pictures for him, should I ever see him again, and I headed east again, as I wanted to make it to Denver by 7 that night.
As I drove on, the time kept getting modified as I knew it wouldn’t be 7, and then I knew it wouldn’t be 8, so I chose to keep going on, eventually skipping the game and camping in Eagle, Colorado, a little town outside of Vail on the west-side of Denver. Years later, this town would be made infamous by Kobe Bryant’s indiscretion with a young hotel clerk, but that night it was just a free place to camp, which was actually one of the scariest places I ever ventured to, if only for the presence of another car whose passengers didn’t really seem too happy with me being there. In driving to this spot, I hadn’t seen any of the Rockies, but I did see a host of tunnels through the mountain and the dark shadows of the huge cliffs and hills that rose around me. I felt the curves of the highway rise and whip me around until I got through to a level plain for clear sailing. In my exhaustion, I joked to myself that my Ford Escort had all of the power of Darryl Kile’s curveball in this thin Rocky Mountain air.
It was funny at the time since Kile had signed with Colorado after a lucrative stint in Houston, but in the end he watched his career bottom out. He would later be traded to the Cardinals and resurrect his stats and become the staff ace until his untimely death from his body simply giving out in 2002. I had seen him pitch 3 times, once in St. Louis and once in Philadelphia and he had won both times. He was an awesome player, and his death marked a turning point in St. Louis’ pitching game that they only recently turned around. I visited his Busch Stadium Memorial when I went to St. Louis in 2002. Jack Buck, the Cardinals long-time announcer was memorialized right next to him since he had also died that year, and Tony Larussa was trying his best to do something for the team, but it was to no avail. Even though the team made the playoffs as a wild-card team that year, they were outshined by the stronger National League teams. I dropped a pair of rocks from Lake Teton on the pile of mementos and thought of a few things that I felt for the pair of men, eulogizing what they meant to the team and myself, and left, yet another expression of the glum sensation that was permeating that trip across America.
The next day I woke up, went and ate breakfast in Vail, and took pictures of ski slopes that were grassy in the late August sun. It wasn’t that warm on that morning, but it was still summer, and though the snows would soon bring the tourists, that day it was just another summer day in a town that seems all but closed for the season.
Later on, I stopped at Buffalo Bill’s grave, not knowing as much who he was as that he was a famous American from ages past, and he had an obscure Phish song named after him. I wandered his museum, took pictures of his grave, and bought a T-shirt for the sheer Phish appeal of the man. Then, I drove on and on, getting east of Denver, which is roughly 6 hours of flatness all the way across Kansas to where the forests reappear at Kansas City. Anyone who has driven through this state knows that you point the car in a direction and drive straight across to where it is that you are going. I pointed east, slapped on the cruise control, and headed off into the sunset, eventually camping just outside of the east side of Kansas City.
I woke up and walked to the newspaper, looking at the Sunday sports headlines that said that Mark McGwire had been thrown out for disputing a called third strike the day before. The fans were irate and with good cause. The call was rotten and just like the media who were doing there best to put a damper on Big Mac’s quest for 62, the umpires weren’t cutting him any slack either.
McGwire’s angst was justifiable. He had been forced to endure the what he did, what he did or didn’t do regarding his use of steroids and "andro," and the will he or won’t he break the record talk as he stood out as the sole highlight on a horrible St. Louis team. All the while, Sammy Sosa was hitting his home runs, deferring the questions to McGwire, and watching his Cubs fight for the division title, which they did. He ended up the league’s MVP as a result of what his team did as opposed to Mark who went home with the record.
I was tired of the drive. I was tired of the wait. I wanted to be in St. Louis, and that was where I was heading at the moment. I packed up and was off, though I found out that it was an evening game rather than a day game, so I would be driving in slower than I thought that I would be in order to kill time.
If only I was a little farther down the road, then life now would make more sense. At that moment it was all just a highway that took me to St. Louis, a game that would change my life, a perfect moment filled with more positive emotional content than an entire yearlong relationship with future girlfriend Jen would combine to leave me. I was destined to be in St. Louis that evening, but first, I was off to Mark Twain Lake and Museum, which was somewhere in the empty middle of Missouri’s rolling forest land. I walked around, admired the sights, and thought of baseball. I was killing time.
A few hours later, I was at the game. I parked the car and ran up towards Busch Stadium and a sea of red shirts and signs.
"Go Mark Go."
"Make it a great 1998."
Even before I got to the game, there were signs such as the Billboard above Highway 70 that listed McGwire’s home run total at the moment. St. Louis was alive with Big Mac at the moment. The Braves, despite their perennial power in the East Divison of the National League were in town, but their fans were non-existent. This was St. Louis, home of the Cardinals and a special place that was filled with something that couldn’t be described, but rather could only be felt in some special way, through some special sense. Everyone in the stands was all a part of it, and as I walked inside of the Mecca that was Busch Stadium, I knew I was in the presence of something.
Realizing the game was on ESPN that evening, I called my dad, begged him to tape it, and we talked about the trip, the Cardinals and what I was going to do after the game was over. It was a whirlwind of explanations, but only one mattered – get the game on video. I hung up, read my program and waited to watch the game.
From the stadium, you could see the St. Louis skyline. Several hotels and the great Arch line the Mississippi river, which lies off in the distance from Left Field. I took several photos, watched batting practice, and then the Star Spangled Banner played as 44,000 fans took to their feet in a mix of patriotism and a feeling that everything was right again with the national pastime after a horrible strike took out the 1994 season and World Series.
That day, the Cardinals were taking on Kevin Millwood, a hot young pitcher who was bolstered by a strong Atlanta offense that saw 2 home runs by Andres Galarraga bring their team out to an early lead. Years later, he would pitch a no hitter while with Philadelphia. He moved around to a lot of teams in his later years, and after getting his release from Boston’s minor league system, he was picked up by the Colorado Rockies in 2011. That said, I wasn’t there for Millwood. I was there for Big Mac.
As the game drifted away from the Cardinals, I was dejected and angry, but still I watched, un-swayed by the lead that had arisen, and I crossed my fingers and prayed to the Baseball Gods that everything would be made right in the universe.
On McGwire’s first at bat, he walked. The second at bat was a single, keeping his day perfect, and then came a double in the third plate appearance. Big Mac was 2 for 2.
When Mark McGwire stepped to the plate in the 7th inning, the sky was dark and the flashbulbs exploded as the crowd got to their feet to signal that now was the time. There were 2 men on and the cards were down 7-5. Millwood had been removed, and Dennis Martinez, one of the most dominant Latino pitchers of the time stepped to the mound knowing that he had never let up a hit to the man. His fate was sealed with that announcement on the Busch scoreboard. Even Joe Morgan said it on the video:
"He has to pitch to him."
After this, the at bat is a haze. I don’t remember what happened prior to it, but Martinez threw, McGwire swung and took the ball deep. I was on my feet as was everyone else, and we were willing it to go. I didn’t want to believe it would go because it was hit long, since I wasn’t one of those people who ooh at every single long fly ball to centerfield. I was silent in that all of my energy was in my stomach, bottled down, unable to come up, I was breathless and I was focused on that moment, when I knew that nobody in the audience had to will those extra inches for the difference between enough and not enough. It was then that the ball cleared the fence, but I was still silent as I stopped to gather in the fact that my boy had launched a 501-foot blast off of Dennis Martinez to straight away centerfield. I was still breathless. This-3 run shot, number 55 on his quest to 70 for the year, a mark that would shatter Roger Maris’ 37 year old record, left every single one of the 44,051 fans on their feet.
Everything came out and I was screaming in complete jubilation at the moment. For lack of a better word though my mom would understand, it felt orgasmic. It felt like an eternity that the fans cheered and screamed, jumped up and down, gave high fives to each other and hugged. And there I was, hugging and cheering and high fiving strangers as I stood in the magic of a moment that was meant to last for an eternity, but vanished beneath a cloud of sorrow as even this mighty record was forced to give way to another. Yet at that moment, Barry Bonds didn’t matter, since every time I think of that laser beam, I think of my goose bumps and how I wasn’t sure if it was gone, but it was. It was a culmination of a summer spent rooting for heroes, questing for gold and finding it just as Mark did. The tragedies of Roger Maris and my later years wouldn’t and didn’t matter since they are more a part of another story. Nothing mattered except being there in the middle of section 240 and the post-game fireworks as all of the fans scuttled down to the parking lot and drove out, knowing full well that we would be unable to sleep. This was one of those moments in time, and for me, it was so much more.
It was and is the greatest moment of my life, a culmination of a summer, a trip across America in search of all that was and could be, and it was America to me on that late August night.
In afterthought, the tape that housed the video for the game was lost a long time ago. However, I still have the audio of the home run call by Joe Morgan and Jon Miller, an uninspired pair that disgraced Sunday Night Baseball on ESPN for years. Every time that I listen to it, I get goose bumps.