In some other reality, some other space and time, I’m living in Medora, North Dakota, with 40 acres out back, a couple of horses broke to drive, a herd of goats, and a yak called Fred. The yak is important: I met one once, not called Fred, and he was a charming creature. I will be there making my own goat’s milk soap, running a wood burning stove, and growing a good garden. I think I would be happy there, in a quiet hermitage kind of way. I don’t intend to have many friends, perhaps just the postmaster, the guy down the feedlot to tip his hat to me when he sees me, and a good dog. Something that would like the wilderness, a heeler or an Aussie shepherd. In some other space and time, where I made different choices, I suspect I would be living an entirely happier life. Perhaps my daughter would still be here, inhabiting a room upstairs and painting her watercolors, and my son would be wowing the local little league with his fastball.
I love Medora. We were headed towards Minnesota, driving from the north coast of California, over to the Iron Range. It is quite the drive, 2100 miles, give or take. In a car it is tough but bearable, you can do it in a few days; but in the Beastie, the 26ft, twenty year old class C, it is an undertaking. The entire drive took us a couple of weeks, stopping along the way here and there, and camping for a few days. We were always planning to do a big trip, but never had actually taken off on a real road trip before, not away from the west coast, not across the country. I had seen the east coast before, we had met in New York some years back, but the huge expanse in the middle of this country, the very guts of it, remained a mystery to me.
I was getting restless, we had been meandering up and down the west coast for a couple of years, Billy had had a stroke in that time, due to a prodigious falling off the wagon and banging his own head against the wall in frustration at himself, and some perceived darkness that was not really there. We had had to spend his savings and go into a house for six months, while he healed. Promises that as long as we were back together, he would not drink, broken and swept under rugs like so much confetti. I can say now, at this point of time, I both loved who he was, and simultaneously detest who he is. I have no patience left for him to abuse, he used it all up. There are certain people that for all their bright light specialness, for all their wit and artistry and their unique way of moving and talking, just use others up and refuse to accept they are doing it. The world owes none of us anything, never has, never will, and at a certain point responsibility needs to be assumed, at least for oneself. You might not get to decide which storm you are thrown upon, but you can choose the course you steer through it.
I admit, I was nagging, hassling, bothering. I wanted to see what was out there. I wanted to head east, I wanted to visit Minnesota again, the Minnesota of his youth, not the hip harsh city of Minneapolis. He had healed up pretty well, me dragging him through his three times a day physio sessions, my leading and admonishing, him trying to get himself back on his feet again. Swallowing exercises, facial muscle exercises, he gradually regained much control over himself and his body. He had to be careful, but sober, recovered and now infinitely depressed at the state he had put himself into, he needed jolting out of his fug. I needed him to wake up and get on with life. This is the problem with large age gaps, the younger woman invariably gets left not holding the baby, but instead a much older man who needs babying, and however much I cared, I needed him to not be quite so dull. The trip east was my plan to get life back on track, I was kind of hoping to stay out there, I had romantic notions of ice fishing together in Fergus, watching a hockey game together as a family, and a little house in the big woods. Some Laura Ingalls Wilder childhood fantasy of the mid west was calling me.
He eventually relented. We threw life back into the Beastie, put oil and water in her engine, had the tires balanced, and headed up the road. Beastie was old at that point, her tires had enough tred on them, but barely, and she occasionally stopped altogether, engine not connecting, just dead, no spark, no nothing, until after a while you would turn the key and she would leap back into life, might be ten minutes, might be an hour, but she eventually just took again, and we would head down the road, nervous of what she might pull on us next. We even bought a map, stuffing our old KOA directory into the glove compartment. We meant business. A real trip.
Medora. As you head down the 94, eastwards, across country, past Idaho, the big skies and grand scenery of Montana, you get to the Montana/North Dakota border. There is a little town called Beach just over on the North Dakotan side. Beach has no beach, it is nowhere near the ocean, landlocked as North Dakota is, it has no lake, no water, no sand. I have no idea why they called it Beach, but there it sits. In Beach things start looking dustier, poorer, sparser, flatter, the sky gets smaller, life closes in. Beach is a depressing, deprived but kindly, friendly place. We stopped there to pick up some food, get some propane, and fill up with gas, and everyone we met had a smile and a hello. The faces of children stared out from yards, dogs, barked, the wind seemed to cut through even the sides of the Beastie. It was late spring, the final days of April, and things were still decidedly cold, not so cold as to be impossible to camp in with no electric, but cold enough to need an extra sleeping bag. A few patches of ice and snow remained here and there.
I found hard to accept was the food desert that exists in vast swathes of the country. The only store in Beach is expensive and not well stocked, and it is 115 miles to a Walmart. I picked through the shelves, dismayed at the lack of fresh produce, and wondered just how people survive. Billy pointed at the fried chicken shops, and the gas station. “It’s all they got out here, Paltry, else they grow their own.” Getting back onto the 94 involved a few wrong turns past ramshackle houses and curious eyes. It seemed to be an entirely different country to the one I was used to, to the cities and beaches of California, the dogged middle American dream of Oregon, or the cool hip easy going pace of Washington State.
Headed down the road, it was always my job to find camping for the night. It was the deal, I navigated, found camping, hopped out and got shopping or gas, and he drove. There was no way I could ever drive the Beastie, huge as she was. I saw a large green expanse, with a little tent symbol, labelled Teddy Roosevelt National Park. Peering out into the barren landscape of North Dakota, wondering how any land could change so quickly as this, from lush Montana, to empty flat North Dakota, I kept a look out for the brown signs that mean we might get to turn off and stop and camp. We just needed to stop for a night, then head onto Minnesota, I figured. I never thought we would ever want to stay.
Putting this and some of your other stuff together, then Whoosh… another “On the Road”.
My dear Ron, you made my day. I love Kerouac with a passion most people reserve for religion. Sending you my warmest wishes. You are one heck of a writer too, Ron!
I read On the Road many years ago. I bought his “Lonesome Traveler” at the Beat Museum on Broadway, maybe seven years ago. I remember enjoying it greatly. I’ll have to go back to it now, if I can find it. As for favorites, one of mine is Henry Miller. I have his “Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch,” a marvelous read. In another book compiled to quote all his opinions and advice on writing he said “my first million words were shit.” (“Henry Miller on Writing”)
There is a Beat Museum near the City Lights bookstore, back here in SF. It is still closed, but I hope to go there when it opens. I might have to put together a list of spots notable to the Beat generation, and walk some kinda pilgrimage. Miller had a talent for engaging the reader, which I admire greatly. I think though I think I admire Hunter S Thompson’s romantic Hemmingwayesque approach to writing – line up the shots and stick a roll into the typewriter – the non romantic reality is, you got to slog at it. Burroughs once said that if he hadn’t taken the cure and kicked the heroin, he would never have written Junky. I think he is right.
I’m with you Ron. But more authentic – no home to return to and no choice in the leaving. Hope it happens one day, it’s an amazing story of determination against all the odds. And from a foreign and female vantage point.