The America of my dreams was the America of the movies and sunday afternoon tv shows that I watched wide eyed and longing for the wide open spaces of the prairies that promised the ability to escape far far away. My life has never been ‘ok’. There have been moments in between the cruelty which I have enjoyed immensely, but I have always been struggling to survive. The family I grew up in was hugely abusive to me. I grew up crooked and cracked, spending hours lost in books.
Laura Ingalls Wilder’s pioneer stories, Elizabeth Enright with her Saturday Club cool, moving on far too early to Steinbeck, Hemmingway, Kerouac and Burroughs via the schlock horror of Stephen King. Stand By Me, based on King’s novella, The Body inhabited my dream life. Castle Rock, Oregon seemed impossibly wild, awfully free, and inhabited by River Phoenix and Kiefer Sutherland. It was a world where 14 year olds smoked cigarettes while shooting rounds from a .45, all whilst looking like James Dean. A world where these children adventures through empty green landscape, and the dark bloated pale corpse-like underbelly of life was even more exciting than any number of days in my childhood corner of the world.
When I finally rolled through Castle Rock many years later a nostalgia for a place I had never been before suffused my soul. As the sun sank, and blinded us as we drove south back down the 101, and we passed this bridge and that main street, and I hugged my knees to my body I felt as if I was returning to the childhood home of my dreams. I wanted to go find a treehouse and sit looking out over the valley. Instead we camped out and listened to the coyotes howl like women screaming for mercy. Life felt like living in a movie, and never quite lost that cinematic quality of hyper-reality.
I inhabited those weekend cowboy flicks, wondering if I would have made a good pioneer woman, and surmising I would probably end up working in some saloon for a sandwich and a bed. I might have wanted to be Caroline Ingalls, but was far more like likely to end up being Townes Van Zandt’s Caroline of Tecumseh Valley, who ended up prostituting herself in one of the saddest folk songs ever written, because ‘the coal was low and soon the snow would turn the skies to winter…’ Townes’ Caroline went looking for work, and ended up dead at the bottom of the stairs of Gypsy Sally’s.
I was clearly not ever going to be the fresh faced wholesome ma on a small holding, grouching about the dirt floor of the dug out and roasting pig tails for a brood of apple cheeked darlings. No, I was always going to end up pouring hard drinks for hard men and kicking it with the toughest of them trying to keep up with the boys. I never did make a good girl. I don’t think the “sunshine walked beside” me like it did for Caroline in Townes’ lament for a world that never lets up on some, whilst giving others a charmed ride, but so far I’ve dodged the grim reaper by the skin of my teeth.
My America has taken many different forms. I have stood by the water pump in a primitive campground with my water jug, as mosquitos made welts on my flesh both exposed and hidden. I have hooked up my rear bumper to a truck to try and pull it straight, as I looked at a pile of campfire wood that needed splitting, and wondered if the rain would hold off. I have headed across thousands of miles of empty territory where the antelope jump and the mega ranches go on forever and farmers fight over water rights. I have stood in the middle of a maelstrom of wild horses racing to ford a creek. I fought raccoons for my trail mix, and had entire wars with fleets of crows that tapdanced on my tin roof. I’ve camped by the Mississippi, and camped in the high desert amid volcanic landscapes that are bleached out and baked in summer and brutally cold and snowy in winter.
My America has had tiny little Main Streets where the scenery has failed to change definitively in many years. My America has had blue clapboard houses, and trailer parks full of people struggling to live peering into each other’s lives, window to window. My America has been huge metropolises and cities to the east and west. My America has been on the road, carrying on for thousands of miles, passing by deals and lives, tragedies and triumphs. A thousand stories played themselves out. Tenacious real estate agents, scrappy towns of under 1000 treading water and being born, living and dying all within range of a moose club, an annual garlic festival or pie eating contest and the schools they graduated from a lifetime before. My America is gas stations and reservations, casinos and campgrounds, tenements and trailers. My America is so flat it made me feel as if I was going to fall off the side of the world, dizzy and untethered. My America has canyons and mountain passes, and rushing rivers, and lazy meanderers, waterfalls and deserts. I could wander an eternity in this beautiful land and never get bored. America got into my soul and soothed some deep longing to keep moving.
My America cradled me like a baby, and beat me like a mule. It embraced me and put on shows of beauty and natural power, and spat me out like I was lukewarm. My America promised me safety in freedom, and then threatened to reduce me to rubble, and I loved it for it all. When I walked through the forests in panic and immense fear and grief, I sat with the chipmunks who observed me inquisitively, and the magpies who pecked at my shoes, and knew I could fall out of time itself, never to be seen again. I swear within this land that seems to go on forever, there there are potholes within reality that pick up trucks with all four wheels in the air and carries them around boulders in the road. There are ghostly hitchhikers shining within Marble Wilderness tunnels, recorded for posterity by the granite and sandstone. There are howls that sound unnatural and claw marks in the mud.
There are women with pet rocks who stand inviolate amongst the pine trees, and elderly people with back problems who swap norcos for oxys in Eugene Taco Bells in the strangest swap meet I have ever witnessed. Women who used to model for Sports Illustrated jockey for small town heroine status with lemon sucking doctors and Elvis-haired pharmacists. Moose Club men drink vanilla vodka and listen to Blaze Foley on the radio, and armies of sad-faced young dudes drag their sleeping bags and hopeless lives down the highways and byways from this town to that looking for a party or a little work. My America has New York punks and San Francisco hip. My America dances along in my memories, mocking any thoughts I might have had at one point culturally instilled about the fakeness of the ‘have a nice day’ servers in Denny’s. Who cares if anyone actually wants you to have a nice day, or they are just being polite. America is all about the real, the gutsy, the gimmie-it-straight, Doc.
I found America in Beach, North Dakota where people looked as if they were frozen in despair. I found America driving through the Rosebud Rez, wondering how it all could have gone so wrong. I found American along the way, by accident. I found America staring down at a certain death fall on a crumbing mountain road across the Forks of Salmon. I found America and she tested me. I found America and she protected me. I found America and survived.