Monday, November 12, 2007

The Mount Shasta Blues

Michael saw the old woman walking alongside the interstate with her back to the oncoming traffic. Her ratty brown hair hung down over a faded green shawl and her long white skirt was blowing in the wind. He had first noticed her shoes – bright orange crocs – from a distance. She had no thumb sticking out.

“How can these people be so heartless?” he said aloud, to no one, a mile down the road after his brain had processed what he just saw. He drove to the next exit and decided to turn around.
He wasn’t well-informed about the topography of Northern California, having never been there at any time but now, but he was aware of the hilly terrain all around them, and the thought of this old woman traipsing up and down through the evergreen shadow of Mt. Shasta – the beautiful grandfather though he may be – was unbearable to him.

And even though, in his heart, he felt the great, moving spirit of the cross-country trip – the urge that had drawn wagon-covered men towards the western shore – there was little to break the monotony of the road. The only break he saw was in diners or rest areas off the interstate. The diners were his chance to stop and breathe and write everything down in his journal. Not a moment escaped his transcription. He wrote about the wind farms in the dark of Oklahoma and how for several miles, all he could see was blinking red lights. The day that he drove through New Mexico, he had counted six clouds, total, spread throughout the entire state, and each one rained on him for 12 seconds each. He compared the smells of Amarillo (“smokey, dry and with the lingering effect of a burned marshmallow”) with the smells of Fresno (“precise, dripping like cough syrup and red”). He didn’t have the time to touch the ocean, but he drove several hundred miles out of the way just to see it, travel alongside it. That night he wrote about his daydreams. There was not a thing worth forgetting.

The rest areas were for sleeping. He would lean his seat back as far as it would go, which was not very far, and lie horizontally across the front seats, legs spread over the boxes and bags in the passenger seat. The windows were cracked and the humid summer air would blow across the tips of his feet. On the morning that he woke up outside of Flagstaff, two elk were fighting outside his front window. It was the cold desert air and the sunrise that had woken him up that morning. He made sure this made it into the journal.

After two 180-degree turns and four extra miles of driving, her colors began to appear down the road. Brown, green, white, orange – hair, shawl, skirt, crocs. He stopped the car a great deal of distance ahead of her, so as not to frighten her.

He stepped out of the car for the first time since San Jose and breathed the surprisingly chilly September air. The overcast sky did nothing to help the lack of warmth and his sympathy for the old woman increased.

“Would you like a ride?” he shouted over the rush of unfeeling drivers.

She yelled something back but he couldn’t hear her, so, after closing the car door, he made his way to her, noticing the miles of arbor beyond the guardrail. Although he was a stranger here – more familiar with flat sand than with mountains and forests – he considered staying here, just at the base of the mountain, inside the trees. He pictured himself in a cabin, hunched over a kerosene lamp and a notebook on an old wooden desk, writing the great American novel. He would fish for his dinner during the day or gather berries and mushrooms, keep a large supply of toilet paper handy to minimize trips into town, and sleep with a deerskin blanket.

He would miss the smell of the city though, the grime and the methane. The city held bigger dreams than the woods, bookstores and skyscrapers and teriyaki on every corner. He knew once he got there his life would be a nonstop whirlwind of writing and art and coffeehouses. There would be writers of all kinds wanting to be his friend. Some of them would be from the city and dress like they were in a band. They would always have a latte in their hands and they would always say something smart. They would be entranced with his small-town charm and see the writer’s fire inside him and would love every word he put on paper.

Michael’s attention refocused to the old woman on the road again and he stopped, surprised. She wasn’t old. She was young and she was beautiful. Her sleepy hair fell down over the shawl and a white blouse that did not cover all of her stomach. She had sleepwalker eyes that were afraid to meet his. The bright orange crocs looked ridiculous and inside his head, Michael was thanking the stars for the flaws that make beautiful women accessible to mortal men.

As she made her way to him, he, standing without a shred of balance, was embarrassed to find himself gawking at the skin between her skirt and her blouse.

“Uh, would you,” he began, much softer than before and motioning towards the car with his head, “like a ride? I mean, I don’t want to make uncomfortable or anything, and it’s alright to say no,” he emphasized, “but I saw you walking and thought...” he trailed off, motioning with his hands that she should complete the thought for him.

She smiled, “Well, I’m only going to the next exit. Where are you headed?”

“North. All the way north.” He motioned with an awkward wave of his arm towards a direction he would later realize was West. “Seattle, I think.” He was suddenly acutely aware of the fact that he’d been wearing the same clothes for three days straight. “Why are you out here walking all by yourself?”

She smiled again, effortlessly and towards the ground in front of his shoes. “I like to walk.” She looked at his dirty Ford Thunderbird, with the windows blocked from the stacks of boxes. “Do you even have room for me?” She asked.

He looked back at the tired old car. “Uh, yeah. I can make room. You might have to sit on a box or something, but we can make this work.” He opened the passanger door and got a smell of the odor he had been baking in for the past five days. Throwing as much as he could into the back window, he hoped she wouldn’t see the empty bottles of iced tea and Mountain Dew or notice the trail mix crumbs on the floor.

He gathered what he couldn’t fit in the back window and made his way to the trunk. “So you’re just out for a walk? In this weather?” he said, balancing two boxes in one hand while ungracefully opening the trunk with the other.

“Yeah, it’s nice outside and it’s not as far as you think. It’s only two miles on the interstate and about seven legally.” She laughed at her own joke and he nodded, smiling, trying to fit more boxes in a trunk already filled to capacity.

“You look like you’re having an adventure,” she said.

Michael looked at the boxes of books and momentos of friends that had taken up space in his trunk. “Yeah, something like that,” he said, slamming the lid down.

“It’ll be fine, Ma,” he had told his mother three days ago, when he was leaving. “This kind of thing happens all the time. They practically give away jobs to writers all the time. Plus, I’m good, Mom. I’m really good.” It was the first time he saw his mother cry.

He stood near the driver’s side door while with cars rushing past him and the woman in the shawl looked in the passenger door. “It doesn’t look like I can fit,” she said.

It was true. There was still a box of dishes on the floor that he could not relocate. A few of his dress clothes hung over the passenger seat and his pillow rested on the gearshift. He imagined she could smell the five-day funk and see the food particles on the seat and floor.

“I might just keep walking,” she said, with an apologetic smile.

“Are you sure?” he asked. “I’d feel bad.”

“Yeah,” she said, closing the door. “Thanks anyway. It’s only half a mile left into town. And who knows, you might see a friend of mine down the road.”

He gave her a confused look.

“Maybe,” she said, smiling that easy smile, “an angel.”

He was still confused, but couldn’t help the dopey grin across his face.

“Good luck on your adventure,” she said, starting to walk again.

“Thanks,” he said, meekly. “You too.”

The next morning when he crossed the border into Washington, with its rain and “No Hitchhikers” signs, Michael was still angry with himself. He had stopped believing in angels a long time ago, but why didn’t he ask for her name?

I wrote this a short while after arriving in Washington. After producing a few more short stories and starting on other projects since then, I decided that it's not my favorite work thus far. I figured it couldn't hurt to share with all you fine people though.
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