Born to Run (2016)
BORN TO RUN
New York, burned. New Jersey, burned. All we had left was my Golden State, “Little San Simeon” in the Hollywood Hills. As soon as we hit California, things got better. The light, the weather, the sea, the mountains, the desert, all colluded and brought with them a clearer state of mind. We rented a beach house in Trancas and a peace of sorts settled over me. It took a while and one massive end-all blowout of an argument where Patti, finally fed up with my bullshit, threw down the gauntlet and laid it out. Stay or go. This is what I’d pushed her toward and with one foot out the door (someplace, at my worst, I always twistedly thought I wanted to be), I stopped for a moment and the weak but clear-thinking part of me asked, “Where the hell do you think you’re going? The road? The bar?” I still enjoyed them, but it wasn’t a life. I’d been there, thousands of times, seen all they had to offer. What was conceivably going to be different? Was I going to get back on that hamster’s wheel of indecision, of lying to myself that it would all never grow old (it already had), and throw away the best thing, the best woman, I’d ever known? I stayed. It was the sanest decision of my life.
To take the edge off my heebie-jeebies, in the day, I rode through the Santa Monica and San Gabriel mountains, some of the nicest motorcycle routes in the West. In the San Gabriels, the Mojave lies to your left and below, spread out and vanishing into a hazy infinity as you carve your way from the desert floor six thousand feet up, to the little ski town of Wrightwood. Here, in the midst of the tall pines and high desert scrub of the Angeles National Forest, my troubles would slowly melt away. The air was dry, thin, it pierced you, and as it rushed over me, on the slim black ribbon of the Angeles Crest Highway, I could feel its clarity sharpening my thoughts and fine-tuning my emotions. Nature can be sanity inducing, and here, you were in one of the upper rooms of California and could feel the state’s great natural spirits and God’s bountiful hand visiting upon you. On the Angeles Crest Highway you’re just thirty minutes out of Los Angeles, but make no mistake, it’s wilderness, and people get lost up there in the heat and the snow every year. There are coyotes, rattlesnakes and mountain lions only slightly above and mere miles away from the smog-filled perdition of the City of Angels. From Wrightwood, and sixty-degree temperatures, I’d drop straight down into the foothills of the San Gabriels and the one-hundred-degree Mojave high desert, where long straight highways were filled with the “desert culture” of trailer parks, mom-and-pop snack stands and curio shops. There, the long black wires of steel electrical towers dissected the crushing blue sky into a geometric puzzle, pierced only by the white vapor trails of fighter jets out of Edwards Air Force Base.
It was a three-hundred-mile day trip, just enough to bake and momentarily silence the ongoing racket inside of me. I’d make my way down to the Pearblossom Highway, then slowly back around to the beach, where, in the twilight, Patti and I would watch the red evening sun slip into the Pacific. Together, we settled into a reassuring quiet, not trying to push each other too hard or make too much of things. Patti cooked, I ate. We gave each other a lot of room and something happened. It was a sweet surrender and I’ve always felt that it was there, at that time, in the gentle days and nights we spent at the sea, that Patti and I “emotionally” married. I loved her. I was lucky she loved me. The rest was paperwork.
That fall, I turned thirty-nine. Patti and I invited some friends from the East, a few close relatives and my road buddies the Delia brothers for a birthday party at our beach shack. We spent a few days in the sea and the sun, then prepared for a motorcycle trip through the Southwest we’d long dreamt of taking. It was only ten days, but it would be a great ride, one of the great rides, and would begin on the cusp of earthquakelike changes that would be as profound and life altering as the day I first picked up the guitar.
My birthday dispatched, Matt, Tony, Ed and I departed for our two-thousand-mile Southwestern motorcycle excursion. We rode through California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, up through the Navajo and Hopi reservations, to the Four Corners area and Monument Valley. Off the interstates, it was beautiful but hard country, and the Indian reservations were poverty stricken. Old dark-skinned grandmas huddled beneath rickety wooden highway stands, shawls protecting them from the harsh rays of the desert sun. Desert heat, real heat, is a creature all its own. Unlike our Jersey Shore’s sweltering August humidity, which makes you want to strip down, drop the top and make a run for the ocean, desert heat and sun make you want to cover up completely.
As we rode through the low desert of Arizona, at 105 degrees, the highway turned into a shimmering mirage, and a simple dip in the road would bring a rise in temperature from the heat wafting up out of the baked blacktop. To protect ourselves from the sun’s rays, we had blue-jean shirtsleeves rolled down, sunglasses, gloves, boots, and jeans, and bandanas soaked in water completely covering our heads and faces. Ride in these conditions, eight to ten hours a day, and soon no sun on your skin can be tolerated. There were roadside showers where for a few coins you could get the dust off. You’d soak yourself from head to toe, but with the desert gusts acting like nature’s coin-operated dryer, fifteen minutes later, rolling in one-hundred-plus temps, you’d be dry as a bone.
We stayed on the state roads. In the Southwest, off the interstates, remnants of 1940s and ’50s America still remain. Filling stations, motor courts, roadside attractions and fewer corporate franchises bring the taste of the country that was (and, despite the Internet, for many, still is) back into your mouth. On one stretch of deserted highway crossing the Navajo reservation, we came upon a handmade sign reading “Dinosaur Tracks, 100 yards.” We pulled down a dirt lane where a twelve- or thirteen-year-old Navajo boy skittered out from the shade of a crudely built wooden lean-to and, with a smile, greeted us and asked us if we wanted to see the dinosaur tracks. I asked him, “How much?” And he replied, “Whatever it’s worth to you . . .” Okay. We followed him a few hundred yards into the desert, and while I’m no paleontologist, I’d have to say, there they were, large tracks, fossilized in the stone, followed by smaller ones, mama and baby. He then asked if we’d like him to guess our weight and ages. We were in for a penny, so . . . okay. He looked at me, said, “One hundred eighty pounds” (right on the button), then looked me in the face and said, “Twenty . . . twenty . . . twenty . . . take off your sunglasses! Thirty-eight!” (He was good, and ready for the Jersey boardwalk.)
We moved on to the Hopi Reservation. The Hopi live at the edge of three plateaus. Here are some of the oldest permanently inhabited villages in North America. We drove down another dusty lane following a sign pointing to the oldest village and came upon stone huts perched high and on the extreme edge of a plateau overlooking the dried seabed of the Arizona desert. The village appeared deserted but for one small store at its center. We shuffled in and were greeted by a teenage Hopi boy, baseball hat on backward, decked out in a Judas Priest T-shirt, and started to make small talk. We were informed the village was currently riven between inhabitants who wanted to move into trailers closer to the road in order to obtain electricity and those who wanted to remain in the primitive stone structures they had lived in for years. Our narrator was preparing for a Hopi ritual he called Running Around the World. He told us young men would race, circumnavigating their mesa in a coming-of-age ritual, for the honor of their family. He also told me of the metal concerts he’d seen in Phoenix and that most of the young folks up on the mesa eventually moved away, off the res. He didn’t know what he would do. Here was a kid torn between two worlds. As we said our good-byes, he wanted his picture taken with us but told us it was forbidden in the community. Standing outside of his shop, he looked around and whispered, “They’re watching me right now.” The village seemed empty, completely still and silent. We couldn’t see a soul. He then said, “Fuck ’em,” busted out his point-and-shoot box camera, snapped a quick one and we were off. As we fired the engines on our bikes, he shouted, “Look for me in Phoenix. I’ll be in the front row . . . stoned!”
We made our way to Monument Valley, the location for some of my favorite John Ford films, and camped for the night in Mexican Hat, Utah. We woke up the next morning and fought sixty-mile-per-hour side winds as we drove south to Canyon de Chelly. The desert was flat, without windbreaks, and forced us to put our bikes into a deep lean to counteract the gusts. The heavy haze of a dust storm sandblasted any exposed skin ’til we made it to the canyon, and we spent the night in a motel of rigged-up box trailers, bikes heavily chained together out front. We eventually made our way back around to Prescott, where I laid down an afternoon jam with some locals in a little western bar, then moved on to Salome (“Where She Danced”), a four-corner desert town in western Arizona. There, at midnight, with the after-burn of the day’s heat comfortably smothering you, you could sit outside your little motel room, beatbox at a low hum, drinking beer, exhausted well beyond the reach of your anxieties, finally and blessedly present.
Ten days later, we returned to Los Angeles, burned, bushed and grizzled. There at sundown, washing dust off chrome, Patti watching from the hood of Gary Bonds’s “Dedication,” we toasted our trip with tequila shots. The Delia brothers returned to their nuts, bolts and contrary engines; I had a sweet reunion with Patti, slept for three days, then went north to visit my folks. Upon my return, I walked into our bedroom, morning light streaming through our window. Patti was sitting upright in bed. Her face gone soft, hair falling over her shoulder, she looked at me and said, “I’m pregnant.” I stood, gathering in what I’d just heard, then sat heavily on the edge of our bed. I turned from Patti and looked into the mirror on our closet door, and felt different. This, this was what I’d feared and longed for, for so long. I felt the frightened part of me make its bid to steal the moment . . . but no . . . not now. Then a lifting light entered me, something that felt so good, I tried to hide it. My back was turned, my face hidden, all was still. Then my mouth, subtly, almost imperceptibly and beyond my control . . . as I caught a splash of red hair over my shoulder in the mirror, a smile slipped out. There, for that eternal moment, with Patti leaning over me, her hair cascading alongside my cheek, her arms around my chest, her belly full against the center of my back . . . we sat . . . the three of us. Our family. Patti whispered, “I saw you smile.”