Sunday, November 23, 2014

The only life he has ever known.

Part II – The Road Home

He cajoled his hippy chick kid sister Mary to drive him through the City in his hand me down VW, through the dingy, dark, dangerous and depressing sections of Harlem, and drop him off across the Hudson River at the iconic George Washington Bridge, his gateway to America and freedom.  Four years younger and the spoilt forgotten baby of the family, she had been an early and unending source of aggravation to him but had grown into a fun, funky and funny partner in crime.   She would eventually, accidentally burn up that VW and only lament for her skate board in the back seat with the ‘Grateful Dead’ and ‘Hot Fuckin Tuna’ bumper stickers.  They joyously swung a mad, high speed U-turn at the toll plaza, and as he jumped out she kissed him goodbye and told him to ‘have a great life’.  He was giddy with excitement and trepidation, tasting the freedom, the potential palatable. 

Crossing dreary, overcast and industrial New Jersey was his first challenge.  He found himself hitching with lost and confused soldiers and poor old black men.  They decided they looked too imposing together and that some of them should hide in the bushes.  When they didn't get a ride for an hour or two he came out of the bushes to realize they were all hiding and no one was hitching.   He spent the afternoon fending off drivers in modern convertibles that would rather take him to a motel than to the rolling hills of Pennsylvania.  By the time he broke out into brilliant Ohio sunshine he was bouncing down the freeway in the back of an old pickup, with a fledgling folk singer and his sharp clawed dog, on his deflated air mattress, with his inflated spirits. 

They all spent a hot night in his old college house in northern Indiana, and they split up the next afternoon somewhere between Chicago and the Quad cities, naively promising to stay in touch.  The rest of the trendy Midwest was a blur of heat and humidity, corn and flatness.  Somewhere in the cool of the Nebraska night he felt the imperceptible tug of gravity as they started rising slowly towards the high plains and the Rocky Mountains.  He woke up startled up as the semi he rode in slowed for some cows on the open range freeway.   This wasn’t pedestrian Long Island or the mediocre Midwest, it was the western wilderness.  Somewhere in Wyoming they broke down and he wandered to the fence on the edge of the right-of-way and sat looking out over and endless horizon of sage and sunshine, with nothing spreading out in every direction. 

He was recklessly driving a large panel truck in the early morning while the driver slept and as they rounded a long rolling rise, the Uinta Mountains spread out before him like a long lost friend.  When they popped out of the canyon west of Wanship Utah, the snow-capped Wasatch revealed themselves like a blushing bride, with dozens of peaks, canyons, bowls and resorts and he knew he had arrived. 
He detoured for a day in Park City and slept in the corner on the slanted floor of a little red house above town.   It was cold, clear and casual when he walked down to the bustling Main Street in the morning and gorged himself at a sunny, funky-friendly eatery.  No one was wearing a tie.  When he was done he caught a free, little white bus that drove all around town and he hiked in the woods on the hills like they were his western wilderness and his own backyard.

Eventually he made his way to the west coast beaches of sunny Hotel-California to start his traffic survey job of America.  He was a fledgling transportation engineer and with 20 million drivers, California was a good place to start studying traffic.  He discovered quickly that with so many people and despite its great geographical diversity, California had already been had. It was one endless traffic-jam society predicated on perfect climate and real estate, where people were defined by how they looked and what they drove.  With Proposition 13 freezing tax rates, Californian’s wondrous infrastructure and excellent educational system were already in a seedy decline.  It was a tawdry mimicry and a mockery of the modern American dream, complete with all its superficial excess and obliviousness.  He could not check out fast enough.

 In the late 70’s Disco was all but dead but the digital age had not yet been born.  A Deadhead by default to avoid Disco, he wandered up to Seattle before Bill Gates, Curt Cobain or Eddy Veder arrived and the place was a quaint northwestern backwater of flannel shirts and grungy music.  Chris-crossing the country again, this time in rental cars and jets, he was enchanted in Santa Fe by the native songs, disappointed in Dallas where they proudly played only country and western, and he discovered Punk in Austin with tattoos and piercings galore.  Colorado was majestic but had too much of that John Denver, Rocky Mountain High and contrived Mork and Mindy groovy-ness to be genuine.  Arizona had Winslow but no Flat-Bed-Fords, and the Grand Canyon, where he dashed around tourists and burros to the bottom one day in 120 degree heat.  He kept thinking of that little resort town in Utah that was playing his song.  

Temperatures dropped in the land of the wind-chill-factor as he explored the Lake Woebegone ambiance of Minneapolis and the damp and dirty, working class pubs of Milwaukie.  He felt a migratory urge to go back to school, but that ship had sailed so he wandered down to the sweaty south and Cajun New Orleans, the sordid underbelly of the country.   He spent a Jazzy but disillusioned Halloween there with frat boys puking on Bourbon Street and Sorority girls displaying their tawdry wares off bulging balconies to the adoring crowd below.  Finishing his trip in the raw weather of colonial and claustrophobic Boston before Thanksgiving, he felt disconnected from all the college kids there and the approaching overcast and overbearing New England winter.

 He turned down several grad school opportunities and lucrative engineering jobs back east, realizing that to be a traffic engineer you had to live where there is traffic, and he hated traffic.   He decided traffic flows like water and water is king out west, so west he would go, and become a western water guy.  Water was in his blood.  He finally had a plan.  He celebrated his last nostalgic family Thanksgiving back in the damp, heart wrenching cold of New York. Then he nervously loaded his old station wagon with his skis, stereo, a new suitcase and two old friends and headed back out west to that little ski town that shone in comparison to everything he had seen and experienced the past two seasons on the road.   

He didn’t know what he wanted but he knew what he didn’t want.  New York was old and dirty, the Midwest flat and boring.  Oregon was too ‘granola’, Washington too rainy, California too crowded, Colorado too cool, Wyoming too bleak, Montana too cold and Arizona too hot.  Utah was edgy, unknown, under the radar, unexploited, an unexplored wilderness.  When he rolled into Park City in late 1979, it was a sleepy town of endless potential and unlimited possibility about to explode, and it was snowing.  He quickly met an older, Mormon, Hippy Chick and the local engineering firm needed a water guy to help them build ski resorts in the woods.  No ties required.  His spirit soared.  Perfect, he thought,  Home. 

Home, that’s where I want to be,
But I guess I’m already there.

David Burn

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