A Strange Land

“I have an idea that some men are born out of their due place. Accident has cast them amid certain surroundings, but they have always a nostalgia for a home they know not. They are strangers in their birthplace, and the leafy lanes they have known from childhood or the populous streets in which they have played, remain but a place of passage. They may spend their whole lives aliens among their kindred and remain aloof among the only scenes they have ever known. Perhaps it is this sense of strangeness that sends men far and wide in the search for something permanent, to which they may attach themselves. Perhaps some deep-rooted atavism urges the wanderer back to the lands which his ancestors left in the dim beginnings of history. Sometimes a man hits upon a place to which he mysteriously feels that he belongs. Here is the home he sought, and he will settle amid scenes that he has never seen before, among men he has never known, as though they were familiar to him from his birth. Here at last he finds rest.” ≈ W. Somerset Maugham, from “The Moon and Sixpence”

“Badlands closeup” 1979 — pastel on paper

It is now 1982. June. End of June.

I have driven all night to Minneapolis after a recuperative stay with a friend in Milwaukee. Recuperative for, in those years, I was still prone to sudden surges of energy when hitting the road, and in this instance had driven non-stop to Wisconsin. On arriving I was not nearly as energetic as I had been two days earlier. But my stay in that state allowed for rest and lyrical conversations with another old friend, until I felt rejuvenated enough to make the haul to Minneapolis, and a reunion with my second friend along this trip.

She and I had not seen each other for three years, back when she was living in Greensboro, North Carolina, attending Guilford College, originally founded by Quakers. She wasn’t a Quaker but a Methodist, as I was as a child, although my forbears had been Quakers and many are still buried in the venerable and beautiful old Quaker cemetery in Camden. While attending Guilford, she was intensely intrigued by the Quaker ethic, and had considered joining them while there. Her arguments were incredibly profound, and I learned much from her of who the Quakers really were in this modern world of 1979.

President Carter had been stymied by young revolutionaries in Iran, and was well on the way to becoming a one-term president.

Her mother had been Baptist, her father a Methodist, so the age-old default had occurred into their nuclear family following the patriarchal lineage of her father’s church. Her parent’s had met in Korea, and she was named after her mother’s surname. We’d met while she was working one summer in Gastonia as a bank teller. After my dozenth trip to my bank, with as many conversations with her, my always allowing people in line behind me to cut ahead in an effort to coordinate a visit her window, I finally asked her out while making a deposit. Her response was “Well, I’m flattered, really, but I’m in a relationship now. But hey, here’s my number if you’d just like to be friends?” That was 1979. Over the next few years I’d hear from her, and she me, which was nigh near a miracle as all was snail mail and landlines then, and we both had begun to move about the country in what seemed to me to be the careening patterns of waterbugs I had seen as a child. One letter from her was penned to me while I was high up the the Grand Basin area of Colorado, an address offered within the chilled confines of a short phone conversation weeks earlier from the booth up the street from my apartment in Granby on a bitterly cold winter’s day.

She was thinking of going to grad school, having researched programs in New England and the Midwest, which is how she and I eventually arrived at our last face to face visit in Minneapolis. It was still January 1980 in that 40 degrees below zero phone booth in Granby however, and I had acclimated to both the altitude and the never before heard of temperatures I had experienced that winter. Another letter appeared in my box while living on Lee Street in Columbia, South Carolina during the boiling August of 1981. Then a phone call near Easter 1982.

Our world by then was under the thrall of President Reagan, who promised a country poised for a return to greatness; the shining city on a hill. We were both skeptical for similar reasons, which have proven true through the passage of time.

At that time I was tending towards separating myself from the life I had planned as it was not an altogether happy one. For three days in Minneapolis we spoke of her life. She walked me around her department, introducing me to fellow students and a few of her professors. She had not become Quaker after all but had begun to consider herself agnostic; something which oddly enough, for her, had been instilled while at Guilford. For me it had been a long trek from age 12 to 19 before I realized there was a name for what I had become. There were similarities still, and she was interested in why I was heading west to Seattle. By then I was an illustrator and graphic designer, and Seattle was a creative market unlike most other save for Minneapolis/St. Paul, which had within five years become the Mecca of avant-garde commercial art creatives. Seattle was hot on their heels though, and my van was loaded to the gills with the tools of my trade.

June 1982. I have driven all night from Minneapolis, where I have tried very hard to say goodbye to a woman named Kim, with a realization we’d probably not lay eyes on each other again. Saying goodbye in your head is a thin line alongside that broad calligraphic mark which is a goodbye in your heart. I had promised myself not to look to the rear until the sunset intervened. I drove westward in the starlight of the night highways, having earlier watched the sun set in my side view mirrors aligned to the rear as my dreams of shifting lives faded from view. I had already broken my rule. To make recompense, at times, by moon and starlight in the dead of night hurtling west I turned off the lights in my van, the road still clearly and eerily illuminated by the white-blue-white light of Nature. These are the things of magical propensity, when you are going towards the unknown with the merest of light as your guide. My windshield-centered rear view mirror did not exist, both as my van was filled with artifacts of my life, enroute to Seattle, but also as I kept my eyes fixed to this road of moonlight. There were very few cars from the opposite direction, which always broke through my reverie as I had to switch my headlights back on eventually, upon finally reaching their oncoming headlights across the vast prairies of western Minnesota.

It is in Minnesota that a peculiarity occurs regarding travel. There are very few diagonal roads. Highway 169 from Minneapolis is about the last one known to exist as one rolls west. Mankato, Minnesota to Huron, then Pierre, South Dakota would eventually deliver me to my goal, in somewhat of a straight line to that place.

That place.

I was trying to separate myself from the life I had planned for the one that was awaiting me. I had learned that phrase in college around 1977 or 1978. The life I was given was clouded, obscured from any sight or trajectory of vision I had once known. My friendships were fading into the east, and my hopes were set on Seattle, which I had no reason to assume would sustain me. I was reckless. I was off tether, without ballast. All I knew in this trek across Minnesota was that I needed to find the Badlands again, for the second time in my life.

That place.

It had become a ritual of sorts. I had first experienced them in 1979, much for the same reason, as I left Milwaukee the first time in 1979, so full of loss that I felt my heart would close about its core and contain beating to a 2/2 rhythm for the rest of my life. It felt that way. In 1979. In 1982, on that June morning arising from behind me, I no longer carried the wounds of sunflowers which turned their faces away in heliotropic spasms in my previous journey paralleling this route traveling Interstate 90 just three years earlier, before I knew it was not a cosmically floral snub but only something flowers perform by necessity to survive.

Since I had revisited that earlier crossing, I felt the protracted need to revisit the Badlands.

That place.

I turned off the radio that night, preferring to hear the rush of the wind by moonlight and stars without headlights, and to feel it tugging at my hair and beard. She had tugged on my beard after an early dinner that day, for I wanted to leave by 4:00pm. It wasn’t logical; it was however some rule that emerged from the previous three days. Mimicking the three days recently spent in Wisconsin somehow. There was fairness in it for us both, I remember thinking at the time. She had laughed, saying “That’s an odd, scrappy red beard for a black-haired boy,” as she tugged. The 80mph winds felt like her fingers. Everything was arriving and departing in threes it seemed on this trip.

It was like a dance, a supremely orchestrated choreography which was the last warm hello we offered each other, truncated by goodbye. I never could understand the hold she had upon me, until years later I came to understand the hold was not hers but mine upon myself. All I knew that June morning of 1982 was that the Badlands would be a ceremony of goodbye to myself, and that something wonderful would be annealed, never to be malleable again. I hardened myself in those shallow and undulating canyons of Dakota for three days to repeat the rhythm of the road for the last eight, and listened to birds flying over, hearing the beat of their wings on static heat-gossamered air and clinging to their voices disappearing just as they crossed the next escarpment, just as I had remembered from three years before. For sound dies here, in the Badlands. As soon as one notices it, it shrouds itself behind the next hillock. Something of the Badlands does not allow you to experience what you have always known, like the wavelength of sound.

The Badlands are in this sense magical in some ancient way. They are full of silence about you as you walk in the crisp flood of noises in the immediate vicinity of your presence. You do not belong there. You are an interloper. I did not belong there, yet there I was, and I did belong for that brief time. I have never been to a place so alien, so remote, as the Badlands. I walked them, half expecting to not return, to walk into a maze from which I could not navigate home. Wherever that was for me at the time. I wondered at whether vision would go the way of sound, and shuddered the second day as that thought continued to manifest its path through my mind.

I lay down, looked up into the sky and listened to all that the little splices which muffled noise would allow. I did not draw it this time. I didn’t record these splices, except in my memory, where they remain a vivid recollection of subtle colors that creep into my memories more and more these days. There is a palette in my mind, and on that palette cling the colors of that day. I got up. I walked and walked, and for awhile paid no attention to where I turned, which way I headed. Part of me did not want to come out of those canyons. Part of me wanted to remain there.

Dusk fell and I pitched my tent in a wash while ravens reconnoitered my presence in their world. These were the days of not knowing, compounded upon intent and wishes. On the dawn I left my tent in place, for I had not seen a soul nor heard a voice since entering. I suddenly wondered if I was encroaching on previous claims to these low arroyos, to this parched earth of no noise to hear of or speak about later save to explain the silences. That day passed in wonderment, balking in my walks as ravens surmounted the higher portions of the lands bursting with wingbeats suddenly only to disappear, both sight and sound, as quickly and effectively. The first time I entered the Badlands in 1979, I was lost very quickly, resulting in a long walk along a road, then a better road, back to my van. The same one which waited upon me now, excepting it too was hidden in an arroyo rather than parked on the shoulder of a nearby road. It was before I had learned not to do such things. I had set ducks, little cairns of stacked rocks, on my way in, so was easily able to track my way back from my camp. In 1979 this had not occurred to me, and resulted in a pang of terror as I realized I was lost in a marginally inhospitable environment. In time I found my way to road noise on that earlier trip, but always felt a certain shame that the quietness of the Badlands and my first visit there was hampered by fright of realizing I was lost.

But not in June of 1982. That was the year I knew exactly where I was, but not who I was. I was perched in the middle of America, roughly halfway to my destination. And I had another day to remain in place in the land of decorous silences buffeted by jet black wings. The third night I felt a kinship to this place unlike the break and run of 1979. Thoughts entered my head. Three nights. It was three years ago I was last here. It’s three days now to Seattle. Everything is coming in threes. Three days of no music. Three days of no road noise. Three days of no cameras, which made me suddenly realize I had taken no snapshots since I left Lee Street in Columbia in South Carolina. I had not made a drawing. No pastels. This was an oddity. A decision was made to commit the remainder of this cross country road to my retinas alone. It was an odd thought on the heels of an oddity.

Through the grace of my ducks I knew which way to walk towards my van. I knew which way to walk away from it. Three days had been spent in a ghostly realm of silent mergers pierced by raucous flying tricksters, within a land so foreign to me, yet somehow so familiar, that I felt I was inside it and it inside me. I have kept from the Badlands since that sunrise walk back, where I eventually encountered my van, none the worse for my absence from her protection, and cranked it up for the long drive to Seattle.

I don’t have a single photograph from that trip. Not one of Kim. Not one of me, nor any other friend I encountered along the way. Not a single sketch, although every art supply I ever owned up till that time was packed in my van. Yet in all the void of such visual artifacts, I still hold in the theater of my mind the purity of those scenes, those friends, the wonder of those moments spent in successive three day cyclicals, to this day.

I have often wondered, is the richness of this visual memory due to the lack of, or dependence upon, conventional ways to record such events? Or is it due to the hyper-reality of that trip, in which I visited two dear friends before the badlands, then one after, and making the final foray into Seattle, tired and bedraggled more than revivified, cresting the Cascades to hear a song which came to mean much more than I would realize, for it was titled “A Delicate Balance,” and written by a person who would later, in 1983, become a friend and teacher in many ways.

I have retained the sound of the ravens flying over my head for years, wind roaring in their feathers. On exiting the 1982 Badlands I soon took to Interstate 90. I hear today the clarity of the muted whir of wheels as they approached from the distance of the eastbound lanes to doppler their way to me, and along the westbound lanes, my brothers in westwardness, becoming soon a soft whine, then a rancorous roar and quaking physical presence as they tried to blast my 55mph lope from the shoulder of the highway at night. Everything had become acute, and was indelibly etched into my being.

I pulled into a dry forest somewhere outside of Buffalo, Wyoming that night, and slept on the ground under a quarter moon. I awoke in the mid-morning sun, not to a tug on my beard, but to a hunger to live in a new place, with a new mind and a new heart.

Three days later I found Seattle for the second time in my life, and recognized it as the first home I had ever had, for I had chosen this city. I had been a pilgrim in search of place. And five years passed until events brought me back home to South Carolina.

The Badlands call to me now. I can feel their reverberating presence as I wrap up these words. Yet this time, I can not visit them. This is the third time I have not chosen to go there on a trip westward in the last fifteen years. Things come in threes. The thought occurs to me, perhaps I should visit them on the way east next time, a direction from which they would least expect me to arrive.

[This blog was originally written in 2007 and published on MySpace, but in a much shorter form. I’ve revisited it as well today, and tried to edit, not for length, but for substance, from that acute memory of that 1982 westward trip to Seattle. There is a little more meat on the bones for you to gnaw upon here than in the MySpace version, which is long gone]

Tom

Almost born on the hospital steps of Camden in a rush to be on time...