Thursday, July 12, 2007

Night journey across the middle landscape

Later an orange moon oblong and misshapen will rise from the greater darkness in the east. Glimmer, glimmer, glimmer me home, I’ll sing, a tuneless rhapsody. Alone in the car, in my thoughts, careless of my vocal anti-talent, making noise only to keep myself awake. Two-thirty a.m. For a while the moon will be in my eyes, squatting on the horizon like a bloated toad, but without my noticing it will shift to my left, and then behind, though the road ahead will not have changed. I’ll descend from the highlands onto the long curve of the bridge and enter a dark and silent town, halflit, full of shadows and moving shapes, and the house will be as empty, as deserted. As silent. I distrust that silence, so poignant, so different than outside where the crickets fiddle their yarns, but for now the darkness holds a sort of respite, even solace, and the road ahead ghostly in my headlights. I could be anywhere, or nowhere. Or nothing, just another night creature loose upon the land.

For now I pour a cup of coffee from a silvery Thermos and back the car onto a broad gravel street, pointing the hood toward Tierra del Fuego. Now there’s a destination—the end of the world, last stop before the Roaring Forties and the Screaming Fifties. How did that old whaling line go? “Beyond 40 degrees south there is no law. Beyond 50 degrees south there is no God.” A landless place of constant gale. What odd thoughts for such a calm night.

The last time I came to this small town near the Nebraska border the wind was blowing harder than I thought possible, or convenient, certainly. Driving up had been a white-knuckle adventure refereeing a boxing match between a bodiless presence and several tons of steel, glass and a big V-8, but the former clearly had the upper hand. Inside the cab was a steady shriek so that for hours afterward I could barely hear. Near my destination I topped a low rise and plowed over a redheaded woodpecker who never once glanced my way. Probably deafened, too, and intent on its prey. In the mirror I watched it flutter to the shoulder, a ruffled mop of black, white and scarlet feathers, so I turned and drove back. A gust almost tore the door from my grasp, and buffeted me cruelly as I knelt beside the bird. Blood flowed from its beak. I was muttering obscenities when it closed its eyes and grew as still as possible in that wind-ravaged land.

The bird’s death soured a mood already tenuous. I was here to cover a news story and uncertain of my welcome. Afterward I drove the same road turned dark and dangerous with limited visibility, a hammering gale and a menagerie of mammals both large and small. The place where I’d killed the woodpecker was known less by sight than by a heavy weight, as if guilt had a landmark. I fought to control the vehicle and listened captive to its screams, and for a while alone in a sea of darkness I recalled other night journeys, notably from Las Vegas to Albuquerque, where on occasion I would kill the headlights and sail on moonbeams, the only other illumination that of small farms and the snowy crowns of unseen mountains. I loved it then. It was a form of communion, a time alone with myself, especially after in a fit of drunken rage I battered the eight-track player to pieces with the butt of a 12-gauge. My life was mostly uncertain back then and though it hasn’t really changed it has plodded into something more stable. I’m no longer able to summon such rage.

Rural towns possess a calm disposition in the late hours that larger cities cannot replicate. A city never sleeps, but small towns shut down when the sun goes down. It’s almost a myth but there’s enough truth in it to keep it real. The old agrarian work ethic—early to bed, early to rise—a few street lights hiding more than they reveal, a single porch light like a benighted candle, the houses snuffed of life, and I pass into the outer darkness beyond city limits.

The dirt road rises and falls like breaking waves, the stars brilliant overhead, my world reduced to a sphere no deeper nor wider than the reach of headlights. A chalky, albinistic white, washed of color and hue, like moonlight on sand dunes. Now and then a house swims into view, a brief flash of light and color, and whelming darkness returns. Is this the middle landscape that Leo Marx described in his book, The Machine in the Garden? I believe so. The pastoral ideal meets modernity, in his case based upon a painting by George Innes where a steam train rumbles across a broad wheat field. The distinctive American desire to merge nature with technology, now sadly debased into images of creeping suburbia, but untouched here on this nightscape. The land changed, yes, but still wild, and the creatures wandering into my path the real inheritors, not these few people on fewer scattered farms.

Miles away I stop at a church. Deer bound away into shorn wheat fields and a gang of raccoons skulk into the shadows with an air of aggrieved innocence. Why are you here, their banded eyes ask. Stretch my legs and a refill of coffee. Awash in stars, I exult in the night.

On I go, following my headlights southward. It will be hours before I sleep, and then in an empty bed after being awake for 24 hours. But weariness cannot touch me here. Something in the night feeds me. There is no hurry, no expectation, no desire other than a formless wish that I somehow never reach my destination, that the moon will not rise and glimmer me home, that night will carry me content and at peace to the ends of the earth, and beyond.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This was an outstanding piece of writing, one of your best ever. The night was a living, breathing character.