Highway 1990

which way

My raging case of nostalgia continues unabated, and I’ve decided it’s a good thing. Unless and until it causes me to obsessively scan images of old diner menus and matchbox covers and spout vaguely jingoistic observations about the end of civilization and the people I encounter in the Target parking lot.

It occurred to me the other day that is has been 20 years — late summer/early fall of 1990 — since I felt as free as I have ever felt. I finished an internship at the Los Angeles Times and had packed my car with clothes, books, a tent, a sleeping bag, some other supplies, and set out to camp along the Pacific coast all the way up to Seattle, thrillingly alone and in charge of my fate. That was the plan/no plan. (My car was a tan 1989 Ford Probe, for real, and perhaps my favorite car I’ve ever owned; I still have dreams where I suddenly own it again.)

For the first time since I was 5, I was not in school in September. I was 22 years old. Back then there was no such thing, officially, as “the pre-adult” stage of life that unemployed twentysomethings now claim as their right. Our parents were not our best friends, and even if they were, we would never had said so; moving back home was a stigma, or worse, uncreative. I probably had about $500 in the bank and a Visa card with a $500 limit. (Privileged middle-class white person disclosure: My father was having a good year, as far as any of us then knew, and he made my car payments — $237 a month — for a bit.)

I had no job offers — in fact, I had plenty of rejection letters, including the nicest one from a guy at Hallmark, where I’d responded to an ad looking for funny greeting card writers.

So I camped — as in paid permit, not hobo style — on state beaches and in forested parks along Highway 1. I made campfires and snacked on Tostitos and salsa. I read books: What Am I Doing Here by Bruce Chatwin; Democracy by Joan Didion; Where I’m Calling From by Raymond Carver —  I ask you Kindlers and iPadders, because I want to know: Will we be as able, years from now, to remember which e-books accompanied us on our journeys and travels, with the same tactile powers of recall? Is there an app for that, keeping track of when we read a book, with a corresponding GPS coordinate?

Because when a book is taking up space in your luggage or in your car, you are consciously and literally with that book, unless you lose it someplace, and then its absence is just as with you in a whole different way, mentally. I can close my eyes and see the cover of the Chatwin book reflected in the light of a candle flickering on a concrete picnic table at a beach campground in Morro Bay. I can also get up right now, walk over to the shelf and produce that very same book, and give it a sniff for traces of old smoke.

When I recently visited the apartment of my friends Jonathan and Scott, I spied on their bookshelves a copy of the very same guidebook, The Real California, I had with me in 1990, and have long since discarded. I recognized the spine of it it immediately and took it down and thumbed through it with awe.

Music is the same way. With the same certainty, I know the tapes I was listening to in the car on that trip included Depeche Mode’s Violator, the Pixies’ Bossanova, and a Nina Simone compilation that included “I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl” (but not “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair”). What happens to memories like this, when our entire music collections go wherever we go, in our pockets, whether down the street or around the world?

* * *

big-surThe trip didn’t last long.

Fate intervened, in San Francisco. With one phone call — a message relayed to me through my mother in Oklahoma, whom I had called a couple days earlier from a pay phone at a campground in Big Sur — I went a whole other way.

On the morning of Sept. 11, 1990, after a boozy San Francisco night, I tore out south down I-5, across the desert through Tehachapi, and east to I-40 — a 17-hour drive, or something like that — to try out for two weeks at a job in New Mexico.

And that changed everything. The road trip toward the question mark of my life was over, just 10 days in.

Another trip, of sorts, started then and there — a career that has been financially secure and intellectually satisfying, to such a degree that I am co-dependent on it. And yet, turning the Ford Probe around that morning all but assured that many of my future choices would be made around practical, level-headed things like paychecks, outstanding credit card balances, health plans, 401(k) matches, vacation time, story lengths, editors, deadlines. From then until forever, I would always have a piece of writing due. (Like today. I have four reviews to finish, and this is what I’m doing instead.)

I have no complaints, but I can count on one hand the true forks I’ve encountered in The Road, where the choice was either/or, and entirely mine. I kinda wish there had been more moments like that one, and I hope there are some ahead. I definitely sense there are some ahead.

Shit! Is this what a midlife crisis sounds like? I just briefly felt the crazy ghost of my father in the room.


  1. blathering on September 13, 2010 at 11:34 am

    Loved Bruce Chatwin. I think Songlines was my fave.
    And I’m jealous of that trip, I’ve never done anything like that.

  2. depeche on November 1, 2010 at 8:42 pm

    Love this post. I can hear Dave Gahan’s voice through the Probe speakers: “Cleeeeaaaannnn…”

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