the book

(Originally written for

I love road trips. The last one I took was in December of 2000, when I drove from Greenfield, Massachusetts, to Los Angeles, California, in three days. A friend of mine had done that, and it sounded so romantic, like barnstorming or something. Live your life to the fullest! Don't pass up an experience! Well, now that I've had that experience, I wouldn't recommend it. For the final couple of hours before I pulled into my driveway, everything was flat and two dimensional, as if I were watching a movie. It's a miracle or just dumb luck that I survived. I have an excuse, though--I was out of my mind with duh-pression. I wasn't thinking clearly.
      That may have been the stupidest road trip I've ever taken, but it wasn't the most exciting. When I was a sophomore in college, I drove from Portland, Oregon, to Santa Barbara, California, without stopping. It's been almost twenty years, so I can't remember a lot of the details; I can't say how long it took, for example. I think we did it in two days. I also don't remember exactly who was in the car with me. The only people I'm sure of are Bill and Tor.
      Bill was a freshman, an eighteen-year-old giant who looked like a vigorous, weathered outdoorsman in his mid-forties. He was a rock climber and one of those college partyers we've all seen or heard of, the guy who can drink a case of beer and smoke an ounce of pot and likes to smash things. I'd had a run-in with him right before our road. I was asleep in my dorm room when I heard this awful, wrenching arroooop, arroooooop out in the hall. I opened my door and saw Bill hanging on to the porcelain water fountain fixed to the wall. He was fighting to stay erect as his body was wracked by violent spasms. I screamed "Christ! Don't puke in the fountain!" He grinned at me and dry-heaved, his knees buckling and straightening, buckling and straightening. I went back to bed. A minute later, there was a thunderous pounding on my door. It was Bill, swaying and holding up a bag of gorp--nuts, raisins, granola, dried fruit, M&Ms;, and coconut flakes.
      "Dude," he rumbled, "let's munch out."
      "No thanks."
      I tried to close my door, but he flung all his weight at it and knocked me back into the dresser.
      "C'mon, man. Have some gorp, I said."
      So I had a handful.
      Bill scared me so much I don't know why I agreed to ride with him to Santa Barbara. Actually, I do know: I was--and still am--terrified of flying. It's a crippling fear, as you can see. To avoid a three-hour flight, I chose instead to be cooped up for two days in a Jeep Wagoneer with an implacable gorp force feeder.
      First we had to go to Reed College down the road to pick up Tor, another rock climber. We got off to a late start and didn't arrive at Reed until ten at night. Tor scared me even more than Bill. He was a blond guy who looked like a squinting, suspicious Martha Plimpton in a watch cap. He wouldn't shake my hand or talk to me. It wasn't personal; Tor just didn't talk. We spent the night in his dorm room, sprawled on the floor and in chairs. At three in the morning, the door flew open and a huge black man in sunglasses burst in.
      "Slam! Where are you, man?" he bellowed and vanished. He was in the room for all of three seconds. Bill and Tor slept on, so maybe I dreamed it. I'm still not sure if it really happened or not.
      The next day, we took Interstate 5 south. Now that I think about it, there may have been another guy with us. I remember another rock climber with long hair and meteorism--uncontrollable farting. The joke among his pals was that he had a dead, rotting animal lodged in his colon. Since I'm not sure he was even present, I can't say anything more about him except that I'm positive I took a road trip with him, either this one or another. There are vast swathes of my life that are complete blanks to me now. Maybe someday I'll undergo hypnosis and see if I can retrieve them.
      The driving was handled by Bill and Tor and maybe the guy with meteorism if he was there. I didn't drive because... I have no idea. For some reason, I just didn't drive. Everything was fine until we crossed into California. As we passed Mount Shasta in the wee hours of the morning, I woke up in the back seat to find Tor behind the wheel. We were cruising the winding road in fog so thick I could only see about six feet past the hood. The car felt twitchy and feather light, the way it does when you're going really fast. I looked over Tor's shoulder; we were doing eighty miles per hour. He also had the high beams on, making it look as if there were a snowbank right in front of us. It was like were chasing a magic snowbank that went eighty miles per hour.
      "Tor, Jesus, slow down!" I wailed.
      He didn't react.
      Silence. I leaned forward to look at his face. He was trembling and breathing heavily through his nose, his jaw muscles bunching as he gritted his teeth. I shook Bill awake in the front passenger seat. He gazed at the fog and the speedometer, sighed, and mumbled, "Dude, slow down. Turn off the high beams." Tor immediately complied. He didn't look at Bill or say anything, and he was still taking deep breaths, still gritting his teeth. I didn't go back to sleep.
      We dumped Tor in San Jose and switched to Highway 101. At a gas station, we bought a bottle of Jet-Alert caffeine tablets to pep us up. Bill took eight tablets and I took six. After a while, I noticed that the music we were listening to sounded really weird, kind of weaving in and out somehow. I felt quite strange, floating and falling at the same time. My head felt very tall. When I scratched my scalp, my fingers seemed to be about nine feet away. The scenery outside my window was bright and swirly.
      "Dude, why's your face so red?" Bill asked.
      I peered in the rear-view mirror. My face wasn't red, it was maroon. I lifted my sunglasses and saw that my pupils had contracted down to pinholes.
      "Take your sunglasses off a second," I said.
      Bill's pupils had completely disappeared.
      "Now look in the mirror."
      "Oh, my God. Oh, my God!" He covered his mouth and laughed in horror. I'd never seen him shocked by anything before. I laughed too. It sounded like a distant engine, a faraway putt-putt-putt-putt-putt-putt-putt.
      "If we get pulled over and the guy sees my eyes, we're gonna be in a lot of trouble," Bill said. I checked the bottle of Jet-Alert: Each tablet had the same amount of caffeine as two cups of coffee. I'd swallowed the equivalent of twelve cups of coffee, almost half a gallon. We kept creeping up to a hundred fifteen miles per hour without realizing it. I had no sense of movement at all, so Bill probably didn't either. I felt as if I could open my door, step out, and stand next to our stationary vehicle.
      We arrived in Santa Barbara at dusk. My brother Tim was supposed to pick me up at Bill's house and drive me home, but he was three hours late. Bill and his family were impatient because they had to be somewhere else for Thanksgiving dinner. His mother was especially angry at me.
      "Where's you brother?" she kept snapping. "When's he going to get here?"
      Since I had no answer--this was fifteen years before cell phones--all I could do was apologize over and over. We sat in the living room, Bill, his mom, his dad, his brothers and I, not speaking, everybody glaring at me and fidgeting and looking at their watches. The phone rang, and I heard Bill's mother say, "I know we're not there yet! We're waiting for somebody to come get this kid Bill brought home. Who knows? He sure doesn't." Finally I offered to wait outside on the curb so they could keep their dinner date.
      "No, no, you don't have to do that," Bill's mother said. "But where's your brother? When's he going to get here?"
      Tim showed up long after dark. He'd gotten lost and was furious and embarrassed. I introduced him to Bill's family, who were all putting on their jackets and gathering up their keys. They herded us outside, piled into two or three cars, and roared away. Tim told me he'd been invited to his friend Shelly's house in Beverly Hills for dinner; she wouldn't forgive him if he stood her up, and there wasn't time for him to take me home first. I hadn't had a bath in three days, I was in jeans and a flannel shirt, and my head still felt tall from the Jet-Alert.
      "Whatever," I said.
      Dinner was over by the time we got to Shelly's mansion. She let us in and brought us to a banquet table where about twenty people sat drinking wine and smoking. I recognized three celebrities--two actors and a news anchor. Shelly's stepfather Harve barked "Take them to the kitchen, Shelly!" So Tim and I were marched to the kitchen and seated at the island in the center, next to the leftovers. A servant gave us plates of dried-up turkey, stiff mashed potatoes, stale bread, cold veggies, and pumpkin pie with a skin on it. Shelly frowned and left, then Harve came in.
      "I'd like to make a toast," he said, raising a glass of red wine. "In this fast-paced world, we often lose sight of what's important. Family. Friends. People. We may think wealth and status is something to be thankful for, but those of us who have them know that they mean nothing. The most important thing to have, the most important thing to be thankful for, is love. When you're surrounded by good friends and a family that loves and supports you, well, my friends, you're rich indeed. You're rich in the only way that counts. L'Chaim!"
      He drained his glass, spun gracefully, and walked out. Tim and I finished our dinner, chatting with the woman who'd served us. We were back on the road in less than an hour. When we got home, I took a long, hot shower and drank some warm milk, but I wasn't able to sleep that night. I watched TV until the sun came up.
      I've forgotten how I got back to Portland. Tim may have driven me, or I may have taken the train. I know I didn't fly; that would have been crazy.

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