Rand McNally and pushpins come to me in dreams. Kerouac sits in the corner of the room and whispers of the Road while I hallucinate off the side of the bed and burn my money in Alaska.
* * *
There are hidden parts of the Road. Varied and mysterious as the wooden playgrounds of my youth. Before the corporate child-proofing of America tore them all down, those wooden fortresses where we’d adventure while our mothers talked. Each time we went, a new cubby, a new nook that we’d get splinters working our way into. Maybe they tore that old wooden sanctuary down because they knew I’d get stuck trying to go back. The new blueprints, mere instructions to lead me out onto the interstates and super-highways of the Great Somewhere-Else. Out to find the nooks–those mountain nooks where we climbed our way into Utah and shouted victory. Where we found broken bottles and our joy. The nooks that beckoned us into their solitude and holiness.
Rand sat in the passenger seat, silent and pointing vaguely as he guided us through the mountains. He knew we had missed a vital turn miles ago, but He just smiled and hung His arm out the window. He hadn’t drawn the road we were on. Rand was letting us go until we found the nook He knew would change us. Until we found the mountain that overwhelmed us and dropped us to our knees in humble supplication.
Avoiding an avalanche, we made our way to Montana and the Northeast Entrance. The engine had turned our wheels enough for us to finally realize, like naïve kids on a tire swing, there was no going around the Continental Divide. Then Rand relented, pointed and showed us the view and private country roads he traced to tease. He nodded because He knew we held no concern for speed. He knew we wanted to see what he was drawing out there in his solitude, and he was happy to show us. He took us, giddy as a madman.
Rand’s priest led us out in solemn procession, that old Road, with his sporadic signs to keep us going. Through mystic preparation we were carried along to insure what the Road had eagerly hoped. It was apparent from the license plate and the dirt South Dakota left on our souls and shoes; we had been baptized in gasoline and oil. This was our confirmation that we could understand the Road’s humble prayers and clever puns when he switched back over on himself in endless asphalt mantra.
The Road leads toward the Sun and swims in all of its finite blackened boundaries. The most Holy Smile. Spanning cheek to cheek with dashed and full pure teeth. Big Sur to Cadillac Mountain. Smiling to keep the traffic Holy.
* * *
The Spirit rode shotgun and read incantations out of the paperback scripture a kid at Borders recommended on his last day. The scriptures a Teacher sought to give me on my last day. Given in holy silence and sacred weight: Rand McNally / The 2011 ROAD ATLAS: America’s #1 Road Atlas. The incantations began to roll in waves of spiritual frenzy. Pouring out from guttural diaphragm like libations. Rising around the rearview like incense. Tongues on fire. We cast ourselves into the Wild Plains and Nameless Earth. The words began, unnatural and unfamiliar:
Dead Indian Pass
Absaroka- Beartooth Wilderness
Buffalo Bill Scenic Pass
Teton, Togwotee, Wiggins, Wapiti, Dunraven, Bighorn
And the boys back in Buffalo–
Just past Crazy Woman Creek-
Who spoke late at night
And let us sleep outside,
Whose first day it was on the job
After getting laid off in Sheridan
After fourteen years of honest work
And the snow they’d seen
And how the town got the name
From a hat.
From a man
who spent his life
At the spout of the Erie Canal.
Rand whispers from the dashboard:
“^ Granite Peak, 12,799ft, is the Highest Point in Montana…”
* * *
In the silence we waited to see what would happen. We waited to see if our spells were real. To see if the omnipresent Road would see us with open ears long enough to hear our prayers. I gripped the wheel chanting, call-and-response, with the Shotgun Spirit, “Route 212. Switchbacks. Just over the Montana Border. Just before Red Lodge. Open Late May Thru Mid October.”
The Holy Road heard us, and guided us. Rand relaxed in the backseat, laughing in recollection of the time he traced this road pace by meticulous pace, barefoot as a prophet. I pulled over to join Rand laughing. We fell down on a windy rest stop, pounding and kicking the human ground until our fists bled and we stained the Earth. Pouring blood into our prayers and chants. Exchanging genes and hemoglobin and passion. Crying out to be changed. Crying out for salvation in the red valley.
Here comes Christ on a bike. Asking where we’re from. Telling us he knows where we’ve been and proving it.
* * *
Snow in the grill. In the clouds. We took turns taking shits in holes drilled into the solid, regal mountain crest. Shitting on a pew. Sins deposited directly. Removed too far to hear consequence and purgatory on the mountain.
We jumped and whooped in that windy silence. Imagining the skeleton grip of gravity loosened and we might fly and float right off into the goddamn clouds. In the same way the impossible snow-topped mountains blurred where the jet-puffed mountains began.
The Road took us by the wrist like an expert child who knew every nail hammered into the deathtrap playground. Leading us to the hideouts. Showing us how to scale the edge of the wood where no one was ever intended to climb. And our mothers died watching us, reading Readers’ Digest in their uniform minivans. We rolled back and forth in the mist. State Road, SR294 through the cathedral ventricles of Heart Mountain. Pumping back and up and forth and down toward SR296. The wipers skipped across the glass, beat by the wind.
* * *
I woke up in Cooke. I woke up in snow. Writhing over how Rand figured out that Granite Peak is exactly 12,799ft tall and not 12,800. Who can fathom the trigonometry of a mountain? Was it measured on foot, Rand? Counted off heel-to-toe? Did you use a measuring stick? The red, yellow, and green kind I won at a family picnic some childhood year? Is that how you ended up with such an accurate and pristine number?
However, it wasn’t the number that kept me up entirely. It came down to the absolute-truth-of-religion that there are no roads leading up to Granite Peak. It exists. In the middle of a green-spotted space. In the middle of Custer National Forest. I sat down at the table with Rand and he showed me that I existed as well. On the line. In Cooke. Rand showed me the distance.
That night I shaved for the fist time in a month. Shaved my whole face until it was smooth and bleeding for the first time in maybe a year. My brother taught me how he refers to his face like map locations when he shaves. I trimmed nose hairs on the Continental Divide.
I sat down on the firm, nylon hotel comforter. The Cooke City Courier was on the nightstand, next to the courtesy phone. It told the stories of the eighty-eight folks who live there year-round in stark black and white.
Nine point font. Absent of paragraphs. The town scroll. Title, written in Scroll. Printed off the HP on the front desk where we stole the last room.
We were too early to be tourists, so we shot pool with the Mountain-Dweller who ran the Super 8 where we stayed. He taught us the tricks of the trade. In the morning he bounced his martyr son on his chest and taught a girl how to pour coffee when all you have are grounds.
At the bar that night I talked to a man named Phil. He was the only gay human in the town, originally from Billings. He told me he has a house there, and I imagined a lover. Billings is on 90, and was on our way when we were planning to adventure in Glacier National Park. Phil told us he came down that way from Billings a week before, and warned that 90 had been closed for the last three days with snow. Said we shouldn’t head North until August. But we hadn’t planned to stay in Montana another day.
The bartender took our order for burgers on a napkin. Some stranger in a Budweiser hat cooked them in a kitchen. We ate and died and laughed. We thought it was a joke that the world’s best burgers were hidden in some lonely town on top of a mountain. We drank the cheapest beer and Phil ordered Long Islands for himself. He asked where we came from, and I told him from some place out East. He asked us how we got there, and I showed him the Road.
Placing a careful napkin on his drink, Phil left our conversation to help a woman with a pregnant horse. The steed was freezing down at a stable with no hay. Phil had a few bales. He said he’d be back, and the woman said her horse would be a happy-happy girl. But we drained bottles watching extreme snowboarding and hunting videos that had been shot outside. People flying on mountains like strange beasts and the man-who-looks-like-your-friend’s-uncle grabbing a dead deer by the head and making it talk.
That dark mountain night ended with us wading through the snow in gym-shorts and hiking-boots. Screaming and cursing the wind and snow. Eternal infants in the infinite and multiplying eyes of the wind. And I never saw Phil again.
* * *
Back in the room, we stomped off our boots. I showered for eternity. Through the steam I hollered a joke about how we thought it would be weeks before another shower. The last ones we stole from a lonely old farmer in South Dakota. He cornered us in the stall and invited us to have dinner with him. We were on the road the second he disappeared. I joked about how my stolen shower trickled so pathetically it could’ve been the old man weeping over my naked body, like some cruel prank. The Spirit laughed and brushed his teeth with mountain water.
We tried getting a signal on anything with a battery that night to let our families know we were trapped in Montana, just atoms away from Granite and Old Faithful. I told my brother about the splinters we got getting into Cooke, my dad about the oil change, and my mom about the consistency of the snow and the inadequacy of our sweaters. That night my brother back East told me I should walk to the top of Granite Peak. He asked me where the Road ends.
* * *
I couldn’t sleep out of ascetic devotion, being so close to the mountain. I looked out at the silhouettes. Dark cutouts in the local universe. I strained my eyes to see the mountain skin in the brightness of the snow. I could see my face reflected in the window. Behind the screen, the fog from my breath congregated on the glass. I turned the radiator up slightly to warm my toes and leaned against the nylon screen to see how snowcapped the car had become. In my reflection, I caught a glimpse of Granite and his brothers curving over my cornea. The mountains reaching, in all of their light, into my brain. I wondered how long it would take to travel from my eyes to their summits. I wondered why, when I can see the mountains on my eye, it isn’t easier to get to them.
Unable to climb the mountain from my window, I turned away and cracked the spine of the Atlas. I sat with the light coming from the bathroom and read the notes Rand had jotted between the lines. I determined how close I could get to Granite with the help of the Road before I would have to abandon asphalt and engine and turn to skin and earth. Walking toward the Granite’s temple.
* * *
I went into the bathroom to kill the light. Settling into our mountain nook under generic covers I whispered to the Spirit, “We’re out here. Trapped in the wilderness and alive.”
The Spirit smiled and said, “I could be a Ghost in these mountains.” And Rand pointed North.
* * *
I didn’t know where the manager’s son had slept that night. I would have crept down next to the crib and read scripture over his body. Raising Atlas high over the small form. No angel to grab my wrist. A tribute to the Road. A martyr for his town.
One day, wading through snow, the Road would call to him, and he would follow.
He would lead the Nation of Wanderers.
_ Kevin Kaminski 2012