Golden sun and blue sky. It’s there, always there.
There, even now, behind that gray cloud-carpet suspended above the Pacific Coast Highway. I am standing at the onramp to this scenic highway with my thumb in the air, a bandana-wearing hippie-hearted hitchhiker.
I have it all planned out in my head: arrive home by nightfall, eat tacos at a three-table joint near my Haight-Ashbury flat, then dissolve into ferocious, all-guns-blazing preparation for morning warfare in a law-firm conference room, also known as a deposition. Tomorrow morning I’ll scrub myself clean of even the tiniest residuum of this hippie persona. I will don a Brooks Brothers suit and elevate to the thirty-sixth floor in the Transamerica Building. I will stomp into my office with a coffee mug in my hand and resolutely shuffle papers in and out of manila folders to complete the transformation from hippie hitchhiker to cold-hearted corporate-litigator.
That’s the plan—a good one, too, if only life would cooperate. A car not stopping is life not cooperating. That’s not supposed to happen, not here on the outskirts of funky Santa Cruz.
Waiting, trying to be patient, to stay calm, but it’s hard when darkness looms and your hair is tangled and wet from drizzles of rain and your fingers feel bitten by the cold ocean breeze and cars and pickups zip by with drivers who pretend you’re not there, obviously desperate for a ride. Waiting, holding fast for that blessed moment when you lock eyes with the approaching driver—just a millisecond, through the obscuration of the windshield—and you see the car swerve towards the shoulder and it’s like someone has put paddles on your chest and shouts Go! and the surge revives your faith-dying heart as you grab your stuff and sprint towards the passenger side with this incomparable joir de vivre and you lean into the window to do that quick assessment which veteran hitchhikers know all too well and the whole thing climaxes with you spiriting into a seat and exclaiming over the thumping of your grateful heart, Hey, thanks a million, man, really appreciate the lift.
“The great gifts are not got by analysis,” Ralph Waldo Emerson writes. “Everything good is on the highway.”
With an Emersonian attitude I’ve hopped into cars, vans, pickups with all sorts: weirdoes and comics, lonely souls and proselytizers, sexual perverts and depressives, staid suburbanites and electrified punks. A van filled with New Age flakes mingling astrology and quantum physics drove me through Yosemite National Park over the course of three days, spouting vacuous assertions under diamond skies about how we are all One. A Cadillac-driving fiftyish fat man wearing ray bans spent the last ten miles of our shared ride repeatedly asking if I wouldn’t mind sucking him off, and then with sunglasses atop his balding head, revealing tear-glazed eyes, sputtered the word sorry as I yanked my backpack from the backseat and then bid adieu with a peace sign. A Buddhist woman, early thirties with hair curlers, slow-driving an old pickup truck taught me several chants and tried to answer my pointed questions about reincarnation but eventually surrendered (Oh, forget it) and thanked me for challenging her patience—a spiritual test, she said. A husband and wife from Palm Springs driving an Audi with a crucifix dangling from the rearview mirror insisted, over my contrary perspective, that Jesus didn’t actually suffer on the cross because He knew “it was all part of the plan.”
The sun seems weak behind the gray carpet as it begins a slow dying. Birds once darting across my field of vision are now gone. The day, in its colorlessness, has achieved full-gray equilibrium, the beclouded sky indistinguishable from the flat gray ocean that stretches and yawns to nowhere, heightening my impatience and menacing a darkening hue to my thoughts. I settle myself with a song, No Expectations by my favorite band, The Rolling Stones, singing quietly to myself as a kind of anxiety-suppressant.
It jerks onto the shoulder. A dangling license plate would be the perfect complement to its overall dilapidation, this old dinged-up boxy Toyota Corolla, the color of pea soup with a black flag tied onto the crooked radio antennae. A dangling license plate might be the one thing I need to see to fortify my patience for another ride. The license plate is fine; the driver isn’t.
I feel the hitchhiker’s predicament: on the one hand, must be patient, must honor intuition that a vibe isn’t right, must retain that power of declination; and on the other hand, go ahead and seize the moment, go ahead and transcend the fear that throttles us, go ahead and embrace the thrill of experiencing the unfolding of fate.
Lopsided cap, the brim askew to the left, the driver seems almost comical, reminiscent of a sitcom character from my childhood, Gomer Pyle. Slippery face, not quite grimy, oily like the skin of a seal, complicates the image, hinting at something risky about him. He breathes like he’s blowing out of a straw, through a small oval formed by his thin lips. In my impatience I see too much Gomer in him, more of the good-natured country-bumpkin and not enough of the oily-faced recluse who probably masturbates to pornographic snuff films.
I wedge my backpack between my legs, using my heels to scoot a Burger King bag and some Coors bottles under the seat. I introduce myself as Danny—only when I hitchhike do I refer to myself that way, preferring Dan since graduating high school—but he only grunts and doesn’t tell me his name. Fair enough—he’ll be Gomer to me, then. Just me and Gomer, inside this small Toyota bouncing along Highway 1. That’s what I find alluring about hitchhiking, how you are encased inside the cabin of a moving vehicle with someone you don’t know at all, how the intimacy of it is something you breathe into your lungs, how your chest tingles, itches sometimes; how you look for clues to navigate your way through this down-and-dirty relationship that’ll last only a short while. How, when you’re hitchhiking, a powerful feeling can overtake you, a sense of that unnerving schism, that there’s an in here and an out there.
I pull out of my back pocket a book I had bought on Friday when I arrived into Santa Cruz. Not to read it—that’d be terribly bad form as a hitchhiker—but only to remove the discomfort of it jamming against my lower back. Gomer asks me about it.
“It’s Baudelaire,” I say.
“He’s a poet, a French poet.”
“You a fag?” he asks.
I figure he thinks poetry is for gays, not for tough dudes. “You don’t like poetry?”
“All depends,” he says.
I shift my body slightly, away from him so that I’m peering out of the passenger window. Gomer turns up the music. “Doors tape,” he says, and I say “cool,” and he tells me Jim Morrison was a poet but he ain’t never read none of his poems though his lyrics are pretty much like poems but that ain’t what he likes about Jim Morrison, because what he likes is how his vocals are rooted in his suicidal tendencies. Gomer refers to it as his don’t-give-a-flying-fuck sound. I guess he means Morrison’s guttural, primeval yelps in songs like “Backdoor Man.” He mentions something about “seeing the other side,” using the term “Lizard King.” I take the “Lizard King” reference as an attempt to elevate his bona fides as an authority on the lead singer, since that was Morrison’s occasional alter ego. I do the same by saying something about Aldous Huxley’s book, The Doors of Perception—the inspiration for the band’s name—but he ignores the literary reference.
“No way the dude was going to live to be thirty,” Gomer continues.
The windshield wipers scrape back and forth, like an index finger wagging in my face. Ghostly Morrison is there in the car, his heavy breath fogging up the window.
Riders on the storm/ Riders on the storm.
“Yeah, I see your point,” I say, flapping the pages of my book. “Some people are destined to flame out.” I’m about to tell him that Baudelaire wrote prose poems in homage to the notion that life has to be lived with intensity, that intensity takes priority over morality, that Jim Morrison might be Baudelaire reincarnated.
But Gomer interjects. “You think he killed himself on purpose?” He holds the steering wheel with his thumb and two fingers on his left hand, his wrist resting on his uplifted knee. He taps nervously on his thigh with his right hand, doing double-time with the music. It’s an odd schism: left side casual, right side anxious.
“No,” I say, though what did I know about suicide? Nothing really. A legal education isn’t at all helpful on the subject and I had had no first-hand experience with it.
“Course he did,” Gomer says.
Into this world we’re thrown / . . . Riders on the storm.
“I really don’t think so,” I counter for no particular reason, other than the fact that arguing points of contention was my new profession. “I think he went to Paris to write poetry. It’s a good place to go if you want to write poetry.”
“Paris?” says Gomer, perplexed. He now grips the steering wheel with his left hand, lowers his knee. He stiffens a bit, head uplifted, chin jutting out.
“Yeah, he died in a hotel room in Paris.”
“Nah, dude. L.A. He died in L.A.”
“Paris,” I counter.
“You sure, dude?” He points a finger at me, right at the middle of my forehead, the site for my meditative third eye.
“Positive,” I say, using my lawyer voice. “Did you think he died on stage?”
“Nah. Nothing like that. Thought he died in L.A. That’s what I thought.”
“Paris is where he died.”
“You’re wrong, dude.” He now grips the steering wheel with both hands.
“I’ve been to his grave. It’s in Paris.”
“You’ve been to his grave? You ain’t shittin’ me, are you? You actually seen it?” He stares straight ahead.
“Had a beer while leaning against his gravestone,” I boasted.
“You ain’t shittin’ me, are you?”
“I was there. Lots of people go there.”
“That’s pretty boss, I guess.”
“It’s a shame he died so young, though.”
“What do you mean?” For the first time, I’m genuinely curious about what this man has to say.
“It’s pretty boss to die like that—you know, to die young like that. And in Paris.”
“Yup. In Paris.” I say this triumphantly as if I scored an evidentiary point in a court of law.
“Man, ain’t that some shit.”
Maybe he’s right. Maybe Jim died at the right time. Maybe it’s boss not to slog through life out of grim obligation or out of sheer habit and fear of the unknown.
Who is to say the flash of lightning is less worthy than the longevity of the sun, a spring flower more pitiable than a California redwood?
Who knows why weird things happen. Especially when you’re dealing with someone who’s got a fucked-up head.
There’s a killer on the road …/ If you give this man a ride / sweet family will die / Killer on the road.
Approaching Half Moon Bay. Gomer continues to grip the steering wheel with both hands. He no longer banters, only mutters gibberish to himself. The windshield wipers still scrape side to side, wiping away the streaks that look like gushing tears. I watch the road, attentive to any swerving, and I sense the shift in how this encasement feels, in how the inside of this car now feels vault-like, tightly girdled by something menacing, provoked by the mysterious receding of oneself and the emergence of another—not in me, but in him, in Gomer. I glance over at him, furtive and foreboding, and I see what I feel: I see the country bumpkin with dull eyes receding into the indigo-blue light and I see emerging a twisted-face, razor-eyed human pit-bull glaring through the crying windshield. He unwraps his right hand from the steering wheel and dips his right shoulder down towards the stick shift, his right arm now dangling towards the floor like a broken tree branch swaying in the wind. Out from underneath the seat, a gun. The gun is his flag held at the end of his tattooed arm. A force has been activated in him; an electrified vibration seems to have taken hold, from somewhere beyond this car, beyond this place entirely. He is a lunatic waving around his flag, this black snub-nosed gun, yelling out words that make no sense. Waving, waving, waving, like a drunken patriot at a Memorial Day parade. That silly off-kilter cap—I want to laugh, but I don’t, because he begins spraying evil spit while ventilating rage at someone named Melissa, that dick-loving whore, bitch don’t need come around no more, she ain’t shit to me, the bitch, wasting myself over that skank. His shoulders are hiked up, he’s now without a neck, and his torso is in a comic forward-bend, like an old man with bad eyesight driving through heavy rain—no, don’t laugh.
There is no thought behind it, just utter sincerity born of spontaneity, as I find myself slamming the dusty dashboard with my right fist and gesturing wildly with my left hand—crazy Gomer might glom onto some notion that I’ve been having my way with this heartbreaker Melissa—yelling, daring him to shoot—go on, man, go ahead, pull the fucking trigger, what’s with you, man, you ain’t Jimbo, you ain’t the Lizard King—pounding and pounding the dashboard, leaving imprints in the dust, pounding away with my mind on fire, the blaze no doubt visible in my eyes.
Whattaya want, man, whattaya want?
What did he want? I’ll never know.
I start singing “Break on through to the other side,” over and over, my heart hammering violently, but not so fast now. He laughs. Then I laugh, and he laughs harder and he coughs and he laughs some more, and then poof! the madness vanishes. He shoves the gun underneath the seat and skids to a stop and tells me to get the fuck out, you crazy cocksucker, fucking crazy-ass cocksucker. I hear him yelling crazy-ass cocksucker a few more times through the open passenger window as I walk against the traffic, engulfed by the gloom of the day and yet strangely euphoric as I gulp in the exquisite coolness of the damp air.
I am weightless, light-headed, liberated, misty rain moistening my already-wet hair, mingling with tears, walking the few miles into Half Moon Bay—there I’ll find a motel with an appendaged diner, eat pancakes and bacon after I smoke a joint and then, fully comforted by the renewed belief that Loyal Destiny is my friend, retreat to my room with a carton of Hagen Daz and channel-surf myself to sleep—walking and thinking, hell yeah, that asshole didn’t lay a finger on me, no one’s ever going to lay a finger on me.