. “The Last Chance” had a neon sign hanging out front. The bar had been there a long time. Ceiling fans twirled aimlessly and easy. Older patrons were smoking and seated at the stools. Two men tossed a few darts at a bull’s eye, while two old gals sat at the corner of the bar drinking high balls and gossiping. It was cozy, dim, and smoke filled.”
Late Night 1979… Portland, Oregon
From the novel Highway Home
My grandfather was a bootlegger. He built a bar at the end of prohibition in Oakland, California. It had fish tanks behind the bar, mirrors behind the booze. The bottles looked like they vanished into infinity. He had a parrot back where he did the books to keep him company. Bar was glued and doweled, not a nail was used in the Philippine mahogany interior. Place smelled like stale beer and tobacco. By 1965 the neighborhood had changed, swallowed any chance Tambo’s had of making a go of it. Had been a first class operation all the way, but nothing to do but close her down and walk away. Wrecking company demolished the building, would have been salvaged in this day and age. The whole of a man’s life vanished, in an instant, everything gone. Over the years when I can find an old joint to drink in, bars looking as if they’re cheating death, bars misplaced making a last stand in a decaying forgotten corner of a city. When I belly up to a bar, place named The Last Chance, I take a dive like that, I figure somebody must have known, place I can go, drink a few, listen for the voice of my grandfathers wisdom…
“At the same time there was a solitude to this place of a kind that was rare. Beyond this last gasp of farms the road began weaving through boulders and ridges and ran higher up off the immense and flat bottomlands. Noel took a dirt track off the highway and rolled amidst the boulders and red rocks into a small pull out where he’d camp for the night.”
Noel Sanderson on the run after things had not gone his way
I hit the road as a performer for my first national tour in 1974 with a small circus. I acquired a taste for running the road, sleeping in the back of a truck, going town to town. When I began planning my first novel Highway Home I wanted to tap into that experience, but as fiction not biography. I didn’t want to center the story around the world of street theater more out of instinct than for any reason. Instead I tried to build a close up look at a young man’s life, un-tethered, adrift, exploring, discovering, some days feeling grounded while other days alone and empty. If everything you have is in the back of your truck, if you are earning money working here-there picking up a days work doing one thing or another. If that was your circumstance might be that you just keep driving away time and time again when things turn against you again…young man might think he can keep changing places…eventually we have to own up to the thing, might be what needs changing isn’t located out there….
“Let the world do what the world does. I don’t think I’ve ever taken this trail that it hasn’t changed me. Leave in the morning one person, and come back another kind.”
June, An old cowgirl from Jiggs, Nevada
Kicking up some dust on a trail hike can do a soul good. When I can get out on a track and let the rhythm of the place set to working against what I’m caught up about I can find a grip I can use to get back to who I am. The less that happens while I’m hiking the more a tonic I feel in my bones. If I got a worry it usually is gone by the time the walk is finished. It is odd how we spend so many of our years under the impression that we aren’t much changed, that we’re pretty close now to what we’ve always been. Good long walk is kind like a long slow cooking of a meal. Food inside a Dutch oven given enough time breaks down and merges into something you can find worth sopping up and eating with a slice of bread. Comes a point if you get on the trail enough that you’ll come to a panorama look out, see fifty miles to the next mountain range, you’ll be looking out into the distance, and you’ll find you are looking right into the heart of who you are right now…
At moments Noel didn’t know if what he was doing was actually something she wanted. He tried biting her gently, and she cried out for him to stop, and when he did she held him back and would not let him get away.
In my first novel Highway Home it was important to build into the story what Noel Sanderson’s sexual experiences looked like. So, that required writing down on paper in detail the whole deal. That meant first I’d have to describe the scene physically. That’s fun to do. Next I had to write down the internal experiences. This was fun too. And in the end the purpose of writing about these personal, private, intimate scenes was to give a reader the most naked view possible of the characters efforts to be fully alive. The young man in this novel wasn’t in a relationship and how and under what circumstances he was able to create sexual contact with a partner is essential in describing how he comes to find relationship. Sometimes we find sex, sometimes we find love, sometimes we find both, and we never really know what we are going to find until we go for it. People in public are different than people behind closed doors. We seldom get candid answers from people when discussing sex. Who wants to tell someone about their one night stands? Some might, but others might emphasis the best experiences, others the wildest, it seems rare that people will explain the most ordinary, simple acts of love. It is as if the sight of that love is so close even they cannot see it. Who wants to tell someone about having sex with someone who is married? Who wants to explain the unconventional behaviors that they’ve been introduced to by a new partner? The sexual experience is a change experience. Who we are before we surrender to someone and who we are after is a catalyst to self revelation, sexuality is one of the most vivid parts of a person’s life. It is one of the most revealing, volitional actions where a writer can illustrate the fundamental nature of change.
Take your tambourine and your guitar string and move on down the track Don’t like the way that you comb your hair the way you drawl you all And if you’re not out of town before sundown you won’t get out of town at all…
Get out of town before sunset by Buck Owens
The small time entertainer has been my version of sanity. For most of my life it has driven me nuts having to stay in the same place doing the same thing day after day. I have found it infinitely better to drive from one town to another and pretend that things are different, that I’m escaping from the trap of being stuck in one place. With all the long hops and short stops the new places help keep it feeling like the deck is shuffling. Forget solitude, forget lost, get on out there and go see the world. And then it is as if fate has conspired with your demons and ends up playing its trick on you. The dashboard on the truck starts looking familiar. Truck stops start looking the same. All the small towns seem to be drying up. Yuma can look as bleak to the eye as Columbus, New Mexico. Stripe down the highway in Nevada looks pretty much like the same line you saw up in Montana. Pretty soon that psychic air bag installation has deployed right in front of your big fat delusions. I remember one magnificent sunset some years back. There were clouds in the sky, deepest blue I’d ever thought I’d ever seen, streaks of lavender, bursts of golden buckets of liquid light, saturated with pulsing deep reds, the whole sky afire heralding the end of the day, parked as I was with my rig and travel trailer, overlooking this pyrotechnic swan song to another turning of the cosmic wheel, in another of those small towns, happened to be Bakersfield that day. Stuck as I was in this insignificant corner of creation I could feel the twang and pang of Buck Owens in my heart, the whole thing brought tears to my eyes, what it didn’t bring was any true sense that any of this had made a difference, that all this running around had in the long haul not changed a thing…
I woke up at 4 in the morning. I’d slept backstage on a sofa in a portable building at the Ohio State Fair where I’d been working as emcee/stage manager on the Main Street Stage for twelve days. By the time I woke up the stage, sound and lights had been struck. Everything was gone. I rolled my gear off the grounds and caught a cab out to the airport. I went from Columbus to Las Vegas to Anchorage. Lacey and I picked up a rental took the Seward Highway westbound our destination Girdwood, Alaska. For three days I studied the love life of bush pilots. Turns out bush pilots compete with fishermen, not for passengers, not for fish, but for the rarest of all rare finds a good woman to hold over with when winter sets in. I would perform at the Kenai Peninsula Fair about 150 miles south. I was put up in a place ten miles out of the town. One of my favorite events at this fair was the fish throwing contest, something I’d not known existed until I worked this show. Best I can tell nobody knows about the fish throwing contest until you get to Ninilchik. Owner of my cabin was a retired sea tug captain who had worked the Indian Ocean prior to coming back to this little piece of fish tossing heaven. Everyone invited me to go halibut fishing because fishing was epidemic in this part of the world, being the only thing a person could do besides trying to find someone to hold up with before winter sets in. For big excitement one night I drove down to Homer. It was here that I met a pontoon pilot who had lost his sweetheart to another fisherman, and it had sealed his fate. He’d hoped to hold up in his cabin with his lady for the winter and instead gave up, changed planes, changed plans, whole life changed. Last day of the fair this pontoon pilot entered the fish throwing contest. Must have tossed that thing like he was throwing a punch at the guy who’d run off with his girl. It was a silver sparkling thing of rural Alaskan beauty watching that old fish go flying across the fairgrounds…pontoon pilot lost the girl, but won the contest. Everything happens for a reason as best I can tell…
“Education can direct our attention to faculties of mind, not just facts in memory.”
The Mindful Brain, Dan Seigel
My smart phone provides access to information I don’t need to carry around in my head. A few years ago I didn’t have a machine on my desk that answered my questions. As a classically trained ballet dancer, juggler and circus arts performer I learned decades ago that training my body to do various physical moves was a whole different scratching of a place in my mind that was hard to itch. Here is the deal. Faculties of mind are not so much about the mind as storage container as it is about the mental muscle of the mind. The attentiveness muscle in particular seems to produce measurable changes in the brain. Here is a list of the key functions enabled by the middle prefrontal areas: body regulation, attuned communication, emotional balance, flexibility, empathy, insight, fear modulation, intuition, and morality. That list of attributes comes from the Mindfulness Research Center of UCLA…For example increasing our intuitive powers would include focusing more attention on how our gut feels. It might include looking at a persons face and bringing attention to the muscles in their face, observing the tension in their eyes, clenching of jaw, posture, tone of voice. It doesn’t take long before we begin to see that our practice produces an increase in our intuitive skills. Figure that most of what I’m talking about is part of the cognitive toolkit we can play with. Playing with this toolkit in the good times increases our talents without having the pressure of coming to a crisis and frantically trying to grasp for them in the hard times. This is not a fix/broken model (I’m not into thinking of us like that) it is a cultivate/enhance model… I like that. Hopefully you will too…