Pittsburgh. Mid-morning. I turn a corner. The room is dim, but for a purple light pulsating around the border of a large rectangle set on the far wall of the room I’ve found myself in. My eyes try to focus on the shape, but it’s difficult. From a distance, it looks like a movie screen. I walk forward, into the purple. The light takes over, reflecting off my white collared shirt. I look for the edges of the movie screen, but there are no edges. There’s nothing at all. Curious, I attempt to touch the rectangle. There are no guards here. There are no people here, just myself and the room—white walls and high ceilings, wood floors and dim lights, the purple glow and the rectangle. I reach out at the shape. My hand falls in, so I thrust my head through. Inside the rectangle, there’s another room, larger than the one I’m standing in. Its walls are a high white and the purple radiates every corner. If I’m not careful, I may fall in…
Denver. Early afternoon. Clouds over the Rocky Mountains are muscular. I’m sitting in an open plain, watching lacrosse. Earlier I hiked around Red Rocks. The formations are millennia old. There’s also a ridge nearby, the Hog Necks, where there are dozens of visible dinosaur footprints pressed into the shale. They date back to when the nearby mountains were beachfront property.
From the West, a thunderhead rolls off the nearby peaks, towering over the city skyline. Lightening strikes constantly, but there is no thunder. The wind rushes over the fields, headed toward the plains of Eastern Colorado and Kansas. Rain is starting to fall, and the crowd is told to head to a concrete bunker in case the weather continues to deteriorate. In a neighboring field, prairie dogs duck into their holes.
The Wilds, Ohio. Midday. There are bikers here. Lean men, walking in tandem with women with big blonde hair. The chrome exhausts and triple trees shine in the Midwestern sunlight. There’s fresh young trees and meadows rolling down the hillside here. Its green and you breathe in a sweet air. The bucket of the Big Muskie —the large centerpiece of one of the world’s largest mobile earth-moving machines ever created—is the feature here, an ancient ruin that serves as the only reminder that the 10,000 emerald forest acres that surround us was resembled a lunar landscape. On the back of the bucket’s hard steel, an inspired troubadour wrote a poem:
“Get a job. Get married. Have kids. Walk on the pavement. Now repeat after me: I Am Free…”
Portland, Oregon. Late night. Tony’s Tavern, near downtown. My boss passes around a tray filled with vodka and orange juice shots. The drinks burn, so to push down the acidity I order a Hamm’s beer. My dad told me a story once, going back to when he was 16. He was having his tonsil removed, and the doctors placed him under anesthetics for surgery. When the drugs kicked in, he hallucinated the Hamm’s Beer bear, serenely piloting his boat across a pristine lake, an omnipotent voice repeating, “From the Land of Sky Blue Waters…”
Marietta, Ohio. Early morning. We order breakfast. It’s quiet in the Gun Room at the Lafayette, a stately three-story riverboat hotel standing on the point where the Muskingum River meets its confluence with the mighty Ohio. Three waiters roam the floor but there aren’t enough customers to serve. Elderly couples waddle in from the main lobby, ready to fuel up before hitting the antique showrooms. It’s an old people establishment. Everyone orders the Traditional – two eggs, bacon or sausage, hash browns, white or wheat toast. Coffee to drink.
Tintype photographs of river boats and sternwheelers cover the wall, along with a poster featuring the Many Presidents From Ohio and a rack of pioneer rifles that the likes of Rufus Putnam, the town’s founder, would have used to kill attacking Shawnee while he and a group of Revolutionary War veterans settled the Northwest Territories. The town’s original founders are buried in a nearby cemetery, lined up platoon-style at the base of an earthen Native American funeral mound that dates back to 500 B.C.
I pass up the Traditional and order cereal. Coffee to drink.
New York. Night. We walk next to the East River. The current churns frantically. Cars rumble below us as they head north on FDR Drive. Condominiums and smokes stacks on Roosevelt Island flicker like a cut of country night sky. The moon is full and bursting a sharp pale. On the river, a party boat passes by. There’s a half dozen middle-aged African-Americans on board, and the revelers are dressed in their Saturday night finest, nestled in seats surrounding the deck dance floor. A lone couple moves together, swaying to an old R&B song while the water rushes wildly underneath them.
Denver. Night. The Brown Palace Hotel. It’s grand, the type of establishment once glorified in black and white Hollywood movies. High arches circled the main foyer, and the open hallways are decorated with iron railings and gilt paint. Plush chairs, a large Persian carpet, dim lamps and tables for mid-afternoon tea dominate the center lobby. There’s a large brass train station clock, two carved sphinx on its sides, dangling over the check-in desk. My grandfather, Papa Gonzales, used to work here before he moved his family to Washington D.C. in the 1930s. I try to imagine him standing here, young, skinny, fresh of the East Colorado plains, helping me with my bags, trying to survive in the West.
I take a picture, move on.
Cleveland. Early evening. There’s a park in the city’s Lakewood neighborhood that sits on a cliff overlooking Lake Erie. The lake water is flat and blue and stretches for miles. Just to the right, the cit’s skyscrapers rise up, an industrial island. Heavy black clouds circle overhead and the sky is fading to an orange cream color. There’s a small stage set up in a nearby grass field, and a jazz band glides through the standards —It Had to Be You, My Way, the Sinatra playbook. Elderly people and families sit in bunches, flopped down in plastic folding chairs or sprawled out on blankets. A a little blonde girl runs up to where Sam and I stand and asks if she can give us a ring. Sam extends her hand. The blonde girl pulls a long blade of grass out and slowly ties it to Sam’s finger. She finishes her present, and then giggles and runs back to her blanket. It’s a lovely ring.
Parkersburg, Ohio. Mid-morning. We ride the Island Belle sternwheeler over to Blennerhasset Island, a strip of land located on the middle of the Ohio River. The island is named after Harman Blennerhasset, who most famously considered with former U.S. Vice President Aaron Burr to try to invade parts of Texas.
The Island Belle captain is talking: “Down at Cairo, Illinois, the Ohio River runs into the Mississippi River. Now, the Ohio supplies more water to the lower Mississippi than the Upper Mississippi river does. And, if based on width of the river at the junction the Ohio is three times as wide as the Mississippi. If based on amount of water flow and the river width the Mississippi should end at Cairo and the Ohio should flow toward New Orleans.
But then they don’t ask my opinion on anything do they.”
The shoreline on either side is filled with fishing camps and new-built boathouse condominiums. There’s a carnival on the West Virginia side, and along a beach head next to the river a group of carnies set up tents and pop up trailers. Canadian geese stroll by on the beach next to them.
Pittsburgh. Morning. We stand at the point where the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers melt together to become the Ohio river. This was Shawnee country, then the Europeans came and built forts here. Fort Duquesne, built by the French. Fort Pitt, founded by the English. During the French and Indian war the land was constantly under dispute. Just south of here George Washington was almost killed by the French during a failed expedition by English general Edward Braddock to seize the spot where we stand. The French and their allies hit him before they even made it to Pittsburgh. Braddock’s body is still nestled down there in the Alleghany Mountains, wondering how it all went wrong.
There’s a water fountain built at the meeting point of the Three Rivers, with a geyser spurting water high into the Appalachian air. While we watch, The Majestic, a massive riverboat with a two-story side wheel, chugs along the Monongahela.
Portland, Oregon. Late evening. I’m drinking whiskey with my friend Brian at a high end seafood restaurant. There’s a neon swordfish above the door and shellfish served on towers of cut ice. This is a surprise visit. I’m out here for work and out of circumstances we connected up again. It’s been forever since we’ve hung out together. Have to go back to New Orleans, bouncing through the streets of Uptown, high, lit up, headed to the bars on Carrollton Avenue. We catch up, on jobs and women and where our lives have taken us. It’s funny how you fall back into a regular rhythm with people who’s company you enjoy. It reminds you why you became friends in the first place.
New York. Early evening. There’s a mummy on my bus home. Man showed up with a Class C Bolt Bus ticket. He must have been at least six feet tall, dressed in a two-piece outfit stitched to look like swaddling wrap. On his head he wore a tall, plain white pharaoh’s crown and sunglasses. Outfit didn’t seem to bother him. Little children marveled at him while he ordered from Burger King in the Clara Barton rest stop in New Jersey. Mummy’s got to eat too.
Parkersburg, West Virginia. Evening. Weddings are like snowflakes; they are infinite, they all have the basic tenets, but when you look closely you see the individual notes that make them special, and if there’s too many of them you’ll find yourself buried alive. This is a lovely wedding, though, and I’m surrounded by friends who I’ve known just a little bit, thanks to Sam, but who’s company I have enjoyed so far. It’s a space theme, so the flower girls here are dressed like astronauts and there’s a rocket behind the alter. A Portuguese acoustic version of David Bowie’s “Life On Mars” plays, rolling lightly through the Parkersburg Art Center, a brushstroke of brightness in this old coal miner’s town. Upstairs, at the reception, there are plates of pasta and complimentary whiskey. A DJ flips through an iMac, and we all sweat together and sing along to the Talking Heads: “Letting the days go by, let the water hold me down, letting the days go by, water flowing underground…”
New York. Morning. We turn the corner. The room is bright cobalt. There are a few dozen people inside, leaning up against wall or laying on their backs on the a thick pad on the floor. They are staring upward at a light prism above them. We sit first, then lie down. The light overhead is folds itself through several giant oval shapes, looped together in an ascending cone. As we watch, the colors change, slowly, softly, like a constant rotation of sunrise and sunset. There’s a cool blue, and a pastel, a lime green, then warm notes of orange and yellow and a red . Eventually, the colors all bleed to white, then back to the cobalt you first met on entry. A liquid pale envelopes the entire room. You stare in to the sea above you, afraid you may fall in…