Flashback the circling ravens incite. Memory play, curtains open, in the darkness of the amphitheater: childhood times of around the age of ten. Desolate fields of weeds that turned brittle in the summer like bamboo shoots itching for a kill, past the creek that smelled like a toilet not flushed, to paved streets that led into dead ends upon woods where people would throw old water heaters away, across the big street that was crossed by railroad tracks that we’d follow and sometimes even on its bands of steel place pennies to later collect the dollops of copper they would be pressed into, finally on our way to the giant furniture warehouse store.
In the giant furniture warehouse store, there were kitchens, living rooms, dens, studies, room upon room of constructed happiness and wholeness. Each attempt at domestic bliss had way more stuff in its rectangle of placement than any room did in the houses we kids lived in. Each room offered the possibility of not only escape but better parents, a well-adjusted family, and these simulacra were proof positive there were richer worlds that we might become overlords of one day.
The true reason we boys, in groups of three or four (why did the store owner let us get away with this?) would pilgrimage there was because it was a great place to play hide and seek. One rule: no hiding in furniture. In the middle of the store, curiously, there was our home base: a simulacra room that was surrounded by prison-like bars. The carpet inside was bright red and there were beanbag chairs. A place for parents to deposit their kids on long shopping voyages.
It was our domain. It was ten times more interesting than the snack room, which we knew how to sneak into. The red jail cell. A place we longed to be. To beat each other, to hang from its walls, to explore the Americas of home living. The furniture store prisoners doomed to a life of chicanery. Doomed to be what we were more than happy to be: wild monkeys not concerned with owning anything.
What’s left to tell? A truck packed with books sliding down the rainy mountains of Arizona, lightning cackling on the AM dial. Crossing Kansas red-eyed as the moon does an imitation for you, pulsing, raspberry, hanging like a cardboard cutout of Mars. A night spent in a motel in which a woman was murdered, but you didn’t find out until checkout day, next to the leafy university you pilgrimaged to, heartless, anonymous, smelling of science gone bad. A night then spent in a wood-paneled trailer home that functioned as a stay-over for those visiting sick relatives in the hospital that was the biggest and most important business in town. It easily got the most customers.
Then, years spent in rural bliss doing what came natural: reading, writing, traveling, drinking, living on sharecroppers’ acres of land. A farm that grew no crops but old gnarled apple trees and eight-foot-high thistles with bright purple Dr. Seuss wigs. A valley of prairie grass and on either side Buddha-woods of skinny little trees that made a human feel like a giant strolling through them in search of rusty old tin boxes that at one time must have been owned by Oscar Wilde, or then farm implements no longer cared about, and wooden fence posts so eroded that they had become the splintered bones of hiking sticks.
Years in a city where famous writers came to introduce their words, which you had already read, so it was more important to see how they were human. How they twitched, coughed, made crowd contact, what they wore, how they were represented in fabric and in hair and flesh and breath-speak. How one after another came, an intellectual playground that dearly needed an audience of believers. How one after another tried to bedazzle themselves in working a group of like-minded individuals into their specific fruit of meditation. How bizarre and baby-formula-like the to-dos appeared. The parties after, rigid and conforming. Praise floating in wafts of incense and self-flatulation. How after years of being immersed in the fame of others, you finally learned from their fame not to seek it, and to continue to do what they preached: move, search, try to uncover what keeps being discovered: newness in words.
Leaving is believing. Believing that you can come back. Believing that in traveling from here to there you’re actually going somewhere (a true falsity). Believing that you just might one day become the proprietors of a drive-in hamburger joint in Tucumcari, serving gourmet preparations of footlongs with relish and yellow mustard with a sprig of sage brush on the side and an individually wrapped peppermint.
For fun in this imaginedly true life, you’d go bird watching out in the canyonlands and mesa plains even though the ones you’d spot most often would be vultures. Or ravens. Never crows.
When life itself becomes a big long badass badland the size of Texas, as it will inevitably, stretching for months and months long, and the only solution is to drive, to think you can get away from it all. Driving thousands of miles listening to jazz or ambient tunes (people in Luxembourg can’t do this you know, maybe) and arriving whenever, wherever you do. To spend the night there. To drive on. It’s the only hobby worth its while in these fifty—and that’s way too many—states. Horizon spotting. The delineation of miles. The perspective might as well go on for forever. There’s nothing out there to be found. Except yourselves.
The world is a grassland that never ends. It goes on and on, just as in any city at any time there’s the smell of grease, cooking. Unfortunately, to find this out, there comes first a lot of summertime roadwork.
There is a place, a valley oasis, if anyone will, smack dab on the edge of basin and range desert, called the city of the Great Salt Lake. A city made by a honeybee nest of a people, all with blond hair, all who think the same and worship a new hybrid religion that doesn’t even try in its gleaming temples, affluent neighborhoods over which the temples watch, shining star of a downtown, to hide the fact that it is all about making money. Gonineau writes, “MONEY HAS KILLED EVERYTHING.”
The apartment that we rented for ever so briefly was in Federal Heights, Salt Lake City. A programmed-for-greatness neighborhood high above even the chic residential conglomeration known as the Avenues.
What were the Avenues other than Victorian homes arrayed like dollhouses on the evenly flowing foothills of the Wasatch. The Avenues, which sound at first as if they are a secret specific area, turn out to be a broad neighborhood in which it is cool to live, based on keeping up appearances. What they look like: any traditional nice-ified small town U.S. address anywheresville. The Avenues have nothing to do with the mountains that tower behind them or the deserts that lie beyond. They are a small town in Vermont.
The beauty they encompass, however, is stunning. From them, not much can be seen from under their canopy of trees. The cemetery that sits inclined on the foothills is the one place with a view of the mountains that stitch the valley to its slice of big-sky pie. The cemetery, with its tall oaks and pines and meadows of nothingness, nothing but years and magpies who leave their feathers on headstones, is one of the few places there to lose oneself in, a regimental place to exist.
In the cemetery’s Asian section, one is tempted to make pencil etchings of characters carved in stone. A faulty waterspout leaks a pool of water that marshifies into a glen under a patch of juniper trees. None too far, there’s a mortuary built in Spanish style that looks inspired by missions in New Mexico. Stone’s throw away there’s a ranch-style house for rent. A pre-fab thing that was once used as the cemetery’s headquarters, it’s not really sure, but it does, upon inspection into one of its thin, un-paned windows, contain two tennis shoes and a Polaroid of a woman who for no reason known to anyone is exposing her right breast. These are the secrets even Gnosticism shies away from.
At the top and corner of the upside-down and backwards ripple of foothills that surround and divide the city into higher and higher and lower sections, in a nook where the little L leg meets the big L leg, there is a neighborhood surrounded by moon landscape. In this moon base, home.
A winding path of Western attempts at impressive housing that fails aesthetically because the people who have built it could not breach the ranch-house mentality. The houses there are inevitably frumpy, extended cottages that switchback up the highest pinnacle reserved for the city’s elite. The distance seen from its locale is godly. From bleakness to the stalled waters of the Great Salt Lake to the jagged dug-up dirt hill of the western line of the Oquirrhs to the not-so-far-away snow-topped peaks of the barrier-like hills outside of Provo to the massive form of a pronged column of marching pyramids stopped mid-goosestep of the Wasatch range that tower, loom, and end the eastern expansion of the city with a Berlin Wall that will never come down.
On top of their homemade world of expensive streets—buildings kept so clean that to look at them hurts your teeth, rich neighborhoods that rise high above the urban sprawl of poverty that most of the valley lives in—sits Federal Heights and the ground-broken blueprints for more of the same living communities, only with gates. Cloning itself into subdivisions of a thematic nature: names and ideals that encompass in some hard-to-decipher way an aspect of those willing prisoners who gladly mortgage their freedoms to belong to some part, any part, of the American Dream.
The fields that surround the new developments are abloom with rare varieties of wildflowers ingeniously planted there. No need to hike anymore because the view’s so stunning from the proposed south-facing bay window. A place so wonderful that nobody ever mars its appearance by walking through it. Hairless monkeys in its vicinity are either sometimes captured by the eye’s camera trimming hedges or washing cars because the city itself is obsessed with cleanliness and order and the appearance of being an appearance.
The search for authenticity continued there for a period of nine months, the largest chunk of time a person with the capacity for a soul can last there. It’s not a strange coincidence that the classic horror film Carnival of Souls, about a woman haunted by a bevy of ballroom-dancing dead folk, was filmed on the shores of that desert’s Great Lake.
Let us then speak of the lake. Its proximity to the city is this: very far, far away. Once you’ve driven approximately fifty miles north of the city, the lake is accented by a causeway that is itself at least five miles long, but feels longer, surrounded by water, with only the perspective of distant mountains and points on the horizon not worth pursuing. The skinny bridge of highway that extends onto Antelope Island takes you to a chunk of desert island that contains no antelope.
If an approach to the lake is made off of Highway 80, the curious will find the Salt Palace, a remnant of an old, once-glorious resort built in a mock-Oriental, Coney Island style of the mind’s architecture, a style that was in its heyday in the early twentieth century. It is now a husk of what it once was, serving ice cream to the masses and serving every so often as a venue for alternative bands. It looks out onto the lake, off of a beach of burning hot, fly-infested mud, caked with dried salt ponds like rock candy that forms anywhere it can. The building does little more than focus the overpowering smell of sulfur that the lake exudes due to its brackishness and hordes of dead brine shrimp. Although the sunsets of the lake are biblical, the smell and feel of its fouled waters are ever so Dantesque.
At least there is only outside-of-the-city there. Grid life offers a skeleton of places and things to do, other than shop. A few bookshops, even a few coffeehouses, some bars you must pay to become a member of, one good Mexican restaurant, and that’s about it.
Beyond the tree-lined streets, beyond the overpass that ribbons above rows of poor old houses barely alive with poor old people, past the cellular masses of strip malls reproducing sections of themselves, selling more futons than can be slept or sat on in two lifetimes, there is this gorgeous wild and pristine wall of mountains that are so pretty they might never let their onlookers pass.
One range west of the city, after passing the Oquirrhs—a wilderness area that is fowled first by aerials and then by the largest copper mine in the world, a spiral that obliterates all in the winding path it has carved into the ridge’s spine—there finally is a certain smell in the air. Seems the government has been storing chemical weapons and their waste in the remote yet peopled area for years. The city of Tooele, pronounced Tah-willa, is little more than that. A façade of a little Western town that’s a thinly formed scab covering a festering wound. Radioactive waste is buried somewhere around it.
Skull Valley, opposite of the city, should last forever. There’s nothing stopping it. It’s a sage-covered high valley between an endless number of ranges, a classic example of basin and range decorated in wildflowers and brilliant light-exuding vegetation.
The colors in the valley change with every passing cloud. The mountains go from blue to maroon to purple and back to a variation of cobalt, and the expansive meadows of yellow grass turning neon green, bright orange, and near sunset, turquoise. And this is why the valley exists: to enchant the mind of whoever passes through it or dares to hike its remote rocky peaks.
Nothing about it resembles a skull. Birds fly over and rest their wings by gathering in a section of flat land, no worries about predators because the distance the valley encompasses is so huge that any coyote can be seen well in advance. The only noises there are: rude interruptions of jets that expect that they’ll never crash in the valley’s private burial ground.
The Native American tribes are convincing themselves that this valley would be a wonderful place to store nuclear waste. The government is telling them so, and they need the money. They’ll probably allow it to happen. The project, the grand burial, is supposed to last only for twenty years, and in exchange the money they will get, the revenue they will finally see, is tempting. It might even be enough to start a few casinos. Skull Valley holds many secrets. One being its inevitable ruination.
So many other places there that a camera couldn’t record them all, and it could just break itself trying. Hills hemmed in by scrub oak, boulders, dry ground, except for Red Rock Canyon’s little frigid stream perfect for floating boats of stick. Sometimes in a clearing there might be a mattress and some empty whiskey bottles, how else to go to sleep camping out in the trees of a once-giant lake’s dried-lip bench. What a dream to think about being stranded, as so many are and ever will be in the desert oasis that’s just too far north to make any steppe-zone sense, a straggler who ain’t going nowhere, couldn’t make it to Mexico. Who couldn’t get to the merry-go-round money-rich beaches of California where all the women wear bags of plastic jelly in their chests, couldn’t handle the rain-wet existence of a Seattle that promise to be another place even though it’s an extended suburb of Chicago, couldn’t go back to the place where you’re from, to a place that ejected you, places where you’ve been rejected from, and so like an outcast English-American you found yourself one day in a land of hokey, invented religion, antiquated liquor laws (because everyone drinks so much), Stepford husbands and wives who smile and laugh a lot in public and breed many, many babies, born believers just because they were born, a community where bigamy is still practiced and celebrated and women do not mind the harem setup as long as there’s comfort and money and big houses and kids involved and the joy of staying home and a guarantee of never having to enter the world of MAN.
Utah is a spooky different country not in the way Texas is. Its hidden weirdness is absconded into the apparent nature of the happiness of every day. Doesn’t seem like it’s weird at all. First impression is that it’s beautiful. Then it becomes pretty. Then the happiness fades. Wildflowers that bedeck the hills wilt. Life there soon becomes tepid. Nothing new ever happens. Days are programmed. Only TV show in town is the weather. It pales and palliates. Boringness becomes deadly, with a sprig of suicide. Life there becomes what it finally can only be: Mormonic.
Were friends there made? Debatable. Certainly no places, areas, corners of being will be missed when there were none to be visited. Even the house lived in, a small, wood-floored relic of a bungalow past, a house exactly similar to three others next to it (because the houses were the abodes of women married to the same man) that itself had little character save for its gravel driveway, a fireplace, and one and a half bedrooms so small that they’d make a former prisoner flinch. A house that cost 695 dollars a month to rent and would have cost 150 more if we wanted to use the perpetually locked basement. That’s how they do business there. The house that monthly had its pipes clogged due to vines growing in its historical sewer lines. The house, with its next-door likeness of itself, although that one was painted red one time long ago by its inhabitant, who was never seen. Newspapers and phonebooks were allowed to accumulate on his porch like autumn leaves. A person who never, not once, switched a light on in the darkness of it all, but who was once singing at 3 a.m. one sleepless morning.
Our little house in the Mormon mountains had a back yard with a tree that was climbable and a tall wooden fence and a front yard with views of both mountains and city and a forever Western sky. We didn’t miss packing up, one day, just like that.
To return to that rest stop near a putrid lake would be like swimming in lemonade, then drinking a glass of it later. No matter a location’s natural beauty, its wondrous setting, it must have people, it must have a soul to be worth dying in. Goodbye temple to the gods of money. Goodbye to the church of one way to think. Goodbye city of salt with your salt white people. No looking back.
Philip Kobylarz is a teacher and writer of fiction, poetry, book reviews, and essays. He has worked as a journalist and film critic for newspapers in Memphis, TN. His work appears in such publications as Paris Review, Poetry, and The Best American Poetry series. He is the author of a book of poems concerning life in the south of France and a short story collection titled Now Leaving Nowheresville. He has two books forthcoming– All Roads Lead from Masillia from Everytime Press of Adelaide, Australia and A Miscellany of Diverse Things from Brooklyn’s Lit Riot Press.