Don DeLillo wrote of California, “The place had that edge-of-everything quality that creeps into innocuous remarks and becomes the vanguard of estranged feeling.” He was certainly not thinking of Inglewood. I hated the place, despite the fine weather, and was only staying at a hostel in that foulest suburb of L.A. because of its proximity to the airport and to Union Station.
So I woke before 7 a.m. and took a shower in the grimy tub, had a muffin and an egg sandwich in the hostel restaurant, which looked like a breakfast restaurant at any cheap hotel anywhere in this country; and took a bus through L.A.’s downtown and Chinatown to the grand halls of Union Station, because I had reserved a ticket for the Amtrak Coast Starliner, a twenty-eight hour rattle north, nine hundred miles, from Los Angeles to Albany in Oregon.
I poked through the newspapers at a concession stand in the middle of the long waiting room of wood and leather. A man pointed out some story about a New York lawyer who had refused to attend his own corruption trial, which proceeded without him. “Can you believe this? Look at this! Where are you from?” The man was older but with an immaturity that afforded a certain retention of youthful spirit. I told him I was from Oregon, and he said, “Oregon! I want to move to Oregon.”
“You should. It’s a nice place.”
“I like L.A., but my money goes further there, you know?”
“No sales tax.”
“Yeah. I get some of the medical marijuana here, but all my money goes there. It’s expensive. Is there good weed in Oregon?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
“I used to live in Northern California, and my friend would get this crazy shit. You’d take three hits and that would be it. You wouldn’t need any more.”
“They get all this hydroponic stuff from Vancouver. I think my cousin grows it.”
He wanted to live somewhere on the coast, somewhere with casinos, and I suggested Newport and Seaside.
“What about Salem?”
“I don’t know, never spent much time there.”
“And south of there it’s a town . . .”
“Right, Eugene. My friend said never live anywhere north of Eugene.”
“I guess it’s very rural down there.”
“It rains less, he said.”
“How long are you in L.A.?”
“I’m taking the train soon. I just got here yesterday, from Japan.”
“Japan! Hey, I’ve been to Japan! In the Navy. Yokohama, Ayase, and Nagasaki. I went to Kyoto once. I took the train. Really nice women in Japan. There were these women on the train, and I was just a young man. They kept giving me tangerines. Didn’t speak a word of English, but they kept laughing and giving me tangerines until I had a big pile in my lap. I ate them all. It was really nice. In Kyoto, I wanted to find a bar. I’d learned to say beer in Japanese—biru—and where is—doko desu ka. I went to this cabbie like, ‘Biru, doko desu ka? Biru!’ He didn’t have a clue. So then I said, ‘Onna,’ ” (drawing a woman’s figure in the air), “and the cabbie said, ‘Ah!’ He took me to this bar, there were three women, really beautiful, in kimonos. I got a beer and four little cups. We talked even though I didn’t speak any Japanese and they didn’t speak any English.”
“You can always understand the tone of what people say, and with a few hand signs, a little charades, you can have a conversation.”
“Yeah, yeah. You’d know, brother.”
“I’d really like to live there someday. In Japan or Colombia.”
“Your money doesn’t go so far in Japan.”
“Well I can get a job teaching English. Then I’d make good money.”
“Sounds like you know. You know what you should do is something practical, go somewhere where you can learn the language. You should think about China. You learn Mandarin. They’ll be running things soon.”
“No don’t worry, they all want to be American. I was looking for a nice place to live in China, but I liked Korea and Japan more.”
“Brother, you’ve been all over! Well you can go to Japan, meet a nice girl.”
“I’d hope so.”
“I’ll go to Oregon, where it’s cheap.”
“No sales tax.”
“Exactly brother. It’s cheap up there. You know, I’m getting three thousand dollars a month now. That’ll go a long way in Oregon.”
“Yeah I guess.”
“Some guy was taking me to court, but it’s not like I had any money. So he took me to the American Legion, because I went to ’Nam, and signed me up for a pension. Now I get three thousand dollars a month. You know I had a hard life. I had another person living up here,” tapping his head, “who saw some horrible things. I never had much money. Spend it all on weed—ha-ha! Hey,” he whispered, “in Oregon, where can I go to get good weed?”
“It’s been a while since I’ve been back. Just find some college kids, they’re always stoned.”
“Yeah, find some young kids. I don’t have any weed on me now, or I’d give you some. Really. I’m on my way to the dispensary right now. It’s expensive though. Three thousand dollars a month doesn’t go so far in LA. Well, you okay brother?”
“Yeah. Take it easy.”
I bought a paper and dug around in the store for some supplies, then went up to the platform and ate an egg sandwich on a bench next to the two-story train car. All these travelers and commuters in a great hurry, with a rustic, “How do you do?” and the conductors with their casual efficiency—it all reminded me of how I had observed Americans abroad, when matched with other cultures: their naïve good natures, their open and accepting minds. “Gregarious,” I thought to myself,—“yes, that’s the word for it. We are gregarious.”
It was a stranger feeling to observe this culture after observing those of Cathay, the Indies, and Araby, because I belonged to this culture: I was an American, and I could fit in amongst them, and any European or Asiatic would see me as just another one of them, stereotyped and common. They were speaking the language that I spoke, wearing the clothes that I wore, eating the same food; my skin or speech did not distinguish me, other than the unseasonable sandal tan on my feet and the strange accent I had picked up in the length of my exile; and amongst the Americans I was no longer the foreigner I had grown used to being: the absurdity, with customs obscure and mysterious. Home and belonging were feelings newly reacquainted with me, and I would have to get used to them. And so I boarded the train.
I was seated next to a college graduate from San Diego, a doughy white boy in Converse sneakers. He studied communications, “because I just wanted to get through it,” and was presently trying “to figure things out.” He was taking the train to San Luis Obispo, then going on to Oakland and looping through the Valley to see friends here and there. “If I like this trip, maybe I’ll travel some more. It’s a good education, I guess. See the world, forget everything you learned in books.”
The conductor was a loud woman with an equine face. The keys clinked on her huge hips, and she talked noisily and familiarly with everyone, as if we were all long acquaintances and this service was just a joke. I missed the reservation of the Nipponese.
“It’s weird that everyone speaks English,” I told San Diego. “I have to get used to it.”
“Yeah it’s funny, I don’t even notice it and you’re like, ‘What’s going on?’ ”
I kept my eyes open to the nuances that I had overlooked before, when these surroundings were familiar. Unless you learn to breath water you will never know how strange it is to breath the air naturally, and unless you travel you can never tell how strange your own people compare, because “nothing exists in itself,” as Ishmael says. I saw everything with new eyes, though I was instinctively deaf to the announcements and most conversations, which for a year and more have been in foreign tongues. At first I was always startled to overhear a word of conversation in English and would think to myself, “Hey there’s Americans!” before I remembered where I was.
Let me tell you what I saw. A man’s lips moved under his hawkish nose as he read a Qur’an. He spoke Arabic on the phone, broken with untranslatable English phrases like “L.A.” and “father-daughter thing.” A happy, fat woman blared complaints into her cell phone and wrestled her son into a seat with her free hand. A Chinese family, strung out across four seats, slept as peacefully as I ever saw a Chinese family sleep in China, and a long-haired rocker passed out in a very different way that suggested a headache. An elderly couple on tour to Klamath Falls took the window seat so they could watch the coast go by, and an old man with horn-rimmed glasses and a white mustache could not look away from the distant bluffs of the San Gabriel Mountains long enough to finish his crossword. All of them were Americans, and all of this was my country.
The Coast Starliner went north through the rock canyons of Simi Valley, to the knuckled-shaped hills of bracken that make up most of the Santa Susana Mountains, with valleys of white office parks, adobe-shingled houses, and wind-lifted American flags. The land flattened out into green fields of autumn vegetables in jagged rows, overlain with the jagged lines of sprinkler jets. A team of Latinos in baseball caps and cowboy hats leaned on their rakes and hos, and one waved a gloved hand at the passing train. There were lumber yards with wooden fences and a great depot around a saw mill: dumpsters, boxcars, chain-link fences, piles of cracked shipping palettes, a lot of cars gleaming in the sun. An endless series of mingled towns and farms, warehouses and offices, Burger Kings and Boot Barns on the way to Ventura.
Then the Pacific Ocean, the steady surf, the tufted dunes with tracks for dirt bikes, the beach houses and the stands of palms, the mist that wrapped around the bluffs, then opened up so the sun could light up the mossy green land. As the city faded out into telephone poles like ship masts and scattered black cattle, the coast took on a desolate beauty matched by a sky tending toward wet clay. The shoreline was a narrow strand, and the railway tracks rode the sandstone bluff above it amidst shingle and bracken. A SCUBA diver climbed out into an inlet, and a flight of birds skimmed the sea’s surface. The clouds formed shifting patterns of light on the woven gray water. The sunbeams became tangible in the distance. There were the spiked silhouettes of fishing trawlers out in the furthest haze.
I got out to stretch my legs when the train stopped at Santa Barbara. The Samoan-looking attendant stood gruffly by the door. A lonely old woman was telling him all about her trip to the station, but he looked past her and said, “Hey dude, if you’re going to smoke, do it over there. Away from the train.” A gray-haired man in a loose white T-shirt, who was much older than the attendant, said, “Okay man,” and I won’t soon forget how much outrage I felt at that rudeness and disrespect, and how strange it was to feel outraged over something that would probably not have fazed me two years before.
The tracks rode through the farmland around Santa Maria and under the Transverse Ranges, between balding ranchero hills, marred with ravine watercourses full of hard scrub and sometimes deepened into a quarry. To the east there were sunshine towns in sunshine plains. The green grass campus of San Luis Obispo was a reprieve from the bare land, and then the tracks wove north into hills of granite, amber with grass and decked with copses of dry pines, sloped with shadow from a declining sun. Across the escarpment of the Santa Lucia Mountains was Atascadero and an old swampland, but by then it was too dark to see further than the glass and the telephone poles that flashed by. I sat there in deep reflection.
Conrad wrote something about it in Lord Jim, on which I could not help but reflect, and which became such a part of the mythos I built around my trip. “I was going home,” said Marlowe,—
“to that home distant enough for all its hearthstones to be like one hearthstone, by which the humblest of us has the right to sit. We wander in our thousands over the face of the earth, the illustrious and the obscure, earning beyond the seas our fame, our money, or only a crust of bread; but it seems to me that for each of us going home must be like going to render an account. We return to face our superiors, our kindred, our friends—those whom we obey, and those whom we love; but even they who have neither, the most free, lonely, irresponsible and bereft of ties,—even those for whom home holds no dear face, no familiar voice,—even they have to meet the spirit that dwells within the land, under its sky, in its air, in its valleys, and on its rises, in its fields, in its waters and its trees—a mute friend, judge, and inspirer. Say what you like, to get its joy, to breathe its peace, to face its truth, one must return with a clear conscience. All this may seem to you sheer sentimentalism; and indeed very few of us have the will or the capacity to look consciously under the surface of familiar emotions. There are the girls we love, the men we look up to, the tenderness, the friendships, the opportunities, the pleasures! But the fact remains that you must touch your reward with clean hands, lest it turn to dead leaves, to thorns, in your grasp. I think it is the lonely, without a fireside or an affection they may call their own, those who return not to a dwelling but to the land itself, to meet its disembodied, eternal, and unchangeable spirit—it is those who understand best its severity, its saving power, the grace of its secular right to our fidelity, to our obedience. Yes! few of us understand, but we all feel it though, and I say all without exception, because those who do not feel do not count. Each blade of grass has its spot on earth whence it draws its life, its strength; and so is man rooted to the land from which he draws his faith together with his life.”
And so I rode the train north and said hello to the land.
By morning the train was rumbling along mountain tracks in the frosted ground, across frozen brooks. The trees were black, and the hills, and the eastern sky was red as fire, fading to pale gold and lapis lazuli. Mount Shasta was a white cap to the southeast. The sun revealed fenced off ranches, then blue lakes and a golden heathland. The train climbed up into a forest, fir trees and sugar pines ten times the height of the cars, and I felt a tender stirring for my home, for Oregon.
In the night the train had passed through San Jose, Fremont, and Oakland, and crossed toward Sacramento to follow the valley up to Chico and Redding, but I did not mind missing those places in the darkness. I wanted to see the mountains, and I took it all in as the sun cracked over the horizon and the Coast Starliner followed Route 97 across the Western Cascades dividing California from Oregon.
There was a new passenger in the seat next to mine, with a coat over him like a pall, and I stepped around him into the aisle and went to a forward car to read where the lights were on, looking up occasionally to see how much more the sun had revealed. After a while I went back and found the other passenger awake, and we introduced ourselves. His name was Frank, and he was a paunchy old rocker who had lived a long life of minor events in an easy manner. He had no children, nor much to show for himself but the memories at which he might smile inwardly. He might be one of the characters at an eighties rock radio station, but he was not. For a living he would trade in old guitars, which he was an expert at identifying and repairing.
“There are some guitars, like an old Gibson or a sixty-four Fender Stratocaster, that can be worth tens of thousands of dollars. You just have to find one.”
“Well how do you find one?”
“It’s mostly luck. You have to wait for someone who doesn’t know what they have. Someone’s kid dies in a car crash and they have a garage sale and don’t know what they have. Maybe some daughter finds an old guitar and a record collection in her dad’s attic and puts it up for sale. It happens. A lot of people can’t tell the difference between an old guitar and a classic one.”
I am humble by nature and did not want to boast of my travels, so that I spoke of them very little, though Frank was impressed by what little I said. “You’ve seen much more of the world than me, and you’re . . .” “Twenty-four.” “Twenty-four. Wow.” So we talked about Portland and rock and roll while I watched the Upper Klamath Lake out the window on the far side of the car, and when the stewardess came around I asked for a reservation for lunch in the dining car, planning to get one good meal in before my arrival. I went up there at 11 o’clock and took a seat with two gentlemanly ladies, one round and pleasant and the other sharp-featured and aloof. I again did not want to brag, but I could not help but say that I had been traveling for two years and was just now returning home, unexpected. I thought, “It is too strange a story not to share.”
They wondered about the danger and misogyny of Muslim countries, and I told them that it was safe and that discrimination was a matter of perspective. “I think we’re just as guilty of it. In the Muslim world women are told to dress modestly, but here social custom and media tell women to dress like sexual objects.”
“Excuse me,” said the big woman next to me, “but being told to cover up is not right, and I won’t hear otherwise.”
The other woman said a “hear hear,” although she looked curiously at my relativism, but I had no heart to argue so just gritted my teeth and turned to my hamburger.
“Have you seen The Amazing Race?” asked the rounder woman,—“No? Oh, you should. They go all over, just like your trip, and do amazing things. You really haven’t seen it? I watch it every week. They’ve gone to Europe and Tunisia and to Russia and Uzbekistan, to India and China. You learn so much.”
“It sounds like you’ve traveled all over,” said the woman across from me, but the former did not get the humor and went on.
“Oh yes, this show takes you everywhere.”
North of Upper Klamath Lake, the Coastal Starliner turned west and recrossed the Cascades through the Willamette Forest, beneath high and handsome douglas-firs, and some scrub pine, western yew, and mountain hemlock, that I watched with wonder. The pass ended at Lookout Point Lake, then spilled into Eugene, and the tracks followed the great flatland sprawl of podunk towns and gridwork fields with little banks of tangled brush that follows Interstate 5 and the Willamette River north to the Columbia.
I returned to my seat and talked more with Frank about finding something you enjoy to make a living by; and he asked me, “Aren’t you excited to see your sister and your family again?” I must have seemed like I was not, and somehow I had oppressed that thought. It was too strange to accept. For the last two years, I could not return home whenever I felt sick for it, and my only home had been the road, my family an itinerant bunch of ramblers, and all of it as inconstant as the wind. As Richard F. Burton wrote: “You see, dear L., how travelling maketh man banal. It is the natural consequence of being forced to find, in every corner where Fate drops you for a month, a ‘friend of the soul,’ and a ‘moon-faced beauty.’ ” This was the truth of my reality.
I did grow more and more excited as we neared Albany, the station nearest to my sister’s university in Corvallis. I shook Frank’s hand and went down to the exit much earlier than I needed to, and when the train came to a stop and the conductor flew open that metal door I went out so quickly that I forgot the present I had bought for her. There was a long wait in the station for the bus that went from Salem to Newport. I waited and watched the people and looked at the decorations on the wall: the collected trappings and black-and-white photographs of the pioneers. The station manager was a white-bearded and pot-bellied American with a gentle sternness to his attitude, and he did not know when the bus would get there.
It arrived twenty minutes late, and the bus driver was set on being irate. A young woman boarded with me, and I helped her get her bags into the bus while she got into an argument with the driver over how nice he was for not charging her the fine for extra bags. He went on and on about how he did not have to take her anywhere, even after we had boarded the bus and were on our way. She told me that she was anxious to see her kids in Newport after conducting some business in Bend, and when the driver asked impertinently about her husband she said that she was divorced. “Divorced?” muttered the driver, “how shocking.” I was so mad I could have staved his head in, if I had not been so astonished as to be paralyzed and slack-jawed. The woman acted like she had never heard him.
When we came into Corvallis I shouldered the bag I had carried so far, and I got off the last bus of this journey, said goodbye to the woman and thanked the driver in spite of his rude ways. It had begun to drizzle a little, and the streets were empty of people, though cars slid in and out of the puddles in the old town. I had found out where my sister lived by asking an old friend of mine, who happened to be her housemate, and who kept my impending return a secret from her. So I walked a few blocks to her neighborhood and found the yellow house off 12th Street that he had described, with the number I had written down. On the porch I saw the picnic table from our parents’ house, and I knew it must be the place.
Nobody answered the door. I began to wonder how I would ever find my sister if she was not home. I knew if I asked anyone and told the story from the beginning, that they would not be able to restrain themselves and would have to blow the surprise over text messages. Ah, the incontinence of this new age! So I went down the street to a store, and I bought a Pelican stout and sat on a moldy couch on the porch, shoving a cat away from my haversack with the toe of my foot while I sipped a good beer. After some time out there I heard music from the room just off the porch. A knock at the window summoned through the blinds a fashionably disheveled college hipster, a part-time producer of organic electro, who opened the window and said, “Hello?”
I asked, “Is Katy here?”
“I’ll go check.”
The window shut, I sat back down, remarkably calm for what was coming, then stood up, because one should be standing for something like this.
The door opened, and she came out onto the porch, as bold in the knees as Nausikaa when surprised by the briny vagabond Odysseus. She thought at first I looked like a foreigner, and there were several living in a house for exchange students across the way, but also that I resembled one of the homeless people that squat on the corner outside the McDonald’s in Albany.
“Hello . . . holy shit! Holy shit, what are you doing here?” She grabbed me and began to scream a slew of words. She must have hugged me twenty times. Even after she recognized me she thought I was an apparition in a dream.
O Reader, you have stuck with me for a long count of pages, and so little of it worth reading; but there’s one last place before the end.
My sister and I went north on I-5. I wore her friend’s jeans instead of my faded out Indian slacks, but I still did not have any shoes. The straight line of the Interstate was the whole world, and businesses passed by, clustered around every offramp. One was an instant lawn business that grew lawns and then rolled them up like rugs, with an American flag flying not quite as high as the fir trees that ringed it. This was how I always thought of my state: not the coast, the mountains, the deserts, or the wilderness, but this ugly plain of businesses and suburbs, juxtaposed with the stands of firs and pines, the mute green and brown that divided the gray of the road from that of the sky, which was all that remained of the unconquered Western Territory.
My sister turned off onto the Pacific Highway and wove through the farmland and the little one store towns until we came out to Barlow and crossed the bridge into Canby. I looked at the main street that I had driven down a hundred times since my parents moved there in my last years at university, but I recognized it through a haze. I picked out one business in particular.
“Look at this. Canby Mufflers. This is America.”
“McDonald’s, Burger King, Carl’s Junior.”
“No those look the same everywhere! It’s the Canby Mufflers, in that old grimy building on the side of the highway. The instant lawn business. You can only see that in America.”
We parked in front of the house where my parents lived and went inside to the empty rooms. I took a book from the bookshelf and sat in the living room reading, while my sister dug through the refrigerator because her own pantry was bare. She thought and thought about what we should do to surprise my mother and father, but in the end I sat there on the couch when she came in from her car. She noticed me out of the corner of her eye and thought, “Oh, Jonathan is home.” It took a moment to sink in. She had not expected me home until Christmas, at the earliest, and here I was in the middle of November and she could finally smell me again. She drew me in, as teary-eyed as the Reader might expect.
I drew a deep breath and said, “Well, I’m back.”