THE OTHER DAY, I found myself riding in my friend’s car through the deep and lowdown gold-grey basin that leads to Big Bend National Park. For most of the six-hour trip through Texas to this stretch of highway, I had been so relaxed that I gabbled at D. about this and that, while she, vigilant driver, nodded politely at my nonsense. But, when we saw our first glimpse of the blue-gray belly of the basin highway, all was silence. And we gazed through our silence in awe at the mountains, clouds, hawks and sky that curtained our route. The mountains gave us a deep reverence in return for our awe; then they wrapped elegant rain clouds that had been gathering above them for hours about their mountainous shoulders, and sighed.
I looked up and up and up. There are so many ways of being a mountain or a slice of sky or a hawk skating figure-eights on air currents. There are so many ways of being that I can’t stop looking at them all.
And I would have kept pressing my nose out the side window at those glorious mountains with that orangeorangeorange glow emanating from their glamorous mountain hearts for the rest of the drive, but instead I caught a flash of red light out of the crooked tail of my eye.
Then another red light drew me away from the clouds and the mountains and the rain that had started coming down in easy sheets. By the third red light, my eye fixed itself firmly on the source.
THERE WAS A CAR in front of us. An ordinary car of no particular make. A four-door two-tons of steel and wheels vehicle whose driver kept stomping their brakes. Over and over. In the rain.
The canyon lit up with his redredred alarm.
That meant D. had to drop a hard foot on her car’s brakes every twenty feet so that she wouldn’t tailgate that nervous driver—which made D.’s car’s brakes grip in protest because that rain? That was the first rain in West Texas for an entire parched and terrible year— which meant those roads were oil-slicked from twelve months’ worth of interstate traffic. As she braked and watched and braked again, you could see those dangerous oily rainbows on the road, the ones that will spin your car into the nearest ditch, dam, or wall.
To keep from hyperventilating in this canyon of clouds and rain, I hunched down small, and tried to fold my fear in on itself like a gas station road map. I wanted to get it out of the way and get on with the business of being. But it just wouldn’t fold up evenly. And by the way— I don’t have a good handle on the business of being right now, either, which makes every other thing twice as complicated, three different kinds of weird, and one king-hell pain in my heel.
IT’S BEEN A STRANGE SEASON of my life. On another rain-wet road, a series of jaggedy events of different sizes kept swerving my way starting in November. I keep ducking and dodging and swerving and sweating. I keep biting down on my own sadness, which tastes, by the way, like a stale Necco Wafer[i], chalky with nostalgia, and near flavorless from strangely-worded regrets.
If I let it, these obstacles (some of which are me) will incite the same reaction in me as that nervous driver in the basin: I’m capable of stomping the hell out of my internal brakes on oil-slick roads. Letting my lights blister redredred in an ordinary gray downpour. Frightening the hawks whose shadows climb the canyon walls. Making other drivers on the road shy of me and mine. In brief, I’ve got the Fear[ii], and once the Fear has got aholt of me, my impulse is to keep on flinch-slamming those damn brakes at every bit of paper that flutters in front of my windshield.
REAL FEAR IS a necessary response to actual events—fire in the backseat of your car, mountain lions with rabies near your campsite, an loud thunk! in your engine. It’s certainly awful, occasionally helpful in retrospect, and follows a pretty reliable pattern. Real fear is a response to unexpected or expected stimuli/lus, that involves an atavistic flood of neurons in your lateral amygdala, leading to a variety of autonomic responses. (For instance, have you ever been so startled by someone behind you in your hallway that you spun around and punched them in the nose? *Cough* Me neither.)
The Fear is not fear at all. It is a lengthy drawl of a response to a non-event. It offers nothing and it gives nothing and it takes a whole lot of energy to stop it from sprawling out on a couch inside of your brain where it will never take a shower again. The Fear has no nuance to it, no story, no heart. It likes reruns and it will eat all the good snacks in the house. There is nothing more banal than the Fear and nothing more stultifying of one’s own deepest desires and dreams.
BACK IN THE CANYON, we lost sight of our troubled driver, and I stayed hunched and miserable in my seat. The rain should have been a wonder, but like all those ill-born children of weird lesser Greek gods, I turned in on myself where I could gaze into the mirror pool of an imagined affliction, and then, as sure as shooting, I could not feel my way back out of my own wandering darkness.
I don’t know what comes next. I didn’t know what came next on this road we were driving to Big Bend. Here, look at my palms. I’m hiding nothing from you. I don’t know what the next step is or the next story will be. I have a book full of notes, lines emphatically underlined, dog-eared diagrams, battle-scarred footnotes, my sweat’s in it and my respect for your genuineness— yet when I peek inside its pages, I see writing in sand where the wind’s whipped it up.
If I am true to myself, and to you, I know the following is true: In some of these instances on this road, I am the object swerving in my own way. In other instances on this journey, I am the road that can’t slough off the motor oil fast enough to offer any car a sure grip. In a few more miles of this topographical survey, I am the mountain wrapping her shoulders in rain clouds with her face turned to meet the late afternoon sky.
D. DROVE ON. She rounded a curve, and there was the brake-stomper. He had pulled off of the road at a viewing area; he stood in the rain with his binoculars in one lanky hand. He was a big man, shoulders like ham roasts, the white hair on his head thatched extra thick, and a mouth so small and dinked-up it looked like a homemade gate-latch.
I wanted to stop.
I wanted to ask him: What happened back there? What scared you so? Was it the rain? Was it something you saw? Are your brakes slippy? What if, in all my imaginings and projections, my mirror pools and my big-headed nonsense, I had missed the vital essence of your brake-stomping? What if you drove like my grandmother did? Like my friend J. does still?
What if you got a little excited about something your friend said, or someone else in the car said, and you started to debate your side of things, punching that break pedal for each point in your long list, slapping that gas pedal between breaths? What if you punched and punched at those pedals, talking a mile a minute, until you ran out of road or unspooled the whole story? What if you kept on braking and gassing until everyone in the car was a little bit carsick and sore, until everybody in a five-mile radius would agree with any cockamamie thing you said— just to get your hotfoot off of that brake pedal?
[i] Necco Wafer— the kind of treat you only buy at the gas station when you’re on a road trip out of misplaced nostalgia; one of those things that never did taste like anything you remember, anyway; and inexplicably breaks in two chalky halves when you’ve half teased it out of its cellophane sleeve with your index and middle fingers.
[ii] The Fear is a specific reference to Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. If you’ve never read it, get online right now and take a look at it on your favorite bookseller’s website. (WAIT! Before you go, if you really have an adverse reaction to profanity and profane, but hilarious, ideas— this book may not be your book. And I am totally, totally copacetic about that choice. There will always be other books that we can talk shop about, yes?) Here’s the quote in question from Chapter 6: “I hate to say this,” said my attorney as we sat down at the Merry-Go-Round Bar on the second balcony, “but this place is getting to me. I think I’m getting the Fear.” (From The Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas Hunter S. Thompson Wikiquote page.)
ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHS: ALL THREE PHOTOGRAPHS featured in this story are shots I took during my trip to Big Bend. That’s right. These are by me, Courtenay Bluebird. Seriously. I know all three look vintage, but I processed my shots through the iPhone version of the Vintage FX app. The palm tree and the clouds photographs were shot around Marathon, TX, right before you start heading into the mountainous terrain. The other photograph was taken, I think, right after the rain cleared up. And it did. Really, really quick. <3
AROUND HERE, WE WEATHER ALL SEASONS TOGETHER:
HEY! SHAMELESS PLUG FOR A BLOG I LOVE! May I also suggest you check out my friend Metan’s blog, Buried Words and Bushwa? She writes beautifully about these wild and amazing century old newspaper stories she digs out of the stacks. If we pester her enough, Metan writes wonderfully about her native Australia, including posting these spot-on pictures she takes. Metan and her blog are a serious bright spot in my life. Seriously! You’re gonna like her loads, I think!