My theory is that you’re not all the way American until you’ve driven a thousand miles for no reason in a vehicle you’re not supposed to be driving. In 1959, my grandpa bought a motorcycle in Detroit and drove it to California because he felt like it. A few decades later my uncle drove a beat-up pickup from Bakersfield to Phoenix to buy a crate of Twinkies on a whim. Part of the American character, the historians say, is movement. All our good stories come from movement. Movement is life. Stand still and you’re dead. I wanted a piece of the action and a thin excuse to do it. Seeing Harry Dean Stanton sing was excuse enough for me.
I could have rented a car, but I didn’t. Road trips can be magic, but they have to be ill-advised or the magic doesn’t work. Driving, say, a 2014 Hyundai for a thousand miles isn’t magic; it’s a Hyundai commercial. So I took my old Ford, a “roadside fire that burned down a historical landmark” news item waiting to happen, purchased in 2007 for peanuts because the gas mileage was terrible.
On my way out of town I took it to a mechanic, a guy from Oregon who looked like he was very involved with his church and treated me like a wayward teenager with maybe two or three remaining cracks at redemption. My aim was to get it street legal – no driver’s side mirror – and make sure it was safe enough to drive but not too safe.
After an hour in the waiting room, the mechanic came back grim-faced but oddly peaceful, like a well-trained hospice nurse, and breathed deep. After slightly too much eye contact, he said “I think you’ll make a thousand miles, but my conscience would bother me if I approved this behavior.” Something about the brakes being ruined. Done deal, I figured, mirror’s fixed, here’s fifty bucks, give me the keys. Time to skip town. Harry Dean Stanton was gonna sing for 20 minutes in ten hours. This Oregon ex-pat with Sunday School eyes wouldn’t understand. This was no time to humor another man’s conscience. And ruined brakes have metaphorical significance, anyway. I almost told him that but figured he might then be legally entitled to confiscate my keys.
The first hour of the ill-advised solo road trip is defined entirely by responsibilities. Specifically, have I put enough miles between me and my responsibilities yet? Are my troubles far away yet? Do I need to turn around and give up yet? I kept checking my cell phone, thinking I had gotten my only urgent text message ever, until finally I pulled off on the side of the road and put it at the bottom of my suitcase, where it couldn’t whisper dark warnings in my ear.
By hour two, you don’t recognize the exits quite as well as you used to – maybe there’s a new shopping center in a suburb that was promoted to a town, with the standard-issue Starbucks and a Subway and a Chevron station where the gas is 12 cents more than it is at the dirty old one half a mile down the road.
By hour three, when you’re consistently doing 75, music starts to get great. Even awful music, if you’re alone. You might even sing along to the awful music – Counting Crows, “Angels of the Silences,” pretend I didn’t just say that – because your responsibilities became imaginary 130 miles ago.
Hour four is when you start wondering if itinerant highway life beats air conditioning and your own shower. Maybe you can get a sleeping bag and live off caffeine and little bags of peanuts. Gas doesn’t cost $3.50 a gallon anymore either. It did when you had all those responsibilities, but that was three hours ago and now it’s all numbers on a little plastic card.
Everything seemed oddly whimsical in the fourth hour. I went to a rest stop and even that was somehow innocent. People were walking their dogs and eating candy and performing almost every postcard moment you thought only happened in life insurance or blood pressure medication commercials.
There was an employee fixing the men’s room door. An old, all-denim southerner perked up at this. “Well, how-dee-doo!” he said in the tone of voice that, in movies, says “boys, this round’s on the house, because my horse finally came through!”
“Uh, I’m fixing the door,” muttered the attendant.
“Aww, shucks, for a moment I thought we done got upgraded to a warshroom attendant! Thought we was at the danged Ritz!”
“No, sir, no,” said the attendant.
“Alright, well, so long” said the southerner, who came as close as an old southern man can come to skipping. This new pretend road life was going to work out, I thought. I had been wallowing in internet nihilism for too long. Rest stops are still rest stops out here, not just crime scenes or punchlines from There’s Something About Mary.
It was around hour five, on Highway 99, that I stopped off in Pixley. I’m pretty sure the only historical monument in Pixley, and I checked, was a well that had gone dry a hundred years ago. A bad omen. Hour five was when my internal monologue got simpler, less escapist. “Do I have enough gas? Is it too hot? Oh, I just got gas. Maybe I should eat. That’s what’s bothering me. Wait. Is there enough water?”
That was when I had to remember there’s a drought in California. I already knew it, but I knew it the way I knew California has fire season. My house was always just fine. My tap always ran. But it suddenly became real. The sun felt 20 million miles closer, give or take 5 million, and the drought was real. Jerry Brown is governor and the drought is real.
Signs started popping up along the freeway. I started noticing them more and interrogating them less. NO WATER = NO JOBS. PRAY FOR RAIN. SERIOUS DROUGHT. HELP SAVE WATER. NO WATER = NO JOBS. These became incantations and I started believing them just because they were so short and I had been looking at lines on the road too long. “Oh no, there’s not enough water. How do we live? What do we do when there’s no water? Do I hurry over to Los Angeles and go to the Department of Water and Power and bang my fists against some giant desk and tell them in a rehearsed baritone that there’s no water? Will that help? There’s no water.”
The color palette changed the further south I got. Green became brown. Not dry winter brown but five-dust-devils-at-once-and-one-of-them-is-crossing-the-freeway barren brown. Driving to see Harry Dean Stanton sing seemed thematically appropriate now, since I knew him first as Wim Wender’s archetypal “wanderer in the desert” of Paris, Texas. The man’s face is Highway 99 incarnate. It’s not even old. It’s just weathered. He doesn’t have wrinkles, he has ridges cut by little dust devils you can’t see. It’s an arid face. Survival in a drought made manifest.
Hours six through nine were different. Where earlier I had noticed the right things, with some road hysteria thrown in as the road wore on, now I was only noticing strange things. I wasn’t noticing what town I was in, or near. I was noticing the decommissioned missile silos; the roads that may have doubled as airplane runways during the Cold War. The exit where my dad saw a B-2 stealth bomber crash. The factories with smoke but no obvious cars or employees. Everything Art Bell used to scare me about when I was a kid. The only danger was my busted brakes but my paranoia had gotten more cosmic.
I started coming up with elaborate fantasies about every dirty little motel or abandoned farm house. D.B. Cooper was in all of them – James Dean had died within eyesight of all of them. Jerry Falwell was hiding with a prostitute in all of them. The crop duster scene in North By Northwest was filmed across the street from all of them. Alfred Hitchcock had his hands behind his back at all the old drive-ins.
By the time I hit L.A. county, every other driver was a threat. Every car was a Crown Vic. I was finally going to get arrested for being irresponsible about my brakes. That Sunday School mechanic up north had put out an APB on me. His conscience finally started bothering him too much. I shouldn’t have given him my debit card. It had my name on it. Should have paid cash. I’d be arrested four or five times before I got to see Harry Dean Stanton be alive in a room downtown.
As I approached my exit I had lost all grasp of how long a mile was and overshot it dramatically, accidentally washing out in South Central. There was no dirt blanket anymore. No more brown. No more old southerners at rest stops saying “warshroom.” Everything was concrete and stop lights everywhere and my brakes were ruined. I saw a van that said “THIS IS MY ARMOR” on the side. This had all been a mistake. My Ford was going to crash into a Check ‘n Go and burn down South Central because I thought calculated recklessness was my civic duty.
But that would give my life narrative, and it doesn’t work that way. A few minutes later I found the theater downtown where Harry Dean Stanton was to sing. There were folding chairs. There were pictures of naked women in the men’s room. They showed Repo Man first, in the wrong aspect ratio and with too much room echo. “Flying saucers, which are really, yeah, you guessed it, time machines” killed. So did “my face!” and “I blame society,” which goes without saying.
It didn’t matter to me what Harry Dean Stanton would do on stage. The point of going was to be irresponsible before irresponsibility sounded too boring. And to prove that my generation overlapped with his, at least for a few minutes. It’s the same reason I saw Pinetop Perkins when he was 97 years old. Pinetop didn’t even need to sit at his piano for me to get my money’s worth, and likewise Mr. Stanton could have just stood there in all his aridness.
He’s 88 years old now, but he doesn’t look it and he doesn’t sing like it. In a suit jacket and in favorable light, he looks timeless – a road-weary balladeer who doesn’t need to know his age anymore than you do. And he spoke and sang with that old high-lonesome clarity. None of the gummy rasp of old men in cartoons.
“This is a heroin song. Wrote it on heroin, recorded it on heroin, and sung it on heroin,” he said when introducing “Everybody’s Talkin’,” which he sang with that perfect balance of wistfulness and sorrow that he can convey without singing anything. He closed with the best American rock and roll song ever written – Chuck Berry’s “Promised Land.”
I had proved I was alive at the same time as him, so I left on the 110 North. Los Angeles is a sentient panic attack during the day, but late at night, gliding across the curves of its freeways, with those tunnels and those lights, it starts to get romantic. If I ever go back, I’ll get my brakes fixed.
Follow Kaleb on Twitter at @kalebhorton