A few years ago, I remember hearing someone call the open road “the ultimate playground of freedom.” At the time, I thought the phrase had a nice ring to it—and maybe even a germ of truth. But times change, and so has my opinion. After spending the past year always on the move, constantly traveling from one town to another, I no longer think of the open road as any kind of playground. It has instead become just a long, dusty highway on its way from nowhere to nowhere, a place that I have also found persistently haunted by the darkest shadows of my dreams.
As I rode my Harley through the dawn light of western Colorado, I pushed the image of those dusty shadows aside and forced my mind into the cool embrace of the morning air. My Harley was old but still full of life, and it jumped smoothly as I rolled my right wrist forward to pick up speed. For a fleeting moment, I hoped it might even help me outrun the ghosts in my head.
Ahead of me lay the dark, winding ribbon of the interstate east of Grand Junction, stretched out along the Colorado River in long, sinuous arcs. A few minutes before, the first rays of sunlight had been streaming into my eyes. Now I was riding in shadows as the valley narrowed and the rocky hillsides of De Beque Canyon crowded the road around me. I eased back into my seat and tried to focus on the scenery, but my mind kept flying ahead—soaring into the canyon and far beyond, on to where my long day’s ride would carry me across the mountains.
As I rolled east through the canyon, the constant pounding of the engine began playing at my memories like an accordion, first stretching old moments into lifetimes and then crushing years into heartbeats. No rest. Always pushing. Always moving. Steadily I traveled on, my head slamming full-throttle into a never-ending shower of anger and love and sadness and a thousand other emotions. I felt like both master and prisoner of a metal beast whose heart throbbed with the passion of gasoline and whose only boundaries were the bends in the road and the whims of the flesh.
The motor roared beneath me—smooth, strong, and relentless. Pure power transformed into ceaseless motion. There was no peace, no quiet, no reclining seats. Nor were there any firewalls to mute the raw urgency of the engine. The sound was steady, insistent, and deadening, and it held me in its unrelenting grasp.
The sun rose higher, and the skies above the canyon burned deep blue in the early morning light. Dark shadows cut across the banded cliffs that rose above the far side of the river. Now and then, as the highway rolled left and then right, it passed rock formations that set me to thinking, calling to mind a limestone outcropping on a long, tree-covered hill called Fire Ridge that overlooked my family’s farm in the Wolf River Valley of western Missouri. “Soon,” I told myself, “I’ll be there soon.” But almost a thousand miles still separated me from my home.
Images of our old farm flashed through my head. Stately silver maples arching gracefully above the century-old farmhouse. Corn and soybean fields rolling up the valley to the far northern end of the farm. My mother’s smile as she put the last few brush strokes on a landscape painting in her studio. Climbing the apple tree behind the garage when I was a boy.
During the past year, I had ridden my Harley all over the West, from New Mexico to Montana. On all of those endless highways, the hard, monotonous sound of the engine had helped blot out my memories and focus my thoughts on the land just ahead.
My mind drifted back to the previous fall, back to a day when I had been riding through a long, low canyon in southern Utah. The sandstone cliffs on both sides of the highway glowed deep red in the slanting light of late afternoon. At that moment, I felt like part of the Earth itself. Cruising down that long crimson corridor was like a dream. It enveloped me, each mile plunging me irresistibly deeper into a state of mind in which the only things that mattered were the sun-streaked cliffs and the spotless blue of the sky. Everything else, the entire Earth beyond the canyon, disappeared to my senses and to my memory. What I experienced at that precise moment was all that was real to me—and all that I wanted to be real.
I longed to feel like that now, to live in a world without past or future, but I found myself fumbling at my jacket instead. Where’s that damned candy bar? It was just in my pocket. Ahead of me, I spotted a grizzled cowboy in an old pickup, chewing tobacco almost savagely while glancing back at me in his side mirror. Something in his look told me he was working up a good spit and thinking of letting it fly just about the time I’d be passing. Too far to go. I can’t worry about some old cowboy’s tobacco juice. I could still turn around, I told myself, but where would I go?
“No,” I shouted, “I won’t stop.”
Traveling on the open road, the miles dull your senses and your brain reacts to the highway without thought. Noise and wind seep into your soul, filling it with joy and then despair. But as the miles wear on, those feelings fade beneath the steady, grinding numbness of the road. Fragments of my life soon began to stream through my head, aimless and scattered, as I was carried along on the motor’s mindless roar.
I tried hard to silence my thoughts, but they refused to let me ride in peace. They carried me back to the day I met Christine. We were in an English class together at Brillingstone College in White Rock, a few miles south of where I lived. After class one afternoon, we started talking. She wanted to hear more about some of the unusual ideas I’d gone on about while answering a question from the professor.
I’d grown up with my own peculiar insights, what I call my “moods.” I suppose I could have called them something else—visions, maybe—but that sounded to me like I was either pretentious or crazy. So they became moods. Most people didn’t understand them, and that included me.
Why Chris found them so fascinating I never fully understood; they were just something that sort of happened to me. After we started going together, I remember she called them waking dreams. That made sense in a way. Besides, when you see a wheat field and suddenly find yourself filled with a vision of thousands of tiny paintbrushes spreading color across the sky, I suppose that’s as good a way as any to describe it.
The memory faded. Soon, the land along the interstate opened out into wide mesas and parched plains littered by rabbitbrush and creosote bushes. A few ranches here and there hugged the valley floor, clutching at the river for life. The earth was sharp and clear now, hard-edged like a giant, sprawling mosaic laid down by the elements.
The morning grew a little warmer, and my mind drifted again. The highway was smoother now. I felt like I was sailing above the pavement, my Harley cruising along on the wind itself. For an instant, it felt like a breath of freedom. Then I saw it for what it was: a flash of time when mindlessness had managed to briefly anesthetize the past. Or maybe I had just gotten lost again in running away.
Memories of Christine’s face came floating up from a dream I had the night before, a dream that routinely invaded my sleep and turned my life into a perpetual hell. Once again I had watched her die, repeating, endlessly repeating, what had happened one evening on the road going to White Rock. Our time together had been short, and then she was gone. Empty miles ahead, empty miles behind. Moving, always I had to keep moving.
I tried hard to push away the images from the dream and concentrate on my trip home. But my mind insisted on rifling through pictures from the past. The crash had become a terrifying movie that kept playing over and over in my head. How long would I have to relive that night? I felt like an actor trapped in a play of my own making, one that I hated but found impossible to escape. I suddenly saw myself as Oz, hiding behind a curtain in my own mind, forever trying to fool myself into believing that I might someday be free of my nightmares.
Oz on a Harley. I rolled that image over in my mind a few times and then laughed. I told myself that what I really could use were some ruby slippers to get me home faster. I rolled my wrist forward again to pick up a little more speed.
I took a deep breath. Sometimes the highway can make you feel like you’ve been ripped to shreds. Would I ever be able to pull myself together again? Maybe I’d have more luck trying to turn these crazy chunks of my existence into somebody new. Jesse Hawkins, human collage. Or perhaps some kind of human kaleidoscope. Spin me around, and I’m a brand new person. Except that it’s still me. Maybe someone else might find a way to put me back together again; I sure hadn’t had much luck at it myself. I took another deep breath. Maybe, I thought, I was destined to live out my life as some kind of latter-day Humpty Dumpty.
Against my will, my mind raced back to Chris’s funeral. It was the hardest day of my life. On top of all the guilt and pain I was dealing with, Rudy Savage, who had gone out with Chris a couple of times before I met her, cursed at me on the way out of the church.
“It should be your stinking carcass in that casket, Hawkins, not Chris. First you steal her, then you kill her. You’re not fit to walk the same ground she did.” He stopped only when my mother walked over to find out what was wrong.
Then, at the cemetery, Chris’s father refused to talk to me—before venting his pain. “Why don’t you go back to your folks, Jesse?” he hissed at me. “I wish to God I had put a stop to you seeing Christine when I had the chance. I know it was an accident, with that drunk crashing into you and all, but if she hadn’t met you, she’d still be alive.”
I wasn’t to blame—and yet I was. What made it harder was that I felt the same way about myself. I shook my head at the memory and rode on. Going home wouldn’t be easy. But running away had been a complete failure, an endless stream of empty days and agonizing nights that led nowhere. Life on the road had been a real dead end, one that left me no alternative but to face my past—no matter what that might bring.
Time passed. The road spun on, rolling through more canyons and hills and rocky flats. Then the hills grew taller and became mountains. Evergreens began to replace cottonwoods along the road. The rocky slopes beside the highway became rougher and steeper.
Then, without warning, a hard rhythm began pounding in my head. It was loud, persistent, and endless. After a while, I recognized it as something from an INXS tune, “The Devil Inside,” I think it was. I’d heard it on the radio at a gas station the evening before. Why that particular rhythm now became lodged in my brain, I had no idea. But over and over it throbbed, and I couldn’t make it stop. The notes beat without mercy inside my ears as the Harley’s tires slapped time on the highway’s expansion joints.
Rhythms and notes. They echoed wildly off the mountains ahead and danced down to the highway, where they became cars—cars flying west, passing me like notes on sheet music. The cars pounded out a melody that meshed with the beat inside my head. Even my blood pulsed to the ruthless rhythms of the road.
The past welled up inside me again. In my mind, I was back on the road to Cottonwood Springs a week after the wreck. I remembered seeing workers stripping old posters from a billboard. There were all kinds of ragged layers—parts of snow-covered peaks, the front of a car, sections of faces, and a ranch house ripped in half. Later, when I passed the billboard heading back home, the posters were gone. Something about that billboard stuck in my head. Even the mountains, the part I liked best, were gone. Before, there had been scraps of images all jumbled together; now they had all vanished. It was a lot like my life—parts felt ripped away in rough pieces, revealing only emptiness.
After that, I’d gone on a three-day walk and then spent several nights alone among the rocks on Fire Ridge. A day later, I told my family I was leaving, going west to get away for a while. Two days after that, I had crossed the high plains and was headed into the Rockies.
Now I was riding the other way, climbing steadily higher through polychrome canyons toward the high peaks. They rose dead ahead of me now. Snow on the mountains. Snow that melted and merged into streams and then into a river. Down from the mountains and along the highway the water ran, cascading west in a thousand rushing rhythms. What kind of songs does a river make? Jazz? A symphony? Some kind of music people hadn’t thought of yet?
I felt myself melting into the irresistible, pounding rhythm that continued to pulse inside my head. I was absorbed by it, and it carried me forward against the never-ending flow of cars and trucks. Notes spun in my head as my eyes careened from the highway to the mountain slopes and back again.
Slowly, memories of other sounds filtered into my head, gentler sounds from the past. The soft rustle of corn in a summer breeze. Leaves whispering in faraway maples like a thousand emerald keys brushed by the fingers of the wind. Smoother now, the music in my head flowed like unborn dreams, like clouds caressing the highway beneath me. I shook my head. “I’d better snap out of it, or I’ll end up caressing the pavement with my face,” I told myself aloud.
I’d spent a lot of time on the road. On to new highways, new people, new towns—anything to keep from looking back at my life. But each time I moved on, I reviled myself all over again. Running became almost as difficult as forgetting. It was hard to believe that it was now the spring of 1990. A new decade, I thought, and now I’m headed home. After spending all those months on the road, working at part-time jobs fixing cars and playing my guitar in small town bars and cafes, it was time to face the past. I wondered if anything had changed at home. I wondered if I had changed.
I was edging ever higher into the mountains now, climbing steeper slopes, and I had to pick up speed once again. The high-country tundra, broken by stone and snow, rose grandly above the velvet-pronged pines and spruces that lined the highway. I saw the Earth as soft and green on the outside, with life masking its rock-hard core. But there was no hiding up here. My eyes felt like they had slammed full force into the great granite ridges that towered around me. No softness, no warmth. Damn. It’s colder up here than I expected.
My Harley whined, running a little irregular now in the thin mountain air. Everything around me was rock and snow. The earth hurled itself skyward into huge cathedrals of stone, and the raw architecture of the planet clawed at my senses. Lines on the highway pulsed like heartbeats. Snow lingered in the crevasses between the peaks, frozen rivers of ice that cut the earth and slashed at my soul.
My stomach tightened as the world suddenly transformed itself into a great interrogation room. The sun hung overhead like a giant, bare bulb, pressing down on me in its dark, gleaming brilliance. I was the suspect—and the interrogator. I became locked in a deadly battle of wills against myself. Was I guilty—or not? Back and forth I raged until, as always, I argued myself into silence.
I blinked. For a split second I was on the rocks at Fire Ridge. Then I was walking to class at college. And then I was back again in Colorado. Eyes let in a lot of pictures you can’t get rid of. You can shuffle them around maybe, but they keep tumbling into your head like uninvited guests that never leave.
After a while, I passed through the tunnel under the Continental Divide and sailed smoothly down the eastern slope of the Rockies. The highway was like a river to me now, and I flowed through the mountains as if riding on a long, slow-motion slide. Down I flew, down through the foothills and canyons, down past Denver, and then out onto the high plains and the great treeless sea of farms and ranches that spread out forever around me.
There was only the open road ahead of me now, and my thoughts kept hurling old faces and places at me, images that flashed rapid fire through my mind like a machine-gun video. Like always, I was in motion, racing endlessly into the future with no hope of ever outrunning my past. I was all alone; so why did it feel like the whole world was packed inside my skull?
Out on the prairie, the open sky presses against your flesh and the wind invades your blood. Miles and hours retreat in front of you no matter how hard you chase them. Whichever way I looked, the sky ran down to an empty, virtually unbroken horizon. Slowly, a handful of evening shadows from fence rows and roadside grass and an occasional solitary tree gathered and grew longer before being devoured by the velvet dusk. Then, at last, the great dome of heaven faded into oblivion as the daylight slowly dissolved from deep blue to indigo and finally to black.
Almost two hundred miles east of Denver, along a featureless plain cut only by a dry riverbed, I wheeled my Harley off the interstate and onto a small gravel road. I found a place to stop for the night, hidden by some brush and an old cottonwood. My solitude was complete. Like so many nights on the road, my only companions were the stars above and the pictures inside my head.
The fragments of my life danced behind my eyes well into the night. I was headed home now, and that kept pulling my thoughts irresistibly to the east. Worn down by a long day on the highway, my body ached for rest. But inside my head, I was still in motion. After what seemed like hours, I finally drifted into sleep. Even then, the miles continued to unroll beneath my wheels as my dreams carried me headlong down an uncharted road into the past.