by Derek Neal
Friday, September 2, 3:24 pm
I’m in a white Toyota Camry, practically brand new, and I’ve passed a spotted deer grazing outside the airport and a billboard with a picture of a baby and the words, “God doesn’t make mistakes.” Wyoming, I think to myself. The GPS on my phone tells me I can drive 104 miles on the one lane highway before making a turn. Going west, I think to myself. I decide to try out the luxuries of the Toyota Camry; it has Sirius XM radio, and the breadth of stations is impressive. I put on “Studio 54” radio and immediately hear Luther Vandross singing for the group Change, a Chic-inspired disco band from the 80s. I listen for a few songs, but it’s all wrong: this is music for New York. I try to call up The War on Drugs on my phone, a fitting soundtrack for cutting through the plains, foot to the ground, blue skies above, but I don’t have service. Wyoming, I think again. Thank God the map is still working.
Going back to the radio, I see they have artist channels and one of them is Tom Petty radio. Now that’s music for driving west. The fist song is “Saving Grace.” Petty is singing:
And it’s hard to say
Who you are these days
But you run on anyways
I realize I don’t have the vocabulary to describe what I’m seeing beyond the windshield. Words come to me: steppe, bluff, vista, brush, but they lack a specific referent outside of the vast expanse unfolding before me. The landscape is dry and undulating, with occasional growths of struggling vegetation. There are few trees, much rock. Everything is a baked yellowish color, cooking under the sun and meeting the light blue sky on the horizon.
It wouldn’t surprise me to see a stampede of buffalo or a group of men on horseback appear over one of the rises in the distance. Instead, I see another billboard advising me not to miss the next town’s attractions: Taco Bell, KFC, and McDonald’s, along with other symbols I don’t recognize. America, I think to myself. Petty is still singing:
You keep running for another place
To find that saving grace
I listen to more Petty songs as I continue westward: “American Girl,” “Free Fallin’,” “Swingin’.” Somehow I’ve never before realized how steeped Petty’s lyrics are in the mythology of America. Many of his songs are narratives, relating the story of Americans travelling west with some vague sense of purpose in their search for meaning; this is the ur-story of America, going back to the first colonists from Europe. Here are the opening lines of “American Girl.”
Well she was an American girl
Raised on promises
She couldn’t help thinking that
There was a little more life
After all, it was a great big world
“Into the Great Wide Open” tells the story of a high schooler moving out to LA, getting a tattoo, hitting it big in the music world, but eventually becoming washed up and forgotten. For Petty, the American Dream is always that, just a dream, because when it becomes reality, it can turn into a nightmare.
Saturday, September 3, 3:11 pm
I’m walking down Main Street in what passes for a town out here. There’s one bar, a couple of coffee shops, a couple of restaurants. The sidewalks are broad and baking in the afternoon sun. No one’s around except for a girl wearing athletic shorts and Crocs, staring into a vacant storefront window ahead of me. She seems to be doing some sort of stretching, hands on her hips, moving her body side to side with her feet rooted to the ground. As I get closer, I see that her ankles and lower legs are red, bruised, and swollen. Her hair’s unwashed and tangled. I give her a wide berth, but she’s just a harmless hippie, a reincarnation of some flower child hitchhiking her way to California. I get to the intersection and figure I’m far enough away to look back without it seeming suspicious, but when I turn around, she’s gone. Maybe it’s the desert sun blinding me, or the heat making everything appear hazy. Or maybe she was never really there in the first place.
I cross the street and enter the coffee shop, this being the principal motivation of my outing. This is where all the people are, or at least the young people. The shop is filled with what appear to be college students: computers, books, and notepads clutter the tables. Most of the people are dressed in secondhand clothes—what’s now called “vintage”—faded blue jeans, washed out t-shirts advertising some past event or cultural touchstone from before the students were born: “Wyoming State Fair ’91,” “Reagan/Bush ’84.” I go up to the counter and order an americano when Petty comes on over the speakers:
Listen, it don’t really matter to me, baby
You believe what you want to believe
You see, you don’t have to live like a refugee
There’s a girl at the table in the back with her bare feet up on the table. My coffee’s ready; I take it and leave, the doors swinging shut behind me.
Sunday, September 4, 8:12 am
I’m hiking in the morning, climbing in elevation and chasing the sun as it rises above me. To my right, barren rock, dry grass, and a wall of limestone. To my left, a stream, and beyond that, a rich forest of firs covering the hillside. The sun hangs over the firs and casts its light upon me, while the trees remain shaded, allowing them to grow and be sustained by melting snow in the winter months. It’s a jarring and beautiful landscape, two differing things naturally brought together. I’ve stopped at a place where the stream diverges and then ends in a small pool filled with trout. The fish mostly swim around each other, being fish, although occasionally one drifts off on its own to the other side of the water, separated from the group, and one wonders if it will find its way back to the others.
I move away from the fish and stop to read a sign that’s been put up to explain the unexpected existence of the trout pond, when a man emerges from around a bend in the trail. He’s dressed for the outdoors—round brimmed hat, hiking boots, backpack. I’m in shorts and sneakers, and I must look out of place because the first thing he asks me, after asking about the trout pond, is where I’m from. The east coast, I tell him. I’m here for a wedding. He misses a beat, then whistles softly. Long way from home, ain’t ya, he says. I can’t think of anything to say, so I shrug my shoulders, and then his wife comes around the bend and we wish each other a good day, continuing on our respective ways.
As I make my ascent, the sun rising higher in the sky, I find myself up above the stream, which has now become more powerful and is approaching the status of river. Off in the distance, the river climbs out of the canyon and into a series of cascading waterfalls nestled among the trees. I keep going in that direction, scrambling up above the water and eager to leave the hot sun and the barren rock. But it’s farther off than I realize. My mouth is dry, and my arm is sore from the tattoo I got last night, the bandage soaked with sweat. It turned out that a member of the wedding party was a tattoo artist, and after the rehearsal dinner we all went to the bar, and after that we all went up to his studio above the bar, and after that we all got tattoos. And now I have a cartoon bird on my forearm, agreed to in a moment of drunken solidarity with a group of people I’ll never see again in my life, and I’m about to pass out from heatstroke in this great, wide open desert, with no one around to save me. I’m a fucking idiot, I think to myself.
And yet I move on, I move on. What lies ahead, I have no way of knowing, but it’s time to move on. I reach the shade of the trees, and after surging forward with renewed energy, I come to a small pond where the waterfall has been dammed up due to collected driftwood. The sun speckles the water where it shines through the trees in beams; I remove my shoes and wade into the water, my feet sinking into the sandy bottom, and I cup my hands and bring the water to my lips, drinking again and again.
Monday, September 5, 1:14 am
The wedding has thinned out considerably. The adults, meaning those people over 35, have gone home, while the core group of the wedding party and other stragglers remain. People are in various states of consciousness. Upon the departure of the adults, mushrooms of the magical sort were produced and consumed. One guy with a cartoon bird tattoo is on the dancefloor, hands pressed into his eyes, while Lil Jon’s “Get Low” plays off someone’s iPhone hooked up to the auxiliary cord. The best man is running around the dinner tables, babbling nonsensically, while a man who’s been introduced to me as “Truffles” mutters about how he always has to cause drama. I’m around the campfire, this being an outdoor wedding, and have become engaged in conversation with a mushroom eater, which turns out to be a serious mistake. I’m just trying to be, ya know, here, now, in the present, just be, and just like, be on that wavelength, ride that wave, and live, live in the here and now, ya know, like—I leave the campfire while he’s still talking and make my way to the empty dancefloor. My tattoo partner has disappeared, and the music has stopped. I will be that trout in the pond, I think to myself, the one that drifts away from the others, and I will accept whatever comes.
I take the phone hooked up to the auxiliary cord and put on “Free Fallin’,” and then I go lie out in the grass under a canopy of sky with stars like I’ve never seen before. In a few hours, I’ll be back on the open road with Tom and the Toyota Camry, retracing my steps to the airport.
The chorus hits, and I hear something I’ve never noticed before. The way Petty pauses between “free” and “free falling,” as if he’d started to praise being free, before realizing that being free, unmoored from all tradition, adrift from all custom, can cause one to fall, with nothing to hold onto.
And I’m free, free fallin’
Yeah I’m free, free fallin’