In those last few hours before I knew I was leaving San Francisco, my thoughts vacillated. After breakfast at Dottie’s I got in my car and drove to Haight/Ashbury and wandered around for a while, trying to figure out what the next step was for me. I stalled for as long as possible, hoping to get a last-minute phone call from Jefre that would inform me our plans would be revived—oh, and I could crash there if I needed to. Between glances at the clock on the face of my cell phone, I thought—if this does fall through, I’ll be stuck without a place to stay. If I called Jen and Monica at the last minute, not only would I feel bad for putting them in a compromised position, there was a chance they’d be unable to accommodate me. As I thought ahead to the drive to Eugene, Oregon, I wondered if it was even worth it. It was obvious now I wouldn’t be meeting any friends in Seattle with whom I could share the drive back across the country. Theoretically, I could follow the back-up itinerary I’d made, and hop on I-80 East right here in San Francisco, and—instead of taking I-5 North into Oregon—drive to Reno tonight, then take 80-East all the way home. The only interview I had scheduled from now until my arrival back in New Jersey was with Rich Fessler in Chicago and he was flexible. Surely he wouldn’t mind if I showed up a few days early. It started to seem like a viable option. I called friends and family to ask for advice.
As I walked out of Amoeba Records I was pretty sure I was about to ask a cashier at the convenience store on the opposite corner of Haight Street for directions to the Interstate with the intentions of staying on that one highway for the next four or five days. Instead, I bit my tongue as I paid for a bottle of Cherry Coke. I exited the store and sat in the parking lot for a few minutes, with the radio tuned to a mid-day sports talk show.
Kerouac came to mind. I thought about how On the Road kept disappointing me, because Sal would reach his destination on various trips and then wind up back at home without any documentation of those return voyages. One trip suddenly ends in Los Angeles with the mention of a bus ride back to New York; on another trip he stops to hear some jazz in Chicago and wanders back to the city. It’s the same with movies about “the road,” as a metaphor for getting away to find oneself. All those stories have that moment of epiphany, or a climax, and suddenly the movie is over ten minutes later. No more strange encounters, no more sights to behold, no more struggles, elation or depression. Suddenly everyone is at home, life is good, roll credits. Now the thought of driving to Reno was starting to sicken me.
All right. Change of plans. Again.
A new goal arose and hit me with such force I felt the wind was knocked out of me. It was so obvious. I wondered why I’d even debated driving to Reno today. I decided that, not only was I going to take the long route back to Jersey, I was going to throw professionalism out the window and just do what felt natural. Without an interview schedule to follow, I could see the places I wanted to see, and explore them to their fullest potential. To this point, the trip had been well orchestrated; everything was planned out in advance. Wake up, checkout, drive anywhere from four to ten hours, check-in, get a bite to eat, and either find a bar or stay in and make phone calls to set up future interviews. There was no time for legitimate external exploration. Without any cordage to keep me docked, I could venture out into the country. I could stray from the beaten path. I’d encountered strangeness sporadically to this point, but now I had the time to seek out strangeness and immerse myself in it. Why anyone would give that up for a quick jaunt home is beyond me. This story arc was not going to reach its climax only to see the credits roll five minutes later. There would be no allusion to a return voyage without anima. I thought back to chance encounters with strangers in St. Louis, Austin, and Big Sur. Each time, when I would return to the safety of my tape recorder, I would giddily proclaim, “This is what it is.” These oddities, chance encounters and surprises were the essence of the trip. It became something of a mantra.
Who was I to deny myself the opportunity to revel in these episodes? Confidently—almost violently—I shifted the car out of park and began to drive.