I’m in Ashland right now, inside a cafe and ironically hiding from the falling ash outside. Typing and silently and not so silently laughing to myself as I write. I get up to go to the bathroom, and pack my bags. I leave a few papers, a waterbottle and my thermos on the table as my place holder. When I get back, I notice the vibes from the guy sitting next to me. He’s realized I didn’t trust him enough to just ask him to watch my stuff. He’s also trying to see what I’m writing, and I’m hiding my screen. And then he asks me a few minutes later to watch his stuff while he goes to the bathroom as if to prove a point. I say, yeah, sure. And then prove myself not to be a klepto when he comes back and I haven’t taken off with all of his belongings. Small victories. He doesn’t wear deodorant, either.
This girl plops down on the floor in front of me in the cafe to plug in her laptop and begin her work. Not giving a shit.
An elderly man and woman take the seats by me, and I move my backpack for them.
“I’m thin,” the older man says as he scoots in right next to me, towering over me. “How are your grades?”
“I’m actually writing.”
“Oh… you’re writing?” his wife asks, leaning her head in. “What are you writing about?”
“My brother and I are taking a road trip.”
Later, the elderly man leans over toward me again, concerned. “Seems like a lot of work…”
I look up at him, taking my headphones off. “I like it, though.”
“Well. That’s better,” he responds with a smile.
The campgrounds last night were just two big fields, and I took a walk around the whole property after I finished my retreat in the Goddess Temple gardens. There was a whole community that lived out on the property, their tiny trailers decorated with festive lights, and smelling like magic and weed. I pass the wigwam of the “Order of Natural Essence Mystics,” and then came back to listen to a guitarist playing outside of the main office.
Then the bliss ends. The music abruptly stops.
I hear the guitarist burst into blunt language, “You are rude and mean. Take your fucking beer. I’m out of here.”
The sounds of sloshing beer, and a bottle being punted into someone’s stomach.
The angry man walks back to the bench that I’m sitting on, and gets in his car. He looks back in the direction of the office and spits, “Dick be thy name.”
He pulls out of the parking lot as the man who is “rude and mean” chases after him.
“Come on, man. Come on.”
I try to avoid eye contact. “Rude and Mean” is walking around in circles in front of me, and the minute I look up, he jumps at the chance.
“I have a question… you smoke weed?”
“Oh. Okay. Just been a horrible night…”
I nod, and he walks away.
I set the car alarm off three times by myself, and take this as my cue to jump in the shower.
Turning on the water, I rinse all of the sand from Clam Beach off of me. I realize very soon that this is not tap water spewing in my face, but sacred spring water. It smells of rotten eggs, and surely healed my body.
I come back and grab my flip flops in the cubby by the door, and suddenly a sixty year old hippie is in my face.
“You leaving? How are yooouuuu?”
I respond in a way that should shut anyone up. But he continues.
“Being quiet seems the responsible thing to do right now. Yes, yes.”
He’s obviously on drugs. And his eye catches the yo-yo in the corner.
“I just want to grab that yo-yo and do some loop-de-loops with it. But I probably shouldn’t…” he ponders the yo-yo for a few seconds, as I walk out the door. He calls after, “Well you have a BEAAUUUTIIFFULLL night,” he says, crazy eyes rolling.
“Alright. You too, crazy eyes.”
After my shower, I sit on the porch by the office, and watch the stream of humanity flow into that hot spring. You need a code to get in the door, but everyone is sneaking in.
I hear people talking about the lecture happening on Sunday.
“Yeah, it’s all about the Gross National Happiness Product from Bhutan. We got that, here.”
At some point during the night, I pop a xanax. It’s due to a combination of the impending doom of the wildfire ash overtaking us, and the creepy and lecherous old men that seem to populate the place and eat away at your sense of security. This is the part of the story where the so called adventurous one decides to fall asleep in the car while the non-adventurous one swims in the waters of humanity late into the night.
I find my brother in the hot springs later, as I’m about to fall asleep.
“Are you naked?”
“Yeah. It’s freeing. Everyone is naked.”
He’s been swimming around for hours, conversing with the strange pool of humanity that ended up in the Ashland hot springs tonight. When I arrive, he’s discussing Ganesha with an old man and a girl his age. During the conversation, the old man gets up, grabs the offering of a crab apple out of the Ganesha statue’s trunk, and takes a bite out of it.
No one is really sure what the lesson here is, but the imagery is vivid.
“I’m tired. I’m going to bed. I’ll be asleep in the car. Come get me when you’re ready to set up the tent.”
I fall asleep comfortably in the car, and actually feel safer in there than out in the tent fields. Laying my green pillow on the middle console, I am suddenly awakened by my brother at some point in the night at the window.
“I realize I’ve been going about all of this career and future stuff the wrong way. I’ve been trying to figure out rationally what to do, where to go from here. But that’s not what I want. What I need to do is tap into my feelings, not my logic. My feelings are the only thing I can trust to make me happy. I’m happiest when I reject reason. Back in college I insisted that there must be more than just reason and logic to things. And it led me to be happy. Maybe that’s what Jonathan Swift meant by the Houyhnhnms in Gulliver’s Travels… Reason can only get you so far.”
We set up the tent in a darker area of the field, across from someone’s tipi. It’s still close quarters, and I hear people throughout the night, howling and muttering.
“Mind. Mind. Mind. Mind. Mindmindmindmindmind!” An old man sputters, then yells outside. This is a situation that might be scary, if I wasn’t so goddamn tired. I barely remember it in the morning.
I wake up in the morning, and it’s all less threatening. Our tent is covered in ash, and there’s a group of kids our age being jackasses across the field. Five guys watering the lawn with rotten egg smelling water, and a girl with a buzz cut and bite.
It’s strange how you sometimes feel most out of place around people who are most similar to you. Not that these people were identical to me, but they were definitely searching for something. And it sent me running away from them when they smiled at me.
I head to the little carved out wood gazebo to write, people watch and muse for the morning.
“You have any tobacco?” a woman walks up and asks me, with searching eyes. “Maybe I could trade you some for a little bit of weed? Or some rolling paper?” she offers.
“No, sorry. I don’t smoke.”
“Oh. That’s fine. Come on Butter,” she leads her dog away on his leash.
A few minutes later, a woman named Gabrielle walks up. Middle aged in a pink tank top and with a big colorful scrunchy atop her head, she asks me if I know anywhere around here she and her dog can crash, legally?
“No, I’m just passing through as well.”
“Oh, that’s fine. Man, everything went downhill for me in California, and I had to come back to memory lane in Ashland. Now the dog hates me, and it’s so sad. I’m down to pennies, and it’s so sad.”
She’s slightly off in her own world, and she wanders away, back down the path. I wish her luck.
A sunburned shirtless hippie boy with a bandanna and the weight of the world in his coffee cup walks by, mentioning how “some kid left bags and bags of substances on the table last night. And I grabbed them, then thought… I better not be messing with this shit…”
I want to drink some Tulsi tea and cleanse myself from all of this drug speak.
The girl with the buzz cut meets up with the hippie boy, and jangles down the path with him arm in arm, a basket on her other arm, big baggy patchwork pants, a fedora and a loose navy green tank top.
I try to visit the Goddess Temple again this morning, but it is gated off with colorfully tasseled rope. Some things are meant just for a night. And a lot of life might be about letting the mystery be.
Walking back, I pass a boy my age with long blond hair. A growler in his hand, dusty cowboy hat, a freckle on the right side of his eye that looks like it was artistically placed. His face is washed out, and blends into the world around him. A heavy silence to his step.
After Ben showers, we pull out of the place. It was an adventure, but it’s something that you have to run away from for sure. We hit the gas, and zoom into town.
We find downtown Ashland, and it is really fun. There is a hearty farmer’s market as well as an artisan’s market, and a winding populated main street made up almost exclusively of art exhibits/pubs/cafes. Almost no corporate companies, all independent and trendy as hell. No shop is unintentional, everything is there to create an atmosphere.
“Hello, friends,” a woman welcomes us outside of a cafe.
“Did you hear that?” I ask as we pass.
“Oh yeah I heard that. Very soft voice.”
“She had an ‘eat you up’ smile.”
I walk over to the curbside, and sit down to wait for the Indian buffet to open at 11.
“No. You’re not going to sit there. You’re going to smirch the image they’re trying to create here. Looking like a bum under a bridge.”
I point out that there actually are people under the bridge a few yards away, ashy faced kids in tie dye shirts and big eyes.
We choose to sit by the river, by a barefoot homeless woman wearing a brightly colored red sarong, and sitting next to a tiny empty Chinese takeout box. She packs her basket full of dried green plants, and moves on.
“I’m worried about the ash, bro. I think we need to get out of this city today.”
“That’s a crazy thing to be worried about. They have ash in Kansas. We grew up breathing in a healthy amount of ash every year,” my brother responds as we fill our plates at the Indian lunch buffet.
It’s amazing and annoying and beautiful that my fear of flying has been transposed into a fear of wildfire ash, hot springs and beach mrsa. These new fears are great for my career, you know. Preferable in their specificity, in comparison to the broad fear of flying. I can travel again. But it’s frustrating as hell that my mind cannot realize how to escape that anxiety loop, ever.
“What attracts you to being so freaked out?”
“I can’t help it, really. It’s a base impulse, like an animalistic reaction. Or maybe an addiction.”
“Can’t you logically see that freaking out won’t help anything, though?”
“No.” I pause and shove rice, dahl and naan into my mouth. “That’s when my brain just isn’t logical. It’s like a glitch that can’t be smoothed out, just learned to cope with.”
I’m taking furious notes as we eat, and I think the owners think I’m either some sort of crazy, or else a food critic. And they put on their best smiles, and I love them. We move on to the rice pudding and carrot dessert.
“So last night. It was like the pool of life, everyone swimming together. I tried to avoid people, we didn’t want to bump into one another. And ultimately, where do you go? The hot springs is a square box. You have to just relax and be present in it, because there’s nothing else to do.”
Picking up the check, the deep voiced Indian waiter thanks us as I’m scooping a handful of fennel at the door. “Have a blest day.”
Around four, we decide to drive on. We want to escape the smoke, and we want to feel the freedom of driving on a whim. The landscape is like a paper collage of cut out trees against terraced mountains of construction paper. The treeline looks like it was cut for a scrapbook with those special fringed scissors.
In Medford, I tried to pump my own gas, but was confronted by a man who was already doing just that. I had forgotten that you can’t pump your own gas in Oregon.
Eugene. Fucking Eugene. I did not get good vibes out of this city last time I was here, but decided to try it again as I’ve heard really great things about it. The vibes did not change, however.
The best image I have of the place is a little man lumbering around downtown at midnight with a wand in one hand, a plastic bag in the other, and a shawl around his neck.
“Oregon reminds me more of Kansas than I expected,” my brother comments. “The backwoodsy-ness of it.”
Trying to find a place to sleep last night was hell. And I gained a new understanding of all of the stress our parents must have felt when we went on vacations as kids. Showing up at campsites late at night to find them full, then my dad filling up a thermos of Coke at the gas station. “I’m good, I’m going to drive all night.”
We tried everything in the area, including “kamping world” outside of town, which was a trucker graveyard, literally just a place off the highway to park and sleep.
We tried to park in a neighborhood near by the truck stop, brushed our teeth there and everything.
“You think we’re going to die?”
“There’s always that chance.”
I decided to drive on, as I had found one last resort campsite out at the lake.
The lake campsites are of course full, and we’ve become really tired and negative at this point. I pull over next to the camp bathrooms, and fall asleep.
Ben doesn’t sleep at all, and observes the park rangers drive by at two in the morning, lingering and shining their lights on us, then zooming away. He wakes me up and tells me about this, and I turn the car back on and we drive away. I don’t really want to have to deal with cops now that we get down to it. Everyone at this campsite seems to have money, and I don’t think they’d be above kicking people out with real legal action.
Back in Eugene, we try to park in a neighborhood at two in the morning, but someone comes out with their dog the minute we park, and I drive on.
The redeeming part about Eugene was Rahul, the night manager of the Economy Budget Inn. As if Economy or Budget weren’t enough in themselves to indicate the cost, the Economy Budget Inn made sure you knew what you were getting into the second you GPS’ed it.
I rang the doorbell of the office, which was dark at two in the morning.
I ring the doorbell again, and walk away.
Back at the car, I see lights and movement from within the office, and I walk towards the office again. The door buzzes, and we are let in.
Greeted by an elderly Indian-American man with a thick accent and the beautiful smell of curry and cumin around him, I suddenly feel a little bit of relief. This is exactly what I needed. A Hindi god sitting on the counter, and Indian paintings on the walls. Rahul is no nonsense, and gets straight down to business by scolding us for walking away so fast when he didn’t answer the door.
“You’ve got to give me time, you know? I am asleep, and then when I wake up it takes a few minutes…it takes time!” he looks me straight in the eye as he scans my card on the reader, as if waiting for an apology.
He is shirtless and with his small frame and hairy chest, his rotund belly sticks out with a strangely comforting amount of distension.
He hands us the keys to room 15, and says goodnight.
Thank you, Rahul. You are a lifesaver.
The hotel is a bit sketchy, and definitely not somewhere you’d want to spend a lot of time. There are only four or five cars in the parking lot, but it is clean, and you can tell that this is a family business and Rahul takes pride in this place. And cleans the sheets himself.
In the morning, I go and grab the wifi password from him.
“You need the wifi password? Checkout is in thirty minutes!” He looks at me sternly again, about to shake his head, but I get him to smile with his eyes.
Catching a glimpse of the news before leaving the motel, I lust after the opportunity to sit and soak up the political culture taking place right now. How intriguing that these news anchors sit around all day and speculate on the actions of these big name dynasty Americans who are hoping to make their mark in a year. I pity the news pundits like I pity the girls in middle school who sit around and gossip because they have nothing better to do. But I also am jealous of the news anchors’ knowledge, and want a part in the real world again. I want to know what’s happening, I want to be able to give informed opinions, and learn through discussion.
Rahul tells me that he’s voting for Hillary.