30.10.08

Wandering in the Midwest

“All of life is a foreign country.”
- J. Kerouac

I ride at the speed of life on a highway somewhere in middle America. As if on fire,
corridors of trees flitter coloured leaves of every imaginable flavour. Silos, corn-fields and haystacks abound as Dylan swells, yearns and testifies, his poignant youthful croak breaks in a collusion of stimuli that emotes our collective perception. Mary and Sarah revel like Queens in the front seats, smoking Camel lights with blonde locks flowing in the breeze and the twinkle of elated latitude in their eyes. We three souls constitute one tiny unit of life ambling north underneath a magic blue American sky - a vista that circles tilted about the endless scope of black infinity at the frontiers of our imagination where the sky limits nothing.

The air in the Midwest is so damn breathable I swear you could can it and sell it to New Yorkers for the same price of Vitamin Water. You don’t realise how congested and maddening the big city is, how it subtly hypnotises and coerces your spirit, until you get on back to the wide open spaces and the sweet inhalations of a full lung. In this car, I’m in my element and I shine a smile that gives the warmth of the countryside a run for its’ money. An elevated, unworried mind wanders and wonders, recounting the lighting chains of events and the endless potential of its’ future all the while doing its’ utmost to ground itself in the here and the now. Suddenly I’m awash in my own head; Imagination set on fire like the trees. Head pulses with a bloodrush. I absorb. I Let go. Aware of everything going on right now. Henry Miller was right. To live this life is to be aware – joyously, divinely, serenely, drunkenly aware! In exhalation I smirk, privately agasp at the remarkable places I seem to keep finding myself. Sarah turns half face at me with a smile and a wink as Bobby’s harmonica yowls steely treble through the tweeters. I offer my glance out to the countryside and again forfeit my imagination to the fields and corridors of flittering fire.

Duluth came across initially like an overcast fall town in a John Grisham screen adaptation. Trees lining the streets had been half stripped of their shimmer by the equinox, as marvellous Lake Superior sat silent and imposing down at the banks. The smooth brick clad main drag pulsed us through the faded glory of the old lakeside matron, the town’s Vaudeville grandeur but an old ghost lurking behind tawdry patches of neon makeover. Still, the town’s cosiness, warmth and comforting charm appeared a seemingly unshakeable rock. Duluth is famed for being hometown of one Robert Zimmerman, a young lad who set off from the lake to New York in his late teens in order to transform himself into an influential cat named Bob Dylan. The mystique of Dylan is still rife in the air here, no thanks to the local council, who’d renamed the lake esplanade ‘Bob Dylan Way’ in a flagrant move to capitalise on the great man’s legacy. Still, I ensured I got a photo near the sign.

After meeting Mary’s old college buddies Teresa and Juliet in their wooden penthouse apartment overlooking a sensational view of Superior, we graced Sir Ben’s - a British style brick pub on Dylan Way that served green olives in its happy hour pints of Sam Adams, and provided cosy respite from the sheen of chill hushing on the town up from the ripples of the windswept Lake. Mary, Sarah and I gasbagged on brew and warmed ourselves, due reward after conquering a mighty stretch of open road. After a home cooked meal at Sarah’s Aunt Lori’s, we heated up on neat Jameson and stout at The Brewhouse, in the presence of a youthful blues cat wailing and fingerpicking tunes on his steel hollow body. We hung out with Jed, Mary’s college pal, a red bearded gentle lumberjack, a vagabond in crime, travelling around country with his car and ukelele. We smashed piss until the hours became wee and eventually crashed in the wooden penthouse with an old radiator that made noise like the Antichrist.

If you told me six months ago I’d one day be roaming around Minnesota with a bevy of gorgeous American women, invited to a couple of hometown weddings and welcome to a dose of the American Dream, I guess I would have said anything’s possible. Fluidity is everything. The freedom in choosing to move with the flow of things at a given point in time affords that gambler an unparalleled sensation of liberation, destination regardless.

I flew from JFK to Minneapolis-St Paul the week before the Duluth stint, reuniting again with Foxy, again taken under her wing and ferried back to her parent’s leafy hood in the little town of Chaska. In my first taste of warm, Midwest hospitality, senior Foxes Barry and Jane welcomed me into their home with open arms. Baz, a quirky trumpet-wielding former school band leader and Jane, a sassy sax playin’ folk singer, whose turkey sandwich was one to write home about. We gnawed on a big steak meal later that night and mused on US-OZ cultural peculiarities. Jane was an avid a fan of ‘Waltzing Matilda’ and insisted on a mid-meal rendition; regrettably my recognition of the six middle verses were not what they used to be and I struggled to keep up between mouthfuls of steak. Later in the trip Barry would knock off a few stubbies of Killian and pull out his faux-bogan-cockney take on ‘Botany Bay’, a song that he loved but made his kids at school want to punch themselves in the head repeatedly rather than playing the tune with their instruments.

Singing too-ra-li oo-ra-li ad-dy,
Singing too-ra-li oo-ra-li ay

I couldn’t help but marvel at how much I’d been looked after on this trip. I was truly blessed with hospitality and the company of amazing, beautiful and genuine folk. Must have clocked up a decent share of karmic brownie points dealing with so many needy bastards when I worked all those hours back at the hostel. I was being guided through the whole way by some benevolent force.

Sarah flew in later that first Friday night and we heralded in a big weekend. Annie’s wedding never went ahead in the end - a tale of thwarted marriage probably best left untold - but we partied on regardless, celebrating the non-wedding with rounds of olive-beaten dirty Martinis and shots of whiskey in a red-pleather-booth dive bar named Liquor Lyells. We crashed at our friend Katie’s place, ripping the tear where the night turns into morning and elongating the hours without promise or excuse. Katie owns a magenta blue cat named Zeus who strutted around like a ham on four toothpicks and pretty much owned the joint.

As well as the Foxes, I was fortunate enough to also meet Sarah’s parents throughout the course of the week. Barb came off a strong, amicable women with a temporary steeliness that made way for warm connection once she got to know you. Over tall lattes, the three of us were reduced to tears after an artillery of head-shakingly hilarious stories involving Sarah’s old man, Craig - a bloke with a hunger for life - all nine of them - and a magnetic capacity for enduring near-death blunders. Craig was an enigma, a man who got as close to death as possible if only just so he could laugh in its’ face and implore it to go fuck itself. I met him in person with the girls a day later, sharing a burger lunch at a classic Midwest beer den called ‘Lions’ Tap’. It was the type of wood panelled, neon beer sign roadside dive where your burger might be in danger of being hocked in by a flannelette hunter named ‘Sea-Bass’ if you expounded your penchant for liberal politics in too much more than a whisper. An accomplished outdoorsman with handle bar moustache and hint of ‘go fuck yaself’ burliness, Craig got into matter-of-fact detail as to how to properly gut a male Elk after you shoot, it the three of us chomped away queasily into dripping double bacon burgers.

Over dinner at Barb and Craig’s place in Lester Prairie some nights later, we reeled the stories in his presence. A while ago one of Sarah’s Irish mates joined them for a meal over at the ranch – Craig did his utmost to make the bloke feel extra welcome, pumping ‘Celtic female hits’ on the stereo before offering their guest an oversized tray of Potatos and a knowing wink. At another dinner he got up from his chair and lurched over to their guest to vigorously demonstrate how to shuck a prawn, wherein he sat heavily back down, falling through his chair in a mess of wood chip and panel, ass over tit on the dining room floor. Fed up with the poor satellite reception one night, Craig decided the surrounding trees in his backyard were the signal-blocking culprits. With chainsaw in hand, he gave what for to one massive oak, before it tipped awkwardly and destroyed the roof of his recently constructed shed. In a rash of ‘Fuck, shit n’ cocksucker’, he gave the saw to another one. This tree also fell askew, landing plumb on the roof of his truck. In additional flurry of ‘Fuck’ he missed the rest of his show cleaning up the damage. To his credit, the reception improved. I could go on about Craig’s many stories, all equally gold.

Already completely awash in the spontaneity of the journey and the joy of the unexpected, it was once Sarah and I drove to her family log cabin that any lingering dramas of the world spilled away, soaking myself completely in the natural order of things. The road on the way was the kind you’d see in ‘Stand By Me’ where badasses smash roadside postboxes with baseball bats out the window of their hotted up chevies. Damn kids.

On the banks of a tranquil Lake and surrounded by thick woods, Sarah’s digs ended up being the archetypal B-grade horror setting, a textbook scenario that could easily have inspired the Evil Dead or Friday the Thirteenth. It was brilliant. We sat under stars at the foot of the glorious Lake as the last of the day’s sun filtered into darkness. The silence was deafening, like something out of a Steinbeck novel – thick, tacit but for the odd rogue loon bird rousing the banks and the soft echo of our private conversation sailing across the expanse. Craig’s massive trophy Elk head stared into taxidermic nothingness at the foot of the staircase to the upper loft.. We warmed inside with a wood stove-fire and watched ‘Boondock Saints’ in blankets and I’d rarely felt as content or as cosy in my life. This was the American dream

Waking to wilderness in the balcony window, we were joined the next day not only by Foxy, but her cousins Erin and Nikki and mutual friend Phoebs. Again, I was to be tortured with the company of five beautiful women. As classic rock crunched out through the ancient solid state RCA, beer o’clock was hollered early as we rugged up and set the outdoor heath aflame for a good old-fashioned marshmellow roasting. Sky turned to starry blackness as maturity levels dwindled, my masculine constitution suffering considerable bereavement as it struggled to keep ahead of the impenetrable wall of estrogen.

I met a lot of Mary and Sarah’s old friends and acquaintances on this trip – old friends who’d come out of the woodwork; some who never got out of Minnesota, some, I’m sure who never left town. I’ve met so many characters on this trip I can barely put it all together and keep up with the faces. The biggest onslaught came the next day at ‘Grano’s’ wedding - a good mate of the girls from way back in high school who finally got his ass into gear and got hitched. We dolled up to the nines and I managed to score a sweet poo-brown Ralph Lauren suit on loan from Mary’s brother, thus avoiding a potential arrest by the fashion police draped in Craig’s ‘formal woodsman’ corduroy pants and sportcoat. Though the Lutheran priest forgot the bride’s name mid-speech, and one of the grooms made an unsettling oratory on par with Steve Buscemi’s dud-brother in the Wedding Singer, the wedding day overallwas a hit. Standing at the reception bar in brown suit and bright white TUK Jam sneakers, I was branded ‘Clark Griswald’ by the father of the groom - clearly the old man had little concept of taste, because this footwear continually garners positive commentary from randoms everywhere I go. The tune ‘Holiday Road’ was henceforth implanted unbudgingly in my head, on top of ‘Paradise by the Dashboard Light’ and an entire playlist of cheesy 80’s awesomeness, a bevy of DJ hits which forced us to shake our bits with matrimonial abandon across the parquetry dancefloor.

The 9am wake up was rough the next morning, especially considering we were checked in to the Radisson. Ordinarily a saviour, the round of Bloody Mary’s instead made us feel foul and limped the morning off to a poor start. Duluth today felt grimy and overcast, cold and foreboding. We bid our farewell to Zimmerman’s home and returned back down highway 61 to Chaska.

***


Back at Sir Ben’s pub in Duluth on that first afternoon, I remember standing outside in my white scarf and jacket. I smoked and stared at the horizon smothering the great Lake. Everything at that moment felt electric and heightened. Felt like I’d come a long, long way since May 15, and the most of it was that I suddenly struggled to see how I could ever possibly feel the same way about living back at home. For years I’d been reluctant to go too far, for too long – the allure of home, the safety and all the triggers to old memories I never wanted to lose – they were all magnets. I thought all I’d ever need would always remain where I began. My old frame of reference had been stripped away; my life was no longer where I left it. It was here. That ever shifting here that kept on spurring and sparking my soul, augments my interior universe with the replenishing sensation of infinite possibility and flow of a limitless imagination. I breathed in. I looked up.

.. the sky is a luscious warm blanket; perfect trimmed trees leaves bristle in chill Lake Superior breeze. A lone bird circles overhead in the grey heavens – wandering, but never lost. My airbound compatriot, my brother in crime…

Suddenly, all life and the concept of ‘home’ had been transformed while I let myself get swept away in the stream. Fluidity was everything.

My life, a foreign country.

2 comments:

Sam C said...

i want to go wandering.... sounds like your having a ball cam ;)


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wiboLibrary said...

Wow man, fucking awesome and inspiring. seriously.
Stay fluid!