ON HE RODE — Chapter Eighteen

There have been times in my life when I was convinced the act of

sleeping was an unnecessary habit promulgated by atavistic traditions

as normal and necessary when in actual fact it was no more effective

at promoting health and well-being than praying to some vague Power

with your friends on Sunday morning. Who says there’s a God. Show Him

to me. Who says we need to sleep eight hours of every twenty-four? Or

at all? Wasn’t Edison’s genius a result of his getting by on

occasional cat naps? Wasn’t Twain a notorious insomniac? And

Hemingway? And Kerouac himself? Why waste time sleeping? Ever?

Parked on a high, sweeping cliffside looking over the Pacific Ocean

somewhere south of San Francisco, I’m learning to gauge time by a

gradual decrease in traffic, and as time passes and traffic lightens,

each approaching vehicle carries a heavier burden of dark potential.

What if a cop stops to check me out? Am I doing anything illegal? Will

some whiskery Golden State Trooper in a Smokey the Bear uniform haul

me in for violation of Article ZZZ of the California Code of Criminal

misdemeanors? “Excuse me, Mr. Smokey, sir, what is that article about,

in simple terms?”

“Only you . . .,” he growls before he catches himself and covers with

a fake coughing spell. “Hack, skrack, hrumph,” he goes, pretending to

clear an already dry throat. “Hrumph. That violation would be

‘sleeping on the side of a public thoroughfare’,”

“Excuse me, Officer Smokey, but did you actually witness me sleeping?”

“Well, hrumph, er.”

“No, you couldn’t have. Because I wasn’t.”

Etc. Sleep deprivation quietly at work.

The space between the front seat and the trunk lid is long enough to

let me stretch out full length, but I can’t decide which end is up.

When I lie with my head against the setback and my feet in the trunk,

I feel exposed and vulnerable. When I lay my weary head in the trunk,

I’m claustrophobic.

Weary? There must be some way of dealing with that other than sleep.

Weariness is a bad habit that can by overcome by strength of will. I

feel tired because I expect to be tired, believe I should be tired

during this part of this twenty-four-hour cycle. I’ve been told so

since birth, so I believe it. What if I give this gigantic

misconception a name, say The Circadian Myth, and simply refuse to pay


Yeah, well you try getting back on the road in your gimpy old Chevy at

two or three a.m. and see where it gets you. It gets me as far as

rolling the windows a small notch farther down to let in slightly more

air. And here I lie looking up at the lights cast by the occasional

approaching, passing, then receding vehicle played out on the

still-spotless headliner, remembering small-kid-time rides in the

rumble seats of Model A Ford and Chevy coupes. If it rained, you

closed the lid and curled up on the seat in the dark, listening to the

tires’ rumble and trying to guess where you were, how close to


And remembering the bare-breasted young women in Sausalito and

wondering — were they in fact the night shift at the NO-NAME on their

way to work? Or is it just pretty to think so? And remembering Jayne

Mansfield and Mickey Hargitay, decapitated in their Cadillac

convertible by an errant eighteen wheeler. Front-page news last summer

on the bus from Montreal to JFK to catch my charter to Amsterdam, the

tragedy made personal by memories of the Jayne Mansfield artfully au

naturel calendar decorating my high school bedroom wall.

Remembering the lithe Dutch beauty at the VVV, the visitors’

information counter, who thought I looked “smashing!” and dedicated

herself to personally introducing me to Amsterdam restaurants,

theaters, and tennis courts, an introduction permanently interrupted

by her boyfriend, a second-year law student who defeated me rather too

handily at singles.

By then I was becoming quite the European bon vivant and wound up on

an international cycling adventure to Hamburg with an American Ph.D

candidate in psychology who looked like Meryl Streep. While she never

said I looked smashing, she liked me well enough to continue

exchanging letters. I’ll see her in Boston, if this funky

bedroom-on-wheels can be coaxed that far.

Eventually the eastern sky brightens, and I remind myself that I no

longer need to sleep. But old habits die hard. Hold that line, hey!

Because I have taken the precaution of parking on an incline, I’m not

lured into wasting battery on the starter button and opt for an easy

jump-start from a long, gentle roll. She’s a bit rough at first, as

usual, then smooths out and feels almost normal. Let’s be

strong-willed about this and drop the “almost”. Drives like she just

left the showroom. Truly.

Somehow I find myself in this place called Big Sur, which does not

seem as well-defined as I expected, which could be a good thing. Since

it’s more spread out than you might expect, it incorporates just about

any kind of vegetation and terrain you can imagine — even a touch of

high desert, it seems to high-powered desert expert me.

I park on a wide spot overlooking, well down below, a wide, solitary,

isolated, uninhabited small-gravel beach. Perfect. And only about five

hundred straight-down yards of hard dirt and scruffy trees and shrubs.

Great. Bag up a few beers, grab my git-box, and over the side we go.

Evers’s old man played good guitar. Small-bodied, sweet-toned Gibson.

Git-box or git-fiddle, he called it.

The hillside itself is an adventure. Cliffside, really, but if I pick

my way carefully, gradually, one hand free to grad scrub vegetation or

outlying rocks, I’ll find my way through a treacherous plethora of

cans, boxes, bottles, sharded glass: civilization and its discontents.

Talk story

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