ALL THE STARS I’ve ever missed are out tonight. Last night, I got in late, slept two or three hours, and left for the airport at 4 a.m. Things were a bit rushed, and as I tried to get comfortable on the plane, I chastised myself for not wearing my leopard print caftan, or bringing a fur stole, which would have kept my legs warm and given me something cozy to snuggle up with. In other words, I could have dressed much more practically.
When I landed in Seattle, it was into a car for a four-hour drive into the mountains, past scores of signs with sensibly straightforward place names like “Panther Creek.” My favorite sight of all is the vast green, glassine surface of Diablo Lake. Today it was so clear I could see down to the silt as I passed over and up, until the last pass, with its sign announcing the elevation at 5477 feet. As I often tell friends, the drive into the North Cascade Mountain Range and beyond makes Big Sur feel like a quick trip to the grocery store. The warning signs don’t say “Beware…” or “Falling…” –– they just say “Rocks.”
It’s always worth it, though, because eventually things level out after a long downhill drive into the Methow Valley, and the town I’m in now, Mazama, where I’m launching the first-ever Festival of Books this weekend courtesy of a patron who fell in love with the place. When I first arrived, I thought I’d pass out, but a couple of gin & tonics and a mesmerizing sunset later, I was happily traipsing through a deer-filled field at dusk.
There’s no mobile reception here at all, unless you drive to the next town, fifteen miles away. The thing I love about Washington, though, is that no matter how many villages I passed through that didn’t have a stoplight on the way, there’s always a sign for espresso.
I slept on the plane most of the way across the country, and when I looked out the window, we were just a few miles from Seattle. Mount Rainier dominated the landscape. Being a child of the East Coast, such dramatic vistas always thrill me to my toes. I also thought of Denver, and then I wondered if the festival moderator and I should leave a night early and drive into Seattle and see if we can find some fun. She’s the Kerouac to my Cassady, and there’ll be time for all of those decisions to come. First, I have to figure out how to sneak into the swimming pool at the hotel across the way.
The hardest part of everything was getting into the car, just off the flight, knowing what a challenging trip lay ahead. I grew up driving, but abandoned the habit years ago. For a few surreal minutes, I circled the parking garage, wondering how I would do the real thing. The key is to begin the journey, and to stay mindful. The path is the practice.
During a period in which I had dropped out of high school (or had mono, depending on which one of my parents’ lawyers you were speaking with), I came across a copy of On the Road. Years later, I was asked to speak at an elite boys’ school, and I said, the great thing about literature is that everyone tells you to go to college, but you can just get in a car and drive it back and forth across the country until you figure out what you want to know. It wasn’t what I did, but realizing I could, as one of the vast possibilities, changed my life.
In closing, here’s my favorite passage from The Dharma Bums. In truth, I thought mostly of Desolation Angels on the drive today, but it’s been years since I’ve had that text handy.
“‘Alvah, Princess says she’s a Bodhisattva.’
‘Of course she is.’
‘She says she’s the mother of all of us.’
‘The Bodhisattva women of Tibet and parts of ancient India,” said Japhy, ‘were taken and used as holy concubines in temples and sometimes in ritual caves and would get to lay up a stock of merit and they meditated too. All of them, men and women, they’d meditate, fast, have balls like this, go back to eating, drinking, talking, hiking around, live in viharas in the rainy season and outdoors in the dry, there was no question of what to do about sex which is what I always liked about Oriental religion. And what I always dug about the Indians in our country… You know when I was a little kid in Oregon I didn’t feel that I was an American at all, with all that suburban ideal and sex repression and general dreary newspaper gray censorship of all our real human values but and when I discovered Buddhism and all I suddenly felt that I had lived in a previous lifetime innumerable ages ago and now because of faults and sins in that lifetime I was being degraded to a more grevious domain of existence and my karma was to be born in America where nobody has any fun or believes in anything, especially freedom. That’s why I was always sympathetic to freedom movements, too, like anarchism in the Northwest, the old-time heroes of Everett massacre and all…’ It ended up with long earnest discussions about all these subjects and finally Princess got dressed and went home with Japhy on their bicycles and Alvah and I sat facing each other in the dim red light.”