"You gonna kill anything today?" says a voice from outside my motel room at dawn.
"Just a part of myself," I should respond — but I don't know that yet, so I say nothing.
The voice belongs to one chucker hunter who is trash talking another by asking facetious hunting questions like is he going to kill anything today, when he knows very well they are both going to kill something and probably many things today because they are chucker hunters and they are here to hunt and kill chuckers.
Sometimes life will give you signs, and it is good if you can see them, because they can show you the way and prepare you for what is to come. The most important signs are usually not labeled, so they are like secret signs. They occur in the physical world, but they map your inner landscape, and they are made just for you. Since they are secrets, you cannot read them directly — instead you must use feeling and intuition to uncover their meaning.
The man at the motel asks me where I am going and I say south. He says that first I should go north to see the playa, and I say that maybe I will. He says that really, really, I should see the playa before leaving, and he smirks at me like there is something licentious waiting for me there. I ask if I can take his picture but he says no, and then I remember you can't take pictures of prophets.
So I drive 20 miles north on a dirt road to the playa, which is vast and desiccated and totally deserted, with flat cracked earth stretching on for miles. I see a blank sign and take the road it marks, which leads to the shore of the dried up lake. I walk out onto the playa and feel the earth. In my fingers it crumbles like feta cheese. Under my feet it is soft like a yoga mat. After a while I come to a piece of wood that points to the other side and seems to say 'this is the way.'
Soon I see a small white box sitting in the dirt. As I get closer I see it is a toilet, which is a very strange thing to find in the middle of a playa. Stuffed into the toilet and staring up at me is a coyote carcass, grimacing and terrible. Nearby, a piece of wood is separated from its shadow, which seems to say that something is about to change.
I go to get my car and drive onto the playa in a trance, speeding and swerving and covering my eyes just for the hell of it. I stop precisely at the center and get out. There is a huge and perfect circle drawn in the dirt. I walk into it, and my whole body starts to tingle, like some kind of invisible energy is rushing through me. I spin around several times, and try to understand what it is.
I think how the coyote toilet was the death of something shitty in me, something I no longer need that was brought into the open and conquered in solitude. I think how the playa is like my whole life, and that this circle is the halfway point. Into the circle run tire tracks in various formations. Behind me the tracks run in perfect parallel pairs. Ahead of me the tracks cross and change places and I wonder what this means. There are no tracks inside the circle. Behind me are the mountains, covered in snow and foreboding. Ahead of me is a low mesa, lit pink by the sun. Behind me is the past, the mountains like ancestors. Ahead of me is the rest of my life, with death on the other side of the mesa. I think about driving to the mesa but I don't do that, because before you can know your future you first have to live it, and for now it is enough to understand the landscape.
So I sit in the dirt and I think for a while and I write a little bit, and when I get up I give the playa some water to help with the dryness. On my way back I see the red skull of something that died, and I think about other things that have died.
— Part 2: The Gun —
I drive south, across the beautiful desolate wasteland of southeastern Oregon, and hardly see another car. I drive dirt roads through canyons, up and down buttes, over mountains, and across wide open plains. I am hunting down Willow Creek hot springs, which the motel prophet said I should visit. I get lost many times, because there are no (conventional) signs, and I venture 10 miles through sage brush up onto the wrong mountain, only to turn back once I reach the summit, which is cold and gorgeous with raptors gliding past me. I find the hot springs at last, and get out of my car.
There is one other car — a 1975 Chevy truck — with a canvas tent pitched next to it, a barbecue smoking on the ground, and hip hop music blasting. I wave politely to the man, who is big and gruff and dirty. Slowly he approaches me. He is scruffy, unshaven, holding a beer, wearing holographic skull sunglasses and a camouflage hat, and has a pistol holster strapped to his chest, with an extra clip on the side. We are alone in a vast valley with nothing around for many miles, and I am scared.
"Vermont, eh?", he says, looking at my plates.
"Yeah, sorry about that."
"You shoot guns?"
"Never shot a pistol. Shot a rifle a few times."
"You want to now?"
My heart is beating fast, and I am very nervous, and try to think what would be the best way to handle this. I say, "Sure."
He chugs the rest of his beer, paces out ten steps, puts the can on the ground, walks back, and hands me the gun.
"Damn! You shure you ain't never shot a pistol before?"
"Nope, never. Guess I'm just lucky."
I think he is impressed and he lets me take his picture, so I feel a bit safer taking off my clothes and bathing in the hot spring, which now feels especially baptismal. Spindly green algae dance through the water and onto my skin, and the bullet casing sits next to me on a rock, lit bright by the sun.
The man drives off for more gas, leaving me all alone. I keep on south into Nevada, passing cows, casinos, and a Christmas light cross, which collectively satisfy just about any vice.
— Part 3: The Owl —
It is late and I haven't eaten since breakfast, so I am tired and hungry and I pull into the town of Mt. Battle, Nevada. As I drive slowly down the main drag and look at the only hotel and restaurant in town, I rub my eyes a few times in disbelief, but each time I see the same thing, so then I know where it is I will be eating dinner and where it is I will be sleeping tonight.
I walk inside past avian artwork, and take a seat in the big and dimly lit dining room, at a square table next to the wall. The man at the neighboring table is a former Gulf War air force pilot, who returned to Reno to find his wife with another man, so he moved here and bought an RV park with crystal meth tenants. He talks constantly to me without interruption for more than an hour. I only grunt and nod as he goes from pork chops, to missile warfare, to electronic espionage, to Middle Eastern politics, to gold mining, to Central American shopping malls, to geothermal explosions, to volcano airplane photography, to the myth of climate change, to earth's rotational precession, to food shortages, to marital infidelity, to litigious neighbors, to hearing loss and diabetes, and on and on, every few sentences shifting his position or standing up briefly to stop a cramp, but never ceasing to talk.
I have the feeling that some lesson is hiding in all of this talk, but I am too tired to fish it out. It is one of those conversations that begins very interesting, but quickly becomes exhausting, and instead of really listening to the words, you listen only for a break in cadence when it would be polite to excuse yourself and leave. Finally I say it has been lovely talking but I have to go, and I thank him for telling me so much. I think that maybe something he said buried itself in my subconscious and will reemerge to me at some crucial moment between here and the mesa, but who knows when or what that moment might be.
He follows me through the casino, pointing out gamblers who owe him rent. They are hiding in the light of the slot machines and smoking, hoping to win big so they can avoid eviction, which strikes me as a tenuous strategy. We go outside into the night, our faces glowing red from the neon light of the Owl Club sign overhead. I zip up my coat and wish him well. We shake hands and roll away into the cold Nevada night.