I've stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains, I've walked and I've crawled on six crooked highways, I've stepped in the middle of seven sad forests, I've been out in front of a dozen dead oceans, I've been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard.- Bob Dylan
She should have sensed trouble when he said his name was Brad.
Brads were always trouble.
There was Brad, abusive ex-boyfriend of ex-girlfriend Terry. That Brad had left Terry in such a state she couldn't accept any gesture of love that didn't include a split lip or gut-punch. Then there was Brad, high-school tormentor of her younger, skinnier brother. That Brad had called Brian "faggot" all the way to senior year, never realizing how close, and how far off, he really was.
And now this.
Alison keeps both hands tight on the steering wheel, watching the road carefully as it writhes and squirms under her wheels. Colorado mountain road goes where it will, winding down and around with lots of sharp sudden turns. It's raining cold and hard on her windshield, stealing what little twilight is left. The heater is on full blast and her throat feels so tight she can barely breathe.
And she thinks the man in the seat beside her may be dangerous after all....
She never saw the southern mountains. She stayed until the festival was over, until the last tents had been taken down and the last tarps rolled up in the trading circle. She told herself she was enjoying the energy of the place. She told herself she wasn't waiting for Mouse to come back. She told herself all sorts of things.
But when the last women were gone, and night fell, the woods became a very large and empty place in which she was a woman alone.
She left the next morning.
For no reason at all, she decided to go north instead of south. So she did, wandering aimlessly up the spine of the Rockies along I-25. But as the days stretched into weeks, her travels became more rambling, less focused.
She stopped at a Renaissance faire somewhere in Colorado. She'd been to one in Texas and thoroughly enjoyed it: ornate impossible costumes, bawdy playlets on rickety stages, jousts and jewelry and juggling jesters in the street. Even though the sight of modern women bound up in 16th-century corsets didn't exactly thrill her, a happy hippie atmosphere was evident everywhere, just under the surface.
But soon it put her in mind of the Deadheads, and that put her in mind of....
Walking out across the cobblestone parking lot, ignoring imploring hawkers peddling archaic wares, she muttered "Fuck it" and found a phone. She called Cheryl, and Cheryl called Bobbi on three-way (ah, the 20th century), and Bobbi hopped on the Web and found the exact time and place of the Nevada Dead shows.
Cheryl didn't ask for an explanation. Alison was grateful. She knew it would sound as crazy as it actually was...but she had to find Mouse. Or at least try. The beautiful woman she almost met has become an obsession with her. The memory of her face, their missed kiss, has filled her nights and days in a way nothing has for...too long. Logically, she knows there's no chance of finding her; she should forget her and move on, but she just can't....
Besides, she's always wanted to see a Dead show.
So she set off for lost Vegas in the last week of June, 1994. On her way across the mountain state she stopped at a hostel in Boulder and met two girls there, Jamie and Paula, on summer break from USC and traveling across the country (possibly gay too, but most likely not). They went out and had a few beers, and when they got back to the hostel Brad was there. Jamie and Paula knew him from back home, they sat around talking in the cozy common room 'til 2 AM, and it was a terrific end to a warm evening with her new friends.
The next evening, though, the girls prepared to take off east. And Brad asked Alison for a ride to Las Vegas.
And she knew, she knew it's her first rule, her unbreakable rule - no hitchhikers, no hitchhiking. But she still felt so much fucking guilt and recrimination over letting Mouse go when she could have given her a ride...she wondered, as she had before, if Goddess was trying to teach her to be more trusting. Her new friends did know the guy...not from school, apparently, but they vouched for him....
So she gave in.
Even though his name was Brad.
And Brads were always trouble.
And he seemed pleasant enough on the way up the mountain - not very talkative, but then she wasn't either, it'd been so long since she'd had someone in the car with her. Some people are just more comfortable in silence. He asked a few questions, mostly about where she was from and where she was going, and even offered to drive if she got tired. It was actually sorta pleasant.
That is, until he was rummaging around in the kit bag on the floor in front of him, and she glanced down and saw an oblong triangle of naked steel gleaming in there. Even before she saw the handle, she knew it was a knife.
In that moment, everything changed.
He shut the bag, and she doesn't think he caught her looking down, but she's not sure and he hasn't said anything since. And now she's out on a Colorado mountainside miles from the nearest town, navigating hairpin turns in gathering darkness and driving rain, with a dangerous stranger in the seat next to her....
Suddenly she remembers: Watch out for a dark stranger....Someone blocking your path, someone I connect with the colors of night.
She was right. Everything she said was exactly right.
Not that it does her a lot of good now.
She has a Plan.
There's an overlook by the side of the road ahead, barely visible on the outer edge of twilight. It'll be dark very soon. Pulse throbbing in her temples, Alison says, "Shit!" and begins to slow down.
"What's the matter?" Brad's frown is barely visible in the shadows.
She motions at the right front tire. "It feels like we have a flat."
"I don't feel anything."
"You don't feel that?" By now the wheels are crackling on the gravel overlook, and the uneven surface gives her story credence. Struggling to keep her voice even, she manages her sweetest smile and says, "Could you take a look at it? I don't know anything about cars...." A complete lie. She did the tune-up herself before leaving New Mexico. She figures Goddess will forgive her.
He looks at her for a long moment, and she meets his gaze evenly. She is on the edge of panic, barely able to connect two thoughts together, but somehow she knows if she looks away, even for a moment, he will see through her. So she meets his gaze, and after a second he unbuckles his belt and turns to get out.
He leaves the door open, which throws her off for only one second. But an important second. She tries to decide if she should reach over and close the door; by the time she's decided not to, Brad has stepped in front of the car, thinking she meant the left front tire.
Now she can't pull away.
So much for the Plan.
Head down in the driving rain, he looks at the tire: "There's nothing wrong with it!"
With the last of her nerve dwindling, fear and panic rising, she motions frantically at the tire on the right.
He tells her to get out of the car.
She doesn't move.
He comes toward her instead.
Alison panics. It is the moment. Fear has sway. She starts scrambling across the seat for the open passenger door, only she doesn't move and something cuts off her breath and she realizes she's still buckled in. He's got hold of the door handle. She fumbles with the seatbelt release and finally gets free as he opens the door. She gets across the seat and outside. Her vision instantly blurs, unprotected lenses awash in cold hard rain. But now the car is between them.
At first she thinks he's going to get in, drive off and leave her stranded here in the storm, and even that would be preferable. But he doesn't. He's not after the car.
He comes around toward her, but she manages to keep the car between them. She knows she can outrun him, even on these twisting mountain roads, but leaving the car is stupid. She heads for the driver's door but he sees and doubles back, cutting off that path. She moves around again, keeping the car between them. He sees her going for the passenger door and suddenly he is running. He barrels around the trunk and toward her. She freaks and bolts past the door toward the front of the car. But he's too close - he crooks an arm around her waist, clotheslining her. Her scream is cut short as he throws her against the hood of the car.
As he comes for her, desperate thoughts break through the fog of panic. You are not going to die in this place. Do something! Pretend he's Rush Limbaugh! That does the trick: back against the hood, she pistons her track-star leg and plants the sole of her Doc Marten sandal in his face.
Something snaps and he flops backward comically, sneezing blood. She dashes for the door. He's right behind her. She can feel the wind on her arm as he reaches for her.
Strangely, she has a flash-memory of first grade: a game: "Duck Duck Goose." Running, screaming, with a little boy right behind her. Trying to make it around the circle before he catches her.
She swings around the open car door and gets in the seat. He's right at her heels, grabbing at her. She tries to slam the door and catches his head in it, hard. Bleeding and screaming rage he withdraws. He tries to grab her again and she closes the door on his arm twice more. The car starts to move and she realizes her free hand has slammed the gearshift into drive. She hits the gas and the car rockets off, churning up gravel as it goes. Brad shouts incoherently behind her.
The road disappears before her headlights. She gasps, brakes, turns the wheel sharply and fishtails down around another narrow turn, the driver door slamming shut on its own, passenger door still standing open, interior light still on. She looks around and behind for Brad, but it's totally dark now. She accomplished her escape in the last seconds of daylight.
She can't tell if she's hearing rain or running footsteps on the road. The next hairpin curve comes up sharply and she brakes -
Brad grabs the open passenger door, face dripping red rage and pain, blood and rain.
She screams and floors it again, whipping the door handle out of his hand, twisting the wheel frantically. Her tires rumble over the rough edge of the mountain road, then back on, as the passenger door slams shut on its own.
The light goes out.
She stops at the next town, barely a wide spot at the base of the mountain, not even big enough to have its own police department. Standing shaking in the Spif-E-Mart she calls the county sheriff. It only takes half an hour for the deputy to arrive. By then her fear has subsided, replaced by early anger. (There will be more anger...much more.) Alison goes with him on the search, winding up those mountain roads once more, slowly. It gives her plenty of time to think. She imagines seeing that bleak and bleeding face in the headlights. She thinks one sharp jerk on the deputy's wheel would put Brad in a world of pain. She thinks the deputy wouldn't react until it was too late.
But of course, by the time they get back to the overlook, Brad has vanished completely.
She follows the deputy to the station and sits for hours, answering questions and filling out forms. The bag contains several items, including the butcher knife (approx. nine inches long, red rust at the handle), but no ID. She calls the Boulder hostel, but Jamie and Paula are long gone.
As she sits in the station, holding a cup of coffee in one shaking hand, the cleancut deputy sheriff tells her they can check the knife for prints, but unless he's picked up in one of the surrounding towns, they may never catch him. Then he asks if Alison has any friends nearby she can stay with.
And it's only now that she realizes she's missed the Dead show.
Tracy and Harlan don't make the Vegas Dead shows either. They too are in Colorado, just across the Rocky Mountains and 400 years in the past.
Harlan stands at the gates of a walled city with a big grin on his face. By now his beard has grown out, and his hair curls down around his collar. He wears a black bandanna tied around his head and a white frilly pirate shirt under an outrageous psychotropic velvet vest. If an 18th-century buccaneer had come ashore at San Francisco during the late '60s and joined up with the Merry Pranksters, he might look as Mr. Davidson does now. All that's missing is a foul-mouthed parrot smoking a joint on one shoulder.
His bare feet are dirty.
Very, very dirty.
We're talking layers of dirt here.
Harlan likes getting dirty on the job, because he's always been so clean before....
He stands at the gates of a walled city, watching the people come and go. A fairely authentic parade of 18th-century musketeers saunters by, complete with swords and swashbuckle belts, followed by a contingent of dread-head grunge-punks wearing Nirvana shirts for the 100th consecutive day since Kurt Cobain died. Liberally sprinkled through the crowd are camera-clutching half-drunk yuppie tourist-types, all bald and pink in the sun. All in a day's work. Harlan loves his job.
"Program, milady?" he offers hopefully, but the woman only mutters "Fuck it" and walks off across the parking lot. Harlan doesn't mind. He knows he looks like an idiot, but he can't wipe the permagrin off his face.
The world of the Renaissance faire is so beautiful, and so completely cool, and so unlike anything he's ever experienced in any number of nine-to-five jobs. That's one reason he can't get rid of the grin.
Those mushrooms he ate an hour ago probably aren't helping either.
Soon enough (all in a second, as it seems) the cannon's BOOM! signals the close of the gates. In another instant the faire is empty of all but "Rennies," who walk exhausted down the dusty roads, pulling off purple berets to reveal purple crew-cuts, drawing lit Camels somehow from their cleavage.
As the sun sinks over stone parapets and oak tavern-signs that never knew a true Scottish rain, the temperature drops rapidly. The mountains reassert themselves over the fantasy-land at their feet.
Harlan touches an eyebolt and the wall swings back, becoming a door to another time. He walks past rows of trailers and campers, turns down a path into a vast tent city in the woods. Somewhere a drum beats quietly; he can smell the familiar smoke of pot and patchouli incense.
Rennies - Not hippies and not carnys, Rennies have qualities of both. Including craftspeople, performers and general laborers, they travel from faire to faire and usually live at the campsite through the week. Most have their own tents and vehicles and are quite adapted to living in the woods. The Rennie subculture is fascinating and familiar - very similar to the Deadheads in many ways. Although it seems, at first glance, to be based on modern primitivism and an urge to leave the bullshit modern world behind, I quickly realized that the motivation for most Rennies is not simple escapism. Modern primitives they are, but the lifestyle is not based so much on getting away from something as it is going toward something else. Exactly what, I'm not sure. I spoke to one Rennie who had worked as a carny on the east coast. He said the difference between the two groups was essentially the difference between a family and a homeless shelter. While the carnival circuit is full of petty larceny and even some physical danger, Rennies (like Deadheads) will watch out for your stuff, and even come to your aid if necessary.
Harlan hears an unnatural buzz in the darkness. A biker in black bandanna and Harley t comes up the trail on a motor scooter. "Hey, Harlan. Got yer camp pass?"
Harlan flips it out in an oft-repeated gesture. "Hey Todd, how's it going?"
Todd grimaces and barely glaces at the flat paper. "Rainbows coming through. Lots of 'em have Rennie friends. You know they'll be sneaking back into the campgrounds. Make sure you have your pass at all times. People without passes getting kicked out."
Harlan hasn't the faintest idea what Todd's talking about, but he nods and gives a psilocybin smile. "Hey, don't forget, I bet we get a lot of Deadheads coming through from the Vegas shows too."
Todd sighs. "Terrific. You see anybody without a pass, you be sure and let me know."
"Sure thing," Harlan says, thinking Fascist. Todd disappears up the trail in a huff of carbon monoxide.
At a camp around the next bend, several Rennies are playing cards on a folding table. A protective tarp is held up overhead with bungi cords. Harlan says, "Hey Ariel, you seen Tracy come by?"
The bleach-blond hippie is slow to look up from his cards. "No...should be by here any time...stop for a squat?" He holds out an ornate bronze pot-pipe. Harlan takes a seat and takes the hit, then passes the pipe to another guy he doesn't recognize.
Ariel says, "Like you to meet a friend of mine. This is Owl."
The name suits him...Harlan by now is used to the odd names hippie/Rennies choose for themselves in the spirit of every "Starshine" and "Flower" child ever born in the '60s. "Owl, hi."
"He's on the way to the Rainbow Gathering. Looking for a ride. You know anybody who's going that way?"
"I don't even know what the Rainbow Gathering is."
Owl says, "Got a spare week? I'll show you."
"You've never been to a Rainbow Gathering, man?" Ariel asks.
"I'd never even been to a Ren faire before I started working here. What is it?"
"Sort of a hippie United Nations out in the woods," Owl says. "Groups from all across the country come together in the national forest to camp out and build bonfires and drum and swim and laugh and smoke and walk naked. There's this incredible sense of community, too. You never felt such love from strangers. It's really an incredible, spiritual experience."
Ariel puts in, "They have free kitchens, and the food is fuckin' awesome. The camps are all named after the kitchens, like Veggie Delight or Popcorn Palace. Some of the best food you'll ever have on the road."
"Lots of good drugs there too," one of the other Rennies adds.
Owl arches a disapproving eyebrow. Harlan says, "Speaking of drugs...."
So someone hands him the pipe. He says, "Thanks, but that's not what I meant. I was just going to warn you Todd's been getting all pass-happy. He even said something about looking for Rainbows."
"Yeah, he's been by once already. Owl had to hide in the tent 'til he was gone."Owl grimaces. "I feel like the fucking French Resistance."
About that time Tracy arrives, her tiny tits bound up in a bodice that's supposed to make them look three times their natural size. "Oh Harlan, you are so wonderful, you saved me a hit!"
He holds the pipe to her lovely lips and lights it. "Always, ma cherie."
She sucks and puffs out smoke and kisses him. "'Ma cherie' is not Spanish, sweetie."
"Neither am I."
Harlan's neck no longer remembers the knot a tie would make in the hollow of his throat. But unlike other Rennies, he can never quite break the habit of reading newspapers over his coffee in the morning. The next day he reads an article that refers to a police shooting victim as "homeless." He tells Tracy: "I've never thought of you...of us...as 'homeless.' But that's how they'd identify us in the newspaper if one of us got killed."
"Oh- " Tracy tsks disapprovingly. "Don't say things like that."
"But it's true. They take your whole life and distill it down into one little word. Linear thinking. You have to fit a category everybody will recognize. Before I went on the road, I always thought of 'homeless' as an either/or proposition. Either you had a home or you didn't. I didn't realize there was another choice."
One of Harlan's favorite Rennies is fellow program-seller "Akbar Shalar." A bearded face, so tan it's almost black, grins out from under a genuine turban, fa crissakes. His outfit is pure Arabian Knights: harem pants and a Rudolph Valentino vest and even freakin' curly-toed shoes. He sells far more and faster than newbie Harlan; his accented "Istanbul not Constantinople" schtick knocks 'em dead.
A fast friendship forms, the way they do on the road. He joins Harlan and Tracy for pizza and beer in town after the day is over. Accentless, Akbar is smart and funny, a captivating conversationalist. Over crusts and empty plates they start on literature and wind their way through movies, sex, censorship and finally faith. Tracy's taking a leak when Akbar confesses he has an "unusual" religion.
Harlan's used to this sort of thing by now. On the road and especially with the Rennies, he's encountered an astonishing number of "unusual" religions. Maria's Santeria; Tracy, Taoist. He also knows Buddhists and atheists and adherents of Ra. He half-expects Akbar to say "pagan" or, at the most outside chance (considering his name) "Islam," but he's unprepared for what the man actually says:
"I'm a Christian."
|Chapter Notes||.angelheaded hipsters and visionary tics|