‘follow your inner moonlight; don’t hide the madness’
– Allen Ginsberg
Last Saturday the pontiac finally crossed over into the realm of the unreliable vehicle. After nearly 300,000 miles, 2 deer, and 2 water pumps, the transmission was a ticking time bomb. When the tape fell off the service engine light and the dashboard became a carnival of glowing symbols, I pulled over to the side of the road and searched for the panic button. Finding none, I sat helplessly as escaping steam belched from under the hood, the thermometer shot up into ‘self destruct’ mode, and the air took on vague undertones of acrid burning rubber. It was only a quarter mile or so from the house, so I hunched along the right side of the road, envisioning the engine stalling as I climbed the hill and trying to wish away the possibility of its occurence. I made it home fine, but the pontiac had a date with a mechanic shop and then a dealership.
After a brief romance with a tow truck the car was restored to working order and we made the daunting journey to the dealership to be financially assaulted by the jackal salesmen. They swarmed down upon us from out of the jungle of cars lined up in neat gleaming rows of chrome, and when the dust had cleared we ended up with another bill in the mail and a brand new 2084 Jeep Orwellian, its dashboard pulsing with the lights from a thousand bells and whistles I would never understand.
“You have a year of Sirius XM for free”, boasted the dealer. “You can even watch Netflix on this baby”. I thought about asking him if the vehicle’s safety coverage accounted for headon collisions that occured as a result of watching Netflix while tooling along I-35 at rush hour, but he snatched the phone out of my hand before I could speak.
“That’s not part of the trade in!” I yelled.
“I’m just syncing your bluetooth to the car’s computer system. “, he said.
“Now they’ve got me”, I assured myself, sinking down into the driver’s seat. “They’ll know every move I make”.
“It’s not just a vehicle, it’s an entertainment system”, he continued.
“That’s good”, I replied, “because I’m not going to be able to afford any other forms of entertainment after this car payment starts tracking me down.”
He didn’t laugh, but I figured he was saving it for after I had signed the papers.
Less than an hour later we were driving the Orwellian home, with my nine year old son instructing me from the backseat on how to operate the XM radio. Our path took us through the Lyndon Baines Johnson National Grasslands, its black jack mottes and clearings of little bluestem adorned in the cloak of winter. Earlier in the week the area had seen a low of 7 degrees. I had gone out on an intended birdwalk that day once the mercury had climbed to 16, but with a wind that had several days ago swept through the Canadian tundra piercing the exposed areas around my eyes and cheeks, it had ended up being the shortest hike of my life. A pair of sparrows were the only things moving, and they looked as though they were having second thoughts. The ground and grass beneath my feet were encased in a thin layer of ice that crunched and crackled and melted and soaked through the mesh in my hiking boots, which still bore the dried smears of pond mud from last fall.
The hike had been more of a last-ditch resort, in all honesty; an attempt to get back in touch with nature after a hectic steady onslaught of the winter blues fueled by the icy weather and mechanic shop dues and the beginning of another semester. And I felt it again as we passed the turnoff for Cottonwood Lake, a 40-acre reservoir built in the name of flood control on the LBJ. As the gadgets and apps beeped away on the jumbo screen someone had embedded in my dashboard, my mind went back to a summer of my past. I had actually skipped my own post-graduation party to go cruising the Grasslands for copperheads on that night, leaving a bunch of friends and family members high and dry, but it was late May on a new moon night and what a night for copperheads it had been! Along the sandy path that wound over the top of the levee on the lake and back into the horse trails that had been carved from a dense section of woodland I had celebrated my first night of scholastic freedom herping in cap and gown. The headlights falling upon the next serpentine assortment of russet and orange crossbands were worth more congratulations than all the handshakes from wellwishers and illegal beer kegs the night had otherwise to offer me.
Passing by that familiar turnoff now, nearly twenty years later, with Siri and Zev engaged in a shallow conversation around me, I longed all the more for a wilderness getaway. But the grip of winter would be loosened no time soon, and the Machine is a mighty one, with great teeth and a cavernous, gaping maw that swallows all it sees and leaves poverty and desolation and wastelands in its wake.
A week has passed now since I fed that machine and braved the world of barter and trade and negotiate and sign the dotted lines here and initial there, and still I have found no time for an outlet. No wilderness and too much commercialism make Jack a dull boy indeed, and while the average American slips into a euphoric funk that triggers the same chemical reaction in the brain as an opium rush when they purchase a new vehicle, I suppose I was wired differently. They say nothing beats the smell of a new car, but I have been to the Big Thicket after a warm spring rain, with the earthy tones of newly emergent fungi complementing the rich, sharp invasion of the scent of the pines. Where the drumming of an unseen pileated woodpecker somewhere above echoes through the magnolias and cypress swamps, with a perfection no surround sound system can replicate, and the frog and cricket and birdsong unavailable on any Sirius XM channel resound from the deep interior of the forest from tannin-rich pools and dense stands of greenbrier. Where cottonmouths and five lined skinks and the ever-present acrobatic anoles bask in the vibrant patches of sunlight that shine down in glorious celestial rays through the canopy. As I navigate the Orwellian back home at the end of another long, cold January day, my mind travels back there to where it is summer once again, where human progress and westward expansion and Chrysler Dodge and oil pumpjacks and fake news exist in some unseen and unwanted and undesirable dimension on the other side of the trees, whose naked branches are now clothed in long flowing dresses of jade and emerald and a new generation of countless species of a multitudinous number of organisms pulses through the woods and fields and prairies like a throbbing heartbeat.
“Patience”, I say, accidentally aloud.
“I don’t understand. Can you repeat the question?”, Siri suddenly blares in her monotonous, autonomous voice, devoid of emotion or concern.
“Shut up. I wasn’t talking to you”, I warn the car. “You couldn’t help me with this problem, I assure you.”
“This is madness”, I think, this time keeping it to myself. “Keep it together. Spring will come.”