A Dangerous Summer's Night
Poised on that twilight edge between life and death, I felt intimately the part of me that was flesh, and I knew also that I was something more.
I came to that insight early on. I was scarcely twenty.
IT WAS 1977, a drought year in the American West, the driest year in recorded history, although history in those parts went back only a hundred years.
Back then, all of America was in a drought. The fever dream of the sixties had simmered down and the country had lost its way. The national mood was dispirited, in recovery from shocks and traumas, pinched by stagnation and inflation. Fatalism shadowed sunny American optimism.
Gas prices had never been higher. But I didn't care. I was riding a bike.
America was hardly past its two hundredth birthday as I was nearing my twentieth. Its bicentennial year called for celebrations to restore a sense of the nation's magic and promise. Out of that came a bicycle trail, the BikeCentennial, forged from coast to coast through America's most spectacular countryside. My college roommate and I were riding the trail on our summer vacation. Encouraged by the 1970s culture to strive for self-discovery, we were hoping that the song of the open road would enlarge life's meaning.
In the Cascades of the Northwest, drought conditions were melting the glaciers left from the last ice age. The mountain passes cleared unusually early in the summer of '77 and allowed us to scale the highest pass. On the seventh day of our journey, we rode up through green rain forest. At the summit, a field of lava, night-black, surrounded us from every direction, as if a devastating fire had burned through only yesterday. Breathing in the air of the heights, we headed down. Trees abruptly appeared again. Only now they were reddish desert trees.
We set up our tent along a river in a small park in a desert of juniper and sage,and bedded down for the night. It was Wednesday, June 22, the summer solstice. As the earth slowly turned in the dark, Americans in one time zone after the next settled in front of their TVs, safe in their living rooms. They watched the CBS Wednesday-night movie, the world television premiere of a dark and unsettling Western, one of those edgy films made in the seventies that reflected the mood of national cynicism. It was a film complete with psychopaths and moral degeneracy, a new American mythology that turned the romantic version of the Old West on its head.
The sound of screeching tires woke me. It was near midnight, and we had just gone to sleep. A stranger deliberately drove over our tent, then attacked us both with an axe. I saw his torso. He was a meticulous cowboy who looked like he had stepped off a movie set.
My great voyage across America ended abruptly there. And that was how I reached young adulthood, with a certain knowledge of life at its farthest edges.