From ghoulies and ghosties and long leggety beasties
And things that go bump in the night, The Good Lord, deliver us!
IT WAS the night of the poison gas in the South Dakota motel room that cured me of my obsession with the occult - one of those old stucco motels they'd built back when tourists still drove out to watch the Sioux do rain dances on the Rosebud Reservation. Then the traffic had gone all to trailer trucks, to judge from the big worn-out tires the motel owner had painted white and put in a ring around the flagpole, planted full of geraniums. I could imagine years of that motel shuddering through long nights of 70-mile-an-hour hog haulers racing the reaper to the Chicago stockyards. But that had been before Interstate 70 or 80 or 90, one of them, had taken all the trucks away. That motel had a lot of ghosts.
I was primed for the old poison gas motel trick, I can see that now. But the night it happened, it seemed like just another in a long string of strange nights. It was the summer of 1970, a year in which paranoia seemed mere common sense. I was driving around America in a Volkswagen guided by the I Ching, which is a Chinese book of divination, and my tires pumped up to 60 pounds each. I wanted a lot of road feel. Maybe I should say Road Feel; everything else had a capital letter on it that summer - Reality, The Truth, Paranoia, Total Awareness.
I'd been roaming around the Sangre de Cristo mountains, up in northern New Mexico, looking for The Truth among the crucifixion cults, the acid cowboys, the communes with the prayer gongs made out of old acetylene gas tanks the welders had used to build the geodesic domes. I'd meditated, levitated, centered and encountered, kneeling, healing and generally dealing myself one solitaire hand after another from what I hoped was the Big Deck.I'd retained enough skepticism to get me in arguments, but there were so many people that year who wanted to argue about talking to plants, and what kind of silk scarf you had to wrap your Tarot cards in that I'd given up and decided I believed whatever the next fire-eyed hitch-hiker I picked up was going to tell me. All of it. Go with the flow. Besides, I was full of questions, which seemed to imply the universe was full of answers, if only I could find them.
Prophets were everywhere, in the unlikeliest disguises - taco vendors, supermarket checkout clerks, anybody.
I remember the New Mexico State Forest Ranger, for instance, the night he caught me without a fee paid in a campground. He was nice enough about collecting the fee, didn't make any remarks about my long hair or probable drug habits. He even told me what everyone wants to hear from his favorite prophet/guru/medium/mojo man: "You don't have a thing to worry about."
Then he looked at me like he was waiting for an answer.
"Well, good," I said.
"yeah, I'll be cruising through about every 15 minutes," he said. "Till 3 a.m." He gave the pistol he carried a comfortable slap on the grip.
"What happens at 3 a.m.?"
"What happens is that this law enforcement officer goes home to a couple of tall cold ones," he said.
I must have been staring at him.
"Don't worry," he said. "Whatever you're doing is your business as far as I'm concerned."
"I'm not doing anything," I said, way too fast. I wondered how to ask what I needed to ask without showing rank fear. "Is there anything I should be . . . looking out for?"
He gave that big park ranger grin that tells you it's all right to drink the water and no, that's not poison Ivy. "Not as long as you see my headlights coming around."
The message was ambiguous, but that's the way The Wisdom works. I stayed awake all night, thinking about it. I might have asked the I Ching for its advice, except that the way things were going I'd get that reading about the castle wall falling into the moat, all is lost. Besides, I'd have to show a light.
So by a couple of weeks later, I'd found a campsite way back in the hills where I didn't have to worry about some beer-sodden cowboy shotgunning me right through my sleeping bag, because only a real lunatic would be this far up, some kill-crazy LSD fanatic looking to polish up his ritual. And the I Ching said not to worry, just like the ranger had, along with all the palm-reading Vassar dropouts and Zen homeopathic Tarot card readers and so on I'd been consulting in what I liked to think was a great adventure into the unknown.
It was raining, up there is in the mountains, and cold. And lonely and undecided, I wrote poems like:
Bloody toothbrush, comb full of hair.
It ain't much, but it shows.
I'ms still there.
Indecision is your perfect predicament for the I Ching to solve. But some voice in me began to say about the I Ching what the car salesman says about the Blue Book when you point out that the price he's offering for your trade-in is lower than what the Blue Book says it's worth: "The Blue Book doesn't buy cars." I'd ask the I Ching what to do. I mulled the answers while the rain condensed on the inside of my ripstop nylon tent, and soaked into my sleeping bag. I began to worry that no matter what price the I Ching, my cosmic Blue Book, quoted me, I had nothing to sell. Or buy. So I tossed the coins for another hexagram, looking for clarification, till I was cranking one out about every fifteen minutes. It was clear I'd burnt out the system.
Anyhow, you know already I took matters into my own hands and decided to head east, ending up in that South Dakota motel room. Along the way I tried tapping into Ultimate America by finding the mountain where Black Elk, the Sioux medicine man, worked his great rain miracle. I found it - Harney Peak - through a series of coincidences which always fail to amaze listeners when I describe them, so I won't here. I climbed the mountain, faced into the wind and tried to center. Nothing much happened, so I climbed into a deserted ranger tower, littered with all the crumpled paraphernalia of chemical and sexual intoxication, and left a snotty note about how nobody had put up a plague to commenmorate the great miracle that Black Elk had worked here in the presence of author John G. Neihardt. (Black Elk Speaks )
When I got back down off the mountain, I happened to be standing in a U.S. Government Park Service men's room when I encountered a man who described himself as a poet. Like I say, I believed everything, back in those days. Stranger yet, it was true. His name was Mike Kincaid, if you ever read anything by him, and I offered him a ride back to Minneapolis, telling him the ride back to Minneapolis, telling him the ride would be rough, on those 60-pound tires, but I wanted a lot of raod feel. You know, Road Feel.
The first night out, we drove along the southern edge of the Rosebud Indian Reservation, on a two-lane black-top that rolled under a moon just bright enough that we tried to find the site of the Wounded Knee massacre by it until one too many 15-year-old Buicks full of Indians lumbered up behind us, right behind us, bumper to bumper, those old coil springs lashing the headlights across the backs of our heads while Kincaid and I kept telling each other "Don't turn around." So we gave up and decided to go for time instead of culture on this trip.
It got late and later. The moon set, the clouds crushed down on the prairie or the plains or whatever, the hell they call it. No lights anywhere, and I was outrunning our Volkswagen headlights, which, in those days, were apparently designed and aimed for a slow reading of the names on mailboxes. In other words I was driving 80 miles an hour into total blackness. Except, of course, for an occasional oncoming car. This being the summer that I was trying to Figure It All Out, I had a handrolled smoke or two and began to hink about those oncoming headlights - how the only way I could tell how far away the car was depended on how small the headlights seemed and how close together. I studied them as they swelled up from horizon pinpricks, growing further apart and bigger until thought and fact joined in a hurricane BOOM of Indians wallowing past in some old four-door sedan, all beer cans and purple skin in that dead headlight light. Which set me to wondering. How could I tell for absolutely certain if those tiny headlights belonged to a car that was real far away, of if it was little tiny motor-cycles being ridden by midgets real close together only a hundred yards off? I had many questions of this nature, especially when I would spot one headlight: a motorcyle? A car with one headlight out? Which headlight? Was he on the wrong side of the road? Etc. Etc. Until the poet said in the gentlest of tones, "Would you like me to drive?" and I realized I'd leaned so far forward, concentrating, that my forehead was nearly touching the windshield. (I see myself now, in the pose of eternal cosmic rush, like the Indian they used to put on the hoods of Pontiacs.)
I would have liked to have let him, truly, but I wasn't sure I'd be able to brief him about the various metaphysical hazards that driving entailed that night. Besides, that motel was sitting a few miles down the road, and it's hard, even now as a disbeliever, an apostate, to think that I wasn't destined to turn in there, even with Kincaid complaining about the cost, and couldn't we just lay our sleeping bags out in a rest area?
His money worries faded, I think, when he saw the truck tires planted with geraniums, and the American flag hanging ragged on the pole.
The night clerk was friendly. Not even too friendly.
I forget the price.
The room was exactly what I expected: one 40 watt bulb in the middle of the ceiling raining needles on beds so hard the middles were high than the edges. With the plastic underneath the too-short hseet, and plumbing with a pensive pace about it. Including a sheet-steel stall shower that thundered when you stamped around in it, with the nozzle so low you had to crouch while it coughed and spat at you, hot and cold, alternating. I gave up on it and lay back on one of the beds, knowing from too much experience in motels of this kind that you can't get the plastic off the mattress, or it isn't worth the work, even though you know you'll wake up sweaty.
So I lay there inventorying the room, the sad old peel-veneer bureau and black spots worn in the mirror; a linoleum floor, a chromed coat rack and no closet and that pipe sticking out of the wall. The pipe stuck about three inches out of the wall, too short to hang things on, too high to connect anything to, painted the same no-color as the wall, somewhere between institutional lime and cafeteria beige so you'd hardly notice it, much less wonder what it was there for. And open, almost as if that's where they'd pump the poison gas in if this were some bad old movie, black and white, shot in the San Fernando Valley starring Kevin "Invasion of the Bodysnatchers" McCarthy or either the early or late Victor Mature. Sure. Rember Psycho with Tony Perkins as the motel owner, and Janet Leigh's blood swirling down the shower drain? I mean, why would you have that pipe there? It didn't make sense, unless you accepted something like the poison gas explanation, which was absurd - absurd at least as long as I could come up with something better.
At this point, I suspected that I wouldn't. The demon had taken over, call it paranoia, which I define as finding patterns where there aren't any, like journalists on a slow news day. (I know this definition doesn't include the superiority and persecution complexes you find in the textbooks, but in the late '60s doctors had begun to stretch the meaning of the word after experiments like one in San Francisco, among acidheads, that showed some of them believed the whole universe was a conspiracy in their favor). Of course, I could have solved the whole problem by getting up and lookin in the pipe. Even the image of an eye staring back from the other end didn't deter me. But Kincaid, I knew, was out of the shower now. What if he caught me up on a chiar, staring into that pipe? He'd think I was crazy. Did I want to share a motel room with a man who not only introduced himself in men's rooms as a poet, but thought I was insane, too? Then again, didn't I have a responsibility to him, to his family, just in case my poison-gas theory was right?
So it went, as I lay there half-showered and sweating under that little lightbulb, until, through sheer will power, I persuaded myself that my fears were purely paranoid. They had no rational, material basis. Okay. That's better. We've settled that. EXCEPT! What if, at the same time, I happened, by the merest coincidence, by a one-in-a-billion chance, to be right? And around it went again.
Of course, I had made the first mistake of the occultist. I had assumed that sine I had a question, there had to be an answer. Epistemologically speaking, I was about 6 years old, refusing to believe that my father could sometimes and why they didn't sometimes. The second mistake was thinking that I'd been exploring the unknown with all this stuff, when all I'd been looking for were knowns, unwilling to let uncertainty alone, trying to pave over the informational wilderness, bad psychic ecology.
It's hardly once a year now that I throw the coins for the I Ching. I went to an astrologer four years ago but don't have any urge to go back, even at the cut-rate yearly follow-up price she sets. I've given up taximancy, a secret art of divination I'd learned in New York City years before, when I was still a bright young man in Brooks Brothers suits: that you know you're on top in New York, that the Big Apple's dice are rolling your way when all you have to do is lift your hand and a taxi is there. I still throw spilled salt over my shoulder and knock on wood, but these are old habits acquired from an aunt who also believed it was bad luck to have either an open umbrella or a picture of a bird in the house.
Anyway, I decided not to tell Kincaid that he might never wake up. Or that I might never get to sleep. (No thought of leaving the motel. Gun us down in the parking lot. Didn't like to do it, was risky, but if they had to . . .)