D.E. Steward

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Jessie Jenine

Season of the rolling resonant cacophonies of great crested flycatchers sallying out high in the canopy throughout the center of the day

And the steady vibrative pre-mammalian cicada rasping the dark evening into night

Summer sounds of thunder rolling beyond

As cicadas go silent

Wind comes up fast pitching the high branches

Lightning’s sizzle crack close-in

Sheeting rain

Zinc roof rattle slam of it  

Afterward, Howard Hanson’s singing Second’s first movement’s emerging theme

And in the morning an oriole sang high in a red oak next door

Like things well understood from the road

Where “you’ll stay young if you’re good”  (Wistawa Szymborska)

As in Baltimore with a hunch that its white Cockeysville marble stoops might be the meaning of everything, the first time there quite small in the back leaning close to listen to the people sitting in the front

And off in Georgia where one in thirteen adults is under some sort of legal sanction

Through Augusta and then Wrens, Louisville, Bartow, Wrightsville, Dublin, Hawkinsville, Cordele, right there only thirty miles from Americus

Then ten more miles west through southwest Georgia peanut fields to President Carter’s Plains, or north from Americus through the cotton less than twenty to Andersonville

Where there was severe sanction in 1864, nearly a third of the Union POWs who were marched there died there

And for at least two hundred years of course the sanction of slavery was everywhere here

Bunked in a squad tent with a plank floor in a southeast Georgia tank camp most of a winter, the rain drumming on the taut canvas was magnificent

In a fire camp on the Sequoia, eight-hour breaks from the fire line with a crinkly brown-paper sleeping bag with a white turn-down like the starched dickies with which girls in midcentury topped off their sweater sets, my boots on the ground, socks and fire shirt spread by my head

A long night in the Sparks jail on a canvas rack, no blanket, picked up hitching out of Reno for Ely, turned out on the road in the morning, US 50, without breakfast

US 40 the spine, Steel Pier in Atlantic City to San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Warf

All the way

US 40 with Route 66 and US 50 was the myth before the Interstates

US 40 and 66 were in a rocking tandem in that old America, like sun and moon, Chevy and Ford, GM and GE, Camels and Luckies, ham and grits

US 50 the more scenic with western Maryland, southern Indiana and the green haunts of New Harmony, and some of the very best of the mountain West, US 50 “the loneliest road in America”

But that would have been, and still is, US 93 beginning off the Interstate north of Las Vegas and running to the BC border, although it loses its serious loneliness outside Twin Falls, ID

It goes through Ely, Wells, and Jackpot, NV

The Great Basin

And US 40 and 50 were vying, which to take out into the continent, both were good

Not US 60, it was only emptier as it took you toward the desert and LA

The desert was a true hitching hazard to avoid

In a car in those days crossing Arizona and the Mojave, it was savvy to hang a canvas water bag sweating on the bumper

Cars on the Interstates now have no bumpers

And rarely have flats, and barely ever breakdown

Traveling the continent now is pat and relatively dull, I-80, I-70, I-10, and maybe I-90, towns and cities bypassed and no hitchhiking allowed

Other than weather, the dangers are the big rigs rolling on the Interstates

Mimetic of “the overriding grand haul of the galaxy”  (A. R. Ammons)

The whole long-haul scheme of everything is significantly different now

Freewheeling doesn’t make it anymore

Dulled with ubiquitous electronics, slicker highway engineering, and oblique and mute impersonality

And then the ethos of the times discourages indefinite destinations on an open road

Freedoms rationed by the demands of circumstance, and subtle controls are everywhere

As though just overhead tracing along with us, everywhere we go

Our smart phones our tethers

And from those and our cars’ chips, exact coordinates are always known

Omnipresent GPS grinding it out

Not out of paternalistic social concern, the apparatus for closing down free travel, freedom of movement, is in place

That was previewed in the zone of the Selma-Montgomery March where the roads felt like Eastern Europe before the Wall came down

Pickup trucks with southern state plates flying rebel flags were even scarier than the highway patrol cars throwing their spotlights at you in the night

Dusty sedans with four or five white guys were the worst when hitchhiking, they’d slow down, shoot the bird, shout, hang awhile, accelerate off

On the way out of state up near the Georgia line after the Selma March, one of those backroad-dirty cars threw out two big firecrackers up the shoulder on US 11 where we stood with no place to hide as they gunned away

Once in heavy rain east from Paducah in another time a big Buick picked me up, the one on the passenger side very drunk took a long-barreled .44 revolver out and started loading cartridges and waving it around, rolled his window down and fired twice at a Ford dealership billboard shouting, “screw you, Jessie Janine” 

I got away from them when they stopped to buy more beer

The drunks and the spooky loners were bad but marginal, the freedom of being on the road felt then that it was worth everything

The garrulous rides were wonderful, you’d learn, engineers would pick you up and talk about what they did, farmers, local politicians, once got a ride in Oklahoma with a state senator, in Vermont with a gentleman farmer who had been a Republican candidate for governor

Outside of Charlottesville one time an Episcopal minister named Loving, a good Virginia name, picked me up on the way over the mountains and detoured to a church mission community called Mountain Home, a cooperative that produced and sold cheese, honey, canned goods in Mason jars, basketry and quilts, it was an alternative world, the people, the mood, like stepping into and then out of Oz

Once driving up the coast behind Gaviota in the California seventies passed a sign for a Buddhist monastery, went up the hill and talked with a woman who said that they went to Ralphs or Safeway for their beef, that they said a prayer to the animal’s soul when they opened the packaging

Buddhism in America

At a major Buddhist monastery in Upstate New York on the mountain ridge above Woodstock, comfortably on a bench with the Sunday Times waiting for a cousin visiting a nonagenarian Rinpoche inside, watched a one by one array of smiling local matrons arriving for Sunday morning blessings and volunteer work

The solid nineteenth century granite buildings inherited from an Episcopalian retreat

At another upstate Buddhist center outside Delhi that day, a Swiss nun said her duty, assigned by the honcho lama, was to prepare the food for those going in retreat in an isolated compound with no contact with anyone or anything outside for three years

Except for sometimes hearing her arrive with the prepared food delivered twice a day, that she left inside a double door

The old car she drove down into Delhi to buy the food wouldn’t start, we got it going and finished the visit with it idling nearby to charge while she brought out her Tibetan horn and played a few blasts joking that it scared the bears

There in New York State over near the Hudson before the Thruway was built, the Taconic was the best way north, empty in those days, once in a while an old farm truck on the parkway illegally from one crossroad to the next, on winter nights high ribbons of the aurora sometimes dimmed, brightened, pulsed ahead, direction Montreal

From Montreal down the St. Lawrence, the river broadening to sea, it was on PQ 38 until you ran out of road northeast of the Saguenay, the furthest I ever managed was Sept Îles

Those Canadian rivers in the West, the Mackenzie looks as though it drains the planet, even the Fraser is vast opening up at Burnaby and Vancouver toward the Georgia Strait

The Trans-Canada in and out of Salmon Arm in BC was dramatic as it left Sushwap Lake through the First Nation settlement, on the lake flats there was a dairy there that sold bulk cottage cheese

And the TC at Sackville in New Brunswick crossing into Nova Scotia, the majesty of the water, that’s Canada, the majesty of the water

Water definitive of Canada as explicitly as dust and gravel is the hitchhiker’s domain on the shoulder waiting for a ride

Stared down at that dust and gravel, scuffed it, kicked a beer can or pop bottle off into the weeds

Pint whiskey bottles, the entire sadness of empty pint whiskey bottles in the ditch

At sixteen or seventeen, probably seventeen, three college age women picked me up hitching alone west of Wichita and the conversation went playful and fast, then tentative and unsure, sex in the air, they whispering to one another, me playing dumb and shy, then they decided something else and abruptly let me out

The subtleties of meeting people on the road, blunt different from sitting musing at the wheel alone   

Hitchhiking nuance is as elemental as the ride itself

Often protective paternalism in people who pick up younglings

Hitchhiking as jittery opportunism in both the rider and the ride

Each time it plays out

Triumph in running up the shoulder to get in after nailing one

Then you don’t even touch the door handle until you find out who they are, grinning across from the passenger side at their query of where you’re going, where they’re going, and if it looks OK then you get in

And ride   


D. E. Steward mainly writes months with 389 of them to date. Most of them are published, as is much of his short poetry. Five volumes of his months came out last year as Chroma.