The worst part of the trip of course was yesterday--I say "yesterday," but of course what you all experienced as a day, I experienced as approximately fifty years, since I had to drive down I-84 through the Waste Lands at the base of Purgatorio, between Utah and Idaho. As you know, I-84, considered one of the greatest engineering feats of the modern world, stretches in a long, three-thousand-mile arc around the toe of the Mountain, running generally northwest. Its historic construction was costly, both in terms of money and lives, as approximately twenty-five workers died mysteriously every day during its construction, not to mention the goats sacrificed every hundred feet along its length to appease the dead who haunt the Wastes. Most of those who died in the construction died of consumption, and some speculate that their lives were sucked away by the spirits of their departed relatives.
It is a strange, twilit country, those Waste Lands. Settlements along the freeway are few: small, creaky gas stations and greasy diners, mostly; towns are rare. The sparse trees are short and twisted, no buildings stand more than a story high, the road signs are bent, and the churches, what there are of them, have no steeples, for the spirits in that land of the dead suffer nothing to stand straight and compete with the Mountain itself, which rises in impossibly steep, unending layers above the highway. The people living here are also bent, hunched, as if the heavy presence of the Mountain has pressed them, crushed them down. The nights in that country are as bright as the day, lit with an angry red glow from the Mountain's peak, which is rimmed with unquenchable fire.
Just as other gas stations on other highways sell figurines or cheap toys, the gas stations along I-84 sell amulets to ward off the dead. At my first stop, I saw a small cross, which the clerk swore was made of real silver and cold iron intertwined around a sliver of white oak bark, blessed by the pope himself. I doubt this, though: It was too cheap, and the papal runes too shoddy to be genuine. I bought it anyway.
The motels along the road are filthy, but well equipped. The beds are not like normal beds, of course, but are instead cold tables inscribed with pentacles, the lines of which--at least in the best motels--are carefully maintained to ensure against breaks where a spirit might slip in. The nightstand always has an instruction manual in several languages, and for several religions; following the instructions for Catholics, I was always careful to arrange the proper objects around the pentacle every night before sleeping: a vial of holy water, an icon of St. Michael, a blessed Bible (open to 2 Maccabees 12.43), a crucifix, a garlic clove. Tying a cord around my waist, I would lie down in the protective circle and try my best to sleep, closing my eyes against that eerie red light streaming in through the curtains.
At either end of this three-thousand-mile stretch of ugly road, at Brigham City and Twin Falls, are stations where they make you stop to ensure your vehicle is properly equipped for the arduous journey. I've been down this stretch many times before, and the questions at the stations are always the same: do you have the proper amulets? have you learned the proper spells? do you know about the time dilation? any family history of vampirism, incubii, or tuberculosis? After the ministers of seven religions had exorcised my truck, and after I had been handed the obligatory multifaith amulet to hang from the rear-view mirror (but which I threw in the trash, as no self-respecting ghost could be afraid of it), I was free to drive on--on and on, through that never-ending hell that is Purgatory, a trip of decades that takes a day. I didn't age during the journey, of course, except for my hair, which is now full of gray, but I still had to live every monotonous minute of it. Small wonder every crossroads along the way--few though they are--is choked with the graves of suicides.
But I made it. The Mountain is behind me now, and from here in the Gorge I can't even see it, though it will be visible again, that cloud-rimmed cone, when I reach Mount Angel and the view is unobstructed.
Time for photos:
The darkness and oppressive sky of the unending Wastes.
Why, it's Baker City, Oregon, my old stomping grounds, where I grew up, fell in love, and did all that other important stuff.
Sort of, but not really, a wider view of Baker City.
Baker High School, the site of much adolescent melodrama, which doesn't look as important now as it used to. Notice the sign in front there: that's a fitting sign to put up in front of a modern public school.