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The Promised Land

26 Oct 03

A not-so-flat spot
above Diamond Lake

After I got a ticket for speeding in Oakridge, I went into the store and bought a 6 pack of Alaskan Amber. Then I drove slowly back out of town, past the speed trap, and turned south toward the Hills Creek Reservoir. I planned to get high before dark, but that cop had me talking to myself. So when I reached the dam and saw a level place to park, I pulled over, pulled out a folding chair, cracked open a beer, and gave him a piece of my mind.

By the time I'd finished, everything I said seemed pretty weak. My main complaint was that the amount of the fine seemed disproportionate to the offense. So. I slowed down a half minute too late. Ah hell, it still sounds weak. I was going too fast. Tomorrow I'll probably go too fast again. Sometimes, unexpectedly, randomly, you get caught. And then you've got to pay if you want to play.

Being sensible just wears me out. By the time I got all the way to sensible it was getting dark. I noticed that I had a cell signal for a change, after a week or more beyond the lost Verizon. The trailer's level. Nobody's gonna want to get out on this dam on a Saturday night. No signs saying I can't camp here.

Guess I will.

I finally got through to Verizon on the Web. Bad news. $644 has been taken out of my checking account to pay for roaming in Canada. Stupid of me to sign up for Auto Debit. I canceled the feature right then.

Thing is, I was real careful about this. I remember walking into the Radio Shack in Lander, Wyoming, and asking about this Canada Calling plan. I told the guy I wanted no part of it if there were roaming charges. I got burned on that long ago, and once was enough. I'd rather put the cell phones away, and use pay phones and libraries.

He said for ten bucks a month it just extended the terms of my present contract to Canada. National Singlerate would have no roaming. I asked him to confirm that with Verizon, and he called whatever number they had given him. Right in front of me he asked if there was roaming on my plan.

"No roaming in Canada. Okay. Thank you." He looked up at me expectantly.

Hell of a deal. "Sign me up."

Now I've got all these charges. Problem is, you can't ever get anybody at Verizon who actually knows anything. And you wouldn't be able to tell if you accidentally did. I called up from Jasper with a question, and had a lady supervisor insist that I couldn't put in a data call from Canada, even after I told her I'd been doing so for weeks. She wouldn't back down. I hung up.

I have no doubt it's going to take a meeting with some Verizon honcho to settle this, and that means one of their bigger offices. Maybe in LA.

What a day. 9pm. Maybe if I go to sleep, nothing else untoward will happen. Sometimes I envy that goose. You know, the one they say wakes up in a new world every morning.

Around midnight I woke up when headlights splashed across the blinds. I heard the crunch of gravel under tires, doors slammed, steps right outside my window. Crap. Surely it's not that cop again. Whoever they were, they went on by, and then I heard the murmur of voices up by my truck. They stayed there. I couldn't make out what they were saying.

Sigh. I threw off the covers, put on my clothes, and grabbed the big flashlight. They were right up by my front bumper. Civilians. What the hell.


"We came out to the dam to watch the aurora."


"Yeah, they said on TV that sunspots might cause an aurora."

Dang. I'd like to see that. The three of us stood around a while, waiting for something to happen. Finally I asked them to hold it down and went back to bed. But I couldn't sleep. After a while I heard them leave. Still couldn't sleep. At last, after one o'clock in the morning, I got up and made some tea. When it was ready, I bundled up again and went outside.

Quite a contrast. One minute listening to Billie Holliday singing "I'm gonna lock my heart and throw away the key", and all this vast silence the next. Not even wind.

I dug a folding chair out of the back of the truck and carried it onto the dam, past the barrier. Put my feet up on the guard rail. Sipped my tea. No aurora.

But my God there are stars. Millions of them. A sea of stars, and a river running through it.

People have all kinds of reasons for wanting to get up high like this, to climb until they can't climb any more. Some like to look down, I guess, and so do I. But you can sure see a lot more looking up.

I remember when I was 14 years old, standing for hours at the racks in Heine Bucholtz's newstand in Georgetown, reading through the books I could not afford to buy. Paperbacks were fifty cents then, and I still couldn't afford enough of them.

Problem was, I wanted them all.

Standing there, reading Asimov and Heinlein and Clarke and Anderson, it didn't seem at all farfetched that I might be living on Mars by now. Or somebody would. Certainly 40 years seemed an abyss of time in which anything might be accomplished.

Even in the desert.

And now here I am alone on a dam in Oregon, still looking up at the stars like every monkey-man that ever scratched his ass. Of course we're more than monkeys these days.

And less than we ought to be.

You want to know what I feel right now, looking up there? I feel a whisper of what Moses must have felt, looking off into Canaan. After 40 years. Knowing he was never going to get there. There, just out of reach. The promised land.

I remember the salmon, back on the Lewis River, gathered quivering at the base of the falls. What do they sense up there, in that hellish high place above the waters that they know so well? What makes them leap, again and again, out of the mother of waters, into a place where they cannot breathe?

Certainly not comfort.

Oh, there's some that will give it up too soon, squabbling in the shallows for their little patch of sand. I understand them perfectly. I am no Moses. These days I wear my trousers rolled, and walk upon the beach. And wait.

Where I am going I will not need to leap.

But some do leap. And fail. And leap again. Fish or monkey or man, they have a sense of where they ought to be. There it is, above the falls. And so they leap.

It is not home up there, exactly. Not yet. And it won't be all milk and honey. There will be suffering. Plenty. Many a cold and breathless place, and rocky ground. There may even be some Canaanites to deal with. We may have to conjure up a Moses. Or two or three.

We can spare them.

If the sky is clear where you are tonight, go out in the yard and look up. There it is. Where it has always been. Always. The reason we climb. The river of stars. The promised land.

Where we ought to be.


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