Stik Mann's
OtherSpokane
Issue 13
2/20/01


Greetings, beloved readers, and welcome to this very special issue of Stik Mann's OtherSpokane from the awesome Yuma Desert.

My name is Stik Mann, and I'll be your host.

As I write this, the sun is just now peeking over the jagged peaks of the Gila Mountains, a few miles to the east, and the chilly wind is howling mercilessly, threatening to pick up the tent trailer (which has been James' and my abode for the past few days) and send us tumbling across the desert like crumpled paper. This does not concern me too much, because I know that the wind will soon die, and that the temperature out in the open desert and along the base of the mountains, where we plan to explore today, will be up in the eighties.

But more about the present later, after it is safely tucked into the past, whereupon I will write about it as if it is happening now. Presently, let's go back in time a bit...

It is five degrees above zero. There is a full moon in the icy sky. Stocking cap over my ears, I walk the slippery, 2:30 a.m. streets of Spokane, alone, my pack on my back and my train ticket in my hand. I am on my way to the Spokane Intermodal Facility to "ride the rails" (purists, please forgive me) to Portland, to LA, to Yuma, Arizona.

My plan is to meet up with my son, James, at Mom and Dick's desert compound, about 16 miles east of Yuma. After a week of visiting with the family and exploring the surroundings, James and I will descend into Mexico, driven by some mysterious force to undertake a series of pilgrimages:

1) We wish to stand before the image of The Virgin of Guadeloupe, which miraculously appeared on the blanket of Juan Diego, a newly converted Catholic, during a vision of her on a hill where, just a few years prior, stood the temple of Tonantzin, the Aztec earth-mother goddess. The blanket now hangs in the Basilica of Guadeloupe in Mexico City.

2) We wish to seek out the spirit of Diego Rivera, one of Mexico's greatest artists, and one of James' heroes.

3) We wish to investigate the existence of the Aztec god Huitzilopochtli. When the Aztecs were a band of snake- and bug-eating outcasts, one of their priests had a vision: Huitzilopochtli said that if the Aztecs worshiped him with human, blood sacrifices, they would receive unimaginable power and riches. They did, and they did.

4) We wish to see the popular but elusive, enigmatic revolutionary leader Subcomandante Marcos, instigator of the seven-year-old, ongoing (and, as of late, relatively bloodless) civil war in Chiapas. Near the end of this month, the EZLN, the Zapatista Army for National Liberation, is planning to meet in San Cristobal de Las Casas in Chiapas, and will march en mass to Mexico City. We should be in the heart of that most populated, most polluted, most intriguing of cities when (if?) Marcos and supporters blow into town.

5) We wish to visit the secluded, ultra-surrealistic "village" built by the eccentric, filthy rich Englishman, Edward James.

James (that is to say, my son James, the eccentric, poor American) left a week earlier, catching a ride with my brother Mike in his motorhome, an excursion fraught with adventures of their own, as I have already heard. But I shall let them tell their own story. My story begins with my face pressed up against the cold window of Window Seat 21 like a smashed peach, watching downtown Spokane pass by slowly, silently, muffled by an impressive accumulation of snow, and humbled at the prospect of yet another approaching storm.

At one point, I look out and can see directly into the bedroom window of my own apartment, not more than sixty yards away. I can see the headboard above my waterbed, the silhouettes of the curios on the shelves, the paintings on the wall above. And then, I see a sparkle -- a scant reflection -- in the headboard mirror. Was it me? Above my bed? My bed, neatly made, clean sheets, the water still heated and warm -- but empty for the next two months.

As the lights of the city fade, so do I...

I dream that James and I are dressed like cowboys. We are riding in the engine of an old, black steam locomotive. Up ahead is a high wooden trestle -- higher than I have ever seen -- over which we must cross. Suddenly, I am taken by fear -- I am sure the bridge is going to collapse. I tell the engineer of my premonition, but he is not convinced. He says he is crossing, nevertheless, but that he will slow down so we can jump off. We do. Then, we watch the train pass over the high trestle without incident.

Ladies and gentlemen, if you look out the left side of the train you will see John Day Dam. Finished in the late Sixties, it is nearly 6,000 feet in length, has 16 turbine generators with room for four more. It supplies enough electricity to power three cities the size of Portland, Oregon.

I wake and rub my eyes and look out the window, but I do not see a dam. Instead, I see two small deer feeding near the banks of the great Columbia River. They raise their heads simultaneously and look at me directly. I see giant birds peeking from equally giant nests atop spindly trees. I see a blue sky streaked with thin clouds; then, hundreds of geese flying in broken formation, like a lasso that mysteriously shattered into small sections just before it whipped.

...

I gaze at the calm expanse of the ancient river with its ghost-like wisps of fog dancing atop the surface. Suddenly, another train screams by me in the opposite direction, only a few feet away from my face. Every fraction of a second there is a mere peek of the landscape beyond through the space between cars, like subliminal snippets slipped into a film, flashing, flashing by me. In one frame, a lone fisherman is standing in a small boat, casting out a line; in another frame, a bird, startlingly large in contrast to the fisherman, is flying straight up; in another, the front window of a house, its curtains freshly closed and in motion -- mere thousandth-of-a-second glimpses, but etched in my mind forever.

The train passes. I dig my camera out of my pack.

Click. A tugboat like a squat, dirty-white lighthouse struggles to push an enormous barge of unknown cargo up the river.

Click. A massive stone mountain, clearly showing the successive layers of ancient lava flows. It dominates the opposite bank.

Click. A rickety Indian fishing platforms made of slates of driftwood balances atop a wobbly pole scaffold, all hanging precariously over a cliff of crumbled rock, forty feet above the drink.

We stop at Wishram for a smoke break and to pick up passengers. I remember reading that this area was visited by explorers Lewis and Clark, who described a village where Indians gathered to trade fish. James and I had been here years before, to see the Maryhill Castle, which contains an eclectic mix of treasures from Europe, and boasts of a visit by some royalty I'd never heard of. Also, seeming equally out of place, is a replica of England's Stonehenge, built as a memorial to the dead of World War II.

I stub my cigarette and discover that the conductor has noticed my introspection. He walks over asks if I am enjoying the trip. I say I am, then ask him if he knows anything about the history of the area. His name is Larry, Larry the Conductor. He is very nice, but he has a lazy eye, which somehow lends to the illusion that his face is oddly contorted. Larry the Conductor eagerly tells me that the station here has one of the few remaining railroad beaneries in the country.

"Beaneries?" I ask. "You mean a place where people come to eat beans?"

"That's right," he says. Then, after a pause and a curious lookover, "Spokane, right?

"Yes," I say, "on my way to --"

Suddenly, he points to something behind me, then abruptly walks away. I turn sharply, but see nothing, just an old bench, a concrete walkway, and, and...grass, a small patch of green grass, greener than I have ever seen. I walk over and pluck a small bit from the turf and roll it between my fingers. I sniff at the blades and the smell opens a floodgate of images: grass fights, sleeping out in the backyard, the smell of earth, Grandpa's garden, a sky full of stars. I wad the grass into a small ball and stuff it into my coat pocket.

"All aboard!" shouts the Larry the Conductor.

...

I pass my seat and stutter-step, hands-on-luggage-rack-for-balance, pardon me my way through three cars to the observation deck, then duck downstairs into the cramped galley and order a Pepsi. I guzzle half on my way upstairs and find a comfortable seat. I refill the glass with brandy from a flask in my coat, and sip carefully as the Dalles Dam enters the giant picture windows.

"The Dalles Dam is 8,700 feet long," says Larry the Conductor, over the intercom. "Dalles is the French word for 'trough,' so named for the narrow and dangerous channel."

I write in my notebook: Who named it? Does it leak? How many cities the size of Metaline Falls, Washington can it power? What is the strongest earthquake it could ride out and still remain intact? How many people died while it was being built? Will it still be here in 642 years? Are there secret caches of explosives in vulnerable areas so it can be strategically destroyed if deemed necessary for our national security? How do the fish get through?"

We enter a series of short tunnels. Somewhere out on the river is Memaloose Island, where the Indians placed their dead for untold years until, consequently, around the time the trains came through. I sip my drink. Everything is green. Here's another fruit orchard. Sip. Across the way, mountains of vertical rock jut from the river, the tops of the highest obscured in clouds, the lesser peaks ringed in fluffy feather boas. Sip. Birds everywhere. Sip. The mountains crowd us, pushing us and the river into an ever-narrowing gorge -- the great Columbia Gorge. Boats and birds. On the cliffs to the north is one of the last lumber flumes in operation in North America, says Larry the Conductor. Sip. Cascade Locks. The Bridge of the Gods -- a man-made bridge that replaced a legendary natural rock bridge, which the Indians say was destroyed by their deity in anger when his two sons argued over a young maiden. The two sons became Mt. Hood and Mt. Adams. Sip. The maiden became Mt. St. Helens. Sip. Bonneville Dam. Birds and birds and boats. Beacon Rock. Deserted canneries. Sip. Sawmills and shacks. Improvised campsites. Waterfalls, hundreds of feet high. Sip. Suddenly, without warning, we burrow beneath the western-most rampart of the Cascade Range through a half-mile long tunnel. Sip, sip. Slurp.

We emerge from the earth and find the train entangled in giant pipes and conveyer belts, metal huts and silos, huge cranes with cables as big around as my neck, five-story high piles of sawdust and woodchips, fields of rusted machinery. Then, just as suddenly, multi-million dollar mansions, then million dollar houses, then half-million, then apartment buildings, then, we are in Vancouver, and then, after a collective oooo-look-at-the-big-ships, we are in downtown Portland.

...

I have a four hour layover in the City of Roses before I switch trains and continue on to Los Angeles. I wander around Chinatown, my stomach rumbling and my head reeling from the liquid brunch. I stumble into a restaurant with overly cheery decor called the Golden Horse and order the Green Pepper Beef, which the sign out front claims is the daily special. The emotionless waitress brings my food. It looks and smells wonderful. I devour it in seconds.

I don't know if it is the sauce or the large chunks of green peppers or the enormous whole cloves of garlic in the rice that is the catalyst for the gastro-intestinal witchcraft that immediately begins boiling, toiling and troubling within me. I begin to sweat profusely. I am overcome with the unsettling notion that everyone in the place is watching me. Then, at that very moment, I notice a man at a side window, covertly shooting the interior of the restaurant with a video camera, which I find to be very, very odd.

Cut to a medium long shot of me at the table. I rise slowly. My belly is noticeably inflated. I step out of the frame, holding up my pants.

Cut to a close-up of the waitress, counting money. She looks up. For the first time, her face shows emotion in the form of an evil smile, and an ominously arched eyebrow. My hand, holding the check, enters the frame.

Cut to a close-up of my face, swollen and red, sweat streaming down like my skin is crying. Off screen the waitress says, "Fouw-fiffy, please."

Cut to an extreme close-up of her mouth, her teeth pearly white, except for one -- right in front -- which is midnight black. Off screen I say, "Four-fifty? But --"

Cut to a medium long shot of us both at the cash register. "But the sign says $3.50," I say.

Cut to a medium shot of the waitress, her hands on her hips.

Cut to an extreme close-up of the waitress' face. "Old sign," she says. Focus out as her laughter echoes and fades.

Focus in a long shot of me staggering down a gray Portland street. I have swollen to the size of Alice in Wonderland's Tweedle-dee. Mothers pull their children away to let me pass. Dogs bark at me. It begins to rain.

Cut to a medium shot of me lowering my massively inflated form to a park bench. I stick my legs out and brace myself with my arms to prevent rolling off.

Cut to a close-up of my shirt, the buttons popping off one by one.

Cut to an extreme close-up of my sorry face.

Quick cut to a long shot of an Iraqi village rumbling and crumbling in an earthquake. Quick cut to a man with crazed eyes lighting a Molotov cocktail. Quick cut to a black screen with a tiny white dot in the middle, which pulsates, and enlargens as a sickly gurgling sound slowly grows in intensity. Suddenly, there is an explosive, echoing belch, the likes of which have never been heard. Quick cut to an A-bomb mushroom clouds as the burp echoes on. Quick cut to windows shattering. Quick cut to a mother screaming and holding her babe to her breast.

Cut to a medium shot of me on the bench, deflated to even less than my former spindly self. The rain has stopped, as if the monumental gaseous venting had somehow upset the atmospheric status quo. The bench squeaks as I lean forward.

Cut to a long shot of me walking away from the camera, my head lowered. It begins to rain again. In the distance, the Portland train depot is barely visible through the fog.

...

A big-boned black woman in an oversized uniform and a semi-beehive hairdo directs me to my seat. She doesn't seem as nice as Larry. I sit next to a distinguished, middle-aged man who says his name is Eric with an H (Erich, I presume). We exchange pleasantries. He is from Seattle, he says he hasn't spent much time in Spokane, but then says something about it being infamous for its serial killer, what's-his-name.

"Um, I think it's Yeager," I say. "Something like that."

"Ah, yes," he says, though obviously unconvinced, which I take as a good sign, since the serial killer's name is Yeats.

"You know the conductor's name?"

"Oh, It's Emma," he says. "Or something like that."

It appears that this is all we have to talk about for now, so I excuse myself and make my way to the observation deck. I repeat the Pepsi-gulp-brandy-sip routine, take a seat, and watch the rainy Willamette Valley flow by like a cool green river, horses and cows, ranchhouses and barns bobbing atop the easy waves. It begins to get dark.

A tall, thin, very attractive young woman -- perhaps 18 or 19 years old -- sits a few seats away from me. She takes out a cell phone and chats with someone whom she apparently hasn't spoken with in quite some time. When she gives the person her cell phone number, I jot it down in my notebook.

I entertain a fantasy: I borrow someone's cell phone and call the girl, being truthful about overhearing her conversation, and asking if she would like to join me for a drink. True, I'm much older than she is, but, hey, we're traveling, we have to make do with what we have. Given this, I consider her possible reactions:

A) She says, yes, of course, she'd love to. And, oh, how romantic -- guys just don't do enough of this sort of thing. A few years older? I love older men! We end up having great sex in her sleeper compartment that her daddy paid for so she could go visit her Aunt Lorna in Salinas.

B) She politely refuses but still wants to meet me. We meet and she says, "Okay, now I know what to look out for." She walks away.

C) "You perverted son-of-a-bitch! I'm only sixteen. Where's that big-boned black woman? You're off the train, asshole."

...

Everything beyond the large windows is black, celestial byproduct. Lights shoot through the ethereal goo like comets, leaving ghostly trails as they vanish behind us. This Spaceship of the Darned, with its interior illuminated sulfur-yellow like a Van Gogh death scene, that people are now calling "The Bar Car," seems to be the only object containing life in all of existence. I realize I have only a vague idea of where I am on Planet Earth. I am very drunk.

I notice the Bar Car has become very crowded and has definitely shifted into Party Mode. Most folks are drinking and some are sloppily hammered. Eric-with-a-T has fallen in with an Indian couple, and are clearly among the sloppily hammered group. The young woman, who for some reason I believe is going to Salinas, is talking with a young guy who deftly fields her stupid-question-after-stupid-question, all the while undressing her with his eyes, anticipating the prize. I am morbidly impressed with his macho technique. I pay as much attention to him as I do to her, even with her clothes magically vanishing, piece by piece.

Suddenly, I realize that I am talking to, rather, answering the questions of, a well-dressed young man with a strangely rhythmic twitch in his eye, and a generally nervous demeanor. He obtains much information about me in an extraordinarily short amount of time. Then he grabs my hand and shakes it like he's airing out a pair of shorts and says, "It's been wonderful, wonderful talking to you," then, with a brotherly slap on the shoulder -- poof -- he's gone. I turn. He is already with somebody else, "What's yer name, where ya from, how far ya goin', how long ya stayin'? Wonerful, wonerful. Poof...

I head back to my seat to get some sleep. I have noticed that when one is walking toward the rear of a jolting train, one becomes public entertainment -- all eyes are on you and your stumble-bumble, stagger-step, two and a half forward and one back, stub a toe, dossy-doe.-- you are their dancing bear. Note to management: put Bar Car in rear of train. I finally make it back to my seat and quickly slip into that elsewhere world of travelers' half-sleep. Without any prompting of my conscious mind, I actually have a vision of a sheep jumping over a fence. Then, I dream vaguely of giraffes, but can be no more specific.

...

I wake as we are pulling out of Sacramento. Pounding sheets of rain obscures the morning. The gray silhouettes of the city eventually shrink and die, leaving a great expanse of gray fields below a slightly darker gray sky. I am transfixed by this world of grayness. I read for a while, I write for a while, but I continually must return to the gray.

I feel myself being drawn into sadness, but I resist, and reason that it is a conditioned response to gray worlds, with no roots in my true emotional state, which is in fairly good shape, despite the fact that my head is pounding from last night and some kid is listening to heavy metal with earphones, which we, the naked-eared ones, know to be just as annoying as if blasted from a boom box.

I return to the Bar Car to better contemplate the gray. I change my diet from liquids to solids with some granola I packed from home. Unidentifiable contraptions appear on the horizon, looking like the long-legged elephants in Dali's "Temptation of Saint Anthony." More grayness. Rain. Hours pass.

I look up and see enormous naval ships like tipped over skyscrapers in the field. I am staggered at the sight of this. An elderly man next to me sees my confusion and tells me that the truth is about to be revealed. I wait impatiently. He continually nods to the window, as if to say, "It's coming. It's coming."

We come to a small bay at the field's edge. The old guy explains that the fresh water inlet, which is somehow connected to the San Francisco Bay, is a Navy mothball fleet, where decommissioned vessels go to sleep. It is a strange sight to behold: these immense structures, long devoid of sailors, fuel or ammo, all of them still and silent in the drizzling rain.

We enter an area of industrial factories and chemical plants, smokestacks puffing colored smoke, enigmatic machinery, pipes, hoses and wires, all looking like a futuristic Martian colony, minus the giant plastic dome. We rattle into city of Martinez -- rain. Then Oakland, more rain. Miles and miles of brick walls covered with graffiti. Factories, shack-like houses and broken-down cars, rain. San Jose. Rain. Salinas. Rain.

We leave the urban blight and slowly wind through a region of rolling hills, all scattered with cows and tiny farms. The hills level off. Emma, the big-boned conductor, informs us over the intercom that we are entering the artichoke capital of the world. Every year the community elects an artichoke queen, she says. One year, the coveted prize was awarded to a young Marilyn Monroe. I imagine Marilyn dressed as the esteemed vegetable, standing on a steam vent as it issues a puff, exposing titillating glimpses of her shapely stems.

We climb into treeless mountains. We pass the century-an-a-half-year-old San Miguel Archangel Mission and the rain ceases abruptly. The sun peeks through the clouds. There is a collective murmur from the few folks in the Bar Car. Outside, a rainbow dominates the landscape. It is a perfect arc, unusually wide, the colors crisp and bright, with both ends reaching the ground within our sight. It follows us for a few miles before the rain returns, diluting and washes it all away.

We stop for a smoke break in San Luis Obispo, a beautiful mountain city, even in the rain. When I return to my seat, Eric-with-an-H is back. Finally we talk, and he turns out to be a very interesting man, having traveled the world, and even now is on his way to LA to catch a flight to New Zealand for a two month backpacking excursion. He tells me of his travels in Peru as we descend the mountains and reenter the sprawl. Santa Barbara, Ventura, Oxnard -- rain.

Another day has passed. It is dark as we pull into Los Angeles. I say goodbye to Erich and bid him bon voyage. I have only an hour before my next train leaves for Yuma, so I explore the grand architecture of the station for a while, then go outside for a smoke. The rain has ceased, and for the first time since my trip began, it feels warm outside, though in reality it is probably not quite 50 degrees. I strip down to my T-shirt; everyone else is in sweater and coats. A security guard eyes me, suspiciously. I fight the urge to explain to him that it's okay -- I'm from Spokane.

...

We finally board the next train. I am seated next to a large man who immediately introduces himself as Carl, then says nothing more, for which I am very pleased -- Carl smells badly in every possible way: his breath is like mustard gas, his body odor like fetid garlic soup, he farts indiscriminately and often.

"Nice to meet you, Carl. I'm Stik. Um, excuse me for just a minute."

The Bar Car is not as crowded as the train last night. My brandy flask is empty so I have to pay $4.00 for a kiddy-sized bottle of airplane whiskey. One very drunken lady complains loudly to every unfortunate Amtrak uniform that passes by about the injustice of not allowing smoking on the train.

The next smoke break isn't until 2:30 a.m., so I decide to go back to my seat to see how Carl is smelling and perhaps get a few hours shuteye. As I walk back, I am sure I smell smoke coming from the galley. I peek downstairs and am greeted by raised drinks, red eyes and slurred greetings, issuing forth like gravity-less syrup through billowing clouds of cigarette smoke.

"Don't ask!" somebody shouts, and everyone laughs. "You got an invite?" says somebody else.

"Well, no," I say, "but -"

"WELL YOU DO NOW!" shout four or five of the intoxicants in unison. Everyone laughs again.

The galley includes four small, cafe-style booths. Three of these tables are packed with humanity, all with cigarettes dangling from their bottom lip, sloshing drinks about and speaking while being spoken to, laughing and burping and pinching each other's tits. At the fourth table is a lone man with a rugged, weathered face, turned away from the party. There is a guitar case on the seat opposite him. He is hunched slightly over, looking up at the guitar as if it was speaking to him of ageless mysteries.

"Mind if I sit?" I ask.

He is startled and looks up. He points to the seat next to the guitar. I sit. He looks at me briefly, then back to the guitar.

"You sat here, instead of with the others," he said, without looking at me. "Interesting."

"That tells you something about me?"

"Much," he says. Then, after a short pause, he begins talking, nonstop. Where he's been and what he's done: molested by a priest, kicked a dog to death who bit his partner, jail time for grand larceny, almost killed a man by beating him with a tricycle. He goes on and on, progressively becoming less coherent: slipped on a radish peel and found God, met a man from a land not yet discovered by humans, clogged the fuel line of a man's '43 Rambler by psychic power. His monologue disintegrates further into nonsensical babble. During a rare pause, I thank him for letting me listen, then quietly slip away. As I step up the stairs and venture toward my seat, I hear him, through the laughter of the others, resuming the conversation with his guitar.

Carl is sprawled over both seats, foul airs rising from him like steam from a gutted cow. I find an empty set of seats and stretch out. I sleep, but do not dream.

When I awaken, I am in Yuma, Arizona.

Which brings us, faithful readers, back to the present, to James and my roomy tent trailer, me typing this humble narrative on my laptop. As I predicted, the desert winds have begun to die as the sun reaches upward. I hear the door of Mom and Dick's motorhome open. Mom yells, "Hey, are you guys still alive in there?" I shout back, "I am." I question James on the state of his existence. He grunts and pulls the sleeping bag over his head. "Breakfast is ready. Come and eat," shouts Mom. There are sounds of life coming from Mike's trailer. Dogs are barking. I smell bacon and fresh coffee. The day begins.

Next issue: ??? (But probably in a week or two.)

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