IV. "Insults and Coffee with Woody Guthrie in Montana"
Late-August, 2004. When we get to Montana it is afternoon. We have been driving east for about eight hours, making it onto I-90 out of Seattle at about seven or eight in the morning. Peeds is with me, a high school friend in the passenger seat, reading aloud an article from the official Notre Dame alumni magazine about student demonstrations. Anti-war and anti-Bush marches, and some few hundred students wearing orange, "Gay? Fine by me." t-shirts.
Peeds is excited to go back to school. He is the president of the Peace Coalition on campus, an organization that later in the year threatened the administration with elaborate events of the most annoying types of protests and demonstrations — sitting one hundred students on the steps of the administration building, writing in sidewalk chalk throughout campus, etc. — should they not be allowed to meet Desmond Tutu during his visit to South Bend. Peeds would later in the year call me while I was at work and exclaim, "I hugged Desmond Tutu!"
It is a Wednesday, and I'm on my way back to Virginia for one more year of college. Peeds and I are going to stop at a motel in Miles City, MT and then make it to Chicago the next night to stay with Katt, another friend who has been blessed with a big floor in Lincoln Park. Then Peeds is taking the train down to South Bend and I'll stay in Chicago for a few days to drink five dollar glasses of red wine out of plastic cups, sunglassed on the green blanket lawn at Frank Gehry's newly opened Millenium Park.
But Montana stretches out for about 800 miles. Interstate, orange mountains of sedimentary rock, no cell phone service, thermoses of coffee from an Idaho gas station that are getting emptier and emptier. But you can drive a steady 95-100 miles an hour without having to worry (the next day I would get a ticket ten miles from the North Dakota border). Peeds refers to the police as "the fuzz." It annoys me so he continues to do it occasionally, in between insulting the CDs I've been playing.
"How do you not have Tom Petty's Greatest Hits? It's insulting. It's inhumane. You're a bad person. Steve Miller would not be proud of you if he was here, but he isn't because you didn't bring his Greatest Hits either. I hope you die. What kind of a road trip is this? If I were your grandparents I would never send you another birthday card. Ever. And I would always tell you how not proud of you I am. The fuzz should lock you up in a Montana jail."
Then he throws a styrofoam cup at me.
On long drives conversation is key. If Peeds hadn't have come with me I was planning on using a small tape recorder to talk to myself, then play it back. I've always been fascinated with how a recording of my own voice sounds nothing at all how I'd expect. It's one of those things I can't seem to get over.
But as how I have someone to talk to, conversations have ensued to the backing of apparently sub-par musical accompaniment. After bringing each other up to date on how our girlfriends are doing, we pretty much just start saying whatever pops into our heads. Those things one normally would consider pretentious or unfortunately eccentric are all free game when you've been talking for eight hours straight. We jaggedly make some connections from the Notre Dame magazine articles to hypotheticals and nightmares. Then there is of course the obligatory road trip topic of Jack Kerouac we had both been avoiding.
Peeds fills up my lid of coffee from one of the thermoses (thermosi?)
– These things are great, I say. They keep coffee hot and steamy forever.
Peeds closes the vacuum-sealed top to the steel cylinder.
– Yeah, I know. I don't know what I'd do without mine.
He throws the thermos onto the sleeping bags and duffel bags stacked in the back seat. I take a sip of the Idaho Shell Station's signature blend. It tastes like burnt dirt, but at least dirt that had coffee spilled on it. Such it is.
– I wonder if they put potato in the coffee in Idaho.
Peeds doesn't react. He's thinking.
– Yeah dude, we're the worst Beats ever. If Cassady had been in this car, or Kerouac, we would be sitting on top of one of those red flattened rocks right now, humming three part harmonies together or writing haikus. Jack and Neal, man, they would be telling us a story about some monk or bum they had met or read about, and it would be inspiring or some shit.
– Do you want to stop?
– No, I think I just need to do more mind-altering drugs. Cocaine makes you cool you know.
– Maybe, but you might get arrested. Again. Spending the night in jail makes you cool, doesn't it?
Peeds was recently arrested in Baltimore, for – while under the influence of testosterone and more than a little alcohol – slip-and-sliding on the tarp during a rain delay at Camden Yards. I wasn't surprised when I heard about it. He even made the next day's Washington Post, assumed to be a crazed Red Sox fan due to his red t-shirt.
– Yeah, but that wasn't for anything cool, he says, pouring himself a cup of coffee as well. I mean, it was a kickass first date. And I'm excited to see her again, even if it is at our court date. But it was just trespassing. It wasn't like going to the Republican National Convention and getting tear-gassed or something….That would be cool.
I laugh, thinking maybe I should drive up to New York in a couple of weeks to go protest the convention with him and all his friends from Notre Dame's Peace Studies department. I change my mind when I picture Peeds slip-and-sliding down a rainbow-colored tarp on the streets of New York, ruining a Barack Obama campaign t-shirt in the process, getting chased by the national guard. I have a thought.
– Well, you could probably get away with calling it civil disobedience if you wanted.
He considers this.
– Even then though it's more of just drunken civil disobedience. It's not like living in Emerson's backyard with nothing but a pencil that you have to sharpen with a knife and a vegetable garden.
The CD we were listening to has ended, and I reach under my seat to put in some Coltrane.
– Well then I guess you're screwed, I say. I have lost any and all admiration for you that I ever had.
– Ah, thanks man. I love you too.
Now I look in the rear view mirror the sun is setting behind us. The orange, rock mountains are turning purple and red and yellow as well, the sun like a fiery magenta disc sitting atop one of the table-like plateaus. I turn off Coltrane and throw my now empty thermos lid at Peeds.
– Look at the mountains behind us.
He turns around in his seat.
– Jesus Christ that's amazing.
– I know. It makes you want to believe in God.
– Yeah, it's like some amazing painting.
We are silent for awhile. Peeds has twisted entirely around in his seat now, while I am adjusting the mirrors so that I can get a better look. Behind us it is like the horizon is on fire, ribbons of chemical flame.
– You know what it reminds me of actually, I say. 'Purple mountains majesty' and all that. I always thought that line was kind of over the top, but I've never seen mountains actually turning purple. It's incredible.
After about thirty seconds of just watching Western Montana change colors, Peeds starts singing "America the Beautiful." I join in. We sing the two verses we know, including the "purple mountains majesty" part, and then we do it again, this time in hyperbolic opera voices.
We have to stop because we've started
– I don't think that makes us very cool, I say.
– Probably not, he answers, but it was still pretty cool. Would have been cooler if we'd been meditating right beforehand though.
– Yeah, the but I bet the Beats still would have done that. Thomas Wolfe would have done that.
– I don't think Woody Guthrie was alive when Thomas Woolf was alive. But yeah, the Beats would have done that. We should pick up a hitchhiker and have three part harmonies.
We didn't pick up a hitchhiker. Instead, we listened to Bob Dylan the rest of the trip. It was the closest thing I had to Woody Guthrie.