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Six Crooked Highways


I’m retracing my ways in the grey season of the green country.

Vegas to the PNW through the Sierra Nevada and the Klamath mountains, into the rainforest and the Hood Canal, then south by southeast; hard east to Boise, then back through the heart of Oregon and up north again, only to close this week with a final fast run back south to Vegas along the California mountain spine once again. Three months of visits and travel and heartbreak and tedium, and well, roads.

So many roads I have favorites now. My preferred highway has become the 20, a state route I found out of Idaho. This is the so-called High Desert country, a sort of elevated, near tundra. It is rocky but also a bush plain: hunting territory. There are ranches (I pass many horses) and a few visible farms but it is too dry to be much inhabited. In fact, this route is full of meaningless signs hinting at towns that never come or leave only the remnants of a derelict restaurant, a forgotten saloon or cafe. It’s empty here, all the way until the suddenly booming Bend. “99 miles until next gas” is a sober warning.

I had crossed it already on the way to southern Washington on the 97, a different sort of ride. Then I was still riding with the Lizard, and we’d found a lot more small-town comforts, smiling faces, and even a little fair where I found some pickled vegetables that I immediately left in a dumpy road inn. Oops, but later I’d make my own in Idaho after the Deadman’s Pass proved aimable and the family was turning beige with their suspect diet. I remember the pass all too well from another trip, stormy and crowded, my father driving while I clung to the armrest in anxiety, only months from the period of my life I now understand as the present.

So many trips now in this entr’acte state. Oregon has taken a strange place in my life, both a byway and a destination. When everything stopped for me in 2016, after dropping off Dad, I proceeded to stumble into a hundred different versions of failure. I even stopped enjoying water – I recall the moment distinctly.

All of this meant, among other things, that I hadn’t done anything for myself in a while and it is definitely uncomfortable to start. I even had to ask, is going on a road trip even what I need? Is there anything that will help at all? After all, I had found a purpose, becoming obsessed with helping people and making my life more about others, which had culminated in helping the Lounge Lizard in Las Vegas while flying back for family whenever I could. Well, it didn’t work out for him, but he is off to Paris for a fabulous opportunity. Meanwhile, mother is fine and father unchangeable, so what else can I do but turn to my own life at long last?

The road is not a place that only expresses being lost or searching. There is the air, above all, the mountain air which expands the lungs and soothes the mind. The road is a healer. I found it first on the east side of Yosemite, with the ancient rocks and the pure water and the impossibly happy California sky, always a silly, laughing, drinking blue. Then the path grew more dangerous, in less used roads, even one-lane sections being the best that could be done with the sheer cliffs and impossible volcanic clusters. Yet the air was ever-clean, ever-lively. I was not lost, and the journey really did become the destination.

I’m not embracing every difficulty though, as I try to dodge certainly snow but the miserable wet as well. The rains are not long here, fortunately, but they slow everyone and are especially dangerous when the road is freshly wet. At the same time, I push the speed a lot on this third leg of the trip, passing and occupying more than I usually do, just to be sure I’m only being smart in my conservatism.

None of this starts in sylvan bliss, of course. On the first leg south, the second part of the entire road trip, I’m on the Washington 3, a road I know too well, one of distant and sharp memories of younger days, of my Father’s haunts and his second wife, of cold floors and walls, foggy mornings, and ugly beaches no one visits.

The truth is, when I first leave my father’s for this somber path, I am exhausted. I am waking up every few hours as usual, but this time it’s pure physical pain – I have a bad tooth which I am nursing with analgesic and fluoride. I barely make it out of Kitsap County and don’t even reach the 101, where the real drive begins. (I never do make it to Little Creek and the humorous games there between fishermen, loggers and naval retirees.) In fact, I have to rest after just an hour of driving and cut my the day short, settling myself with coffee and treats before mounting the ugly I5 and central Washington. I spend two days sleeping and eating Mexican in Vancouver, recovering from family and the gloom of aging parent.

So I crash for two days not even out of the state, taking hot and cold showers until I finally feel my blood move and my light but irritating headache leaving. It gets worse than better: sometimes the analgesic just wipes out all the tooth pain and I pass out in pure relief. Still, I don’t just stay in the room. I hang out with a former student who has made a great life for himself. He has divorced and remarried to salutary effect, and we have a meal at a casual Italian joint in the rejuvenated downtown of Vancouver. We don’t play this time, but we will on my way back, when I see his great new house and second child.

However, I can’t dodge the games forever. The calendar has aligned well for me, because in Pendleton Oregon at a small casino resort on the northern fields of Oregon, the tournaments are about to begin. The I-84, probably the most beautiful of all Interstates, takes me down the Columbia and into the happy foothills: beauty and air – at least until Pendleton and its amusing resort, the Wildhorse.

The cash games have been moved to their convention space as a tournament series will start soon and all staff is needed. I can’t play the first day, and I poke around. In a state renowned for its produce, meat, and markets, the Wildhorse serves only the worst food possible. I gag down a weird Pho at one point, and some misguided eggs at another.

“Games” was an overstatement, even on the eve of the series, but I finally get to sit down. The room is full of tables and chairs, but only one game is running when I sit down near midnight. I’m nervous even for this small game – it’s been months since I played live. I immediately screw up, ignoring easy reads and hurrying my bet sizing. Mason Malmuth is often right about how poker works, but he’s no good on the human element, which is all too real. I have to settle in and get comfortable.

Bad players will do amazing things. I witness some egregious poker and make myself its victim as well. One pot I see, the opener goes a hefty 4.5x and is basically min raised by a transparent overpair. The opener, a confident type, tosses in his forced call and we see 7d7c6h. The three bettor, clearly a young fish, bets twice the pot and gets called. On a blank he goes all in for the rest of his hundred bbs and gets snapped off by the obvious trips. He goes home, deservedly.

However, when the victor stands up to get a drink, the table manages to surprise me, asking each other if he has been playing this badly all night. See, in their mind, you don’t call a three bet with that hand, and they never questioned the rest of it.

These guys can’t play poker. My fatigue never seems to leave me, but I’m suddenly feeling less like sleeping.

However, this stuff works against you sometimes. I later small c-bet an 8 high board and a grandpa type snap pots it after cold calling me in the field. This old nit should be very strong here. I fold my eight without much thought – everyone knows this guy hasn’t bluffed since Reagan visited Berlin. He collects the pot and shows the table a pair of sevens to indicate he had it and to not fuck with him. He knew I couldn’t have an eight since I raised pre, and that I would not bet so small if I had any kind of pair: he’s got AK. He’s seen it all: yep AK. My lazy characterization of him costs me a win: of course he is tight and does not bluff, but does that describe how he thinks or what does what? No.

I can’t let accidental bluffs work out, this is my thing, and I have almost forgotten how to play these munchkins. I need to get my head in the game. I run uninterestingly and lose a few bucks when suddenly they are all going home, almost like a shift had ended. I ask if the room is closing, but there are no explanations. Just the way of the locals.

Just when I am about to commit to staying here, the bad tooth I have been negotiating tells me it won’t go without attention. I’m in pain to the point of being dysfunctional. I load up on painkiller and drive back to Pendleton and then to the specialist in Walla Walla, where I ultimately get an appointment from a specialist. There’s no negotiation when they have you over a barrel, and I pay out big for a handsome root canal. I hate how I have not taken care of my teeth since the crisis. You have a moral obligation to look after yourself, and that is what despair can kill. Each lost tooth is a failure that shames me even as I grow too old for shame: I’m transported back to my twenties, to violence and homelessness and desperation.

However, as awful as the ordeal is, a great job is a great job: I am pain free and rejuvenated in less than twenty-four hours. I hit the biggest game offered at the Wildhorse for a substantial win. Most of the profit comes from making an unusual bluff catch over multiple streets with QQ on an Ace high board. It’s a win few players, literally would ever have, given they would have three bet the QQ and blasted the victim out of the pot, then surrendered on the terrible board. Theory is actually very powerful, yet when no one recognizes it does it even exist?

Maybe it would be nice to talk to someone who understood the game after such a night, to commune and crow over the mysteries of actual strategy, but Twitter reminds constantly that instead all we have and want are matinee idols and sacred cows eating up the airwaves, calling lead spots check-raises while poker DJs spin out the hits, all too sure of themselves, uninterested in pursuing the reasons behind the reasons because they already know what makes ’em dance.

The win and the feeling of playing exceptionally well make me want to stay for the rest of the series, but I have other opponents. The weather of Deadman’s Pass looks promising for now. I head east, to 80 mph Idaho and more family, this time for a full day of driving. That’s a blur for another day.

The songs for this trip that I listen to are mostly inaccessible to the culture not because people can’t like them but because they literally speak a vanishing language. Dylan aficionados love them, I suppose, but I can’t consort with those weirdos or want to go to a concert, of all things. Do you sit or do you stand? Why would you scream? None of that stuff makes any sense. The silence and privacy of the road is perfect for certain sounds.

Listening or playing or writing does make sense, though, if only to keep certain things alive. Within a few lifetimes, poetry has all but died. Have you heard our current Poet Laureate’s speeches – when did the stale, rhythmless epithet become the only form of verse? These lyrics, on the other hand, sound childish, either too real or too naive to be real: magic. To get into the magic and the music and the words, you have to accept a certain poverty, a certain limitation, an inclination to the mud and the rain, but then all the decades open up to you. I can hear all of America, the already dirty New York hipster scene that openly drives us all, the trains the towns and the travels, and above all, the struggle, even down to particulars, like the God Emperor himself recalling his ancestral voices. It moves me to hear the decades fly by, to know what my father and mother felt and what they were fighting and not fighting for.

After my sister and the slingshot across the picturesque 20, Bend provides more poker for me. They have the coolest room of all, down to old school players-must-deal rules. The tables are packed and everyone is happy. Our bartender takes orders while playing; he runs up such a huge stack it seems strange he is taking tips from us as well. No one grouses at his good fortune, nor at mine: I take some big pots and the table remains high-spirited. I give them fifty bucks for drinks and leave when I start to yawn. Such a lightweight!

So many roads, and yet so many yet to see. I’m missing the coast entirely this time; perhaps that is best as I can remember the trip with my father for that. I never wanted to like or live like this, I start to write, but I realize that I did want it, I simply had imagined, all these years, the great seas of the explorers – the Pacific above all – instead of these winding plains and empty lots and mighty mountains which speak so much more plainly.

In the last legs of the journey, we begin to leave behind our times and illusions so to seek out a new answer, the real answer that evaded us in youth. The personal becomes universal again, and the details cease to matter in the sense that everything repeats. I didn’t want any of this, I told myself in my struggle, I want what I had before, before this decade passed in a day. I do not understand the cruelty of the universe or likely, my impossible self, or any of these crooked highways on which I have lamented for so long. Understanding and thinking things should have stopped ages ago, it now seemed: my examination has become a hallucinogen, a Spice that really does prolong life but only because I should have fucked off a long time ago.

You don’t know where I am. I barely know myself, but I see a road is ahead. I have plans, and I am strong indeed in some of my broken places. Time to ride, if not stand upon the water, until I sink.

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