I’ve often wondered what ever happened to all those people I use to know who would go on “tour” following The Grateful Dead all around North America, after Jerry Garcia died. How long did some of them stay out there, aimless and lost, wandering the highways and byways of North America….
On another long stretch of highway in the middle of nowhere a VW minibus crested the horizon as it reached the top of a small hill. It was trundling along as only a minibus can when it has no particular destination in mind, maintaining a steady pace, but not looking like it’s in any great hurry.
As it nosed its way down into the valley, caused by the road swerving to avoid the mountains, anybody seeing it would have noticed that it had seen better days. Since the only observers were a couple of cacti and a lazy roadrunner, neither of whom seem to be all that interested, the fact that its predominant colour was rust didn’t come up in conversation.
In fact their presence would have been completely ignored save for the bus wheezing to a stop alongside on of the aforementioned cacti. It sat there; motor ticking, as the driver side door opened. A cloud of smoke billowed out, if smoke that crawled on the ground could be referred to as billowing, followed shortly after by a figure on two legs.
The creature had hair that hung in matted clumps (at one time they may have been dreadlocks) from its head and walked with stooped shuffling gait. The overall dungarees that covered it bagged and billowed around the skinny frame, and underneath the bib could be seen a bare and skinny hairless chest.
Hands reached up to push back the hair that fallen in front of glazed eyes that were set in the slightly grey tinged face of a person long deprived of healthy food and oxygen. A sudden fanatical gleam shone from some depths of those same eyes as they spotted the cacti.
“Far fucking out.” Tilting his head so that his scraggy beard was pointed back to his shoulder he called out. “Fucking cactuses …get out… maybe… you know… we can score some peyote or something…” With that he shuffled over to the nearest plant and began examining it for any hallucinogenic properties.
“Fuck, you’d think they’d be labelled or something, I thought they were supposed to be buttons, the fucking thing doesn’t even look like it owns a shirt, let alone the buttons for one.” He shouted over his shoulder again. “Want to come out and help me? We could be standing in front of a whole lot of stone and not even know it.”
The other passenger crawled out of the van. Almost twin to the first from overalls to vacant expression and glazed eyes, she differed in that she wore a t-shirt as an attempt at modesty beneath her overalls. A needless effort as her emaciated body was so thin that whatever breasts she may have once had had wasted away to nothingness.
“Shit, it’s so bright out here man” her voice was a harsh whine in the clear air of the dessert. “What do you want to bring me out here for anyway?”
“Fuck, where?” Like him, the mention of drugs brought a spark to previously dead eyes. She turned her head so violently in search of the promised drug, that she upset what ever centre of balance might have remained in her inner ear, and tumbled to the ground in a heap.
He leaned down to help her up, and she climbed his arm mumbling under her breath, “Awesome trip man, awesome, let’s do some more,” until she had regained her feet.
“No, no right in front of you… the cactus thing… that’s where peyote come from. They like grow these little buttons somewhere on them … you’ve had peyote before… remember what they look like? It was at Red Rocks on the 92 tour….”
They stood, holding hands, staring at the cacti lost in their memories. Their faces relaxed into smiles, offering a brief glimpse of who they had been prior to whatever ravages they had experienced in the interim. A tear formed in her left eye; catching the sun it refracted light into a miniscule rainbow beyond either of their abilities to witness.
“That was a nice time wasn’t it?” The whine was gone from her voice, replaced by the soft confused sound of a child who has seen her promised birthday party end in disaster when nobody she invited showed up. Her unoccupied hand reached out, as if to touch something, something that was no longer there and forever out of her reach.
“Oh fuck yeah, did I ever get stoned…that guy, fuck was his name, you know the guy he had a… and a red thingy around his wrist…anyway he had some ‘nitrous and was filling hefty bags with the shit. Holy shit, did that ever blow the back of your brain out and leave you flat on ground drooling…And then I did that window pane… you know the yellow stuff that you was like plastic and you could see through it and your hands kinda’ turned yellow for a while even after you’d taken it. The cramps were fuckin’ awful but after a while they went away and. …Fuck yeah that was a great time….”
His voice trailed away into the nothingness it had come from. It sounded just like so much noise sometimes these days to her. She let go of his hand and hunched herself deeper into her overalls, arms wrapped around her front as if struck by a sudden chill. Red Rocks had been thirteen years ago.
She stood watching him wander over to the closest cactus. It was holding both of its arms up in surrender, and she had a moment of complete empathy with the plant. “I know just how you feel” she said under her breath, “I know just how you feel”
It had really all ended on August 9th three years after Red Rocks, yet they were still out here as if nothing had ever changed. They didn’t even see many of the same faces anymore, or at least ones she could remember or distinguish. Standing here, looking at the endless desert with nothing but cacti and him searching for whatever, she felt an unanswerable loneliness sweep through her.
Thirteen years ago she had been nineteen, her whole life ahead of her. Now she was thirty-two and almost half her life was gone. Her blood felt as dry as the desert sand that her bare feet and toes curled up in. She looked down to see the grains of sand moving through her toes; shifting unstable earth.
“I want to go home.”
It was so quiet as to be almost inaudible. But it felt right. Louder this time, still louder the next and the next after that, until finally he looked up from where he was poking around at the cactus furthest away from her. “What did you say?”
“I want to go home. I want a home. I want something I can call home that’s not a motel or on four wheels. I want the ground to stop moving under my feet, I want to put down roots and see what I can grow into.”
She turned towards him, and began walking across the sand to where he stood with his hands cupped in supplication before his cactus. Nestled in the palms of two hands were five shrivelled brownish green button shaped objects. Each centre was marked with a tuft of white hairs: naturally occurring strychnine guaranteed to give you cramps and make you puke for what would seem like forever. Take peyote, puke and see God was what everyone said.
She looked from his hands up to his eyes. Slowly, clearly, enunciating each word as if spelling them out to a child: “I want to go home.” She didn’t say anything more. Just stood there looking him in the eyes. Eyes that looked back at her blankly: eyes that looked down at the shrivelled buttons in his hands hoping to see the answer he had found there moments ago.
But that was the answer to a question that wasn’t going to be asked again by her. She reached out her hand and cupped his cheek, pulling his eyes back up until she could see them again. “I want to go home.” Insistently this time, leaving no room for doubt as to her meaning.
She could feel his jaw muscles working against the skin of her hand, speaking the words under his breath; chewing them over like a cow and cud. When his eyes met hers he blinked, startled, as if surprised to see her standing in front of him. His cupped hands opened as he dropped his arms to his side and the buttons tumbled unheeded to the ground.
She stepped away and watched his shoulders sag slightly forward as he drew in a long breathe. He released it with the air of a man who had been holding something in for too many years. He raised his head to the sky and slowly scanned the horizon line in all directions. When he looked back into her eyes his were brimming with tears that threatened to spill beyond their boundaries.
“It’s over, isn’t it?” was all he said.
“It ended years ago only we never noticed.”
“I didn’t want it to be.”
“Neither did I.”
“What do we do now?”
“I’m not sure. But something other than this”
He nodded slowly and reached out his hand to her. She took the offering in her hand, and then covered them both with her other one. Closing her eyes she could almost see them standing somewhere else together holding hands; somewhere where they were smiling small smiles of real happiness.
She opened her eyes and tried to find a reason to smile like that and almost succeeded. She sighed a small breath of a sigh and removed her covering hand. They began to walk back to the VW microbus, picking their feet up off the ground and ever so softly placing them back down again.
As he started the engine the stereo came back to life and the music was playing. He reached down to turn it off, but she stopped him with a smile. He looked at her for a second and smiled back. As the van drove away the words wafted back on their slipstream for the appreciative audience of spilled peyote buttons, cactus, and roadrunner:
Trucking, I’ve got my chips cashed in…what a long strange trip it’s been… The Grateful Dead