"Freedom to pass back and forth across the world division, from the perspective of the apparitions of time to that of the causal deep and back — not contaminating the principles of the one with those of the other, yet permitting the mind to know the one by virtue of the other — is the talent of the master."
— Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces
It started with a dream. This time, anyway. A restless sleeper, like his daddy, he'd awakened suddenly on Thursday night with a clear vision of Christmas lights on the lake. Nice and literal.
It wasn't always dreams. Last spring he'd been in the freezer aisle at the grocery store when the salmon fillets suddenly came to life and started swimming upstream. Well, he could take a hint. The year before, in the middle of his third espresso and a stack of last-minute 1040s, he'd just known, as if he were a genie and somewhere far away his lamp had been rubbed. It had just about killed him to wait until the sixteenth, but by then he definitely appreciated the break.
Thursday night was good timing. That gave him Friday to get the car checked out, put a hold on his mail, and ask Mrs. Krzyzewski next door to water the plants while he was away. He made a mental note to buy some of that willow ptarmigan candy she liked so much. On Saturday morning he packed the Volvo with thermal-knit underwear and his latest finds from the used record shop, and set out.
Portland to Seattle was nothing. He could have been driving to work or the store, it was so quotidian, what with the traffic and talk radio and innumerable billboards for Starbucks. It was once he'd turned toward Canada, and especially after crossing the border, that he began to feel he was really going somewhere. The cloak of civilization slipped away, the towers of Camelot — or at least, the Space Needle — vanished beneath the horizon, and he was questing once again.
After so many trips, the landscape along Highway 5 was becoming familiar, but he saw it differently every time. He supposed the small towns he passed through were normal enough to those who lived there — it was his perceptions that rendered them wild and otherworldly.
His insomnia served him well, and he rarely stopped for the nights. He'd stop in the afternoon, usually, and catch a catnap in the back seat before driving on through the night. Nighttime, after all, was when the moon was out, and increasingly, the aurora, and seeing them was more refreshing than sleep anyway. At home in Portland when he couldn't sleep, he'd stand out on his little north-facing balcony and look for the lights. He hadn't spotted them yet.
The first time he'd made this trip, he hadn't slept at all. Of course, everything about that first time had been different. That trip had been an unconscious compulsion, a mindless submission to instinct with no notion of what he might find at the end or whether there would be an end at all. He could have kept riding forever, and he wouldn't have cared.
On that first trip, he'd felt his old self slipping away mile by mile. He'd left it behind, like his job and the condo and Mom, and all his thoughts and desires melted from him in the moonlight until he was a cipher, an undifferentiated sack of protoplasm waiting for genetic instructions. Five days and nights on the unfamiliar Harley, barely stopping except for gas, armored for his quest in stiff new leathers, following the enormous late-summer moon as though nothing else existed — it had been Joseph Campbell's night-sea journey if there ever was one.
He had never read Campbell before that first trip. He wasn't entirely sure he had even heard of him before then, aside from possible stray mentions in college. He'd been a pretty focused student, and comparative religion was about as far from public accountancy as you could get. He couldn't get enough of it now.
A few hours into Canada, he pulled over for a rest and read a few passages from his dog-eared copy of The Hero with a Thousand Faces. It had been a gift from Chris on his first visit — a boon to bring back with him, he often thought with a fond smile — and he kept it in the glove compartment in the event of an unexpected quest. Between the prison library stamps, scrawled notes, and underlining, there were some pages he could barely make out. His own annotations were in a little green notebook, and sometimes he read from that instead of from the book itself. It helped him think about things.
Hero seemed to disgorge new revelations every time he opened it. That was one of the biggest things that had changed since his first trip. Before, the books he read had meant one thing, without changing, and although he'd sometimes questioned that meaning, his questions had never been answered. It hadn't occurred to him then that the same words could mean everything at once and sparkle in a different light every time he read them. Words were like the auroras — constantly in motion, morphing and rippling, changing their colors, but always made of the same stuff.
On the second day he circumnavigated Edmonton. He preferred not to stop in the city; it was too jarring after the miles of rural quiet, and the few times he'd done it he'd felt extremely surreal, as though he weren't really there. Instead, he drove on for a couple of hours until he found an isolated gas station with a convenience store.
At the cash register, a middle-aged woman in an Oilers sweatshirt was paging through a garden catalog, oohing and aahing over the perennials.
"I don't know why I tease myself," she said when he approached the counter to pay for his gas and snacks. "They don't even ship to Canada." She turned the catalog over to mark her place, and he chuckled as he caught sight of the name on the cover: Jung Seed Company.
"Synchronicity," he explained obliquely, and left her thinking he was a little bit funny, but he didn't mind.
As a kid he had tried very hard not to call attention to himself. He wasn't like that anymore. Provocative eccentricity wasn't his way, but neither did he mind if people thought he was a little bit weird. When he laughed at the seed catalog and the woman looked at him oddly, he felt a warm sparkling secret within him. It was a knowledge of hidden things, a gentle amusement at the vagaries of life. Sometimes he felt like he carried that secret all the time.
He got in the car and drove.
The long, solitary stretch after Edmonton always had a certain Lenten solemnity to it. The sense of anticipation was strong, and it made him feel focused and dreamlike at the same time. He played Paul Simon's Graceland album to fill the silence and snacked on cheesy popcorn from the gas station. The Indian summer days were crisp and sunny and he drove with the windows down despite the chill.
This stretch, almost due northwest, always took him back to middle school social studies and the search for the Northwest Passage. Maybe all those explorers would have found it if they'd just been paying attention. He encountered a few logging trucks and roadkill in various stages of identifiability, but for the most part he was alone.
When the tape ended, he drove on in near-meditative silence. The humming of the tires was like a mantra. At the next gas station, he felt a little bit disconnected from his body, and he filled the tank and paid without speaking.
He stopped to rest around 4:30 and dreamed he was back in the first grade. It was his turn to clean the blackboard erasers — a coveted chore reserved for students who were responsible enough to go off by themselves. He walked proudly down the hall to the little storage room where the noisy eraser-cleaning machine was kept.
But when he got there, he found the room already occupied. A scrawny white kid in ripped denim was slouching at a desk, carving designs in the top of it with a broken scissors.
A part of him — the part that knew it was a dream — couldn't help grinning, even as his dream-self quailed in nervous fear. This was a frightening, foreign place. This was Detention.
"Hey, Bernard," the kid greeted him. "You ready to get out of here?"
Alarmed, he gestured at himself, careful not to get chalk dust on his good sweater. "I'll get dirty."
"Can't do nothin' without gettin' a little bit dirty."
The kid bounded up from the desk and grabbed his hand, and suddenly they were sneaking down the hall together. The rooms they passed were silent, the teachers and students in them seemingly frozen in place.
"You know," he confessed, once they were outside and his companion was boosting him over the playground fence, "I've never done this before."
"Nobody's done this before. Ready? One… two…"
When he woke up, it was dark, and he could see his breath in the moonlight that filtered into the back of the Volvo. He pulled on an extra sweater, then wrote down the dream in his green notebook. It had been a dream of the past, not of the present. But it meant that Chris would be expecting him now, and that was a good feeling.
The notebook safely restored to the glove compartment, he visited the bushes and cracked open a diet soda before continuing on his northwesterly course. If he made good time, he should get there before the end of the morning show. It usually seemed to work out that way.
Thinking back over the dream made him chuckle. He'd been so timid then, so afraid of breaking the rules. Back in elementary school, he'd honestly believed that getting bad grades was evidence of a moral deficit — and detention, well, those kids were irredeemable. He'd realized the folly of that thinking long before meeting Chris, but his brother's past had driven it home to him even more clearly.
He'd been so afraid at first, or a part of him had, that Chris would find him inadequate, like an overeager student who wasn't quite ready to receive the master's knowledge. Most of him knew that was nonsense. The fact that he paid his taxes, obeyed the speed limit, and submitted to an office dress code didn't disqualify him from being a mystic. Eventually, he'd broached the subject to Chris.
"You're just a tiger wearing your goat face," Chris had said with evident delight, and pointed out the relevant passage in The Hero's Journey. "I've tried, but it doesn't fit me very well. But you, Bernard — you can go out there with all those goats and sneak up on 'em. And then, when they're least expecting it… RAAAAHR! Metaphysical mauling, man!"
He'd just chuckled at that. "I suppose so." Anyone overhearing would have thought he were gently dismissing his brother's ravings. But inside, he'd felt that familiar sparkle. A tiger indeed.
The road before him was completely empty. His headlights picked out the looming figures of trees that emerged from the darkness as graceful shadow shapes before suddenly becoming real and then disappearing again. There were no other cars. He kept his eyes open for moose and other nocturnal wanderers, but saw none.
"Nobody out here but us tigers," he said to himself.
He felt like a man in a spaceship, moving through the darkness and silence in his little metal box, illuminated only by the lights of the dashboard instrumentation. Traversing vast distances. In space, it took so long to get anywhere from anywhere… except the moon. The moon was only three and a half days away. It took less time to get to the moon than to get to Alaska. That still boggled his mind when he thought about it too hard.
In the early days of space travel, returning astronauts had been quarantined in an Airstream trailer in case they'd brought back alien diseases from the moon. Maurice had shown him pictures of the trailer once. Nobody ever got sick, and eventually the practice had been abandoned.
But people who went into space did come back different, if they stayed long enough. They got too used to floating, lost muscle mass, had to be helped out of their spaceships back into the world. He'd read once that a child born in space might never be able to live on the Earth, because of the unfamiliar strain of gravity on the heart. He'd just have to stay out there, floating, forever.
He had passed Beaver Creek a while ago. Suddenly there were lights shining up ahead. It was the border crossing, looking deserted at this hour, its twin Canadian and American flags fluttering in a strong breeze.
He slowed and stopped in front of the crossing gate. Soon, the border patrol officer appeared and walked around the car to the driver's-side window. He rolled it down and was greeted by the tang of wood smoke and pine.
"Beautiful night, eh?" the officer greeted him. His breath was visible in the chilly air.
"Most definitely. Good night for a drive." He presented his driver's license and answered the ritual questions.
Finally, the officer handed his license back and went to open the gate. "Welcome to Alaska!" he called as the Volvo slowly rolled across the border. "Enjoy your visit!"
The wilderness on the other side looked exactly the same as the one he'd just left. The natural world didn't recognize lines drawn on a map. The difference between one side and the other was a difference of collective imagination.
He drove on through the night.
Around a quarter to six, he finally saw a moose. It was grazing at the side of the road and raised its crowned head in elegant slow motion as he approached. It gazed at him with its liquid eyes, as though in acknowledgement, and then dipped its head and ambled away into the woods.
Neil from Auditing had asked him once why he didn't just fly to Alaska. It was cheap enough, and it would have saved him ten days in the car, round-trip. He'd started to explain, and then just shrugged and smiled his self-effacing smile. Neil wouldn't get it.
It was morning. Dawn rippled pink and gold across the rear-view mirror, while high over his left shoulder the moon still grazed the treetops. Birds were beginning to stir in the brush alongside the road. Highway 1 stretched out before him, pointing due west. Up ahead he saw a battered green sign.
"Cicely: 150 miles."
He smiled and turned on the radio.