I was pushing the accelerator toward death—Death Valley—on a long empty highway, signs of life disappearing in a blur. July, middle of the day, alone, just feeling cooped up and curious, waltzing in my head with the first lines of this Alastair Reid poem: Curiosity may have killed the cat; more / likely / the cat was just unlucky, or else / curious / to see what death was like, / having no cause to go on licking paws, or / fathering / litter on litter of kittens,/ predictably. It was that kind of day.
Which is to say it was a superb day—one mixed with a happy p’shaw to common sense and civilization, and an openness to whatever comes along, particularly if it comes defiantly in the hottest place on the planet, named after the great Whatever’s After.
I flattened the accelerator and blasted through the two-lane highway’s mirages, one after another. Slight rises and dips gave me belly joys, and the surreal life of Death Valley devoured me. There was nothing, save the victory of natural desolation and the hidden creatures designed to bear witness to it—with whom I was momentarily one. The farther I drove, the freer I was, the more vast the planet ahead of me. Emptiness. Escape.
Up ahead, a vehicle appeared. Was it driven by a fellow heat-defying nutjob? Only much, much slower? I approached his bumper, intending to courteously whip right on by, when I realized: Holy shit. That’s a cop.
Neither braking nor praying nor straightening my posture could save me now. I was suddenly all over a California Highway Patrolman’s bumper. He turned his flashing lights on while still in front of me, stuck his arm out the window and waved for me to pull over. Dilemma: Should I stop while still behind him, or slowly pass first, so that, as in the other universe, I would be pulled over in front of his squad car? I opted to just stop where I was: Death Valley, alone at high noon, about to be arrested by the only other living biped within a billion miles.
He walked back and leaned into my window—wearing no standard-issue aviators; but instead sporting, just, well, dead eyes—and took my license.
“Where are you going?”
“Um, I actually don’t know.”
“Well, you’re going pretty fast to try to get there, don’t you think?”
It seemed deeply profound to me, and I swear I was not stoned.
The ticket was something like $500, and yet, I thanked him—for not locking me up.
And I drove on.