Walking under the shade of the redwoods, their trunks rising into high canopies where the sunlight ribbons in to the ferns below, even someone such as Myself can feel small, inconsequential. How many times have I lived and died with these same trees still standing? My dreams of the cross, dying there some 2000 years ago, some of these trees may well have been standing then. I touch the trees, the bark turning my fingertips the color of rust, and wonder if they know who I am.
And I realize — Of course they don’t. To them I am nothing. These gods among trees, among men, they could care less about what I’m here to do. What I’ve been sent here, again and again, life after life, repeatedly, to do. The ground mist has long since burned away. The air is cool, wet, if a bit dusty. I wipe my hands on my jeans.
What I’m here to do.
What am I here to do?
My mind stalls on the question. The weight of it halts the wheels, the cogs, everything stops. Sweat seeps into my clothing even as the air grows colder. The blood leaves my face. I stagger. I swim through the falling light, the strips of tree shadow. What I’m here to do. What am I here to do? I’m here to kneel. To fall into the red dirt and kneel, to buckle over and bow, and heave, heave — echh
“Let it out,” Brian says, patting me on the back. “There there.”
My stomach collapses to the size of a clenched fist, but there’s nothing to let out. I dry heave into the ferns, coughing, spitting — there’s a darkness beneath the leaves and I stare into it. Above me, I feel the weight of the trees.
Keeping my eyes closed I roll onto my back. Brian sits in the dirt beside me. I take a deep breath. Smoke trails from the joint between Brian’s lips, floods my senses and empties them of anything else. Air that tastes like earth. My heart beats to a slow, steady. Step. I open my eyes to the light angling down through the trees, and the dust of the world shines in this light like a spell.
Suddenly outside myself, I see myself whisper but can’t hear what it is that I say.
“What was that?” Brian asks.
“I see men as trees, walking.”
“Mm.” Brian takes a drag from his joint and nods. “Mark 8:24, yes?”
“Mark 8:24,” he says again, but I don’t know what he’s talking about.
I take his joint and place it between my lips. I breathe in and let what’s inside burn what’s inside me. I hold in the smoke and search for the answer to the question I’ve been asking.
What am I here to do? All these lives, what have I been missing? What have I been doing wrong?
Why must I die again and again while these trees persist? Why must I keep coming back?
As the sun descends, its light angles upward, almost horizontal now in the highest branches, leaving all undergrowth in shadow. Brian takes back the joint, crushes it out in the dirt.
The morning after the whiskey night, Brian knew right away that I’d been drinking. He didn’t even have to ask what happened to the whiskey. The smell when he found me passed out in the car must’ve been tremendous, the air warm and dank, the mattress soaked in vomit. I barely registered him.
“Brian,” I moaned into the wet mattress. “Briiaaannnnnn.”
“Okay,” he said. “Okay.” He opened all the doors and sat in the front to smoke a quick cigarette. When he was done he said, “Okay. You’ll be okay.” And he went to work — making sure I was clean of whiskey and vomit and piss, sliding the sheets out from under me, throwing them and the blankets into a trash bag, washing it all at a nearby laundromat he found, all the while letting me sleep off the whiskey night. He stayed with me in the van the next night, and the night after that. I kept mumbling how sorry I was, that it wouldn’t happen again, and he told me not to be sorry, don’t be sorry, and that he couldn’t care less if it happened again or not. And although I was telling the truth that the whiskey night was a one time thing, the resolve wouldn’t last. The drinking took me again, and again, and soon after that, the smoking followed too. Brian never offered his drink or his weed — I’m guessing because he didn’t want to feel responsible — but he never said no when I took it from him.
Crossing into California, an event that should’ve felt momentous, didn’t feel like anything at all. I still felt no closer to finding Annie. She was nowhere to be found on Tinder, and away, bigger questions, questions much larger than Annie plagued me. What was I here to do? What was I here to say? I smoked to find the answer, I drank to forget the question. In this haze, Annie’s role started to drift, her face receding into a cloud of smog.
But here, lying under the redwoods with Brian, the question lingers. It’s always there—
What am I here to say? What can I say that hasn’t already been said?
“Nothing,” says Brian. “There’s nothing left to say.”
I’ll “plagiarize” the gospels, usually the Sermon on the Mount, and Brian will say, “Matthew 5:44, or John 7:13.”
I’ll tell him not to dwell on the past, nor dream of the future, but to concentrate on the present moment, and Brian will say, “Now you’re ripping off Gautama. Already done.”
I’ll tell him that only by abandoning his learning will he be free of his sorrow, and he’ll say, “Tao Te Ching, verse 20.”
I’ll change tactics, from the inner to the outer, and say maybe it’s all about the abolition of private property.
He’ll just smile and say, “Now you’re sounding like me.”
No matter what I say, no matter how I say it, Brian always knows the source. He throws my words back at me, in their truer, more original form. Marcus Aurelius, he’ll say. Plato, he’ll say. Thich Nhat Hanh.
“He who knows does not speak,” he says. “He who speaks does not know.”
“Who said that?”
“Lao Tzu said that.”
“So what am I supposed to say?”
“What I’ve been saying,” he says. “There’s nothing left to be said. It’s all been said. It’s all been said and turned into something else and said again.”
But I don’t believe him. I know somewhere, deep within me, if I stay still enough, if I stay silent enough, if I destroy my senses and self I will find the answer to the world.
“Now you’re talking about suicide,” he says.
I lift myself back to my feet. With the weight of everything, how have these trees remained standing for so long? Even after death, with their burnt, hollowed out corpses, they remain standing like dark pillars as if nothing changes, nothing happens, as if these tree gods are above the tide of time and the world falling away.
“But everything changes,” I whisper to myself. “Change is the only truth.”
The trail dumps us back onto the main road. We walk south along the road to where the forest opens up to meadow, where our van is parked against the roadside. The sun sets over the redwoods to the west. East of us, the redwoods grow dark. Black daggers against a navy sky.
Brian has a friend he wants to visit in Arcata, about 45 minutes south of us. Someone he knew from high school. The scenic parkway merges again with 101, and after meandering through more forest, 101 swings us back to the coast, again away from the coast, straying east with farmland growing to the west of us, 101 opening up to three lanes and before us the beaten down suburban sprawl of Arcata approaches. Low hanging clouds reflect the lights of the city, giving a feeling of dusk though dusk has long since passed.
Turning into the neighborhood where Brian’s friend lives, who I’m learning now is named Angela, I feel suddenly self-conscious of my appearance. Outside of Brian and the occasional store clerk, I haven’t interacted with anyone since leaving for the road. I haven’t showered in — how long has it been now? I feel thin, fragile, as if just introducing myself to another would break me. What would I say? Would I tell them my name? Or should I tell them my Name?
“I think this is it,” Brian says as we pull into their steep drive, dipping down behind their house to a dirt lot in the backyard. No fences, just more redwoods or Douglas firs — in the dark I can’t tell the difference — rising to give the properties some semblance of separation.
I wipe my hands against my jeans. Dirt peels off like dead skin.
Angela’s waiting of us at the top of the drive. She waves us over and Brian squeals — uncharacteristic of Brian — as he runs over to her. They tell each other how different they look, how good they look, and as I approach I can’t help but notice Brian’s voice, an octave higher than the voice I know.
Angela speaks steady and slow, she uses the word “yeah” a lot, “yeah,” and she’s always smiling. She has dirty blonde hair that might just be dirty, pulled back and dried into dreads, and a bandana wrapped around her forehead. When her eyes fall on mine, her smile twitches, but manages to stay up.
“Hi,” I say, holding out my hand.
She holds out her hand too, as if to mock me.
“Hi,” she says.
The house belongs to her father, though he lives somewhere down south. She rents out the extra rooms to a couple of friends, and following her inside, it’s clear they’ve made it fully their own — a typical college student house where none of the residents still go to college. Bongs and pipes and grinders scatter the resin crusted coffee table, a fifth of rum lies on the stained carpet. On some nature channel, an episode of Australia’s Deadliest plays on mute, though nobody watches. From the couch, a bulldog pup scampers toward us. It jumps up at me and barks.
“Hey, hey there,” she says, her voice slow and glazed. “These are friends. Friends,” she repeats. The dog doesn’t believe her either.
She gives us a quick tour of the house, shows us the empty room where we’ll be sleeping — Kai just moved out last week — and then she takes us to the laundry room where she shows us her plants.
Back in the living area, Angela sits on one couch with her pup lying across her lap, while Brian and I sit on the other. The TV still plays on mute, something about poisonous spiders. Brian and Angela talk about people they once knew, people they still know, people they don’t, mostly they talk about themselves. I nod every now and again, but say nothing.
For some reason Brian is holding my hand, his thumb caressing the back of my knuckles.
“So,” Angela asks. “Where are you guys going?” The question must be directed at me, an opening for me, because Brian doesn’t answer.
“Home,” I lie.
Angela looks to Brian, then back to me. “Yeah? Where’s that?”
“Sunnyvale. Just a little south of San Francisco.”
“Okay. Yeah. Yeah. I think I’ve passed through there. Tech companies and strip malls, yeah.”
“Family visits are nice,” she says.
“Yes,” I say. “They are.”
It’s not long before I excuse myself saying I’m beat and need to get some sleep. Both Brian and Angela feign disappointment but don’t object when I insist. Brian says he’ll follow me down in a bit.
I set up my mat in the corner of the empty room that still smells like Kai — it smells exactly how you’d imagine a Kai to smell — and bury myself in blankets and wait. I listen to their hushed voices upstairs, and then more voices. Doors opening, closing, footsteps beating against the hardwood, laughter and delights, a bottle breaking and music turned up and blaring and here I am, all alone in an empty room that smells like Kai, I don’t even know Kai, and above me music RUMP RUMP RUMP‘s the walls. Brian is drunk and laughing.
The noise doesn’t let up. I toss and turn and rehearse the speech I’ve prepared for Brian in my head, the one about this loneliness and abandonment, and then try to forget it because it sounds so stupid. Why am I so stupid.
Someone stumbles into the room, someone with a ponytail. When he sees me he says, “Oh. Sorry. I thought this was the bathroom,” and closes the door but the door doesn’t latch, it opens back up, and I hear him doubling over as he climbs the stairs.
Enough! I’ve had it. I’ve had enough. I take my blankets, wrap them around myself like a robe, like a cape, and rise into the noise, the people, the smoke. I stand at the top of the stairs, but nobody sees me. The way to the front door is blocked by people and in my mind, I part them, I part them like Moses parts the sea. My heart pounds at my ribs, I step forward. One by one the people step aside for me, but none seem to notice I’m there. I glide through them, parting the way one step at a time. When I reach the door, the two separate halves of the party become one again, and I close the door behind me.
The van is cold, quiet. I crawl into myself and fall asleep.
Brian is in the passenger seat when I wake up. He’s drinking coffee and looking at nothing in particular. I watch him for awhile, he doesn’t realize I’m watching him until I prop myself up on the mattress.
“Hey bud,” he says. “You okay?”
“I’m okay,” I say, but I can’t stop shaking. “I’m okay.” No matter how many times I say it I can’t convince either of us that it’s true. It’s so cold.
It’s not until Arcata is behind us that I start to feel better, that I start to feel more like Myself now that there’s nobody around to remind me that I’m no one. There’s something about people that makes me feel inhuman. Like I’m not one of the people.
And then I remember, it’s because I’m not. I’m not one of them. I’m here to save them but I’m not one of them. Only when I’m by myself do I remember this. Brian doesn’t count. When I’m with him, I may as well be alone. He’s good like that.
After Eureka, 101 pulls away from the coast and doesn’t come back. It’s not until Leggett that we switch to the 1, which after a dizzying, winding drive takes us back to the ocean. Following the claustrophobia of the inland, of the relentless trees and nonexistent skylines, the openness of the ocean is a relief. We stop at the very first pull-off, and just about every pull-off after that, the swift cold ocean air forcing breath back into our lungs. Though it’s always the same ocean, there is always a new feeling to it that brings you back to the same feeling — this feeling of oneness, of crashing stillness. Of the return of all things. We’re at one of these pull-offs now and I think Brian feels this too. His gaze is locked on the horizon where everything converges into a blue haze.
Staring at this open mouth of the ocean, sitting at its very lips, something rises from my center, reaches up to my own lips, something original, something profound, something that’s never been said. Something that would impress even Brian.
My jaw hangs there, gaping, filling in with wind off the ocean, my mind a blank. What was it? What was I about to say?
Without a word, Brian pushes himself up, and walks back to the car.
join man next week for journal #35 (in which said man finds himself in Salt Point Park)