The wheels on the ’78 Duster held on to the hot, dark asphalt. The car had been moving at a good clip when I noticed the engine light come on. I quickly pulled over to the side of the highway, Route 66, one of most famous highways in the good old U. S. of A. I was finally living the dream and travelling this most recognized and influential piece of roadwork ever written and sung about.
It was hot, and I don’t mean uncomfortably hot; I mean downright disgustingly, almost hellishly hot. A blistering kind of heat, the kind in which you can feel your skin burn and you could swear you could smell it burn too, that kind of hot. I took the watering can from the trunk and poured water into the radiator. The engine hissed. The rad drank up the water like a thirsty child who’d just come in from an afternoon of play.
I looked around. There really wasn’t much to look at; miles of desert lay before me. I could hear in the far off distance the caw of some sort of bird, a hawk perhaps. I could hear the heat singe the earth, leaving not a trace of moisture anywhere. My lips were parched; I grabbed a water bottle out of the cooler in the back. Slugging the water back quickly I felt slightly dizzy from the sweltering heat despite my hat and sunglasses. It felt oppressive. “I don’t want to be stuck out here tonight,” I thought to myself. There was not a flower, or blade of grass or a tree, it seemed, for miles, just brush and rocks and sand.
I took out my map and checked the route again. I was making pretty good time. Next stop was Dead or Alive, about fifty kilometers straight ahead. “Nice,” I thought to myself. It would be good to check in somewhere and shower off the dust! I got back in the car; the old Duster fired up and away we went.
Some time later I arrived in Dead or Alive, population unknown. I suppose out here in this barren wasteland people decided it wasn’t the most hospitable place to raise a family. Or maybe that’s why they called it Dead or Alive, because by the look of the town you wouldn’t want to be caught dead or alive in it. A harsh, hostile looking place, there was hardly a building in sight and that desert dust seemed to creep into everything. It was as though it was alive and in need of a friend, it clung to you so unabashedly.
I pulled into what I assumed was the gas station. There really wasn’t much to it, a shack and a tiny sign that read “Gas” and a yelping dog out front. I pulled up beside the pump and a bell went off. An old man came out mumbling something. He had overalls on, stained with God knows what, a baseball cap, and he was carrying a rag in one hand. He came up to the window.
“How do, what can I do for you?” he said.
“I need to fill her up and if you could check the oil that would be great, thanks,” I responded. Taking another look at this gentleman I was reminded of someone but I just couldn’t place how he seemed to resemble someone I knew.
“You need a quart. Want me to throw it in?” he asked.
“Sure, yes, thanks. Oh, by the way, do you know if there is anywhere around here where I can stay, a hotel of some sort?”
“There’s not much around here really, just the beauty of the desert. But there is a saloon down the road, or a bar as you young people call them now. Percy’s, he’ll set you up no problem I’m sure.”
“Okay, great, thanks, I’ve been driving for some time and really need to take a break,” I said, staring at the man. And then it dawned on me. No, it couldn’t be. I was stunned at the resemblance this old guy had to Lawrence Ferlingetti, the poet. That would be just too weird.
“You look a lot like a poet I am very fond of,” I said to the old man.
“That right? Well, out here things are not always as they appear.” He replied with a wry smile. “So, just up the road a bit you’ll find Percy’s. Can’t miss it really. It’s about the only building in town.” The old man smiled and waved me on.
I got in the car. The heat was blazing, and a haze seemed to fall over the road as I drove. A few miles up the road I saw the sign, “Welcome to Percy’s.” I turned into the parking lot or what may have been a parking lot and got out of the car. As I was grabbing my purse in the back seat, a car pulled up, right beside me. A tall intimidating man got out of the car, our eyes met and he smiled. I held my breath. “Oh my God,” I thought to myself, “Is that Stephen King?”
“How are you? Heading into Percy’s?” he asked.
“Ummm, ah, ya,” I said, somewhat dumbfounded.
“Come on then, girlie, you don’t want to be out here when it gets dark. The desert is a hostile and unforgiving place,” he said to me as we walked up the wooden steps to the saloon.
Once inside I had to again take a deep breath. The place was hot, sweltering in fact, and the sweat dripped down my spine. There was dust on the floor and, it seemed, on just about everything else in the place! The bar was empty except for a few people in the back hollering and cursing but seemingly harmless. Music played from somewhere; it was barely audible but I was pretty sure I could hear a piano playing. What song was that? I’d heard it before, and then from a corner of the saloon I saw a figure appear; it was coming towards me. Now, I was awestruck. “Hello,” he said to me as he walked by. I took a deep breath and followed him to the bar. “’Imagine’, that’s what you were playing wasn’t it?”
“Yea” he answered.
“Imagine that,” I said, staring into the face of John Lennon.
“Where you from?” he asked as he took a swig of his drink.
“Montreal,” I said to him. “I always wanted to drive Route 66 and so here I am, but I really didn’t think I would experience something as extraordinary as this,” I replied, looking around the bar.
“Ahhh, Montreal. Yoko and I loved that city — the Grande Dame of North America! Are you getting a drink? We have a card game going on back there. Come, join us,” he said and walked toward the back of the saloon.
The barman looked like a character right out of a John Wayne movie, robust, bald, with a huge handlebar moustache.
“You must be Percy?” I said to him.
“As I live and breathe,” he replied, drying off a beer stein.
“Over here, girlie, want a beer?” the man who looked like Stephen King asked.
“Yeah, I’d love one, thanks,” I replied, still taking in the place. Was this some kind of movie set? I felt like I was in Hang ‘Em High, or Gunsmoke. The place was as ancient as the old guy at the gas pump.
I looked at my new friend and bluntly asked him, “Are you the Stephen King?”
“On the money, girlie. Who else did you expect? Come and meet my buddies. Well, you’ve already met John,” he said and handed me my beer. I followed him to the back of the saloon. It was the table I had heard all the racket from when I first walked in. Dead or Alive certainly had its fair share of oddities but arriving at this table in this place topped them all.
“Hey there, fellas, how ya doing today?” he said.
“You made it. Who’s the little lady with ya there?”asked someone who I swear looked like Joseph Campbell. I was seriously beginning to think I must be suffering from some kind of heat stroke or something. Across from Joseph was Allen Ginsberg, and there was Jack Kerouac, my teenage hero. Oh man, yes, I was hallucinating. I drank my beer and just stood and stared at the table with all of these people sitting around it, chatting and playing cards. Johnny Depp, Hunter S. Thompson, John Lennon.
I was sitting in the presence of greatness, and was pretty sure I was going to wake up in some damn hospital or in the funeral parlor, cause this was just some crazy shit and I really couldn’t understand how, or why. But I decided I didn’t care. I sat down and enjoyed every moment with these guys. I mean, seriously, this was a dream come true, talking to them about their writing, their life experiences. It was pure magic. “I must have died and this has got to be heaven,” I thought to myself.
Eventually the old guy from the gas station appeared. He looked at me and smiled. I went over to him and asked him, “Okay, did I die or something?”
He laughed. “Of course not. Aren’t you heading toward L. A.?”
“Yes, but come on,” I said, looking at the table. “This does not happen. People who are dead don’t just come back, and people that are still alive don’t sit around playing cards with dead folks.”
“Like I told you back there, things don’t always appear to be what they are when you’re out here in the desert.”
I smiled and told myself to enjoy the moment. Joseph Campbell looked up at me and said, “So I see you’re following your bliss. It’s taken you long enough.” He smiled and went back to his card game.
Lawrence and I went to the bar and ordered a round for the table and shots too. If this was real I was going to keep it to myself, I thought, and if I’m dead, who cares. I was in a room
filled with laughter, and I was listening to stories even I couldn’t imagine. If I got out of Dead or Alive the next day it didn’t matter. What mattered was that this was my story; this was my journey and I was going to reap all the benefits whether they be real or imagined. And I would move on from this place either Dead or Alive.
“rhyolite mercantile,” by el-toro. Creative Commons Flickr. Some rights reserved.