Surprise, Surprise

After all that nonsense I had to put up with to get my load to Sacramento delivered on time, I ended up sitting around and waiting for over four hours for a shipping manifest to get faxed over here before I could back into a dock. It’s an unwritten rule of trucking that no matter who screws up, the driver will pay the price. In this case, it seems to have been the other driver, the one whose load I picked up, who screwed up. He faxed me the bills of lading, and neglected to include the manifest. I still kick myself that I didn’t invest in paper companies back when, during the dawning of the Information Age, everyone was touting the imminent arrival of the paperless office. So I began re-reading The Dharma Bums, which happened to have been one of the half-dozen books I took along on this trip.

I’d been thinking about Kerouac for a couple of days, ever since western Nebraska. I80 was one of Kerouac’s first roads, the road he first hitch-hiked into the West on, although in his day that route would have been designated US30. He marveled at the sage country, gawked around the streets of Cheyenne, took a bus down to Denver where he freeloaded for some time before taking off for San Francisco.

Yesterday I walked from where I was parked the two miles into the town of Dutch Flat. Some funky old houses in the woods, some with eccentric yard decoration schemes, an Oddfellows hall, a Masonic Lodge closed for business, a general store, and an historical museum.

The museum was open, on a Sunday. The woman who ran it or at any rate was volunteering that day gladly put down the book she was reading out on the porch and ushered me in to show me the photographs and artifacts. The first settler was a Prussian who showed up by way of Illinois in order to farm, which, given the terrain (steep) and the vegetation (which would have been old-growth mixed conifers, mostly), rather boggles the mind. He couldn’t find farming land in Illinois? Anyway, soon enough someone discovered gold, which ran the town for the next forty years. After the easy wealth had been grubbed out they went for the rest with hydraulic mining (wash away the hillside with a fire hose and screen out the ore) until the state shut down that practice in 1888. Since then, the town has gradually withered away to its present size. There was a scheme in 1933 to dig under Main Street, see if any of that mother lode had been missed. Don’t know if that ever came to anything or not. I suspect not.

The story this museum had to tell was in no way unique. A bunch of guys showed up and raped mother earth, built an opera house, whooped it up for a time, and went bust. The fun in these tiny local history museums is in the details, like the remains of a wooden shrine from the joss house the Chinese, who had been brought in to do the dirty work on the inevitable railroad, had built. And like the photograph, a quite large one, stuck up in an odd corner because it didn’t really belong anywhere at all, of the local PG&E rigging crew of 1955. About forty guys in work boots and lumberjack shirts, smiling for the camera.

That’s the interesting thing about this photo: their faces. You have never seen a set of more cheerful, open, honest, hardworking faces in your life. Looking at this crew, you cannot but conclude that America in 1955 was a great place to live, and that people felt good about things. ’55 is about the year Kerouac went on the road and sneered at just about everything he saw. By page 32 of The Dharma Bums, for example:

. . . colleges being nothing but grooming schools for the middleclass non-entity which usually finds its perfect expression on the outskirts of the campus in rows of well-to-do houses with lawns and television sets in each living room with everybody looking at the same thing and thinking the same thing at the same time . . .

I’m anti-television myself, but that’s a broad brush you’re painting with there, Jack.

Here’s a secret: The reason we non-comformists sneer so very sneeringly at the rest of the world is that we’re jealous. Jack, who was trying very hard to be a Buddhist at the time he was writing The Dharma Bums, fails to consider that maybe the ‘middleclass non-entity’ has found refuge just as Buddhists find refuge within the sangha, the community of believers. Throw some robes on those guys in the photograph and they could easily pass for a bunch of bikkus.

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