By the time I graduated from Lawrence University in June, 1985, my complete absorption in books and films had begun to feel limiting. I decided to take a classic road trip. Under the influence of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” and Monty Hellmann’s laconic Two Lane Blacktop, I chose to drive in the direction of American literary idealism: west to California and the Pacific Ocean. I returned to Amery for the summer, worked to save money, bought a beat-up 1977 Chevy Nova from a farmer for two hundred dollars and tried to convince one of my friends to play Neal Cassidy to my Jack Kerouac. He was in a more purposeful mood, however, and went directly to graduate school.
I set out alone in mid-September, winding slowly westward, sleeping in the back seat of my car in public parking lots. Within a week I arrived in Boulder, Colorado where my friend Matt lived. He worked as a bartender and took classes at the Naropa Institute’s ‘Jack Keroauc School of Disembodied Poetics,' the typically bohemian lifestyle I found in Boulder. I planned to visit for a few days; I stayed a month.
After a week of exploring the mountains, I reverted to my college habits and located all of the cinemas in town. I discovered an avant-garde film salon organized by Stan Brakhage at the University of Colorado where he taught. The first night that I attended, Bruce Baillie presented a program of his work in person. This evening was a remarkable introduction to the 1960’s underground film subculture with Stan Brakhage, perhaps the most celebrated experimental filmmaker of the movement, and Bruce Baillie, the founder of the Canyon Cinema distribution collective, both present. The short I recall most clearly from the screening was Castro Street, an impressionistic collage of shot documentary footage and abstract, optically printed superimposition. Just as Summer with Monika had transported me to a European tradition I’d never encountered at the Amery Theater, Castro Street was a trip of another nature, introducing me to small-scale, cinematic improvisation as a direct reflection of individual consciousness.
A program of Les Blank films a few weeks later made an even greater impression. I saw The Blues According to Lightning Hopkins, Sprout Wings and Fly and Garlic is as Good as Ten Mothers for the first time. I knew Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera from the Lawrence University Film Club, in which the director documents the daily urban life of the young Soviet Union with wild inventiveness; I thought of Les Blank’s documentaries as ‘Hippie with a Movie Camera.’ His films insinuated themselves into one’s awareness like a drug. The Lightning Hopkins film was so raw and intimate that I felt almost embarrassed watching it. Les Blank surrounded the spontaneous musical performances with a background of ethnographic details: young girls dancing with abandon at a barbeque, older women in their cowgirl finery staking their territory, cautious black faces planted artlessly in the square frame after church was done. He also captured the texture of the environment - the dirt, the dogs, a half-fallen fence, the sky. The final effect amounted to Walker Evans and Alan Lomax smoking weed together and sharing notes on secret corners of American life. The cameraman became a part of what he shot with a non-judgmental empathy and it felt as if there were truly something at risk in Les Blank’s films. These were the simple admirable films that an honest man, capable with a camera and sensitive to people in their environment, could produce. All of the 16mm underground films that I saw in the Boulder salon suggested a liberating can-do individualism. Cameras were growing smaller and cheaper all the time . . . get one and make a movie to reveal the world specifically as you see it.
I left Boulder in early November, the day after watching The Hills Have Eyes Part II. The nightmares that I had sleeping in my car that night in eastern Nevada might be considered the revenge of ‘the tenderloin’ from the St. Croix Hilltop. I spent a few weeks in Oakland and San Francisco with Lawrence friends who were in graduate school at Berkeley, drove north to see Bodega Bay where Hitchcock’s The Birds had been shot and then turned south along the coastline to Los Angeles. I visited the UCLA campus and walked through the buildings of the film school, because I thought I might apply the following year. I didn’t know anyone in L.A. and got arrested for vagrancy while sleeping in my car, so I left town after only two days to drive back north without getting any real sense of the city.
I stopped in San Luis Obispo where I slept in a motel parking lot, waking up in the middle of the night to peek at two men breaking into cars; luckily my Chevy Nova looked too derelict to have anything of value in it. The next morning, I drove past a sign advertising San Simeon and the Hearst Castle. William Randolph Hearst had been the model for Charles Kane and the Hearst Castle, Xanadu, the stately pleasure dome of Citizen Kane. Even though I was running out of money, I couldn't resist a tour of Xanadu. I drove up the long hill to the estate, which by this time had been donated to the state of California as a park. Hearst had kept a menagerie of non-native animals and there were still zebras grazing along the road. I reflexively chose the tour that included a visit to the movie theater. The tour group passed an outdoor swimming pool with a Greek mythology theme and the guide told us that, decades before, a young Patty Hearst had hidden behind the columns here as visitors like us walked by. This Xanadu was a monument to American economic royalty, expressed haphazardly as a patchwork of European architecture and art: 15th century Flemish tapestry on the walls, ceilings from Italian churches and Roman mosaic on the floors.
In the theater, the walls of which were oddly lined with bookshelves, we watched black and white newsreel footage of Hearst and the actress Marion Davies entertaining famous guests in the 1920’s. The film created a vivid time-machine effect; the tour group sat in the well-preserved theater of the estate, watching the activities that had occurred just outside the same building sixty years before. Charlie Chaplin played tennis with Bill Tilden, a successful American tennis player, with a serving motion much like Jacques Tati’s in Mr. Hulot’s Holiday. While the movie played, I decided to hide in the theater and spend the night there. I glanced at the tour guide, who wasn’t paying attention to me, and slid down from my seat, laying on the floor as the lights came up and the tour group left. I strolled around the interior of the theater, studying the book collection, unaware that my comedy routine was playing on a monitor in the security office. Within minutes security guards ushered me off of the grounds with threats to press charges if they ever saw me again.
After the San Simeon adventure, I had very little money left and I was fed up with ‘seeing America.’ I wanted to settle again into something more productive than roaming in my car. I passed through San Francisco, pausing a day to watch Lina Wertmuller’s Swept Away at the Castro Theater, and then drove twenty-three hours straight to Boulder through a snow storm in the Rocky Mountains. Toward the end of that trip, I rolled down the windows and turned the radio up to keep myself awake, listening to the cadence of outdated cold war rhetoric on an AM radio station. As I fishtailed down the mountain into Boulder, I was nearly convinced that the United Nations had become an instrument of communist subversion.
I arrived back at my friend Matt’s house, walked into a cloud of pot smoke and a circle of young men sitting in front of a television, watching a movie on VHS tape. Even though they hadn’t seen me in a month and a half, they barely acknowledged my presence. I was exhausted and wanted to sleep, but I was also curious as to what so captivated them on the television. I sat down and watched handheld footage of a man parachuting into water. The water boiled and turned red as the tails of alligators swung in the air. I picked up the VHS case and read Faces of Death. The exploitation film subculture of the 1970’s drive-in had evolved by 1985 into this nihilistic dead end: purported documentary footage depicting actual deaths. I crawled into a bedroom and fell into a dreamless sleep for four hours. My road trip had also reached a dead end. I woke up with emotionless purpose and drove sixteen hours to Amery, Wisconsin to reorganize in the house where I’d grown up.