THE ROADSIDE WAS SILKEN WITH FERNS, WILDflowers, slick wet grass that jutted up sharply to catch the belly of the fog, and he was standing there in his interrupted jeans with his thumb out. He was wearing a faded denim jacket, a T-shirt he hadn't washed in a week and a pair of hand-tooled red-and-black cowboy boots he'd got in Mexicali for probably a fifth of what he'd have paid in San Francisco, but they weren't holding up too well. The heels had worn unevenly for one thing, and to compound matters, the uppers had been wet through so many times the color was leached out of them. Up under his pantlegs, the boots were still new, but what you could see of them looked something like the rawhide twists they sold in a basket at the pet shop. His guitar was another story. It had never had a case, not that he could recall, anyway, so he'd wrapped it in a black plastic garbage bag for protection. Now, as he stood there, thumb extended, it was propped up against his leg like some lurid fungus that had sprung up out of the earth when nobody was looking.
It wasn't raining, not exactly, but the trees were catching the mist, and he'd tied his hair back with a red bandanna to keep the dripping ends of it out of his face. He had a knife in a six-inch sheath strapped to his belt, but it was for nonviolent purposes only, for stripping manzanita twigs of bark or gutting trout before wrapping them in tinfoil and roasting them over a bed of hot coals. There was water in his bota bag instead of wine (he'd learned that lesson the hard way, in the Sonoran Desert), and the Army surplus rucksack on his back contained a sleeping bag, a ground cloth, a few basic utensils and a damp copy of Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. Just that morning he'd reread the opening pages -- George and Lennie sitting by a driftwood fire in a world that promised everything and gave up nothing -- while he made coffee and heated up a can of stew over his own campfire, and the dawn came through the trees in a slow gray seep. Marco was thinking about that, about how Lennie kept up his refrain An' live off the fatta the lan' despite all the sad dead weight of the evidence to the contrary, as the first of a procession of cars materialized out of the fog and shushed on past him as if he didn't exist.
He didn't mind. He was in no hurry. He wasn't so much running as drifting, anonymous as the morning, and yes, he'd had trouble with the law on a count of misdemeanor possession, dropped out of college, quit his job and then quit another one and another after that, and yes, he'd received the cold hard incontrovertible black-and-white draft notice in the gray sheet-metal mailbox out front of his parents' house in Connecticut, but that was two years ago now. In the interim -- and here he thought of his favorite Steinbeck book of all, Tortilla Flat -- he'd been trying to make things work on a different level, living simple, dropping down where the mood took him. Everybody talked about getting back to the earth, as if that were a virtue in itself. He knew what the earth was -- he slept on it, hiked over its ridges and through the glare of the alkali flats, felt it like a monumental set of lungs breathing in and out when he woke beneath the trees in the still of the morning. That was something, and for now it was the best he could do. As for the cars: he hadn't been able to connect the night before either, and he'd found this place -- this loop of the road hemmed in by white-bark eucalyptus that smelled of damp and menthol and every living possibility -- and he bedded down by a creek so he could waken to the sound of water instead of traffic.
When the cars had passed it was preternaturally still, no sound but for birdcall and the whisper of the dripping trees. He waited a moment, listening for traffic, then slung the guitar over his shoulder and started walking up the road in the direction of Olema and Point Reyes. He got into the rhythm of his walking, feeling it in his calves and thighs like a kind of power, a man walking along the side of the road and he could walk forever, walk across the continent and back again and his face telling every passing car that he didn't give a damn whether they stopped for him or not. Twenty-five or thirty vehicles must have passed by and the sun had climbed up out of the fields to burn off the fog by the time a VW van finally stopped for him. It was practically new, the van, white above, burnt orange below, but as Marco came hustling up the shoulder he saw the peace sign crudely slashed on the side panel in a smear of white paint and knew he was home.
At the wheel was an older guy -- thirties, maybe even late thirties -- with an erratic beard that hung down over his coveralls and crawled up into his hair. He was wearing a pair of glasses in clunky black-plastic frames, and his smile had at least two gold teeth in it. "Hop in, brother," he said. "Where you headed?"
The slamming of the door, a rattling blast of the tinny engine, kamikaze insects and dust, the rucksack and guitar flung into the backseat like contraband, every ride a ritual, every ritual a ride. "North," Marco said. "And I really appreciate this, man," he said automatically, "this is great," and then they were off, the radio buzzing to life with an electric assault of rock and roll.
The visible world flew by for a full sixty seconds before the man turned to him and shouted over the radio, "North? That's a pretty general destination. What'd you have in mind -- Sitka, maybe? Nome? How about Santa's Workshop? Santa we can do."
Marco just grinned at him. "Actually, I was going up to Sonoma -- the Drop City Ranch?"
"Drop City? You mean that hippie place? Isn't that where everybody's nude and they just ball and do dope all day long? Is that what you're into?" The man looked him full in the face, no expression, then turned back to the road.
Marco considered. He could be anybody, this guy -- he could be a narc or a fascist or a stockbroker or maybe even General Hershey himself. But the beard -- the beard gave him away. "Yeah," Marco said, "that's exactly what I'm into."
IT COULDN'T HAVE BEEN MUCH PAST NOON WHEN THEY rolled through the hinge-sprung cattle gates and lurched up the rutted dirt road to the main house. This was the ultimate ride, the ride that takes you right on up to the porch and in the front door, and Marco had sat there, alive to it all, while Norm Sender roared, "Good answer, brother," and launched into a half-hour treatise on his favorite subject -- his only subject -- Drop City.
He was stoned on something -- speed, from the look and sound of him -- but that didn't factor into any of Marco's equations, because everybody he'd encountered for the past two years had either been high or coming down from a high, and he'd been there himself more times than he'd want to admit. At first, when he was nineteen, twenty, it was a matter of bragging rights -- Oh, yeah, so you did DMT and smoked paregoric at the concert? That's cool, but I'm into scag, man, that's all, I mean that's it for me. And acid. Acid, of course. And not to expand my mind or any of that mystical horseshit -- just to get rocked, man, you know? -- but now it was just more of the same. How many of those conversations had he had? It felt like ten million, so much air in, so much out. Still, when Norm Sender lit up a roach and passed it to him, he took it and put it between his lips. That was what you did. That was the ritual.
They sat there, staring through the windshield, and smoked. When the roach was burned down to nothing, Norm lit a cigarette and passed that to Marco and Marco took a drag and passed it back. The road was like any road, burning silk in a sheen of fire, the trees like bombers coming in low. Marco settled back in his seat as the van rocked and swerved, even as the smoke climbed up the windows and Norm kept pushing at the frames of his glasses as if they'd been oiled. He was wearing a braided rope belt that couldn't contain the spill of his gut, there were spiky black hairs growing out of his ears and nostrils, and his arms were whiter than any farmer's ought to be. He talked and Marco listened, his voice a hoarse high yelp that plummeted into the noise soup of the radio and careened off the clacking whine of the engine.
"So like my parents?" (This by way of prelude, though Marco hadn't said a word about anybody's parents -- they'd been talking nothing, talking good shit and groovy and the like, the radio hissing static as Norm manipulated the dial with his battered blunt fingers.) "Like my mother that gave me suck and my old dirt-blasted redneck cowboy of a father? They died. Bought the farm. Head-on collision with a truck full of Grade A fryers coming out of Petaluma on Route 116, and that might sound funny, the irony and all like that, but it isn't, because the old turd-dropper was blind drunk and my mother deserved better than that, but anyway, the son and heir gets the rancho in the hills -- that's me, yours truly -- and he's thinking he's feeling some kind of discomfort over this whole trip of ownership of the land, because nobody owns the land and he's thinking like Timothy Leary, Let's mutate, man, and so I come up with the concept of Voluntary Primitivism, and let me spell it out for you, man, LATWIDNO, Land Access to Which Is Denied No One, dig? You want to come to Drop City, you want to turn on, tune in, drop out and just live there on the land doing your own thing, whether that's milking the goats or working the kitchen or the garden or doing repairs or skewering mule deer or just staring at the sky in all your contentment -- and I don't care who you are -- you are welcome, hello, everybody --"
Two hours. So it went. Marco was in that phase where every high expectation gives way to something grimmer, darker, older, but when he saw the standing grass flecked with mustard and the oaks drinking up the earth, when he saw the milling dogs, goats, chickens, the longhaired men so attuned to what they were doing they barely glanced up, and the women -- the women! -- he felt something being born inside him all over again. He leaned forward and watched it all unscroll, huts, tents, truck gardens and citrus trees, a geodesic dome -- or was that a yurt? Then the van came round a bend and the house leapt out at them from behind a screen of trees. It was there, and then it was gone. When it came into view again, Marco saw a two-story frame house with a sprawl of outbuildings, no different from what you'd see in Kansas or Missouri or any other place where farmers tilled the earth, except that somebody had painted the trim in Day-Glo orange and the rest a checkerboard pattern of green and pink so that the house wasn't a house anymore but a kind of billboard for the psychedelic revolution. The van lurched, dust rose up and killed the air, Norm grinning and flashing the peace sign all the while and a pair of yellow dogs loping along beside them, and then they were pulling into a rutted lot behind the house and Norm was shouting, "Home for the holidays, oh yes indeed!"
Holidays? What holidays? And Marco was wondering about that, about what holiday it might have been in the middle of May -- he
wasn't sure what the date was, but it couldn't have been later than maybe the fifteenth or sixteenth -- when Norm turned to him with a grin. "Just an expression, man -- and I want to be the very first to wish you a Merry Christmas! But really, every day's a holiday at Drop City, because the straight world is banned, absolutely and categorically, do not pass through these gates, Mr. Jones, dig?"
What could he do but smile and nod and lend a hand as his benefactor began to unload supplies from the back of the van, cans of ketchup, peanut butter, honey, sacks of bulgur wheat, sesame seeds, brown rice, raw almonds and rolled oats, tools, a rebuilt generator, a whole raft of bread -- "Barter, man, barter, broccoli for bread, cukes for bread, eggplant, and can you say rutabaga?" -- and two big brown-paper bags that must have had thirty record albums in them. And where was it all going? In the main house, four steps up onto the foot-worn back porch and into the kitchen, arms full, a homemade table, crude but honest, potted herbs in the window, shelves from ceiling to floor and institutional-sized cans of everything imaginable stacked up as if they were expecting a siege. And women, three of them: Merry, Maya and Verbie.
All three looked up when Marco followed Norm through the door and set his packages down on the table, smiling, yes, but he'd seen those smiles before -- at Morning Star, Olompali, the Magic Farm, Gorda Mountain -- and all but the last lingering residual flecks of brother- and sisterhood had been rinsed out of them. They were meant to be welcoming, these pale dry-lipped worried-over-the-porridge-blackened-into-the-bottom-of-the-pot brotherly-and-sisterly smiles, but how many had been welcomed already? He was new. A new cat. Another mouth to feed, and would he contribute, would he stay on and weed the garden, repair the roof and snake out the ä line from the plugged-up toilets to the half-dug septic field, would he be worth the investment of time and breath or would he just work his way through the women, smoke dope and drink cheap wine all day and then show up for meals with a plate in his hand? These were smiles with an edge, and they made him feel shy and unworthy.
He must have come up the steps six or seven times, arms laden with groceries, before anybody said anything to him. It was Merry, tall, dark-eyed, a sprig of baby's breath tucked behind one ear, who lifted her eyes and murmured, "Been on the road long?"
Norm wasn't there to answer for him -- he'd wandered off shouting into the next room, tearing at the shrink-wrap on one of the new record jackets, and he left a vacuum behind him. Maya and Verbie were in the corner by the sink, leaning into the mounds of green onions, peppers, zucchini and carrots they were dicing for the pot and talking in flat low voices, and Merry had slipped across the room on bare feet to lift things out of the grocery bags and find places for them on the shelves. She was right there, two feet from him, smelling of garlic and cilantro, her eyes chasing vaguely after the question. Marco shrugged. The correct answer, more or less, was two years. But he didn't say that. He just said, "I don't know. A while."
And that was the end of the conversation. Merry's back was to him, the spill and sweep of her hair that floated on its own currents, the white knuckles of her hands as she lifted cans to the shelves, sun pregnant in the windows, the potted herbs uncurling like fingers and a cat (a feline, that is) Marco hadn't noticed till that moment lifting its head from its perch atop the refrigerator to fix him with a steely yellow-eyed gaze. The silence held half a beat more, till it was broken by the super-amplified hiss of a worn needle dropping on immaculate vinyl and a manic blast of drums and guitar filled the house. Two beats more. Then he ducked his head and edged back out the door.
Outside, beyond the dirt lot where Norm had parked the van, there was a more-or-less conventional backyard, with a pair of lemon trees, a flower garden and an in-ground pool that flashed light as a single swimmer -- at this distance, Marco couldn't tell whether it was a man or woman -- swam laps with the kind of loopy tenacity you see in caged animals. Dark head, tangled hair. Back and forth, back and forth. He had a sudden urge to strip down and plunge in, relieve himself of all the oils and stinks of the road and the lingering funk of the sleeping bag, but he didn't know anybody here and he was tentative yet -- what he needed to do, before he got caught up in the rhythms of the place, was to decide where he was going to sleep for the night at least, and maybe beyond. Norm had pointed out a pile of scrap lumber behind one of the outbuildings as they came up the road -- "Build," he'd shouted over the radio, "go ahead, build to suit, and I'm not going to be a policeman, I'm not going to be mayor, you do what you want" -- and Marco thought he might have a look at it, to see what he might do. He wasn't exactly a master carpenter, but he was good enough, and aside from a couple of days on a construction crew in San Jose, he hadn't done any real labor in weeks. Why not? he was thinking. Even if he didn't stay, it was a way to pass the time.
He left his rucksack and guitar under one of the big snaking oaks in the front yard, then strolled back up the road to inspect the lumber. It wasn't much. A nest of two-by-fours weathered white, a couple of sheets of warped plywood, some odds and ends, most of it charred, and you didn't have to be Sherlock Holmes to see that Drop City had lost at least one dwelling to fire. He was separating the good stuff from the bad when a man in his early twenties came rolling out of the high grass on lubricated hips, walking as if he was dancing, his head too big and his feet too small. "What's happening?" the man said, bobbing up to him, and Marco saw that he was balancing a spinning rod in one hand and a stringer of undersized smallmouth bass in the other. His eyes were glassy and fragile, as if he'd just shuffled out the doors at the very end of a very long concert. What else? Deep tan, choker beads, cutoffs, huaraches, the world's sparsest beard.
Marco nodded, and gave back the tribal greeting: "What's happening?"
The man stood there studying him a minute, the faintest look of amusement on his face. "I'm Pan," he said, "or Ronnie, actually, but everybody calls me Pan . . . and you're -- ?"
"Cool. Going to build?"
"I guess so."
Ronnie frowned, rotating the toe of one sandal in the dirt. "With this shit?"
"From humble beginnings," Marco said, and he said it with a smile. "Hey, Thoreau paid something like twenty-eight dollars for his place on Walden Pond, and that was good enough to get him through a New England winter -- "
"Yeah," Ronnie said, "but prices have gone crazy since then, right?"
"Right. This stuff is free. Talk about deflation, huh?"
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But Ronnie didn't seem to get the joke. He stood there a long while, watching Marco bend to the pile of mismatched lumber, the fish already stiffening on the stringer. It was hot. A flock of crows sent up a jeer from somewhere off in the woods. "So what you building, anyway?" Ronnie asked finally.
It came to him then, and it took the question to elicit the response, because until that moment there was no shape before him. He saw the oak tree suddenly, the spread and penetrant shade of it, roots like claws, acorns, leaf litter, and beneath it, his guitar and rucksack propped casually against the trunk. He dropped a board at his feet.
"A treehouse," he said.
Excerpted from DROP CITY, by T. Coraghessan Boyle, to be published next month by Viking. Copyright T. Coraghessan Boyle 2003.