Astoria Death Trip
Hunting Psychedelic Mushrooms in Astoria, Oregon, Means Risking the Elements, Arrest, and Death.
A Tale of Stupidity, History, and Survival.
BY CHRISTOPHER FRIZZELLE
There is plenty of time on the drive from Seattle to Astoria, Oregon, to wonder about how you’re going to die.
Will I be standing up when it happens? Will I be outside? Will I be in these clothes?
The drive is three hours, give or take. Robert drives us in his truck. He has tattoo sleeves on both arms and builds houses for a living and is learning how to build wooden ships. We take Interstate 5 to Highway 8. It’s raining. We pass fluffy dark trees, unusually bright yellow trees, rusting metal, mossy boulders, propane tanks, satellite dishes, white shacks, wet logs, a neon rooster on the roof of a restaurant, a Curves, meadows that winter rains have turned to shallow lakes, low banks of funereal mist. Twice we pull over and reassemble the busted windshield wiper so we can see the road.
Will I die on this highway, before we even get there?
Eminem, on the CD player, is rapping about meeting “a new-wave blond babe with half of her head shaved” at a rave, feeding her mushrooms (“I just wanted to make you appreciate nature”), and watching her die:
She said, “Help me, I think I’m having a seizure!”/I said, “I’m high too, bitch! Quit grabbing my T-shirt!/Would you calm down? You’re starting to scare me.”/She said, “I’m 26 years old and I’m not married!/I don’t even have any kids and I can’t cook!”/”I’m over here, Sue. You’re talking to the plant. Look,/we need to get to a hospital before it’s too late./’Cuz I never seen anyone eat as many mushrooms as you ate…”
Robert and I listened to Eminem when we were in Amsterdam with friends last year. Robert proposed to the woman he’s now married to on that trip, and I tried psychoactive mushrooms for the first time. In Amsterdam, psychoactive mushrooms are sold in “smart shops,” in clear plastic produce containers with stickers on them that tell you where they’re from and what they’re going to do to you.
I was intensely afraid of seeing things that didn’t exist. Will I jab a fireplace poker into my stomach, thinking I’m a marshmallow? I bought a mealy clump of truffles called Philosopher’s Stones (Psilocybe mexicana) that were supposed to give me a cerebral high without any visual gobbledygook. All I felt was loopy, starved, and sick. The next day, Robert and I got a different variety, Psilocybe cubensis, these ones floppy, cute, and mushroom-shaped. The container said they were from Astoria, Oregon. Practically home! I ate one or two and Robert ate a handful and we walked around after the sun went down. I was expecting butterflies in leotards or swirling fractals or whatever, but the visual effects were subtle. Everything (buildings, water, colors) looked like a better, happier version of itself. That’s it. Everything seemed as unsullied and promising as a hypothetical, as if we were walking through an architect’s drawing of the real world, rather than the real world itself. Plato would have been blown away by it—everything in its ideal state, right in front of you—and actually there’s evidence that he did love it, or something like it: The consumption of ergot, a fungus that grows on barley, was involved in ancient Greek ritualism. Plus, the mushrooms put my thoughts on shuffle, which sounds awful but is actually fascinating, not to mention useful, especially if you’re generally a stubborn thinker.
I pointed out that we’d flown halfway across the planet to eat something that grows in our backyard. Robert said he knew someone in Astoria who could show us how to find these suckers in the wild. So that’s what we’re doing, finally. We’re driving to Astoria to find these suckers in the wild.
* * *
A bunch of anxieties—dying, not finding anything, getting busted, dying—are twisting around in my stomach. And Eminem’s goofball death ballads aren’t helping. Soon we’re going to be standing in the wilderness, staring at something dirty and penis-shaped growing out of the ground, something that might kill us if we’re wrong about what it is, and then we’re going to eat it—and that’s the best-case scenario; that’s if all goes well. I decide to share my terror with Robert, because he currently seems pretty un-terrified, by reading him some articles.
On my laptop I have a few pages from a website done up in psychedelic blues and pinks called Mushroom John’s Shroom World. One page is titled “Poisonous Look-a-Likes” and has several photos of Psilocybe mushrooms (the genus we’re looking for) and Galerina mushrooms (which are deadly) side by side. They look exactly the same. There’s also a photo of a whole bunch of Psilocybe mushrooms with a Galerina growing in among them.
Another page reports the story of a 16-year-old girl and two teenage guys on Whidbey Island in the early 1980s who ate what they assumed were Psilocybe mushrooms but were in fact Galerina autumnalis. “Both boys survived the ordeal, yet both have permanent damage to their kidneys and liver. The girl died.”
The other pages contain warning after warning not to do what we’re about to do. “The author suggests that it would be dangerous for a novice mushroom hunter to consume even the most minute part of any wild mushroom without having had said mushroom properly identified by someone knowledgeable in the field of mushroom identification….” “I do want people to enjoy what they are searching for and not end up on a slab at the local coroner’s morgue….” “Many of the deadly poisonous species of mushrooms macroscopically resemble some of the hallucinogenic mushrooms in the genus Psilocybe….” “It is very easy to make a mistake….”
I also have a book I bought in a convenience store called Guide to Western Mushrooms, which says on the first page: “Don’t—under any circumstances—experiment by eating strange mushrooms.”
Robert takes a deep breath, lets out a nervous laugh, and says, “Well, Joe knows what he’s doing. We’ll make him eat one first. Then we’ll wait 20 minutes.”
Joe is going to be our guide. We’re about to pick him up.
Not a bad idea.
At a bend on a stretch of Highway 107, just before we get to the 101, there’s a cloud break. The silver car in front of us shines insanely. The highway shines like silver. The silver car’s wheels are kicking up water in a blinding spray.
We drive into the light.
* * *
Joe, our expert, our guide, our man—the one who’s going to make the crucial decisions today—is a stocky, smiley guy in his early 20s who works with motorcycles. He went to community college for a while but stopped. He can tell you how to pass a urine drug test, but his expertise in mycology is not overwhelmingly reassuring. He learned to hunt mushrooms with friends in high school. He searches for what he recognizes, and he only recognizes one variety: Psilocybe azurescens. These happen to be the most potent psilocybin-containing mushrooms in the mushroom kingdom. (There are an estimated 1.5 million species of fungi in the world, only 5 percent of which have been cataloged and named.)
We pick up Joe in a small town 45 minutes north of Astoria. We drive to the town’s grocery store to buy paper bags, because mushrooms sweat and shrivel up if you collect them in plastic.
A woman with gigantic bangs and long dark hair is stocking shelves. She asks Joe what he’s up to.
“We’re going to Astoria.”
“Going to get into trouble,” Robert says.
She looks at the paper bags.
“Don’t get caught,” she says. And then, again, “Don’t get caught. Are you staying the night?”
“Oh,” she says. “Okay. Well. Get in some trouble.”
Back on the 101, there are vehicles parked along the shoulder, all crammed with big men in blaze-orange hunting clothes. There is a herd of elk on one side of the highway, but it is illegal to shoot anything on that side. The men are sitting here waiting for the animals to cross the road.
Joe says the woods this time of year are full of bears and cougars and “crazy fuckers with guns.”
“Great, that’s just what we need to deal with when we’re on mushrooms,” Robert says. “Crazy fuckers with guns.”
“No one will be out there. It’s elk hunting season so they’re all in the woods,” Joe says.
Wait, where are we going? I was counting on woods.
There is what appears to be a lake on our left. It’s actually the Columbia River. We’re within Lewis and Clark National Historic Park, according to a sign. This is where Lewis and Clark found the Pacific Ocean. This is where the Chinook natives brought them venison and root bread cakes. The Chinook Chief Concomly—who was still the chief when Astoria’s founders settled in this area six years later—is Joe’s great-great-great-great grandfather. (Joe isn’t exactly sure how many greats.) He doesn’t know anything about Concomly. He doesn’t know, for example, that he only had one eye.
We drive onto the Astoria Bridge, which is about eight miles east of the mouth of the river. The water below us is choppy and orange, and the four-mile bridge is awkward looking: low along the surface of the water for the first while, then rising 200 feet before descending again, in a full spiral, into Astoria’s Uniontown neighborhood, one of the city’s three (and a fourth one’s pending approval) National Register Historic Districts.
Joe is afraid of heights.
“You’re scared of heights but you’re not scared of pulling something poisonous out of the ground and eating it?” I ask.
“I never thought of that,” he says. “I don’t know why I’m so afraid of heights.”
* * *
Astoria is not the most famous city on the West Coast, although it was the first. It was the first settlement west of the Mississippi and had the first post office west of the Mississippi. It sits 10 miles upriver from the mouth of the Columbia River, the second largest river by volume in North America. (The first largest is the Mississippi.) Where the Columbia River and the Pacific Ocean meet is one of the most dangerous water passages in the world; since the early 1800s, it has been the site of more than 2,000 shipwrecks. Cape Disappointment, which extends down into the river’s mouth from the Washington State side, is dubbed “the Graveyard of the Pacific.” Point Adams extends up into the river’s mouth from the Oregon side, and between Cape Disappointment and Point Adams is a tricky sandbar that ships can only pass through with the help of a bar pilot. In 1928, the Columbia River Harbor Company published a brochure promoting “Greater Astoria: The Future New York of the Pacific,” along with a drawing of a major metropolitan city—it looks like Manhattan, with skyscrapers, smoke stacks, a blimp—on the bank of the Columbia River. The text begins, “At the mouth of the Columbia River, another great city is rising…” But a city like this never materialized. There are a lot of theories as to why. One is the treachery of the passageway into the port, although ships bound for Portland have to navigate the same entry point.
Another theory is that Astoria didn’t get railroad service to Portland until 1898, 11 years after Portland had a rail connection to San Francisco and 9 years after Seattle had a rail connection to Minneapolis. Another is that the thumb of land jutting into the Columbia River that Astoria was built on didn’t leave much room for growth. Another is that the booming cannery and logging industries in the 1920s—when the city reached its peak population of 14,027—depleted the area of resources, and then the canneries and logging companies moved on. These days, visitors are responsible for the economy of Astoria, which has more historic houses per capita than any other city in Oregon, according to Lisa Studts of the Clatsop County Historical Society. Astoria’s major industry is the past. It’s most famous in today’s world for being the place where The Goonies was filmed.
We decide to see what there is to see while we’re here. Any excuse to stall is fine by me. We drive up a hill and visit the Astoria Column, built by a descendant of Astoria’s founder, John Jacob Astor, the first millionaire and the first multimillionaire in America. There are paintings on the outside of the column commemorating the first settlers, who shrewdly tricked the Chinook natives into cooperating with them by saying they had smallpox in one of their medicine bottles; the natives, who’d recently been ravaged by smallpox, were frightened enough to believe them. (This little anecdote isn’t depicted on the Astoria Column.) According to a sign, the column was most recently restored in 1988, after having “been severely damaged by time and weather.”
Our other stop is the Flavel House Museum, where the gift-shop cashier, a little damaged by time and weather herself, only comes alive when I ask about The Goonies. She tells us all about a citywide Goonies reunion two years ago—”We had people from overseas!”—that included a Truffle Shuffle contest at one of the schools. (In The Goonies, Chunk does the Truffle Shuffle by lifting up his T-shirt and jiggling his fat.) There was an exhibition of Goonies memorabilia at the Heritage Museum, there were events at the Red Lion down on the water, there were back-to-back screenings of The Goonies at a local theater, and there were guided tours of the Goonies house, although now the house has new owners who don’t want anyone coming near it. “Which is really a tragedy for Astoria,” she says, “because that was a landmark.”
We check into the Rivershore Motel, and finding the room not a tragedy—$60, roach-free—we take our luggage out of the truck, put some paper bags in our jacket pockets, and drive toward Fort Stevens State Park.
On the way, we get to talking about how this is one of the stupider things we could be doing.
* * *
Fort Stevens State Park is an irregular spit of sandy land with some vegetation on it that culminates at Point Adams. A single road runs down the middle of it, through thick trees. We drive to the South Jetty parking lot. A teenager with two friends guiltily says hi as we get out of the truck. He has no front teeth.
“Those kids are totally getting mushrooms,” Joe says.
We walk up to the dunes. There is the Pacific Ocean. Huge, cold, cucumber-green waves crash toward us. The dunes are densely covered in high, very thick grass that has been trained by the wind to lean in one direction—away from the ocean. It’s sort of like walking on snow. We’re several feet above the ground, stopping frequently to pull the grass apart to see what’s growing down in there.
Joe describes the mushrooms we’re looking for, Psilocybe azurencens, as brown with white stems and bluish bases. They grow in groups. I find a mushroom that that looks like an upside-down strawberry. I find one the shape and color of a miniature Chinese sunhat. No groups of anything. We drift closer to the road, into the trees, because ferns are growing near the trees, and Psilocybe azurescens often grow near ferns.
“Those look poisonous,” Robert says, pointing to some brown ones the size of apples. “Look how slimy they are.”
“Those are gnarly fuckers,” Joe says.
Robert finds a small brown mushroom with a white stem. He holds it up between two twigs. It looks like an umbrella for a cricket. It’s the first thing I’ve seen that I could actually handle putting into my mouth. To my eye, it matches Joe’s description. Then Joe comes over and explains why this is not what we’re looking for. The gills under the cap are too far apart and they’re creating ridges on the surface of the cap. The cap has white specks on it. The mushroom is grayish brown, not brown. There’s no blue near the base. And it isn’t growing in a group.
We split up, reconvene, and since we’re running out of daylight decide that we should drive to Fort Canby, out on Cape Disappointment, which is Joe’s other favorite spot. Then, on the walk back to Robert’s truck, in the middle of some trees, we come across a whole bunch of mushrooms—clusters of little torn pancakes, armies of nipples, a couple the size of pitas, some that look like chunks of sealskin. Suddenly Joe’s excited. He’s smirking. He’s found some. In among this weird array he spots three of what we’re looking for. He holds one up.
“This is what they look like. Real tight gills,” he says, running a finger over the gills. They have white stems. Their bases are not blue but they’ll start to go bluish as they decompose, he says, which will happen right away. He puts them in a paper sack. By the time we reach Fort Canby, they’ll be tinged with blue and we’ll be sure of what they are.
* * *
We take the four-mile bridge over the river and drive out toward Cape Disappointment. “What a great name for a cape,” Robert says.
“It’s the deadliest.”
“I like these towns.”
“You wouldn’t like these towns if you grew up here.”
At the entrance to Fort Canby, Joe reads a road sign aloud: “‘No mushroom picking. Violators will be prosecuted.’”
“Is that what it said?” Robert says.
“Uh huh.” Joe says.
“It’s okay,” Robert says. And then, “In light of the sign back there, let’s get a little off the road.”
“‘No mushroom picking.’ That’s funny. I didn’t notice that last time,” Joe says.
We get out of the car and Joe gets out the mushrooms from Fort Stevens State Park to show us how they’re decomposing and—uh, they’re not turning blue. At all. They’re not what he thinks they are. He has no idea what they are. We chuck them.
Not exactly reassuring.
We walk around in the scrub, our heads bowed, the light fading by the minute, and it dawns on me that Cape Disappointment is going to disappoint us. It’s not the worst thing that could happen. At least we’re not confronting Cape Disappointment on a ship. At least we’ll live. In a few minutes we’ll go back into town and get some dinner, walk around some more, maybe go to the oldest bar in Astoria, maybe rent The Goonies, since I haven’t seen it since I was a kid—
“You got permits?” I hear someone say.
Out on the road, a group of men has approached Joe. It becomes obvious that they’re a bunch of teenagers out here doing the same thing we are, just being a little territorial, and as I get closer I see that all four have pasty skin and glossy eyes. They’re tripping.
“This whole area’s pretty bunk,” one says. “We’ve been out here 12 hours and we only have this one bag.”
One of them is holding a plastic grocery bag bulging with mushrooms. Idiots, not using paper bags. I don’t want to make it seem like I’m eager for us to call it quits, but they have been out here for 12 hours, and there are four of them, and they’ve clearly already gathered what there is to gather, and we are coming up nada at every turn. I’m kicking apart ferns for appearances’ sake, especially ferns growing in pairs, pushing them back with my shoes to see what’s growing between them, but really I—
I see a brown mushroom with a white stem. It’s small. I crouch down and see another one behind it. Then another. Brown with white stems. I call Joe over. We pull one out of the ground. Its roots are white with the slightest blue tint, almost too light to see, more like a feeling than a fact. They seem blue.
“Are you sure?”
“You’re the expert.”
“I’m not an expert,” Joe says.
Don’t say that.
We find a dozen, total. A small patch of the suckers that the four other guys missed. Not many, but enough to entertain ourselves. So I guess we’re eating some after all. The three of us walk back toward Robert’s truck. On the road we pass one of the guys from before, now alone. He has greasy hair and a shabby beard and he’s wearing a baseball cap, a flannel bathrobe, and jeans. The bathrobe is a choice touch, considering it’s freezing. I guess it’s his approximation of a jacket. He looks either like a religious weirdo in some kind of contemporary occult garb, or an idiot. Either way, the wardrobe screams, I AM HUNTING FOR MUSHROOMS! He looks at me with googly eyes and says, “Have you seen the guys I was with?”
“Three dudes? That way.”
“Three dudes…” he says slowly.
We’re looking around in the field near Robert’s truck—one last look—and discussing Bathrobe Guy when a voice from a megaphone cuts through the air.
It’s a woman’s voice: “Gentlemen, you are not [something]. Get back in your vehicle.” Legal? Gentlemen you are not legal?
Don’t get caught. Don’t get caught.
We practically fly to the truck, clambering through trees, scraping ourselves, and discover that the voice was not directed at us, though we’re driving in the direction it came from. We put on our best we’re-just-tourists faces. There’s a white truck in the road. The four buddies are standing in the white truck’s headlights, one of them holding the sack of mushrooms, another holding his head in his hands. The words PARK RANGER are written in metallic lettering along the truck’s side.
We sail right by.
“Better them than us,” Robert says when we’re in the clear. “I hate to be that way, but I told you… I told you, man: They’re getting busted because they look like hippies. Sucks for them. You go and you pick mushrooms for 12 hours and then you get busted.”
Back at the motel, Joe dumps the mushrooms out next to the sink. We stand under the fluorescent light and look at them. They look weird. The tips of the stems are going blue and the edges of the caramel-colored caps are going inky blue, almost black. It’s happening rapidly. It is hard to imagine backing out now. It is hard to imagine asking Joe to eat one so we can sit back and stare at him. Joe picks up two, and Robert hands me a small one, which is perfect, I only want a mild trip anyway, and then he picks up two for himself. It looks like something I shouldn’t eat.
I’m eating it.
“You know there’s worms in them, right?” Joe says as we’re chewing. “There’s worms in all mushrooms. Worms creep me out. Heights, spiders, and worms.”
I eat a mandarin orange to get rid of the taste. In a little while I eat another mushroom and Joe eats a third. Then we wait.
* * *
Astoria began with a bad trip.
The Tonquin set sail from New York City in September of 1810 bearing 10 mounted guns, 20 men, hundreds of tons of merchandise and materials for starting a fur trading settlement, and the highest hopes of financier John Jacob Astor, who considered the west coast of America the next stage in the expansion of his global commercial empire and who implored the man he hired to be the ship’s captain, Thorn, a man who had fought North African pirates for the navy in the Barbary Wars, to foster good feelings on the Tonquin and to “be particularly careful on the coast, and not rely too much on the friendly disposition of the natives”; but good feelings were nowhere to be found between Thorn (a disciplinarian) and his crew (young, drunken, dancing, singing), and in March of 1811, after they’d sailed around South America and up past Hawaii (where they picked up some natives), the Tonquin was facing into the mouth of the Columbia River, the waves epic and roiling, the sandbar impossible to make out under the foam, and Thorn ordered a man he had developed a grudge against, named Fox, to sound the channel in a whaleboat with four men inexperienced at sea, and Fox, crying, said, “I am sent off, without seamen to man my boat, in boisterous weather, and on the most dangerous part of the north-west coast. My uncle was lost a few years ago on this same bar, and I am now going to lay my bones alongside of his,” which is precisely what happened (these details are recorded in a 1839 historical account called Astoria: Adventure in the Pacific Northwest by Washington Irving) and no trace of Fox nor the four others nor the whaleboat would ever be found.
The next day, Thorn ordered a jollyboat manned by another five men (three white guys and two natives) to guide the Tonquin past the sandbar, which it miraculously did, whereupon the jollyboat was sucked out of sight and submerged by a wave and its occupants tossed into the sea, only three of whom resurfaced, the two natives and one of the white guys, who took off their clothes so they could swim easier, found the oars, shook enough water out of the boat that they could stand in it, and scooped the remaining water out with their hands, at which point one of the natives promptly died and the other wailed with grief and refused to do anything, leaving Weekes—keep his name in your mind—to paddle the not-so-jolly boat to calmer waters without help, this exercise probably being what kept him alive.
After the contents of the Tonquin were unloaded onto the shore of the river along with a group of men who were to begin building the “embryo metropolis,” as Irving calls it—how are these long, loopy sentences treating you, by the way?—the Tonquin sailed a hundred miles north to Vancouver Island to trade for more goods to bring back to Astoria, picking up a native interpreter en route who tried to warn Thorn that the natives on Vancouver Island were not exactly known for their friendliness, but Thorn wouldn’t hear it; and when they arrived Thorn laid out blankets, knives, beads, and other merchandise, but when the Vancouver Island natives came aboard with otter skins they insisted on trading at a rate more advantageous to them than Thorn appreciated, so infuriating Thorn that he snatched an otter skin from one of the elder natives, rubbed it in the elder’s face, and pushed him over the side of the ship, and the natives left, humiliated, though the next morning a canoe of natives returned (unarmed, acting friendly, and holding up otter skins to indicate that they were prepared to trade) and an officer let them onboard, and more canoes followed so that by the time Thorn awoke and made it onto the deck the natives vastly outnumbered the crew, at which point Thorn, nervous, ordered seven men—Weekes was among them—to go aloft and make sail, and the natives, seeing the ship was about to leave, began trading eagerly, for knives, mostly, lots and lots of knives, and soon they were all armed, whereupon one of the natives let out a call and they all raised their knives and “mercilessly butchered” Thorn and his crew.
The seven guys who had been sent up to make sail “contemplated with horror the carnage that was going on below,” Irving writes, and seeing an opportunity to get between decks decided to make a break for it, which resulted in three deaths—one of them fell, another got stabbed, and Weekes fatally injured himself on the hatchway (after all that!)—and the other four, having made it safely to the cabin, joined a mortally wounded comrade named Lewis in barricading the door and firing muskets until the ship was cleared; and that night the four of them left the Tonquin under cover of darkness on a small boat, leaving behind Lewis, who the next day went onto the deck of the ship, which already appeared defeated, its sails flapping in the wind, and made a gesture of surrender to the natives, who boarded the Tonquin to strip it of valuables, not realizing they were being led into a trap, while Lewis, whose injuries were going to kill him unless he killed himself first, disappeared below deck, waited until the ship was packed, and set fire to the powder magazine, the explosion—KA-BOOM!—ripping apart the Tonquin and its plunderers (according to Irving, “Upwards of a hundred savages were destroyed by the explosion, many more were shockingly mutilated, and for days afterwards the limbs and bodies of the slain were thrown upon the beach”); and the fact that the explosion was Lewis’s vengeful doing, that the fire wasn’t accidental, is known because it was passed along to the native who had been the Tonquin’s translator (spared in the knifing massacre owing to his race, and then just lucky during the explosion) by the four men who tried to escape by boat, unsuccessfully it turns out, because of the wind, and ended up in a cove, where they were waiting out the weather and trying not to fall asleep when, exhausted, they fell asleep, only to be startled awake the next morning by natives, taken into the village, and tortured to death.
* * *
It’s five in the morning and I am on the bed staring at the ceiling, staring into half-darkness, and I’m trying to identify what it is about the bathroom in this motel that brings me back to the bathroom in the house that my dad lived in after my parents’ marriage went ka-boom. I have been staring at this ceiling for hours. Robert and Joe have been asleep for hours. I’m still tripping, I guess, but it just feels like thinking.
Mostly I’m thinking of what we did and saw and said after we ate the mushrooms. It was not a hard trip. It was a great, mild time. Lights. Our breath. Almost sliding on wet moss into the river. The Victorian houses, all gables and chimneys and candy trim. Robert looking up at the Astoria Bridge and saying, “If a wave came over that bridge, I’d fucking crap myself. What would you do?” A cat curled up outside the Authentic Finnish Sauna. The Grinch Who Stole Christmas playing on a display TV in a closed furniture store. A resonant, mushroomy burp. Four empty storefronts in a row. A deer on someone’s lawn, standing, then walking away jerkily, like in a cartoon. Robert announcing, “I’m very in tune with the world.” Joe asking himself why he’s never walked around Astoria before. A sudden, hard downpour, so sudden and hard it seems like some kind of joke. The trapdoor under a table at the oldest bar in Astoria. The humungous section of a Douglas fir in the center of town. A concrete post office. Turning on the motel TV to hear a news anchor, on the subject of Rumsfeld’s resignation, saying, “The real question folks, is, what’s going to happen now?” and me thinking, Isn’t that always the question? Robert talking about a tattoo of his that symbolizes “the transition between the living world and the dead world.” Me wondering what’s going to happen to Clear Cut Press, the recently living but possibly now dead Astoria-based publishing company that once had a utopian glow about it but now seems like a past-tense novelty, lovely and cool, but essentially over, like Astoria. The three of us going to rent The Goonies at Video Horizons, and then remembering that the motel has no VCRs. Joe thinking the curtains in the motel room are moving—breathing, almost—when they aren’t, although in his defense, the pattern on the curtains is crazy. Cucumber-green waves. Eminem. The men waiting for the elk to cross the road. The umbrella for a cricket. Bathrobe Guy. The guy with no front teeth. The fear of getting caught. The fear of finding nothing. The lady with the bangs at the grocery store. The taste of the mandarin orange after the taste of the mushroom. The worms.
The people in the next room are banging their bed against the wall, which isn’t helping me relax. But my thoughts are starting to zip around less quickly….
It’s another hour before I sleep and four hours after that until I’m startled awake. It’s Sunday. It’s time to check out. It’s a week before I’ll get to actually watch The Goonies for the first time in 12 years and discover that it doesn’t match my memory at all, that it’s a failure on every level, but that it’s a perfect mascot for Astoria—it begins with several young men’s quest for fortune, it glorifies rejects, it fetishizes the past, it’s trippy.
In the truck, we’re on the subject of Bathrobe Guy again.
“She probably pulled up and said, ‘The guy in the bathrobe is going to jail,’” Robert laughs.
“I’ll remember that forever,” Joe says.
“At first I thought he was wearing some kind of cloak. But then I realized it’s a bathrobe. But it’s good to have people like that around—”
“—To take the heat off you.”
It’s good to have someone else fail, so you can succeed. Some cities have to fail if others are going to succeed.
I’m thinking about this article and how great it is in my mind, and all the ways I will probably fail when I write it. I think about my luck, on this trip and generally. I think about my three brothers and which of us are the failures and which are the successes. I think about the people in the motel room next door to ours and whether they were trying to make a baby, and how babies are just people who haven’t failed yet. I think about my bones, which aren’t under the sea, thank god, but which are still in my body, in this truck, on this highway, moving in the direction of the future that awaits me, a 26-year-old guy in good health, not very damaged by time and weather.