I remember driving this road way back when, back before I knew that roads could look any different. Back then I had never even thought about highways through forests or winding mountain roads or bridges over shipping channels or tunnels under bays. I had never thought about ferries or beltways or choosing the inland route to avoid the city, because back then none of these existed. It was all and only big empty road, big empty sky, distant haze, shimmer of sunlight brighter, ever brighter. In those days if there was an old church or barn falling to bits by the highway, well, that was just someone else's grand dream blown all to bits, and that's what happens.
Every so often the freight train would lumber past, endless rows of cars, matching containers full of anything from West Texas Intermediate to nuclear waste sent out to be buried in No Man's Land, to cotton to cattle. None of the compartments were labeled, and being so far away it would have been hard to read the labels anyway. Somehow, whenever there was a train, there was also a field of cows. I don't know how that worked, but I'd be driving along surrounded by the emptiness, and suddenly I'd be driving parallel to a train and there would be a field of cattle, then the train would end and the cattle would thin out. Sometimes there were livestock without the train; but not very often.
There aren't as many of either, anymore, cattle or freight trains. This drought has seen to the loss of all the cows, empty parched fields even drier than they used to be. I don't know what happened to the trains, but they're almost disappeared, as well.
This land used to oppress me with its emptiness, I'd go out at night when there was hardly any moon at all, and the Milky Way would spin and turn all around me, and I'd get dizzier and dizzier trying to see where the river of stars began and ended, spinning, spinning until I collapsed in the empty field, and had to close my eyes against the endless sky. Never make a promise under the open sky, it disappears and gets hopelessly lost when there is nothing to hold it true. Never believe a promise made under the open sky, for the promise ends as quickly as the words dissipate, language becomes breath and then is lost.
Promises were made, in good faith, and faith was deep and pure and elemental. For how could we not have faith, watching the lightning storm appear from no where, come dancing in from the distance, a sizzle on my arms, and then everything is changed. The air sparkles for the rest of the night, and then the sun rises and the skies fill with limitless yellow and blue. Faith brought us locusts and snakeskins and bluejay feathers, faith was as ever-present as the geodes in the rocks we cracked open under the railroad bridge. Faith was not in god or in man, but faith held in the workings of a clockwork universe, that tomorrow and today and yesterday followed the same patterns of light and life. Promises were dangerous, promises were the province of god and man. God makes us a promise, he speaks through a burning bush, but god is a wrathful god, and withholds promises until punishments are meted out and justice is served. The promises of god cannot be understood by the minds of men, and so I kept my faith in the sunset but relinquished the inconstancies of a vengeful god.
The promises of mankind were a different sort altogether, for there were no simple promises, there were only promises with addenda and conditional clauses and expectations and substitutions and maybe thens. I watched the live oaks shudder in the wind, declined the promises, and held strong to my faith in the cottonwood and the river. Autumn, and then winter, and the endless dry summer where the air shimmers and the afternoon never ends, and the wide open sky and the empty road.
On the road, the pine trees arrived first, saplings and then towering giants, each pine cone a Christmas present, the ground draped with needles. The pines chased the sky away, and then the land rose up to meet the sky, the mountains seen so often from a distance brought into focus. The sky a different color, having to compete with the pines and the mountains, and there is very little lightning, and the stars are less bright. My faith, the deep current of faith, begins to thin as the landscape changes, and when the road enters a tunnel on the side of a mountain and comes out over the blue, bright blue of a glacial lake, the last of my childhood deserts me and I dive deep into the icy water. There are flowers, tiny purple flowers, and towering oak trees, and meadow grasslands, and the roads switch back upon themselves so frequently I do not know which way I am oriented at all, or which direction the road will lead.
All of this is new, and at every turn out, the car stops, and we all open and pour out from the doors, and gaze, and gaze. I cannot believe this is the same sky I have seen my entire life, for nothing about it is the same. It is a different depth, a different color, voices have an altered tone, the stars are in the wrong place. I look at the people around me, my companions, my reflection. We appear unchanged, but how can we be the same person we were, when even the lodestone of our faith, the sky, has changed? I wonder; I do not know. I hold out my hands, and there is a cry of "What are you doing? Get back in the car!" and at night under the stars the night feels slower, smaller, quieter.
The world of yellow openness is a lifetime away and it recedes, and I forget it. When the sky does not command every view, every eye, then my mind suddenly feels open to see things that were hidden before. I see chipmunks and rabbits and heron and the thousands of mirrors reflected by sunlight on the pond. I see joy and love and hate and despair distilled down into their essences, thick syrups in tones of red and amber and purple and green. I see the shimmer of recognition in the air when arriving some place I've been before, and I see the hollow outline of my shape waiting for me in places I have never been. When words are spoken they no longer dissolve in the endless sky, but they get caught on branches, under leaves, in the bend of a stream, at the tip of a bird's nest. Going into the woods I surprise a squirrel, and read the scrap words it has harvested along with its acorns.
Where words are trapped, held, and remembered, I begin to believe promises, and in belief in promises the corner which used to be filled with faith an lightning is now filled with words and intentions. Here, under this rock: this is the clause, as it was spoken, as we agreed. The air grows thick with words and with promises, and in the winter the skies drop snow and we ski over hills of stories. My bare feet reach into the mulch of generations of conversations, and the days lengthen into years, and I forget, I forget.
I forget the open sky and the omnipresent night and the translucence of humans on the landscape, until the summons arrives. The horizon drops and empties, the air thins, and I am alone without even an echo for company. The vastness of the suddenly empty universe is indescribable, and, disoriented, I lay upon the ground and there is only sky, only sky. This is not my home, for without the anchor of faith or the ballast of promises, I do not exist, there is nothing to hold my incoherent atoms together, and the urgency of the summons dissolves in the wind. For here by the empty road I am no longer myself, I have no compass to guide me, and there is nowhere to go, except deep into the heart of the heavens in the endless night sky.