Sometimes it’s a bus, careening through an intersection, brakes failing, out of control, that smashes into, over and then steamrolls me. Other times it will be a taxi, racing to make a light, make a fare, make it home, screaming past the slowing traffic and the bike messengers, that clips, disarticulates, and splits me to bleed out in the gutter. But usually it is just the lone driver, lost, looking for something, for some landmark, some sign that he is on the right path, headed in the right direction—anxious, yearning—who will slam into me as I jaywalk, similarly dreamy and unfocused.

It happens in an instant, this death or near-death fantasy, in the instant immediately after I catch myself in a state of inattention. It is a sort of punishment, I guess, and an indulgence, this terror that freezes my blood and chokes the breath out of me, but as suddenly as it hits it is gone. Suddenly, which Sam Shepard was delighted to know was Dostoevsky’s favorite word—suddenly, and then my shock is gone, leaving, in its place, a residue of guilt (for having had the somewhat self-important thought), a residue of dread (at what the vision may have prophesied), and a fiction writer’s fantasy of what might happen in the aftermath of my sudden death by vehicle: the Weegee style pictures, the garish lights of the ambulance in the gloaming, the teary speeches and indecent tweets (“Death alone awakens our feelings,” Camus said), as well as the funeral which I may or may not watch, Tom Sawyer-style.

Sam Shepard had a lifelong fear of being struck and killed by a car, as his father really had been when stepping backward off a tall curb, drunk, in the town of Bernalillo, New Mexico. But that doesn’t exactly explain Shepard’s regular, or, rather incessant, compulsive-seeming car travel across the continent (to be inside of the car is to control it, and his fate, perhaps?)—or why I have continually tried to follow him. What was he fleeing? Or was it something toward which he was continually rushing, dropping everything where he was to hit the road, ride over the horizon, toward some oasis or another? What is it that makes us rush off like that? What compels us to go? And, then, what compels us to stay?

“I would come untracked, is what it is,” Shepard wrote. “For days it would come and go like that. Days and days. Wake up in some sheetrock room where the train shook the roof off. So close to the window you could reach out and lose your whole arm. Took your breath away. It did. Tucumcari. Kalispell. Abilene…”

In these places and others where he has come untracked he cannot locate himself, misled and confused as he is by the trickster mockingbirds who sing out of all connection with time, place, season. The loneliness he describes is almost unbearable, even as it is almost comforting, to him, to me. “I’ve been crisscrossing the country again,” he writes, “without much reason.” But, also, “Are you telling me that the whole history of catastrophes is the result of one night in the long-ago? … The father came home late and smashed every window in the house with a claw hammer? Is that it? … The son snuck out one of the broken windows, under cover of dawn, with a few books in a paper sack? … Stepping over the unconscious, bleeding form of his father he then jumped into a Chevy and never stopped driving the rest of his life? That’s it in a nutshell,” an unidentified voice answers.

“You’d think he’d be over it by now, wouldn’t you?
“You’d think.”

*

Stumbling, somewhat tipsy, off the front porch of our log cabin in the middle of Walter de Maria’s enormous land artwork The Lightning Field, I thought about Sam Shepard’s dad. We’d stopped in Bernalillo on the way down here from Abiquiu, to gas up, to pee and buy beef jerky. Whatever it had once been, it was a nothing town now, a stopping-off place only, not a destination in itself, if even it ever had been.

But lightning, epiphany, and tragedy, can strike you anywhere—though apparently it is very rare in the actual Lightning Field, a sprawling assemblage of 400 stainless steel poles on a plot of land secured for de Maria by the Dia foundation outside Quemado, New Mexico, and, since 1977, visited in groups of no more than six at a time, usually for one night at a time. We managed, on our visit in August, to share the old homesteader’s cabin on the property with only one other couple, thought we didn’t see any lightning—not that we’d expected to or even needed to. Though, on the morning of our departure, the moon covered more than half of the sun, casting the field a hazy gold and lavender. The astrologer that my dad likes had promised all sorts of fortuitous outcomes from this eclipse: transcendence, progress… I wandered through the massive, man-made art-henge, awaiting something, some sign, some transformation, a transference of energy, perhaps.

I was wearing my new pair of blue jeans, jeans bought for the occasion. All day they’d been picking up the strange clay mud of the area, showing signs of their travels. And I think that one of the best bits about jeans is the way in which they become more and more personalized to you the more you wear them, the way they gather signs of your movement, your lifestyle. Jeans become a kind of record of your existence, your rhythms and tough scrapes, your falls and spills, a canvas for memories, a collection of the individual snippets from while a life is made.

*

What would Sam Shepard do?

This is, in essence, what I’ve been asking of myself in the twenty years or so since I first discovered Shepard’s largely autobiographical prose books describing his peripatetic ramblings across the continent and back. Granted, it probably isn’t exactly the healthiest credo (comparing oneself to a onetime addict—who may however have been exaggerating that condition to escape the draft), but the Shepard I had in my mind, the Shepardness to which I aspired and the Shepard he himself had mythologized in Motel Chronicles, Cruising Paradise, and, later, in Great Dream of Heaven, was incredibly alluring as a role model to the adolescent me: geographically and economically free; spiritually free, too, if haunted by daddy issues; doomed somewhat, perhaps, but driven, of course; and, fittingly, very often driving across America. The me I wanted to be was a lot like the Shepard I read about in those books, not to mention as accomplished in the actual writing as he was. It was an undergrad’s sort of hero worship, one I’d never entirely given up or outgrown, the way one never really does outgrow a role model or father figure.

In the days following Shepard’s death in late July this year, though, this question, and the idealized me to which it nodded, had occurred to me with renewed seriousness, an adolescent’s seriousness. In response to its harangues, I left my job as a magazine editor, plotting out a Shepard-esque road trip through the American Southwest before I’d even left the building—to escape, obviously, both New York and everything else; and to look for something, too, for myself or whatever else I could find. I did wonder more than once if, only weeks away from my 40th birthday, I was taunting myself with childish whims, and responding with similarly childish recklessness. But the job I was walking away from, I knew, wasn’t some high career aspiration so much as a day job to support my writing life, a writing life that had begun to atrophy because of that very job. And, so, 20 years after I’d begun asking myself what Sam Shepard would do, if only as a cheat to help me follow the life pattern with which I felt most connected, finding that I had deviated from the course, I determined to find my way back to it.

And as I’ve always done, since before learning of Shepard and his ramblings even, I began prepping for the trip and the new and renewed me, by outfitting myself for it. This being a road trip through New Mexico and Texas—beginning in Santa Fe, then on to Georgia O’Keefe’s home in Abiquiu, to Walter de Maria’s The Lightning Field, through White Sands National Monument, and on to the art mecca of Marfa, Texas—I went a little bananas on blue jeans, hunting for the perfect pair, the jeans that fit the real me, the ultimate me, the me I want to become. And, also, especially, the kind of jeans Sam would've approved of.

Almost immediately, and somewhat predictably, this mundane little shopping excursion grew into a full blown existential quest in the way the road trip was intended to be—much as our consumerist culture has set it up to be: whiskered or rinsed or raw, baggy or slim or straight, who am I, really, and what kind of jeans can help me realize that, as well as exteriorize it for the rest of the world to see? “Clothes are semiotic devices, machines for communicating,” Umberto Eco wrote in his 1976 essay “Lumbar Thought.” And, “I lived for my jeans, and as a result I assumed the exterior behavior of one who wears jeans.” Meanwhile I was trying on 14 ounce raw denim from Okayama, Japan, at Self Edge in New York to decide on my future, like a maniac.

But the more I thought about the twinned-quests to find myself and my jeans, in both the consumerist and visionary sense, the more I saw their mirroring qualities, and wondered if indeed the trips to the store and The Lightning Field were actually all that different. We think that within the interiority of the spiritual-existential sort of quest, we are playing with inanimate forms of pure imagination, woven wholly from our creativity. Indeed. But from where have we gathered the material with which we are weaving our potential selves, finding out possible patterns of behavior? Do our ideas for ourselves, for our modes of being have something like platonic precedents in the human experience which we are merely imitating, the way, say H&M does Rick Owens? Are we not, with our personalities and fashion tastes, merely paraphrasing our role models—in much the same way we can all now, consciously or otherwise, quote Saul Leiter, say, in our Instagram posts?

William Burroughs famously said that “Kerouac opened a million coffee bars and sold a million pairs of Levi’s to both sexes.” And Kerouac has become sort of the patron saint of road tripping, of blue jeans and running far far away as fast as the blacktop will take you.

“It’s nice to think of Kerouac happy like that for a time,” Shepard wrote, of the fleeting romance with a Mexican migrant girl recounted in On the Road, “after he got so totally wasted toward the end; living with his old mom somewhere down in Florida and blowing his belly out with wine. I don’t know about Kerouac, though, as a man,” Shepard goes on to say, “as a person. Of course, you probably never do about anyone who’s done something like write an important book that a lot of people say changed their lives. I don’t know about that one either—actually having a piece of writing change your life. I doubt it. Maybe for a spell. A day or two, but your whole life? I find that hard to believe.”

“You are now traveling,” Shepard writes, in the 2017 novel The One Inside. “Your future is frozen. Rapidly, you are jettisoned from the blank unknown to the bright clear world.”

*

Shepard had pictures of his heroes on the walls of his kitchen where he did his writing: Beckett, of course, Dostoevsky. But also Roberto Bolaño, Jorge Luis Borges, Macedonio Fernandez. Bolaño too wrote of his writing room. Instead of pictures of his heroes on the wall—and he had a great many heroes, of course; he was perhaps the greatest hero worshipper of them all—he simply saw portals into fantastical other worlds, fictional worlds he would allow himself to enter.

Seen in a collection like this, these heroes displayed a kind of genealogy of inspiration, influence. Not so much a pantheon as a family tree one insinuated oneself into rather than happened on.

Shepard carried around pictures of his artistic kin with him during his travels, saved on his phone—and, really, is memory any different from this collecting: faded photographs stuck to a whitewashed brick wall, postcards on a whirly rack, smeared recollections in ink on paper? Isn’t that all that memory is? Images of faces, places. A snippet. A feeling, an emotional residue left by someone long gone, by a book half remembered, by a writer you once admired.

Is that why we go? To collect new, vivid images and snippets with which to make sense of the dozens, hundreds, thousands of loose captures we have knocking around in our brains already?

Why, then do we stay, sedentary, in our kitchens, our offices, as the collection of goods and comforts around us begin to stack up and bind us within a determinate selfhood? Are we so comforted by these windowless cocoons, this scaffolding, these whitewashed brick walls, that we will adapt ourselves to a life within them, will develop habits and appetites to support them?

Shepard’s characters are always on the run—friends, family, loved ones left, unceremoniously in his wake—though not stalked by guilt over the one’s he’s left behind so much as haunted by imaginary beings, ghosts, demons. “I know your reputation for discarding women,” one of the characters in The One Inside says to the unnamed narrator-protagonist. As with much of his prose works, Shepard does little to distance this narrator character from himself, as if to intentionally disturb differentiation between them. Later, the narrator, an actor preparing for a new part, thinks to himself, “The first element I snared in my ‘character search’ was ‘exile.’ The sense of being ‘apart’ as a way of life. How it comes to pass that a human is set adrift. Something intimately familiar. I was at it again,” he says. “I had this in me. ‘Exile.’ I knew it. There was no need for preparation. My whole life was a preamble.”

What is it to be uncomfortable in this world, to look for another, to costume ourselves in order to affect a change within ourselves, and, then, to strike out for the territories where we might discover, or create from scratch, or from imagination, a new and different world, better suited to our temperaments? Is that unknown, over the horizon the opposite of the certainty we fear—call it death—as it approaches us, either incrementally, creeping along our genes, rising around us in a rictus where we sit in our cubicles, or suddenly in the street?

What bewilderment, what delirium (which Thomas Pynchon was always keen to note means, literally, to be outside of one’s furrow), what displacement within this world has made us into lone, lost drivers, looking for landmarks, for some sign, earthly or otherwise, to give us direction? What is it that makes us run? What is it that makes us stay?

In Day Out of Days, Shepard quotes “a separatist at Plymouth, 1620,” as saying, “Our dwelling is but a wandering, and our abiding is but a fleeting, and in a word our home is nothing.” Is that what we go looking for on the road when we go, the oasis of a home? Is that why we stay in our kitchens, where heroes are pasted to the walls, for the illusion of one?

I tend to think that, in the end, the perfect pair of jeans is as illusory as a single self, as a home, a dream job, a concrete identity. It is a fantasy we indulge in, and maybe a fantasy we need, to keep going, whether we stay or flee, to keep on. But there is no one pair to suit any and all occasions. For every season, every personality, every mood, there are a variety of jeans we can wear, a panoply of selves to put on. Distressed, raw, reconstructed, slim, slouchy, cropped, destroyed, we are all of us every jeans that has ever been made, and vice-versa. It is the mud and the memories we get on them that matters. This is why we go, and why we go shopping.

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Tags: denim, jeans