As an art student, I learned very quickly that one person’s neutral vessel is another person’s politically freighted, irreducibly marked load.
Home of the Bill T. Jones / Arnie Zane Company
I had waited, who knows how long—a few minutes, or a half an hour—sitting under the blare of industrial fluorescents, until the bus finally arrived out of a low fog. It was a forty-five minute ride, over the mountains, from Santa Cruz to San Jose, my destination. Boarding the bus, I fed my five dollar bill into the machine, and slunk toward the back, waiting.
Highway 17 is one of those roads that evolved as a function of uneven sprawl, to the point where it is now beautiful to drive at the speed for which it was built, and yet suicidal to drive at the speed that is now common. For years Santa Cruz was a distant resort town some hundred miles to the south of San Francisco, separated by miles of orchard and prairie and the ridge of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Originally accessible mainly by a narrow gauge railway that cut through the mountains, Santa Cruz has gradually become a sizable suburb of the techno-industrial sprawl that has filled in the gaps between San Francisco and the mountains called Silicon Valley. By 1940 a treacherous mail route over the pass had been paved over and had become State Route 17, and the railroad tunnels were closed off. Winding just under twenty miles over the Santa Cruz Mountains, and crossing the summit at Patchen Pass, at 1,800 feet, it has since become a daily commuter route, choked with traffic and accidents, a harrowing drive over dark roads.
I grew up in these mountains, off of Highway 17, along the crest of the mountain range, and each day my family would travel up and down these roads. When I was a child I knew the turns intuitively, and could tell where we were along our drive simply by how much inertia a given turn pressed on my child’s body. But my family moved away when I was six years old, and when we returned to San Jose a few years later, we lived in the Valley, not the mountains, and that wisdom gradually seeped from me, and now, what little I can recollect as an adult comes to me only in those stages of consciousness in which one is not quite awake, not quite asleep.
That night I took the Highway 17 Express, the bus that traverses the mountains into the Valley, and I thought mainly of other night rides. Most famously, of course, Isra and Miraj, the Night Ride of the Prophet Mohammed, wherein he is first given the command that his people must pray to Allah five times a day. The Prophet describes himself as in a state between sleep and wakefulness when he is visited by an angel who brings him a golden tray of wisdom and belief, then cuts him open from throat to belly, washes his entrails with Zam-zam water, and then fills him with this wisdom and belief. It is then that the Prophet Mohammed ascends on al-Buraq, a white animal smaller than a mule and bigger than a donkey who takes him through the seven heavens with the archangel Gabriel. At each gate he is named by Gabriel in answer to a gatekeeper’s question, who then asks, “Has he been called?” When Gabriel answers yes, the gatekeeper replies, “He is welcomed. What a wonderful visit his is!” At the first gate, Mohammed meets Adam; at the second, Jesus and John the Baptist; at the third, Joseph; at the fourth, Idris; then Aaron; Moses; and then, finally, at the seventh gate, Abraham. Each prophet and patriarch greets Mohammed in the same manner, “You are welcomed O brother and a Prophet.” In that seventh heaven, Mohammed is enjoined to pray to Allah fifty times a day, but after repeated discussions with Moses, who understands too well the disobedient nature of humanity, and who tells him to return to Allah and ask to have the number reduced—fifty times a day is lowered first to forty, then thirty, then twenty, then ten, then finally five times a day.
The steed that carries Mohammed through the night, the Buraq, is sometimes called “beautiful-faced,” which is perhaps how it began to be depicted by some as having a human face: a short white horse with a human head, sometimes male and sometimes female, but always lavishly adorned, occasionally with rainbow-colored wings.
Mohammed’s night ride, so filled with incantatory repetition through each of the heavens, and the clear-eyed vision of Allah, suggests that even in strange nights like this there is order and purpose. The night ride for Mohammed is an important stage in the narrative of his life, one in which the truth of Allah is revealed through ritual, through repetition and direction. Perhaps our world has fallen away from this sense of order and perfection, as the religious authorities of all brands are always telling us—or perhaps such order was always illusory, and now that the cover has been pulled back on this illusion, we can never go back to how things once were, even if the unveiling of this hidden disordered truth was accidental or purposeless. Either way, it’s true that we can never go back, and the Buraq will never again be to us a wondrous creature so much as a monstrous hybrid, part beast and part human, just as Mohammed’s own account of being purified can only seem to most of us unbelievers as a horrific disembowelment—not far in tone from the disturbing ritual of cannibalism that lies at the heart of Catholicism.
Night rides, I thought as we began to pick up speed and move past the low foothills of Santa Cruz toward the mountains beyond, will never again promise us order and revelation. We are prepared, I think, to face horror and depravity, so long as we understand it to be part of an ordered system—evil, in its way, is more comforting than chaos. The lure of a nightmare world like Dante’s Inferno is in its perfect symmetry and justice, and the sense that there is a coherent logic behind even the most cruel barbarisms. But as much as we may long to follow Virgil and Beatrice, viewing this hierarchical Hell and then ascending through the ordered tower of Purgatory and into the spheres of Paradise, few of us will ever see even the Inferno—in truth we are never even allowed into its gates, where at least pain and damnation have a logic and an order, condemned as we are instead to be led through the chaotic woods where Dante begins his epic, with its terrifying trees whose branches lunge at us in sparring jabs, grabbing at our clothes and skin.
When I was a child and lived in these mountains, we would drive up from the valley in the evenings, and in the fall and winter it would already be night. My memories from those drives is only of the way the branches of the trees assumed leering, craggy shapes, as though all of nature had turned against us in our car, and I, helplessly carried along, could do nothing but watch in silent horror. I was a terrified child, prone to nightmares: my bedroom was next to the garage and I spent long nights unable to sleep for the monsters I assumed would be coming through that door, as though they’d latched on to the car in that night ride and followed us home. I’m still, as an adult, prone to nightmares that can shock me awake, but I also see now how the overactive imagination of my childhood that so terrorized me also kindled something in me that I now cherish: a recognition that a tree is never just a tree, a door never just a door, that behind the veneer of order that we claim to explain and rationalize all that we see, there is perhaps something formless and chaotic, monstrous but also wondrous, which some of us, accidentally glimpsing through no fault of our own, can never again forget or fail to be changed by. Parents who go out of their way to protect their children, who teach them that “there’s nothing to be afraid of,” I always think do them a disservice, teaching their children not of the world’s vertiginous possibilities but of its limited taxonomies. The dreams of a generation, you could say, are born in the irrational nightmares of its children.
All these thoughts fled through my head as the bus sped over the mountains, lolling disconcertingly on curves so treacherous that many have earned themselves nicknames: Big Moody Curve, named for the river it parallels but known for the blackened cement retaining wall that records all the cars who’ve slammed against it. Up ahead somewhere was the Valley Surprise—the sharp and deadly turn that inaugurates one’s descent into the Santa Clara Valley. When I was about eleven years old, late one Sunday evening an eighteen-wheeler took one of these curves too quickly and lost control—the bed of the truck flipped and landed on a car carrying a French teacher at my school, who was killed on impact. Aside from my grandfather, it was my first experience with mortality—she was never my teacher, but as this fact settled into the school the next day, it was as though everything seemed to drift for a moment. My friend Adam and I asked our math teacher if we could go for a walk, less because we were grieving, I think, than because we felt the heavy weight of the expectations surrounding mourning—as long as we were around others, we knew we would have to perform grief. Instead we wandered the hallways, not walking so much as being carried past the lockers and bathrooms, idly discussing what little we knew of death and mostly, I think, floating in that amniotic space, the importance of which one can only see much later. I’ve driven over and been driven over Highway 17 countless times since, but have always thought of it, because of that experience, as the Highway of Death—less a histrionic fear than a gentle recognition, a road which we all commute over until the day we abruptly fail to make our journey.
In fact, the only times I truly fear the highway are nights when I take the bus, because a night drive is so different from a night ride. The former can imply discovery, a purposeful wandering, while the latter bears with it the helplessness of being carried somewhere without control. Anyone who’s fallen asleep on a subway late at night and missed a stop knows this feeling—you awake, and perhaps it’s only been a minute or perhaps an hour, but for that instant before you get your bearings, you are seized with panic, since this train could have taken you anywhere. It’s possible that your train may have moved beyond the known universe of tracks and stations altogether, into some other place not on any map, into the bowels of the city or the farthest reaches of the suburbs, without any map or legend to guide you back the way you came.
I was being carried over the mountains, and into the valley; the ride was out of my control—at times I found myself nodding off slightly, only to shock myself awake. “To be carried over,” I remembered, is the original definition of the word metaphor, a term which has come to mean the act of carrying over one idea into another, to carry an abstract term over into a concrete object, thus uniting the two. In all good metaphors, perhaps, lies a hint of this same terror—you, the reader, are a passenger who has fallen asleep for the briefest of moments, only to wake suddenly in a new space, and your mind turns from terror to wonder in that brief space of vertigo.
Such a terror befell a young Thomas de Quincey on another night ride in August 1816, while riding as a passenger on a mail coach between Somerset and Westmoreland. In those days before the steam engine, the mail coach was the very symbol of speed and efficiency—poor students like de Quincey regularly hitched rides on it through the night to save time and money. De Quincey had taken a small amount of laudanum before his night journey, which gave him a sense of detached euphoria as the coach thundered past the black shapes of the darkened English countryside. The horses knew the route well enough that the driver quickly fell asleep, which was fine, until mid-journey, when they turned a corner and de Quincey saw that the coach had crossed into the oncoming traffic lane, and that a young couple in a gig were bearing down on them from only few hundred feet. He struggled to waken the comatose driver, unsuccessfully, and only at the last minute did the driver of the other vehicle see the coach and haul his horse to the left. They avoided direct collision, but the opiated witness looked on in terror as the coach managed to glance the side of the gig; “The blow, from the fury of our passage, resounded terrifically,” he later recalled. “I rose in horror, to look upon the ruins we might have caused,” and with relief saw that the gig’s occupants were unharmed, as the somnambulist mail coach plowed steadily on into the night.
De Quincey would not publish his essay, “The English Mail-Coach,” until thirty years later, in 1849: a long essay about speed, travel, and nightmares—an essay that builds toward a long description of that night ride, called “A Vision of Sudden Death.” But after giving a factual depiction of those events, de Quincey embarks on a long, hallucinatory passage called “Death Fugue,” as his imagination spins from those events into far darker places.
“Thus as we ran like torrents,” he writes, “thus as we swept with bridal rapture over the Campo Santo of the cathedral graves—suddenly we became aware of a vast necropolis rising upon the far-off horizon—a city of sepulchres, built within the saintly cathedral for the warrior dead that rested from their feuds on earth. Of purple granite was the necropolis; yet, in the first minute, it lay like a purple stain upon the horizon, so mighty was the distance. In the second minute it trembled through many changes, growing into terraces and towers of wondrous altitude, so mighty was the pace. In the third minute already, with our dreadful gallop, we were entering its suburbs. Vast sarcophagi rose on every side, having towers and turrets that, upon the limits of the central aisle, strode forward with haughty intrusion, that ran back with mighty shadows into answering recesses. Every sarcophagus showed many bas-reliefs—bas-reliefs of battles and of battle-fields; battles from forgotten ages, battles from yesterday; battle-fields that, long since, nature had healed and reconciled to herself with the sweet oblivion of flowers; battle-fields that were yet angry and crimson with carnage.”
De Quincey, who maintained that his imaginative hallucinations long predated his opium use, stretching all the way back to his childhood, doesn’t restrain his imagination to questions of bodily safety. For him the apocalypse has already arrived, and he can gaze past his own death to a city of sepulchers, endless rows of mausoleums that rise like skyscrapers—of which he rushes through, the coach completely out of his control, and yet gifted with an awareness that the only order and form that endures is the marble of the gravestone.
We were now well past the summit, plunging down into the Santa Clara Valley, where venture capitalists were investing millions of dollars in, among other things, a handful of different companies that all promised to cure death itself, and my thoughts turned to another night rider, the country doctor in Kafka’s tale, who is summoned on a difficult night to a patient who may or may not be dying several towns away. The doctor has a carriage but not horses to pull it, but in a dreamscape moment, a groom and a team of horses emerge from a disused pigsty, seemingly solving his dilemma. The driver, however, an abusive brute, elects to stay with the doctor’s young and vulnerable servant girl, sending the doctor, helpless, on his way, and he can only watch behind him as the rapist turns his attention to the young girl. The doctor, we know, has done nothing to deserve this; in Kafka’s world the bargain with the Devil is made with the terms unknown to us, and without even the temporary boon granted—the entire transaction is the Devil collecting his due. And so the doctor is carried through the night, the carriage driverless, reaching the home of the child who is one moment healthy and the next is dying—all the while the family humiliates and tortures the doctor for his inability to heal what is clearly out of his control. “This is what people are like in my district,” laments the country doctor. “They have lost their ancient beliefs; the parson sits at home and unravels his vestments, one after another; but the doctor is supposed to be omnipotent with his merciful surgeon’s hand.” The old ways, with their promise of order and ritual, may have passed away, but Kafka’s haggard doctor warns of the folly of assuming that they can simply be replaced by science and medicine—itself perhaps nothing more than just one more form of ritual magic that’s losing its efficacy.
“A Country Doctor” builds toward a hallucinatory blend of ritual and science, as the increasingly frustrated and increasingly malevolent townspeople torment the helpless and useless doctor: “And so they came,” he tells us, “the family and the village elders, and stripped my clothes off me; a school choir with the teacher at the head of it stood before the house and sang these words to an utterly simple tune: Strip his clothes off, then he’ll heal us, If he doesn’t, kill him dead! Only a doctor, only a doctor.” Naked, he is shoved into the bed alongside his dying young patient, as though, through some sympathetic magic of contagion, he might be made to draw out the wound from the boy and take it upon himself. But the boy instead tells, him, “Do you know, I have very little confidence in you. Why, you were only blown in here, you didn’t come on your own feet.” The most humiliating part, then, is perhaps this: that the doctor is a passenger, not a driver. But then, what Kafka’s doctor has finally began to understand, what none of us learn until it is too late, is that none of us are ever the driver, that we are always the passenger on the night ride, no matter what our religion or science or art may tell us.
Kafka’s story closes (“ends” isn’t quite the right word—it doesn’t end, it doesn’t reach its destination) with the line, a false summons on the night bell, once answered—it can never be made right, not ever. The night ride once promised order, but now it reveals only the vertiginous glimpse into the abyss. This is what Kafka’s Country Doctor learns: that the life he thought he understood, and that any power he thought he held, is pure illusion. And it doesn’t matter what initiates the ride that will end in such a revelation—just as none of us ever know the moment when we will awake on that night ride to learn our destination has long since vanished, and that we now no longer have any idea where we are truly headed.
These were the thoughts that peopled my mind on that long ride over the black mountains, as we descended into that sleeping, empty valley, tunneling through the dark.
Colin Dickey is the author of Cranioklepty: Grave Robbing and the Search for Genius, and Afterlives of the Saints: Stories from the Ends of Faith. He teaches writing at National University in Los Angeles, and is currently working on a history of haunted houses.
As an art student, I learned very quickly that one person’s neutral vessel is another person’s politically freighted, irreducibly marked load.