story + pics / Maggie Craig
“We’re almost there!” I tap on the steering wheel and sit up straighter.
Sierra frowns, looks out at the empty, rocky hills. The last sign of civilization was an hour back: a gas station with a blinky-light brothel, attached to a convenient store stocked with blow-up aliens. “Almost where?”
“Boobs! It spells boobs.”
She laughs, and even takes a picture of the tachometer when the numbers are right, just to entertain me. Little things like that make a big difference on those fourteen-hour drives through the night: black all around you, like you’re on a spaceship suspended in time. The long drives are easier with Sierra along, or Rami before her, or Kyla after.
“Looks like Instagram loves boobs,” Sierra says a few minutes later. “Who knew?”
Silver Sunshine’s rearview mirror has started to collect relics of her journeys. It began in Austin with blue string from the first SXSW art show at the Land, or the Love Village, or the White House Ranch. It was Makers’ Growve for a while, toward the end. Now it’s nothing. Places like that aren’t meant to last. They’re beautiful and then they die. I called it the Love Village during the era of the blue string. That was when I first met Sierra, the girl who’s to blame for this vagabond life of mine. She wouldn’t like that—“blame” has such a negative connotation, and she’s said to me before, “Maggie, it’s all of your choices that got you to this point.” But I’m still blaming her for it.
Barbie jets out of San Francisco as soon as I get my hands on my license. Good timing, because her stoner bro ex-boyfriend was starting to get weird. “Your friends aren’t just assuming they could crash here are they?” he asks her. Kait got into town on our last night and a bunch of us stayed at a friend of a friend’s apartment. I help polish off a bottle of Bulleit and the inevitable promiscuities followed, with a girl who I thought I’d never see again outside of Burning Man. I woke up on an air mattress with my pants around my ankles and parts of the night missing.
I battle with a feeling of nauseous hangover death while Barbie winds north along Highway One. We get out at some point to hike through the redwoods. Seeing the damn trees was the whole reason I wanted to drive up the coast, but I feel like shit. I make fun of Barbie for hiking in her fancy red ankle boots, the only shoes she brought with her from LA. At sundown we find a misty beach to camp on. I set up my dad’s moldy-smelling tent from the seventies while she builds a fire in a hovel near the cliffs.
Nothing happens like we think it will. Everything is an excuse for movement.
Me and Rami drive with Damon through the West Texas desert, straight from Austin to Phoenix for the book tour. A long-ass drive. I’m in the back seat and I wake up to see Damon cruising on empty, driving back twenty miles to the last gas station they saw. I hate the West Texas desert. It’s the Bermuda triangle of the Great American Road.
When we get to Phoenix we go to the Tiki bar because Alex is DJing and he’s awesome. Sierra wouldn’t get back for a few days, so Damon takes us over and I make Rami play pool with me while Alex plays a song for us—something with bird calls about being far away from home.
Places change when you go at intervals. Never expected to be back at the Tiki bar, but there I am, six months later, wearing a gorilla mask and carrying a hip-high skyscraper made out of cardboard and spray paint. Alex and Sierra spent the night before making it. They call it Smashtown and Sierra dresses up as a giant bird and destroys it. After the spectacle is over and the mess of cardboard is shoved off to the side, I take a little piece, cut a hole in it, and hang it with fishing wire from my rearview mirror.
“Home is where your books are,” I say to Sierra at the end, months after Burning Man, lying on my childhood bed and looking at the full shelves around me.
“Your home is where your books are. My books are in my van right now.”
“Not a bad place.”
We hang up and I go downstairs to watch The Walking Dead with my mom. She says it’s gross but she watches it anyway, one after the other like an alcoholic in a bar with two-dollar PBRs.
New Orleans is the kingdom of Gold Lamé—that’s what Rami names her after a dress she wears out one night. We go to a gay bar but it’s empty so we get drunk and swing dance in the fog and lasers. We go to karaoke and Tigerlilly stuns us with her amazing voice. We play pool until six am. We go to the Country Club and play dice and hang out naked in the sun even though it’s March and it’s not that warm. July is hotter. I’m back at the Country Club with Gold Lamé. Rami’s in New York but Sierra’s there this time. We play dice in the pool again. We go to a Big Frieda show and bounce. Sierra and Gold make art together. We go to a queer talent show and I try to hit on a beautiful lady and fail miserably. Toward the end Gold throws a barbecue at her house and one of the neighbors insists that I was in jail with her. Insists.
I live many lives, each one an enriched facsimile of the other.
I call Kyla “Barbie” because she has long blond hair and a pretty face. She calls me “Bitch.” Names of endearment are necessary; we’re trapped in San Francisco together, and I hate the damn town, probably just because I’m stuck there. It’s the only city I haven’t made plans to move to. We have to wait until my drivers’ license comes in the mail and then we can move on. I left it in Phoenix. Sierra was supposed to travel up the coast with me, maybe, but then we were supposed to go to Austin to help Ilya build the frabjous for a big art festival there. Plans change, places change, but I keep moving forward. In the end I said,
“I think it’s important that I don’t just follow you around blindly, like your shadow.”
“Have you felt like that before?”
“No! I mean, I got to go to Burning Man. That was amazing. But I think I have to be careful of it now.”
So I went on without her.
We don’t talk much at first. Then Sierra sticks the string in cups of blue water, saying that the room needs more color, and we watch it grow teal while she tells me about a boy that she’s in love with from New York. Three days later we’re packing her stuff up and driving straight back to Brooklyn, me her and Zon. Twenty-six hours straight. I keep the string and hang it on my rearview mirror, thinking that maybe it’ll be easier to remember everything that way, that maybe I can bring some of the magic back with me.
But I hardly notice it now. The string hangs there with Mardi Gras beads from a woman Rami and I read with in New Orleans, with the compass from the only girl who could break my heart, with the bejeweled earring I found on a gas pump outside of Durham, a year and a half after first meeting Sierra in Austin, at the beginning of our latest galavant across the states. I showed it to her and we agreed that it was a good omen, left there especially for us, a blessing from the universe. All of her favorite things, including Silver Sunshine when they parted ways, were dotted in jewels and glitter.
We were biking through heavy sand, past the portapotties that were lined up near our camp. I was feeling crazy and though the Austin crew was amazing, it was still at the beginning of things and I hardly knew them. I’d just spilled my guts to Kait. After all, in a strange sort of way, she was the one who got me to that point, by inviting me down to the Love Village in the first place.
“Rule number one is don’t fall in love with Sierra,” Kait said. “Don’t get me wrong, she’s amazing. She’s incredible. People are drawn to her. But she’s from another planet. You don’t fall in love with her.” And that was that.
I’m back in New York again, going on three months since the end of the book tour. To save money, I’m housesitting and and working my old job at the bike shop. On my breaks I go across the street to sit outside at the cafe where my friends used to work. I remember how exciting everything was when I first started working on that quiet street in the West Village. Three years ago. A lifetime ago.
I call Sierra.
“I need to get the fuck out of this city,” I say.
“So do it.”
She was making art at her friends’ show space in Durham and looking for a way to get back to Phoenix, so I tell the bike shop I’m out and I start heading south. Wherever we go, there’s always swimming and camping and old friends. I don’t plan on moving back to New York, so when people ask me where I live, I just shrug and say “everywhere.” Some people get it. Where do I live? On couches, in guest rooms, in tree houses, in tents. I live out of Silver Sunshine. Me and Rami started calling her that on our way to Denver, after a long-ass ride through the Rockies, when we decided that she deserved a proper name.
“You gotta talk to me, Maggie,” Sierra says, after she asks me what’s wrong and I can’t find the words to answer her. “We’re too close at this point not to.”
We’re in LA and I’d eaten too much of a fucking strong pot brownie at the Church of Fun two nights before. It was horrible. I’d been hysterical, crunched up in the passenger seat of Silver, Rami trying to find Sergio’s apartment but not able to work the GPS on my phone.
I was transported to another reality where I was in New York, in the front seat of a cab, and had no idea where I was going. I looked up and saw Rami, got confused, then relieved. I looked in the back seat. “Where’s Sierra?”
“She had to stay behind.”
I asked him three more times before I made myself stop.
“Can you just help me get there?” Rami said. “Just look at the phone and tell me when to turn?” But I couldn’t. It had been a battle just to get the phone out of my bag and hand it to him. He got us back, somehow, and reminded me later that my tears had stopped as soon as we got to the apartment. Whatever was going on, it had all been in my mind. I’d hidden behind my sunglasses and only spoken a handful of words since that night. I was craving the comfort of being blackout drunk so I wouldn’t have to deal with the memories of it.
“This isn’t where I thought I’d be,” I say, standing on Sergio’s balcony, maybe smoking a cigarette, forcing myself to talk. “I don’t know how I got here, just driving around the country and trying to get my dumb book into bookstores. No job, no apartment. I don’t know how I’ve become this person. It was never the plan. I was supposed to be a lawyer or a journalist. Something like that. Look at me now.”
Sierra shakes her head and says, “Maggie—Every choice you’ve made got you to this point. This is exactly who you’re supposed to be.”
I drive back from Seattle alone. Barbie’s mom says I should stay with them a few more days, but I shrug it off and go.
Becca’s in South Dakota, so I get to see her for the first time since the Love Village, and I’m reminded that friend love is timeless. She takes me to a biker bar in the hills that she used to work at and in the morning she’s gone to her new job before I wake.
In Chicago I stay with Bryn and Allison and make them do improv with me while we walk to the improv show. We go to a queer goth bar after and dance until they kick us out.
In Pittsburgh it’s Katie from college, who watches cartoons to put herself to sleep.
Everywhere I go I plan to stay forever, but I just keep moving.
The tachometer reads 80,415 and the sky is bright and sunny. Sierra’s driving now. Mountain and sand and brush surround us. The heat is rising with the midday sun. Her goggles are bedazzled and ready, the back seat is full of blankets and pillows and fruit, there’s two gallons of water at my feet. The trailers, the cars packed full of stuff, the bikes, the colors; you can tell we’re all heading toward the same place. We’re there a week early to help Ilya build the frabjous, so the road’s not that crowded. The desert stretches out, like a beach without an ocean: The Playa. We breeze in and search for our Austin Burning Man family. We build yurts to live in. They look like they’re covered in aluminum foil, our own little space colony.
“Cyganka,” my grandma says, back in Pennsylvania, nestled into her new nursing home. I’d left Silver in Phoenix with Sierra, flew back after Burning Man to go to my dad’s Navy retirement and to do a few long days at the bike shop so I could make some money to drive back.
“Cyganka,” she says again, enunciating as much as she can without teeth. “Gypsy. That’s what your grandfather used to call you.”
She shrugs, puts up her palms. “I don’t know, he just did.”
I wake up on the ground, in a heap of clothes, on the trampoline that had its legs taken off the day before so dumb drunk kids wouldn’t jump on it and kill themselves during the big Love Village party. I’m still tipsy and my feet are scraped and bruised from walking around without shoes for half the night. Zon wakes me up and says everyone’s going downtown to get barbecue and see some free SXSW shows.
“When are you leaving?”
“In five minutes.”
“Are you serious?”
“Yeah. Come on, let’s go.”
My shoes are already on; I must’ve decided to sleep in them after an hour of stumbling around in the dark searching for the damn things. Why did I take them off in the first place? I can’t remember. I pull my ass out of the pile of clothes and follow the group down the hill to the bus stop. There’s some kind of brown-bagging going on—either Lone Star or tequila and orange juice. (Or maybe it was Lone Star and orange juice. Memory blurs these things). Whatever it is, it puts off the hangover I’d eventually have to stomach.
The line at the barbecue place is incredible—an hour long but supposedly worth it. Zon starts taking pictures with his fancy camera and I run across the street with Sierra to pose in front of wheat pasted posters that read: BE YOUR DREAM. NOW OR NEVER.