Selection from “Disorientations,” A Travel Essay

Speculative Friction

by Claire Bateman

Excerpt from the Section, “Storm Chasing”

Claire BatemanGREENVILLE South Carolina—(Weekly Hubris)—7/11/11—“At nearly 80 mph, I realize that I’m not actually in motion at all. No matter how long I’m in the car, the mountains remain at an unaltered distance, the road mirages shimmer but do not change, and the desert scrub seems all the same. What is the boiling point of rubies? Who will write the obituary of water? Because I can’t see the sun, the heat and light seem to come from some directionless source. The only thing that intensifies is the burning sensation in my thighs, the feeling that I must kick and kick and kick in order to get any relief at all. The entire landscape must be a fever dream.

“In this state of suspension, even the most significant of boundaries don’t hold well in my mind. For instance, I’m having trouble keeping straight who’s alive and who’s dead. Is it Huntley that’s still with us and Brinkley that isn’t, or is it the other way around? I don’t like it that the solid wall circumscribing eternity is going gooey on me. Does my erroneous belief that someone is alive provide that individual re-entry into the realm of the living, and if so, in what form? I’ve heard that most of the funerary rites of history exist not so much to assist us to grieve the loss of loved ones as to ensure the deceased stay where they belong, so that the dead and the living can remain appropriately apart—the dead, after all, outnumber us by far, so it behooves us to keep them in their place. But the deserts of the southwest don’t seem conducive to such boundaries, and are host to all manner of phenomena, phantoms, and apparitions, from inexplicable cold spots, to the seven-foot deer that leaves no hoof prints behind, to the ghosts of cowboys sometimes glimpsed sitting at the bar in Big Nose Kate’s Saloon in Tombstone, where Doc Holliday lived on the second floor, Room 201.

The cremation of Percy Bysshe Shelley

The cremation of Percy Bysshe Shelley

“When I return to the car after five minutes at a rest stop, I’m astonished that the digital camera on the passenger seat hasn’t burst into flame. Isn’t the desert the incinerator of all that is not supposed to be able to burn? I think of Percy Bysshe Shelley—though his friends and mourners cremated his drowned body, his heart would not ignite so, at the end, Trelawny seized his heart from the fire, burning his own hand in the process. Mary Shelley carried the heart with her in a silken shroud for the next 29 years until she died. If Mary were to be transported here to the side of the highway for even a moment, that heart would spark at its very center, and swiftly turn to ash, indistinguishable from desert dust and sand.

“I become consumed with a desire to gather sage, and contemplate dumping out my suitcases by the side of the road so that I can cram them full of it. Sage lotion or sage perfume won’t dothey don’t capture even the slightest essence of that true wildness. Like the fairy-tale woman who shrieks, Give me rampion or I die!, I’m desperate for the herb, desperate to take part of the West home with me, and I keep scanning the side of the interstate to find just the right place to pull over, where there’s enough shoulder for the rental car to be safe, and no fences to keep me from my prize. But after a few hours of this obsessive searching, I realize that I’ve been aware of nothing for a couple of hundred miles except a narrow stretch of roadside. I look up, and all of a sudden, as if ex nihilo, there are the mountains, pleats and folds coming together to create deeper pleats and folds, and the shadows of clouds gliding over them, as if seeking a place to descend. There’s a pasture on my left where horses and ostriches graze together. There’s an Animal Crossing sign, and a shallow, sparkling creek on the other side of the road. I don’t own any sage, but the rest of the world has blinked into existence again.”  —First published in National Literary Review

“The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.”  —From City of God, by St. Augustine

About Claire Bateman

Claire Bateman’s books include Scape (New Issues Poetry & Prose); Locals (Serving House Books), The Bicycle Slow Race (Wesleyan University Press), Friction (Eighth Mountain Poetry Prize), At The Funeral Of The Ether (Ninety-Six Press, Furman University), Clumsy (New Issues Poetry & Prose), Leap (New Issues), and Coronolgy (Etruscan Press). She has been awarded Individual Artist Fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Tennessee Arts Commission, and the Surdna Foundation, as well as two Pushcart Prizes and the New Millennium Writings 40th Anniversary Poetry Prize. She has taught at Clemson University, the Greenville Fine Arts Center, and various workshops and conferences such as Bread Loaf and Mount Holyoke. She lives in Greenville, South Carolina. (Please see Bateman’s Author’s Page for links to all her publications.)
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