Words By Tex Gresham, Art By Brian Demers
You’re on historic Route 66 heading east toward Las Vegas. You come up the backside of Barstow. This is the dead side.
Part of you is excited by driving the lost highways that connect San Diego to Las Vegas. A mock-gonzo pilgrimage to the capital of Fear and Loathing, to the land where the American Dream died.
You have no plans of dropping acid or mescaline pellets or ether. But Barstow is still significant. It was around these parts when the drugs took hold. And though you don’t do drugs anymore, will never see the bats out in the desert, the idea of driving mostly the same route to Vegas is its own drug.
You get up to 120 mph on Route 66, bouncing along the highway that’s all wavy like microwave bacon. 80 mph up the backside of Barstow. Just before sunset.
The first thing you notice is how it isn’t a town at all. It’s a collection of buildings in various stages of decay. Ideas almost forgotten.
The same can be said for people wandering the streets. You can’t help but think of them as burnt matchsticks—spent, useless. And you wonder if their lives have ever burned with a purpose or if they are just a pyromaniac’s trash—a match lighting nothing but itself for a short time.
You’ve seen people like this everywhere you’ve lived. You see them and then you don’t because they move. You’re realizing their movement always leads them here. To Barstow.
They sleep in broken baby strollers and on curbside couches, all their belongings stuffed into Mickey Mouse backpacks. And you know these people have been cast aside by life. As if they exist only for those passing through to look at and think, Thank God I’m not like those people. A way to feel happier about life.
There’s a bottle of tequila in your trunk and you wish you could be some kind of trash-can Christ, feed shots to these matchstick people from a never-ending bottle. Pair the booze with whatever drug they’re on and tint their life the right shade of patient as death eases closer.
You wish you could pull over and take a sip yourself, do something to honor the pilgrimage, to not be such a lame thirty-three-year-old. Because that’s what being thirty-three is starting to seem like for you—lame, quiet. No drugs. No booze. No danger—even though part of you knew the life you were living, in service of the drugs, would eventually turn you into a matchstick person.
Instead of pulling over to drink some tequila, you pull over at a place that seems like an oasis in this deserted desert town: a fucking Starbucks. Which makes you realize how deep caffeine addiction bleeds into the veins of America. Even in a town so thoroughly dead, people still crave Venti lattes and free Wi-Fi.
The coffee shop is populated by two types: the matchsticks and the passer-throughs—who all look about as nervous as a hippie in a barbershop. Or a junkie whose dealer won’t answer their calls. The desire for coffee is worth the fear of being attacked or accosted by one of the lesser-thans.
You walk up to the counter, stepping around a guy who’s doing the circular wobble that junkies do right after they’ve plunged a fresh shot of black pearl. The people at the counter don’t look at him. It’s a practiced effort, which tells you that it isn’t his first time standing at the counter like this.
You order a Grande coffee in a Venti cup, add two shots, and tell them to throw in some sugar and half-and-half. A sweet and legal methamphetamine.
As you pay, there’s a tap on your arm.
You look and Mr. Heroin Wobble has his index finger against your arm. He’s looking at you. And you’re struck hard with a sadness you won’t be able to shake.
He’s younger than you. Bearded. Shabby hair. Destroyed. You see this guy’s right arm is all swollen and red. You can almost feel the heat coming off of it. And he looks like a childhood friend. Steven.
The guy taps your arm again. Then he does a little dance when he realizes he has your attention.
You and Steven went to the same elementary school, middle school, high school. You both had a passion for creating art and music. He wrote stories and you copied him. You’re realizing now that he’s actually the one who introduced you to Hunter S. Thompson. He’s also the one who introduced you to most of the drugs you ever did.
At some point you stopped bonding over drugs, the two of you taking separate paths, each becoming two halves of a gonzo mind: you, the forward-moving desperation to succeed; him, the doped-up anarchy. One match to light something, the other destined to burn out. Ego and Id. He stood on street corners trading tightly-wrapped baggies for crumpled twenties—despite making straight As in school—and you went to college, paid time and collected debt to find a way out, to not fall into the pit with him.
You stopped talking to Steven when he started doing heroin. Deep down, you believe that if he’d never done drugs—if he’d instead gone to school or had the same desperation to prove himself as you did—he would be in a better place than you. A real artist.
He called you often and you never answered. You didn’t feel bad for him—you just didn’t want him to pull you into the same space he shared. But one night you did answer. He slurred through some plan to meet up with you, and you agreed. In the middle of the conversation he said, I’ll call you back in five minutes. He never did, and you never saw him again. Five years later you went to his funeral.
You should have called him. Maybe if you had, you would’ve heard how much he needed someone, how much he needed to be reminded of who he really was. You had a chance to bring him out of that dark place, to help rebuild what the drugs had broken. But you didn’t have time to help someone who would never help himself. You were too busy trying to make your own way. You didn’t need any more weight. Instead, you let the calls go to voicemail. You didn’t even listen to the messages. You pressed seven and deleted him.
He died from an infection in his arm. A dirty needle. The girl he was living with at the time said he woke up in the middle of the night and said his arm was hot. Then he called his mom and said, Mom, I don’t feel good. He died an hour later in the hospital.
You wait for your coffee. And as you wait, this guy tries to talk to you about the food behind the counter. He does a little dance while he talks. He wants to know where the unused food goes at the end of the night. He wants something to eat. In the middle of talking, he forgets he’s talking and just stares at you. As if he recognizes you. He goes to tap your arm again. You dodge his touch.
You’d buy him food but you know if you offer to buy him something, you’re offering to buy the whole place something. These matchstick people operate on a hive mind.
The barista calls your name. You grab your coffee and fuck off—out of Starbucks, out of Barstow, out of the desert.
In Vegas, you win $145 playing video blackjack. You spill an entire tequila and Sprite on your crotch and walk around the casino like you’ve pissed yourself—no one seems to notice you. Almost in the same way that you don’t notice all the matchstick people in this town. They’re too well-lit by the neon. But you know they’re there. Playing the penny slots. Tired. Looking for the exit. Only finding the ATM.
Soon, you look for the exit too. This place is not yet your home, but it will be.
On the way back to San Diego, you take 15 all the way. You have no interest in taking the lost highways. This time you want to stay found.
As you pass through Barstow on this more populated stretch of highway, there’s an impossible-to-miss sign that reads: Welcome to Barstow…The Crossroad of Opportunity.
On this side of town, with all the fast-food signs culling drivers to stop for something familiar, you might believe there’s opportunity. But on the dead side, you know there’s nothing.
Again you think of all the people stuck at the crossroad, unable to choose. You think of Steven. How you were at a crossroad the night he called and you chose the path that led away. You think of the guy in the coffee shop and all you want is to find him and buy him food or give him a chance to leave this crossroad. Because the only way out of Barstow is death.
You drive back to the Starbucks, passing a new set of matchstick people.
You get another coffee and take it back to your car. You sit in the parking lot until they close.
But you never see him again.