The sign said Paradise 800 Miles. What sign gives such a heads-up? 800 miles! Think about it. Aren’t there any exits prior to Paradise? Aren’t there any towns or cities in the next few hundred miles? If memory serves, there’s a sign as you leave Los Angeles County on the I-5 that tells you it’s 300-some-odd miles to San Francisco. I had never seen a larger number than that, until now. And what’s with the name Paradise? As I drove on, I mused with a chuckle that this place presumably requires an 800-mile advance notice so you can prepare your soul. Surely you can’t enter a town with such a name without first atoning for your sins. Anyway, I had been driving on a high desert highway for what seemed like nights on end, so I was ecstatic to see this sign, any sign. Honestly, I had lost my way. I no longer had GPS and internet connection once I crossed the mountains. I didn’t really know where I was going, but I had to keep driving on. Did I stop to ask for directions? Nope. I’m a male, and you know how that goes. Once again, pride is my downfall, and now I’m lost in the darkness.
Wait, I take that back. I did stop at a filling station earlier in the drive to see if I could get a map of the area. First I got some grub at the diner next door. A diner and filling station on a lone desert highway? You know the place. The building and characters inside must have been straight out of central casting. Marge, a fifty-something waitress took my order, her face kind but also evident of hard living. “You aren’t from around here, are you?” she said, obviously fodder for small talk and not an earnest question. Who would be from around here? I nodded No. When she brought me my omelet and bacon, I managed to ask for directions in a roundabout way: “Could you tell me where this road leads?” I felt like a supplicant, confessing my sins or at least displaying my ignorance. Marge didn’t know the answer. How can she not know? I couldn’t eat my food. I just looked out the window and watched a dim glow on the horizon. It seems I had been chasing this light for years. “Where are you headed?” asked a man in overalls who strolled by with a coffee cup in hand. I didn’t have a response, but the question opened up a can of worms in my mind. So by the time I saw the 800-mile sign, I had given much thought to my life. Driving through a desolate land lends itself to such reflection anyway, does it not?
I just don’t know much about this life anymore. I really don’t. I’ve lost my faith in God and to a certain extent in humanity itself. Man delights not me. I’m wandering around in the dark, without a compass, and shadowy images lurk around me like specters of my conscience. It’s crazy, this life. I keep looking for something, but I don’t know what it is. Have you ever felt so alone? So alone that even those dark shadows provide a modicum of comfort. I mean, what else do I have? Besides, I wonder if I’m living in reality! I so often feel as though I’m driving through a dream. This desert highway is a figment of my imagination, a metaphor, a chapter in a novel, anything but something real, something substantial to which I can cling with certainty and spiritual fulfillment. The firmament above and the terrain below are just props on a stage. Looking toward the heavens for inspiration is an empty gesture, and I have no firm foundation on which to stand.
The glow ahead shone brighter and brighter as I put more miles behind me. I had set my odometer to zero upon seeing the sign, as I suspected (rightly, as it turns out) that I would get no further indication of the distance. No more signs, just a road ahead of me disappearing into the horizon. I can’t even remember my original destination, for I became consumed with idea of reaching Paradise as soon as possible. Dream or not, I pressed on, my seat back and with one hand on the wheel. Cruise control is a beautiful thing. When the odometer turned over the magic number, I stopped the car and looked around. It wasn't at all what I expected to see: just a Kwik Trip and a Dairy Queen. Is this what I came for? I uttered three words that you wouldn’t think you’d hear in a place called “Paradise,” namely what, the, and fuck, in precisely that sequence, and with an emphatic tone in my voice. I must have experienced the mother of all disappointments at that moment.