Standin' at the crossroads I tried to flag a ride Didn't nobody seem to know me, Everybody pass me by. --Cross Road Blues, Robert Johnson 1936
At a Crossroad It was along the road in the small southern Utah town of Mt. Carmel Junction I came to a hitchhiking benchmark in my life.
On a late August day in 1974, I was dropped off there by two guys from Ohio who had picked me up in a white 4-door sedan a couple of days earlier along Interstate 17 on the northern outskirts of Phoenix. I was heading north to Provo and they were on their way to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon in the course of a grand American adventure of their own. Kindly, and in a matter-of-fact fashion, as we drove, they asked me if I was interested in tagging along and camping out with them that night. With no particular timetable, it was an offer I gladly accepted. After nearly a day of driving through central Arizona and clipping the western edge of the Navajo reservation, we made the national park campground before sunset. I can’t recall whether they had a tent or slept in the car or what, but I rolled my sleeping bag out on a pine duff bed under a pine needle canopy between the stars and me. After a morning of hiking around the cool forest of the Kaibab Plateau and scrambling on the blocky ledges of the precipitous south-facing walls of the canyon’s northern edge, we all agreed it was time to move on.
My Ohioan road hosts were on a pilgrimage to Zion National Park, a place I had never before heard of until their mentioning it. They were quite excited about seeing it and were equally surprised at my ignorance of its existence. But, being that I was on a personal mission to get to Provo, their coaxing me to go with them to another national treasure, although very appreciated, fell short of convincing me to accept their generous offer. Instead, they let me off, as I asked, at Mt. Carmel Junction, a town due north of the North Rim at the intersection of US-89 and what Utah-9.
Although Mt. Carmel Junction is small in population, it is also at a major crossroads in what Utahns proudly and rightly call “color country.” This area is a Technicolor crown of precious geologic gems in which is set the sparkling and massive monolithic-faceted jewel called Zion. The road on which we parted, they turning west to me north, is locally known as the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway. Although these names were given by early Mormon settlers to honor places mentioned in the bible, their biblical references to my circumstance, as I have come to discover, seem undeniable.
To catch my next ride, I ambled the short distance up US-89 to the far side of town. It was there I came upon another hitchhiker where we struck up a conversation. He was going no more than a few miles up the road to a discount motel where he was holed up. It turns out he was from somewhere in California and had been stuck in the area for already a few days because his car had broken down and was in need of some major repairs. He had first to wait for money to be wired by his father, so he could down-pay the garage, so they could order the parts, so they could fix the car, so he could blow out of there and get on with his life. I can’t remember just what phase of this process he was in, but it was not the latter, that day. Since all his stuff was in his room, he was hitching free of baggage.
“Got to make you a sign!” he said to me, pointing to the only thing he was carrying, a strip of corrugated cardboard with the name of the next town up the road hand-lettered on it. “It’s the best way to bum a ride,” he claimed with a strong hint of mentor in his voice. “Let’s the driver know where you’re headed and ups your odds of them stopping for ya’. All you need is a magic marker. You can find a hunk of cardboard about anywhere. Side of the road. Grocery store trash. Ripping a flap off a big box works best. And use big block letters, so they can get a good look at where you’re going. And neatness counts!”
So, seeing as I had to wait my turn for a ride anyway, since he was, per unspoken hitchhiker etiquette, ahead of me in the queue, I decided to take his advice. Thanking him and wishing him my best, I moseyed back into town, bought the biggest and fattest-tipped black magic marker in stock in the local market, and scared up a hunk of cardboard from a box at the side of the market. By the time I returned, he was gone. But, he had left with me a valuable piece of advice which I followed at that moment by making a large-lettered PROVO sign.
From that point on, I never hit the road hitchhiking without taking along the mojo of a magic marker. With that brief exchange at the junction of Mount Carmel, just up the road from a land called Zion, I was given a valuable bit of knowledge on plying rides on the road: the gift of a sign. It may be no coincidence Hermes, the Greek god of the highways and travelers and also of magic, are for whom herms were road markers erected and named in his honor, and that a valuable tool of the hitchhiker is the magic marker.
More than a couple of decades after this passing interaction, I came across the following two undated hitchhiker messages on different California freeway on-ramp light poles. Each provides its own piece of advice, both of which are somewhat along the lines of the hitchhikers’ guidance from the guy I met in Utah at the junction of his trip and mine:
Was stuck. Make a sign saying "Anywhere but here!" It works. Try it Dave Barbour –message found Aug. 27, 1996, I-280 North, North Los Altos Hills, CA, at El Monte Rd on-ramp
I bet if you had a $10 bill instead of a sign you’d get a ride –message found Apr. 2, 1999, I-405 North, Irvine, California, at junction with Laguna Freeway/Cal Route 133
The angels keep their ancient places-- Turn but a stone and start a wing! Tis ye, ’tis your estrangèd faces, That miss the many-splendored thing. --The Kingdom of God, In No Strange Land, Francis Thompson (1859–1907)
Marked at Birth To digress for a bit within this digression, as it is with most people, my surname was predetermined before my conception. My given name, however, was derived I am told more by chance and whim–maybe. My mother, as the story goes, decided to see a movie on October 13, 1955, the day that would be the eve of my birth. It was in a theater in The Bronx that day as I was about to make a benchmark move in my life’s journey, she saw the film Love is a Many Splendored Thing. Based on a true story, its protagonist played by William Holden, was named Mark Elliot, a Korean-era war correspondent involved in an adulterous affair. (Ah, love is a many splendored thing, is it not!)
Seeing as my parents had yet to come up with a name for me at a date as late as the day before I was born, my mother posed this movie character name to my father to also be mine. Consequently, I have made my way through life as Mark Elliot Silverstein.
Mark, as a word, means many (not necessarily splendored) things. One of these has an equivalence to a herm--a mark or marker or landmark on the road set a as guide or to indicate a position. The name “Elliot” is an anglicized version of Elias, which is itself westernized and ultimately is derived from the name of the biblical prophet, Elijah (or Eliahu). As a messenger of God, Elijah is not all that unlike Mercury with respect to duties, with a number of exceptions; not the least of which is with respect to the number of gods served, and if it is to god or God or G-d. And, while there is no intent on my part to equate Elijah to Mercury here, there are those who chose to do so. Therefore, while it may be something of an etymological and hermeneutical stretch and, at risk of committing blasphemy, I shall take the liberty of paralleling my anglicized, “Christianized,” given first and middle names of Mark Elliot to the Greco-Hebraic “Hermes Elijah.”
Now, it was the Profit Elijah who prayed and took sanctuary for a time in the caves of Mount Carmel (“...And the sign said, ‘The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls...’”–P. Simon), which is a geologic formation protruding from the easternmost coastline of the Mediterranean Sea, near the present-day Haifa. It is also, obviously, the namesake of Utah’s Mount Carmel Junction, with “Carmel” the name of several other locations around the globe. A location on the Mount Carmel is known as El Mah'rakah or “the place of burning,” for the spot where Elijah called for fire to be sent down from heaven to the altar he built, which consumed his sacrifice to the Lord. This fiery sign sent from on high down to the altar on Mount Carmel, was used by Elijah to demonstrate to and convince Israel’s rank-and-file that the prophets and deities of Ba’al were false. At the time, King Ahab and his wife, Jezebel, had turned to the beliefs of Ba’al and were leading Israel against God. Ahab even had a temple to Ba’al built in good old Samaria.
Later on, when Elijah left the earth for heaven, he did so in a whirlwind, hitching a ride on a chariot of fire, itself hitched to a team of horses equally in state of conflagration. On the way up, he passed his mantle down to Elisha, his successor. All this and more can be found in the bible’s First and Second Books of Kings.
It seems that since about as long ago as the time Elijah busted Ba’al on Mount Carmel, there are rumors to have been hermits living in caves there dedicated to his life and prophecies. In any event, the first hermits (the word “hermit” is not derived from Hermes, but from that of a desolate desert denizen) lived there hundreds of years before Christ and were of the Jewish, and later on, also of Muslim traditions. Christian hermits, and then monks, took up residence there by the late twelfth century. The first written document of the Christian order known today as the Carmelites–also named for the place--entitled, “Our Rule,” dates to AD 1206. By the mid-1200s various Christian orders had been established in England. Among these were these same Carmelites, who were known also as the White Friars because of the white-hooded frocks they donned. Now, while it is not clear to which order the monk in the ballad of Robin Hood and the Monk belonged, while indications would be that the monk was of the Benedictine (Black Friar) Order because of a reference to Westminster Abbey which was overseen by the Bendictines of the day. But the monk still could have been of the Carmelites as of any of the handful of others present in England at the time of its writing.
As a side bar to this digression, the early Jewish hermits on Mount Carmel could be termed proto-Carmelites. And then there is the case of the German-Jewish girl, Edith Stein, who converted to Catholicism, became a Carmelite nun, later perished in a Nazi’s Auschwitz death camp as a Jew, and then in 1987, under a shroud of controversy between some Jews and Catholics, attained beatification and, in 1998, canonized.
Have no fear I've got a ride on the way for you Jesus Christ
Jesus Christ is the son of the driving God (don't read this out loud) --Two separate messages, both found on August 3, 1996, on the same light pole, US-101 South (Bayshore Freeway), Sunnyvale, California, at Mathilda Street (northbound) on ramp
Nov. 10, 1994 52nd Anniversary of Kristalnacht "Never again" Signed RLP The Wandering Jew The Phantom Stranger Gabriel, Highest Ranking Archangel <= Conspiracy of Angels
[Crossed out swastika] There are no Nazis in heaven Gabriel will not allow it --series of messages found on underpass wall, 11/30/96, I-15 South, Tropicana Ave interchange, Las Vegas, NV
I love jews barbacued –message (nice, huh?) found on light pole, June 21, 2003 (summer solstice), Pacific Coast Highway/California-1, South, across street from Cal Poly State University entrance
Road Sign Me Up Now, back to October 13, 1955, the day my mother was given her own sign--to name her second son Mark Elliot. Also on that date, a group of a new breed of poets gathered in a San Francisco art gallery to listen to some of their most recent works. They called themselves “Beat,” which was short for “beatific.” It had been some seventy-five years since Charles Boles had left the last of his own poems on the stagecoach routes nearby. This particular poetry event (some sources say it actually took place a week earlier; as well could have my mother’s viewing of the movie from which she derived my name, but who’s counting?) featured a young Allen Ginsberg, who read for the first time in front of an audience from his new poem, Howl. It knocked some of the audience on their ears. Many literary scholars and poetry aficionados point to that very moment and to the Howl piece offered publicly on this date, as the defining benchmark of the Beat Generation, and as a point in time that would have a profound effect on American culture. Whether this be fact and, if so, be for good or for ill, is in the ear of the listener and the eye of the observer. In any case, October 13 also happens to be the birthdays of Paul Simon and Lenny Bruce.
So, from a roadside in Utah to a movie house in The Bronx to a promontory on the Mediterranean to a gas chamber in Poland to an art gallery in San Francisco, the signs are all here. And with respect to religious experiences, signs, hitchhikers, and highwaymen, there is the verse,
Written by Les Emmerson--one of the five musicians for which this energized band from Canada derived its name--his inspiration for the lyrics to this song came from his experience driving from to Los Angeles from his home in Ottawa, during which he was affected by all the billboards “blocking out the scenery.” In 1971, The Five Man Electrical Band was living a marginal music maker’s existence when they signed with a similarly struggling record label called Lionel. Signs was thus reworked with Lionel management’s help and reissued as part of the band's first LP, Goodbyes & Butterflies. The single went to near the top of the charts and on to become the band’s signature song. And, as it turns out, the co-owner of Lionel Records, who was the guy that helped in the reworking of Signs, was none other than singer-songwriter Jimmy Webb. Webb later went on to write the song, Highwayman, which was later covered by the so-called Highwaymen of country music: Cash, Jennings, Nelson, and Kristofferson. Signs, signs, everywhere there are signs. Such is the nature of the sign.
This leads to the quote, not by Les Emmerson, but by Emerson (that’s Emmerson, less one “m”)--Ralph Waldo Emerson. Contained in his 1844 work, Essays: Second Series, is Essay I, (the first of the second essays, I guess) which fittingly is entitled The Poet, are as one might expect many statements and observations about poets including,
The sign and credentials of the poet are, that he announces that which no man foretold. So, there I was on August 27, 1996, at Interstate 280 on the Page Mill Road north on-ramp in Palo Alto, California, prior to finding of either the Robin Hood and the Monk or the “...I lie too well for you to see...” poems. It was on a light pole there, where I came upon the following untitled verse from another unknown (save initials) “poet of the road” for which I can find no other reference or documentation of publication:
Where lies the eyes that see the butterfly and capture all his color? That thread the sunlight through his wings Improvising with the wind? The eyes that pin his pattern spectrum mounted on the sky that starch his spirit and fix his frame sealed in symatry [sic] Where the eyes as fibers in the thread weave through ultraviolet Where the eyes compainted [sic?] in starch and glue Diffuse the fading parchment there are eyes that lie beyond the reflections there are eyes that be amidst refractions Where lies the eyes that see the butterfly? -CGN [?]
What sign there may be here in all this it is unclear. But, since the song Signs in the Five Man Electrical Band’s album Goodbyes and Butterflies is the song (You and I) Butterfly, also written by Les Emmerson, with the chorus of,
With this come two more Ralph Waldo (less “m”) Emerson quotes which seem to also apply here:
Nature and books belong to the eyes that see them. –Experience, Essay II, Essays: Second Series, 1844
The finest poetry was first experience; but the thought has suffered a transformation since it was an experience. Cultivated men often attain a good degree of skill in writing verses; but it is easy to read, through their poems, their personal history: any one acquainted with the parties can name every figure; this is Andrew and that is Rachel. The sense thus remains prosaic. It is a caterpillar with wings, and not yet a butterfly. --Representative Men, Shakespeare or, The Poet, 1850
then there is this quote which, while often credited to Emerson, some claim is
from one or another’s other social commentary—but this, I’m guessing the author of it might profess, is a small matter as compared
to the message it wishes to convey:
What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us
Finally, there is this admonition written and gauntlet thrown down by yet another anonymous hitchhiker; a statement which might also be considered light pole prose or poetry of free verse or free advice or maybe free-flow thought from a freelancing free-churcher or freemasonic priest or freeway philosopher or freewheeling freak or perhaps just a self-righteous pontificator:
I went backpacking in the Grand Canyon for 35 days, during which time I saw not one person. Now I have come back to civilization, but I am lost. It is the wrong world. My old friends don't exist and the face of reality has changed. I take this to be a sign the world is a hoax and an illusion, merely a dream. It is only a training ground and a test. You must work on yourself if you wish to wake up to true reality when you die. Not all caterpillars become butterflies. Do you think this message is for someone else but you who only will read it before it fades away? –Graffiti from light pole, August 12, 1994, Interstate 15-North, Mesquite, Nevada, Exit #122 on-ramp
I have wrapped my dreams in a silken cloth, And laid them away in a box of gold; Where long will cling the lips of the moth, I have wrapped my dreams in a silken cloth; --For a Poet, Countee Cullen (1903-1946), DeWitt Clinton High School graduate
Everywhere, signs. Blocking out the scenery, breaking my mind.
They are the same people only further from home on freeways fifty lanes wide on a concrete continent spaced with bland billboards illustrating imbecile illusions of happiness –A Coney Island of the Mind, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, 1955 [Author's Note: Ferlinghetti, by the way, was in the audience the night of October 13, 1955, when Ginsberg recited Howl.]
Do this. Don’t do that. Can’t you read the sign?
But, as my mother, the person who named me seemingly by a chance observation while watching a movie, once when I was about 10 years old, in response to my pointing out the sign, “PARKING FOR CUSTOMERS ONLY,” as she pulled into the parking lot of the Chemical Bank on Riverdale Avenue in The Bronx that since we were not using the bank that day, and that not being customers, we shouldn’t be parking there, stated, “Oh, that’s just for the people who read signs!” Hmmm. And, I came to find out that it was Emerson, who said, “Men are what their mothers made them.” Hmmmmmmm……..
All I know is that all these none of these connections likely would have been revealed in this manner if I had not received that sage, sound, sign-making advice on the side of the road while hitchhiking to Provo through Mount Carmel Junction, Utah, during the summer of 1974. With this are the following words written and recorded by Sheryl Crow in the voice and the perspective of a poetic hitchhiker: