I was on the bus, the mobile library bus that I drive sometimes, sitting out at Little Huia there waiting for customers. With the spring rain coming down and the hills looking like a Chinese painting, the sea was washing in over the sand flats and the rain hissing as it hit the tarmac and I was thinking: Jesus this is the life. And also: Christ I wish wasn't here, but with my best friend Tim who is right this minute out on the highway, on the right-hand side of the road and the far side of the world, barrelling along between Frisco and San Diego, the smell of petrol and the desert, all on his own and driving a thousand and some miles in an open-top mustang.
I assume there's a desert, and I assume it smells like petrol, because why wouldn't it? If you were in an open-top mustang - and if you're not, why aren't you? - if you were you'd want to smell a bit of petrol on the wind I would think, and maybe the smell also of the desert, which I assume is a dry sort of smell, of dust. There must be a desert, I'm sure of it because it's in all of the books that I can remember about California, there's a desert there and there's also oranges and vines, for when you get too damn hot and you need to drink orange juice or red wine.
There was a time a few days earlier when it was late at night and it suddently hit me, as I was clicking through the National Libary catalogue and sending them a couple of emails to correct the captions of some the photographs they have in there that Ponting took on the Terra Nova expedition (but blow me down if some cataloguer didn't get a couple of details wrong and we can't have that, not on the internet, not late at night) and what hit me was that I hadn't been outside in about two and a half days, not even to the letterbox. That was a good two and a half days and I did get some things done, including a fairly long period lying on the floor wondering about things, and I also learnt to play Leaps and Bounds by Paul Kelly and I sent some emails and ignored some more, but it's actually not that healthy to stay inside for two and half days even in the Spring when it rains all the time. Better to be out in the open air, in a Mustang with the top down and the wind.
There would be breakers as well, giant rollers that come all the way around the Pacific Gyre, running ahead of the late summer storms and crashing onto a beach with the sky a washed out grey and sun red like the juice of a blood orange, running down into the sea, and on some headland with a scatter of gravel we could slide to a halt and sit up on the back of the seat or the edge of the door with the hot grille of the mustang pointing out over the ocean and the heavy trucks rolling by on the highway behind, salt on the wind and the seagulls hanging on the updrafts like a still frame from a movie, and that would be a good time to put on 'Envy of Angels' by the Muttonbirds and miss home already, even though it's only been two days.
And I think Salinas is around there somewhere, which is where Bobby McGee would come on the radio, and that song is always worth it for two bits: the part where the band comes in, and then the key change, which is full of hope. Also it's a song that we used to listen to Tim's dad sing, and I remember one night maybe on a tramping trip or something when we were probably about twenty or twenty-five years younger than we are now and he sang it as a way of making everyone shut the hell up and go to sleep. These days I often sing it to myself in my head if I've been awake for too long, so why not holler it out real loud as we roll through Salinas?
The best thing about the mobile library, apart from driving it up hills to make the motor growl like an old bear, is how it runs on diesel. Whenever I have to fill up the gas tank my hands smell like diesel for the rest of the day, and that's a smell that reminds me of Tim's old boat that was always tied up in the bay, and it smelled like fish and diesel in the summer and we'd sit on the deck drinking Tasman Bitter that you could get for about ten bucks a dozen then after a while we'd fall into the sea, more often than not. I'm not saying that those days are gone or anything, but they do make the smell of diesel sweet for me.
If you park the bus in the right place you can get the internet on it, so I can sit and wait for customers as the rain comes down, and I can pull up the maps and trace the road from San Fransico down the coast to San Diego with Born In The USA on the stereo and go, in my head, come on man, give me a turn of driving this sweet mustang with the top down.