The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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The mural of “Willie” on the side of the Mount Williamson Motel.
Mural by Jane Kim; Photo by Ink Dwell
“When I get out, I’m gonna walk straight to a bar, buy a bottle off the back wall, and drink that whole shit standing right there.”
“When I get out, I’ll buy a nice, big van and start a traveling ministry — go all around the country preaching God’s word.”
“When I get out, I’m gonna buy every single thing on the McDonald’s menu — except the salads and that bullshit — and eat that whole pile.”
“When I get out, my girl’s gonna meet me in the parking lot, and we gonna fuck right there under the guard tower, so those motherfuckers sitting up there dry as a bone can see my car rocking back and forth.”
So many conversations in prison come around to this. It’s a survival technique: in the midst of the boredom and deprivation, the best way to keep going is to scheme, plan, fantasize. The thought of what we’ll do after we get out reminds us why we put up with the humiliation of our day-to-day lives in here. It keeps most of us from doing something stupid that might extend our stay — from making any more decisions that can’t be undone.
No one in prison is ever coming back. Once we’ve served our time, everything is finally going to work out. We’re all going to stay in touch, so we can share our good news — except I’ve been giving out a fake phone number this entire time. I’m embarrassed to know these men, eyewitnesses to a shameful period of my life I can’t wait to live down: two years in prison for a nonviolent offense. There’s no way I’m staying in touch after I get home. I’ll have better things to do once I’m free.
Within the rose-tinted confines of my mind, life outside these walls will be simple and happy. Removed from reality in my prison bubble, safe from the fading memory of what life is actually like, I imagine a world in which people get what they deserve, where a promise made is a promise kept. How we all managed to end up here in such a world is a mystery that’s never mentioned. The important thing is that this is what I believe.
I make so many plans that I have to list them in the back of my journal to keep track. I take ideas from the radio, the dayroom TV, newspapers, books, magazines. I picture myself hiking the Appalachian Trail, surfing, learning Polish. I list the movies I’ll watch, the songs I’ll listen to, the goals I’ll accomplish.
Float down the Columbia River in Oregon. Become a hospice volunteer. Always check Consumer Reports before making big purchases.
It’s hard to believe I was ever angry or scared or depressed before I got to prison. My old life seems easy now that I’ve experienced its opposite. (The opposite of life is not death; it’s stasis.) Once I get out, I’ll be so thrilled to have my freedom that I’ll take advantage of every day. I’ll wake up early each morning, meditate, and watch the sun rise. I’ll take nothing for granted. I’ll never get frustrated or anxious, now that I know how much worse life can be. I’ll be a better friend, treat my mom the way she deserves. I’ll start getting in shape again. I’ll find a job I enjoy; after all, I was top of my class in college. I’ll go right down my list, checking off items one by one until there isn’t a single entry left. And when that day comes, I’ll think about the two years I spent in here and be grateful for the perspective this time gave me. I wouldn’t change a minute of it, I’ll brag to anyone who asks.
Late one night, about a year into my sentence, I’m flipping through an issue of Nature Conservancy that my mom sent. There’s an article about the Sierra Nevada and some protected land or easements that the conservancy has acquired nearby. It’s boring as hell, but I’ve already read my other magazines and books. Even as a native Southern Californian, I know next to nothing about the Sierra Nevada.
Midway through the article is a photo of the Mount Williamson Motel. The picture is taken at dusk: the sign lit up, the sky purple and yellow and pink above the snow-streaked mountains. Painted on the side of the building, visible even in the fading light, is a mural of a bighorn sheep.
I’ll later find out that the mural is part of the Migrating Mural Project, which raises awareness about endangered species like the bighorn. The ram on the motel was nicknamed “Willie” by the painter. He appears to be an old ram in the mural, which was done in 2012. If he were real, he’d likely be dead by now. But the herd he represents — a group of thirty or so bighorns dubbed the Mount Williamson herd, in honor of their penchant for the second-highest peak in the state — is still going strong. They’re a hardy bunch, even by bighorn standards.
In the mid-nineteenth century settlers brought domestic sheep to the Sierra Nevada, introducing new diseases to the local herds. In a matter of years bighorn numbers were reduced by as much as 90 percent; extinction seemed imminent. But the Mount Williamson herd survived. Its ancestors had lived in the Sierra Nevada through three ice ages, enduring violent changes in climate that wiped out countless other forms of wildlife. It wasn’t about to be killed off by a disease brought there by a bunch of shiftless domestic sheep.
When the die-off finally ended, as few as a hundred bighorns remained. Among them were members of the Mount Williamson herd, which eventually recovered — as persistent and indomitable as ever. It remains one of the only original native herds of Sierra Nevada bighorns in existence.
Naturalist John Muir — the patron saint of the Sierra Nevada, if not the state of California — was an admirer of the bighorn: the way the sheep live in seeming equanimity despite their harsh environment. Muir describes them in his book The Mountains of California as “leaping unscathed from crag to crag, up and down the fronts of giddy precipices, crossing foaming torrents and slopes of frozen snow, exposed to the wildest storms, yet maintaining a brave, warm life, and developing from generation to generation in perfect strength and beauty.”
In other words, the bighorns have mastered their environment. Any inmate would be jealous.
I know none of this as I lie on my bunk in the middle of a winter night, staring at the photo of the motel by the light of my commissary lamp. But there’s something about the image — the starkness of the landscape, the cozy motel, the bearing of the ram — that pulls me in. I picture myself cruising with my windows down and pulling into the motel driveway on a quiet evening, hundreds of miles from anything, the nearby mountains tall enough to hide my mistakes and regrets. Here’s a place where people are happy and life makes sense. I open my journal to the page for travel plans and write, “Drive US-395 down the Sierra Nevada (Mount Williamson Motel in Independence, CA).”
The first thing you might notice, if you set foot in one of the human warehouses dotting the U.S. landscape, is how much inmates sleep. I once heard a man brag that he had slept away fifteen years of a twenty-year sentence; he only wished he could’ve slept more. The attraction isn’t just that we are free in our dreams. It’s more than that.
In our dreams we have jobs. We are supervisors, managers, record executives, preachers. Our families have insurance, and our cars are never repossessed. We vote. We have influence. People care what we think. Every friend we’ve ever had is still in our lives. No one has been murdered, or committed suicide, or moved away, or forgotten about us. Everyone still thinks we’re funny and never asks stupid questions about what prison is like or if anyone has tried to rape us. Our families are whole. Our children still speak to us. We’re not divorced, not widowed, not alone. We haven’t abandoned anyone, haven’t left anyone, haven’t let anyone down. We are rich, desired, forgiven.
Sometimes these dreams are so real that, after the morning count wakes us, we rise determined to act them out as soon as we leave prison. I had a bunkmate who swore that if he went straight to the casino after his release, he would hit the jackpot and never work again. He knew this because he had seen it in a dream. He was released that October. A few months later I saw him back in prison, walking to his cell with a laundry bag over his shoulder.
I’m released on parole, and for a while I do wake up early. I stumble through a few conversations that are years overdue. I get an apartment in Santa Barbara County. I do OK — until reality reasserts itself. Old friends I reach out to never call back; HELP WANTED signs remain in the windows of gas stations and restaurants where I applied for jobs weeks ago. I’ve accomplished almost nothing on my list. Most of the items I can’t afford, don’t have the time for, or now see are unrealistic. I grow depressed. I forget about my list. I stop looking for a job, stop working out. I stop feeling grateful to be free.
Seven months after my release, I’m back in jail for a parole violation. I’d been out past curfew with a friend, drunk, trying to raise my spirits in all the wrong ways. Now, more than ever, I’m a statistic — a recidivist. I’ve proven myself incapable of making my way in the real world, all my plans made in prison dayrooms defeated by hopelessness, by life. I sit on my bunk watching preseason football, wishing I really cared about losing my freedom once again. Getting out was a rude awakening. I would rather go back to sleep.
After serving time for my parole violation, I am released once again. Eventually my parole expires; my sentence is over. A week later I drive aimlessly up the coast to San Francisco to think. I wander Golden Gate Park and count my blessings: Thank God I can walk. Thank God I can see. Thank God there are trees. Thank God.
I spend the night, and when I shuffle out to my car in the morning, something sparks a memory. I have an idea for a different route to follow home. It will take me east, hours out of my way, but I have to do it. I have to check off at least one thing. Maybe it will quiet the thoughts telling me I’m a loser who never does anything he says he will.
The Sierra Nevada rolls by as I drive south on US-395. If the California poppy is the state flower and the California quail the state bird, then this four-hundred-mile-long eruption of jagged peaks is the state spine. I stare out through the summer haze, the horizon blurred by dust and heat.
When I pass Blackrock, I know I’m getting close; my phone says about ten minutes to the town of Independence. Inyo County looks so ominous and empty, I worry the motel will be closed, shuttered by a lack of demand in this barren dust bowl. But when I pull into town, I see it’s still open — smaller and less prominent than it seemed in the picture, but there: the Mount Williamson Motel.
I make a U-turn and park across the street to take some pictures of the blue sign with the bold yellow letters, the cream-colored pickup truck parked in front, and the mural. Oh, the mural: a beautiful bighorn ram standing in profile, the mountains behind him as he stares resolutely up the highway. You will never know, I think, leaning on the hot hood of my car, how goddamn far I’ve come to see you.
I look around as if expecting a cheering crowd, but I’m the only person in sight. The sane residents of Independence are hunkered down indoors next to their air conditioners. It’s just me and Willie: two survivors doing our best to remain standing, to keep going, to stay alive in a landscape that doesn’t care whether we make it or not.
This isn’t the time of day I envisioned, or the time of year. I’m not as tan or happy or at peace as I imagined being in this moment. I can’t even stay at the motel because I have to get home, and I couldn’t afford it anyway. But I’m here.
When I turn around to get back in my car, my eyes fall on a long, low building across the street from the motel, surrounded by fences and razor wire. A sign states the obvious: INYO COUNTY JAIL. I stare at this cinder-block hulk baking in the sun and picture the men inside: staring out windows obscured by metal grating, their view wavering slowly in the heat. I hope that on a clear day, when the sun dips behind the peaks and the ground cools off, they can see Willie standing here, gazing up the road.
I’m going on my thirty-third year in a California prison, where I will remain “for the duration” (as we say). I read with wonder Michael Fischer’s essay “Willie” [July 2017]. He describes well the dreams, fantasies, and hopes men in here hold about the lives that await us on the outside. I am sure most of us know they are just that: dreams. We imagine an ideal future to combat the alienation, sadness, and frustration of being in prison.
Jack Kerouac said, “What’s heaven? What’s earth? All in the mind.” If you are unable to find freedom where you are, you will surely not find it somewhere else.