Zoetrope: All-Story

My Own Private Idaho

Gus Van Sant

Released twenty-five years ago, in 1991, and starring River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves, My Own Private Idaho remains a landmark of American independent cinema. The source story appears publicly for the first time.

IDAHO

A boy enters the frame wearing an oversize Texaco gas station attendant’s shirt with the name Mike sewn on it. His name is George. He is a twelve-year-old Chicano. He has a six-year-old dog with him that looks like an Australian dingo. The clouds are puffy against a deep blue sky. The road is red, with a solid white line dividing the two lanes.
      George looks at the road, he talks to someone offscreen. He says, “You can always tell where you are by the way the road looks. Like I just know I’ve been to this place before. I just know I’ve been stuck here like this one fucking time before, you know that?”
      The someone he’s talking to is a rabbit. A jackrabbit. “There ain’t no other road on earth that looks like this road. I mean, exactly like this road. (sniff) One of a kind. (sniff) Like someone’s face. Like a fucked-up face.” The road has a definite face—two distant cacti for eyes, a cloud’s shadow for mouth, mountains for hair. “Once you see it, even for a second, you remember it, and you better not forget it—you gotta remember people and who they are, right? You gotta remember the road and where it is, too . . . Say, jack!” George steps quickly toward the rabbit, and it scampers away.
      He laughs. “I just love to scare things . . . I don’t know, it gives you a sense of . . . I don’t know . . . power.”
      George looks at the road. The road looks back. He looks at the road, his eyes growing heavy. The road looks back. He looks at the road. It looks back. He falls asleep.

SAN FRANCISCO

George sleeps in downtown San Francisco, near a shop owner washing his windows and three other street kids—Gary, Ray, and Sparky—hanging around on the corner. While George sleeps, the three kids argue among themselves about coffee growers in Nicaragua. Their discussion is quite astute, considering the limited information each possesses on the subject, and they’re interrupted exactly twice by a man in a car stopping where they sit.
      The first time the car stops the man says nothing. Gary, who’s hitting a wastebasket with a broomstick, pauses for a moment and poses, because the man is driving a Mercedes-Benz. The others laugh, but they’re all interested in the car, except for George, who’s still asleep. Ray ventures, “What’s up?” and the car speeds off.
      The second time the car stops the man says something, but because of his thick German accent the boys do not understand. He tries talking to Gary, but still they can’t follow one another, so the car speeds off again.
      George sleeps. While asleep he has the most remarkable dreams. In these dreams often George is flying. Today he dreams of flying between the buildings and above the traffic of the city street.
      Ray, the oldest boy, is a thick, muscled Argentinean American, and he’s wearing a belt of coins that supposedly belonged to his father, who was a gaucho. Ray says, “Nobody gonna find him. He killed a guy and split. Nobody gonna find that fuck. I’m never gonna find him.” He spits into the gutter, and the spit drifts in the small stream of runoff from the shop windows, down the street and into a storm drain.

George says, “Man, it’s like it’s three in the afternoon and I’m hanging out with Sparky and he’s telling me how he’s got this new chick and he’s after her and this and that, and all of a sudden it’s like someone turned out the lights and it’s about eleven thirty in the evening—like that, Sparky’s gone, and it’s eleven thirty. I don’t know if I fell asleep or what.”
      The city night is cold and wet. There are no signs of life. Ray and Little George stand under an awning out of the fog. Ray smokes a cigarette and checks himself in the shop window’s reflection. The Mercedes-Benz of earlier slowly creeps along the street and stops near Ray, who flicks his cigarette in the direction of the car. In the driver’s window is a pretty woman wearing a white stole. George says, “Look, that bitch is living in a new-car ad.” Ray walks to the car, and after a short chat with the woman, he and Little George get inside.
      Outside a large colonial-style home, Ray tells Little George to wait until he returns. George disappointedly sits by a tree on the lawn and falls asleep.
      Inside the house, Ray meets Gary and Sparky, waiting on the living room sofa. The woman tells them to make themselves comfortable while she gets ready.
      “She likes us,” Gary explains, “and she needs three of us, because she comes so slow, and we come so fast.” He shrugs. “What are you going to do?”

Sparky and Ray struggle with Little George’s body. They can’t decide what to do with him, so they roll him into the bushes while they wait for a cab. Gary says, “He’ll be safer here than downtown.”
      “Does he always pull this shit?” Sparky asks. “Does he always fall asleep in the middle of nowhere?”
      “He had a hard beginning,” Ray replies. “His mother said she could hear him crying in the womb, even before he was born.”

“Strange, isn’t it?” a voice says to George as he lies sleeping by the side of the road, so far down in the bushes that he can’t figure where the voice is coming from. As he lifts his eyes, through the leaves and the branches, he sees the Mercedes-Benz parked nearby. But instead of the woman with the white stole, he finds the man with the thick German accent. “Strange that vee meet again. I again in ze car, you again azleep. But ha! How zilly—you vere azleep, zo how could you remember, I mean . . .,” and his words turn into German.
      “Are you OK?” the man asks.
      “Go home,” George says, grumpy as usual when waking.
      The Mercedes-Benz pulls away. George steps from the bushes, into an upper-middle-class neighborhood. Houses line the street, each with a little California-style garden. George can see all their roofs lift off, all the furniture inside fly up and circle in the air. He passes out. The Mercedes-Benz pulls up beside his sleeping head.

PORTLAND

When George wakes he’s in Ray’s arms. They sit under a statue in a park in Portland, Oregon. The statue is of two Indians pointing to the horizon, and on its base is written The Coming of the White Man.

At the Broadway Café George bites into a hamburger.
      “So how did we get to Portland, Ray?” George asks.
      “That German dick. His name is Hans. He said he found you in the bushes, brought you to town, was going through Portland anyway, so I asked him for a ride . . . You can tell we’re in a different city?”
      “Isn’t it obvious?”
      “No.”
      “I don’t remember any German guy,” George says. He bites into his hamburger again, and with his mouth full he says, “How much do you make off me while I’m asleep?”
      “Just a ride, George, I don’t make nothin’. Whaddya think, I sell your body when you’re asleep?”
      “Yeah, I do.”
      “Who the fuck wants your body? You just got a head and legs, man, nobody wants you, you’re too little.”
      “Yeah, and nobody wants you ’cause you’re too old. Ha. But tell Hans to keep his hands off.”
      “I think people try to get famous so they can be invited to more parties,” Ray says. “Come to think of it, that’s right, because what other use does fame have? You can make more money, and boss people around, but you’re mainly invited to parties, right?”

George stands at the corner of Third and Taylor, watching the cars drive by. A middle-aged couple is window-shopping near him, and they see George and remark to themselves how cute he and his dog are. George gives them a funny smile and says, “Hi.” Then he asks them for money, and they give him a dollar.
      “A dollar, oh man, I have to feed my dog, too.”
      And they give him another dollar. As they walk away, George says to his dog, “White people are so fucking stupid.”

A passing car stops, and Gary gets out, having spied George.
      “Hey, Little George, what’s up? This town’s for shit, isn’t it? Hadda punch a date in the face last night.”
      “How’d you get up here, man?”
      “Been here a while. Plane. I never ride, please, too slow. Wish I hadn’t. No action. Goin’ north. Spark’s here, too.”
      “Where?”
      “Dunno.”
      A car stops at the curb, and Gary hustles it. “Hey, man, wanna party?” George watches him get in.

Ray leans against a light pole. A businessman in a three-piece suit pulls up on an old motorcycle, and Ray watches carefully as the man walks to an automated bank teller, returns to the bike, and rides away.

IDAHO

Little George, Ray, and the dog are stuck on a long, straight road in the desert. George is angry because he doesn’t think Ray knows how the motorcycle works. He can hardly kick it over.
      “Aren’t we supposed to have helmets?” George asks.
      “Shut up, George.” Ray tries the bike again. “If I’d known it was this hard to start, I wouldn’t have turned it off.”
      George looks at the road and the surrounding area. It’s the same road on which he was stuck in the opening scene. “Ray? I just know I’ve been on this road before.” He stares at the face in the distance. Two cacti for eyes, a cloud’s shadow for mouth, mountains for hair over a red-road nose with a white line running down it.

That night George and Ray sit around a fire on the side of the road.
      “What do you wanna be when you grow up, George?” Ray asks.
      “I want to be a pimp.”
      “Hey, come on now, I mean for real, I mean, what the hell you wanna be when you get older, I mean, really wanna be, if you could be anything, that kind of thing?”
      “I want to be a bum like my old man.”
      “No, man, George, you see, you gotta shoot higher than that, you gotta have a dream, I know it may not come true, but you gotta have one.”
      “I gotta have a dream?”
      “Yeah.”
      “OK, OK. If I could be anything I wanted . . . I’d be one of the cooks in McDonald’s—you know, the ones that run the deep fry, that’s what I’d be.”

The next morning, as Ray’s again trying to start the motorcycle, George looks into the distance, and coming their way is a state police car. He moves over into the bushes and sits down away from the bike. Ray is out of breath.
      “Ray, look . . .,” George says.
      Ray turns in the direction of the police car.
      “Seems like this is it,” Ray says.
      “Yeah.”
      “Can’t get this thing started.” Ray hits the gas tank. “Cops are on their way. Stuck in the middle of nowhere with a stolen bike, yeah, seems like this is the end.”
      The policeman pulls up to them and parks. He says a few words into the radio, then gets out and starts for the boys. Scared, George runs into the desert. The cop stands and watches, amused at his own power. He looks like a full-blooded American Indian. George has nowhere to run, is confused which way to go. The cop glances at Ray, then back to George, who trips and falls in a cloud of dust.
      “What’s the matter with him?” the cop asks.
      “How should I know? Guess he don’t like cops.”
      “Looks that way, don’t it?”
      “That’s exactly how it looks,” Ray answers.
      “What you kids doing out here?”
      “This cycle is one bitch to turn over, but then I bet you never turned one over. You ain’t no motorcycle cop.”
      “I turned a few,” the cop answers.

Ray walks through the desert looking for George where he dropped. He picks the boy up from the dirt, spit dripping from his sleeping lips, and smacks him in the face.
      “Wake up, man, the heat’s off.”
      George doesn’t wake up.

Outside a trailer home at night, Ray drags George’s body up the front steps and knocks. A man inside is reluctant to open the door, but with a little prodding Ray convinces him to let them in.

George wakes in the trailer home. Ray is beside him, eating a sandwich. “Look, George, sandwiches!”
      They’ve found their way to Ray’s dad’s trailer. Ray hasn’t seen the man in four years, and his dad didn’t recognize him at first. The walls are covered with velvet paintings of people or their pets by Ray’s dad, commissioned by mail order—returns he’s decided to keep. The discussion turns to Ray’s mom, whom Ray hasn’t seen since he was born.
      “Want me to tell you what happened to her?” his dad asks. “Have you ever heard it? Have you, Ray?”
      “No. I don’t care.”
      “If you’d known her you would care.”
      This “dad” is not Ray’s Argentinean father, but rather a surrogate whom he knew when he was growing up, the man his mom left him with when she disappeared. He looks like a white-trash expatriate of the street. He’s in his fifties.
      “I know what happened to her,” Ray says.
      “But you don’t know the whole story. One thing about the truth: it sounds interesting. Your mom and I, we had a sort of touch-and-go relationship . . . What? Anyway. She would see guys on the side. At night. When I wouldn’t be around . . . Maybe San Francisco or some darned place. God knows where. She would see other guys . . . Yeah . . . anyway . . . along comes this guy. A guy we both knew. A guy who was into cards. A gamblin’ man. And he said he was a gaucho. I dunno, maybe he was, and he had a bit of money, more’n I had at that point in time. But it was funny, the way he gambled. He was not safe in the friends he made, so his money would come and go real fast . . .”
      “I never heard this one before,” Ray says.
      “So this guy, your mom fell for . . . What? She went cuckoo over this guy. Well, their affair went on for a year or so, and your mom wanted to marry him. She was already married to me. So he said no. He didn’t love her, anyways. But she wanted him to marry her, and to have a little family. That’s when you were born. As a matter of fact, you were really the cause of this whole mess. She wanted to make a little family and take you and this guy someplace and set something up. (slaps his leg with the palm of his hand) A family thing! What? Ridiculous, right? A card man. Had a bunch of money, but could just as well lost it on his next hand. Probably did, too. Well, you see what I’m gettin’ at.”
      “That’s not how I heard it,” Ray says.
      “Yeah, I know. You heard it from me and I’m tellin’ it different this time, see? So this mom of yours found herself a fuckin’ gun. I thought she was goin’ to blow me away with it one night. Anyways, she got so into this gun. She would flash it to anybody that gave her trouble. She would sleep with it. She would cook with it, too. She would stir-fry vegetables with the loaded gun. What? I mean . . . What? I used to say, politely, ‘Honey, don’t go stirrin’ up dinner with the gun, now, you’ll blow a hole in the fryin’ pan.’ What?”
      Ray begins to cry a little.
      “And she used to do other things with this gun. Sexy things with it. Oh boy, she was into this thing. I just thought it was some sort of weird phase she was goin’ through. And so anyways, this guy, who she was cuckoo over, brought her to the movies one night. A drive-in movie in a stolen car, don’cha know. And the movie was Rio Bravo or some shit like that. And well, she went and shot this guy . . . don’cha know . . .”
      “You’re makin’ this up as you go along, Pop.”
      “And they didn’t find him till the next show. Rio Bravo playin’ on the big picture, spilled popcorn soakin’ up the blood.”
      George laughs. “Oh, come on, man, how corny . . .”
      “And that was your daddy, your real daddy.”
      “I knew that was comin’ . . .,” Ray says. “You sure do like to make me cry, Pop.”
      “You should know these things about your past,” Ray’s dad says.
      He then tells Ray where he thinks this long-lost mother is working.

The dog lies on the gas tank and Ray and George wear sunglasses as they journey forward to visit Ray’s mom, a waitress in the Blue Room of a Holiday Inn on Interstate 84 outside Boise, Idaho. The motorcycle is running fine now.

It’s nighttime when they arrive. There’s a stand-up comic in the Blue Room billed as “Shecky Crude.” Ray has to ask for his mother because he doesn’t know what she looks like, and the manager tells him that she quit her job a year ago and moved south. She’s living on a work farm near Phoenix.

In the lounge George asks a man for a quarter, and it turns out to be Hans, the Mercedes-Benz parts representative. He’s very glad to see Ray and George.
      Inside Hans’s hotel room, Ray lies in a sudsy bath, singing a song by the B-52’s: “You’re living in your own private Idaho / Living in your own private Idaho / Underground like a wild potato . . .”
      Hans pounds on the bathroom door.
      “I just got in!” Ray complains. “Wait your turn.”
      “But Ray, you don’t van zum room zervice? Ya?”
      “Ahh . . . room zervice? Ya-ya!” Ray answers, mimicking Hans’s accent. “Let me see . . . two hamburgers, with cheese, onion, lettuce, tomato, no pickles. Coke and french fries.”
      “OK. Zat is hambugger, wiz everyzing, no pickle, Coke, french fry,” Hans replies.
      “Zat is correct, Hans, und make it snappy,” Ray answers.
      “Zank you,” Hans says.

“Zo, you still don’t know my name,” the German says, watching the two boys and the dog finish their hamburgers.
      “Sure, we know your name,” George says. “Hans.”
      “No, it iz not my name. My name iz Frank, Mike.”
      “And my name is George, Hans.”
      “Frank? What kinda German name is that?” Ray says with his mouth full. “Frank to you, Hans to us.”
      “Oh vell, Ray, call me Hans if you van to.”
      “OK, Hans.”
      “Und ow are ze hambugger, boys?”
      “Pretty good, Hans,” Ray says.
      “Are ze bugger OK by you, Mike?”
      “Good by me, Hans,” George says.
      “How did you boys get zo var? I left you in Portland only three days.”
      “We rode a motorcycle.”
      “Ya?” Hans thinks. “To ze Blue Room?”
      “Too many questions, Hans,” Ray says. “We’re on business.”
      “Vat business?”
      “We’re selling motorcycles,” Ray says.
      “Ah, I zee.”
      “Wanna buy one?”
      “Ya-sure, I wanna buy one.”

Hans rides the motorcycle over the south pass to Picabo, Idaho, and a local policeman clocks him doing ninety-five in a forty-five-mile-per-hour zone.

At Boise Airport, Ray and George buy tickets to Phoenix, Arizona, and put the dog in a small kennel—the only baggage they have.

PHOENIX

On a work farm outside Phoenix, a gypsy cab pulls up to two shacks. Ray and George and the dog get out of the car, and Ray pays the driver. The car speeds off.
      George sits on the stoop of one shack, and Ray tries the door of the other. It swings open, and he steps inside and yells, “Hello! Hello, Mom?”
      A beautiful Mexican girl about Ray’s age opens the door behind George and leans against it, looking at him. He turns and sees her.
      “Say, good-lookin’ . . .,” he says.
      “Hola,” the girl says. “Qué ondas?”
      
“Say, come sit with me. You look fine, and you look like mine.”
      Ray emerges from the other shack, disappointed. “She’s not here. I mean, fuck, we come all this fuckin’ way. Where’d she go?”
      He sits and holds his head in his hands and begins to cry. The beautiful girl sits beside him and comforts him. George gives up on her.
      “You a gaucho?” she asks Ray.
      “What?” Ray asks, and she runs her fingers over the coins on his belt.
      “Yeah. I mean . . . Yeah, sure I am.”
      “What happened to your horse?”
      “I really don’t believe this,” Ray says, still thinking of his mom.
      “Hey, baby, don’t walk,” Little George to the girl. “Let’s you and me talk.”
      “Aw, don’t listen to him,” Ray tells her. “He’s just foolin’ around.”
      Ray and the beautiful girl talk. She explains that his mother moved away and that she’d taught the girl a bit of English.
      They began to whisper so George can’t hear. He turns away, insulted, and then Ray and the girl step into her shack and close the door.
      George falls asleep.
      When he wakes he notices that the door to the girl’s shack is wide open and that Ray and the girl are gone.

George searches the streets of downtown Phoenix to find them.
      He doesn’t have anywhere to stay, so he climbs a fire escape to the top of a building, holding the dog in his arm, and there they spend the night looking out at the lights of the city.

The next morning George hops a freight train that takes him to Stockton, California, and from there he begins walking with his dog to San Francisco. They cross rolling hills covered with short, brown grass.
      George stops walking. He looks at the road. The road looks back. He looks at the road, his eyes growing heavy. It looks back. He imagines a dark-red barn flying through the air as if driven by a big wind, then he falls asleep.
      Later Hans drives by George’s sleeping body on the side of the road, almost failing to recognize him, but the car turns and stops. The German picks up George and his dog and puts them in the car and continues on down the road.

“My Own Private Idaho” by Gus Van Sant is part of Zoetrope: All-Story’s Classic Reprint series, in which short stories that inspired films are reprinted to illustrate the narrative relationship between the art forms. 

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