Excerpt from Traveling Without A Passport by David Stone
What was it like to be the last hippie standing? The Story
What does it mean to have lost your homeland without losing your belief in it or the need to keep going? That was Traveling Without a Passport for Peter McCarthy, maybe the last hippie still standing.
Hitchhiking from Kirkwood to Colorado in 1965
An Excerpt from Traveling Without A Passport
It was time to go. An exhilarating thought, if ever there was one.
I felt it immediately as my eyes opened to warmth, daylight and silence. No home is ever quieter than one with a lost rambunctious history. Contrast lives on. How crazy this place must have seemed for my mother, a decade ago, five of us below the age of ten, all under the same roof.
Everyone else had left for work or school, and at this time of day, I ruled the kingdom. I had it all to myself, even if I hadn’t done much with it lately.
A winter corrupted by meaningless bursts of confidence surrounded by valleys of indecision and floundering had drained off into spring. Along the way, I’d dropped out of school and broken up with Lizzie. Sunlight angled in through an open window near were my feet had escaped the covers.
I would never come up out of sleep in this place again.
Just outside, some brushing the house, a maple tree’s limbs bent in a steady breeze, each leaf thick with new life, twisting into and out of the sun. I’d started to see the veins of leaves more as conduits than as structural effects. They formed webs that fed the flat, decorative surfaces, the engines converting sunlight into color as a world was made. This tree had grown out of a small mound of soil wedged between our paved driveway and the backside of the house where the propane cylinders were hidden. The builder must not have foreseen the capabilities of this once scraggily sapling. It was rooted now and would dominate the back wall until the building got torn down, decades later. Near its base was an anthill teeming with industry. I’d spent hours watching the ants go about their complicated lives. Other times, I’d crouched over the crumbling soil of their community and torched them individually with matches, watching them contort into death, understanding only that acting through the thrill was something I shouldn’t do but never why. It was another piece of business I believed I’d have no interest in repeating once I got the hell out of here. I was becoming someone, intermittently, I didn’t want to be, even among larger sequences when everything felt right and good.
One year when Easter was later than usual, coming after the leaves had stretched out, I woke up to this tree on Sunday morning, filled with overnight snow in an event I was unlikely to see repeated. The storm had been heavy and windless, layering several white inches over the supple skeleton. A few days later, it all melted and went to mud. The brown, swirling Susquehanna surged over its banks, flooding Sandy Beach as well as the abandoned power plant on the opposite shore. The sight of old growth trees and nearby buildings underwater had always terrified me. I was downstairs now at the double-paned window between the bathroom and the space where an upright piano had once anchored a wall. One of Dad’s insane housekeepers had banged on that piano with so much energy, yelling My Wild Irish Rose out of tune, that dragging it out and bashing it with a hammer an ax had provided my brothers and me with a hilarious act of destruction and release. We exorcised the crazy lady with anecdotes and worked in some buffoonish imitations of her performances.
“Good thing Dad never married that witch,” Al remarked as we stood looking at the pile of shattered wood and strings.
“She wanted him to,” Lou acknowledged. “I guess he wasn’t that desperate.”
“How could he be? How would you like to listen to that singing every night for the rest of your life?”
“My wild Irish rose,” I sang to myself as I followed them back to the house, sorry to have the celebrations ended.
A uniformly constructed white upper shell had decked the branches that morning, and the world around it seemed imaginary with strange, muffled lines and congestion. A few flakes, remnants, still fluttered down, although the air itself seemed scrubbed clean. Today, later in another season, a month closer to summer, the first green had lost some of the intensity with which it’d curled out of winter, spread and relaxed. Between the branches, I could easily catch glimpses of what would now be called ramshackle homes scattered along a dirt driveway that nearly reached the State fields–the fieldstone residence of the elderly Watermans and their retarded son, our local brute handyman, surrounded by discarded material and junk of value only to them; the barely adequate clapboard structure that once strained to contain the Donahues, where the daughters used to pay me coins for kisses, and a succession of struggling families; then finally the Cromwell’s neat, freshly painted house on the edge of the community. Between was an opaque pool of water–“the pond,” we called it–accumulated in a sinkhole once intended to brace a concrete foundation.
The house I’d been trying to find the right way to grow up in was quiet. The commotion with which my family had gotten out of bed, shared breakfasts on the fly and dressed had neither included nor disturbed me. They simply made their way around me, a temporary obstacle among their better organized lives, a slacker decades ahead of my time. I was currently using the promise of military enlistment as a holding device.
With no one to bump into or to argue with over the limited facilities, our single bathroom and cramped kitchen, I needed only an hour or so to eat and pack up everything I wanted to carry with me. Not much here belonged to me, anyway, an advantage I was only beginning to appreciate. There was little to physically leave behind or to weigh me down as I left.
I threw some clothes and my notebook into a seldom used suitcase I’d dragged out of random clutter in the unfinished, second floor room we'd accepted as "the attic" since moving in, taking the designation the builder and previous owner had given it. None of us ever traveled, and God only knew how long that suitcase had been collecting dust, waiting for anything to happen.
In the faux attic, as with the other rooms upstairs, the windows were built close to the floor. When you stood in front of them, the lower pane met your knees. With only a roof above, the ceiling angles were acute. No one before us had gotten around to finishing this probable master bedroom, and neither had my parents, even while there were still two of them in residence, leaving it seeming more indefinite, in abeyance, than incomplete. The idea never seemed to have been discussed, a permanently unfinished condition having been assumed as a local fact of life. The rough, wooden beams were bare to the room, and along the walls, air spaces where later generations might force insulation were exposed. As children, we’d dropped items down the hollows and listened as they clattered into the basement. I’d also used these spaces to dispose of things I wished no one else to see. The room had been the unofficial site for secret events. My oldest, least regulated brother and I once persuaded three neighborhood girls to pose naked in the dull light, their missing parts looking to me like peculiar inadequacies. Neither of us knew what to do with the nakedness except to gawk at and study it. We didn’t aspire to touching them or investigating further, and tastefully, the girls never asked us to return the favor. The light sockets overhead were exposed, and each of us in turn had fallen to the temptation of taking a voluntary shock. Along the wall at the front rested a discarded mattress I later ignited with an experimental match, almost burning our home and its contents to the ground. In the quiet of this morning, the attic seemed a little bit haunted. Dusty light poured in through filthy windows that had never had curtains. I remembered things but didn’t waste time dwelling on them. These were times worth remembering, but permanently passed.
Before leaving, I also stuffed in an album. I took–the family I was leaving behind would say I stole it–from my father's room. It was full of photos I didn't care about, and I grabbed it on instructions from Mom who did.
“I have as much right to those pictures as he has, the stingy bastard, excuse my French,” she complained over the phone. “My family’s in there too. Make sure you bring it with you.”
“Okay,” I agreed, satisfied that I’d scored a point in a game at which I’d been losing consistently.
Infatuated with my no longer missing mother and resentful myself, I hauled it off like a highwayman.
When I had everything packed up in my recovered suitcase, I called Mom in California to tell her I’d picked this day to leave. I woke her up, three time zones away. She was still befuddled from deep sleep, but quickly emerged enough to show her enthusiasm.
“It should take me three days, about,” I explained.
“Only three days before I see you! After all this time–it sounds wonderful! You be careful, darlin’. Make sure you have my telephone number. Call whenever you can and let me know where you are.”
The gap between Mom’s excitement and the disdain I perceived locally, still redolent even in an empty house, was one into which the filling poured like sand. I was leaving for a place where someone wanted me, not just to where they were ticking off the hours until I’d be officially gone. My destination would rattle them.
“I’ll try, Mom. I don’t know when I’ll be around phones.”
“Do you have enough money?”
“I have everything you sent me plus a little I saved.”
Actually, I’d spent some of what she sent and tried to make it up from my allowance. Successful lying required telling others what they yearned to hear.
“That doesn’t sound like very much,” she drawled. “Are you sure? You be careful how you spend it,” she warned after remembering herself and scrambling to retract the opening she’d given me to back out.
Too discouraged by it to admit to nostalgia, especially concerning this place, I took a last look around, feeling refreshed annoyance, a refueling of my desire to get away. The sense of my family, lounging on the slipcovered couch and chairs in the living room, raised my temper for rebellion. My brothers, pickled in Dad’s disdain for difference, were armed with a wittiness he never had, and I couldn’t keep up with. I had to make a stand or continue being crushed. In the last year, as I stepped farther away, I’d expanded the annoying little bastard, the younger brother they recognized as failure, a high school drop out awaiting the inevitable enlistment, hopefully to be returned as a cleaned up, related stranger. Even in my own opinion, my efforts at independence had gotten me nowhere. I’d gotten knocked down. I kept coming back to the roof over my head, even though it was space in which I was becoming less visible.
Time to escalate, time to fire myself with freedom.
In a week or two, Dad would get a telephone bill, see the record my calls to California, including one on the day I disappeared, and figure out where I’d gone, if he hadn’t guessed already. I hoped that the realization that I’d made it three-thousand miles on my own would shock everybody. Who else did anyone know who done that?
I could see my brothers, momentarily off-balance, having just heard Dad’s sarcastic explanation, the opened envelope in his hand, while my sister kept busy at the stove.
“Tough shit,” I said to the future in absentia as I imagined how pissed he’d be, discovering that one of us had finally defected to the enemy.
“I’ve got the map you sent me to follow,” I’d assured Mom. “I know what route I’m going to take, straight across.”
I had a good sense of the roads only as far as Chicago. The roads after that well-known place, stretching and curving over the paper, might as well have traveled a conduit on the moon. On my map, the surface colors changed, from verdant greens and blues to brown and dull gray.
Mom had bought two copies at a gas station, sent one to me and planned to keep track for herself on the other.
"You call me every time you get a chance," she’d reminded me, a southern accent just tilting her expressions, a Pennsylvania girl slightly imprinted by a few years in Virginia. "And be careful!"
Adults were noticeably into the "careful" bit, to which my reaction vacillated between boredom and annoyance, but apart from things that weren't real, things from Hitchcock movies, things lurking in the middle of the night, whatever it was we were supposed to fear and be cautious about never crystalized. Mom certainly hadn't conducted her own life with any caution. She’d crashed and slashed and largely charmed her way through most of it. She’d gone from New York to Florida and back, then to Virginia, finally landing in California, five recent children in tow, a second husband discarded and another recruited. Her example of careful was one I believed allowed for plenty of slack and faith in a merciful God who didn’t happen to be in any church, in whatever power must be up there organizing fate.
"I will," I promised, referring strictly to her order that I call, not to the indecipherable "careful" business.
My resistance to caution was instinctive. Since, I've determined that no one gets to heaven being careful or, especially, because of any planning. A careful sixteen year old would’ve been slouched over a high school desk, thinking about girls and plotting lunch, not packing up for a cross-continental hike. He’d also not very likely have had the experience of spending three nights of intermittent sleep on the hard benches in the Erie Lackawanna station, having found his way down Chenango Street to the building with its lights always on under the viaduct, worn out and cold after wandering the streets and panhandling. The boredom, isolation and hunger took that long to steal the stubborn idealism from me. The cautious and reasonable eat their own words voluntarily and go home sooner. Stubbornness and caution, at least in my life, had the most distant of relationships.
Our one of a kind house, built for his family by the original owner and marked by incorrectable singularities–a front door that smashed resoundingly against an archway every time energetic boys rushed through it, for one–was empty, except for me and the familiar creakiness of the sparsely carpeted floorboards. The parade of ghosts heard ascending the stairs all night were gone, and none of the living had lingered to say, “So long,” either. No nostalgia held me back. My exhilaration canceled any regret.
Anyone else in the house would've a) told me I was an idiot and/or otherwise b) tried to restrain my departure, physically or emotionally, on the reasonable grounds of enforcing common sense. Either might've defeated me, at least for now. Solo, I was a king without opponents.
I'd lived in this unique place with my brothers, my sister, my father and, for a few years, my mother, since I was four. All of us were bundled into our car one night, and Dad drove us out to see the new place he was buying. It was small for a family of seven but much roomier than the tiny house we’d been crammed into while Mom was still exhibiting her world-class fertility. That night, just after Dad made the left turn off Route 11 and started up the hilly road we’d soon stake our claim, I heard the term "pitch dark" for the first time, it's stark meaning indelibly set in my mind before I knew what pitch was. A few weeks later, I cried in frustration by the side of the road, a bright sun slicing through the twin maples in our root-creased yard, as a yellow bus grunted to a start up the slight grade, taking my big brothers off to classrooms for which I was still a year too young. I crouched by the lilac bush with which I’d grow up, now months passed the springtime blossoms, and Mom came out to soothe me back toward the house. “Come on, honey, we’ll bake some cookies.” A few years after that, I jumped down off the same bus one spring afternoon and found an unfamiliar used car in our sloping driveway, parked near the steps that came down the side of our front porch. Our clothes had been stuffed in a huge corrugated box that jutted out of the trunk. Mom opened the front door and came onto the porch, smiling, as my brothers, sister and I descended the driveway in a confused huddle. All her life, Mom smiled more than most people, and she laughed with delight over many things, emotionally reckless, ultimately afraid of far too little for her own good. Her legacy now was a piercing emptiness that had filled the house when we were returned to a home freshened with brand new towels and linens along with dead, unwatered plants on the window sills, random flows of dust, the universe's litter, drifting passed lazy streams of light, Dad back in charge in a hard, cool spring. Mom, a tissue pressed against her face, resigned to defeat after our failed escape to Florida, had disappeared down a flight of stairs a week and a half before. The ignorance of not knowing, for the first time, where your mother is and if you will ever find her again carries with it a queer and disabling emotion.
By sixteen, I'd been around a bit, and like Mom, I grasped that I was a loner no matter how dense the crowds nearby. I believed I had more of her in me than any of my brothers or my sister had. I believed we shared a gift for stepping aside. Probably a gift.
Carrying the suitcase in my left hand and swinging around to extend the thumb of my right toward approaching cars, I soon caught a ride into town and walked down Chenango Street to meet Joyce. This was one of those instances when a sixteen year old lugging a suitcase in the middle of a school day should’ve popped open the eyes of someone official, but it never happened. I was in a bubble, invisible to the world of adults, authorities and anyone else rooted in practicality. I was an anomaly.
The “Queen E” was a downtown diner where we sometimes hung out in small groups late at night after the close of weekend dances released us, still exuberant, into the streets. None of us were eager then to return home to the lowered expectations of family life, and we felt welcome in this rare place where the lights still burned and bodies migrated on the corner of a shut down city. We jammed into booths, passing around cigarettes as well as exaggerated personal histories. In the daytime, the diner was less energetic, busy with slowpoke customers entering before and during breaks from work. Teenagers, such as Joyce and me, were a rarity, and it was more of a gamble than I should’ve taken at a time when truancy hadn’t yet attained the matter-of-factness it acquired in years to come.
Like other popular diners, whether in cities or isolated out along the two-lane roads connecting them in the Fifties and Sixties, the Queen Elizabeth on Henry Street looked prebuilt and, in one piece, dropped off on a waiting foundation, the dining variant of a trailer home, redolent with the mobility with which Americans were becoming intoxicated. I recall no information explaining its being named after an English monarch or any special curiosity about it. We were growing up in a cloud of the-way-it-is-ness, not yet having been provoked to doubt. The Queen E possessed shatterproof was-ness. Sheet metal slats, toned up to match the chrome on our cars, created a silvery impression of extension from west to east. Blue neon announced the diner, and the contrastingly unadorned front steps deposited you directly at a cashier's stand. A peg onto which paid bills had been speared stood sentinel next to the register, easy in, easy out. Cushiony booths, their upholstery an indescribable mix of tones, purple and blue mashing it up with green and some sneaky traces of yellow, each outfitted with its own jukebox selector, lined the front windows. Rotating, backless stools accommodated solo diners along a Formica counter.
At my age and with my lack of experience, it wasn't so odd that I'd arranged to meet Joyce for a half-assed farewell, although it was a peculiar maneuver in the abstract. Joyce was the closest thing to a girlfriend I had now–which really confirmed that I had no girlfriend at all–and I'd talked her into cutting school and catching a bus into the city to meet me. My arguments were as vague as my intentions.
But Joyce, more girlish than slutty away from the weekend crowds and horny boys, was a swinger and easily persuaded. The conventional hadn’t managed much of a lock on her, and only the overriding conformity of the times, especially for girls, kept her from dying her hair blue and wearing commando boots. She was wearing blue jeans, instead, and a light green pullover, a smallish black purse slung over her shoulder. She smiled and waved when she saw me, bouncing up on her toes. The Queen Elizabeth anchored the short block, steps away from her.
“Geez,” she said, staring at my suitcase. “You really are going, aren’t you?”
Joyce was tall and thin, her curves more interruptions than indications. She had a ready smile–most of us did in those days–with rounded cheekbones and a small, expressive chin.
Her reaction had relieved me of any immediate need to make sense of encouraging this meeting. My recovered suitcase was a scene stealer.
“Sure am,” I boasted, aware immediately that my chances for sex had now dropped to zero, my alternative mission gone homeless, and I made this concession easily, knowing the prospects hadn’t been much better to begin with. I had a ramped up sex drive, but no maneuvering skills to go with it.
“Wow,” Joyce said as we fell into step toward the Queen E. “I wish I could go with you.”
“Can’t you just picture the two of us out on the highway, taking turns sticking our thumbs out?”
I mimicked the act.
“I could. Yeah,” she bubbled.
“Imagine how surprised my mother’d be to see two of us show up, instead of just me. Well, Mom likes everybody,” I concluded without any foundation, not knowing for a fact if she actually liked much of anybody, but taking her being a lot like I wanted her to be for granted.
The unexpected idea of traveling with a companion, someone to tramp beside, felt bright and remote.
“You’re going to see your mother? I thought you were enlisting in the Navy.”
“Mom first,” I explained, “then the navy. I have to wait for my birthday. I’m going to stay with her for a month, then enlist and ship out from California. There’s a special deal, if you enlist on your seventeenth birthday. You’re out on your thirty-sixth. Imagine, retired at thirty-six!”
I was echoing my oldest brother now. Never having worked a full-time job, I had no good idea of what retirement meant. To me and to my brother, Jim, it sounded like beating the system somehow, a goal we had the inside track to attain.
Joyce and I took a booth away from the door in the Queen E, and I hid my suitcase underneath the table where every passerby wouldn’t be kicking it.
“Do you want a burger or something? This is my last food before hitting the road. I’m rich today. I’ll buy.”
“Sure,” Joyce agreed. “So, where does your mother live in California?”
“She’s in San Pablo, in the East Bay. I’ve never been there. I don’t know what to expect, but it’ll be different. Did I tell you I have five half-brothers and half-sisters I’ve never met?”
“And a stepfather. Should be an adventure. It’ll be interesting to meet everybody.”
Joyce seemed surprised, pausing to assimilate, and I realized how little, in the milieus in which we ordinarily found ourselves, we’d talked about anything not salted with flirtation or redirected sex.
“You haven’t seen your mother in all that time?”
Until I got through my early teens, that was a question that made me squirm. I’d been swamped with embarrassment over my circumstances as well as my own ignorance of the details. Mine was the only disappeared mother I’d ever heard about. A dense silence had entered out lives. Our telephone got disconnected. Within the complexities of a highly verbal, energetic family, we had permission to talk only about everything else. I had no cool way to answer.
“My parents broke up when I was seven, almost eight–so, nine years. It’s a long time,” I added, inwardly. “After she left, we didn’t even get to talk to her for around another five years. My father got rid of the phone and any other reminders he could think of.”
Unlike Kane’s Rosebud, my images disintegrated and distorted with time. I couldn’t remember her face very well and wasn’t sure I’d recognize her immediately in California. Her voice on the phone, lazy, full and accented with a honey-like flavor from the South, was hard to pair with what I did recall. She sounded older now and more tired.
“She went away?”
“She beat it. She says my father drove her away, but what’s the difference? We were kept in the dark for so long, I don’t think we’ll ever get the full story. As soon as the old man finally put a phone back in, though, brrrinnng! There she was!”
A tall, indifferent waitress in an old, once white uniform came over and stood next to us. She held a small pad in front of her.
“You kids eating anything or just coffee?” she asked.
“Burgers and fries,” I answered for both of us. “You want a Coke?”
“And a Coke,” Joyce said, looking up and smiling at the unaffected waitress. “Oh, I don’t think she liked me,” she added when it was just us again.
“Probably just doesn’t like kids.”
“Me neither,” Joyce added. “If only she knew...”
“So, I’m going to California. What are you going to do after you graduate?”
“Maybe community college,” she shrugged. “My trouble is, I never want to grow up. I want to be like this forever. I have zero ambitions.”
She released a breath and slumped back into the booth.
“Well, sort of like this,” she amended. “My mother wants me to move to Michigan with her when she gets remarried, but I don’t want to. All my friends are here, all my life. But I guess that doesn’t bother you, does it? I mean, going away...”
“And giving up my friends?”
“Yeah, going away. Does it bother you very much?”
“I’m not hung up about it. Where the hell have I been going anyway? I’m tired of never having anything to do. There really isn’t much I’m leaving behind. My family, yeah, but I’ve got a whole new set waiting in California. In another month, I’ll be joining the navy anyway. My oldest brother’s sailed to a lot of places and always comes back with stories. So...”
The idea of sailing into the Port of Naples and a throng of eager Italian children was still abstract, but exhilarating, for me.
Joyce was bright and impish, with a small chin beneath an almost heart-shaped face. Her frequent, instant smiles had a predictable, lightening effect on me. Although she rarely cracked one herself, she seemed always ready for a fast joke or a funny observation. I liked her enough that I regretted her being regarded as a slut by everyone who knew her. This was a pretty unique honor, and it meant that she’d never be considered serious girlfriend material. Too many paths were assumed to have been beaten to her door. The aura of exclusiveness could not be rebuilt. Despite fervent prayers and intense regrets in many places, no hymen was never known to have been replaced.
“I guess I don’t know so much about you,” she mused while we waited for our food to arrive. “I don’t even know why I let you talk me into coming down here. It was kind of crazy. I’m graduating pretty soon, and skipping school can get me in a lot of trouble. I’ve never done it before.”
“I hope you came because you like me.”
“Oh, I like you, Pete. You should know that by now, but we’ve never done anything as just you and me. So, why should I skip school to come and meet you? Maybe I thought somebody should just be there to send you off...?”
She stared at me with her pixyish smile, like there was wisdom behind it we weren’t ready to talk about yet.
“Right,” I agreed. “You can be my going away party.”
“But I really wasn’t convinced you were going anywhere,” she came back. “I thought you might have something else in mind.”
“You know what I mean, mister.”
She placed her hands on the edge of the table and pushed back against the booth, looking at me with a refusing twinkle.
“In the Queen E?” I protested, recognizing the disadvantage of confessing my own underdeveloped idea.
“Well, I don’t know,” she argued, looking away. “Guys are always trying… It’s like there’s nothing else.”
“Well, I’m not. Obviously. I also like you as a friend.”
A question rattled in my head: exactly where are you going with this?
There was no point in a blanket denial. I’d already known her long enough to have felt around a little. A lie would land with a thud on the tabletop in front of us. Did I mean it, about liking her as a friend? In my own, multiple-meaning, adolescent, muddled way, I supposed I did, and went with that.
“I’m not saying I’d never want to do it with you. I’ve thought about it, but I think they’d frown on it here in the diner.”
She smiled, flattered but safe.
“I’d probably frown on it myself, no matter where we are,” she noted.
“And, I’m leaving town as soon as we finish here...”
“Well, I don’t think you could get me to, anyway,” she answered confidently. “I’m not be as easy as you guys all seem to think.”
“Is that a challenge?”
“Might be,” she twinkled.
My attachments were broken easily. There were probably too many, none strong. After we’d eaten our burgers and bantered long enough for the conversation to sag, I hugged and kissed her as we stood on the sidewalk.
“Write to me,” she insisted, “even if you’re never coming back.”
“Okay, I’ll write to you about all my big adventures,” I agreed, wondering briefly if she was as aware of my not knowing her street address as I was.
But she’d turned away quickly, and all I had for clues were her thin frame and small ass, both retreating in graceful anonymity, poetry in skinny motion.
What would it ever be like to get inside another person’s experience? What would it be like to know? Girls especially seemed to perch in the remotest venues.
I lifted my suitcase and started walking across the several downtown intersections between me and the highway, remembering that I wasn’t even sure how to spell her last name, let alone get inside her life.
Or inside her blue jeans.
I crossed Court Street, busy with shoppers on a nice day and kept going down Washington toward the river, the well-weathered, soiled brick buildings, their first floors set aside for retail, forming an unremarkable canyon. What difference did that or any of this make? I wasn’t ever returning. All my friendships were over, even if only I knew about it for now. From California, I’d write Lizzie a letter and tell her I was gone. Maybe, probably not, she’d feel like she’d lost something. Most likely, she’d accept it with that airy glide over the surfaces she’d mastered. I’d write to Sandi too. She’d dumped me for another guy but never quite brought herself to cut me off entirely. At dances, where she always wandered in late, some new boyfriend in tow, she’d often pick me as the first tool with which to make him jealous. That was flattering enough to earn her a couple of pages. I wasn’t sure if I’d ever write to my brothers, my sister or my father. I might just let them wonder what became of me. In some future year, I’d pop up out of nowhere on Christmas to show off the man I’d become, no longer drubbed by their derision. In the next year alone, I expected to visit distant parts of the world, places I knew about only from books and school. I’d see and explore whatever ports my ship crossed an ocean to reach. If I ever saw any of the people I was leaving again, I’d be different, accelerated out of the adolescent space we’d shared. And Joyce, my going away partner or not, was a minor player, someone from whom to separate, a girl with whom I could imagine leaving a memory. I was pretty sure I’d never write to her, even if she came running down the block now and handed me a paper with her address meticulously written on it.
I was off!
After I’d crossed the bridge, stopping to watch the muddy rivers merge downstream one last time, and reached the south side of the Susquehanna, I dropped my suitcase in the gravel beside me. I was at my real starting point now. I extended my thumb toward cars speeding up for Vestal Parkway, released from the precautions of residential neighborhoods. I caught a couple of short hops and, then, near the bridge that offered an exit into Owego, a longer ride with a guy who told me he was going all the way to Chautauqua. Although that was well off on the western edge of the state, beyond anywhere I’d ever been, I misunderstood him to say, "Chicago," and relaxed into the passenger seat.
"Let me know when we get there!" I said.
Whoever believed that going halfway across the country would be so easy? Well, for one, a gullible kid who, in 1965, actually thought Chicago was halfway across the country when it was really no farther than a marginal foray into a more complex world.
"Did you know that the oldest creature in the world just died, oh, maybe, a month ago?" my driver asked, after a while, barely taking his eyes off the road.
"Really? The oldest?"
"Yeah, I think in Togo, mmm, some African place like that. A turtle! A hard shell must protect you. You live longer," he declared.
A redhead, he wore a crewcut, and he was clean-shaven. His resting expression was a slight smile.
"A turtle," I pondered aloud. "How old?"
"Jeez, like two hundred or something. I think he was around long before modern history. Before cars! Ha! What in hell did we do before cars? Walk? Where'd you say you were going? California? You can't walk to California, can you?" he concluded with rhetorical flourish.
"I guess I'd need a covered wagon," I volunteered.
“What would it be like to be a turtle living two hundred years in some zoo? Jeez! Well, you get your room and board for free, anyway.”
We passed a couple of hours that way, tossing small talk back and forth across the cushy front seat, meshing our mutual knowledge about the world, before I realized he was going only as far as Chautauqua, still a thousand miles in a gathering dusk from Chicago. I'd be back on the side of the road, hunting my next ride, sooner than expected. In the meantime, I enjoyed looking out the window at a sunny rural day, passing all the farms and little towns that Route 17 divided, connected and supplied as it headed toward it's demise near the shore of Lake Erie. We sped through Boliver and Angelica and picked our way across Wellsville. After Portville and Carrollton, Olean and Salamanca seemed like teeming metropolises. These were like the upstate places I'd been around all my life, but foreign, distinct, different, full of people I'd never met and lives I'd never known. A beautiful, late spring sun cast a lazy glow over intermittent interruptions in the green. Every once in a while, a stream or a small river joined us, running over rocks below the road, sparkling and rippling. My ride coasted along like a waking dream.
After being dropped off west of Jamestown, the proud birthplace of Lucille Ball, I caught a couple of short hitches before landing at a truck stop in the most prosaically misnamed town in all of the Western World: North East, positioned–guess where?–just across the border in the far west corner of Pennsylvania, after the declining foothills finally finished falling off into the basin of the Great Lakes, along mighty US 20, a village sliced through with railroad tracks and vibrating with road-heavy rigs. After a second meal of a burger and fries for the day, I positioned myself where the cone shaped interference from a roadside light interrupted the darkness, hoping to grab the attention of truckers flying by on the main route south along the fringe of the lakes, the Midwest's northern frontier.
So late into the night and dark that I'd lost my anchor in time, the ordinary evening pouring down a drain toward something that felt like forever, when my separation from the past grew almost disorientingly present, a guy in a small truck picked me up, and we rode across Ohio and into Indiana where the rising sun spilled yellow light generously over Saturday morning. He'd given me a ride because he hated driving alone all night, and I remember listening for hours after he dialed in this great radio station broadcasting out of Fort Wayne. The music, at first lonely and distant, came and went, then finally sustained its connection. I must've slept, leaning against the passenger door, from time to time, cruising across the flat land, because in the full light of day I felt refreshed and eager again, thrilled I’d made it away and into the following morning. This, it struck me heroically, was the freest I’d ever been.
Saturday, south and west of Fort Wayne, on the main route to Chicago before the Interstate system was anywhere near complete, heat and humidity rose up early over the scattered farms. Cylindrical swirls of dirt jumped up and danced along furrows in the plowed fields. Now and then, a barely discernible farmer, his color and outfit blending with the fields, walked into view, crossing between house and barn. People closer to town were up and about their business, just as they must've been back in Binghamton, back in a previous time zone. By now, my family might've realized I’d gone, maybe forever, with no clear idea yet of where I was bound. Maybe, they guessed I'd just gone off to stay at Denny's again, in some new or renewed protest I had yet to make clear, or ended up wandering around with some other, relatively useless buddy all night. Although my brothers and my sister knew something about the developing contacts between Mom and me, hitchhiking all the way to California, alone, wouldn't be among their suspicions. I took from that a sort of smug satisfaction. I'd leave them guessing and never see any of them again. I'd be the renegade, the black sheep, the happy rebel taking sides with our runaway Mom, the younger brother who never came back.
As the day broadened, I ate breakfast in another diner at an intersection of major roadways, somewhere short of Fort Wayne, taking my total net worth down to slightly more than five bucks. While I was in the restaurant and musing about how long that could last and how I might get some more, a radio playing from a shelf on the far side of a passthrough to the kitchen kept interrupting the C&W to repeat threatening weather descriptions. Violent storms were expected to break the heat in the afternoon. There was a possibility of tornadoes. Some very level voice came on to recite the standard precautions and warn that it was dangerous to take them lightly, but we should still go on with our lives, as always, until any of the well-known signs–boiling clouds climbing up over the plains like the walls of hell, a gathering wind rising to a howl, or St. Peter appearing to point gravely toward the Pearly Gates–became apparent against the normally placid backdrop of Midwestern flatlands.
I'd read frightening stories during my brief and disgraced career as a newspaper delivery boy about storms raking destruction across the defenseless populations of the Midwest and the Great Plains. I remembered shrinking in fear with my brothers in front of our television as the opening sequences from the Wizard of Oz delivered us to a wildly tormented Kansas, but that Kansas was one we could easily escape. Just walk to the fridge during a commercial and pour a glass of Kool-Aid, lemon-lime, my favorite. Now, stuck in reality, I scanned the western horizon for approaching clouds, although it was still early, for any sign of changing weather. Back home, when the sudden, powerful storms of spring barreled in, I'd stood defiantly on our front porch and watched the gray and black billows race over treetops while thunder and wind surged. From my perch halfway up the sloping valley, the swirling, turbulent clouds seemed to tumble off the top of the forest’s crest. All the leaves were wrenched backward, their undersides rattling into view in a sign I'd been taught to interpret as a harbinger of the severest violence. I'd stay on my porch with the wind rippling my shirt until the rain started to blow in under the eaves in bursts of chilling moisture. Inside, I'd watch through water-streaked windows as it blew itself out and hazy blue sky emerged amid puffs of white and gray. With a little twist of fate, you might catch a decent rainbow stretching its bands over the valley floor that spread north out of Pennsylvania.
On this day in Indiana, I tried to remember what the game plan was if you got caught in the path of an approaching tornado. What was your recourse when you had no shelter to run under? Something reminded me that you were supposed to dive face first into a roadside gutter, a less than appealing notion, assuming you had such a ditch handy in the first place. Maybe I could hold out in some diner instead and continue drinking coffee with other disenfranchised strangers, as I was doing now.
Over the course of the morning, a couple of rides took me into Illinois and up to the busy perimeter of Chicago. The heart of the big city, the smelly hog butcher to the world, about which I knew only the Cubs, the White Sox and a little Carl Sandberg, was at least twenty miles to the north. I couldn't see a single tall building, something I was hungry for, but the hum and congestion of urban energy built quickly. Ironically, then, my next ride was with an ancient, hunched, skinny man who refused to punch the speedometer above twenty-five, no matter how many drivers blew horns and shouted threats around him. He got me all the way to St. Louis, cutting through the endless farms between the two great cities, following the trail south of some of our country's earliest explorers, Marquette and Joliet, remembered mainly because of the rhyme, taking the direction of the Mississippi River.
Looking out the passenger side window while the old guy pawed his way through congested streets full, it seemed, of impatient teenagers with unrestricted horns, riding shotgun for Methuselah, was both funny and embarrassing and about equally. I felt certain that, like an overwhelmed bumper car driver, he’d soon smack into a few contesting vehicles, much too slowly to cause serious damage, forcing me to slouch off on my own again while they exchanged driver’s licenses, disconnected by choice, yet by the time he'd maneuvered us, graced perhaps by a hand from God, to an entrance ramp for Route 66, I'd achieved what I'd later in life think of as a Richard Feynman position, an elevated space where I was immune to anyone else’s opinions and, thus, free to fully appreciate my experience.
Somewhere back on the more congested streets, while trying to maneuver through the confusion and impatience threatening to claim him, the old guy had asked me if I knew how to drive, his focus still intensely out over the hood, managing with both hands firmly on the wheel. Thinking he was challenging my appreciation for his skills, I quickly replied, "Yes." Then, trying to one-up me, he demanded to know if I also had a license, and again, I lied with classical self-assurance. I hadn’t grown up dueling with three older brothers in a neighborhood full of kids, most of them older than me, without learning some fencing. My skills at personal discernment were, however, less mature. What the old guy had actually been doing was pre-qualifying me to be his driver down America's Main Street, Route 66, as far as I was willing to go in the direction of Arkansas. Initially, my plan had been to follow the blue line on my map straight through Illinois and Iowa, heading across the Great Plains until the Rockies ruptured the wheat and corn fields, then hopping over and coasting down toward the ocean near San Francisco. But the delicious opportunity to spend an afternoon riding, especially with the threat of tornadoes rumbling up the alley, convinced me that a more southerly route might work just as well. "Sure," I agreed, when he offered, just before we joined the southerly migration, and climbed confidently behind the wheel. My experience so far amounted to having driven on city streets once, thanks to Lou who took me out soon after I passed the test for my learner's permit. I remembered him instructing me about courtesy, a lesson I’ve kept in my mind to this day, and about not overestimating and making my turns too short, then about not underestimating and making them too wide. I’d also put in some miles while tearing up a muddy field behind Billy Green's house. His father had given him a clunker, thinking he'd benefit from driving experiences in a situation where the only likely damages were aesthetic. My best friend for a few months, Billy laughed in the passenger seat while I spun in the mud, flooring the gas pedal without penalty.
But that one, real driving lesson had taken place six months earlier, on a summer evening before my first major family falling out, and by that time, my father had already grown so weary of sharing his car with my brothers that his willingness to see me in the driver’s seat was tempered by a keen sense of personal economy and common sense. My teenage brothers were wearing his used car out, and one of us might soon wrap it around a tree. Considering history and family prejudice, he strongly and wrongly suspected it might be me and never once took me out to navigate the white lines as my instructor. My skills at driving then appreciably less developed than those of my personal discernment, I gathered up my not yet reasonably aged self-confidence along with my generally poor judgment when it came to adventure, and set the old guy’s tires spinning in the direction of St. Louis.
It surprised me how easy the driving became, how automatic it felt once I got my speed up to sixty. We cruised down the mostly four-lane strip cut through the agricultural middle of Illinois, this highway once a sort of paved Erie Canal, a feeder for farming products and a conduit for adventurers and opportunists opening up the West. There were plenty of other travelers on this sunny Saturday afternoon, and I found a channel in which I could travel with them in a kind of monkey see, monkey do attraction. Until, we crossed the Mississippi into St. Louis, the only real hazard I was forced to deal with was a strange, automotive tropism that inclined me to glide in the direction of other vehicles, both faster and slower, passing in my direction. The old guy even had to chide me once about "getting a little close to the Ford over here."
"Merging," I thought to myself, "merging," without the slightest idea of what it meant.
Although forty years later and in a new century, I've tried hard to raise it from the embedded past, I have never been able to recall the old guy's name. I'm sure I knew it. It was Henry or Charles or something else a little ordinary and old-fashioned. He even wrote it down for me before we parted. By the time we got to that, I’d heard the outline of his autobiography and spent almost a full twenty-four hours with him. His name was something plain and simple and right out of the end of American history, like that, some historical or family name bestowed with feeling in those dwindling days before the educated and the careerists took over and polluted the last surviving Western revolution. I thought about faking a name, as I've done sometimes to respectfully disguise identities, but that's not the same. "The old guy" it is and always will be, acknowledging his most salient characteristic.
So, the old guy settled quietly and securely in his passenger seat, now that he'd obtained a driver, and talked about himself and why he'd undertaken this journey alone. We were more intuitive and accepting in those days; so, I never thought to ask if he'd embarked, certain he'd meet me or someone like me or that he'd be helped in completing this drive for which he was so ill-equipped. I guess I took it for granted as I once thoughtlessly did whenever the streams of life, those fluid or sluggish, fast or slow, complex or simple, came together routinely and without fanfare to create an anomaly. A widower now after a long marriage, the old guy's destination was Hot Springs, Arkansas, a renowned spa where he'd take in the restorative mineral waters. He'd had surgery for lung cancer, and when he slouched in his seat, his size and stature waning with the passing afternoon, the empty space in his chest was emphasized. A stranger to death and any ravages of sicknesses and old age, I took in these facts as historical notes concerning what may be survived or beaten. We were moving along together and none of the infirmities in our pasts would keep us from getting each other down the road toward our mythical destinations, his the transcendent healing of Hot Springs, mine the romance of The Golden Gate.
I'd never have expected a cancer survivor, especially a lung cancer survivor, to smoke, but smoke the old guy did, the masculine, unfiltered kind like my father carried around in his breast pocket and plenty of them. He smoked, I supposed, because that was what a man of his generation did, and he wasn't about to let medical science displace the context of his journey. He was alone toward the end of his life, unspoken loneliness an incessant gesture, oblivious–as we all were–to the fact that secondhand smoke might’ve taken the life and certainly contributed to the demise of his lifetime partner. Change was not going to descend on him, not now when he'd already crossed the finish line and was coasting to salvation. Besides, I smoked too. Smoking was also something a man of my generation did. "By the time I get cancer, they'll have a cure for it," we used to boast, too full of youth and that unflagging sense that life was unending to believe otherwise. At a bar along the highway, where the old guy insisted we stop and where an amused bartender fixed us both up with cups of coffee, he forgot his crumpled pack on the counter, and from there on as far as St. Louis, shared the few left in mine. We each later got fresh packs in Missouri, cheaper than I was used to because the South hadn’t yet seen the wisdom of enacting a sin tax.
After nightfall, we crossed the black Mississippi, entering the Gateway to the West. I remember our arrival so distinctly because the first thing I did after crossing that incredible water was drive without pause through consecutive red lights, the great state of Missouri having elected to position theirs on poles to the side and above the curb, rather than hanging from cables over the middle of the road.
“Best keep an eye on those lights,” the old guy advised as I whisked passed the second with just enough awareness to catch a flash of red.
He soon located lodgings for us at an area staked out with small rental cabins and directed me to park in their lot. Treated to a sit down dinner, I fell sound asleep on a comfortable cot and let the exhaustion rinse away from my muscles and bones. It felt like waves and tides washing out of me into the nothingness sharing my bed. Hundreds of miles of driving through unfamiliar country, in the company of a man I hadn't known and would never see again, settled behind me like fog and dust.
In the morning, over traditional breakfasts of eggs and sausage, the old guy tried one last time to persuade me to take him the rest of the way to Hot Springs, where the warm, bubbling waters would restore his optimism and soothe his bones. But I'd gone too far off course already and hadn't yet accepted that goals were nothing more than points of reference, not fate. I was off to see Mom and to let the U.S. Navy escort me around the world. After handing me some cash for my trouble in chauffeuring him to St. Louis along with a slip of paper containing his telephone number and future address near the bubbling, curative waters in Hot Springs, just in case I came back this way, the old guy left me at an intersection on U.S. 40 in Kirkwood, a town with a name identical to the one where I'd last lived, but different, very different, on a mild, leafy Sunday morning with little early traffic, just stragglers and families headed to church sharing the roads.
I felt comfortable in a way I didn’t think I ever had, and I thought I could sit there forever, meditating, if not pulled by necessity. In a way that was strange to experience, I’d plateaued.
In childhood days of emerging awareness, I'd believed that Sundays, God's days, were supposed to be mild, paradisiacal days. I struggled with conflict whenever rain or cold or snow saturated a morning set aside for worship at the Methodist church Dad drove us to, built up on a bank over a crossroad. There the bellowing Rev rewarded us with coins for New Testament verses memorized, and his chesty wife howled The Old Rugged Cross while pounding mercilessly on a piano. Indifferent or dull days were worse, and if I'd been precocious, I believe the tortured aesthetics would've gotten to me, faith-wise, long before the disenchanting weather.
Today was one easily accepted as God’s day. The storms so confidently predicted, back in Fort Wayne, had never boomed across the prairie, but the air had been rinsed, nevertheless. No place ever smelled sweeter than Kirkwood, Missouri, did that day, with God everywhere and the blessings of my life so apparent I just missed getting a fix on them or understanding them as phenomenal.
All that day, I jogged on across Missouri and Kansas, inching along the map in Sunday driver fashion. When I reached Kansas City in the middle of a warming afternoon, a man driving his family picked me up on a highway that curled through downtown. He positioned me in the back seat of his overheated station wagon with some of the children, and after they pulled away a few miles later, I realized that the blue sweater I'd been carrying over my shoulder had ridden off to some unknown suburb with them, never to return to the possession of a young New Yorker in a newer world. I loved that damn sweater, a hand-me-down, powder blue, loose and warm. I thought of myself as good-looking in it, as my brother who originally owned it had been, but for the moment, I was more concerned about negative developments in the springtime weather. These thoughts soon evaporated in the anonymous vagaries of rural Kansas, the endless flat fields and the roads so straight and uninterrupted that, for the first time in my life, I experienced optical illusions like travelers in the Sahara suffered, shimmering pools of water looming ahead on the road like the ghosts of lost oceans. For a while, my drivers were about as interesting as the terrain, taciturn and occupied by the challenges of the road ahead.
The things I remember from my daylight hours in Kansas were these: The land, just beginning to awaken with spring, uninterrupted by the eruptions of plate tectonics or by the residues from exhausting glaciers, curved only at the crest of the horizon. The road ahead was marked by isolated straight objects, like fat pegs, that after a long approach gradually exposed themselves as grain elevators. Up close, the tall, bulky storage containers, adorned with brand names from one or another of the nation's food giants, were surrounded by mini-towns, a grocery, a gas station, maybe a house or two, a rutted, dirt lot, symbols of extreme singularity and loneliness, and the moment you escaped their gravitational pull, another poked up on the next horizon, like a nail in the heartland. I remember how intensely Abilene smelled, even from a distance, as we took the bypass that circled the more heavily trafficked sections and the stockyards that were the raw staging areas for American steak dinners. Finally, I remember climbing up the exit ramp at Junction City, daylight fading to indiscriminate gray, and sitting alone at a diner ruling the intersection, eating a giant slice of strawberry cream pie so delicious it still tickles my mouth, forty years later and well into a century with more change than even one-hundred years ought to deliver. Our country could do that to you then, brand you with exciting anomalies, just as it could turn out James Dean, Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly. It can't anymore, not any of that. We’re all products now, all the way up and all the way down.
As night spilled over the plains, an older, wiry driver who, apparently unknown to himself, was as queer as the day was long provided me with transportation as far as the outskirts of Salina, but first, he insisted on searching me for weapons, lingering a little too long in arriving at the truth that my balls were too soft and round to be bullets. As other cars whistled by us on the highway, he explained apologetically that he had to be careful “these days. You know how things are,” leading me to the conclusion that one thing he'd yet to discover was the truth of what it meant to find excitement in bouncing some young guy's testicles along a darkened roadside with the emptiness of the prairies spreading around like eternity, like James Joyce's darkness of fear above, and no walls nearby to bounce off, no road rage, no irritating strangers listening in next door. Not long after I popped out of his car, relieved at having given up no more than the kind of cheap feel I'd gotten away with on girls, but feeling much less secure in the land of Dick and Perry than I had anywhere else, I got my last ride of the day from one more generous guy who provided me with comfortable lodging for the night and, more importantly, his telephone to make a collect call to Mom to report on my progress across what was becoming a much broader continent than my studying the maps had suggested.
My host was a muscled, crewcut, extroverted Air Force pilot. He was stationed at a base outside Salina and in the last days of waiting for paperwork formalizing his reassignment to Germany. He lived by himself in a big, mostly empty house, which he offered to share for the night when he heard my story. Two roommates had recently been transferred overseas, and there hadn’t been time to line up replacements.
“We all may end up in Asia, the way things are going,” he told me.
“What’s over there?”
“A war. A small one, right now, but I hear they think we might have gear up to stop the communists from taking over.”
“Taking over what? That country or us?”
“Someday, maybe, but if we can stop them there, we might never have to stop them here.”
“I’m going to be joining the Navy when I get out West,” I said. “They told me they’d put me on a carrier with my oldest brother, so we might both be over there for it. We might even be on the same ship.”
“Hm,” he shrugged, paused. “Like most important things in the world, I guess we'll just have to wait and see. Don’t put too much confidence in what recruiters tell you, though. It’s their job...”
After a hot bath, I stood naked beside the tub and watched the filthy residue from travel sink into the Kansas drain, mixing Indiana and Ohio and other souvenirs from the Midwest with markers from the end of the plains. Then, I sat in clean underwear on the side of a neatly made bed and called Mom, collect, out in San Pablo.
She sounded disoriented, as if she'd been dozing on the couch, a television flickering images into a darkened room, the day pulled down into night.
“Judy and I were just looking at a map, darlin' boy, and wondering how far you'd gotten. Looks like you're about halfway,” she speculated. “I hope it doesn't take three more days to get here. I can't wait to see you!”
This struck me as rehearsed, but I didn’t care. The rehearsing had been done for my benefit.
My heart jumped and sank in a couple of locations. I loved my mother, a simple fact long made awkward by circumstances. Years after her disappearance, I remained as much a momma's boy as when I sat mesmerized, in love, watching her hang laundry with wind in her hair on a sunny morning.
I imagined seeing her again after almost a decade and felt almost weightless, restored to childhood. But I'd optimistically convinced myself that Chicago, now two days behind me, would be the halfway point, not this yawning stretch of farm-inflected Kansas. I unfolded my map again across the bed after we’d hung up and traced the line of highway all the way to California, trying to get a handle on the real meaning of the topographical colors fading from green to brown and the dramatic highlights providing a backdrop for the “Rocky Mountains,” script angling south to north. The images depressed and worried me. They were fictions, sure, but fictions must be dealt with like anything else. Common sense is never 100% suppressible, but my instinctive self-confidence, sometimes a mask for simple bad judgment, kept telling me it was too late to go back, no matter what else was true. Both directions offered comparable challenges, and old was never as good as new. American to the bone, I knew there was no question of my continuing westward into realities no paper map could ever expose.
I could only guess. Maybe my head was stuck in a trough of existential exhaustion. Busy brain cells strained for connections, shortcutting for economic reasons. Or, my faculties for recording new experiences might already have overspent their budget in elasticity. All the things in my immediate world were never before seen. The fact is, anyway, that I remember very little from my last day hitchhiking, panhandling for transportation, across the plains, except its concluding event. I can't even recall saying, “Goodbye,” to the generous pilot who shared his depopulated home with me, a guy who, within a few weeks might be training to drop bombs onto civilian targets in Southeast Asia. I’d floated through a restorative night curled like a fetus in a real bed. Did we talk about the future some more while eating breakfast together at his table or at a roadside diner? Did he wish me luck when he dropped me off at a good hitchhiking spot near the edge of town? Who knows? All I remember clearly is that I got safely across the remainder of Kansas and entered Colorado with only a few memorable incidents. Cities known to me from TV westerns–Wichita, Dodge City, Tucson–appeared on road signs before what looked like a bank of clouds finally broke the rounded off western fringe of the prairie.
“The Rockies,” my driver explained, nodding respectfully.
As afternoon light failed, the giants grew larger, expanding as darkness swallowed up the road to Pueblo, in mountainous, remote Colorado.
Like a passenger in a vessel floating down a persistent stream that, instead of gathering momentum, loses it, I accepted a ride right straight through Pueblo and, fresh out of angels, soon landed in a place where I was as alone as I'd ever been. I sat on my suitcase in the dark on the shoulder of a two-lane highway that rounded the base of Pike's Peak. I had a sense of being drawn up toward the distant summit. There were few passing cars and no streetlights to make me visible. In the strange, faint aura glowing around me, my form was eerily present, a fact about which I felt I had to keep checking. My intuition showed me that I could become a ghost. One small gesture, a decision, and vanished forever. Only isolated do you learn such things. With my powder blue sweater lost to an anonymous family in a station wagon in Kansas City, the chill of the mountains threatened misery. I had no choice, still, but to–as they say–keep on keepin' on. It was more like a dream than anything else, one of those abstract journeys into an imagined world in which I was an interested observer and a director when required. I'd cruised through such dreams before and already had enough exposure to Freud to act as my own analyst. These dreams were time wasters, entertainments, although you could deduce certain facts about yourself from your choices, such as an unfulfilled, carnal interest in Latin girls, especially twins. But this had only the seeming of a dream. I really was alone in the cold, at the base of Pike's Peak, with my lust for Latin girls and not another familiar face within a thousand miles. No beam of morning light was going to awaken me to a breakfast of Cheerios afloat in milk and sugar. The Colorado sky seemed vast, filled up with stars against a deep blue-black hole, cut clean at the edges by mountaintops as remote as the moon.
I'd been left off at an intersection, one not important enough to justify the expense of streetlights, and although I was a good distance from any town, interior lights from a scattering of nearby houses leaked out into the darkness in softly geometric, yellowish shafts. From a structure that I guessed, from its slightly perceivable, boxy profile, to be a house-trailer came music I recognized from my own collection of 45s. Sound waves carried Gene Pitney's It Hurts To Be In Love, like a tinny fluid, up a small incline and across the road. Walking and thinking my way onto the margins of an adult mindset, I'd already concluded that it was impossible for an individual to be in love alone and thought the song delusional.
“It hurts to be in love when the only one you love turns out to be someone not in love with you...”
It didn’t happen like that. The standard romance of the victim took you in the wrong direction. It was a deceptive shortcut that offered no other advantage.
For as long as I can remember, I've seen my life as a thread, not one straight or without knots necessarily, but still a thread in motion that can get jammed for want of its next direction. I stand in indefinite space, free to turn anywhere and, like the traveler in Robert Frost's poem, whatever I do next influences everything else for the rest of my days. Now, I know that it's possible, even likely, that every moment actually has those qualities, not only those in which I’m stalled, but looking back, some just stand more naked.
The night was moonless, the kind of dark where the margin between asleep and awake dwindles and your physical self, first, wavers and, then, expands to be absorbed. I could only guess what time it was. Not really, really late, I decided, because there still seemed too much activity nearby, too many lights lit up. I expected deep night, out here in the mountains, to be seriously dark, like death. Detached from sensory contact, my mind must've warped inward, sailing without physical constraints or necessary structures. Maybe I imagined Lizzie's beautiful, tanned face, her half-smile turned up, the way it caught my attention the first time I saw her looking toward me. Some ancient beam switched on, electrified by a forgotten self that knew and loved her somewhere else in history. I imagined us walking horse shit scarred streets in a medieval town that to us was modern, and then, even then, leaning close, we whispered blasphemies in the shadows of powerhouse steeples that cowered the crowds in our isolated village. We struggled through days, not well linked to the time, until we fell off. Maybe, like electrons at opposite ends of the universe, our connection held, waiting for something to move. Eons passed. More likely, I'd created a composite, as my identity hardened, of my match, my ideal girl. Maybe I recognized Lizzie from some other day our chemistries infused, retaining some marker that popped up when the right sequence emerged again. We were two of many on the varnished floor of a dimly lit gymnasium where weekend dances were held. I got my courage up and returned, gesturing from twenty feet away. Lizzie obediently and clownishly giant-stepped across the gleaming hardwood as if we already knew each other and were reenacting a teasing game. At the end of that night, I laid her down in the back of Barney's car and, as he drove us through shadowy city streets, tried–unsuccessfully, according to her–to find her small breast inside her insulated coat. There was an indefiniteness in this that we never shed. I might, next, have remembered the even more curious Melanie, the freckled Irish eccentric who chatted on the phone with me while claiming to be entrenched behind her family’s console TV set. Her barrier against the world might've included an overstuffed chair, the way she described the location, but my best recollection says,“television,” maybe because it scored with me as so far out. I can still see the power cord dropping toward the floor and glowing vacuum tubes through the grid over the back panel. A chair might be a little strange, but it was still on the charts. Hiding out or lurking behind one of those old giant consoles was not. On a raw, snowless winter night, after my romantic-sexual self clashed at a dance with her inaccessible (to me) iconoclast, our mutual attraction-distraction was such that I followed her home, through otherwise empty neighborhoods, maintaining a weird four foot gap, cruising weightlessly, step by step, along slate sidewalks, like magnets with scrambled fields of alignment, apart and together, from one cone of streetlight through shadows to the next, the undistinguished residential sidewalks empty, except for Melanie and me. She was so different and our relationship so puzzlingly unique, impressions from it stuck with me for years, decades really, in spite of its actual brevity. I only knew her a little, but I remember her Celtic, lightly freckled face pretty well, I believe, to this day. Strangeness endures, and who the hell knows what she planted in my highly elastic brain?
Another puzzle on that night in Colorado was the question of what sparked all this thinking in the first place, mysteries ruminating about themselves. Why was I pulled toward city streets and wandering in urban haunts, gathering, thinking, gathering again? What was there really to know? Was it right to expect to unravel something out of all the details? How did the transition from John R. Tunis to Nietzsche and Emerson get floated? When others seemed so disinterested in abstract mysteries, why did they galvanize me? What did I have to gain, other than fuel for my dream of being a savvier than anyone else renegade? Was it good or not so good? Wherever my speculations were leading me, when the cops arrived that spring night, all of it retreated to the recesses, and I instantly reemerged in the world as a runaway again.
The Colorado Highway Patrol car did a U-turn and eased off the road in front of me, top light alternating renditions of white, then red, headlights illuminating my unexceptional surroundings for the first time.
The Fun We Had While Screwing Up
It's not about winning and losing. It's about getting your heart broken and your hands muddy in pursuit of real experience, risking real mistakes.
More to read, related pages:
- Resisting The Viet Nam War 1968-Excerpt
In the heat of summer, resisting the war against enormous pressure took guts and foolishness in equal doses. This excerpt from my novel illustrates.
- My Hippie Summer, 1968
Not everyone has an experience that changes his or her life, so altering it that it can never be the same? I did in the Hippie Summer of 1968. 1967 was the Summer of Love when the counterculture turned San Francisco's Haight Ashbury into a new nation
- The Sixties: If You Remember Them, You Weren't There
The impact America and the world felt when hippie counterculture hit the mainstream has reverberated for decades. But as often as not, the descriptions of those times are wrong. Let's take a fresh look at the Sixties.
- David Stone, Writer - Biography
This excerpt from my novel, Traveling Without a Passport, stands alone as a reflection of a time in recent American history that's gone and won't be repeated. Traveling Without a Passport is a sequel to The Garden of What Was And Was Not. A final novel in the trilogy was published this year.
Other published excerpts:
Excerpt from The Garden of What Was and Was Not:
A related article: If You Remember The Sixties You Weren't There
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