Chapter 9, Flying Lessons

Chp 9 Apollo rocketSaturday, April 1st

By now I’d become a connoisseur of roadside ambiance; interstates leave a burnt rubber aftertaste and roar like a gritty ocean; rural roads smell of grasses and dust blown across forgotten landmarks; city streets offer an urban bouquet of exhaust mixed with cigarette smoke. My asphalt palate reached the height of its refinement while waiting five sweltering hours at the intersection of I-55 and I-20 in Jackson, Mississippi.

Chapter 12 – Guide My Feet

 Chp 12 - Southern ChurchHighway 98 kept me on the Gulf coast and I’d spent Wednesday night sleeping in a beach house still under construction, where I was lulled by the gentle rhythms of a sleeping sea.

In the early morning I found myself on the western outskirts of Panama City, Florida, and I wasn’t having any luck landing a ride, so I started walking east, holding out my thumb. The air carried a warm hint of flowers. After several miles I reached the thick of town, and figured getting a ride would be easy.

As the afternoon heat swarmed in, hundreds of people looked at me as they drove by, most neutral, others with curiosity, some with disdain; I’d now become accustomed to people staring at me. Another hour passed. So I started walking. The light perfume of flowers that had filled the morning air segued into kitchen exhaust from hamburger stands and the oily scent of baking blacktop.

Chapter 8 – Gentle Direction

chapter 8-marines tatooWest Texas makes the moon look like Eden. The only thing that kept crossing the scabland bearable was my companion—a big, black, badass, US Marine. I don’t recall his first name, but his last name was Studmire.

“Just call me Stud, everyone does.”

Chapter 7 – Body Language and a Talking Knife

 

Another 390 miles cruised by with half a dozen rides when I landed in Las Cruces, New Mexico, and decided to tilt south toward El Paso. The allure of Mexico pulled, but I understood my attraction stemmed from romantic songs—songs that varnished poverty with smooth melodies—so I decided to stay in my home country.

By the time I’d reached the outskirts of El Paso day had run deep into night. Standing at a truck stop, I watched a haze of bugs swarming the light above a lone phone booth. Windows with a yellowed grease film provided a view into a small diner. After entering, I noticed a sign, SHOWERS, above a hallway toward the back. That made me feel comfortable, knowing plenty truckers and vagabonds passed through. While I leaned on the brown Formica counter pock marked with cigarette burns, a pallid waitress walked my way. We made eye contact. The food wasn’t pricy, but with only a little over a hundred bucks and no idea when I’d have more money, I shook my head and closed a menu. She turned away. My comfort, that thin sense of fabricated belonging, shifted to disappointment that I didn’t fit in even here.

Behind the diner a railway switching yard stretched into the featureless night. No trains waited. I walked into the darkness, reaching a low stack of railroad ties and sat with a thud. The scent of their creosote crept around me. Taking stock, I saw myself sitting hunched next to empty train tracks, in the middle of the night, alone, casting a muted shadow from the diner’s distant light.

My harmonica called. The tracks only wanted to hear blues, and I delivered. Slow quiet notes emerged as a prelude to wake the dark. Gathering steam, I blew howls, not like a coyote’s but of a stabbed man, and the screams filled my empty arena. A slow bass line emerged, my toes tapped time, and a muddy river of sound flowed. Finally, low guttural rolls roamed across the switching yard. I felt validated, purified; the song belonged. This wasn’t a performance: no applause rose as I blew the last growling notes, no one stood impressed, no admiring looks—only silent tumbleweeds lying crippled on their journeys to nowhere. But as I slipped the harp back into its pouch, I managed a broad smile. I’d told the tracks how I felt, and created a moment that let my emotions roam with the wind.

Relaxed, I looked around and walked through the parking lot of trucks and trailers. When at truck stops, I tended to walk in front of the rumbling line of cabs. That kept me in the open where I could look through the windshields and see if there were any truckers, maybe ask for a ride. After crossing the expansive lot, I decided to take a shortcut back to the rail yard and walked between the trailers. Their thin dark allies reverberated with thumping engines and I disappeared into them as if swallowed by a sheet metal dragon. Walking through one corridor I noticed the silhouette of a man at the other end. He stood still for a moment facing me. His hunched shoulders, arms at his sides and feet spread, created only a black figure. To him I must have also looked like an empty silhouette. The trailers hugged so close together my shoulders nearly touched both sides, and I figured he’d wait until I emerged before he entered. Rather than waiting, the form started walking toward me.

This doesn’t seem right.

Why doesn’t he just wait?

I was on the Mexican border.

Where’s he going?

There’s nothing back here.

I knew there were some people, desperate people, without any money, crossing into the US.

I’m sure he can see me.

No one could see us.

Why is he still walking?

I stopped, but he kept coming.

I need to do something.

Turning around entered my mind, but by now I didn’t want to turn my back on him.

The engines thumped relentlessly and amplified the thoughts pounding in my head. Advancing quickly, but still silent, he closed to within about ten feet. I slid my right hand over the snap on my knife sheaf and unbuckled it, knowing it’d only take a second to unleash the blade. Fixing my eyes straight ahead, I lowered my center of gravity.

Realizing this would be the first time I’d draw my knife in self-defense gave me a shock, but I didn’t linger on the thought. He could see as I unclipped the leather flap and placed my palm over the knife’s brass butt. When my fingers entered the well rehearsed motions to jerk the handle out, he turned without a word and left with a quick gait. I took my hand off the knife, but left the sheath unbuckled. When I emerged from the dark passage, he’d already vanished.

I patted my knife, and thought once again of Mary Sue. She’d given me the knife mid-way through our senior year, just before I left for Alaska; I’d earned enough credits to graduate early, and three days after the first semester ended I sailed north on the MV Malaspina, abandoning the rest of my senior year. The knife became my best friend while working as a commercial fisherman, and now assumed that role once again, in part because it acted as a touchstone to Mary Sue. She ordered it with my initials, SWT, etched on the brass handle, and the word LIVE engraved into the blade. She knew it remained strapped to my side virtually all the time and that made her worry less. “It’s kind of a selfish gift that way,” she once said. I decided that whenever I returned, I’d pass through Pullman and see her at school. With that decision my muscles relaxed.

No one should be without a knife: mine spread peanut butter, cut cord, opened cans of peaches, cleaned fingernails, slipped corn kernels from the cob, sliced sausage, carved wood, and the threat of its blade kept me intact.

Walking back to the railroad tracks my sharpened senses registered only a few more slow-rolling tumbleweeds. I walked along the rails, away from lights, and sat on the dusty ground. Fatigue led me to a shallow gully where I decided to spend the night. Danger roamed close and I wanted camouflage, so I gathered some tumbleweeds and piled them over my sleeping bag. Pressing the spindly branches together I wove a loose cocoon. As I lay in the bag I thought what might happen if my tumbleweeds blew away in the night, leaving me unaware and exposed. I grabbed my knife and slipped it under my jacket, which doubled as a pillow. This act became a new ritual I performed every night.

Again, I questioned why I decided to leave on this journey. Is this gully dust better than the life I’d left behind? For that matter, was I leaving something behind or searching for something greater? What something? Had I become a running coward or a brave seeker? The questions seemed both monumental and meaningless. No matter what answer I gave, it wouldn’t last; life changed too fast. The only thing I knew for sure was the brief sense of peace I’d felt after playing my harp. Some jostling of the weeds assured me they were secure enough, and I plunged into sleep.

Dawn revealed rusty tracks and piles of rotted railroad ties; no flowers like the morning before. After rolling my bag I hit the road. A lopsided green pickup pulled over.

“Hi,” I said climbing in.

The driver smiled.

“Where you headed?” I asked.

No response.

The color of the truck’s interior matched the ground I’d slept on, with the floor covered in small clods of dirt. Scraps of paper lay on the sun cracked seat. Behind the wheel, my driver sat thick and brown. Black hair sprang from under his sun-bleached baseball cap, and short sleeves revealed muscular forearms. Cracked calluses extended beyond his palms and rounded up the sides of his hands.

Soon I realized the driver didn’t speak English, apparently not a word. Before stopping for me he probably understood there was only a slim chance I spoke Spanish. It seemed he knew we wouldn’t be able to talk, and knowing we’d just sit, he overcame the pending awkward silence to help a stranger. Riding in that dusty cab, I knew that I’d be hard pressed to stop and give someone a ride if I thought they didn’t speak my language.

From the rearview mirror swung a cross on a silver chain where Christ hung ragged, his head bent down. I’d never liked those. To me the little man signaled the driver boasting, “LOOK HOW HOLY I AM! JUST IN CASE YOU DIDN’T NOTICE MY CHRISTIAN GLOW, I’VE GOT JESUS SWINGIN’ IN MY WINDSHIELD.”

Sitting in the stillness, I wondered if that dangling figure made him think of bible stories. It dawned on me maybe he didn’t hang it there to impress others, but to remind himself.

The man pointed out a small business where he worked, or maybe made deliveries. I nodded. He eventually left the highway, pulling into a field. He stopped and smiled. I smiled. Once out of the truck I gave the fender a couple solid pats. His iron horse may be war torn, but it remained strong. This man dropped me alongside horizons of knee-high green bushes. Rich leaves spread in all directions. Everything appeared alive. A clean dry air eased into chest.

This is why I came; to sit mute, and realize good people come in all languages.

Chapter 6 – Mojave Morning

The Mojave doesn’t care to keep its heat after the sun sets. As darkness wore on, the desert’s frigid grip tightened. I found some flat ground hidden from the road and kicked aside fractured shale to smooth a small plot. Without any grasses or moss, I laid my cloth sleeping bag on the cold rocks that pressed bone-on-bone against my hips and shoulders. Shivering turned me into a curled stiff ball, a prisoner of the unyielding night. Since I’d been drinking, I knew the alcohol would cause my body heat to dissipate even faster from my core to my skin, where it would traipse away in a pointless dance. I did take some comfort knowing my chattering teeth and shaking frame generated heat, and that the morning would offer light and warmth. But until then, time moved like a knotted snake.

In time, I don’t know how long, I couldn’t squeeze my thumb and pinky finger together to touch. I knew this signaled an early warning of hypothermia. Alone as space dust, I had to keep shaking. Don’t fall asleep.

Without any distractions, it became too easy to focus on the pain in my cramped muscles. I made a conscious decision to think about something pleasant, something warming, and Mary Sue walked into my thoughts. I remembered us meeting at the main entrance of Nathan Hale High School. We both held campaign posters for our respective runs at senior class president and we both wanted to hang them in the same place, centered over the entryway. My first reaction jerked to tell her I’d designed this sign specifically for this space, and that it should rightfully go there. Before opening my mouth, I looked into her eyes. Mistake. She glowed, and she stood glowing at me. Not a random glow: not a, “I want my way” glow, but a kindred spirit glow. My head spun.

“So… we’re running against each other,” bumbled from my mouth.

She smiled. “Kind of looks that way, unless you’re hanging that sign for another guy named Steve Theme.”

“Yeah, there’s a bunch of us.” We both stepped closer. “What do we do now?”

She came closer still, so that I could hear her hushed words. “I could hang my poster and you could tell me if it’s level.”

I slid forward more, so that our faces, our lips, were only a hand-width apart. “You’re picking up on this whole politics thing pretty quickly.”

We agreed neither of us would hang our posters there. I didn’t make it through the primaries. The field winnowed to two candidates—Mary Sue became class president.

For the following several months after school we’d end up at her house, nuzzling on the couch. Even though I’d lost the election, badly, with each passing day I grew more glad that I’d run. Sitting in each other’s arms, we’d talk about our world that seemed drowning in problems: pollution, overpopulation, crooked politicians—Nixon had resigned because of the Watergate break-in, and the year before his VP, Spiro Agnew, resigned under charges of extortion, tax fraud, bribery and conspiracy; that left Gerry Ford at the helm, the only US president no one ever voted for and who seemed an ineffective klutz: conflict in the middle east, starving African children, gas crisis, the lingering sting of Vietnam…. Talking with me about these miseries grew old for her, but I could relax, and her arms provided a warm haven where I could retreat from the belittling and drunken proclamations of home.

After those few months she decided to attend a clown school at night, so she could perform for kids in hospitals. She became interested in a guy she’d met there and started dating him. I got replaced by a clown.

Taller, darker, and older—of course he had to own a cool clown van painted with graphics of circus scenes and balloons—he drove her around in what I assumed functioned as a four-wheeled bed.

But even with that clown, she and I continued seeing each other as friends, remaining closer than I expected, considering she was dating. She still wanted to see me, and all I wanted was to see her.

My rattling face mashed into the crook of one of my elbows, trying to hold heat.

While waiting for the sun to trek around the earth I fell into hallucinations of standing next to a crackling campfire that sounded like a theater filled with clapping; its warmth loosened my fingers and blanketed my face. I turned and stuck out my butt, happily standing as close to the fire as the heat allowed.

From that haze the shivering faded, even thought it never left. Silence, dark, my throbbing shoulder remained pressed against rock; I was too cold to roll over. Lost between two realities.

Many trips to the campfires and rigid shiverings later, I saw light on distant mountains; mountains that had hidden in the black expanse. I became a cheerleader for a snail race while watching the sun line creep down the slopes. Eventually the bright line graced me. I pulled the bag even tighter.

As warmth fought through the sleeping bag my tight spring uncurled, and after an hour I lay on my back, breathing deeply, smiling. Soaking in my warm friend, and no longer fearing the air, I stood up to get a look around—and became engulfed in spring.

Full bloom bragging rights seemed to be at stake. Plants with wiry green shoots, about a foot high, supported bright yellow flowers with orange centers. They grew everywhere. Large tufts of bluish grass, a couple feet high and wide, were interspersed throughout the flowers.

The smallest plants put on the biggest shows: fire-red petals honed to sword points, yellow stems with hot pink veins strung through them, blue buds and round soft purple leaves. Lowering to my knees gave me a chance to touch them. Some petals felt dark velvet delicate, others seemed forged from orange rusted iron. Colors surrounded me as if a shattered rainbow had fallen to the ground.

Spiny plants assumed shapes and sizes I had never seen. Some offered long gently bending limbs covered by grey fuzz; thin old women waving. Others bore single straight stalks with long pipe-cleaner bristles. Several looked like white fan coral I’d seen on TV, their branches densely packed together and each bifurcated many times.

After a breakfast of peanut butter with thick slabs of cheese on a hoagie roll, and some of the trooper’s water, I looked deep across the hills. Not a single path, no foot trails or wagon ruts had ever cut this expanse. I probably wasn’t the first person on my patch of earth, but wasn’t far from it. I commanded the horizons and their immense freedom unburdened me of my clothes. This kingdom needed exploration, and I decided to venture, wearing only hiking boots.

By now the sun stood fully up, but the temperature didn’t register on my skin. The air and my body had struck a perfect balance, incorporating me into the atmosphere. I walked a mile from the road, where round brown hills led into steep barren gulches. The possibility of snakes or Gila monsters kept me clear of rock outcroppings.

At my farthest point out, before turning back to my sleeping bag and rucksack, I stood still, struck by how rarely we have the opportunity to be only ourselves, and through complete lack of structure, build who we are.

I sang, flapped my eagle arms, yodeled, even thought about giving thanks.

Not a soul on earth knew where I stood, but I felt surrounded by a band of friends. As I walked it seemed I was sharing the experience, and that realization made me want to reach out. When looking around though, I might as well have been the last person on the planet. In the desolation, a question rose. I looked to the sky and focused hard on the empty blue, but couldn’t tell if what I stood looking for remained invisible, or perfectly camouflaged.

“Why was I so calm last night when that guy held the gun to my head? That’s not me.”

As I recalled that feeling of unfounded assurance from the night before, it reminded me of a hummingbird—that I’d caught using only my hands. I hadn’t thought about the bird in years, but when I was eleven, and stood alone on the deck of my cousin’s beach house, I noticed a humming bird land on a low windowsill. As I stared at the tiny ball of color, a thought sprung up, for no reason, and it seemed crazy—that I could walk over and catch the bird. At first the idea struck me as ridiculous, pathetic to even attempt, but a feeling of gentle assurance that I could hold the bird overpowered my doubt; even with no reason that I should succeed, I felt no doubt that I would. Confidence from a deep vague mist seemed to emanate from behind me, nudging, so I stood and started silently crossing the deck. While slipping toward the bird I couldn’t believe it remained on the sill. Up to that point I’d never seen humming birds do anything but hum. As I approached the last few steps, I gently extended my hands, operating them in smooth unison. Concentrating on the bird, I watched as my hands moved closer, seeing them as if they weren’t mine, until they reached striking distance.

I knew humming birds didn’t simply sit while people approached them. How is this happening? It’s looking right at me. This definitely isn’t going to work. Nevertheless, the assurance that I would hold the bird kept me flowing forward at a gentle pace, no lunging, no snap-trap moves, when surrounding the bird my hands closed around it like flower pedals.

Holding the ball of fluff, its metallic blue head turned to gaze at me; no attempt to flutter its wings, no kicking of its tiny legs. Two questions filled my head: Why did I try to do that, and how did I know I could?

From my speck on the infinite desert, I again looked up to the sky. “If you’re there, uh… thanks for the confidence last night, I’m still here… and good job on the flowers.” What the hell am I doing? Who the hell am I talking to? Oh shit, I’ve gone crazy.

I kept walking.

Beauty sang from every view and I didn’t wish to share the morning with anybody. This huge expanse held my soul, and only mine. From the valleys to the mountains I felt myself expanding, rolling across the terrain. With no judgments or prying eyes I stood naked to the world, and reveled in my solitude. For several more hours I soaked in that vast kingdom.

Once my clothes made their way back on me I walked to the desolate tarred line of road. While waiting for a ride, I thought how even with a gun to my head a quiet guarantee of safety gave me the confidence to remain still; the frigid desert night; the morning of explosive splendor; the parade of strangers that marched through me; my talk with no one; now lingering nowhere—nothing made sense. My only understanding, the only thing that seemed undeniable, indisputable, remained the hazy assurance that I could hold the hummingbird. Placing my scientific mind aside, I realized that maybe the bird had been a test, teaching me to recognize that assurance—before my life depended on it.

Chapter 5 – Into the Desert

The sun hovered around noon and drove the temperature to about eighty. Each truck shooting by at seventy brought its own dust storm. I was now heading south out of Las Vegas standing next to Hwy 93 and felt relief when a brown sedan pulled over.

“Get in.” The driver handed me his business card, it said, Harvey Pinkerton, Sales Manager, Fletcher’s Portable Buildings, Las Vegas. Harvey appeared middle-aged, overweight, wearing a brown dress shirt, brown slacks and loafers. He’d blend into any average crowd.

As we ended our small talk about the heat, I shut-up. Listening had become my primary method of defense and gave me a chance to gauge each driver’s mental state.

“I was born in Sicily,” Harvey said. “You know… the old country.”

I nodded.

“My mother died havin’ me. How’s that for a shithouse way to start?”

“Sorry to hear that,” I tried to sound empathetic, but felt it was odd that, of all the things to say, he started by revealing that.

“What the hell,” he said. “We’re all gonna die.” He took his watery eyes off the road and looked at me. “There’s worse ways to go then bringin’ a life into the world.”

I nodded again, but continued my silence.

“As a kid my old man and me moved to the Bronx. That was okay, but a few years later he was driving truck and got shot and died.” He sat up taller, raising his voice. “But I’m still here.”

Harvey’s wife had divorced him, and he missed his young daughter. Her picture sat in a small gold frame on the dash where she smiled out between apple cheeks. Glued next to her stood a figurine of the Virgin Mary.

Harvey glanced left and blurted, “We gotta pick those up!”.

I looked across the freeway, toward the north-bound lanes, and saw two hitchhikers, teenage girls.

Since we weren’t driving north, the thought of this middle-aged man reversing our direction just to pick up teenage hitchhikers made me feel uneasy.

Harvey pulled an immediate uie by driving down the wide dirt median and up the other side. The back tires sprayed gravel, and by the time we emerged from our dust cloud the girls were gone. We pulled another median duster and again headed south.

After a few minutes he pulled a half-empty bottle of vodka from under the seat, took a pull, and offered the booze to me. Aside from the abrupt u-turn, his driving was controlled and smooth, so I didn’t worry that he’d suddenly become a dangerous drunk, and figured a swig or two might make the time pass more easily.

Watching him suck from the bottle brought visions of my mother. She’d chug on gin when she thought no one was looking. Each time left me feeling a mix of disgust and disappointment, betrayal. After a while that became my normal.

As I raised the vodka and tipped my head back to suck down the harsh comfort, I realized my hypocrisy. Was I any better than my mother? But this was different. At least I wasn’t hiding the bottle, and besides, this is social drinking—my rationalizations worked. After several exchanges I drained the last drops. “That’s it.”

“There’ll be more, kid.”

As the miles passed and the vodka soaked in, he mentioned how he’d been in prison at the Cummins Unit Prison Farm in Arkansas. “They laid me on the ground and whipped me so hard when they yanked back it rolled me over.” Harvey shook his head. “The fuckin’ guard made me call him uncle.”

I remembered the “Cummins Unit” from many media reports starting in the late sixties. The reports were about federal investigators digging up multiple sets of mens’ remains on the prison grounds. Harvey would have been there then. Over the years guards had been saying men were somehow escaping. The evidence ruled that the prisoners had been tortured to death.

“So, what were you in for?”

“Nothin’. But I got a ninety-nine year sentence for killing a guy while I was in the joint.” His tone came across as if the killing were an aside. “But I got a good lawyer.”

It became impossible to tell how much rang true, how much rang vodka. He let out a slow sigh. “My wife, she’s a saint.” He spoke wistfully, as if they were still married. “But she couldn’t take the family business.” I was ready to make a pretty sure bet the family business wasn’t Fletcher’s Portable Buildings.

The time came to buy another bottle, and we stopped at a bar in the tiny town of Kingman, Arizona. He bought me dinner. We had a couple more drinks and shot some pool. As we played, he gave me a piece of advice. “As you setup in a new town and find yourself a hooker to get regular with, start eating pickled eggs.” Leaning over the table, ready to take his next shot, he craned his head up, “like those,” and pointed with his eyes, “the ones in that jar behind the bar.” He pushed his shot. “They make you harder and spending the money seems more worthwhile.”

I thought of parting ways with Harvey after the pool game. He came across saw-blade rough, but seemed okay company and his stories were unique, plus, I’d become half crocked. Riding with a self-confessed murderer had me questioning my morals, and common sense, but he seemed tame enough that day. My rationalization also included that he was driving to Phoenix, a good long ride. Even without a destination, speed and distance became addictions as I raced away from myself. Harvey drove that day’s racecar.

The sun now hung at early dusk, and we got back on the road with a new bottle hidden. The next town, Wikieup, lay over 50 miles away; nothing but empty road played out ahead of us. This part of Highway 93 is called the Joshua Tree Parkway of Arizona, but I didn’t see any trees: didn’t see any homes, barns, fields or even a derelict shack, just raw desert.

The geology included deep canyons, rusty hills and flats—extreme, expansive, and nothing, all at the same time. We passed the sneeze of a village that was Wikieup. To reach the next town, Wickenburg, meant passing over another 75 miles of land inhabited only by night. As time stretched by I started doubting we were still on Earth. I’m not afraid of open spaces, but fear began creeping in, driven by empty distance and stark exposure to the universe.

As the world darkened, I became anonymous. The dash lights cast mottled shadows across Harvey’s face and his eyes blackened to desolate holes. I probably appeared to him as nothing more than a silhouette.

“Ya know that card I gave ya? It’s a phony.” He smiled faintly, appearing satisfied he’d fooled another person.

“Then what do you do?” I didn’t much care to know his real name.

His voice lowered. “I take care of problems.”

Tires hummed away the silence, and their drone made me woozier. “What do you mean… problems?”

He took a breath with resolve. “Hits.Then he made and exaggerated swing of his head my way, and with an edged voice, said, “when The Family needs a hit they call me.”

I swallowed hard, because I believed him. Not knowing how to respond, I drunkenly blurted, “It’s a living.”

“If you don’t care how you live!” He glared with black eyes.

As a voyeur to murder, I felt compelled to ask, “So how do you do it?… I mean?… With a gun?”

“I’ll get a call and get the mark’s name and his town, maybe an address.” Harvey paused, and seemed to be considering if he should go on. In silence he reached for a pack of cigarettes in his sports jacket, and I vulcanized in time until he lit up and took a drag. “Once I find him, I’ll spend a few days to scope out his routines, you know, to figure a good time and place. Then I’ll walk up, look him in the eyes, say ‘hi,’ and shoot at least three times.

“Then I drop the gun. You know, right there.” He flipped an open hand toward the floor. “It ain’t like fuckin’ stupid TV.” He jerked his head, probably clearing double vision. “You gotta be up close, otherwise you might miss.” In the late night his words trudged. “I keep it the same every time, because it always works.”

Harvey then reached under the seat, I thought to pull out the bottle, but came up holding a black pistol. Swinging his straightened arm toward me he held the barrel six inches from my temple. “I’ll kill you with a smile on my face or without. It don’t matter to me.”

I felt a jolt to recoil, but there was nowhere to go. I froze, tensed/ready to strike.

Without warning, and in no hurry, a calm swept over me, as though I’d been filled with a windless sky. The sensation brought a deep understanding that I shouldn’t strike out. I became positive that I wouldn’t die that day if I didn’t flinch. The sensation felt vaguely familiar; a powerful atmosphere of proven assurance, but still, one I could choose to ignore. At first, remaining motionless didn’t seem rational. Harvey was blazing drunk and shooting me would have been easy: we were in the middle of nowhere; no witnesses; no one knew we were even together. Thoughts of trying to slap the gun away evaporated. Accepting the quiet presence, I slowly turned to face him directly. The hollow barrel mimicked the tomb of his eyes. The hollow barrel mimicked the same waiting tomb of his eyes.

His voice rang in my head, “Gotta be up close.…” But I kept facing him, and let my expression hang slack. I wanted to show Harvey I wasn’t afraid. He might respect that. I thought of nothing, filled only with the understanding he wouldn’t shoot if I didn’t move.

After several seconds, Harvey slipped the gun back next to the bottle. There was no, “I’m just kidding,” or “I wouldn’t do that to you.”

Our headlights ate up the road as we sat in silence. I thought about asking him to stop, but felt we were too far from anything, and it seemed the worst had passed. I tried to imagine the life he lived, drinking to poison feelings of remorse and disgust.

Ahead of us the back of a state trooper’s cruiser came into view, and we drove behind him for awhile. I couldn’t believe it, but Harvey started tailgating him, and then decided to pass. Once we passed, the inside of the car strobed with red light. I thought Harvey might jam on the gas, raging down a blind highway drunk, but he slowed to pull over. I exhaled and my shoulders loosened.

The trooper gave Harvey a field sobriety test. He failed. Cuffed, and directed into the back seat, Harvey kept shouting, “I’ve got a good lawyer!”

The trooper ignored me while he filled out paperwork. I stood within the glow of his taillights, but looked to the unending dark. When I turned and peered at Harvey, the single rotating beacon pulsed red explosions into my sight.

The trooper walked back. “What’s the deal here?” He sounded genuinely baffled. With my frizzled hair, overalls and backpack it didn’t take much to convince him I was just hitchhiking.

“He’s a boozer,” I said. Then my mind replayed the image of the barrel in my face, and Harvey’s flat tone as he spoke. I didn’t mention anything about the gun under the seat. To this day I wish I had, but with only one road, and no control of when I’d leave it, I didn’t need Harvey looking for me.

The trooper asked if I wanted a ride back to town. But after standing outside, the desert didn’t seem as formidable, or abstract, just infinite silence. I felt like decompressing, alone. “No thanks, I’ll stay here.”

His voice popped up an octave. “You sure?”

“Yeah,” but I wasn’t.

I asked for water, and half laughing, the trooper watched while I filled my plastic bottle from a jug in his trunk. As his taillights drifted into the darkness, carrying Harvey to Phoenix, I took a deep, deep breath, and walked into the desert.

Chapter 3 – Birthright

Monday, early evening, March 27th

two girlsThe sisters had grown into negatives of each other, but were twins. Beneath obsidian hair leading to blank paper skin sat the driver, looking wan even for a Punk Rocker. Black lips. White hair and pink eyes marked the other; her face splotched with red pimples. They seemed about my age and were going to Roseburg, Oregon.

They started by telling me how stoned they had gotten that morning: killer bud, body high—not really a mind high—thick and skunky, sticky purple hairs, old friend’s, but not harsh, big glass bong, better than staring at walls, saying goodbye, crappy concert the night before, half a hangover.

I watched the scenery.

“Jimmy’s got some acid we can do,” the pimpled one said flatly.

“No!” The Punk’s hair flailed as she shook her head. “That was all ripped-off. And shit, we’ve been doing acid all the time.” She looked up. “I’m thinking crank . I could use a boost.”

“Yeah… you and the boost.”

“What?” snapped the punk. “Don’t give me any shit.”

The white one let her head roll forward, a slow capsize until she sat staring into her lap. Then, in a trickling whisper, “How’d we get so fucked up?”

“Huh?”

“Fucked up!” She stared hard at her sister. “How’d we get so fucked up!”

The punk smiled. “Because I’m starved for attention.” Her crisp answer seemed as if it had spent a long time waiting to emerge.

“We’re always together,” the white twin said. “You get plenty of fucking attention.”

Staring out the window could no longer distract me from my feelings; empty. I’d left people behind, but few connections. Months of constant bitterness had kept me speechless, not because I didn’t have something to say; there just didn’t seem any point. Maybe my proximity now to people that appeared as little more than shells forced me to recognize my cavity.

“It didn’t use to be like this,” the white one said slowly.

“Like when?”

“Like when we were little,” came out with a caustic edge. “Like when mom used to take us to church.”

“Oh yeah, that lasted a long time.” I couldn’t tell if her statement sounded sarcastic, angry or sad.

“The people were nice.”

“More like dorks on parade.” She glared through the black curtains of her bangs. “They didn’t know where we came from. And if they did know they would’ve shit-canned us in a heartbeat.”

“The people were nice.”

“You’re a dork.”

“Fuck you!”

I think they forgot that I was sitting in back. We rode for the next hour listening only to our thoughts. School entered my mind. I couldn’t tell if I resented other students for assuming entitlement, or because I wanted to steal their carefree attitudes. I resented my parents for almost everything, and resented myself for tolerating my life. During the previous months my thoughts darken and howled. This trip became my solution to get back some peace of mind. My solution now left me sitting behind these sisters as they fought about how they wanted to get loaded. I had to swallow hard knowing my decision to hitchhike in hopes of finding some authenticity, self-respect, had so far left me sitting with two zoners. Is this all I’d get?

Going into this trip I expected there would be times I’d question my decision to leave. But it caught me off guard happening day one. Not everything was miserable in the life that I wanted to leave. People knew me: my younger brother and sister, the twins born eight years after me, who I led on adventures into woods and uninhabited islands; my other sister, only two years younger than me, joined as a partner to grow up with, frictions were minor, like when I wrote on the cover of her Girl Scouts Handbook, Julie is dum; Mark Rock, my closest friend. Shortly before leaving Mark and I were on a hike on a flood plain, got lost, and ended up walking across a farmer’s field. We were walking by the barn and the farmer popped out from behind a corner, immediately in front of us, shotgun at eye level, and said we were the ones who had been vandalizing his property. Mark reached out and placed two fingers on the end of the barrel, and slowly pushed the farmer’s aim away from us. Then, like a schoolmarm providing gentle direction to a wayward student, “Now now, let’s not be hasty.” Of course he played bass; Scott, lead guitar, was the adventurer, fished in Hawaii, Alaska, South America, motorcycle trip through Central America; Steve Hamilton, rhythm guitar, somehow he’d end up holding a rubber chicken in front of an audience doing Rodney Dangerfield, corny stuff, but he delivered with such enthusiasm everyone roared. Although he held Canadian citizenship, he was in boot camp becoming a US Marine; Geoff, tambourine, all-day Frisbee partner, lead pirate; and there were others, people I’d know for years, those I’d gone with bicycle touring, hiking partners, people I’d worked with at a YMCA; Mary Sue.

Finally reaching Roseburg we crossed the Umpqua River, a fast slip flowing from the Cascade Mountains. “A couple weeks ago Jimmy and some of the boys threw a guy off this bridge,” the punk said. “Look down there.” I peered over to whitewater and car-sized boulders. “But he lived.” She turned back to me. “You hungry?”

“Yeah, I guess so.” Early evening now surround us and I hadn’t eaten since morning; no point in eating when it detracted from covering miles.

“We’ve got some food at our place,” she said. “You can have some.”

I wasn’t crazy about spending more time with them, but my hunger convinced me to stay.

We parked at the base of narrow stairs that climbed an ivy-covered hill to a pale-green Victorian house. Surprisingly grand for these two, maybe it wasn’t really where they lived. Four columns on the front porch held up arched timbers with carved French curves. Above the curves, a wrought iron handrail ran along a deck with a thin door and tall rectangular windows. Between the windows the roof scaled skyward to form a range of sharp mountain peaks flagged with distant weather vanes.

I grabbed my pack and started trudging up the stairs. Reaching for the handrail a large section wavered with my grip. When we made it to the porch I could see the majestic arches presided over dry rot, peeling paint and cracked windows. The place took on the aura of a haunted house where people entered but didn’t leave. Had they lured me here so their drug-dealing friends could do something to me? My knife sheath received a quick caress.

We walked in and they introduced me to the people behind the creaking door.

“That’s my mom,” the white-haired one said, tipping her finger toward a wispy grey woman sitting in the corner reading a paperback. “And that’s my uncle, Whitey,” she said, nodding her head at a middle-aged man lounging in a green vinyl recliner.

Whitey lived up to his name. He was a big albino with tangled strands of white hair that merged into a long white beard. Thick black glasses provided the only interruption to his arctic head. His chest glowed pink, and sprouted more white hair surrounding bright pink nipples. Hairy white arms hung down to his waist where pasty hands steadied a magazine resting upright on his lap. From under the magazine his chubby legs stuck out, with their own carpet of white fur, leading down to pink toes. He’d grown into a mangy polar bear, and sat naked. I did a double take and saw the magazine was a Penthouse.

“Hi Whitey. What’s up?” I couldn’t resist.

“Huh?” He glanced at me but focused back to his magazine.

“He’s like that,” the Punk said with resignation.

We walked through the living room into the vast kitchen that had once been white. The cupboards all showed grayed halos around the handles and the countertops lay rough with countless chopping scars. The girls offered me a small green apple that had been lying on the counter. I stood eating it while they opened cupboards rifling through the contents.

“This is a mighty tart apple.”

“We’ve got a tree,” the Punk mumbled while closing a cupboard. “But they’re not ripe yet.”

“Your house is huge.” I heard my voice bounce off the hard walls.

“Yeah,” the white one replied. “Our mom used to be a madam and needed a big house.” She opened the fridge, bent down and stuck her head in, then shouted from behind the door, “She grew up here. We grew up here.”

Whitey the girl closed the door with a disappointed thud. Then she mimicked a game show hostess, flaying her arm in an accentuated arc to point out prizes. “This was quite the lively place. Yes, indeed.” Her hand swept across the kitchen. “This was the house of ill repute. The House on the Hill. The jolly pump-a-rump.” Her arm fell back to her side and she dropped her hostess tone. “This was a hell of a place, at least until we had to come along.”

Her sister filled in. “There’d be enough girls sometimes they’d have to sit in the kitchen here until they’d get into the front waiting room.” She looked at me, tipping her head down, as if looking over glasses to scold a naughty boy, “No more girls here though, so don’t be sproutin’ a thick one.” She slapped another cupboard shut.

My stomach clenched. “So were you two here then?”

In a voice glassy smooth, but hard as concrete, the Punk said, “That hookin’ stopped when we entered junior high.”

Raised in a whorehouse—these girls were raised in a whorehouse; my grasp of reality slipped. I’d never even thought about kids going into whorehouses, let alone raised in one.

I took a few more bites of the bitter apple. Not feeling comfortable, or even safe, I thanked them for the ride and the apple. Passing back through the living room I figured I’d get another dose of Whitey. His chair sat empty. I let myself out.

While walking down the rickety stairs, I reflected on my middle-class home, and even though alcoholism and anger wandered the halls, our living room never featured a porn-absorbed naked albino and old whore. I couldn’t image what type of a childhood the girls lived, but thinking about the possibilities left me nauseous, with the sour apple adding its kick. Grasping the magnitude of our differences, I turned to take a last look at the house, and saw the world getting bigger.

Chapter 1 – Anywhere But Here

croppedsteveyoungcloseupKind of scared, kind of excited
Journal entry, Monday morning, March 27, 1978

When I woke up I had no plans for the day. But once I stopped pacing in my basement bedroom, I dumped the books from my blue college backpack and filled it with clothes, a Buck knife, and two harmonicas. After I cinched a red flannel sleeping bag underneath the pack, I was ready to leave.

I took confident strides—until I reached the bedroom door. Its threshold became a one-way passage that, once crossed, would make my commitment final. Before taking that step I looked around: the pale walls and a faded blue rug, my semi-made bed below a poster from the movie Easy Rider with Peter Fonda cruising on his stars-and stripes chopper, the dark Craftsman desk made during the Civil War, and books heaped on the floor next to the head of my bed. I stood in silence. My breath drew in deep and smooth, filling my nose with that basement smell of damp concrete and unwashed clothes. As I exhaled, I knew I’d never view this room the same again.

I walked upstairs and interrupted one of my mother’s perpetual rounds of solitaire. “Can you drive me to the I-5 on-ramp?”

“Why do you need to go there?” she asked, drawing on a Pall Mall—longshoremen’s cigarettes she liked to call them.

“I’m going to head out.”

Her attention broke from the cards. “Head out?”

“I’m going on the road. You know,” I hesitated, “to explore some more.”

Her face dropped slack for a moment. “Where?” Smoke drifted from her mouth.

“I don’t know.”

A sheen crept over her eyes.

“But I’m going to start by heading south.”

She took a deeper pull on her cigarette. “How’re you going to do that?”

Now I needed to steel myself, like the moment before removing a deep splinter from a child’s arm. “I’m going to hitchhike.”

Her gaze dropped to the table.

There were no teary farewells or bon voyages. She and I simply loaded into the family station wagon without speaking. Once we started driving, she asked, “What are you going to do for money?”

“I’ve got a couple hundred bucks, and when I need to work, I’ll work.”

Her words quickened. “Where on earth are you going to sleep?”

“Not sure, but I’ll find places.”

“What about food? That little pack doesn’t hold anything.”

“The pack’s got to be light. Otherwise it’s too clumsy getting in and out of cars.”

She nodded, seeming to accept that this answer made some sense.

“There’s a lot of weirdos out there.” She turned to face me. “What if—”

“—I’ve got my knife.”

She inhaled slowly, locking in words, and then sighed; years of regrets seemed to lace the air.

The drive to the on-ramp was mercifully short. Once we pulled to the shoulder, I swung open the door and stepped out. Closing the door, I stared south down the highway before giving a quick wave goodbye to the back of my mother’s head as she drove off. The splinter now pried free.

Waiting at the 45th Street on-ramp in North Seattle, I wondered how long it would take to get my first ride.

Holding my arm out with my thumb pointing to an empty sky felt awkward. Would anyone even want to pick up this baggage? I became acutely aware of my appearance: a curly scruff of long blond hair, worn denim overalls, a Led Zeppelin T-shirt, and brown leather boots covered with white paint splatters. I stood lean and muscular but felt I wasn’t much to look at. I couldn’t shake the thought that I was running away from myself, my life, my emotions—a child taking his ball and leaving the game. That alternated with the feeling that I’d taken a bold move to clean out my attitude, with hopes of regaining the ability to respect myself—and others. Opposing emotions, but both very real. I could already tell any clarity waited a long way off.

Across the freeway I could see the campus of the University of Washington, my alma mater for the past two quarters. At school I felt surrounded by stale white bread. Too many classmates squealed about parties and cars. As they strolled through their rarefied lives, I couldn’t stop viewing them as pampered pets. After classes I worked as a night janitor, mopping, filling dumpsters, scrubbing toilets, and emptying the special little containers for used tampons. I’d started working forty hours a week every summer beginning when I was thirteen and now felt a self-righteous resentment. It didn’t take long for me to develop an unhealthy justification to despise the other students—spoiled brat fucks.

I had taken to smoking pot all day: in campus bathrooms, behind trees, before/during/after work, when driving, while alone. Shoplifting malt liquor became a hobby. By the time I’d decided to leave I couldn’t tell who I despised more, the fucks or myself.

My entire plan consisted of one promise to myself—no panhandling. I wouldn’t spend time in the big cities as one of those sponging kids asking for money. I never respected people who had the ability to work but not the will.

As I stared across the freeway, I focused on the vaulted roof of the Suzzallo Library at the UW. The graduate reading room had been my refuge, where rows of dark oak desks each had a table lamp with a green glass shade. It was a soundless expanse except for the wisp of turning pages and the scratch of pencils. Benevolent oversight shone down from the impossibly large stained glass windows.

Around me nicotine-stained cigarette butts littered the pavement and all I could hear was the roar of I-5 traffic. Cars kicked up incessant grit.

“Are you sure this is what you want to do?” my younger sister Corrine had asked just before I left home.

I was eight years older than she was and at times had been her hero. Behind her stood my other sister, Janelle. I was two years older than she was. They looked scared. I didn’t know how to answer Corrine’s question, but my gut dropped and I felt like I was abandoning both of them. Many times I’d redirected my father’s rage away from them, sometimes on purpose, sometimes because of how easily I pissed him off. But at least with me gone I figured a lot of the homebound volatility would cool.

“Are you going to come back?” Janelle asked.

“Yeah, I’ll be back.” I gave them both a weak smile, hoping I was right. “But not sure when.”

Just before I turned to leave, Corrine reached out to hold my hand. “Sometimes you do things and we don’t know why.”

One of those things had happened the previous spring when I left high school before finishing my senior year. When the second quarter had ended in late March I’d already earned enough credits to graduate. Three days after that quarter I jumped on a ferry headed for Alaska. I didn’t know anyone there but eventually found work as a salmon fisherman in Kodiak. One quiet afternoon while mending a net I realized that years of hiding my mother’s alcoholism and my father’s fists had scarred my psyche, but the wounds were too fresh to gauge how deep they ran. When I returned to Seattle that fall, my parents let me live at home while I paid for tuition and books. I wanted to be a writer—but I enrolled in the College of Engineering. There was no room in my father’s house for artsy-fartsies. Even though they weren’t charging rent, I couldn’t pay the price any longer.

What the hell am I doing? Was I really standing on the roadside, hoping random strangers might stop, so I could get into their cars, when I had no idea of their destinations—or intentions? My emotional compass whirled among excitement, guilt, fear, and pride. While I was still getting my bearings a memory surfaced from my senior year at Nathan Hale High School.

Academics and sports offered a good escape from home life, and I’d earned the honor as the school’s Scholar/Athlete of the Year as part of a district program for football players. At the awards banquet, honorees from other high schools looked spiffy in jackets and ties, all of us sitting with proud parents. I smiled recalling the table with its linen napkins, china, silver, and crystal—not a nostalgic smile, but the smile of an escaped prisoner.

Since starting college I’d felt that security bred complacency. I didn’t want to know where I’d sleep, or if there’d be money, or even food. Anything that established a sense of place repelled me. My head pounded with Anywhere but here! Anywhere but here! That drum started beating before the first car passed me and didn’t silence until the trip ended.

A car pulled over and I scrambled in the passenger door. A thin guy in his mid-twenties wearing a plaid shirt and thick black glasses sat with an open container of vanilla yogurt propped between his thighs. He must have noticed me staring at it.

“It’s all I eat,” he said. “I read in a magazine that if you eat only yogurt, it’s good for your digestive tract.”

“I see.”

We started down the road and I took special notice while I inhaled my first breath of the adventure. It smelled like sour ammonia. “Mind if I roll down the window?”

“No problem.” Mr. Yogurt held out his right arm, extending a drippy spoon of vanilla goo. He twirled his hand, as if motioning to crank down the window. “I took my dog on a drive a couple days ago,” he said. “And while he stuck his head out the window he got so excited, he peed.”

“In this seat?”

“Yeah…I guess so.”

Delicious.

After several more rides, each only ten to twenty minutes, I entered into the disjointed rhythm of

hitchhiking.

Outside of Olympia, about sixty miles south of Seattle, a blue sedan pulled over. A middle-aged man smiled as I got in. He wore pressed clothes and his hair was cut in a businessman’s close crop. I didn’t think people who looked like him bothered with people who looked like me. We talked easily, and I confessed I was beginning a trip with no destination. The ride lasted maybe half an hour, but as we stopped at the end of an off-ramp, he said, “Can you wait just a minute?”

“Sure.” I felt no rush to get anywhere.

He laid his hand on my knee. I didn’t expect this.

Not on the first day. My naïveté scared me. Would I be confronted with this every day? People picking me up just hoping to have sex with me? Should I slap away his hand? Jump out? (Then he’d drive away with my pack in the back seat.) Smack him in the face?

“I’d like to say a prayer for you.”

That shattered my thoughts, especially as I realized this would be the first time to my knowledge that anyone had prayed for me, at least since my baptism.

The day of my baptism was my family’s first, and last, visit to church. I was eight years old and my younger brother, Chris, was about five months old. I don’t recall anyone else there, just our family and some man wearing a white robe. I stood stiff in a crisp white shirt as my brother, held in my father’s arms, let out a resounding cherubic fart. My shoulders shook as I looked toward the floor and forced my lips together, suppressing a full laugh. Afterward in the parking lot, my dad smacked me to the gravel for not taking the rite seriously enough. Once home, I got the rest. My sacrament of baptism, my salvation, amounted to a fart and a beating.

On that day, I stopped believing any god could exist. As the years passed, I wanted religion to have its own section in libraries: Mumbo Jumbo for Morons. Physics and chemistry ruled the universe. In their stability I found comfort—they never got drunk or enraged, never told me I don’t have the brains god gave an ant, never provided a haven for hypocrites or threatened people with eternal damnation.

“Gracious God.” The well-pressed man closed his eyes and bowed his head. “Thank you for loving us so much and always being with us. Please look over this boy and rain your love down on him. Protect him as he travels and keep him safe.”

What a load. But not knowing what else to do, I bowed my head.

“Guide his footsteps as he grows and help him reach out to you in his times of trial. Amen.” He gave my knee a firm pat.

When I stepped out of the car, though, I felt somehow lighter and oddly glad he’d said the prayer. I’d need it.

Chapter 2 – Treetop Yodeling

Monday, noon; Day 1

I’d only made it to Portland, Oregon, but had managed to get lost. Standing among a maze of freeway overpasses, I couldn’t see any signs or directions. A mystery onramp waited on the other side of the freeway. Maybe I could see a sign from there, and planned to reach it by dashing across six lanes of highway. That plan left me stranded on a concrete median, surrounded on each side by three lanes of a roaring rush hour.

Luckily, the median spread wide, designed to protect cars from hitting an overpass abutment and offered a good space to sit. Realizing I needed to hang tight until the afternoon traffic eased, I sat in a state of suspended animation.

With my back against the pillar and legs stretched along concrete covered in black tire dust, the view conjured a dreamscape—thousands of gleaming machines strafing me only feet away and roads snaking in the air above and below. Intersections led to bridges crossing the Willamette River, each reflecting different stages of history, architecture and technology: bridges of dark iron girders, swooping suspension cables; arched concrete passed down from Roman aqueducts. Each echoed a geometry that looked as if they spelled out the formulas that created them. All of the structures represented millions of hours of work, lifetimes of achievement, laid down for generations to come. I marveled.

When the traffic subsided, I slipped my way to the on-ramp I had started toward two hours earlier, found some signs, took another dash across several more lanes, climbed down an embankment to reach a southbound ramp and stuck out my thumb.

A small purple truck with a homemade cedar camper slowed to the shoulder. Trotting up, I could see that the camper formed a mixed breed of Tyrolean chalet and a backwoods cabin. The roof, complete with asphalt shingles, protected everything. A black stovepipe extended from the front and elbowed to the peak of the roof. Shutters of ornately painted red tulips over a white background surrounded a rear-facing window. The back featured a mini barn door a man could pass through if he ducked. Walking up, I couldn’t wait to see the driver.

“Hey there! My name’s Treetop.” He extended a calloused hand with thick yellowed nails. Weather had worn his face; I guessed him to be I his early forties, but ten years younger remined a possibility. He sat, like Abraham Lincoln, disproportionately tall and thin. His straight grey hair blended with a long pointed grey beard. He wore a denim shirt rolled up to the elbows, and the knees on his jeans were worn silver. Even though his face held deep lines and a dark tan, through his eyes shone a young twinkle.

As I stepped in, the cab struck me as Hindu/Christian-surfing-drive-thru-temple that smelled of cinnamon incense. In every nook lived a trinket: feathers, flowers, tassels, stickers tapestries, figurines—all blended into the kaleidoscope that reflected his life.

The dashboard ignited with wood paneling covered in a crimson stain, turning the fine grain pattern into flames. Flipping down my sun visor, I saw he’d discovered the perfect place to mount one of those plastic prism pictures that change when tipped between different angles. Swinging the visor provided a controlled morph from a guru sitting in flowing robes, to a picture of the multi-armed Hindu God Vishnu floating on a lotus flower. Gold fabric draped across the dash, surrounding a figure of Jesus accompanied by bobbling hula girl shaking at his side. The bench seat lay covered in a thick woven Navajo blanket, and a few Grateful Dead stickers populated the outlying territories.

I’d joined Captain Bizzaro in his schizophrenic cabin.

“What’s that?” I asked, pointing to a plaque etched with a gold crescent moon and a star positioned between the points of the crescent.

“That’s the symbol for Islam.”

“Oh, yeah.” I felt dumb for not knowing something that basic. “They’re the ones who worship Mohammed.”

He looked at me and shook his head. “No, they don’t worship Mohammed.”

I winced.

“They see Mohammed as the last prophet of God, but they don’t worship him. They worship only God.”

“Which God?” This had always been one subject where I prided myself on being a garden variety idiot.

“Same God as Jews and Christians,” he said. “All three start in the Garden of Eden, and include Abraham, Moses, Noah, the flood—the basic Old Testament stuff.”

Adam and his sprouted rib, forty days and forty nights, wandering the desert forty years—there’s a lousy tour guide; I had an idea of what he was talking about.

“Jesus is also a Muslim,” he said. “He might be the only person to be a Jew, Christian and Muslim all at the same time, even though he didn’t know it.”

“Sounds like they’re a bunch of inbred hillbillies.” My insult sounded about right, and even thought I sounded the ass, I didn’t mind.

“The crazy part is that Islam has Jesus returning in the second coming.” I barely knew about the first coming, now a second appeared in the works.

“Basically, all of the big religions say the exact same thing. Don’t get full of yourself. Help those in need. And the soul is eternal.” He didn’t miss a beat. “I guess you could say it’s hillbilly simple.”

Eternity didn’t make sense, especially for a fabricated soul, but not being conceited, and helping others, struck me as reasonable.

“That’s why I stopped and picked you up. You were in need of a ride, and I have one.” He smiled. “I don’t always have a lot, but I’ve learned to spread it around.”

“So which one are you?” I wanted to establish whose side he took, Hatfield or McCoy, or maybe he was a revenuer. “Which religion?”

“I don’t know. They’ve all got plenty of flapdoodle and they’ve all got plenty I hold close… I pray to my God.” He looked up through the windshield. “After I pray I listen, and when I hear something, I trust it.”

I nodded knowingly, but had no idea what he meant. Maybe he hallucinated on a regular basis.

Treetop seemed to recognize that I’d absorbed enough to keep me thinking, and he changed the topic.

“See this,” he asked, gripping a red wooden apple growing on the end of the green shift lever. “My wife made it.”

“This is quite a mobile you have here.”

“Yep, designed it myself.” Treetop made a loose fist, cocked an arm above his head, so his thumb pointed to the rear. “Heck, my second son was even born in back. We were in Utah and I decided to name him the way the Navajo do.” He brought his arm back down and patted the wool blanket protecting his good horse. “When a child is born the father names it for the first things he sees after the birth.” Then, with a well rehearsed flow, “I stepped out back of the camper, looked up, saw a butte in the distance with a pure white cloud floating over it… so I named him Butte Cloud.” Treetop beamed and looked at me.

“Cool,” is all I could muster. But envisioned Butte sitting in grade school dying to change his name.

Treetop, enjoyed telling stories. But mostly, he liked yodeling. “Two weeks ago I won the National Yodeling Contest. I’m the new US champion, across whole dang country.”

Until then I didn’t know such a champion existed. Yodeling struck me as something only a person with supreme confidence could pull off. Sounding ridiculous and letting people see through the shell of decorum isn’t for everyone.

His voice brightened and lost the smooth delivery he’d projected so far. “Yep, the competition was in Tennessee and I won. Couldn’t believe it!” He turned to me and his eyes became blue gems. “Want to hear me yodel?”

I blinked.

“I’m goin’ to pull over,” he said, “so we can step out.”

We stopped on an empty side road and once out of the truck there was nothing horizontal about Treetop. He became a vertical man. His long thin frame pointed up, his beard formed an arrow pointing down, and his sapling legs rose out of the ground. He cupped his right hand next to his mouth, making half a megaphone, tilted his head back, and let loose.

The undulations in pitch from high to low seemed to break through a musical sound barrier. He kept a quick rhythm and melody that reminded me of birds darting through trees. And although his pitch roamed wild, the hollow notes resounded with fluid ease. When the last wail flew to the horizon he slapped his thigh and looked at me.

I stood motionless, replaying the sounds in my head. Then, as if breaking from a trance, “Oh man! How’d you learn to do that!?”

“Most people have never heard real yodeling,” he said, looking pleased he’d enlightened yet another neophyte. “Most folks think yodeling is all about Switzerland, but it’s used in New Guinea, India, Brazil, all across the world. If you need to be heard over a long distance, you can’t beat it.” His music jazzed me. While stepping back to the car, I too became interested in yodeling.

As we drove off he settled in. “There were these ol’ boys at the county fair playing bluegrass, you know banjos and mandolins, and one of them starts yodeling.” He rocked his head back and forth and chuckled. “I was just eleven but that was it. It hooked me. That was 1954.”

I still couldn’t shake the unnatural vocalizations I’d heard. Treetop’s arms hung loose on the wheel, while we road an open highway. “I went out and bought a record called So You Want to Yodel.”

“You’ve got to be kidding.” I started laughing. “There’s a record for that?”

“No, that’s the truth, I swear,” he said. “The first instructions told me to close the windows and doors.”

I kept laughing, but now harder. Unfortunately, I could relate. “Yeah, I actually tried yodeling once when I was twelve. Don’t know why. I figured no one could hear me since I was in my bedroom, but after about five seconds my mom shouted down asking if I was sick.”

Now it was his turn to laugh. “Yep, a little embarrassment is good for the soul. Keeps us humble.”

I hated embarrassment.

He straighten upright. “You’ve got to use two voices,” he instructed, “and be able to switch between them without anyone noticing.” He’d trained himself in vocal sleight of hand. “Singing from my chest gives the lower tones, and moving my voice into my noggin gives the higher notes.” Now, armed with that knowledge, he prodded me into yodeling.

I sounded like crap, which is an insult to crap. That moment marked the end of any aspirations I may have had to become a famous yodeler. But I didn’t feel uncomfortable. He provided an easy audience.

“Don’t worry, it takes a lot a practice,” he said with a practiced kindness, and let out another quavering yowl that filled the cab to bursting. The bellows of his chest emptied. Pulling in another breath, he continued, “Not much yodeling in rock-n-roll, and that’s too bad.”

“No, not much. That’s probably why they didn’t call themselves the Yodeling Beatles.”

We laughed again.

Time drifted by and in the back of my mind I wondered what a man like this might do for a living. He probably couldn’t make ends meet yodeling. I figured his job would be exotic, maybe spiritual, for sure kooky. “So what do you do for a living?”

“Pick fruit.”

I sat silent, as I realized he, and probably his entire family, were migrant farm workers; transient field pickers. From an outsider’s view he couldn’t get much lower on the social ladder. Instead, I pictured him higher, more respected, a professor.

Copyright ©2015 Steve Theme. All rights reserved