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