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.

39, Yes

Saturday afternoon/evening, May 20th

Waiting slows time. Reaching the WSU campus I walked to Mary Sue’s dorm, entered the lobby… and… waited… not… knowing… when… she’d… show… up…. Sitting in a yellow plastic chair I fidgeted while watching students stare, looking at my sleeping bag and worn clothes, hair not washed for who knows how long. So I sat, feeling like a chair-mounted museum oddity.

37, Hillbilly Heaven

Friday, May 19th

I walked through a green valley where the snowcapped cathedrals of Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains commanded the sky. Once again, the world became mine as every horizon filled with solitude.

13 – Other Worlds

Chp 13 Fun house barkerIn a painter’s work van I found myself with seven teenagers spiriting toward a rare celebration. They were headed for the Atlantic, and I anticipated that by nightfall I’d be applauding myself for crossing the continent.

Two of them sat up front, and in back where cans of paint and tarps typically were stored three boys and two girls occupied the floor. “We juz grajiated from high school,” one of the guys said, smiling and slapping up a high-five.

“Y’all did?” I asked with exaggerated surprise, pointing my finger around the group.

“We been waitin’ and waitin’,” one of the girls said. “Waitin’ awl yeer,.” She lifted her arms skyward as if praising the Lord in church revival. “‘Dis is ou graduashun present!”

Simply verbalizing their longing injected an electric pulse through the group. Their voices reached out full of laughter and reactions, blossoming in all directions.

“Whatchu doin’ here?” the driver shouted back.

“Jus travelin’, and I don’ even know where.”

The guy next to me said, “I let you know thiz som special day.”

My cadence slowed to a drawl. “’cause you goin’ ta’the coast?”

“Nah, ‘cause we partyin’ wid a white boy!”

High-fives ricocheted throughout the van and I looked around as if trying to find the white boy.

With the coast about a hundred miles away, our group galloped toward the beach. Nothing could stop us. One of the guys pulled out a joint and it didn’t take long until we chummed around as old friends; when the van took corners we’d roll across the floor, piling on each other, laughing. While accelerating from a green light, one of the guys in back let his momentum rock him toward the rear of the van, placing him close enough to plant a kiss on the girl next to him. This wasn’t a peck, but a nice smooch on the lips. As the driver took his foot off the gas to shift gears, the lapse of acceleration pulled the boy forward again. Their lips separated. She gasped and raised an open palm as if getting ready to give him a slap, but with the hint of a smile, let her hand drop, although not before a half-hearted strike on his thigh.

He rolled back laughing. “Gotcha!”

She shared a wondering glance with the other girls.

“You got some style!” I shouted with a cheerleader’s voice.

After a while we left the main road and pulled onto a narrow path hollowed through thick palm fronds. About half a mile later the path opened to a grassy field. Traversing the field we drove on little more than a clay trail. A white cabin with a rusted tin roof sat planted at the center of the clearing. I noticed there were no power lines, no fences, no cars, just a thick green field and a home that looked as though it had housed generations of the same family. The driver honked and a teenage girl sprinted out. We now made four couples, not from a romantic standpoint, just nicely balanced.

They spoke excitedly of buying new shoes, eating hamburgers, swimming in the waves. As they spoke I had to listen with all my effort to understand their deep accents. But the ebony of their voices jumped with anticipation and excitement. When the topic turned to life after school they mentioned jobs of cooking, cleaning.

“We gotz a chicken factory, ‘bout ten mile out.”

“Hell, boy, you only work thair if yo daddy’s their,” said one of the girls. She then starred at the guy who mentioned the factory. “An he ain’t!”

I couldn’t help but compare this conversation with those I held with my friends, white kids in the Pacific Northwest. Our opportunities seemed too disparate for us all to come from the same nation. We all sat in the van, but our worlds existed far apart.

We drove past rows of shacks. One, with window frames hanging into the openings where the glass should be, formed the backdrop for a 400-pound women sitting on a sawed-off tree stump in the front yard, resting her feet on a freshly cracked case of Budweiser. Later, I learned the Peace Corps sends recruits to clinics in this area to prepare for assignments in the third world.

Once we reached St. Augustine beach, and after hearty goodbyes, my friends headed north to their destination and I continued south—still my direction for no particular reason. Walking along the glistening white sidewalks struck me as a cultural whipsaw from the rusty van. I attempted to blend in. Most of the people wore bright beach clothes; walking with friends, playing volleyball, or just sunbathing. Maybe I could be a person carrying picnic supplies to the beach…. Wearing overalls and road boots, with a pack and sleeping bag strapped to my back, I realized how much I blended in. Solitude smacked.

Assessing myself, I viewed a young man trying to expand his awareness of people, and hoped my freefall approach would ultimately build a long-term structure. Suddenly I didn’t feel obscure and pointless, but that I was on a mission with strong purpose. But finding a world where I acted as a spectator, disconnected from all others, I just as quickly felt lost, and that my life amounted to little more than a lousy joke.

Was I a coward running away, or a bold explorer seeking knowledge? Not even knowing the answer to that, I deflated.

I needed a shower, more than a little, and found one in a public bathroom. Standing under the cool flow, I closed my eyes and imagined myself rising up through waterfalls of the Cascade Mountains back home. Once my eyes opened, the vista consisted of an iron pipe jutting from a concrete wall.

Like a crab molting, I emerged from the shower flexible and new. Sitting on a wooden bench I pawed through my thin wardrobe: denim overalls; cutoff jeans; a green flannel shirt; two T-shirts, one imprinted with the album cover from the Eagle’s “Hotel California” and the other with Led Zepplin’s “Zoso,”; indestructible glacier goggle sunglasses; one pair each of wool socks, cotton socks and boxers; some toiletries; a wool watchman’s cap; my worn brown suede jacket/pillow; flip flops and boots. I lacked for fashion, but not for style.

After drying, I slipped on my cutoffs and the Eagle’s T-shirt—dirty clothes, but better than going naked. I headed over to a bank of sinks to shave and bent over one of the aluminum basins. Without any shaving cream I kept myself bent over spending extra time to splash up water and soften my stubble. I straightened up and looked into the polished stainless steel that acted as a mirror, stared for several seconds—and dropped my razor.

Where’s my reflection?

His looks hadn’t changed: bushy blond hair, about nineteen years-old, stubble, teeth were straight enough, and the lingering hint of a sunburn covered his face. Looking into his eyes became awkward. I didn’t know him.

I turned away, focusing on the row of toilet stalls, then and looked back to the mirror. What’s happening…? As I froze into blank bewilderment, he watched me.

Mirrors don’t lie. But I felt no comfort of familiarity, no connection with that person staring back. Fear rose with confusion. Who is he? I don’t even know his name.

Who am I, and where did I go?

Avoiding the mirror, I decided to pass on shaving. As I walked back to the wooden bench where my pack lay, I couldn’t help but wonder if I was drifting into some psychotic rabbit hole. I didn’t want to look at anything, what if more of the world had changed. What if my hands started becoming red crabs? What snapped? I looked around to make sure I was still in a public bathroom, that my surroundings hadn’t morphed into something different; maybe a carnival house of mirrors—a pipe organ pumping as a black-eyed barker shouts me in.

While sitting on the bench I conducted a quick examination. By this point I’d been gone a little under three weeks and taken around a hundred rides, probably more. With each person who picked me up I became a chameleon, adapting to reflect their personalities. If someone acted formal, I acted formal; if funny, then I became funny; if desperate, then I showed my desperation; morose, confident, hyper, spaced out, intellectual… I didn’t even sound like myself since I took on a southern accent. Across all these people, and spending only an hour or two with each, I adopted one hundred rapid-fire personalities. Mimicking the drivers put them at ease, and made each ride more comfortable for everyone. But by myself, I didn’t recognize which person, if any, were me. The chameleon ate my identity.

Heavy disorientation and panic lasted a few eternal minutes. Getting away from the mirror helped. I remained at the beach for several hours, sitting in the sand. While I sat, thinking, the only explanation that made sense was that seeing no reflection of myself in all the others I’d come across left no validation that I impacted the world. I didn’t exist.

After later research, I found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, that psychiatrists call this an episode of Dissociative Fugue, and explain it as: “The loss of one’s identity, or the formation of a new identity, can occur with sudden, unexpected, purposeful travel away from home. Symptoms can last from hours to months.”

As an attempt to regain my bearings I thought writing in my journal would help connect with whoever I was. Bull crap; I exchanged three dollars with an ice cream vendor for quarters and walked to a phone booth, where I gave Mark, my bass-playing-best-friend-since-sixth-grade, a call. As each of the dozen quarters clanked into the machine I started to feel like paying was going to last longer than the call.


“Guess who?’

“Oh man, Wee Bee (his vaguely unflattering nickname for me). I thought you were lost on the moon.” Mark’s voice let loose with jovial relief. “You been raped yet?”

“Not yet…. How ‘bout you?”

“Right—so where are ya?”

“Sunny Florida. Funny, sunny, losing-my-fucking-mind Florida.” I stopped, and realized Mark immediately understood I needed support. Seattle remained only two weeks behind me, but each ride, each chameleon, felt like taking a head shot in the boxing ring. I’d become punch drunk.

“Go on,” he offered.

“I’m cracking up man.” My words scared me. “It’s like a bad acid trip without the acid.”

“You freakin’ out? Sure you’re not on acid now?”

“Yeah, I’m sure, but a weird thing just happened… I looked in the mirror and didn’t recognize myself.”

“Don’t bullshit me man. You’re on acid.”

“I’m not. Alright!” He wasn’t helping as quickly as I had hoped. “I just wanted to check and make sure this isn’t some Twilight Zone where my whole life is gone, or I’m just a figment of someone’s imagination.”

“No Capitan Crazy, you’re not made up. I’m here. You’re there. And we’re talkin’.” He laughed a bit. “You may end up in the loony bin, but I’ll get you out.”

My relief didn’t come from him convincing me this world is real, but from the fact he cared. “I know you’ll get me out. That’s why I called.” I noticed my death grip on the phone handle loosening. “So, what’ve you been up to?”

“You mean besides shootin’ thunder and lightning from my penis?”

“Penis? Who says penis anymore?”

“I do. And just for knowin’, the next time you’re standing in a storm and the rain tastes salty, you’ll know it’s me.”

PLEASE DEPOSIT ANOTHER ONE DOLLAR AND TWENTY-FIVE CENTS FOR THE NEXT THREE MINUTES. This mechanical voice butted-in after the first minute on every long-distance call from a pay phone, warning of the impending automatic disconnect.

“Oh yeah?” He wasn’t going to win the biggest-dick bragging rights. “Well, during that last solar eclipse, that wasn’t the moon blocking the sun. That was my” CLICK.

The call worked better than a prescription, or a shrink; a pure blast of medicine for my psyche. When I once again became myself there was still some daylight left, so I returned to whatever normal meant. Which meant climbing into another anonymous car heading south, and skirtting the coast along Highway A1A.

There were no majestic mountains with earth-encompassing vistas, but A1A lolled within its own beauty and calmness. Breezes from the sea carried spring’s warmth to Southern Florida, and dazzling white sand drew a sharp line along the rich blue that flowed east to the horizon. The beaches ran without end. A quite peace surrounded me.

Evening came and I walked off the road and found a grassy hollow. This little slice of paradise sat surround by palm trees that formed a natural wall. Short grasses, most of them dead and turned to straw, lined the ground in a soft warm mat. Flowers lightly scented the air, reminding me of sophisticated women who know how to wear perfume. The sky still held some light, but I knew I’d reached home for the night. Laying out my sleeping bag I envisioned myself a character on Gilligan’s Island. A number of the trees stood perfectly spaced for supporting a hammock, and I could see myself reclined under a canopy of palms. Maybe I’d scale one of the trees and bring down a coconut for dinner. Ocean wind continued to ambled in, which kept bugs away, and the foliage surrounding me took on richer shades of green as the sun arced further west. My hideaway offered secluded, gorgeous, perfection.

No one knew my location, I could have been anywhere on the continent. Nothing pressed in with due dates, expectations or babble. Freedom from daily clatter cleared my mind and I became even with the world—I let the air breath me. Laying on my back I stared up through the palms, and could only see blue mystery.

I wondered about purpose, my purpose, everyone’s purpose, the lack of purpose. Haphazard events seemed the rule, and they only became magnified beneath the lens of hitchhiking. Days offered no pattern, rising in a different spot every morning, no plan for nightly shelter, and only random actions filling the gaps between. Where’s the plan? Maybe the plan is to have no plan. Maybe we’re not here for a purpose. Why does life matter? Does life matter after we die? Is there a plan then? Do actions make sense then? Does purpose matter? Why do we thirst for mattering?

I didn’t need to know the answers; but understood my life would be defined based upon what I cared about. So what mattered to me?

My stomach churned. That mattered.

Propping myself up to sit against a palm, I pulled out a meal of bread and cheese. (Fresh coconuts made for a nice fantasy, but they lived high in the trees while my plebian food rested in my lap.) Slicing into the block of cheese, I felt something on my forearm, then something else. A few rain drops found me—not a problem. I snuggled up to the tree trunk figuring the fronds could act as my umbrella. More drops, more snuggling. Within about five minutes fat wet paratroopers battered me. Fresh gusts kicked up to a squall and the thickening rain grew into my first experience with a tropical storm.

I assumed the deluge would pass quickly, they same way a full pitcher empties when tipped over. After all, the sky could only hold so much water. With that assumption, I decided to wait out the torrent. From the ground I rolled up my sponge of a sleeping bag, which, after I lashed it to my pack, hung heavy and wet red. Each bloated drop assaulted the bag’s fabric, covertly disappearing into the weave. My comfy hollow became a pond a couple inches deep, getting deeper. Looking around I noticed high ground in short supply. In fact it seemed the ground decided to sink, succumbing to the weight of the water. I slogged around the thick undergrowth hoping to find anything dry. Don Quixote would have been proud.

Finally, I walked back to the black, soaked, gusting, highway. Peering north offered only dark expanse. I alternated between looking down to protect my eyes from the rain, and casting glances up in hopes of seeing a car. Half an hour passed as I waited for headlights. None came. No big surprise, I couldn’t imagine anyone would want to leave shelter to enter this menace.

To the south, I saw a minute red haze diffused by the billion drops separating me from the glow. Shelter nearby appeared nonexistent, and I realized standing in the gale, wet, waiting for morning, would drain away my body heat. I thought of the prayer the man had said for me on my first day out, asking God’s protection, and felt an inkling the distant lone light signaled a motel.

As I started walking, each of my shriveled fingertips trickled water like leaking faucets. I watched my hands rain onto my boots. The sky became a pounding ocean, as if the world had flipped upside-down.

With each sloshing step I swore I could feel the skin on my toes wrinkling, as if they’d soaked in a bath too long. I kept walking and simply accepted the drenching. Nothing would prevent everything I carried from becoming saturated, expect maybe my journal, sealed in a plastic bag.

After about forty-five minutes of plodding, with my head bent down against the storm, I neared the red glow. I could tell it was an arrow pointing to a motel, but couldn’t make out “vacancy” or “no vacancy”. The ground looked hazy as I neared the light. Each pounding drop shattering into thousands of splashing flecks that became a low smoke, blurring the line between sky and road.

VACANCY! And it looked cheap!!!

Of the two hundred dollars I’d started with I still held about seventy. Opening the office door triggered a dull buzz from a back room where a TV droned. This would be my first night paying for shelter.

“Be there in a second.” The dry voice of an old woman sounded. She crept out to the counter with her head bent toward the floor. Reaching down for a registration card her movements seemed to carry a practiced disinterest. She looked up. Her eyes jolted open.

I stood still, trying not to startle her while I poured over her lobby floor. After a couple moments I could see her attempting to suppress a laugh.

“It’s a rough one out there tonight.”

“Yes. You are correct.” I attempted to not sound annoyed at her firm grasp of the obvious.

“You got a license plate number?”

“Nope. I’m walking.”

She eyeballed me, and I don’t think she wanted to rent me a room. But the thought of turning me out to the storm may have swayed her, or maybe it was the cash I started counting. After paying, I walked across the parking pond to my room. Opening the door I saw a sharply defined cube of air devoid of drops—an atmosphere carved from a different planet, where a dry bed billowed comfort.


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.

Timberline Review

One of my short stories was recently published in the Timberline Review Literary Journal.

The Timberline Review is a new literary journal, a collage of voices speaking through the written word. Short fiction. Creative nonfiction. Essays. Poetry. Work that has the power to inspire a conversation with the times we live in.

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?”


“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.”


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.

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.

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