Sarah Handyside

Sarah Handyside is a vagabond and writer who has no specific goals and subscribes to no religions or political parties. She endeavors to own as few material possessions as possible and to have as few obligations as possible. Thus she will always be available to experience life sponateously and record it thru written words.

Apr 042015
 

It’s Friday night. The Stono Breeze is officially open for the season and it’s packed with people. Garth and I sit at a table at the back of the second-floor open-air patio. Three guys play live acoustic music. The early spring South Carolina air is perfect. Garth drinks a PBR, I sip rum and grapefruit juice, we watch the drunk people. Two guys rub themselves all over a cute hippie girl. A tall guy dances really awkwardly with a short woman. When Garth gets up to order us two more drinks, the tall guy sits down next to me.

“Someone’s about to come back for that seat,” I say, trying not to sound too unsociable.

The guy doesn’t appear to hear me. His name is Nate. He lives about three boats down from us on E dock. Yesterday, as I was walking to the bathroom, he stopped me and made a rather forced introduction.

“I wasn’t trying to be weird, yesterday,” he now explains. “I just wanted to finally break the ice. You never say anything! I mean, you say hi. You always say hi. But you don’t say anything. You or your boyfriend. You’re both so anti-social that everyone who lives here thinks you hate us.”

Jesus Christ, I think to myself. Really? I get to have this conversation right now?

I was looking forward to tonight. I was looking forward to getting drunk, listening to live music, watching a crowd of drunken sailors act crazy. I was looking forward to talking with some of the cool people we’ve met about sailing, travel and living the free life. But no. There will be none of that. I won’t be talking to Kevin and Natalie about environmentally conscious sculpture. I won’t be talking with Will about boat building and landscape painting. I won’t be talking to Freddy about how marriage and kids aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. I won’t be asking Billy what kinds of songs he’s been writing and why he refuses to perform with his brother. I won’t be asking the other Billy how he makes his incredible blackberry moonshine. Instead, I will be talking to this guy about the fact that I don’t talk enough.

www.denisewakeman.com

www.denisewakeman.com

I fucking hate this conversation. Nothing in the whole of infinity is more tedious, more exhausting, more frustrating, more discouraging, or more flat-out unproductive than this conversation. This is not my idea of a good time. This is a great way to take a Friday night, stab it in the throat with a rusty railroad spike, stuff it in a contractor bag, drive it out into the desert and bury it in a deep hole with a rotting javolina carcass.

You telling me I don’t talk enough is NOT going to make me want to talk to you more. It’s going to make me feel incredibly self-conscious. From here on out, I’m going to be constantly and painfully aware of the fact that you expect me to talk to you, that you are waiting for me to speak. Every time I see you, I will feel like I am being put on the spot. That pressure will only make me want to go farther out of my way to avoid you.

“Why don’t you start some conversations?” Nate continues. “If you get to know people around here they can help you fix up your boat. A lot of these people know a lot of stuff.”

I am getting to know people. I’m getting to know them at my own pace. I’ve had a few really nice conversations since I’ve been here. I enjoy getting to know people when it happens naturally, when circumstances put us in the same place and give us a reason to talk. I don’t find it necessary to start a full-on conversation with every single person I see just because they exist. I don’t like saying things just to say things.

“Earlier today, you came up the dock and saw me and two of my friends sitting in front of the office, so you went all the way around the building in order to avoid us,” Nate points out. “Didn’t you think we’d notice that? What, do you think we’re a bunch of creeps who just want to check you out or something?”

As a matter of fact, I didn’t think they’d notice. I don’t assume that people are watching every move I make. I operate under the assumption that, aside from the NSA, no one is paying attention to me and they couldn’t care less what I’m doing. But not only did Nate notice, he is incredibly offended. He is taking it personally. I don’t understand why. I wouldn’t really give a shit if a complete stranger walked out of their way to avoid me. The action would have no significance to me.

“It didn’t have anything to do with you,” I say. “I don’t assume every guy in the marina wants to look at my ass, I just don’t like walking through the middle of other people’s conversations.”

Nate changes the subject. He crunches up his face in utter confusion and asks, “So what do you do with that hoop you’re always carrying around?”

I don’t think it’s even possible to verbally convey what hoop dance is, but I’d rather attempt it than continue talking about me not talking.

“It’s not like hula hooping,” I begin. “You don’t just stand in one spot and twirl the thing around your waist. It’s more like a form of dance where you incorporate the hoop into your movements. It would be way more effective to Google it if you’re really that interested.”

He hands me his phone. I type “Hoop Dance” into the search bar and play a video for him. His face does all kinds of weird things while he watches it.

“But you went all the way around the building!” he reiterates when the video stops. “Why?!”

“I already told you, it makes me nervous to walk right through other people’s conversations. They all expect me to say something, and I don’t ever have any idea what to say. I’m no good at talking. I’m shy.”

I’m not really shy. There is a difference between being introverted and being shy, but people tend to accept the word shy in a way that they do not accept introversion.

“Well, it makes people uncomfortable. You need to learn how to talk to people. Here’s what I want you to do: next time you’re walking by with your hoop, stop and ask somebody what time it is. That’s your homework assignment. I’m giving you an assignment so you can start working on being more sociable.”

Awesome. I’m glad you feel that it’s totally appropriate for you to give me personality improvement homework so I can practice behaving in ways that make you more comfortable. I’ll get right on that.

What Nate says next makes me want to stab him in the face.

“You need to get out of your comfort zone!” he says.

“You know nothing about me!” I reply. “You know nothing about my life! How do you presume to know whether or not I am in my comfort zone?”

First of all, my comfort zone would be a cabin so far out in the Alaskan wilderness that no one else could get there unless they owned a helicopter. I am not in my comfort zone. As a matter of fact, I’ve spent the past decade deliberately pushing myself as far outside of it as I possibly could. I’ve been traveling practically non-stop for ten years. Half of the time I’ve had very little money. The other half of the time, I’ve had no money. As in zero cents. I’ve had to engage with people of many different personalities, backgrounds, and cultures just to get food and water to keep myself alive. Sometimes I’ve had to do it without the luxury of a common language.

Second, I was born outside my comfort zone. In the United States, extroversion is the only socially acceptable personality. If you are not talkative and outgoing, you are either broken or sick or both. Living in a culture that views my natural personality as a malfunction or an illness means that I have no comfort zone.

I spent the first two thirds of my life wishing I could change my personality and learn to be more sociable so that people like Nate would feel comfortable around me. I’ve spent 32 years trying to explain my behavior to people like Nate so that they would feel more comfortable around me. I have had this god-awfully exhausting and pointless conversation more times than I can count. Nate has no idea what that is like. His personality is normal, healthy, socially acceptable. As long as he is in the United States, he will always be in his comfort zone.

And Finally, I find it maddeningly ironic that Nate is telling me to leave my non-existent comfort zone in order to enable him to remain within his own.

Years ago, I stopped wishing I could morph into a social butterfly. I decided I would be myself and embrace my natural personality. I decided that if anyone had a problem with it, they could fuck off. Why should introverts act against their nature in order to make extroverts more comfortable? Why can’t it be the other way around? Because introverts are the broken ones? Fuck that racket. There are plenty of cultures on this planet in which introversion is not only socially acceptable, but respected and preferred. I do not need to be cured or repaired, because I’m not fucking broken!

“I know I’m weird, but there’s no reason for you to take a personal offense to it,” I continue. “My personality is not injuring you in any way. You are choosing to take offense to it! Why can’t you just let me be how I am? Your extroverted personality makes me uncomfortable, but I’m not trying to give you personality adjustment homework so you can fix it in order to make me more comfortable. I’m allowing you to be how you are. Why can’t you show me the same courtesy?”

“Fine, you’re right,” Nate says. “You’re not responsible for making sure I’m comfortable. But if you’re gonna choose to be a freak, you should own it. Don’t just walk around with a giant hula hoop and not say anything to anyone. Tell people what you’re up to! Like why haven’t you done some kind of performance so people will know what you’re doing with that thing all the time?”

Maybe if I say this again in a different way, he’ll understand.

“I shouldn’t have to explain myself to everyone!” I say. “Why does everyone need to know what I’m doing? I don’t practice hoop dance so I can entertain all of you with performances. I do it because I enjoy it. Once again, you’re telling me that I should do more talking and be more outgoing in order to make everyone else comfortable. Why do you expect me to just come up to you and explain everything I do? I don’t expect you to explain yourself to me. I just let you go about your business.”

“Okay,” Nate says. “Well I don’t wanna be a dick and just leave, but I gotta get a drink… and maybe find another line of conversation.”

So you take offense to my silence and demand that I speak in order to make you more comfortable, but now that we’re talking, you can’t fucking handle it? Somehow, that figures.

Dear extroverts, forcing an introvert to speak is not going to make you any more comfortable than allowing them to remain quiet.

And I do own my strange personality. I own it by acting like myself whether you like it or not. I own it by not explaining my behavior to you. I own it by being how I am without your permission or acceptance. I own it by not trying to fix myself, because I’m not fucking broken!

The Distant Drum

 Posted by at 3:02 am  All  4 Responses »
Feb 272015
 

Warning: the pipe in my brain through which writing flows has been clogged for a year. With the help of The Distant Drum, I’ve finally pulled the hair wad out. Untangling it was not possible, so I simply glued it to my word processor as it was…

I remember thinking over and over– and marveling over the thought– that I wasn’t nervous. I watched through the hatch as Andy, the guy who sold us the boat, pointed out the water pressure switch to Garth. I realized that I’d soon be living on a sailboat and life would be unpredictable and difficult. I’m not nervous, I mused, smiling inwardly, maybe outwardly. When we bought Gonzo, when we drove from New Orleans to Maryland to get him, I was nervous as hell.

I’m tired. The kind of tired where I think I can sing along with Fiona Apple and I scream with glee through the scratches in the clear center panel of the closed hatch because the little white heater on the galley counter is blowing out hot air. Hot air! I’ve been so cold for the past four days that all the shaking and shivering has worn my muscles down to beef jerky. They are tender to the touch and I get cramps in my legs at night that cause me to jump out of bed and flail around and scream. But now it’s warm in here, inside the cabin of The Distant Drum. That’s her name. The boat. Sailboat. I sang her a song to keep myself awake this morning as I motored her against the current through a narrow channel with comfy southern houses hidden behind oaks curtained with Spanish moss. I sang it to keep myself awake. We didn’t get much sleep last night. That fucking bridge.

The Wapoo bridge. We make it to within thirty minutes of our destination and we come up to this bridge. It’s 4:30. The bridge doesn’t open again until 6:30. God forbid we impede rush hour traffic. So we tie up to the end of this dock right below the bridge. The Drum’s side is against the end of the dock. It’s like a saucer balancing on the end of a stick. At first, it’s okay. I’m glad to be there. With a dock to walk on, it’s much easier to take the 60-pound, awkwardly shaped, precariously balanced outboard engine off The Drum’s stern rails and put it back on the dinghy.

At 6 a.m., Garth will need to be able to dinghy himself to shore from our intended anchorage on the Stono River. He is supposed to work. That’s the reason we hurried right to Charleston even though Andy had paid through Saturday at the Hazzard Marina in Georgetown.

If we had waited until after we got through the Wapoo bridge and anchored, we would’ve had to somehow move the outboard engine in the dark, between boat and dinghy, which would’ve been so awkward I can’t even describe it. Let it suffice to say that the engine would have likely ended up at the bottom of the Stono River. And we wouldn’t have been able to afford a new one, which means we would have had to row, like back in the Gonzo days. Only I think this inflatable would be harder to row than our infamous plague of a yellow kayak was.

So the forced two-hour wait at the Wapoo Bridge dock gave us the perfect platform for the engine transfer. Relieved to have that done with, we go down below to escape the freezing wind and rain. I make dinner. Pinto beans with vegetable medley, viennna sausage, mayo and red pepper powder. The stove burners warm up the cabin until it sweats. Our windows leak. Drips fall on the beige lazarette cushions. I stick a French Press under one of the drips. Soon the water is an inch deep. I’m glad to be warm. I do the dishes while Garth attempts to use our 4G T-Mobile internet connection, which only leads to a lot of screaming and yelling. These days my brain has a mute button that automatically engages when Garth starts yelling about internet. Or about anything.

I use the foot pedal in the cupboard to pump seawater into the sink for washing dishes. This is so much more convenient, and so much warmer, than going out on deck to lower a bucket into the river like we used to aboard Gonzo. Washing dishes with seawater conserves fresh water for cooking and drinking. Getting it without going outside makes me happy.

Before six thirty, darkness falls. The channel that leads to the Stono River from the bay surrounding Charleston is narrow and winding and the markers are not lit. Also, the rain has turned into a full force thunder and lightning storm which has blotted out everything on shore. There is no way we are getting to our destination tonight without getting hypothermia and sinking The Drum. We decide to remain at the dock by the stupid bridge with the stupid rush hour traffic. I am always waiting for cars to go by. Half my life has been spent doing exactly that. I hate traffic. I hate cars. I hate them. Truly. In the purest and most genuine sense of the word and for every possible reason.

Heating pinto beans and the Drum's salon with our butane stove.

Heating pinto beans and the Drum’s salon with our butane stove.

The problem with this dock is that the tide is about to change. Our warm little evening staring at the blue butane flames from our stove and drinking chillable red Franzia is interrupted by a terrible grinding groan. It’s coming from the Drum’s Hull. Garth goes outside.

“What’s happening out there is exactly what I knew would happen but didn’t think would actually happen,” he says, coming back in looking like a cat that’s been drowned and then stuck in a light socket.

The current has pushed The Drum forward so that the sharp corner of the dock jabs right into the rounded side of her hull.

Out on deck, the cold rattles me like a puppet hanging off the end of an epileptic fit. When I speak, the words shake and jerk, single syllables splitting in twos and threes. There is no loosening and tightening docking lines. The boat is too heavy. If Gonzo was a wiffle ball, The Drum is a cannonball. You can’t just push her around. Especially when a fierce tidal current is raging around her. If we lose our grip on a line, she’ll swing away from the dock and into the rocks. Or into the bridge, de-masting us. Adventure over.

I can’t think. I feel like a hologram made of that clear goo you find in cans of Spam. Earlier in the afternoon, before we even got to the stupid bridge, I fell asleep sitting up. We’ve had The Drum for… how many days? I don’t know. Less than the number of fingers I’ll still have on my hand if we try to adjust our docking lines… and this is not our first ruckus. The adrenaline of owning a new boat, being adrift again after a year of stability, and the constant shivering have drained me. Garth is a better problem solver than me, but sometimes, the presence of another person makes it hard for his brain to function. I go down below and shiver and drip on the wood floor, hoping he’ll find a solution to our problem.

Suddenly, the lights outside swivel. I pull back the hatch and stick my head on deck. Garth has loosed us from the dock. We’re circling madly around in the dark, in the rain, in the wind, in the wild current. We’ll have to anchor. There are electrical cables or some such dangerous nonsense on the bottom of the river and we can barely see. I throw the anchor. It doesn’t hold. Andy only left about 30 feet of anchor line aboard. Without intricate explanations, you’ll have to trust me when I say that’s not enough to hold a boat to the bottom in rough waters deeper than 5 feet, no matter how great the anchor. Slowly, pulling hand over hand as my knee cap grinds against the cold, wet fiberglass deck, I drag it back in. I impress myself with my own strength. This always seemed so hard aboard Gonzo.

Garth moves us down river. I drop the huge hook again. I sit still and wait. I watch a silhouette pass across the golden-warm windows of a house on shore. I pick out the horse head shape in a big black tree. I stare hard, trying to tell if they’re moving. We’ve stuck, but neither of us trusts it. Too many bad anchor-dragging experiences on Gonzo. “Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!” Garth yells as we climb down below. Each of us rubs the sweat off a window and stares out, trying to tell if we’re dragging.

“We should keep watches,” I say. “We won’t be able to sleep anyway.”

I think of yesterday. Or maybe the day before. We were motoring along, down the intra-coastal, where we’ve been before, where the low-lying golden grass and swamp that stretches flat for miles makes you wonder about voodoo, and we all of a sudden decided to put up a sail. There are so many lines and halyards on The Drum that Gonzo didn’t have. She’s made for racing. We untangle everything and haul the sail up, which requires the use of a winch. There is no pulling the halyard with your hands. This sail is too big for that. Even in a small wind, the pressure is hard to fight.

Once the sail is up, The Drum leans. That lean. Sailboats lean when you catch the wind at just the right angle and you suddenly feel like you’ve swallowed the sun and everything’s turned to gold, and the clouds blast apart like an orgasm. That lean makes you feel like you’re getting somewhere and no one can get to you. And that was with just the mainsail. Our jib is stuffed in a bag down below. Excitement rose through my body as I imagined what it will be like when we finally bend both sails on and really sail The Drum.

As Garth is pressing his nose to his cold, wet, dark window on the port side, as he’s swearing profusely, I think about the lean. I think about how we have our own space to be in. After enough years of living outside, where there are cops and rules and laws– after years of living in other people’s spaces, where, no matter how much they like you and no matter how welcome you know you are, you still feel like you’re interrupting someone’s life– the thing you want most is your own space to be in. But for Garth and me, that space has to be mobile. It has to be. A sailboat, no matter how difficult, is our only option. What about RV’s? They don’t travel on free wind power. And cops can walk up to the windows at night and knock on them with flashlights and tell you you’re not allowed to park there. No one can walk on water. If Jesus wants to knock on my window with a flashlight, that’s fine. It’ll be kind of like an alien ship landing. Who would object to that?

Garth sets an anchor alarm. Yes, there is an app for that. We hang our wet clothes and climb in bed. Our v-berth hatch drips. A puddle of standing water has collected on our sleeping bag. But we have layers and layers of sleeping bags and the water hasn’t soaked all the way through. It’s warm underneath. I’ve slept so well in there the past three nights. I wake in the middle of the night with a cramp in my shin-ankle-calf, that feels like it’s going to split my bones before it lets up. I bolt upright in bed, twist around and shove my foot flat against the wall. I push so hard I’m worried I’ll break the wall before the muscle releases. After it finally does, I sit and pant and massage it and feel bad that I woke Garth.

It’s still dark when we wake up to our anchor alarm. Garth rushes up on deck in his long johns. By the time I’m up on deck, he’s hauled in the anchor. “We were about to hit the bridge!” he yells, circling The Drum around to face that stupid dock again. It’s our only option.

I frantically run forward, fumble with a docking line, fingers frozen. I barely have time to twist it around a cleat on deck before I have to jump off the boat and knot the other end around a cleat on that dumb dock. As I tie it off, The Drum’s stern drifts away in the current. I drop my line and jump back onto the bow. As I dodge shrouds and 5-gallon diesel cartons, trying to make my way to the stern to get a line, the bow drifts away from the dock. I’ve given it too much slack and the line hangs down in the black water. Garth can’t see it. He thinks I haven’t tied it off. He panics. He screams and yells. I run forward again and grab the deck end of the line and pull us back to the dock while Garth jumps of the stern and ties it down.

We’re sitting on the lazarette below, his arm around me, when I realize how effective that mute button in my brain has become. Back in the Gonzo days, Garth’s yelling and screaming cut right to my bone marrow. I barely knew him then. I laugh. I say, “I don’t even care when you yell and scream anymore.”

Over the past six years, I’ve realized a few things. 1) I can do pretty much anything if I really want to or if I have no choice, 2) Garth doesn’t trust anyone but himself, and 3) when Garth yells and curses, he’s yelling and cursing at situations, not people. Number one has led to a great confidence in my own abilities. Number two means that even if god himself were Garth’s co-pilot, Garth would not trust him to do anything right (hence one should never take his screaming personally). Number three means that once the situation is over, Garth will make it clear that he thinks you are the most fantastic person in the universe. All these things, when combined, mean that no matter how frustrating or challenging the situation, we can both handle it in our own ways.

“If you decide to run away,” he says. “Run away with the boat. It’s only been two days and I’ve already had enough of the shit.”

“If I run away,” I say, “I’ll run away from the boat with you. That worked pretty well last time.”

We didn’t go back to bed. It was four in the morning. Instead, I put our tea kettle on our butane stove. I spooned Folgers instant coffee into two little white coffee cups. Garth got out his leatherman, his tools, his gloves, and put on clean clothes. “You’ll have to get the boat to that marina on the Stono River by yourself,” he said.

“Does that mean you’re going to work after all?”

Last night he’d called yellow cab to arrange a ride from that stupid dock to the place where he’d meet his employer. Last night, he’d growled and yelled, “There is no way I’m working a regular job and living on a boat! I can’t think about both at once! Fuck that!” But that shit storm that had wrecked our night and our nerves had blown us straight back to the dock where his taxi would meet him. “I might as well go since I’m here,” Garth said.

When we first got Gonzo, I had to moor him single-handed. Mooring is a serious black belt ninja move, and I didn’t even know how to work the engine. I was so nervous I thought the sky was gonna crack open and turn into bats and swarm me until I suffocated to death. We’ve only had The Distant Drum for three days. Here I am in the same situation. Only with a bigger, heavier boat that will cause a bigger, more destructive catastrophe if I lose control of it. And I’m not nervous.

“We’ve done so much in the past six years,” I say to Garth.

“We’ve lived like ten years to everyone’s else’s one year,” he agrees.

“Except for last year,” I say. “It will disappear into the void. It barely exists compared to our other years.”

As fucked up as last night was, it satisfied some kind of weird, cavernously hungry need I have in me that claws away at the core of my life force if things are too easy. I need to feel like I’m boxing to the death with one of those bright blue many-armed Hindu deities. Anyway, I have surprised myself so many times in the past six years…getting The Drum off this stupid dock, under that stupid bridge and into a slip at that marina seems like something I can accomplish if I pay attention and take it one step at a time.

I don’t know where I am in this story. I don’t even know what tense I’m writing in. But I’m in my slip at St. John’s Yacht Harbor on the Stono River. I slid up to the diesel dock with such grace you’d think I’d been sailing The Drum for years. Getting into the slip after I filled her up with diesel was a ruckus. The steering went out just before I nosed into the slip. Three guys caught my lines and shifted The Drum around until she was tied down safe. One of them, Will, invited me to breakfast. Thing number four that I learned in the past six years: you never refuse breakfast.

Will is retirement age. He’s originally from San Diego. He built his adorable boat himself, beginning with just a bare hull. He lives on it and paints landscapes. He wants his time to belong to him. “It’s the only valuable thing,” he says. Sailors all seem to know this, and, like the others we met while living aboard Gonzo, Will wishes he’d stared young like Garth and me. I’m so glad to be around people who know again. People who know that your own time is the only thing worth owning. I am penniless and nearly everything I’ve done aboard The Drum in the past few days has been a big pain in the ass, but I feel every second of it. There is no fazing out. There is no life passing by. I feel a profound sense of accomplishment in brushing my teeth, in boiling pinto beans. Every second that I am awake, my thoughts and actions are dictated by me, not by clocks or bosses. I need this.

Garth is at work. I have a jug of peanuts. The docks are big enough for me to hoop dance on. The bathrooms are clean and luxurious and they smell good and the hot water in the shower lasts decades. It’s going to be 75 degrees in a few days. “Everything will be okay,” Garth said, before he walked up the dock, headed for his taxi.

At 5 p.m., I hear a knock on the hull. I poke my head out the hatch and Garth is standing there smiling. “You did a really good job docking the boat,” he says. “You made it here.” I tell him all about my morning, how everything went smoothly, and how the steering went out just as I was scooting into the slip, giving us an excuse to choose this lovely marina as a place to rest and spend time fixing up The Drum.

“We’ve had so much dumb luck since we got this boat,” he marvels.

“Everything we’ve done has been dumb luck,” I agree.

We didn’t expect to get a boat that would be almost exactly what we wanted for $2550. We didn’t expect Ron and Clara to offer to pay for it (for which we are infinitely grateful). We didn’t expect Ron to drive us to South Carolina, saving us travel fare. We didn’t expect that it would be easy for Garth to find work. We definitely didn’t expect that, after all the bad noise of getting to Charleston so he could take the job, the storm we thought had thwarted us would actually help us by putting Garth back on that dock so he could make it to his first day. We didn’t expect to end up at a marina with everything we need, including the use of a car.

“We had dumb luck aboard Gonzo too,” Garth says. “Apparently we were meant to live on boats.”

Garth’s job was reasonable. His employers were rational, and because he’s working as an electrician, he doesn’t have to deal with the “consumers” that nearly drove him crazy at Basha’s all last year. I can pay a month’s rent at this marina with my freelance writing, so all of his paychecks will go into boat improvements, and of course, more cryptocurrency. We have a few thousand dollars to start with, which longtime readers will know is a very substantial amount for us. Everything is working out in that really strange, nerve-jangling way that things always seem to work out for us when we choose to plunge headlong into whatever seems good for us at the moment.

Nov 082014
 

Heat sears through the shins of my black jeans. Tree branches burn in a battered circular water trough filled with ash drifts. Huge flakes burst silently into the sky with blazing edges that fade as they float down again. They stick in my hair, smear across the thighs of my pants. A gold field and sage hills roll toward a pink glow. It’s not dawn yet. Outside the fire’s glow, it’s freezing.

A nervous blue healer struts past a pitchfork, past an abandoned swing set, past a wooden dining room chair cushioned with dead mesquite leaves. The cows lower their heads to look at her through the slats of their wooden corral. There are four of them. Three black, one hazelnut. One of the black cows has a crooked horn that curls nearly into its eye. They look at me with their long eyelashes. Cows always look at people the same way—like they’re not gonna tell us any of the stuff they know because they don’t intend to waste their breath on idiots.

IMAG0081A five-foot high metal ring the color of American cheese looms up behind me. A maze of wooden fencing forms narrow lanes leading from the cows’ corral to the metal cheese wheel. The cheese wheel leads to a cement ramp that leads to a narrow platform between two cinder block walls. Gates of beige metal bars close off either end of the platform, which is just wide enough, just long enough for a cow to stand in.

The platform shares one of its cinder block walls with a little cement building. At the bottom of that wall, there is a metal door. It is just high enough, just long enough for a cow to be dragged through. It leads down a cement embankment into a cement basin with a sunken drain.

A Mexican guy saunters up to the fire. Frio! he says. A one-word statement like a command you give a dog because it’s not capable of understanding complete sentences. He doesn’t assume I speak Spanish. I’m glad. I’ve forgotten almost everything I learned when Garth and I hitchhiked through Mexico. I can’t even tell him my age. I’ve forgotten the word thirty. He asks if Garth and I are married.

“No,” I say. “El es mi no… no…”

“Novio,” the man finishes for me.

“Eres de aqui?” I ask.

He’s from Mexico, six hours from Nogales. I tell him I’m from Portland, Oregon.

“Es muy lejos?” he asks.

“Si. Muy lejos. Al norte.” My brain is a plugged up bathtub. I can’t get anymore words out of it.

The fact that no one thought to teach me Spanish as a child bothers me as much as the fact that I’ve eaten tons of hamburgers and never seen a cow slaughtered.

Listo! he says. He strides toward the cows, jumps onto the fence. The new sun blinds me when I stand. It’s bright and cold as shaved ice. The Mexican grunts and whistles, waving a big stick at the cows. They shuffle and snort into a narrow wooden lane, where they wait ass to nose. For them, the lane is barely shoulder width.

The Mexican pushes a tree branch through the fence slats behind the first cow in line so the others can’t follow her. Once she’s inside the metal cheese wheel, another man pushes a big metal wall. It bangs and clangs around the cheese wheel like a hand on a clock, closing the cow into an ever smaller space. She gets scared. I can’t see her over the cheese wheel wall, but I hear and smell a loud, heavy stream of piss. It trickles under the cheese wheel.

The cow lumbers up the cement ramp. The Mexican closes the beige barred gate, trapping her between the cinder block walls. I can see only her huge black hairy butt. I can’t see the guy with the silver piston gun. SNAP! It’s a sharp, powerful, precise sound. Coldly exact. She keeps moving her head, the gunman says. SNAP! The cow crumbles all at once with a loud thud, knobby knees cracking against cement, hooves kicking at the bars. She’s not quite dead.

I follow the Mexican into the cement room. Garth and Steve stand watching. They’ve been cutting up already slaughtered cows.

A young man stands at the ready. He wears rubber boots, a red rubber apron and a metal rack of knives on a chain link belt. The metal door in the cinder block wall lifts inward. The Mexican steps into the basin, grabs the cow by a horn and pulls. Red Rubber Man helps. As her huge bulk tumbles awkwardly down the embankment, she kicks at the metal door, thick blood sliding off her lolling tongue.

Her writhing and their pulling leave her lying half in and half out of the basin. Its high curb digs into her heavy ribcage. A thick chain hangs from the ceiling. Red Rubber Man dodges her flailing head and kicking hooves to wrap the end around her hind ankle. Gunman picks up a hose, squeezes the trigger on the spray nozzle. The sharp jet of water hisses against pavement, against the cow’s black hair. Blood and shit wash into the sunken drain. They say you shit yourself the moment you die. Or if you’re scared enough. I can’t tell if this twitching, squirming cow is dead or scared.

The winch’s mechanical whine pries at my nerves. The thick chain goes taught, lifting the cow slowly into the air, back feet first. Her slack tongue drags along the cement, leaving a sticky jelly-red trail. Gunman drags a gray garbage can below her suspended body. It says Inedible in black sharpie. It’s topped with an off-white funnel the size of a merry-go-round. Red Rubber Man approaches the cow’s neck with a knife. One front leg snaps inward, curling against her chest, and he freezes, waiting.

The silver blade sinks into wet black fur. Blood gushes from between two loose flaps, coating Red Rubber Man’s forearms, painting the white funnel dark crimson. The cow’s head swings wildly, splatters blood on the wall. Gunman sprays it off. It’s all reflex, he says. But some are worse than others. You just gotta be careful. Once she’s still, Red Rubber Man slices at the loose neck skin, peeling it back little by little until it hangs around the cow’s head like a wet, bloody lamp shade.

Red Rubber Man drags his blade across the base of the cow’s skull, around her throat, severing layer after layer of tissue until her head hangs from a narrow white cord. Finally, it snaps loose, tumbles into his arms. He lifts it laboriously onto a rack. The big gray sandpaper tongue hangs toward the floor. Gunman aims his hose at the head. Ragged skin, muscle, veins and cartilage flap under the piercing high-pressure drill of the water. He shoves the nozzle deep into the flesh. Water dribbles out the nose and mouth onto the fuzzy severed ears that lie on the floor. They are tagged with the number 102.

The Mexican draws a blade down the back of a leg, peels the fur off. He gouges and saws at the knee joint. The head was nothing. This really gets to me. The Mexican twists and bends the leg as his blade grinds into the joint. Finally, with a sickening crack, it snaps off. Whistling a tune, he pushes the plastic flaps aside, opens the door, carries the leg outside. I think of the drifts of ash in the big bent trough, the flakes that rained down on my hair and jeans.

The motor drones again through the ceaseless hiss of the hose, lowering the cow onto two parallel bars. She’s on her back with her feet in the air. Red Rubber Man drags his blade down her throat over her high-peaked chest, down her soft pink stomach. He grabs the udder by the nipples, slips the blade beneath it. Suddenly, it’s balancing on his palm like a basketball. It hits the bottom of a gray garbage can with a heavy slam.

Red Rubber Man skins one side of the cow while the Mexican skins the other. Beginning from the center seam, they IMAG0063slice with amazing precision, separating skin from muscle, making a slish, slish, slish sound. The inside of the skin is white. I think of Indian tee-pees. The muscle is foggy lavender red, netted together by webs of yellow plasticy fat. They peel the cow’s hide all the way down to the spine. It drapes over the metal bars in lank, wet folds. It looks like a table cloth.

The Mexican saws at the base off the rubbery whip tail while Red Rubber Man digs into the throat. His prying and jabbing eventually reveal a ribbed white tube the size of my forearm. It looks like a giant worm or a part from a machine you’d see in a hospital. Red Rubber man grips it and pulls. My neck tenses. I swallow and look away.

The cow is still moving. She has no head and no skin and someone is yanking on her esophagus, but she is moving. The whole purplish, fat-marbled mass of muscle squeezes, pulls and squirms in slow, swirling waves, as though an ant colony is dancing a ballet just underneath it. I have never seen anything move like this. At first, I can’t tell if it’s really happening.

I couldn’t tell if she was dead when she collapsed. Or when they pulled her through the door. Or when they hoisted her into the air. She must be dead now. These must be electrical impulses, something akin to chickens running around without heads. What if this decapitated, mostly skinless amputee cow gets up and stampedes us?

The Mexican stabs his knife into the cow’s back leg. I feel the jab in the back of my knee. He drags the blade down the bone. I inhale sharply as it zaps down the back of my calf. He peels the skin off. Again, he twists the leg and saws into the knee joint. Again, that sickening crack. I cross my arms over my stomach, wrap my hands around my elbows. They feel like the weird jelly you find in cans of Spam.

The non-stop spray of the hose thickens the air into a clammy smog that stinks of blood and wet animal hair. It swamps my pores. In the eerie half-cold fog, with its stumpy front arms sticking up and its white table cloth hanging down, the cow looks like the centerpiece for a Christmas dinner from Tim Burton’s worst nightmare. I suddenly realize that I’m no longer thinking of this hunk of flesh as an animal. It is now food.

When did this cow stop being a cow?

The whining winch motor lowers a metal bar. A large hook dangles from either end. Red Rubber man drives one hook into the flesh of each stumpy back leg. A Sawzall roars to life in his hand. The jagged teeth scream right down the center of the ribcage and tear through the cow’s spread-eagled crotch.

The winch motor groans and strains, lifting the body into the air again. The table cloth skin now hangs from the spine like wilted fur wings, dripping watered-down blood. A tangle of slimy entrails tumbles from the sawed-open ribcage. The cabernet-colored kidneys are smooth as river stones. The stomach looks like a God-size condom filled with purple worms and vanilla pudding. Red Rubber Man heaves it into the inedible can with a groan. The cow’s body is an empty cavern.

The Sawzall blade rips down the cow’s spine, grinding each hockey puck-size vertebrae in half until the body swings apart. Each half hangs from its own hook by a rear leg stump.

It must be dead now. It’s definitely not a cow anymore. An hour ago, there was a cow. She was alive. I saw her. She stared at me through the fence slats, listening to my pathetic attempts to speak Spanish. She probably spoke Spanish better than me at that point. Now there is only meat. Where is the cow? Her head is on a rack. Her blood and bowels and skin fill garbage cans. Her muscles hang from hooks. Her legs burn in the fire. But where is the cow? Where is the part of her that was looking at me? Where is her mind, her consciousness? Is it wandering around, disembodied?

I’m convinced that it was the cow’s mind and not her body that made her a cow. I’m convinced it is gone. That’s why there is no longer a cow here even though every part that makes up a cow is present in the room. But when did the cow’s mind leave? I should have recognized the moment at which the cow ceased to exist. It should have been definite and obvious. The difference between life and death should have been absolute. Unmistakable.

I wander the farm trying to grasp the moment at which the cow ceased to exist. It feels like trying to read in a dream.

I stroll past the wooden maze. The hazelnut cow, number 905, lowers her head to look at me through the slats. She is definitely a cow. She is definitely conscious. She is next. Gunman and the Mexican shoo and grunt her into the metal cheese wheel, up the ramp, into the cinder block cage.

I’m on the other side of the building this time. I lower my head to look at her through the slats. She bangs around in her cage, big eyes wide open. Let’s give her a little kiss and settle her down, Gunman says. He presses the barrel of his silver piston gun against her forehead. SNAP! She crumbles, her pale pink nose jams painfully against the metal bars. She squirms and writhes. Soon her mouth is wrapped around a bar, dripping blood. She continues to kick and jerk. Her hooves make a violent racket against the metal bars. Gunman has to shoot her two more times.

I bet that one’s pregnant, he says, as the metal door lifts. They’re always harder to kill when they’re pregnant. They just don’t wanna give it up.

IMAG0075A little plastic cow lies in the dirt at my feet. I wonder if number 905’s disembodied mind wishes she was plastic. The door opens and I notice a sign on it that says, Proud to be animal welfare approved. Red Rubber Man drags out a gray bin full of blood.

I don’t feel bad. Animals kill animals. And its’ riveting. People pay every month to watch cheetahs tackle gazelles on the National Geographic channel. Yet somehow, the fact that humans watch animals kill other animals on massive high-definition flat-screen televisions makes us different from animals. Our minds are more advanced, therefore we should be more civilized. We invented televisions. We also invented religions and politics that give us much better reasons to kill each other. Animals kill each other to eat. We kill each other because…um…uh…because…

Oh! I know where the cow’s mind went! Heaven! That’s another thing our advanced and civilized minds invented. I search the sky for the cow’s mind. I find only a spastic black and orange butterfly battling sunbeams. The sky is empty. No heaven, no minds. I don’t think the sky even knows why it’s blue. It’s icy and unscathed despite pregnant cows and pregnant women getting shot underneath it every day. Or maybe the stars are age spots and the clouds are wrinkles and the sun’s a big cancerous tumor and the sky is just too old and sick to give a shit.

I don’t know where the cow went. I know I feel better now that I actually saw a cow slaughtered. When I drag my steaks across the grocery store scanner, I’ll see big eyes fringed with hazelnut lashes. I’ll smell the piss of fear. I’ll feel a sandpaper tongue dragging blood across the pavement. When I sink my teeth into a medium-rare steak, I’ll hear the powerful precision of that coldly exact SNAP!

So you still gonna eat meat after this? Red Rubber man says from the porch as he lights a cigarette.

Yes, I say.

The cow’s flesh will be in my stomach. I still won’t know where her mind is or when it got away. I’ll think of that mass of slowly swirling muscle and wonder if thoughts are just wires sparking, just another bodily function of no more significance than a loud fart.

Why do we need to believe that we are special enough to deserve whole entire heavens to preserve our farts?

Apr 082014
 


BTC FemaleAs a Nomad and an Anarchist |
Sarah Handyside

Years ago, I decided I did not want to spend my life going into debt and working a job I hated in order to pay it off, while being taxed by a government which would use my money to fund atrocious exploits I wanted nothing do with. So I opted out of the American Dream. I gave up all my possessions, except what necessities I could carry in a backpack, and I went on the road and off the grid in search of a different way of life. Non-participation has long been my method of protest against the U.S. government.

In 2012, I wrote the following:

“I do not recognize the United States Government as a legitimate ruling entity. I do not respect or fear it, and I will not obey or serve it. I will no longer participate in its convoluted, ineffective systems.

My elected representatives do not view me as a human being. They view me as a slave meant to be manipulated for their own material gain.

It is time to stop electing others to represent us. It is time to stop seeking permission, instruction, assignment or aid from those who would use them to manipulate us. We must stop looking for leaders and saviors to solve our problems.

I do not believe that decent people need to elect others to lead them. People are strong enough, smart enough and humane enough to establish their own communities and provide for themselves.

Let us not waste our energy in perpetuating, repairing or tearing down a broken, ineffective system. Let us instead come together to organize a system of our own, in which meeting the basic needs of all human beings stands as our ultimate objective.”

In 2013, I found out about Bitcoin. I don’t view it as merely an investment or a currency; I view it as a protocol for taking tangible action on the above statement.

The United States’ top-down, representative system of democracy does not allow for the voice of every individual effected by the decisions of government to be heard. It allows for those with money to influence representatives with decision-making power.

The best way to obliterate our obsolete system is not to fight it or to reform it from within, but rather to starve it to death by creating and transitioning to a brand new system. That new system should be leaderless, decentralized. It should allow every individual to speak for themselves so that they will no longer have to trust a representative. It should also be completely transparent.

The first step in starving our current system out of existence it to take away its ability to control and manipulate the money supply and the financial system. Bitcoin eliminates the need for both private banks and the Federal Reserve, both of which are liabilities of the tax-payer. It takes money out of the hands of government and puts it in the hands of the people. It is not owned or controlled by a single entity, but by every individual who participates in the system. And every transaction made within that system is recorded in a transparent ledger. There is no need to trust government representatives, board members, bankers or even other Bitcoin users.

As a nomad, it’s also important to me that Bitcoin transcends arbitrary, man-made national borders.

Since borders are nothing more than tools used by governments to oppress and control groups of people, I do not have much regard for them. People, no matter where they are born and raised, should be free to move around the world at will. A currency such as Bitcoin, which transcends national borders, is a step toward dissolving those borders.

It is as a nomad and an anarchist– as a human being who does not want to lead or be lead, but wishes to take responsibility for her own life and for the decisions made therein, that I advocate the replacement of our current financial system with Bitcoin.

 

Feb 082014
 

January 22-29

I hadn’t showered in a week and I had only been in the bathroom for ten minutes. I wasn’t shaving my legs, blow-drying my hair, putting on makeup or doing anything else that wasn’t absolutely necessary. I was just trying to get clean. But there had to be some stupid, impatient whore banging on the door, shouting, “You’re taking for-fucking-ever!” She was one in a line of about twelve people waiting for their chance to use one of the two showers at the Z Mansion. It seems like there’s one of her at every homeless shelter. People like her are one reason I avoid shelters unless I’m really desperate.

I came out holding a haphazrd heap of dirty clothes. I didn’t want to fold and pack them in the bathroom. That lousy whore would’ve broken the door down. Squeezing past the people in line, I nearly tripped over the ancient lady in the bathrobe and floppy straw hat. She wanted to get into the bathroom to “Tinkle.” All morning, she’d been shuffling around behind a walker with a wire basket on it, turkey neck wobbling, trying to get into the free clothing room. They only let two people in at a time. She always picks out men’s underwear and other stuff she doesn’t need and she takes it to other donation centers. No one knows why. Her smile is sweet and vacant, but the other people in line know what she’s up to, so they yell at her and block her when she tries to cut in line. There’s one of her at every homeless shelter too. I always wonder what she’s doing wandering around alone.

Dolly Parton blares over the speakers until the pastor who arranges this whole Saturday Morning Breakfast for Bums stands up to give his weekly speech about the plight of Tucson’s homeless and what he’s doing about it. Amplified by a microphone, his voice booms over the small courtyard full of round tables. Greasy, tattered bodies lounge around, drinking water from iced pitchers and watching their shredded minds do somersaults. The pastor tells us all we’ve been doing such a good job staying away from the library’s front door so as not to scare away the kids with our bad breath, meth sores, missing teeth and stinking garbage sacks full of soda cans. The old woman tugs on the pastor’s elbow and asks if she can get her breakfast. “Not yet, go sit down,” he says, in a cool, clipped tone. He’s not a mean guy. He really does care. He just wants his four minutes with the mic to beg the people he cares about to recognize what he’s doing for them.

After the speech, the pastor hands little blue tickets to the women and children. By the time Garth gets his breakfast, I’ve been thru the line, grabbed my styrofoam plate, my plastic utensils, my cornflakes with peaches and my pasta and casserole (which is probably leftover from someone’s wedding reception). I’ve had time to wonder why the female DJ, who’s singing along with the Beatles in a voice that could win American Idol, isn’t on a more glamorous stage. Or at least in front of an audience that is actually aware of her presence. I wondered if she too thought she should be somewhere else and was trying to convince herself that she didn’t need to make it big as a musician because playing for the bums of Tucson is a genuinely good thing to do.

To “earn” the sack lunches we grabbed off a cart on our way out the door, Garth and I folded our chairs and stacked them against the wall. The baloney sandwiches at the Z Mansion actually had cheese. And there was a beverage, a Capri Sun, which reminded me of the yellow kitchen of my childhood and the fact that I was raised with all the love and resources that should keep a suburban kid out of homeless shelters. Garth lifted a sandwich bag out of his brown paper sack. There were two broken, stale sticks of licorice in it. “Someone actually took the time to package this?” he said. I bit into mine, nearly broke off a tooth. I guess they really don’t want anything to go to waste.

Anyway, we were there, at the Saturday Morning Breakfast for Bums at the Z Mansion, when Garth got his call from Basha’s. Back in Patagonia, it suddenly dawned on us that cryptocurrency is going to change the world. It’s going to. It’s a fact. There is no denying it. And we want to be on the leading edge of this steadily rising wave so that we’ll have a good view when it comes crashing down over society and washes away all the bullshit. Garth’s been researching cryptocurrency for a month or two now, and I’ve been doing my best to understand everything he’s been telling me about it. We’ve come to the conclusion that buying as much of it as we can as soon as possible is the most positive thing we can do for ourselves and the rest of humankind. It’s our latest attempt to subvert all of America’s backward systems and turn the universe into something we can live in without feeling like we’re ventriloquist’s dummies with banker’s hands shoved up our asses. But we need money to buy cryptocurrency, so Garth filled out an application for Basha’s online before we arrived in Tucson.

“Jesus!” I remember saying. “I never thought anything would motivate you to fill out forms, pay taxes and punch a time clock again!”

Basha’s is a grocery store. Garth would spend 40 hours a week chopping up pigs, cows and chickens for $14 an hour. But he needed knives to do that, so we went to a restaurant supply store and bought a set for $108, using the money I’d saved up while working in Boise so I’d have a fund set aside for my birth control pills. We also bought him some black slacks and non-slip shoes. If I hadn’t had that money, Garth would’ve had to accept a minimum wage job, at which it would take a lot longer to buy a lot less cryptocurrency.
And we wouldn’t have been able to afford our house. Actually, being how I am, I prefer to think of it as a hotel. A hotel that we’ll be paying about $11 a night for until this time next year…

Clouds are always doing weird things on top of the mountains behind our hotel.

Clouds are always doing weird things on top of the mountains behind our hotel.

Knives in hand, we dismantled our Tucson camp. We covered our pillows, memory foam and extra blanket in black plastic sacks. Some we lashed to our packs with the rest of our stuff. Some slipped out of the crooks of our sweaty arms as we walked the dry creek bed up to the bus stop. The ride to Catalina, the north Tucson suburb where Basha’s is located, takes about two hours and three buses. There was no way Garth was making a commute like that every day, so we decided to move there. Disembarking from the last and shortest bus right in front of Basha’s, we crossed the road, ducked a barbed wire fence and wandered around in the 80-degree desert for a couple hours. A bunch of cows stood in a row on top of a hill and watched as we set up our tent and built a stone fire ring in a little valley. It was a simple camp. No couch, no table and chairs, no brick floors, no fireplace with chimney. I really liked our Tucson camp, but there’s no sense getting attached to things. Besides, the cows smell way better than Nancy the Wild Boar did.

We only stayed in that camp for a few days. We were walking up Oracle Road one day, looking for the library, when we passed this low office building with a facade like a saloon. It had a For Rent sign in the window. “Guesthouse, 325 sq ft, $340/month, Utilities Included.”

“I’m gonna call the number right now,” Garth said.

The next day, while Garth was at work, I met Barbara, who we hoped would become our new landlord. She took me to see the place. It’s a little beige rectangle. It looks tiny from the outside, but inside the space is well-used. There’s a front room with kitchenette, a bedroom with a door and a bathroom with a surprisingly large shower. If one of us could pass a background check, we’d have electricity and hot running water, a stove and an oven, a fridge and a freezer, a key to lock it all up, and documents stating we have permission to be there, all for $340 a month. That’ll only be half a week’s paycheck for Garth, and our only other bill will be internet/phone. It’s the cheapest place it town and it’s a ten minute walk from his job.

“The background check will be $28,” Barbara said, “And the person with the job should fill it out because I’ll only check one of you. You know, another guy said he definitely wanted the place, but he didn’t show up to fill out the papers…”

Looks like we showed up at just the right moment.

The only other thing we needed was move-in fees, which amounted to $650. I didn’t have that much money, so Garth wrote to his family. The borrowed funds arrived in my bank account via Paypal at the same second Barbara called to tell us we could move in. Everything fell into place so perfectly it made me nervous. Our life is never this easy.

There’s a regular sized house right across the back yard from us. A fellow named Raoul lives there. He works for Barbara as a maintenance man. While we were spreading our memory foam and sleeping bags on the oatmeal colored carpet, he offered to sell us our first furniture. The little round table has that plasticy grey-brown marbled look that tables in hotel rooms always have. It’s the perfect size for our tiny dining/living room and it came with two chairs.

We even have civilized things like vacuums now.

We even have civilized things like vacuums now.

Across the street, there’s a gigantic thrift store called the Golden Goose. This area is surrounded by retirement communities, so they get more donations than they can actually accept. If something requires cleaning or repair, it’s left next to the dumpster in the parking lot for scavengers to rescue for free. Garth and I went there to buy a few things. It was overrun with white-haired people who had nothing better to do than fight each other for pillows, soap dishes and plastic sprigs of ivy. To get our two coffee cups, two plates and two towels, we had to push and duck thru a mass of fragile old bodies without knocking them over and breaking them, and we had to dodge couches as they were pushed thru the crowd like battering rams. There are four cash registers, but the line still stretched halfway thru the store.

The night we moved in, Garth and I were thrilled to be able to cook chilimac with hot dogs on a real stove, in a real pan, and to be able to sit on chairs at a table to eat it.

“I’ll find something to do to make money,” I said between bites. “I just can’t get a regular job. It’s not something I can do anymore. It makes me feel wrong. But I don’t wanna just do nothing and not contribute.”

“You don’t have to contribute,” Garth said.

I knew he meant it and I already knew he thought it, but I wanted to hear him say it out loud. If it had been my idea to get a job and make money, I wouldn’t have expected Garth to do the same. He could’ve spent his days teaching cows to build houses out of Tupperware, and I would have taken care of him as long as he was happy.

“It would make me really happy if all you did was write,” he said.

We’ve always talked about renting some little shack for a year so we could turn our millions of travel blogs into books. Now I have the opportunity. So, for the past week or so, while Garth’s been chopping up animals and selling them to drug-dazed senior citizens, I’ve been working on a book about Gonzo’s Flying Dog, the sailboat we lived on in 2009.

“Since we’ll have money when we leave here,” he said, “we should go to the headwaters of the Mississippi and get a canoe and float all the way to New Orleans.”

“I’ve been wanting to finish our Mississippi River trip,” I said. “I feel like if I travel the entire Mississippi, I can say I know America.”

“We should still leave here on a freight train,” he said next. “I came in on one and I want to leave on one. Even if we leave with lots of money.”

It made me happy when he said that. I never wanna get too civilized.

It’s 8 a.m. The sun’s rolling along the craggy crest of a line of big mountains that loom up behind our hotel. It’s chilly enough to make me turn on the electric heater and pull on socks before stepping onto the ice cube-colored linoleum. The pot of water boils after about thirty seconds on the burner. I don’t have to build a fire to make coffee. It still smells like the toast Garth ate for breakfast before he walked to Basha’s in his white button down shirt and black slacks. It always amazes me how deceptively clean-cut and innocent he looks when you dress him up in a uniform.

I call my mom and tell her about Garth’s full-time job and our year-long lease.

“I’m gonna learn to cook while we’re here too,” I say. “It’s like playing house. It’s only temporary normalcy.”

“I was gonna say!” she exclaims. “I thought I was talking to someone else for a second, like you weren’t right in the head.”

Jan 052014
 

People in suits and dresses spill somberly from the dark church into the bright daylight, flowing around the hearse parked on the lawn the way water flows around a rock in a river. A priest in white robes consoles an elderly couple. Garth and I trek past them with our huge packs, headed for the highway to Nogales. Someone who lived in Patagonia has just died. Their life is over. Garth and I are setting out on another adventure. Our life is beginning again. Our life is always beginning over and over again. I turned 31 in November, but it didn’t make me feel old. I’ve always felt young. And the weight of my pack and the tightening of my thigh muscles and the dust rising around my boots and the cool breeze and the sun… they make me feel younger still as we trek past the funeral.

We set our packs on the curb outside the Wagon Wheel Saloon at the edge of town. We don’t put our thumbs out right away. Red and blue lights flash just up the road, blocking traffic while the funeral procession rolls onto the highway. I untie my boot, take it off and turn it over, trying to get rid of a rock that’s been stabbing me in the toe. All the dark, slow cars pass by the scratches on the lenses of my sunglasses, which slide down my nose on a drop of sweat. The person in the hearse will never be stabbed in the toe by a rock again. They will never sweat again.

A car stops for us right after the procession has passed. The driver’s name is Nelson. The funeral procession winds up a hill as we ride south toward Nogales. The person in the hearse will be in the ground soon. That’s where they will be forever. Anyone who wants to find them will know where to look. I don’t know where Garth and I will be.

Nelson is on his way to Tumacacori. He lives in a “community” there which embraces solar power, organic vegetable gardens and The Urantia Book.

“We believe Jesus was real,” he says. “But it’s more about spirituality than…”

“The practice of rituals?” I suggest.

Nelson was in Patagonia visiting hospice patients in their homes. He also teaches. He’s a liberal minded fellow.

“A few of the twenty-somethings from our community went out to investigate the Occupy Movement,” he says. “They brought back some footage…”

“If you were paying attention to the news, you might have heard about a group called Walkupy,” Garth says.

“Oh, yes!” Nelson says.

We talk about how direct democracy usually devolves into chaotic psychotherapy sessions for extroverts.

Nelson drives us right past Nogales, which saves us a lot of walking in chaotic traffic. In Tumacacori, there are a lot of brand new buildings all stuck together like melted sandcastles the colors of sunsets and mesquite trees. Garth and I stand on a desolate I-19 ramp in the sun, kicking tufts of grass that grow out of the concrete sidewalk, trying to explain to a very few passing drivers that waving, grinning, frowning and startled swerving will not get us to Tucson.

An anesthesiologist named Adam drives us from Tumacacori to Green Valley, dropping us off at a much busier intersection.

“I could use my Tucson sign!” Garth says, whipping out a spiral notebook.

He flips thru pages and pages of hitchhiking signs bearing the names of west coast towns he’s recently passed thru.

“We should create a book of hitchhiking signs!” I say.

“Yeah, there could be one for the country, which would have a sign for every major city, and then there could be regional books too.”

We decide this is our best idea to date. Aside from buying Crypto Currency, which is Garth’s new obsession and the reason why we’re venturing back to Tucson to look for work.

A pickup truck stops for us after about ten minutes. The driver’s name is J.D. He’s in his mid-twenties and he makes me want to sing “Proud to Be An American.” He’s got the bootcut jeans, the buzz cut hair, the button-down plaid shirt with the sleeves rolled to the elbows. An American flag presides dramatically over the sleeve of tattoos on his right arm. Garth and I both have a feeling this will be one of those long, awkward rides where the driver is too conservative to relate to us in any way, so we’ll have to talk about television the whole time. But J.D. turns out to be surprisingly permeable.

Before we can leave the area, we must pick up a trailer in a brand sparkling new pre-planned suburb that reminds me of “Breaking Bad.” The hitch is missing a pin, so we drive from store to store looking for one. J.D. apologizes profusely for the delay.

“It’s not problem,” I say, “If you set out to hitchhike somewhere, you agree from the beginning to be up for whatever happens.”

He’s the one who’s gotta drive another 12 hours once we finally pass thru Tucson, yet he’s worried about taking an extra ten minutes out of our anti-schedule.

J.D. is from Chicago, but he lives in Arizona now and works for the border patrol. He explains how, after 9/11, there was a mass hiring, during which the usual stringent screening process was relaxed a bit for the sake of expedience. This allowed tons of corrupt assholes to slip thru the cracks and onto the border patrol.

“Did you ever have any intense experiences?” I ask.

“I’ve been shot at,” he says matter-of-factly.

He asks us about the places we’ve been.

“So, if you had to pick a place to live the rest of your life,” J.D. asks, “where would it be?”

“We’re incapable of even wrapping our minds around the concept of staying one place forever,” I say.

“We’re nomads,” Garth explains.

“Some people go on trips and come back home,” I say. “We just stay on the road forever.”

“So you guys don’t have a home?”

“Our families live in once place, and we go visit them,” Garth says, “but we don’t have our own actual house that we go back to.”

“So you don’t own anything?”

“We each have a few boxes of stuff at our families’ homes,” Garth says.

“But as far as stuff that we actually use every day,” I say, “Everything we own is on the bed of your truck.”

“Now there’s something to think about,” J.D. says after a moment of silence. And it seems like he’s really thinking about it, not just marveling about it.

“You know,” he says, “I always thought that if I ever get to the point where I feel like everything’s so bad I want to commit suicide, I would get rid of everything and hop trains.”

Sometimes, when me and Garth are out wandering around, we meet a person like J.D. I like to think, altho it probably isn’t the case, that every person, at some point in their life, finds themselves on a tipping point… they could choose to fall one way and end up normal, or they could choose to fall the other way and end up going rogue. Garth and I chose to go rogue. I don’t remember my tipping point like Garth does. People sometimes ask us when we decided to become how we are, but I can’t remember ever having considered living a normal American existence. So maybe I didn’t technically Go Rogue; maybe I was just born this way.

Anyway, occasionally, we meet a person who’s on that tipping point. Maybe that’s where J.D. is. I mean, it really intrigues me that a completely normal guy, who’s basically walking the first few stepping stones of the American Dream would have considered the possibility that at some point, he might decide it was complete bullshit and give it up and become a hobo. And it intrigues me that he seems so straight-edge, yet he’s not against anything we’ve told him so far about our lifestyle.

“Just let me know where to drop you guys off,” he says, as we pull into Tucson.

“If you take the St. Mary’s Road exit, that’ll put us right near our camp,” Garth explains. “We don’t actually stay with anybody when we come here, we have a camp we built out in the desert.”

“So you guys just come into town and buy food? You don’t like hunt pigs or anything?” J.D. asks.

“Yeah, just grocery stores and such,” I say.

“But if we run out of money, there are tons of free sandwich lines,” Garth adds.

“Like for nomads?” J.D. says.

The tone of his voice is incredibly innocent, like he hasn’t really considered the whole idea of homeless people and churches and free sandwiches. It’s amazing how insulated a typical American is from what goes on all around them. The first time I ever went on the road without money, the idea of soup kitchens was entirely new to me as well. I mean, I obviously knew they existed, but you just never have to think about it if you live a traditional lifestyle. You get food by getting a job and getting paid and going to the store.

It would be nice if there were free sandwich lines just for nomads, where you wouldn’t have to listen to sermons or deal with crack heads in order to eat. I guess the thing J.D. made me think about was that most people tend to accept that there is only one way to live… Until someone comes along and tells them differently.

J.D. stops in a parking lot and we all get out. Garth and I haven’t even set our packs down on the curb before a cracked-out bum staggers over and starts mumbling threats at us. A big fat security guard lumbers slowly toward us, and two police cruisers appear in the parking lot. The bum slinks away.

“See which way he went?” the guard asks us.

“I couldn’t see him after he passed the Little Ceasar’s,” Garth says. “He was right up in our faces just a second ago, but I couldn’t understand what he was saying.”

“He’s been going around saying he’s gonna stab some white people and scalp ‘em,” the guard says.

“This is why I don’t like civilization,” I say. “The very second we set foot in a major city, there’s some crack-head threatening to scalp us.”

J.D. takes a picture of the three of us, wishes us well and continues on his long drive. Maybe someday he’ll get sick of the border patrol and we’ll find him in a boxcar or a sandwich line.

Garth and I get hot dogs, bread, chili and peanut butter from the family dollar and set out toward the camp we made last year. We trek around the hospital on a sidewalk and climb down a short boulder-covered slope into a dry river bed. We for what seems like a very long time on the sand between the high banks and the mesquite trees. We round a hill that blocks the sounds and sites of the city. We wind thru a maze of bushes and come to our compound. Everything is still there. The table in the tree, the brick platform we made for our tent, the rusty couch we dragged in. Garth was here a few weeks ago and he added end tables made of the front wheel wells of an orange car from the 50s. A dusty, bent-up metal garbage can stands upside down on stacked bricks. A pipe stands on top of that. It’s our fireplace. We take the duct tape off the bulging black garbage bags, pull out couch cushions and sit down to eat sandwiches.

“This is the only one of our camps that I’ve actually come back to,” I say. “This is our winter house.”

Our wild pig, Nancy.

Our wild pig, Nancy.

As we’re setting up our tent, two wild pigs walk right into our camp. They have dark black eyes, triangle-shaped heads and a mohawk of black hair along their spines. They smell like dead skunk and their noses tip back and forth in a funny way. They aren’t afraid of us. Garth throws some trail mix over their heads. They have no knowledge of its existence until it hits the ground behind them. They may be blind. The bigger one hovers around for an hour, so we name it Nancy. When she realizes she’s not getting anymore food, she lies down outside our doorway in the sun, eyes half closed, looking contented like a cat.

As the sun sets, I venture out into the desert to hunt firewood. I pull dead branches out from under trees and break them up with my boots. I come back with an armload of sticks to find Garth washing out our pans.

After dark, we listen to NPR on my hand-crank radio and eat hot dogs and chili and drink coffee. A perfect cool breeze ruffles stars as bright as diamonds.

“It seems so peaceful and rational out here in the desert.”

“Yeah, but right on the other side of that hill…” Garth says.

Is the city. We’re always crossing back and forth over the civilization line. During the day, we live in the concrete, bustling world everyone else lives in. When the sun sets, we turn into ghosts and disappear into the bushes. If I had a superpower, it would be the ability to cross back and forth over the borders others find to be impermeable.

“I like what we do,” I say, as well fall asleep in our tent.

Oct 162013
 

When I stand still, I have a lot of time to think. And when I’m surrounded by family members, I get asked to explain myself a lot. Bob Dylan once said, “An artist must be careful never to think he has arrived somewhere, he must always be in a state of becoming.” And I completely agree with that. But sometimes you have a moment to step back and look at a snapshot of your life as it is at the moment. Right this moment, I feel like I know what Pursuing Nothing means to me.

PursuingNothing TagIt means I’m not trying to force my life to assume a certain shape. I’m not trying to acquire things or money. I’m not interested in status, power and control. I don’t want a family, a career and a permanent home. I am not seeking heaven or nirvana. All I want is to walk the Earth with the few necessities that fit in my backpack and write about my experiences. I don’t want to do that because I think it’s a superior lifestyle. I want to do it because it makes me happy. And I don’t think it’s naive to make happiness the goal in your life.

Some people are nomads by nature. When I say nomad, I’m not talking about people who love to travel but who always want to come back home eventually. I’m not talking about people who take two years to explore the world between high school and college. I’m not talking about people who choose travel writing as a career. A nomad, to me, is a person who is happy in a permanently mobile state; a person who becomes unhappy if they attempt to live a stationary life.

A natural-born nomad does not consciously choose to be nomadic. It is not a political statement. I didn’t become a nomad because I want to lessen my carbon footprint. It is not a rebellion. I didn’t become a nomad because it is the opposite of what society tried to make of me. It is not a fashion statement. I didn’t become a nomad because it was in style and I wanted to impress others. It is not a path to heaven. I did not become a nomad to emulate Buddha or Jesus. It is definitely not a lucrative career. I did not become a nomad because it would make me rich and provide me with luxuries. It is not an escape. I did not become a nomad because it is easy. You cannot be a nomad and be lazy at the same time because you will die.

The point: you do not become a nomad at all. A true nomad is born one.

It is not a choice or a privilege. Sometimes it is a blessing. Sometimes it is a plague. It feels like an addiction. To give it up is to suffer withdrawal. A nomad can’t explain why they can’t “settle down.” Asking a nomad why they chose to live a mobile life is like asking a human why they chose to be a human. It is what you are, whether you like it or not.

My natural habitat is the highway, the street, the path. When I am wandering, I’m acting according to my nature. I am a fish swimming, I am a bird flying, I am a nomad walking down the road.

I’ve made brief attempts to live a traditional static lifestyle. I got a job, went to college, rented an apartment and promised my parents I would stop wandering aimlessly. Every time I attempted to settle down, I was consumed by restlessness. I felt stagnant and stale. I felt like I was wasting away. I felt like my life was getting away from me like sand through a sieve.

I was unhappy.

Being a nomad in modern America is more of a doom than anything else. You must have a permanent address to get a driver’s license, a job, an education… A permanent address is required in order to be a member of civilized society. Every system that makes up the foundations of modern American society is created to accommodate those who are still. If you cannot be still, you cannot participate. If you cannot be still, it is much, much more difficult to survive. As Hunter S. Thompson once said, “In the age of automation and job security, a touch of the wanderlust is the kiss of death.”

Lucky for me, I have no desire to participate in society. Most people live a traditional settled life and take part in society’s systems because doing so will get them certain things. A career, a family, a house. They want the security of knowing what’s going to happen to them tomorrow and in the next 45 years. Predictability makes them feel safe and satisfied.

I do not want any of those things, so there is no need for me to live the way other people live. I don’t want to raise children. I don’t want to own a house, a car or any other non-essential things. I do not want a career. I do not want to know what is going to happen to me tomorrow. I am not concerned with safety. I am not trying to avoid death. I’m trying to live.

Besides, modern civilization is so convoluted, so greedy and so mindless that it can no longer sustain itself. Collapse is imminent, and I have no desire to build a life that depends upon broken systems and rests on a crumbling foundation.

A life in which everything I need is so easy to get that it can be taken for granted is not for me. I want to appreciate every sandwich I eat and every shower I take as though they are the only ones I’ll ever have. A life in which I trade most of my time for money is not for me. I want nothing more than for my time to belong to me. I do not care if all I am doing is staring at a wall, as long as I don’t have to answer to anyone but myself. I don’t want to spend the majority of my waking hours doing something I wouldn’t be doing if I didn’t need an income.

I don’t intend to be condescending. I don’t mean to put down the traditional American Dream. It works for a lot of people. They are satisfied. They are happy. And I’m glad. I’ve felt true satisfaction and true happiness, too. I can tell you stories with specific examples. They all involve me moving down a road.

Pursuing Nothing partly means that I don’t want any of the things most other people want. This especially applies to money. I have no desire to devote my life to the acquisition of dollars. Money has no value. It is literally just paper. It does not represent gold or any other valuable commodity. More and more dollars are being created out of thin air every day. Their increasing abundance is making them less valuable. Soon the U.S. dollar will be worth nothing. Money only has meaning and significance because people believe that it does and agree that it does.

I’m also not pursuing the material possessions that dollars buy. If I knew how, I would wander out into the woods with nothing but the clothing on my body and live off the land. Unfortunately, I don’t know how, so I carry a backpack with a tent, a sleeping bag and one change of clothes inside. I also carry a laptop because I feel compelled to write about life and publish the story. But even those few things are more than I would like to have. I don’t want to spend my time making money so I can buy things, and I don’t want to spend my energy protecting, maintaining, repairing and worrying about things. All I really want is a functional human body. With that, I can go anywhere and do anything.

Pursuing Nothing doesn’t just apply to material things. It also applies to my identity. I will never adopt a certain fashion or code of conduct in order to gain membership in a certain group. I am not looking for acceptance or approval from anyone. I am not a hippie. I am not a punk. I do not wear uniforms of any kind and I do not subscribe to any subcultures. You will not be able to figure who I am, what I think, what I value or how I live by looking at me. You will have to spend time with me and talk with me in order to get to know me.

Political parties are another thing I don’t subscribe to. Politics is a waste of time and energy. There is no political party in the United States which represents the common people. The United States government is so convoluted and broken that I no longer recognize it as a legitimate ruling entity. I do not believe that decent people need to elect others to lead them. People are strong enough, smart enough and humane enough to establish their own communities and provide for themselves. Politics is only a distraction and a game. The players want to own and control the world. I am not pursuing power over anyone or anything other than myself. I do not want to lead anyone and I do not want to follow anyone…

Including a God. Heaven is another thing I’m not pursuing. I do not subscribe to a religion of any sort. I cannot prove that God, Heaven and Hell are real. I will not spend my limited time and energy worshiping, fearing, loving or appeasing a deity which I cannot prove is real, or practicing rituals that yield no tangible results. I will instead use my time and energy to live the life I know I have right here, right now. The Earth is real. So are the people and things that live on it. I will be as decent as I can toward them without expectation of reward or punishment either in life or after death. I do not need a God to tell me that that is the best possible path through life. It is obvious.

All that said, my favorite part of the meaning of Pursuing Nothing is this: I am pursuing nothing in particular. I rarely make plans. I rarely set goals. That doesn’t mean that I’m not interested in anything or that I don’t want to do anything. On the contrary, it means I am interested in everything. If I choose one path and stay on it, I will pass up lots of other opportunities. Instead of choosing one path and refusing others, I prefer to make myself available to whatever opportunity may present itself. I’ve found that when your only purpose is to walk around and say yes, something always happens.

What I’m most interested in is finding something different. Something new. Something that will surprise me. I don’t know what, but I’m hoping that if I keep exploring, I’ll stumble upon it by accident. In other words, I’m not pursuing anything I already know about.

Altogether, I suppose that Pursuing Nothing means that I want to live my life without the restrictions of definitions. That means I will not live according to any blueprint– be it political, religious, cultural or social– that will limit me and prevent me from learning, changing and evolving. I do not want your god, your politics, your uniform or your codes of conduct. I do not want your approval or your acceptance. I do not want your leadership or your allegiance. I do not want YOUR life. It does not work for me. I will find my own way.

This is MY life. And I am Pursuing Nothing.

 

Oct 032013
 

Garth and I sit in plastic chairs by the vending machine. A marker board leans against the opposite wall. “Days since last injury: 20,” it says.

“Hey, that said 15 yesterday when we came in to fill out paperwork,” I tell Garth.

“Next week it’ll say 200,” he says. “Next month it’ll say, ‘It’s been 2,000 years since our last injury.'”

“Yeah, that incident where that guy was nailed to a cross…” I muse. “That was an on-the-job accident. Jesus’ fellow Labor Ready worker didn’t watch the safety video about how to use hammers and nails properly.”

“That would make a good short story,” Garth says.

“Instead of Bibles, people would carry safety manuals,” I say. “Always be at least 6 feet from your co-workers while hammering nails. They would adhere religiously to a list of on-the-job safety regulations.”

A secretary calls Garth to the front desk. Her chin-length hair looks like she cut it with a bowl and a butter knife, washed it in bacon grease, rumpled it with a towel and then suddenly gave up on making it look decent.

I work at Labor Ready after all, she probably thought.

Garth motions me over to the chest-high counter.

“She can dig,” he says, gesturing to me.

At Labor Ready, they usually don’t send women to construction sites. They send women to thrift stores and hotels. Job assignments are blatantly sexist, but no one complains. People who work at Labor Ready usually aren’t the kind of people who have the energy to challenge systems of any kind. They’re just trying to stay alive.

“But do you wanna dig?” the secretary asks me.

No. I don’t want to dig. I don’t want to be the only woman on a construction site full of burly men. I don’t want act like I know how to conduct myself there. I don’t want to act like their stupid jokes are funny. I don’t want to pretend I don’t see them looking at my ass. I don’t want to act like I’m strong enough to keep up with them. I’m not in the mood to be one of the guys.

“I don’t have any shoes,” I say.

“You’re wearing shoes!” Garth says.

“Converse,” I say. “They’re made of canvass.”

I can’t wear my boots. One of my laces is broken.

“You wanna do construction clean-up tomorrow then?” the secretary says.

“I can do that.”

She hands Garth a brand new hard hat still in a plastic bag. He wrestles with it, trying to attach the adjustable band to the inside of the yellow helmet. A dark fellow with an African accent eyes me from one of the plastic chairs. He was attacked by a dog on his way to work this morning. A man with one arm fills out his application. He holds his wallet down with a stub of an upper arm while pulling his ID out of it. A rolly-polly man with fluffy white hair waddles into the bathroom. The television switches from a safety video about working on garbage trucks to the country music video station.

“You’re being a girl,” Garth whispers.

“What?”

“You’re being a girl.”

Back in the day, when I first met Garth, a comment like this might have stung. I might have agreed to dig for eight hours just to impress him and show him how tough I could be. Lately, I find I’m not so interested in the idea of impressing people by doing things I’d really rather not do. It’s exhausting. I don’t want to be miserable all day so I can prove to Garth that I’m not like other women.

He knows I’m not like other women. I’m not like anyone.

And besides, I’ve spent years and years of my life doing things most women don’t do. I’m always among men. I’m always trying hard to keep up. I’m always trying to prove that I can hold my own.

Right now, I just don’t feel like it. I feel like I’ve earned the option of acting like a girl for one day.

“You have a car?” the secretary asks. “Can you take a gentleman with you?”

Danny is probably around twenty. His blond hair zaps out on all sides. He looks like he opened his eyes really wide one day and they got stuck that way. They don’t seem to move. Talking to him is like watching a Youtube video that’s still buffering. He grew up in Boise, but he’s saving up for a tarp so he can move to a park in the middle of Portland.

“What’s it like?” he asks, when he learns I grew up there.

“I don’t know. It’s Portlandy. It’s gonna rain a lot this time of year.”

I don’t have much to say about my hometown. I’m not a fanatic. I wasn’t raised in a coffee shop on Hawthorne. Portland, like every other American city, is just a quaint little downtown, carefully curated to look smart and progressive and artsy. And, like every American town, it’s surrounded by a spreading ring of miserable asphalt and strip malls and gas stations.

Portland is Indianapolis. Portland is Tuscon. Portland is Tampa. Wow.

If they really wanted to, all of Portland’s fanatical devotees could find nirvana in Quincy, Illinois, too.

I drop Garth and Danny at a massive construction site across from a Walmart and drive home for the day, not feeling guilty about acting like a girl.

On my way there, I stop and buy new bootlaces.

 

Aug 262013
 

In the center of the intersection, thick traffic coughs and jerks, tangling around itself. A massive truck stop sprawls out on each corner. Air brakes hiss, motors scream as big, clumsy machines strain forward and lumber thru the changing signals.  Exhaust fumes thicken and dirty the sun’s oppressive glare.  Garth and I have been standing on the side of the highway in Evansville, Indiana, since 3:00 p.m. His dad, Ron dropped us here.

“Needless to say, you’re on your own,” he said, as Garth and I heaved our packs out of the Suburban and dropped them in a McDonald’s parking lot.

He’s said “see you later” to us many times in the past 5 years.

We stood on the highway shoulder, wilting like daisies in a rotisserie, for three hours. The metal guard rail was too hard to sit on. A few people honked. A few waved.

“Honking doesn’t get us to Indianapolis!” Garth shouted.

My elbow crease came unstuck each time I straightened my arm to put my thumb out. Sweat dripped down my spine. Sweat dripped down between my boobs.

Garth us lucky he doesn’t have boobs, I thought.

Occasionally, a big fat cloud spat misty rain at our backs.

I watched the shadow of a pedestrian sign creep sluggishly across the white dash line in the grooved road.

“Let’s walk up to those truck stops,” Garth said.

So we did. So here we are.

A car swerves around our corner. The man in the passenger seat waves a few bills out the window.

“Take it!” he shouts.

Garth runs alongside the car, thanking him as he grabs the three dollars.

“I don’t think anyone’s ever given us money from a moving car before,” he muses. “That’s new.”

Three middle-eastern men cross the hot asphalt in sandals. Another car swerves around our corner, this time pausing slightly. The woman is heavily made-up. The word refined comes to mind. Her car probably smells new inside.

“We’re only going about 4 miles…” she says.

“That’s okay,” Garth says. ‘We’re going all the way to Indy, so we’ll wait for a longer ride.”

She hands us twenty dollars.

Oddly enough, my reaction to all the money flying out car windows at us is this: We won’t be cute forever.

If those same people saw an old worn-out man standing on the corner, they might throw him a twenty, but they might do it with more pity and less joy. That doesn’t mean I’ve suddenly decided to go get a job. I’m going to wander and write. Perhaps when the gig becomes less cute, it will become even more interesting. Maybe I’ll die of something stupid like Lyme Disease before that happens. I was convinced I had it at one point. Anyway, I never understood the point of staying alive as long as possible. I do, however, understand the desire to live as much as possible.

The sun finally farts out all the rancid breath its been holding in all day. It shoots back and forth across the sky a couple of times and plummets down below the horizon. It splats down into a gutter between heaven and hell and lies there limply, passed out, waiting for its alarm to ring again. It does the same thing every day. I wonder if it minds.

The heat surrounding us loosens. Barely. I don’t feel like I’m wrapped in duct tape, floating in a deep fryer. I feel like I’m wrapped in a wool blanket, sitting in a sauna. Every inch of my skin in swampy to the touch.

“Well, it’ll be dark by the time we get to Indy at this rate,” Garth says. “We may as well just stop it for the night.”

Finding a camping spot in the dark is like yanking your fingernails off with pliers. No one wants to do that.

We sneak around behind a couple of truck stops until we find a clump of trees. They form a canopy over a little cracked stream bed. We set up our tent in it, leave our packs inside and go to Wendy’s for dinner. On the way, we spot the same three middle-eastern men in sandals who walked across the intersection earlier. Do they recognize us? Do they think we got ourselves a room at the Best Western for the night and left our huge packs there?

Chili: beans, tomato, onions, burger, peppers… celery. A dust pan on a stick scrapes across the floor. Smack! Broom down, lying flat across greasy tiles. Cloyingly polished country music on a loop. Local evening news.

I’m not mad, I think. I’m not disappointed. What is wrong with me?

What’s wrong is, despite having been on the road for a decade, departures still feel like an ice cube stuck in my throat, which aches until it melts and seeps into my tissue and turns into gasoline. I remember silly little things like the way the stairs smelled or how it was always windy on the porch and they follow me around like moths for a few days until something new happens.

Squirt-squirt. Squirt. Swish. Squeak.

BEE-yoo! That’s the sound the doorbell makes when a customer walks in. The cashier’s chirpy greeting comes out in the same sickly-sweet trained tone.

“He took a photo from the ancient gallery and he… walked on down the hall!” Garth mutters at his phone.

Click-click-guuuuush. A soda fountain vomits into someone’s cup.

The night before we left the Kiser Farm, Clara made Shepherd’s Pie, along with a whole slew of other incredibly tasty and satisfying things. Ron said, “Next time you find yourselves out on the road hungry, just think about Shepherd’s Pie.”

I feel like the thing to think about when I’m hungry and I can’t do anything about it would be Everted Rectums.

A skinny man’s large belt buckle chokes his waist. He carries a cartoonishly large thermos in his hand, a flimsy mullet on his head.

After dinner, Garth and I disappear into our clump of trees. I am tired. We’re both tired. We talk for many hours. I explain the meaning of the phrase “Seven-Year Itch” and he says, “For me it would be four years.”

It’s been a long time since I had a conversation with Garth. We’ve been right next to each other for two and a half months, but his mind has been consumed with blue-prints, accounting spread-sheets and five-hour long phone calls. That’s all gone now.

Both our tent doors are broken.

Planned Obsolescence pisses me off more than any of the other stupid concepts perpetuated by our culture. This tent cost me $300, and the doors remained intact for less than one year of actual use. I did a lot of research while tent shopping. I intended to pay whatever was necessary to get something of quality.

So much for that. Quality is obsolete.

Mosquitoes assault us. As we lie talking, we scratch at our arms and legs. We can’t get under our sleeping bags. It’s too bloody hot. The low tonight will be 75 degrees.

“Let’s just get some coffee and stay up until it gets cool,” Garth says.

We return to Wendy’s.

Nights on the road, drinking coffee in cheap places, scratching at sketchbook paper with a bic pen, not sleeping… They are some of my favorite moments. I won’t explain why. I’ll keep that for myself. I will say that the only thing that would improve it would be if the Wendy’s was some obscure family-owned greasy diner instead of a plasticy fast food chain.

Garth at the magic donut shop in Oxnard, California, in 2008.

Garth at the magic donut shop in Oxnard, California, in 2008.

I remember another time Garth and I did this. It was just after we met, in a town called Oxnard in California. We’ve done it a few times, but that was one of my favorites. A 24-hour donut shop appeared out of nowhere just to accommodate us.

My black pen explodes all over my finger. I look around to see if anyone’s watching before I drag the ink over the pepper and paprika-colored spots on our tortilla-colored table. I know it’s lazy. I could go get a napkin. I press fingerprints into my sketchbook.

The idea of writing this Vonnegut book rises up in me like a cool yogurt of mildly happy potential. I don’t expect much, but there is always the chance that I might make a few bucks off of it. Say I made a few thousand dollars. Garth and I would keep walking, and we would take all our old and new friends out to dinner until we were broke again. That’s probably how it would go.

Then I could maybe write a book about Sasquatch. I was born and raised in Sasquatch country.

Just call me angel… of the morning, angel…

The music improves slightly, changing from country to a medley from the 1980s.

A woman in a red polo shirt, fat bulging out from under her bra lines, runs around with a headset on, yapping and meeting the demands of a cacophony of urgently beeping machines while the fryer sizzles at her.

I’d rather think about everted anuses than do what she’s doing.

It’s 3:00 a.m. and only slightly cooler when Garth and I finally lie down to sleep in our cracked river bed.

 

Aug 172013
 

Square-dancing reminds me of kindergarten, when you go around in a circle on the first day, introducing yourselves one by one. Only with square-dancing, you introduce yourself to everyone in the room without saying anything. I always hated having to think of something to say about myself that would be intriguing or impressive. I hated talking in front of people. With square-dancing, you get to smile and flail and jump and spin and you get to have a personal interaction with each individual and make a connection with them, and you get to feel like you know everyone a bit by the time you switch partners again, by the time the song is over.

I really enjoyed the Bramfeld family dance the other night. There was a wide open dance floor with a live bluegrass band playing tunes like “O Susanna” on the fiddle while some woman made calls on a mic. Torches burned along the beach and the pier. On the porches that winged either side of the house, there were kegs, bottles of wine and beer. There were trays of vegetables, chips, dips, salsas, crackers and cheese. On the wide back porch there were tables and swings. In the front yard, paper globe-shaped Chinese lanterns hung from one huge old oak tree, and a rope and board swing hung from another tree. I sat on it and pushed off the grass with my feet and it rode smooth and slow and high.

I wore a long denim skirt. Garth wore a Hawaiian shirt and a green plaid jacket. They passed out bandannas at the house and some people sported cowboy hats. We rode our bikes there. We brought a pie and 2 plates of fried chicken, which we set on the tables with the other snacks. But later, we noticed they’d been removed. My skirt was too loose in the waist and kept falling down as I marched and jumped in circles. I danced barefoot and I have a big bruise where someone stepped on my foot. Greg sucked at following instructions, and he refused to dance with Rachel. She had to force him. They’ve only been together four months. I wouldn’t be surprised if they break up soon. We were in the traditional family photo on the steps of the back porch.

I got pretty drunk and really sweaty and I became overly-emotional when Garth made a joke about how I was gonna write a book and no one was going to read it. He didn’t mean anything by it. It’s kind of an inside joke we have about art in general. We don’t really write because we think other people are going to read it, we do it because we want to, because it’s what we do. It’s got to be that way really. If you do things seeking the approval of others, you’ll never be satisfied.

So anyway, I started crying and decided to go home, where we slept on Mark’s mattress in the dark little barroom downstairs because our inflatable mattress was all shriveled up for some reason. Mark was gone for the weekend, smuggling Plabius, one of Dean’s construction crew workers, to Archibald’s house in Chicago so he could hide from the cops. He owes child support and the police came hunting for him here the other day.

Turtle, a friend from Walkupy, happened to be in Chicago the other day for an ALEC protest. A friend of his dropped him in South Bend and Garth and I drove there to get him. As we watched him reassemble his backpack in the McDonald’s where he’d been waiting for us, we were both overcome with a strong urge to get on the road again. There is nothing like living out of a backpack, knowing you can go anywhere at all as long as your feet work.

I’ve been feeling lately like I’m done here. Done with the house, done with Culver. I need to start writing, but I can’t write here. Turtle looked the same as ever, with his black spiky hair and beard, his jacket full of patches, his turtle necklace and a notebook full of poems hanging from a climbing hook on his belt. He was wearing a green flannel shirt and he reminded me of Che Guevara. He’s a street medic now. He’s been training with various groups of activists in lots of different places. He’s also been learning about plants and herbs and their medicinal qualities. When we got back to the house, he dumped out his medic kit on the office table and explained to us the purpose of every different kind of tape he was carrying. It was quite endearing. He’s found his niche, it seems.

Yesterday, I took him to the store and we bought $90 worth of food. I chopped a pineapple and he’s making pico de gallo in the break room. Energy like Turtle’s is much needed here at the Vonnegut house- the energy of someone who is sweet and open and willing to listen and share. As I’ve said before, the people around here are way too serious about things like money, and it’s starting to make me feel like my head is encased in a cube of cement.

“I won’t do things over and over anymore just to humor him,” Garth says into the phone. “Those days are done. I don’t take the kind of crap from anyone.”

Rip probably wants him to tell someone to tear up something they’ve been working on for a week and rebuild it another way.

“I think I’m ready to go,” Garth says.

“Where?” I ask.

“To leave. Nothing is gonna get done if I stay. If I go, Rip will have to come here and get things done himself.”

Things like picking out his own damn furniture. He’s not gonna find another person, friend or not, who’s willing to drive all over from hell to breakfast taking pictures of the wares at every furniture shop in Indiana and sending them to him so he can argue about them for five hours on the phone.

“It seems like he’s using you to be indecisive?” I say.

“Basically.”

“Well, how about I work this week, painting rooms and such for hourly pay so I can get us some money for a tent, then we leave on Monday. We’ll be miserable if we don’t have a proper tent. We both know that.”

“Okay. I’m gonna send Rip a message,” Garth says.

He reads it to me after he’s done composing: “We are failing as business partners…I’m turning my phone and computer off… there is no further discussion… Come here and manage this yourself…Micro-managing from afar does not work…”

Now Garth is restless.

“Someone’s gonna come here and try to convince me to stay, I just know it. I’m packing my stuff so it’s ready in case I have to leave in a hurry. I don’t wanna have to deal with any conversations.”

We won’t be staying until Monday. We’re leaving today. I pile clothes and toiletries and journals on the bed. I fold everything I own into ziploc bags. I stuff my sleeping bag. I strap my foam pad to the side of my pack. I fill my water bottles.

This won’t be the first time we’ve set out on the road with zero dollars and a broken tent. Actually, that’s an exaggeration. We have about $20 and a broken tent. Just like we did when we arrived in Culver two and a half months ago.

I hear Turtle arrive home from the library and walk up the stairs. I hear Garth explain. He invites Turtle to come to southern Illinois and visit the Kiser Farm with us.

Not two hours after Garth said he was ready to leave, the three of us are walking down highway ten, past all the big mansions, with our backpacks on. It’s warm and sunny. A cool breeze blows silvery clouds around. Everything around us seems more vivid, more colorful. Garth seems happier. I feel more natural. It’s like old times, walking with Turtle.

We go about five miles. At the intersection with another highway, Pladius rides by with one of the other guys from Dean’s crew. They’ve just gotten off work. He says he’ll come back with his own truck and give us a ride to highway 31, where it will be easier for us to hitch a ride toward Indy. He does just that, buying a six pack to share with us on the way.

Turtle, Garth and me hitching out of the rest area the next morning.

Turtle, Garth and me hitching out of the rest area the next morning.

Turtle and Garth and I stand on the shoulder of the highway at a truck stop for about ten minutes before two guys in a minivan pull over and pick up all three of us and all three of our huge backpacks. They work for the Indiana lottery. The driver, Gideon Wainwright, used to be a singer songwriter in my hometown, Portland, Oregon. He plays us a song when he drops us off at a rest stop just west of Indianapolis. It’s a blues tune about drinking and his voice is low and gravely. He’s a good musician.

It’s dusk, so we buy some vending machine snacks and wander into the woods beside the rest area, where we stomp down some weeds and spread our sleeping bags on the ground. We eat chips and crackers and cookies and laugh.

“So this is your life?” Turtle asks. “You guys just go around meeting cool people like that guy who just drove us here and sleeping in the bushes?”

I’m high, because Gideon had just shared some incredible weed with us, so it takes me a minute to process the question.

“Yes,” I said. “This is our life!”

Garth and I are road people. We have nothing. We arrive in a place with nothing and we usually leave with nothing and we go wherever we want whenever we want and we sleep wherever we land and we meet the invisible saints of the universe that no one else ever sees because they’re disguised in blue polo shirts with Indiana lottery logos on them.

We fall asleep under the stars next to a field of beans.

Two days later:

Right now, I have no idea where Garth is. He may be walking in the woods or picking cucumbers or digging thru his storage shed. He may just be sleeping. He’s not on the phone with Rip and he’s not behind a laptop looking exhausted and frustrated. He’s not doing something he doesn’t enjoy, he’s not complying with the irrational whims of a micro-manager just to earn a buck.

This is OUR life.

It is not for sale.