The Tricks of Crow

OR: a Road Story & a Challenge to You

(If you know the name of the intentional community in this story, please don’t mention it in the comments. they value their privacy)

Coffee, candles & cannabis – that’s Crow’s recipe for health and happiness.

In this shipshape room, the thick dark coffee sits in large Mason jars. Crow sips from them constantly – even when he wakes in the middle of the night. He uses the candle between us to spark another doob and begins rolling more joints from his stash – always wanting to have at least three ready in case of visitors.

Crow’s door is always open – an Amsterdam coffee shop complete with Gary Snyder’s poetry and Louis Armstrong’s trumpet. He’s the Stoned Santa – a jolly wordsmith with a bowl of doobies. Crow lives with gusto despite the arthritis that barely allows him to crawl into his loft every night. He leans forward with a happily crazed grin, “It’s much better than the alternative. At least my brain still works so I can keep on jabbering at you guys. That’s A fucking plus in my book!” Punctuating the air with his constant doobie – thrusting joints towards new arrivals – crooning to the blues – pulling bits of poetry off the evening air. A wise old Wanderer who toys with Words.

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Crow asks me to help make a small adjustment in his room. Our project is to move a faded sepia photograph in a flower gilded frame. It shows a confused infant – the great-grandfather of Crow “who would one day make great changes as Commissioner of Baseball!” We pass a joint back and forth, judiciously considering where to hang the photo and discuss the steps necessary to accomplish that task. The photograph moves over a dusty wine bottle filled with dried chrysanthemum. A tremendously fat, jolly Buddha sits on a shelf below (a gift from the Dalai Lama to Crow’s Buddhist father for “the creative resolution of some tax difficulties”) The Buddha always holds a magic doobie to be smoked on special occasions and when the spirit moves.

Crow hands me the worn transcript from his trial – busted for growing 1,254 cannabis plants. He represented himself and for his closing statement, he memorized only one phrase: “Your Honor, I am not a troublesome individual.” He went on to share that he had taught the most psychologically challenged kids and doubled their previous record for high school equivalency exams – that he only grew the pot to finance his move into nursing after so many years of teaching – that although he was part of a large operation, nobody coerced him into the business.  He ended it with “I am a strong individual. I made the decision of my own free will. I would never make that decision again…”

Here he interrupts with a laugh. “Now if you asked me? I would make the same decision. I liked growing lots of pot and it just made financial sense at the time. And with that sentence – who was I to complain?” After Crow’s spirited speech, the judge let him off with probation plus time served.  Afterwards, the DA found Crow in the lobby and told him, “Don’t quote me on this but that was the finest defense I’ve ever heard.”

Crow and cannabis have gone together ever since he gave himself the name Crow as a young man on the road – his real name now lost to everyone but the tax man. When his brother handed him the First Joint , he said, ‘you’re going to dig this stuff for the rest of your life.’ Crow guffaws, “and he was just fucking right.” Crow danced with Mary Jane through the heart of the 60s -“We knew that we were on the crest of the wave – but hell, it gets better every day. Uruguay just stepped across the line [and legalized cannabis]. Tits to them!”

Crow credits his health to the potent mix of coffee, cannabis and candles. The candle calms – the caffeine excites – the cannabis smooths. His string of doobies lessen the inflammation of the arthritis that would otherwise cripple him. The constant smoking gives him a small cough but because of the antitumor effects of cannabis, he is actually at slightly less risk for lung cancer than someone who smokes nothing at all. When they found a growth in his urinary tract, Crow decided to “put my money where my bladder is.” He concocted homemade alcohol extracts of cannabis and knocked back a shot every morning until the mass disappeared.

“My doctor knows all about my doobies and she loves it – sez that I’m healthy as a pup. She runs the teaching college – she tells everybody about it.” As an oncologist, Crow’s doctor speaks to an unusually supportive branch of physicians. A 1991 Harvard survey of cancer doctors found that if cannabis was legal medicine – 80% would prescribe it for the easing the pain of chemotherapy. Almost half the doctors indicated that they recommend it anyway – putting their license at risk for even uttering the word cannabis.

After a year and a half of research for this graphic novel and with a focus on the biochemistry and medical studies, I finally realized the huge scope of this medicine: cannabis is the closest thing humans have to a panacea against the myriad problems of aging. The greatest crime in the War on Weed is against our grandparents – all of them are dying earlier and in more pain because we are ignoring the mountains of scientific evidence about this plant. In a similar fashion, the early medical establishment refused to heed the evidence about washing hands between childbirths – a simple procedure that would have saved ten of thousands of mothers. Future generations will look back on us now with that same befuddlement at how we refuse to study and use one of mankind’s oldest medicines.

So, Gentle Reader, here’s my Challenge to you:
In the comments, give me the name of a disease that afflicts an older person you love.
I’ll look for peer-reviewed evidence to see if cannabis might help. Of course, it won’t work for everything but I’ll prove it works for a hell of a lot more than you ever imagined. This also allows me to add to my research as I dig into your answers so thanks to any respondents.

I’ll post my findings to your FB wall (if you don’t mind) and onto this thread.

The Radical Father

 

 

They always ask in horror, why would you take a Greyhound across the country for 3 days? Because if you hitchhike, you only get to meet nice people because only nice people stop. On the bus, you get to see assholes & beautiful souls & terrible mothers & kindly ex-cons who show photos of their kids & vicious ex-cons who should never be let out & junkies who nod off in the toilet until you bang on the door for 20 minutes.

It’s also a chance to pound through those thick tomes that you just can’t tackle on your reading nights. I spend an inordinate amount of time deciding which books to bring and I got it just right this time. William James’ ‘Varieties of Religious Experience’, Melville’s ‘Mardi’ & Whitman’s ‘Leaves of Grass.’

That’s how I found the jewel of this trip – the Radical Father. When Father George saw the William James book, he waxed poetic on the philosophy of religion and gave me the abstract of the paper he just presented about Linguistic Thomism. A lovely man – a 94 year old radical Jesuit priest riding the dog from Philly to SF. He told me about the good ol’ days when he helped with the Berkeley uprisings of the ’60s and met Martin Luther King Jr. To the squalling snotnosed 4 year old girl next to us, he sincerely told her that she was a beautiful young woman. He shared his plan to take up his PhD again and try to be the oldest doctorate that Berkeley ever gave. Without Greyhound, I never would have spent 12 hours in seats by the bathroom while a lovely old soul read me lines from Whitman in a voice filled with awe.

Radical Father

Finally

Finally.

It took enough years on the Greyhound for this to finally happen. I’ve met 92 year old radical Jesuit priests. I’ve met coke dealers who flashed duffel bags filled with tens of thousands, kibbitzed with sprightly black playwright entranced by Ibsen, listened long to a battered woman who needed two tearful hours to share her dark story, listened to tales from the penitentiary by a brave of the Black Foot Tribe and then the wild and true braggings of a meth cooker who used to supply Warhol’s Factory (as they all say).

I took acid with psychonaut cowboys while we spent the night marveling at the dark beauty speeding past. I watched wasted junkies who nodded off in the bathroom and I saw mothers so vicious that they would make the Brothers Grimm turn away in horror. Then there were the nuns who shared their last scrap of bread with the squalling child that the rest of us wanted to drown instead of feed. I saw Beautiful Souls and Awful Sinners.

But it took all this time – all these years riding my beloved Dog – before I finally got to make out in the back seat.

projects & pieces

I’m settled in Brooklyn now – submitting short stories, working on the graphic novel and a feature film and gathering research for an article on the medical uses of psychedelics. Please let me know if you have contacts in that field.

If you want to see some longer pieces, I have two I can email to you:

End of the Road – the fictionalized story of my hitch from Mexico to NYC and figuring out that Brooklyn has become my home

Anatomy of an Orgy – a peek into a play party. If the phrase “Bushwick squirtfest” means anything to you, you might even recognize some of the characters.

If you want to get my occasional updates on my stories, journalism articles and book updates, you can sign up for my newsletter here.

The Red Road

Bowling Green, KY

To set the stage, picture the arbor behind the Warren County Public Library. The brown plastic benches stand underneath the popping greenery of a rising spring. It’s early on Sunday and wretched college kids are still sleeping off their parties that left a few blue cans littering the parking lot. But nothing can temper the beauty of the fresh day’s cool air. Breathe in a deep lungful.

Center stage stands the Storyteller. He’s not a tall man but his presence looms large. Thick working fingers and a jutting jaw that jabs at you during his stories like punctuation. He wears a tan Carhartt jacket and worn but serviceable blue jeans. The Storyteller has a scuffed road bag slung over one shoulder and his camouflage hat sports a neon green deer head. With robin egg eyes, he’s taking a cell phone photo of a cherry tree in a magnificent burst of pink blossoms.

The Storyteller is born to his role. He holds his audience – as evocative as anyone performing storytelling at the Moth or on the remnants of vaudeville glimpsed on the silver screen remnants. A notch above the hundreds of road stories I’ve enjoyed and endured. With delivery honed over the many miles, he shuffles his feet for comedic timing, emphasizes a climax by lowering his head to look out from under a hat brim and rubs his hands together in infectious delight.

I reckon he hails from down there southern Missouah way and his words slip together into a fine cadence. It’s almost criminal the way I butcher his accent but you must imagine him for yourself.

“That’s a fine eye sir. That’s about as pretty a tree as I ever did see,” I say in way of greeting.
He puts on a bear eating grin, “Well there son, I been all over this here country. Crossed it from sea to shinin sea. Twice,” holding up two fingers and looking me in the eye, “and this tree is fine as a California beauty queen.”
“So what kept you moving around the country?”

“I reckon I just like to amble about and see things. I met some real fruity-loops on the road but I met some excellent gentlemen as well. Like this corporate raider tycoon fella. He picked me up in his new Mercedes and drove me across Seven Hundred Miles of Desert. When he turned off up towards Vegas, he asked me how many cigarettes I got left.” The Storyteller pulls out a phantom packet and slowly counts through them. “Looks like I got about five smokes heah. They sure do help the time pass sir, waiting on those old exits. That’s just what I told him. And you know what I seen him do as I stood outside that convenience store? He bought me a whole carton of Marlboros and I seen him stuff some bills down in it. I thanked him kindly and thought he mighta slipped in 20 or 40 bucks. When I emptied out my carton into a Ziploc bag (you see that’s my trick to keep ‘em from gettin wet), why, you could’a knocked me over with a puff.” In slow amazement,  “Five crisp brand spankin’ new beautiful as butter Benjahmin Franklin bills.” He fixes me with a look of incredulity that shifts to a dawning joy. “Well, I called that Greyhound bus station and bought me a ticket. Then I ordered a taxi cab to come pick me up and I rode out to California in style. Yes sir. I met some good folks on the road.”

“That’s the way to do it,” I reply with enthusiasm, falling into the slower southern cadence. “Hitchin’ always restores my faith in humanity. Why, we had some real good luck on our last leg up from Texas.”

The Storyteller smoothly ignores the interruption. “Yes sir but there’s some queer birds out there on that road too. I been waiting about seven hours on that route 40 going through Fort Worth when this old boy pulls over. Now if he wasn’t 85 years old, he wasn’t one day old.” The blue eyes bulge in amazement. “I looked in there and I’ll be damned if he didn’ have a neck brace, both arms in short casts and a brace on his left leg. Then a daggum cane by the stick shifter. He asked me where I was headed and I said, ‘Santa Monica sir.’
Well he chuckled and said, ‘I ain’t going that far but I’ll take you 20 miles up the road.’
‘That’s fine sir. Every little bit helps.’ Now I was just about to get in his car when he asked me kinda sly if I liked to fool around.” The Storyteller jumps back in alarm, eyes wide and rolling. He addresses the invisible infirm old man, “Now just what do you mean by fool around?”
‘You know son – just a little friendly bit of play. I’m willing to pay some money for that kind of fun.’”

The Storyteller’s voice drops to a righteous hiss. “Well, I tell you what you old faggot. I was raised to believe in Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve. So you better just get on down that road there because it looks like some God fearing man already tried once to show you the error of your ways and I’m fixin to teach you that lesson again.”

“That’s just what I told him and he cursed me out and drove off. It worked out for the best though. I got a ride from an Australian trucker and his Sheila all the way out to the Santa Monica docks.”
“I bet that Aussie had you laughing the whole time.”

“You better believe it boy. Made it real easy to get with those California girls. I’d put on that Aussie talk and they thought I was Paul Hogan’s son.” His Australian accent was passable although muddled with some cockney. “I went fishing with one girl I met out there and she woulda made Dolly Parton look like Tiny Tim. I hooked a big one and the pier is so high off the water, you gotta lean over to pull up the line.” He bends down to demonstrate pulling up the fish but jumps suddenly like he got bit.

“When I felt that pinch on my rear, I smiled to myself. I figured she mustah liked what she seen. But before I turned round all the way, I’d seen that simpering faggot wink at me and I grabbed him and I wenta fairy tossin. I threw him right over into that ocean and looked at his friend and told him ‘You better clear out too you little cocksucker unless you wanna go swimming with your girlfriend.’”

I said nothing. I did not laugh to encourage him. But I also did not reveal my visceral hatred of this closeminded goatfucker who spent his life making it hellish for the queers that fill my Tribe. You, dear reader, may call me a coward but I am a writer on the road and this is part of my research. I have spent these years nodding, allowing the dark souls to play out enough rope to hang themselves. I don’t believe that I’m going to change their minds with my highfalutin’ liberal Yankee talk – though maybe I don’t give myself enough credit.  Perhaps it’s really a cowardly aversion to conflict springing from deep in my Mennonite roots that makes me shut my trap.

But I want to hear what the racists and the bigots and the assholes really think. I want to see the interior of their awful minds – the ones who enabled the Holocaust and the lynchings and the queer beatings. It’s easy to forget that they exist but the Monsters are out there and they will rise again as they always do in human history. I want to know my enemy. I must never forget that he exists and that his infectious hatred will never be smitten from the earth.

The Storyteller continues in befuddled horror, “Do you know what it’s like out there in California with those liberals and faggots? If you’re out there beating the piss out of your old lady, the cops just give you a tap on the shoulder and tell you to take it back to your house. But if you just do this,” he taps my arm as I repress a shudder, “to one of those cocksuckers, they’ll throw you in the slammer.” He leans forward and puts his hands behind his back, mimicking the shackling sound of handcuffs slipping into place. “But sure as shit is shinola, with my rotten luck, I must’ve gotten the sugar daddy of that faggot. He gave me Thirty days in the jailhouse for fucking with a fairy. Crazy isn’t it?”

We wander up to the library’s entrance and as I leave the Storyteller, he’s telling jokes to the old boys waiting for the doors are open. His delivery is slow and sure. I hear a chorus of loud guffaws as I turn the corner.

As I return to the house, my friend’s are leaving for a gathering at a Radical Faery commune hidden in the mountains. The Fairies are a group of queers, predominantly gay men, a secretive lot who coalesced in the 60’s to provide safe havens for the runaways cast out by the groups at home that would support them in any other crisis besides coming out of the closet. Rejected by their family, their church and their school, suicide is the leading cause of death in gay teenagers. The Faery dens spread across the country revolve around their inner sanctums of safety where inclusion and acceptance provide a space free of the baleful bigotry of Mrs. Grundy in all of her pernicious guises.

I spent my days in Bowling Green talking to a Fellow Traveler who found his home and happiness while wandering between Faery enclaves. The like-minded souls who became his Tribe enabled him to craft his alternative persona: the Fool clad in black and white stripes whose “prerogative is to utter the truths that no one else will speak” as it says in Sandman and Shakespeare. Now he’s an outstanding muralist and the pages of his novel cover the walls, telling of his transformation inside the Radical Faery chrysalis that allowed him to grow his radiant black and white wings.

He begs off from bringing Aly and I along but I already understood his reluctance. I share the feeling when it comes to my Open Love tribe in NYC that has become my second family. It’s worrisome to introduce even a close friend into your inner sanctum where you become responsible for their behavior. Worrying about them diminishes the recharging blast from sinking into the comfort of your understanding souls. I feel compelled to watch them from afar, to babysit, to use some of this precious time and rejuvenating energy to help smooth over the bumps of introduction.

So instead, I stay in their house to write these words, powered by the reams of typewritten pages written and books of poetry left open and the Fool’s paintings bursting with bright colors of adventures on the road and into the psychic depths. It turns my thoughts towards home, towards Brooklyn and diving into the Work, the stories I have to tell. I look forward to nights of bandying around ideas for projects with the Rockets of Humanity and Fellow Travelers whose creativity is bursting and bubbling towards the surface. All of us hoping to tell one tale that might inspire a few likeminded souls to consider a new way to get happy, to find a world or a work that brings them joy and purpose.

So it begins.

To any who read this and like my angle, I’m always looking for collaborators and creatives to try out new projects or sit around and toss ideas against the wall like spaghetti to see what sticks. Once I’m settled, I’ll be restarting my Writing Nights for just this purpose.

Welcome Home

Thanks again to Alyssa for her strong edits. I couldn’t have asked for a better Ear or hitch partner.

Welcome back to the Kingdom of Fear. The stream of friendly Mexican smiles are replaced by chickenhearted stares en los Estados Unidos. Our longest wait of the entire 2,500 mile hitch – six hours with our thumbs out in Laredo.

It was a fine piece of highway – steady traffic and a wide shoulder . We looked engaging – well rested from a vacant lot and well fed on a hearty breakfast of chicharron from a retired steel worker looking to chat his empty morning away. But despite our genuine smiles and amusing gesticulations for the passing cars, despite inexplicably holding off the roadsides horrors and keeping up our spirits, it was no rides and no smiles. Just fearful vacant mugs.

It’s disheartening, sickening even, to cross back into Amerika. I shudder at the flood of foreboding, the dark dreadful angels fluttering over the conversations. “Isn’t it dangerous? People are more crazy now. Aren’t you afraid of getting killed? It’s not like the old days after all.”

Actually, it’s exactly like the old days. Nothing has changed. Since the Great Depression, the Russian Revolution, the Enlightenment, the martyr of Christ, the Roman Coliseum and the death of the Buddha, the world’s maintained a roughly constant percentage of serial killers and gentle giants and slavering fairies and long suffering mothers and violent pederasts and dependable fathers and bombastic hardheads and gossiping old hags and altruistic saints and vicious pigfuckers.

Why does everyone assume that the road is filled with killers? When was the last time you even heard the story of a hitchhiker getting murdered?  There’s no evidence, not even anecdotal. (Though my mother suspects that’s because we simply disappear into freezers in hidden cabins).

But I don’t want to downplay the perils. Hitchhiking is fiendishly dangerous. That’s because I’m in an automobile, one of the greatest killers in our land. Catching a ride in one of those monsters of metal and glass and speed is the greatest danger I face in my wanderings – worse than helmetless biking down Fifth Avenue counting coup on the yellow cabs or chasing off packs of wild dogs in the slums of Mumbai or stepping on snakes in the Mojave.

I may die hitchhiking but it won’t be because the driver likes the taste of my liver. It’s because he wants to make eye contact while pouring out his life story.

The most dependable rides come from the old boys who used to hitch themselves. I ask them why they stop and it’s almost always the same answer about paying it forward. But mostly they want a receptive Ear who will prod them with questions about jobs, families Even the most dull of accountants can’t talk longer than I can listen. With a patience honed over the years, my Ear is the service I offer in exchange for a ride. As Heinlein said, the easiest way to get the reputation of a sparking conversationalist is to not say much.

Sometimes, however, they become maddening monologues of bigotry or homophobia or empty boasting about tagging bitches. I just nod and let them hang themselves on their own vicious rope. It’s a window into a world I never see, it’s a reminder of an appalling reality that I must never forget exists. The close-minded and the colorless fade into a blur of cowboy hats, evil chuckles, acrid sweat, stale cigarettes and dirty snickerings. These are the worthless rocks to be sifted and discarded in my hunt for diamonds.

Because then there’s days like this when we hitched out of Austin and Aly said, “It’s like a competition to see who can be the most awesome at picking up hitchhikers.”

We got a late start because of my insomnia at the house of a Manhattan family that I used to tutor in the city. They decided to move to Austin for a few years of ‘family adventure.’ Three towheaded boys play in the backyard with the gregarious pitbull. At night they watch Love Lucy and Charlie Chaplin together. It’s eerie to see their oldest son, a spitting image of myself at that age – ravenous geekdom with National Geographic posters on the wall and overflowing shelves of books. To see a family that encouraged the pursuit of such passions was the just the medicine I needed.

I met Aly at a Wal-Mart after her night drinking with gutter punk friends who hitched from NYC to Austin with two dogs, a guitar and an accordion. I thought it was hard for me to get rides. I wonder who’s picking them up?

Thankfully, Aly was in charge of our grub sack and typography. Under the highway’s cloverleaf, she created two signs out of discarded cardboard: ‘East’ & ‘KY’.  We waited by a barely serviceable downramp, sitting on the concrete wall hoping that one car might have the guts to pull over onto the narrow shoulder where the traffic from I-35 merged.

After our sardonic appeal to the Mexican road god of San Cristobal, we decided to experiment. We began a hunt to find the correct road god to beseech in each state. In Texas, surrounded by the soulless strip malls and long lines of gas stations at the highway junction, I started by asking Moloch for a ride out of town. Of course, we got the ride I should have expected from Ginsberg’s metal headed bull of consumerism and xenophobia (see the illustrated version of Howl).

A taciturn Mexican man let us into his car after a lengthy show of distrust and caution. “I only picked you up because you weren’t Negritoes.” We sat in dragging silence, quietly admiring the famous bluebells and Indian paintbrushes that line the Texas highways. In a rare show of saying something vaguely interesting, our driver told us that it’s a large fine to pick these wildflowers, the pride and joy of the Lone Star Interstate. He drove us an hour out of his way, taking us all the way to I-10 and it’s heavy traffic galloping towards Houston (Why is that the racists are often the kindest drivers? The ones who go the extra miles or buy a meal?). He offered to drive us all the way to Houston for twenty bucks but we begged off from the hours of eye gouging boringness in an overheated car.

It was a lousy section of highway: low visibility, little traffic coming up the onramp and not much of a shoulder to pull over. But none of that mattered because we finally struck upon the magical and most powerful of Texas road gods. I shouted to the heavens, “Oh Ron Paul, in your infinite libertarian wisdom, we ask you for a ride through this, your great state of individualism. We ask for a swift journey to the border of your land so we will not drain your welfare coffers with our bottom-feeding ways. We pray that you intercede for us with the faithful Texicans who follow you, the clear sighted souls who abhor the Federal Reserve that threatens to bring this great country to its knees by secretly stealing from its citizens with the insidious monster of Bernake’s inflation. Oh Ron Paul, reveal your mercy to us, humble individualists striving to be free.”

I had barely finished saying the words when a cheerful Mexican truck driver in oil stained dungarees pulled over. I napped in the back while Aly practiced her Spanish, a pleasant ride to a cloverleaf on the far side of Houston. The skies were thick and gray but only a light drizzle fell – enough to excite the pity of passing drivers but not soaking us to the point of messing up their car seats.

I had barely finished thanking Ron Paul for his gift of the last ride when a Mustang jumped two lanes of traffic to pull into the shoulder. We ran up to find Matthew motioning us inside. “I’m only going 40 miles but it’ll get you out of the city.” As we settled in, he waved away our thanks. “I always stop for hitchhikers. I think I probably picked up around 100. It’s almost always fun – sometimes the smell isn’t great but I always learn something new. I only ever had one bad experience.”

“What happened?” Aly asks from the backseat.

“ A guy tried to steal my car.”

“What’d you do?”

“This,” in a flash, he whips out a bone handled buck knife as long as my forearm. It glittered in the passing headlights as Matthew smirked. “And then I told him to please get out of my car.”

“That’s a nice piece of hardware for keeping you safe,” I said with a whistle.

“I can handle myself. I got a concealed weapons permit and an AR-15 in the trunk.”

“Where’d you get that?”

“The National Guard takes care of me. It’s a pretty good gig. I can pick up extra money guarding shipments going overseas. Most importantly, they pay for my degree. I’m studying history and philosophy. I just can’t get enough of that stuff.”

He turned out to be a well rounded young gentleman with a Persian girlfriend he met while they were both in costume at an anime event. He had a penchant for the Gnostic wisdom of Hermes Trismegistus and rambled on about the Mayberry qualities of his quiet Texas town.

After he found out about my love for MREs (Meals Ready to Eat – the military rations that are an epitome of food science, the most delectable and weight efficient of road grub), he returned to the truck stop where he dropped us off with an entire carton of the military meals for us. 15,000 calories of prepackaged perfection complete with self heating elements. He left us with hearty hugs all around and promises to keep in touch after a final photo with us for his girlfriend. He wanted to prove to her that the hitchhikers he picked up weren’t particularly crazy.

And it is here where I feel like my words fail me (that is to say, fail me more than usual). How do I describe Greg, perhaps the kindest gentleman of our trip? A man with the forearms of Popeye and the bone white mustache of a Civil War general. I must admit, I first thought of him as one more kindly working stiff who followed the black gold – raised amidst the endless derricks of Texas and then to the rigs in the Alaskan tundra, over to the oilsands of Russia and out to the deepwater rigs off the California coast. He had thick competent hands that worked him out of the field and into the office where now he has to “deal with those pencil neck geeks in Houston.”

He wasn’t supposed to give us a ride in the company vehicle but he didn’t care. “Better put your seatbelts on though. They’re watching all the time. The car reports if I speed or don’t buckle up. That’s how it is with big businesses. But it’s a good firm. I been with them 31 years.”

As the last hundred miles of Texas slipped past, he talked mainly of his work. Usually on the road, that’s almost the only topic that men have or want to talk about. Unless I find glimmers of other interests, I usually keep my questions moving in the direction of employment. Gary said, “It’s gotten so much tougher lately with Obama screwing everything up.” My rectum clenched in fear of having to endure another racist rant but Gary remained a gentleman. “I’m sure he’s a good guy and means well but these new regulations cause so much waste. Now if you open up a brand new O-ring and don’t use it immediately, you have to throw it away. After the oil leak in the Gulf, they put a bunch of new laws in place but then only gave us a year to inspect all the equipment according to their new standards. Some of these pumps things are twenty years old and they want us to get the original certificates from the manufacturers. None of those firms keep paperwork going back that far so even if we pressure test a pump to four times what it needs to hold, we still have to throw away a $40,000 piece of equipment. It just makes you sad to see so much waste.”

Our bond deepened as we met the Queen Bitch who would haunt our next three days of hitching – a drenching tropical storm that moved east at the pace of a cow’s amble. Most nights, we’d get clear of her only to have that thundering miscreation catch up to us the next morning. I cursed her thoroughly each day though she did reveal one more wonder of hitchhiking with a smartphone. With a weather radar app, I could see just where she was and figure out where to be dropped off to avoid her for as long as possible, hoping hard for a ride out from under her skirts as the rains fell harder.

With Greg, we drove through the vicious heart of the storm and were glad to have his steady hands on the wheel. It’s here that he started to talk about the wife he loved, showing us photos of her on his phone and even a grudging admiration for her nine little dogs. He talked about how he messed up his first two marriages but finally found the love of his life. He listened to our adventures coming up through Mexico with a gentle endearment. He thought we were just the most adorable couple to be out hitching together so we couldn’t bear to break it to him that we were only travel partners. But he worried about our safety out there on the road and wanted to keep hearing from us until we reached my home.

He certainly deserved some text messages on our whereabouts after the gift he gave us that night. Where he turned off the highway, he got us a motel room for because that Queen Bitch of a storm would be soon on our tail, soaking whatever patch of grass and sky we grabbed for the night. So instead of sleeping with our heads in the cold mud, we washed our clothes in the room’s sink and took long hot showers, sleeping between fresh clean sheets so we could face the drenching storm the next day with renewed vigor.

I’ve given out my card to countless souls on the road and have heard many promises to be in touch, to send their info, to shoot me an email about that book or article or friend that I would love. Never, but never ever, has anyone followed up on that. Until Greg. Once we got to Bowling Green, he called me at eight on one Saturday morning with apologies for not getting back to me sooner. “I wanted to say thank you for letting me know you got there OK.” Than with a hint of shyness, “I kind of liked hearing how you were doing so you can keep letting me know if you don’t mind. You stay safe out there, ya hear”

the magical ride

San Miguel de Allende, central Mexico

When you’re 1000 kilometers from the border, a sign for Texas catches the eye. It’s a solid hook. No driver can make the excuse that they’re not going to our exact destination. In this idyllic splash of a colorful hill town, no one is driving all the way to the States.

I love hitchhiking in Mexico. The passing drivers give thumbs up and encouraging smiles. They shrug their shoulders apologetically and point at the ground when they’re just making a short trip. The sun is coming up and the traffic is strong and slow. The drivers are delighted with two gringos holding a cardboard sign. So I’m surprised that no one stops for the first half hour.

Until an old boy pulls over in a vintage Chevy truck, midnight blue with a long crack across the windshield. “You’re going to Texas?” We nod happily in expectation. “Then why are you on the south bound side of the road?”

Because we’re lazy. Because we’re fat and sassy from a restful few days. Because we sat where she dropped us off without checking the map. Because we had a stuffed bag of groceries. Because we’re pumped up and cocky.

Mrs. Fernandez-Diaz kindly waited for us at the grocery store while we loaded up our grub bag that morning. I rushed Aly through the store, unnecessarily of course. I keep moving too fast in this country. This time I was worried about our friend’s mom waiting in the parking lot. My stomach churned at the thought of her tapping her foot at these damn kids wasting her time after spending the night on her sof\a. But she’s a mother. And a Mexican. When we came out loaded with groceries, she just smiled brightly and cooed at our apologies. “I’m in no rush. I want you to be ready for your adventure.”

Still, she did drop us on the wrong side of the road. We try to chuckle at ourselves as we cross the highway and struggle to catch a ride across town. Downtowns are dead zones –deliveries, commuters, daily errands and suits – a hitcher’s limbo.

Rule of the Road #4: Never get trapped in the center of a city. Get out before the sprawl makes it impossible to get a ride.

We scramble on and off a couple buses, embarrassed to keep the commuters waiting while we pile on our cumbersome load. I forget once again that it’s Mexico. They smile in amusement at our load of hula hoops and books, none of the exasperated tight-lipped aggravation of the Rotten Apple. At the far end of the bus route, we get out where the two main roads out of the city converge.

We decided to wait by the stop sign where the one road ended. It meant we missed half the outgoing traffic but the line of waiting cars got a chance to look over me and Aly. She has more testicular fortitude than me (plus being much cuter) and she called out to drivers with open windows, asking where they’re headed and if they have a seat in the back, “Atras? Atras?”

Rule of the Road #2: The driver wants a good look at you. Position yourself to give it to them.

I wanted to start the day with the wind in my hair so we prayed to the road god (that’s Saint Christopher in this country) for a ride in the back of a pickup truck.  Ask and ye shall receive. Aly worked the next driver with a big grin, “A donde van?  Atras?  Por que no?  Mucho espacio!! Por atras?” We spent the next 30 kilometers sitting on bags of grain watching the scrub desert zip by while we sang snatches of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie songs.

Under a sliver of shade, we lunched on a spicy rajas and cheese sandwich. The hot mid-day sun started zapping our stamina for roadside soliciting. It was our first hints of the roadside horrors – that depressing and infuriating wonder at how these empty heartless vehicles can speed by two wanderers wilting in the harsh heat. However, it only took a short ride to rejuvenate – dropped beneath a tree in the center of a town where the cars slow and the fertilizer salesgirl returns my winks. Everything brightens in the shade.

Then she appeared lumbering over the horizon. My guts clenched to push down the hope that’s always been disappointed. There she was in all her transportational glory, the great White Whale I’d been hunting for all my years of hitching – the RV. I’ve never had a ride in these traveling homes with acres of bedrooms and bathrooms and kitchenettes hidden behind white walls and piloted by wizened couples. They would lurch by me on the highways of Texas and Arkansas and South Dakota with their drivers too gripped by fear and senility to even return my frantic waves of hope. But alas, after all these years, I’ve never stuck my harpoon into one yet.

To be fair, what appeared out of the heat waves of this dusty Mexican highway was more of a Mottled Grey Pygmy Sperm Whale. It wasn’t fifty feet of linoleum and indulgence and leather. It was a little Toyota truck with a camper built into the bed. But they didn’t hesitate to pull over once they spotted us – a hip Colorado couple, laid back and slow moving. He spent years hitching around the world and agreed with me about RVs. “The only time I ever caught a ride on one was with a guy whose job was to deliver brand new ones around the country. I had to sit in the middle of the aisle and not touch anything because it was spotless and covered in plastic.”

Aly was worn out from all the talking with our Mexican drivers so she took a nap on the bed while I grew enamored of this couple. They lived an ambling life – traveling the world on the cheap, not moving too fast and funding themselves with freelance graphic design work. We effortlessly traded stories from the road and found an understanding on all the topics that we broached in our wandering conversation. By the time they let us out at San Luis Potosi, I decided I wanted my life to turn out like his.

As the little RV pulled away, I excitedly tried to describe them to Aly, tripping over my words in my adoration but I couldn’t describe the magic I felt (and so of course I miss describing it here as well). “They were just what I needed to see – but now I can’t remember any of the stories and all the fakts seem like rubbish. There was nothing electrifying or punchy. They were just happy and fulfilled. Gah. They inspired me so much…I don’t know. So simple and nice.”

Amused by my ramblings, Aly laughed that engaging laugh, “Well, I’m glad you found what you needed. Now that we picked up the main highway, let’s see how fast we can move.”

Dear reader, I would never have guessed at how fast we could go. We found one of the luckiest rides of my career and we weren’t even hunting for a ride at that moment. At a modern marvel of a rest stop, we decided to take a short rest to let some of the day’s stress ease away as we lunched on more hot peppers and cheese. I read of telepathic drug experiences while Aly wrote on my computer, the sign for Texas at our feet temporarily discarded at our feet.

Rule of the Road #7: On a long haul, don’t push so hard. You’ll be out there for days so don’t increase the stress and decrease the rides by skipping naps and snacks. When you grind yourself down to a short fuse, drivers notice the surliness in your stance no matter how hard you may try to hide it with those fake grins.

When a fast talking Texican woman spotted our sign, she rushed over on swinging hips, big and brash. “Oh, honeys. We’re going to Texas too. Now it’s not my car but I’m sure he won’t care. It’s only that it’s a pickup so you’ll have to sit in the back. I’m sure you won’t mind. It’s such radiant country. You must come meet him.”

“Hector, meet these wonderful young people going to Texas. They seem quite nice. Oh, they wouldn’t have any drugs on them. You don’t have drugs do you dearies? No, of course you don’t. But you can see why he’s worried don’t you? Oh, I’m so glad. Hector was a taxi driver you know. He’s an excellent driver. We’ll be in Laredo by sunset.”

And that was my goodbye to Mexico – a hard fast push through the scrub desert of the promised land at 120 kilometers per hour, the buffeting wind blowing away the heat of the sun. Alone in the back with no one to entertain – no responsibility but to watch the shifting contours of the painted desert and the burros grazing in the highway’s median.

Every so often, we’d glance into the cab and confirm, “Yep, she’s still talking.” Poor Hector.

Ten hours of sunburn, windburn and rushing countryside later, we arrived at the border town of Nuevo Laredo (missing a gun battle between the Zetas and the federalis by a couple of hours). By this time, we bonded with our driver at the stops for gas, relieving his fear that we would be dumb enough to try and cross the border with marijuana. With the help of the indomitable chatter from the passenger seat, he agreed to take us across the border and all the way to our destination in San Antonio. Elation. We expected four days on the road but this magic little pickup would blow through it in one blazing day.

Except for the fear addled border guard. As that vicious little tramp checked our passports, he said, “You’re going to let them ride in the back of the truck on the highway are you?”
Of course, she leans across the driver to do the talking. “What’s wrong with that? We did it all through Mexico.”
He’s baffled at even considering the idea. “Why, for their safety. It’s dangerous back there. How could you consider it?” Welcome back to Amerika, the great Fearmonger.

I growl to myself, “Life is dangerous you scumsucking weasel. I’ll stuff red tape down your gaping maw before I let you ruin this sweet thing.” Aly laid a calming hand on my back so I simply grimaced as we pulled forward to the bag check. As she said to me later, “Because surely dropping a couple kids with nowhere to go in a strange border town in the middle of the night is a much safer option than the back of a truck for an hour.”

All my hatred for the first United States Customs official was erased and overwhelmed by the second. The guard in charge of searching our bags was cracking jokes before we even had time to pile out. He had a laconic grin and easy manner that more than made up for his small minded predecessor. In fact, it was the finest entrance I’ve ever had to the United States.

He liked us as soon as he saw Aly’s pile of hula hoops. With a gleam in his eye, “You know I can’t let you into the country without proving that you know how to use those things.” So while the driver and I unloaded the bags onto the aluminum tables under the glaring lights of the immigration shed, Aly put on one of her best shows. She whirled the hoops around her, letting them fall almost to the floor before working them slowly up to her neck and then jumping through them, hurling them into the air and sinuously weaving the brightly flashing hoops. The dozen bored guards who gathered for the show gave her a hearty round of applause as she gave the deep boneless bow of the circus.

Then the host of guards inched closer as the search of her bag led to guffaws and loud commentary from our friendly guard. Searching her bag was like trying to make Harpo Marx empty his pockets. He found pois for spinning fire and soot covered chains to whirl them around her. Juggling balls, jewelry making supplies, tools for fixing circus equipment. He kept pawing through her bag like a kid on a treasure hunt, excited to see what oddity he would unearth next. Only reluctantly did he realize that there was nothing left to search.

He never even glanced into the drab suitcases of the driver. When he turned to my bag of books, now 31 strong, and started pulling out handfuls of wonderful literature, I started excitedly describing what I loved about each time. He stopped quickly, rolling his eyes just like the vast majority who watch me start on a bibilio-rant. He turned to my traveling bag with a disinterested air until he found my long rolling papers. Now there’s a bit of gleam in his eye when he said, “Now I’m looking for your pot. Where do you keep your pot?”
“Sir, I do not carry drugs when I cross borders.”
“Do you smoke pot?”
“Yes sir but I decided to quit for good when I crossed this border. I came to the conclusion that it’s really not a very good drug for me. I’ve noticed its effects tend to…”
He rolls his eyes and interrupts. “So where is your pot?”
“I was born at night but it wasn’t last night. I certainly wouldn’t carry it through a border crossing.”
Though I certainly could have. He gave up quickly.

When our ride dropped us at a gas station on the edge of the town, they both kept apologizing for not taking us all the way. We couldn’t say enough to convince them their ride was a beautiful gift – a rare jewel of thumbing. We parted with happy waves and then found a vacant lot to sleep for the night, sharing one last peanut butter sandwich before we slip into sleep, back in America, the Land of Dreams.


Lex Pelger

pelger@gmail.com
lexpelger.com

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