Sunday, January 31, 2010

Contest winners

Congrats go to winners Michael of Brookline, Massachusetts and Lexie of Maple Valley, Washington who each correctly guessed the name of my school in the contest I held two months ago.

I kept the van and the name of my school secrets for nearly a year for fear of being discovered and kicked out of the parking lot, which would have, of course, made affording grad school loan-free all the more difficult.

Luckily, Duke doesn’t appear to care, and I’m pleased to say that I’m still anonymous on campus despite all the press the van and I have gotten of late.

Award winners, as promised, got an autographed 8 x 10 photo of me and the van with Duke Chapel in the background.

The quote is one of my favorites. It was penned by Chris McCandless, and printed in Krakauer’s Into the Wild:

“So many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservatism, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future.”

Michael was kind enough to send a picture back of what he’s done with the picture. Knowing that my face is on a fridge other than a close relative’s never fails to amuse me.

Monday, January 25, 2010

The accident

So I got in a bit of an accident the other day.

It’s strange how guilty I feel when I think about withholding some new development from the pages of this blog. For some reason, it’s become a sort of confessional.

I’m reluctant to share this one less because it’s a sin and more because it’s one of the dumbest things I’ve ever done.

My confession: I scraped the port side of my home against a stationary concrete cylinder on campus last week.

But what makes the accident all so much more embarrassing is that I had a female guest in the van when it occurred.

We were leaving the school library where we had gone to borrow DVDs. I drove to a stop sign to turn left to exit campus. One of the university buses pulled up in front of me and parked perpendicularly, leaving a narrow space for a tight left-hand turn.

Here’s my artistic rendition of the scene:

If I was alone I probably would have just waited the 10 minutes for the bus to leave. But because every American male believes he’s god’s gift to driving, I decided to bravely defy the odds by attempting to deftly maneuver my home through the obstacles.

I started inching forward. Within seconds the van came to a halt because I felt my driver-side, rear tire press against a curb. I accelerated hard, hoping to power over the curb. Instead, I heard folding aluminum and pterodactyl shrieks. That wasn’t my tire against the curb; it was my van pressed against the cylinder.

The girl—who will remain unnamed—began giggling nervously. Now that the damage had been done, I tried to advance forth. My progress, however, was checked when I realized I was about to hit the parked bus. I had to reverse back to where I came from, the concrete clawing horizontal white stripes into the burgundy of my van all over again.

By this time, a crowd of students who had gotten off the bus had formed around the van. With each application of the gas pedal—as I pivoted the van against the concrete in reverse now—I’d hear excited “ooohhh’s!’ from the crowd whenever the metal crumpled as if they were responding to upper-cuts thrown in some impromptu street-fight.

Now, my female companion was seized with the sort of laughing-fit typical of insane asylums. My face turned a dark shade of pink and expletives dropped from my mouth like a brigade of paratroopers. Yet—even as my burgundy beauty was defaced—I couldn’t help but giggle a little, too.

For the next few days, looking upon the scratches and dents was as painful as if I was looking upon the burn scars on the face of a loved one. I resolved that I was going to get it fixed no matter what the cost. But as the days went by, I came to terms with the accident and decided that since there was no internal damage, I had to think of these unpleasant alterations as added “character.” Plus, the elaborate burgundy-to-black color scheme makes a paint job all-the-more impossible. Why fret about the look of a jacket that keeps its wearer warm?

The van—I’m afraid to admit—isn’t my only blunder of the week. When the same girl hopped onto my back, later on—under a similar spell of machismo-induced stupidity—I thought I’d impress her by performing a set of squat thrusts.

Because of that—for the past six days—I’ve been hobbling around campus like a pirate on a wooden leg, having badly strained my knee.

I can’t help but think of each injury—both to me and to the van—as scarlet letters that I’m now forced to wear: reminders of my transgressions, or, perhaps, warnings that I’ve stepped off course.

A woman can make a man do crazy things. While long-forgotten feelings awaken and unfurl, other parts fall into winter torpor. An eye’s glint of wildness is lost in the glazed gaze of love. Knees and van exteriors and a hundred other important things are rendered unimportant. That’s because a woman—more than anything—reminds a man that he's alive while making him forget nearly everything else. Especially that he's been ensnared.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Rule of Thumb #8: Listening is an art form

Day 8: May 22, Hope, British Columbia to Rock Island, Washington (303 miles)

Natalia—at the time of the hitchhike—had been my girlfriend for the preceding nine months. We met the summer before in Coldfoot. She worked as a lodge cleaner for a few months before going back to La Grande where she was enrolled at Eastern Oregon University.

We didn’t become intimate until her last week that summer. One evening she knocked on my door in a white dress, offering to help me practice my Spanish.

She was from Ecuador. She had golden-brown skin, a thick accent, and an air of exoticism that seems to make romantic forays all the more exciting.

It was her smile that—more than anything—made me fall for her. It exuded warmth and an unalloyed sincerity. Between that and her artless, unaffected manner, everyone couldn’t help but become endeared to her.

What developed is common for the young at heart. We became afflicted with affection; diseased with high hopes. My dreams of exploring the world were momentarily stifled now that I had sweeter and softer conquests in mind.

While I acknowledged that I had lost my capacity to exercise rational thinking amid the hazy daze of early love, I thought things would be different with Natalia. She was so sweet and kind and caring; I thought I could really see myself growing old with her. With a self-assured grin, I proclaimed to my friend Josh: “She.. is.. the.. one..” Once, looking into her eyes, as we laid in a tent atop a soft bed of sphagnum moss, I had the odd experience—in a moment of sublime intimacy—of seeing my face in hers—a phenomenon that only verified the uncommon bond I felt between us.

But then she left for Oregon to go back to school. And I stayed in Coldfoot for the rest of the year. I did fly down to Ecuador to visit her family's home during her winter break, but in the nine months we were “together,” we had only seen each other for a few weeks.

Without the boons of physical companionship, my affection waned. I began resenting our weekly conversations, and my response to her I love you’s, became more and more insincere. By the time May rolled around, Natalia was the furthest thing for my mind.

But as I approached the American border and neared Oregon, something awoke within me. I smelled her luscious mane of black hair and dreamt—not of exploring my continent—but of traversing up, down, and around her silky Spanish curves. Natalia, again, incited a mutiny of my mind. I cared for nothing more now than to move. And to move fast.

Having never hitchhiked before, I originally had no idea if I could get out of Alaska, let alone make my way into a remote community on the quiet side of the Beaver state. But by now, I knew that anything was possible. It was only a matter of time before our long-awaited reunion.

La Grande, though, was still a long ways away.

I cooked up a pot of oatmeal, packed up my tent, tucked in my shirt, and made a new sign for the town of Princeton, British Columbia, which was en route to the Canadian-American border, just north of Washington.

The first car to pull over for me was driven by a cop, who, not without some cordiality, asked me about my journey. I responded honestly, except fibbing that my parents knew where I was and what I was doing. He wished me luck and said farewell.

A half an hour later, Keith, a spry 77-year-old retired drilling machinist, pulled over for me.

“Ya got any money?” he barked.

“Yeah. I have money,” I responded, feeling unthreatened.

“Good!” he growled. “The first thing ya know when you’re givin’ a fella a ride, they’re asking ya for food, then for money and then they’re stinking up your fuckin’ car!”

Amused, I assured him that I wouldn’t ask for food, or money, and told him that I didn’t think that I smelled.

I asked him where he wanted me to put my gear and he retorted, “In the backseat. What, do you want me to strap it on the fuckin’ hood?”

Clearly trying to test my intelligence, I responded, “Well, I thought you might like me to put it in the trunk.”

Keith’s curmudgeonly personality was balanced with grandfatherly charm. He asked me where I was going; I told him, “Oregon. To see my girlfriend.”

“Sounds like your pecker is taking ya across the world,” he said. I laughed.

Keith droned on for hours, going into exquisite detail about engine technology while I fantasized about Natalia and admired verdant farmland which slowly—as we headed further east—turned into arid wine country. I’d pepper the conversation with “Mmmm hmmm’s” and would occasionally make him stop to ask him what a Union bit or something or other was just so it appeared that I was following the conversation all along.

I was merely playing my role as hitchhiker, giving a lonely old man—what appeared to be—an attentive ear.

But Keith wasn’t so bad. He had some catchy sayings like: “You’re not worth a dime until you make your boss a dollar” and “If someone can build it, you ought to be able to take it apart and put it back together.”

After Keith dropped me off, a lumberjack drove me through the vineyards and dropped me off at the border.

Walking back into the States was both exciting and nerve-racking. Surely I thought my bedraggled appearance and the way in which I was traveling would raise concerns with border guards. But—much to my surprise—I walked across without being subjected to rigorous inquiry. I reproduced my “South” sign and continued on my way, now through the lower-48.

The Pacific Northwest, I found—like most of the places I passed through—was easy to hitch rides out of. I had another seven rides that day, including my second female driver, Celia, a 60-year-old, who was charmed with the story of my journey thus far. An 80-year old couple—Bob and Esther—picked me up and told me that they were “some of the few left who still like to trust people.”

John, a shirtless 19-year-old, pulled up in a run-down 80’s sports car in the town of Orak, Washington. He was thin and muscular, just out of basic training and on his way to Iraq where he’d serve as a scout. He joined because he blew 10K on pot and had to pay it back quick.

“I just told my recruiting officer that I want to get in shape, fuck up and kill a lot of people, and come home.”

“Is that exactly how you put it?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he said, matter of factly.

A guy in Wenatchee asks me if I want a beer before pulling a Budweiser out from between his thighs, which he'd slug lustily. Bob—another driver—stops at an EZ Go and buys me a burger. My last ride is with a single mom and her kid, formerly a carnie and hitchhiker herself. She dropped me off at Rock Island—in the middle of the state—where I’d set up my tent next to railroad tracks across from a gas station.

Oh, the joys of hitchhiking. Every hour I entered someone’s life; every day I gleaned new stories. I wasn’t just traveling, I was traveling outside the formula. I might as well have been floating through space, trailing my hand in stardust.

I struggled to fall asleep that evening—not from the stimulation of my day’s travel nor the howling coyotes in the desert night—but because my heart beated loudly for my beloved, just one state, and one day away.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The gym

Before radical living began, the shower situation was a huge concern. I figured the gym—like any gym—would have showers, but I worried what kind of showers there’d be. That’s because—I’m embarrassed to admit—I am deathly afraid of those no-walled, “rape-me-in-the-ass” prison showers where I’d be subjected to bump rumps with wrinkly old men lathering up on all sides of me.

Because of this fear, no man, in my entire life—excepting the bathtub shots I posed nude for as a toddler—has ever seen me naked. And however insane that may seem, this is a streak I plan on taking to the grave.

I have several other ongoing semi-irrational streaks. For one, I have not had pop in three and a half years. And I love pop. Nor have I ever had a puff of a cigarette, a joint, or any illegal narcotic for that matter even though I’d probably get some enjoyment out of them, too.

After a while, for whatever reason, these streaks—perhaps just for the sake of having a streak—take on an importance and must be strictly adhered to.

So you can imagine my relief upon seeing individual showers with curtains in Duke’s gym locker room.

At the gym, I take care of all my hygiene needs: showering, shaving, brushing my teeth, and washing my shoes. It’s also where I go to maintain my high standard of health. Before my three-mile run, and half an hour of weight-lifting, I start with a round of solo basketball.

I usually end up spending half my time practicing my hook shot. (I do have a nasty hook; and when I say “nasty” I mean I can make slightly more than 20% of them, which is astronomically better than the rest of my shooting repertoire.) I should add that in actual pick-up games I never get to use my hook. At 5-foot-9, the hook is about as useless as a blind man who has a 105 mph fastball, or a boxer with great foot work, but no arms.

I also joined the Graduate Chemistry Department’s dodgeball team—the first team I’ve been on in ages—which would become the outlet for all the unexpressed rage I’ve bottled up over the years. My teammates, disturbed with my pre-game ritual of frothing at the mouth, yet evidently pleased to have me on their team, kept a healthy distance and let me do my thing. I heaved balls at the other team not just with the intent to hit, but to hurt. And I dodged balls coming at me with bodily contortions I never knew myself capable of.

I’ve always been fiercely competitive. Athletic competition—like nothing else—rouses my wildest emotions. It’s a good thing I’m not religious. I’d likely be one of those quiet practitioners who—when given a snake to handle at a backwoods revival—begins speaking in tongues, mumbling prophesies, and writhing epileptically in between the pews before a host of sweaty male congregants hold me down to give me an impromptu exorcism.

We rarely notice some of our cultures most striking eccentricities on display at the gym: heterosexual males freely feeling other males’ biceps; women either wearing practically nothing or draped in full-length tights; a naked Asian man in the locker room ceremonially dries his testicles with a towel as if in preparation for hara-kari; orgasmic man-screams erupt from benches like mating calls betwixt purple-faced beefcakes.

The gym—like most things today—is a modern oddity—(a “mododdity,” if you will). There obviously was never any need for gyms when our daily toil—hunting, growing, and gathering—provided enough exercise to keep us in a state of physical homeostasis. Now, in lieu of the strain of daily living, those cubicled in our sedentary society must spend exorbitant sums to lift hunks of iron and walk in place on conveyer belts.

As a former landscaper and backcountry ranger, I prefer to get my exercise outdoors during my working hours, but now, as one in the droves of the deskbound, I must acknowledge the benefits to swimming pools, basketball courts, and a laboratory for observing my culture’s many eccentricities.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Article Aftermath Part II

[UPDATE: It looks like I will be on Air America's The Ron Reagan Show this Friday, Jan. 8, around 7 p.m. ET. I'm not sure if you can listen to his show online, but here's his website.]

It’s been about a month since I published the article in Salon. While requests from the media have waned, there are several outlets still interested in my experiment.

Yesterday, my hometown newspaper, The Buffalo News, published a front page article about my odyssey across the continent and vandwelling at Duke. It was the “most read” story for the day except for “Drunken Bills fan passes out, leaving three children crying.” (And who wouldn’t read a story with a title like that?)

I couldn’t have been more pleased with The Buffalo News story (besides the misleading title and unflattering picture). It would have been easy to color me as a reckless, over-idealistic freak—the typical McCandless portrait—but reporter Steve Watson did a fine and fair job.

On a side and somewhat self-conscious note, I’m not too pleased with the picture. Supposedly of the 25 pictures the photographer took, the best was the one where my left eye looks like one of those bulbous Chameleon eyeballs that can rotate independent of the other.

Not only that, but they included the now characteristic picture of me without a shirt on, in mid-chew, eating in the van, which all other publications are wont to use (including Yahoo in Taiwan). But I digress…

I did radio interviews with CBS Dallas and another in Davenport, Iowa whose jockeys sporadically aired clips of Chris Farley’s SNL character Matt Foley beaming about living in a van down by the river. While I took it all in with good humor, I think it’s only a matter of time before the Farley references become irksome.

On Friday I might be on The Ron Reagan Show. If you care to listen, I’ll update this entry with information on how to tune in.

Several TV shows including Inside Edition and Fox and Friends wanted to do segments on my experiment. I struggle to find a reason to participate. What good can fame bring me? It will in no way make me happier. I will still have the same friends, family, and ideals afterward.

Inside Edition offered money to follow me around campus for a few days. For a minute, I did think that it might be nice to get a little tuition money out of the bargain, but after watching an episode of gossip-laden garbage that eclipsed even my lowest expectations, I promptly turned down their offer and disgust for my culture was renewed.

Producers of The Rachel Ray Show, however, are discussing whether they want to do a “van renovation” segment with me. The very last thing I want to do is “sell out,” so I’m wary of all offers. But the consumer in me really wouldn’t mind a set of solar panels and a periscope.

Lastly, I’ve established a rapport with a literary agent who thinks I can turn my tale into a book. This is something that I plan on following through with, but with some reluctance.

As a reader of classics, I’m constantly reminded of my own deficiencies as a writer, so I worry that I’m not ready to take on such an enterprise. Nor am I in the least bit convinced that I can make a whole book about living in a van. Regardless, I think I can make it happen.

All in all, I must say that I’m dealing with all the “fame” remarkably well. It hasn’t phased me in the slightest. I’ve been amused and I’ve experienced blips of excitement, but not enough to disrupt my daily schedule or infect me with illusions of grandeur. Really, I just look forward to going back to the van and having another stimulating semester of school.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Rule of Thumb #7: To be poor in things is to be free of them

[After a 4-month long hiatus—due entirely to laziness—I begin again this “weekly” (now bi-monthly) series of my 2007 hitchhike across North America with new hopes of actually completing something I set out to do. Select the “Rules of Thumb” entries in the August and September tabs on the right if you wish to acquaint yourself with my journey thus far.]

Day 7: May 21, Prince George, BC to Hope, BC (388 miles)

Hitchhiking may be the most authentic form of travel. There are, of course, safer, quicker, and more convenient ways of getting around, but there is—if I may boldly assert—no better way to travel than hitching rides.

The walker—depending on the personality—often travels more in his head than he does on the ground beneath him. The tourist, who ought to leave behind the schedules and structures of home-life, carries them with her as devoutly as she carries her sacred guidebook. Bus rides can be impersonal. The car is a carapace, shielding its riders from the unexpected. The train limits one’s company to that of other travelers and the flyer—who may get a better scope of a region’s geography—flies above and around the people, smells, sounds, and culture that make real traveling so intoxicating.

The hitchhiker, rather, is cannoned headfirst into culture. There is no better way to become intimate with the place you’re traveling through than your driver—a cultural representative of sorts.

The driver doesn’t hold back. He shares his life, his philosophies, and his feelings perhaps more freely than he does in the bedroom with his bride or in the bar with his buddies. That’s because the hitchhiker’s opinion of him doesn’t matter. The hitchhiker is there one hour or one day and gone forever the next—like a journal entry written then burned.

There’s no trade of phone numbers. No promise to exchange letters or to “keep in touch.” There’s a handshake, a goodbye, and a nod that seems to signify that both driver and hitchhiker alike got something out of the bargain.


Dennis—my driver for the past two days—dropped me off at a truck stop in Prince George where I bought a badly needed $7 shower. I ate a power bar for breakfast and, on the side of a bustling Route 97, I held out my “South” sign which I colored with orange and purple crayons.

After half an hour of waiting, Frank pulled over for me. I asked him where he was headed—my standard question.

“Ashcroft,” he said.

“Where’s Ashcroft?”

“Just get in.”

After buckling up, Frank brusquely lectured me not to “hold someone up with questions if they’re offering you a ride.”

I explained, politely, that I was going very south and I wanted to select rides that were going long distances. A mere fifteen kilometer drive could do more harm than good, depending on where I was dropped off.

I knew he was trying to be the alpha male—an easy thing to do when you’re the one giving rides—but I wasn’t going to let him treat me like anything other than an equal.

The traveler may be hungry, homeless and haggard, but there’s no one forcing him to get up and go to work in the morning.

Things cooled off and Frank spoke without pause for the next three hours. He was a Catholic priest on a native reservation who had a frosty white beard that gave him a patrician air despite the compact economical car he drove.

Ashcroft, by the way, was in fact very south.

Instead of subjecting me to—what I thought would be—a lecture about how I'm heading straight for hell—as, I found, is often the case with the fervently religious—Frank was actually quite likeable—the kind of guy who might laugh at a joke about Nazis and pedophiles. He told me about life on the reservation, the boons of the Canadian healthcare system, and stories of his own hitchhiking feats when he was a lad my age.

Soon after picking me up, Frank spotted another hitchhiker ambling down the road.

“Are we actually going to pick up a hitchhiker?!” I worried to myself.

Once we got to know Matt—a 20 year old looking for work across the province—we added a third hitchhiker, this time a drunk native who instantly dozed on Matt’s shoulder in the back.

We arrived at Ashcroft just in time; I tired of Frank monologues and began to long for a more taciturn driver.

Ten minutes later—my shortest wait thus far—a car stuffed with teenagers was honking behind me.

They were all in their late teens. I got in. Discussion revolved entirely around pot and exploits with the opposite sex. There were two males in the front and I sat with a pair of blondes in the back. The one rubbing shoulders with me had milky-white skin. They were headed to a party in Vancouver and she asked if I’d pretend to be her boyfriend.

Though tempted, I had a girlfriend of my own just a few borders away in Oregon. I declined with some reservation: certainly things like these—random encounters, new cities, and strange experiences—were what I wanted all along.

Regardless, the ever-changing landscape was enough to sate my wanderlust and capture my imagination. In just a matter of days I went from arctic tundra to arid wine groves and now to howling rainforest. Vines serpentined around elephantine trees whose canopy of floppy green fronds had me saying words like “lush” and “verdant” for the first time.

Like bullet-ridden barrels, waterfalls poured from mountain faces. An errant train chugged alongside the roaring Fraser River. If the train hadn’t been moving so swiftly, I might have hopped on.

The teens—after hugs and handshakes—dropped me off in Hope, British Columbia, just north of the American border. I stored away my sign and set up camp next to a vacant motel, quickly penning my day’s journey into my journal as daylight dimmed.