Saturday, June 26, 2010

Rule of Thumb #11: No storm, no sunshine

[My apologies to those who were loyally following this little series. It started off as a “weekly” series, later became a “bi-monthy series, and it’s now a “whenever the hell I have time” series.]

Day 23: June 6, 2007. Park City, Utah to Aurora, Colorado (511 miles)

Hail, sleet, rain, snow. A dreary, overcast sky lavishly hosed me with every cruel form of matter it could devise. For eight hours I stood on an entrance ramp to the I-80 in Park City, Utah. My cardboard sign to “Cheyenne” got so wet the “enne” was about to tear off down the middle crease, half because of the unremitting rain, and half because my numb fingers couldn't keep the sign from falling into the puddle forming around my feet.

Oh, how I hated. I hated each and every goddamned driver that left me standing there alone, hungry, cold and poor. How could they let someone suffer when all they had to do was pull over and take me as far as they were going? Why are they all so heartless?!

As each car approached, I flashed an innocent half-smile (as I always would), hoping to give drivers the impression that I was harmless. But as each passed me by, I snarled, stomped my foot, and let loose a flurry of curse words that dribbled from my lips like venom.

To their credit, with the way I looked, I doubt I would have picked me up either. I was wearing a navy blue rain suit with a large conical KKK-type hood that made me look like a deranged fisherman. I bought the rain suit from Wal-Mart for $10—a misguided purchase considering how little the suit did to stanch the ingressing rivulets of rain that saturated my underclothing. Behind me, my pack sat upright covered with a giant black industrial garbage bag that fluttered in the wind. No wonder no one was pulling over. I looked less like a daring adventurer and more like a bum trying to carry his trash across state lines.

I needed to regroup. I went to a nearby gas station, bought a cappuccino, warmed up, ate my third peanut butter and jelly sandwich of the day, and made a new sign—this time reading “Wyoming.” I decided that I’d try to hitch a ride until this new cardboard sign falls apart, which—at the rate the rain/snow was falling—gave me about an hour before I’d be forced to head back to the Mormon Church or find somewhere else to bed down for the night.

While I was redrawing my sign by the gas pumps, a man filling up his white pickup—who’d supposedly seen me standing at the entrance ramp earlier—looked at me and, shaking his head, said, “You’re crazy, man.”

I had had enough. Too often had hundreds (thousands!) of vehicles on this road and on others passed me without even deigning to look at me. Too often had vehicles with empty front and back seats heading in my direction insensitively zipped by. And now this insolent bastard was calling me crazy.

“You know what asshole,” I said, incensed. “I’m here freezing my balls off and you and your no-good state has the gall to let a guy who needs a ride freeze on the side of the road. Crazy? Crazy for coming to Utah—this hellhole—that’s for sure.”

“Listen, kid…” he said conciliatorily.

“No. You listen to me. I’ve been out here for eight goddamn hours. Now unless you’re going offer me a ride, I’d keep your trap shut and start minding your own business.” I said the last part while threateningly sliding my sleeves up my biceps.

“Sorry, man," he said. "How bout I take you to the next town? Looks like you could use a warm meal too.”

That’s how the dialogue ideally would have unfolded. Instead, exhausted and demoralized, I silently watched him fill up his tank. Besides, I thought, maybe he’s right.

The rain looked like it’d never stop. Slowly, the creases of my new square of cardboard, sopping wet, began to tear. I was moments away from losing the “ing” of my “Wyoming” when I heard someone honking behind me.

She was gorgeous. She was tall, and her long blond hair poured down her shoulders from beneath a cab driver’s cap. She wore checkered pants and high heels. She looked like she might have been 30. She also looked a little kooky and crazy (maybe even a little kinky). She told me she was a single mom and was heading to Coalville, just a few miles up the road.

I had, up until then, turned down really short rides, but I was sick of Park City and desired the solace of a warm car if just for a few minutes. Our conversation was short and spare, but she gave me her number and told me I could stay at her place that night if I wanted to.

I had no reason to believe the offer was anything but platonic, yet I couldn’t stop myself from fantasizing.

This is what you wanted, isn’t it Ken? A few weeks to live outside of rules and laws and conventions. A few weeks of liberty. A few weeks to experience life as fully as I possibly could: loving, hating, surviving, saving—hell—killing if I had to; whatever it took, so long as I felt like I was truly living for once.

But then I thought of Natalia back in Oregon, probably still upset about my absence and how we parted without “figuring out” how to deal with our long-distanced relationship.

I told her that, yeah, it was getting late and that it would probably be a good idea for me to call it a day. “Sure,” I said. “I’d love a place to stay.”

I took a shower, put on a pair of dry clothing and sat on her couch where she brought over a can of Bud for me and a glass of wine for her. She told me all about her ex, and how he left her and her daughter with nothing. “It’s so lonely in Coalville,” she said. “If only I had someone to keep me company once in a while.”

I put the beer down, leant over and pressed my nose against her cheek…

Instead of letting the events transpire in such fashion, I accepted the piece of paper she wrote her number on, which I knew I’d never call, even if I were to get stuck in Coalville.

I sat down on a curb and started making a new sign outside of a mom-and-pop convenience store called Sinclair’s. My new sign was for “Evanston”—a town just inside the Wyoming border that I could get to if I got lucky with a quick ride.

As I was putting the finishing touches on my sign, a black kid in his late teens came up to me wondering what I was doing. After telling him where I’d come from and where I was headed, he seemed to be in state of amused disbelief. I thought he might have been inspired with my journey but he instead told me, “You should save up your money and do it when you’re older. When you can really experience the country.”

“Nah, man,” I said grinning. “There’s no adventure in that. With age and money, comes kids, wife, security. You gotta do it when you’re young and free.”

He got a call on his cell phone and I got back to work on my sign. We shook hands and wished each other luck.

Fifteen minutes go by and a tall ranch-owner picked me up and took me to Evanston while we listened to Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young on the radio. He dropped me off at an Arby’s in Evanston. In the bathroom, I cleaned myself up, hoping to land one more ride before nightfall.

After an hour, Travis pulled over.

“I’m going all the way,” he said, referring to my sign to Cheyenne. “I know you, by the way.”

“You do?”

“Yeah, your name’s Nate, right?”

“Umm. No. My name’s Ken.”

“Well, I suppose you can ride with me anyway.”

Travis had just come back early from a trip to Italy. Italians, he said, were “a bunch of thieves.”

He was young, maybe 25, and headed to Colorado where he was a grad student at the University of Denver, specializing in artificial intelligence.

He said he wanted to “crack the code” on AI technology by being the first to create a machine that can adapt and evolve on its own. It was delightful conversation and to amuse him I freely told him my most eccentric ideas and philosophies.

Like on all my long rides with drivers, we’d share intimate details freely, knowing that we’d never see each other again. He told me about how his girlfriends have all cheated on him, and bemoaned how there were no good women left.

“Spanish girls,” he said. “I need a Spanish girl. They’re chill and full of passion. They wouldn’t cheat on me.”

I told him of my own Spanish girl, and how she’d never betray me. Before we said goodbye, Natalia told me she’d follow me anywhere. Some might be quick to point out how I had it all: a girl and the freedom to roam. But whether in Alaska, Mongolia, or on Mars, I knew—no matter where I went—unless I had no binding human attachments, I’d never feel how I did right then and there, sharing stories with a stranger, listening to the wheels purr atop prairie-flat interstate songlines, soaring beneath constellations sparkling in a chrome-blue Wyoming sky, lazily watching the conveyor belt of yellow dashes—their passing reminding me of how far I’d come and how the road—a means to get from one home to another—came to be a home in itself, one that I’d embrace in storm and sunshine, love and hate: my dear, dear, open road.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Inhabitants of Acorn Abbey

I’m in Stokes County, North Carolina—home to a sparsely-populated scattering of doublewides and country villages, 45-minutes north of Winston-Salem, the nearest urban center. In Stokes County there are three “No Trespassing” signs per capita, the median age is 67, and one-syllable curse words are drawn out into raspy haikus. Picture rolling green hills, winding country roads, corn rows, cabbage heads, and farmer-tanned arms dangling out the windows of well-polished pickups.

For the last month I’ve been living with a hermit (David), his cat (Lily), and his four chickens in his newly built home called Acorn Abbey. It’s a small, steep-roofed Gothic revival cottage nestled in the woods on a seldom-traveled gravel road about a half-dozen miles from the nearest town (Danbury, N.C. pop. 108). He thinks of it as a modern-day monastery and of himself, a monk, quietly living out his days with his books and garden.

David, 61, has recently retired from 30 years in the newspaper business. He will measure the success of his retirement by how well he can roll the clock back to 1935—when the farms were small and the people, self-reliant.

In years to come, the Abbey will support a fully-sustainable organic vegetable garden, an orchard of fruit trees—apples, pears, peaches, and figs, as well as grapes and blueberries—and his home will be—as he wishes it—entangled with vines, trees, and flowers, creeping, crawling, and buzzing with life.

For room and board, I’ve volunteered to be his groundskeeper. Because living in the van in temperatures commonly exceeding 95 degrees Fahrenheit was darn-near inconceivable, I needed a temporary upgrade.

While David in many ways is living a minimalist lifestyle, he does enjoy some of the finer things that have become alien to me these past few years. For instance, we have banana-nutmeg smoothies every morning and elegantly-prepared meals for lunch and supper. He likes to serve a glass of wine with dinner. We use napkins, plates, and silverware. We don’t eat out of the pot, we wash our dishes, and we communicate—oddly—not with an alphabet of snarls, grunts, farts, and chest-poundings, but with refined conversation.

David and I are both out-of-the-closet introverts so we preserve each other’s sanity by giving each other plenty of space and privacy. It’s common that we go almost an entire day without saying a word to one another. When working side-by-side in the garden, we’re like a pair of tight-lipped Amish men too focused on our work or the thoughts hurling through our heads to emit noise for no good reason.

At mealtime though, our thoughts, pent up from hours of reticence, unfurl in a thousand colors. We discuss UFO sightings, doomsday scenarios, minimalist philosophies, Joan of Arc, Asimov, Thoreau, and our life histories. Stokes County is our own little Concord, Massachusetts—and we’re a couple of nuts marooned on five acres of hillside where we can do things our own way.

We’ve lived together long enough now to notice some of each other’s quirks. I found it odd how David never walks on his grass, electing to take long detours via the road to get from one end of his lawn to the other. He also locks the doors up at night and gets up—sometimes several times—to make sure they’ve stayed locked—odd to me because we’re living in the middle of nowhere with few stealable possessions.

His explanations: first, he’s “rationally obsessive compulsive”; second, just two years ago his lawn looked like an apocalyptic wasteland after the loggers came in and removed a stand of pines (so he doesn’t want to do the slightest harm to his newly-grown lawn); and third, he checks the doors at night because I’ve had a tendency to leave them unlatched on my night outings and he fears that a random storm—which we occasionally get—will throw them open, allowing Lily to escape.

Generally, though, I look the other way at his quirks and he pretends not to hear me practicing curse words in my best southern accent in the shower.

What I didn’t get was his phobia of snakes. At the very mention of them, he shudders and his face winces as if there was one coiling around his neck and arms. Once, while watering some vegetables, I heard—above the gurgle of my hose—a girlish “I’m-about-to-get-disemboweled-in-a-horror-movie” squeal from the driveway. When I came over, David said something about seeing a snake slithering up the brake pedal and into the dash of his jeep. I put on some gloves and tried to look brave but my attempts at removing the snake went as far as me turning a flashlight on and pointing it into the glove compartment.

So for the next few days I accompanied him in the jeep as “moral support.” Since then, David hasn’t gotten into the jeep without tying strings around the bottom of his pant legs. Now, when we enter hardware stores, he carries with him the air of a Native American shaman with his dangling legging tassels and disquieted disposition. I thought it was ridiculous that a snake would seek solace in the upper-reaches of our groins, and that such precautions we’re over-the-top, but David’s attentiveness to worst-case scenarios had been rubbing off on me, so I ended up carefully rolling my pant legs into my socks.

Sure enough, despite my suspicions, there was a snake in the jeep, which I confirmed at the farmer’s market when I saw it on the floorboards. It was small, but unusually patterned: it had gray and black stripes with diamond formations. It slipped back up into the dash when it detected me so we tried to get it out by turning the heat up all the way and by relentlessly smacking the dash. To no avail, the snake seemed like it was up there for good.

Standing 30 feet from the jeep, we tried to look like we knew what we were doing, occasionally scanning floorboards, carrying serious expressions and talking with our hands on our knees like a couple of mechanics strategizing about how to best fix a transmission. People from the market would come over and inquire what we were doing and even passersby on the road pulled over to find out why two grown men were afraid to get in their own vehicle. Upon relaying the story, they’d guffaw, wearing expressions that seemed to say: “Shee-hitt. I guess yur jus outta luck.”

This tale ends when David bought a spray can of Glade from the Dollar General and when I sprayed it up into the dash, causing the snake—a confirmed copperhead—to leap out.

While David and I—whether building fences or fighting snakes—have gotten along grandly, I wish I could say the same about my relations with Lily, his neurotic, unsociable and morbidly-paranoid cat.

I’ve been here a month and she’s let me touch her maybe three times. Weeks after I arrived—when she was finally willing to get within arm’s reach of me—David thought it was time to advise me on how to properly pet Lily—a list of instructions so long and convoluted I might as well have been reading an engineering textbook in Mandarin.

“Focus on the neck,” he said. “She also likes getting her back rubbed—in a head to tail stroke of course—but always keep one hand scratching her neck. You know what, just stick with her neck for now.” He added this last part like a man who’s lived through troubled times: “Whatever you do, Ken, just don’t touch her belly.”

I was wary approaching Lily at first, but I calmed down once she started purring under my massaging fingers.

“Look David, she likes it!” I said.

Her belly, though, beckoned me. It looked so soft and fluffy; I wondered what ecstasies dwelt in that loose flap of hanging belly fur. Encouraged with my first petting session, skeptical of David’s advice, and drawn to—what had become—my forbidden fruit, I casually traipsed my hand to the other side of her body, causing her to unleash—with claws extended—a series of roundhouse swipes aimed at my clenched eyelids (which is how all subsequent petting sessions have ended).

David used to let her outside to wander each evening but he’s stopped doing that ever since I moved in because he worries “she won’t come back.” Nowadays, Lily and I play a little game called, “I walk into the house and she fears for her life under the sofa cushion.”

“I just have no idea why she’s so neurotic,” David says, flabbergasted, while roping up his ankles and eyeing the straightness of his “snake stick,” an old broom handle he carries around the yard.

Despite our quirks and my hostile relations with the cat, David and I make a fairly good duo. I’m eager to listen to his worldview, and he seems a little energized with my youthful adventurousness, enough so to suggest that we see if we can go a full week without using electricity, vehicles, and plumbing. I like working outside, he likes working inside. He loves to cook, I love to eat. And we both savor time alone, sporadically interrupted with full and genuine conversation.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Belated manifesto

I am giving away $910.90 and it’s making me sick.

In January of 2009—upon enrolling at Duke—I vowed to earn my college degree without borrowing money or taking out loans. Between my part-time job, my summer job with the Park Service, and money saved via radical living (not to mention the reasonably-priced tuition I pay), I’ve been able to afford school.

While I’ve always been committed to my goal—enough so to consider Dumpster-diving and (if need be) moving into the woods abutting campus—there are a few questionable transactions I’ve made that—if I don’t do anything about them—might compromise the integrity of my experiment.

What constitutes borrowing? What is a loan? When one borrows or takes out a loan, it’s implied that the person taking the money will pay back his lender. But what about a gift of money that I’m not expected to pay back? If I accept a gift of $1,000, is that cheating? What about a meal bought by a friend? What about the food I steal from the garbage?—(since that’s food I haven’t earned with my own money). What about the scholarship money my department gives me each semester? Because there are no rules for this sort of thing, it’s difficult to sort what’s not acceptable from what is. Thus, all I have is my conscience to create and enforce my "rules."

None of the money I’m paying back—I should note—has been borrowed or loaned to me. I have, however, accepted gifts, which I am now giving back because thoughts of them are keeping me up at night. Here is the list of gifts accepted and the reasons why I’m paying people back:

$349 lap top
$79.95 lap top warranty
$21.95 lap top bag

I was going to buy a lap top before coming to Duke, but my mom—out of kindheartedness (though without my approval)—bought one for me. When I asked her how much it cost she refused to tell me because she knew I wanted to pay her back. She insisted that it was a gift and that she didn’t want my money for obvious motherly reasons. Finally, after a year and a half, she fessed up after I told her that her gifts were going to make me into the next James Frey.

$100 Whole Foods gift certificate
$100 Whole Foods gift certificate
$135 dentist bill

This past Xmas my mother gave me a $100 Whole Foods gift certificate and sent me another one midway through the semester. I thoughtlessly accepted (and used) these gifts without thinking about whether or not they “broke the rules.” Also, during winter break I chipped my tooth and had it fixed. Even though I’m 26 years old, my dentist sent my mother the bill—the amount of which she kept secret until recently.

$25 Whole Foods gift certificate
$100 cash

Additionally, I’m giving money back to my friend who gave me a Whole Foods gift card as well as $100 my aunt gave me for Christmas.


Overall, I feel sick about giving this money back, both because the gifts were given to me selflessly (with nothing but my wellbeing and happiness in mind) and because I really want to keep the money. Believe it or not, I want things. I’d love to someday own property. I’d like to buy books or rent movies without feeling guilt. Hell, I’d probably get a lot of use out of an iPod. So I do not give back this money easily; I give it back with great reluctance.

I should also note that I am not giving money back for meals that people have bought or cooked for me. Nor am I paying my department back for the financial aid that makes my tuition affordable. Food—when not in the form of a gift card—just seems natural to accept. And to turn down the financial aid offered to me would be financially devastating and would render my goal unachievable. Besides, I only chose Duke because I knew it was one of the few programs I could afford (among the fifty or so other schools I researched beforehand).

It would have been a great experiment to suffer as the common college student does. It would have been a great experiment to pay what the typical undergraduate pays for tuition, to spend summers working at unpaid internships, and to earn what he earns at his part-time slightly-above-minimum-wage job. It would have been great to see if the ridiculous cost of a college education could be paid for loan-free with the resources available to the typical student. But my primary goal was to get an education, not to put on a show. And I was going to do things that suited my situation and goals, not someone else’s. Plus, I’d done all those things—I’d paid the high tuition, interned without pay, and made next-to-nothing at part-time jobs. I had no interest in doing those things again.

While the experiment I outlined above would have made a more compelling social statement about student debt, college inaffordability, and what can be accomplished (or not) by living thriftily, I chose to pursue my education first and make a social statement second. So I found the best and cheapest program I could afford, and I worked at the best-paying-while-honorable jobs I could find.

While getting an education was my primary goal, I knew I wanted to use the van and my story for something larger. Hence, the blog, article, and media interviews.

I was one of many students who were almost buried under the costs of a college education. While I found my way out of debt, I watched other students around me flounder in theirs.

But student debt—I’ve learned—is just another phase slotted in between adolescence and old age, relegating us to lives spent in almost perpetual subjugation. From infancy to eighteen, American youth have almost no freedom to speak of. We’re forced—by law—to attend primary and secondary school and to live under a particular roof until we’re old enough to cast ballots. While I of course realize why it wouldn’t be a good idea to have hordes of anarchic eight-year-olds wreaking havoc in the streets, the prison sentence that is adolescence exists only to serve a world governed by institutions, corporations and bureaucracies.

Under the roof of my boyhood home and in the room I grew up in, I covered my walls with movie posters, three of them from the movie Braveheart. Between the absurdity of compulsory schooling, standardized tests, and the sterility of suburbia—I was drawn to a different sort of world—one with real adventures, real glory, and real sacrifice. I dreamt of cleaving off the arm of my enemy with a claymore, telling a woman “you and no other,” and dying for something I believed in. Later I’d find inspiration in the stories of our founding fathers, Martin Luther King Jr., and Thoreau. Through their examples, I decided that I wanted to be a wayward traveler, a gentleman adventurer, someone who lived according to convictions and principles; a dreamer and a doer.

Upon signing up for student loans when I was 18, I unknowingly signed up for another seven years of subjugation. After college, on Alaskan mountain tops, with my thumb out on Yukon’s highways, and in a birch bark canoe in Ontario, I dragged my debt with me wherever I went like toilet paper stuck to my shoe.

Debt kept me from becoming the man I wanted to be. I was healthy, comfortable, and my needs were met, but I felt little better off than a well-nourished and well-treated slave.

When you owe someone money your life is not all yours. To owe is to surrender your autonomy; it’s to cede a portion of yourself—a pound of flesh—to banks, the government, even families.

When you become hyper-conscious of your freedom, it’s not just loans, but gifts that you begin scrutinizing as threats to your freedom; sometimes even they come with price tags.

So I now give back the money I feel I shouldn’t have taken. While—in some ways—it would make a lot more sense to keep the money given to me by people who don’t want it back, in importance the social role of my experiment has eclipsed the personal. $900 can buy me a lot, but my integrity, identity, and freedom are priceless.

We need free and principled people—people impervious to the corruptions of money and power. We need windmill warriors, and anachronistic adventurers. Emerson asked, “Why are there no heroes?” I ask: Why, today, are there no Wallace’s, Franklin’s, Thoreau’s, or King Jr.’s?

When our educated classes are drowning in debt, it’s no wonder where the idealists are. They’re scrubbing toilets, serving coffee, chained to cubicles, and cast into decades of indentured servitude. Our society is held in check by debt. People suffer, ecosystems are destroyed, and the consumer-capitalist complex continues to chug along its unsustainable path—and there’s no one left to fight the battles that need to be fought. Our revolutionaries are institutionalized; our dreamers bureaucratized, our windmill-slayers fighting battles in virtual, videogame worlds.

My story is a story of frugality and freedom. And I need to remain as genuine as I can to make it worth a damn.