Summer Son #3

Some of the things my son and his buddy saw or did or heard or thought during their summer of backpacking from San Diego to Seattle will always remain untold.

Most of what we live, does.

Unless you journal or blog or Facebook or photograph, I suppose most of our lives go by in a blur and a blink. And for most folks, that’s okay. We are busy living lives, and stopping to record it is a distraction.

This life experience, though, it was meant to be shared. It was meant to be discussed around campfires and pondered across the universe and with strangers on street corners while sitting on your baggage and holding out your thumb.

You learn about how other people view this thing called living and the impossible variety of ways that they pull it off. You form your own always-changing perspective and opinions, and because you are free-floating upstream, you don’t take yourself or the next guy too seriously.

The boys met the “regular bums” of each town they passed through. They watched the bums take shifts on popular street corners with their signs, sitting in wheelchairs or holding crutches and gathering hand-outs. They watched them return to the haven under the bridge and remove the casts that were unbearable in the heat but worked so well for sympathy.

The boys listened as the forgotten men complained over and over about their lot in life, and watched as nothing ever came of it. The men would talk about an aunt sending them money or winning a million dollars soon and that living like this was not their fault and they were going to make it big any day now. They cycled between excused discontent and wild optimism but had neither the will nor the plan to change it. Actually believing their own delusions, they woke up every day and hit the “repeat” button.

Perhaps the forgotten men had forgotten themselves somewhere along the way.

But not everyone was a charlatan.

Some were actually disabled. Some were mentally ill. Some were mentally fried from previous drug use. There was a reason they were living on the street, and there didn’t seem to be any expectancy that their lives would change in any other direction.

They met tweakers, – who were homeless or not – and who, you must know, “are the worst thing ever to run into”. Apparently, you don’t see them coming until you’re close enough to hear them talking, which they will do nonstop until you walk away. Their movements are agitated, their faces have been around the block a few times, and they want whatever you have but if you try to interact with them, they are simply full of angry random words.

Meth leaves nothing but the shadow of what the human might have been.

They met the train kids. Much like Peter Pan’s lost boys, they live completely anonymous lives and don’t have a string tied to anywhere or anyone. Comparatively, our hitch-hiking boys were playing mini-golf in the backyard and these train kids were playing the masters at Augusta.

Gutter punks live hard and deliberately. They pay no mind to weather, they know everything about the railroad system, and they fly solo. Tattoos, dreadlocks, dirt and discomfort are trademarks. They have no names, no social security numbers, and no bad attitudes. ‘Just passing through’ is their lifestyle; although they are happy to set up camp and share stories of the road with you, they are just as happy to pack up and drift off the next morning with a philosophical wave.

Once in a while, our boys ran into them again in other cities.

It was like a reunion.

But just for a day.

The city is not the only place humanity wanders.

There are communities of transient camps in the forests, too. They aren’t putting up cabins and homesteading, they are tenting or sleeping under the stars. Some found areas to linger in and keep marijuana farms, which I imagine is a modern way of raising crops to trade in the city for your food and blankets. Some are single or with a spouse and child, just barely living off the land and traveling where and when the spirit leads them.

They seem content.

Pursuing happiness doesn’t always involve white picket fences.

But it’s nice if you have choices to work with.

When the sepia summer faded into fall, rain arrived in Seattle.

My son went over his options and decided to come home.

Because he could.

Summer Son #2

Eureka, California, July 2011.

Our two hitch-hikers rolled into town, still following – more or less – the historic and breath-taking 101 freeway north.

North of San Francisco, the landscape pulls you along as the mountain ranges of our pacific northwest creep ever closer to the ocean. You have a foretaste of glories to come in the Humboldt Redwoods State Park that ushers you into Eureka.

The coastline now is nothing like the tame, surfing, comfortable beaches of San Diego. They go wild and wonton, foggy and foamy. Waves batter into cliffs and carve out coves and fling polished driftwood and stones onto the sand.

The boys began investigating this city, having no preconceived ideas other than wondering what the next part of the day might bring.

What with one thing and another, they found themselves on the outskirts of town, preparing to make their next move north.

Under a large tree in a clearing, they saw an athletic young lady. She had her effects and stood next to a bicycle that meant business.

Curious, they approached the dirty blonde to see what her story was.

It turned out that she had been part of a biking tour that had just left without her. They had been heading north on a summer expedition and as she had completely underestimated her own stamina, she had left the group just that day and was reevaluating her options.

My son remembers staring at giant wild blackberry bushes while she told her story. He was thinking, “Wow, we don’t have anything like that at home.”

They shared their own information, and once they realized they all shared a common destination – north – decided to try something radical: hitch hike together, three people, three packs, a guitar, and a bike.

Now really.

Who’s going to stop for that circus?

“Why not?” they said, “Let’s give it a try.”

“Well,” she replied, “I don’t mind joining the party. I have to get home eventually.”

She looked at her bike.

“This could be tricky.”

Stopping for these wanderers in the little red rental car was a decidedly optimistic maneuver.

And at the wheel, grinning ear to ear, was Ronan O’Sullivan, his very self.

Sturdy he was, with the clean-shaven baby face of an angel, though he was thirty years old if he was a day. When the travelers peered into his car and met his blue eyes, twinkling like all of Father Christmas below his ginger hair, there was a collective and spontaneous YES.

“What’s all this?” cried Ronan in the thickest accent an Irishman could have and still be intelligible, “Who are you and where are you going?”

But the kids were busy trying to figure out how to fit into the car.

“We don’t know where we’re going,” they replied, “just north to explore!”

Mr. O’Sullivan could not believe his luck.

That was his exact agenda.

Mr. O’Sullivan was on holiday.

He had flown into America, rented a car, and with no idea where to begin, his goal was to experience and explore as much as he could before his time was up.

“Why, that’s just the thing!” he said, as they piled in, “Americans do this? Stand by the road and travel like this? Do you know where we should stay? Can you tell me what’s good to eat over here?”

His questions went on and on as they began the long and winding road up the coastline. He was so happy to have his own personal, thoroughly American tour guides, that the four of them travelled together for a solid week.

The kids thought his accent was wildly and wonderfully entertaining. Just listening to him talk was captivating.

Every turn in the road brought an exclamation of wonder from their generous driver. He stopped constantly to investigate a beach cove, massive canyon, torrid river, or massive trees.

Every couple of miles seemed to increase his happiness.

He cracked jokes, he told them about his home back in Ireland.

“San Diego, you said?” came his predictable question, “So how far from your house is Hollywood?”

My son has done a bit of traveling and without fail, people take one look at his blond surfer cliche self and ask about Hollywood. It seems to be the benchmark for all of Southern California.

Maybe all of California.

People from Ireland don’t know about Mt Shasta, but they’ve heard of Hollywood.

He stopped to explore a lot of bars, and my son is quick to point out that cliches are also foolish going the other direction. The bars were for nursing a pint of local brew while applying his same thorough investigation to the local people. That’s what pubs are for.

Ronan wasn’t there to party.

Ronan was there to assimilate and enjoy every atom of the culture and atmosphere.

Which meant that everywhere Ronan went, he brought the party with him, through pure happiness to be there.

The kids weren’t old enough to join him in the bars; although they were carded for alcohol, pot was beginning to be as circulated as loose change.

Perhaps Ronan would bring them back a bottle or two when he joined them later in the evening around the pool of a cheap hotel, but he was never interested in the rest. He stayed as clean cut as the landscape that was calling them.

They stopped in Klamath and ate at Paul Bunyun’s Diner. They made it to Crescent City.

From there, they detoured northeast, driving through Grant’s Pass and up into the forested gorges and coves to Crater Lake National Park.

This is a place that remains in my son’s artistic memory as one of prehistoric and pristine beauty.

“It’s the weirdest kind of beautiful,” he said, “The massive lake sits in a giant bowl and messes with your depth perception. The water is a deep turquoise, it’s absolutely gorgeous. I remember massive trees. And massive ants,” he says with a frown, “and for some reason, I remember snow on the ground in places when we were hiking there. But that can’t be right. It was July.”

That, my son, is because you can still find snow there, even in July. Crater Lake is mostly pure snowmelt. Your memory is better than mine, well done.

Like the volcano that collapsed and left Crater Lake, their adventures eventually came to a close with Mr O’Sullivan, leaving a crisp memory, many shades of blue.

They all stayed in touch after that summer, through Facebook.

Ronan flew back to Ireland and has a wife and kids now.

The young biker lives in Portland, and the boys visited when they eventually arrived there.

Her bike had a great many miles put on it, but not because she had pedaled all the way home.

Sometimes on their road-trip, half the bike sat in the back, and half the bike sat in their laps.

But sometimes, they held it, arms out the side window, rolling along parallel with the rental car.


Summer Son #1

Two big guys, two big packs, and two big smiles sat on the side of the road.

One with a beat-up guitar.

One with a sign.

Would you stop for them?

When you’re trying to get from one place to another with only your charm for cab fare, how do you go about it?

The boys began their journey on the San Diego coast, at the famous 101.

They ended up as far north as Seattle, Washington before the summer closed out.

There were some things, says my son, that he learned the hard way, and some things that he was born already knowing.

This hitch-hiking adventure was a hodgepodge of both, and everything in-between and they never knew what was coming down the road next.

The first mistake that became obvious long before he wanted to admit it, was his choice of shoes.

He figured if the army could march through deserts and over mountains in boots, so could he.

They ended up doing a lot of walking. And a lot of waiting. But those big army boots were the wrong shape for either. Closed and hot, his feet blistered up early on.

By the time they reached Santa Barbara, the ten pound a-piece footwear made a cross-fit workout seem tame.

It took a while to find a spot for the night. They settled on a cozy place behind a dumpster that sat behind a church.

When two police officers woke them with a firm kick at three in the morning, they were off and marching again, brushing the roaches from their faces.

Slowly, they walked the length of the town without stopping.

When dawn broke, it occurred to them that they had completely circled Santa Barbara, and were back at the street where they had begun the evening before.

They almost cried.

Legs aching, and dizzy from lack of sleep, they sat on the beach all morning. At some point they realized a soup kitchen was open nearby and joined the local bums for brunch.

Once Santa Barbara was finally behind them, the boots were traded out for cheap, light, flexible skate shoes.

My kid is an artist in general and a doodler in particular, so he was in charge of the cardboard roadside signs.

One side had crazy art, the type that catches your attention.

On the other, in big bold lettering, he put the name of the next town north.

Sometimes, his cardboard art caught the attention of passers-by, who stopped to observe his freehand and stayed to chat them up about their travels. It was obvious from the sign that they weren’t your ordinary, every day bums, but kids on a wild adventure.

It was a great conversation starter.

A couple of times, people insisted on buying the art piece on the spot, and he pocketed $20 or $30 with it.

But most of the time, the sign served it’s purpose and stopped a vehicle heading north.

Then the sign got tossed.

His buddy played an acoustic guitar, and although it wasn’t in a case, it doubled as a wallet a lot of the time, a handy place to stash small valuables.

They made up songs as they walked down the road, picking out melody lines and making up lyrics about the cars that weren’t stopping for them.

Some days, they never got a lift.

And some days, they turned them down.

A lady pulled over and offered them a ride. Peering into her car, the boys saw at least eight large dogs milling around in the seats.

“They’re really sweet dogs, fellas!” she insisted.

They waved her on, sure that they didn’t want to join the circus.

An older man pulled over and offered them a ride. Peering into his car, there were a couple of red flags to consider. First, he wore nothing but a pair of tighty-whities. Second, there was a ten-inch bowie knife lying on the console.

“I’ll take ya where ever you want to go, guys!” he insisted.

“Nah,” said my son, “we’re good. Thanks!”

The elderly gentleman couldn’t hide his disappointment, but moved on.

They were already in the car with a young woman when their radar detected an unidentified flying freak-show vibe. And not just because she was tweaky. Upon further conversation, the woman confessed that she may or may not have killed someone and she may or may not be pursued by police and she may or may not be driving directly through the next couple of states, but they were sure welcome to ride along.

The boys insisted they were just fine being dropped off in the next convenient town or clump of trees, whichever came first.

A lot of the time, however, they were picked up by more or less regular folks. Sometimes it was other kids, wandering for the summer, or on their way to festivals. Sometimes it was people flat out curious, wondering what these two nomads were doing out in the middle of nowhere. Sometimes it was mom-types who had sons of her own their age, and she insisted on taking them home for dinner.

The songwriters turned storytellers once the ride began.

It was only fair to give your benefactors something in return for the favor, and as they introduced themselves, names, histories, and ancestries were made up at random by the boys. Everyone in the vehicle would exchange life information, driving down the highway and telling stories, some true, some false, and no one caring either way.

Enjoying the company, most drivers were just happy to hang out until the next town loomed on the horizon. It was live entertainment, a happy change from the radio.

Only once did a semi-truck pull off the road and offer them a ride.

It took forever for it to come to a stop, and the boys weren’t sure if it was for them, but they ran towards it, determined to convince the driver anyway.

Hopping from the cab was one of two Armenian brothers who, with the aid of very broken english and a smart phone, invited them into a cab containing a full kitchen and a set of bunk beds.

The boys went as far as Portland with them, learning Armenian folksongs from one excellent guitar-playing brother while the other put the hammer down, singing at the top of their lungs and higher than kites from a cab full of pot.

Before that, there was Ronan, the happy Irishman.

But we’ll leave him for another story.

Summer of the Lost Son

There came a summer when the sun was lost.

It was California hot, blue skies promising day after day of shimmery warm waves of paradise found. Night’s canopy held infinite starry shifts of perspective.

If you have ever pondered these stars, you find yourself caught up in both the vastness of your universe and the vast idea that you are just as vast, for how else could the thought have occurred to you?

The nights were crisply real that particular summer, but the days were flat and void of adjectives.

The sun was a low-hung plastic disk, plowing through the firmament, until it was finally time to check off another box on the calendar.

My eldest walked into the kitchen one May morning and told me that he and his best buddy were going to hitch hike up the coast and into the Great North. They had friends along the way to visit. They had backpacks full of camping gear. They had high hopes of adventure and low hopes of their parents’ approval.

It’s hard to know what to say, as you sit there stirring your tea.

If there’s one thing out of a great many things my firstborn has taught me, it’s that people are who they are when they’re born and that, “control” being the oldest joke in the book, my influence as the mom moves directly through my children’s heartstrings.

This opportunity to indulge his wanderlust was a natural expansion for someone who isn’t content thinking “What if…?”

He needs to go find out.

The big courage he carries to back that process up contains a bigger heart inside of it that, despite his every effort to downplay it, cares deeply about his mom.

Screaming into my head came my own “What if?”s.

They tore up from my gut and stretched my throat, demanding liberty, but were instantly wrestled into a holding vault.

That was my own big courage.

A few perfunctory questions about the general plan, followed with more tea.

And then I marched him down to the mall and hooked him up with a cell phone.

It was the only thing I asked from him.

“Please,” I asked calmly, “When you can, just let me know you’re okay.”

“Mom,” he said, “I’ll try. We might be in a lot of places where we don’t get coverage.”

“I know,” I said, the vault door was being hammered from inside, the hinges rattling loose, “Just do your best and if you need me at all,” I stared him down, “AT ALL, I will come for you. No questions asked.”

His eyes told me he understood the largeness of what my vault contained.

“I know,” he said, hugging me, “it’ll be fine.”

Oh, the comforting of a child. Remember being stuck in bed with a new baby or the flu, and your toddler bringing you his favorite stuffed toy to cheer you up?

Such a small gesture for such a large love.

And it has to be enough.

This is the opening of a mini-series he and I are sketching, of the summer of the lost son. I want to explore it with him in an attempt to discover what might be useful to know, both as a family, and as humans who gaze at the stars and wonder about things that would take many lifetimes to understand.

It was a hard summer for me.

Every bum on every street corner morphed into my kid. Every homeless camp became his refuge. I wondered if cops were the good guys or the bad guys. What happens if you sleep all night on a park bench? What if, what if, what if….?

I blotted out every hitch-hiking story I had ever heard.

The iron-clad vault grew crowded and heavy as the weeks passed that summer.

It squished the sun flat.

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