How Occupy Lost
I don’t work.
For everyone who wonders what I “do”, about why I won’t “do” something, I’m now going to tell you what I “do”, and you are not going to like it.
I don’t work.
For everyone who wonders what I “do”, about why I won’t “do” something, I’m now going to tell you what I “do”, and you are not going to like it.
My earlier spiritual journey I documented in Bicycling across America. At the end of that account, I related how I had experienced a sort of revelation in Arizona, which could basically be summed up “Your problem is that you think you can do everything yourself.” I gave away my bicycle along with my money and almost all my worldly possessions, and started walking along the back roads of Arizona. After three days of this, having driven myself to walk forty miles with almost no sleep, I gave up. I walked back into Wickenburg, Arizona, contacted a good friend of mine, and got $200 wired to me for bus fare to California.
In the eight years since, I have often wondered about that experience. Did I set a pattern for the rest of my life by giving up? Did I commit, then and there, some fatal error from which I can never recover? If I had kept walking, would I have experienced some life-changing revelation like those of the prophets? Did I abandon God?
In my nights of despair, I plead with the Lord to forgive me this and my other sins of omission. I beg him not to give up on me. I implore him to make me an instrument of his will, to grant me the wisdom to know that will, and to bolster me with the courage I so often seem to lack. In depression, I muse that my life is already a failure, that I’ve already missed my fate, that everything for here on out is just a shell of a life, for “the man who liveth not his dream is living death.”
Then I pick myself up and carry on. I view my experience in Arizona as just one stumble among many, many that I’ve committed. I reflect on Christ’s promise that “he who believes in me shall not perish, but have eternal life,” and trust that God will find in his heart the mercy to do his will in my life, imperfect as it may be. I haven’t given up. Though the light was dim, and at times appeared to have vanished completely, I’m still moving forward.
Three years after the bicycle trip, in 1996, I returned to one of the places I had passed through on my bike – the Shiloh community in Sulphur Springs, Arkansas. A non-denominational Christian community nestled in the Ozark mountains, Shiloh numbers about a dozen long-time members, and various transients. The community provides the no-stop-light town of Sulphur Springs with it’s only industry – a commercial bakery in the basement of the community’s main building, a one-time military academy on the crest of a grassy knoll. No doubt about it – Shiloh bakes the best bread I’ve ever tasted.
The community’s led by Pastor James, the aging inheritor from Shiloh’s founder. A quiet man, James reads heavily in mystical Christianity, and always conducted a meditation session at the outset of the community’s morning meeting. Prayer, singing, and some kind of spiritual reading (usually of a mystical nature, never the Gospels) were always mainstays of the hour-long meetings. Never, during the two months I was there, did I witness James take or administer communion.
Probably the most dominant personality was the pastor’s wife. In her late fifties and blessed with good health, Anna Lee managed the bakery, often donning a white hair net and helping work the assembly line. She was also one of the chief proponents of the community’s philosophy, which she usually summarized in the “Four Rules”: no smoking, no alcohol, no drugs without a doctor’s prescription, no sex outside a heterosexual marriage.
I made several friends at Shiloh, Paul Clough and John Knoderer, the local computer programmers, and including Anna Lee herself, I think. Most significant were two local teenagers I got to know – Jeremiah, a seventeen-year-old whose family rented a house from the community, and Robert, a thirteen-year-old who was good friends with Paul’s son, Micah.
Jeremiah’s interests included fast driving, loud rock music, and smoking marijuana. We hit it off right away. I tried to be a bit of a calming influence – teaching him how to start a stick-shift on a hill instead of just grinding the gears; driving slowly through town and saving Speed Racer for the highway. I remember him using my computer to research Marylon Manson on the Internet and asking if I thought demonic influences are real. I replied in the affirmative, and Jeremiah later told me that he had destroyed all his Marylon Manson CDs.
Robert, on the other hand, was a quieter boy who played Dungeons and Dragons with his friends and came up to visit me and browse the Internet almost every day, enjoying the interactive role-playing games, the net’s Multi-User Dungeons (MUDs). Robert would also practice on the piano while Jeremiah and I would fool around on the guitar. I adored Robert; found him quite attractive, really. Yet I was afraid of a sexual relationship developing, not because I was worried about the police or what people would think, but because I myself am very reluctant to explore gay sexuality, especially with a thirteen-year-old. The bottom line was that, to my lasting regret, I never told him how I really felt about him. Putting sex aside, the truth is that I loved him. Yet I never put my arm around him, never said the words, “I love you”. Teenagers need to know the difference between love and sex, I think, otherwise it’s easy to get them confused. Coming from a broken home, I think Robert needed love, and I desperately wanted to give it to him, but never could quite manage.
Finally, somebody smelt the marijuana smoke from Jeremiah’s and my near-daily smoke-outs, and all hell broke loose. After being confronted with this charge at the community meeting, a vote was taken that I was to leave in a week and not have any contact with the children in the meantime. I began preparing to leave, but the part about the children I ignored. Jeremiah’s father came to the next community meeting to voice his support for me, but Pastor James refused to let either of us speak and ended the meeting. The next day, one of the older ladies came into my office while Robert was there, told him to leave, and in about the nastiest voice you could imagine, told me “we’re not going to let you hurt these children”. I left, but not before literally wiping the dirt from my shoes, as the disciples were told by Christ:
And if anyone will not welcome you or listen to your message, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or that town. I tell you the truth, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment than for that town.
Friends, let me exhort you never to lay down any curse, even if you proclaim the Gospel and be rejected in everything. We are taught to love our enemies, not to curse them. That curse I laid has brought so much grief into my life that at times I can not fathom how I could possibly have cursed the town where two of my best friends lived. It’s most obvious effect was on me! Even though I wanted badly to maintain contact with my friends, I took the curse very seriously and broke off all contact with Sulphur Springs. After two years, my nagging concern for my friends began to win out over the curse. I wrote Robert a letter for his sixteenth birthday; it was returned undelivered, as he had moved. The next year I actually returned to the town, and it took another year to track down my friends. Jeremiah had married, had a kid on the way, but was in most ways the same person; we now stay in touch. On the other had, Robert had changed completely, becoming very materialistic and selfish, and wanting nothing to do with me. Can I blame him? During the years when he needed me most, I was nowhere to be found. He was the closest thing I ever had to a little brother. I fear I’ve lost him forever.
Early in 1997, having returned from Arkansas, I lived with a college friend of mine who was waiting tables at a Glen Burnie restaurant. He was also a small-time drug dealer, keeping marijuana and cocaine in the house in addition to the usual alcohol. At any rate, the police found out and the house was raided. Five days later, we were evicted. What followed was the most profound faith struggle of my life.
In the midst of this crisis, I sought re-baptism. Through my prayers and contemplations, I recognized that Jesus had been baptized, not as an infant, but as a grown man, at the outset of his ministry. I decided to pursue the same course, though not for the redemption of sin (perhaps a serious error), but in search of an answer from God to this political campaign I was complementing. Just as Christ received a sign at his baptism, before pursuing his ministry, so I sought a similar sign at mine. While this may seem incredibly arrogant (it seems so to me, in retrospect), I can honestly tell you that I entered into the venture with the profound conviction that if God wanted me to pursue this campaign, he would give me a sign at my baptism.
I fasted for a week, then traveled to Ohio, where I had met a minister during my bicycle trip who baptized by immersion. After attending his service, I asked him afterward for baptism. Since he was busy that afternoon, he said that unless I could wait a few days, it would have to occur immediately. And that’s exactly what happened. He announced the baptism to those of his congregation still mingling after the service, we drove to a nearby lake, and with perhaps fifty witnesses, he baptized me in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I received no sign.
I drove home to Maryland telling myself that I didn’t have to do it, that I had no calling from God, that there was no obligation for me to pursue this campaign that so deeply troubled me. While I had many more doubts and agonies over it, I believe my baptism in Ohio was probably the turning point in my decision to scrap the campaign. In a moment of paranoia (What if the police busted me again?) I burned the notebook I had prepared in planning the campaign, and mostly got on with my life.
I would return to the drug war again. In early 2000, I had what you might call a relapse. I had rejected civil disobedience, but still considered the possibility of a speaking and protest campaign. I published It’s the Drug War, Stupid. Looking back on that document, I have to tell you that what disturbs me most about it is not the anger it relates, because that was real, but how political it is; how totally coaxed it is in political rights and strategies; how God has been completely edited out.
Some of what I proposed in that essay came about, though I had no part of it. The “shadow conventions” of 2000 highlighted the drug war as one of their issues, and were labeled as “ultra-left” by a society that split its vote between Al Gore and George W. Bush. I’m increasingly coming to a disturbing conclusion – that the majority of the people of this country want a war in their own land, against their own people, and are absolutely committed to a policy of “zero tolerance”.
I’ll probably end up as a monk, if not in name than at least in fact. My earliest direct exposure to monasticism came on the bike trip, when I visited a Benedictine monastery in Oklahoma. St. Benedict, the founder of this order, spent three years living in a cave, his only nourishment being bread lowered to him on a rope by a friend. Later, he founded the monastery at Monte Casino and the Benedictine order. He lived about 1500 years ago.
More recently, I’ve read a biography of St. Francis of Assisi, the founder of the Franciscan order. St. Francis’ response to the Christian gospel was similar to St. Benedict’s, but also much different. Both men took their religion very seriously, and neither were content to just sing about heaven on Sunday mornings. Yet while Benedict cloistered himself in a monastery, Francis took to the road. After giving away all his worldly possessions, he began traveling around Italy by foot, preaching the gospel and begging for his food. Any money he received, he gave away immediately.
I don’t completely subscribe to Francis’ philosophy; you won’t catch me sprinkling ashes on my food because I think it tastes too good! Yet we are in agreement on many and the most significant points. I consider it a religious obligation to give to beggars, and recently have found myself on various occasions without a penny to my name. Yet I have no intention of getting a job just to produce money; I have plenty of important work to do, and frankly, pride. I despise the capitalists and will not support their nightmare system by working for them simply because I’m forced to if I want to eat. Like Francis, if I lack benefactors, I will simply go hungry. Yet God knows what we need, and will provide it – I’m not starving away, thanks to those who give to me and particularly Bruce Caslow, my most significant supporter over the last few years. It’s Bruce that paid for an apartment in Washington when I couldn’t afford the rent; Bruce who was always tossing twenty bucks my way when I didn’t have anything to eat; Bruce who was always there to review an essay or discuss my spiritual trials.
I think we need both the Benedictine and the Franciscan ideals in our lives; we find both motifs in the life of Christ. Jesus spends forty days in the wilderness, withdraws onto a mountaintop to pray, spends all night in prayer. We need to withdraw into seclusion, perhaps best the seclusion of nature, to experience God in solitude. Christ also travels from town to town, stays with friends in Jerusalem, sends forth his disciples and tells them to take no money, or packs, or extra clothing. We also need to come down from the mountaintops and express our love of God through our fellow man. Honestly, the great saints seems to know this. Francis at times withdraws into seclusion, and Benedict finally left his cave. Ultimately, we don’t need a ten-acre monastery or public vows to life as brothers in Christ. The monastery was wherever Jesus went, and the most important vows are the ones we make to God.
I’ve been exposed in the last year to New Age Christianity, most particularly through Neale Donald Walsch’s Conversations With God books. For those unfamiliar with this, Walsch claims that his books are essentially channeled from God. He would take a pad of paper, write a question, and wait for an answer to come into his head. Sometimes no answer would come, and he would put the pen down until the next day. When an answer would come, he would write it down and then ask another question. He wrote three books this way.
The basic tenet of these books is that We Are All One. When the Bible states that God made us in his image, it means this spiritually, not physically. We are, each of us, a little piece of God, which God created in order to experience the universe as individuals. Those who become completely self-aware, such as Jesus, realize their own oneness with God and, through faith, find power even over death.
This theology is radically different from traditional Christianity. It claims, among other things, that there is no Devil (we invented him ourselves); that we reincarnate again and again; that Jesus was not the only one to rise from the dead, and that we, like him, can conquer death, through faith; that spiritual masters generally don’t marry, not because they don’t have sex, but because they can’t make an exclusive commitment to one person.
I can’t quite figure what to make of this. If true, it means that we can pass through death, and if our faith is strong enough, be resurrected. If false, then it represents a temptation of the Devil and a path only to our own self-destruction. Russ Wise notes that The New Age offers man the same deal the serpent offered Eve in the garden. If you eat of this fruit, you will become like God. The fundamental question it poses is simple – is Christ a guide and teacher, to be followed and emulated, or is he the unique Son of God, whose miracles can not be duplicated?
At a seminary, it’d be interesting to conduct a class on Modern Prophets. What do we make of people like Nostradamus? Edgar Cayce? Joseph Smith? A Course in Miracles? Conversations with God? We can’t just ignore them – the claims they make are too serious. Yet we’ve been taught there will be false prophets, so we can’t just accept them at face value, either. They require careful consideration.
Cayce lived in the early twentieth century, and would enter a sleeping, hypnotic trance in which he’d respond to questions with answers from a “Source” that appeared to have extra-worldly knowledge. The Source revealed that reincarnation occurs, that among Cayce’s previous lives was that of a priest in ancient Egypt, that the construction of the Great Pyramid of Giza was actually a prophecy in stone that records the exact moments of Chirst’s birth and death, as well as the imminent entrance of humanity into a new age symbolized by the King’s Chamber, etc, etc.
In addition to the New Age ideas here, like reincarnation, I find Cayce disturbing because of some of the prophecies he made that I tie into my own life. He prophesied his own return “in the capacity of a LIBERATOR of the world in its relationships with individuals; for he must enter again in the age that is to come, or in 1998”. At the time of my contemplated drug war campaign in 1997 I knew none of this, but in retrospect I ask myself if that wasn’t the “appearance” that was to have occurred a year later, in the election year of 1998. And just when is “the age that is to come”? Is it a subtle shift, like the turn of the millennium, or the change from the Age of Pisces to the Age of Aquarius? Or is it a dramatic change, to be characterized by political upheaval, environment disaster, or global unrest?
In retrospect, I wish I’d never read any of this! I’d rather just not know, and stumble along, making the decisions as best I can without have all this extra stuff nagging at me in my head. Others have similar doubts about Cayce; some of his prophecies just flat out never occurred.
Early in 2001, I had a dream in which I saw a newspaper tabloid on a supermarket checkout stand. It’s headline gave three prophesies for the coming year – disaster for the United States, war in the Middle East, and the appearance of a great saint. Of course, my ego thrusts me into the later role. Am I a great saint? If so, how do I “appear”?
New Age Christianity and the Cayce prophecies raise even more disturbing questions. Could I duplicate the feats of Christ? Be the reincarnation of St. Peter? Become a Messiah? This is the fundamental question raised by these teachings – was Jesus the unique Son of God, or all we all sons of God, who can seek to obtain the same level of faith and power?
Is this insanity? Not exactly. I don’t actually believe that I am Jesus, or God, or a Messiah. Yet the reading I’ve done raises these disturbing questions. It’s more an intellectual insanity, generated by competing theologies, than a physiological one with some chemical imbalance at its source.
In another dream, I was running through a cave-like maze of passages, fleeing in terror from some attacker. I soon realized, though, that my attackers weren’t really attacking me at all – they were mocking me and my books. Mocking my attempt to learn Spanish by reading it. I emerged from the cave and decided to return to the place I was fleeing from. Perhaps I thought I had killed someone, in fact, it was only a flesh wound. There was really nothing to run from at all; then I awoke.
So what am I running from? From my failure at Wickenburg? From human society? From the Drug War? From God? And what do I make of all these ideas and theologies I’ve been exposed to? Ultimately, I can’t answer these questions, and I doubt that anyone can. Only God holds the answers. So, through prayer, I’ve asked God to reveal these answers to me, and I trust that this way, I’ll get the answers from the only source that holds them.
As I finish this essay, I’ve just turned thirty-two, so perhaps the title is becoming something of a misnomer! In the last year, I’ve given up on spending all my time in front of a computer screen, thinking I’m going to save the world through a website. I’ve hitchhiked across the United States, down into Mexico, and back. I’ve become a lot more comfortable having no money, am willing to go hungry if need be, and don’t feel tied down to a nice apartment and a pile of possessions, though I regret that I can’t fit my piano into my backpack. I’m on my way now to spend at least a few weeks in the Appalachian Mountains, fasting and praying. Certainly Jesus did this at critical times in his life, and many were the saints and prophets, from Abraham to Francis, who found God in seclusion, in the wilderness. Hopefully, I’ll find these answers, too. In any event, I haven’t given up. The spirit at thirty-two is still searching…
The peace of Christ and the love of God be with you all.
The first three nights of the trip I camped out. Once in New Jersey State Park, twice in the Pine Barrens. On the third night I was north of an Air Force base and lay in my tent, listening to the jets roaring into the gathering darkness. I imagined myself as the pilot of each plane, banking over the wilderness away from the city lights. I realized that I wanted to see the country, and that meant seeing the people. That night, I abandoned my original plan of camping in the woods. I’d head into towns and find the people. The next morning I packed up and waded down the river I had camped by. Out west I would start camping again when towns became sparse, but for now I prepared for a new challenge – asking people to camp on their land.
Asking to camp out may seem a trivial challenge, but I wasn’t used to approaching strangers to ask favors. In fact, I wasn’t really good at approaching strangers to ask for anything! The next night I took the path of least resistance and asked at churches. Although I was sometimes turned down, more often a local pastor would put me up.
The day I crossed into Pennsylvania was one of the more stressful on the trip. I had tried to visit Tom Brown, the outdoorsman and survivalist. Although I had called ahead, I was discouraged from visiting his ranch in the New Jersey hills. All his classes were booked into ’94. Nevertheless, I wanted to give it a try. Those other people had paid $600 to be in the course – but I had biked up the mountain.
I was turned away by two of his assistant instructors. Later I realized my error – I had come to see Tom Brown. I should have realized my goal, even if it meant getting brushed off with two words. I had set myself a goal and fallen short by my own fault. That disappointment would soon be compounded. The front rack and tire began to rub each other. I had had problems for several days with it. I pulled into a gas station, having become lost and ending up heading into the city instead of skirting it. I picked up a phone and started to call home, ready to call it quits. Crying, I realized that I’d have to get the bike fixed no matter what, so I might as well do it here. I asked the gas station mechanic – yes, there was a bike shop just down the road. This was the first of three stops I would make at bike shops – everytime I found respect for what I was doing. For the first time in my life, I felt I was respected not for what I knew, but for what I did. It felt good.
The bike shop owner helped me bend and reattach the rack. He asked no money either for his time or the few parts he had donated. I left in much better spirits. By now it was 3 p.m. I was in downtown Easton, PA, and didn’t feel like any more riding that day. I found a Masonic Temple, hoping to find a DeMolay Chapter. No such luck – in fact I never managed to actually find any chapters along the way. Those I saw listed on Temple directories never had contact people listed, and often I couldn’t even find a directory. Kansas City wasn’t much help – all they gave me was the Executive Officer’s name and number. I tried that in two or three states and could not quite find the people to work through state bureaucracies. It’s a sad comment on the state of our fraternity when we don’t even provide contact information at the temples.
The owner of the shop next door came out and introduced himself. We talked for a bit and I told him what I was doing and that I was looking for a place to stay that night. He asked me into the shop and started calling places – a bed and breakfast, a local college. Finally, he found a YMCA that had rooms for $12 a night. It was about 8 miles west in Bethlehem, PA. He gave me directions and I was on my way. Some nice people had helped me through one of my toughest days. I was through the day – and I was through New Jersey.
I stayed at the Y for two nights. Bethlehem is not what you’d expect from Steel Town, USA. It’s a college town with a historic downtown, pizza joints, bagel shops and a refurbished shopping area. When I left, I headed southwest in Lancaster County.
I stopped in a church near Blue Ball. No minister was around, but the people next door let me put a tent in their backyard. George had retired from sales and had gone back to farming, gardening a small plot behind his house. After my college course in crop production, I could at least have a conversation about fertilizers and plowing. Later, his daughter, who lived across the street called to ask why her dad was putting up a tent!
The early highlight of the trip came in Gettysburg, PA. It was getting dark and I wasn’t quite in town yet as I passed a Christian Rescue Mission. I stopped and asked if I could stay overnight. The night manager said I could, and I moved my bags inside. I met Wayne, about 7 years older than I, a college grad who had lost his job and gone hiking up the Appalachian Trail. When his money ran out, he wound up at the Adams Missions.
We talked a while, went into town together, and got along pretty well. There were some junk bikes behind the mission – we decided to use them for spare parts, get one running, and Wayne would travel with me for a while. I stayed an extra day to work on the bike. In the rush to get the bike running, I neglected to lock mine.
The next morning it was gone. At the time, I remember I felt relief, since each day had become a battle to keep going and not dwell on the enormous task ahead. Within a few days, I had gotten a lift home from my parents and realized that I had to finish the bike trip. While waiting for the insurance money, I visited a commune in Virginia that had been on my itinerary and did some work to get extra bucks. A month later, I would make a point to pass through Gettysburg on my new bicycle. Wayne would still be there.
During the month between these two stages in my trip, I visited Springtree Farm Community in the Virginia hills. I stayed a few nights and really enjoyed it. This commune got started in the early 70s and has gone through some ups and downs. They had 6 people there full-time, plus visitors. All the food (well, almost all) came from the garden and orchard. The fruit crop was really kicking during my visit – cherries and strawberries out the wazzo. I helped plant, harvest and cook. I enjoyed a solar shower and a swimming hole. The relaxed pace gave me a chance to reflect and recharge. I left with some new friends and a fresh commitment to my trip.
When I restarted the trip at the beginning of July, I was soon glad I had visited Springtree when I did. I hit the Pennsylvania mountains in the midst of a heat wave. Instead of turning south into West Virginia as planned, I decided to head into Ohio and get through with the hills. This cut out Virginia completely, so I would have missed Springtree.
I did cut off a small corner of West Virginia, hitting Morgantown and spending a few days visiting one of my brothers, a friend of a friend. It was nice to relax in a familiar college atmosphere for a bit. If you ever get to Morgantown, be sure to grab a meal at Maxwell’s, a nice little restaurant in “downtown”.
Next came Ohio. Riding down the highway one evening, I saw a man struggling to put up a sign – “Country Church”. I stopped, gave him a hand and wound up getting food, a place to put the tent for the night, and an enjoyable service the next morning (it was a Sunday).
In Kentucky I spent a day “on the job” helping a stonemason I had met at a church in a small town. Farther south I headed off the main road to visit the next community on my list. The hills got steep and the weather was hot, Hot, HOT! On one hill, I just collapsed and let the bike fall in the middle of the road. I vented my anger and frustration at an imaginary driver who ran over my bike. No drivers came along the remote road and gradually I calmed. I thought about heading back again, but that didn’t feel right. No – I had to finish the trip and that meant I had to finish the hill. I said a prayer for faith and strength, then got back on the bike. I didn’t stop until my destination.
New Age Community Land Trust is currently manned by two women. They practice permaculture, raising garden crops on raised beds (since the soil was so poor). They have no running water (except a gravity-drop cistern), relying on rainwater and a spring, no electricity, using kerosene lamps, and cook with a woodstove. I really enjoyed the “rustic” experience. Something about raising crops, harvesting them and cooking them appealed to me very deeply. Also, Joanie had spent 3 years in seminary. She finally dropped out after concluding that the church was more interested in managers than in spiritual leaders. She mentioned that they never had a discussion about “faith struggles”. This was certainly something I knew little about, but I would remember her words in Arizona.
I stayed two nights, then left in the morning, when it was cool and the hills were manageable. Heading into Tennessee, I turned south to visit The Farm, a famous commune in the 60s/70s. The Farm went through an economic crisis in the early 80s, emerging as a land trust more than a commune. The fields are no longer farmed seriously, camping fees are charged to visitors, and the Store, though maintaining a leftward bent, features your typical junk goods and high prices. Outside the store I met some teenagers who invited me over to their house. That turned out to be a much better call than staying at the Farm.
I have since been told that since these folks threw their beer cans in the back of the truck, instead of out the window, they were “Good Ole Boys” and not “Rednecks”. The first night I was there, we went to pick up some sand at their cousin Steve’s. Steve demonstrated the canon he had built in the back of his pickup truck. It ran off an acetylene torch rig mounted behind the cab. First Steve primed it with a small charge. Then he pumped gas into it for two or three seconds, as black smoke rose from the barrel from the primer. He lit the torch and touched the flame to the cannon. The bang would have made any rock band cringe. I was told he once fired a tennis ball half a mile.
Next, I swung back into northern Tennessee, to a visit a DeMolay friend from several years back. I had a fun weekend with Hart, his girlfriend and her 14-year-old brother, Brad. Both Hart and Brad have an interest in loud car stereo systems. Hart sells them and Brad plots to outdo Hart. “You get a ‘450’, I’ll get a ‘650’,” he says with a flick of the eyebrow. “You get a ‘650’, I’ll get a ‘750’.” Hart has a Bronco and Brad has a pickup truck which, err… sits in the driveway, since he, err… can’t drive yet.
Heading west again, I crossed the Mississippi at Dyersburg, but not before the first and worst crash of the trip. I was riding in the evening and wasn’t paying close attention to my riding. No cars were coming – I simply ran off the road. I ended up with a flat tire, a cut knee and a sprained wrist. The wrist caused enough pain that I stopped to have it X-rayed. Nothing was broken, but it bothered me the rest of the trip. I can still feel it if I bend my hand back.
I crossed into Missouri, the eastern part of which featured some of the worst drivers I encountered. These people just couldn’t slow down, even though I had no shoulder to ride on. I even had people blowing the horn at me when the left lane was completely clear for them to pass! I saw some people sand bagging, and thought to myself: These floods have a benefit. They bring the people down to size. My basic impression of eastern Missouri was that the people forgot how their forefathers struggled to farm the land. Now everything is pesticides, tractors, and futures quotes on the Chicago Board.
After leaving Missouri (and the Ozark Mountains – whew!) behind, I picked off a corner of Arkansas to visit Shiloh, a Christian Commune. It was here I felt most comfortable of all the places I visited. Shiloh is somewhat liberal as communes go – they let you keep private property, though any work you do while there is donated. They support themselves by running a bakery, which turn out the best commercial bread I’ve ever set my teeth into. The people were relaxed, welcoming and generally fun to be around. I hope I took some of Shiloh’s “state of mind” with me and look forward to visiting there again the next time I’m in Arkansas! It was during this time that my parents caught up to me with their motorhome. I traveled with them for a day or two, and was rather glad to part company. Though I miss my family and friends, I found the vehicle and campsite quite stifling after a month on the road. I slept outside at night, and marvelled at the other people packed into sites on the campground. Incidently, they had so much trouble with the motorhome that I made it to California before they were back in Maryland!
In central Missouri I visited East Wind, the largest commune I saw. The community had about 70 members who ran a hammock and sandal business, as well as a nut butter plant. Through these industries the commune funded itself. By commune standards, they were wealthy – a small library, a videotape collection, dozens of buildings, electricity and running water throughout. Most food was purchased from outside, unlike the homesteaders, who tried to grow almost all of their own. I stayed a couple days and decided that East Wind was neat to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there. A work quota of 40 hrs/wk was demanded of each member. Of course, this time including cooking, child care, and various clean-up chores, but still I would come to such a place to escape the pressures of a regular work week. Also, I saw some political actions that disturbed me. One of the kids had a squirt gun taken away after the commune passed a bill stating that members of a non-violent community had a right not to see “violent” toys. So is a football a violent toy? This struck too close to freedom of expression for me.
Now I began to ride across Oklahoma, where the land started to open up and I started to see serious head winds for the first time on the trip. In Stillwater, I passed a Catholic Church and stopped in to ask if any Monestaries were in the area. I hadn’t though of this before I began, but I figured since I was visiting communes, I should check out the oldest ones of all!
I was directed to St. Gregory’s, about a day’s ride south. I tried to call ahead but by the time I a got ahold of the Father I was to speak with, I was practically there, so I just rode over. I think my appearance with no advance notice hampered my welcome, but it was still a fascinating visit. St. Gregory’s monks run a small college to support the abbey. Mass is every morning at 6 a.m (I got up once), followed by a silent breakfast. The monk talk during lunch, and dinner is eaten while a selection is read from a book (I got English history while I was there). Two monks stick out in my mind – Br. Dominic, who was always ready to help me out or show me around, and Br. Benedict, who I didn’t talk to for long, but he impressed me with his spiritual commitment.
After Oklahoma, things started to spread out a bit. I slept in unlikely places like an airstrip, since towns spread farther apart. The highlight of Texas was a night spent on a “peace farm” across from Pantex, the U.S. nuclear weapons assembly facility. I learned some neat things about how H-bombs were moved around on tractor trailers, saw some pictures (“H-bombs in Rush Hour” sticks out) and came across a book called Peace Pilgrim. If you get a chance, check it out. It describes the life and teaching of a woman who spent much of her last 25 years walking across the country with God’s message of love. She stopped counting at 25,000 miles on foot!
In New Mexico I climbed to and crossed the continental divide. The mountains were actually easier than the Appalachians, since the younger Rockies don’t have the rolling hills that keep you climbing the same height over and over. But above 7000 feet it can get cold! I remember the last day of August. I rode about 20 miles after sunrise and my breath was freezing in front of me.
Arizona turned out to be the climax of the trip. My second day in the state brought me close to Winslow. It had been a tough and frustrating day, as I had fought a 20mph head wind all the way and didn’t make good time. By this point in the trip, I was looking forward to the end and starting to count miles and days. Also, insects came out at nightfall and I had to put up the tent on a quite interchange off I-40. I didn’t like putting up the tent, preferring to sleep outside. I wasn’t in a very good mood as I put up the tent, inflated the air mattress and lay down to pray. In my mind’s eye, I pictured myself saying to God, “just do whatever you want to me”.
In the next minute, I had what I would describe as a mental lightening bolt. I suddenly saw that my problems were of my own creation – I was relying on myself instead of on faith. I was going to ride the bike; I was going to put up the tent; I had the money to buy food. I saw that what I needed to do was get rid of all that. The next day was Labor Day and everything was closed, so I rode on the Flagstaff. Here my bike trip ended.
I agonized for a day or two, then committed myself. On Wednesday morning, crying, I took the bike for a last ride. Finding a local church, I gave the pastor the bike and most all the gear, telling him to do what he wanted with it. With my last money, I bought a pack to carry, and paid for postage to mail my wallet, contact lenses, and few other things home.
I hitchhiked 60 miles south to the last spot on my itinerary. Arcosanti, in the Arizona desert, is a design city being constructed by Italian architect Pavlo Solari and his colleagues. His basic idea is to abandon auto-centric design in favor of compact, dense structures that put people within walking distance of work and play. It’s on I-17, about halfway between Phoenix and Flagstaff. Stop by if you’re in the area – take the hour tour. It’s worth it.
I got another ride west to Prescott, from where I started walking south. I got into a national forest and lay down under some pines. I slept several hours. I guess I awoke around 3 a.m, judging from the moon. A mosquito was bothering me, so I started walking again. The moon was half full, so I had plenty of light and the road wasn’t heavily traveled. I walked through sunrise, getting out of the hills and the national forest around 9 a.m. I napped a bit, then continued my walk across the mesa. The night had been only slightly cool, but the day was hot. I decided not to hitchhike, but to keep walking for a while, fasting. Foolishly, I had brought no water, so had to wait until I passed through towns.
By late afternoon, I was coming into a small town and stopped at a ranch to ask for water. I was also offered food, and that was the end of my fast. That night, I slept until dawn in an abandoned building that was once a shop or restaurant. Morning saw me facing a long downhill to the desert, so I hitchhiked down it and into the town of Wickenburg. I was depressed and upset. I felt disappointment at having broken my fast. I was afraid to keep walking across the mesa in the heat. More than anything, I was afraid that if I kept walking, I was afraid I would find my calling, and I was afraid of knowing what it might be.
That day, I broke down. I got money wired to me and was on a bus by that evening. I had discovered that a part of me, much stronger that I thought, wanted nothing to do with grand visions of any kind. I wanted my family and friends, didn’t want to be rich, but didn’t want to be poor, wanted to write software, play music, cook nice meals and certainly not wonder all over the country.
By the next day, I had made it to San Clemente, California, where a high school friend was living. Chris was gracious enough to put me up for a week I waited for my wallet to be mailed back to me. I don’t know what it was – the two months on the road, the two days on the Mesa, or just being around someone who loved what he was doing. I realized that the big reason I found computers unfulfilling was that the work didn’t challenge me physically. I saw that I had become much less assertive in groups than I used to be, more content to be with people just because I enjoyed their company. I found a deep respect for a young man I hardly knew, but who was ready to surf for the 20 years even though he could never make a penny doing it.
I left San Clemente after a week I really needed. It let me put my feet back on the ground. Right now, I’m in San Diego, toying with going to Mexico for the two weeks before a friend of mine comes out to visit. Then what? I don’t know. I love the land here, the surf crashing into the rocks, but am already tired of the congestion. I’ll see what happens after a week or two.
I realized something about friendship, too. Some people judge friends by their influence on you – “Friends don’t let friends drive drunk.” “Friends don’t use drugs.” “A friend would never tell you to drop out of school.” But it’s really much more than that. Just because someone may not be a fully wholesome influence, doesn’t mean that they don’t care. We’re all human – we all make mistakes. Friends introduce you to new ideas, new ways of life. It’s the prerogative of a friend.