1971 - Hiking the U. S. - A Memoir
© Copyright 2020 by Don Lubov
Photo by Atlas Green on Unsplash
“Hold on! I’ll be right there.”
“Are you Don Lubov?” asks Suit# 1.
“Yes.” I whisper. I’m waiting for them to read me my rights and drag me handcuffed down Scandal Lane. Sex with under twenty-one-year-olds, drugs…I could see it all now—end of job, end of teaching career.
They are the straightest looking dudes I’d seen in my two years at the University. As my heartbeat slows to a scream, I realize that nobody’s flashing any tin. Also, at the curb is a brand-new Cadillac; not your standard cop-car. With a tinge of relief, I invite the suits in.
They are impeccably dressed, right down to their $200 dress-loafers, hand-stitched leather and silver belts, clean-shaven, styled hair, and matching Rolex ™ watches.
“We have a proposition for you,” says Suit# 2.
“Yes,” says Suit# 1, “a very lucrative proposition.”
“We know you’re planning to backpack west as soon as this school year is up. We also know you speak passable Spanish—enough for what we are about to offer you.
“You seem to know a lot about me, and I know nothing about you.”
“Well, we do have a mutual friend, Harvey C. He turned us on to you.”
“Yes, Harvey and I are friends enough for you to have your say. So, please continue.”
The alligator belt and matching loafers speaks: “We also know you’re not a dealer, but you are a user and know your way around dealers. You’ll be camping and hiking, with no paper trail, right? So, here’s the deal, we’ve heard of two Mexican drug dealers, brothers, who operate out of Acapulco. We want you to go there, find them and make an introduction for us. They call themselves the Ramirez brothers.”
“And then what?”
Suit# 1 pipes in— “We want the two brothers to supply us with planeloads of marijuana. We’ll transport out of Mexico by flying our planes below the radar. As this will be more than one load, we want a long-term agreement with the brothers.”
Suit# 2 says - “Your job, Don, is to locate the brothers and give them our number.
Nothing illegal in that. For this one task, we’ll pay you $50,000. After the introduction, you’re out of there and on your way, back to the good ‘ole U.S.A., a wealthy man.”
“Wow, $50,000 cash for doing something I convinced myself was legal. No dope. No Federales. Just an introduction. I probably should have passed on their offer, but with no new teaching contract in the picture, and a very short supply of money on hand and, most importantly, something legal, how could I say no?
“Yes. I can do that. It’s a deal.”
We shake hands and they give me their card with the private phone number on it. I don’t consider the fact that being on the road with no paper trail makes me expendable.
I’m headed west anyway, and a side trip to Acapulco seems appealing…$50,000 worth of attractive. I wonder though if I know just what I might be getting myself into.
* * *
After several uneventful days on the road, I arrive at the one-street town near an outdoor rock festival. I’m not alone. The town is packed with an assortment of hippies and freaks.
"Where you from?" A longhaired beauty asks me. "I'm from North Carolina."
"I’m from New York."
“What’s your name?
“My name’s Rose, and this is my first rock festival. Cool, Groovy, and "Far-fuckin’-out.” She says. Rose looks to be all of fifteen.
“Hey Rose, come here.” Calls here equally attractive friend.
That’s the last I saw of her. It’s probably for the best…” Quail-hunting” is definitely too dangerous for a twenty-nine-year-old.
No sooner is Rose absorbed into the colorful crowd than I find myself confronted by a "freak". Hippies usually have long hair; wear sandals and faded jeans and maybe a tie-dye shirt. Freaks are hippies carried to the extreme. They sported Afros, colorful headbands, pants or shirts made from American flags, face-paint, and beards for the guys. Freak gals could have most of the above and wild-colored peasant blouses, tights, flamboyant jewelry, etc. In general, freaks are over-the-top performers whereas hippies are casual and laid back.
A freak is intense and almost always on stage. Gerry Rubin and Abbey Hoffman are freaks. The straight world thinks, when looking at freaks, that they’re looking at hippies. Where freaks seek the limelight, hippies just want to quietly go back to the land.
While shopping, I overhear some local conversation:
"Ya eva seen such a sorry-assed bunch of pinkos?"
"Look at the tits on that li'l tramp."
"What you lookin' at, you commie bastard?"
"Why don't ya go back where ya came from?"
The locals stand in doorways and by their cars and trucks gawking and pointing and passing out nasty remarks like they were business cards.
"Gotta get me some o' that poontang."
I know they aren’t laughing with us, but at us. For every guitar, pair of hip-huggers and sandals there is an opposing gun rack and plug of chewing tobacco.
Peace signs are everywhere, on vans and motorcycles and the hippies and freaks themselves. As a sort of counter to this imagery, rebel flags are proudly displayed on caps, trucks, and shirts.
It’s clear that two different worlds are confronting each other, most likely for the first time. The locals display a range of emotion from humorous delight, to genuine shock, to outright fear, to unabashed disgust.
As usual, the media is making sure that the locals are fed a steady diet of anti-war protests, campus riots, and threatening images of hippie-types.
The collective laughter of the locals is loud, but guarded with more than a touch of nervousness. Smokey’s visible, but for now, at a respectable distance. As long as ‘we’ keep spending money, ‘they’ will keep their distance. We may be offensively colorful, possibly even repugnant, but our money is still good. Even “damn-Yankee” green is still green. It’s an uneasy theatrical performance with a yet-to-be-written final act.
While hurrying from one store to another, I hear: "Hey hippie, get a haircut!" The drawl and the message are both unmistakable. The hairs on the back of my neck stand up as a shiver runs down my spine. I turn around slowly. Not more than twenty feet away, at the window of a battered pick-up truck, are two unkempt, white “good-old-boys”.
The shotgun and rifle in the gun rack behind them are visible. The redneck welcome-wagon has arrived. They take off a-hootin' and a-hollerin' expletives at all the out-of-town guests. I make for the festival site on the outskirts of town. It’s a welcome relief to be amongst "us" and not "them."
Fifth-thousand people occupy a relatively small area. They surround three sides of a large stage. This is Woodstock, part 2. Scaffolding holds huge speaker systems. The music is too loud for me. People were swaying to the hard rock rhythms pounding out of the gigantic speakers. They’re drinking, smoking dope, singing, and dancing. Being in such a large crowd makes me uneasy.
Perhaps age is playing a small part in this. I’m about ten years older than most of the people around me. It might be better if I was stoned or tripping. Drug use is certainly everywhere.
"Want some dynamite grass?"
"Hey, I'll trade you some hash for that dynamite grass."
"Anybody know how to make a bong?"
"This is so cool." says this frail girl with waste-length hair. She takes two more hits on the bong, strips off her clothing, and goes skinny-dipping in the nearby pond. With that, the stampede is on. About sixty, parched dry, stoned people strip off their clothes and jump into the snake-infested pond, myself included. The water is warm and muddy. The little relief it offers is better than none. Drugs, nudity and raucous behavior rule the day. The combination of music, dope, heat, and nudity is infectious. We party like this for hours.
Rock fans, hippies, drug dealers and outcasts of all kinds have assembled for an anything-goes, week-long, party in the woods. Overnight a small town is hastily erected. Booths selling handcrafted leather goods, clothing, posters, food, musical instruments, and festival T-shirts are clustered in a semi-circle away from the stage at the end of a newly worn road. Leading to this semi-circle are two main intersecting paths that have been worn into the muddy grass. It’s a crossroads of sorts: Marijuana Street meets Acid Road, out here in the middle of Nowhere, Louisiana.
"Dynamite grass - $5 a bag."
"Best hash you ever tried. $10."
"Clean acid, right here."
“Purple Owsleys, Orange Wedge, Window Pane. - $2 a hit. Peyote buttons $2, mescalin $3” heroin for the hard-core.
Off to the side of the makeshift commercial district is a large tent that’s a field hospital. It’s overwhelmed and overrun. Ambulances come and go. People are overdosing on too much heat, too much booze and just plain bad dope.
"Get me the sheriff." a doctor orders, we need choppers and more ambulances. And, we need them now!"
Stoned people are being carried and dragged in by other stoned people. It isn't a pretty sight. Actually, it’s sad. People came here for a good time.
The clusters of portable toilets everywhere are overloaded and out of commission. The trucks that brought and serviced them can’t get in to do their jobs.
I hadn't planned on leaving the festival early, but with the useless portable toilets and the regularity of overdoses, it seems like a good idea. On the morning of the fourth day, I pack up my gear and say goodbye to my hosts. By leaving early, I avoid the mass exodus three days hence of exhausted, dehydrated, drugged-out attendees. I abandon the festival before that day’s music begins and start walking west. It’s clear this will be my last rock festival.
* * *
I head for a town about 30 miles from the Gulf. The locals call themselves "coonies", which is short for coon-ass-Cajuns. My reason for coming here is it’s on my way west, and it was my home five years earlier. I surprise two former colleagues with my unannounced arrival.
* * *
Abel and Jana-Kay and I first met when I was teaching undergraduate art at the local University. They were teaching academics.
I’m now worse than a vagabond. I’m a Damn-Yankee-hippie, which means “pinko”, “war-resister”, “threat”. I’m now a “Them” and no longer an “Us.”
“What brings you to these parts?”
“I’m on my way west.”
“I’m just passing through.”
“We’re happy to see you. Have you got a place to stay tonight?”
“Well, you can stay with us.”
“Thank you, I’d like that.”
In the morning, they share with me one of their favorite interests. They show me their extensive collection of firearms. They have revolvers and automatics, pistols, rifles and shotguns.
“This is my favorite,” says Abel.
He lovingly holds out a 30-caliber carbine with a folding stock and a banana clip.
Jana opens a leather case and withdraws her favorite.
“Here, just hold it, and I know you’ll know why I just love it.”
It’s a shiny black Beretta.
“Don’t you just love the way it fits in your palm?”
Abel and Jana offer to take me sight-seeing later that night. I should have followed my first inclination, which was to beg off and to get on my way, but I didn’t want to offend them. After all, they had put me up for the night.
“Where do you go sight-seeing at night?”
“Oh, that’s a surprise,”
* * *
We drive for miles out into the bayou. Finally, we arrive at an old wooden building raised on stilts. Although the night is dark and somewhat quiet, bright lights and loud chatter emanate from here. It has a large, bright, flashing neon BAR sign facing the road. We go up old wooden steps.
The place is packed. The bar itself might be only 3,000 square feet, but it seems like there are at least 150 people inside. So many people come over to shake Abel and Jana's hands or to yell a loud welcome; it’s obvious they’re well known to this crowd.
Some people are ‘dipping’ (chewing tobacco). The occupants of the bar are mostly men, but there are a few women present. It’s a conspicuously whites-only gathering.
Let’s see what’s on the jukebox. I know something like this music. Jesus Christ! The titles of the songs say it all. They’re all racist. They sing about” lynching niggers and killing Yankee-Jew lawyers. I’ve found the jukebox of hate”
As more offensive lyrics play, the crowd joins in.
Man, I gotta get outta this place. With no car and not knowing how to get from here to anywhere, I’m stuck, marooned on an alien planet…a very scary southern racist planet. I wonder if they can tell how stressed I am?
"Whatcha doin' boy? I see youz a friend of Abel and Jana. That's good."
"They’z good people."
“Where you from, boy? You ain't no Coonie."
"Here, have a beer. Any friend of Abel's is a friend of mine."
"Damn, you talk funny."
After three, terrifying hours in this house of hate, Abel and Jana tell me it’s time to go. We head back through the pitch-black bayou to their apartment. Nobody says a word all the way back.
There’s a flyer in each of the mailboxes in the complex. They take theirs in and show it to me.
"This must be a joke, albeit a sick joke."
It’s an invitation to a “Nigger-Lynching”. It invites each and every one to bring their ‘own nigger’.
“This is no joke, Don. A real lynching will take place later, this very evening. And, since you were at the bar with us, you are invited to participate.”
"Now,” says Abel, “the ball's in your court."
"Yes, indeed,” says Jana. “Either you are committed to going with us to the lynching and by attending will thereby become a willing participant, or you better make haste and get out of town this very minute."
I grab my pack and head for the door.
"Be well, Don." says Jana, as she hands me some travel money.
"You be smart and buy a gun as soon as possible. These are dangerous times.” says Abel.
“Thanks for the money. I’ll think about the gun.”
Standing by the side of the road that night in the hot, humid air, I feel grateful to have escaped alive and intact. It’s more than time to go. It’s time to run.
I wonder if those pink invitations to the lynching were serious. I hope they weren't.
I stick out my thumb and head west and south to Mexico.
* * *
Heading for Mexico is a case of pure greed. The thought of instant “big money” is too attractive to pass up.
I make my way to Acapulco by hitching rides, which can be quite dangerous in Mexico. I’ve heard some pretty grim stories of hikers never heard of again or found badly beaten and held for ransom. Fortunately, I have no bad incidents. Most of the people who pick me up; all Mexicans, seem pleased to meet a gringo who’s on a hiking adventure and speaks passable Spanish.
That's how I meet Renan and Roberto.
"Ola. A donde va?" They yell from their Mercedes.
“I’m going to Acapulco”.
"Bueno. Venga. Let’s go together."
And off we go with the two of them in the front and me and my pack in the back.
“I’m from Merida, on the Yucatan peninsula.” says Renan.
I can believe that. He looks Mayan.
“I’m from Vera Cruz.” Says Roberto.
Renan says he’s a lawyer.
Roberto says he’s a cook.
They had been students at the National University of Mexico, located in Mexico City. They’re both 25 years old.
“Why are you going to Acapulco?”
“Vacation, I lie”.
"Are you a Jeepee?"
“I guess I am a hippie.”
"Muy cool." is his reply. Roberto agrees. He, too thinks it’s muy cool.
I think they've both been watching too many American movies.
As they’re not going all the way to Acapulco, they drop me off in Cuernavaca, and wish me well.
“Thanks for the ride.”
“May your trip be good.”
“Same to you.”
From there on, I ride a bus. Traveling on Mexican buses is less dramatic. Second-class bus travel is a study in culture. All Mexicans of the same economic scale travel together, be they of European or Indian stock. We all travel with the pigs, chickens, ducks and bags and bundles everywhere. It's cheap and hot and dusty, but affordable.
By the way, when you travel less than first class on a Mexican bus, it’s understood that when nature calls, the bus will stop by the side of the road and all who need relief will depart to "pick daisies". This means that you might just have to pick flowers from your butt from squatting in the wilderness.
When it comes to money, Mexico is a place of glaring contrasts. Next to a luxury high-rise apartment building, one can see several families living in a drainage pipe. Elegantly dressed families in expensive cars pass by toothless, crippled beggars who live in the streets. As I walk along city streets, I can smell the poorer neighborhoods before I reach them. The rich and poor are divided by high walls, topped with shards of glass embedded in the cement. High, strong security gates allow for passage by the privileged few. Bloated, decadent, obscene wealth in tiled, upper-class dwellings formed out of volcanic rock contrasts with gut-wrenching filth, odor and poverty in shacks of scavenged, castaway materials.
* * *
On a train, which is supposed to be a safe way to travel. A soldier points his rifle at me and whispers:
"I will shoot you."
He wants me to give him the gold ring I’m wearing.
I’m not about to give up my ring. First of all, it’s a present from my grandfather, and second, I know it’s too tight to come off.
When I tell the soldier that the ring won’t come off he counters with cocking his rifle and shoving it in my stomach.
His sergeant saves me by rushing up to the private, pulling his rifle out of his hands and hitting him with it. He swings it hard and cracks the young soldier in the jaw with the butt. The soldier collapses in a bloody heap next to my seat. Immediately, at the sergeant's order, other soldiers drag him away. The sergeant hammers this kid into next Tuesday. If he lives, I hope the young soldier learns to be less aggressive.
* * *
I get off the train at the next stop and hitch a ride to Acapulco. Coming down from the mountains to the jungles of Acapulco is a rapid descent. The temperature is comfortable and dry, but quickly changes to warm and humid. Acapulco is balmy, tropical and sunny.
I settle into a small, older, modestly priced hotel near the beach. It doesn’t have much of a view, but it does have a swimming pool.
I suit-up and go to the beach. It’s empty at this early hour of the morning. That’s fine with me. I assume last night’s party- goers are sleeping it off and won’t be around for hours. The water is green, warm, salty and very rough.
After less than ten minutes fighting the waves and currents I just let the water have its way with me. I wash up on the beach about 500 feet from where I entered it. I’m thrown up with such force it’s impossible to look cool, as if I had just body-surfed.
My arrival at the feet of a cute, curvy brunette, who turns out to be from New England is unspectacular. We both start speaking Spanish only to learn that we’re both ‘gringos’.
“Hi. I’m Barbara. I’m a student on vacation.”
“Hi, yourself. I’m Don. I’m an instructor in a university and this is my vacation.”
We decide to meet later at Club Tropical.
* * *
I make some inquiries at a fast-food place called Fronky by the locals. I’m informed that the Ramirez brothers frequent this place and will probably be by some time later that day.
About four hours later, as promised, Jamie and Roberto Ramirez show up. They’re driving an MGB. I’m introduced to them by one of my new friends - native Acapulcans, with whom I shared a joint earlier that day. Roberto drives me closer to the center of town, to a Denny’s, where he feels more comfortable talking business.
It turns out that everything the suits in North Carolina had heard about the brothers is true. Roberto says they can deliver any quantity of product on demand anywhere in Mexico, for a low price or if necessary, anywhere in the U.S. for a higher price. All deliveries are "Garantia", on time for the agreed upon price.
The reasons for this efficient operation are not that they’re so smart or even lucky. According to Roberto, everyone along the way—officials, police, et al, are paid off handsomely. Consequently, Roberto and his brother have no enemies, only partners.
Now, I have only to call the suits and give them the phone number of the Ramirez brothers. They, in turn, will give the Ramirez brothers their private numbers. According to plan, I would then be paid the large sum of $50,000 for making the introductions.
"Want to see God smile? Make a plan."
I place the call to North Carolina.
"I found the brothers and they're open for offers.”
“Sorry, Don. The deal is dead. It’s too hot up here to pursue it. Don’t give the Ramirez our number.”
My dreams of instant wealth have come and gone in an instant.
“I’m sorry, Roberto. The deal is dead. The guys in North Carolina say it’s too dangerous to do this deal now.”
Roberto tells me not to work with these kinds of partners ever again. They’re cowards, who can't be trusted. No more jobs with people without honor.
“Good luck and safe traveling.”
I’m glad that Roberto wishes me well. It means that he doesn’t hold me responsible for the deal going sour.
“Same to you”.
I’ve been instructed by the suits to stay in my hotel room. Sometime this evening I will be contacted for the last time. A very modest payment of two hundred dollars will be paid to me to cover my expenses to Acapulco. Also, I’m to forget the whole deal and never try to contact the suits again.
At least I’m going to be compensated for my efforts in Acapulco. Or am I just a loose end to be eliminated. It’s good news/bad news. I’m unhappy about not making a small fortune, but on the other hand, my record is clean Whatever happens, it’s out of my hands.
Shortly after I return to my hotel there’s a knock on the door. I open the door to a skinny gringo in dress slacks. He carries a black attaché case.
"You the guy waiting to hear from the ‘suits’ in North Carolina?"
"Yes, I am."
Funny, he uses the same label I use: “suits”.
He puts his case on the bed facing him and opens it. I don’t know whether he’s going to withdraw money or a gun. To my delight he hands me two hundred dollars.
He closes the case, turns and leaves. No hello. No goodbye. All business. I got the feeling that it was all the same to him. Shoot someone or pay them money. He could care less.
I am definitely not cut out for this kind of business.
I decide to see Barbara from New England before I leave. I take her to La Quebrada—the place of the cliff divers. We have a leisurely, elegant meal. As we sup, diver after diver climbs the steep cliffs next to the restaurant, crosses himself at a small altar and dives maybe seventy feet into a small inlet. The dive has to be timed to enter the water exactly as it’s rising on an incoming wave. I hear that several divers die each year doing this. All divers are cheered and applauded.
I pay the strolling mariachis to serenade Barbara with: Malaguena Salerosa."
They do a wonderful job. Barbara’s properly impressed. I pay them less than $8. It’s money well spent. We stroll back to my hotel for the rest of the night. The next morning, feeling equally satisfied, and with no regrets, we part friends and go our separate ways. Barbara heads back to school and I aim for Texas, to resume my journey west.
It wasn’t the trip I had planned, but it wasn’t all that bad. I choose to see it as a temporary diversion from my trip across country. I arrive back in Laredo.
The extra cash in my pocket makes up for the delay in my trip.
My new sign has the word "Westbound" written on one side, and the other side is blank. I have no idea where in particular I’m going, but it’s time to go. I hike to the Interstate to continue my journey.
* * *
Wilderness camping in Texas is to bake by day and freeze by night. The only times that mean anything are daytime and nighttime. It could be 1971 or 5,000 B.C. or 5,000 A.D.
Frogs, crickets, wolves, and owls provide night sounds. Sometimes they’re accompanied by the wind. I see scorpions, snakes, and tarantulas during the day. Perhaps they travel by night as well. Birds are visible by day, and sometimes lead me to edible berries. Stars light most nights in the summer months. Nights without stars are so dark I dare not venture away from my campsite. Days, by contrast, are so bright as to be blinding.
My mouth feels like I just licked the top of a pool table. As if trying to escape my boots, my feet feel as if they’ve swelled two sizes. My backpack has become a torture device designed to slice and dice my shoulders. I dare not touch any metal parts on my pack for fear of burning myself.
The intense summer heat is relentlessly scorching its way south like Sherman’s march to the sea. Triple-digit heat and scarce watering holes on a barren landscape is a formula for a slow death by fire. This is a burger’s eye view of the grill.
The rocky, terra-cotta desert floor is unyielding. It meets my boots like a hot griddle. Dust devils dance across the parched, lifeless landscape in groups of six to ten. No sweat appears because I drink very little water and as quickly as it reaches the surface of my skin it immediately evaporates.
Tumbleweeds fly by in a desperate effort to escape the swirling-dervish dust devils. Mother Nature is punishing me for foolishly defying her with my feeble an attempt at so treacherous a crossing.
What am I doing here? I’m wandering around a hostile environment, often lost, by myself. If I don’t reach civilization at this point, I don't know what will happen.
* * *
I backpack to Albuquerque. My three friends in here share a small, two-bedroom house. They offer me their backyard as a campsite. Access to their indoor plumbing and cooking facilities make it a comfortable and welcome arrangement.
Staying with my friends provides me with a much-appreciated geographic stability. Being on the road, constantly, is exciting and educational. But, as I found out, one can
overdose on constant change. Every day is a new campsite and a new view. The only change I want at this point is no change.
While my friends are out food shopping, I stay behind and relax in a big easy chair in the living room. I’m wide-awake and happy to be off the road. Except for me, the house is empty. It’s quiet. In fact, it’s more than just quiet. It’s a surreal quiet. No usual sounds are to be heard. No birds chirping. No traffic noises. No talking or footsteps from people walking by. The quiet is so intense it makes me wonder if it’s possible to hear quiet. It’s peaceful, too.
The clock on the mantle reads twelve, noon. My concentration goes from the all-pervasive quiet to something rather startling. One by one, all the objects in the room are disappearing. They are replaced by a white nothingness, a comforting light.
The first to go is the clock on the mantle. Next is a picture on the wall. Then the nothingness swallows up the entire mantle and fireplace. A wooden chair vanishes in a split second. In a few more seconds, my world of three dimensions is completely gone. Nothingness even gobbles up the walls, the ceiling and the floor.
As if all this isn’t amazing enough, I’m stunned with the realization that my body has also disappeared. All that’s left of the me I’ve known for thirty years is my consciousness, wondering just what’s happening. Strangely enough, there’s no panic, just utter amazement at my situation.
Everything is calm. My consciousness just seems to be floating in a beautiful, white, nothingness. I’m bathed in this warm, not harsh, white light. I have no depth perception. It’s almost like being in a cloud. There’s nothing to focus on. Then I hear the voice. It’s mesmerizing. I hear it even though I have no ears. I have to remind myself that I have no body, no head and, most assuredly, no ears. Yet, I had heard a voice.
It’s a deep, soothing voice. It repeats, many times, "God is love” and "Love is God."
Does this mean that God loves me? And that I love God?
I've never had a personal relationship with God. That’s why I never had much to do with organized religion. For me, religion without spirituality is just so much ceremony. This was definitely not ceremony.
I've always envied those who professed a personal connection to God. I know it’s not the kind of thing one could fake. Either you have it or you don’t. Until now, I didn’t. It’s a personal connection to spirit; something greater than one's self. Hard to believe. Yet, what’s happening now is as real as anything that’s ever happened in my life. If this isn't real, then nothing’s real.
In answer to my query about whether God loves me or I love God, the voice is quite specific. The voice says that there’s no separate me to love God and no separate God to love me. God and love were, and are, the same thing. Further, separation from God or spirit is only an illusion. All life and all spirit are connected, forever.
We all have a special mission in this life. The answer to what it is can be found within. Living it is living the life you’re meant to live. It’s as Confucius said, 2,500 years ago: “Find work you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.”
Then it got downright cryptic – “Follow the Six-Step Path and teach it to others.”
“What the heck does that mean?”
Even now, 45 years after this life-altering event, I get tingly just thinking about it. I've never felt alone since this episode; never doubted its authenticity. Things happen when and where they are supposed to happen. There are no coincidences. This one incident will forever influence my life and, through my teachings, thousands of other people.
After what seems like a long time, my consciousness realizes that my friends will be returning soon, and, as instructed, this experience is not to be shared at this time. My entire three-dimensional world begins to rapidly re-appear. The voice and light/nothingness fades away as objects return. Even my body returns. Within a matter of seconds, my old, conventional world is back, and my new, non-physical, world is gone. The clock on the mantle reads 12:30 p.m., which means that the entire incident has taken thirty minutes of what I now understand to be linear time.
My friends enter and just stare at me. I must have had one heck of an expression on my face, because all three of them ask what happened to me. They say I look as though I've seen a ghost. As instructed, I’m not about to discuss it now.
“I just had an amazing thought and it’s time for me to move on. I'll be leaving in the morning.”
I take my friends out shopping and buy each one a present. Then we say our goodbyes and I stick out my thumb and head for the Gila National Forest.
I’m not the same person I was when I arrived in Albuquerque. It’s going to take time to get used to what I experienced here.
Whatever you call it — God, Spirit or universal force — I found something wonderful. Or, has something wonderful found me? Was my journey west just a metaphor for a spiritual quest? How come I wasn't conscious of looking for such an awakening? Why was it such a surprise? What am I supposed to do now? Is my trip over or is it just beginning?
Something is different about me now. I’m still backpacking, and I’m still on a physical journey west. I feel lighter—freer and no longer alone. I haven't felt lonely very often on this trip, but now I feel even less alone, and not at all lonely.
What I had recently experienced had to be a spiritual awakening or enlightenment. It was personal and put me more in touch with all life than I'd ever been before. It united me with others and with nature. My epiphany had been quick and deep. It revealed to me the true nature of reality. The truth of what it really means to be a human being. I’m now ready to continue my journey west. Same journey, different me.
* * *
I head south from Albuquerque to the Gila National Forest —3.3 million rugged acres of “Geronimo” country. This hilly terrain leads me to the Gila's famous cliff dwellings. People called the Mogollon occupied these adobe ruins about 700 years ago. The dwellings are clustered under a rock ledge. In different stages of decay, they form a small village or settlement.
I count ten rooms. The corn in the cribs is petrified and there are a few crude ladders. I would guess upward of seventy-five people lived here at one time. The elevation is high, cold and very windy. As I camp there, in the ruins, I think of an old native-American phrase-- "We're all leaves on the same tree."
Perhaps that is part of what my vision means. I seem connected to almost everyone I meet on this trip. Perhaps that is what enlightenment is — a realization that all life is connected. It can’t be a coincidence that I’ve gotten to this very spot. I’ve found that if you are willing to work, most people, even those with very little, will share what they have with you.
Most of what I’ve done so far is on the barter system. In exchange for food and shelter, I’ve drawn a house portrait, mended a horse corral, and painted a room in a house. All these transactions have taken place with no money changing hands. I like this way of doing business. It’s refreshing and appealing.
Camping in the Gila gives me time to reflect on recent events. I feel I have a purpose now,
although I’m not quite sure what it is. As Kalil Ghibran said: “Your work should be love made visible.” I'm convinced that there are no coincidences. I'm here for a reason. I'm also part of something greater than myself.
* * *
It's been said many times — "You have to lose yourself to find yourself." I sure did lose myself.
How ironic. Spiritually, I’m recently found and now physically, I’m completely lost.
The Mogollon people thrived here. Yet my life depends on me getting out of here soon. Unlike Geronimo, I’m ready to be found. I head south. At least I think it’s south. The faster I try to leave; the more lost I get. I’m hot, sweaty, dirty and tired. If only I had my beautiful oasis, now. My diet of about five hundred calories per day isn’t enough to keep me going for long.
Am I ever going to get out of here?
The faster I hurry, the more tired I get. Panic is beginning to set in.
When I’m almost too worn out to continue, and feel I can go no further, something wondrous happens. Suddenly, I find myself—my consciousness, hovering about twenty-five feet in the air above my body. I scream.
What if I fall? Wait, there’s no physical me to fall. Only my consciousness is hovering. Wait, there’s no pain any more. No matter how strenuous the trek along the rocky path below, and no matter how heavy the backpack digging into my sweaty shoulders, there’s no longer any pain. Not up here. Damn! This is weird. What the hell is going on?
After I calm down long enough to observe me hiking, I decide to re-enter my body to see how I’m doing. In an instant, my consciousness is back in my body. I yell in agony. The pain is overwhelming. The deadly combination of heat, sweat and physical pain is unbearable. I soar back up and hover over myself for several hours of slow, plodding progress on the ground below. Exhausted, I collapse by the side of an old logging road. I can’t go another step.
My consciousness and my body re-unite for a painful rest. I just sit there, by the side of the road, too tired to move. Too tired to even deal with my thirst and hunger. I haven't eaten anything since yesterday. I feel like a marionette whose strings have just been cut . . .all of them at once. I’m a worn-out, painful heap of a human. I slump there for thirty minutes before summoning the strength to take a drink.
The water is warm, but surprisingly refreshing. After my drink, I’m ready for what might be my last meal. It consists of one can of warm peaches. I spoon the peaches with great care. Each piece is cut into smaller pieces, so as to last longer. My taste buds savor every morsel. This small and otherwise simple can of peaches is my wilderness banquet. I eat slowly, attentive to each and every bite. When the last bite is swallowed, I drink the thick, syrupy juice they were packed in for desert.
I may well be at the end of my rope but, dammit, I'll dine before I dangle. God, those peaches taste great.
I’m left with the realization that the end, my end, might just be near.
I’m lost, exhausted and out of food and water. My physical condition demands that I accept my situation…Before I take my last breath, I must accept death. Although there’s time for brief reflection, there’s no time for regret. There’s only enough time to cozy up to death. The fact that I might die, soon, right here, in this spot, on this day, is a distinct possibility.
I haven't quite made it to the west coast. However, I have successfully completed about three-quarters of my trip— I've toured Amish country, met with Bucky Fuller, attended a rock festival, been invited to a lynching, visited Mexico, survived the Texas desert and had a spiritual awakening. So far, it’s been a rather successful journey. If death is imminent, I'd best prepare myself for it.
The rock formations around me, the sparse stands of trees, the big sky and the horses all make this a tranquil, beautiful place to make my final goodbye. I prefer this to some filthy urban back alley. Yes, this is an acceptable place to die. Yet, aren’t I salvageable? Especially after my awakening, aren’t I worth reclaiming?
I sit there, beside that road for hours, just waiting for the end. No one’s coming by. I’m half asleep and can feel myself getting weaker.
The end must surely be near. It’s too bad my parents will never hear from me again. They’ll never know what happened to me. That’s got to be tough for a parent. There will be no goodbye conversation or letter. I’ll just never be heard from again. There will be no remains. Bear, mountain lion and other nature’s creatures will see to that. I’ll just be labeled another missing person who was last seen at a wilderness supply store in the Gila.
I close my eyes. So tired. So weak. So sleepy.
It’s then that I hear it…the faint sound of a truck. It’s slowly coming down the road. It takes all my remaining strength to stand up and wave for it to stop.
The truck finally stops and the driver waves for me to approach. I try to lift my pack, but I don't have the strength. I just turned thirty on this journey and can’t lift a thirty-five-pound pack. Seeing my predicament, the driver exits his truck. He strolls to the rear of his truck to where I’m struggling with my pack.
He appears to be in his mid-sixties, with a weeklong growth of facial hair, almost shoulder-length gray hair, old work boots and faded bib overalls. His face and hands are lined and brown from the sun. Together, we throw my pack over the tailgate and into the truck. He then helps me into the passenger side of the truck. So far, not a word had been spoken.
"Howdy. My name’s J.R. You sure look like hell."
"I believe I do." I croak. "I know I feel like hell."
"I live in a cabin about ten miles from here. I pretty much keep to myself. It's not that I don't like people. It's just that I like the demon whiskey way too much. I've lived here for years, in the Gila. Got a 99-year lease on the land where I built my cabin."
“What brings you here today?”
"This old logging road was used by the lumber companies’ years ago, but they been gone a long time. It's how I get to town and back, for supplies. Once a month, I drive to town for gas, food, magazines, tools, if I need 'em, batteries and one bottle of Old Charter whiskey. That there bottle has to last me for 30 days, until my next trip to town. Today's my once-a-month trip."
"Where is the next town?"
"We're goin’ to Silver City. It's gonna take about an hour, so you might wanna sit back and enjoy the ride."
Wow! Today. This very day is his once-a-month trip to town. What if it was yesterday--or tomorrow? What would have become of me then? How lucky can you get?
We bump along the old logging road for the better part of an hour. I’m too tired to talk and J.R. doesn’t seem to mind the quiet. I just slump down in the old torn seat and ache my way to our destination. Finally, we arrive in Silver City, population 3,500.
* * *
The next morning, after about ten hours of sleep, I limp to the curbside and wait for a hitch. It isn’t going to be easy to get a ride with so few people around. I sit in the hot sun for hours waiting for a ride. Finally, a car stops.
If I can make it to the Interstate, I can continue my trip west.
Please stop. I need this ride. Please, please stop.
Screeeech! A filthy, nine-passenger, station wagon stops so quickly it’s engulfed in a dust cloud.
“You were goin’ so fast; I thought you were gonna blow right past me.”
“Not a chance, boy. Well, whatcha waitin’ on? Ya comin’ or not?”
The car is so loaded down with cases of beer, the tailpipe almost touches the ground. The driver and pit crew are juiced and ready to ride. Ma and Pa Budweiser and their son Sixpack are anxiously guzzling beer at a furious pace.
“Just set yourself down next to the beer. You can put your pack on top o’ that case next to you.”
All the windows are open, and hot; dusty air is exchanged for empty beer cans. Before I’m seated, this bucking bronco of a car lurches forward with Pa barely in control.
“Here ya go, Pa, chug this,” says Ma.
Pa chugs his new beer and heaves the empty out the window. Ma chugs a few herself. Her empties also make a hasty exit.
Not to be outdone by his seasoned parents, Sixpack shouts “Yee-ha!” as he chugs and tosses his empties. The floor of the wagon is sticky with beer that never quite made it out the windows. I’m ankle-deep in partially empty cans.
“Here ya go, boy. Have a brew.”
“Thanks, but no thanks. 10 a.m.’s a bit early for me to start drinkin’.”
“Suit yourself. That just leaves more for us.”
The goal of all this seems to be the most beer consumed, in the shortest amount of time, at the highest rate of speed, with the radio as loud as it can be. I don’t know what the winner gets.
“Yee-ha!” shouts Sixpack, as we carom up one side of the narrow, meandering road and down the other. The battle between inertia and thrust is ongoing. It keeps us teetering on the brink of rolling over. No one seems to notice this but me.
“Have yerself a beer.”
“No thanks.” I reiterate, with the third offer of beer.
The family Budweiser isn’t much for conversation. All concentration is focused on consuming beer and discarding the cans. Any non-beer conversation is of no interest.
“It’s a good thing nobody’s comin’ from the opposite direction,” I say.
Nobody seems to care. Our insane and erratic pace continues, mile after mile, for at least thirty minutes.
We’re all gonna die! A horrible death…upside down in a ditch with vast amounts of blood-filled pools of beer. I don’t know how much more I can take of this.
“Have another one.”
Aren’t they ever going to run out of beer?
“You done good, son.”
“You too, Pa.”
“I gotcha both beat.” shouts Ma.
I’m all for family togetherness, but this is just plain bizarre…and dangerous. We’re hitting speeds of 55 and 60 miles per hour. The car is off the gravel road as much as it’s on it. Dust totally obscures our rear view and the heat is oppressive.
I can’t believe it. I survived 4,000 miles of wilderness and adventure only to die sober in a Beerwagon.
After about 45 minutes of this hair-raising ride, we come to a screeching halt at the interstate. We skid to a stop in a cloud of dust and loose beer cans. By some miracle, we’re still upright and in one piece.
Here it is. Route 10 West. I quickly exit this roller coaster of a ride with my pack clutched in my sweaty hands. I thank my inebriated hosts profusely and tell them how grateful I am.
“Thanks for the ride. I wish you a safe trip, wherever you’re going.”
I’m grateful to be back on Route 10 West and more grateful to be alive. As the family Budweiser speeds off in a hail of cans and dust and loud music, I wish them well.
As my heartbeat slows to its normal pace, I survey my minor bumps and bruises and count myself lucky.
Next stop, Lordsburg.
Night’s coming, and the desert temperatures decrease to a manageable level. If I have to camp here, I can. It’s time to get to California. Time to be off the road. Time to see and feel rain.
Just as little or no change can be unhealthy, too much change can also become unhealthy. I’m due for a change from constant change.
* * *
In less than an hour, well before nightfall, a teenage girl in a battered old hippie van pulls up.
"Howdy. My name's Ronnie. Throw your pack in the back and hop in."
I throw my pack into the rear of the van and head for the passenger seat.
"Don't bother with the front seat. Take the seat in the back."
When I see the rear seat, I know why Ronnie said that. She was right. Her rear seat is a recliner; old but functional. It’s all that occupies the back of the van.
"Thanks. This’ll do just fine."
By the time I lean back and put my feet up, I’m asleep. When I wake up, maybe forty-five minutes later, we’re cruising along at a conservative 45 miles per hour. It may be slow for these no speed limit parts, but it’s just right for me. The windows are open, and a welcome breeze is rushing through them.
"I'm glad you woke up. I was afraid you were gonna sleep the rest of the trip.
Now, wide-awake, I take a good look at my host. She’s tall, slender and downright gorgeous. Her blond hair is thick and long. She wears tight blue jeans and calf-high, brown, fringed moccasins. Her shirt is western with snaps. The curve of her body is unsettlingly obvious.
"Here ya go." she says, handing me a joint. "What brings you out here?"
"Thanks,” I say and switch seats to join her in the front of the van. Not knowing how long the ride will last, I just start from the beginning of my trip in Amish country. Ronnie hardly says a word until I’m done. Then she opens up.
"I know something about Bucky Fuller and geodesic domes. I also know something about pre-fab construction."
I’m impressed. For a 17-year-old she’s well informed.
"You have a place to stay?"
"No, I don't."
"Good. You can crash at my place."
"Thanks, I'd like that.”
* * *
After driving and smoking for about twenty minutes, we turn off Route 10 and soon pull up to a good-sized stucco house. A smaller guesthouse in the rear is also made of stucco. Ronnie drops me and my pack off at the guesthouse and drives up to the main house to park.
The little house is furnished in typical teenage messy. Clothes, pillows and blankets are sprawled everywhere. There are a few chairs, old and worn, and an equally worn couch. The living room is dominated by a huge waterbed.
"You mind if I invite a few friends over?"
"Not at all."
Within about ten minutes, her friends arrive. They, too, are eager to hear my story and to smoke dope. With rock music playing in the background, we smoke and chat until late. Ronnie's three friends seemed sociable enough. They’re all a few years older than she.
Now it’s dark and Ronnie’s friends leave for their respective homes.
"You crash on the waterbed.
"Thanks. I’ve never slept on a waterbed before."
"Don't move quickly."
The bed is cold and unstable at first. But, I get used to it. Boy, did I get used to it. Ronnie comes out of the bathroom naked as a Jay bird. She tells me to get out of the bed and join her on the living room rug. We sit facing each other.
She puts a bowl of soapy water between us and begins rubbing it all over me. With lightning speed, I grasp that I’m to do the same with her. In no time, we’re both hot and slippery. We embrace and months of abstinence crashes and burns. She has stamina beyond me.
What a wonderful introduction to waterbeds. I sleep like a baby.
In the morning Ronnie’s father rudely awakens us. He bangs on the front door and bursts in, furious about something.
"What the hell is going on here?"
We are hastily introduced, but he’s completely absorbed in his anger, so I quickly melt into the background. Father and daughter exchange angry words, most of them from Ronnie's father.
"What was that all about? I hope it's not because I crashed here."
"Not a chance. That's my dad, as usual. He's always pissed about something. Just ignore him."
"I sure am."
"How about some tostadas?"
"I don't know. I've never had tostadas."
"Well then, this is the day for you to try them."
* * *
Ronnie takes me to a local restaurant for tostadas —a large round taco-based pie, similar to a pizza, covered with melted cheese. They’re delicious. After lunch, we head for the desert to meet more of Ronnie's friends. We drive up a long, dusty road, past tall cactus and tumbleweeds. At the end of the dirt road sits a large, modern adobe house on a small hill. Nearby are other hills and large saguaro cactuses. It’s a beautiful part of the desert.
How fortunate are Ronnie's friends because they can afford to live here. Not only are they well off; they’re young—in their early twenties. Each friend drives a luxury car. One drives a Mercedes sedan, one a Toyota Land-Cruiser and one a, Jeep-style vehicle. All the cars have all available options.
The interior of their upper-middle-class house is expensively furnished. Leather, glass and chrome are everywhere. The tiled floors and walls are decorated in beautiful, handcrafted rugs, tapestries and wall hangings. The living room is two stories high with a balcony. The bedrooms are spacious and expensively appointed. There is an elegant bar and an oversized stereo system. Color T.V.'s are everywhere.
I recognize Ronnie's three friends from the night before. I can see the nearest neighbor is about a quarter of a mile away. That house appears to be even larger and fancier than this one.
Our welcome includes some "dynamite" grass, called "Number One". Even though I’ve stopped tripping, I’m still up for a friendly joint. They claim that each toke is good for a one-hour high. I’m skeptical, but willing. Soon I realize they’re right. The smoke is smooth and powerful, and worthy of the moniker "Number One".
We smoke and chat in their large living room and outside under the stars. The sky is jet black and peppered with brilliant, diamond-like stars. It’s truly beautiful. The "three-amigos" must have trusted me because they start telling me where the money to pay for this high-class lifestyle comes from.
It turns out these three guys are dope dealers. All the material wealth I see comes from the sale of "Number One".
Peter, the youngest of the three, speaks first: "We plan to sell as much Number One as we can for two or three more years."
Frank, the oldest, adds. "Yeah, that's the plan. By then we should be rich."
Jesse finally opens up. "When we're rich, I'm going to college."
Peter adds. "We'll all be retired and rich and still in our twenties."
Jesse seems to be the only one interested in going to college. All have graduated high school, but none has gone on to college.
"I might just get married and have some kids," says Frank.
"I think I'm gonna travel." says Peter.
* * *
It was getting late, and Ronnie wanted to get home before her father went on the warpath, again. We left her friends and headed back to Ronnie's guesthouse.
As predicted, her father’s "on the warpath" when we return. It’s time to leave.
The next morning Ronnie drives me to the interstate. As I pull my pack from her van, she hands me a $100 bill.
"What's this for?"
"Me and my friends decided that your trip across the U.S. and your building system is cool. So, we decided to help you with it."
"Are you sure about this?"
"Absolutely. Peter, Frank, Jesse and I want to help out.”
"Thanks to you and your friends. You’re all being very generous. And thanks for the ride to the Interstate. And, never to be forgotten, a big thanks for my introduction to waterbeds.”
As she drove away, I wished Ronnie and her friends well.
I hoped they make it safely through the next two or three years. They’re in a dangerous business.
The weather was the usual, but I wasn’t far from California now.
* * *
Five and a half months on the road and I’m now anxious to finish my journey. I want to know that I made it across the U.S. I’m tired of being on the road. I’m due for some geographic stability. Hitchhiking is taking precedence over camping now. My focus is on traveling, covering ground. Counting Mexico, behind me, lay about 4,500 miles of experience and adventure. Ahead lay a few hundred miles and the end of my journey west. I’m ready for a new beginning.
As usual, it’s hot, dry and dusty. I’m six hours baking in the sun when I hear the unmistakable sound of a Harley in the distance. As the sound grows louder, a lone rider appears. Soon I can make out a chopper, glistening in the setting sun. The biker slows and stops right in front of me.
"You want a ride?"
The thought of being on a chopper with a pack on my back and only a small "sissy-bar" to hold me gives me the slightest pause. The biker must have sensed my hesitation because he growls, "You comin’ or not?”
With no other vehicles in sight, I say: "I'm coming."
I put on my pack, walk around to the rear of the bike and prepare to mount up. I see he’s flying his colors. There it is: "Hell's Angels, M.C.", Los Angeles chapter. It’s too late to change my mind. I get on, my hands on my thighs, and lean as far forward as I dare, to balance my pack and to keep it from pulling me off the bike. He doesn't give his name, and I don't ask.
How ironic. This symbol of fear and violence is my denim knight on his chrome steed, whisking me out of the desert and into what could be my new beginning.
We blow by Needles and Blythe, roaring through the hot, pitch-black Arizona night.
I’d lost myself and found myself in 1971. Where to now? To do what? I was eager to discover my purpose. Still a loner, but never again to feel lonely. Ready to serve, but how? Not the same person who left the east coast some 4,500 miles ago. Leaner, tanner and, hopefully, a little wiser. Now I feel a part of something greater than myself.
* * *
In time, all will be revealed. For now, I am ready, willing and able to serve. California,
here I come. Screaming into L.A. on the back of a “hard-tail”, piloted by a silent warrior. It’s dark when we arrive. I’ve made it to California. He drops me off in front of Universal Studios, throws me a tab of acid and yells: "Get the hell out of this damn town."
In a few seconds, he’s gone. I throw the acid away. It’s a long, chilly night. I buy a hot chocolate at a nearby gas station and vow never to be cold again. I stand on that street all night.
It’s a timely arrival. I don't think I could have
taken much more of being on the road. My grin lasts all the way to