Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Old Man on the way to Yosemite, Part II

To read part I, go here.
          We had passed some signs for Bass lake and the road turned to dirt. I could see the murky blue water through the trees now, and drove around trying to find parking. Jack spent the entire time talking about the landscape, and about his house, and everything that goes on on in the area.
“Oh yer gonna love my place, up in Mariposa- I got a river and you know my friend the archeologist, he said ‘These are Indian carvings!’ Better not disturb them, oh no, theyre carved into the rocks! Ill show ya! We got this fire pit, cook some hotdogs, itll be a great time he he” Jack may have been a bit crazy, but I liked him. He was interesting, at least, even if he was in his own little world. If we did end up going back to his house, whatever it looked like, I might be able to talk him into driving me to Yosemite. I just had to keep my wits about me- I had a feeling jacks personality could easily take a turn for the worse.
We parked, and he promptly lit up a joint, passing it to me. Normally I wouldnt smoke before meeting people, but I was already the designated homeless kid, so why not live it up? We spent a few hours at the lake, talking with his extended family and swimming. From the rolled eyes and smirks, I gathered tat Jack was the crazy uncle/grandpa of the family. That family was very nice; they fed and treated me graciously, even though the only person vouching for me was a possibly bi-polar aging space cadet.
           Jack lit up a few more doobies (his favorite word for them) and attempted to passe them around the fire. nobody took him up on it, and it made the other family members visibly awkward. This is one of my favorite things about backpacking: immunity to awkwardness. Travelers are totally outside social norms; anything weird is ignored, but anything sociable is points in our favor. After all, im just a homeless guy- no one expects me to even be half civilized, and if I decide to toke up with a crazy uncle around a bunch of semi-conservative upper middle class whites, well then, everybody should have expected that. At least I wasnt dirty and naked and ranting about chem trails.

            We left the reunion in the late afternoon, after the sun had cooled down. I decided to take up Jacks offer about visiting his house. He mentioned something about giving me a job, Indian carvings and curses, a water slide, his dogs, and shrimp ponds- I couldnt really keep up. Even if half of what he said were true, it sounded like a nice side trip. Besides, I had more than a week before I had to meet Katy in Yosemite, which was only about 10 miles away- a days hike.
After about 40 minutes of winding dirt paths, we pulled past a mailbox and headed downhill. We were on the side of a ravine carved out by some unseen river, and the landscape was oaky and dry. As we pulled to a stop on the gravel driveway, I saw a small man-made pond overloaded with plants- his shrimpless shrimp pond, I guessed. In front of us were several levels of flattened ground, stepping down a slope. Each level was separated by aged stone walls and had huge oak trees- far older than the low lying scrub oak around us. Each of the levels had some something on them: a fire pit, a tire swing, a stump-made table, some chairs. At the very top level- right next to us- was a trailer. Next to the trailer was a visibly intoxicated Mexican man in a ragged T-shirt and baseball cap, sitting casually and drinking a beer. To my left, a stone staircase wound around a gnarled tree and disappeared down the ravine. Far below, I could hear some great river crashing through the rocks.
          We got out of the car, and I let Luna off leash. There were other dogs around, and they went through their sniffing ritual. I checked my map, and found that we were straddling the border of Yosemite National park. Where we were at, the border took a sharp turn inwards towards the park before looping back around to continue its path. It seemed as if someone had taken a bite out of the the side of Yosemite and placed us there- I guess when the national park land was being bought, whoever owned this place must not have sold out. Maybe it was even Jacks. I tried to imagine him young and angry, debating vigorously with president Roosevelt and talking in an aged voice that didnt match his younger self at all. Jack interrupted my imagined debate.

“...and then I said ‘yeah you can find it right here!’ and he came down and set up his boat. I got me dozens of acres, you know down there is a Indian rock? Ive found three carvings, and ya know, I brought an archeologist up here and he says ‘Yeah those are real!’ he wanted to dig em up, but i said no cause ya gotta respect it- its a burial site.” All this talk of rivers and Indian carvings was piquing my interest.

“That sounds awesome! Can I go see them?” I talked to Jack as we walked over by the seated man, and I could see a hearty collection of beer cans by his feet now. The man was smiling, and looked friendly. Before Jack answered, the man started talking.

“ Ayyyy man! Hows it goin? Name’s Miguel eh” He reached out his hand to shake mine in the sloppy friendly handshake that drunk people have, and I introduced myself. Jack spoke up, sounding a bit confused.

“ my friend, Mickey. I see you two’ve met! Why dont you take him down to the river Mickey?” I got the feeling that “Mickey” wasnt a nickname. Miguel rolled his eyes and headed down the stone staircase with me. Laika was close behind, treading cautiously.
The staircase turned into a dirt trail that wound precariously around bushes clinging for life to the side of the gully. The trail ended up on a large flat section boulder, huge monoliths held against the slope by their own weight. About fifty feet below us, I could see the river. It was crystal clear, weaving and crashing its way through a maze of boulders that had no doubt been revealed by centuries of water flow. It was actually less of a river, and more of a series of cascades plummeting into sapphire swimming holes. Gulleys and chutes were carved in the rock and what looked like water slides winding across the faces of the boulders. I could already see several places to jump from, and the smile on my face was growing. This was paradise. Miguel sat down on the rock next to me and took a sip of his beer. 
   “So howd you get here, eh? The old man pick you up too?”            
“Ha, yeah, I was hitchiking on the side of the road and he swerved in and took me to a family reunion. It was kinda weird. Hey- have you seen those Indian carving he was talking about?” My legs were dangling over the sides of the rock, and Laika was walking around and peering over the edge trying to get a good view of the river.
                     “Yeah, sure, he SAYS theyre there, but you know...he says a lot of things…” Miguel laughed at himself.        

“So how’d you meet him?” I asked         
“Well I was sitting at the gas station enjoying my beer, when this guy pulls up. He yells at me ‘Hey ya lookin for work?’ and then starts talkin about some trailer and a pond. I mean, thats kinda racist” he laughed again and sipped his beer. “but i could use some work, and I was bored. That was a few days ago. Watch out for that guy, man, hes kinda...” Miguel pointed at his head and made the signal for crazy

Miguel and I spoke a while longer, and I decided to head down to the river for a swim. He stayed behind on the rock and “chilled”. The path down to the river was overgrown and thorny, and I had to be very careful not to tumble down the slope. I stopped every once in a while to encourage Laika over a ledge. I finally made it down to the river and was rewarded with a waterfall about 10 feet high, obscuring the river above it. My backpack was hidden in the bushes, and my swim trunks were on, so I started climbing the drier rocks around the waterfall. After some false starts, Laika made it up too. I thought I could hear some laughing farther upstream, so I decided to walk the bank.
           Several waterfalls later, I saw a group of college aged kids. They waved at me, and I smiled.           “Hey bro! This your land? We live up the hill there.” There were two guys in the water, and a third sunning himself on the rock next to a girl. We talked for a while and they packed up a bowl. Marijuana is a social ritual in California- the pipe is passed around like a sacrament, and there is a specific method to it. New guests get the first hit- “greens”- though they must be careful to only light a portion of the bowl, and not brown the entire top layer. Next is usually the packer of the pipe, followed by the rest of the circle. I think briefly about other social rituals, and decide this one is the nicest.
           After getting a heavy buzz going, we decided to climb the rocks and jump off. The other two guys managed, but my right arm was still recovering from a trainhopping injury and I wasnt strong enough to make it up the rock face. Laika was worried by all of this commotion, and took refuge under a rock ledge where she could safely watch us without getting wet. We swam a bit more, talked of traveling, trainhopping, and college. We smoked some more. After a hour or two, I waved goodbye and headed back up to the trailer. High up on the hill, I could hear the old man screaming angrily about something.

Monday, September 9, 2013

The Old Man on the way to Yosemite, Part I

I hopped off an unlocked and air-conditioned engine car in Merced, California to a heatslap of 107 degrees. Merced was a dry and buggy town, far larger than it should have been and right in the middle the dusty agricultural land that is so common in California. Many people ended up there for a night or two on their way to Yosemite National Park, which was about 60 miles away. There wasnt much to do in Merced, but I planned on spending a few days there gathering and preparing for an extra person: I had a friend from Scotland that was taking a trip to the states and we had decided to meet there in Yosemite.
When she off-leash, Laika would run ahead to the next shady spot on the path and collapse in a brown heap of fur and tongue. She'd wait till I had passed her a little ways before running ahead and do the same thing again. Despite being half-ridgeback (an African breed), she was not faring well in the unfamiliar heat. Both she and I were still green, having just left on our trip less than a month ago and just now getting accustomed to walking 15 miles a day.
I bought extra sleeping pad at a local store and stashed it in a bush along the train tracks. Katy, my friend, would find it later; my pack was already full and I still had no idea how much hiking there was going to be before I got to Yosemite. I left Katy a detailed message about how to find it, and started making my way towards the highway. My plan was to start hitchiking towards Mariposa the next morning; it was the last major town before Yosemite, and I knew a bunch of vacationers would be heading into the park early in the day. On my way through town, a young couple parked outside a store pointed at Laika and laughed. The man spoke first:
           “Thats a nice dog you have there- I love his backpack! Making him do all the work, eh?” I nodded and smiled at the him; he was in his late thirties and had an impressive belly that fro some reason suited his long hair and dark skin. He smiled and extended hand down towards Laika, who was perking up a bit now that the sun was going down.
“Where are ya coming from?” the woman asked, no doubt noticing that my backpack was a bit too new looking for a seasoned traveler.
“North Carolina! Were heading over to Yosemite, trying to do some hiking. Do yall know how far it is to get there?” I already knew the answer to that question, but wanted to make some conversation. The woman finished packing something into the cars trunk and turned to face me
“Its not very far, but it might be hard to get a ride at this time of night.” She paused. “We live in Oakhurst, its just a hop way- want a lift?” The womans body language was kind, but I could tell she was unaccustomed to picking up homeless kids and their dogs.
“Oh yeah! That would be awesome. I'm pretty lost out here.” I laughed genuinely, surprised at this turn f events. Oakhurst was a bit south of Mariposa, but would still be a good spot to hitch in with some tourists, circumventing the $10 admission fee. They offered Laika some of the dog food they just bought for their own dogs at home, which she gobbled up thankfully, stopping every few minutes to lick their hands and be appreciative.
Apparently, a dog with a backpack is unique enough to make a lot of people drop their guard around strangers. Its odd how rare it is to see a dog performing a useful task these days, considering that has been their express purpose for thousands of years. It wasnt until the 20th century that “companion dogs” really took hold as a popular idea- a fact that has had an incredibly detrimental effect on breed standards. Once powerful breeds have been turned into anatomical perversions, unable to function without constant human attention . The most famous example is German Shepards, whos rear legs look broken and deformed and trail behind them, making weird hopping motions that earn them the popular description of being “half dog, half frog.”
But not Laika.
Laika was a 45 pound half pitbull, half rhodesian ridgeback powerhouse- mixed genetics gave her a muscular and well adapted body, brown all over with a face that always looked worried. I had rescued her from a South Carolina fighting ring at 7 weeks old, and she was now nearing 6 months. Her backpack was empty, and mine was full of dog food: dogs bones are too soft for about a year. I had gotten Laika for protection and companionship, with the added benefit of being able to carry some weight on her back (eventually). She had made it much harder to hitchike, but I enjoyed sleeping securely at night and having something to deter the railroad bulls from chasing me down.
Laika and I were now heading to Oakhurst, California in the back of a green minivan. We watched the auburn desert turn into green, winding valleys and mountainscapes. I spoke with the couple about yosemite, California, dogs, North Carolina, and where to get good ribs. They were nice enough to drive me through Oakhurst, towards Yosemite on highway 41. There was a fork in the road a sign pointing toward Yosemite and what looked like a steep drop-off on one side of us. They let me out of their car in some diners parking lot. After getting my bearings, I set up my hammock in some steeply sloped forest in the backyard of a rural public theatre. Like most people I met on the road, I never saw that couple again.
The next morning I woke up refreshed. No longer were my legs aching after every day, and I could feel my body become more accustomed to all the walking. There was a nearby spring, and I filled up my dromedary. It was probably about 10 am when I got back to the road and started hitchiking, but I have no way of knowing.
I had only been thumbing for 10 minutes before I met the old man. He skidded into the gravel parking lot in an old Honda and lowered the passengers side window.
“Hop in!” he said with a toothless smile, and waved me inside.
“Oh ya got a dog thar! Thats ok! Come on in! I got a pup!” he held up a small black puppy, probably about 8 weeks old. Everything the man said and did looked to be part of one continuous motion, like he was in a dream and playing his part. I put my pack in the trunk and led Laika to the back seat with the puppy. I sat in the front. He sped off as quickly as he came in.
There was a fork in the road immediately ahead with Yosemite. Instead of going down Yosemite, we turned right. I had assumed that anybody heading this far out would automatically be going to Yosemite; not many people lived in the area. Oh well.
            “So, uh, where are we going?”
“Bass lake! Weve got a family reunion to go to! Oh theres tons of people. Youll love em. Oh yeah theres a big lake, you can swim, you can run, you can climb the trees. Oh we go out here every year!” By now, I had looked around at the car and at him more closely. This man was definitely crazy, I just wasnt sure how crazy yet. His name was Jack, and he was on the white side of sixty. Jack had a glassy look in his blue eyes and spoke with a classic geriatric drawl, the kind that makes me wonder at what age people start to talk like that. Is it like an accent? Do old people learn it and pass it on culturally like nursery rhymes with children? I guess ill find out eventually. I muse inwardly about the concept of nursing home rhymes and stare out the window as the scenery become greener. 

To read part II, go here  

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Catching out: A poem about train hopping

I wrote this poem when I got back from my first trip in order to share the emotions and actions of trainhopping with the uninitiated.  For a complete guide on how to trainhop, please see my guide.

Catching Out

Did you see it?
The third boxcar from the back.
With the side doors open and inviting.
The air around is cool and pregnant, belying the heat sinks of stone
and steel that radiate like infrared torches

Now, when the fears of the moment and my need for security overwhelm me
And I thrust forward into the unknown
with my backpack as counterweight to the overarching energy that steps
and leaps across the coarse gravel
Followed by the paws of a certain dog who gave up uncertainty a long time ago.

The endless serpent of freight train that stretches to the vanishing
point on both ends
Moving forward, grinding, slowing like a steel elephant running through molasses
And I can hear the crash roar clanking of machinery organizing the
stacks of shipping crates in the train yard
With people cars and cranes jostling in the certainty of work
Leaving the philosophy of the moment to spill out unimpeded

The two metal strips with their cleaving wooden ties divide the
knowable and the transcendent,
and with every heaving breath I hope that the other side of the tracks
is as lonesome as this one,
that no Hero will cross over and see my sweating body stumbling into the boxcar.

I follow my chariot, walking beside it until
the iron comes to a blinding stop, and the sections crash into each
other rolling with rabid moving thunder.
With seamless thought and action, lessons learned and absorbed into my movements
I start throwing in my bag and my dog and my expectations,
And I pull myself onto the burning rusted metal floor,
Dragging like a commando until my feet give me assurance that I made it.
I stand up
 and begin the process of trying to put myself in the mind of a rail
worker checking cars for strays.

Shove my hoard into the back left corner, where the shadow from the
halogen lights of the rail yard falls like a wedge on the dusty
surface that breathes to me
But I don’t remember breathing
I don’t remember thinking
I wait
And wait
And wait
Huddled down like a fugitive
Running from machinations less personable than the core of a fired gas
burning locomotive that nurtures me like a mother
I’m waiting for a shit storm that spared me
I wait so long that the time on my watch becomes meaningless, if I had one.

Now, up in the front
I can hear a monster of petrol and electricity pawing the ground, aching to move
Letting out the long and lonesome swan song of the souls of a hundred
union workers
That pierces the atmosphere like a solar flare of sound.
Gaining traction
Mistaking action for persistence
I feel the distant lurch of machine move forward
Pulling it’s lame cargo,
pulling the daisy chain of compartments;
an expanding cacophony of effort and energy
that hits my boxcar like a bullet.

Things begin to move
I feel myself expelled from my stationary prison by some ungodly skyhook
tethered right into my soul, pulling me forward
And the nicotine tinged lights of the city begin to give way to the
starry dynamo and the machinery of night that makes me Howl
and bay like new and wild animal.

I move past alleys and drunks and graffiti on the walls of forgotten
power stations
into a tunnel of trees that blot out the forest on either side
 and I smile, and I smile as big as the empty western sky above me
Luna smiles too, licking and staring out to the rumbling scenery
We are trapped in this moving metal prison
We are free

What's this all about?

           Too many times, I've heard my friends bemoan their place in life, as if they were powerless to affect where they lived and what their lives were like. This kind of hopelessness has become common in our society. We have allowed our lives to become so automated, so dependent on outside order and influence, that we forget how the world works. We forget that each of us was born to adapt- that we are designed to live and thrive in a wide range of environments. Not only do people dull their minds by allowing themselves only one kind of lifestyle, they actually believe that anyone living outside of that social paradigm must be a failure.

            These are the same people who always feel bored. The kind that think the world is generally unfit for a lone traveler, and use their age, gender, or perceived obligations as an excuse. The kind of people who dream of adventure and then sedate themselves with the the vicarious adventure of movies and books. They think the adventure has gone out of the world, that traveling is only for those with unlimited funds or dream jobs.

This is a blog to dispel those myths.

           Adventure is always there for those who truly seek it. Theres an old story:

Pythagoras was an ancient mathematician who ran a school, and one day he was washing his      clothes by the river. From the street, a boy came to him and asked to join his school. Pythagoras asked him
"Are you sure you want to learn?" The boy nodded fervently. 
"Then come out into the water."
 The boy was confused but did not dare defy him. He waded out into the water, shivering a bit at its coldness. Suddenly, Pythagoras grabbed his head and held it under the water. The boy fought and splashed, desperate to get to the surface. Pythagoras let him come up, and the boy coughed and sputtered, breathing heavily. 
"Why did you do that ‽" the boy screamed. 
Pythogras responded fiercly "When you want to learn as much as you wanted air just now, then you can come to my school!"

           Most people are so full of addictions that they  cant even imagine leaving them behind. They spend their lives working for wealth so they can get away from their work. This is not a blog about the virtues of a sedentary life: being homeless does not mean being passive.  By almost all metrics, you will be more active as a nomad than you were in your old life. If there is any kind of activity you want to get better at, you know have the time to do it.  I do not advocate a "simple life"- I advocate simplifying the superfluous parts of life. Sometimes you need to live in Babylon- I do computer research, and its very nice living in a house and going to school sometimes. But what if I decided that, for a while at least, I wanted to focus on something else?
Do I want to learn to sing? write? draw? read? dance? get fit? meditate? Hell, im in the middle of programming a complicated app for google glass and communicating with a research team.             Its all possible on the road. There is no reason to play societies silly games if your goals lie outside them- life can be much more exciting!

           This is a blog about adding color back to a grey tinted life- a boot camp that brings yourself into perspective and forces your mind to live entirely in the moment. Living as a nomad can be a jarring and occasionally uncomfortable experience, but you will grow in ways youve never imagined, and see what the world is really like.
           Do you think you already know how the world really is? If youve never been homeless, then you dont. How could you know? In a normal life, all we see tends to be on the same paths, exchanging one bubble for a new one. Go to school. Go to work. Go home. Go to the store. Go to friends house. Repeat. Sometimes we take a trip somewhere new, or are introduced to a new friend. We savor those moments-  the special things that stand out form the background of sameness. Those are the things we remember. Those are the things we live for.            What if there was a way to remove all the sameness, and just leave the special things? What if it wasnt that hard to do?  What if all you needed was a backpack and your feet? How should you go about it, and whats going to happen when you do?

                                                           Thats what this blog is about.

           So what are you waiting for? Start clicking the links in the upper right to get started- the guides you see are continuously updated, and written from years of experience. Once I get packing again in a week or two, ill be updating my experiences as often as I can!