After Koinonia and Habitat, my life seemed to drop into some kind of vortex.
After a few weeks of erratic spinning, the cosmic blender spit me out, and I crawled up onto the western shores of the continent wet, hungry, and disoriented.
On a less-cosmic plane, I managed, through the long-suffering help of my parents and liquidation of the few material things of value I had accumulated, to get an old and cheap ($700) – but seemingly reliable – Datsun station wagon and head out for Oregon where Connie had gone to visit her sister. I had some vague idea that if I was sufficiently abased, apologetic and charming, we could get things back together. At least I could be in the same city with my young son.
With that vague goal and no plan for how to accomplish it, I set out.
The trip was about as successful as you might imagine.
I ran out of gas on I-20 somewhere in Alabama or Mississippi and had to walk miles to find gas. Then I began to imagine that my right front wheel bearings were going bad – there was this insistent roaring sound. After stopping at a parts store and changing out the wheel bearings in the parking lot, the roaring continued. I was consumed with anxiety until I discovered that when I put my hand on the strap holding a few random things on the top of the wagon, the roaring stopped.
The lessons – and the suffering – were coming fast and furious.
Somewhere along the long drive northwest out of Dallas, heading for Amarillo, the temperature began to drop, snow blowing across the road and through the cracks around my windows. When I noticed it piling up in the empty seat,I got worried. I turned on the radio and discovered that a major blizzard was blowing through and would be dumping feet of snow within hours.
I found the wisdom that is the better part of valor and stopped just after noon at a motel in Amarillo. This is an interesting trip, I thought, as I found a booth in the attached coffee shop and sat back to watch the storm unfold. I didn’t know how interesting it was going to get!
Sitting in the booth, I watched and listened to a number of blizzard stories – cowboys talking about cattle frozen in the fields, drivers talking about impossible road conditions, etc. But one group’s conversation caught my ear.
They were young and urban, and they talked about the destination of their interrupted journey: a relative’s funeral in the east somewhere. Their car, which we watched being towed in to the parking lot, refused to run after they pulled over to the side of the road in heavy snow and shut down the engine. Eventually we learned the car had a cracked block – apparently it had no antifreeze, the reason for which I came to understand later. The teenagers were distraught, as they had no money to pay for expensive repairs, even if it could be repaired, and had no idea how they would continue, or even where they would spend the night.
At that point I volunteered to put them up in my room. They seemed nice enough, and certainly in need. They were so grateful and we sat up late together watching TV as the snow fell. As I listened to their talk during the evening, I pieced together the situation: they were from LA, the car was stolen, and they were buying gas with a stolen credit card. The clincher to my conclusion was the presence of an ominous tool, a steel shaft about 18 inches long with little gripper fingers on one end, a stop on the other end, and a weight that slid along the shaft. One of the boys couldn’t stop playing with this instrument. It was a tool for yanking ignition switches out to facilitate hot-wiring.
I started to worry about what might happen. I had gotten into some good conversation with one of the young girls – I think there were two girls and two guys, though it’s always been a little hazy for me – which proved to be my salvation.
At some point late in the night when I was trying to sleep, I heard a heated discussion among the group. They were arguing about whether they should steal my car next. The girl I had made friends with persuaded them to spare me due to my generosity in giving them shelter, and there were plenty of other cars in the parking lot.
I didn’t sleep the rest of the night, and left early for the coffee shop. At that point, my car was covered in several feet of snow. As I sat in the coffee shop, I saw them come out into the parking lot, ignition stripper in hand, choose a large, snow-free car, jump inside and drive off. Gone in 60 seconds. I considered a police report, but I was so relieved to have them gone I wanted no further involvement.
Besides, I kinda liked them.
When the snow melted mid-afternoon, I got a jump start and was off for Arizona.
I stopped in for a visit in Winslow, with Connie’s parents, and then struck out across the Mojave. Exactly half way between Needles and Barstow, the car stopped going.
It spit and sputtered and lurched for a few miles, and then the engine just stopped, and I coasted to a stop somewhere near the 60-mile marker. It was the middle of the day, luckily in late January, so not so hot, but I had no idea what to do next.
Out of ideas, I stood next to my car with thumb up for hours. It got dark, and I began to wave my flashlight as cars zoomed by.
Just about the time I was sure that I would starve to death here in the Mojave, a pickup truck slowed, braked, and pulled to the side of the road. Inside was a young couple who lived on a boat in Monterey.
They were probably the nicest people in America that day. They took me to Barstow where I found a 6X10 room for the night and considered thanking God for saving my life.
The next day I bought every auto part and fluid I could think of that might possible remedy my poor Datsun’s ills and went to stand on the I-40 on-ramp. My appearance – longish curly hair and beard – was not exactly out of place in California in 1981, but for some reason, no one going East that day gave me a second look. After all day and not even a slow-down, I walked over to a gas station and asked how could I get to my car 60 miles away on I-40.
Just call the Highway Patrol, they’ll come get you, the man said.
He was right. I have forever since loved the California Highway Patrol. In 10 minutes, the officer was there, cheerful, friendly, even great company, and we were at my car in less than an hour.
I installed plugs, points, condenser, inline fuel filter, gas-dry, and a few other items I’ve long forgotten. Something worked. Maybe it just needed to rest, or needed a little TLC. The Datsun started right up and off we went… for a while. In a few miles, the surging began again, so in Barstow I stopped at a repair shop, spent another night, another day, and all my money trying to fix whatever the problem was.
Two mechanics later, nothing worked, but eventually I just gave up and headed for Bakersfield.
Amazingly, I cruised along with only a momentary lurch every few minutes, never sure I would make it to the next town, all the way to Eugene.
I had to stop in Sacramento and pawn a few things, including my beloved typewriter that I’d had since going off to college, but the car just wouldn’t run without gas.
I was very happy to be reunited with my little family after this harrowing trip, and things went well for a while. We talked and we tried to resolve our issues, we tried to be a couple again, but it just wasn’t working.
I thought at the time that I was truly trying to make things work, but the perspective of the years, the experience on the cushion and in life since, have taught me the truth: I was completely consumed by, not just my passion, but by my addiction to self. I think that I must have convinced myself, – and thought I convinced others – using all the deep thinking and fancy words that I had come to rely on, that I was open and kind and compassionate and deeply concerned about deeply important things… and such bullshit on and on as I can hardly even bear to go back and read in my journal!
But the truth is, I was just very self-absorbed and ego-driven, very blind to the truths about myself, very alienated from life and other human beings, extremely ignorant about the causes of my own suffering and the degree to which I was inflicting suffering on all those around me.
In short, I was where most people are before allowing a little light in, but with an extra added dose of over-intellectualized self-righteousness!
I wish I could say that my arrival in Eugene – know locally as The Green Hole – precipitated a sea change in my attitudes and behaviors and I began a serious quest for Enlightenment.
Unfortunately, it took a while longer before light began to dawn in my life.
John, you have me sitting on the edge of my seat, hungering to read more.