Gabriel Morris in India

Gabriel Morris in India
A mysterious cave in south India.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Chapter 15 of "Following My Thumb" (click here for more info)

This is Chapter 15 from my book of travel stories, "Following My Thumb":

"Sweating It Out"

As things turned out, I ended up living for five weeks in the lush rainforests of the Na Pali Coast. I didn’t hike in with my friend Natty, however. Somehow we managed to miss meeting up that day at the convenience store. Instead I hitched to the trailhead and started the hike on my own; only to meet up way with another acquaintance from the meditation ceremony along the way.

It started raining not long after I’d headed up the narrow, muddy trail. The scattered showers steadily accelerated into a constant, unrelenting downpour, which persisted for seemingly unending hours. But at least it was a warm rain. I was hiking along in shorts, rain jacket over a tank top and a pair of sport sandals, and stayed warm enough. After trudging along the muddy trail through the timeless rainstorm, I stopped to rest at a run-down structure alongside the trail, near a small stream that rushed down one of the many green valleys.

I’d completely lost track of time due to the stormy skies. All I knew was that I’d been hiking for hours and was getting weary. The ramshackle wooden structure was missing two walls and most of its floorboards—an abandoned ranger shed, I later found out. But it kept out the worst of the rain, and was much better than sitting in the mud by the trail while I took a break. I set my pack against one of the inside walls and sat down where a few of the remaining floorboards were joined together. While I was munching on some cheese and crackers, someone came hiking up the trail through the deluge, and then walked decisively over to the little shack to join me.

“Hey man, what’s up? Gabriel, right? Remember me? Caleb, from the little gathering yesterday.”

“Oh, yeah—how’s it going?” I said, recognizing him once he pulled down the hood of his rain jacket.

“I’m doing great,” he said. “Lovin’ this storm, keeps you cool while hiking. I hope it clears up tomorrow though, and dries things out. Gets old camping in the rain…So are you sleeping here tonight, too? We could make a fire together. I’ve got a big pot for cooking up some grub.”

“Well, I was hoping to make it all the way out to the Kalapani Valley today,” I said, as he threw down his pack and sat down beside me. “You’re going to sleep here? I was just taking a quick snack break.”

“This is only about the halfway point. We’ve come six miles from the trailhead. It’s another five out to the Kalapani Valley, and it doesn‘t get any easier. It’s already evening, it‘ll be dark in another hour. There’s only one another place to camp along the way, and it’s tough to find unless you know where it‘s at. So I’d say plan to sleep here, unless you feel like hiking in the dark and the rain.”

“Not really…Damn, I didn’t realize it was that late. Oh well, no big hurry of course. I’m just excited to see what it‘s like out there. Thought it would be pretty spectacular to wake up in the morning to the sight of the valley. But I guess I’ll go ahead and crash here with you then, if you don’t mind.”

“Hey, not at all—love the company.”

There was barely enough room for the both of us to lay out our sleeping bags on the few dry planks of wood that were left of the structure’s floor. We made a small fire on the ground nearby from some dry timber lying around inside the shack, and cooked up rice and soup for dinner. We stayed awake for a while, listening to the constant drumming of the rain, staring into the fire and sharing our various wanderings. Eventually we crawled into our warm sleeping bags on the hard wooden planks, as the rain continued pouring down and dripping all around us.

The following day, the rain had given way to clear blue skies. The two of us ate a quick granola breakfast, stuffed our backpacks and continued on our hike through the rainforest. The trail went up and down a series of valleys as it meandered along the Na Pali coastline. Most of these valleys were narrow, steep, crowded thick with jungle and lacking anything resembling a beach. But at the end of the eleven-mile trail, at which point the rugged cliffs became too steep even for the hiking trail to continue, there was a wide, sandy beach and a campground nestled between the ocean and the steep cliffs. Just past the camping area was a pristine waterfall, which made a perfect natural shower. It fell down a sheer rock face that dropped right onto the beach, the official end of the road for us bipeds. Only a few goats (most of them set free from domesticity by the hurricane that hit Kauai in 1992) were brave and agile enough to make it past that point.

Another trail also led inland, away from the beach and the main trail, two miles up into the wide, lush Kalapani Valley. Scattered throughout the valley grew papaya, mango, orange, guava, passion fruit, ginger and a variety of other exotic fruits and vegetables. Apparently there had also been coconut palm trees growing out there at one time. But the rangers had cut them all down to try and keep the likes of us from living in the jungle, since they were a reliable food source. Not that it had worked—as I was soon to find out.

Caleb and I stumbled wearily into the beachside campground later that afternoon, exhausted from two days of hiking one of the most difficult trails in the U.S. We soon found ourselves reenergized however, upon finding others from the meditation ceremony already gathering together for our full moon celebration. They had set up camp at the base of a cliff near the campground, where a large rock overhang provided natural shelter from the rain and wind. There was enough room there for a dozen or so folks to hang out during the day, or else stretch out for the night. And there was a large stone fire pit for cooking meals, complete with a bench made from a broken surfboard and driftwood.

We both gave a hearty “Aloha!” as we strolled up to the camp—and received a round of welcoming hellos and alohas back from the familiar people sitting around the sandy clearing. We quickly unbuckled our heavy backpacks, and with groans of relief and gratitude tossed them into the reddish dirt.

We sprawled out on our packs to relax from our hike and catch up with everyone as to their own adventures getting out to the valley, as well as take in the remarkable beauty of our surroundings. Swaying palm trees were scattered throughout the nearby camping area, and we could easily see and hear the ocean waves crashing nearby. Given our grimy state, the sounds of those waves were soon calling us seductively. Once Caleb and I were feeling rested enough to momentarily get off our asses, we mustered up the gumption to take a swim, both to wash off the dirt and sweat from our disgruntled bodies as well as shift our minds into an entirely different frame of being. We grabbed our towels from the bowels of our backpacks, and limped towards the beckoning water.

We immersed ourselves in the waves with yelps of splendid delight, and then lay placidly on our backs as the gentle waves massaged our aching bodies. The view from the ocean, looking back at the coastline, was staggering. Craggy cliffs towered hundreds of feet above the beachside camping area. We could see our group of friends through the palm trees, hanging out at the base of the cliff overhang. Up the coast a little ways from where we’d just hiked, the gently sloping Kalapani Valley itself rose steadily away from the ocean. And the stunningly rugged, burnt red and deep green cliffs of the Na Pali Coast stretched away from us in both directions, with no signs of roads, houses, antennas, beach umbrellas or other necessities of the modern world. It was as if the rest of civilization were an ocean away. And for all we cared at that point, it could have been and we wouldn’t have minded in the slightest.

I hadn’t planned on spending so long camping in the Kalapani Valley. My flight back to San Francisco left in mid-March, leaving me six more weeks on the Hawaiian Islands. I’d figured I would probably spend a week or so there on the Na Pali Coast, a few days at other spots on Kauai, and then hop over and explore some of the other islands. But out at Kalapani, one day flowed so effortlessly into the next that it was hard just to pack up and leave, without a heck of a good reason for doing so. I figured that if I were enjoying myself right where I was, I might as well just stay there.

And besides, I seemed to have lucked out with the weather. Winter was the rainy season on the Hawaiian Islands, and it generally rained a little every day, often for days or weeks without end. But during my first three weeks in the Kalapani Valley, it was clear, sunny and warm almost every day, with hardly a cloud in the sky. And yet, because it was winter and this wasn’t such an easy place to get to, there were few other people out there other than our rag-tag group of assorted wandering travelers.

In the course of the next few days more people showed up for the full moon get-together—including my friend Natty, who had been delayed by some personal business. Soon there was a group of about fifteen of us all camped out at the base of the cliff. A few more also set up their tents in the official campsites nearby. We cooked up dinner together at the fire pit each night and made music with a few drums, guitars and even a mandolin that someone had hiked in. We spent the days hanging out on the beach in the sun and swimming in the ocean, or else hiking up into the valley to search for fruit or swim in the creek that flowed down through the valley.

As we explored the surrounding area, we all kept our eyes open for a good place to hold our ceremony. Eventually someone found the perfect spot—near where the creek entered the ocean, and a little ways off the main hiking path. Amidst a ring of boulders was a flat, grassy area, which seemed almost to have been designed for such sacred ceremonies. There was plenty of room to build the sweat lodge and a fire pit, and still have room for us to gather around. The creek was close enough to bathe in after sweating and the area was clear of trees or branches overhead, so that we could see the whole of the night sky and the full moon, once it came out.
Some of us had built sweat lodges before and knew the basics of how to do it. We’d come across some green bamboo once while hiking up in the valley, which we figured would work well for building the basic structure. On the day of the full moon we harvested about twenty thin, flexible bamboo branches and took them down to the ceremony site.

It took a handful of us about half a day to construct the sweat lodge. It only needed to be strong enough to hold up a few blankets draped over it, so didn’t have to be a work of engineering perfection. The flexible branches were simply impaled into the ground and then bent over to connect with a stick from the opposite side. These were then tied together in the center, about five feet off the ground. A series of eight pairs of bamboo sticks were each bent over in a circle and tied together in such a fashion. More sticks were then bent and tied around the sides to provide further support.

When finished after just a few hours, it was a small dome about seven or eight feet across—just large enough for a small group to sit huddled inside. The framework was then covered with all of our available blankets, sleeping bags and tarps, to make it as insulated as possible and thus as hot and humid as possible. Like a makeshift sauna, the main purpose of the sweat lodge was simply to get inside, get overheated and sweat. The marked difference between a sauna and a sweat lodge however, is that more than just getting inside and sweating, there is a ceremonial and spiritual aspect to the experience.

While a group of us were busy building the structure, others were collecting armfuls of firewood as well as large lava rocks, which would serve to bring the heat inside the lodge. Later that afternoon, we started a roaring fire in a fire pit, five or six feet away from the entrance to the lodge. Thirty or so of the volcanic rocks were then placed into the raging fire and more wood was laid on top of them. We heated the rocks steadily over the next two hours, as people gathered around the flames both to be warmed and mesmerized by it, as well as watch the sun begin its descent into the ocean.

Once the rocks were good and hot, glowing as red as the setting sun, we began moving them one at a time inside the sweat lodge using a sturdy forked stick. They were placed down in a small hole that was dug into the center of the structure, to keep them away from the bare skin of those inside the lodge. After six or seven hot rocks had been brought inside the sweat lodge, all who wished to participate in the first round proceeded to strip naked, get down on their hands and knees and crawl through the small entrance hole into the darkened lodge. A few people stayed outside to watch the fire, attend to the blankets covering the structure and await the next round.

Once all were huddled inside, the blankets were pulled down to cover the entrance, leaving us in stuffy yet blessed darkness. We could feel the heat emanating from the glowing rocks as we sat blindly in the center of our little circle of friends. Once everyone was sitting cross-legged, facing the hot rocks, a handful of water was poured onto the pile of rocks—and a cloud of hot steam rose upwards to greet our faces and naked bodies. This was when things really started to heat up, and the actual sweating began.

As water was poured, handful by handful onto the rocks, the small lodge became hotter and hotter. It took a good while, perhaps twenty or more minutes, for the heated rocks to lose their heat, even when pouring cold water over them. The small space seemed to get smaller and smaller as the steam enveloped us, and some huddled towards the coolness of the ground. The point of the sweat lodge wasn’t just to warm up and sweat a little, but to be challenged beyond one’s comfort level, and even beyond what a person might think they could endure. Anyone could leave at any time if they felt they needed to. But we all wanted to go deep within ourselves and find the strength to endure and to learn from the challenging environment.

We went around the circle and made prayers, or else gave thanks for whatever we felt grateful for in our lives. A bottle of water was passed around, for those who needed to cool their throats or faces. If it got to the point where it seemed too hot to bear any longer, there was always the option of putting one’s face down in the cool grass, and perhaps finding a little air leaking through from the outside. Or else one could simply pray to Great Spirit or whatever higher power a person might recognize, for additional strength to endure the intense heat through to the very end. Sometimes humility and surrender to the moment at hand can give the necessary endurance to make it through what may seem an unbearable situation. This was one of the important aspects of the sweat lodge ceremony—to be reminded of both our potential inner strength and power, as well as how small we really are in the face of the natural elements.

We all made it through the first round, though not without plenty of moaning and praying. As the rocks eventually began to cool, the last of the water was poured onto them for a final burst of steam on our hot, dripping bodies. At last, we yelled to the people outside that we were done, and someone came to lift the blankets away from the entrance. A flood of cool air blew in on us as the blankets were lifted, and at the same time we were all dazzled by the sparkling light of the campfire. We proceeded to crawl out of the lodge one at a time, grateful for the refreshing night air and light of the fire. Stumbling a little with lightheadedness, we filed down to the nearby creek to dunk our bodies in the cool water, and rinse off the sweat and dirt.

Meanwhile, the lodge was being prepared for the second round, as more hot rocks were brought inside by those who had been attending the fire. Anyone who hadn’t participated in the first round then crawled into the lodge. Then someone yelled down to those of us at the creek that there was still some room left inside. A few went back for another round, while others warmed up beside the fire. This process was repeated throughout the evening as the full moon crested the cliffs to rise above us; and finally the last of the hot, glowing rocks was taken from the dark red coals of the fire, hours later.

"Following My Thumb: A Decade of Unabashed Wanderlust" tells of my travels throughout the 1990s to Europe, the western U.S., Alaska, Hawaii and India. Click the subject line at the top of this page for more info.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Ganesh Made Me Do It (click here for more of Gabriel's writings)

This is the first two chapters of a book I started last summer, tentatively titled "Ganesh Made Me Do It", that is a mix of fiction and non-fiction. Some of it is directly from my own travels and assorted experiences, and a lot of it is pure fantasy (like pretty much all of the first chapter, except that I did hitchhike across Nevada in the middle of summer once...but I was going the other direction, and no pretty girls in RVs came along to give me a ride). However the book has been neglected and there are only a few more chapters after the two that I've included here. One of these days I do hope to continue from where I've left off because I like where this is going. Maybe I just need some more traveling experiences in order to have more ideas to draw from, we'll see...

Chapter 1. A skinny dip…

The day began with thumb unfurled to the world, ready for action, shirt off under the blazing blue sky, eyes half open behind the protective shield of my sunglasses, and a hazy, sluggish mind from intermittent sleep through the desert heat of a simmering July night. Where I’d slept wasn’t far from where I stood, on Highway 50 somewhere a long ways east of Fallon, lost in the heart of the lonely state of Nevada.

Somehow, that loneliness was heightened more during the light of day, without the comforting blanket of myriad twinkling stars to ponder overhead. It was just my lone soul, the great expanse of wide-open starkness, and a thin sliver of road leading me onwards. And, based on the previous day, a car roughly every half hour, that brought only a glimmer of hope as it approached from across the expanse, for what seemed an eternity of longing before it finally flew by at a mile a minute, with nary a smile nor faintest teardrop of humanity to spare a bedraggled, sullen traveler; and I was thrown back into the despair of the lonely road.

Okay, so maybe I was getting a little melodramatic. I’d spent maybe four hours hitchhiking there the previous evening, before bagging it and crawling into my sleeping bag under the stars. I had food, I had water. Hitching had never failed me before, and surely it wouldn’t this time, no matter how scorching the desert sun might become. The pavement I stood beside was my umbilical cord to civilization, and one way or another it would provide the sustenance and guidance I sought. Or at least, so I hoped.

A crow flew not too far overhead, and cawed. I looked up, squinting into the sun, whistled towards it and it turned and came back. Were crows normally out in the middle of the vast, empty desert? It cawed again as it peered down at me cock-eyed, a faint glimmer of pity in its eyes. No doubt I was the one who looked sorely out of place.

I cupped my hands over my mouth and shouted in its direction:

“Hello, Mr. Crow, how are you today?”

It continued on its way with no need to look back.

For a long while, nothing happened.

Then, off in the distance, a speck of movement materialized out of the east. This was what I was waiting for, since I was westerly bound. It shimmered and grew until it revealed itself to be a brownish mini-van, flying along with reckless ambitions of speediness.

As it grew closer, I heard a heartbeat. It was pulsing with music, which I heard long before I picked up the sound of the engine. As it came closer, I realized it was one of my favorite songs: “Shake Your Hips” by the Rolling Stones. The windows were apparently rolled down, blasting the euphoric mix of drums, sax and bass into the desert. I began to nod my head and shake my leg in rhythm. As it neared, I raised my thumb high overhead, drumming my leg with my other hand, staring down the vehicle with an aura of coolness mixed with desperation, hoping my evident enjoyment of their music would translate into mutual camaraderie or perhaps compassion on their part.

If it did, it failed to produce the desired result. They flew by as a cacophony of mayhem piercing the subtle sounds of the desert. The van was occupied by five crazed-looking twenty-something guys all with squiggly, dark hair, who seemed on the verge of exploding from how vigorously they were singing along to the song in unison. As they passed, they all simultaneously stuck their arms out of the windows, and gave me a huge thumbs-up and a massive yell:


It wasn’t entirely clear if they were offering enthusiastic encouragement, or else mercilessly mocking me. I turned with my thumb still held in the air as they continued down the road in the other direction and saw, spray-painted sloppily on the back of the van, the words: “Cocky Mystery Crew world tour!!!” Whether they were a rock band, circus act or kinky sex show of some kind would, true to their name, remain a mystery.

Back to the silence of the desert, torn asunder by the momentary outburst of perverted humanity. The infectious song was driven firmly into my subconscious, leaving me shaking with the urge to dance. Unfortunately, the lyrics to that song were completely unintelligible, other than the “shake your hips” part; so that I was unable to fill the limitless void around me with even a lame attempt at a Mick Jagger impersonation. Instead, I just jumped and hopped around on the highway for a while, with the occasional yip for good measure; until the incessant, all-consuming silence took over once again and the music slowly faded from my mind.

The crow came back, and again cawed. I echoed back with a feeble caw of my own.
Another car came down the road, this time from the west, heading from whence I’d come, no use to me other than a comforting reminder that humankind was in fact still in existence. It was a shiny, silver Lexus, a clean-cut looking businessman behind the wheel, shrouded in sunglasses of his own. I stood there in solemn, shirtless intensity, only a tapping finger remaining from the previous, peculiar automotive passing. He looked at me curiously, his head cocked momentarily not unlike the crow’s, as he flew by like a dazzling silver bullet. I raised a hand and gave a little wave, and he nodded back with a subdued gesture of acknowledgment.
And again, for a while, nothing happened.

Finally, I detected another movement out of the east. Something subtle fluttered within my bowels. Perhaps this was my ticket out of there. I hoped and prayed, as the faint speck of a vehicle emerged from the horizon and drew ever closer. Or lumbered, I should say. It was an RV, painted the precise, colorless beige of the desert. My heart and thumb sank. Catching a ride in an RV was about as likely as being picked up by a passing UFO.

The awkward vehicle careened towards me at breakneck speed. It was weaving all over the highway. I grabbed my backpack and stepped off the road a little ways, in case it veered towards me. I couldn’t quite see who was inside because of the tinting of the windows. I raised my arm half-heartedly. It flew past…and then screeched to a halt about a hundred yards down the road, and began backing up. Deliverance!

I grabbed my pack and sprinted to meet it, as it came to a teetering halt.

I reached up to the passenger door and threw it wide open, met by a blast of refrigerated air. A lone woman sat in the driver’s seat staring down at me, a vision of beauty. Long dark hair, dark eyes, soft, kind face with feminine lips, a red tank top plastered to her torso and a flowery, flowing pink and purple dress enveloping both her lower half and the seat.

“Hey there, hitchhiker man, where you headed?” she said straightforwardly.

“Reno!” I said, as I lifted a leg onto the step up to the seat, and hovered in a fleeting, tangled moment of anticipation and dread as I awaited her reply–thumbs up or thumbs down.

“Great! I’m going to Tahoe, so I can get you there. Hop on up, you must be ready to get out of that glaring sun.”

“Oh man, tell me about it.”

I hauled myself up out of my potentially imminent demise, squeezed my pack between the seats, slammed the door shut and relaxed back into the blissful embrace of chilled brown leather.

She gave me a brief, delicate glance, and somehow a glint of sunlight reflected off one of her teeth, almost blinding me in a brilliant flash that induced in me an overpowering drunken giddiness. My abrupt transition from outcast desert flotsam to basking in the gaze of an air-conditioned RV goddess was more than I was prepared for. Good thing I had the sunglasses to hide behind, as I laid back and tried to act normal.

She hit the gas and we shot forward.

“So, how the hell did you end up right there? I haven’t seen a road or anything for miles.”

“Well…yesterday I got a ride a ways back, I forget the town…oh yeah, Ely I think…with this guy that was going to some business conference in San Fran. All of a sudden he realized he’d forgotten his portfolio, or something or other, and he had to turn around right there and drive all the way back to Salt Lake City.”

“Bummer! For both of you.”

“Yeah. No shit. I’m not sure which one of us was more screwed.”

She’d continued weaving back and forth all over the road as we flew along.

“Why the wacky driving?” I asked, since upon further observation it seemed deliberate.

“I don’t know. I figure with all this road to spare and hardly anybody on it, might as well make use of it.”

“Okay, I guess that makes sense,” I replied…which of course it didn’t.

“I’m Allison, by the way,” she said as she took her right hand off the wheel and gently glided it towards me. “Allison Stoic.”

“Interesting name. I’m Jacob Caulfield, Jake, either way, whatever…” I replied as our hands met and embraced, and I drifted further towards a state of unrepentant delirium. She slid her hand back towards the wheel.

“So what’s in Reno?” she asked.

“I’m going to visit my brother and sister-in-law,” I said. “Other than that, not too much.”

“Where are you hitching from?”

“Well, I was at this bluegrass festival in Colorado, in Telluride. I live in Portland, Oregon, but I took a couple weeks off work for a mid-summer traveling adventure. So, I’m making my way back home. Just five more days of freedom.”

“Cool, that sounds like fun! I love bluegrass music too.”

“Oh yeah, good times, for sure. We boogied our butts off.”

She glanced over at me again and smiled.

“So what’s the deal with the RV?” I asked. “Anybody else in here, sleeping in the back or something?”

“Nope. I’m all on my own. I’m actually getting paid to deliver this thing to somebody in California, in Tahoe like I said. I found out about the gig online. I’m actually from Alaska. I’m an archeologist normally, but I also fight forest fires during the summer. It’s great money, ‘cause you get hazard pay and plus it’s pretty exciting. So they call you up and tell you, ‘We’ve got a fire in such-and-such place’ and then you have just a day or two to hop on a plane and get down there. I was in New Mexico for two weeks fighting fires there. You probably heard about them on the news, they were friggin’ huge! But it’s all contained now. So then I found this thing with the RV, had to get myself up to Durango to pick it up, and then set up a flight back home, flying out of San Fran.”

“Crazy,” was all I could think to say.

Silenced gripped us both for a time, as we watched the stream of desert solitude rushing past.

“Hey, you want to go skinny-dipping?” she suddenly burst out.

“Who, me?” I blurted.

And, ‘Are you fucking kidding me?’ I thought.

And then, regaining some scant measure of composure: “Yeah, that sounds great. I could stand to wash off some grime, that’s for sure.”

“Alright, next time we see a river, we’re finding a good swimming hole.”

A long, long hour of sporadic conversation pierced by rampant romantic visions later, we crossed a bridge over a cool, clear, green river. A gravel road on the other side of the bridge followed the water, and she turned onto it. We drove about a mile upstream, and came to a pull-off alongside the road. It continued onwards from there towards a hunched group of hills on the horizon, which offered negligible evidence of justification for the road’s continuance. But if it had been my rig and I wasn’t destination-bound elsewhere, I would certainly have been tempted to keep the pedal on the metal and find out. I mean, after the skinny-dipping.

She pulled over, turned off the car…and then stretched her bare, tanned arms high above her head, as she let out a soft groan of exquisite release and then turned her head to sniff her own armpit.

“Yep, getting stinky. I could definitely stand to wash off. That water is gonna feel damn gooooood, don’t you think?”

“Oh yeah…No doubt about that,“ I said, as I adjusted my sunglasses.

We both glanced down towards the river, flowing languidly a little ways below the road.

“You need a towel?” she asked as she turned towards me, bringing a hand down to brush her cascading, velvety hair back behind her ear.

“I’m all set, got one in my pack here, somewhere.”

I dug around until I found it, as she reached back and grabbed a bright orangeish towel from behind my seat. Then we flung open the doors to confront the suffocating intensity of mid-summer’s-day middle-of-Nevada heat. It was far more intense now than when I’d been standing in it for hours, after being softened up by the soothing air conditioning.

“Fucking crap, it’s hot!” she said.

We followed a narrow, dusty path that led down to the river, where a thin strip of sandy beach nestled against the water. We paused there in the piercing sunlight for a moment, as we took in the peaceful, barren surroundings. Besides I wasn’t quite sure of protocol in this situation. Should I start undressing first, or politely wait for her to initiate the nakedness?

Screw it. I was halfway there already anyway. I unlaced my sneakers and chucked them into the sand, eased out of my jeans, socks and underwear simultaneously, and tossed the sunglasses onto the jumbled pile. Then I stepped without further hesitation into the delicious coolness of the river. I immersed myself with a pleasant, sanguine groan and backstroked out to the middle, though I could still touch the shallow, gravelly bottom. I looked back at her with a contented smile; only because, of course, she happened to be standing where I was looking.

“It’s so damned sweet!” I said. “You coming in?”

This was the moment of truth. The ultimate hitchhiker’s dream was materializing before my very eyes. It didn’t get any better than this, if you were luckier than a leprechaun in a rainbow-emblazoned field of four-leafed clovers.

“Of course!” she said, as she reached down to unbuckle her sandals. They found a home on the beach beside my tattered blue Nike’s. She looked towards my bobbing head in the undulating waters, and then the red tank top was whisked up and away and settled onto the sand. The flowing dress and undergarments came, slowly, down to her ankles as she wiggled her hips back and forth, and then she stood tall, brushed back her hair away from her face and stepped out of the flowery pile. And with that, there was nothing left to hide her glorious, dark-haired perfect womanhood.

I gazed from the corners of my dripping eyelids upon her luscious beauty, and she didn’t seem to mind. She stepped into the water, and settled in up to her waist as she drifted slowly towards me, all four of her eyes staring at me (and no, I’m not talking about glasses).

She gave a look of longing as she approached. Clearly we were thinking the very same thing. Her lips seemed to part, as her arm emerged from the water to reach towards my cheek. I moved through the river towards her to close the gap, knowing it was meant to be. My hand reached out and touched her moistened hair, as her trembling lips pouted and pursed in vulnerable surrender. I grasped her tender waist with my other arm beneath the water, pulled her towards me as our naked bodies converged…and our lips hastened towards ultimate sensual union.

It was right about then that an incessant blaring noise came out of nowhere, a high-pitched screech filled my ears, and something heavy slammed into my head. And then, tragically, I woke up.

Chapter 2. Back in the real world…

‘Damn!’ I thought, as reality seeped into my groggy consciousness, and I opened my eyes to the morning light shining upon my cluttered, cramped studio. The yowling sound had ceased, but the blaring continued. Ah, yes, my alarm. I reached over and hit snooze. Looking around my room, I saw my cat Pumpkin (he’s orange and roundish) sitting on the carpet, licking himself. A weighty copy of Steinbeck’s East of Eden was lying on the bed right next to my face, staring at me. I’d been meaning to read it for years. Finally, in frustration over being neglected, it had apparently attacked me.

I pieced the evidence together and figured out what had most likely happened: Pumpkin had been sitting atop the bookcase next to my bed when my alarm went off, sending him scurrying frantically with a feline howl, in the process dumping the nearest book directly onto my dozing personage, resulting in the shattering of a perfectly good hitchhiker’s dream. In short, it was a veritable quandary of perfectly orchestrated events, with catastrophic consequences to my love life. Although, the dream at least would have come crashing down anyway, regardless of the placement of my cat, due to my alarm’s robotic insistence that the day’s duties were about to begin.

I reached over to the bedside table and turned on my walkie-talkie. It hummed and lit up, and emitted a confident beep. I pushed the talk button and uttered sleepily into it:

“Jake to base. I’m ready to roll…” (which, obviously, I wasn’t).

A couple seconds later I heard back, “Gotcha Jake, we got nothin’ yet. I’ll let you know when something comes in.”

With that, I was on the clock; though I wasn’t actually getting paid yet, since we were paid on a per delivery basis, plus tips. I worked as a delivery guy for a local service that contracted with assorted area restaurants to bring their dishes to homes and businesses around the greater Portland area. Think advanced pizza delivery, with a cultural medley of 150 different restaurants to choose from.

Ostensibly, when I called in I was supposed to be ready to hit the road at a moment’s notice. But it could be two minutes before they sent me something, or an hour, since the lunch rush usually got off to a slow start. Just depended on how hungry the city was. I preferred to maximize my precious shut-eye. I mean, it was the crack of 10:30. I turned over and went back to sleep.

Twenty minutes later, the walkie-talkie beeped again and a voice blared out:

“Okay, Jake man, head on down to Yummy Garden Chinese.”

“Ten-four, Bob, heading that way.”

The flurry began as I tore away my blanket, rushed to the bathroom, splashed some cold water on my face and hair, pulled on pants, socks, shoes, shirt and a warm jacket (despite my dream, it was late fall), threw my portable breakfast of raw oats and raisins in my backpack and headed out the door, less than five minutes after the onset of consciousness.

The job was a frenetic adrenaline rush that paid the bills and then some, thanks to the generous tipping of Portlanders. If I ever felt inclined to write a book about it, which is doubtful, it would be called Adventures in Creative Parking. I confess, my flagrant violations of parking and other vehicular laws occurred on a more than hourly basis.

My favorite, shining instance of delivery heroism (depending on your perspective) occurred late one evening when I was stuck behind a line of other cars in the southeast industrial part of town, waiting for a train to go by. After the train had passed, the flashing red lights continued blinking, and the traffic arms refused to raise. Five minutes later (in delivery terms, an eternity) traffic still wasn't being allowed to resume. Something was stuck.

I eked myself out of the line of cars, turned around and headed back the other way. Two blocks later I took a left turn onto another through street, heading away from the direction the train had been going, hoping I'd find another place to cross the tracks. No luck, since all the other crossings were still flashing their red lights.
In an act of strategic gambling, desperation and unbridled testosterone, I turned onto a one-way street going the wrong way, and sped down it a full two blocks. No cars were on the other side waiting to cross the train tracks. I was able to shimmy my trusty Subaru around the traffic arm, cross over the tracks and continue up the street without incident back to busy Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, to make the delivery on time. What they didn't know (my managers, the customer and the cops) wouldn't hurt them. And as I mentioned, we were paid per delivery. The quicker the better. Sometimes you had to tweak the risk/benefit ratio a little in order to get out of a jam, and make a living.

But I wouldn't be a steely-nerved, slightly maniacal delivery man for much longer. A week later, I was departing the country and putting my life on indefinite pause for an extended traveling adventure to India and other far flung exotic destinations. I can't tell you the purpose of the trip, since it was shrouded somewhat in cryptic mystery even to me. You see, I was told to go there by a god. No, not by the big 'G' God. I've never talked to him (excuse me, Him). Rather, Ganesh told me to go¬–the full-bellied, fun-loving, elephant-headed "remover of obstacles" in Hindu mythology.
You see, ever since I'd taken a class on world religions back in college, Ganesh had been appearing before me at random, generally inconvenient times. Basically, he was stalking me. Sometimes it was to preach his ways of wisdom. Others, he was clearly just bored and lonely and needed someone to hang out with. Occasionally he would appear to offer specific advice or urgent instructions, which usually involved cajoling me into doing something I had zero intention of doing.

He once convinced me to shave my eyebrows, with no explanation as to what purpose it would serve. The day after doing so, I was standing in line at my favorite Mexican restaurant, waiting to order a plate of chicken enchiladas. After picking up my order to go, I headed out of the restaurant. A punk was standing in line, with a razor-sharp, jet black Mohawk, piercings in all apparent orifices and dangling parts, purple eye shadow, dressed head to toe in tight black studded leather and knee-high combat boots, polka-dotted tattoos all over his exposed head, and another tattoo straight across his forehead that read: "Death or New Jersey"; which, upon consideration, seemed a grammatically deficient statement since it wasn't clear, to me at least, whether New Jersey was then being equated with death or else was the antithesis of death…I guess he hadn't thought that one through completely.

He gave me a quizzical look as I rushed past.

"Dude, what the hell happened to your eyebrows?" he said.

This guy was in no position to be implying that I looked strange. I pondered for a few dozen milliseconds how to respond, and decided to go with the plain truth.

"Ganesh made me do it."


"It's a long story..."

With that I rushed out the door, hopped in my car and sped off.

Three blocks later, at the next intersection, I was about to fly through it on a green light when two sports cars went careening across the intersection in front of me at breakneck speed, against the red, one furiously chasing the other. I missed them by perhaps twenty feet. A policeman parked in a nearby parking lot saw what had happened, and took off after them.

If it hadn't been for the few seconds I was delayed on account of the punk and my shaven eyebrows, me and my silver Subaru would have been one indistinguishable jumble of crushed and twisted metal amidst a three-car pile-up. Of course, I would have preferred a simple word of warning whispered into my ear to slow down a little, since those eyebrows took forever to grow back. But, the gods work in convoluted ways.

Ganesh wasn't always so helpful…such as the time he appeared next to the dinner table while I was on a first date with this girl I was seriously attracted to. I did my best to ignore him. But he was rambling on about how he'd lost his rat which, oddly enough, is what he rides on to get around. He thought maybe the little bugger had scurried off to the kitchen to nibble on some crumbs, and was worried he might be mistaken by the chefs as a regular, ungodly rat and swiftly caught or poisoned or who knew what. And then how would he get his portly frame to and fro?

I couldn't help finally trying to shut him up and shoo him away; which I then had to try and explain to my date was just a nervous reaction to the Coke I was drinking, since I didn't normally have caffeine. Needless to say, I didn't get even a kiss, let alone another date out of her. Ganesh said she was just going to break my heart anyway. But as far as I was concerned, it would have been worth it with her for even one good make-out session.

Speaking of women…It was later that day, following the Pumpkin alarm incident, that I got to thinking as I continued making my deliveries around town. Who was this Allison Stoic? Of course, it was just a dream. But something about her presence within my mind was so familiar and yet elusive, as if we’d perhaps seen each other briefly on a train sometime long ago, exchanged glances and maybe a smile, and that was all.

Her sweet, tender image stayed with me, even as I wrapped up the week with last minute errands, packed up my apartment and travel gear, made a flurry of phone calls to friends and family and prepared myself for the great unknown of a voyage to a profoundly foreign land, for a journey whose ultimate purpose was yet to be revealed.

Excerpt from I Leapt Into the Night (click here for more info)

This is another one of the stories from my book of fictional short stories, "I Leapt Into the Night, And Ten Other Stories"...

"The Old Man Under the Tree"

In between the two mountains was a wide valley, and in the middle of the valley was a vast field. In the middle of this field stood a single solitary tree, on which there were no leaves. Beneath this tree, sitting against it, lay a very old man, who appeared to be sleeping.

His hands were folded across his chest and he was wearing a hat, which was tilted forward on his head so that it covered his eyes. The sun shone down upon him (which, coincidentally, is precisely why the hat covered his eyes). He was indeed sleeping. His lips, barely perceptible beneath the thick gray beard that crept down his chin and neck, pursed in and out from the flow of air through his lungs; which also caused his stomach and his hands resting upon it to rise slowly and then fall again every few moments.

He wasn’t breathing rapidly, of course, since he wasn’t doing much of anything. He was merely lying there beneath the tree, enjoying the warmth of the sun, breathing so as to stay alive, while some other part of himself was somewhere far away in dream-world. But, that dream-world reality isn’t of concern since, to the observer, there was just an old man lying there beneath a tree (speaking of which, that observer shall soon become apparent).

Once, the old man reached up his hand—his left hand, since it was on top of the other one—from his stomach to his eyebrow, which he scratched twice. Then he put his hand back in the same position it had been before. He had scratched his eyebrow it because it itched. This was typical behavior for him. Once, he had been very thirsty, so he drank some water. He also had a tendency to nap when he was tired, as you may have noticed.

The grass near the tree moved ever so subtly, because there was a slight breeze. This breeze was so slight that the old man didn’t even notice it. But even if he had, he probably wouldn’t have done anything about it, because this would have been against his nature. He did very few things he was not accustomed to doing, such as acting on the weather. The wind could blow if it wanted to, he figured. And he was quite right.

There were some very small bugs alighted on the grass, however, who did in fact notice the wind and were trying their best to do something about it, since in their case the cause happened to be affecting them. Most of them simply flew from one leaf of grass to another, so as to find the best one possible for bracing against the wind. This was typical behavior for bugs, and most of them were quite typical. One slightly atypical bug, however, chose a different course of action. It decided, for unknown reasons, to fly above the grass and all of the other bugs over to the tree, to the old man beneath the tree, where it landed on his eyebrow. This is precisely the reason why the old man had scratched it.

The old man, because of his age—which was very great as far as humans were concerned (which they were)—had gray hair upon his head that was thinning, and this was why he wore a hat. His hat was small and round and black, and when he wore it, it covered up his gray hair. But with the hat tilted forward, some of his thinning gray hair—which was also slightly curly—could be seen. But he didn’t mind this, since he assumed that no one would be watching him as he napped. And he was indeed correct, that no person was watching him. But then, he was only partially correct due to the simple fact that he was, in fact, being watched. Yes, truth can certainly be quite confusing. One more good excuse for napping.

The tree under which the old man was lying was a walnut tree. Although it had on it no leaves, it did have on it a few walnuts which hung sparsely from the bare branches, dried from the sun. And though these walnuts had lost their value as nourishment, they still did remain suitable as devices for awakening peculiar characters, who sat suspiciously under lonely trees in the middle of vacant valleys.
For atop this tree, unknown to the old man since he was fast asleep, sat a very small and yellow bird who was eyeing the old man with intense curiosity. If the bird, who was a she, had translated her thoughts into human terms, they would have went something along the lines of:

“Why in the world is there an old man lying beneath a walnut tree asleep in the middle of a valley, where there seems to be no apparent reason for his being?”
Her thoughts only appeared as images within her fragile mind, but the picture created was one of genuine confusion and curiosity at the quandary before her.

Now, if this little bird had been the old man, she probably would not have chosen to do anything at all about the situation, given the old man’s character. He would have just continued down the valley on his way, minding his own business (assuming that he actually had a way, or any business to mind).

But as it happened, she wasn’t the old man at all. Instead she was a very small and yellow bird who was curious, and who wanted to know why this old man was lying beneath a lone tree in the middle of this forsaken valley.

And so, with all these factors in consideration, she decided she would attempt to find the answer to her question, having nothing else pressing to do in that moment. And being a fairly intelligent little bird, she reasoned that the first step in discovering an answer to this riddle would be to wake the old man up, so as to properly converse with him. This was part of her nature, being direct and forthright.

Quite conveniently—as mentioned just a moment ago—there was upon this tree with no leaves a number of walnuts, which seemed almost perfectly designed to serve the purpose that the little yellow bird was willing to choose for them.

With swiftness and dexterity, she flew from her perch on a branch over to one of the walnuts, grabbed it with her beak, broke it off the branch in one precise motion, and then hovered over the old man, peering at him down through the branches until she had determined that her aim was accurate. Then, she dropped the walnut. It fell assuredly through the slightly-moving air, missing branches left and right, and then hit the old man squarely on the head, right where his gray hair showed.

The old man jumped suddenly from his place of resting. For an old man, he was still quite agile. But in the process of jumping he knocked off his hat and gray hair could be seen growing all over the top of his head. He reached up and scratched the top of his head, since that was where the walnut had struck him. And then he bent over slowly to the ground, picked up his hat and put it back on top of his head, where it most certainly belonged.

The little yellow bird, having accomplished her mission of waking him up, watched the old man regain his balance and recover from the blow of the walnut. And then, once she assumed that he was listening, she leaned over ever so slightly and said to him:

“Why, old man, are you1ying beneath a tree in the middle of a field in the middle of a valley where there seems to be no darned good reason for your being here?”

The old man, however, did not hear. He was too busy straightening his hat and dusting off his clothes. The bird assumed then that he was either rude or stupid, so she asked him a second time:

“Old man, why are you lying beneath a tree in the middle of a field in the middle of a valley where there seems to be no good reason whatsoever for your being here?”

Again, the old man did not hear. He was busy rubbing his eyes and attempting to ascertain where exactly he was. He had just woken up from a long and extremely pleasant nap, and wasn’t exactly sure why he had been woken, or even why precisely he had woken up in the place that he presently was, given that it was so far away from the dream-world from which he had just come.

The bird, however, took him for being a fool who hadn’t understood a word she had said. She figured then, that the most effective way to deal with a fool was to try everything at least twice, if not more. So she flew over to a bundle of walnuts, broke off one of them with her beak, and then hovered over the old man and, with careful and deliberate aim at that part of his anatomy which stuck out rather monstrously from the rest of his face, she opened her beak and let it go.

The old man had just remembered why he was where he was, and was just getting ready to announce it out loud so as to reassure himself and anyone else who happened to be listening, when he heard a rustling overhead, in the branches of the tree under which he stood.

He looked up in order to understand the cause of the rustling—and at that moment a walnut falling from the sky struck him squarely on the nose. He was so stunned that he fell backwards, landing abruptly in the dirt, bruising his butt and forgetting what it was that he was about to announce.

The yellow bird sitting in the tree, upon seeing the dramatic effect resulting from her actions once again, couldn’t help but burst out laughing.

The old man, upon hearing a strange, high-pitched noise coming from above, looked up from his seat on the ground, to see a very small and yellow bird clinging to a branch of the tree above him, chirping away like he had never seen a bird chirp before. To him, as strange as it might seem, it appeared almost as if the bird were laughing at him. And he did not like this. He also realized, with a sudden stroke of insight, that the bird may very well have been the cause for his awakening, as well as the bulging bruise that was now forming at the very end of his nose. He became furious, and decided to tell the bird so. He lifted himself up from the ground, stood up straight and tall, fixed his hat, pulled up his pants with both hands, and then raised a feeble fist and exclaimed in a most ferocious and assertive tone:

“You blasted yellow bird, what do you think you are doing? Are you mocking me?”

The yellow bird, upon seeing the old man roar with such anger and ferocity, felt a very small amount of fear. But instead of flying off right away, she chose to stand her ground, since she found the old man to be quite a peculiar character and she wished to discover a little more about him. Also, she was rather mesmerized by the strange and explosive effects of her actions on him, and she wondered if perhaps a third walnut would do something even more extraordinary. So she flew over to another walnut, grabbed it in her beak, broke it from the branch and then, hovering over the old man, who was still shaking his fist and cursing, she dropped the walnut.

The old man, so involved in his ferocity, failed to notice the actions of the yellow bird until it was too late, and another walnut had struck him squarely in his left eye, causing him to go temporarily blind. He yowled, clutched his hands to his eye, jumped in the air and ran in sporadic, hobbling circles in an effort to escape the pain. When the pain had subsided somewhat, he ceased his yowling, stopped hobbling in circles, and slowly took his hands away from his eyes. He looked, once again, up into the tree: to see a large dark splotch on the left, and a very small and yellow bird on the right, clutching a branch and chirping away hysterically.

At this he became undeniably enraged. Shaking his finger at the bird he muttered, “You just wait, I’ll get you for this.” And then he hobbled over to the trunk of the tree. After slight confusion between it and the large dark splotch, he lifted a foot to a bump on the trunk that acted as a foothold, reached up his hands to the branches, grabbed them and, putting all of his elderly strength into this one movement, hoisted himself up into the tree—almost falling to the ground, but not quite. Within a few moments he was sitting on one of the branches, breathing heavily, clutching his left eye with one hand and his hat with the other.

The little yellow bird, as she sat on her branch laughing away at the ridiculous sight of the old man howling in pain, was quite surprised to see him so quickly bring himself from the safety of the ground below, up almost to her level in such a short time. She abruptly ceased her laughing and looked at the old man in a much different light. There he sat, huffing and puffing on a tree branch, much as she had been only a moment before, regaining her own breath from laughter. She eyed the old man with deep curiosity, for he was indeed a peculiar character. She wondered for a moment if perhaps he was a messenger from another world, who had come here to ask her to join him in Paradise. She had heard of a place called Paradise, and it sounded like a very nice place. It occurred to her that maybe she should have been just a little bit more respectful towards this old man who slept in valleys and climbed into trees.

At that moment, the old man, who had now caught his breath, turned his head towards the little yellow bird and glared into her little eyes with great anger and intensity. The little bird was so surprised that she jumped backwards from sheer fear, and landed on the branch behind her. At that she forgot completely her notion that he was a messenger from Paradise, and decided instead that he was a messenger from a place very unlike Paradise, where there were probably more people like himself, with terribly menacing eyes and protruding proboscises and that she should do her best to get as far away from him as possible. However, she was so filled with fear now that she found she couldn’t even move.

The old man looked up at the little yellow bird sitting only a few feet away from him, and he smiled. He had witnessed her hop from one branch to another. He knew that any bird that could would have certainly flown far away by now. And so, in response to this, he ever so carefully shifted his position, stuck out an arm and a leg and moved one branch closer to the yellow bird.

The yellow bird was so consumed with fear that still she couldn’t fly away. All she could do was hop. So she hopped up to another branch a little bit higher in the tree, which was at least better than staying in the same place.

The old man, not being quite as dexterous in the ways of maneuvering through tree branches, was able to move only one branch at a time as well despite his greater size and length, and so this is what he did. He reached up, grabbed the branch above him and pulled himself up, so that he was as close to the bird as he had been before.

The little yellow bird, seeing that the old man had managed to move closer, did her best to move away. But, still lacking the necessary composure to fly, all she could do was succeed with another hop. So she hopped once again to the branch above her, widening the gap between her and the old man, if only a little bit.

The old man, seeking once again to close this gap, reached to the branch above him and pulled himself up. And again, they were no farther apart than they had been in the beginning.

Then the bird hopped again, and the old man promptly climbed one branch higher.
This event repeated itself, with the gap widening and then closing, several more times. It appeared that nothing was being gained for either of them, since they were still as far apart, despite all their hopping and climbing, as they had been in the first place.

However, at one point, the old man had just climbed up to match the little bird’s hop, and so the very small and yellow bird, still frozen in fear and unable to escape properly, did her best to hop one branch farther, since that was all she could do. But upon her hopping, she realized that there were no more branches to hop to—they had come to the very top of the tree—and so, she merely fluttered back down to her original perch in dismay.

The old man, upon seeing the little bird fail to gain the usual distance, saw that his pesterer was now one step closer than before. So, instead of simply closing the gap partway, he instead lunged forward with all his might, arms outstretched to claim his prize, and silence that which had dragged him here from his blissfully pleasant dream-world.

The little yellow bird, with an abrupt awakening of her sensibilities, gained the necessary strength in her body and courage in her soul, just as she was about to be grasped by the old man. She suddenly flapped her little yellow wings, and they worked, and she flew away.

The old man, realizing that his prey had escaped him and he was now alone, flying through the air far above the ground, thought very quickly during mid flight. He grabbed the branch that the bird had been standing on—rather than the place where the bird had been standing, which now contained nothing but air. The branch that he grabbed, however, was not quite as strong as he would have liked, considering that he was considerably more solid and weighty than a mere yellow bird. Upon the rest of his body falling downwards rapidly, following the arch of his arms, the branch suddenly snapped, and the stick he was now holding was of little use to him.

He fell down through the branches of the tree in the same manner that the walnut had—that is, downwards, though not quite so swiftly as his large frame failed to sail effortlessly through the open gaps. Fortunately for him, and perhaps as a rare stroke of luck in an otherwise unfortunate several minutes since his awaking, the branches served the purpose of slowing his fall downwards so that, though he landed eventually on the ground rather abruptly, he remained mostly intact. He came to rest at the base of the tree in the same spot where he had previously been napping, though now face down, with his arms outstretched, and his legs piled up on top of him.

His hat fell down after him and planted itself around one of his feet that was sticking up in the slight breeze. The grass moved ever so subtly, and the warm sun shone down upon the valley. The little yellow bird was soon far away. A small bug that had been standing on a leaf of grass was caught up in the wind, and it flew over to the old man and alighted on his gray hair.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Excerpt from I Leapt Into the Night (click here for more info)

Following is one of the eleven fictional stories from my book "I Leapt Into the Night, And Ten Other Stories". The book is a compilation of quirky stories I wrote as an English major focusing on creative writing at the University of Alaska from 1990-1992, and which I've edited a great deal since then.

"A Struggle Against an Unknown Enemy"
by Gabriel Morris

One cannot easily comprehend the surprise of finding a wooden chair stuffed inside a post office box, until such a moment has already arisen. But you may well imagine my astonishment, being only an ordinary postman on his daily rounds, having emptied post boxes for nearly thirty years with hardly a complication—aside from the occasional garbage and a few childish pranks, of course. I did come across a frightened tomcat once, trapped inside the large blue box, scratching and screaming frantically, most likely put there by the neighborhood children. But as soon as I unlocked and cracked open the little door, the cat ran out and across the street and into the bushes on the other side, so that I had little time to think before it was gone. It brought me no prolonged trouble whatsoever—only a frightening surprise which made my heart jump, and then a chuckle throughout the rest of the day.

But the situation in which I now found myself was quite different. For one thing, it took a terrible struggle just to get the thing out. The chair had been wedged in somehow, so that it was crushing many of the letters and packages inside. How it might have gotten there was beyond me. Myself and the post office manager—who was surely not the type to pull such a ridiculous stunt—were the only two people in the world with the correct keys. And the lock appeared not to have been tampered with. But there was no denying it—there was clearly a chair in there, as my aged but strong hands confirmed what my eyes could hardly believe.

I committed myself to trying every possible angle in which to remove the cumbersome thing, and eventually succeeded, though not before unbuttoning my shirt to keep from sweating in the hot afternoon sun. When finally I’d wrenched the object from its confinement, I set it down on the sidewalk and wiped my brow with relief, having just exerted myself to an extent not achieved since the last time I’d locked the front door of my house with the keys inside and been forced to climb through the side window, a few weeks earlier. For some reason, I do that quite often. At the age of fifty-five I still retain some of my youthful immaturity—though, of course, now I’m not in the same condition to take responsibility for my recklessness, as when I was in my prime.

The chair was a sort of dull burgundy red, quite worn and faded, as if perhaps it had been sitting on someone’s front porch in the sunlight for many years. It appeared, however, that it had been a striking color at one time, a blazing red that would have captured one’s attention wherever it rested. It didn’t seem the sort of item that anyone in this small town would have bothered to purchase—at least no one that I’d known in my half-century here. It was an exotically perplexing antique, almost frightening in its mysterious aura.

The chair was covered in thick velvet and was quite small, which was why it had been able to fit inside the post box at all. It had only three legs, which came out in a triangular formation from the center of the seat. The small seat back was very straight and hard, so that I imagined whoever had made use of it regularly must have been rather stern and strict, with something of a punishing disposition. I hadn’t seen such a piece of furniture in my entire life, and knew not at all what to make of it.

The longer I stood there on the sidewalk, my shirt unbuttoned, the hot sun blazing down on me, the more puzzled and disturbed I became. I just stood there staring at the blasted thing for a good five or ten lengthy minutes, not knowing what to do with it or in any way how to resolve the bizarre dilemma before me.

I couldn’t very well throw it out, as it appeared it might be a relic of some kind, maybe even worth something, either historically or monetarily. But neither did I have the desire to take it home with me. My wife would probably have thought I was crazy, especially once I explained the manner in which I’d obtained it. And besides, it attracted too much attention to remain in any normal person’s home. Any visitor would likely find themselves in discomfort at the sight of this strange creation resting so imposingly in the corner.

I tried sitting in it. But as well as looking ridiculous there in the middle of the sidewalk on a sunny day, it was extremely uncomfortable, and made me want to jump up and get the hell away. It wasn’t any normal person’s chair, that was for sure, and I knew then that I wanted nothing to do with it, whatever its value. I decided finally just to leave it right there, for whomever might happen upon it and take enough fancy to it to take it home with them. I was losing time in my state of indecision and needed to carry on with my route.

But as I was lifting the chair cautiously to the edge of the sidewalk, to set it beside a large Elm tree, I noticed something on the chair that I couldn’t readily ignore. A rectangular area on the back of one of the wooden legs had been indented, and something was apparently written or carved there.

I looked closer, and saw one terrifying word burned clearly into the wood: “Hell”. And just above that one word was a postage stamp, of the denomination six dollars and sixty six cents—as if it actually had a destination and had been paid for, putting it plainly in my responsibility.

I was so surprised and confused and frightened all at once, I jumped backwards, tossing the chair away from me, so that it clattered onto the sidewalk on its side as I fell onto the grass beside the sidewalk, staining my elbows.

I lay there on my back for a few long moments, resting in the grass in a sort of bewildered stupor, staring at the chair as if it were a dying leper, contagious and writhing before me, begging for something which I had no intention of giving it. But even as I found myself partly in shock, I also found a strong resolve welling within me. I had always enjoyed a good challenge. There was nothing like a good fight to make you feel like you were alive.

It was as if I were suddenly faced with a battle against my own perceptions that I knew somehow I needed to win. I felt that I had to do something with this thing other than simply leave it sitting there, only to plague someone else. But neither did I want to get up right away, since that would have meant committing myself to action. So I just lay there thinking for a few long minutes, staring at the cursed object, hoping that no one had seen me and my ridiculous display.

When I considered it, six dollars and sixty six cents was actually about right for something of that size and weight. But I wondered where the stamp could have come from, for I was certain that the post office hadn’t printed it. I knew all the current stamps, and there was none for that specific denomination.

Finally, I got up from my resting place on the grass, slowly and warily, and walked over to the chair, crouching to look at it carefully, as if at any moment it might jump up, snarling, and sink its teeth into my leg.

The stamped side was now facing down. I kicked the chair so that the stamp was facing up, and studied it. The stamp was just above and to the right of the word “Hell”, and appeared to have been torn from a sheet, as the sides were ridged like any normal stamp. The picture was of a bull from behind, looking back with nostrils flaring, red, angry eyes, and two menacing horns protruding from the sides of its bulky head. Below that was printed $6.66, and the words United States Postal Service. It appeared to be completely authentic.

As I was staring at the stamp, noticing the details in the background—flames shooting upwards and the leaves of trees hanging down similar to the Elm behind me—the image of the bull suddenly threw its head upwards and down in one swift motion, and then was still again.

There I was, standing in the sun staring at a strange chair resting on the sidewalk, just as before—but I suddenly felt as if my spirit had been invaded, like my soul had been tampered with. I was leaning over the chair tentatively, forward a bit on my toes, and now with my mouth hanging open, my eyes wide in amazement, body frozen stiff in fear. In one fleeting instant the intensity of the situation increased a thousand-fold.

For a brief moment I lost the ability to move. My muscles became frozen in fear—and then another moment later they were tense in anger and hatred, towards what I wasn’t sure. I couldn’t believe what had just occurred before my eyes. I felt compelled to lash out at the object that seemed to be the cause of my anger.

But I held back, and instead crouched even closer to the chair to peer at the tiny postage stamp, trying to somehow make sense of what I’d just seen, to confirm or deny my distorting perspective. I put my eye closer to the image, scrutinizing it for any other source of movement—a bug perhaps that had flapped its wings, or a speck of dust that had blown away. But there seemed to be nothing out of place, only the very real image of the bull staring back at me through the flames.

The image was quite still, as before, convincing me that the sudden movement I had seen must have been only an illusion, a trick played on my eyes in my old age, a little heat stroke in the midst of a long workday.

But then, even more unexpectedly than before, the bull threw back its devilish head, as a deep, bellowing laugh of pity came from the depths of its throat to invade my ears, sounding as if it were echoing all around me. And yet, this laugh was clearly directed at no one but myself. It sent chills through my bones that rushed through my muscles and arrived at my fist, ready to strike. But the tail of the bull moved suddenly, quicker than I could have reacted even if I’d anticipated it. Before I could think, the tail of the beast came out from its little cage, getting rapidly larger and longer; until it struck me on the side of my face, leaving a clear, thin red line that went from my left eye to the comer of my mouth and immediately began to bleed.

Once again I was thrown back, against the Elm tree in the grass behind me. But I instantly rebounded and lunged at the tiny image of the bull, which I could see now had turned to face me. I struck at the chair with my fist and sent it tumbling across the sidewalk. In so doing, I scraped my hand across the knuckles and they too began bleeding.

I ran again at the chair to kick it and send it flying into the street, where hopefully it would be shattered on impact or crushed by an oncoming car. But as I was running towards it, certain of overpowering it, I could hear the sounds of the bull snorting and pounding its hooves, scraping up clouds of dust before charging and trampling me.

I feared that it might escape from its tiny cage and kill me if I didn’t act quickly enough. I grabbed the wooden chair as the sounds of snorting and pounding of hooves echoed violently in my ears, my face and hands sweating profusely. The chair, or beast, or whatever it was seemed actually to be coming alive as my arms grasped it.

I stood and lifted the object in the air. I could feel it quickly becoming heavy, as heavy as the creature that seemed intent on destroying me. It seemed to be rapidly transforming. I held the object high above my head, and then ran towards my mail truck parked alongside the curb, my legs almost crumbling beneath me from its increasing weight. And then I hurled the thing into the side window of my vehicle. The window shattered as the bull struck the side of the truck, and the many shards of glass became flame which leapt out and penetrated my body, and sent my reeling back and crashing down onto the sidewalk.

I regained consciousness—what felt like days later, but was probably only a matter of minutes—to find someone lifting me upwards and screaming in my ear:

“Sir, sir, are you okay? Wake up! Wake up!”

“What?” I said. I was wholly disoriented, as can be imagined. “Hey, what are you doing? What’s going on?”

I jumped to my feet, staggering to stay upright, clutching my ears. A young boy stood on the sidewalk beside me, looking up with curiosity and fright.
“What happened to you?” he said. “Your face is bleeding.”

I could barely see from the blood caking my face, holding my eyelashes together like the bars of a cage across my eye. I put my hand on the boy’s shoulder to steady myself.

“Jesus Christ,” I said—which was all I could think to say upon the sight of my mail truck mangled from the impact of a large object (which appeared to no longer exist) and glass and blood scattered across the sidewalk. The bull, nor the chair, were anywhere to be seen. The driver side of my truck, facing the sidewalk, was fully caved in. But there was no remaining evidence of what might have caused it. Tiny shards of glass were stuck to my pants, as well as my skin. My left arm was bleeding profusely from glass cuts, which would have likely rendered me blind if I hadn’t raised my arm to protect my eyes.

“Jesus,” I said again. “Did you see what happened?” I said to the boy.

“No, sir. All I saw was you lying here like you were dead. I just finished school and was walking home. Are you the mailman?”

“Well, yes, I sure am—as of now, at least. I’ll see if I still have a job once my boss gets a hold of this truck.”

I raised my hand to my forehead. “Jesus holy Christ. What the hell happened to me? I feel as if I just wrestled with the devil himself.”

The sun was shining down, as before, and a few people drove by and stared.

“Well, sir, all I know is I gotta get home, ‘cause my mom is waiting for me. You better go see a doctor right away, you look scary.”

The boy ran off, leaving me standing there alone. I wasn’t sure whether I should report the incident immediately to the police, or simply run to the nearest mental institution and admit myself. I slapped myself a couple of times to make sure that I was awake, but it only hurt my already bruised cheeks. Finally, I decided just to walk home and allow my wife to attend to my wounds and fix me a hot cup of coffee, despite the weather. Whatever it was I’d just battled against, at least it appeared that I had won.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Don't Push the Road

I first started hitchhiking at the curious and intrepid age of eight. I lived with my family in the woods of Northern California, about five miles outside of a small town. Every afternoon the school bus would drop me off at the bottom of our dirt road. From there it was another mile-and-a-half to our big cabin in the woods and it was up to my short little legs to get me there.

One sunny spring day, while walking home along the quiet dirt road, I had something of a revelation. A car rolled by, kicking up a cloud of dust for me to inhale as I trudged along. I thought to myself:

"Why am I walking this long way home every day, when I could just get a ride from someone headed in the same direction?"

I'd seen older kids hitchhiking at the edge of town and figured it was worth a try. Most of the people going up my dirt road were neighbors. I reasoned that as long as I recognized the vehicle, I wouldn't be associating with any strangers. I stopped walking, sat down in the grass on the side of the road and started on a good book.

"This is great!" I thought to myself. Now I was doing something I loved, rather than d. "Why didn't I think of this before?"

My traveling instincts were kicking in. I was seeking out that path of least resistance, the most efficient use of energy; specifically, when available, other people's energy. Some might call this laziness. Others, genius. The truth was undoubtedly somewhere in between. Either way I was soon immersed in a faraway world, devoid of glaring sun, dust and drudgery. The next time a familiar car came rumbling along I just looked up, held my thumb up high and it stopped. Easy as a cool summer breeze. My traveling days had begun.

Three decades later I've hitchhiked tens of thousands of miles, covering every Western state, Alaska, Hawaii, the length of the United Kingdom, Thailand, India and a few other odd corners of the world. I have something of a love/hate relationship with adventure travel. It can be nerve-wracking and disillusioning at times; at others incredibly thrilling, even enlightening. Once you push off that solid shore, you're at the mercy of the cosmic flow.

There are, of course, a variety of different modes of travel. If one has the monetary resources they can follow a fixed itinerary, taking deluxe buses from one plush hotel room to another, eating in the fanciest restaurants: seeing the foreign culture through a series of windows, not unlike a succession of TV screens. I don't mean to knock this form of travel too much. If this is how a person likes to experience the world then that's their business.

But this doesn't do much for me in my hunger for real learning and experience. There seems to be little potential for true adventure, spontaneity, challenge or intrigue. I guess this is the distinction between 'going on vacation' and 'hitting the road'. When you hit the road, anything can happen and the chances are it will. Each day is a blank slate waiting to be streaked with color; a wave ready to be surfed. And if you're willing to go along for the ride and brave the unknown, you'll undoubtedly have encounters that will change your mind, like nothing else can.

Call it the Tao of Travel, or the Zen or the Art or whatever you like. Getting that perfect ride, meeting that strange, enlightening character who reveals the mysterious world around you, or maneuvering through a challenging situation that seems to have no easy resolution: these can be lessons of both personal power and faith. You can see the daunting crest of the wave coming, yet you know you're going to ride it and not be taken under by it. You can see the car coming, and you sense that this person is going to pick you up, rearrange your view of reality and then drop you off somewhere you otherwise never would have found yourself. You are in a state of surrender, yet simultaneously in control of your destiny.

I can't even count the times when I've been stuck on the side of the road as the sun is going down, halfway to my destination after a long and tiresome day of hitchhiking. And yet, more often than not, just as I'm beginning to despair, preparing myself psychologically to hike off into the woods and spend a cold night curled up under some bush, someone comes along and delivers me to a warm bed, whether it be mine or theirs (or more likely, their couch).

In an instant, I go from cursing the universe to a state of reverence and gratitude. Oftentimes, the most profound traveling experiences take place when you're out on that proverbial limb and it's just beginning to crack; you're at the edge of desperation and your angels seem to have failed you; you're faced with the great unknown, no idea how it's all going to work out, no plan for getting yourself through this one. And yet that simple twist of fate, and of faith, pulls through and pretty soon you're riding high again, cruising on down the road.

Years ago I was hitchhiking with a couple of friends from Oregon to New Mexico. In the middle of the Nevada desert we found ourselves in a bit of a rough spot. Perhaps foolishly, we'd decided to traverse Nevada and Utah via Highway 50, the 'Loneliest Highway in America' in the middle of summer. From Fallon, about an hour east of Reno, we got a ride another twenty miles to smack in the middle of nowhere. There was only dry, desolate desert as far as we could see. A rusty, bent barbed-wire fence creaked eerily nearby, though there was no wind. Only the most hardened vultures would've been happy to be there. We soon realized that we were probably the Loneliest Hitchhikers in America.

The unrelenting sun beat down on us. After two hours, hardly a handful of cars had passed. Our desperation was soon mounting, along with the temperature rising on the backs of our sunburned necks. We built a small shade tent to escape the glare, using our backpacks and my friend Bethany's shawl. Eventually we started hitchhiking in both directions. Any car that was going away from there was a car that we would crawl into.

Finally, my friend Forest came up with a plan. He said that if we really wanted a ride out of this desert nightmare then we had to envision what we wanted and ask for it in clear and plain terms. We huddled under our makeshift structure and figured out what, in our delirious state of despondency, would be the ideal ride: basically, anyone friendly, who was going a hell of a long ways and would be arriving shortly to deliver us from our otherwise certain doom. We then voiced our humble request to the empty desert and to whatever benevolent forces overhead which may have noticed our pitiable condition, and waited.

Thirty minutes later, beginning to wonder if the traveling gods had forsaken us, an old Subaru station wagon passed our trio of outstretched thumbs. Fifty yards down the road, however, it turned around and came back, did a u-turn and stopped right in front of us. The driver got out.

"Hey, guys! You look like you could sure use a ride. I was gonna keep going, because I didn't think there was enough room for the three of you and your bags in my little rig here. But hey, we'll put some stuff on top and see what we can do."

We were, of course, ecstatic. We showered him with adulation and guilt, to insure that he'd make the room to bring us along.

Drew was a lively young college student headed from California back to his home state of Colorado. He tied what he could on top of the car and then we managed to squeeze ourselves in. Three days later, after perpetual driving, wind-blown hair, good music and contemplative nights spent on the barren floor of the expansive desert, he dropped us off safe and sound in the heart of the Rocky Mountains. We arrived at our final destination later that night, weary but eternally thankful.

During another adventurous summer, while living on the beaches of Kauai, Hawaii, I found myself in a different sort of vexing and unpredictable situation. I was sunbathing in the nude in the warm sand, after doing some body surfing in the calm waves. My tent was illegally set up at a campsite nearby, since I didn't have a valid camping permit. I decided to go for a wander down the wide beach in my birthday suit, leaving my book and thin sarong lying there in the sand.

As I approached the far end of the idyllic, tropical beach an ominous, black helicopter landed suddenly nearby and deposited a load of commando park rangers in camouflage gear. I'd heard from fellow travelers that this was how the area was patrolled, as there were no roads accessing this part of the island; and that these guys meant business, since part of their job was also to arrest hippies living and growing pot back in the jungle. I'd just been hoping they wouldn't show up in the few weeks that I was out there. Talk about feeling unnerved. If I'd been wearing pants right then, I might have crapped them.

One of the rangers quickly spotted me as a probable campground trespasser, thanks to my state of undress, and began walking briskly towards me as he bellowed at me to show him my camping permit. Instead, I turned around and walked just as quickly back the other way; not expecting to outrun him, just wanting to cover up. Just as I came to my sarong in the sand and was able to wrap it around my waist, the ranger was at my heels, yelling at me to halt and present the appropriate documentation or else I just might get a free helicopter ride back to civilization.

I managed to diffuse the situation somewhat, by explaining that I wasn't ignoring his demands but just wanted to be clothed before talking. I then admitted that I had nothing resembling a camping permit and no identification, since (so I quickly concocted) I was camped at another spot a few miles away and had only come to this beach for a quick swim. My tent was actually just a few yards away.

Puzzled as to how to ticket me, the ranger then asked for my name and social security number. My mind continued buzzing away, as I tried to see all the available possibilities from here. If I refused his request, I might end up in that helicopter. I had no intentions of leaving this island utopia yet, and felt that I had every right to be there, flimsy piece of paper or not. I was harming no one, just out there to experience the beauty of Mother Nature and soak up some summer rays and warm ocean waves. I knew there had to be a way out of this one. Just relax and ride the wave (like I'd just been doing in the warm waters) and I'd probably find my way through.

I gave him a fake name and number. Grumbling, he wrote me up a ticket and then told me to pack up my camp, wherever the hell it was, and head back to town. After he'd stomped off through the sand I ran back to my tent and quickly packed up my belongings. Then I hoisted my pack onto my back, ripped up the ticket, tossed it gleefully in the garbage and hiked out of the campground. Instead of continuing on my way, however, I simply stepped off the trail and found a secluded spot in the jungle away from all the commotion, where I wouldn't be bothered. Eventually the rangers flew off in their menacing black helicopter; and I enjoyed another week in paradise.

On December 31st, 1999, the eve of plausible destruction, I was deep in the jungles of western India with two Israeli traveling friends, Yossi and Nadav. How we got there is another story altogether, involving some sketchy directions and a number of death-defying bus rides. We'd decided we wanted to be far from the modern world on this historic occasion, just in case Y2K brought some of the predicted chaotic consequences. Our backpacks were stuffed with food and other supplies.

In this instance we were prepared for the unknown ahead, or so we thought. The problem with that pesky unknown, however, is that it has a way of sneaking up on you, to remind you that being prepared isn't a matter of having the right gear, but instead, of having the necessary state of mind.

That evening, after a long hike in the dimming light, we made our camp under a gigantic boulder perched atop two smaller boulders, which created a protected cave-like enclosure in the midst of the encroaching jungle. Things seemed to be going perfectly. We'd made it to our destination, found the perfect campsite and had everything we needed to survive on our own for a week or so. We got a small campfire going as night fell, started cooking dinner, and pulled up a couple of rocks for chairs. Then we opened up our celebratory bottle of wine and passed it around, swigging straight from the bottle with exclamations of brotherly companionship. Although the modern civilized world lay at the brink of potential doomsday (or so we surmised), we couldn't have been more blissed out.

However, as our odorous pot of food was almost finished cooking and the bottle of wine was two-thirds gone, the three of us suddenly hushed. Ghostlike voices were coming from within the darkness. We sat up attentively, wondering what sort of dangerous characters might be wandering through the jungle at this time of night. We all froze as the voices came nearer. A few moments later, two local Indian men stepped into our cave, eerily illuminated by the light of our campfire.

They began speaking rapidly at us in the local tongue, not too concerned by our lack of response. We soon got the impression that they meant us no harm; instead, they simply had something of importance to communicate. Nadav happened to know a few words of the language. Finally, he was able to deduce the apparent meaning behind their urgent message: that there were tigers roaming in this jungle, and it wasn't safe for us to stay there throughout the night.

Once the two men had left us and disappeared back into the darkness, we sat in silent foreboding around our flickering campfire. Our options were few. We had come in on a bus, which had turned around at the end of the long, dusty road and went back the other way. We'd then hiked several miles and had passed no one else along the trail. There were no campgrounds out here, no houses within walking distance, certainly no hotels. It was now pitch dark and we were all famished, as well as slightly drunk.

"Fahking shite," said Yossi. "Our stomachs are rumbling, our food is ready to be eaten, and now the tigers are coming to eat us. What can we do?"

At the same time that I was concerned, I also figured we would come up with something. We had little choice. Something was going to happen, one way or another. Being devoured by tigers didn't seem like the most probable of all the available possibilities.

Finally, Nadav came up with a brilliant plan. He grabbed a flashlight and bravely ventured out of the cave to investigate the massive boulder levitating over our heads. A few minutes later, he yelled to us exuberantly: "There is a way up! We can bring our things to the top of the boulder, and there enjoy our meal safely under the stars."

With that, we quickly began dismantling camp; the supposed tigers nipping at the backs of our imaginations. Fifteen minutes later the three of us, our belongings, our hot meal and the remainder of the wine were seated comfortably atop the huge rock. We had put out our comforting campfire. But we now had starlight shining down upon us. We finished off the wine and then started in on our pot of steaming stew and pita bread. It was even more delicious than our hungry bellies had anticipated.

Later that night, sometime past midnight, I lay there on the top of the rock in my sleeping bag, staring up at the night sky, wondering what might be going on around the world at that moment. Madness, riots, abject fear and confusion?

Just then a satellite arced slowly across the sky. Its little red light blinked on and off, on and off, same as they always do. I surmised that, for better or worse, the world would probably keep on rolling into the new millennium, much as it had finished the old one. And one way or another, by thumb, bus, train or plane, I would undoubtedly manage to roll along with it.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Introduction to Following My Thumb (click here for more info)

This is the Introduction to "Following My Thumb: A Decade of Unabashed Wanderlust" by Gabriel Morris:


Why travel? Good question. Like most things in life it depends on what you want to get out of it. A two-week vacation of tranquil boredom on a tropical beach can be the perfect antidote to the hectic 9-5 work schedule and all the other pressures and stresses associated with modern-day life. I’ve enjoyed more than a few weeks of tropical bliss myself in the course of my travels, and hope to again in the future.

But as for myself, it’s not a vacation from 9-5 I’ve looked forward to but, because I think modernity is for the most part an unnatural and incongruous way of living to begin with, I’ve done my best to skip the daily grind entirely. My travels could certainly be described as bumbling at times, lacking a clear direction or purpose. The whole not-having-a-regular-job thing meant that I was generally traveling on the cheap, sometimes to the extreme. My travels in Europe when I was 18, and the corresponding creative lengths I went to in finding a place to sleep for the night, led to my mantra of “benches, beaches, barns and bridges” (all being suitable places to rest one’s head, in a pinch). It seemed that whatever fix I managed to get myself into due to a lack of cash on hand, there was always a way out of it—as long as I kept my options very wide open and expectations to a minimum.

But as hopefully the following 26 stories will illustrate, with a certain degree of flexibility, open-mindedness and flagrant disregard for following the societal rules (as well as a little luck thrown in to help compensate) one can travel on a budget without compromising the experience in the slightest. In fact, it’s more than likely to be a hell of a lot more interesting (or harrowing, as the case may be).

A vacation is one thing. An adventure is something else entirely. My quest has been one of seeking out experiences that were catalysts for expanding my mind, learning and evolving—situations that suddenly showed me the world and myself from a completely different perspective, or challenged me to reach for a new way of being. The most rewarding experiences were almost inevitably the ones that I didn’t plan, didn’t expect and sometimes couldn’t have even imagined. And underneath it all, from the joyous moments to the terrifying ones, has been a silent, steady lesson of trusting the universe to provide what I needed, one way or another.

This book chronicles my first decade of being an unrepentant travel addict, from 1990-2000. Part 1 tells the stories of my first introduction to hitchhiking as a young boy and my first trip abroad when I was eighteen, as well as my escapades rambling around Alaska as a college kid—including unknowingly following on the heels of Chris McCandless, subject of Into the Wild. I hitchhiked part of the same stretch of highway through Canada and Alaska just a few months after him, and spent that summer working in Denali National Park, just a short ways away from where he was living in an abandoned bus, before dying of starvation.

Part 2 takes things to another level after I drop out of college and commence six years of semi-homeless traveling around the United States on a spiritual quest; which resulted in everything from falling in love on the road to getting mixed up with a strange cult, to attending Rainbow Gatherings and sweat lodges and living in the Hawaiian rainforest for several months.

And in Part 3 I explore a whole new dimension of cultural immersion and reality-bending as I spend five months traveling throughout the vast sea of rich culture and humanity that is India. I attend a massive spiritual gathering on the Ganges River, visit the erotic temple ruins of Khajuraho, tangle with an assortment of crooked businessmen and end up hiding from tigers in the jungle while awaiting the much-hyped potential effects of Y2K.

Although the book isn’t all about hitchhiking by any means, the theme of “following my thumb” prevails throughout (not unlike following one’s heart or gut…except that the thumb has the practical element of being able to actually get you there, i.e. hitchhiking). Put another way, it’s the journey, not the destination. Life is indeed short, and I’ve just tried to make the most of it. But hey, I’ll let the stories tell themselves and stop wasting your time with a lengthy introduction. Enjoy, and happy trails.