Gabriel Morris in India

Gabriel Morris in India
A mysterious cave in south India.

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.

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