A Million Different Things: Morning, Meditation #14

Meditation #14 from the section Morning in my book, A Million Different Things: Meditations of The World’s Happiest Man, is the newest entry in the free serialization. For a full index, see: Gift of A Million Different Things.

David Stone, Writer

Gifts, Note Cards, Cat Art: Deborah Julian Photography

I Love Beer T-Shirt

A month before my seventeenth birthday, I set out one morning to hitchhike from the little Upstate New York town where I’d grown up to Richmond, California, where my mother had settled. I still had a substantial amount of the certainty I’d been born with. It didn’t worry me, startling to realize now, that I had around three-thousand miles to go and only fifteen dollars in my pocket to keep me fed along the way.

I had a map I’d studied that encouraged me to believe that Chicago was a halfway point and the trip itself fraught only with the risk of not getting enough rides to speed my arrival.

In retrospect, it was a good thing I never discussed my plan with anyone but my mother. Mom’s perspective on reality was skewed ridiculously to the optimistic, in spite of experience, and her desire to have me make that trip skewed it even further. She’d been sending me small amounts of cash, now accumulated to the full fifteen dollars in my possession, as incentives. Had I talked with anyone with a conventional grip on reality, though, there’s a good chance I’d have been persuaded off the trip and missed one of the greatest adventures of my life.

I had fifteen dollars when I left home. I should amend that to say that I had that much when I left my home for the last time. It was reduced before I got out of town to eleven or twelve. After loading up and lugging a suitcase dug out of storage in our attic, I first hitched into town and met up with a girl I wanted to be my temporary girlfriend. Was I looking for an excuse to stay put? No, my hormone-flooded adolescent brain had me thinking I might be able to find a way to have my first sex before leaving town. The idea was preposterous in the way only undigested adolescent ideas can be, and instead, we sat together in a diner and shared lunch before I took off, never having put an inappropriate hand on her. Lunch, of course, was on me. If I had some wild ideas at sixteen, they didn’t much dilute what I’d been taught about manners. I don’t think I’d heard of even a Dutch treat by then.

While I would still be terrified of the dark for a few more years, I was afraid of little else. I believed I could handle whatever else came up. Among the things that came up over the next few days was the obvious need for a place to sleep and enough money to eat. I soon found I’d have to deal with a driver looking for excuses to feel up boys, tornado warnings, loneliness and my unprepared arrival at the eastern extremity of the Rocky Mountains. My last ride in Colorado left me at the base of Pike’s Peak. There were hundreds of miles of mountain and desert directly ahead of me, and it was late at night in the middle of unpredictable spring weather. The air was mild, but by morning, a steady rain would gather above the Spanish Peaks. Cold winds would follow, reminding me that my sweater had been lost back in Kansas City. There wasn’t a single person I knew or ever had known within a thousand miles of where I stood. I had no access to a phone, if I wanted to call for help, and no shelter, not even a roadside tree to stand under. Strangely, from this distance, more than forty years into the future, I don’t recall any fear, even then. I knew that I was somehow guided and protected. Don’t ask me how. I just knew. Experience had shown me that I had plenty to learn and that fear was a poor teacher. I didn’t understand all about what I was experiencing, but that wasn’t half so important as the adventure itself. In those days, I just knew I’d be safe, even if challenged, and it took most of a decade before that confidence could be driven out of me.

Here are some highlights from my three days crossing America.

My first night out, as the hour got way passed the time when I’d normally be snug in bed and I thought I might sleep sitting up on my suitcase, somewhere in western Pennsylvania, a guy in a pickup pulled over opposite a truck stop and gave me a lift. In the night, we crossed Ohio and saw the sunrise as we entered Indiana. Hearing tornado warnings all day, I managed to dodge any that touched ground as my rides carried me almost into Chicago. In the suburbs, fate hooked me up with an elderly gentleman who needed help with driving as much as I needed help with shelter. We rode down Route 66 together, and when we parted ways on a Sunday morning in Kirkwood, Missouri, he paid me fifteen fresh dollars for my services as a chauffeur. He’d already paid for my bed in a traveler’s cabin as well as a late dinner and an early breakfast. Before meeting him, I’d been the beneficiary of a single driving lesson given by my brother and had never been at the wheel on a highway before.

After a long day of thumbing across Kansas–where my powder blue sweater was left behind in a family’s station wagon–I was picked up, first, by a groping man who claimed to be checking for weapons, and, then, by an Air Force pilot stationed in Salinas who was happy to offer a stranger a bath, a warm bed and a chance to call my Mom. With the inappropriately curious driver, I was lucky to have been coached by my brothers on how to handle the men who prowled for boys hitchhiking, and with the pilot, I was fortunate to appreciate the generosity for which Americans were then known.

I spent one more day going from ride to ride across Kansas and into Colorado before stalling in front of Pike’s Peak. There, a Highway Patrolman, suspecting an AWOL Air Force cadet, collected me and my belongings and delivered me to the Canon City police station where I was treated to a night on the house in a cell with an unlocked door. Next day, meeting the demands of the local laws and having received money across a Western Union counter from California, I boarded a warm and cozy Trailways bus for a safe and secure trip through the now rain-soaked mountains and the endless-seeming deserts of Utah and Nevada.

I recall this sequence because it showed me again and in an experience more elaborate than any before that things always worked out for me. Much as Conan Doyle once explained it, I believed that someone, somewhere was always trying to help–and succeeding. My responsibility was to pay attention. The most familiar way I knew how to describe it was as the intervention of a guardian angel, which I thought I had, especially when I got in a pinch. It felt neither odd nor freakish as it might, expressing it as an adult, nor was it information I shared. It just was some wisdom I’d found out about and counted on.

Reality, of course, is a set of conditions we learn to describe as we go along. We can take established references or build our own, but the preoccupation with explaining the world around us is a unique and universal human phenomenon. Through debate, we sharpen our definitions.

My sense of a guardian angel was so fluffy, I kept it to myself, even when others mentioned them. It felt satisfying. I could turn to this resource and ask, but mostly, the help came without my making a specific request.

The obvious need was present, and that was enough.

Later, when my friend Jon and I impulsively drove out of New York on a dreary winter day, our cockiness was largely based on this belief of mine, which I sold him with the certainty I’d gained about it. It wasn’t for us as much a question of getting to California as it was of what we’d do when we got there. We were young adults without training or jobs. My confidence called out something similar in Jon, and as projected, we passed a month or so on the sunnier West Coast, eating regularly and sleeping all but one night in comfy beds, without working for as much as five minutes or trying to. Returning to New York, we slipped back into our secure family lives, retrieved without penalty from our adventure.

It might come as a surprise that, as sure as I was, that I let go of the beliefs that had sustained me only a few years later. I was persuaded, from many angles, that the time for becoming an adult had arrived, and walk I did into that familiar trap. I became the victim of my own stereotype. I became what I’d always been told a grownup should be. The message had been broadcast even louder after I turned twenty. It had to. I’d become comfortable with ignoring it.

I first did something I thought I would never conventionally do. A firm believer in committed, but serial relationships, I got married. Then, I did something else I never intended to do. I became a father. Inside a single year, I did two things of which I was as ill-prepared to manage the results as ever I was ill-prepared for anything.
An individual as flighty as me is never a good risk in marriage. Until I stood with my wife to be at the top of the aisle in front of a Unitarian minister, I believed completely in marriage–serial marriage, one after another, a progression of voluntary partners in which we fit for as long as we were comfortable in each other’s lives.

Partners came to me in succession like that, even as there were intermissions and periods of readjustment. I consistently had my writing, my books, a few crucial friends, and everything, including wives, oriented around that.

What gummed up the works was a fear that I was going to end up isolated and alone, that all the free spirits around me would cave as they appeared to be doing. Then, the first woman I met who matched me in passions proved to be an overmatch in intellectual experience. After I was wily enough to win her, my self-assurance began slipping away. As each of us fought to hold our ground, our actual fights expanded into day long arguments veering off in more directions than a treasure hunt. When things were good with us, we soared. I learned more and had broader adventures than ever before. We had passion and imagination. We took spontaneous trips to little college towns to hunt for bootleg records, hilltop sculpture parks not on any map and other surprises seeming no more than a turn away. Instead of the creeping desire to escape I usually felt building, I got instead a bubbling fear that I could lose it all, an awareness of how tenuous this intense experience was and how the tether might snap at any moment. I was not in control, and I reached for the kind of device many reach for when we want to secure ourselves in the chaos. I persuaded her to marry me. She may have had the better education and experience, but I was a more effective salesperson.
I’m guessing that almost all of us, at some time, wander into a domain where we lose track of ourselves and begin accepting the wisdom of others. Maybe it’s a necessary condition, like the place where we need to fumble with letters before they get to be words and sentences. Because others have been around longer and are living the established traditions and because we may not have the slightest idea of what our alternatives look like, we accept their guidance. We may become grownups or some other idea that suits them, and in so doing, we sacrifice the wisdom that’s given us in childhood. Not to worry though. It’s a temporary condition.

One of my favorite poems has always been Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken. It seemed to me, then, that nobody ever chose that other, flakier road, and I didn’t yet have the street smarts to go it that much alone.

Yet, I emphasize.