Drifters

Time for an update from the Mojave Desert. Candice, Evan and I are working out of a little desert town called Hesperia. People keep warning us about the “meth problem,” but we’ve felt no serious sense of menace. Nearly all of the incidents on the police blotter printed in the local weekly can be traced to the other side of the tracks. In fact, between the funny hats at the Salvation Army, the excellent take-out counter at Martinez Meats, and the free wireless at Starbucks, I feel strangely at home here. That’s how I’ve always felt travelling in America, where there’s enough cultural familiarity that I can lull myself into a sort of comfort zone.

Inevitably, something happens to remind me how far I am from home. It feels a bit like whiplash each time. People talk about culture shock as a single moment — what I’m experiencing is more a sustained series of random tremors, as if I were travelling along a fault line.

I left Canada on October 2nd. Let’s go back to Vancouver and the first wanderer.

Andy

Andy emailed me after I posted a rideshare ad on Craigslist, looking for a passenger headed to Seattle. At the border, the German Shepherd got very excited about my trailer, a contraption originally designed to take the builder to Burning Man. I had borrowed it the day before and hitched it to my Ford. I handed over the keys to a mustachioed agent with a low-slung pistol and aviators. He asked, “Sir, have you ever used narcotics in that trailer?” “It’s not my trailer,” I replied, “I just picked it up yesterday.” “Sir, that wasn’t the question.” “No, I’ve never used narcotics in that trailer.” “You didn’t notice a residual odour of narcotics in that trailer?” “No.” “Are you sure? It’s pretty strong. You don’t need a dog to pick up that residual odour.” “No, sorry.”

Andy and I were directed inside the customs building while a team wearing latex gloves tossed the whole truck. In the end, I felt a little let down by the interview itself. I like to think that if I were presented with a swarthy, bearded character driving a beat-up truck with Quebec plates, laden with video gear, transporting a cooler containing a kombucha mother in a jar, towing a trailer with BC plates, in the company of a willowy Chinese-American youth — with both persons admitting they had met only hours ago in front of a coffee shop, neither carrying much cash to speak of, with no clear plan, destination, or date of return between them … well, perhaps I should take the guards’ relaxed attitude as evidence of a wholesome trust in humanity not entirely destroyed by the wars on drugs and terror. We even joked around in French.

Andy lives with his mother somewhere in the endless sulphurous archipelago of Los Angeles. He referred to taking courses at UCLA, with hopes one day of a career in film or drama. He’d drifted up to Vancouver with plans to stay a week, which turned into six as one couchsurfing host passed off him off to the next.

We ate hamburgers in Blaine and shared chili and chowder as he told me about his plan to drop in on his dad. His father runs a Chinese bakery and restaurant in Redmond, Washington. The last time the two men had seen each other was at Andy’s grandmother’s funeral two years ago. Andy mentioned vague plans about learning to cook, Hong Kong style. Maybe putting away a little bit of money. I pulled the truck into a suburban mini-mall and he hopped out with his bag. He handed me some Canadian cash, flashed a peace sign, turned, and disappeared into the bakery.

Scott

I gave the next ride to some teenaged boys trying to hitch home to Newport, Oregon. They weren’t very far out of town, just kids visiting a friend, too young to have drivers’ licenses. They wanted to listen to hip hop and they told me Newport was boring. They slouched off in the drizzle, skate shoes and sideways hats against the postcard contours of an old iron bridge and fish canneries.

I came upon Scott a little way down the road, standing under an awning in a town I can’t remember. It was raining harder by now. He told me he’d stood there with his thumb out for five hours. He loaded his big touring backpack and duffel bag and raincoat and started filling me in.

Scott grew up in Orange County. He talked about going up near Hesperia to shoot guns in the desert, back in the 60s when there was “nothing up there”. Somehow he became a prospector in the High Sierra, a latter-day gold panner, living in the California wilderness and shooting game to eat. He described a terrible fall one day off a fifty-foot cliff, a head-first dive interrupted by a rocky ledge that he slammed into with his arms and face. “I could feel the pressure in that moment, my brain trying to bust out of the back of my skull.” With arms broken, brain swelling, and internal organs considerably rearranged, he described crawling halfway back up the hill, then bushwhacking laterally through ground cover so thick he had to step from branch to branch in his boots. At some point in the story he threw himself into a creek and floated downstream to a Jeep road, then stumbled for miles until two fellow miners found him, laid him flat in the bed of their pickup, and bounced down rutted roads for hours until they reached a place they could call a helicopter. “Adrenaline, man, there’s nothing like it. You can do amazing things when you get that rush.”

That was the first, he said, of several extreme and traumatic blows to the head, such that he is now on permanent disability, and simply wanders the United States, upbeat but a little confused. His problem was that he had somehow lost his wallet on the Olympic peninsula in upstate Washington. Needing ID to get ID, he had to sojourn back to his home state of California to find a DMV and begin the process of replacing his cards. The journey was made more difficult by his bad knee, an injury suffered when a big security guard, he said, jumped on his back and thrashed around until Scott’s leg buckled and the two went down in a heap. The upside was that, having found a lawyer after a long search through the Yellow Pages, Scott now had his eyes on a settlement, perhaps upwards of a hundred grand. The hospital, he said, was on his side, and so were several witnesses to the attack. His dream was to buy a little parcel of land along the coast, and as we drove down the 101 he noted place names in pencil in a small notebook.

We camped at a state park on a windy point with a lighthouse. While the rice cooked we walked down to look off a cliff over the waves. The moon was blazing through scudding black clouds, lighting up jagged rocks in the water below. I said it seemed like a perfect night to drop anchor in a pirate ship and row ashore on muffled oars, skulduggery to commit. Scott agreed.

In the morning Scott told me about the time he’d been driving the mountain roads near his homestead and surprised a weird creature. “I thought it was a deformed human, a throwback missing link or something, running away from the headlights of my truck. It had naked ankles, as big around as mine, and hunched shoulders. It ran for a second and then it spread its wings. It was a turkey! Turkey wings have a real distinct shape. But that thing was 200 pounds if it was a pound. I know they have hollow bones and stuff but even taking that into account, it was 200 pounds, I swear on my life. It flapped its wings once and it was just gone. Disappeared. One downbeat of those huge wings, I stopped the truck and checked, one beat of the wings and it flattened all these plants, in a circle, like a helicopter had landed. The stalks were all broken. Everything up in those hills is big, they got big kinds of every species. I talked to a guy later and I told him about that 200 pound turkey and he said hell, he’d seen one that was closer to 300 pounds. Taller than a man.”

We ate Burrito Supremes and bacon and bought gas and I drove and Scott talked about perfect breasts and rusty handguns and rip-off artists and Kiwanis clubs and bad fathers. Just before Eureka, I dropped him off at a bus station so he could cut across to Redding.

Hominy

South of San Francisco I picked up a girl holding a fiddle and rope tied to a brindle pit bull. The dog’s name is Hominy, but I forget hers. She told me she lived on a sailboat anchored in Oakland, but needed to get to Santa Cruz to see her mom. She had a beautiful tattoo on one shoulder of a winged creature halfway through the transition from deer to woman. Other black ink snaked around her arms and shoulders. Like most passengers, she spent most of the time in my peripheral vision, but I remember lots of piercings and patches and her body odour, which was strong but not unpleasant. There was a double rainbow arching over the coast highway as we drove and I asked her to film it out the windshield and you can hear her laughing on the tape. We parked the trailer in downtown Santa Cruz and walked up to the farmer’s market. There I met her mother, a kind woman with an old minivan and another pit bull, Hominy’s sister I think, and the two dogs crashed around inside the car while I shook hands and said goodbye.

On the way to Big Sur I picked up another kid whose name I can’t remember, lying against his bag on the highway shoulder in pitch darkness. It had been pouring rain and he was quite damp. Aside from his backpack, he had a skateboard and a Gatorade bottle containing about half an inch of clear liquid. He didn’t open it in the car, and I wondered if it was liquor or maybe solvents. He slurred badly and told me a story about his older brother becoming quadriplegic in a snowboard accident and moving to Hawaii to live out his days on the beach. The kid wanted to go join his brother, but didn’t have the cash so in the meantime, he was just wandering. He described new thoughts crowding into his brain this summer, testing the old rules he had set for reality, forcing him to question the laws of nature and the communion of man and beast. He described moulting like a snake, quitting trade school and hitting the road so he could hear the voices more clearly. At the state park he hopped out and crouched alongside the car past the campsite host, then ghosted into the wet bushes.

Shunsuke

I was driving through the pass that divides the San Fernando valley from the Mojave Desert, the same gateway you pass through to get from LA to Vegas. Along Route 66, as the sun dropped out of sight and the air began to cool, I spotted a Japanese man in a kanji-printed headscarf, peering at a bike wheel on the highway shoulder. I pulled over and hopped out to see if he needed tools. He needed something, but it wasn’t tools. He had dozens of tools scattered around him on the pavement, inside a wider circle of nylon sacks, aluminium rods, electronics and rubber patches.

Shunsuke Ohashi is twenty-one years old, trying to ride from Santa Monica to New York City on a Chevrolet-brand department store bicycle, with only a rudimentary command of the English language. His mother, he told me, is worried sick — so ever since leaving Santa Monica, two days prior, he’d been stopping wherever he could get free wireless and sending her reassuring emails. His mom and sister live in Gifu, the same prefecture my great-grandfather Asataro Yoshida left in 1905, when he was a little younger than Shunsuke. Shunsuke is a sociology student in Tokyo, and to train for his expedition he’d been pedalling the three days back and forth to visit his family. His dad died a few years ago of pancreatic cancer, according to his portable translator.

I shoved Shunsuke’s bike in the back of my truck and we drove as far as Oro Grande, where we stopped for huge draft Budweisers at the Iron Hog, where apparently they filmed part of Easy Rider. Shunsuke’s pool game is not much better than his English, but he is consistently upbeat and that counts for a lot. John, the owner, let us camp next to the bar. I made a chicken stir-fry while Shunsuke fixed his bike. We drank a two-dollar bottle of wine, carefully hoarded ever since the Trader Joe’s in Santa Cruz, and Shunsuke smoked American Spirits. “Mmm! Delicious! In Japan, lots girls don’t like Ma’bro. I smoke Ma’bro cigarette. They don’t like. Now I know Am’rican Spirit much better. I wonder, will Japan girls like Am’rican Spirit!” Shunsuke told me he’d asked his girlfriend to come on the trip but she said no. This he told me not as a sad story, but more like a joke. Most of his friends, he confessed, find his wanderlust weird. Japan, he told me, is still a very closed society. When his uncle married a gaijin, an American woman, the family stopped talking to them and the couple moved to Chicago.

As Shunsuke drank, he became reflective. Despite the language barrier, he managed to articulate his concern over the direction of the academy in Japan. Universities, he told me gravely, have abandoned true learning. Instead they are simply training grounds for salarymen, expensive internships for eager corporate drones. “Not just Japan,” I said.

We crawled into our thin summer tents and shook all night as the temperature plummeted. Also, there was a railway forty feet away with hundred-car freight trains charging by roughly every half hour. So the ground was in fact vibrating. In the morning I filled him up with as much bacon and sauerkraut and fritatta and Greek yogurt and tea as he would hold. Then I made him take ginseng supplements, cod liver oil, echinacea, and vitamins. He swung his leg over his crappy bike and pedalled East, and I drove back to look for a place to stay near Hesperia until December.

The desert

The documentary is coming along nicely. Based on what we’ve shot so far, I think we’re still on track to release part I in November. We have a break until Sunday, and a mini-road trip seems in order. I’d like to camp at Joshua Tree and maybe try a bit of bouldering. Evan has his sights on Vegas and I admit I’m curious about Nevada, from an anthropological point of view. I’ve never fired an Uzi, after all. Or a gold-plated .50-calibre handgun.

I think my favourite thing to do is look in on people’s little worlds and try to figure out what we have in common. Our neighbours, for example, are devout Mormons with sixteen grown children. These details are hardly obstacles to friendship. Besides, they drive a Prius. Almost every time, I find what divides us is far outweighed by what we share.

I like being the outsider, dipping in for a short time, playing the chameleon, asking questions. I like drifters — the wanderers of the world, the adventurers subsisting on the margins of what’s considered normal society. (The documentary is partly about that.) I think I have some things in common with these travellers. I’m certainly interested in the edge, though I don’t tread as close as any of the people I picked up on the way down here.

The difference is that I have a home to return to. If not a physical building, I have a family more solid than most, friends I trust completely, and a strong community that stretches far beyond Vancouver. I have clear goals and big plans. Right now we need to wander the desert for a short while. We’ll be home soon.

Evan Crowe

Candice Vallantin

This guy

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7 comments
  1. nicola said:

    I drove the 101 last winter on my way to Mexico – it’s an incredibly beautiful route, although I encountered far fewer hitchhikers in January… And this documentary project, you’ve said just (little) enough to make a person crazy with curiosity. On purpose, perhaps?

  2. White Indian said:

    Keep it rollin’

  3. Several years ago, my wife made me promise to not pick up any hitchhikers. I managed to get an exception for people I knew.

    Some how I must make her understand you can’t determine this going down the road a 65 miles an hour and looking at them for a few seconds.

    • “Sketchy? Not sketchy? Wait … acquaintance?”

  4. Bruce said:

    Great stories, and I’m glad the doc is on track. Can’t wait to hear about Nevada.

  5. K. Whitfield said:

    Alright, it’s been three months since you posted this wonderful entry. So I’m slow to the party, but we latecomers do keep it rollin’. Loved this post. So many of us are so entrained to our insular, safe and boring lives that we aren’t even really living anymore. But that’s not news is it. What is news is that YOU are out there living it. Keeping it real. Thank you for that. Hope you keep on shining your light.

    • I don’t think it’s possible to be “late” to reading something. Thanks for swinging by.

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