The Trip That Changed My Life | Part Five

Well say goodbye
It’s independence day
All boys must run away
Come independence day

-Gretchen Peters

May 5th – 9th
For the second and certainly the last time the Alliance was broken, and I had done it. I didn’t regret it; it was the only thing to do, I thought.

But here I was, thousands of miles, not only from home, but from anyone I knew.  I didn’t know this place, and I wasn’t a quick study. I was alone on the road. With one or two other guys, no one bothered us. But alone, I made an easy mark, as Dad would  have said. I was an 18-year-old Yankee drifter without a clue. I only vaguely perceived the real dangers. They were more threatening than I realized. Truly, there were killers on the road, the road I was on. I belonged at home up north, not wandering from town to town in the southern Midwest. Again and again I would think to myself, What am I doing? How did I get here?

Now, even more, something opened before me, something great and airy and mysterious. The sky grew, the land spread out like a fan, offering no visible terminus. Now nature took on the infinite character I felt with time. The days went on and on; now walking out onto the Great Plains, space went on and on. I had never been in possession of so much room to move in, or time to stand or drift as I pleased. No person or thing called me to go there or do this now. I just was; and I never had been.

Alone with myself, and my life, especially the last two years of it, I had little else to do beside reflect on my stupidity, aimlessness and failures. However, such constant introspection never led anywhere, never led me to any conclusions that seemed to help. The God question never left me now. It already began to take on a feeling of desperation as my ability to live life on my own terms washed away in the spring torrents. In fact, I had no terms of my own; I’d let myself be led around, and I hadn’t ever tried to lead myself.

I had two questions. The first was, How would I leave the road? The best I could come up with was finding myself a job. It wasn’t as sensible as going home, perhaps. But deep down, I wasn’t ready to leave altogether. I wanted my drifting to end, but I felt this trip should end somewhere on down the road, not back at the beginning of it.

And the second question was, Why was I even on this planet? What had been troubling me for three or four years now came up before me in a way that I could not brush away. There were no more distractions, nothing with which to busy myself. There was no more noise or chatter or party or high to chase after. Just me and the towns of the Oklahoma plain. This was the God question. It was the same as the meaning question, and the reality question and the eternity question. It always came back to God.

These two questions intersected on my insides, where I felt a yearning, a pulling, a burning in my body to walk on and see what lie ahead. It hadn’t entered my mind that this could have had a spiritual component originating outside of myself, but I would soon become convinced of it.

Look here!
What d’you think you’re
Gonna be doin’ next year?

No lie…
How you know you’re not
Gonna up and die?

-The Clash

Mark and Troy left Elk City on May 5, and traveled north. We didn’t know when we would see or hear from each other again.

It may seem odd, but I made no immediate plans to leave Elk City. I decided I was not going to leave until I knew where I was going, and why. I asked around about some assistance and I was referred to a man named Harm Saunder. He came and picked me up in his car. He was a slight, buttoned-down man, perhaps in his forties, with angular features. Clean-shaven, in shirt-sleeves and a red tie, he looked me up and down. I hadn’t shaved for about six weeks. I wore a lot of the road on me. I was asking for help, because I was hungry, and didn’t know what to do. He didn’t look me in the eye; his mouth was tight. I immediately felt his disapproval.

Times like this, I really did feel like I was in a foreign country. We were from different worlds, and at the time I had no idea what was going through his head. I do now, because I know Harm Saunder, a lot of Harm Saunders. In fact, what is even more revealing is to know there is a trace of him in me, in most of us. Whenever I have  looked at someone through those eyes, eyes that disapprove, that distance, that disdain, I’ve forgotten and betrayed that hungry and aimless person I was all those years ago.

He drove us to a grocery store. I waited in the car and he came out with a loaf of white bread, American cheese and bologna. As he handed me the bag I looked at the food. I could taste the sandwich: it was going to be so good.

“If you want to get back on your feet, you’ll want to get yourself cleaned up, look for a job.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“Well, I wonder…” he said, fixing to come to the real point.

“Do you know Jesus Christ?”

Oh no, I thought. Here it comes.

“I know about him,” I said.

“But do you believe in Him? Have you accepted Him as your personal Lord and Savior?”

“I don’t know what I believe…right now.”

I just about choked on the words. I told the truth: I knew I didn’t understand much, I knew I believed a lot of things, I knew I didn’t know what I wanted to know, and maybe I didn’t believe what I wanted to believe. But saying the words, hearing myself saying them, was extremely uncomfortable. I squirmed.

“The help you really need is Jesus, young man. In a day, that food will be gone. What then? You need Jesus.”

“Maybe so. Thank you for your help.”

The next day, I met a couple of fellow drifters. You always do. It’s obvious to you the other people who are living on the street, sleeping in the park. They’re not invisible when you’re one of them. But I was very careful whom I spoke with, and what I told them. I didn’t tell anyone, for example, where I would be sleeping. Ironically, I was welcome at a cafe on the main drag, where one of the regulars started calling me Oregon, after he got used to seeing me there every day. I felt safe there, and no one there looked down on me.

One of the guys I met was Emmett Glover, an alcoholic in his fifties, tall, wearing an overcoat, always with a bottle of hooch in his pocket. Right away he warned me about a couple of guys at the park, standing at a distance.

“You see those two? Georgia boys, bad news. Just stay away from’ em. N’don’t you ever turn your back on ’em. Those Georgia boys’ll cut your throat for a dollar in change. Do it while you sleep. Just stear clear of ’em.”

Emmett was from Kentucky. We sort of paired up, it seemed. I felt safer with him around. He was tall and lumbering, always drinking but rarely drunk. He had years on the street and on the road behind him, and he could tell I wasn’t savvy.

I’d never known a person like Emmett before: a broken down man, a man who’d brought his life to nothing, a homeless, hopeless drunk with nothing in this world but pain – physical pain, he told me – but psychic pain as well, I supposed. I couldn’t imagine what he was looking forward to, ever.

“It’s my back,” he told me. “I’m in pain all the time. It’s just no good. I can’t work, and drink is the only thing that gives me any relief. That’s only reason I drink. Got no other medicine for it.”

The day I met him, I also called Mom. I told her where I was, that I’d split up with my friends, that I was in a town called Elk City, Oklahoma. She insisted on wiring me some money and later in the day I did my best to conceal my walk to the Western Union office to get it. One of the more amusing problems I had in all my travels was having that fifty dollars that allowed me to survive, but which I was certain I needed to keep a secret from everyone – for my own safety.

And make no mistake, everyone wanted and needed money – for one thing or another. In my case, it was food. But when Emmett said to me, “Let’s go panhandle for some money,” I couldn’t make a plausible excuse. I found myself in the ridiculous position of standing outside a grocery store, asking strangers for money when I had the better part of fifty dollars in my pocket. I was surprised at how decently people treated me, and how much money they gave me when I told them I was trying to buy a sandwich. For money, I was set.

I wonder how long I thought I would stay there. I actually started looking for work. I even filled out some job applications, including one I handed in at the old downtown movie house on Main Street, The Westland. I still haven’t heard back.

I looked for any opportunity to work I could find. One night I went to an Arby’s at closing time. They let me mop the lobby, then sit at a table while I ate some unsold food.

Westland th - elk cityThe next few days were divided between Elk City’s beautiful Carnegie Library and the cafe. That’s where I would eat, chat with regulars, and ask about work.

“Hey, Oregon,” this friendly guy said to me. “If you want to find a job, you really should go to the City.”  Oklahoma City was a little over a hundred miles down the 40.

“That’s where the work is. People here are nice, but they’re not gonna hire ya.”

Emmett had his own ideas. He didn’t want to go to the City. Maybe he just liked these small towns along the Interstates. If they were as hospitable as Elk City, I could see why. But I was ready to move on, after I saw the sense of going to OKC.

“I heard there’s a priest, who’s got a work farm somewhere out here,” Emmett told me. “Got a mind to check that out.”

That sounded interesting to me too, as an experience, but I was also wary of such a place. What I heard later about him and his farm made me glad I never went there.

I was in what began as a trickle, but later became a flood of unemployed Northerners coming into Oklahoma looking for jobs. We seemed to have wandered into a lost sequel to the Grapes of Wrath, in which the Californians all pack everything they own into their cars and drive to Oklahoma, where the Okies tell them, in a kindlier tone than the Californians ever took with them, “Sorry, folks. Got work, but not that much work.”

Emmett got a day’s work, and asked me to wait until he was done before I left. I met him on the eastern edge of town. He had money in his pocket and we were ready to leave town, but it was late, so we slept by the highway and left the next day.

Carnegie library 3May 10th – 15th

I packed my bags and I’m heading straight into the storm
Gonna be a twister to blow everything down
That ain’t got the faith to stand its ground

-Bruce Springsteen
The Promised Land

It was Monday, May 10th. We got a ride to the next town going east, Clinton. It was cool and overcast, as we spent the night in a large park in the middle of town.

It was raining on Tuesday, and we were mostly hunkered down in the park, which included a pool, an amphitheater, a baseball diamond and tennis courts. Then it got stormy, with heavy rains and tremendous winds. It grew twilight-dark well before sundown, and it was clear we were going to need some shelter.

I really knew nothing about the seasons there, nor about tornadoes. Today was the day to learn. Emmett and I crossed the road from the park and took refuge in the Blue Pig Bar.

I hadn’t heard anything about any tornadoes anywhere. Then suddenly on May 11, 36 twisters touched down in Oklahoma, Texas and Kansas, 27 of them in our region. A little after 4:00 a tornado watch was issued. At ten to five, an F-3 twister hit Altus, about 70 miles south, tearing up the Air Force base there. Ten minutes later another F-3 traveled within a mile of the field where we had slept near Mangum only a week before. It killed two people as they ran for a storm cellar.

I didn’t know whether I should be concerned or not. I watched the folks inside the Blue Pig to find out. They ranged from apparently indifferent to tense and distracted. The radio and TV were on, and when tornadoes were sighted nearby, a half dozen or so of us went outside where we had an unobstructed view of the sky. I was amazed. The sky was aglow with gasses, turning the clouds green and casting a dark and eerie hue on us. The wind died down. It was weirdly quiet.

“The wind stopped. Is the storm over?” I asked.

“That happens,” someone answered,  “when there’s a twister.”

The waitress had been most nervous of all, repeatedly walking out, looking at the worsening conditions, then walking back in to take care of patrons. “That does it,” she said throwing down her cigarette. “I’m going to get my kids. He’s gonna have to let me leave.”

The evening wore on. I had some beers. Eventually the bar would close, and Emmett and I would be back on the street. How could we do that, when dozens of tornadoes had touched down?

Tornado sightings in western Oklahoma continued through the evening. Finally, the last one was seen at 8:42. It was ten miles away.

Emmett met a guy in the bar, who called himself Lobo. He was real rugged character, a Vietnam vet, about 40, with an army jacket and a cowboy hat. As closing time neared, he told us we could crash at his house. He lived a few miles out of town. The idea of driving out in this weather made me uneasy, but not compared to when we were doing it.

When we left, the storm was raging. The rain was blinding and the wind thrashed violently against every obstacle.  Then there was the lightning. As we drove out on the straight road leading to Lobo’s house, I looked out the window and could see nothing but the black of night and torrents of rain. Then the explosions began.

Back home in Portland, thunderstorms are pretty rare. In Montana they are common in the summer. My Dad, who grew up in Iowa, had taught me when I was a boy to count the seconds between the flash of lightning and the sound of the thunder, to determine how far away the lightning had struck.

I had never been so close – it had never occurred to me that I ever would be – that the flash and the thunder were simultaneous. When the first bolt of lightning struck the ground next to the road as we passed, I jumped. It was like a mortar round: a brilliant white light and a sound like a bomb exploding. I looked at Lobo, who had been drinking all night, I was pretty sure. He seemed steady. Maybe we wouldn’t die.

Then another strike. Instead of counting time, I counted at least three ways we could die: tornado, lightning or car wreck. Shortly we arrived at Lobo’s cinder block house.

Inside we dried off. I felt safe, and Lobo hadn’t a care, which made me feel better. On into the night, Lobo showed us snapshots from his time in Vietnam, and told some wrenching stories of carnage and loss.

Multi-vortex tornado in Altus, OK, May 11, 1982. NSSL Photo.

Multi-vortex tornado in Altus, OK, May 11, 1982. NSSL Photo.

In the morning he fed us and dropped us back in Clinton. I found a paper and read about the damage and deaths the night before. What would I have done without people like Lobo and the others who helped us?

God was invisible to me and silent. And yet these mounting instances of deliverance and refuge were both visible and vocal. So were the chance meetings, the little messages, the thunderous quiet and the revelations that came from being alone and drifting with nothing. Together they made me think and wonder.

We ask for signs and dismiss them when they come, but grace speaks the louder when we listen, reaches farther when we stretch out our empty hand.

* * *

I spent the next three nights in Clinton, one in the park, another in a self-serve car wash. At some time during those three days, Emmett and I lost track of each other and I didn’t see him again. I figured he was off to find that work farm.

The third night I met a guy named George who convinced me to sneak with him into a U-Haul lot and sleep in one of the trucks. The next morning, the 15th, he went off with a friend who showed up in a car and dropped off another guy named Kenny. George said he was coming back in about 45 minutes. When, after talking with Kenny for some time, I looked in my wallet and saw that George had stolen all of my money, I realized he wouldn’t be back.

“Damn. Stole my bandana, too.”

We’d both been ditched. Kenny bought us some coffee. He was something different. He was pretty clean. He had a leather jacket, and money. He was quiet and serious and guarded. He told me his story. He was from upstate New York and he was going out to California to be with his girlfriend. He said he came from money; his family was in the mob, and he wanted out. He could have been telling the truth, but I think sometimes people tell these stories as a way of saying, “Don’t screw with me. It’s dangerous.” I accepted his story as my way of saying, “Don’t worry; I won’t.”

So say goodbye
It’s independence day
All men must make their way
Come independence day

With no money, I decided it was time to leave Clinton for Oklahoma City. I walked to the east end of town and caught a ride to the next town, Weatherford. There I was picked up by a college professor who was driving his family to The World’s Fair in Knoxville. They were warm and kind, and once again, I wondered at the good luck of meeting such nice people. For crying out loud, they treated me like a nephew they hadn’t seen in years.

They stopped to eat their dinner at a supermarket parking lot in Oklahoma City. I told them about how I got here, about my friends, the hitchhiking and the roughnecking and wanting to go to Europe. They asked me my plans. I told them I would look for work in the City and start back to school. They perked up when they heard that, full of enthusiasm and encouragement. So I told them I wanted to write, that I would probably study English or creative writing.

The professor drove me further in to drop me close to downtown. A we parted he slipped me a five dollar bill. Now it was the only money I had.

I found a barber shop where I asked to use their phone. I walked in and felt I had stepped back fifty years. Three or four black men were sitting around, just talking. It was in the classic style, with black and white checkered tiles and chairs that were made when Roosevelt was president. The whole place looked like a Rockwell painting.

I was in the city: I felt it so strongly, and it was such a comfort and relief. These guys didn’t look at me sideways: they acted like this scruffy-looking kid with a knapsack and a sleeping bag wasn’t out of place. Reminded me a little of places back home, in northeast Portland. Is this home now? Am I done with my travels? Sure feels like it.

“Son,” the barber said, “You’re too late for the Sally. It’s past six.”

“Do you know somewhere else I might stay? Where they take people late?”

“Look up a place called Jesus House. They’ll take you.”

I looked up the number and dialed.

“Jesus House, ” a whiskey-voiced woman spoke rapidly in a strong South Texas accent. “This is Sister Betty.”

“Hi, I just hitched into town, and I wonder if I could sleep there tonight.”

“Yes, you may,” and she gave me directions.

“See ya, bye,” and she hung up.

A half-hour later I was standing in front of a street mission in an ancient three-story house. My trip had come to its end. I hesitated, remembering that the first night of my journey, seven weeks and two days ago, was spent in a street mission in a house. Would they house men like that? Would they trade food for listening to a sermon? Would they throw down their rules, and not even engage me in a conversation like a fellow human being?

It doesn’t matter, I thought. It’s only for a night or two.


The Trip That Changed My Life | Part Four

April 21st – 28th
Once again, something big had been turning in Troy’s head that fully revealed itself only after he had made a big decision. It was no surprise he wanted to leave Hobbs. By this time we all did. But here he was, packed and ready to thumb it out of town.

“I’m going to El Salvador. See the war first-hand, and write about it.”

The Salvadoran Civil War: it was full on, with the Government death squads murdering thousands of civilians a year, and the FMLN waging guerrilla warfare in the countryside. Yeah, he had talked about it, about the war, about working as a freelance journalist. But this?

“Now wait a frickin’ minute,” I said, or something like it.

“Let me ask you: Why am I here, in Hobbs, living in an oil field? Answer: you. Why did I come here? You. For that matter, why did I drop out of high school and move to Seattle? Why did I give up my last $300 and and my last $80? Answer: you.”

“And you,” I added, looking at Mark, “And this idea we had – together. No one is leaving.”

El Salvador. For crying out loud.

As we sat in our sleeping bags wrapped up over our shoulders, we asked Troy several times to sit down to talk, which he didn’t want to do, because he knew its only purpose was for us to talk him out of leaving. Finally he relented, which meant: No, he wasn’t walking across the the field and down Marland to Highway 18 south, at least not until we let him go. We talked a long time, about wars and death squads, and how those work; about how he pulled us back together, and here we were, and we ought make the best of it and figure out a plan. Finally, we convinced him to stay.

Hobbs was a bust, it was plain to see. But where should we go? We talked to a lot of people, roughnecks mostly, and roustabouts. We even hitched over to Odessa, leaving our camp for a few days.

(On the way: Scariest ride ever. When we got in the car the floor was covered two-deep in empty beer cans.Two good ole boys, pie-eyed and bombing down that Texas two-lane going about 90.)

We stayed with Stacy Gruby, who first gave Troy the idea of roughnecking the previous summer. But Odessa was a bust, too. Stacy said try the Panhandle, maybe, or Oklahoma. But it was back to Hobbs for now.

* * *

We survived, and not much else. We got canned food from a church. I think Troy had a little money, but it wouldn’t have lasted long. We might have panhandled. For myself, after getting sick of canned food, I lifted a banana from a big grocery store in town. I mean I stole it, you know, just so we’re clear. Man, I must have wanted that banana. Did it, even though I was scared to death of getting busted and facing Judge Roy Bean.

Luckily we had a handy source of water. There was a faucet on the side of the Totem Grocery that faced our field. There we could fill containers or rinse out our clothes. We could also come as close as we ever did to bathing. The Totem building is a concrete rectangular box with a front door and no windows. Unless we were in the store or in front of the door, they never saw us.

I was now living the full experience of being homeless. All the incidental things of life, like eating, drinking, washing, talking with strangers, these became the substance of our lives. There wasn’t anything else. Your day was an empty canvas, but the only paints were the minutiae of your daily life, and that was what you made into the sprawling pictures your long days called for.

Reading took up most of our days. I finished my Pelican History of Medieval Europe and handed it off to Troy. Then I read The Communist Manifesto, Herman Hesse’s Journey to the East, the Baghavad Gita and Kahlil Gibran’s Voice of the Master.

My favorite thing about Hobbs was the nighttime. Sunset would would quickly turn the light from warm to cool, the temperature would drop, and the stars would pop. Once dark, there was a wild flame in the distance that mesmerized me, sometimes short and sometimes long and waving like a flag. It was an Occidental Petroleum refinery stack southeast of us. When this pillar of fire was burning, we could hear the rushing sound it made, like a jetliner passing overhead, even though it was about a mile and half away.

Another persistent element was the weather. I had no real notion of what was coming. Until now the temperatures had fluctuated drastically: highs of below 60 and over 90 within a few days; and lows of 70 and nearly freezing in the same week. But it had been dry.

Then some rain came. I only remember one real downpour in Hobbs. It happened after dark while we were in the cafe, and enormous drops were suddenly pelting the front windows. Looking out at the torrent, we hurriedly flipped a coin three ways to see which one would stay (it wasn’t me) while the other two ran like wild men across the road and the field to our camp. We grabbed a few things, but mostly piled our stuff up and covered it with the  tarp. Then we ran back, drenched to our skin. I don’t remember how or where we passed the night. The next day, one of Troy’s acquaintances let us dry off some of our stuff in their mobile home. The sun dried up our camp.

April 29 – May 5th
It wasn’t long afterward that we decided to move on. The time had come to see if there was some work on down the road.The day we left Hobbs, April 29th, grew bleak as we headed north, venturing toward the Panhandle. We stopped near a town called Milnesand, NM, and by nightfall it was raining hard. All I remember is giving up on actually pitching my tent, owing to wind, I suppose, and just using it to cover myself from the rain.

The next day, Friday the 30th, we turned due east and landed in Lubbock. That night we went into a big, crowded honky-tonk. At that time the drinking age was 19, which Mark and Troy both were. I used my fake Minnesota ID to get in. Somehow, I got drunk. I mean, I know how that happens, but whence the means, I couldn’t say.

I stood behind a girl playing a video game and watched. Respecting this particular video game, I heard a lewd joke from the girl at the cafe-store back in Hobbs, and stupidly and disgracefully repeated it to this girl, something that I would never have done sober. But there it is. Without looking at me, she shrugged one shoulder at me and let that suffice as “Get lost.” That I did.

A little while later, as I stumbled around this totally jumpin’ joint, I looked over in time to see the girl pointing me out. To her boyfriend. This is surely not the only time, but it is certainly one of the times that I needed a cowboy’s appraisal of my behavior. That was a new experience. I could see it happening from twenty feet away, and it filled me with dread. He walked toward me like Jake LaMotta.

“Did you talk to her? Did you make a suggestion to her?”

Suddenly I felt pretty sober. “Yes, I made a stupid joke. I’m sorry I did, I’m very very sorry. Please tell her how sorry I am.”

“I think we should go outside, so I can teach you how to talk to girls.”

I had a feeling I was going to get taught about unilateral pugilism. Just then Troy nudged his way in. Troy the diplomat. Troy the guy who can talk his way out of any situation.

“Hello, sir,” he said in is most earnest and respectful tone. “Yes, could I please talk with you a moment?”

I couldn’t believe it. He got the guy’s attention, got him to turn away from me, defused his anger. He explained that his friend was pretty wasted, and we’re very sorry, and we’re leaving now, right now, and very sorry. Okay?

Classic Troy.

We hurried toward the door, the three of us. Out to the street.

We found our way to a Denny’s and spent the most of the night there, drinking coffee and trying not to nod off.

* * *

I want to see some friends of mine
True loving people whose hearts are kind
Find that little town that’s in the back of my mind

-Jimmy Webb
Oklahoma Nights

So this is how it was: Whenever we’d come to the next town, we would ask around. “How’s roughneckin’?”

And we’d hear something like, “Ya checked Lubbock?” And so we’d thumb it over to Lubbock, ask around again.

“No, nothin’ here, really. Ya’ll been to Odessa? Zat right? You know what. Y’all oughta see about Anadarko.”



Oklahoma. Man. That’s another state.

And so we would aim to beat it on down the road, again.

The next day was grey and cool. We were in a little town east of Lubbock. A waitress told Troy we could see the parish priest about some assistance. When he want to the rectory, the priest made out like he was going to help, and told Troy to come back. When he did, he wouldn’t answer the door, told his secretary to tell Troy he was gone, and a few minutes later, as Mark and I watched from a  distance, the police came.

Troy was incredulous that the priest would’ve lied to him. Sadly, the man was afraid. To him, we were scary.

The police told us to get out of town, and we assured them we’d be gone with the first ride. That took us only as far as the next town, Crosbyton.

Then a ride came from a man I will never forget. Driving a car with his teenaged daughter and son, and another teenage friend, he didn’t really have room for three passengers. But he stopped anyway. Bud was a generous, talkative, tenderhearted man, in mourning for his wife who had died perhaps a year before. When he told the story of her illness and passing, and the grief that followed, and how the three of them had drawn closer, I was moved. But I never understood him like I do now.

He got choked up a couple of times.The girl, sitting between us in the front seat, looked at me and said apologetically, “He gets pretty emotional sometimes.”

“I do.”

“When he says goodbye to y’all, he’ll probably cry.”

“I probably will.”

“That’s all right,” I said.

He was driving home to Hobart, OK. All the way, black clouds drifted overhead. I marveled at how green it was on the rolling plains of Texas. Finally, it  looked like spring somewhere. Finally, we were out of the dust.

Bud was in no hurry. He was really enjoying this return trip, with the seven of us crammed into his car. Several stops. Easy drive, on into the night.

He let us out near a town called Mangum, about 40 miles miles south of Interstate 40. And, saying goodbye to us on the roadside late at night, he did cry. It was all right.

We slept in a crop field, and my thoughts, going to sleep and waking, were about rattlesnakes. That morning we headed north. We could have asked Bud to take us all the way to Hobart, which is only about an hour from Anadarko. We decided against it. I can’t say what we were thinking, but it may have been Kansas. I do know that a few days later, continuing north was the crux of a decision that would change the course of my life.

You ain’t gonna find nothin’ down here friend
Except seeds blowin’ up the highway in the south wind

-Bruce Springsteen

We came to Elk City, where it was stormy again, and we slept that night in a park in the rain.

Elk City was a town, eighty years old, of about 10,000 people, situated on the old Route 66. Its highest distinction is that it’s the hometown of the great singer-songwriter Jimmy Webb (Wichita Lineman, Up, Up and Away, By the Time I Get to Phoenix, Highwayman, Galveston). The first day or two we were there, I saw a newspaper. It had an article about unemployment. It said that of all the states, the one with lowest rate in the country right now was: Oklahoma.

We talked again about where to go next. Troy thought there could be some roughnecking further north, in Nebraska.That’s where he and Mark thought we should go. I didn’t want to go north. I didn’t want to keep chasing oil. I was done with it. How much work were we going to find, if we found any at all? If we were going to get work, any kind of work, weren’t our chances better here, with the best employment rate in the country?

Of course they didn’t want just any job. What, settle down and get a fast-food job, or farm labor? What’s the point of that? We can get crappy, low-paying jobs anywhere. That’s what  we had, what we left, to come down here.

But I didn’t want to keep drifting. I was tired of going from town to town looking for the Holy Grail, which was, after all, just a job on the rigs. I had become less and less enthusiastic about the idea. Seemed every time I met some calloused roughneck, one that had been at at it for years, he was missing a finger or a thumb. That was from throwing chain, Troy told me.The kind of luck I have, I’ll lose a digit my first day on. No thanks.

On May 5, my friends were ready to to hit the road gain. I told them I wasn’t going. I was going to stay in Oklahoma, see if I could get some work, maybe go home, maybe go to school. I was dirty, tired, and hungry most of the time. It was fun while it lasted.

Look, we tried. We tried in Seattle, we tried here. It’s over. It was a mirage. We chased it, but it’s gone. I’ve gotta quit the road, that’s all. I’ve gotta be done with it.

Perhaps I thought I’d get them to stay, too. I would’ve liked that. But they weren’t going to stay. They had decided, and so had I.

I was telling them goodbye.

The Trip that Changed My Life | Part Three

And we headed down south with just spit and a song
But they said “Sorry son it’s gone gone gone”
-Bruce Springsteen


April 1st – 3rd
The first of April, 1982 found me and Mark making our way toward Hobbs, NM, thumbing it out on Interstate 10 in the Arizona desert, reading our Gideon Bibles and hoping for a ride from the ever more seldom-passing drivers.

From a spot near Benson to another somewhere on the hundred or so miles to Lordsburg, we whiled the better part of two days. Finally we got a ride, but got dropped once again at a spot well short of a human population center. This time we were taken to rest area 25 miles west of Lordsburg, with nothing in between. The sun was going down. We slept under concrete picnic tables.

In the morning we were awakened by one RV after another making their morning stops. After talking about it, we decided it made no sense  go back to the road, when everyone inclined to stop was doing it right here. We couldn’t just stick our thumbs our, though. We’d have to ask for a ride. We split up and began walking up and down the long line of motor homes, looking for friendly faces. I found a man in his sixties and his wife and asked if we could at least go as far as Lordsburg with them. As he looked me up and down, I waved Mark over. The man was thinking about it, but wanted a feel for us, to make sure we were safe. He had us sit a spell and chat.


One of the rich experiences of hitchhiking is that a surprisingly diverse range of people will pick up a hitchhiker, but they all have this in common: they want to give a ride to a stranger. It’s remarkable when you think of it. The inside of a car, or the cab of a truck, is such an intimate space, and inviting a stranger to share it with you is a generous, even a friendly gamble. Sometimes drivers are tired of driving alone. Or they are paying forward the rides they got when they were on the road. Sometimes they want to save your soul, or share a joint or a sandwich, or add a little spontaneity to a routine drive. Whatever the motive, they have this little albeit sufficient bit of trust, enough to reach out to a stranger and help out. It’s a beautiful thing, and I’m sad the psycho killers have all but ruined such an honored custom.

After he had a sense of us, he said we could ride with them. He was a retired rancher, and they were spending a good part of the year on the road. They were solid, conservative, Midwestern Protestants taking on a couple of Northwest lefty drifters, and what a fine time we had! This was one of the nicest rides we got. It came right after we had spent the last of our money, and we didn’t know how we were going to eat, or how many days we were from Hobbs.

As it turned out, we traveled in their motor home for two days. They drove us about 350 miles, to within  70 miles of Hobbs. The first day we went as far as Guadalupe Mountains National Park, where we stayed for the night. Along the way we stopped at a KFC, and when they realized we didn’t have any money left, they bought us lunch, and fed us thereafter.


Interstate 10 dips south at Las Cruces into Texas. I remember my shock as we swung near the Rio Grande and I could see across the rail tracks, fences and the river what looked to me like a shanty town in Ciudad Juarez: the houses of paper and tin and others of bare, crumbling cinder block. The contrast between the two cities, where the houses on one side were only a thousand feet from the houses on the other, was stunning.

And then there was this land we were driving through. As I crossed the Western and Plains states in 1978, I fell in love, deeply in love with the American landscape. Now, cruising across the great desert Southwest, entering Texas and then New Mexico for the first time, I was falling in love again. This was the land that starred in the old westerns I grew up watching with my grandpa, and my dad, who shared this romance. Open, hard, dry ground – red and yellow dust – sprinkled now with green –  against a blue and white sky. There is history here, and timelessness, air that can choke or drown you, but let you breathe deeper than you ever have; land that fights you but also frees you.

At the Park, I believe we pitched a tent outside the RV. The next day they dropped us at Carlsbad, NM. We were one ride away from Hobbs, a roof over our heads, some food and the next chapter of our lives.

By Boston Public Library [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

With any kind of luck, Troy lives at the Barton Motor Court!
(By Boston Public Library [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

As we set foot in Hobbs, I looked around. Picture west Texas, just six and half miles away, and you’ve got Hobbs. It was a flat, dusty town, and there was only one reason I could think of for having a town there, or any place like it: oil. That’s just fine by me. Oil is why I’m here.

I pulled out the Rolodex card with notes about how to find Troy. Eventually we made contact. Troy found us at the Totem Grocery, a convenience store on the main drag. (The building is still there, with the Totem sign over the door.) After all the introductory remarks were dispensed with, I said something like, “Well, what do you say you take us to your place so we can drop our loads?” I was thinking of a cool, shaded room, and some real food.

“Yeah, let’s do that.”

We were on the western edge of town. A few sparse businesses, like the Totem and the Caprock Lounge, open fields of scrub, pump jacks – little more. Troy led us in a straight line north and west out into the middle of the field next to the Totem. In a few minutes we came upon a 20-foot canvas army tarp spread out on the ground, with a backpack, a sleeping bag, some empty food cans, some books, and some pots and pans. All around us were pump jacks bobbing up and down. Troy stopped.

“What’s this?”  I asked.

“My place.”

“Your place? This is where you’re living?”

“Yes, it is.  I guess it’s where you’re living, too.”

“You told me you had a place to live. I mean, indoors.”

I looked at Mark, expecting him to be as incredulous as I was. He wasn’t.

“You knew? You knew he was – ? Oh, crap.”

Troy had moved to the field because rent was costing too much money, and money was tight because…

“Well, the work has kind of dried up around here.”

“Dried up? That’s why we’re here – to work. Dried up? You haven’t been working?”

“Not as much.”

“But you made a lot of money. You saved your money.”

“I did. I had some money. Until a few days ago. Somebody came through while I was gone, and ripped me off. I had a little with me, though.”

My heart sank a little. When Mark and Troy first talked about this, they knew they wouldn’t get me to come down here if I knew we were going to be camping in an oil field. That was probably true. But if I had known that work on the rigs was falling off – never. Never. I felt betrayed. They had both lied to me. White lies to them; to me, black.

There was no shelter, no shower, no refrigerator, toilet or sink. No water or electricity. No food, no money, and who knows, maybe no work.

Welcome to Hobbs, the Oil Capital.

April 4th – 21st
Now my grievances against my friends were having a cumulative effect. But what could I do with them? Me, not much. So I filed them away in my overstuffed file labeled, “Crap I don’t want to keep but can’t get rid of.”

And hey: the Alliance was re-allied, after all. And that was great. Together again. I rather marveled at where our friendship had brought us in less than a year and a half: from our homes back in Missoula to Seattle, then dispersed in opposite directions, only to reunite in this of all places. Being homeless and nearly destitute was a small thing. In fact, in light of our travel plans, it was funny. We were back to laughing at our self-made predicament.  Situation normal.

And there was an amusing irony here, that only now occurs to me. What did we do back in Missoula? We griped about our small-town captivity and longed for the freedom and opportunity to make our lives what we wanted. No parental constraints, no demands from school or jobs to hamper us. We didn’t want our lives mapped out for us by family or teachers or society. Freedom, baby.

Well, we got what we wished for. And you know what that freedom looked like? Eating VanCamp’s pork and beans out of a can on a dusty piece of canvas in the middle of an oil field. No jobs or school or parents to pin us down, push us around or rob our time and energy. All the time in the world, in fact. Freedom, baby!

* * *

Not a lot happened in Hobbs. The three of us lived on the tarp for the rest of April. Every weekday we rose early, dressed for worked and went to the Totem Grocery. There we waited as the roughneck crews stopped for coffee and food on their way to work. If a crew was short a guy or two, they’d pick someone up. This is what Troy had been doing. The more work, the  more likely a guy wouldn’t show, so when the rigs were hopping, Troy would get plenty of work. Problem was, the big oil boom, which had been going since 1978 or ’79, was going bust. Just in time for our arrival.

We went every day, but weeks passed, and we never got hired. We would spend the rest of the day on the tarp, or at the library, two miles away. At night, or when the weather was bad, we often took shelter at a place across the road from the Totem, which was a service station with a cafe and a store. (Also still there, under new owners.) The girl who worked there like to flirt with us, and we’d flirt back. We’d drink coffee, and occasionally drop a quarter in the jukebox.

It is no exaggeration to say that every week I spent in Hobbs felt like a month. This is how it had been for me since El Centro. It wasn’t that nothing happened, or that I was particularly bored. It’s that time, every hour, every day, crawled. It moved so slowly because, apart from going to  the Totem Grocery every morning, the notion of time grew irrelevant. I looked at my watch only out of habit, but next to nothing we did needed to be timed by anything more than the rising of the sun. Never again have I experienced this, but I remember it well. I believe it is not possible for this to happen if I have any sense of my current situation being in any way defined or delimited by time. The fact is I live with this time-definition every day, and the only way I know to be rid of it is to not know what is happening next or when. That doesn’t happen on a camping trip or a even a meandering vacation, if you have a job or family to get back to. I was floating, drifting through the days, as if I were in a raft on a river without any oars. I didn’t know where or when I could or would put out.

I only know three dates from that month. The first two are the day we arrived, and day we left. The third is April 21st.

That morning Mark and I woke up to Troy rousting us.When I looked at him, I couldn’t believe what I saw. He was standing there, wearing his army coat and his backpack, ready to go.

“What are you doing?”


“You’re leaving? You can’t be serious!”

“I am leaving,” he drew out like a carefully worded announcement. I sat up, my mouth open.

“Just wanted to tell you guys: So long.”

If it’s freedom you want

It was Stacy Gruby’s fault.

He’s the one who gave Troy, and later all of us, the next hare-brained scheme.

In August of 1981, my girlfriend returned to school in New York. I was going to Portland to visit my family before returning to Seattle. There was something I wanted to do before I left Missoula, though. All summer long I had been looking longingly through a music store window on Higgins, at an electric bass guitar. I wanted to learn a rock ‘n’ roll instrument, and this was it. I had been really taken with the bass while listening to bands over the last two years with great bassists: notably The Who (John Entwistle), The Police (Sting), and Cream (Jack Bruce). This one looked just like the Hofner bass Paul McCartney played in the early days (and still uses, for old time’s sake). It was only eighty dollars. I decided I wanted that bass more than I needed my bike, so I sold it – for eighty dollars.

Meanwhile, in Seattle, Troy had grown restless. He was annoyed when both of us left  for the summer, letting him hold down the real (but mind-numbing) job and pay the bills. Over the summer, I believe that grew into a resentment, if not toward us, then toward his situation. He quit his job and planned to go hitchhiking for awhile. For some reason that I do not recall, Troy ran up a huge phone bill and a total of $1000 in debts. Right before I was going to leave for Portland, Troy showed up in Missoula, and he and Mark decided they would hitchhike to Oregon. They needed some money for their trip. Even though Mark and Troy had earned money all summer, and I hadn’t, I was the only one of us who had any money.

Eighty dollars, to be exact.

You gave them your music money? Are you daft?

Yes, I let them talk me out of that Paul McCartney bass. They hitchhiked to Corvallis, Troy’s home before Missoula, and I went to Portland. In ‘Corn Valley,’ as Troy used to call it, they met up with an old grade school friend of Troy’s, Stacy Gruby. Stacy told them how he and some friends had gone to west Texas, gotten jobs working on the oil rigs, and made mounds of cash. To say that Troy was fascinated by this story would be putting it mildly. The wheels started turning in his head that day and didn’t stop.

At mom’s house in Portland, I answered the door one day and was surprised to see Mark and Troy, fresh from their Corvallis trip. We took a walk up through the neighborhood, where my family had lived since 1974. At the Irvington School playground, where I had played when I was ten, they told me what Stacy Gruby had told them about roughnecking in Texas, and how much money was to be made there. Troy thought we should go there, and proposed a Texas Plan over the Seattle Plan.

One thing the both of them always ragged me about was my cautiousness. (Steve ‘Life-in-the-Slow-Lane’ Dehner, they had dubbed me.) It was true. I had been a little daredevil as a kid, but as a teen I developed an aversion for what I considered unnecessary risks. I did not apologize for it, though, because in my mind, without my caution to balance their impetuousness, I’d have been jailed or dead several times over just in the last year.

Irvington School playground today.  In the ’70s it had a playground in the corner area to the right. It included a high slide and I loved to jump off the top of it. As a kid, I was always jumping off of things.

So, not surprisingly, I balked at the Texas Plan. I said no. Mark leaned toward no, so the Texas Plan was shelved.

I returned to Seattle by train on September 4th, in time for the Kinks concert that night. Before I left, Nana took me shopping for my 18th birthday, which was coming mid-month. She bought me a brown knapsack, which, while a little ragged,  I still have after over 31 years and thousands of miles on the road.

When we were all back at the 20th Avenue apartment, we partied for a couple of weeks, around the Kinks show, visitors from Missoula, and my 18th birthday. But after the fun, the outlook was bleak. There was no food, no money, and there was back rent due. Mark and I had to work two weeks before getting a check. We resorted to shoplifting for food. Even then, we subsisted mostly on water, potatoes and butter. (Troy wouldn’t eat margarine.) We owed debts we could not pay off. The goal – a trip to Europe, our reason for moving to Seattle in the first place – was as remote as it had ever been.

It was time to rethink our plans. By the end of the month, Troy had another job, but for the last four weeks he hadn’t stopped thinking about Texas. What was calling to him, tugging at him? Was it a walkabout, an escape, a quest? He hated the feeling that his path was being carved out for him by his attachment to us, to a job. Whatever else he was after, he wanted to break free.

He made his decision. He was going to Texas, whether we came or not. He wasn’t interested in being talked out of it. Mark and I still considered it too uncertain. Troy moved out.

If it’s freedom you want, come to Texas. No one there tells you what to do and how you have to do it.
-Edna Ferber

Thus the Alliance was broken. Mark and I moved into a studio apartment on First Hill. We all walked away from our debts, the bills, the back rent, all of it. Troy stayed with his mom for a few weeks, then left for Odessa, Texas, and a long, lonesome trail.

Before he left, the three of us got together to bid him farewell. Troy was a forever-friend, smart, lovable and reckless. It was Troy in the first place whose easy friendship with Mark and then me had made this triad we called the Alliance, and now he was breaking it. He seemed to be breezing away just as easily. I was sad and disappointed to see him go, and I wondered when our paths would cross again.

As we parted, Troy said to us, as we had heard him say dozens of times – and just as casually –  “See ya on down that road.”

“See ya.”