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Nomads in America

The beige station wagon's trunk hinges were 4-inch nails. It could be closed, but only by pushing the entire weight of the door to the right and slamming it into place. Shunning far more reliable forms of transportation, this was my steed from Albuquerque to Dallas. My travel companions were a musician who once walked from Chicago to Denver, and a former Peace Corp volunteer in Africa. Before we would arrive in Dallas, there would be a blizzard, plots to escape the financial system, and camaraderie that can only come from a journey.

Tuesday Nov 27, 2006

After 9 months on the road in South America, I had decided to come home and surprise my parents for Thanksgiving. Snugly spun in a fib about visiting Machu Picchu and begging the US Embassy for turkey and mashed potatoes, my parents had no idea I would arrive on their doorstep in mid November. My father paused on the phone, speechless, when I walked in under two large backpacks, brandishing a 6-foot blowgun from the Peruvian Amazon. After several seconds, he said to the other end of the line, "I think my son just walked in." My mother, later that evening, looked at me like she'd seen a ghost. I was delighted.

As nice as it was to be back home, as Thanksgiving ebbed towards December, I knew I had to get to Texas to catch my flight back to SA before the Christmas rush. Southwest Airlines is good, but flying is expensive for the budget backpacker who has all the time in the world. Greyhound provides some of the world's worse bus service at one of the globe's highest prices. So, it was out too. I had a feeling that my best bet was the Criagslist rideshare, which held the promise of someone on their merry way to Texas. That's how I met the musician, Bryne.

Wednesday Nov 28, 2006

As I learned, Bryne was driving from Portland Oregon to Florida, playing one-man gigs and picking up riders to pay for gas. He had rolled through Arizona, and was passing through Albuquerque on his way to Dallas and Fort Worth. When I met him in the gas station off I-40 in Albuquerque, he was making a mustard and cheese sandwich on white bread from his food stash. Short, with chestnut hair and a beard, he wore several layers of raggedy thermals and spoke with a soft but intelligent voice. In recent nights, he'd camped in the car in freezing weather. This wasn't his first cross-country voyage, but the inaugural for the wagon. He'd bought it in Portland and fixed it up with a friend. The previous owner had believed in permanence, solving every mechanical problem with either a nail or staple gun ( e.g. sagging roof fabric). The car's interior was stuffed with musical equipment, blankets, bags and covered in the golden fabric endemic to the 1980s wood-paneled station wagon. Bryne planned to visit family in the Carolinas and meet up with other band members. He liked picking up riders, feeling it a good way to make a meaningful connection, rather than merely share a transit.

Sandy had joined him in Flagstaff, also via Craigslist. His oversized hoodie sweatshirt resembled the rough material of a gunnysack, said "Mexico" on the back, and had a large hole worn through from use. On his way to live near Mexico City for an undetermined amount of time, he shifted his weight in the driver's seat to snag a pastry from a box of food. I remember being struck by his tranquil and slow speech. The most recent summer, he'd lived near Madison, Wisconsin, near his parents. With some others in the community, he set up a co-op to grow organic food. A few years before, he was a fresh physics graduate, joined the Peace Corps, and landed in Zimbabwe. His term of service was just a few months, as the government decided to expel the Peace Corps and most other international organizations. Not quite wanting to return to the US, he had traveled through Africa, and had some great travel yarns to swap.

I met the two of them shortly after 2pm. We were to push through to Dallas (10 to 11hrs), or failing that, crash for a few hours near Amarillo and roll in the next morning. Bryne had a gig in Dallas Thursday night, and another Friday night in Fort Worth. Prudent and cautious, he preferred to err on the side of caution. Also, he had driving endurance a trucker would envy. Everything looked good, save the blizzard that would wash over all of Eastern New Mexico and Texas in just a few hours.

Sure, I saw it coming. My mother, a former television reporter, had contacts in all the major New Mexico newsrooms. The question brooding for the 24 hours before my departure was not if snow would come, but how bad it would be. Could we escape the state before the winter wonderland? Optimism is a traveler's constant companion at departure, and my wanderlust propels me forward, often when it shouldn't.

As we rolled East out of Albuquerque's valley, through Tijeras Canyon, putting the Sandia Mountains behind us. The wagon would not be coaxed faster than 60 with a speedometer that topped out at 70. The weather was cloudy and dark, but not especially ominous. Bryne had driven straight from Flagstaff, and spread himself out across the back seat. Bryne had at least 500 CDs in the car, and chose an American teenager from Pittsburgh who had somehow become one of the world's experts on Romany (gypsy) music and recorded a dozen lo-fi tracks in his basement. Good stuff, and suited the beginning of the voyage well.

Sandy and I began to talk. He had been all over the East coast of Africa, had snuck into embassies, and tried to catch smuggler's boats from Yemen up through the Red Sea to Egypt. He'd trafficked a dugout full of sugar across a lake border separating Malawi and Zambia to pay for the voyage. Travel in Africa still sounded rough and real. And, a favorite saying of mine goes, we do not do these things because they are easy, but because they are difficult.

After Katrina, he'd gone down to help in New Orleans, and ended up in the 9th ward, living under the wing of a matriarch named Mami for 6 months with the stubborn and the altruistic. They'd lit a bonfire each night, and would people came, sharing stories or pain while everyone tried to figure out how they could save the Big Easy. He was arrested for violating a curfew one night by police sporting facepaint and bandannas from "Fort Apache". With armored humvees, they evicted people from a school with food and water, and left them for 3 days without supplies on an overpass. Comparatively, I'd seen little of the disaster's wake in my short visit to New Orleans in November 2005.

As we climbed up the Eastern New Mexico plains, the sky ahead began to darken. Then, ahead it lightened, as if we would slide under the storm's wintry nose. Unfortunately, the light was in fact white. Within the space of 10 miles, we entered a near whiteout. Snowflakes bounced off the poorly functioning windshield wipers. The weather darkened and our conversation ebbed away. Ahead, a police diversion forced us onto an onramp. We followed the other cars and ended up at a huge truckstop in Moriarity, New Mexico. Just over 1 hour from Albuquerque.

Inside the stop, truckers were buzzing with twangy caffeinated gossip: "they're closing I-40 both ways," "every hotel room is going to be booked up in the next 10 minutes," "the way back to Albuquerque is closed too." Sandy and Bryne sat in a booth and made sandwiches with coldcut ham and mustard. The waitress, flustered, said, "what'll ya have, hon?" After a quick call to my mom's cell, I learned that at least 10 semis had jackknifed and that they the weathermen and stations didn't expect the weather, let alone the road, to clear until morning. In fact, it was one of the worst winter storms in recent memory.

I sidled up to the cash register, where a woman of 40 with a windworn face barked into a CB radio. Turning to me, she said, "Best to hunker down somewhere.. hate to see you boys in a ditch too." While I had a sleeping bag and some winter clothes, I wasn't eager to test them. Sitting back down with my travel companions, we mulled the options over the styrofoam cups.

As interesting as the truckstop would be for the next 16 hours, I suggested we turn back and crash at my parents' house. Without much discussion, it was decided. After some effort to flag down the waitress, she refused our money and told us it was on the house. We left $1 each for tip and headed for the car.

My parents were, to say the least, relieved. Though I was bringing two strangers I'd only known for 4 hours to our house, my parents were happy to receive them. They whipped up a great sequel to my farewell dinner. The expression on Bryne's and Sandy's faces was grateful, bordering on apologetic. The spaghetti dinner was more food than each had eaten in the recent days, and we talked about their lives. Bryne had lived in Columbus Ohio in a decrepit musician's haunt without heating, and a boa constrictor on the loose for 6 months.

Thursday Nov 29, 2006

Rising early, we feasted on my father's amazing (and now world-famous) waffles before rolling out shortly before 7am. Amazingly, the car started, even with the temperature dipping into the teens. As if on instant replay, we passed again Tijeras canyon and onto the Eastern plateau. This time, however, the landscape was blinding white on evergreens. The rising sun struck a windshield nearly perfectly covered in frost and nearly blinded us as semis roared past at 70mph. It was so bad we had to pull off (praying there was a shoulder) and attack it with a penknife and a bandanna. Against the icy blue sky, the icy white road intimidated, but did not terrify. We were going to Dallas at 50mph and that was the way it would be. That is, before we saw the jackknifed semi #1 of approximately 18.

As we passed our previous emergency truck stop, the truck carnage only intensified. One FedEx truck. Two. At final count there were three -- perhaps better to use UPS this holiday season. The traffic around us began to slow. Ice and snowpack still canvassed the road, and we found ourselves in two endless stripes of asphalt, melted under the wheels. But the wagon soldiered on. At noon we had the option of turning off to a minor road, but voted to continue on I-40. Two minutes later, we found ourselves in a traffic jam that would prove to be 5 miles long. The kind of traffic jam where wandering the aisles of semis feels like a bit of communion with American Trucker culture. Beards, gimme caps, Playboy mud flaps -- all there -- but also many normal folks with buns of steel and coffee mugs to match.

Faced with a choice: behave and sit in line, or do something illegal, we chose the latter. Skipping over the median, we burned rubber towards the backdoor highway, praying silently that it was open. Reaching the exit, we pulled into the truck stop, fishing for information. Nobody knew a thing in 8 rows of washing-refueling. After a bit of knuckle-gnawing, we all voted yes. Bryne insisted that Sandy throw out some lunch meat "discovered" in a dumpster, and with much coffee, we were off.

Thankfully, the highway was not only open, but clear of snow and deserted. We rolled a gentle 70 in the station wagon. Bryne, in the zone, drove the next 6 hours across the flat, with folk music gently pouring into his ears from speakers perched on either side of the headrest. In the back seat, Sandy paged through Bryne's book -- a very left treatise indicting the powers that be on issues from the environment to global poverty. With the sunsetting on West Texas, so began the most interesting discussion of the trip...

It turned out that Bryne and his family were drowning in credit card debt -- he wanted to fix this little problem with bankruptcy and forever leave the financial system. He explained that a stepfather during his teenage years had racked up tens of thousands of dollars on family credit cards. Further, he had used Bryne's and Bryne's mother's social security numbers for signature loans and worse. Despite castigation in court, the stepfather has not paid a cent, and the family is so choked with debt that they can barely pay monthly interest. His plan was to transfer all the debt to his name, declare bankruptcy, and then live the rest of his days playing music on a cash-only basis.

As he saw it, if the only penalty was no access credit, bankruptcy was a bargain. Forged by his experience, Bryne held the opinion that all credit cards were evil. I countered that plastic had worked for me, with a keen eye for 0-percent offers, I had once avoided paying a cent of interest on a $4000 balance, paying it off with monk-like living just in time. Obviously, Bryne said, I had been lucky to receive financial education from my parents.

The response surprised me.. not for the question of knowledge, but that the nation was helpless against the propaganda and lures of the financial beast. Bryne grew up in a town in ruralish Ohio where everyone bought a car and launched into a life of debt around 18. Still, he didn't have to fall into the same trap, did he? Obviously independent, he had left Ohio for Georgia for a university with a program in acoustics and composition. His family was suffering from a jerk, not an evil tyranny. No matter what I said, he was convinced the financial system was evil. Though I could see his reason, I had to argue that no, people misuse it and mislead others, but that the system itself was just numbers, and the numbers never said anything was free.

As you can imagine, with voices rising in the station wagon, I began to wonder if like politics and religion, credit cards are a topic best avoided with strangers. It looked very cold outside in West Texas, and I could have been the special guest at a truck stop. But, Sandy broke the tension in the front seat by asking me, "it's interesting what you're saying, but where are you coming from? I mean, what's your philosophy.. I can't see it through your argument." He shifted the discussion from Bryne's obviously painful situation to my point of view.

I didn't have the time to explain it all.. just a bit about how I'd taken a pretty early interest in not getting screwed by the system. These two, from very different corners of our continent, were not in my camp. But something very beautiful superseded that. They wanted to listen. The journey was a real way to meet people for them, be friendly or crazy. Furthermore, as Bryne chimed in, we have a duty as Americans to meet all the perfect strangers we can. Craigslist, like Kerouac's hitching of old, made travel in the US more than just a transaction -- more than simply arriving.

Peace and cold descended once again on the station wagon. We pulled into a gas station to refuel, and saw a Ford Probe spurting gas from an unstoppable nozzle. Sandy jumped into the cold and killed the pump. It was a night to help out others, and the girls in the car thanked him in the pause between two Snoop Dog songs.

As we drew closer to Dallas, Bryne noted that he'd already missed his Fort Worth show (we had slept in ABQ that night to avoid the blizzard) and that he was about to miss his Dallas gig. This was bad because he needed the money for gas to get to Nashville, where he would play next. Nonetheless, we pulled into a very cold and very deserted Deep Ellum (Dallas' brickyard music district). I waited in the car with Sandy as Bryne banged on the door of the club he was supposed to play. Nobody home.

He popped in next door to inquire, and returned 5 minutes later, gleaming. Apparently, they had a slot for him at the second place.

We quickly unloaded his guitar and he turned back and gave me a hug, "Take care man -- great traveling with you." I waved as he disappeared into the warm glow of the bar. My old house (where I would stay) is very close to the music district, so Sandy drove me back. With backpack and assorted luggage strewn on my curb, I was all set. I gave Sandy directions on how to get back to the club and we embraced. "Take care of yourself down there," he said smiling. I wished him luck in Mexico. As the car inched back out onto the road, I realized that I had no emails, no phone numbers and would never see these two again. The headlights disappeared around the corner and I knocked on my former front door.

(All Snaps)
Arriving Home
Hi Mom!
Autumn on the Ditchbanks
Purty Country
Waffles in Process
Love the Sky
Start the Trip
Rightsideup Semi
Tourist Trap
The 40
Highway Slightly Better
More Carnage
Endless Jam
. .