It’s easy to feel grateful when things are going well. Much harder when things are unraveling around you. I recall trying for gratitude when I was 17, but it was tough to really feel it after losing my mom, who had basically been my best friend growing up. I went to high school in a town comprised of a K-thru-12 school and a rundown bar, about an hour’s drive from the Oregon coast. My mom passed away just as I was finishing my junior year, and I went to live with my dad in the city that summer. Away from my friends (all three of them), I turned 17 and began my senior year in a school whose halls were so long I had to squint to see the opposite end. “It sucked” would serve as a good in-depth summary. I donned a black trench-coat and roamed the streets of Portland in the rain with my earphones cranked, a flask in my pocket, and a cigarette hanging from my teen-angst lips.
To live in northwest Oregon, where I grew up, is to have an understanding of rain in your bone marrow. But I was used to that. Somehow I pulled through until graduation, when – eager to start my life – I rushed across the stage and collected my diploma. How I was going to start my life, I had about as good an idea as any teenager who didn’t want to go to college – none. I hiked part of the Oregon Coast Trail with my best friend from the sticks, and then I just bailed. My hair was getting past my shoulders and I had my tie-dyed Moody Blues shirt. I’d read all about hippies and had a hippie upbringing so, predictably, I found myself walking along the side of the road with my backpacking gear, a hatchet hanging from my waist, and my thumb out. I didn’t give a damn that everyone said the days of hitchhiking were long gone – I was gonna do it anyway, and see where I ended up.
A guy named Mike, in his late twenties, slowed his VW bus to pick me up. Mike was from Stockton, California, and had hit the road after having a nuclear meltdown with his wife. I hopped eagerly into the clunky seat two inches from the almost-flat windshield. He fired up a joint, handed it to me, and thus began our “bromance”.
We traveled together for three weeks or so, doing odd-jobs to make enough cash for food and gas. We went to these amazing hot springs in the Cascades east of Eugene and helped some dude drink his home-brew…until a cop showed up. Note to self: never drink home-brew in a hot spring for longer than ten seconds. We crawled reeling from the spring in the dark while the cop shined his flashlight in our eyes. I’m pretty sure I received a fine that I never paid. Who the hell knows.
From there, we wound our way to Crater Lake, around southern Oregon and down into northern California. We lived out of his bus for a week outside of Eureka, out on the south jetty with a bunch of other vagabonds, eating government peanut butter and listening to Crosby Stills and Nash. Finally, he returned to his wife, and I went on to San Jose, where I spent a night behind a Denny’s up in a tree with enormous limbs. How many trees are there in San Jose? Sometimes I think that might have been the only one. It sure felt like the only one at the time.
I rode the BART into San Francisco and bummed around a while, deciding I wanted to walk across the Golden Gate Bridge. A cop stopped me and took away my hatchet. “You can’t be walking around here with that,” he scolded me. I walked across the bridge, wind blowing against my face. At the other side was a viewing area. I chillaxed there for an hour or so, and wouldn’t you know two deadhead girls appeared and we started talking. They had partied the weekend away in the city and were headed north. A few minutes later I was riding in their back seat listening to American Beauty, on the way to Cave Junction, Oregon – their hometown. I spent at least a night and a day with them, but then comes a hole in my memory.
The next thing I remember, I’m swollen with shame, calling my old man. I ask him if he’ll buy me a bus ticket to come home. It’s out of my system, I say, I’m not quite ready for the big bad world. He buys me a ticket and I go home with my tail temporarily tucked between my legs, where I end up getting a job in a restaurant and sign up for community college on the first day of the rest of my life.