We The Rats

Of all the rooms in the Lorax Manor, the first floor bathroom is its most expressive. The walls are thick with free speech, lewd cartoons, and stoned philosophy. Here’s a limerick about George W. Bush using the Constitution as toilet paper. Over there is a discussion thread about ghost sightings in the house. Up near the ceiling is a painting of Gandalf exhaling a plume of purple smoke, that morphs into Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing”. The words and images flow into one another, covering the walls like a radical tapestry.

And then, just above and to the right of the toilet paper roll, a single sentence leaps out in jet-black Sharpie: “This house voted democratically to poison rats on March 9th, 2009.” Below, scrawled in ballpoint pen, someone adds, “Thank God.”


I moved into the Lorax in the summer of 2008. I was a junior in college, fresh-faced and eager to draw on walls. A staple of alternative living in Eugene, Oregon, the Lorax Manor Co-Op houses roughly twenty-five students at any given time. People here are focused on living environmentally – and we’re not talking about re-useable grocery bags and Priuses. We’re talking rainwater catchment systems, grey-water toilets with flushing guidelines, a community garden plot, and a tandem bike with a trailer for house supply runs. We had no landlord and were damn proud of it – paying for a room meant you owned your portion of the house and had equal influence in its operation. Therefore, all decisions regarding the house were made collectively, forged with unyielding commitment to cooperative ideals.

Those ideals crumbled in the fall and winter of 2008, when our path to co-op salvation took a bad turn. For seven months, a rat infestation crippled our community and challenged us to walk the talk we were known to preach. Along with disease, the rats carried with them a complex social game that would take us 7 months to play…and ultimately lose.

The rats arrive in the twilight weeks of summer – a fertile time for spawning. And at first, the rat sightings are simply anecdotes shared at mealtimes.

“Man, this rat ran out from behind the screen printing station today…so crazy!”

“Oh yeah, I saw one too, out by the bike shed. Probably the same one.”

Months later, when we finally catch a glimpse of the queen rat – big as a healthy loaf of bread – these comments will prove to be downright laughable.

By the time school gets going in late September, it’s already too late to clean up our act – but we don’t know that yet. During the school year, residents divvy up house chores that include cleaning every floor, putting away clutter, organizing the food pantry, scrubbing the bathrooms, and keeping the compost pile healthy. In the summer, however, these jobs aren’t enforced because there are fewer people living there and nobody around to crack the whip. These chores are usually kept in check at a weekly house meeting, but again, that meeting only happens during the fall, winter, and spring terms, not the summer.

Without this crucial bit of structure, the summertime house quickly descends into a colorful jumble of abandoned craft projects, spilled quinoa, and stuff people were playing with on mushrooms the night before. Plus, it’s so nice out! Let’s grab some PBRs and go pick blackberries! Nobody wants to clean. Factor in the nooks & crannies a house this size provides, combine that with a no-cat policy because of allergies, and the storm becomes perfect.

But for now, as school commences and the leaves change color, it’s just a temporary nuisance. The rats come up at one of the first house meetings, and right away several residents are adamant we don’t use lethal methods like snap-traps or poison. It’s the reason they live in a community that practices eco-friendly living. They won’t kill animals, even if it’s vermin. Personally, I think rats are valuable urban creatures as much as mosquitos are valuable forest wildlife. You could swat a million of them and nobody would care – including the mosquitos.

Nevertheless, the house agrees on several actions we can take to curb the problem, including using live traps, staying vigilant about crumbs and food scraps, upping the chore frequency, and clearing out our compost pile. We catch a single rat in the live trap and convince ourselves it’s working. Somebody builds covered shelving for our grain storage and another guy leads a full-scale cleaning of the basement. The compost pile is coddled and brought to the perfect temperature. We report this progress at the next meeting, dusting our hands off and patting ourselves on the back. But in reality, these preliminary solutions are like using a Band-Aid for internal bleeding.

A key player in this tragedy is our house’s operation by consensus; a method of decision-making in which all participants must agree on the motion. You may have heard about this during the Occupy Wall street movement. Remember all the sparkle fingers and hand signals? That’s us.

Here’s a quick crash course. Let’s say I’m fed up with our crappy toaster and want to get a new one, I’ll put forth a motion at the meeting to spend $15 of the house budget on a new toaster. The meeting facilitator – known colloquially as the Whip – will say something like “The proposal is to spend $15 at Goodwill on a new toaster that Alex will have by next Sunday.” Then, on the count of three, all house members vote by way of thumbs. A thumbs up means “good for me, good for the house.” A sideways thumb means “not good for me, maybe good for the house.” A downturned thumb means “bad for me, bad for the house.” If there are three sideways thumbs or a single downturned thumb, the motion is denied and we go back to the drawing board.

Keep in mind there are over 20 people involved here. That means a single stubborn person can veto a motion, but that rarely happens; people keep themselves in check and things are generally harmonious. But now and again, small disagreements and clashing egos can derail the issue indefinitely, even over minutiae like a toaster. Is it efficient with electricity? Is a toaster-oven a better option for our needs? Don’t toaster-ovens get dirty really fast? What if someone reheats pizza in there, and cheese drips off? Plastic waste is a big issue, shouldn’t we buy a used one? Yeah but shouldn’t we also spend more for a nice one that won’t break for a long time? If something as innocent as a toaster can spark this kind of discourse, imagine killing animals.

I know this debate intimately. For the two school terms this rat plague persisted, I was The Whip. It’s one of the few elected positions in the house, but it’s a bloated one. In a consensus-based environment, the meeting leader is merely a tool to maintain order, much more the gavel than the judge.

During those few hours a week in which the house was consumed by process-based meetings, I sat above the fray, interpreting hand signals and keeping track of who was supposed to speak next. Thanks to this, I was largely absent from participating in the debates themselves, even though I still had my vote. Being the Whip did, however, give me ample time to examine the nuances of our function, to catch the subtle glances and micro-expressions that exposed the fissures in our foundation.


It’s early winter now, and the rats have become undeniable, increasing every day in number and audacity. Among us, a sense of urgency develops that wasn’t there at the beginning, and sides start being taken.

Representing the anti-poison side are a couple named Robert and Leslie, who are adamant that a combination of monitoring the compost pile, setting more live traps, and living cleanly will stop the problem.

On the other side is Carson, who believes the rats have already outsmarted us and gutted any notion of compromise. He says he’s been through this before and there’s no way out except using force. Leslie responds with a story about her childhood dog accidentally eating rat poison and the traumatic experience of watching it writhe in pain and die. She never wants to see another animal killed. Carson doesn’t want someone to go to the hospital because of rats we chose not to exterminate.

Herein lies the heart of the matter: neither side is wrong. We do live in a house that preaches anti-cruelty in all forms and we did sign up to be here. On the other hand, rats like these carry life-threatening diseases. So here we are, half the house willing to kill THE RATS and the other half willing to sacrifice health & hygiene to save them.

As the house’s solidarity starts crumbling away, the rodents are getting out of hand. The most egregious moment happens in January, when a squeaking rat dashes across a mattress while a couple is having sex, its tail brushing against bare skin.

Here’s a few more examples:

  1. A housemate discovers a rat in the compost pile so fat and lazy it cannot run away from her. It just rolls out of the pile and shuffles away, glaring like his nap was rudely interrupted. It’s like Templeton from Charlotte’s Web retired and moved here for the complimentary buffet.
  2. Things get medieval when a rat is captured and brought outside to the alleyway between the Lorax and the Campbell Club, our vegetarian, cat-friendly neighbor co-op. A cat is procured from next door and placed in front of the cage where a rat trembles inside, shaking like a prisoner on his way to the guillotine. People gather around, leaning off porches in the brick alleyway to watch a bloody rat fight like some sadistic Norman Rockwell painting.
  3. One day, a 5 gallon tub of brown rice syrup is opened to reveal a dead rat petrified within like a prehistoric insect in amber; its sedated eyes expressing its final thought: this must be heaven.
  4. Karen, the earliest riser in the house, flicked on the kitchen lights one morning and there she was – the queen rat, swaddled in a blanket of her own excess fat. And almost as if she knew how repulsive she was, the Queen looked up from her meal of scraps and stared blankly back at Karen until she retreated from the kitchen. It was painfully clear now – we were living in their house.

Some residents remain passively involved, doing little to solve the problem while simultaneously sporting strong opinions come meeting time. Others, like Carson, work hard to eradicate the problem. He and another house member make it clear that if they see a rat, they’re going to kill it. They stay up in the attic all night, one person sleeping while the other sits there with a five iron, waiting for a rat to scurry by and meet their maker. I’m not sure if they ever hit paydirt with this method, and if they did they surely destroyed the evidence immediately. But for a pro-poison advocate like myself, it was the finest direct-action activism I’d ever seen.

On the other side, experimental pest control efforts are in full swing. The live traps that had been previously championed are now gathering dust – the rats figured them out long ago. One resident has taken to researching and ordering bizarre traps off the internet, like an electronic one that emits noise at a frequency rats can’t handle. Another one is a liquid you place around the house that the female rats eat and causes them to become infertile. Of course this sets off a debate that sonic torture and forced infertility are no more humane than killing them.

Meanwhile, our meetings have become a tedious affair, usually ending with no resolution and lots of frustration. As the Whip, I stay on to the bitter end of each meeting to summarize motions and encourage people to wrap up their speeches. At times I’m the bad guy, stepping on people’s toes to keep things moving along. I don’t care any more. This needs to end. Some folks start leaving meetings early, choosing instead to do homework, have a cigarette, drink a beer, fall asleep, or all of the above. I don’t blame them. Apathy is so, so tempting.

I start spending less time in the house, preferring instead to dwell in the college libraries or at my friend’s rat-free house. When all this started, I was on-board with non-lethal pest control, but that tactic simply didn’t work. Why are we still trying? Of course I respect my housemates’ beliefs, but finding middle ground is getting increasingly difficult.

A turning point comes in February when a long-time resident named Lavender tearfully puts a motion on the table to use rat poison. Despite all the back-and-forth, we’ve never officially voted to use lethal methods, so the weight of it feels immense. When asked about it later, Lavender said it felt like betraying her housemates to propose poison, but she knew it had to be done. Nurture had met nature, and they wouldn’t shake hands.

The official vote to use poison is quickly thumbed down by a few members in the house, but now a line has been crossed. All illusions of finding a consensus solution are gone. At this point there is a group of people who say they’ll move out if we use poison, and another group that says they’ll leave if we don’t.

So we head out into the uncharted waters of democracy. For us, that means we must first vote by consensus to vote democratically. I’d like re-iterate that. We voted by consensus to vote democratically. The motion barely passes with two sideways thumbs, with the agreement to vote by majority next meeting.

Fast-forward one more rat-filled week, and it’s time for the decision. There will be one final democratic vote to close the issue once and for all. We gather for the meeting, everyone closes their eyes for anonymity, and, on the count of three, puts their vote out.

As the facilitator, it’s up to me to scan the meeting and tally the votes. As I gaze around the circle, I see the many faces of this issue. Some scrunch up their faces, closely holding the anxiety and stress of the situation. Others are relaxed, taking solace in the fact that at least a decision will be made. And everyone looks tired, ready to move on from this festering purgatory.

The vote comes out in favor of using poison. Just like that, it’s over. Those against the motion are left to pick up the pieces of their ideals; those for it must slay the rats. True to their word, a small group of residents – people I and many others consider good friends – silently walk back upstairs and begin packing their things to move out.

What just happened? I feel like I just walked out of the rat maze and discovered we’re the ones in a lab test. A test to see what happens when chaos is introduced into an ideological environment that’s obsessed with their own process.

At that moment, I’m struck by a humbling realization: the rats won. Faced with their now-imminent extinction, they will go down as one, united in their commitment to food and filth. Conversely, the university students will fracture apart, united in nothing but the sudden understanding of a harsh lesson: a compromise between life and death does not exist.


Days after the vote, two housemates laced peanut butter with poison and positioned it throughout the house. We soon noticed a sharp decline in the rat population, but later that week, the fallout began. The rats, living in a vast network of tunnels throughout the house, began to die, producing an overwhelming stench that seeped from the walls and hung heavy in the air. With this, the rats’ mission was at last complete: to smoke us out once and for all, taunting us from the grave while they laid down to rest, finally, mercifully, at peace.

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A Matter of Patience – Hitchhiking the 101

Date: April 26th-May-27th, 2010

My friend Leland and I are standing by an on-ramp near Valencia, CA, drowning in a suburban sea of gas stations and fast food. We’ve been here nine hours and counting. We were dropped off at 10:30 that morning by a woman that owned a wood-cutting business. I’m still breaking in my hitchhiking feet, and today has been a delicate killer of any and all romanticism. Cars roll by, understandably apathetic to the plight of two bearded men stumbling about in the highway ragweed. I’m holding a greasy sign that reads: “PCT Hikers! San Diego or past L.A.” Seems reasonable to us.

Leland and I had finished college a month earlier. Leland was on his way to hike the whole Pacific Crest Trail, stretching 2,650 miles from Mexico to Canada. I was joining him for the first 200 miles of the trail before returning home to Oregon. We were giddy; we’d been planning for weeks and it was finally happening. We were overcome by the ecstasy of freedom. But right now, with the heat and the fumes and a pounding headache, freedom is overrated.

We tread water in the octane ocean until nightfall before throwing up our hands in defeat. I sheepishly call a friend of mine who lives in LA. She picks us up, ferries us through the void, and drops us off in San Clemente. For a hitchhiker, you could consider it cheating. But hey, we’ve got places to be.


Lessons

I learned that effective hitchhiking isn’t as simple as walking to a highway and pitching one’s thumb into the air. I don’t mean to sound like an avid hitcher (I’m far from it), but I did experience a comprehensive beginner’s course. And it showed me California’s whole body; from curvy, organic top to voluptuous, spray-tanned bottom.

The primary lesson about hitching is to understand that drivers are making a split-second decision to pick you up based on several factors that one must address. In doing so, one favorably affects the psyche of Driver X to step on the brake pedal and say “yeah, why not?”

However, there are several environmental and social conditions outside your control that can help or hinder your cause, depending on where you are. Examples include:

  • the proximity of a college
  • inclement weather
  • local population size
  • people generally having a good/bad day
  • number of Subaru owners in the area.

Okay, with those in mind, here’s the key points:

1) Appearance. Obviously this aspect is crucial. Clothing is important, yes, but the manner in which you stand and present yourself is equally vital. Keep a straight back but be relaxed, maybe toss out a peace sign once in awhile. Sunglasses are a risk – people need to be able to see those windows to the soul. Also avoid all-dark clothing and mysterious hats. No large bladed weapons should be visible (or even with you, for that matter). An ice pick slung over the shoulder has never worked.

2) Location, location, location. You can be the friendliest-looking person in the world but if a car has no time to see you or has little room to pull over, forget about it. Drivers need a couple of seconds to take you in and consider things. Preferably, you can find a spot near a stop sign or curve that forces the car to slow down. This is why the top of on-ramps are the most successful places (plus, everyone’s got to pass through one to start long drives). Be advised that standing on the shoulder of Interstate highways is not only a bit dangerous, but illegal in many states. Police officers will stop and tell you to take a hike.

3) Number of your party. The hitchhiking party itself is a component often overlooked. Try to hitchhike with a member of the opposite sex if you can. People go nuts for couples on an adventure. On this particular trip, it was two dudes, which I’m sure slimmed the percentage of success. But in the end, we were pleasantly surprised by how openly folks picked us up anyway. The PCT hiker angle probably helped, but I’m sure it was just our rugged Mad Max vibe.

4) Mindset. Stay positive. The hazy cocktail of car fumes, weird looks, boredom, and aching legs makes for a swift mental downfall. This can cause one to forget the reason they set off for adventure in the first place. When this headspace sets in, an aura of negativity hangs over you like a rain cloud.

Rather, use this time to meditate on the human condition, write a song in your head, or go to your mental happy place and stay there. The pessimism poison will eat you from the inside unless you muster the strength to overcome. Do what you must. Personally, I practice on my harmonica while I wait. Leland practices his freestyle rapping, which becomes increasingly abstract as time goes on.


Safety

Firstly, I’ll address my privilege as a male. I don’t have as many safety concerns as women might have, and I’m sure this breeds ignorance when it comes to hitchhiking. I will say I’ve met several badass women that are seasoned hitchhikers. And generally, they’re smarter than guys about all this stuff. Okay, moving on.

One thing you can’t change is the overarching social perception of hitchhiking, which is perpetuated by fear and suspicion. Thousands of successful hitching stories happen every year but are never heard about. And yet, every so often, a hitchhiking nightmare is reported and thrown about by the media. I think of it like airplane crashes. But to believe hitchhiking is totally reckless is to believe it all died with the sixties. It certainly wasn’t any safer then, especially since everyone wasn’t carrying iPhones that allowed them to make emergency calls and broadcast their location. I’m not saying it’s safer now; it’s just that people imagine serial killers behind every wheel when you’re hitching. I’d wager that most people that express this sentiment have rarely, if ever, hitchhiked themselves. Like anything else, don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.

That said, it’s important to use common sense, be prepared, and trust your gut above all else. If you don’t feel you could adequately defend yourself, drive your own car for this trip. If having a small knife attached to your belt makes you comfortable, do it. If someone pulls over but you get a bad vibe, you don’t have to take that ride. Even if they’re offended you rejected their goodwill, don’t worry. They’ll drive out of your life forever in a few seconds.

The question is: what’s more dangerous; to be the hitchhiker or to pick one up? Given the lack of vehicle control most are inclined to say being the hitchhiker, but the only way to find out is try it. Cool people exist and they will pick you up. Sure, you may have to withstand poor music tastes, but these people all have something in common: a dedication to helping out your fellow human. Remember: no matter where you are, you will get picked up eventually, guaranteed. It’s just a matter of patience.


Characters

Our trip includes moments that are sketchy, enlightening, heart breaking, terrifying, exhilarating, inspiring, and downright liberating. Below is a profile several characters I encountered throughout California. Like Leland and I, you may notice a remarkable pattern in the people that picked us up.

Name: Don’t remember. Maybe Kyle?
Pick-up Location: near Sacramento, CA
Vehicle: Green Ford Explorer
I notice broken glass all over one of the backseats. Nothing else is in the car. Leland rides shotgun and I settle amongst the sharp and pointy shards. The driver is about our age and tells us he’s been partying at Lake Shasta all weekend. On the last night he drunkenly locked himself out of the car by accident and, at the urging of his belligerent comrades, punched through the backseat window to solve the dilemma. His bandaged hand and damaged car are the extent of his worries, and he seems otherwise content and comfortable with life. Not much of a talker. Doesn’t really care about anything we are up to.
Name: Eric
Pick-up Location: Modesto, CA
Vehicle: Silver Lexus SUV
A run-of-the-mill upper middle class insurance salesmen, Eric had just been canned from his job a few days earlier. After sixteen years with the same company he just gets dropped. His wife doesn’t work and he has no idea what to do. He gives off a vibe like Ed Norton in Fight Club or Kevin Spacey in American beauty, someone about to throw away his suburban cubicle life and start screaming for once. I’m pretty sure he hasn’t ever picked up hitchhikers before. Maybe this is his first foray into the unknown.

He’s a nice guy with a great taste in music. We listen to some Charlie Parker, Fela Kuti, and some psychedelic jazz I’m not familiar with. When we part ways he says he dearly wishes he could drop everything and come with us. We’re rooting for you Eric, wherever you are.
Name: Jason
Pick-up Location: San Clemente, CA
Car: Black Dodge Pickup
Two minutes after picking us up, he turns to us and says: “So, have you two boys accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and savior?”

We endure the next straight hour of preaching from Jason, an ex-heroin addict who genuinely seems stoked on life, and finally land in San Diego, our destination for this portion of the journey. Jason buys us a pack of smokes and a pizza, then wishes us a good journey. He says he’ll pray we find Jesus up in the mountains. We tell him we’ll keep an eye out.

Name: Stacey
Pick-up Location: Santa Rosa, CA
Vehicle: Maroon Toyota Corolla
Stacey has a car full of luggage and is barely able to squeeze us into her already tiny car, not to mention both of our bulging backpacks. She seems anxious but is immediately open and honest. We ask her if she’s moving or going on a trip. She tells us she’s fleeing from a domestic abuse situation she couldn’t handle anymore. Stacey pulls up the sleeve of her shirt to reveal blue bruises all over her arm and shoulder.

“I’d show you more, but taking my shirt off wouldn’t really be appropriate right now,” she says.

Leland and I can’t find the words to respond, but Stacey doesn’t really expect us to. She tells us to not worry about it, that she feels good about leaving. She’s intending to stay with a friend that will keep her safe. She’s the first driver who actually seems interested in our mission, and we chat for awhile about the PCT and hitchhiking. We only go a short distance with her, and when we’re dropped off, Stacey tells us to keep doing things that keep us happy and alive, to not corner ourselves into situations that can bring you down.
Name: Dizzy Dean
Pick-up Location: north of Windsor, CA
Vehicle: Black Jeep Wrangler
Easily one of the highlights of the whole trip, Dizzy Dean is the hero that saved us from a long day of being hassled by cops all over the onramp. The location is terrible; it’s a small country community with a trickle of traffic. Earlier in the day, someone that’s way too nervous must’ve called the cops on us. Two squad cars come speeding over to us and an officer gets out, hand on his gun and doing that slow little walk towards us with his other hand up like a stop sign. He tells us to stay where we were and keep our hands where he could see them. His voice is way too intense, shouting at us like we were holding AK-47s. He quickly figures out we aren’t, reminds us to stay standing where it’s legal, and lets us be.

Every hour or so after that, a different cop would come by and tell us to move, sometimes back to a place we’d been told to leave already. What we were doing was totally legal; I just think they didn’t have much else to do. I like to imagine them talking on the radio amongst each other like “Hey Bill, you seen those hitchhikers yet by the onramp? Go tell them to move to the other side of the road. I’ll come by later and tell them to move back. Let’s see how long they can take it.”

We asked all of them to give us a ride a few miles up the road to a better spot, but they all declined. I guess we did smell pretty bad. Luckily, Dizzy Dean doesn’t give a shit.

The sun is about to set, we’ve been here all day, and our psyche is rattled. Leland and I are starting to turn on each other in frustration so we decide to call it a day and find a camping spot. This is a last-resort maneuver. Waking up in the same place you didn’t get a ride the day before is extremely demoralizing. Fresh landscapes are the mental fuel of hitchhiking.

We’re walking across the road towards the woods beyond when a black Jeep comes roaring around the corner. Leland throws his thumb up in a hail-mary attempt. The tires screech to a halt. No way.

“Hop in fellas!” we hear.

He introduces himself as Dizzy Dean. He mans the wheel of his black Wrangler, which has roll bars but no cover on despite dark rain clouds in the distance. Dean looks just like Uncle Kip from the movie Napoleon Dynamite, only a bit crazier. His eyes always seem to be darting around and an incomprehensible mumble constantly streams from his mouth. This is a man who has reached the “permastoned” stage of life. He guns the motor and takes off with a small “Yeew!”

Through some loud, windy conversation, we pick out that Dizzy Dean works on marijuana fields in Mendocino County, where he trims plants, prepares plots, gathers supplies, and makes deliveries. Weed is his life, he tells us, and he’s happy as a dog. He jumps from story to story without a breath in between and just guffaws every couple sentences or so though the incoherent speech. Every few minutes he reminds us he knows everything there is to know about weed. I totally believe him.

He drives like a bat outta hell, and there’s no seatbelts to speak of in this vehicle. I can’t recall if I saw license plates on this rig. A lumpy canvas bag rests in the back, but that’s it in an otherwise empty vehicle. I sit in the backseat, gripping the roll bars with white knuckles as Dizzy Dean swerves through cars, cruising far past the speed limit. Thumping, sweaty music comes from his speakers. It sounds like a trio of didgeridoo, juice harp, and drums. Oh, and by the way, he’s ripping whiskey from a bottle this whole time.

Though I’m somewhat terrified at this point, there’s a moment that will stay with me forever. I’m sitting in the back leaning against the roll bar, wind whipping through my hair, the golden sunset shining through distant hills onto my face, and I feel completely free like never before. Putting my life in the hands of this crazy man driving a seatbelt-less car is strangely liberating.

He tells us he knows the perfect spot to stay the night, and he pulls off the highway into the back of a Best Western parking lot, where beyond a fence lays a small nest of trees in a vacant field. Inside the trees we’re invisible from both the highway and the motel. Truly, a perfect camping spot. He gives us both high fives and roars away into the setting sun, whiskey in his hand and a Marlboro on his lips.

While eating the free continental breakfast at the Best Western the following morning, we vow to never forget the great Dizzy Dean.

Name: Kimberly
Pick-up Location: North of Windsor, CA
Vehicle: Red Toyota Prius
I’m surprised this woman stops. She doesn’t match the profile for a stopper: single woman in her thirties, nice clean car, no bumper stickers, etc. She gives us a big, warm smile and is immediately interested in our journey, gushing over our aptitude to give the PCT a try. Bubbly and personable with a slight party vibe, Kimberly is one of those drivers you hope for.

She tells us she’s been down in wine country with some friends having a grand old time. We ask what the occasion was, and she shares that she was diagnosed with terminal cancer a few weeks ago and is making sure she has as much fun as she can. It turns out the pattern of her cancer is almost identical to one of my old friends, who was diagnosed, fought it and beat the first round, and then finally succumbed when it came back even stronger in the second round. When our paths cross with Kimberly, she’s in that second round. At some point, she’d completely accepted her fate.

Needless to say, it’s surreal to spend a few hours with Kimberly in her state, hearing her life story that breaks my heart and reminds me of my friend I lost in the past. When we part ways in Ukiah, I have no idea how to say goodbye. I’m used to telling people to have good lives when I leave their car, never to see them again, but that’s not an option now. Words escape me, and all Leland and I can do is give her a hug. She says thanks and that she’s happy to help us on our way, that we should never miss a chance to live fully without regrets. You really never know what might happen.
[Travel note: At this point Leland and I parted ways. He stayed behind in Garberville, planning to hitch a different route back down to the Sierras and start up the trail again when his foot had healed. He had a massive infected blister that forced him off the trail, so he decided to hitch with me for a while back north while he recovered. As for myself, I had to get back to Eugene.]
Name: Steven Ray
Pick-up Location: Eureka, CA
Vehicle: Blue Ford Truck with white racing stripes
I spend a half-hour in Eureka, and it’s not a good one. I get dropped off in front of a Burger King where this jackass wearing a wife beater and rope sandals is harassing girls as they leave the building, shouting “you want my dick, bitch?!” and, “you know, you’re not very hot, but I’ll take you for a ride.” An old homeless man is also standing near the door, begging for change, and he hates this kid as much as I do. He tells him to shut up, that he doesn’t want to manager to chase them off because he’s got nowhere else to go. The kid tells him to fuck off, that he has every right to “tell these girls the truth, that they just want dick.”

Meanwhile, I’m just standing there looking for a place to go hitch. The homeless man looks like he’s about to start swinging fists when the manager comes out, yelling at all of us to leave immediately or he’ll call the cops. When the kid starts talking back I decide to get outta there ASAP. I cross the street and stick out my thumb as I walk. I didn’t want to be in this town anymore.

Within five minutes a blue pickup comes to a halt and a young man welcomes me aboard. He says he’s Steven Ray, an Apache Indian who had migrated to northern California from Arizona for work. He is a calm, articulate fellow wearing basketball shorts, KSwiss shoes, and a baby blue FUBU jersey. He has striking facial features and a long, black braid hanging off the back of his head. I tell him I’m headed to Oregon and he says he can get me a couple hours up 101 to Crescent City, the northernmost town in California.

When I ask him his destination, he tells me no place in particular, that he’s just out for a drive to clear his head. He says things have been pretty messed up for him lately, that the reservation he lives on is undergoing some serious turmoil. According to Steven Ray, cult-like religious groups had taken to kidnapping or murdering those who didn’t join, using these methods for demented leverage over others.

He tells me the following scenario: say, for instance, that a woman joins the group but her husband doesn’t. The woman wants the kids to join as well but the husband won’t allow it. The group kidnaps the children until the husband joins. If the husband intervenes or fights back, he is often killed. On top of all of this, Steven Ray says, add serious alcoholism or methamphetamine addiction for most everyone involved.

Here’s the catch: this is the exact scenario is playing out in Steven Ray’s life when he picks me up. Apparently, his meth-addicted ex-wife and her brother had kidnapped his three children two nights before. All under the age of six, the three kids are most likely in the back seat of her car without their child seats, swerving through California’s northern counties.

Upon sharing this with me, his tranquil demeanor that initially felt inviting became unnerving. I’m thinking “What? Your kids got kidnapped and you’re just chilling in your truck, shootin’ the shit with a hitchhiker?” Don’t get me wrong, I feel for Steven Ray, but the way he’s holding himself makes me nervous. Clearly his mental state is in crisis and being in a car with him on his “head-clearing” ride isn’t a great idea. For the first time I notice a weird gleam in his eyes. He also has a habit of maintaining eye contact just a little too long after saying something, which doesn’t help my nerves.

I ask him if he’s okay, if he needs to talk about it or just leave it alone. He smiles and replies that he’s fine, that this sort of things happens a lot on his reservation. He doesn’t mention how it usually ends, though, and I don’t ask.

Steven Ray says he has to take a leak, so we pull into a small trailhead parking lot just off the highway. Not soon after, a forest ranger Jeep rolls in on a routine sweep of the area, looking for known cars and people that are smuggling drugs (meth and cocaine to the reservations, mostly). Now, these aren’t your hat-tipping rangers reminding you to prevent forest fires; these are assault rifle-carrying, body armor wearing, shotgun-rack-in-the-high-suspension-Jeep rangers. They we not there for us, but certainly looked curious as to why a Native American was just sitting there in a tinted pickup with a hippie-lookin’ white guy. I’m feeling that now would be a good time to leave, but Steven Ray has other plans. He rolls down his window and shouts over to them, telling them to come over. Are you kidding me?

They slowly approach the vehicle, hands on their weapons and arches on their brows. Steven Ray’s personality takes an immediate, dramatic shift at this point, and he beings talking rapidly, shifting his weight back and forth and jerking his head around. No longer the calm, articulate man that picked me up, Steven Ray starts blabbering away like he’d just snorted a grab bag of blended narcotics. The interaction goes something like this:

“Hey man I’m just an Indian guy trying to get to this Indian gathering thing up north and I don’t have the directions and I don’t know but I’m just an Indian and you’re looking at me like I’m acting all weird and hey man I’m just trying to get to this Indian thing because I’m an Indian and I’m not doing anything!”

“Sir, your speech and thought process seems a little blurred, have you consumed any drugs today?”

“What? No man I’m just an Indian man and now you’re talking about drugs like I should be acting weird and now I feel like I’m acting weird because you said I’m acting weird but I don’t think I’m acting weird but I’m worried I am acting weird now and you’re making me all nervous and I’m just an Indian trying to get to this Indian thing and I’m being totally normal!”

This goes on back and forth for a while. Meanwhile, the other ranger has time to slowly circle the truck, looking carefully in all the windows and bed. I realize I never even looked around the truck myself, and that the possibility of there being something incriminating is entirely possible. I do know there is a huge bag of weed in the glove compartment because Steven Ray showed it to me.

When the second ranger passes by my window, I make sure to point out I’m hitchhiking and that I don’t know this guy at all. The ranger nods and says he understands, which lessens the anxiety coursing through my body at this point.

After a while of listening to crazy ranting, the other ranger realizes Steven Ray is just trying to get a rise out of him, hoping they’ll make the first move and cause a big scene. It seems like they’re used to dealing with this kind of behavior, so they eventually decide they’re wasting their time, despite Steven Ray’s constant efforts to keep the conversation going with all sorts of bizarre questions and uncomfortable jokes. The rangers pull away and the two of us are left sitting in silence.

Steven Ray pulls back onto the highway, muttering about how much cops hate on the natives. He assumes a stern look, eyes straight ahead, and doesn’t say anything the rest of the drive. He pops in a CD, “The Red Light District” by Ludacris, cranks it full blast, and we don’t exchange a single word until we say goodbye in Crescent City.


In Closing

The following morning, a trucker picks me up and takes me to Grants Pass, OR, where finding a short ride home to Eugene is easy as pie.

Sitting in the car on the final leg of the journey, I realized something. Every other person that picked me up had something unfortunate happen to him or her within the last week. And the degree of unfortunate-ness increased with each ride, starting with a broken car window and ending with a kidnapping. In the middle was losing a job, domestic abuse, and terminal cancer. Everyone else was fueled by Jesus, weed, or both.

You’d think people that stop would be interested in what the hitchhiker is up to, but the opposite was true in my experience. Sure, they asked where I was going and what I was up to, but mostly they wanted to talk about themselves. To tell me their life stories or what was worrying them or what they thought about the second coming. They dumped their shortcomings and transgressions into something that’s soon gone forever, like throwing spoiled leftovers into a trash bin on pickup day.

Maybe the hitchhiker reflects something the driver wants. Perhaps it’s a reminder to be spontaneous, a way of submitting to that temptation that pulses in the back of one’s heart and mind and asks “what if I dropped everything and just left?” Or maybe it’s as plain and simple as just wanting to help someone.

Hitchhiking proved to be an intense human experience above all else. Jumping from car to car was a whirlwind of problems, stories, dreams, and rants. Few are rich, most are poor, many are happy, and the rest are sad. And though distinctly different, the characters that played a role in my own trip all had the capacity to trust a stranger and share a piece of themselves, a quality that’s hard to find these days.

I doubt I’ll ever find out what happened to Steven Ray and his kids. Dizzy Dean is probably still out there, guzzling whiskey between bong rips (if he’s even real, of course). I’m sure the bro from Shasta replaced his window and runs a Fortune 500 company now. Hopefully Stacey is safe with somebody that makes her happy. I’ll bet Jason is still choosing Jesus over the needle. Maybe, by some miracle, Kimberly’s cancer went into remission. And maybe Eric went and got himself a new job. Or maybe he didn’t. Maybe he went home, packed a bag, and – for the first time in his life – went hitchhiking.

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Today I Met a Potential Supervillain

Today I was working a booth for my employer at the Moab Farmer’s Market when I struck up a conversation with the man selling paintings next door. I think his name was W. Stalworth, at least that’s what was written in the corner of his art. Due to a single play during a football game in his college days, I believe this man could be the basis for a truly amazing villain.

He appeared to be in his late fifties, stocky and pot-bellied, wearing ankle high socks and running shoes, grey short-sleeved collared shirt, and a red baseball cap. Nothing fancy. His paintings were average, mostly depicting wooded landscapes and rusty houses. Nothing remarkable or unique. He had a laid-back demeanor, just a good ‘ol American excited for the BYU-Washington football game this evening. Nothing out of the ordinary. We made small talk for a while, comparing climates and where we were from. He had family on the Oregon Coast, I knew a couple folks in Salt Lake City, his hometown. You know, that old game.

W. Stalworth was a man who had decided to give up his job selling insurance and paint for a living, which I respected immensely. I had never met a good-ol-boy visual artist, so I asked him how he honed his craft. He attended Westminster College in Salt Lake where he studied fine arts on scholarship. I remarked that to receive a fine arts scholarship, he must have been drawing from a young age and built an impressive portfolio that wowed the admissions folk. No, he told me, he’d never really drawn anything. The football team worked out a deal with the art program and transferred his scholarship. He went on to tell me he initially attended Westminster on scholarship for his skills on the field as a defensive back, but suffered a career-ending injury and found himself enrolled in art classes, where he immediately excelled.

Curious, I asked about the career-ending injury. During a game his sophomore year, he speared a tight end from behind on a routine play, meaning he hit him with his helmet first. Wouldn’t have been that big of a problem except that two of his teammates hit him from the front at the same time. He suffered a sever concussion, one that ruled out playing contact sports ever again and left his brain waves off-kilter permanently.

For three days after the incident he found himself in a mental zone where he felt and behaved like a completely different person. He described it as “a hazy state of being in which my inhibitions and conscience had vanished.” The evening of his accident he was in the hospital getting a head scan from an X-ray technician, who was apparently having a bad day. The technician made a smart-ass comment to W. Stalworth, who promptly knocked the guy out cold with a single punch to the face. He said it felt right to do it, that absolutely nothing in his mind held him back from acting on his raw gut feelings. When he got out of the hospital, W. Stalworth went to his team’s locker room to beat the shit out of his black coach who he was convinced “was playing his black boys” ahead of him in the roster. His coach was 6’4″, 260 pounds of solid muscle, a statline that would probably inhibit most people from taking up a physical confrontation. Luckily his teammates stopped him before he got there, so it never came to fruition.

After three days, he returned to normal and couldn’t believe what had happened. He regained his usual personality and conscience, and went on living his life, concentrating on his study of art. However, the condition hasn’t completely left. In period of high distress, this zone temporarily activates within his mind, releasing his uncontrolled and uninhibited feelings on whatever it was that caused him the distress. For example, a few years ago he was in the stands watching his two sons play a game of high school football. He became convinced the referee was intentionally making bad calls since his nephew played on the opposing team. The ref called back two of his son’s touchdown plays right in a row, igniting the alteration. His face changed expressions and he felt himself slipping into the zone, which his wife recognized and immediately told their friend to hold him back. The friend wasn’t quick enough, and W. Stalworth leapt from the stands, sprinted onto the field, and beat the shit out of the ref in front of everyone.

The point is, W. Stalworth was acting on complete instinctual feelings without any conscience, a dangerous combination when triggered by distress. He describes the feeling as liberating, an almost dreamy state where anything is possible. He isn’t raging with anger during these episodes, but purely reacting. This is why I think a supervillain should be based off this guy. It fits the mold: an unfortunate incident that changes the course of his life, causing him to enter into a different state of being that he finds liberating yet causes harm.

And just to be clear, W. Stalworth is only a potential supervillain. He knows to avoid situations that might cause enough distress to trigger him, and he has gone through therapy to reduce anxiety and strengthen the ability to accept, not react. (On a side note, the U.S. Army opted to not draft him in the Vietnam War due to his condition, the reason being that he was “too violent” for war.)

A different character, however, when given the right lifestyle and circumstances, might abuse this condition to feel “liberated” all the time and wreak havoc on the masses because of their greed, destruction, and stupidity. The episodes would subside eventually, leaving a vulnerable and innocent civilian that no one would suspect of causing terror. So to all you writers out there, consider basing your next antagonist off Mr. W. Stalworth, painter.

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The Youth in Yutah

This is my first post in a long time. This little blog game has become a stalemate yet again, kind of like the end of most Risk games I’ve played: it was initially exciting, made me think hard for awhile, then I got fed up keeping it going. Anyways, I’m back trying to quit the quitting habit. Here’s a little story from my work in Utah to ease back into the game:

I’m hiking back down from a peak in the LaSal mountain range outside of Moab, UT when I hear the faint passing of gas cut short by tightening cheeks. Behind me are seven children between the ages of 9 and 11 who have signed up for the four-day camp myself and colleague Katy Brandenburg are leading. The one nearest me, a gentle fifth grader named Ben, has wide eyes and a left hand tugging on the seat of his pants.

  • Me: “Everything okay, buddy?”
  • Ben: “Um…I think I just pooped my pants.”
  • Me: “Wow. Um…like a little or a lot?”
  • Ben: “Like a lot.”

This is one of those moments you really want to avoid. I’m currently thinking “God damnit. I just completed a Wilderness First Responder course. There was no kids-pooping-in-the-pants-at-10,000ft.-protocol lesson.” We’re out of toilet paper from an accident earlier in the day, so Ben is left to clean up shop with his sack lunch bag. You know, that nice rough, crinkly, brown paper that absorbs so well.

Much to my surprise, he soldiers on through, handles the situation with a cathole off the trail, and then decides to join the slower-moving group behind me to quell any possible swamp-ass (I really would use a more appropriate term here than “swamp-ass, but you must understand the raw accuracy of the term) that might develop walking quickly. Needless to say I support his decision.

The final day of camp is a float down the Colorado River from Hittle Bottom to Rocky Rapid, a daily section often run by locals on their days off. It shoudn’t take more than a few hours, but we battle headwinds, whining, lethargy, and yet again, poopy pants. This time its a different child who is far too concerned with jumping in the river to realize he might have let a slice of rye bread loose in his britches. The constant immersion into the river spreads the waste all over the inside of the child’s jeans (yes, he wore jean pants for the river, the same pants he’d worn the entire week), leaving him with an aura of fresh excrement. He sits at the front of the boat, where the headwinds carry his stench directly into our nostrils for the entire day.

Yes, this is but a taste of my summer job so far…

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