Apr/May 2004 Travel

The Rucksack Letters: November 27, Knoxville

by Joe Mourning

In July of 2001, I left Florida with a backpack and a journal. I had a few good pens and came equipped with two standard sized thumbs. What else to do but hitchhike and write? What followed were 44 letters, written to an ever-growing group of friends whom I met along the way.

Ah, this is obviously some strange usage of the word 'safe' that I wasn't previously aware of. —Douglas Adams, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy

I spent the other night at a commune called Zendik Farm, which touts, among their philosophies, an idea called "Creavolution"—an amalgam of creativity and evolution whereby those who live the ideal have greater control of the person they become. I'd thought much about this idea before I even knew there was a name for it, and upon hearing more about the commune's founder, Wulf Zendik, the more interested I became.

Matt dropped me off at the commune on Monday, and I was immediately welcomed by getting the wonderful privilege of shaving the bark off of logs. We saw two guys doing it when we came up the driveway, and even stopped to ask them for directions. I remembered thinking what a peculiar task it was. Twenty minutes later, I dropped my backpack off at the bunkhouse and was right alongside them shaving fenceposts. As we talked about communal living and I got my first taste of the philosophies of Zendik, it occurred to me that this was the life I was creating for myself.

At Zendik Farm, just under fifty people populate the 200+ acres of North Carolina hillside, spending their days caring for the animals, the gardens, and the several buildings which create, for the most part, a self-sustaining community. Working about six to eight hours a day alongside the people they live with, they are given more time, energy, and help to put into their personal relationships, growth, and artistic ventures, which are sold on weekly road trips to pay for the remaining costs of taxes, food, and utilities.

I'm not quite becoming a devotee, and only stayed at the commune for one night, but the idea of taking a more active role in the person I become astounds me. All of us, in some way or another, make choices every day that affect who we become, but how much of what we do is actually who we are? I wondered, after they gave me a ride to the interstate, how much control I had over my own life and the man I might become. Then I strapped all that I own to my back, and I started walking toward Tennessee.

I was wishing for more faith. The questions of what I would eat, what I would wear, and where I would sleep almost doubled my weight as I trudged up my first interstate ramp to catch my first ride. I began to mentally unpack the load on my back, wondering what I could most easily do without and how much weight I could lose by pitching it. How many pairs of underwear did I really need, after all? By the top of the ramp, I was already exhausted and wondered how long it would take to get my first ride when he pulled over.

I moved as fast as I could with the pack on my back, slowing down as I reached the car to survey the offer and use a little judgment before getting in. The driver was a shaggy-haired type—though it was neatly cut and feathered over his ears. He wore jeans and a polo shirt and looked as warily at me as I did at him. Since he wasn't holding a gun, and I was already exhausted again, judgment said to accept the ride.

He said his name was Robert and that he was on his way to fill out an application for a second job, but that he'd be glad to give me a ride up to I-26. He started hitchhiking at 13, a runaway for seven years, and thought, hell, he might as well go ahead and take me on through Asheville. If there was one thing he learned from his years on the road, it was to pay it forward. For all of the people who had given him rides and food over the years, the least he could do was take me to the Tennessee border. He gave me some tips on getting rides, told me horror stories and fantastic tales, and said that I really should try to hop a train at least once if I should get the chance. "As long as we've come this far," he said, "I might as well take you on to Knoxville." And with a belly full of Waffle House hash browns—doubled, covered, smothered, chunked and diced—he sent me on my way, three hours and two hundred miles further than he had planned to go when he left the house. I believe in angels.

And, yes, unfortunately, that applies to their counterparts as well.

After Robert left me in Knoxville, I walked about five miles down the road, knowing full well that a ride at this time of night was going to be near impossible, but I was walking on air and wanted to push myself into accepting the pack. At about ten, the pack started pushing back, and I considered curling up in the pine needles and calling it a night. My feet hurt. My hips ached under the weight. And then a shooting star glistened quickly through the sky and was gone—giving me a moment of hope and a wish for another ride. Within a few minutes, he was there—the one I had wished for, the one I had been warned about, and the one I had dreaded.

"Got a place to stay tonight?" he asked when I opened the car door and leaned in.

Now any common sense would tell me that when a pudgy little sweatball like this tries to pick up a drifter in the middle of the night, no good can come of it. But I honestly felt no fear of the situation—perhaps I was still drifting on the high from my first ride—and since the answer to his question was a 45-degree embankment on the side of the road, I took him up on his offer.

His name was Brady. He was an ex-truck driver who'd lost his license for too many speeding tickets and was now working at Wal-Mart. I should have known then that he was a fallen one, considering he worked for the devil himself. But he was a nice enough guy and told me that he picked up hitchhikers from time to time because he'd done some hitching himself. He'd rented a few movies and wanted someone to drink a few beers with.

He lived in a studio apartment, and although he offered half of the bed to me, I declined and rolled out my sleeping bag on the floor. It didn't take very long for him to start making sexual innuendoes and talking about penis size. He even went as far as putting on a porno because he wanted to see who would get hard first.

When I told my friends and family about my ideas of hitchhiking, this was the guy they were afraid I would stumble upon. This was the guy who was worrying them. Well, maybe the guy they feared also had a gun. At least, this was the guy they had me worried about.

And he was pathetic.

He talked about wanting love—or his misguided idea of it—and a strict religious upbringing where masturbation was forbidden and soon became a daily addiction as taboos often do. He told me that he just wanted someone to hold, someone to love. I told him to get a dog.

I wondered how a man who so seldom had sex could become so addicted to it. Is it the stream of media that attacks his every sense? The 30-second spots of phone sex vixens that tell him they have what he needs every 13 minutes on his late night TV? Is he a product of this society, or is this society a product of people like him?

I never really considered him a threat in any way, but I did keep my eyes peeled for weapons and leather body suits. Mostly I just watched in amusement as he tried to find a way to get into my pants. Everything he said I shot down, answering every question with another question. I think a lot of people I know would have just kicked his ass. I curled up in my sleeping bag and caught as many winks as I could, leaving him to his porn and the frustration of once again having to please his insatiable appetite for sex by himself via right-handed ecstasy. Damn, I felt like a woman. I never realized how much power there was in rolling over and going to sleep.


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