Apr/May 2004 Travel

The Rucksack Letters: May 6, Trinidad

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.

He felt that his whole life was some kind of dream and he sometimes wondered whose it was and whether they were enjoying it. —Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

I got picked up late Friday morning after tossing my soiled, vagabond clothes and changing into something with a little less stench. Walt was a friendly sort who worked for the Target Distribution Center in Pueblo. He was full of information on the area ranging from my night's grassy domicile down to his hometown of Trinidad, but I imagine that's true for anyone who spends their entire life in one location. I told him all I knew of Trinidad is what Jay told me about it being the sex change capital of the world and that I should be wary of picking up women.

Walt said that Dr. Biber, who did most of the operations, was his doctor when he was a little girl. Funny guy, huh?

As we rode down to Trinidad, he pointed out mountains, places to camp and hunt, ski resorts, every town and their economic structure, be it the minimum security prison for white collar crimes in Walsenburg or the methane gas in Trinidad. He told me about the Ludlow massacre and how a coal miner's strike in the early 1900's ended in tragedy when the governor called in the militia, who opened fire and killed all of the workers. I wondered who owned that coal mine. Walt said whoever it was had a shit load of clout with the governor.

He gave me a thorough tour of the two-mile radius of Trinidad from the magical Mount St. Rafael Hospital to the Trinidad Dam, which offered him childhood summers of tubing down the Purgatory River, but which was now forty feet too shallow in this season of drought. He finally dropped me at Greasy Lee's and recommended the Big Brother, a burger on a hoagie roll dripping with cheese, onions, and ketchup. Damn, it was good.

I sat at the Trinidad exit for a good while and was tempted to hop the train as it passed, but was fearful that it would take me to the train yard I had seen by the dam on my tour. And since the third time had not been a charm, I figured I'd take my chances on the road.

An old Volvo did a u-turn on the two-way ramp, and the driver said the least he could do was take me to a better exit. He was a wiry type with a Sam Elliot moustache and a leather, Josey Wales Hat. There were about six western shirts hanging in the back window and a stack of pants on the seat.

"Smoke any of that left-handed tobacco?" he asked.

I did. So we did.

He took me down 25 to Raton, and we headed a few hundred yards down 64/87 toward Capulin volcano, pulling over behind a dirt mound to smoke ourselves euphoric and celebrate this thing we call life.

He'd been living on the road since last January, and we sat for hours in that car as he smoked Camel non-filters, regaling me with stories and imparting wisdom learned on the road.

"It's an addiction, Joe, this travelling life. Worse than cigarettes, alcohol, or any drug. But so much better."

A semi rolled east off the exit we had just come from, and he grabbed the CB.

"Hey eastbound, you got me?" he called into the radio.

A few seconds passed. "This is eastbound," it crackled. "Go ahead."

"I just came up that way, and Smokey's clear all the way down." He sported a yellow grin as the trucker thanked him and sped off into a false sense of security.

"That's just evil," I told him, laughing.

"Ah, somebody's gotta fuck with these bastards."

He dropped me off near sunset. And I put my lessons into practice, getting myself a free hotel room and a really long shower.

I hitched a 35-mile ride to nowhere just after noon the next day, and spent a few hours walking in circles at the bottom of the ramp taking in the splendor of the glorious barren prairies eclipsed only by a bright blue sky. A cool breeze cut down on the heat, and I strained the last drops of sunscreen from the tube I bought in Pueblo. Of the terrain in New Mexico, I can only say that it is beautiful, my knowledge of the desert not able to exceed the difference between cactus and sagebrush. For a more picturesque description, read Edward Abbey. I was just a Florida boy stuck by the road there, putting myself at the mercy of those who shared the hot, spring asphalt.

Now, I understand that in this day and age of fear, trepidation, and cynicism, picking up a drifter is not item one on most anyone's to do list, and I'm not complaining about my station in life. Hours of waiting leave ample time for thought and deliberation, which I am trying to make a more engaged habit. But I fail to understand how two hours worth of passing motorists can drive by someone standing on the side of the road, 35 miles from anywhere, and not stop for help. Have we become so jaded? Have we become so selfish? Have we become so afraid of every person outside of ourselves that we can't even muster up the most minute amount of compassion to our fellow man?

It seems that we have lost our ability to reach out. No longer do we have the heartfelt charily that was shown by the Good Samaritan—to put the care of those less fortunate into our own hands and do the bidding of whatever god we may worship, or at least rise to the definition of human kindness.

Our charities now are often run as corporations—businesses of wary goodness so the good people of our nation only dirty their hands on a leaky check-writing pen or the bacteria thriving in our currency, but never actually on the arm of one who needs a hand up.

In the town of Raton, like many small towns, benevolence is filtered through the police department. This is one of my lessons from the vagabond angel. The monies given to the churches to help the homeless and in-need are put into an account, and the police decide who qualifies for the charity.

The rationale behind this system is two-fold. One, it makes it easier on the clergy, who are often much too busy serving their congregations to serve the likes of me. The second is that it allows the police to run the license of a person in need to see if he has any warrants outstanding. Fortunately, none showed up for me. I understand the rationale, but I also fear that this undermines the division of church and state, not to mention the human need for actual benevolence.

We've made it far too easy to exchange currency for charity. In this workaday world, I know it's often hard to find time, let alone energy to truly serve your fellow man, and the writing of a check certainly does lessen the guilt of having it good while others have it bad, as well as offering substantial tax breaks. But I must maintain that there is an inherent salvation in helping an actual person as opposed to a side-note in our accounting. I've written a 20-dollar check for my church to spend in whatever way they deem necessary, and I've also bought a five-dollar sandwich for a hungry man. There is by far much more satisfaction in the latter.

And since my very survival often depends on others' covetousness of this satisfaction in helping another, I was glad to finally find someone to answer the call. Robb was headed to Santa Fe with his nine-year-old son Alex for a recording session of his band's first demo. But that wasn't the only egg in this basket. He was also a graphic artist, a painter, and comic book illustrator. Of course, he only actually got paid for the graphic design of casino brochures and the like, but it still allowed him a little time to perform his true interests. As we exchanged stories and goals, he applauded my sacrifice for the sake of my art. It was the first time I'd ever really been considered an artist. Even I often think that the only reason I'm doing this is to avoid having a real job.

Robb dropped me in Santa Fe, and I milled around the Plaza, a small park in the center of town marking the end of the Santa Fe Trail and offering Indian vendors a place to sell handmade jewelry and other trinkets. I can't honestly say there was a lot of activity in the Plaza, though there were quite a few people. Tourists glanced at the Native merchandise and rested on park benches as teenagers stood around smoking cigarettes and trying to find a score. It was as if there was a shield surrounding the small area of grass held by the trees that allowed only peace through its barrier. Perhaps it had something to do with the two police cars parked at the corner.

Daylight fading, I headed to a bar a few blocks from the Plaza where Robb said he may be going later in the evening. Robb never showed, but I drank a couple of beers and spent a while talking to a health food saleswoman from Denver named Lily. There was a band from Durango playing Texas based blues, and though I enjoyed them and my brunette company, a third beer was not in my budget, and the length of my day and miles traveled were beginning to take their toll on me as my eyes grew heavy and the Stevie Ray cover barely managed to keep me awake. One of the kids in the Plaza had given me the heads-up on a good place to camp, so I strapped on my pack again and headed north on Washington until the street lights stopped. I found what seemed to be a good place to sleep for the night and hiked a few feet back from the road to be out of sight and mind.

When I was a kid, I heard stories about cowboys of the west waking up with rattlesnakes in their sleeping bags—cold blooded devils seeking the warmth of their enemies. That fear has never left me, so I hung my hammock between a very tall bush and a very short tree. The stars were incredible, much more so than in Colorado, and as I drifted off, the little dipper poured herself into my hammock three inches from the ground.

My second fear was finding a scorpion in one of my boots in the morning, so I beat each one vigorously before putting them on. I know, I can be such a little girl at times. And while I took the precaution of investing in a sting/snakebite first aid kit, I truly have no desire to test its reliability.

I walked back to town and attended mass at the St. Francis of Assisi Cathedral. I'm not exactly sure why. Perhaps it was because it was the sixth Sunday of Easter. Perhaps I'm a glutton for boredom. Or perhaps there was a lingering bit of guilt at accepting the room in Raton. A look at the three-million-dollar renovation fund in the church bulletin squelched that.

After the service I met a man who went by Uncle Jim. He offered me a place to stash my pack and invited me for coffee and donuts in the Parrish Hall after the service. My burden left in the shadow of the rectory and my belly full of caffeine and sugar, I set out to explore the 240 art galleries of Santa Fe. One of the dealers told me the town was founded as an artist's community and is now the third largest art market in the US behind New York and LA. And though the art was amazing and truly inspired me, it was the call of a didgeridoo in the early afternoon that caught my attention—an enchanting buzz echoing off adobe.

Eli was sitting on a creek bank—at least what would have been a creek had New Mexico not been so dry—playing his dig quietly with hums and twirls. I sat next to him and listened for awhile until he stopped playing and rolled a gentle cigarette. He'd been living on the streets of Santa Fe for the last nine years, completely by choice as evidenced by the peace glowing in his eyes. He said he was a musician by trade—in addition to the wooden pipe, he could play pretty much anything with strings—but never used it to make money. He felt that using your passion to provide for yourself makes you dependant upon it, thereby stripping it of the pure joy inherent in its mere performance.

We talked a bit about living on the streets and meeting basic needs when he said the words that have weaved through my mind ever since.

"Life provides."

I wandered through those two words as often as I wandered through the galleries, and they continued to speak to me as I downed my two-dollar-Cinco-de-Mayo-margaritas, celebrating whatever this holiday is supposed to represent. It wasn't until I was prepping my pack in the Plaza just before sunset that life provided again.

"There's some sandwich meat and bread over here if you want to make yourself something to eat. We got plenty."

His face was leather, matching the vest that covered his denim shirt and camouflage pants. But his eyes sparkled like the rhinestones in Trigger's saddle. He said his name was Little Hawk as we walked over to a group of teens and twenties sitting on the Plaza lawn smoking cigarettes and playing hackeysack. Honestly, two of them actually held the little cancer sticks in their hands, puffing between kicks.

"Fresh out of the dumpster," Little Hawk told me as we reached the bountiful feast of bread, cheese, tortillas, and roast beef. They even had a cake. And since no one else who had partaken was bent over with diphtheria, I decided to chow down. When a man invites you to his table, you go to the table.

I rolled some roast beef into a tortilla with some cheese and sat down next to a kid named Josh from St. Augustine. Finished with school and already tired of the job circuit by nineteen, he took to the road three months ago after a Rainbow Family Gathering in Alabama. He and Little Hawk came to Santa Fe together a few days before so Little Hawk could find an old flame. They stopped in Arkansas, mining for quartz crystals, which they used to barter for food, money, and cigarettes.

They let me pick out one of the crystals for myself and asked me to tag along for the evening before sharing their camp that night. We strapped my pack into Josh's trunk and went to find Little Hawk's lady friend.

"C'mon, man," he said, a side-seat driver as Josh made his way through the adobe maze, "we gotta find her. She's my age and she wants to adopt a hippie!"

She wasn't where he hoped she'd be, so we stopped at the convenience store so Little Hawk could buy some beer with the money he had made from the crystals. His 7-11 Double Gulp mug now filled to the brim with cheap amber, we headed back downtown where they spread out the crystals on the sidewalk of San Francisco Street and annoyed the hell out of passing tourists.

"'Scuse me, Sir, you dropped something."

The dope would turn around and look quizzically at the ground.

"Your smile," Little Hawk would finish.

And there it was, as the person looked up beaming despite himself and quickly turned to walk away.

For every person that passed, Little Hawk had a remark. He would stop in the middle of a story, of which he never stopped telling, for a hello, a how-are-you, or a dropped-your-smile. Most grunted and passed or ignored him altogether. And occasionally someone would say, "Fine. How are you?"

"I'd complain, but my dog would bite me." The dog being three-quarters wolf, Little Hawk rarely complained, but said of the passersby, "They're gonna hate you anyway, might as well have some fun with 'em."

Little Hawk never ran out of stories to tell as friends came and went, bringing him more beer and spurring him on to become the road dog that he was. He'd been living on the road since before I was even conceived. He'd been stabbed, shot, hit with a car. He'd lived a hard life, but I've never met anyone happier to live it.

A friend of theirs was playing at a bar a few blocks away, and we all walked over there together at about nine, me carrying the crate of crystals to do my part. There were about eight of us by then, homeless and homely, beer having accumulated at quadruple the rate of people. Little Hawk was fairly lit when we reached the bar and in a solemn drunk when we left.

Josh and I had been talking to a couple of girls in the scant crowded bar—just out of college, on their first job, and enamored to share a bowl with riff-raff like us. Fairly buzzed when the girls dropped us at Josh's car, I was happy to see Little Hawk already there. He didn't feel the same for me. Every door of the car was opened, and my pack was lying on the ground a few feet away.

He pointed to it and pointed past me. "You. You're out." The sparkle in his eye had dimmed to a beer soaked glint, and he looked at me like I had just kicked his dog. Dr. Jeckyl's key ingredients were barley and hops, and I was no longer dealing with the same man.

"What do you think of that, you white-toothed mother fucker?" It was the second time this week someone had complimented my dental hygiene. I liked it better when the other guy had said it.

He moved closer to me when I went for my pack. "That's mine," he growled.

This was the showdown. I wasn't about to bend over for my pack, and I knew by the malevolent look in his eye that I couldn't just walk away. A wise man once said, you can turn your back on a man, but never turn your back on a drug. Little Hawk would chase down a fight. All I could do was stand my ground.

I had my hands in my jacket pockets keeping them warm when he moved closer and put his forearm on my chest. "My grandpa used to say you'll live longer if you keep your hands out of your pockets." I matched stares with him as his breath came out in gusts of stale beer, cigarettes, and loathing, and I slowly removed my hands, showing that I had no intentions of ill will. Not good enough.

He pushed me slightly and put his hands in my face, which I instinctively blocked. The motion was fluid and had our eyes not been locked, I may not have noticed it at all.

"See that?" he said, his eyes flicking to his right.

I'm not sure how long the blade was exactly; it got a little fuzzy past the tip, but I'm guessing it must have been at least eight inches. He had it cocked in his right hand, parallel with his glare, his left hand tight on the collar of my shirt.

The question coursed through my mind, "Could I take him?"

He'd been living on the streets since '69. I've got maybe three weeks of actual road time. He'd been in fist fights, knife fights, gun fights, etc. I dropped out of Tae Kwon Do after the second lesson. He'd been a marine. I'd been in 4-H. The only thing remotely in my favor was that he was drunk, but considering that half of his existence was spent in this state, and how deftly he had proven to wield that saber, my prospects weren't exactly favorable.

Retaliation on my part would have meant certain death, or at least a very painful wounding. So I stood my ground and waited him out. I wasn't going to play the role he had intended for me.

"We having fun yet?" he growled.

"Not really."

"Why not?" the 'not' drawn out as if conjuring my anger to unleash.

I flicked my eyes to the blade. "Do I really need to tell you?"

He stared hard for a moment and dropped the knife. It clanged a few times on the pavement and I'm sure a few angels got their wings. He dropped his hands and puffed out his chest, again commenting on my wretched, white teeth. He took a quick jab which brushed an incisor, but couldn't make me flinch from the stare.

I felt my knees shake—a mix of the chill in the air, gathering adrenaline, and stark terror.

"I don't want to fight you," I said, turning my body sideways as I recalled Tae Kwon Do, Lesson One.

"I don't want to fight neither." Drunkenness turning out to be my ally after all, Little Hawk seemed to forget for a moment that he was the instigator.

"Cool. I'm going to grab my pack and head on down the road."

"I done stole your pack!"

"The hell you did," I said, picking it up and strapping it on.

I'd actually beat him without ever lifting a hand. I was even so bold as to tell him it was nice to meet him and extend my hand in friendship. He filled it with swear words and took a step back. I felt like Gandhi.

I shook hands with Josh, keeping one eye on the madman and one on the blade.

"See you down the road," Josh said, beaming amazedly.

"Looking forward to it," I said as I walked out of the parking lot and down the street.

I wanted to run. I wanted to sit. I wanted to cuss. I wanted to shit.

But my white teeth must have glowed like a beacon through the empty adobe streets, as I smiled my way through morning and headed out of town, life forever providing as long as I accepted it.


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