Oct/Nov 2004 Travel

The Rucksack Letters: September 10, Jersey Shore

by Steve McAllister

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.

To live outside the law you must be honest.
            —Bob Dylan

I first met Nora more than a year ago when we were both working on a low-budget film in Orlando. We've turned out to be fairly good friends—at least enough to send an email every couple of months. She moved onto become a flight attendant, and I moved on to become whatever the hell I am.

A few months ago, she had kidded‹or so I thought‹about being my traveling companion. She continued to hint at the idea and finally said she was going to take a leave from work and join me on the road. Though I told her that she was most definitely insane, it was nothing she didn't already know.

To be honest, I didn't question her motivation much at first, although I did ask her why she wanted to do it. I felt the least I could do was to help her find whatever it was she was looking for. I think I may have been afraid of getting lonely and figured an attractive red-head was as good a companion as I could dream of. And part of me saw this as an excuse to hold on to the car longer.

Her job entitles her to certain perks, including free travel, so the plan was to meet in Philadelphia yesterday. Fortunately I'm becoming adept at rolling with the punches, as I learn that plans are merely illusions of hope. Nora wasn't able to get on the flight she had intended, and I found myself with another twenty-four hours to spend in a place I didn't know.

Unable to find a free place to park in the city of Brotherly Love and not truly in tourist mode anyway, I opted to explore the Garden State. The thought crossed my mind to challenge Atlantic City to another round. I passed through there a few years ago with Kevin and managed to somehow break even. I wondered if making a trip there, considering my current financial standing, would be considered me tempting fate or fate tempting me. I decided not to go where I had already been, realizing that a city like that had little to offer a guy like me anyway. So I visited a state park in the afternoon and arrived at the Jersey Shore just before dusk. I laid on my back awhile, the sun shining down on me to warm against the cool, ocean breeze. When I closed my eyes and listened to the soft, rolling tides, I thought of home. If I had made other choices, if I had stayed in Sarasota, would I be laying on the beach there? If I were in the comfort of the place I grew up, would I appreciate it as much as this place I had never been before? The sands of Siesta Key beach are finer that that of the Jersey Shore. The wind is never as harsh or bone-chilling. The sun sets over the Gulf in a dazzling display of reflective colors. But, still, I would have most likely been home watching "The Simpsons."

There was a sign posted near the beach access regarding the rules of the beach, one being no sleeping after midnight. Not wanting to break any more laws than absolutely necessary, I caught some shut-eye before then and woke just after one. The alarm on my watch is nowhere near loud enough, but I was fully rested, rejuvenated by the salt air and unabashed freedom.

Isn't it funny how life has a way of balancing itself out? When I returned to my car, the town constable was nearby. My car, packed with all of my earthly belongings, had seemed suspect to the earlier shifts, especially the small wooden box I had haphazardly laid on the front seat. He asked me some questions about myself and the nature of my business in the small, coastal town. I explained myself as best I could as he shined his mag-light into the windows of the car, exploring every crevice.

Before I left Asheville, I was talking with a friend about the possibility of getting arrested for marijuana. She said it was unlikely as long as you keep it concealed and don't do it in public. I'm learning quickly that I need to follow directions better. "Do you have anything illegal in the car?" Anything illegal? This was the moment – that manifestation of principles that the pot smoker dreams of with dread and fervor. I've often considered how I would react when questioned about my possession of this plant deemed illegal by my government but adored by me. For me, it's become a question of civil liberty. Does the government have the right to limit my levels of consciousness? Does the government have the right to forbid me from using any product -especially one produced by nature - that I feel promotes my personal search for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? Is it rational to assume that a group of men who voted on a law seventy years ago knew what was better for me than I do? This law impedes my constitutional right to personal freedom, so, personally, I refuse to accept it. I'd like to say all of this was brought to my consciousness in the moment. I'd like to say that I fully understood why I said what I said. But I think that the truth of it is that the sight of a badge for me—this instilled respect that often leans more toward fear—elicits the response of innocence, regardless of the truth.

"No, sir. Nothing illegal in this car."

Lies are funny things. To be caught in one is a disgrace to one's dignity, so we cling to them, building upon them until they topple down upon us, and we have the option of accepting defeat or continuing in our delusions. Though I knew the officer had me busted, though I knew he was aware of the pot, I stuck to my guns that I had nothing illegal. Perhaps it was a foolish move or perhaps I was being true to my ideals that the law was unconstitutional and unfair. Regardless of my motives, which are often described as whims, the fact of the matter is that I was arrested for "possession of a green/brown substance that could be marijuana." He took me, handcuffed, to the police station—which was little more than a doublewide—and left me alone in a small room with weathered green carpet and quarter wall bead-board. There were shackles bolted to the floor under my chair, and I wondered when they were last used and if they would have to be used on me. He returned after a few moments to fill out the paperwork. I answered his questions accordingly with name, social security number, and mailing address. Unfortunately, I don't have a phone. I had to stop and think when he asked me about my occupation. After all, by most counts, I'm pretty much a bum at this point. "Freelance writer," was the definition I preferred. He wrote it down in the box provided.

"What do you write about?" he asked in a kindly manner.

"The legalization of marijuana," I replied with a Cheshire grin.

He laughed modestly and said, "Well, you've got something to write about now."

He finished the paperwork quickly, and took me to be fingerprinted, three sets, including one for the FBI. It's amazing to me that I'm in the same files with Al Capone. He asked me if I thought marijuana would really be legalized, and agreed with me that it someday would, though he added that the government would tax the hell out of it. He took my picture in front of a hand-painted height chart on the back of a door, and put me back in my cell where I thought further about my heinous crime with closed eyes in a leaned back folding chair. He then drove me back to my car, releasing me on my own recognizance. He assured me that he wouldn't have arrested me in the first place if I had only told him the truth. I told him that I would have told the truth if I had known he wouldn't arrest me. But truth be told, I'm not sure that I would have. I mean, I had the opportunity. He asked me several times point blank. I could have just handed it all over and put myself at his mercy in allegiance to these rules imposed upon me. But I think that would have been too easy. He would have taken my pot, dumped it on the ground, and sent me on my merry way to find a way to spend the next several hours before picking Nora up at the airport. This way was much more memorable. At four in the morning, I still had five hours to get back to Philadelphia, which promised to be a two-hour drive. I asked the officer if it would be alright if I spent some time on the beach, and he conceded, provided I didn't smoke any weed out there. I grabbed a blanket from my car and headed back to the beach to watch a new day dawn.

The sun broke the horizon with beauty I can scarcely describe with any words I know. And though I know that I now have a criminal record—that I will eventually have to answer for my crimes—I have never felt this free.


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