E04: If I was in a hurry…

day 42. 1,430 mi. to go

10 min read
Looking over Lincoln City, Oregon.

Almost every State Park campground in Oregon has a communal campsite that’s known, colloquially, as the “hiker-biker.” Unlike most standard campsites, which are equipped with a fire ring and a picnic table next to a gravel driveway, the hiker-biker is intended for those who are traveling without vehicles, like the hundreds of cyclists who are riding up and down the coast—and, less frequently, people like me who were hiking with a backpack. It’s a good deal: you paid $5 to pitch your tent, and you probably would meet at least one or two other likeminded people out on an adventure. The hiker-biker was the West Coast equivalent of a hostel in King’s Cross London.

I remember one of the most interesting people I met at a hiker-biker. The guy’s name was Kelly: from Colorado, late-thirties, silver hair, glasses, and the tendency to punctuate every sentence with an exclamation. Kelly was on what he called a “Journey of Locational Independence!” A few months earlier, he’d explained, as we sat around the campfire, he and his wife had starred on an episode of a reality TV show called Wife Swap. The idea was Reality TV 101. Kelly—a professional astrologer—and his wife—a vegan massage therapist—were matched up with a couple of rodeo cowboys from rural Texas. Kelly’s wife went to Texas, while the big-haired Texan wife came to live with Kelly in a hippie town in North Carolina for two weeks, while the cameras got to delight in the contrasts. But the real drama was happening off-screen. When Kelly’s wife came home, she announced that their marriage was over.

“I shoulda seen it coming,” Kelly had moaned. “Because Saturn was just coming up to Venus in my astrological chart, and what is Saturn?”

I’d looked at him blankly. “The fifth planet from the sun?”

“No! Well, yes. But Saturn is the planet of responsibility and karma, and it was coming up to Venus, the planet of love! Then, I was like, oh, there’s order to these things! Duh! I’m an astrologer!

Kelly went home to Denver, put everything he owned in a storage locker, and hopped on a bicycle he named Magellan.

That was months earlier. Kelly had been on his Journey of Locational Independence (!) ever since.

This was up in Washington State, about two weeks into my trip—right when the heartbreak and humiliation from Sally was at its worst. I was happy to have found someone to commiserate with. I was also still taking stock of what had happened, and what might come next.

Walking to Mexico hadn’t been my idea. It was Sally’s. We had talked about doing it together, and in the aftermath of our break-up, I’d committed to the trip, raising thousands of dollars from friends and strangers via the Internet. I’d raised the money hoping that Sally would join me—that I could convince her to come back to me from her new boyfriend, that I could “win” her back. When she refused, I realized that I couldn’t just give the money back—I was committed to walk to Mexico by myself. I’d spent the first two weeks of walking basically praying to get hit by a car so I could have an excuse for why I wanted to quit.

Kelly the Astrologer at a hiker-biker in Washington State.

There were so many big questions: how was I going to heal my heart? How was I going to recover my dignity? How could I ever go home and look my friends and family in the eye again?

Strangely, Kelly and his Journey of Locational Independence (!) seemed to offer some answers. The open road had healed Kelly’s heart; it had provided him with inspiration and wisdom. He’d become a mentor to others. The next morning at the hiker-biker, he’d pulled out his iPad and loaded my birth information into an astrology app—birth date, time, place. Then, he’d let his glasses slip to the tip of his nose as he peered into the data prognosticating my future. He told me that the stars said that big change was at hand. I wasn’t just a lost, cuckolded twenty-nine-year-old drifting down the coast; I was actually on a heroic journey of transformation!

A few days later, when I used my magic harmonica to cross the bridge over the Columbia River, I felt that I had proof that I was on my own Journey of Locational Independence (!).

For days afterward, I fantasized that Kelly and the stars were right.

As I made my way down the Oregon Coast, I began to fantasize that Kelly and the stars were right. What if he was right? What if I was on a heroic journey of redemption, of healing? What would be the results of my transformation? Perhaps it was also my destiny to spend the rest of my life drifting across the country, drifting around the world, a modern day ascetic with an iPhone and a digital camera.

I started to like the idea of being a drifter forever. Until I met a guy called DJ.


DJ and his dog, Ace.

Like Kelly, DJ was also on a Journey of Locational Independence. The difference was that DJ’s Journey lacked the exclamation mark. The night we met—in a different hiker-biker about midway down the Oregon Coast, a couple days after that romp in my tent with Mushroom Sam—DJ had told me the Story of what had catalyzed his most recent journey. About six weeks earlier, he explained, DJ and his dog, Ace, had left Tallahassee, Florida with the intention of hitchhiking to Coos Bay, a small city on the Oregon Coast. They’d made it two-thirds of the way across the country, fifty miles outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico, when disaster struck.

“We were kidnapped!” DJ took a haul on one of the hand-rolled cigarettes that were never far from his fingers, then spat into the fire.

I waited a beat. I assumed he was joking. But DJ took another drag and scowled into the flames despondently. “Kidnapped?” I said finally.

“That’s right. By a buncha hippies in a school bus.”

“You were kidnapped.”

“Right?”

“Fifty miles outside Albuquerque, New Mexico.”

Right?”

“By a bunch of hippies in a school bus.”

Right?”

I fought to keep myself from laughing. “Where did they take you?”

“Who?”

“The hippies.”

“Pennsylvania.”

“Pennsylvania? But isn’t Pennsylvania, like, two thousand miles in the wrong direction?”

Right? Me and Ace were trying to get to Coos Bay, Oregon.”

“So why did you go with them?”

DJ glared at me with his moss green eyes. “Don’t your damn ears work? I said we was kidnapped.”

I looked at my feet. “Right.”

DJ took a drag, then flicked the butt into the flames. “We shoulda been here last month. We woulda been, if we ain’t been kidnapped. But it ain’t no thing, ain’t that right, Ace.” He reached down and scratched Ace behind his ears; the dog was curled up next to the log at his feet. Then DJ reached into his pocket for his package of tobacco. “Anyway, it’s like I always say: if I was in a hurry, I wouldn’t be traveling.”

I nodded. I might not have liked DJ much, but the road was lonely. I told myself—exclamation mark or not—that I could use a friend.


Leaving town with DJ and Ace

The next day, we left the hiker-biker together: DJ, me, Ace. At first, I assumed that we would only walk together until we reached the edge of town. Coos Bay, DJ’s destination, was just 120 miles south; based on how often he complained about the time he’d lost—due to being kidnapped—I thought that DJ would be eager to catch a ride to his final destination. But when I turned off the main road to go down to the beach, I was suprised that DJ and Ace followed me.

It was slow going. DJ’s pack looked like it weighed eighty or ninety pounds; nearly twice what mine weighed. He was in his late-forties, and he walked with a cane. “Old football injury,” he explained. “From when I was in prison.”

“How long were you in prison?”

“Thirty four months.”

“For what?”

“Failure to return a rental car.”

“They put you in jail for nearly three years because you didn’t return your rental car?”

“Right?” I was quickly realizing that this was one of DJ’s catchphrases. It was delivered with a sneer; it wasn’t a question. “Fuckin’ judge called it Grand Theft Auto.” His voice turned to a whine. “But I left the car in front of a U-Haul with the keys under the floorboards.”

“Why didn’t you just give the car back on time?”

DJ turned and scowled at me. “Don’t your ears work? I said I left it in front of a U-Haul.”

I bit my lip and kept walking along the sand.

Ever since that night with Mushroom Sam, a high pressure system had settled over the coast. There was hardly a cloud for fifty miles. It seemed like the weather reflected my emotional state; for a few days after we had sex, it felt like the ugly hangover from Jack the Chicken Man had finally passed, and once again I was making progress on my Journey of Locational Independence (!). But by lunchtime, I could already see the differences between Kelly the Astrologer and DJ. It was more than an exclamation point.

Kelly had been hopeful and open. He’d told me his Journey had unleashed a wellspring of creative energy. He was already writing a book about astrology—he called it his “magi opus.” He was going to continue drifting down the coast, stopping here and there to work, to read the stars, to be of service to the world. DJ, by contrast, was clearly a drain on soicety. He’d been drifting for twenty-four years—avoiding work, panhandling, scrounging for whatever he needed to get by. He was angry, he was mean, he had been deeply hurt—I could tell. I could also tell that he was deeply lonely. I assumed that was why he’d adopted me. Maybe he needed a friend, maybe he was dreading what he knew he would find in Coos Bay. I couldn’t know for sure—he kept dodging my direct questions.

What I did know was that I didn’t want to be his friend. Barely a week had passed since Jack the Chicken Man, and it had only been a few days since I’d sat in the public library reading every self-help book on the shelf. After Mushroom Sam kissed me goodbye, I’d lain awake in my tent thinking about Sally and mourning that I’d never felt as close with her as I’d just felt with a complete stranger. Now, here I was, stuck again with DJ. I didn’t know how to get rid of him.

South of Lincoln City

A fishing boat ferried us across a river mouth, dropping us on an isolated sandspit where our only company was seagulls and snowy plovers. We sat on a log and had lunch. DJ had a can of tuna and beans. I ate dense rye bread and hummus. We shared the almond butter as Ace napped in the shade. Afterward, DJ smoked another cigarette, then pulled a hash pipe from his jacket pocket. He took a hit and offered it to me. I shook my head and told him that I was sober.

“I was sober once too,” he mused, gazing off into the distance.

When we started moving again, the high tide forced us into the soft, shifting sand, instead of the harder-packed sand that made for easier walking. DJ was struggling; his cane didn’t provide much support. “Slow down,” he whined. “Me and Ace, we can’t walk as fast as you.”

I looked up to the heavens for help. We were blessed with a sunny day, but I knew that, any day now, dark clouds would blow in from the west, bringing the first storm of the winter. Heavy rain would slow my progress down the coast. What was I doing traveling at half-speed next to a limping drifter? I struggled to find the words to say goodbye, but they wouldn’t come to my lips. What was wrong? What was I afraid of? It felt like Jack the Chicken all over again.

A pattern was emerging.

Finally, around three, we veered back inland and returned the coastal highway. I imagined that this would be our goodbye; surely, I thought, DJ would be eager to get to Coos Bay. With luck, he could be there by dinner. But when I went to say goodbye, his face melted like he’d just learned the truth about Santa.

“You’re leavin’? But I thought that me, you, and Ace would finda good hunker-down tonight.”

I looked at my feet and tried to summon my courage. “I’m sorry, DJ… It’s just… The rain is going to… I’m in a bit of a hurry.”

He looked wounded. “It’s like I always say: if I was in a hurry, I wouldn’t be travelin’.”

I tried to think of something soothing to say, but DJ had already turned his back on me. He was already hurriedly rolling a cigarette. I stood there for another moment, hesitating before I finally turned and left.

I figured that would be the last time I saw DJ.


Neither DJ nor Ace would look at me when I tried to say goodbye.

As soon as I left, I felt like a Ferrari that had spent the whole day stuck in second gear. Finally, I could put it in fifth gear and let my engine roar. I felt proud of myself that I’d found the courage to say goodbye—I felt like I had found the answer to my emotional problems.

Was that the problem with Sally too? Was it that I hadn’t found the courage to tell her what I really felt?

I had walked about four hundred yards when I peeked back over my shoulder. There were DJ and Ace. They were following me.

Immediately, my heart rate spiked. I threw my thighs into sixth gear and started walking as fast as I could, down the shoulder of a secondary road that paralleled the coastal highway. My adrenaline was pumping. What did he want? Why were they following me?

Pretty quickly, the secondary road dead-ended into the coastal highway, which was four lanes wide and moving fast. At a lull in traffic, I ran across to the northbound side and continued walking as quickly as I could. I resisted looking back—when I finally did, I spotted DJ and Ace. They were fading, but they were still coming after me.

“FASTER!” I yelled at myself over the sound of highway traffic. “Fuck the pain! You momma’s boy! You pussy! Fucking GO!

I fucking went. It was ridiculous: a three-mile-an-hour footrace as cars sped past at seventy miles an hour. But soon, DJ and Ace were just dots on the horizon behind me.

With the distance, my heart rate started to settle. I paused to eat an energy bar, drink some water, and think about my situation. Where was I going to go? There was just one road down the coast, there were only so many State Parks and hiker-biker sites. DJ would have no problem finding me if he really wanted to. He knew what my tent looked like. What if he showed up in the middle of the night? What if he chased me forever? I knew I needed to do something, and the best I could come up with was a move that I once saw Tom Cruise pull in Top Gun. I would slam on the brakes. DJ would fly past me. Then I’d be the one on his tail. He’d never even know how I disappeared.

That’s exactly what I decided to do. Up ahead, there was an antiques shop by the roadside. I ducked in and made small talk with the owner for about twenty minutes until I saw DJ’s head pass by the window. I froze—I knew that if he looked in at that moment, I’d be dead. But he didn’t see me.

I hung out in the antiques shop parking lot for another twenty minutes before I finally returned to the highway. But I’d made a mistake—there was no sign of him.

A half-mile ahead, the road narrowed as it entered a dark and foreboding forest. My heart rate spiked again, knowing that DJ could be anywhere. He could be waiting for me. Every movement in my peripheral vision seemed like a threat. Did he have a weapon? Would Ace leap out to attack me?

I walked in terror for a quarter-mile, until the road burst out onto a scenic viewpoint overlooking the cliffs at Boiler Bay. There were tourists milling about, but I didn’t see DJ. He must have set up his tent in the forest!

“WAHOOOOOO!” I screamed.

I was sure I had done it.

I figured that would be the last time I saw DJ.


Boiler Bay.