It was the last-minute In-N-Out Burger detour that pushed it over the edge, transformed the whole thing from a series of transactions progressing incrementally towards a final goal into a self-contained, pre-existing work of performance art that I arrived at by chipping away the temporal rock to uncover the experience waiting patiently at its core, letting myself be guided by some primal unseen current in the universe that might only have existed for the space of time that it took to hitchhike from Goleta to LAX or might have been waiting patiently for me to arrive since the day I was born; it’s impossible to tell.
The plan was perfect—5 days snowboarding with the family from a little cabin in Colorado, with two full days of train travel on either side, leaving Seattle the morning of the 20th and getting back the night of the 30th, just in time to get a good night of sleep in my own bed and then come down to City Hall for one last ceremonial farewell to the Mayor’s Office. I knew I was taking a chance, that trains break down and kids put things on railroad tracks and mud occasionally slides across roads, but I liked the forced down time, the sense of separation and seeing familiar surroundings from a new perspective and having nothing to do but read and write and contemplate the interstitial space in which I’ve been floating for the last two months.
It was just past Ventura, heading up the coast, when we finally sidled up to the Pacific. This was what I’d been waiting for the entire trip, the space where the train runs by the Ocean for a few hours before it heads back inland, and it was like being reunited with an old friend, the sea from the coastal highway but without the need to keep my eyes on the road or test myself against its curves or skip the scenic viewpoints to prevent the RV from North Dakota from passing me up and erasing my hard-fought victory over it in a mountain turnout 10 miles back.
It didn’t last, of course; just past Goleta the train slowed to a stop, the power went out, and it eventually came to light that there had been some sort of serious explosion in the engine because of something on the track and that we were going to be towed back to the Goleta station to throw ourselves upon the vicissitudes of an outlying Amtrak depot on a Sunday.
At this point the trip up the coast lost its placid tone and became something else, the travel equivalent of improvised jazz, but I needed something more, a hard deadline against which to measure myself, something with the very real possibility of failure, so I checked my frequent flier mile balances, booked a flight out of LAX leaving in 4 ½ hours, grabbed the Timbuk2 bag that contained all my worldly possessions 9 years and 10 months ago when I put my thumb out for the first time in rural New Zealand, put on the successor to the original hat that protected my not-yet-bald head from the heat of the outback sun as I rode my downturned index finger all the way across Australia and then perished overboard my first night at sea on Ragtime in the middle of my first 12-4…and I started walking, connected viscerally to a part of myself that’s been long dormant and flexing unused muscles for the first time in a long time, making eye contact and smiling and projecting a sense that they were all going to stop while repeating my old familiar mantra, “all it takes is one.”
I picked up some early travel companions, four friends from the train who were renting a car from the Santa Barbara Airport and heading up the coast to San Jose that night, and I thumbed us a ride from a young Mexican guy in an old 4Runner who took us to SBA, where I tried without success to hitch from the intersection that led from the airport back to the main road while the travelers picked up the car and took a ride out to 101 with them instead as they pulled out to head for the coast.
There are all sorts of ways that I could describe what it felt like to hitchhike in this instance, but it’s probably easiest to break it down into its component elements: the feeling of being situated firmly outside the mainstream and approaching the system through its cracks, like being powerless and all-powerful simultaneously, a very specific feeling that I hadn’t had in a good long while; the time pressure a constant presence in your brain, keeping your heart rate elevated and your mind alert, and forcing yourself to close your eyes, take a deep breath, and absorb every beautiful moment of the experience as you’re having it, smiling and waving at every passing car and really meaning it as you watch the faces of the drivers going by, the momentary glimpses of people making a split-second connection with you as they drive by and smile, wave, or look straight ahead and roll up their passenger-side window at 50 mph; giving yourself until 5:00, it should take 2-3 hours depending on traffic and 7:30’s your target arrival time, that gives you an hour’s buffer to play with; and after Jason the massage therapist drops you off in downtown Santa Barbara in his old but very well-maintained Chrysler at 4:30 and the seventh Mercedes SUV drives by the highway onramp without looking you start calling the shuttle companies, one step away from admitting defeat, wondering if perhaps you should have just paid the shuttle at the airport the $108 out the door and taken an air-conditioned ride all the way in with three hours to spare, it’s a holy number after all, but it’s a moot point because the shuttles are all leaving from the airport or they’re leaving too late to get you to the airport on time, and now it’s a choice between standing here on the side of the highway as the sun starts to carry your chances of getting a ride with it as it sinks below the horizon or calling a cab, surrendering completely and paying the $250 that every one has quoted to you, and as you’re having this conversation with yourself you see the beat-up old minivan taxi notice you and pull over, a husband and wife team rolling around looking for fares on a Sunday afternoon or maybe on their way to catch a movie downtown, and you walk up not expecting much and ask “How much to LAX?”, and Luis, as it turns out, says “$150”, and you say “Do you take credit cards?” and he smiles and nods, and you climb in, just past 4:30, and spend the next 2 ½ hours watching your life unfold like something in a smoky club down below the street, disconnected from who you are but with a rhythm and a logic all its own, and it’s beautiful. You joke and laugh with Luis and his wife, listening to them break Los Angeles drivers down by ethnicity and driving habits and talking about their kids, 20 and 22, the daughter a CNA like you were once after she couldn’t find work when she finished beautician school and Luis telling you about his recent diabetes diagnosis and his efforts to fight it by riding a couple of horses that they keep on a friend’s ranch an hour away and giving up tortillas, symbolic of everything that anyone ever enjoyed eating in the history of mankind, and when you stop an hour north of L.A. for gas his wife asks you about your family and tells you that she and Luis have both lost their mothers, too, and traffic’s light and you make good time and the city from the back of a minivan taxi, this minivan taxi, is almost overwhelming in its size but comforting somehow, you’re wrapped in familiar systems again, and it’s then that you think “In-N-Out Burger” and the oracle tells you that there’s one a mile from the terminal and you think “style points” and “can I take it with me through security” and you ask if you can stop but it’s not even a question, and the drive-through line’s around the block so they park and you jump out and wait the longest 10 minutes of your life for a double double with fries and a strawberry shake and part of you wonders if they’ll still be there when you go out but it’s a small part, and they are, and you make it through half the burger by the time you pull into Terminal 6 and Luis writes his phone number on the receipt, 805-722-7581, and you promise to call him if you ever need a taxi in Santa Barbara again at any point in the rest of your life and breeze into the airport just past 7:00 like you own the whole thing, with a grin on your face so big it almost doesn’t fit, and you finish the burger as the machine spits out your boarding pass and wolf down the fries and shed yourself of everything but your bag and the shake, which you finish and toss just as you come up to the TSA agent who’s guarding the gates like Charon guards the afterlife, and then he accepts your token and you’re through, it’s around 7:15 or so, and you’ve won, the performance has reached its climax, and you sit at the gate listening to happy music and watching the strangers dance to it as they file past and thinking about how everything’s connected, not at some mystical religious level but because we’re all made from the same basic collection of needs and wants and experiences, just arranged in different ways, and the culmination of the entire thing, the single spoonful of sumac-flavored ice slush that you have to show for it at the very end and that you’ll be able to think about and smile for the rest of your life, is a little kid, maybe 3 years old, running around with the complete joyous abandon that you outgrow somewhere around 5 or 6 probably, the kind of primal joy that exists somewhere before language and existential angst and worrying about love and money and all the rest, with his dad halfheartedly running after him, and you spend 5 minutes or so watching him and experiencing the exact same joy, direct from him to you, and then you take off your headphones and they’re calling for you to board, you’re in first class because that’s all they had, ironic somehow, and you bypass the line and sit down and it’s over, and you’re thinking in the mind’s own language still, pre-linguistic, but if you could translate it the thought might be something like “I’m one with the omnipresent joy and beauty that pervade every aspect of the visible universe,” the phrasing of which occurs to you when you wonder what you might tell a good friend who asked you how you were feeling, in this precise moment, but of course no one does, and you nod off to sleep, and then when you open your eyes you’re in friendly airspace, home.
* * * * *
Today’s my last day in the Mayor’s Office. Endings are important to me—the last job that ended on New Year’s Eve was my first job after college, precisely 10 years ago today, selling cars to finance something that started out as a daydream and slowly grew until it became a single-minded focus and then a real visceral thing roaming free upon the earth and feeling the sun on its back and the blood in its veins and then a story in which I located some essential version of myself and then eventually just 6 words, traveling around the world without flying.
When I pulled out of the parking lot of Millennium Ford on December 31st, 2003 and pointed my Civic south down the coast I slipped out of the city alone, without a going-away party, under a blanket of the only snow I’d seen in the city in my 17 months here; when I get up from my desk for the last time momentarily, put on the Timbuk2 that I’ve had for nearly 11 years now, and walk out of the office I’ll be walking into a city where my travel money—Cape Town to Jerusalem and across the Middle East and Central Asia and up through India into China and across the Trans-Siberian into St. Petersburg and Europe and then across the Atlantic on a tramp freighter or a yacht from Portugal to Brazil and down the east coast of South American and perhaps a 3-month jaunt on a Chilean naval vessel from Tierra del Fuego to Antarctica and then back up the west coast, across the Panama Canal and the Darien Gap and up through Central America and back into my ancestral homeland until the end came, as I always imagined it, a phrase I don’t use much but that still holds a lot of power, “back into Texas on a Greyhound from Mexico”—my travel money became a down payment on my apartment four years ago, inaccessible to my wandering self, my way of doubling down but without the fries and shake, and I’ll grab some drinks with co-workers most likely and then go home and put something together for the potluck at 7 followed by dancing all night with close friends, friends who from a base of one of the most painful and traumatic things that’s ever happened to me in February of this year have helped me shape and form and create quite possibly the best year of my life, and that includes 24, the culmination of my travel impulse, which was basically me free upon the earth, rootless, with no debts to my name and an almost unimaginably, at the time, huge chunk of travel cash and nothing to do with the rest of my life but spend it however I wanted…and there are many things that I’ll miss about my time in the Mayor’s Office but this is the biggest one, difficult to translate like most feelings but it’s what’s at the heart of the way that I’ve grown inseparably close to Seattle over the course of my time here and the people I met and the community that I’m now a part of and the roots I’ve let myself put down.
I’m glad I made it back in time to say a proper good-bye. The ending, after all, is the most important part…so I’ll leave you with this video of a cute little puppy.
Have fun out there :)