Herold the Hitchhiker

The highway was empty. As though everyone knew this lonely stretch was always empty. And because people know driving down a long, cold winter road gives way to deep thinking, people avoid it like they sometimes avoid each other. Opting instead for the busy thoroughfares. Opting instead for busy texting. Busy music. Busy mochas.

The forest of naked trees swayed all around me. I raced along at a good clip, but they seemed to be following me. Spring was still just an idea to them. A memory whispered about.

Lumbering alongside the road in his black and red flannel, he caught my eye. I hit the brake and pulled to the shoulder. I wasn’t at all expecting him. Obviously. No one ever makes plans to pick up a hitchhiker. But for some reason, the instant I saw him, I knew. I must give this man a ride. The entire purpose of my driving up this small North Carolina highway was, in fact, to give this hitchhiker a lift. This was my thought. Though, strangely, it didn’t feel like I intentionally chose to think it. But it surely was in my mind. Planted there by something. Some force. That, I was sure of.

The grass was tall, and I pushed it down with the nose of my car as I came to a stop. I waited. It was silent, save for the cold wind that slipped in through the open passenger window, curiously inspecting all the bits of food and dirt under my seats—inspecting my ankles with frigid fingers. A semi-truck roared past, parting the grasses, leaving my small car rocking in its wake.

Normally, when a hitchhiker sees a stopped car ahead, he will increase his pace as he walks up the road. As if to say, “Hey! I see you I’m coming! Please do not drive away like the last guy!” The sight of an unexpected stranger willing to offer a lift is a great relief. It ignites confidence in the gut. It restores belief in the world.

This guy did the opposite. He walked slower. I watched his tiny figure in the rear-view mirror. The grasses coming up to his knees. He seemed to be very far away. For a second I thought he might be standing still. Is he? Throwing my arm over the passenger seat, I craned my neck and gazed over my shoulder. I squinted my eyes to summon that telescopic vision that seems to come with tightened eyelids. He is! Shit, something’s wrong with his leg. I threw it into reverse and gunned it all the way back to him.

“Need a ride?” He gave an exhausted nod, and collapsed into the passenger seat. A thousand things about him hit me all at once. First was the sour smell. Days of perspiration and grime were soaked into his blue jeans, turning them dark. Dried salt shown on the collar of his undershirt.

“Your leg ok?”

“It’s just a little sore.”

The stench filled the cabin. I could taste it. I remember inhaling it once before. In the third phase of Ranger School—the swamp phase. Our continuous exercise—the endless marching, endless running, endless buddy-carries, endless push-ups for weeks on end—had caused all our fat to burn away.  And with our food rations limited, all that remained for the body to consume was muscle. The stench of burning muscle stings the nostrils like vinegar. Of course, we got used to it, but the R.I.’s reminded us that we smelled like stale dog shit every time they got stuck downwind.

As we pulled back onto the empty highway, I rolled up the windows, keeping them cracked just slightly. My intention was not to embarrass him, and I think he was grateful, clearly aware of the odor. I wanted to say, “Hey buddy, I get it. No big deal.” But I didn’t.  I also wanted to keep him warm. He was at not at all dressed for the biting cold outside.

The second thing I noticed was his frame. He was incredibly skinny, as though he had not eaten is days. He was also very old. I guessed 70. Long ago the sun had burnt off all the hair on his scalp, leaving only some around the sides—a ring of greasy tangles that twisted like thin wire threads. His face was worn and wind-beaten, like an old saddle you might find hanging in one of those collapsing red barns that drifted past us. Aimless red ghost ships in rolling brown, winter seas.

All he owned was a small black backpack. It contained twelve pairs of fresh socks and a hoodie for colder weather. He told me.

“So, where you headed?”

“Maine.”

“Maine, like the state Maine?”

He nodded.

“You know that’s like a thousand miles away.”

He looked sheepishly at his wet boots.

“I can get you as far as Boone. That knocks off at least a hundred miles.”

“Thank you.”

“I’m Zach.”

“Herold.”

We shook. His hand was disproportionately large compared to his frail body. His grip was frim, like he was taking hold of a plumber’s wrench. His fingers were rough like coarse stone. He sat erect, and in great pain. From the moment he entered the car, I picked up on a very heavy vibration. An atmosphere of suffering, and a life full of unfortunate tragedy surrounded him like a thick fog. When we shook, I felt this pain travel up my forearm and into my lungs—they tightened immediately.

It was clear he was trying his very best to be an excellent passenger. He touched nothing, kept his large hands cupped around his small, knobby knees. He even kept his back from touching the seat. I got the feeling he had been kicked out of many cars, and was doing all he could to not to get dropped off again. He only responded when spoken to.

Herold was coming from a shipyard in Louisiana. A diesel engine mechanic, he’d been laid off. Through the grape vine, he caught word that there was work in the shipyards up North, ‘roundabout Maine. When he was younger serving in the Navy, work was easy to find. It was simply assigned to your unit. You never had to go looking for it. But he hadn’t been in a Naval shipyard in decades. Things had changed.

“You know it’s snowing up there, right?” He breathed in deep, releasing a heavy sigh.

The rain came suddenly. A volley of icy water struck the windshield as though we had just driven through a beaded curtain. Herold pulled himself deep into the seat and looked over the top of his fogged lenses at the darkening sky.

After a long silence, punctuated only by thunder, I spoke. “You got any family up there?”

“No.”

“Got any family back in Louisiana?”

“Just my little brother. He died though.”

I nodded. Acknowledging this loss.

All too often, a conversation that dips deep enough to touch death, is then hastily redirected. Aimed up toward some superficiality. Some trivial glitter that can be tossed on the open wound.

I say this, because shallow conversation does not interest me. I don’t care to waste time picking at the bark, when I know in the core of every tree, there is rich heartwood.

An example: A week ago, I moved to Asheville, North Carolina. I met a girl and she invited me out to a riverside restaurant. She was outside, at the small bonfire, standing with her two friends, holding their two beers.

“That place has the best tacos.”

“Oh I know. You know who has really good fish tacos? That new place that opened up by where Vinny used to live.”

“Really?”

“Yes. They do this thing with the sauce. I can’t even describe it.”

To be honest, I didn’t care to hear her try. It’s not that I was denigrating their taco talk, I’m not interested in polemics. I’m just not satisfied with picking at twigs, or bark, or even sapwood. We, all of us, you, will be dead in less than one hundred years. I am in search of heartwood. Which is why I kindly excused myself and went home to meditate.

“Aw, ok. Well, welcome to Asheville!”

It is for this reason that I asked the next question:

“Herold. What do you think happens?…when he died. What do you believe?”

My eyes remained on the road, but I could feel Herold turn and examine the side of my cheek. One might have thought he was taking detailed note of the stubble lining my jaw, but I knew he was looking deeper. Finding what he needed to satisfy him, he returned his gaze to the road.

“I think he protects me.”

I nodded.

“Makes sense to me. How?”

“He gives me little hints. Little signs. A leaf dropping at the exact moment I have a thought.”

He traced the slow, slipping path of a descending leaf through the air in front of him.

“Sometimes a street light will go on, or burn out. And I know it’s him saying go this way, or don’t come here, it’s not safe. Or don’t ride with this person. Or yes, this person is good.” His said all this without taking his eyes off the distant haze of blue-grey mountains. I got the feeling he could see something I couldn’t.

The next logical question was to ask if his brother had given him a sign regarding me. Yet, neither of us spoke. A mild tension filled the space between us. Both of us feeling the question had to be answered.

“You got a good car,” Herold said, tapping the dash.

I smiled. One listening to our conversation might have assumed we were talking about cars.

With that, he began to nod off. His heavy eye lids, weary with exhaustion, closed. His neck curled forward, inching its way toward his scrawny knees. I kept anticipating his silver wire spectacles would slip down his nose at this increasingly extreme slope, but they never budged. A deep wrinkle on the bridge of his nose securely held them in place. The way that an old oak, growing tight against a barbed wire fence, eventually pulls the wire into itself—so that a child may stop and wonder how the rancher was able to magically thread the line through the trunk.

As Herold’s spine rounded, and his head lowered, the nerves on the back of his burnt neck reached that critical point of stinging strain, and he jerked awake, looking immediately to the racing yellow ribbon dividing the two-lane road.

“You know, I have a bed in the back. I took out the back seats and installed this platform thing. The mattress is six and a half feet long. Plenty of room. Real comfortable.”

“I’m alright.”

“You sure? We still got at least an hour.”

He took one hand in the other and squeezed like he was wringing out an old wet rag.

“Yeah, cool. I was just…you know, if you’re cold I can turn the heat up, or down. Whatever you need.” I let my hand hover over the dial, awaiting instruction. It never came. I returned my hand to the steering wheel. He returned to sleep. I reached back and grabbed a pillow off the bed.

“Hey Herold.  Here.”

He accepted the pillow. This made me happy. A joyful, peaceful feeling arose in my thighs and surged up through my torso, warming me. His snoring relaxed everything. Even the pressed pavement seemed to soften.

I did all I could to keep the ride as smooth as possible. I gently eased up hills, and coasted down through valleys. I slowed before turns, and gently sped up over river bridges to absorb the concrete seams with the acceleration. And all the while, I kept my attention acutely focused. Split with equal parts on the road, and on my breathing. My intention was to create the most peaceful space for Herold. There was no telling when he might be afforded another armistice.

Though I did all this, I felt that there was something different I was supposed to be doing for him. But I didn’t know what. This feeling arose the same way the instinct to immediately pull over had arisen.  My little sister, who I was driving up to visit, sent me a text.

On your way?

Yup! Runnin’ a little late. Picked up a hitchhiker.

You did not!

I did.

I snapped a photo of my sleeping friend.

Ah. You did!

Climbing higher into the Appalachian Mountains, the winding roads tightened into steep slopes and switchbacks. Herold yawned, and peered out at the storm. We both marveled at the ancient rock outcroppings, flowing brooks and waterfalls.

“You ever been in this part of the world?”

“Never.”

“Yeah, me neither. I’ve been in North Carolina, but not up here.”

“You mind if I roll down the winda?”

“Not at all!”

He took the window all the way down and thrust his head into the rain. Flaring his nostrils, he took deep gulps of mountain air.  The rich smell of moss and pine and earth and rain washed over our faces and into our lungs. I felt purified. Pulling his head back inside, he looked at me, a genuine smile of satisfaction sprouting in the corners of his mouth.

“Sure is a lovely place up here.”

Civilization grew around us. A house here. There. Another. Two more. A dozen. An intersection. Stoplights. A coffee shop. Supermarkets.

The rain fell in buckets. The entire town of Boone was cloaked in curtains of water—the evening streetlights, illuminating the billions of drops that fell in glistening, uniformed sheets.

“When I was dreamin’ back there, I was gettin’ feelings that you pickin’ me up, its not at all coincidential. I can’t word it right.”

“I was kinda getting the same feeling, Herold. Hey how long you been traveling anyway?” The light turned red, and we stopped to allow coeds with umbrellas to splash their way through crosswalk puddles.

“To be honest. I’m not sure. I walked all through the night to keep warm. And seemed I walk most all day till you showed.” He pondered deeply and honestly. “Sixty miles. Maybe?”

I shook my head in disbelief. The light turned green, and we followed behind a rusting green garbage truck. Its fat tires sending up spray. My windshield wipers worked swiftly to clear away the film of oozing water.

“Sixty miles!? No wonder you…well your leg. I noticed it seemed to be giving you some trouble.”

“Just my knees really. I been walking for ‘bout two months now. Had nine rides so far. Ten when I count you.”

My mouth began to fall open, but I contained my shock. I’ve picked up many hitchhikers, and often they tell tales that immediately strike one as slightly less than honest. I never really judge. If you’re walking on the side of the road, clearly life isn’t being so kind. And if someone feels the need to contrive a colorful story, that’s fine by me. I say all this because not a single syllable from Herold struck me as insincere or invented. He was honest.

Then it hit me.

“Herold, what size jacket do you wear?”

“Regular, I reckon.” His white beard and mustache veiled any movement of his lips, and I almost though he answered telepathically.

“That’s what I thought.”

As per his request, I found a gas station with a large awning over the pumps, and a Subway restaurant inside. He said he had good luck finding rides at gas stations, and it would also give him a place to stay warm and dry. I pulled to a pump and cut the engine.

“Wait here a second.” I hopped out and opened the trunk. In the back, I grabbed my two jackets. A bright orange Marmot rain jacket the color of a traffic cone, and a navy blue down puffer jacket. Opening his door, I held them out like a salesperson at REI. “Hey, try these on.” After he stretched his legs for a beat, I helped him work his stiff elbows into both jackets. First the liner, then the shell. It was a perfect fit. “Now this one is gortex, so it’s gonna keep you dry from now on. And since it’s orange, it will keep you safer walking along these roads. Cause that’s kinda dangerous. Alright? And when you don’t need that liner, it balls up into a little stuff sack in the pocket. See? Just like that.” I smiled. So did he.

I slammed the door and we walked toward the entrance. Out of nowhere, curiosity came over me, and I stopped mid stride. It was coming from the same strange place. That same instinct that made me pull over hours earlier.

“Herold. How old are you?” I eyed him with playful suspicion.

A fat grin spread over his face, exposing his crooked teeth. His cheeks turned bright red.

“I’m sixty-one. Sixty-one today.”

“Today!? Are you fu— are you serious, Herold? Herold look at me! Today’s your birthday!!?”

He couldn’t contain himself any longer. His face was now as bright as that jacket. He released a warm bellowing gale of laughter.

“Herold! Happy birthday!” I threw open my arms and hugged him right there in the middle of the cars, and the pumps, and the people, and the rain. He stood their awkwardly with his arms at his sides for a moment, receiving this hug as one would expect a grown man would receive a hug from a stranger. But in an instant, he raised his arms and embraced me in a strong, Navy Corpsman bear hug. I stepped back and looked at him, gripping his skinny shoulders, holding him at arm’s length.

“Herold. Do you realize? These are your birthday presents!” I was so elated I was shivering. Partly due to the cold. But the energy of pure joy was almost overwhelming.

“I know. I was thinking that very same thing.”

Inside, I gave Herold one final handshake.

“You take care of yourself. Make sure you get yourself something warm. Meatball sandwich and a coffee or something.”

I got back in my car and worked my way into the yellow headlights of evening traffic. Pulling to the intersection, I sat at the red light—the windshield wipers beating a brisk tempo. One final time, that strange instinct seemed to take hold of my skull. It turned my entire head toward the gas station. Through the window I spotted Herold, sitting in a booth, hands folded in his lap. Why does he have no food? He has nothing to drink. Then it hit me. He never ate or drank anything the entire time he was in the car. Of course. He has no money!

I marched back into that gas station with such confidence and determination, one would have thought I was hotshot powerhouse attorney arriving late for deposition. One who just received damning evidence that would totally crush the opposition. Of course, I know nothing about law, and I’m not sure if that’s something that would actually happen, but that’s how I felt. I grabbed the handle of the door and swung it open with great force.

“Herold, you don’t have any money. I’m gonna give you some money. You’re gonna get yourself some water, and some food, and some coffee, and if you want, a bus ticket. And you can’t say no. It’s your birthday.” I rattled this all off in one breath, calling it over the rows of magazines, and candy, and chips as I strode, chest held high, down the center isle—straight toward the ATM.

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Everybody Must Tell It to the Ocean, At Least Once in their Life

 

“Baron’s the name,” he said, extending his hand. We shook. His hand was chubby, his fingers cold. The distance between us was just a couple feet of sand, but I felt he had been proffering this shake from half a mile away. In fact, that’s how far away he was when I first noticed him.

I had been watching him for a time as he slowly materialize out of the pre-dawn mist. He did not walk directly toward me at first, or at all really, but it did seem inevitable that we would exchange pleasantries once he was near enough. He, like I, had taken detours to inspect sea shells, seaweed, and crushed crustaceans.

Paper coffee cup in hand, I stood just within reach of the water. Having stowed my sandals under a log some ways back, my feet were bare and wet. The legs of my blue jeans were rolled up to the knee, but a couple unexpected surges of sea had soaked them anyway. I was scouting waves, looking for a break I could surf. My board and wetsuit were still in my car, this being a preliminary, pre-dawn survey.  The night was steadily slipping out to sea, but a couple pocket of darkness still hung in the branches. Beyond the sand dunes and sea logs loomed an old growth forest rich with green life. It was still a little before 6am.

Baron looked like a captain who had just disembarked from a Portuguese carack. Still hundreds of feet down the coast, he inadvertently became the focal point of my early morning survey. Though I kept my face toward the breaking waves, my eyes were now fully flanked to one side. Such was the tension, turning my eyes but not my head, that the nerves connected to the back of my eye balls burned with strain. For some strange reason, his gait fascinated me: the way his pregnant stomach worked its way out of his red captain’s coat, proudly leading the way. As he neared I noticed ivory buttons bordering his belly. The worn folds of his collar and lapel were a pale blue. He leaned back on his heels to balance the weight of his extruding gut. This had the effect of causing his neck and chest to tilt skyward with, what appeared to be, overly exaggerated bravado. Nearer still, I took in his white beard, white mustache, white eyebrows, and finally his short white hair that was hardly contained by his cream colored captain’s cap. A length of golden twine above the brim hung slack from a black anchor that was stitched above the short grey bill. It may have been black at one time, but years of sun and salt had long since bleached it to dirty seagull grey.

During his approach, the ocean and I were playing a game. It would try to rest a strand of seaweed on the top of my foot or around my ankle without me knowing. When I did finally notice, I would gently slip it off with my toes and drop it to the side. With my focus fully consumed by Baron, the ocean was winning. I glanced down to find it had fitted me with a pair of brown seaweed sandals.

Blue sweat pants with draw strings untied were the first evidence that Baron was not a sea captain. At least not one currently on the clock. They terminated abruptly just below the knee, exposing two powerful calves. His feet were housed in a pair of purple floral print slippers, each complete with a wet red bow. It was then I noticed he and the ocean were playing the same game. Wrapped around one of the sulking bows was a translucent green wisp of seaweed.

“The Indians probably thought this was a sacred place,” he said, hitching up his pants after we shook hands.

“I’d believe that. It’s unlike any place I’ve ever seen,” I remarked, nodding to the island one hundred yards distant. We both watched it for a moment. The tiny island stood high above the waves, masted by a dozen pine tree sails. The low fog giving it the appearance of a 16th century cutter sailing on a sea of clouds.

“You religious?” he asked.

“Not particularly.” I took a final sip of coffee. The cup was now empty. 

I wasn’t in the mood to wax philosophic, but I could sense the fight coming. A pointless battle of intellect. A hurling of words.

“I believe there is nothing more important than a man’s religion. Do you have a relationship with Jesus?” He took in a deep gulp of air, and awaited my response.

“I have great respect for the man, but I don’t worship him.” I said. He exhaled his disapproval. Suddenly, a gust blew in off the the ocean, as though a window had been thrown open, letting in an unseen storm. It snatched his hat from his head and stole my cup. We both turned up the beach to retrieve our belongings. Returning to the water, I continued, “I believe the most important thing a man can do is know himself. And that can only be done in the present moment.”

“So you haven’t accepted him as your lord and savior!” he asked. Raising his voice to compete with the wind.

“Nope!”

“You know, I was like you once. Stubborn. Thought the world owed me something,” he said as he repositioned his hat.

“I accept he had an important teaching.” I raised the empty cup to my lips, giving myself something to do, but feeling fake, like I was holding a prop. Like this was all fake. I still wasn’t sure where this conversation was going. Or why.

“In my book, anyone who knows Jesus but isn’t accepting him is being stubborn. Worship is an integral part of a relationship with Christ,” he said.

“Look, I find what he he said to be very enlightening–”

“Do you believe he is God’s son?” he said, cutting me off.

“Do you believe you are god’s son?” I shot back.

“I do. Do you?”

“Sure, what is God anyway? I definitely don’t know.” I admitted.

“God takes away the sins of the world through Jesus,” Baron said.  We were now walking side by side, down the beach. I’m not sure who began the walk, but it helped to alleviate the mind energy.

“Sin used to mean something entirely different. Sin was simply an archery term. If you loosed an arrow and missed the mark, you sinned. So you would sin left, sin right. No big deal, you simply readjust.” He was ready with a rebuttal as soon as I finished.

“Yes, but Jesus is the only one who can allow you to readjust,” he said.

“Look. I think first and foremost, he was a man, not a god. He was just like you, just like me. Otherwise, what good is his teaching? I think he was trying to tell people that to carry the mind made idea of guilt is a choice that need not be made. If I walk around lamenting about all the wrongs I feel I have committed, all the sins, I will never be present. I will be forever lost in thoughts of the past. Forever lost in guilt. Great for the industry of organized religion, lucrative for the church collection basket, but toxic for me. More and more, I find myself living very presently, very grounded in this present moment. A great peace comes with being present,” I explained, feeling like I was spouting forgery. 

“So all your sins just vanish then? What do you do about your past? Or are you perfect?” He inspected my furrowed brow out of the corner of his eye. A low wave rushed between our ankles, soaking our hairy shins.  

“The past, in reality, does not exist,” I shot.

“Of course the pasts exists!” he shot back.

“Yeah?” I stopped walking, “Show it to me!”

He stopped a couple steps after me, and spun to respond. Throwing his hands out, he began to yell something to the effect of, it exists in the Bible, but he was cut off by the roar of the frustrated ocean.

It grew, standing, rising on its hind legs. Showing itself, flexing its aqua-green chest, then releasing its weight, belly flopping onto its own mess of white sea foam. We continued yelling our words through the wind, but it was useless. As our argument surged, so did the waves. The ocean smashed every sentence. We were forced into obedient silence. We both smiled, insincerely.

After a time, we both relaxed. As did the waves.

“It exists in the bible,” he said, pointing to his palm. “And it exists in the word of God.” He pointed to the sky.

“So god is in the sky?” I asked. “Is god not in you? In me?”

He massaged the back of his neck, searching his memory. Then he spoke. “If you confess with your mouth, Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, then you will be saved.” Then he followed with, “Romans ten nine.”

“Saved from what?” I asked. And our squabbling continued. But as it did, I felt an incredible pain radiating throughout my entire body. All this talk of religion was throwing me into a weird intellectual agony. Even as I spoke, and he spoke, I felt the ache. In my knees, my spine, the side of my skull, behind my eyes.

He rattled off things he knew as fact. I spat out religious lines I had memorized, wisdom I’d read, poems by Rumi. None of it came out right. We were both lost in words. Oblivious to the beauty all around us. The forest, the beach, the ocean, the fog. All laid out before us. For us.

As I spoke, his eyes looked past me, over my shoulder. I watched his upper lip twitch in thought.  He was formulating his rebuttal before I had finished mine. Then as he spoke, I did the same. Shutting down my ability to listen. Lost in my thinking. Lost in past lessons I had learned, phrases I had read. I was constantly preparing for where the conversation would go next, never listening to where it was now. We might as well have been talking to a wall. At least the wall wouldn’t get caught in the trap of words and yell back.

Its irritation growing, the ocean pounded the beach with bruised blue fists. Wave after wave. Silence! Both of you! See how the mind has ensnared you both!

Again we refrained from speech and submitted, allowing the ocean to chorus.

Again it relaxed. Us.

Ignorance was not total. At times I realized my folly and I paused to breathe. To simply be. To watch a diving albatross, its span of wing collapsing just before it split the sea. At times, he did the same. We are very much alike, I thought. Though pride prevented the vocal admission.

After a time, we both gave up. We both resumed our place as two tiny men on an endless stretch of beach. Silent consciousness in the midst of a storming ocean.

Baron’s tense eyebrows softened. His gaze relaxed. I felt my shoulders loosen down my back. My fists opened, fingers hanging heavy as my arms swayed above the sand. I felt the rain hitting my face. I let a couple drops hit my tongue.

He released a gale of laughter. “Has it been raining this whole time?!” He asked, shooting me a huge, grandfather teeth smile.

“I think so! I didn’t even notice!” I answered, my face turning to the sky in gratitude.

“It’s–”

“It’s beautiful.” We both spoke the words at the same time. This made us both laugh.

A thought came to me but I did not speak it then. I simply observed it: Soon we will be the same. Cremated dust. White ash on the undulating surface of the ocean, then a noiseless white rain through fathoms of blue. Past a whale’s body. Down to the blackest depths, lightless black, and finally to the soundless floor. A mysterious landscape quieter than snow. We will be exactly the same. Still. The perfect peace of non-movement. Awoken maybe once in a decade by the passing specter of a deep-sea spirit. Unknown. Undiscovered. And before long we will be pushed deeper, intercalated. Pressed into microscopic fissures between the grains of sand we once walked on. Packed beneath fresh sediment. And then we will be the same thin thread of life. Diatomaceous earth.

We breathed in the salty air. The hint of pine. The humidity. The rain. We listened to the waves, the gulls. We stood in silence, two lovers of the moment. Not lost in it, but part of it. We had abandoned words. We were walking the razor’s edge of now.

He took a step back and opened his arms for a hug. “Can I pray with you?” he asked.

I smiled. “Sure.”

He shuffled his floral feet toward me, and threw his grizzly bear arm over my shoulder. I stuffed the coffee cup into the pocket of my hoodie, and he removed his cap. We were now facing a pile of ancient driftwood logs the size of sewers. This was unsatisfactory. We both felt it. This prayer needed to face the ocean. He manhandled me until we faced the surf. I tried to throw my hand up over his shoulder, but his back was too large. Splitting the difference, I rested my palm between his meaty shoulder blades.

“Dear lord, thank you for bringing me and my friend Zach together this fine morning, on this fine beach.” He paused, searching for the proper words, “In front of this fine ocean.”

I gave him a little pat, you’re doing fine.

“Lord, please protect him on his journey, and help him to share what he has shared with me this day. Help him to help your children Lord. He is a man with a message, and I know it will be heard.” He gave my shoulder a squeeze.

A sudden mammoth wave exploded in the distance. We watched as wave after wave barreled and broke on black rocks half hidden in the fog. His warm words churned into the frigid, sonorous surf and I couldn’t make them out anymore. This time the waves worked with us. An oceanic applause. A slamming liquid chorus. I turned my attention to my breath and body. The moment embraced us. Through my palm, I could feel the warm rumble of Baron’s benediction.

“Thank you, Zach.”

“Thank you, Baron.”

I implore you to stand toe to toe with the ocean and make your case. Take as much time as you need. Tell it how you know for a fact that Buddha said this, and Jesus did that, and Islam is this, and angels, and prophets, and hell, and heaven, and god, and time! Use those magic words our parents flung from books. With the spray of spit, tell it all. With the conviction we’ve spent lives constructing, tell it all. You must. Once in this life, try. If only once. So you too can feel what it’s like when the sea effortlessly rips apart every syllable before it even has a chance to gain shape in your own two feet.

The Oregon State Trooper

“You’ve got to have goals. Everyone has goals!” she insisted, looking at me through the steam of her cappuccino. She had been holding the tropical jungle mug in front of her freckled nose for some time now, turning over my comment in her mind. Her pale forehead creased with concern. 

She slipped a wisp of red hair behind her ear (the one with seven piercings), and took a sip, still examining me though her fogged glasses. “I mean, what about career, and getting a house, and family, and marriage, and kids?” She asked.

An elderly man in worn khaki overalls pressed his lips together and concurred with a loud country, “mmmm-hmmm.” Then he turned the page of his newspaper and shook the publication, working the folds back into alignment.

I shot him a curious glance, but he raised the print above his downcast eyes. They were green, I think.

On the maroon wallpaper behind him, a wooden plaque read No Coffee, No Workie. Old Idaho potato plates lined the cedar ceiling. 

“Ok,” I said, “my goal is to be present in this moment.” I set my pen down and returned my attention to my breath.

“That’s not a goal! You can’t have goals that happen now, you can only make them for the future.”

I smiled, hoping she just realized the truth she’d uttered. “Exactly!”

“Exactly what?” She was deeply worried I had no goals.

“I see the value in goals, but I also realize that they are just thoughts. If I’m always thinking about the future, I can’t be fully present now. Here. With you. And when the future arrives, I don’t enjoy it because I’m already thinking about another goal. It becomes an endless avoidance of now. Of reality.” A powerful sense of peace enveloped me.

This was all too much for her. She stood, zipping up her wet orange rain jacket. “My main concern is making sure I make a future I can be proud of. Thinking about now seems like just, I don’t know, lazy. I mean, who cares about now? It’s the future we need to worried about. Look at the news!” She threw her finger at a TV like a prosecutor pointing at the shiny murder weapon, but it was just a commercial for Dick’s Sporting Goods. The old man groaned out another mmm-hmmm and showed his eyes. Yup. Green. He also had big bushy eyebrows that began black, and quickly turned grey as they stretched toward his temples. I think he hated me. I kind of liked him. A warm soul wearing an angry-old-man costume. 

I thought I was confident in my convictions, but after she left the cafe, questions rushed in. What if she’s right? Maybe I’m making a huge mistake. Maybe I should end this road trip, get a normal 9 to 5, get the house, get the family.

It was like the universe had placed her here to test me, and I felt I had failed. Anxiety invaded my chest. My spine ached, and no chair twists could release the tension. My whole being was sore. I could use a massage.

Finding a place down the block, I walked in without checking reviews. Not a good call. The masseuse covered me with a thin cream blanket, and spent the next hour walking all over me. Literally.  I laid there as she rested her foot on my face and pressed it into the padded table. What the hell is going on? Is this what passes for a massage in Idaho? I felt like the dirty doormat of a busy corporate law office in Manhattan.

An hour later, I collapsed into my car, feeling horrible. It wasn’t even noon, and already I felt like I had been stepped on; figuratively and literally.

To make it worse, a friend who is checking my mail back in California sent me a text: your license was suspended. The DMV says they need proof of insurance. Sorry. 

Can this day get any worse? I did have insurance. As long as I didn’t get pulled over, things would be fine. I’ll mail in proof tomorrow.

__________________________

By the time I saw him, it was too late. Pulling off the highway, I slowed to a stop on the grassy shoulder. I rolled down the driver’s side window and smelled the road, wet with rain. He pulled in behind me, red and blue lights still flashing.

I pushed my face into my palms and massaged my eyelids. Really world?

He waited for the passenger window to roll down, then he squatted down, filling the open window with his blue State Trooper sombrero. “Do you know how fast you were going?”

My mouth hung slightly open, at a loss. The taste of fresh rain rested on my tongue. He looked just like me! Same age, same soft face, same jawline, same thickness of neck, and clean-cut military inflection of voice. I caught myself staring. “Sorry, yeah, I was going 78.”

“You know the speed limit is 70, right?” He pushed his head further into my car and looked at the mattress and heap of blankets in the back. The camp stove. The books on the bookshelf. “You livin’ in here?”

“Sort of. I’m on a road trip.” I released a sigh and let my shoulders slump.

He nodded, feigning approval. “Where’s the end goal?”

“I don’t really have one.” Normally this admission doesn’t bother me, but suddenly I felt a pang of deep embarrassment. Like a young orphan admitting he had no parents.

“Limit here is 70.”

“Thought it was 80. I apologize” I said.

“In Idaho. Not here.” He pulled out his yellow notepad, removed the red pen cap with his white teeth, and and scribbled something down. Grey blue eyes, just like mine. Weird.

“Wait. We’re not in Idaho?” I squinted at his badge. He said it aloud as I read: Oregon.

“You also changed lanes without signaling. Sit tight. I’ll be right back.”

I watched him in the rearview mirror as he ducked into his cruiser. He left the door open, one boot pinning down a clump of wet grass.  

My car was still. The engine off, the softest breath of rain-cooled air slipping across the highway, and across the back of my neck. Quiet rain drops gathered on the windshield until their weight carried them down in silent streaks.

He’s going to run my plates and see my license is suspended. Under the heavy weight of the day, I sunk deeper into my seat. Deeper into depression. 

But then a wonderful thing happened. I noticed my breath.

I watched it flow into my nostrils. I felt the exhale.

 

         The Inhale.

                              Exhale.

 

So what? So I get my car taken away. If it happens, it happens. Am I in harm? Not at all. In fact, I’m rather comfortable.

My attention buoyed to my breath, my mood gained buoyancy. A voice whispered in my mind. Everything is fine. As it should be.

       Zach.              

                                                  Meditate.

And so I did. Closing my eyes, I pulled my bare feet up onto the seat. Crossed my legs and rested my hands in my lap. For ten minutes I returned to the present moment, to the breath. Gradually I felt my anxiety dissolve. Before long, I was sitting in the warm glow of presence. Opening my eyes, I glanced back at the trooper. He took a swig from his water bottle, and continued speaking into his radio. I watched his mouth move. His eyebrows twisted up in thought.

I resumed my meditation, but this time I focused the good energy and intention toward him. I spread my peace out to him. Loving kindness meditation. I could feel it working.

I checked the mirror. Here he comes.

Looking to my passenger window, I waited for him to reappear. First I saw the brim of his wet blue hat, rain spilt off the front as it tipped down. Then his face, wet with sweat or rain (not sure which). He smiled, showing teeth, holding back a laugh. Something had changed. It was as though he had dropped the tough-guy Highway Trooper facade. No longer was he the authority figure. Suddenly, he was just a guy peeking into another guy’s car. And apparently he thought this was all pretty silly.

I smiled back, my eyebrows raised. Well?

“Ok,” he began, “So normally it’s like…” his voice trailed off with a gust of wind that almost took his hat with it. He laughed under his breath.

“With the speeding and the lane thing…and your license is, you know…suspended and stuff…” again he grinned, fighting back a laugh. I continued to watch his (my) blue eyes, my soul connecting with his (mine).

“Three hundred and eighty dollars is the fine…usually…but…” a snort laugh finally escaped out his nostrils, and he gave up. A gale of laughter left his belly. I laughed a little too. A pickup truck sped by, its hissing tires leaving two lines of chest-high spray. 

He peeked into my car one more time, as though he was looking for the magical stick of incense that was making him feel so good. Not finding it, he pulled back, tapped the top of my Toyota, and said, “Well, I guess…have a good day.” He handed me my license, got back in his car, switched off the lights, and drove off.

I just sat there a while. A huge smile spread across my face. I looked out at the peanut gallery of cows on the far side of the barbed wire. Did you guys just see that?! One mooed in confirmation, and resumed chewing.

 

 

 

Mountain Lion

It’s taken me days to even understand what happened that night. I like to ascribe meaning to experiences, believe there is reason behind each event. But this one left me baffled.

There was no time to stop. Maybe if it was still light out, I would’ve seen his back parting the tall grass. But the sun had set hours ago, the black night shrouded in thick fog.

I was going 50 mph when he cut across the two-lane highway. I swore, bare foot pumping the brake. The front of the car dipped, the rear bucked, tossing my backpack from the trunk, through the tense empty air of the cabin, into the waiting arms of the windshield. Wheels locked. Hot rubber smearing asphalt. It was too late.

The hollow thud on the front bumper instantly sucked my stomach up behind my ribs as images of the bloody mutilation under my feet washed over me. The car continued to skid for another 20 meters before coming to a halt.  

No! No! No!

I pushed away from the steering wheel and threw myself back into the seat. Fuck!

Silence.

Waves pounded the shore somewhere in the darkness. The thick ocean fog seeped through the tall grass, floated past the headlights, and continued off to the right, flooding the forest. Tired and defeated, I stared through the windshield, focusing on nothing in particular.

A sick sadness crept up my esophagus and infected my chest. I didn’t want to see what I’d done. Hopefully he died quickly.  

Backing up, my headlights caught his body. He was resting in the center of the road, two yellow lines running under him. I crept forward, following the road reflectors burning sacrificial orange. 

I pulled up next to him, his body suddenly cast in shadow.

Before I knew what was happening, I’d taken a knee next to his body, my fingers instinctively stroking his neck. He was perfectly intact. No blood. Nothing broken. It was almost unbelievable. Is he stunned? Unconscious? He rested like the Great Sphinx of Giza, head erect above his paws. Beginning at the crown of his massive head, I combed down his wide, muscular neck. The pads of my fingers moving through his hair, coarse and thick like a tan boot brush.

His body rivaled mine, easily weighing at least 180 pounds. One front paw almost covered the yellow line that split the road. As though he had snatched the unruly yellow ribbon out of the night and was pinning it to the ground. Each vertebra hummed as I gently ran my palm down his large spine and his sides. Feeling the warmth of his back, the way his coat pulled taut over his ribs as he inhaled the cool fog, exhaling humid breath.

I caressed his back for a minute or so, but each second was slowed. We were one with the moment. He shifted his weight slightly, bowing his head each time to receive my hand, pushing back into it as I scratched his cheek.

Up the Oregon road, the glow of an approaching car. I stood and turned to the light, shielding him, his body at my bare heels.  The car slowed, then passed, leaving us in silence. In that brief second of the passing car, thought surged back online.  I need to get him into my car. I need to get him to an animal hospital. How will I lift him? Where will I fit him?

As if reading my thoughts and disliking them all, the cougar suddenly stood and turned his large green-yellow eyes to mine. They were lined in heavy black.  A male cleopatra. We examined each other. He twitched his freckled pink nose, and looked behind me into the darkness. Eyes narrowing, he sprung past. I spun and watched as he darted up the road, his powerful shoulders rocking and swaying. Like a warrior in a fur coat. My mouth hung open in dumbfounded awe.
Reaching the top of the hill, he sat back on his hind legs, and looked at me for a long moment. I hear something. The soft hush of an approaching car whispered through the fog. We turned our heads toward the sound. And with that, he stood and disappeared into the forest.

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Dear Mom

Dear Mom,

What I’m experiencing on this road trip is beyond incredible. I don’t know if it’s angels or spirits, God or brahmins, or some unseen universal energy. But something powerful is surging through me. My whole being is electrified, and I feel enveloped in a ocean of guidance and protection.

I need only think of what I require, and it seemingly appears. As if by magic, people walk into my life at just the right moment, offering the exact advice I need to continue my journey. I don’t even have to ask.

Following the counsel of a kind Vietnam vet, I will be camping in the Redwood Forest for the next week. Cell service does not exist there, but I will call as soon as I emerge.

The trees there are some of the tallest and oldest in the world! I look forward to communing with them in silent meditation. 

Also, I just received an invitation to a wedding in Kolhapur, India! So my road trip may turn international next month. We will see.

Oh! And last night, alone on Highway One, I met a wild mountain lion and stroked its back!

            Stories to come.

                              Love you,

                                                          zach

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The Goddess Of San Francisco

There is no sun in San Francisco today. Only a mute white ceiling of soft clouds above the bus wires. As though a giant mother standing in the Pacific, with feet the size of trolley cars, unfurled a white bed sheet into the sea salt wind. Taking hold of its cotton edges, obedient winds then pulled it taut over Bernal Heights, over Alcatraz, over the two towers of the Golden Gate Bridge (which should really be named the Red Rust Bridge on account of its scabrous surface). So large is this sheet that it comfortably insulates the entire city. Satisfied with the fit, she then layered on another and tucked it under.

From the cafe window, the one with the jungle of tiny potted trees on the sill, I watch a young man pace the Geary Blvd sidewalk in oiled leather shoes. He holds his phone like he’s trying to catch any crumbs that may fall from his well trimmed beard. “I’m just pumped to make something that’s successful! I only do success!” He barks the words directly at my unkempt hair, but I suspect he is just yelling at the pane of glass that separates us.

Spinning, he inspects a yellow fire hydrant. Then he throws the heel of his shoe up on the nipple of the hydrant and scrapes off a wet chunk of dog shit. Satisfied, the man lifts his gaze to an approaching Uber. His impatient brown eyes inspect the sky as he ducks into the back seat.  “Look. I won’t be happy until-”  The Uber driver with the bluetooth ear piece slams the Escalade door. The black door flashes white as gloss catches light.

Until when, I wonder.

As the barista passes, I ask, “Where is the most spiritual spot in San Francisco?”

“The Mission,” blurts the barista. Her conviction surprising even herself.   

My phone vibrates. The coffee surface ripples. A message from Tim: “My place in the Mission in SF is empty until Aug 14 if you want to use. Let me know?”

That was fast, I thought.

Within hours, I am in the middle of the Mission with my new friend (and Tim’s roommate) Dani. She has volunteered to hand out toothpaste, granola bars, socks and soap to the homeless and I have agreed to help.

For an hour, we walk the streets in the Tenderloin, handing out granola bars and sidestepping dehydrated puddles of pork grease and urine. Turning a corner, an elderly woman with a crooked back catches my eye. I approached her, stepping through the warm steam of a sewer vent, and entering the pocket of perfumed air under the pale flowers of an Acacia tree. She smiles, as though expecting my arrival. Her thin lips pull back to reveal soft pink gums. No teeth.

We began with introductions. Though I forget the words we used. Words didn’t matter all that much. She was beyond words, really.

She electrified the air.

Her squinty blue eyes were so alive with joy, I began to second guess my assumption that she was actually without a home. As if reading my thought, she reassured me.

“Been living out here for 22 years now.” She pointed to a small silver lamp on a white blanket turned grey with grease. “I found it and cleaned it up. Isn’t it beautiful?”

I agreed it was a lovely find.

She reached to my side and took my hand. “Come closer. Come look. It was so dirty when I first saw it, but it just took a couple wipes.” She laughed to herself as she plucked up the lamp and admired the metamorphosis.

I stayed with her a time. Listening to her eyes. As I did, her exterior shell of a body dissolved. I could see her. Not the soiled sweater, not her cracked leather cheeks. I could see her. The pure mind, the consciousness that lived clean and untouched, deep behind the blue fog of her milky retinas. After a time, we said our goodbyes. I excused myself with a slight bow, and released her hand.

_______________________________________

The eye is a galaxy. The pupil, a black hole. That tiny black sphere is a sun. There, the colossal concentration of energy is so massive that not even light can escape its gravity.

Yet, if you look deeply, you can feel it.

There is no sun in San Francisco today, I thought. But I was mistaken. I am walking among a city of suns.

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Sacramento Church Bells

This morning I woke up at 3 am. In my car, of course. Lifting the curtain I peered out. The street was lined with a dozen semi-trucks, all with engines rumbling. This was quite a calamitous change from the previous three nights I spent high in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

I released the curtain and if fell back into place. That’s when I heard an inner voice. Zach, it’s time to get out of here. Head north. Go meditate.

And that’s exactly what I did. Because when you are on a road trip with zero plans, you listen to inner voices. Or you listen to loud engines. Choices people.

About an hour north of Annoying Truck Street, I found a beautiful park absolutely dripping with trees. And there I began my first of two daily hour meditations. Technique: Vipassana. With a little Anapana sprinkled in.

This morning was the first time I meditated in the front seat of my car. I started in the driver’s seat, legs crossed, hands in lap. But I quickly realized the passenger seat would be more appropriate. The last thing I need is to cloud the atmosphere of the driver’s seat with meditative thoughts resulting in the possible headline: “Former Army Ranger turned Meditator Zen-ed off the Road. Into a Tree. He died peacefully. In a violent way.”

I admit, a couple times I drifted close to sleep, and was snapped back to awareness when my neck realized that my head was about to smack the dash. Thanks for lookin’ out neck. Apparently my neck likes to wait till the very last second before sounding the alarm. He’s a jokester like that.

One hour completed, I crawled back into bed to catch a 30 minute nap.

Then began a rapid fire, do-whatever-feels-right-run-around-town-day, consisting of walking, then running around the capitol building. Leaping over a bush. Turning. Leaping back over. An attorney on her lunch break was impressed. Twice. Then I realized I was inflating my own ego hurtling foliage, and I ran away.

There was a line of a thousand protesters in matching yellow shirts holding matching yellow signs. I ran along side them, catching smiles from mothers who quickly caught their sudden slip of happiness, and returned to angry chanting. Then I ran past a group of Chinese students. At the helm of their gaggle was a clean cut man, sweating in his button up white shirt and blue tie, absentmindedly holding aloft a small banner with Chinese characters. I had no idea what it said, but I think it was something to the effect of: “First group best group.”

That afternoon, as I wandered through parks, and quaint neighborhoods the thought came to my mind, it’s 102 degrees. I should sell that heavy leather jacket I have in my car! No sooner did the thought enter my mind than a sign appeared. Literally a sign: We buy your clothes!

“This is too easy,” I thought.

I walked into Freestyle Clothing Exchange with a jacket, and out with jean cut-off shorts. The song of rich, clanging church bells greeted me upon my exit. Sensing the residual musical echo in my chest, I was keenly aware of a subtle spiritual quality to the tone. I should meditate. The bells are reminding me.

If the bells could talk (which I think they can) they would have said, “Hey Zach, it’s great and all that you’re running around this beautiful town, touching trees, smiling at angry mothers, and getting your exercise. But you can’t take fitness with you when you die. You can take the spiritual progress you gain in this earthly existence. So how bout you meditate. (I know, bells are wordy.)

Thanks bells.

Not knowing the location of the bell tower, I simply walked toward the lingering notes still dripping off the eaves of the grand, century-old California houses. With no effort, I found the church. The doors were locked, but I continued on as though a hand were guiding me. Almost on autopilot, I made my way around the side of the church and into an unassuming wooden door. I paused for some reason and checked my watch: 3:16. Interesting. No less than the most important passage in the bible. In my opinion, Jesus and Buddha are the tops. And when you get little pointers from either of them, you best listen up.

In I walk. An older woman with a halo of frizzy blonde craziness greets me. Bonnie.

“Do you mind if I sit in the chapel for an hour? I promise not to make any noise.”

She looked me over. I was wearing cut-off jean shorts, a NASA t-shirt, and a flip-flops.“It’s hot in there,” she cautioned. I smiled. 

She glanced at a side entrance to the chapel, then back once more to me. “Come on,” she said.  

Baptist Church in Sacramento

First Baptist Church, Sacramento

Some religious buildings, have good vibes, strong vibes. Some don’t. It has little to do with the religion, and all to do with the people, the human beings, that have filled the space. This empty closed-on-Wednesdays Baptist Church, tucked in between the cars and houses and Sacramento trees. It was vibing. Strong.

I finished my second hour of the day, emerged refreshed, thanked Bonnie, thanked Sacramento and left.

Now I’m headed to the coast. An old friend informed me that a wise monk is visiting in Mendocino. And if there’s a monk in Mendocino, by God, I’m driving to Mendocino.