Warning: this is a long one. But it’s worth it.
September, 2010: stranded at the junction between 395 and 58, still 200 miles from Arizona. The junction had three gas stations, a Burger King, a motel, and nothing else. At least 50 miles of uninterrupted desert stretched away in all four directions. I’d spent the previous night a few hundred miles north, huddled beside an emergency fire for ten hours until the sun rose to ease the below-freezing temperatures that I had not packed adequate gear to survive. I caught a few rides down to the junction, and then failed to hitchhike from there east into Arizona. I sat on my bag at the side of the highway with my thumb up and my head pounding, exhausted, sunburned, homesick, fatigued. As I halfheartedly thrust my thumb towards the endless steam of truckers and motorists, daylight fading, I actually started to receive negative responses for the first time on the journey. One driver flipped me off. Another glared at me and brushed his hand away in disgust and disapproval. It was starting to get cold again, and I realized I left my jacket in the last car that picked me up.
* * *
When I leave Sara’s house in Woodland Hills, I decide to head east via this junction. Returning here feels almost like pilgrimage. I sit in the warmth of my car outside the gas station I had wandered in and out of during the night the last time I was here. Later I wander around to the Burger King where I sat and wrote, the curb where I talked to the bums who lived there, and the spot where I spoke on the phone to Cara as she reassured and inspired me for almost an hour. I sleep in the car tucked away behind the motel, and in the morning I stand on the side of the highway exactly where I stood four months ago attempting to catch a ride.
Next stop: Barstow, 30 miles east. I’m going to retrace my route into Arizona. Barstow is a place that I have never heard a single positive word about, from either residents or travelers. I had my ride drop me off at the Greyhound station; I was about ready to abandon my journey. But a bus to Albuquerque cost $136, so I ended up walking to the edge of town and finding a spot by the on ramp to Highway 40, where I would ultimately be stuck for six hours. I stopped at a Starbucks in the middle of town before I headed to the on ramp, and I return there now. I was in a bad place last time I was here, I recognize as I sit in my idling car staring at the coffee shop.
There’s a guy sitting at one of the outside tables, lounging in the sun with a cup of coffee, a Chihuahua, and a cardboard sign that says Kingman (an Arizona city 200 miles east on Highway 40). He notices me watching him, and we exchange nods. I join him after buying a coffee. He’s been on the road for almost a year, he’s coming from the California coast, and he’s trying to get to Kingman and then on to Colorado, Florida, and North Carolina to visit family. He’s been stranded here in Barstow for a day and a half. “But I never worry, man. Things always come. I always have what I need. Don’t always have what I want, but always what I need.”
I am interested in this guy and his methods. He doesn’t have any money and he doesn’t seem concerned about anything. He isn’t even standing out at the road hitchhiking—the guy is drinking coffee and lazily pointing a cardboard sign at people. And it’s working.
I figure that if ever there was a time and place for me to repay what has been given to me, it would be helping someone get out of Barstow. “They call me Dot,” he says as we load up the car. His bag goes in the back, and the Chihuahua sits up front on his lap. When we loop up around the on ramp onto 40, I slow down and take a long look at that stretch of pavement that was mine for those six hot frustrating hours.
We talk and drive. I quickly discover that this guy is 20 and thinks he knows everything. He reminds me of me. He talks about humility, love, and peace, but he doesn’t really seem to consistently embody those qualities. At the same time, some of the things he says are right on. Everything is well thought out, even if the logic is questionable. He has been living on the road for a year, so I ask about his methods for finding food, shelter, friends. He doesn’t seem interested in mine, so I don’t bother sharing. If he wants to be the teacher, I’ll let him. “The first thing you need is patience,” he tells me. “Patience. You have to know that everything you need is going to come to you sooner or later.” “Another tip,” he says later. “Always store your markers point down.”
“You need gas?” He asks. I check the gauge. “I’ve got about a half tank. I guess I shoulda filled up before we left Barstow.” “Don’t trip,” he says. “I can get us free gas.” “How are you going to do that?” “We’ll just gas jug.” “Gas jug?” “Yeah. Just stand near a gas station and hold up an empty jug and someone will buy us gas.”
We pull off the highway two exits later and park next to a Chevron station. The Chihuahua runs free while we stand there with the gas can. Dot makes eye contact with everyone who drives into the station, and he mumbles unintelligible slews of words. “To catch their attention,” he explains, “and to make them wonder what I’m saying.” Within ten minutes, a bearded guy in a pickup truck motions us over. He drives away as we slip the nozzle into our jug, and we get about $5 worth before the pump cuts off. If this rate is consistent (and Dot assures me it is), we could get $30 worth of free gas in an hour.
I’m curious about this kid, and he is more than happy to answer my questions as we continue east. He didn’t graduate high school, but he’s got a GED and plans to take two years of community college classes in philosophy. He plans to travel abroad in the next few years. He wants to walk the Silk Road, 4,000 miles from Northern China to Istanbul. “How are you gonna pay for the ticket?” “I’m not. I’m gonna work my way onto a cargo ship.” I nod. Home? “I got the road under my feet and the sky overhead. I am home right now,” he says. “And at night, I’ve got my tent, my sleeping bag, and my space heater.” “You’ve got a space heater?” He points to the dog. “What about your family? Where are they? How do your parents figure into all of this?” “They live in Texas. Let’s just say my dad was an ex marine who beat the fuck outta me every night. And my mom never did anything about it except keep me from going to therapy when I needed it. I never want to see them again. The only person in my family I talk to is my brother.” “What about—you said you’re trying to visit family in Colorado and Florida?” “Well, I’ve got people there, they’re not family, but they’re family, you know?” He tells me about a loose organization known as the Rainbow Family. They’re a community of people—travelers, bums, anyone—who care about peace and love in the world. He recites a few Rainbow mantras and explains that he’s trying to get to a Rainbow Gathering that’s taking place in Ocala in February. “How does someone become a Rainbow?” I ask. “Do you have a belly button?” “I do.” “Then you’re a Rainbow. Or you can be if you want to.”
I offer him some of the food I have in my back seat, and instead he passes me a pop tart and a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. “Another tip: always carry peanut butter.” “Always carry peanut butter?” “Yeah. You can live off nothing but peanut butter and dark chocolate for 6 months.”
“Tell me more about the ways you get food.” I’m working on developing a careful strategy of going into the right restaurants, grocery stores, and bakeries at the time of night when they are about to throw out unused food. I have put a decent amount of time and energy into developing this technique. When I ask about his methods, he just sort of shrugs. “It always comes. You know what spanging is?” “Spanging?” “Yeah. Spange. Asking for spare change.” He tells me about the chicken dinner someone gave him last night. He can supposedly make $5 to $10 in ten minutes of spanging ($30 to $60 an hour, which is a hell of a lot more than I’ve ever made at a job). “It helps having a dog,” he says. I did notice that as we walked through Barstow earlier before hitting the road, girls kept coming up to us. “Awww what a cute dog!” I almost laugh thinking how easy it would be. (“Yeah, you can pet my puppy. P.S. could you pleaaase spare a couple bucks for some dog food? Fido is hungry.”)
Basically, Dot gets everything he needs from other people. The term is spanging, not panhandling. It also comes out that he has $198 worth of food stamps at his disposal right now. I have no idea how stable and steady the food and money really are, but it’s clear that he’s not wanting or hurting for anything. He tells me stories about gas jugging up and down California with his buddy, spanging for food, cigarettes, pot, and whatever else. I ask how long he plans to keep traveling for. “My whole life, dude.” “Really? You don’t think you would ever want to settle down, have a family, even long in the future?” “Nope. I mean yeah, it’s a hard life. But the harder the life you live, the more wisdom you get. And my goal in life is to gain the wisdom to use the knowledge that I have.”
Alright, I think I’ve heard enough. Now I’m wondering what this guy is gonna have to say about the problems with these ideas that people have pointed out to me. “Ok,” I say as we roll the windows up. “So let me ask you a question.” He nods. “We are travelers. And as travelers, we rely on the generosity of others. The way I see it, there are two kinds of giving. The first kind is a mutual exchange: we get rides or food from people who like to give, and it makes them feel as good as it makes us. They offer us a ride, and we offer them our presence and our stories, and that’s enough. The second kind is different: it’s when we expect to get something for nothing. Once, a person described it to me as ‘leeching off of society.’ And the way I understand it, using food stamps (just because we don’t want to work) or asking people for money would both fall into this category. So, how can you justify this kind of a lifestyle?
The question mildly surprises him. I’m a bit surprised myself. “Well,” he says. “As for the food stamps. The role of the government is to provide for the people.” He talks about the granaries of the Renaissance, how the government used to distribute food. He mentions some social programs in other countries that are nonexistent in the US. “And I hate the government,” he continues. “I hate the US government with an intense, burning passion. So I’ll take anything from them that I can. The government fails in so many areas, but its role is to provide. So by using food stamps, I am using the services that the government is supposed to provide.”
This is good. I like what he has said. He is intelligent, philosophically oriented, and has spent a decent amount of time thinking about why he’s doing what he’s doing. He could have easily just said “fuck the government, I’m trying to stick it to the man,” and we would have nothing to talk about. But this is going to be interesting.
“Ok,” I say. “Yeah. But that’s only half of the equation. If the government is supposed to provide for the people, the people are supposed to contribute to society in order to reap those provisions.”
“I am contributing to society.”
“By taxing the people.”
“What does that mean?”
“Well, we live in a society of excess. The way I contribute to society—the rich are too rich, and they are just getting richer and richer. And in general, the more you have, the less happy you are. When you have only what you need, you want less and less because you realize you don’t need it. So, when people have way more than they need, I use the excess. I live a lifestyle of simplicity with only what I need.”
“So you are a force towards balance in this society of excess? Your contribution is inherent in your lifestyle?”
“Yes! That’s it. It’s all about balance. And those rich people aren’t using these food stamps, the other services that the government provides for us. So I use them. These services are meant for people like us.”
“Ah, I see. The problem is, you choose not to work. Even though we are intelligent and young and good with people and either of us probably COULD get a job easily. What makes you think those government services are for people like us, man? Don’t you think they are for people like, single moms working three jobs and still struggling to pay the bills?”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
“And dude. Even if I agree with you, that it might be possible to consider a lifestyle to be a contribution to society, that’s not how the system is set up. The way the system works, a ‘contribution to society’ means an economic contribution in a traditional sense. Meaning, you work and pay taxes. And in that sense, we are NOT contributing to society. So, what would you say if someone asked you—basically, if we aren’t contributing to the government, then why—”
“—should we expect the government to contribute to us?”
I shrug. “Yeah.”
“If someone asked me the question like that…I would say…I have to think about it. And then I’d think about it for a minute to give them also a minute to think about what they just asked.”
“Take your time.”
He thinks for a minute. “Dude, really the only reason I have food stamps is because of my brother.”
I raise an eyebrow.
“My brother wanted me to get them. Look, I don’t like taking handouts, dude. I could be on welfare, but I’m not. I haven’t been to doctor since I was 12. My teeth are rotting out of my head.” (Indeed, they are.) “My spine is twisted.” Something about a knee bone growth the size of a shooter marble. “I have a burned retina in my right eye, I’m going deaf in my left ear, from all the drugs I’ve done, my taste and smell are mostly gone, and I have mild manageable schizophrenia. But I haven’t been to a doctor because I don’t like taking handouts. So about the food stamps, I’m probably not going to have them next month, anyway. I think I’m gonna go off them. I don’t really need them, it’s just that right now I’m going to new city that I’ve never been before and I don’t know what it’s gonna be like.”
I could nail him to the wall with this. And we haven’t even gotten to the spanging. So you won’t take handouts to take care of your body and mind, but you have no problem asking people for money for alcohol, cigarettes, and drugs? Where is self-respect in all of this? What about your responsibility to yourself? How can you just let your teeth rot? Have you thought about what this is probably doing to your mom? You say your lifestyle is your contribution, but how do you think you make people feel when you ask them for money? You call yourself a Rainbow and you talk about love and peace, but what are you doing to bring love and peace into the world?
Instead, I let it go.
We pop over the crest of a hill, and the city of Needles fills the desert valley below us. I’m gonna let him out when we get into town, because I’m not sure which way I’ll head from here. He asks if I want to come with him all the way to the Rainbow Gathering in Florida. “I normally give people respect right off the bat,” he says. “I start in the middle, like a 3 or 4, on a 7 point scale. And you’re up to 6. So it would be cool to keep traveling together, if you wanted to go.”
I thank him but decline. He asks me to take him through Needles to the far edge of town.
When I pull off the highway, we see two other travelers trying to catch rides out. As soon as we get out of the car, they wave and call out to us. “You guys look like Rainbow kids.”
I part with Dot at the edge of Needles. He thanks me for the ride, and I thank him for the conversation. He’s with the other two travelers talking about freight hopping and catching rides and the Rainbow Gathering as I walk back to my car.
* * *
I drive slowly through Needles, my mind racing. Yes, this guy reminded me so much of myself. But you know what? There is a huge difference between him and me. I am nothing like him anymore. This guy is so fucking young! I feel like an old wizened geezer. I’ve thought about this stuff over and over again. And I used to agree with almost everything he was saying. Dot represents a clear perspective—the one shared by most of the homeless travelers I’ve met. But the more I have thought about it, the less I agree with it. Maybe this means I’m not a true bum. But I also disagree with many of the values held by mainstream society. So I don’t know what this means. I don’t know what I am.
He was saying exactly the same things that I was saying a couple years ago—before people started pointing out the flaws in my logic and the hypocrisy in my ideas. It’s so dangerous, the potential for self deception. Dot and I are both intelligent, well thought-out individuals. We could easily just say fuck the government; I’m smarter, so I can cheat the system. But, like all the traveling bums I have met, including and especially myself, we do not think of ourselves as cheating the system. We come up with elaborate justifications for what we do, because this lifestyle is not morally wrong in our eyes. We actually believe in what we are doing, and we choose not to see the holes in our logic and arguments. And we are so goddamn open minded that as soon as anyone challenges us, we get defensive and judgmental. Not because we aren’t open to criticism—of course we are—but because the criticism is wrong. (So we think.) This lifestyle is the right one, the only true way to live.
My last question to Dot—if we aren’t contributing to society, then why should we expect society to contribute to us—I’ve taken it way further, and I have an answer to that. I didn’t give them to him, but I can answer it. We are justified in so many ways. The system is broken, so it is our civic duty to circumvent it in whatever way we can. Society is plagued by evil, driven by money, and responsible for the destruction of the planet. We want love and peace, so to take advantage of the system and exploit its weaknesses is more than justifiable. It’s ok for us to use food stamps, finagle our way onto welfare, to “use the excess,” for this reason: so that we can then use our intelligence and love for something greater in this world. Once food is taken care of—instead of toiling 40 hours a week like all these other suckers, we can accept free food from the government (stealing would also be tolerable and indeed encouraged, as long as it’s from huge faceless corporations)—we bringers of the light can then use our time for something good in the world such as a full-time devotion to music, art, poetry, and other acts of loving creativity.
Yeah, these used to be my answers, some time ago. But you know what? This is bullshit. And I am finally coming to understand why.
The problem is this. When a conscious individual justifies stealing a candy bar by deploring the unethical corporation that manufactures the food, there are two sides to the dynamic: the “yielder” (the Man) and the “taker,” for lack of better terms. In this example, Nestle Corporation would be the yielder, and the guy who steals the candy bar is the taker. (This is simplified; there are others affected as well, but I’m trying to boil it down.) In general, when the yielder is a large corporation or the U.S. government, I do not have a problem with harming the yielder. In fact, I strongly agree with using nonviolent civil disobedience to disrupt the activities of corrupt corporations and immoral government programs. If a tobacco company were to lose billions in lawsuits, an oil company in reparations, or a corporation in amends, I would not be upset. (Right now I won’t go into why I dislike multinational corporations—things like the fact that the size of a company like Starbucks enables it to crowd out small local coffee houses, perpetrate corporate crime, facilitate international genocide, and all the while offer cheap coffee and deceive patrons into believing the company is actually socially conscious. Suffice it to say that if a Starbucks delivery truck crashed and a thousand $15 mugs were shattered, I wouldn’t feel bad for Starbucks’ loss.) However: just because I take no moral issue with exploiting the yielder, the problem is this: I cannot be the taker. Not out of respect for the corporations or government I would take advantage of (steal from, abuse privileges granted by, etc.) but out of respect for myself and who I want to be. I would not feel bad if Nike lost the profits from a pair of shoes, but that does not mean I can justify stealing the shoes. Even if I steal the shoes for the best of reasons—because I do not support sweatshop labor, unethical practices, multimillion dollar corporate bonuses, human trafficking—the hypocrisy is this: if I steal the shoes, then I am a thief.
We can despise the government and corporate society, but if we at the same time use their services, then what do we become? We can talk about loving peace, but if we do not work to bring peace into the world, then what do we become? We can despise the gross excesses of the rich, but if we beg for money and upset the people who see us, what do we become? It’s like being intolerant of people who are intolerant.
Does this mean that we actually do have a responsibility to contribute to society? I don’t know. I don’t think so. Some people say yes, and plenty of admired activists and great thinkers have said the opposite: it is in fact immoral to contribute to an unjust society like ours. So I think for now, it’s ok to at the very least abstain from making that decision. But if I want to be part of society, then I must be part of society. If not, then not. The problem, the hypocrisy, lies in shunning the responsibilities yet accepting the benefits.
Food stamps and stealing aside, what about begging for change? I’m not harming anybody, I’m not enjoying the benefits of a system to which I refuse to contribute, and nobody has to give me anything if they don’t want to. So is there a problem with asking others for money? Yeah, I think there is. To me, the issue lies in my simultaneous desire to spread positivity in the world. Yeah, I could get people to give me money. But, unlike a situation in which a friend offers a couch or a friendly stranger offers a ride, people are uncomfortable with being panhandled. They give not out of love but out of guilt. If I were to beg for money, interacting with me would not make people feel good, whether they decided to give or not. So, because I am trying to find a way of living that brings positivity to the world, I cannot justify asking people for money. This is my answer, not the answer. If you can get people to give you money and you want to live that way in order to further your own personal happiness, then I am unconvinced that to do so would be morally wrong. But that isn’t what I’m trying to do.
So: do we have a responsibility to contribute to society? I don’t know. Is it morally wrong to live the way Dot is living? I don’t think so. Maybe, but I think it would be a lot more wrong (and a lot more socially acceptable) to be the CEO of Starbucks. So no, I don’t think what Dot is doing is morally wrong. However, is there still a huge inherent hypocrisy in the lifestyle? Yes. Can we ignore it? Yeah, sure. Be happy even? Definitely. But can we deeply, soundly justify what we are doing? No. I do not believe we can.
Whew. Ok. If this is a lot to read and process, imagine what I’ve gone through working it out and writing it. I’m almost done.
So: how is what I am doing different? (If it actually is different at all, which it might not be.) I think it’s pretty clear from my lifestyle (decision to travel indefinitely, refusal to get a job, etc.) that I don’t want to be a part of society, at least not in the traditional sense. So, what am I trying to do, and how much further do I have to go from where I am now?
I want to understand exactly what it means to be part of society. I do know that one major element of social participation has to do with making and spending money. I think that we generally accept this as a necessary evil. I do accept it as an evil (doing things many of us don’t want to do in order to get the money, then spending it and unintentionally funding activities that are at best unethical and at worst murderous) and I do not accept it as necessary. Another element of social participation has to do with being part of a community. I do want to be part of the human family. I am trying to minimize the negative impact I have on the world. I am trying to maximize the positive impact I have on the world. I am trying to minimize the hypocrisy in my lifestyle: I want to live honestly. I want to seek wisdom. I want to be happy. I want to love.
So, how do I apply these abstract ideas to the life that I am trying to create? What am I actually trying to do?
I am trying to find or create a new way of living and traveling that allows me to minimize the negative impact I have on the world while maximizing the positive impact I have on the lives of the people I encounter. (Wow. That sounds like a mission statement if I’ve ever heard one.) This lifestyle (or perhaps it would be more accurately called an experiment), involves seeing if it is possible to live without money while still living in relative comfort (meaning always having a place to sleep but not in soft beds every night, always (or almost always) having enough to eat, surrounding myself by love, etc). It involves living off the excess and living off the generosity of people, yet doing so without being a burden to society. Not because society can’t take the weight, but because I don’t want to be a burden. I am learning how to eat free food that would have been thrown away otherwise. I do not see a moral problem with taking advantage of this kind of excess. I also do not see a problem with the first type of generosity we discussed – when people are happy to give. But I cannot justify begging for money. (In this past month, money has actually been offered to me quite often, for nothing, and I have always declined. I walked into a donut shop to see if they had day-old donuts they’d give away, and a guy offered me $2. I thanked him profusely but said no. However, if he had offered to buy me food and share a meal and conversation together, I would have said yes.) And while I’m not directly panhandling, I also do accept money from people who smile and pay me for playing guitar on the street. To me it seems acceptable, because I am offering something (music) in return.
I am in a strange, delicate situation. I don’t know where this is going. I don’t know what I’m getting myself into. I don’t know of anything like this that has been done before. I don’t know what this journey will evolve into. Am I creating something new and beautiful, or am I straddling a line between two lifestyles, not fully engaged in either? Am I pushing my own personal accountability to a new level, or am I just weaving a hell of a deeper fabric of self deception? Is what I’m doing actually different from what I’ve criticized Dot and my past self for, or am I just elaborately justifying an unsound idea?
One thing is for sure: talking to this kid has helped me realize that I am way more confident in my beliefs than I ever have been before. I’m not just haphazardly stumbling around the country. I am trying to live in an incredibly deliberate, well thought-out, extensively justified, purposeful way, even if I have yet to perfectly embody it. (Of course I love the irony: this is all internal, whereas externally, I do not know what city or indeed even what state I will be sleeping in tonight.)
My last point and then I promise I’m done: regardless of the answers to any of these questions… this tumultuous whirlwind of thoughts and doubts and wonderings and ideas and questions—THIS IS WHY I AM TRAVELING.
Comments would definitely be appreciated on this one.