Missoula: The Place Where I (Really) Start Feeling Like a Traveler

Leaving Boulder with $200—now one week and twelve hundred miles later, I still have $160 tucked into my glove box.  I felt like a traveler in Jackson Hole, where I played guitar on the street until I made enough money to get into Yellowstone and then met someone who brought me home and generously offered me food and a couch.  Now, rather than seek more experiences like these, my task is simply to focus on releasing the blockages within myself that prevent the universe from providing.  This is what I try to do in Missoula.

The first thing is to find the library (Wi-Fi, public restrooms, free parking all day).  When evening comes, I leave my empty wallet in the car, throw my guitar over my shoulder, and walk barefoot through the city until I find the main drag.  I sit down on the corner of Higgins and Main with my guitar, flying a sign that says


Before I even begin to play, three college students walk by and they each drop me a dollar.  As I’m getting into my groove, a guy named Jeff sits down and joins me.  I take a break from strumming and we talk for almost an hour.  He’s been traveling for a while too, and right now he just wants a friend, he tells me.  “Maybe you should take a break from the road and stay in one place for long enough to meet some people,” I muse.  We’re talking about image and perception, and I flag down a passerby to ask how he sees us right now—two kids sitting on a street corner with an instrument and a cardboard sign—what do we look like?  Maybe our appearance is why it’s been hard for Jeff to make friends.  The guy sits down on the curb with us, and then two other kids asking for a bar recommendation also join, and the five of us sit and chat on the corner for a long time.  When the guy continues on, the two kids invite Jeff and I back to their Cadillac parked a few streets down for a beer.  We chill for an hour or so, and they offer me a place to stay that night.  Five minutes after we part ways, my phone rings.  They met two girls in an alleyway and they are all playing music—come join.  The girls are in town for just a couple days, and they’ve got a banjo, ukulele, djembes, guitars, and we all sit in a circle in a little alcove off the main street, strumming and singing and pounding out rhythms.  The guys end up heading out to the bars later on, so I find a huge mostly empty Free Park-n-Ride lot on the outskirts of town—a perfect spot to bed down for the night.

In the morning I head to the grocery store to clean up in the bathrooms, visit the hospital just to get another confirmation that my knee looks ok, and then head to the library.  I write for a few hours, stepping outside every once in a while for a bite of what’s left of that free Bozeman gas station food.  In the afternoon I wander over to Break Espresso for a $1.25 coffee (25 cent refills all day) and sit outside to soak in the falling sun rays.  I’m just sitting there—I don’t even have a pack or my guitar with me—and a guy walks over and hands me a dollar.  “For your next coffee.  Welcome to town.”  I still remain in daily wonder at the things that keep happening to me.

When a warm twilight settles, I head out with my guitar to make some money.  As I’m setting up, an old homeless guy with a huge pack and a cooler (full of beer, I later discover) asks if he can join me.  I doubt this will help my situation, but I’m not going to say no.  I start playing, and he is just vibing to the music so hard.  He won’t stop talking about how much he loves the music.  “Thank you for letting me sit down and listen,” he keeps repeating.  “Of course man, I’m just glad you’re enjoying it…”  Then he insists on pulling out a grubby dollar bill and throwing it down into my case.  He’s telling me about how miserable his day has been, how long he’s been walking, how he’s been hassled by the cops.  Then he starts singing in this raspy, off-key voice, making it up as he goes along, stumbling, but singing his heart out.  A guy walks by and asks where I’m traveling to.  He drops me a handful of dollar bills, and the homeless guy asks me to give him $2, so I do.  Three kids, all musicians, pass by and stop to chat.  One of them tells this guy he’ll bring him a harmonica—wait 15 minutes.  For the next 15 minutes the guy is just singing about how excited he is about the harmonica and how much he hopes the kids will come back.  He thanks me for the music again and starts making up a song about friendship.  “Man I hope they come back with my harm,” he keeps repeating.  He starts sinking into despair after 20 minutes.  Then finally, they return.  The kid hands this homeless guy a harmonica, and the man jumps up, rips it up on the harmonica blowing out these crazy tunes, he’s probably the best harmonica player I’ve ever heard, then he throws his arms around the kid.  “You brought me my harm!  You brought my harm!”  He kicks out his legs and starts dancing a jig, spinning in circles and laughing into the harmonica.

When it gets late, I head back to that alley looking for those musician girls again.  I don’t find them but I can’t even get through the alley because I keep getting roped into chats with people standing outside the bars with their martinis.  Finally through the alley and around the corner and I run into those three harmonica guys again; now they’ve got other instruments—a mandolin, a 12-string guitar.  I grab a huge plastic jug to drum on, and we sit down outside of a bar to play.  A guy with long dreads comes over and starts dancing and jamming to our music with his harmonica, and when the song is over he brings us over to another group of musicians he’s been playing with.  There are at least ten of us sitting in a circle, half of us barefoot, half dreadlocked, we’ve got guitars and harmonicas, the mandolin, an accordion, a washboard, a ukulele, my jug-drum.  People are coming out of the bar and dropping twenty dollar bills.  Music spirals us into the night until we finally get shut down by cops.  The full moon gleams.  We all hug before parting ways, and I walk back to my car knowing exactly where I will park to sleep.  My knee is healing; I’m barely limping now.  I have friends in this city now.  There’s nothing in my head right now about growth experiences or spiritual development or whatever.  I just feel happy.

*          *          *

In the morning I head back to Break Espresso to write.  I made way more than enough money yesterday to afford today’s coffees.  The gas station food is gone, but it’s ok.  Do not worry about what you will eat, I keep repeating to myself.  The teachings of almost all religions and great prophets converge on this point—have a little faith.  Do what you need to do, spread light in the world, focus on what matters, and the essential things (food, clothing, shelter, etc) will come to you.  This has proved true so far.

I write for a while, munching on free pastry samples, until I get a call from Jeff and Jay.  They’ve made it to Missoula finally (the hopeful lady-friend-inspired excursion to Bozeman proved a disappointment) and they wonder if they can leave their packs in my car while they tube down the river.  When I meet them at the car, Jeff hands me an extra chicken taco he’s not going to eat.  Back in the café I chat with the barista for a while—she’s also a writer and a traveler.  When I pack up and leave, she tells me that she’s about to throw out the day-old pastries and that I should take as many as I want.

In the library parking lot, I set up my stove to cook a can of spaghetti.  I run into the dreadlocked harmonica player from last night, and he points to his RV, parked on the other side of the library.  I eat with him and his travel companions on a hill in front of the RV, and I give away two of the café muffins I just got.  When the sun goes down I head to the streets with my guitar and play until I make a few dollars.  I suddenly realize that I know a lot of faces here.  So I just walk around, through the streets and alleyways, confident that I will run into someone I recognize.  As I’m walking past a bar, a smile and nod leads to a long chat with a kid named Chris, who grew up about 15 minutes away from where I did.  He gives me his information and tells me to come over if I need a spot to crash, shower, do laundry.

There isn’t much going on, so I just head to the main corner and sit down on a flight of steps with my notebook.  It’s not long before two people walk past, one holding a violin case and one carrying a saw.  Then suddenly Kate and Jessica (from the barefoot music circle last night) arrive out of nowhere, and we all listen to this girl pull beautiful ghostly notes from the saw using a cello bow.

I head to a bar with Kate and Jessica.  They buy me a beer, and we step outside and run into Chris again.  When it gets late we wander back toward my car, and they invite me to join them at their sleeping spot.  We drive to the side of a Holiday Inn, free parking until 9 AM, and I slide my car in front of their RV.  Their other companions, Jessica’s brother and another guy, are out getting free burritos.  Jessica gives me gifts for my car—sage and feathers for my dashboard, a necklace to hang from the mirror.  We sit on the curb and tell our stories, how we began traveling.  We burn sage and talk about travel, society, the incredible power of manifesting, faith, how difficult it is to explain this lifestyle to others.  Tonight the moon is just shy of full.  When the guys return, I climb into my car to sleep.  For once, seeing people walking around close by while I’m trying to sleep makes me feel not nervous and anxious but safe.

*          *          *

When the sun peaks up, I climb out and stretch in the chilly morning.  Kate and Jessica are also just waking up, and I give them each a muffin.  I head to the library to clean up, and I say good morning to the travelers in the RV that’s still parked where it was last night.

As I’m walking down Main Street, I run into a homeless girl with a huge cardboard sign protesting the city’s “Real Change Not Spare Change” anti-panhandling movement.  I sit with her for a little while and then continue on to the café, after offering her a muffin.  I’ve given away 5 of the 6 I took yesterday.  And that is fine—it’s exactly how it should be.  Food, gifts, money, kindness—these things are all flowing to me, and I will do what I can to help them flow to others.  Rather than hoarding a muffin because I know I’ll be hungry later, I choose to have faith that I’ll find food later when I need it, and so I give away the muffin to someone who is hungry now.

I spend the day writing, wandering, hanging out.  Jessica, Kate, and the guys leave town to head south.   In the evening, most of the friendly faces are gone and the streets and alleyways are replaced by new travelers I don’t recognize.  I sit down on some steps to read.  I have about $2 more than I had when I arrived in this city.  I will continue onwards in the morning.

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