Down the Grey Coast

Back in May, when I was heading from DC to Colorado, something happened that changed the course of my journey but that I found myself unable to write about at the time: I met Amber.

And Tramp, her playful boxer/lab companion. She had been on the road for a year. Hitchhiking, solo. She was 19. I gave her a ride from Asheville, NC to Nashville, TN. Our discussion was so intense that we were both out of breath through the entire ride. Everything I had been trying to learn how to do, every traveling skill I had been attempting to cultivate, she had mastered. “How much money do you have right now?” I asked. She grinned and pulled out a crumpled dollar bill.

On the streets of Nashville, we wandered around barefoot with our guitars slung over our shoulders. “Yes,” she told me. “Yes. It is possible to live this way. Everything we need will always come.” We sat on a corner with our guitars until we made enough money for a cup of coffee. On the way to a café, a van pulled up next to us and the windows rolled down. “Hey!” A lady said. “Do you guys want sandwiches?” She gave us three; one for Amber, one for me, and one for Tramp. We wandered the streets all day. Amber made friends with everyone we passed. She exchanged numbers with a guy we bumped into who said he would be driving to Illinois in the morning and he would be happy to give her a ride north. In the evening, as we were about to part ways, we sat on a curb outside a restaurant. I rummaged around in my car while she chatted with the restaurant owner. “I bet he would hook us up with some food,” she said a few minutes later. The guy was sitting outside smoking a cigarette with a coworker. “Hey,” Amber asked. “You don’t have any extra food that’s gonna be thrown away, do you?” “Yeah, we were just talking about that. We’re gonna feed you. What kind of pizza do you guys want?” Our time together was the thing that initially gave me the confidence to know that I could survive this way.

with Amber and Tramp in Nashville

We had been sending each other messages every couple weeks, and I knew that Amber had entered Canada around the time I was tipping south from Alaska. My phone rang when I was in Vancouver. “Amber?” “DAVE!” “Where are you right now…” “I’m in Vancouver! Where are you?” I bounded to my car. “WHERE IN VANCOUVER ARE YOU?”

We found each other beside a fountain. “How long are you staying here?” She asked. “I think I am leaving tomorrow…what about you?” “Me too. Which way are you headed?” “South.” “You don’t want to give me a ride across the border do you?” I grinned. “I thought you’d never ask.”

We spent the night in Vancouver. We parked in a neighborhood and walked down to the beach where sailboats bobbed white and city lights fractured against the water. We laid out our sleeping bags under a canopy of trees on a blanket of fallen leaves. Tramp curled inside Amber’s sleeping bag with her, poking his nose out occasionally to growl at passing shadows.

In the morning we headed back to the United States. I was seriously not looking forward to another border crossing. I drove up to the kiosk with palms sweating and handed over the passports. This is how the conversation went:

Customs Agent: Where do you live?
Me: Virginia.
Customs Agent: Any firearms, bludgeons, machetes, brass knuckles, spears, or chainsaws in the car?
Me: No sir.
Customs Agent: Any narcotics?
Me: No sir.
Customs Agent: Why not?
Me: Excuse me?
Customs Agent: Why not?
Amber: Because we’re smart.
Customs Agent: Good answer. Who’s this?
Me: This is Amber.
Customs Agent: Is she your girlfriend?
Me: No.
Customs Agent: Why not?
Me: Excuse me?
Customs Agent: Welcome home.

But I still had to return that slip of paper proving I left Canada on time to the Canadian side of the border. I didn’t realize until it was too late that I was supposed to do this before crossing. We turned around and drove up to the Canadian border. This is how the conversation went:

Canadian Officer: Passports.
Me: I’m just here to return this slip of paper.
Canadian Officer: (angrily) PASSPORTS.
Me: (hand over passports).
Canadian Officer: Where do you live?
Canadian Officer: What is your work?
Canadian Officer: Narcotics in the car?
Canadian Officer: Where are you heading?
Me: Seattle.
Canadian Officer: What?
Me: I’m just here to return this slip of paper.
Canadian Officer: Where are you coming from?
Me: Vancouver.
Canadian Officer: Then why are you crossing back into Canada?
Me: I swear to God I am just trying to return this slip of paper.
Canadian Officer: Why didn’t you do it before crossing?
Me: Believe me I wish that I had.
Canadian Officer: Pull up to the yellow line and step out of the vehicle.

After they searched the car, we had to cross the US side of the border again. But the shifts had changed and we got a new customs agent. This is how the conversation went:

Customs Agent: Why the hell do you keep crossing this border?
Me: Please let this stop.

We finally made it through, gas jugged down to Seattle, and then rear ended that person while merging into rush hour traffic. After the accident, we left the car on a steep neighborhood street across from a park near downtown. Then we wandered the streets at night, digging through Pike Place Market trash cans together and following endless stairs down under the market and out to the sea, down to the bench by the black waters where the lights shimmered over the surface. Barnacles clung to the wooden pier. We walked through the darkened streets all the way back up the hill to the car and retrieved our sleeping bags, then slept in a public park five feet from the front doors of an apartment building. A lady came out and glanced at us and then leaned against the railing, fifteen feet away, to drink a glass of red wine and smoke a cigarette.

*          *          *

We part ways in the morning and I spend the day dealing with the car. A repair shop tells me it will cost almost five thousand dollars to fix. In a café that evening, Amber tells me that her dad is a mechanic, but he’s all the way down in Grants Pass, southern Oregon. If we can make it that far…

We sleep in the park again and then prepare to hit the road in the morning. We rope down the hood, pluck of shards of broken glass from the bumper, and duct tape my one remaining blinker into place.

South of Olympia, we stop for gas and Amber finds an unopened bag of Bugles in a trash can, which we snack on while we work. A man pulls up in a pickup. “Hey!” Amber waves from where we are seated on the trunk of my car. “Can you spare a splash of gas?” The man smiles and shakes his head. “Diesel,” he says. “Ahh, we should have known. All those trucks take diesel now….” He gets out and walks over to us to chat for a moment, and then pauses. “Well, let’s get you some. Why don’t you pull up to #4?” Smiles burst across our faces, and Amber takes Tramp out while I pull the car up. We talk with Bruce while we fill up. He’s amazingly friendly, and he peppers us with questions about our travels. The pump clicks off at $10, but he immediately pulls out seven dollar bills. “Ten dollars isn’t much…” We are beside ourselves. Amber takes the cash into the gas station and when she waves from inside, I squeeze the pump back on. Bruce wishes us well and backs out. After a short pause, he pulls back in. He climbs out of the pickup with a grin on his face and swipes his card at pump #4. “Let’s just fill you guys up.”

Portland at dusk. We hit the streets and immediately find a paper bag full of pastries sitting on the steps outside a closed coffee shop. We find whole bags of groceries inexplicably discarded in trash cans—things like frozen chicken breasts—but we have no way to refrigerate, so we just take them out and leave them on the curb for someone else to find. At the food kiosks, there are four abandoned white boxes waiting for us on a ledge, filled with Indonesian noodles and potatoes and spiced meat. A Thai cuisine kiosk is closing down, and Amber asks if they have anything that’s about to get thrown out. They fill a plastic bag with vegan spring rolls, and then ask if we want some warm peanut sauce. “You eat this,” the vendor says, smiling as he holds out the bag of spring rolls in one hand and the container of sauce in the other. “With this.” We feast in the car and then wander the streets singing. Tramp leaps around, tugging on his leash and trying to play. When it begins to drizzle, we bed down under a bridge beside beer bottles and bums in cardboard boxes.

Outside Starbucks for our morning coffee; we fill his food bowl and tie Tramp to a chair while we take turns going in to clean up in the bathrooms. The sun clears a rooftop and light floods through the streets. We make friends with everyone who passes by our table. Somebody gives us $17. Amber goes inside to get a refill, and I chat with a woman who comes over to ask about Tramp. “Are you from here?” She asks. She takes a seat, and I explain that I’m a traveler. She tells me about her dreams of traveling. “But I could never, obviously,” she says. “Because I’m a woman.” Amber returns. “This is Amber,” I say. “She’s been traveling by herself, hitchhiking across the country, for over a year.” The woman is pretty surprised but then she collects herself and promptly begins listing for us the reasons why she can’t travel even though she wants nothing more than to do exactly that. Money. Bills. Grown daughter would miss her. Rent. Where to leave her car? Danger. Fear. It broke my heart and I tried so hard to help her set herself free but her fear was stronger than my faith. “What I really want to do is join the Peace Corps, but I’m way too old for that.” “How old are you, if I may ask?” “54.” “Do you know how old the oldest ever Peace Corps volunteer was?” “How old?” “86.” I give her some websites. Maybe, maybe, she will join the Peace Corps.

*          *          *

When we arrived in Newport I drove straight to the Rogue brewery and walked up to the warehouse. A guy in rubber boots walked up. “Can I help you?” “Hey…I’m looking for my friend Ryan, I think he might work here?” “Hang on, I’ll go get him.” Ryan came out from the back and laughed when he saw me. He didn’t know I was coming. I introduced him to Amber and we all shared the ocean sunset and then Amber and I wandered while he finished his shift. We walked around Newport, the free food from the Asian buffet, the two kids who ran after us with a $20 bill, the chips and salsa from Carlos’ Mexican Restaurant, the pastries the girls at Starbucks gave us. We met Ryan at one in the morning when he got off work. In the dark, beyond the “Caution: Dangerous Waves Possible” sign, drinking IPAs as the sea snuck up on us. We talked of things like journeys, home, purpose, and faith, and how the stars are always the same, no matter where you go. “Unless you’re in the southern hemisphere.” We cackled wildly. The storm rolled in and we trudged back through the damp sand with empty bottles clinking. Ryan just moved here and he didn’t have a place yet, so we slept in our cars, tucked into a neighborhood street. Sunrise, The Coffee Shop, vegetable omelets, sea lions barking, back to the sea; Amber hunted shells and sea glass, Tramp galloped through the shallows, Ryan let the sand bury his toes and gazed outwards, and I was alone with the waves, where I suddenly felt I belonged.

*          *          *

Down the grey coast.

Gas jugging is next to impossible in Oregon, because gas is still pumped by attendants. Our tank ran dry in Florence, so we stood outside Wal-Mart flying a sign for a couple hours. It was late and raining when we got into Eugene and we got lost for a long time trying to find a bridge that Amber knew. We finally found the spot and laid out our bags beside a concrete support beam and just as we were getting comfortable and taking a breath, the cops arrived and kicked everyone out, a line of bums with trash bags slung over their shoulders marching away to seek some other spot to spend the night. We drove to another Wal-Mart and parked in shadows. I made coffee and we leaned back our seats and smoked a cigarette with stars through the open sunroof.

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6 Responses to Down the Grey Coast

  1. karen says:

    Wow Dave….so glad you had this wonderful experience with Amber and I do hope she is still in your life. Now I have an idea why that wonderful smile was so brilliant when you were here. :o)) Can’t believe you didn’t say anything then.

  2. Charlie says:

    i like this post a lot.

  3. Kathi says:

    Love the photos….you, Amber, Tramp and the infamous Volvo. Thanks! Sounds like a ray of sunshine while traveling down the Grey Coast. This post says so much about you and the wonderfully warm person you are. Take care and don’t wait so long for the next update.

  4. Kathi says:

    By the way ~ have you heard from the Judge??? 🙂

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