After over two years of writing mostly philosophical essays, some of which have been demanding, I decided it’s time to give my mind (and yours) a break! For the next few months, I will be shifting gears by sending you a series of character portraits entitled Crossing Paths. During my travels, my path had crossed with that of many unique people. Although I was not in the habit of journaling the details of all these encounters, I still managed to jot down a few notes about some of them. The connecting thread of the series is the brevity of the encounters and the uniqueness, sometimes even weirdness, of each character. These are not developed portraits; I rather concentrate on the few elements that stood out for me when our lives’ paths briefly crossed.
Arizona, USA – 2005
“Are you heading to Flagstaff?” asked the tall, rugged, middle-aged hitchhiker with the sunbeaten face.
“Hop in!” I said.
He dropped his backpack in the back seat and sat next to me as I continued to drive towards Flagstaff along the historic Route 66.
“Jim is my name,” he said with self-assurance and a friendly smile.
After the initial niceties, I inquired about his profession.
“I have no permanent job or home,” he said. “I’m a drifter.”
I couldn’t believe my ears! “A drifter?” I mumbled. “What do you mean?!”
This was my cue for him to start talking about his life.
For the past sixteen years, Jim had had no permanent home, job, or family to go to. His only income was $400 a month from social security, which he complemented with extra money from various jobs he found as he roamed the country. He had no plans, no daily schedule, no final destination. He simply lived day-in day-out by accepting whatever life threw on his path. He hitchhiked, he walked, he camped in forests, he slept in truck parking lots (in order to get a morning lift), and every now and then when he ran out of money, he would land in special sanctuaries run by Christians or other charitable societies that care for the homeless. Although he sometimes went without food for days, he somehow always managed to keep moving, drifting between cities and states, jobs and responsibilities, worlds and circumstances. Twice divorced, with three children, he had “no home to return to ‘back home’ in Montana.” Even if he had, he wouldn’t. The free life as a drifter, as he eloquently explained, was a matter of conscious choice.
The details of his earlier life were nothing special: He had joined the army at a young age and served in Vietnam for a few years. When he returned home, he was one of the many veterans who had problems reintegrating into civilian society. He was classified as “unsociable” because he couldn’t maintain long-lasting relationships. After a second failed marriage, he left his wife and children (“now all in their early twenties and doing fine”) to travel around the US in search of various jobs. He soon discovered that he liked moving from place to place, and gradually he dispensed with long-term employment and adopted the life of a vagabond. Having a number of skills, he could do all types of jobs, from cleaning restaurants and washing dishes, to gardening and repairing cars. He repeatedly emphasized how he enjoyed his absolute freedom in spite of the many challenges that accompanied it.
Now he was on his way to Florida, traveling this section of the journey with another fellow male drifter, whom he had met a few months earlier and they decided to travel together for a while. They were hitchhiking separately because it is difficult to do it in pairs, as he explained. Carrying no mobile phones with them, they had devised a system whereby the first to arrive at the next agreed-upon destination would leave a message for the other to find, informing him about his whereabouts. This time, they had agreed that the first to arrive in Flagstaff would leave the message inside a little box with a huge stone on top (“the stone is always a must, so that the wind and rain cannot displace it”). The box had to be placed under the nearest tree next to the first gas station after the “Welcome to Flagstaff” sign.
With this in mind, as soon as we entered Flagstaff, we were on the lookout for the first gas station. When we saw it, we stopped and he searched under the nearest trees for the box. He didn’t find it, which meant that, because of hitching a ride with me, Jim had arrived before his friend. Jim’s plan was to wait for him for a couple of days in Flagstaff, checking every now and then for his note under the trees. I found it so astonishing that even in this other invisible-to-us parallel universe of drifters, they somehow manage to discover one another and make weird bonds … that include even weirder forms of communication.Listening to Jim recount his lifestyle, I felt he was explaining a different version of my own life at that time, for I too was a semi-drifter, a world traveler with no final destination, and no strict daily regimen. As such, I was just crossing paths with a kindred spirit whose life lay at the extremes of my own endeavor, at the very end of the spectrum of freedom. For a moment, I felt that because of this special yet invisible connection between us, I was given an honorary glimpse into his unorthodox and unique life.
After driving around the town for a bit, I invited him to lunch, and he suggested we eat at the restaurant chain Sizzler, whose huge sign was visible around the corner. When we entered the restaurant, I told him to order whatever he liked, and his face lit up like a little child’s. Not wanting to be a burden on me, he timidly ordered a single hot dish, but when I told him to order more and also get whatever he wanted from the bountiful salad bar, he ended up filling his plates with as many goodies as he felt he could eat in one go!
As he was slowly savoring every bite of his huge lunch, I had the chance to learn more about his way of thinking. His ideas about the world and his own life were very deep. I would dare say that he was a practical philosopher with a conscious and thorough understanding of his life’s choices. His sense of absolute freedom from all the little slaveries of everyday commonality, and from all social norms and conventions, really moved me. He was living life to the fullest. This was exactly what I was striving to achieve at that stage in my life, too. But unlike me, he had reduced his possessions to the bare minimum: he had nothing to hang on, nothing to strive for, no purpose, aim, or ambition. His life was no different from that of an Indian roaming sannyasin – minus the aspiration and effort to unite with God.
As we parted, I gave him some money. “You are a good man,” he said with a gracious smile. And he continued: “Be sure, as my father used to say, that ‘your deeds shall find you out.’” I guess that this is an American drifter’s way of expressing the law of karma.