The Journey Home
July 12, 2005
Yogi got up early and took off for Old Faithful and all points north, or at least those points where a CDT hiker might stop to resupply during a long trek. I was sad to see her go, but could take comfort in the smallness of our Tribe. Everything was soaking wet from overnight condensation and, after an excellent turkey-provolone-avocado-green chili omelet, washed down with whiskey, I set things out to dry and to do town chores for the last time. Laundry. Shower. Internet. Post office. The lack of bus service out of Jackson was the only challenge. However, Stick had friend living in Pinedale, Wyoming, that was going to come and get him. Pinedale didn't have bus service either, but I could probably, with his friend's help, score a ride down to Rock Springs which most likely did have it. I called home, but got only a voice mail system. I called my mother and got the same thing. For kicks, I went to the Visitors Center one last time to ask again about bus service.
"No, sorry, there is no bus service out of Jackson. You have to get to Idaho Falls."
"There isn't a shuttle or anything like that?"
"Well, you could take the Idaho Falls shuttle if you wanted to."
Mildly snarling at the man behind the desk, I got the phone number for the shuttle company and made a reservation for the next morning. Stick was out at the free clinic and I had nothing more to do, so I walked out to the hospital in the heat of the day, through the masses of perfumed tourons and past all the curio shops, jewelers, galleries, fudge vendors, and clock shops. I did manage to pass an outdoor supply store. Stick was in a waiting room packed with young mothers and old people, filling out a form on a clipboard. It didn't look like he'd be leaving anytime soon. I wandered back into town and ate again at the diner, bought beer, and retired to the trailer park. They were full tonight, but the manager let me sleep on his bit of lawn for $20. I tried calling home again, but got the voice mail system again. Her phone was off. I doubted that she wanted to hear from me. I doubted she wanted to deal with me. I doubted that she wanted to see me. She wanted me to fade away, I supposed.
I sat at the picnic table and drank beer and wrote for a while, until a Trek America van pulled up and disgorged nine young adults out to "see" something of "America" in a "safe" way. Essentially a commercial road trip, the van was being driven by a fun loving man of about my age and was taking the various (mostly) foreign tourists to various points in the American West. They were going rafting tomorrow, and to Las Vegas after that.
I mostly ignored the group, but found that the driver was a lot of fun to talk to. He had to shepherd the tourists occasionally, getting them to put up the tents in a certain way and to get dinner going. Some of them spoke English fairly well and I wondered why they didn't just see America on their own. Travel in the US is straightforward and simple, and quite safe outside of large cities. I thought of my own experiences in the Middle East, or Central America, or Nepal, and wondered what was so intimidating about renting a car in the US and driving around. Something.
I began to lose the outside world as my mind turned elsewhere. I was better for coming out here, even if it generated a lot of suffering and general misery. The Springtime shattered the shell of my complacent domestic life precisely because I came out here. If I had stayed at home, I would not have gotten the entire sword. Rather, I just would have gotten a slight beating with the scabbard. I would never have seen the poverty of my life at home in such a direct and powerful way. Solzhenitsyn was right.
It was pitch black when a white SUV pulled up next to where I was drinking my beer and out rolled Stick and a doctor from the clinic. The doctor was taking Stick in for the night and offered me a room as well. I wanted to see the stars one more time, however, and had to pass on the generous offer. It pleased me to know that they had driven out here just to see me, that the doctor had compassion for others, despite their lack of a home. And then they were gone. The Trek America people had left for the various bars in town and the trailer park was silent. I showered and walked around in my underwear in the cool night air, reveling in the feeling of the wind on my scrubbed skin and the starshine above me.
Fernando and John were homeless. They had no money and all they possessed they carried with them in a couple of suitcases. They stayed at the Mission in Jackson because a free place was the only place they could afford. The Mission paid their fare on the shuttle to Idaho Falls. The Salvation Army in Idaho Falls bought them Greyhound tickets and food for their journey to Sheridan, Montana, where they had jobs lined up at a resort ranch, John cooking and Fernando acting as a general maintenance man. We talked about jobs and I was too embarrassed to tell them that I had a PhD and taught mathematics at a college. Instead I talked about the various blue collar jobs that I had had in the past. They offered to help me get on at the ranch for the rest of the season.
I looked at my tiny pack and then at them. I could sell the contents of it and provide for them for a few months; People without resources lead very frugal lives. They lived day-by-day for the most part, moving from one job to another without any security of any sort in their lives. While a job held, they could eat and have shelter over their heads and buy an occasional CD. But jobs, their kind of jobs, never held. There was no saving for the future. There was no family, though both spoke of having children somewhere in the world. In comparison, I had everything at my disposal. I had credit cards that worked and that could bail me out of almost any situation. I had friends and family that I could stay with for as long as I needed to. I had been educated and had continued in my education even after my tour at the various schools ended. I had everything, it seemed. As we talked, my privileged situation became more and more clear. Although I had done much on my own initiative, I had also had a solid upbringing and had been born into a situation that could breed success. No matter how bad things got for me, I knew that everything would be all right in the end. Fernando and John couldn't say that, but continued on living nonetheless. They gave me hope and perspective and I was sorry to part with them in Butte, Montana, after having travelled all the way from Jackson together.
Slim was dying. Slim was on the Greyhound from Idaho Falls to Butte with Fernando, John, and I, and was also homeless, penniless, done. He had been living in Santa Cruz, CA. for the past few months, but was on his way home to Minnesota, where he had family. He was going home to die. Slim had been in the military just after the Vietnam War and had been slowly drinking himself to death ever since. Something had a hold of him now and he shook almost uncontrollably during the bus ride to Butte, twitching in the hands and face and neck. Every few minutes he went to the bathroom to vomit and relieve his bowels. Slim hated the VA, for they never helped him, he said. In Butte I watched him get on the east bound bus. A few minutes later, and ambulance pulled up and the EMTs rushed in. Slim came out on a stretcher and was taken away. I couldn't tell if he was still alive, but I doubted he would ever get out of the state.
The woman could have been in her thirties, but looked much older than that. A once pretty face had been worn down by age and life and now bore a certain ugliness. Not scars or blemishes or a crooked nose. The ugliness, instead, was a reflection of something she had inside of her. Life had been hard on her and as we spoke the July 4th thing began to happen once again. As we talked I could see the layers of her life peel back and expose themselves in the parking lot of the bus station. I could hear the words she was speaking, but as I watched the story of her life unfold another person was superimposed upon her physical being. It was like looking at something, then closing your eyes and letting the residual image morph into something else. Only, my eyes were open the entire time. Looking at her, I was looking at a possible future for someone living in the present, someone important to me. I grew frightened at what I saw and what the future seemed to hold. I had to try to tell her. She wouldn't believe me.
What should have been a thirty minute bus change in Butte turned into a six hour wait as the full Seattle bus passed by Butte, stranding every passenger heading west. The replacement bus broke down somewhere. The sun was going down when I finally began heading home. Fortunately the bus was only partly full and I had a seat to myself in which to relax and try to sleep. I was tired, but my mind wouldn't turn off. I kept thinking of Fernando and John. Slim and the Butte woman. About the reception that I would get at home. Fernando, Butte woman, home. Was Slim dead now? What was she doing now? Could I explain what had happened in Butte? I could only try. Try to warn her. It wouldn't work, but, as with long distance hiking, it is the effort that it important, it is the effort, the process, that counts. The ending doesn't especially matter.