AUTHOR: Steve Theme
TITLE: “Asphalt Sanctuary”
SYNOPSIS: While hitchhiking 6,000 miles alone, a teenager filled with resentment is pulled into an unintentional, yet unavoidable, spiritual adventure.
“Every Road Needs a Beginning”
a memior by
Anywhere But Here
Pacing in my basement bedroom I dumped the binders from my school backpack and filled it with clothes, a Buck knife, two harmonicas and a map of the U.S. After cinching an old flannel sleeping bag underneath the pack, I convinced myself to leave immediately.
My solid stride inspired confidence, until I reached the bedroom door; its threshold felt like a one-way passage, and once crossed, the commitment became final. I looked around: pale walls, faded blue rug, my semi-made bed next to a black and white poster of Peter Fonda cruising on his chopper in the movie Easy Rider, the worn craftsmen desk from my great-grandfather marked with 1865 under the drawer, that basement smell—half unwashed clothes and half damp concrete. I stood in silence. My breath drew deep and smooth, but when exhaling my chest tightened, and a shaky wheeze sputtered out. After nineteen years, I knew I’d never view this room the same again.
Walking upstairs, I interrupted my mother’s game of solitaire. “Can you drive me to the I-5 onramp?”
“Why do you need to go there?” she asked, drawing on a Pall Mall, longshoremen’s cigarettes she liked to call them.
“I’m going to head out.”
Her attention broke away from the cards. “What do you mean, head out?”
“I’m going on the road. You know,” I hesitated, “to explore some more.”
Her face dropped slack for a moment. Smoke drifted out of her mouth as she sighed, “Where?”
“I don’t know.”
A sheen crept over her eyes.
“But I’m going to start by heading south.”
“Heading south?” She took a deeper pull on her cigarette, and pondered a moment. Weary smoke flowed with her words. “How are you going to do that?”
Now I needed to steel myself, like the moment before piercing a needle into a child’s arm to remove a deep splinter. “I’m going to hitchhike.”
Her gaze dropped to the table.
There were no teary farewells or bon voyages. She and I simply loaded into the family station wagon without speaking.
Once we started driving, she asked, “What are you going to do for money?”
“I’ve got a couple hundred bucks, and when I need to work I’ll work.”
Her voice quickened. “Where on earth are you going to sleep?”
“Not sure, but I’ll find places.”
“What about food? That little pack doesn’t hold anything.”
“The pack’s got to be light, otherwise it’s too awkward.”
She nodded. Even to me that sounded like my first rational comment.
“There’s a lot of weirdoes out there.” She turned to face me. “What if…”
“… I’ve got my knife.”
She inhaled slowly, locking in words, then let out another long sigh.
The drive to the onramp was mercifully short. Once we pulled to the shoulder I swung open the door and stepped out. Closing the door, I looked south, and stared down the highway. I gave a quick wave goodbye to the back of my mother’s head as she drove off. The splinter now pried free.
I didn’t squander my youth on responsibility; that’s the shortest stage of our lives—if we’re lucky. In April of 1978 I was nineteen and had recently finished my second quarter at the University of Washington. After entering school on the heels of fishing commercially in Alaska, I still craved to catch the horizon.
During those freshman quarters my parents let me live at home. I appreciated their kindness, but the dynamics of the family had fallen away for me. Like an iceberg calved from a glacier, I didn’t belong anymore. While in Alaska, I realized that years of hiding my mother’s alcoholism and father’s beatings had taken their toll on my psyche. Even though my parents weren’t charging rent, I couldn’t pay the price any longer
Despite any shortcomings, my father drilled into me that we make our own way in this world. And to help ensure I understood that, he made clear that I’d be paying for my education. I wanted to be a writer—books, journalism, speeches, advertisements… anything—but enrolled in the College of Engineering. There was no room in his house for artsy fartsy-types.
After two quarters I felt like my life consisted of dogpaddling in homogenized milk. Too many of my classmates squealed about parties and cars, and as they strolled through their rarified lives I couldn’t stop viewing them as pampered pets. I’d started working full-time at thirteen, and could feel that thought filling me with an unhealthy self-righteousness. After classes I worked until 11:00 as a janitor: mopping, filling dumpsters, scrubbing toilets and in the womens’ bathrooms cleaning each stall’s special little container for used tampons.
Lecture halls sanitized my ambitions. Escape preoccupied my thoughts.
The money I’d saved had thinned to less than three hundred dollars, not enough to fund another quarter, not enough to get my own place.
My resentment toward other the students continued to grow as the quarters progressed. I couldn’t tell if I resented them for assuming entitlement, or because I wanted what they enjoyed. Either way, my resentment became a fired cauldron.
Watching my bad attitude get worse, I needed to do something.
That something unfolded into hitchhiking 6,000 miles alone. Rides came like rogue waves, unexpected, with force, and then vanished. Careening through people’s lives I offered a rare opportunity for them to express anything without fear of repercussion; secrets told to a ghost are forever safe.
Each of the hundreds of rides I received amounted to an act of charity, and I never shook the feeling of surprise when someone pulled over. It’s easier to maintain momentum than stop; Isaac Newton figured that out and proposed the Law of Inertia. But many people did stop. Charity springs from all kinds of wells, some directly connected to the divine, others more worldly, and then there are the pure charlatans. I rode with them all.
Taking that break from school gave me the education of a lifetime. The journey transformed me from an honor-roll student into a roadside pauper, without food, or eventually even shoes—those were the small changes.
Waiting at the 45th Street on-ramp in North Seattle I stood 5’11”, lean and muscular, topped with a curly scruff of long blond hair, clad in worn denim overalls, a Led Zeppelin T-shirt, and old leather boots covered with white paint splatters. The traffic roared and its stampede kicked grit in my face. My entire plan consisted of one self-imposed promise—no panhandling. I wouldn’t spend time in the big cities as one of those sponging downtown kids asking for money. The plan wasn’t much, but I stuck to it.
While getting my bearings along that first on-ramp, a memory flashed from my senior year at Nathan Hale High School. I’d been appointed “Scholar/Athlete of the Year,” as part of a district-wide program for football players. At the awards banquet boys from each high school looked spiffy in jackets and ties, sitting with proud parents. Recalling the table with its linen napkins, china, silver and crystal brought a smile; not a nostalgic smile, but the smile of an escaped convict.
Security felt like a prison, and I believed satisfaction bred complacency. I didn’t want to know where I would sleep each night, or if there would be food or money. Anything that established a sense of place repelled me. Regardless of how beautiful, dismal, peaceful or dangerous the places I found myself were, my thoughts always played the same loop. Once I arrived and took a few breaths, my mind shouted, “Anywhere but here! Anywhere but here!” That drum started beating before the first car passed.
After only a few minutes, Mr. Yogurt, a thin fellow in his mid-twenties wearing a plaid shirt and thick black glasses, picked me up. I stepped in and noticed an open container of vanilla yogurt propped on the seat between his legs. “It’s all I eat,” he said. “I read in a magazine that if you only eat yogurt it’s good for your digestive tract.”
The windows were rolled up and I began to notice a strong ammonia stench. “Mind if I open a window?”
“No problem.” He held out his right arm, a spoon full of vanilla yogurt extending from his grip like a painter’s brush. He twirled his hand, as if motioning to crank down the window. “I took my dog on a drive last night and while he stuck his head out the window he got so excited he peed.”
“In this seat?”
“Oh… I guess so.”
After several more rides, each only ten to twenty miles, I slipped into the rhythm of hitchhiking, which is syncopated at best.
Outside of Olympia, Washington, about sixty miles south of Seattle, a blue sedan pulled over. A middle-aged man smiled as I got in. He wore pressed clothes. I didn’t think people who looked like him stopped for people who looked like me. We talked easily and I confessed I was beginning a trip with no destination. The ride lasted maybe half an hour, and as I turned to get out he asked, “Can you wait just a minute?”
“Sure.” I felt no rush to get anywhere.
He then laid his hand on my knee. I knew some men would pick me up for sex, but I didn’t expect it the first day. My naiveté suddenly scared me. Should I slap away his hand? Jump out? (But he’d drive away with my pack in the back seat.) Yell? Smack him in the fa….
“I’d like to say a prayer for you.”
That snapped me like glass, especially as I realized this would be the first time anyone had prayed for me, at least since my baptism.
The day of my baptism was my first time in church. I was eight and my brother about five months. I don’t recall anyone else there, just our family and the guy wearing a robe. I stood stiff in a crisp white shirt, but my brother, held in my father’s arms, let out a buzzing fart. Our cherub needed a clean diaper.
My shoulders shook but no laughter came out. Afterward in the parking lot my dad smacked me to the asphalt for not taking the rite seriously enough, and once home I got the rest. Those ten minutes of ceremony became my sole exposure to church—a baptism and a beating.
On that day I stopped believing God could exist. As the years passed I wanted religion to have its own section in libraries called “Mumbo Jumbo for Morons.” Physics and chemistry ruled the universe. In their stability I found comfort—they never got drunk or enraged; never told me I don’t have the brains God gave an ant; never provided a haven for hypocrites or threatened people with eternal damnation.
The well-pressed man then closed his eyes and bowed his head. “Gracious God, thank you for loving us so much and always being with us. Please look over this boy and rain your love down on him. Protect him as he travels and keep him safe.”
This started sounding like gibberish and I felt unnerved, but I bowed my head, not knowing what else to do.
“Guide his footsteps as he grows and help him reach out to you in his times of trial. Amen.”
“Amen,” I exhaled, surprising myself.
He gave a firm pat to my knee and tightened his jaw as he looked me in the eyes. Stepping out of the car I felt somehow lighter, and glad he’d said the prayer. I’d need it.
I’d only made it to Portland, Oregon, but had managed to get lost. Standing among a maze of freeway overpasses, I couldn’t see any signs or directions. A mystery onramp waited on the other side of the freeway. Maybe I could see a sign from there, and planned to reach it by dashing across six lanes of highway. That plan left me stranded on a concrete median, surrounded on each side by three lanes of a roaring rush hour.
Luckily, the median spread wide, designed to protect cars from hitting an overpass abutment and offered a good space to sit. Realizing I needed to hang tight until the afternoon traffic eased, I sat in a state of suspended animation.
With my back against the abutment pillar and legs stretched along concrete covered in black tire dust, the view seemed like one from a dream—thousands of gleaming machines strafing me only feet away and roads snaking in the air above and below. Intersections led to bridges crossing the Willamette River, each reflecting different stages of history, architecture and technology: bridges of dark iron girders, swooping suspension cables and arched concrete. Each echoed a geometry that looked as if they spelled out the formulas that created them. All of the structures represented millions of hours of work, lifetimes of achievement, laid down for generations to come. I felt awed at the foresight and effort roads represent.
When the traffic subsided, I slipped my way to the on-ramp I had started toward two hours earlier, found some signs, took another dash across several more lanes, climbed down an embankment to reach a southbound onramp and held out my thumb.
A small purple truck with a homemade cedar camper slowed to the shoulder. Trotting up, I could see that the camper looked like a cross between a Tyrolean chalet and a backwoods cabin. The roof, complete with asphalt shingles, protected everything. Extending from the back wall a black stovepipe elbowed to the peak of the roof. Shutters of ornately painted red tulips over a white background surrounded a rear-facing window. The back featured a mini barn door a man could pass through if he ducked. Walking up, I couldn’t wait to see what the driver looked like.
“Hey there! My name’s Treetop,” he said, quickly extending a calloused and tan hand with thick yellowed nails. He appeared to be in his early forties, but his face had seen a lot weather, so judging his age was hard. He sat, like Abraham Lincoln, disproportionately tall and thin. His straight grey hair blended with a long pointed grey beard. He wore a denim shirt rolled up to the elbows, and the knees on his jeans were worn silver. Even though his face held deep lines and a dark tan, through his eyes shone a young twinkle.
As I stepped in, the cab looked like a Hindu-surfing-drive-thru-temple that smelled of cinnamon incense. Every place something could be hung, set, or stuck, lived a trinket: feathers, flowers, tassels, tapestries—all blended into the kaleidoscope that reflected his life.
The dashboard ignited with wood paneling covered in a reddish/orange stain, turning the fine grains into flames. Flipping down my sun visor, I saw he’d figured out the visor was the perfect place to mount one those plastic prism pictures that change when tipped between different angles. Swinging the visor provided a controlled morph from a guru sitting in flowing robes, to a picture of the multi-armed Hindu god Vishnu floating on a lotus flower. Gold fabric draped across the dash, surrounding a figure of Jesus accompanied by bobbling hula girl shaking at his side. The bench seat lay covered in a thick woven Navajo blanket and a few Grateful Dead stickers populated the outlying territories.
I started to feel like I’d joined Captain Bizzaro in his schizophrenic nightmare.
“What’s that?” I asked, pointing to a plaque showing a gold crescent moon with a star positioned between the points of the crescent.
“That’s the symbol for Islam.”
“Oh, yeah.” I felt dumb for not knowing something that basic. “They’re the ones who worship Mohamed.”
He looked at me and shook his head. “No, they don’t worship Mohamed.”
“They see Mohamed as the last prophet of God, but they don’t worship him. They worship only God.”
I knew I was about to sound like a garden variety idiot, but had to ask, “Which God?”
“Same God as Jews and Christians,” he said, “but Muslims call him Allah. All three start in the Garden of Eden, and include Abraham, Moses, Noah, the flood—the basic Old Testament stuff.”
Suddenly the captain knew more than me.
“Jesus is also a Muslim,” he said. “He might be the only person to be a Jew, Christian and Muslim all at the same time. Even though he didn’t know it.”
“So Muslims worship Jesus? Sounds like they’re all a bunch of inbred hillbillies.” I sounded a bit the ass, and didn’t mind.
“No, Muslims worship only God. That’s their deal. But they see Jesus as one of His prophets, probably his greatest prophet.” Treetop shot me a quick glance. It seemed he wanted to make sure I was listening. “The crazy part is that Islam has Jesus returning in the second coming.”
I barely knew about the first coming, now a second appeared in the works.
“Basically, all of the big religions say the exact same thing: don’t get full of yourself, help those in need, and the soul is eternal.” He tossed some of my words back at me. “I guess you could say it’s hillbilly simple.”
Eternity didn’t make sense, especially for a fictional soul, but not being conceited, and helping others, struck me as reasonable guidance.
“That’s why I stopped and picked you up. You were in need of a ride, and I have one.” He smiled. “I may not always have a lot, but I’ve learned to spread it around.”
“So which one are you?” I wanted to establish whose side he took, Hatfield or McCoy, or maybe he was a revenuer. “Which religion?”
“I don’t know. They all offer some things I hold close, and they all say some things I don’t agree with… I pray to my God.” He looked up through the windshield. “After I pray I listen, and when I hear him speak, I trust what he says.”
I nodded knowingly, but had no idea what he meant. Maybe he hallucinated on a regular basis.
Treetop seemed to recognize that I’d absorbed enough to keep me thinking, and he changed the topic.
“See this,” he asked, gripping a red wooden apple on the end of the shift lever sprouting from the side of the steering column. “My wife made it.”
“This is quite a mobile you have here.”
“Yep, designed it myself,” Treetop made a loose fist, cocked an arm above his head, so his thumb pointed to the rear, and said, “Heck, my second son was even born in back. We were in Utah and I decided to name him the way the Navajo do.” He brought his arm back down and patted the seat like it was a good horse. “When a child is born the father names it for the first things he sees after the birth.” Then, with a well rehearsed flow, “I stepped out the back of the camper, looked up, saw a butte in the distance with a pure white cloud floating over it… so I named him Butte Cloud.” Treetop looked at me for reaction.
“Cool,” is all I could muster. But envisioned Butte sitting in school dying to change his name.
Treetop, it seemed, enjoyed telling stories. But mostly he liked yodeling. “Two weeks ago I won the National Yodeling Contest. I’m the new US champion.”
Until then I didn’t know such a champion existed. Yodeling struck me as something only a person with supreme confidence could pull off. Sounding ridiculous and letting people see through the shell of personal decorum isn’t for everyone.
His voice brightened and lost the smooth delivery he’d projected so far. “Yep, the competition was in Tennessee and I won. Won the whole thing. Couldn’t believe it.” He turned to me and the twinkle I saw in his eyes when getting in turned to a sparkle. “You want to hear me yodel?”
“I’m goin’ to pull over,” he said, “so we can step out.”
We stopped on an empty side road and once out of the truck, standing, there was nothing horizontal about Treetop. He was a vertical man. His long thin frame pointed up, his beard formed an arrow pointing down, and his legs rose like saplings out of the ground. He cupped his right hand next to his mouth, making half a megaphone, tilted his head back, and let loose.
Suddenly I realized that yodeling is best done in open spaces. The undulations in pitch from high to low seemed to break through a musical sound barrier. He kept a quick rhythm and melody that reminded me of birds darting through trees. And although his pitch roamed wild, the hollow notes resounded with fluid ease. The last wail trailed off and he brought his hand down, looked at me, and slapped his thigh.
I stood motionless, replaying the sounds in my head. Then, as if breaking from a trance, “Oh man! How’d you learn to do that!?”
“Most people have never heard real yodeling,” he said, looking pleased he’d enlightened another neophyte. “Most folks think yodeling is all about Switzerland, but it’s used in New Guinea, India, Brazil, all across the world. If you need to be heard over a long distance, you can’t beat it.” His music jazzed me. While stepping back to the car I too became interested in yodeling.
He settled into the driver’s seat and as we drove off Treetop reminisced comfortably. “There were these ol’ boys at the county fair playing bluegrass, you know banjos and mandolins, and one of them starts yodeling.” He looked down, rocked his head back and forth a bit and chuckled, “I was just eleven but that was it. It hooked me.” He took a slow deep breath. “That was 1954.”
I still couldn’t shake the unnatural vocalizations I’d heard. Treetop’s arms hung loose on the wheel, traffic stayed light, and he settled back in his seat even farther. “I went out and bought a record called So You Want to Yodel.”
I blurted, “You’ve got to be kidding,” and started laughing. “There’s a record for that?”
He chuckled too. “No, that’s the truth, I swear,” he said. “The first instructions told me to close the windows and doors.”
I kept laughing, but now harder. Unfortunately, I could relate. “Yeah, I actually tried yodeling once when I was twelve. Don’t know why. I figured no one could hear me since I was in my bedroom, but after about five seconds my mom shouted down asking if I was sick.”
Now it was his turn to laugh. “Yep, a little embarrassment is good for the soul. Keeps us humble.”
I hated embarrassment. Saw no reason for it, and worked to hide from it.
He sat upright in his seat again. “You’ve got to use two voices,” he said instructionally, “and be able to switch between them without anyone knowing.” He sounded like a musical magician. “Singing from my chest gives the lower tones, and moving my voice into my noggin gives the higher notes.” Now, armed with that knowledge, he prodded me into yodeling.
I sounded like crap, which is an insult to crap. That moment marked the end of any aspirations I may have had to become a famous yodeler. But I didn’t feel uncomfortable. He provided an easy audience.
“Don’t worry, it takes a lot a practice,” he said with a practiced kindness, and let out another quavering howl. His one breath seemed to last forever, until he emptied like a leaky balloon. Pulling in another breath, he continued, “Not much yodeling in rock-n-roll, and that’s too bad.”
“No, not much. That’s probably why they didn’t call themselves the Yodeling Beatles.”
We laughed again.
Time drifted by and in the back of my mind I wondered what a man like this might do for a living. He probably couldn’t make ends meet yodeling. I figured his job would be exotic, maybe spiritual, for sure kooky. “So what do you do for a living?”
“I pick fruit.”
I didn’t respond. Understanding he, and probably his entire family, were migrant farm workers; transient filed pickers. From an outsider’s view he couldn’t get much lower on the social ladder. Instead, I pictured him higher, more respected, a professor.