The Slowest Roller Coaster
I was standing on the subway platform last night—it must have been on the A, C, E line at Penn Station, because I had just come from Hartford, and before that Springfield, and before that the mountains– when a blue balloon floated past my leg toward the tracks, and running after it a little boy. I had a big backpack on at the time, and so I used my foot to kick the balloon back to the platform, before I realized there was someone chasing it. The blue balloon bounced off of the little boy so quickly that he kept on running toward it. It’s hard to catch a balloon. Keeping the yellow line at the edge of the platform in view, so as not to lose my balance, I grabbed the little boy by the shoulder with my right hand, and scooped the balloon toward us with my left. It all happened very quickly. At that point, he looked me in the eye and I saw him for the first time: He must have been about four, Asian, short, dark hair, and a big smile. He had no idea. He was just happy to have his balloon back.
I believe every action I’ve ever done led up to this point, for this reason. I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t been standing on that platform at that exact moment. I believe I hiked 700 miles from Maine through Massachusetts for this boy and his balloon—and for his mother, and his ancestors, and his future children, and the innocence of everyone around us. I suppose that makes me a fatalist. And some would say that means I have to deny free will. I wish I could deny free will; life would be much easier that way.
I feel my will like a fire in my throat. Often it seems to consume me and I find myself lost in cities I can’t pronounce, or throwing up in train privies, or beating on animal skin drums behind used car dealerships. Some of my friends really do think I’m crazy, and I can see their eyebrows furrow a little as they try to understand why I do the things I do. They say words like “extreme” and “unpredictable”. And a few–who do not like these words and their possibilities–have decided it’s safer to not be my friend, and honestly, I can’t blame them. I can’t blame anyone. I am at the mercy of a will that is bigger than my mind, and somehow connected to my heart.
If you’ve ever seen the movie “Donnie Darko” you can see what I’m trying to convey: A fluid and invisible force that emanates from our center and pulls us toward our desires, whether we wish to go or not. Sometimes mine splits into a dozen different streams: Appalachia, New York, New Mexico, California, France, South America, Montana, Canada. I want to be everywhere at once. It is motion that I crave, and stillness that I fear.
Every September of my childhood my dad and I went to the New Mexico State Fair. He would give me a few tickets, and wait for me as I went on the rides. I loved the ones that strapped you in, turned you upside down and whirled around. I loved screaming at the top of my lungs on these rides, ever though I was never really scared. The best ones took you inches from the pavement at top-speed, and yanked you back up to the sky where you could see, for a brief moment, the Sandia mountains miles away. My father close one minute, and looking up at me, ant-like the next. My dad would only ride the bumper cars and Ferris wheel with me.
I hated the Ferris wheel: The pause at the top, the gentle tilting of the chair, the slow rotating up, and descending down. It made me sick. The motion felt more intense, perhaps because each motion demanded more attention, contrasted with the stillness, taunted me because I couldn’t ignore it. I passionately dreaded the moment when my dad looked at me imploringly, wanting us to ride the Ferris wheel together. Each and every time I got so scared that I had to ask the operator to let me off. When I was older I even tried to ride the kiddie Ferris wheel. I couldn’t do it. I remember how the operator’s eyes rolled and he laughed as he let me, at fifteen years old, off the ride. Luckily, I never had to see him again, nor did I have to sit up there and tilt, slowly back and forth.
This roller coaster is rapidly aging me. Lately it feels like I live an entire lifetime in one day. I find myself saying to myself, “I wonder where I will sleep tonight?” This morning I found myself saying “Good morning” to everyone I passed on Broadway—not the Broadway of Manhattan, but the Broadway of Brooklyn: The Broadway of elevated trains, automobile bass and chicken bones cracking underfoot. The Broadway with no birch trees. The Broadway that doesn’t smell like campfire. The Broadway I expected to never see again.
“Mornin’ dah-ling. You have a nice day.”
“Well, good afternoon!
“Is it that late already?!
This is how you don’t get destroyed in Brooklyn. You say good morning. You say “good morning” and hope the people of these streets remember you in the evening. Manners are very important. I know. I’ve talked to kids who have mugged someone more “cause she was a stuck-up bitch” than for any other reason. As I greeted the five or six people I passed on the street this morning, their faces looked as surprised as I felt to be there.
This morning I woke up in Brooklyn; yesterday morning I woke up in a seedy hotel room in Agawam; the morning before that I snapped my eyes open on the floor of a pottery studio in Great Barrington. It goes on like this for the last three months. Every morning a new home.
Every day a new ride. Always praying I won’t break down.
* * *
I couldn’t look at my backpack anymore. The words “foodbag”, “shelter”, and “powerbar” made me want to scream. I wanted to wake up in the morning not freezing or wet. I wanted to wear a pair of jeans. I wanted to know that I would live tomorrow saying more than a few “hellos” and “goodbyes” to more than a few people. I lost all my motivation. I didn’t care anymore. I would live here, in Great Barrington, the last town I had traveled through after walking almost 700 miles. My invisible force did not go the direction of the Appalachian Trail. It didn’t go anywhere. It was still and that was terrifying. So, I asked the operator of my lofty goals to let me off.
I found myself in a hair salon, wearing a pair of jeans, drinking a latte. Staring into the mirror, I didn’t recognize myself, but reason that this is okay, right? Because who are we anyway? There is no self. That is what the Buddha taught. So, I will speed around changing myself in deference to this truth until I get dizzy and fall down. But this is just an escape. This is not exactly what Buddha meant. We can at first only see the no-self in stillness. The truth we see in stillness can indeed be terrifying.
It’s more terrifying than putting your life in the hands of a stranger who says, “I’ve never done this before. I can’t see what I’m doing.”
This is exactly what the grey-haired man in the orange vest told my friend and me as we sat, stranded in the rain on the side of the road. I had only owned that car for seven hours and this was the second time it broke down. In an effort to escape the beautiful monotony of hiking, I bought a car from a used car dealership for four thousand dollars, which happened to be a quarter of my entire life-savings.
“Hello, Car Kraft, this is Mike, how can I help you.”
“Hi, I’m passing through Great Barrington and I’m trying to get back to New York City. I’m interested in the Jetta, but I don’t have a car to come see you. Can you drive the Jetta to me so I can test-drive it?”
I knew at the time that this was an absurdly unreasonable request, but hey, you never know, some people are kind and accommodating. Some people are also hear things differently.
“Hello, Car Kraft, this is Mike, how can I help you.”
“Hi, I’m in Great Barrington right now. I don’t know anyone here so no one will know if you screw me over. I need a car right now; I don’t care if it’s a piece of shit because I just want to drive to New York City as soon as possible. Can you drive the Jetta to me so I can test-drive it?”
“Hi, well, normally we don’t do things like this, but we want to help you out and we have to bring some titles over to Pittsfield anyway, so maybe we can have Miranda swing through Great Barrington so you can see the car.”
Hey, I’m nobody’s fool. I’m from New York City, baby. I’m gonna be smart about this. I tell Miranda that we’re going to drive to Stockbridge to have “my mechanic” look at the car. I sense some tension in her voice, since she didn’t expect this. But we drive there and talk about mundane things like the weather, and our favorite drinks, and where I’m from and where she’s from. Tony fits us in about twenty minutes after we arrive. He concludes that the engine is sound, the car needs two new wheel bearings (whatever those are), an axel something-or-other and new tires. He also mentions that the muffler is rusted and will need to be addressed “sometime in the future”.
“But overall, it’s a good little car for the price.”
Great, just what I wanted to hear. We drive an hour back to Car Kraft (why do they have to misspell Craft?) and I deliver my mechanic’s report. They say it will take a day to fix all these things. “Sinz ju in taon a natha night, lez go ow fo drinks”. Miranda has a beautiful accent. She is from Guatemala, a soothing mixture of fire and earth. Total Woman.
After a couple drinks at the local pub, we drive back to Car Kraft. There is a full deck with Tiki torches in the back, and a river down below. This is where the people of Car Kraft come to party. A few minutes later the owners–two young dudes–show up, each with a case of Stella Artois in their hands. I only plan on having one or two, at most.
Fast-forward two hours.
“Heeeeyy!!! Looka her!! She got rhythm!”
Yeah baby! I can shake the Native-American rain-stick like no other gringa! I can also play a few chords on the guitar, even though it’s missing a string! I can sing backup on the Karaoke machine to songs I don’t know and I can dance! This is what the Appalachian Trail is all about: Going with the flow. Meeting people in strange places, partying by the river, buying used cars. Bonding.
It starts raining, so we go inside. Rolling across the floor in leather swivel chairs, toasting to “the journey”, breaking up the weed on at-a-glance desk calendars. Here’s to new cars and to new friends. Suddenly Mike says, “Hey, you guys wanna go in the other room and just feel the energy flow through us.” Now normally I would say, “No, I don’t want to go in the other room and just feel the energy flow through us. I can feel the energy just fine right here, thankyouverymuch”. But we’re all wearing cowboy hats and he is clearly married, as I can see by the thick gold wedding band on your his ring finger. And as for the other guy, he’s practically sexless. Plus, there are two other women with me, so the two are outnumbered. So, considering these conditions, “Yes, I do want to go in the other room and feel the energy flow through us”.
Things suddenly felt very critical. We’re getting spiritual. Do we bring the beer? Do we keep our cowboy hats on or off? Do we take off our shoes? Yes, let’s take off our shoes. Bring the beer and keep the hats on if you want to.
Cue sitar music. Seriously, that’s what Mike put on.
“Okay”, sexless guy says, “Do we want to separate the boys from the girls?”
“Nah”, Mike says, “Let’s just be natural”
We sat in a circle on the rug.
Mike: “Okay, let’s put our hands out, but not touching.”
A few “oohs” and “ahs” escaped someone’s lips. I felt nothing, but thought the whole thing was rather sweet.
“Okay, now let’s all put our hands in the middle one on top of the other”, Mike-the-conductor” says, “and just lift them up a little so they’re not touching.”
“Waouw! Iz like the enerjee eez jus flowink through me!”
I still felt nothing and hoped it would be over soon. And thankfully, after everyone got a head massage, it was. Now we could all relax. The official spiritual event had happened. Where did I leave my beer?
* * *
I slept in my cowboy hat. Miranda came to get us in our “new” car at eleven the next morning. All the repairs had been done and we just had to go back to the dealership, aka party-central, to sign the papers. An hour or so later I was on the road in my new ride! Soon I could pack up my things in the City and then drive home to the Land of Enchantment! An hour or so after that I was back at my mechanic.
“Well, it looks like your exhaust blew. You better drive back to the dealer and have them fix it.”
I wasn’t mad or angry. This is probably just a fluke. After all, we had a spiritual experience together. We jammed out, we held hands; these people wouldn’t try to jip me. But I had to put on my angry face nonetheless, lest they think I’m some kind of softie.
“Hey, I’m so sorry this happened”, sexless guy said, “follow me over to the muffler guy and we’ll get this fixed”.
I did. We waited together as he fixed the muffler.
“eez jus a little piece een tha middle. I cut it out an poot a new peez een. Half-hour.”
Sexless guy apologized to me over and over again. He said he was embarrassed and that this just happens sometimes. “Hey, cars break, ya know”. I tried my best to be stern and tough, but we ended up hugging it out and a half-hour later I was back on the road. Six o’clock: Time to start driving back to the city so I can get there before it’s too late.
Wooga wooga, rattle, Boom!
This cannot be hugged out! This is fucked up! I’m shaking. I can’t believe this is happening.
A few expletive-filled phone calls later, my friend Sissy Hankshaw and I are speaking with the old man driving the tow-truck who states, “I can’t really see what I’m doing. I’ve never done this before”. Awesome. I’ve never ridden in a car as it’s being towed! This is a first for both of us. How sweet. Should I call you in the morning?
We rode back to the dealership, my fourth time there in less than 24 hours, staring at the back of a tow truck with a bumper sticker that read: “It’s ok to have too much fun”. This was not my idea of fun, yet I tried my best to observe it all as part of the shooting-star will. Officially made an idiot of myself, by myself.
This ride might be going too fast. I can feel the bile in my stomach, my chest tensing, my head spinning. Now, in a strange city without a car, I wonder where I will sleep tonight.
* * *
Mike–CEO, CarKraft Inc.–picked us up in the lot. It was raining and dark. He refunded my money and drove us to a hotel, which in addition to a rental car for one day, he paid for. Staring through the window of the rental car, I found myself crying like a baby as I watched them walk away. Sissy Hankshaw and her/our dog Mable were back on the trail—the beautiful Appalachian Trail. Mable had her little blue backpack on, and through tears I saw her looking back at me, as she always does, waiting for me to catch up. I waved my hand and told her to go on. I got in the car and watched them disappear.
“I should get back on the trail. But I have to return this rental by noon. Maybe I’ll go back to Great Barrington. I made friends there. They told me they need a roommate–artist types. No, I’ll get a train to New York City. I miss the trail. I love the trail. Why am I here? Where am I going?”
I drove faster than I should have through winding route 20. First going east, then going west, the red and orange leaves fluttering out of the way as they do in car commercials, when zero miles-per-hour meets eighty. I really thought I might get back on the trail. My will kept turning the car around as it went in one direction and then another. At this moment I felt truly insane. Could I really abandon this endeavor after coming so far? How could I get back on the trail now that I had to return this rental car to the Connecticut airport? I was confused, and angry with myself.
“I’ll finish it up next year as a Northbounder, when there are more people on the trail, more daylight and more warmth. I wouldn’t have been able to finish this year anyway without doing 25 miles a day everyday. That’s no way to live. I want to enjoy it.”
These are the excuses I make for getting off the ride. It’s too slow, too terrifying. I’ll try again another time.
And maybe I truly will. I won’t do it to prove anything to myself or to tell people that I’ve done it. I’ll do it for the same reason I started doing it: For the trees. To see ‘Merica! That is, if I’m meant to do it. There might be another boy chasing a balloon who needs me somewhere. I’ll go to him.
By the way, my petite partner Sissy Hankshaw, whom I met in Maine, completed all 2,175 miles of the Appalachian Trail, periodically in snowshoes.
Walking the trail taught me to let go of my preconceptions, to stop trying to control all of my experience. Life is much richer this way. Even though I’m now in the biggest city in the United States and far from the birch trees and limestone rock faces, I still feel like I’m on the trail, At the mercy of fate, blowing any which way. I’m still dizzy from this ride. I’m still homeless. Going from the woods to New York City can be traumatizing, but it’s no Ferris wheel, that’s for sure.