Chapter 1 –Jake’s Journey Begins
I started to come down here when I was around five. I first came down here to hide. My Mom and Dad had split up. I wanted my parents to be happy and for us to be a happy family. We weren’t like that, though, and I was really sad about that. I needed to cry, and I didn’t want anyone to see. So I came down here. Down by the highway. I could see the freeway lights, the traveling cars, and the moon. I climbed the tallest tree I could climb, and I stayed here late that first night -- crouched in the tree and crying to the moon.
I kept coming down here after that, down to my private sanctuary right next to the highway. I came here for peace. I often came to contemplate issues in my life. I also came down here to read. It was quiet here, and I liked that. I would find my favorite notch of my favorite tree and sit and read my novel for an entire summer day. The highway was the only distraction, and I eventually learned to tune that out. I began to truly understand the beauty of the highway by coming down here. It led to thousands of other people from thousands of other places. People living happy lives. I wanted to live one of those lives; I suspected that the secret to a happy life was to live in one of those other places. I knew that the highway could lead me to that place.
Right now I am in my sanctuary thinking that I should know my destination already. You know, the place where I would find my life. I have discovered it is a very mystical place that keeps eluding me. I had gone to college because I thought that was the direction my life was meant to follow. I failed out of college at the end of the last school year, though, and that made me miserable. I never thought that I would do poorly in school; I had always earned good grades and done well before. Suddenly I didn’t earn those grades anymore, though, and my life was starting to slide away from me. College didn’t feel like the right path anymore. I am frantically trying to pick up the pieces of my life as quickly as I can, but I keep spilling them as quickly as I pick them up. I haven’t been able to start to put the pieces back together again yet, either.
After I failed out of the University of Nebraska, Kearney, I came back home. I was told that I had to work at my grandfather’s tailor shop; I was not allowed to work anywhere else. I was frustrated that I wasn’t allowed to find my own job. My Mom said that I had not earned that freedom yet, that I had earned a limited job selection because of my recent behaviors. She said that I could choose a job by myself once I showed that I could handle living my life properly. She also said that the shop might be handed down to me. If I grew to completely understand the shop and if, of course, I was in good graces with my grandfather, then the shop might be handed down to me. I stress the word might, mind you. Until those days, though, I must work for my grandfather.
Begrudgingly I went to work for Gramps. I tried to learn the ‘ins’ and ‘outs’ of the shop, but he wouldn’t teach me any of them. I was assigned to cut fabric. Every day! I grew to hate the sound of scissors. Snip, snip, snip! Couldn’t he see that I was capable of something more difficult than scissor duty?! That frustrated me even further, and it made my life that much more unpleasant.
I had not expected to have to go through this kind of drudgery. High school is supposed to be the perfect environment for the students to learn to use their minds, and I had done well in high school. Then we were supposed to go to college to teach us how to think even more efficiently. I thought that I’d zip through college just like I had zipped through high school. Then I would be ready to go out into the “real world” and make myself a lot of money with my wealth of knowledge.
I had discovered that I didn’t need to work hard in high school. I did most of the homework in a few minutes with little effort. That got me accepted into a number of colleges, and I had gone to University of Nebraska, Kearney. One of the first lessons that the college professors taught my classmates and me was to always assess and question everything. As I began to do that, I saw that there were principles and views that I valued more than I valued material wealth. I prioritized my life around those principles. I began to determine my belief structure. I figured that when I had completed that task then I could go out and make lots of money – but not before. Determining my belief structure was a significantly higher priority than money, wasn’t it? I began to be too busy thinking and analyzing and questioning everything to channel much energy toward schoolwork, though. Therefore I earned rotten grades and flunked out of school.
Failing out of University of Nebraska, Kearney completely altered my opinion of myself. I had always thought school was a snap, and I had thought that I was a pretty bright guy. Since I couldn’t handle school anymore, though, I felt I was a fool. A fool who was too busy questioning things to actually do anything. A dreamer and a louse. My Mom and Grandpa have even less faith in me after my expulsion from school than I do. That lack of faith seems to lead us to incessant bickering about everything!
Earlier tonight we fought about my future. My Mom wanted to know exactly what my plans for my life were, since I didn’t like her ideas. I told her that I wasn’t sure. That popped her cork, and she tore off on a rant. She said that it was high time I began to “plot my course,” that I had been procrastinating growing up long enough. Then her mental wheels began to turn, and she proceeded to reiterate her pathway for me once again. I should work hard for Gramps, learn all the nuances of the store, and prove that I deserved to have the store handed down to me. Gramps was very reticent about eventually bequeathing me his store, but he agreed that he would. He said that he would give the store to me once I proved my ability to run it completely. He was adamant about how I must prove my ability to run the entire store. I said that I did not really like working at the store, and that there was no way I wanted to spend the rest of my life doing it. I also said that I thought that the only reason he had given me a job was so that he could keep an eye on me and report my behavior back to Mom. Then she snapped, again. She said that he had given me the job because he loved me and was looking out for me. The only reason he hadn’t given me any responsibilities yet, she said, was because I had not proved that I could handle them! Then she started yelling about how I should be damn glad that my family accepted me back after I had failed out of school, let alone that my family had an opportunity for me. They were just trying to look out for my best interests. How could I not see that, she asked. I yelled back that I didn’t want the job, and that I still wanted to be away at school. Hell, I didn’t want to have my family always breathing down my neck. I would like to develop a life for myself outside of this little town, I screamed. She said that I had damn well better figure out where and how because she wasn’t going to give me another dime for school. I screamed that I didn’t expect her to pay for it. Then I pounded off to my room and slammed the door.
I had packed some stuff, and then I had stormed out of the house in a huff. I had grabbed some clothes, and threw them into my frame pack. I also grabbed my sleeping bag, my rucksack, my toiletry kit, a couple books, some cash and my ATM debit card. I made sure that I had my wits about me, too. I had come down here by the side of the highway to my sanctuary, and I had thought I was ready to leave home, to “plot my course.”
I didn’t think that I could handle living at home anymore. Fighting with my Mom gets to be really hard for me to handle. Can’t she see that I am well aware of the problems in my life, but that I haven’t figured out how to solve them yet? Doesn’t she realize that if I knew how to solve them, I would? What does she think I am? A fool? My problems are easily seen problems; they just aren’t easily solved. I always try like hell to solve the problems, and I also regularly think I have done so. That is when my implemented solutions backfire, and I can see the errors in my approach. That is also when I realize that I am defeated, and I go back to square one to find another possible solution.
My Mom cannot stand most of my solutions. That is ninety percent of what we fight about. She always has her solutions that do not correspond well to my values, and my solutions never correspond with her set of values. Hence, we regularly fight. She forgets that it is my decision because it is my life! Her decision may be wiser, and I try to remain open to that. It is simply that we are different people, and we need to give each other the freedom to be different. She always gets so bitchy when I do not choose her solution, though, and I don’t understand why.
That is what I was thinking a couple of hours ago. Then my self-confidence faltered, and I began to doubt myself. What would happen between my Mom and me if I left? Would it be any better than it currently is? Would we ever speak to each other again? Shit, what would happen to me if I left? Would I be able to survive? I’m sure that I would do what I wanted, but would those things actually steer me down a pathway that would bring me some success? Whatever the hell that pathway is.
I guess it really doesn’t matter, though. I haven’t found my pathway yet, and the pathway Mom wants me to follow isn’t the right one. Run the tailor shop? Christ. If I leave, though, I will be completely on my own. Am I really ready for that? Can I handle that effectively? Will I? I don’t know. All I know is that I have been down here most of the morning trying to muster up the guts to stick out my thumb.
And then a westbound car pulled over.
“I’m headed west. That where you’re headed?” asked the bearded driver, “If you are, get in. You can put your stuff in the back seat.” He pulled down the front seat.
I froze. Decision time. Did I really want to leave home? If I left, I would leave my entire life behind.
“Did you hear me?” he asked again.
Am I really ready to leave? I don’t know…screw it, I’d go. If I stay, Mom and I will just end up fighting about something else. So I threw my stuff into the back seat, and I plopped down in the front seat of the car.
“Where exactly are you headed?” the driver asked as we pulled onto the highway.
“Ahh,” he smirked, looking at me in his rearview mirror, “Kind of like a soldier hanging by his teeth from a branch over a canyon, huh?”
“What?” I scowled.
“His hands cannot reach any branch and his feet cannot reach any limb. Then his sergeant calls to him. What does he do?”
“If he does not answer, he fails by not answering his Sergeant. If he does answer, he falls to his death. What should he do?”
“What in the hell does that have to do with anything?” I said bluntly.
“It’s kind of like the reason you are here, right? You look fairly young…so I am going to guess that you are leaving home. Good guess?”
“Yes,” I answered, and the driver began to nod his head. He looked away from the mirror and got back onto the highway.
And then the parable began to sink in. Staying at home would be like hanging on to the tree with my teeth and not answering the call of the highway. Answering the call of the road would mean letting go of the branch and falling into the canyon.1
“That’s a very good analogy,” I said.
“What is your name? My name is Jake,” I said, and I thrust out my hand.
“My name’s Joey. It’s nice to meet you, Jake,” he said, shaking my hand firmly. “You’ll love being out on the road. It’s invigorating. I love the freedom of traveling. Fell in love with it when I was in my early 20s. About your age, I’d guess.”
This was it. Complete freedom…while I was falling all the way down the canyon. There were no guarantees with the freedom. I might fall all the way down, but I might catch a hold of something jutting from the canyon wall at some juncture. Hell, I might grow wings and be able to fly. The freedom felt great, though. I was now on the road, and this guy…this Joey…was my guide.
Joey didn’t talk much so I broke out one of my books. It was The Way of Zen, by Alan Watts. It began by telling the story of Taoism. Then it told how Buddhism developed after Taoism, and it detailed the absorption of Buddhism into China and eventually into Japan as well. At that time, Confucianism and Taoism were very popular in China. Confucianism is a very societal and conscientious philosophy; Taoism and Buddhism promote doing one’s own thing independent of society and minding one’s own affairs. Confucianism’s moral and ethical influence on Buddhism made it a more socially accepted religion, and that was critical to Buddhism’s popularity in Japan. I was just to the part of the book where Watts began to explain that the true principle behind Zen is the paradox of being a Buddha without intending to be a Buddha. I realized, though, that I could not concentrate on reading now because of the road, especially not on a complex subject like Eastern thought.
I looked up from the book and over at Joey. I had been wary about hitchhiking. I would have to ride with whoever picked me up. That made me really think twice about hitchhiking. I mean, who would actually stop and pick up a hitchhiker? I wouldn’t. Only a weirdo would, right? That was another reason that I hadn’t stuck out my thumb. Fear. As I was leaning there against a tree all afraid, though, some guy had pulled over and offered me a ride. I would have to be awfully careful with this guy, I had thought. He seemed fairly bright, though.
I didn’t know what to make of Joey. He couldn’t have been on a business trip. He was dressed too casually for that. I didn’t spot a lot of luggage, and I wondered what that meant. Was he on vacation? He didn’t seem like he had seen civilization in weeks. What did that mean? What did his silence indicate? What in the hell was he thinking? I had to swallow my fears and bite my tongue, given the circumstances. He could just be silent because we hadn’t known each other long. He might also be focused on where he was going. All I know is that he kept his mouth shut. I guess that was fair. It was his car, after all. Was he on a permanent vacation? He had said he was a traveler and loved traveling. He could just travel from town to town to town, pick up hitchhikers, deceive them, and eventually kill them. I didn’t know yet, and I decided that it would be a wise idea to be on my guard.
I couldn’t help but wonder about him, though. Why was he on the road? Was he just traveling to the next town? Where did he live? Did he even call somewhere home? What was his home life like? Did he have kids? I didn’t think so. It seemed like he had been on the road for quite a while. He seemed like a permanent traveler, and that was diametrically opposed to family life. Maybe he became a permanent traveler because he had troubles like me. Maybe he had decided to leave town one day because of those troubles. Maybe not. Maybe he was just another husband who was going home to his family tonight.
I thought of Mom as I thought about family. Would she freak out? Definitely. She would probably scream, yell, and cry to my Grandpa. She would hate the fact that I had left. She might actually miss me, though. I wasn’t a parent, but I can’t imagine what it would feel like to have your kids up and leave you. Mom would probably be depressed because all of the men in her life leave her, too. My Dad had disappeared one morning when I was around three years old. He had never come back. What did that say about her? I guess she could always say that genetics were not stacked in her favor; I was destined to leave her because of my genetic makeup. My departure still had to sting, though.
She probably thought that this was another one of my ‘cock-a-mamie ideas.’ She had always accused me of being prone to those sorts of ideas. ‘Oh there you go with your cock-a-mamie ideas again!’ she’d say. And that always made me feel like shit. Like complete and total shit. Like I would never figure out my life. Like all I could do was dream up more and more ways to fuck up my life. That really stung. I’d show her, dammit. I probably should have thicker skin, but she shouldn’t have made me feel that way. Parents are supposed to treat their kids nicely, you know. In all fairness, though, she did have a lot of stress with her husband gone, having to deal with all of my antics, having to work to pay our bills, and having that work be for her father.
Because of all the responsibilities she needed to focus upon, she had been busy an awful lot when I was growing up. That gave me time to watch a lot of television. I loved Sesame Street2 and The Electric Company3. Mister Roger’s Neighborhood4 had also been on, but I hated Mister Rogers. I began school at essentially the same time.
My report cards said that my performance was exceptional but that my attitude was insufficient. My teachers thought I was a troublemaker. That wasn’t true. I wasn’t a troublemaker; I just always wanted to have fun, and I thought I could afford to do so. I loved to find humor in anything and everything, and that was more important to me than school. Enjoying my life is still my number one priority. One must enjoy his life. We do only go around once, right? School was a blast, and I loved it. Elementary school was fun, and junior high school was even better. Friends, cafeteria lunches, food fights, breakdancing, and parachute pants. Adolescence began, and we grew into who ‘likes’ who and who doesn’t. And kissing and touching and feeling. It was a great time.
That lead into high school, and high school was pretty cool, too. We got into reliving the 1960s. That music, man! The mystery behind all the cool vibes and the psychedelic drugs. Peace, Love, Dope! Our generation had learned that we needed to find our niches and look normal, though. So we tried to be clean-cut Reagan-ites who wanted to leave high school, walk into Gordon Gekko’s Wall Street office5, and demand a high-paying job, a cool car, and Daryl Hannah.
We tried hard to get laid while we were in high school, too. We talked our socks off to any girl who looked our way. All of the girls heard us, but none of them showed that they could hear. I learned that you could also only chase the girls that were within your current social circle. It was tough to figure out who those girls were, but a best friend could usually lend you a hand.
“What about Teri Petersen, man? She cool?” you’d ask.
“Yeah, man. TOO cool! She wouldn’t even look at you! You gotta find a chick that is the same cool as you, man. A chick that’s ‘do-able,’” he’d say back with a frown.
That is what a big portion of high school turned out to be. A drunken festival of ‘scoping chicks’ and ‘getting laid.’ Sure my grades suffered a smidgeon, but the chicks were calling! They were more appealing than my ‘Pre-Calculus’ or ‘Eastern Asian Civilizations’ classes as well, so I concentrated on them instead.
When I went away to college, the partying opportunities were even more tempting with even cuter chicks – plus we were living on our own now! I had no self-discipline, and I was always chasing some skirt around campus. While I had been able to make it through high school without much effort, college would not be that way at all. After initial binge drinking and chasing the ladies, I began to see the college as a resource upon which I should capitalize. The professors were trying to teach us to use our brains effectively by building the capabilities of our minds so we could use them to our advantage; I saw that a little too late. I got poor grades the first semester, and I was rewarded with being named to academic probation. I decided to quit drinking and concentrate on my schoolwork; I quit drinking and partying. I found another beautiful girl, though. I spent all of my time fawning over her instead of doing my schoolwork again. It turned out that my second semester grades were only a smidgeon better than my first semester grades. I had made it through my freshman year alive, though. Over the summer, I couldn’t decide if I should go back to school or not. I decided that, if I went back, I would make the most of the opportunity. My Mom was being nice enough to pay for it, after all. I should show her that I appreciate that.
I returned to school for my sophomore year, and I initially toned my social life down. I eventually discovered another girl, though. Suddenly I found myself skipping classes just to see her walk by, or skipping class just to sit and talk with her. I developed a computer habit, too. The school was connected to a network similar to the Internet before the Internet was available to the public, Bitnet. I could stay up until all hours of the night and chat to various people around the world on Bitnet. Or I could sit and use the ‘Phone’ function to talk to people all over campus. Especially that new girl in my life. That was it, I failed out. Boom.