I Believe In Traveling Light
I told myself to take the first job. The first, no matter what. I wrote this down on a piece of paper and taped it to the dashboard of my car as I drove cross country.
I moved back to the United States from rural, southern Japan in fall of 2009. Immediately upon returning to my parent’s house in Missouri, I packed and left for San Francisco. I spent a week in the sun, but left feeling like a shopper staring through the window of a store filled with everything I wanted. It was all out of reach. I had no plans, and once again, no future.
I came back to this country thinking that I should finally use my bachelor’s degree. I spent two-and-a-half years powering through an undergrad, and I was ashamed for not applying the content. I sat in my old bedroom in my parent’s house and felt otherwise removed from life.
I was flat broke. I looked for work, but my return coincided with a recession, and I wasn’t shiny enough to hire into anything legitimate.
Twenty-six years old and as aimless as when I came back from the Iraq war at twenty-two.
I panicked. I was too young for an existential crisis, but I was marinating in it. I applied to a small law enforcement training facility to become certified as a law enforcement park ranger in Mount Vernon, Washington.
I left on the day after Christmas.
The war changed nothing, but left me with the intense feeling of displacement. The Army gave us all awards at the end of the tour for being in the line of fire. The badge is a bayonet overlaying a wreath of oak branches. Things went boom and shook the earth. People died and I received a paper with a tacky metal pin. The spot counter for mortars estimated five hundred-or-so strikes for the year.
I learned to laugh at the worst things. Gallows humor. A sergeant was injured by a mortar. The blast was close and went up under his body armor and helmet. The helicopter that transported him was staffed by Dan Rather of the CBS Evening News. I laughed at the squeamish faces the reporter made.
I laughed, too, because the Sergeant was hurt at the end of an impromptu confidence course devised by a promotion-hungry Major. The confidence course was dismantled in response and our collective morale unraveled.
My friend Melvin died in the morning. Melvin would study textbooks at night and was worried that the war would delay him finishing his undergrad in physics. Melvin was a built dude with a rough face who made extra money to cover the added costs of school by dancing in his uniform for bachelorette parties.
Melvin said that he would make more money with a baby face like mine. I figured that I would find a greater level of self-worth and confidence if I had a body like his. It was a friendship defined by shared envy.
Melvin died in the morning. The mortar dropped into the toilet trailer and detonated. The shrapnel perforated his torso, razor sharp pieces lodged throughout. They sat on him to keep him from moving, but he was strong. He was really strong. The fragments lodged in his chest did most of the work, each involuntary and terrible movement cut him inside out. He couldn’t scream.
He couldn’t scream.
The sun cooked the insides of the trailer and burnt the wet fluids into a thick plaque. We mopped up the blood with bleach water and threw the mops in the incinerator. The trailer was repaired but remained disused.
It smelled clean.
Melvin died shaving. I stopped shaving and grew my first, worst mustache ever. Solidarity, or something.
The chain of command felt that his death was distasteful, that dying in the toilet made for a poor obituary. They rewrote his passing as an act of heroism, to include changing his place of death to somewhere else entirely. Our deaths, like the war, could be without any particular reason and edited in the aftermath.
They set up a shrine in the recreation shelter. Each of us marched in front of a pair of boots with dog tags dangling over an M16. At my turn, I pivoted in place, saluted and stared at nothing.
I sneezed in full salute. Ghosts.
I learned to laugh at the close calls. I felt emboldened each time, as if I was in control of my own mortality. I was either naive, or invulnerable, or already gone and my memory was trying to catch up.
I woke up gasping every night. I woke up at night thinking, my mind racing, my mind linking thoughts together. I woke up so many times that I would stay awake, that I simply gave up.
Someone was deep in my shadow trying to shock me with each step. The person I was no longer was trying to bring me home.
The cold of Alaska is penetrating. I’ve slept in the same heavy wool union suit and Carhartt overalls for five days. My short hair has matted shorter against my scalp.
I swore an oath to myself that I would take the first job made available. Before I was even a third of the way through my academy, I was recruited to a small monument in Sitka, Alaska. I drove from Washington to Prince Rupert, British Columbia. I maxed out my credit card for a ferry ticket.
As an act of transformation, I shaved my mustache.
I wander from the tent to the car and prepare meals. I still have half a family-sized jar of peanut butter and most of a bottle of molasses. I prepare the last of the bread and think of the sandwiches as luxury meals. I sit on the ground and eat the peanut butter from the jar and take a swig of molasses.
I arrived in Sitka cold and miserable from travel. I couldn’t afford a cabin on the ferry, and spent my nights sleeping outside on a deck chair. The low temperatures felt exaggerated due to my naked face. I checked in at the monument and was informed that the person who recruited me left the agency. The residual personnel would have to figure out how to hire me. I was not an employee, so my housing was withheld. I was told to be patient.
I draw shapes in the snow with my finger. I eat the snow from the inside of a star and sing the parts of Lucky Star I remember from the movie Alien. I audibly sigh, but no one hears it. But, I hear it, and I figure the mountain hears it, but chooses not to care. I eat snow until I run out of shapes. Time passes.
“I am homeless.” I say this to myself several times each day to reaffirm my situation. I am homeless.
I walk toward the mountain and look for places where sticks or branches have been shielded from the weather. I gather whatever semi-dry timber I find and build a fire. I average approximately twenty minutes of heat. I am mesmerized by the flames and stare at them as a form of meditation. I am transfixed. I rub my left thumb over my left index finger in a counterclockwise motion until the fire is squelched by the weather. My mustache-less face is continuously shocked by the wind.
I spent my free time in my sleeping bag reading. My headlamp has a cone adaptor to illuminate the entire cavity of the tent. I read Dune, an EMT certification textbook, and the Army Field Survival Guide. I read Slaughterhouse Five and a beginner’s guide to SCUBA diving. I lay on my back and watch the condensation accumulate on the interior of the tent. I watch the glitter of the droplets in the lamp light. By morning this will all be frost. I test my memory of what I just read and consider my survival in a nuclear blast.
I turn on my iPhone before sleep and hold it just so with my arms fully outstretched and watch the one bar of a 2G connection scrape fresh messages and email. Nothing interesting. I power the phone down to save battery. I can charge the phone in the car, but the car has to be running, and I’ve only a limited amount of fuel. I forgot to check Facebook and consider that it may be for the best.
I spend the next few days in this same cycle. I become lazier and resigned once the bread is gone. I sit in the snow and eat the peanut butter, unceremoniously. I lick the runoff molasses from the edge of the bottle, unceremoniously. I eat the snow, unceremoniously.
I read Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. I read the Bible. I tear the pages I complete to hear a sound other than my breathing. I tear the pages into the shapes I used to draw in the snow. I peel out a star from the Bible. I eat a part of Leviticus. Time passes.
I am so absolutely desperate to be warm. I wear a thermal shirt and leggings under the wool union suit. I wear an academy button-up shirt with the overalls. I tie two tube socks together and wear them as a crown over my ears with a baseball cap. I lean in and inspect my presence in the car mirror. I laugh at nothing.
Each day, I walk closer toward the mountain gathering scraps to burn. The travel takes me further and further from camp, and my results are dwindling. I rub my left thumb over my left index finger in a counterclockwise motion as I walk in the twilight empty handed.
Back at camp, I power on my iPhone and scan the messages. I receive a voicemail that my hire is still pending, and that it is in my best interest to be patient. I drop the phone in the snow and whimper. I haven’t cried in a long time, but this seemed like a worthwhile moment. I imagine the tears streaming down and crystalizing into ice by the time they are at my chin. I do not cry. I laugh at nothing.
I pick up the phone and turn it off.I lay in the sleeping bag and do mental math to determine my time in stasis. I could evaluate the ferry receipt on my phone for the specific duration, but decide not. There’s valuable mystery in not knowing.
I lay perfectly still and imagine the pace of the Earth spinning. I think of my friends and acquaintances going to work, going to bed, getting out of bed and going to work, the cycle perfect and infinite throughout every generation of humanity.
I sigh at nothing. I laugh at nothing. I turn off the light.
I cry a little. No one hears it.
I’m twenty-two and a ghost.
I’m twenty-two and a ghost and I’m drunk somewhere west of Billings, Montana.
Upon returning to the United States and being outprocessed from the war, I had an excess of annual leave. I decided to disappear for a while. Maybe a month or so. I packed a small bag of clothes and lined the rear floorboard of my car with my favorite CDs. The speedometer to my Dodge Neon didn’t work, so I wedged a monochrome Garmin GPS in the dash to track my travels.
I didn’t know where I was going, or if I was really leaving anything, or why I should go anywhere. I felt displaced from the entire ribbon of time. I felt ashamed to be alive, because my existence was at the expense of people I felt were greater than I was, or were greater than I had the potential to be. I would learn that this is called survivor’s guilt.
I was scarred by living. I couldn’t sleep. I didn’t sleep. I laid in bed and counted from zero to one hundred, then back to zero, then to two hundred, then back to zero, and so on. I would smoke throughout the night. I would smoke unfiltered cigarettes when I felt that the filtered ones weren’t effective.
I drove west with nowhere to be. I called my best friend, who then lived south of Seattle. I was in the vast emptiness of Wyoming. I talked at length about how I drove on the interstate for an hour without seeing another vehicle. My friend asked if I had a spare tire, which I didn’t. She feared that no one would assist a weirdo with weirdo tattoos in the middle of nowhere. I bought a black cowboy hat at a thrift store to appear more conventional.
I charted Forest Service properties on the GPS. Dispersed camping was free and it guaranteed that I would be nowhere.
I’m twenty-two and a ghost and I’m drunk somewhere west of Billings, Montana. I’m laying on the hood of my car with a mostly empty bottle of discount bourbon.
My aimless driving led me to a fire road, which led to another fire road, which was about as officially the middle of nowhere as possible. Eventually, the cuts in the road were too hazardous for my tiny sedan, so I backed out and steered the car into a cut of trees for the night.
I grabbed a fresh pint of bourbon from the back seat of the car and climbed on top. I laid there on the bug crusted hood, legs agog, and tipped my head back to the windshield, which knocked the cowboy hat into my lap. I carefully scanned my surroundings and confirmed that I was successfully hidden. I opened the bottle and drank and drank and drank. I kept the bottle upright and breathed through my nostrils. The booze tore up the walls of my throat, but I persisted until I couldn’t take in anymore. The bottle was mostly empty in one long draw.
I’m twenty-two and I’m a ghost and I’m hidden. I’m hiding. I’ve spent my nights on the road behaving the same way every night. I drive to nowhere. I hide in the car. I hide outside of the car. I pass out with the cowboy hat and consider the drunk sleep the sleep I am otherwise missing out on.
I was so completely comforted in the silence, but terrified of it when sober. Life wasn’t just getting away from me. Life wasn’t ever even there. I was struggling for the right to be forgotten.
I choked down the last bit of the bourbon and stared at the myriad stars in the sky. I imagined myself in Iraq staring at the same stars. I imagined us staring at the same stars, the sky reflecting us as a mirror. The in together dream club.
I imagined the stars as mechanical satellites committing thousands of data transactions between the ghost drunk on the car and the ghost in Iraq. I mumbled messages to the satellites, but I was unable to produce sound. My vocal chords were wrecked. I tried louder, more forcefully. I lifted my torso up from the windshield and I yelled at the sky. I yelled and rocketed heavy threads of spittle down my chin. I yelled red faced and deranged.
“WE’RE STILL HERE! WE’RE STILL HERE!”
“GODDAMMIT! WE’RE STILL HERE!” I couldn’t scream.
I couldn’t scream.
I leaned back against the windshield and slid down the hood of the car onto the ground. I felt this intense wellspring of rage and fury immediately cooled into helplessness. I was hidden at the bottom of my little life. I stared up at the sky and rubbed my left thumb over my left index finger in a counterclockwise motion. A strong breeze whipped through the trees and the cowboy hat tumbled down next to me. I placed the hat over my face and passed out.
The data transfer was mostly complete.
I coughed myself awake and began to count from zero to one hundred.
I sat in the snow to watch another sunset. I held my arms across my knees and rocked back and forth in protest. My body was exhausted from my diet of peanut butter and molasses.
I walked all the way to the base of the mountain, but found no firewood. This makes two entire days without fire, and my body hungers to watch the flames. My daily existence is otherwise punctuated by my short time with the fire. I wake up wanting to be by the fire. I spend my day soggy and cold and desperate for the fire.
I stop my rocking, stand up and pace the immediate area of the camp. I pace back and forth, faster and faster, and I savor the heat my body can generate. I jog with the full weight of all my layers of clothes and warm the stench saturated throughout. I look up at the starless sky and watch my breath dissolve the flurries in flight. I am quickly exhausted and dizzy and trip over my feet. I land face-first in the snow. I roll to my back and breath shallowly. I stare up at the sky and rub my left thumb over my left index finger in a counterclockwise motion.
I lay there until the landscape is the color of ink. I reach into the tent, pull out the headlamp, and affix it to my forehead just above the tube sock crown.
I count the lows of my life. I think of the inevitability of existence and block out the worst parts to convince myself that I have survived worse. I listen to the snow afloat as it scrapes across the branches of a nearby tree. The wind is still and I listen to my heartbeat.
I listen to my heartbeat slow down. I shiver in time to my diminished pulse.
I pull out all of the books from the tent and pile them up. I kick the snow out of the fire ring and shred the already torn pages of the Bible and Being and Nothingness. I line the base of the ring with this kindling. I dismantle the remaining books, but keep the survival guide. I fish out a small bag of corn chips from my rucksack and a lighter. I place a few of the chips within the center of the papers and ignite them. The corn chips burn evenly across the literature, and I feed the flames with the remaining books.
I pull out my academy uniforms and toss them on the fire. I collect every extraneous incinerable object from my campsite and pile it within the pit: trash, notes, letters, a notebook of vanity writings titled How We Are Here. The synthetic fabric of the clothing shrivels up and belches big black clouds of chemical smoke. I sit and stare into the fire and eat the remaining chips.
I am made whole in this experience, but I am no phoenix. I purge my emotion amongst the flames. I whisper every awful story of my past. I tell the fire my regrets. My failures. My envies. My shame. I tell the fire all of my weaknesses.
I tell the fire that I thought that I was adopted. How around seven or eight, I realized that the first photographs of me occurred somewhere well after birth. How I felt that my parents exercised a limited amount of possessory ownership over me because of this delusion. How I was absolutely wrong and an awful child in the process.
I tell the fire of my first trip to a bathhouse. How I walked the entire perimeter of the building and hid in the dark. How I was given business cards. How I had to pull over on the interstate to vomit in a ditch. How I wondered how anything good came from want.
I tell the fire the stories of the war. How I was left living with a war. How I established an internal system to compartmentalize everything. To take the feelings and put them in boxes. To seal the boxes. To stack the boxes neatly. To lock them all away. To imagine that none of them ever really existed in the first place.
I kick at the fire and several bits of text shake free, dancing amongst the heat. My story messed up with stories more poignant. My story dissolved in the glow.
There is a small break in the clouds above, a brief window into the dense universe. I flop back into the snow and whisper intently to the stars.
And, “I’m here. I’m still here.”
The embers turn to ashes, and I scatter my soul into outer space.