On a drive up the coast of California, my destination Crescent City and a local writer’s conference there, I found that I was passing by a stream of hitchhikers. For a few miles, there had been signs warning motorists to be alert for cross traffic and pedestrians. When I approached the site of the possible road hazards, I realized that the crowd was heading toward or away from some kind of “earth” festival, the evidence of which I passed somewhere after Leggett. As I slowed to a crawl, I noticed the field dotted with sleeping tents, a stage set up—presumably--for bands, the pointy, white rows of tents, under which things were being sold. I imagined tables full of bongs or Jamaican flag colored hats, piles of tie-dyed shirts and baby onesies. There would be falafel and couscous and grilled vegetables on skewers. I knew there had to alternative everything for sale, probably a lot of natural weave blankets and aromatherapy pillows. I knew there would be fortune tellers or astral travel guides or akashic readers plying their prognostications.
And, most likely, there was a white tent for an anarchist group, maybe even the group that puts out the red and black stickers that read “Expect Resistance.” My son Mitchell stuck one of these stickers on the guard rail next to my driveway, and later, Michael looked at it and said, “What else would you expect from a guard rail.”
I drove on, staring at all the hitchhikers with their Rasta dreads, their baggie, colorful, very worn clothes. I noted their piercings, their heavy duffel bags and backpacks, their sprightly dogs on long leashes. For about a second as I passed each individual standing with his or her thumb out, I thought I should slow down, pull over, and pick up one or two hitchhikers to repay my karmic debt. Mitchell had traveled for miles all over the country, unnamed and often wacky people driving him to Denver and Los Angeles and San Francisco. Shouldn’t I return the favor? These people weren’t going to hurt me. I knew that hitchhikers weren’t all crazy sociopath murderers with sharpened knives and concealed revolvers. My son was a hitchhiker, and while he was an anarchist, he usually just read Proust or Heidegger when in someone else’s car.
But then I also imagined and then breathed in deeply, taking in the imagined smells. The wettened, slightly moist dog hair, and the canned meat dog breath. The patchouli oil put on for one, two, three days. The skin washed at some point recently but not soaped or buffed or shined. The sun baked onto hair unshampooed for days or months. The dust from the once grassy field the tents were pitched on. The slick of grime between toes and fingers.
Looking around my brand new MINI with its black leather interior, I rolled on upstate.
Minutes and then an hour went by, and eventually, there were no more hitchhikers. I started to cry a little, thinking about Mitchell having to sleep outside because no one would give him a ride. Once, he was stuck just below Big Sur for three days. I thought of all the weird tales he’d told me about hyped up, lonely, weird, high, crazy drivers who picked him up. One woman took him home to make him a meal and then offered to pay him 100 dollars to sleep with her. One older woman—and I mean in her 80’s—took Mitchell and a friend to her trailer and got them all stoned. On another ride, he was picked up by a man who delivered precious “things,” the booty in the back of the van in a Styrofoam box. Mitchell never knew what the delivery item was, but the man was wired on something, talking for eight hours straight without stop.
As I drove on, I thought about what made people want to be alternative. What had happened to them to push them away from what is known? Or just flat out comfortable? Then I thought about what it meant to be on the fringe: it meant that the inside was inaccessible. It meant that the fringe was the inside, and the rest of us were out.
That’s how far my son has traveled away from me, and it has nothing to do with miles. It’s that he took a look at his life, the one he had been following since the day he was born. He’d had bobbles along the way, but he’d found himself in Olympia, Washington, going to college. After he graduated, he moved into a tiny little blue house with his lovely girlfriend. He was living off the last of his college money, having graduated with a degree in English. And then the center started to rot for him, and he moved out to hold onto the fringe.
He and his girlfriend decided to not live together any more—they decided to not even live in the same town. In fact, they decided to also see other people but still rely on each other in that important love relationship way. He lived in other people’s houses, moving back and forth, clueless as to why they would have been irritated with him, his mess, his camping out on their living room floors. He did a weekly radio show, wrote his novels, and protested, finally moving into a group anarchist home, where there were meetings and missions and plots. He traveled to Germany to protest at the G8 meeting—he traveled to Washington DC to protest the war. He wrote on indymedia.org sites, posting his opinions. And then he would come home for holidays, angry that we didn’t see what he saw in the world all around him. Angry that we still fit in the middle. Angry that we wanted to stay there.
Sometimes, I look at him as though he were a boy who has lost his mind, suddenly and without warning. As though he was afflicted with schizophrenia, and I turned a corner in a hallway to see him talking to the wall. As though his incipient autism was now apparent. As though he had gone into a very deep funk, from which he might not be able to return. I think about all the things I have done wrong to him and with him in his childhood. Too lenient. Too strict. Too mean. Too nice. Too forgiving. Too close. Too far away. I divorced his father. I said things I shouldn’t have.
I know it’s all my fault, that I have damaged him somehow beyond repair, and then, someone will say to me, “You must be proud.”
I glance up at the person, take in a breath, and blink. Must I? Am I? Intellectually, I can say that I know each age, each generation, needs protest. Needs dissent. Needs the kind of change that Mitchell and his anarchist friends are fighting for. But am I proud that he is doing this? Am I proud that he is showing up the things that are wrong with the world, living the truth and not a lie?
Am I? Maybe? Sometimes?
Not really, I have to admit. Not really at all. I love him. I love his ideals. But what I truly wish for him is a life in the center. In the center, it is possible to hold onto ideals, but you can drive your own car there. Eat in your own house. Go to your own job, one you’ve been able to choose because you’ve worked hard to get there. Do good works, and then go home and take a nice hot shower.
So I love my son. I worry about him. I think about him as I drive by the fringe holding out its thumb at the side of the road. I nod, think about how we all just want to get home sometimes, but I don’t stop. I stay in the middle of the road. I drive on.
Causes Jessica Inclán Supports
Women for Women International Goodwill Industries Lindsey Wildlife Museum Freecycle.org