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“People are the biggest adventure of all, and hitchhiking makes you need people, react with people and hopefully appreciate people. Coping with the difficulties forces you to depend on yourself, and grow in self-appreciation, too.”
In a recent column, When Depression Comes to Stay, I wrote, “Perhaps in another column, I will share the details of the ‘lost years’ that followed, the years spent hitchhiking around the country and Europe before coming back to Dayton to find a sense of family, purpose and meaning in a yoga ashram in the ghetto.” And as promised (or warned), here it is…
As I recounted in my previous column, I suffered my first bout of depression (or spiritual crisis) in 1973 when I was 17, which led me, in part, to seek relief, peace and solace on the road. I was part hippie with a little bit of hobo and gypsy mixed in. It is impossible to fully describe how exhilarating and liberating it felt to stand next to a highway with my thumb extended, completely trusting in the kindness of strangers to transport me to my next adventure, in some other town, state or country. Of course, it didn’t always turn out well but I truly loved that life. It was a magical time – life on the road – a precious series of sacred, crazy and life-altering experiences that both astounded and confounded me and taught me more about the world than I ever learned in a classroom.
My spiritual guide for my vagabond life was Ed Buryn, a geeky-looking guy with glasses and a thick, black mustache and the author of two hitchhiking Bibles I grew to treasure in the early to mid-70s, Vagabonding in America and Vagabonding in Europe and North Africa. I didn’t realize it until now, as I write this, but Ed also served as a kind of therapist. The words in his books were disguised as travel advice but they were really life advice; how to “show up” fully and completely within my own being, despite my heavy fear and sadness and step out into the world, vulnerable, courageous and alone. Depression tells us to hunker down and hide from the world. I refused. Thank God, I have always refused.
My original copies of Ed’s books burned up in the Carr Fire but thanks to Amazon, I secured a couple used copies in good condition. In the Europe book, we read, “People are wonderful, and vagabonding is a way of personally proving it – a way of getting to know people, and of knowing yourself. No adventure can promise more than that.” In other words, trust others and believe in their essential goodness; trust the universe, but most of all, trust yourself. Be willing to fail. Never give up. Face your fears. Expect to be surprised, amazed and thrilled and you will be. And keep moving, because depression hates a moving target.
When we read Ed’s words, it is useful to connect with his underlying message or hidden meaning. When he talks about tourism or traveling, replace these words with living. Traveling is seen as moving from one physical place to another but also as a metaphor for our life journey of growth and what is required to make it meaningful. When he talks about vagabonding, please understand that he is talking about a special kind of traveling or living that is whole-hearted, curious, vibrant, open and authentic.
He wrote, “This book tells you how to visit Europe as a way of blowing your mind and enriching your life. It says that tourism is bullshit unless you get involved. To do that, you avoid your travel agent like he was the cops, and go find out about the world by yourself, for your own self. Go as a wayfarer open to all experience; go as a courier over the map of Europe, bearing messages to your secret self.”
According to Ed, “Vagabonding is for people who want to be free and adventurous, yet realize it won’t come too easily or without knocks. You’re not always certain how to go about it, either.” Like any good psychologist, he recommends a specific state of mind that allows “for new ideas and new experiences, for tolerance and humor,” and insists that we “must be willing to accept some discomfort, insecurity and risk.” Amen to that.
Here is one of his best lines: “Basically, you say yes to life, all of it, the whole spectrum, as opposed to the narrow sliver we get to be so content with.” This advice is so essential, I could write a column on this alone.
Ed advises us to not live in the sterile confines of the mind, but to act decisively in the moment, committed to following through with whatever bold plan or adventure that grabs us and inspires us to dream. He wrote, “We all have stuck in us deep somewhere a keenness for excitement, a savoring for the kooky, a leap-for-life outlook.”
Continuing, “The person who strikes off for himself is no hero, nor necessarily even unconventional, but to a greater degree than most people, he or she thinks and acts independently. The vagabond frees in himself (or herself) that latent urge to live closer to the edge of experience.” Savor these words. Make them your friends.
Like Yoda, or someone’s idea of a mystical guru, Ed counsels us: “Naturally, this can be a hard and heavy number at times, so your head better be ready for that too. You’ll be unable to take it unless you understand that it has to be rough at times. Travel in general, and vagabonding in particular, produces an awesome density of experience…a cramming-together of incidents, impressions and life detail that is both stimulating and exhausting. So much new and different happens to you so frequently, just when you are most sensitive to it. A day seems like a week, a week a month. The total experience is stoning, and it psychically disintegrates you with its complexity and imagery. You may be excited, bored, confused, desperate and amazed all in the same happy day. Or hour. It’s not for comfort hounds, sophomoric misanthropes or poolside fainthearts, whose thin convictions won’t stand up to the problems that come along. One of the things to learn is that there is no right way for everybody to handle these problems; there’s only your way. And you get better at it as you practice. Everybody, after all, makes their own scene.”
I discovered that the value, utility and veracity of nearly every life lesson I learned from my parents, teachers or mentors could be tested on the road. It is the ultimate test track of life. Ed wrote, “The right state of mind allows you to take one thing at a time and dig it. A vagabond learns this. You start really looking at places and reacting to people and finding out things for yourself. This opening-up and reintegrating process is one of the primary values of traveling independently, whether it’s to Europe or just into the future. You get the good vibes of experiencing meaningfully, of coping with fear and uncertainty, of becoming aware of the beauty of…this world and your relationship to it.”
In other words, many of us can go to sleep or go unconscious and miss out on our own life. This is impossible on the road. We must be wide awake and ready for whatever comes. It does no good to complain or resist. Existence is reduced to the essentials of what makes life worthwhile. When something moves, we must move with it or that opportunity is gone. It is maddening, mystical and free and we can all learn its lessons if we are ready. But we needn’t worry because on the road, as in life, the chances keep coming, like that car as it passes by and pulls over, its bright brake lights glowing with the promise of a new friend.
On the Road
Before my senior year in high school, I spent the summer hitchhiking around Ohio, visiting friends I had recently met at a state-wide, student council conference. And then one day, later that summer, on impulse, I asked my mom to drop me off on an entrance ramp for I-70 West. I was restless and bored and didn’t really have a plan. I just wanted to move. I had tasted the vagabond life and I craved to experience more of its mystery and magic. Can the road call to us? It felt like it in those days.
I only had $15 and had barely stepped out of my mom’s car when my first ride showed up. His name was Bob Rubin, his favorite song was Donovan’s Catch the Wind and he was driving from Vienna, Virginia, the same little town I had lived in for five years in the 1960s. He was heading to San Francisco to go to college and I happily rode with him to Madison, Wisconsin to see his family before continuing on to the Black Hills of South Dakota. By then I was out of money and it didn’t seem right to mooch off Bob any more than I already had. The only food I had was a bag of corn nuts and a few ketchup packets from McDonalds as I began thumbing my way back east.
I only got as far as the Badlands that first day and that night was a rough one. It stormed hard and I sought refuge from the drenching rain beneath a school bus on a bed of gravel. I barely slept and the next day, I was hungry and exhausted and caught a ride with an old man (probably the same age I am now) heading back east on I-90. He said he was retired, divorced, and on his way to live with one of his adult kids in Minnesota or Wisconsin. And he was mean and grumpy. I was grateful for the ride but he was hard to like. Unlike most of my rides those days, he was not a happy guy, although he seemed to derive some enjoyment from being miserable. His backseat contained all his clothes, hanging neatly on a closet bar from one side of the other and he greedily drank out of a whiskey bottle as we sped along the interstate until he finished it and forcefully flung it into the grass-covered median strip.
We stopped for gas in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere between Kadoka and Okaton and the old man couldn’t help making fun of the locals who were selling their “junkie crap” in yard sales in front of their homes. I was completely worn down by his negativity, my hunger and lack of sleep and I heard myself asking him, “Why are you so cynical?” I knew I was in trouble when he scrunched up his face and asked me what “cynical” meant. He really didn’t know; and I realized I was about to insult the man who I was depending on for free transportation for the next several hundred miles; a cardinal sin that any hitchhiker knew was a rule of the road you must never break.
When I stammered out a reference to a person who is generally pessimistic and has a low opinion of humanity, he nodded somberly and informed me he had a sudden change of plans. He was clearly stung by the truth. He said he wouldn’t be able to ferry me further as he would be seeking lodging in the very town he had happily disparaged a few minutes before. I knew he was lying, and he knew I knew, but it didn’t matter. I can still recall breaking down and crying uncontrollably as I stumbled back to the interstate to seek my next ride, ashamed of myself for weeping as I said over and over, “Big boys don’t cry.”
I persevered, found my way to Minneapolis to visit Chris, a girl I knew from high school before continuing to Milwaukee to visit my uncle Russ, aunt Amy and cousin Jeff. I returned home, and in January of my senior year, I celebrated my 18th birthday by skipping school for a few days (with my mom’s permission) and hitchhiking in the cold and snow from Dayton through downtown Chicago at rush hour until I finally reached Milwaukee again, to see Jeff play basketball for his high school team. I had discovered how good it felt to live adventurously and was addicted. After graduating, I kept escaping to the road in the summer of 1974, hitchhiking from Ohio to Florida to Virginia and back to Dayton for a David Bowie concert before doing all the same states a second time, this time with my brother. I couldn’t get enough and wanted more.
Once I returned home, my aimless existence continued. Instead of going to college like my parents had hoped, I got a job as a printer’s helper for half a year and saved up $1500, enough money to hitchhike through Europe and North Africa for five months (providing me with numerous lessons and perhaps, ample fodder for future columns).
And when I got back from Europe, I still wasn’t ready for college, even though I was enrolled at Ohio University, had my dorm assignment, knew my roommate’s name and I went through orientation. I was still searching for something that I didn’t find on the road and didn’t think I’d find in college. So, I dropped out before I ever went and instead moved into what some would call an ashram on the West Side of Dayton, Ohio called the Ghetto’s Palace Yoga Institute. My family thought it was a religious cult and I suppose it was from their perspective. But for me, I felt like I had a family again and our spiritual teacher or master, Wali Ahmed Sababu was as you might imagine: charismatic, mesmerizing at times and persuasive. I learned and taught hatha yoga, meditated daily and attended spiritual lectures every night.
I did eventually go to college while still living at the Palace and had one last hitchhiking adventure to see John, a high school buddy of mine, who was going to school at the University of Montana in Missoula in the summer of ‘76. We backpacked in the Flathead Indian Reservation, lost our topo map and wandered aimlessly for a couple days in the wilderness before finally catching a ride from some boaters on Lindbergh Lake who brought us back to civilization.
Lessons from the Road
I learned many lessons from my travels that are still with me to this day. For example, whether I was waiting for a ride in Germany or sitting on a park bench in Rome or walking down a winding, stone-walled road in Ireland, I learned to be present and experience the moment and all it contained and not as my mind wanted to make it. I learned to keep moving, to flow with and adapt to the challenges that constantly came my way. I repeatedly learned that wonderful things came after terrible things. A long, hot day of no rides in Franco’s Spain, for example, eventually led to a glorious encounter with a wonderful and kind soul who got me further down the road. And when the terrible things happened, and I had my share, I trusted I would survive and discover hidden benefits and blessings and I always did.
As Ed predicted, I met genuine and generous people every day who truly cared about me and my journey and sought to help. We traded books, food, wine, travel tips and spiritual insights. We gave and received kindness, trust and truth. As Rupert Spira states, “When we feel friendship or love for one another, what we are actually feeling or tasting is our shared being.” It is easier to know this on the road but nothing stops us (except our minds) from experiencing this wherever we are.
I savored simple things and required very little to be happy. As time went by, I needed less and less. I learned to be content in just being. I learned to believe in myself and fully accept myself as I was. This approach required faith and trust, not necessarily in a religion or God but in me. I read the Gita, a Zen text and the New Testament on a regular basis but knew each day, it was me I needed to trust in and believe in and rely on to get through.
At times, I was able to suspend all judgment, criticism, resistance, and blame and clear a space to be, just be, as if my true self was my constant breath, flowing in and out. I learned to be patient. The rides would come. And they did. The adventures were out there, like fresh fruit on a tree, waiting to be plucked. I didn’t need to push the river. I learned to trust the currents as they came and went.
It is difficult, I know. This isn’t always easy. My words could imply otherwise. I get it. Life on the road isn’t like our normal work-a-day existence. I could never go back and do that all again. I’m too old and it’s probably not as safe now as it was 45 years ago.
And like you, I still have my own mind to contend with. We have all been conditioned or programmed to think, feel and act in ways that don’t always work. Meanwhile, something – that isn’t a thing – doesn’t change. There is this “something more” that is timeless, the ultimate truth of your being and mine. Call it awareness or consciousness, or simply “being.” If you get quiet for a moment, you can notice the noticer, observe the observer, be with that which you are. There are no words we can employ to capture it. It can only be experienced. It waits for us, as I write these words and as you read them. If we step back from our thoughts for a moment, we can touch that which we most intimately are and know that we are supremely well, regardless of what our minds tell us.
Life, itself, is the great adventure and as Ed said, the best parts of life are the people. Trust me on this, but more importantly, trust yourself.