By Christine Simokaitis
It’s time to leave Iowa City.
There is a plan: pre-dawn, the seven of you will pile into Todd and Sara’s VW van and head West toward Nevada, to the Rainbow Gathering.
On the way, Jeff will be dropped off at the designated spot in Wyoming where he will meet the guy who will give him a ride to Mexico. Jeff is trying to evade the federal warrant that has been issued for his arrest. Many of your friends have gone to jail since The War on Drugs began.
The others in the van will go to the Gathering and come back to Iowa City, to their jobs or classes or whatever. To their lives.
You and Chris will go to the Rainbow Gathering and not come back. You’ll go wherever a ride will take you. You have quit school and you have quit your jobs. Or you failed and got fired. Either way, you are done with your lives here, for now anyway, with all the Feds crawling around. You and Chris have sold or given away everything that won’t fit in your backpacks and everything you have and need will go with you in the van.
So you’re all set.
And then the van blows up that first morning, just five hours out of town. No one sees all the smoke outside the van through all the smoke inside the van until finally fire licks the batik-curtained window and everyone screams. Todd pulls to the shoulder and the seven of you scurry out and watch the whole thing explode. Everything burns. You’re left with nothing, not even shoes, but that’s okay. A guy driving his car east on I80 sees the whole thing happen so he goes to his house to get his pickup truck and comes back to take you all home with him. The good citizens of Beaver Crossing, Nebraska give you love and food and work and money and send you back on your way a week later in a Dodge Duster that you buy from the grocery store owner with the hundred and fifty bucks that you earn doing odd jobs for the townspeople while staying in the home of a trucker whose wife has just left him and taken everything, so he is grateful for bodies to fill the emptiness. He shares all he has left with you – the side of beef in his neighbor’s deep freeze – and buys two cases of canned Coors to go with it for your good-bye party.
Back on the road. The seven of you pack into the car and speed through the desert and share everything because everything you didn’t sell or give away back in Iowa City burned in the van and now everything you have has been given to you. You are a mobile commune. All plans and destinations are thrown to the hot wind that blasts through the crammed back seat because Todd will not roll up the window. There is nowhere for any of you to go but forward.
There are many breakdowns.
Soon it will be just you and Chris.
Jeff, having missed his ride to Mexico when the van blew up, will take his only turn behind the wheel of the Duster and get pulled over for rolling through a stop sign in an Idaho town, extradited back to Iowa City and sentenced to twelve years.
One of the others, after attending a sweat lodge ceremony during which she will change her name to Antelope, will tell you she wants to be left there on Mt. Shasta with her new family, Gazelle and Bear.
One will have returned home long ago because she couldn’t take it – the uncertainty of everything — and wanted to get back for classes.
Todd and Sara will stay with their friend in Seattle because they will decide it’s time to settle in and besides everyone will be a little tired of each other and you will have worn out your welcome at your friend’s friend’s home where your stuff will be strewn all over and you will be in the way on the floor when they have to step over you to go to work in the morning.
And then the months pass and a year and another and it is a moment or forever and those people are far away and then close again and here and there but then there are others, or not, and time is only measured by the ends of your hair inching down your spine.
Sometimes, out there, the floors and truck beds and packed dirt and bulging tree roots are hard on your body and you think often of the couches in the library in some town in Oregon – they were soft and worn and you could sit there all day and no one would kick you out. You’re just plain tired but you don’t want to admit it and don’t even know what you want but this life of wandering and not having any place is hard. You’re always in someone’s way and the handouts are nice but after a while you feel ashamed but you’re not supposed to because it’s really the universe providing, man.
But the pain of it – the way the world is –
— you just want to be freefreefree like you were when you caught that first ride on Highway One, just south of Santa Cruz: the Pacific and the sun, salt and eucalyptus, headed to the tip of Baja in the back of a pickup truck, hair flying in the wind, when you don’t know yet that when you get there it will all be the same as here –
— trying to find a place to Be.
back in Iowa City you were still
in school, in the dorms,
so many lifetimes ago
it was all so fresh
(it hadn’t yet been winter, in the house painted green).
you first dropped in spring and acid was eternal
the apple blossoms on the river
trees filled every
pore of your body
with perfume and
the sparkly bridge by the student union bent and
rose to meet your foot before you
put it down and
you raced across
to the other side.
all of you, dervishes
beneath the branches
in the soft sweet ancient night.
you didn’t have
a body and
one by one,
of your body and
you knew so many things and you tried to catch them and put them down to look at later and
at the impossibility and
cried about the beauty and
of your soul
On the dock on the river
just the two of you
faces melting eyes locked
you found the bond: Chris.
when you touch skin
you climb in and
out of each others’
it doesn’t matter whose body is
whose with so much love
you can let go
this morphing swirling florescent world makes sense and
more, always and
you don’t want to come down
acid was for
only sometimes and
You’ve quit school and you live in the green house on Dubuque St. and then the blue house on Iowa Ave across from the Mid-Rite and then where ever you can dodge evictions. You’re stoned all day and the walls and carpet and couch fill with smoke and bong water and ashes. It’s grey outside so there are red and blue light bulbs for a bit of color and there is never any sun except on a tab of acid, a smiley sun with long golden rays that stretch across all the days that pass before you come down.
On the road you get a little cleaner and you live very close to the bone and you find this treasure, this part of yourself that is beautiful. You find your essence. It was there all along but had gotten buried beneath so many layers of reality. You get to live each day not knowing what will happen or who you will meet. There is no plan.
You are so alive.
But then, sometimes, also, you are hungry. And then, sometimes, also, you want to sit and rest. You want to be still. You want to find someplace to BE, this new old you who is so alive and purely you but there is no place to be for very long because you have a body.
You learn early on when hitchhiking to surrender, to let go of any plan because the ride will take you where it will and sometimes you don’t get a ride at all and then you have to find a place to sleep and maybe someone will pick you up in northern California and give you ecstasy that he made in his basement and keeps in a jar in the glove compartment and that you swallow and watch out the window as the redwoods grow, or you might stumble into a Krishna temple at four a.m. and they will invite you inside for dancing and chanting and eating breakfast and later you will seek out their food at rainbow gatherings because they are always there and their food is always good brown rice and veggies and big chunks of ginger that wake you up, and the Krishnas chant when they cook so all the universal love goes into their food and it’s the most amazing thing to eat when you’re coming down because you need some love then, as you come back into your hollow-boned stiff and creaking body, you need something other than your own teeth to bite down on, something other than your own smoky swollen tongue to taste, and you bite into the ginger and the universal love and you know that everything will be okay.
You can always become a Krishna.
You will never again be as free as this.
Somewhere in Nevada, the smell of sage, dry dirt, and clean gulch water. The food always comes and the drugs always come and you know that people are Good. You Trust. People in this world love each other and look out for each other. They share. You know that this is how it should be. You work. You cook food and serve it to people. You chop wood and wash dishes. You dig latrines and cover them up. You love the smell of your sweat. You are never scared in this world. This is what you’ve always wanted. You are high on this life of every day movement and flow and connection and you think this is how it will always be you think this is your life forever you think you will never come back to the other side because you know you’ve crossed over something and you will not return. What came before does not matter because you meet the most amazing people and after a day or an hour with them they are family and you can’t imagine that you were ever without them and you think you will be with them forever and you share meals and information and cigarettes and love. You build fires together and sleep next to one another and sometimes you meet people who live in houses and they let you stay inside with them and then it’s tomorrow.
It is time to go, to pack up and move on because everyone is on the run, on the move, on the make, and the thing you need to know is how to live in that organic way in a city. On the road the dirt blends in but in a city you are just dirty.
So there is pain and there is shame and there is fear because you have to drag your body around. Your body that needs food. Your body that bleeds. Your body that is unsafe out there in the cities. You are a freak. You have no job. You accept food stamps and government cheese. You are useless. You eat bologna on white bread at a long table crowded with old men who reek of urine in a church basement in Salt Lake City and you want to go home but where. You hate this life this stinking city of grime and decay full of people who cling and need and ask, always, with their hands open and you are among and one of them.
You sell plasma, often, in many cities and think about how there are these parts of yourself, these cells of your blood, spread out all over, and you like that you are everywhere but sometimes you feel empty and you want it all back.
Sometimes you want a job but you can’t work like that without an ID, (yours burned in the van a thousand years ago) and you can’t get an ID without an ID. You could be anybody. You are nobody.
You are on Broadway in Seattle, panhandling, invisible.
You’re not sure how you ended up there, on the street, off the road.
You hear of the casualties, your little disparate army for love dropping off one by one – prison, dead, prison, crazy, prison. Tripped too hard and never came down. Fried. You wonder when it will be you, dancing so close to the fire. You don’t know how to continue on this road and you can’t keep going and you can’t go back and there is no where and no way to BE and you know, in your stomach, churning there in the acid, that you will crawl out of this life and into another and you ache because you know it’s time.
Still, you cling to the vision: you are barefoot, in cut-offs and a tank top on the porch of a house in the woods, where you all live together, and you have a garden and bake bread and there are always people and someone is playing guitar and singing and maybe there’s a baby or two, running around naked, dirty, happy and everyone watches over each other, together. You take care of one another.
This is where you are trying to go. But the road there is crooked and unpaved and your feet hurt and your blood has been sold, and you want some place to sit and to not be afraid for a little while that by the time you get there they will all be gone – dead or jailed or crazy.
It is time to go.
Again, now, knowing and not knowing that you are saying good-bye, at the hot springs, where you know you should be, forever and never again, where things are calm and peaceful and good, where you have lived forever in a tent, and at night you hear the insects and animals and feel the earth turning and curving gently beneath you, and then, a shift:
in the morning
you greet the trees and bathe
in mud you bury
yourself in clean
clay, your pores
sucked free of grime and
standing, the earth comes with you
the dirt is on and in you
plunged into a pool
of icy water
alive in this life and
you can let it go.
Christine Simokaitis is a prose writer whose work has appeared in anthologies and journals including matchbook, FRiGG, and Calyx, among others. She holds an MFA from Goddard College and currently she teaches composition and creative writing at Northeastern Illinois University. Christine can be found at @casimo7 on both Twitter and Instagram.