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Outsiders

north-head-caveSeems that everybody wants to be at the mercy of something. Whether rules, or limits, or comfort in standards and certainty, I never feel quite right in the company of constraint. Of course I realize that you’ve got to know the rules before you break them — get them in your bones then let them go snap. That’s one cliché that’s neither tired nor needs waking up; it just plain old makes sense.

Trouble is you never know when you really got a set of rules in you; they’re moving targets. If they sat still too long we’d start to notice them and likely think ill of their intentions and effects. Then they’d be in trouble — deep trouble. It’s in the rules’ best interests to avoid interrogation. There’s no answer to be ashamed of when nobody asks questions.

But once you’ve got rules in your bones, then you can start to move opposite — be your own little revolutionary system-bucker, should you choose such a path. And let’s be honest: most kids make that choice. If you start to rethink yourself, what remains with you as you shift will be your moral code of conduct and concern. To me, that’s all anarchy amounts to, and that’s not so threatening a thing when you’ve got an optimistic outlook on the nature of people. Once you’ve gone that far, though, you’re stuck with what’s left, so you better keep it tolerably good. You’ll never chase them rules down again, and they wouldn’t have you back anyway.

That might be why kids don’t sit still more than a couple minutes at a time — well, unless you give them a diet of television, ice cream, and grease. Then the rules stick in their bones like fat on a hog. I notice Mark Twain grew up piloting steamboats, and Huck Finn clumb every tree in sight, hiding from trackers and marauders and con men of every stripe — even his hard hitting pap. When he got off the ground, he got a good look at everything and everyone making demands against his autonomy. So he aided and abetted in setting free a slave and propelled himself down an open river under power of his wits alone. I reckon he was the first outsider in American literature, and if there’s anything kids these days should learn, it’s to respect him as such and carry on what Twain set loose.

Trouble is that times are hard for dreamers. Always have been I guess — but these days there’s enough popular self-awareness of the hard times to grind you down faster than you grow back. (Here’s a kid’s advantage: they sprout up quicker’n corn.) Might be for the best that I’m in exile; might be that the constraints back in the homeland, these days, wouldn’t leave space for words like mine. The thing is that I like the words I write and speak: I want to keep them. Of course to write them down is to give them away. Maybe that’s the irony that keeps writers so poor of pocket, especially in hard times.

I feel a mix of put-out and suspicious when I’m told to fight the good fight — to keep at it, to work on writing, on SEO, on social media presence — that they’ll come as long as you hold out long enough. Well that’s vanity and romance, and I agree it takes fighting to hang on to them. But I ain’t fighting nobody; I have got no quarrel. Like I’m saying, I’ve been living outside of that shape of dispute.

I suppose I’ve got a nature that’s more or less compatible with anarchy. I’m inclined to think that people are generally well-meaning. Some might call it naïve, and that’s fine with me; I prefer to suffer such a label than the crush of an eternally cynical disposition. Besides, I’ve gotten this far; I’m still standing, and perhaps even thriving through it all. A few disappointed days can’t overwhelm an optimism such as mine. If they could, I’d never have gotten out of where I started.

(There’s an old Chippewa saying: “You cannot harm me; you cannot harm one who has dreamed a dream like mine.” Always stuck with me, this one. Brightens up dark days, especially when you consider the state of things when they uttered these words.)

When I left Connecticut — this is going on twenty years ago — I didn’t figure on the kindness of strangers. I didn’t figure against it either. I was a green lad and light on expectations. I packed up my clothes, books, a couple of pots and pans in case of emergency, and loaded them into the back of what had been a landscaper’s truck — now moving a kid on his own to college across the country — and took to the highway. In the midst of America, it’s tedium ticking down the exits from state to state. Seems that’s the nature of the open road. But you couldn’t buy these memories at auction.

Connecticut opens up in the middle of New York. The roads, cut along the mountain edges, reveal green august valleys. Not the same palette by November, which necessitates taking the trip twice; you haven’t been there if you haven’t done that; it’s a matter of courtesy to a geography that’s earned it. The roads hill up again in Pennsylvania, and you get a glimpse of America that was if you look close enough. In Pennsylvania you drive a burlesque silhouette — the road’s still got curves aplenty, and especially at night. These kinds of open, winding highways are American destiny in a nutshell.

When you got a timetable for your travels, you don’t explore as much as you’d like — and seems we’ve always got a timetable these days, don’t we? You choose adventures just beside exits and ramps, and so I did since I had just enough budget to get me to my destination. No room for error or lollygagging on this trip. I pulled off in Mars, Pennsylvania, just past Pittsburgh. I splashed out on what I thought a fancy room since it was my first night on the road and I was traveling alone. I’d like to say that I chose to travel by myself, but solitude isn’t that simple, is it? That story would drive us straight off track. Let’s just say that every commitment in my world was packed into that truck, and stayed in it when I stepped out to fill’er up with gas. I preferred it that way at the time.

I pulled up to a Best Western, backed the truck in so I could see it from the north side of the building, locked the camper shell, and walked up to check in. I requested a north facing room around the middle of the wing, and the clerk said she had one with two double beds on the second floor. I said that’s fine, maybe I’ll get a dog while I’m here and let him curl up on the extra. She giggled and took my sixty dollars, handed the key over, asked if I needed a second one, to which I responded “No,” and that’s the last I heard of her.

The room was sweating when I got there; it probably hadn’t been slept in since July. I opened up a window to dry the place a bit, turned on a fan, cleaned myself up — I always liked to think I was dusty from a day out of a Lewis & Clark adventure. Fact was I didn’t stand out from any other traveler in the steady stream of coming and going. Everybody’s an outsider at a motel. We’re just road weary and little white line blind.

Just past sunrise, I headed out again. I drove through breakfast and set out on the eight hundred miles I planned ahead of me. I stopped that night just outside of Joplin, Missouri, in a motel featuring a swimming pool and an impressively low tourist tax, and only took advantage of the latter. Day in and day out was like this, though I slowed down the daily distances after a fashion. Wears you out putting in these kinds of miles stuck in your own company. Maybe I should have gotten that dog and set him up with his ears out the window and a second pair of eyes on the road. I’d have called him “Fred,” and if he ever asked how come we’re doing this, I’d bark back without a pause: “Because they said it couldn’t be done.”

A couple of days later, I woke up in Camp Verde, Arizona, and I decided to finish the trip to Riverside in one shot. I only got interrupted once when I collected my wits and considered that I was likely descending into heat stroke. Through Phoenix, well before noon it was already pushing a hundred degrees. The truck, all black, had no air conditioning except the window crank, and that was too hot to touch. When I noticed a cassette tape melted under the seat belt buckle in the sun, I knew I was in for it. So I pulled into a Burger King, which was teamed up with the last gas for who knows how honest the sign was, treated myself to ice cream, and waited out the worst of the heat. (Later my constitution would change sufficiently that I’d prefer this kind of climate, but that was years to come yet.)

Ripples rose off the road for miles. 30 ahead was a mountain range. I’d never seen such a thing from the roads cut through the woods of Connecticut. I was mesmerized. When the truck quit struggling and crested the hill, it paused to cough out the pressure of the climb, and you could feel the horses steel themselves up for the next push. Sure enough, another 30 miles ahead was another mountain range. And so it goes in the Southwest. I started to finally get it in my head that the road ahead was open. I fell in love with the sensation.

There’s plenty of cactus to keep you company. Yuccas. Joshua Trees. Through Palm Springs there’s even a forest of windmills enough to scare Quixote back to sanity. Talk about an outsider. Here was a guy pushed so far to the sidelines that he went and built a whole world for himself, and populated it with camaraderie and tolerance. Or so it seemed. Who could I be to judge? It’s not crazy to chase apparitions when they’re really dreams. In fact, it’s respectable. But it’ll push you out of the community circle if you don’t square up with the kinds of constraints to which your fellow citizens have come to find comfy.

The same doesn’t apply to kids. In fact, convention has it that “childlike” is a pejorative when applied to grown-ups. And when one’s behavior goes beyond what convention can even hope to express, they call it quits and name you “Quixotic.” The way I look at it now, if you apply either to me, you’re paying damned high praise, and I’ll be happy to collect on it. There’ll come a day, after the windmill chasers fight the good fight, as you might be inclined to call it, when instead of applying violent appellations to those of us who are living on the outskirts of convention, you’ll call us dreamers. That’s all we’ve been doing all along anyway.

Well maybe it’s all ego and empty hope, speaking words like these. It’s melodrama at the least. I take it for what it might be worth in other currency — it sells well on my son’s exchange. Dreams are a valuable commodity. They’re outside of the rules. In dreams we fly, we run for miles, jump across rivers — we know no conventional limits, no laws, no constraints. We’re at nobody’s mercy.

I see it now: this is how my son lives every minute. This means I used to live the same — and now I want it back. With Noodle as my guide, I think we can find it together and better than ever. That right there is the root of my confidence from which new life has sprung. Not from getting better and better at living within the rules, but from living well despite them, as an outcast, an outlaw, and an iconoclast. I’m living outside merciless constraints, in the present, and more and more with the free-running enthusiasm of a little kid. I like it this way.

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