It is true that you can’t go home again, but this I know is also true – you can leave home again. So the question is – what are you taking with you and what are you leaving behind?
Me, I’m leaving keys. Lots of keys.
Multiple times each day I go through the ritual of checking my pockets for keys, wallet, phone. I have so many keys. There’s my car, my wife’s car, the pickup truck that plows my parking lot. There’s the key to the building where I work, and nearly a dozen door keys once I get inside. Keys to my son’s house, my bicycle lock, the cash box, a file cabinet, the flagpole lock. I even have a key that lets me change the paper towels in the restrooms.
I want to be done with keys. I want someone else to be in charge of things.
I want to let go.
At age 21, when Joe and I hitchhiked 10,000 miles from New York to California and back again, the sum total of my possessions could fit in a backpack and a guitar case. Maybe there were a few dozen books scattered on the shelves of various friends’ houses, and souvenirs from Boy Scout trips stashed in my parent’s basement, but not much beyond the essentials.
A few years later, I bought a red Toyota pickup, still my favorite vehicle, and soon my belongings expanded to fill the camper that covered the truck’s short bed. I got a mattress, and a camp stove, some hand tools and a radio. Today I own (well, me and the credit union own) three buildings and between a business and my home there’s so much stuff that they seem sorta crammed.
What happened? Kids, a job, birthdays and holidays, projects, grass that demands mowing and snow that won’t wait to be plowed – it all adds up to more and more stuff. One of the great lessons from our trip in 1978 was that we can get by with a lot less than we think. A lot less worry and a lot less stuff.
Sure, we all need shoes, I can’t find my way to the road without a pair of eyeglasses, and a poncho is a godsend in a downpour. Of course we need stuff. But how much stuff? Shopping and piling up stuff is a great American pastime, and yet we both know that it’s possible to walk from one end to the other of the largest shopping malls in America and never encounter an object genuinely needed to sustain human life.
And who doesn’t want to do more than survive? Knickknacks and bangles and electronic gadgets and music in all its forms can make life richer. This isn’t nostalgia. I don’t pretend to prefer the ponderous Royal typewriter I abused while pounding out term papers in the 1970’s over this 2.8 pound laptop. One time I hitched a ride through the Adirondack mountains with a 1990’s version full sized Macintosh computer, the kind appointed with one of those sea green screens and a detachable keyboard. Believe me, this is better.
Hitching allows for simplicity. It demands it. Being on the road grants the comfort of knowing that I have everything I need within reach of my two hands. It frees space in the mind for other things, although, as I read back on my journal of the summer of ‘78, I can verify that freeing the mind of a recently post-adolescent male is not always an unmitigated positive.
Yet, undeniably, there is an ease that comes with being unburdened.
And burdened at the same time. Carrying everything on my back meant that I had to carry a lot of stuff on my back! As we crossed the continent, both Joe and I were each hauling more than 40 pounds of gear, including a tent, two sleeping bags, cooking gear, dry food, one change of clothes, soap that doubled as laundry detergent, a few books and notebooks, plus my Takamine guitar in its hard shell case, our only source of music, this being the pre-streaming era.
We carried a map and a compass, wore good boots and carried a pair of sandals for a change of pace. We carried pens and notebooks, and postage stamps to send letters to friends and family, flashlights to read at night. It was heavy, but we were in shape.
This trek is not an attempt to re-create an earlier time.
I’m trying to find out if the road still exists. The road, that place where you let go of some of your stuff and declare a certain faith that others will provide, and you silently promise that you, when your turn comes about, will provide for the stranger.
My body, which I tend to with regular running, eating less fat than I enjoy, and by trying to sleep and stretch when I can, drink more water and less beer, still reminds me every day that I’m not in my twenties. I figure I can handle this trip in three-week chunks. I’ll take off with my pack and my thumb, see where I get in three weeks, and fly back for some taste of home.
And that allows for some time to recover, write, and get back on the road.
Simplicity may seem quaint today, as the branding of everything from cookware to underwear has made even simplicity itself a commodity. In the late 70s it was becoming one’s patriotic duty to conserve. It was a world of limited resources, or so we thought, and we didn’t gain this awareness from reading Thoreau and Merton. We were listening to Richard Nixon.
In early 1974, President Nixon had inked the Emergency Highway Energy Conservation Act setting for the first time a National Maximum Speed Limit (NMSL) – 55 MPH. It was seen by all parties as a necessary step to save fuel, but it was later raised to 65 under President Reagan and ditched altogether by Bill Clinton as America began its love affair with the SUV. The NMSL was the cell-phone law of its day, something everyone thought of as good common sense for the rest of the nation, but which we were too busy to obey. The law had this surprising and unintended consequence in the East – the NY State Thruway and New Jersey’s Garden State Parkway were forced to RAISE their limits from 50 to 55 in order to comply with the law.
People were buying smaller cars (mostly imports), the first generation of solar panels (the ugly ones) were starting to appear on rural rooftops, and a booming industry retrofitting old homes with insulation was taking off. In 1978, more than 11.3 million passenger vehicles were sold across the country, ranking it as one of the top three highest sales years of all time.
What better time, we thought, to find a way to travel without adding to pollution or hydrocarbon consumption (a term we did not yet know existed).?
The avatar of simplicity was none other than President Jimmy Carter. The energy crisis and energy conservation were the hot button topics of the day (that’s what we might refer to today as “trending”). On February 2, 1977, barely two weeks in office, Carter donned, but did not button, a pale cardigan sweater and sat in front of a fireplace to lecture America on the need to rethink our dependence on oil. It would take four more Presidents, two of them oilmen from Texas, before the term “addiction to oil” was uttered, but it was the beginning of a conversation on conservation. Three Mile Island had not yet threatened to melt down, but a couple of oil embargoes by the Arab nations then dominating the market had turned Americans into grumbling consumers waiting on line for stingy rations of gas.
It wasn’t global warming but a flat-out energy shortage, and a threat that we would run out of fuel, that prompted Carter to lecture. He said that we would have a national policy based on conservation, and used quaint terms like “thrifty.”Carter endorsed “clean”coal and nuclear power, but his most heartfelt appeal was for all of us to save by eliminating waste, which, the President protested, was greater than all of our energy imports combined. His speech concluded like a Sunday school class , exhorting Americans to “Live thriftily, help our neighbors, make our life more enjoyable and productive.”
And don’t worry about buying so much crap. This speech is often confused with Carter’s infamous “malaise” speech in 1979, in which he never uttered the M word, but he did kick American consumerism in the nuts just as the era of the shopping mall was blossoming. In that speech Carter warned of a “Crisis of the American spirit.”
“Too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does but by what one owns. Piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives.”
It was deep. It was Steinbeck. John Steinbeck, before he wrote “Travels with Charley,” about his 1960 road trip, wrote to Adlai Stevenson crying about how we are losing our souls in pursuit of more stuff.
My buddy Joe, a champion letter writer, wrote a memorable letter to me while studying in France, complaining that “my life is full of emptiness.” We vowed to live lives built on something other than emptiness. Remember, we were 21. I agreed that our contribution to life on the planet, in addition to strumming Dan Fogelberg and Neil Young songs in three chords, would be to do our very best to limit our consumption to a bare minimum. We did not want to be part of adding to Jimmy Carter’s crisis. He seemed strained and severe already and we thought it wise not to increase the President’s burden.
But we did need money.
The conversational currency of the day being about privilege, I should state at the outset that I am a white male born in Brooklyn, raised in Staten Island, NY, in a dual-income family that struggled to support five children. My generation was the first to attend college, and we had significant advantages, most of them derivative of my father’s status as a member, at the tail end, of the greatest generation. He got back to New York after the big one, then was called up for Korea, and post Panmunjon leapt enthusiastically into the joyful task of helping the baby boom live up to its name.
Though he could have gone to college under the GI bill, he never chose that route. Instead he signed up for a series of Civil Service tests in New York, landing a job on the subway and eventually settling into a decent desk job in the court system. My parents were favored by two developments – the GI mortgage program, which allowed them, and other (mostly white) veterans,
to purchase a house (worth $16,500 in 1959, probably more than $1 million today) at a very low interest rate, and the massive growth in access to higher education. My Dad bought his first reliable automobile at age 45, and my mother re-entered the work force in that same year. The upshot of all this was that I was able to emerge from four years of college with essentially no debt. Joe’s family was similarly situated.
So it was that when we graduated from the NY State University at Albany, where tuition per semester was $450, a sum we could manage by working summer jobs and nights at Sam’s Hot Doggery during the school year, we could hit the road without the cloud of debt repayment hanging over us. That burden is a major reason that young people today, even if they feel inclined to adventure, feel constrained and pushed into the workforce early.
So thank you, Harry Truman, and thank you, Mom and Dad and Mr. and Mrs. Campo. Joe and I have since spent a lifetime working and paying taxes and raising our kids, but back then we did have a bit of wriggle room.
If we had been smarter, we would have spent a few extra weeks in New York inventing VenMo. That way we wouldn’t have had to worry about how to handle our expenses. Of course that would have meant first inventing the internet and the personal computer and the smart phone, which our muscular degrees in Economics and French had not adequately prepared us for.
Footnote: there was one, I repeat one, computer on campus at SUNY Albany when we graduated. It filled half a basketball court, you had to reserve it days in advance, and it read data from stacks of cards the size of envelopes which had to be fed in decks of 100. I can still hear the dot matrix printer chugging along.
We did not need to invent the ATM. There already were few such machines functioning, but not nationwide networks to make them a practical option. In any case, our problem was not so much how to move money, but how to make it. Our parents were not subsidizing our lives and we knew it.
Instead, we signed up with ManPower. ManPower was what we called a temp agency. Based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, it is now a Fortune 500 company offering “A Suite of Innovative Workforce Solutions” to address the complex workforce challenges. Like I said, a temp agency.
Our thought was that we could earn some money to start the trip, and once registered with ManPower, could pick up work as we traveled. We hadn’t put much thought into just how this would work – two grubby smelling guys show up looking for work, asking where they can stash their backpacks. But at least it was a plan.
Manpower set us up with an auditing firm that was conducting a physical count of New York City bonds. We didn’t know much about what we were doing, but there we were, on the 11th floor of a skyscraper in the financial district, literally counting paper bonds. For four hours in the morning, between the time we were searched on the way in and the time we were searched on the way out for lunch, we sat at tables and counted pieces of paper the size of enormous dollar bills. Ten thousand, twenty thousand, thirty thousand… Every hour of every day for three weeks, more money than we would earn in a lifetime passed through our hands. Assuming it was worth anything when redemption time came.
To us is it was worth $2.65 an hour. We worked there three weeks and by the time we paid our train, ferry and subway fares, purchased some cheap coffee and pizza, and a few pretzels on the Staten Island Ferry, we each managed to have $200 in our pockets and were ready to hit the road. The subway was 50 cents and the ferry, famously cheap at a nickel per ride for a century, had just been raised to a quarter for the round trip – another consequence of the fiscal crisis.
We each purchased 150 dollars worth of American Express Travelers Cheques, that relic of an earlier, pre VenMo moment. We dutifully recorded the numbers on the cheques in our notebook and prepared to launch ourselves into the mercies.
Then I got hepatitis. Don’t ask me which one; the records are lost to followup. It was exhausting and depleting and it took me three weeks to get over it. The joke was that I had gotten sick handling dirty money. The liver ailment was to have another serious consequence for our trip – I wasn’t supposed to drink for at least a couple of months.
Our departure from New York got delayed twice more. We were nearly on the road when my grandmother, my mother’s mother, an enormous woman crippled by a stroke when I was still in utero, died on June 22. Our family gathered for a serious and raucous Catholic farewell. Joe and I stuck around for a few days to help Mom get some things in order and were ready to go by June 25, when Joe inexplicably jumped over a chain link fence and gashed his knee badly enough to require several stitches.
This time I’m hoping that the departure isn’t as problematic. I’m pretty sure the money won’t be such an issue. I have a credit card, and a VenMo account, and I’m not as averse as I was in my idealistic youth to spending money on food or lodging. This isn’t a test to see how much discomfort I can stand.
I might even be in a position to buy lunch for the kind souls who give me rides.