Long story short, a friend mentioned that James needed a ride to California. Without even knowing him, I drove to Ithaca, N.Y., to pick him up. Strange, maybe, but I was fresh out of college and ready to experience anything shocking.
Yes, an adventure. My parents were worried. I wasn’t.
James’ body towered over me, reaching beyond 6 feet tall. He greeted me with a long-armed hug that swallowed me up. He had wide-set cheekbones, a cut jaw, smiley-squinty blue eyes and his long, yellow hair was tied back loosely. Random hairs grazed his forehead and cheeks, drifting into his eyes. He wore overalls. Lean and tan, he constantly messed around outside. Mostly just playing. James wasn’t the working type.
The next day we packed, but there was little planning involved. We had a guitar, two bags, some food, some books and a huge tote full of cassettes. In my tiny black hatchback, poor James had little room for his long legs.
Quickly, we became heartclose friends. At night, when driving, sometimes James gently stroked my head, messing up my hair. We talked a lot.
About family, past pains, love, the whole gamut.
Then we didn’t talk at all, and the silence was easy. It just felt right to have him next to me. He was one quiet, serene brother. James was perpetually calm. And at a time when I was shaky, calm was what I needed. See, I hadn’t had a drink in about a week, and the restlessness I felt was actually the onslaught of alcohol withdrawal.
By the time we arrived in the desert, we were ragingly hot, stoned, dripping with sweat, dirty, beat and reeking.
Meandering along unmarked back roads, we saw a sign for a Native American gathering. We had no real plans. We followed the magic signs.
Everywhere, dust. At the gathering, the welcoming strangers took us in, feeding us. Soon, a great bonfire burned, lighting up the sky and we danced around the flames deep into the night. I felt half-wild, childlike, living and moving there. I felt utter freedom, breathing in the magnificent, dry air.
James placed a blanket on my shoulders, rubbing my back. I grinned, studying the wise lines near his eyes. Finally, sleep time came and someone loaned us a tent, but we weren’t prepared for the desert night cold.
Our one sleeping bag wasn’t cutting it. We shivered, tossed and turned, curling up together, using our body heat to stay warm. Wrapped in James’ arms, I felt safe. The sky was so full of stars, so alive. For a moment, I felt called to stay there. Forever. Home.
But the next morning we drove on. By the time we hit California a strange love grew between us, but we remained just friends.
James looked at me hard, staring into my eyes.
“You know, we could just keep on driving, get a bottle of wine and spend another night together,” he said. His face was dead serious. Dead calm.
I smiled quietly. At the time, I wasn’t good at giving answers. And I wasn’t thinking about him. Instead, I was thinking about the wine. That day, we stopped in Northern California. He stayed. I disappeared, moving and traveling on, and I lost him.
From time to time, I wonder what he’s doing. Probably playing or putting on overalls. Those were wild times. James embraced the wild. He helped me realize that living and running with the wild was a true state for us. Just right. It was where I needed to be. And one desert night was what I craved then. How I grasped at a sense of raw human energy, finally feeling in touch with the vast sky and earth, even if only for a moment. Call it divinity. Call it what you will.
I thought I needed to travel to find myself. I did need to strike out to learn beyond what I’d gained from my sheltered past. but I was running, too.
Later, back home, I still had the same struggles.
They followed me out West, and they followed me on my return. I just had more tangles in my hair. I know now that my real home is in my heart, and wherever I go I take my unresolved pains and loves and joys and addictions with me.
Places might distract me for a while, but then the same lessons reappear until I find some sense of awareness. What makes it interesting is the road to get there. James helped me dance to forget my pain for a while. Some nights, perfection rests inside a bonfire. Call it a pure moment. There, our slow-moving, bare feet treaded lightly across dusty, dry, prickly flat land that stretched for miles.
But today I’m not running. Like a bullet, I have shot forward, facing many struggles and addictions. No, not perfect. Far from it, but I feel strong — sometimes weird but mostly free.
And I know this: If it happens again, if I feel that closeness with someone else on a strange, loving journey and he asks me to keep on driving with him, perhaps I will. And maybe we’ll still follow the magic signs.
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