While I was in Montana, I had one of my favorite experiences of my travels. Dave from a previous episode connected me with a few friends of his in Montana that were setting up their river camp for hosting a few students that they would be teaching some primitive skills to. A man named Barnes was who I got in contact with and as we exchanged texts and a couple brief phone calls, he determined they were comfortable with having me come and spend a night or two with them.
I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. I camp, but I’m no mountain man, like what these folks sounded like to me. Barnes indicated that he wouldn’t be around when I arrived, but the others in camp were aware of me coming, so I could just settle in when I got there. Figuring I’d be out of cell phone service, I had written down a few directions to get me to the location. I got there without issue and pulled into the property. A great earth lodge was near the entrance. Driving down the dirt road a bit, there were two men out in a pasture, kicking a soccer ball at a makeshift wooden goal. I got out of my car and they looked at me and without a word kicked the ball in my direction. We made introductions and I got comfortable with Neil and Chris as we kicked a soccer ball around.
After a while, Neil decided throwing a frisbee around might be a little more low-key than soccer. So he ran and got his frisbee while I went to my car and changed into some shorts. We converged at the other end of the pasture that had been our playing field. A brown mound that had been at a distance earlier was now close enough for me to notice it was a rotting dear carcass. It seemed quite natural to them. The circle of life happening around them.
We tossed the frisbee a bit and then Neil joked that we ought to throw dried cow and horse manure at the frisbee as it glided through the air, to test our accuracy. Then somehow, we found ourselves actually throwing dried manure at the frisbee. The real challenge ended up being the task of catching the frisbee while dodging the flying manure. I joked that this seemed like a natural alternative to using meth, as there were a multitude of anti-meth billboards throughout Montana.
Soon Barnes arrived with another friend and we all converged, along with Chris’s partner, Bartle, on their hangout hut/kitchen. We ate and gathered around their wood burning stove, and started to chat. Often I find there can be some reluctance on the part of those that I record. But these good folks just carried on as usual. They talked about themselves, some for my benefit, but we joked and laughed and just enjoyed each other.
As we chatted, Barnes opened up and I was struck by how profoundly authentic he is. There is nothing contrived about who he is. He lives as he wants to. He is educated and chooses to live a somewhat isolated life in Montana and understands that life is a process and he’s learning just like everyone else. The beautiful thing in the whole experience was that he didn’t take himself too seriously. None of them did.
Here’s the clipisode with Barnes. You can also find it on iTunes and SoundCloud. Be sure to scroll down, because there’s a bonus clipisode.
The bonus below is the group chatting about dumpster diving. I was interested to get onto the subject, because when we first converged in their hangout hut, Neil went to a corner and walked back with a handful of unwrapped chocolate and handed it to me while he sucked on a bit of chocolate himself. I happily partook, being a man with an ever-present sweet-tooth. As I savored this delightful chocolate, the discussion illuminated the fact that the chocolate had been found in a dumpster, during a dumpstering adventure. I would’ve felt sick, but for the fact that I felt like the chocolate was vetted, as they were eating it too. Neil proudly displayed the large sack of reject chocolate after the revelation it was from a dumpster.
My time with these wild folks was sublime. Seldom have I felt like I was in the presence of such authentic people. And that authenticity made it feel so natural that it barely seemed weird to throw manure and eat chocolate from a dumpster.
In this episode Barnes starts off by demonstrating a 6 out of 10 burp. He gives a few thoughts on his life going from growing up in North Carolina to being a man dedicated to living a simpler life in Montana. He shows a flare for being passionate about his feelings, but shows a humor for life. He expresses a love for connecting to people that enjoy the lifestyle he does and an aliveness that he finds in living out in the open, all while being able to jokingly uphold Dale Earnhardt Jr. as an example of success without education.
A little confession here: this project is hard. I set out at the beginning of October hoping to get a bunch of interviews with people, talking about their lives and the stories that make them who they are. It’s incredibly fulfilling to hear about people’s lives. However, I quickly discovered that finding the right circumstances to talk to someone about their life is hard. Finding someone willing to talk about their life can be hard. Finding someone willing to let me record that conversation is even more difficult. And probably the most difficult thing is finding the courage to face all of the above and just do it. It truly is a courage first AND circumstances type of endeavor. And to be honest, mostly I get lucky that someone connects me with someone to talk to, or someone just needed to talk so badly and I happened to be there. But when the stars don’t align, or the courage isn’t quite there, I don’t get audio to share with you, and then I tend to get frustrated.
When I get frustrated I find myself counting the number of people I’ve recorded. I find myself counting the number of people that I’ve talked to and not recorded. I think about the moments that I got scared of asking someone that I was eyeing as an approachable person, and beat myself up for not asking. I start to feel guilty that I’m having fun when I haven’t done as much as I tell myself I should have.
This whole thing is exemplified by how things have been as I’ve gotten to the Eastern part of the US. I had some good conversations in Chicago. I met great people and loved my time there. I went to Western Michigan where I spent some time with an old friend and just basked in her energy and familiarity and kindness. I found myself, in Detroit, Toledo, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh. In each of those places I was there only briefly but tried to place myself in positions and locations that have allowed me to get recorded conversations. I went to public libraries, beautiful parks, and I couch surfed. Weather, people being focused on election day, and shy people made it so I didn’t ever get to record.
Next I found myself in New York City. I was positive that I’d get multiple chats with people that I could record. So I did a few things for my own enjoyment. I went to The Strand bookstore when I got to town and took in the smell of the beautiful books. I felt the energy of people there browsing for the next volume that would take their minds to a different world. I went and checked in to my hostel in Queens. Then I found a local corner diner and chowed down on some greasy food and topped it off with a slice of chocolate layer cake. I headed to Brooklyn to watch a lineup of small time bands in a tiny indie venue. The people were weird, the music even weirder. We danced, we sang along, and hugged. There was talk of sadness about Trump. There was hope expressed that we’d unify in our humanity. All in all, I had an absolutely Kyle kind of day. And I felt good about it, because I had a blast and the next day would be spent in Central Park collecting stories.
Central park did not go as expected. I got caught in crowds that made me nervous about asking people to chat with me. I asked people that were about to get up and leave. I asked people that weren’t interested. A few people turned away as I sat close to them—body language seeming to tell me not to bother them. I chickened out from asking others. I had walked 8 miles by the time the sun was fading and I had nothing on my recorder. This would be frustrating normally, but this is the point in the trip that should be my climax. I’m trying to wind down. I’m ready to spend time with family over a few more stops, but I’m also ready to just get back to Arizona and rest for a while. So I wasn’t just frustrated, I felt like I was failing at this whole thing of trying to collect stories and share them with others.
May I just say, I have so much more respect for what Humans of New York is. I’ve always thought it was a well-executed piece of media, but what Brandon Stanton must do behind the scenes to make it happen must be incredible.
Anyhow, feeling as I did, I looked up Cambodian restaurants. Having spent two years of my life in Cambodia, I always want to find Cambodian restaurants when I’m in a city that has them, eat familiar food, and go chat in Khmer for a few minutes. So I hopped on the subway and made my way to one a little further downtown. I walked in and was greeted. I spoke Khmer to the host and she smiled and giggled a little at hearing the tall, bearded, white guy that I am speak to her in her native tongue. She said I spoke so clearly and then seated me at my table.
I ordered a familiar dish and asked for some tea. She came back from the kitchen with my tea and asked curiously about my background that brought me to being able to speak Khmer. We chatted and exchanged back stories. She left and then came back with my food and left me alone to eat the delightful fare. As I wrapped up my meal, she reappeared to ask how it was. I told her it was good, but we mused that it wasn’t quite like being back in Cambodia.
After the check had been brought, another Cambodian waitress appeared and probed to see how good my Khmer was. We chatted for a bit about her journey to America and the education she has received and the continued studies she’s engaged in that brought her to New York. We talked about how amazing an opportunity it is for her to get an education in the States and how she wants to go back and help her small country. She too was amazed at my ability to speak, noting most Westerners lose their ability to speak when they get to their home countries. We wished each other luck and I headed back out into the concrete jungle, leaving behind that momentary safe haven. But I left feeling grounded. Moments like that are why I’m doing this.
This all may sound like me finding something like my ability to speak a somewhat rare language to prop myself up in the face of failure. And maybe it is. But as I walked towards the closest subway station, I realized that more than anything what I’m doing is between me and the people I meet. Ideally, I want to be able to get material to share with others, so that more can feel like there’s purpose and substance in our lives and experiences. I hope for all of us to feel a need to connect more with others and that we can see ourselves in the stories of other people of all walks of life. But when it comes down to it, the most valuable thing is what has been happening pretty much every day between me and the people that chat with me, whether recorded or not. And often times, just being around other people, seeing them, smiling at them, listening to them talk to others is such a boon. It’s all a great gift. I love being a part of humanity.
In that light, re-counting the unrecorded chats becomes a lot more meaningful. I didn’t record the guy at the beach in San Diego, the disc golfer in La Mirada, the Cambodians in Long Beach or New York, my hosts in Ukiah, the Germans at the cheap motel in Crescent City, the couple that hosted me in Portland, the drunk Filipino in Portland, the girl at the laundromat in Butte, the girl that gave me extra breadsticks in Bismarck, the park walker in Minneapolis, the studier in Toledo, the couple that hosted me in Cleveland, the guy that hosted me and his friends in Pittsburgh, the woman that hosted me in Princeton. There have been the intimate conversations with my friend in Eugene, my sister and her husband in Ames, my mission friend in Iowa City, my friend in Holland. Yet each of those conversations happened. Each of those people touched my life either for just a moment, or as part of an ongoing influence that they have and continue to have on my life.
Truthfully, my endeavor at collecting stories to share with others is an amateur one. But it is teaching me so much. I’m glad there are moments that ground me in that reality and remind me that I’m so blessed to be experiencing beautiful people every day. Frustration is momentary, but the beauty of humanity is before me every day.
Travel and meeting new people has been a remarkable journey for me. Truly I see a reflection of myself in the people I meet and talk to. A theme that often manifests itself as I talk to people is that we as humans are wounded. There is a pain that most of us carry. There is a longing that emerges in most my conversations. There is a desire to connect and a frustration that occupies the same ground as a deep hope that we can be better connected. I often find myself thinking about this desire to connect and I am in awe as I see that same desire painted by the conversations I have with others.
And so with that emerges the question: what are we doing about that need to change something? What are we doing to heal our souls and reconnect to one another? As I traveled through Sandpoint, Idaho, I got to meet Dave. He and his wife have been on a journey of getting back to the basics. Former vegetarians and then vegans, they started to explore what Dave noted some call primitive skills. They started to learn about plants and seeds, animals and more. They learned how to find, harvest, and preserve food. They have been working to minimize their impact on the earth and more than that, live in sync with the earth as they feel—and I feel—we are meant to live. There is a spiritual element to all of this. Dave shared a journal entry about this awakening and beautifully suggested that we could, “sow the ancient seed, long lying dormant waiting for the living water to spring forth.”
In sharing Dave’s story and thoughts, I want to make sure that those who listen and read this podcast and blog understand that I’m not here to impose any specific view. However, if any of us feel like there is something more to life than what we are getting from it, I hope you’ll hear the beauty of Dave’s awakening that he shares. To me, his thoughts are sacred. His awakening is ours. It is for us, as his human brothers and sisters. His path is a call to each of us to travel the path to our own individual awakenings.
For those listening to the clipisode, you can use the embedded media below, or check out Ep9 on SoundCloud or iTunes.
I’ve transcribed Dave’s reading of his journal entry that he shared, for those that would like a written version. It gave me chills! Here’s the transcription:
We have forgotten how to be human. Like other animals that humans domesticate and corrupt and who no longer act according to nature. We no longer act according to our best interest in terms of health, mental well-being, social connection, nature connection or evolution. We think we are evolving as a species, somehow improving, bettering ourselves. But I think we have taken a fork in the road, left the good path and are lost wandering in the wilderness. Not the wilderness of nature, which would be good for us, and probably help heal almost all our sicknesses, but the wilderness of the soul.
We took the bait, fell right into the trap rather jumped in with both feet. The industrial revolution it was called, and that it was. A revolution that rot decay, sickness of mind, pollution of body and the earth. With promises of a better life we were lured from our birthright, our forest home. We lost our connection to the sacred, becoming stagnant pools isolated from the regenerating stream. The promise was always more time to enjoy your life, the idea of leisure time being the highest and best to be gained. Little knowing that we would so miss the work of our own hands. That in creating, providing, harvesting, hunting, weaving, carving, tanning and countless other expressions is the tapestry of life. Web of connection to place, one’s self, to nature, to one another, a belonging that we all long for. We lost the medicine of the wheel and wander, now lost inside our own minds, bearing grievous wounds which we know not how to heal, we wound one another.
The container is shattered, the shards, brittle fragments of a lost art. The once eternal cedar now hewn and fallen. And yet, seeds a thousand years old taken from the Hopi dwellings sprouted anew. Can we find the path back, turn our backs on the now all too obvious lies of mother culture, returning to our true mother, leaving the patriarchal father to find our birthright of old? It is not enough that some of us return, though all things start small and with time become the sequoias of majesty. There must be a great turning. What person knows at the beginning what will grow out of the seed they plant? Sow the ancient seed, long lying dormant waiting for the living water to spring forth. Sow it in your heart, sow it in your mind, sow it in your body, sow it in your soul.
May we all find our way back to our individual living waters. Drink up. Be renewed. Let’s connect and live.
We’re doing something a little different today. You’ve got your choice of mediums! Below is a blog post you can read, but if you’d rather listen, you can listen to me read it from the embedded media below, SoundCloud, or iTunes (Ep8 from either of those locations).
As I’ve been traveling around the country, I’ve struggled with what to call myself. I often say I’m a traveler. But that’s so vague. It doesn’t really capture that I’m road tripping a giant loop around the country. Nor does it capture my primary objective of experiencing people. Sometimes I jokingly call myself homeless. To some I talk about my project of seeking out stories from people as I travel and make that the focus. To others I just note the ideas that capture what I’m doing, that I’m following my bliss, I’m sticking it to the man, I’m doing a passion project, I’m learning about people and myself. But what I’ve kinda been settling on calling myself is a privileged bum.
Privileged bum. That just so perfectly encapsulates how I feel. And I’m not trying to cast a negative light on myself, I just feel like I occupy a unique position and exploring that has been worthwhile. Yes, I’m technically homeless. I drift around the country with only a vague plan for what I’m doing day to day. I’ve camped. I’ve slept in my car. I’ve wondered on many nights where I was going to sleep.
Despite some of the characteristics of a homeless wanderer, a moment early in my travels perfectly illustrated that I am not that. While I was chatting with a homeless guy in California, we were sitting outside with each other and passers-by spoke to us as though we were the same. We appeared to be homeless, traveling nomads, sitting together. My long-ish beard, beanie, flannel and my sitting with a homeless man gave the impression I was like him. It was a strange experience for me, because I had never been assigned that label by someone else. I contemplated that label as this homeless man and I chatted.
As we were making an end to our conversation, this man asked me what my sleeping plans were for the night. I noted that I had some people a town over that my cousin had arranged to host me. I had a choice of a couch or air mattress to sleep on. This man had the prospect that he may not be warm, dry or comfortable that night. Reality hit me with all its force. I could look homeless, I could play like I’m homeless, and I could wander like someone that is homeless. But I will always be someone that most homeless people have no access to being. I have a network of people that will always make sure I have a place to sleep or live, and a bachelor’s degree and a good resume to ensure employment.
His network is more homeless people, drug addicts, and drug dealers, laced with a smattering of interactions with law enforcement and kindly strangers that offer him the likes of a can of mango juice from their grocery bags. He wanders out of necessity and simply because that’s all he can do. He’ll wander until he stumbles into the next thing that sustains him for the day or that numbs him until the next sustaining or numbing boon comes. I wander because I chose to for a season. He hops freight trains, hitches rides and walks. I drive my car and stop to soak in scenery and play disc golf. He’ll keep wandering. And when I choose to, I’ll go find a comfortable job, a comfortable home and all the sense of security and stability that my privilege can buy. I’ll never know this homeless man’s lot in life, because I am a privileged bum.
The characteristics of the privileged bum don’t stop at education and employability though. A friend of mine is currently traveling around Europe. She and I talk frequently, because in many ways our travels mirror each other’s. There are the complications of finding places to stay, the loneliness of extended travel, the changes of life that force one to face their inner self. So we talk about these experiences. She often expresses frustration at having her travel choices questioned. Whether it be the fact that she’s so unrooted and traveling with no particular plan, or the places she wants to go, or the way she chooses to spend her time. Another female friend who has been in Europe following a passion of hers in working with refugees wrote me upon my departure and excitedly gave me her support. She noted that I should be careful not to heed the nay-sayers who would question my choice to leave behind a stable job and home to do what I’m doing.
Here’s the odd thing: I have never been questioned to my face. There have certainly been expressions of hoping that I’d be safe and with that the questions about what precautions I’m taking. And there are those that are uncomfortable with imagining themselves doing what I’m doing and conclude they wouldn’t do it. I’m sure some actually do doubt the wisdom of what I’ve chosen to do. Maybe this is too harsh a judgment, but I’m inclined to believe that these wonderful women I know have been questioned, while I have not, because I am a man. They lack this gendered characteristic of the privileged bum, and thus cannot be one as I am.
I would stop at the education/resume status and gendered characteristics of the privileged bum, but I do believe that there is one more important aspect to this classification. I’m white. I can go virtually anywhere without question. I got a few unusual looks when I walked into a fancy Indian restaurant in Chicago looking as I often do: bearded, beanie, zipper hoodie, and backpack. But with the removal of my hat, a smile, and a statement laced with the confidence that I belong, “Table for one, please,” the hostess instantly smiled back. Her tense posture relaxed, she grabbed a menu and drink menu and guided me to a table as if there was never any question about whether I belonged. And maybe race had nothing to do with that situation. But I couldn’t help but feel like it helped. It was one less thing about me to question.
Our white washed society is built for me. While I was in Chicago, I had the chance to couch surf with a wonderful man of Sicilian descent. His education and interests have led him to deeply assess the racial and identity dynamics of various places. He noted that the United States for extended periods of time only allowed immigrants from white, western European countries. The government literally tried to design this society for people like me. And though the US is becoming much more diverse, that legacy of white privilege is still present. I can sense that there are places that I am welcome. It is astounding when you look at a racial dot map of the US. We segregate and divide to this day.
The old song goes “This land is your land, this land is my land.” But there seems to be fine print to that statement. This—as in this less desirable, boxed in piece of—land is your land, this—as in everything and anything that I want to deem as my—land is my land. Race has always been a touchy dynamic in the US and in most of the world. And while I don’t know all the problems or the answers, it is clear to me that my being white affords me some measure of privilege, making me the complete privileged bum.
As I mentioned to start, I don’t really want to self-deprecate here. But I do want to acknowledge what I’m witnessing in my experience and what is facilitating a lot of my experience. I don’t have to deal with the same problems as a truly homeless person, a woman, or a person of non-Anglo-European descent. I certainly have my own problems—and trust me, there are a multitude of them—but there are also privileges I have that allow more ease in a variety of situations. I love what I’m doing. I love that I am seeing the country in a non-traditional way. I love sleeping on couches in strangers’ homes, or with family in different places, or friends, or just in my car. I love driving every day and seeing beautiful, dynamic scenery. I love being alone with my thoughts regularly. I love chatting with people I wouldn’t normally have the courage or circumstances to talk to. I love solving problems that weren’t a consideration just a couple months ago. I love finding myself in non-tourist and tourist locations alike. I love how eye opening all of this is. Truly I am a privileged bum.
Since my current focus with Reflection is traveling around the US to collect stories from different people, it stands to reason that this is becoming somewhat of a travel blog too. There have been a multitude of beautiful moments where I’ve met people that were willing to open a window into their souls for a brief moment. There have been contemplative moments, where I’ve gotten to reflect on myself and what I’m doing with my life and discover what I love and value. There have been opportunities to explore breathtaking places in nature and see landmark structures humanity has raised up. But for each of those awe inspiring moments, I feel like there have been just as many awkward moments, that maybe we don’t talk about from our travels. So I thought I’d share a few.
As I was driving from San Diego to LA I was starting to get a little hungry. Sometimes hunger demands a simple sandwich. So I pulled off the freeway to some unknown place and found a Jimmy John’s. Because I had just spent the last couple nights in a communal sleeping area and had a few more of those sort of nights in front of me, I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity for solitude that my car provided me. I took my sandwich to-go and sat to eat in my car in the parking lot.
I should explain that I have this sort of condition where from time to time food gets lodged in my esophagus. It’s uncomfortable, but when I feel it happen, a big swallow of water will usually wash it down. Just such a moment happened as I sat in my car eating this sandwich. I took a swallow of water and then that familiar feeling that happens from time to time arose. The water wasn’t washing it down. When this happens, my gag reflex goes into action and sends the water back out.
I jumped out of my car to save the interior from a spray of water mixed with chunks of masticated sandwich. I stood in the parking lot spewing out the water. Panic tends to set in with these episodes, because despite the airway not being blocked, there is a sensation of choking, so I continued to pour water down my throat only to be met with yet another violent rejection of the newly introduced fluid. I stood in the lot, spewing multiple times as cars slowly passed me by, passengers staring at me and my ever growing puddle of regurgitated water.
Finally, after multiple attempts, a successful swallow of water dragged the lodged food further into its digestive journey. Feeling the movement, without any sense of control over my reaction, I raised my hands in the air and shouted out “YEEEAAHHH!!!!” Suddenly, the eyes of those that had driven by were back on me as the were walking into the various shops they had come to.
As I made my way up the coast of California, I found it difficult to get a couch surfing host to let me stay at their place in the San Francisco area. So I decided to camp at a site a couple hours south of the Bay area. I found myself at an utterly vacant campground that evening. I had expected to find other campers and thought I might be able to strike up some conversations. Given a situation where I was alone, with no other person apparent for miles around, I embraced my solitude. I listened to the sounds of the creatures, trees, and wind as I fell asleep.
The next morning I went out for a run on one of the trails leaving the camp area, continuing to soak up the beauty of the wilderness and feeling alive in the moment. I could easily just leave it at the beautiful moment I had camping and running. But things got awkward.
Now being all sweaty from my run, I decided to get cleaned up before hitting the road. With water spickets being at each of the camp sites and my being alone, it seemed appropriate to strip down to my underwear and splash water on myself, lather up and rinse off. The cool water would be refreshing and a nice clean up after a run would set me on the road feeling mighty fine. I pursued this very plan and just as I was rinsing off, a man emerged down the road. I awkwardly tried to hurry my rinsing and get my towel wrapped around me before he noticed me. But it was too late, his body language said it all. He awkwardly looked at trees, bushes, anything he could place his eyes on that wasn’t in my direction and slowed his pace significantly.
I got wrapped up in my towel and walked back to my car to put my clothes on. This gentleman walked past, seeming to be content to maintain a respectful silence. To borrow from the words of the great comedian Mike Birbiglia, what I should’ve said was nothing. But what I did say was, “Nice day to take a bath!” as I smiled at him, clenching the towel around my waist.
I wish I could say that was my last moment of partial nudity. But it of course was not. Further up the coast, I was exploring the Redwoods. Again, I could leave what I share from that experience to the simple beauty of what it was like to wander alone in the midst of those towering sentinels. Walking barefoot for a time with the soft fallen foliage below my feet brought a smile to my face. The previous night’s rain dripping from the heights of the trees into puddles and onto the ferns brought a dose of perfection to the whole scene. I walked, lost in thought and bliss.
I was aware that rain had been in the forecast, so shaking myself from the dreamland I was in, I started to notice there was more than just the drops of water falling from the trees, but what appeared to be rain. I hastened my pace back to my car. Less than half a mile away, the rain began to fall hard. I found myself running from tree to tree, feeling as though I was going from one massive umbrella to another. Despite the protection of these beautiful trees, I still found myself getting soaked.
As the road came into view, I sprinted to my car and jumped in. I started to quickly peel off my wet clothes. It was awkward, given the small quarters of my car and the wet clothes clinging to my body. My shirt came off and just as my pants were coming down a minivan filled with a vacationing family pulled up right next to me. Oblivious to the scene they had just parked next to, the parents stared at their phones, clearly trying to figure out where they were. Meanwhile, their children stared at me, bewildered. Completing the removal of my pants, I clicked into place my seat belt, started the car, put it into gear and drove away with a wink, as if I was some kind of frightening Santa Clause.
Traveling around the country in the early going has been an incredible experience. And I am in love with the awkward moments that come with the beautiful ones. As much as the plan is to have heartfelt, uplifting experiences with people, these awkward moments will happen too, and I’m glad they do.