In the wild in the

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In the Wild

In the summer of 1995, without a phone or computer in my pocket, I went on a 75 day road trip with my friend Misty, traveling across the United States, camping in parks and cities mostly on the western side of the Mississippi. My only intention was to see the sun set over the Pacific and sleep under the stars along the way. That was my version  the version my mother would tell her friends was that I was out West sitting shiva for Jerry Garcia.

When we set sail from my mothers gated-community on the North Shore of Long Island we had only an atlas and a direction: west. It was the Fourth of July.

We meandered our way into and out of the city and headed for Rt. 80. After the punishing drive through Pennsylvania (same tree for 8 hours), we crossed into middle America and began a journey into the unknown. We were set to get as much road behind us until we crossed the Mississippi. We drove that first day to Ann Arbor and surprised a high school friend of mine by showing up at her front door. She hugged me with enthusiasm, made us some tea and gave us a place to crash. That night, we sat in her backyard in silence as the sky around us filled with choreographed streaks of light and the sound of bombs bursting in air. We had no real plans and I relished in the uncertainty. I could begin to feel the boundaries of daily life fade away and the fog recede as I sat there on the lawn chair and leafed through the Atlas under the colored lights in the sky.

The next morning, we had an early breakfast with loads of coffee and got an early start. We followed our maps along the short drive to Deer Creek, Indiana. We were really driving through farm land now, crossing the grids of the page  diagonally from D2 to B5, following the guide of the larger inset portion to find our way to a diner recommended by a friend (and previously circled on our map). We traced our entire route and circled, squared and triangled the areas we wanted to remember and during those 75 days, we made gigantic back peddles to see a place a second time and revisit new friends. Our atlas became a diary of our trip, covered in notes, phone numbers, names and addresses.

When we got to Deer Creek, we parked in a field and walked across two farms, about two miles to our destination. The Grateful Dead were playing one of their last shows  they would play just four more  and we had planned to make this our last brush with society for some time.

This was a time before cell phones, let alone texting, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and, for the most part, email. We took out our camera, wound the film, focused and took a picture of what laid ahead  it looked like a scene out of Ringling Bros  tents, vans and busses streaming with hippies in colorful garb and flowing skirts.

As we approached the amphitheater, we heard a mewing from a ditch and found there the smallest kitten, no more than a month old. The sun was brutal that day and the temperatures were well into the 90s. I picked her up and held her in a pouch I made with my t-shirt. She found comfort there and before long she was mine. I carried her around all day.

I was amazed at how many cats on leashes I saw that day, and the outpouring of support I received in the form of milk, tuna and cat food. I watched the show from behind the fence at the back of the amphitheater. Many jumped the fence  hippies preach peace but they are not always peaceful  but I just stayed with Zoe, my new adoration. I was in love with our new traveler. We left that show, the three of us, ready to go where the wind blew and let each day guide us to the next destination.

As we made our way across the country from state to state, sleeping under the stars and visiting almost every National Park within reach, Misty, Zoe and I seemed to always meet with good fortune. People fed us, took us in and whenever the tides seemed to be turning in favor of dark clouds, the ship always righted itself and we were presented with a silver lining.

In Idaho we got caught in a speed trap, going about 20 miles over the speed limit, as we passed through a small town. After a few minutes of talking to us and hearing our adventures the officer let us off the hook with a $25 ticket (he could have arrested us) and sent us on our way with directions to Craters of the Moon.

In Wyoming we brought Zoe in to the only veterinarian we found in 3 states  again this was before cellphones. The nurse just about melted when she met her before saying in her mid-west twang Honey, thats a boy kitten. Turns out we didnt really look hard enough. He was only 5 weeks old. They gave him his shots but not before we followed them out back to see what they really do. We watched as the nurse transformed from a sweet country gal into a cowhand and secured a tremendous bull. She stabbed at it with a poker while the vet looped a noose around its leg. She grabbed the noose and held out his leg with the strength of a body builder while quietly whispering it down. The vet pulled out a needle that was about 8 inches long and as thick as a ball point pen and shot the bulls foot full of antibiotics. Turns out, most people show up there towing their animals in trailers, not cuddled in their arms. They sent us on our way with a clean bill of health for Zoe (we kept the name despite the gender mix up) and all the proper shots (much smaller needle).

Every couple of weeks, wed find a payphone and check in with our families. It went like this:
Collect call from Jason, will you accept the charges?, said the operator.
Mom, Im in Wyoming, everything is awesome, were having a great time, love you, bye!
She would deny the charges, and panic quietly till I remembered to call again. I always wondered what it was like to be these operators. How many other people were running this scam?

In the Badlands we hiked into what can only be described as a moonscape, following a river bed for hours. We had a compass and thought wed have no issue finding our way out, until we realized a house of mirrors doesnt quite work that way.

Each path looked like the other and the ground was made of crumbling volcanic ash. In the midst of our panic we found a clearing and there, as we sat on the grass drinking the little bit of water we had left, a mule deer and her baby walked by, studied and sniffed at us. She walked over to some berry bushes just ten yards away and picked at the fruit. Her and her child soon left. We wept and laughed as we miraculously found our way out.

Our hatchback had a Tape We had about 10 or so tapes and by the end of the trip we knew them very very well. In Utah, we drove through the worst rain storm Ive ever witnessed to the Violent Femmes. Other days were The Smiths, The Grateful Dead or Cat Stevens. Occasionally, wed find a radio station playing something fantastic, rare funk or be-bop, and as quickly as it came it would crackle out. Wed stop on the side of the road, and as the radio blared, capture a photo of the long grass blowing in the direction of the wind as the sky drew on into the abyss of forever and a lone tree sat solemn amongst the thousands of acres. The mid-west is a quiet place and it takes some getting used to. But once you find the pocket of its rhythm, you can feel yourself change, your mind open up and the colors change.

At the Grand Tetons we hiked up to Inspiration Point and were inspired.

We took a shitty metal rowboat out in Lake Teton and let the current drag us against its glassy surface as the sun baked us through our clothes. We got stuck in some weeds and laughed hysterically as we tried to get loose. Until it thundered and then we saw lightning. I screamed in fear and pleaded for Misty to push as her laughter at the situation turned my fear into hysterics. I had become Ned Flanders and screamed like a little girl. The folks that ran the dock came out to get us on a motor boat and dragged our asses back to shore. We felt like city slickers for the first time in months.

Later on, we made a u-turn at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge and was immediately motioned over by a cop occupied with writing another car a ticket. After pointing out that we werent wearing a seatbelt, commenting on both our New York plates and the kitten traveling with us, he set us on our way with directions to Pacific Heights. People are inherently good. Even some cops.

And thats how it went. Everywhere we went we made a series of stupid decisions and the universe rewarded us. After the Grand Tetons we spent a week in Yellowstone. We exited the west side of the park to go caving at Craters of the Moon in Idaho, before driving what felt like forever up towards Washington. We eventually made it to the west coast, at the most northern point on Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. As we drove up to the rocky coast, the sun was receding toward the horizon. We found a beach and sat below the bluffs, Zoe in my lap. With the forest to our backs, we sat in silence for a couple of hours, and watched with wonder as the sun set into the abyss beyond the curve of the earth. I had made it. Such a simple thing as seeing the sun set over the ocean can evoke so much emotion when seeing it for the first time. Life has so much potential to be beautiful, boundless in its opportunity for experience  such simple opportunities for novel experiences that wake us from our day-in

Maybe it was a different time or maybe it was me. I dont know. We had no Google Maps and no Facebook. If it wasnt on the map, we found it by luck or divine intervention. We sent postcards to new friends we had met along the way. We made collect calls when we could. No playlists, but we brought a few mixtapes, whatever fit in the glovebox or stuffed in the pockets of the doors. We measured distances in miles or exits or states even, not in driving time with traffic. We were alone; disconnected. It was wonderful. It was easy to believe in magic because it happened all the time.

From there we explored the cities of the coast from Portland to San Francisco, then to Los Angeles and down the coast to San Diego and into Mexico.

We made our way through the deserts of the American West and into Colorado. We had made it in and out of the wildness and it had changed us. At Joshua Tree, under the most stars Ive ever seen, Misty and I fell asleep in our tent, after our nightly game of chess, and both had flying dreams. We were young and we were open and we were present. I flew four more times that summer.

We passed across Death Valley in the August heat, windows down, pouring water over our heads to stay cool. Our cooler was filled with ice, Zoe asleep on the top tray, with the cover propped open over his head like a rabbit trap. He had the best seat in the car while we made our way across the deserts and into Colorado.

In Boulder we stayed with a college friend we called Tater. He was a total stoner but whip smart. We were there for about a week. I remember he had a couple of tatami type mattresses laid out on the living room floor for us. Wed smoke ourselves to sleep every night, reminiscing of days past. We stayed in the comfort of his Colorado home for two weeks, overdosing on showers and burritos.

On our last morning, I woke up to Tater, burning joint in hand, standing over me and shaking me with his foot.
Yo man, youre not gonna believe this Guess who died?
Umm Jerry Garcia? I wiped the sand from my eyes.
Yeah, man. Jerrys dead

Yeah. It was weird. We tuned in to PBS as they remembered Jerry and showed hours of live footage. In town, we passed by candlelit vigils that reminded us of nothing less then a Grateful Dead parking lot. Strangely, a part of me didnt care. In fact, I was actually relieved. So many friends of mine would be able to finally get their shit together. And when I called my mother that night, probably two weeks since we had last spoken, she felt the same thing for me. When are you coming home?, she asked. You need to figure out your life.

So I went to the vigils in Boulder and I sat shiva for Jerry Garcia. We stayed up late into the night with Tater, reminiscing about times past, road trips to Dead shows, and the comedy of errors we called college. What would be next for me? Would I head back West or return East? The deserts and the national parks felt like a dream against the stark realities that seemed on the road ahead. I wasnt ready to let it all fade and was scared to death of the future  even conceptually. I wasnt ready to decide.

The next morning Misty and I woke up before the sun was out, said goodbye to Tater and quickly left the small city of boulder. We drove to Rocky Mountain National Park at the break of dawn, donned our packs, and walked back into the wild.

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