It was a colder winter than usual in northern Arizona back in ‘78. When my brother and I pulled into Flagstaff there was no way to make a left-hand turn. Some three feet of snow had been plowed into the middle of the roads to be trucked away later. A crystalline white bulwark separating the oncoming traffic.
We had a few more miles to go to find a campsite among the Ponderosa Pines. Once there, I eased the ‘70 Plymouth Satellite off the park road where the snow was the lightest and drove deeper into the forest. The snow being an incredible insulator, as soon as I shut the engine off it was dead quiet.
The beauty surrounding us was as breathtaking as the air was frigid.
In the distance, the towering San Francisco Peaks were covered in clouds. It looked like they were tethered to the mountains with the surrounding sky perfectly clear and blue. When those clouds cleared there would be an additional layer of snow on those holy Peaks.
Respect Mother Earth and the native traditions and you’ll live longer in this wilderness.
We swept an area clear of snow and pine needles, gathered some stones, and in no time had a conical fire pit. And with plenty of dead pine branches around and those pine needles for kindling we had a nice fire warming the stones. Soon to be a radiator for our woodland hotel room, as well as our cook stove.
Rations were getting thin though. Just a pack of saltines, but at least there was coffee. Something to warm the bones before retiring for the night.
This was life on the road.
The road I embarked on when the limbic system in my brain seized control and I reverted to a caveman’s mentality – fire good, sex good, intoxication good . . .
I was 21. Racing the clock. No time for sleep. Working a full-time job, taking a full load of college classes in my final semester, and exploring every vice imaginable. I didn’t “burn the candle at both ends.” I napalmed it!
The inevitable became reality. I dropped out of college, lost my job, packed all my worldly possessions into the trunk of my car, and headed down that long gray ribbon of concrete.
A friend’s promise of a job in Houston never materialized.
Just as well. That was the most hellish city I’d ever been in. The oil boom going strong, people were flocking there at a thousand a day. It seemed like offices were opening in the lower floors of skyscrapers while the upper floors were still under construction.
It took an hour and a half just to drive fifteen miles across town, and if the weather called for a ten percent chance of rain that meant rain for at least ten percent of the day and the streets would all flood. Once the rain stopped, the heat would return and coupled with the humidity, it was stifling. Hard to breath.
Just too many people shitting in the same place.
So, I blazed a trail west, northwest to start, through Colorado, Wyoming, and Idaho. Then south through Utah and Arizona. I was living in national forests, finding occasional short-time work, and pawning possessions when I needed to put food in the campfire pot.
Much of this time I was on my own, but this part of the journey was shared with one of my brothers. The sage of non-materialism and minimalist living. I soaked in his doctrine.
I enjoyed living in “real time.” There was only daytime and nighttime. Seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, and years were all artificial creations that were easy to discard. I was living breath to breath, heartbeat to heartbeat. The here and now. The way life was meant to be lived.
But it was time to replenish the pantry again, and what little cash I had left needed to be saved for gas. A few nights in this winter wonderland would be great, but we had to push south to a warmer climate. We weren’t outfitted for a long time in the cold.
Knowing we weren’t going to stay meant there would be no temporary job. Time to pawn another possession. Turn material into food. Food into calories to burn.
But what was left to sell?
I had already sold the things that had the most cash value. Sacrificed my hobby of photography. Couldn’t eat the camera, or the pictures. There wasn’t much left in the trunk except for a couple of sentimental items. The ones hardest to let go of.
Winter cold and pot empty, I made a fateful decision to pawn granddad’s watch.
The next day, we drove back into Flagstaff and found an old pawn shop on San Francisco Street. While I had learned to attach less importance to material possessions, as I approached the counter I felt my breath escaping me. I was about to tear up as I inched towards violating my father’s trust, burying the tradition of handing down this watch that he and granddad had started so long ago.
When I showed the store owner the watch he quietly pointed to a display case full of gold pocket watches. “I can’t sell the ones I got,” he said. A brief reprieve, but then I noticed my brother eyeing a guitar, and with my mind having already jumped the barriers to hanging on to this priceless piece of time, I offered it in trade.
We didn’t have food around the campfire that night, but we had music. It almost seemed worth if for the moment. Almost. But that moment quickly faded and the watch was gone, along with any sense of integrity or dignity.
Time was lost . . .
To be continued . . . One more part to go.
Photo: I’ll explain more about this image and the other photos to come in the final chapter of this story.