THE CONFESSIONS OF FOFI LITTLEPANTS
by Fofi Littlepants
IV. THE JOURNEY
Our odyssey spanned 29 states, 3 countries, and 1 federal district. We didn’t have much of a plan when we started, except that we decided to head north from California, rather than southeast, because we had already explored those states in the past.
In the end, we went through every major geographic region of the country, with the exception of the Southwest and the Deep South (unless you place Arkansas or Tennessee in the Deep South, but I think most people consider them to be in a distinct region, like the “Upper South”.)
We started in the most quintessentially Western of states, California, and hitchhiked north into the Pacific Northwest through Oregon and Washington, then took a bus over the border into Canada (nobody would give us a ride over the border), and hitchhiked around British Columbia. Then we came back into Washington, and then hopped a train east, through Idaho and into Montana.
We hitched around Montana and Wyoming, but rented a car to go to Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks (there was no public transport, and we didn’t want to have to follow the schedule of families on vacation with their kids). We also visited Apsaálooke (Crow) nation, and then hitchhiked east to South Dakota, through the Black Hills, and got a car to explore the Badlands and visit Lakȟóta (Sioux) country. We were planning to trainhop south toward Texas, but failed a number of times and then ended up having to flee the state in a hurry ~ we were camping on the side of a rest stop off the freeway, when a stupendous storm with tornado potential started gathering ~ a trucker rescued us at 2 am, and we sped away in his 18-wheeler into Minnesota, with the storm following us a few minutes behind; we eventually arrived in Wisconsin.
After exploring a bit of Wisconsin (we were in Madison, and then went to Oshkosh just because we liked the name), and after visiting a wonderful friend in Chicago (who drove an hour outside of town to pick us up from an obscure White Castle where we had gotten dropped off), we hitched southward through the vast flat expanses of the Great Plains, crossing from Illinois through Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma and on to Texas.
In Texas we explored Austin and Hill Country, and while Joey was visiting people in the north of the state, I got a car for two days and drove around at great speed through north, central, east and south of the state, and went into Mexico twice to just see what the border was like (the second time, I got detained for inspection, and had to wait while my rental car went through all sorts of probes that included lots of agents, dogs, mirrors and banging.) Joey and I then hitched through the Upper South, through Arkansas, Tennessee, and Virginia, and finally ended up in the South Atlantic ~ Maryland and D.C.
By the time we got to Maryland, we celebrated that we had gone coast to coast by train or thumb; we retired that part of the trip, in favor of Chinatown buses, which will take you to and from most major East Coast cities for $20 or less. Our justification for this was that we only had a couple of weeks left and didn’t have the time to hitchhike in the face of East Coast paranoia ~ it had taken us 12 hours to get from Richmond, Virginia to Baltimore, Maryland, over a distance that would have been a one and a half hour drive by car.
From a basecamp of our friend’s house in Baltimore, we rented a car for 3 days and explored New England: Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine. And finally, going through mid-Atlantic Pennsylvania and New Jersey, we brought the journey to a close in the most quintessential of eastern states, New York.
We were well aware that this trip really just scratched the surface of what there is to see and know in the United States. But I guess we’ll save the rest for another trip.
It’s cliché to say this, but the United State is an enormous, endlessly varied place. Every place we passed through exhibited a splendid diversity along innumerable dimensions: from landscape and vegetation (snow-topped peaks in Washington and Montana covered in pines, to the total desolate flatness of the many Plains states); the number of people (you don’t realize in California people are living like crowded ants, until you go out to Wyoming and drive miles and miles to see the next house); weather (from tornados and hailstorms in the middle of summer in South Dakota, to the ginormous sauna that is Texas), wildlife (from deer, bear, moose, foxes, skunks, and raccoons in the wooded north and east, to marmots, mountain goats, mountain lions, elk and birds of prey in the mountains, and bison, prairie dogs, porcupines, and rattlesnakes in the Plains, to name only a few).
Even the color of sunlight and sky, the shapes of clouds, and feel of the air can vary greatly. Dusk in the Plains casts the richest orange light on everything ~ a portraitist’s dream ~ then it slowly gathers itself into a sunset glowing deep purple. In the sea of Montana Big Sky, Botero clouds backfloat voluptuously across unending blue. In the woods of Maine, the air is so warm and velvety that you feel like you’re being held in an embrace.
Sounds and vibrations also vary greatly. I don’t think I had ever experienced the absolute stillness and silence that envelopes the Great Plains and the Mountains. Nor the reverberation in my chest from the humming of Texas insects, which miraculously hide themselves in trees despite surely being the size of helicopters. And as Xena Warrior Princess said, there is also much to be heard if you “Listen not just to the sounds, but what’s behind the sounds.”
Another salient regional difference was in driving style. In the Plains, where there are flat roads and few people, people push the 80-mile per hour speed limit, grumbling all the while that there used to be no speed limit at all; they couldn’t comprehend the ludicrous 55-mile per hour limits in California. But even that paled in comparison to the East Coast, where even peace-loving Buddhist progressives transform into maniacal terminators on testosterone when they get behind the wheel.
Other interesting road-related indications of regional differences were the variations in street signs ~ depending on where you are, they can manifest silouettes of deer and moose, as well as tractors and snowmobiles. A related (sadder) one was the diversity in roadkill ~ dogs, cats, and deer are ubiquitously littered on the side of the road, but in some regions, porcupines and skunks add themselves to the pile.
Some people ask what the highlights were out of the things that we got to see. We don’t have a very good answer, there isn’t a really obvious list. The best we could do is to name a few experiences that we remember and come to mind: In Glacier National Park in Montana, we hiked through the snow along the edge of a cliff, looking over our shoulders for bears. In Apsaálooke (Crow) country, we watched dancing competitions at a pow-wow while chewing on Indian fry bread. In South Dakota on the eve of Fourth of July, we caught a ride with a motorcycle gang to Mount Rushmore for fireworks (though it was too foggy to see any), and the next day visited the Crazy Horse Memorial, a colossal mountain statue that is being carved into the Black Hills of the famed Lakȟóta warrior Tȟašúŋke Witkó (Crazy Horse), designed by sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski at the invitation of Lakȟóta leader Henry Standing Bear. In Lakȟóta country, we felt lucky to be allowed to attend a wi wanyang wacipi (sun dance), a traditional ceremony that represents life and rebirth, in which dancers connect spiritually to the center of the universe. We also talked to people and read historical materials at Wounded Knee, the infamous site of the massacre of 1890 and the standoff with the American Indian Movement and the FBI in 1973. In Texas, we discovered a magical blue spring in rolling Hill Country; I also watched baby turtles pull themselves into the sea in Padre National Seashore, then watched a U.S.-Mexico soccer match on a television at a border town fruit stand. In Little Rock, Arkansas, we visited Central High School, where federal troops had landed in 1957 to enforce the Brown v. Wade desegregation decision in the face of virulent resistance by local whites. In Memphis, Tennessee, we went to the National Civil Rights Museum, constructed inside and adjacent to the motel outside of which Martin Luther King Jr. was shot, reading about the long history of the civil rights movement, and the various theories on the perpetrators of the assassination. In Salem, Massachusetts, we watched a reenactment of a witch trial, and saw a memorial for the 19 people that were hanged for witchcraft in 1692, and one who was crushed to death with rocks. At Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts, we floated on the water and on our philosophical musings, and sat in the replica of Thoreau’s cabin. We also watched in wonder as a fuzzy green caterpillar, over the course of almost an hour, contorted and writhed in existential ecstasy/agony to haul itself up on a translucent string, from the ground all the way up to a tree branch far above. We followed its progress intently, afraid it would fall and die, but little by little it danced ever so effortfully closer to its goal. We would have found it incredibly inspirational to witness it cross over into its tree branch nirvana, but at the last moment, we lost site of it, and could not find it again. Maybe such things are not for human eyes to see.
There is one story I feel I have to include here, because no odyssey is complete without a trip to the underworld. Mine came in the guise of a sacred quest to navigate Spunky the Guinea Pig down to the depths of hell, the entrance to which can be found on 110th Street in Manhattan.
The story goes like this: in New York, a wonderful family I knew had agreed to let me and Joey stay at their house while they were gone on vacation. In exchange, I was to take care of their two guinea pigs, “Spunky” and “Lonny”, the pride and joy of the family’s 12-year old daughter. I went by a few days early to meet the guinea pigs and to be initiated into guinea pig care training ~ I diligently took notes on the two baby carrots, handful of greens, excess of hay, minimalist layer of pellets, two bottles of water, and air conditioning that the guinea pigs required daily.
When Joey and I finally arrived on the fateful day, it was after much trial and tribulation hauling our luggage around in the subway from downtown in Chinatown, to the apartment all the way uptown, in Innwood around 200th Street. When we arrived at last, I offered to introduce Joey to Spunky and Lonny. But when we went into the airconditioned room in which they lived, I almost had a heart attack ~ one of them was missing! Spunky was nowhere to be found. We crawled around the whole apartment and looked everywhere. In the midst of this, my friend called. He asked how things were going, and I had to admit sheepishly, Spunky was not in his cage! In response he said, “That’s because he died this morning. If you look in the refrigerator he should be in there.” (!) A neighbor that had checked in on the apartment earlier that day and had found him, he said. He asked me to look in the fridge to see if he was there. I was expecting to see a stiff guinea pig belly up in the middle of the center rack with its face contorted into a Ringu scream, but instead found a heavy shoebox in a plastic bag. “Well, there’s a shoebox in the fridge in a bag”, I said into my cell phone. “That’s him,” said my friend, “we don’t put our shoes in the fridge.”
I was instructed to take him down to Animal Control Center to get him disposed of. It was on 110th Street, on the east side. The apartment was on the West Side; Manhattan is split into East and West by Central Park, and the train only runs north and south on the sides of the park. So I figured out that the best thing was to take a train down to 110th to the top of the park, and take a bus across town. Then, after Animal Control, I could go downtown to Trader Joe’s, which was toward the east side ~ we needed groceries.
The next morning, I put poor Spunky, shoebox and all, into my backpack and started for the Animal Control Center.
I was following my plan to take a train down to 110th, but, this was thwarted because the train turned out to be express, and before I knew it, the train had already passed 110th street and ended up in all the way downtown. I ended up on the east side, miraculously close to Trader Joe’s. After some amount of tortured internal debate, I ended up swinging by the Trader Joe’s and shopping for organic pasta sauce and herbal salad, with Spunky still in my backpack. I wondered what the reaction of the other shoppers might be if they found out I had a dead guinea pig in my pack ~ would there be a screaming stampede? Was it a violation of a health code of some kind, I also wondered, to bring along your pet corpses to the supermarket? Would I unleash some kind of new epidemic on the world ~ like “Guinea Pig Flu” ~ if I handled any of the food? I tried to shop and get out of there as quickly as I could (though it seemed an eternity because it was so crowded), all the while occasionally sniffing over my shoulder to check that Spunky wasn’t starting to smell.
When I reached the Animal Control at last, it was with Spunky and a bag of organic groceries in hand. It all turned out fine ~ Spunky’s body seemed to have held up just fine in the New York summer heat even with the detour to Trader Joe’s (and to a pizza joint afterwards to get a slice of pizza.) (I just hope Spunky’s family doesn’t read this and get offended ~ but Trader Joe’s was airconditioned, so I thought it would be okay!! But oh… now I don’t remember if the pizza place was…sorry!!!)
The Animal Control Center on 110th Street was clearly the gateway to Hell. It had the feeling of a prison, and a stuffy, chemically smell. The reception window reminded me of a police station counter window (though it didn’t have bullet-proof glass), and there was a line of people looking like they were waiting to cross the River Styx. Most of the people in the queue had old-looking dogs, I guessed they were bringing them there to have them put to sleep. The place gave me the creeps ~ though it wasn’t visible to the eye, it had the heaviness of a place where living things were getting imprisoned and killed. Fighting off a suffocating feeling, I shuffled into the line with everyone else, and with the gray, doomed dogs, to drop off old Spunkaroo to his final fate.
While in line though, a remarkable thing happened. I guess mythical descents to the netherworld require a glorious ascent, and I think I saw one happen. While Spunky didn’t miraculously resurrect from the dead, another beloved pet may have been given new life.
A lady had come in, with a happy looking dog but herself on the verge of tears; she talked loudly to herself and anyone that would listen.
“Oh, you know this is a bad place!” she said over and over, and I couldn’t agree more. She was moving to Atlanta to work, she went on, and couldn’t take her dog with her because the building she was going to live in didn’t allow pets. She had nowhere else to take her but this pound. The dog’s name was “Beautiful”. She had had all her shots, she was a good dog, she was trained and everything. The woman really hoped that she would get adopted, so she wouldn’t get killed. The lady sat on the side of the line, distraught, obviously having second thoughts about leaving the dog ~ pets only had three days to get adopted before the ax dropped.
People in the line started sympathizing and giving suggestions. I got in the fray, my suggestion being to find a no-kill shelter, and so started looking up some numbers on my Blackberry and calling them. Everyone in the end was admiring Beautiful and trying to help find a home for her. This generally consisted of each person attempting to convince the next person that walked through the door to take the dog home, because they themselves couldn’t.
It was really kind of wrenching. The woman was obviously not wealthy. Someone gave her the suggestion to put the dog on Craigslist, but she didn’t know how to use a computer. If she had money she probably could have found an apartment where she could take the dog, or maybe she wouldn’t have had to be moving to Atlanta in the first place. I always knew that when you’re poor you have to go without so many things that other people take as a given. And this brought it home that it’s not just with material things, but with things even as fundamental as love. It was obvious that this woman loved this dog and it was breaking her heart to drop it off to its likely death. It occurred to me that all the people in line bringing in their old gray dogs loved them, but they couldn’t afford the luxury of a vet that would allow the dog and the family the peace of the pet dying painlessly in loving arms.
Then a miracle happened. A young couple walked in, and almost immediately took a liking to Beautiful. And it turned out that one of them worked for a no-kill shelter. The shelter was full, they said, like all the others I had called, but they told us that we should call later, and could drop her name (Lara). She gave the owner-lady a card, who handed it to me and asked that I call. I did, even though Lara had suggested calling later, not now. After quite a bit of confusion and running around with the phone and some embarrassment for Lara (it turned out that I had eventually gotten her boss on the phone), Lara said that she had gotten approval to try to take Beautiful with her, if she fit in the car. The owner was overjoyed.
I left before I found out what ultimately happened. I felt like I had done my part, and couldn’t do anymore. I didn’t want to insist on knowing what happened in the end, because I have to believe that when you contribute what you can, it has meaning even if you don’t get the exact gratification or rewards you think you want. (“Providence has its appointed hour for everything. We cannot command results, we can only strive.” ~ Gandhi.) And no matter the final outcome, it wouldn’t have changed the lesson that I carried away from that journey to the underworld ~ that love can transcend, transform, and redeem.
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CONFESSIONS OF FOFI LITTLEPANTS