Eastern Michigan University
An Interstate Rite of Passage
by Kody Klein
“We are so lost in the commerce of our lives that we do not know that the invitation we are turning down is to the banquet of life itself.” —Bruce Sanguin Darwin, Divinity, and the Dance of the Cosmos
I don’t remember when it happened, but at some vague point of maturation I became aware my childhood had ended. Thereafter, the carelessly contented whimsy of sunny, never-ending days and starry, ever-dreaming nights faded into a scattered nebula of nostalgic memory.
I’m 22. I’m not old enough to be wise, but wise enough to know my days are numbered. With that has come a constant nagging to make the absolute most of the precious few days I have; a challenge to sponge up as much beautiful life and soul-searching truth as I possibly can and then lovingly squeeze it all out on the rest of the world.
Attempting to dedicate myself to that endeavor has been awkward and frustrating. I’ve come to feel that our big iron world of credit and debt doesn’t encourage true living. Instead, it enforces a shallow existence in a vacuous culture of material gluttony and spiritual starvation.
Once I started seeing the world through those eyes, I could sense the bedrock of melancholy upon which our streets are paved and our homes are built. It’s a coarse yarn woven into the fabric of our civilization; the panicky narcissism that emotionally isolates us from one another; the quiet resignation that closes our minds, sours our hearts, and saps the daydream luminescence from our eyes.
As my senior year waned, I started to feel desperate. I had to do something to test whether I could reasonably live my life the way I want to live it. I had to do something big, something spectacularly stupid, to find out whether I was indeed a fool, or an inspired bhikhu rejecting the samsara of modern society.
I saw the perfect opportunity in the impending winter break. My parents had moved to Sarasota, Fla., and my brothers and I were aiming to drive down to spend the holidays together as a family.
I decided to hitchhike home alone. It was perfect. Thinking about it made me giddy. The inherent dangers others reminded me of couldn’t trump the holistic design. Thumbing the 1,218 miles from Sarasota to Ypsilanti would test all of my ideas in a way no other experiment could. It would mean limiting my cowardly reliance on money, investing in the kindness of strangers, and learning to more deeply appreciate the divine poesy of Fate.
“Pain or love or danger makes you real again...” —Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums
I had to make it back to Ypsilanti by January 4. I left the day after Christmas, around 2 p.m. My grandmother was my first ride. That seemed oddly fitting. She dropped me off one exit north from my parents’ condo. I could see how scared she was for me. Everyone was. It hurt to know I was upsetting so many people, but it wasn’t something that could be helped. I gave her a hug and told her I loved her.
Then she was gone. And I was alone.But I wasn’t alone for long. About ten minutes after my grandma left, a car pulled to the side of the road. Perhaps it was a sign or perhaps a novel coincidence, but it seems oddly fitting that the first person to offer me a ride was named Jésus (though to be fair, he introduced himself as Jesse).
One of the things this trip taught me was that every single person I meet has the potential to play the role of prophet, guiding me toward enlightenment. If I have an open heart and an active mind, then there is wisdom and inspiration derived from the banter, musings and anecdotes of all conversation.
Jesse was a prophet. Though a U.S. citizen, he emigrated from Paraguay about 12 years ago. Despite stern admonishment from his family, he took a dishwashing job on an international cruise ship. After several years traveling the world, Jesse got a job on land in Florida. Soon after, he fell in love with the woman who worked at a kiosk at the mall where he bought postcards to send his parents. Now, Jesse and the woman from the kiosk have been married for eight years.
Jesse took me as far as Brandon, about 50 miles north of Sarasota. I grabbed my prayer flags from my backpack, cut one of them off the line and offered it to him as a token of my gratitude. He seemed moved by the gesture.Then I was back on the side of the road. I felt exhilarated--and proud! I was proving everyone wrong. I was already nearly an hour north from where I started, and traffic was heavy so I assumed that I’d have a ride again in no time. While hitching, I wore no watch and left my phone off, so it’s hard to say how much time passed during any specific part of the journey. But I’m pretty sure I was stuck in Brandon for well over an hour.
Almost everybody stared. Some went above and beyond, glaring, giving me the finger, tauntingly revving their engines, and the like. At first, it was amusing to me. I was too invigorated to care. As far as I was concerned, I had made it out of the cave and these frightened numbskulls were still worshipping shadows. Of course they’d find me amusing or offensive. I walked back and forth over the same 30-yard stretch of sidewalk. I sang. I danced. Out of boredom, I repeatedly took my pack off just to put it back on again minutes later.
Around the time I got tired of singing “When I’m 64” (which doesn’t usually happen), I became discouraged. Car after car after staggeringly unsympathetic car passed by. I started to feel desperate, cursing and pleading under my breath. I couldn’t understand why no one was stopping. They had room in their cars. I was going the same direction as they were. Finally, a young man named Tim pulled over. Tim was a nice guy. We drove together for about 20 minutes and he dropped me off on the nowhere outskirts of Tampa. It was a bit farther from any town than I would have liked, but I figured it had to be better than Brandon.
After about 20 minutes, it seemed worse.The exit where Tim dropped me saw a modest fraction of the traffic in Brandon. Moreover, most of the people who did pass the exit seemed like the sort of quiet old folks who retired in Florida’s gulf side so they could get away from obnoxious young people like me. Most of them didn’t even acknowledge I was there.
Again, something vaguely resembling an hour passed by. I tried really hard to stay optimistic. After all, one of the hypotheses I was testing was whether positive energy was self-manifesting. I couldn’t let fear bloom into pessimism. That could compromise everything in a very real way. But the sun was setting and it was getting colder (that week, Florida nights had been hovering in the 40s). I started to feel scared. I started to doubt myself, started to wonder what the hell I was thinking. How the hell did I get myself into this situation? I started looking at the nearby overpass and seriously wondering whether I could handle sleeping under it—whether it would even be safe.
A quiet tide of panic slowly flooded the shores of my perception. I started wondering whether I should begin walking toward the nearest town. The dilemma I faced was that though I wanted to believe in Fate, I didn’t know what it would want me to do. Was I where I needed to be? Was I supposed to trust in the Universe to send me another guardian? Or was the Universe waiting for me to take myself someplace else? Therein laid the stark philosophical divide between passive and aggressive existence, which was central to my experiment. But there was no logical answer. Both options seemed perfectly sensible. Thinking was useless. It was a matter of quieting the scattered dissenting intraspiritual voices in search of that faint whisper of truth, and a matter of trusting myself to know it when I heard it.
Indecision. I heard my arrogant voice of self-determination, compelling me to take Fate into my own hands. I felt I was too good, my life too short, to waste any more time lonesome and shivering on the side of the road. So, gauging my direction by the setting sun, I started walking roughly northeast. I didn’t know where I was going but I figured no matter where I ended up, it’d be better than where I’d spent the previous hour.
I hadn’t walked but a quarter mile when I heard someone honking at me from behind. I turned to see a woman in an SUV pulling to the curb and waving me over. Her name was Tathiana. She said she had passed me earlier and decided to double back to pick me up. When she returned and saw I was gone, she thought she had missed me. Had I walked much farther, she probably would have, and I could’ve been stuck walking for hours.
“For small creatures such as we, the vastness is only bearable through love.” —Carl Sagan
Tathiana’s parents had little to say as she excitedly told the story of the hitchhiker standing in their living room. There was a look of concerned bewilderment in their eyes.
“You’re crazy,” her father, Arthur, said to me teasingly in his beautiful Colombian accent.
The Vasquez home was filled with love. The walls were covered with pictures of Tathiana and her sisters. They were all born in Colombia and had immigrated to Florida around 2000.
Tathiana and her mother, Sandra, started preparing dinner and Arthur sat down in front of the computer. I am a tremendously awkward person, ever gauging what I should be doing instead of just being myself. Walking around the living room aimlessly, I felt especially aware of myself.
I know that sounds intensely neurotic, partly because it is, but there are so many barriers we keep between ourselves and those who show us hospitality. When people do nice things for us, we get nervous. We worry about being a nuisance or a freeloader. We feel a panicked sense of debt we’re not sure we can pay. I didn’t know whether Arthur and Sandra even wanted me in their home or if they were just indulging Tathiana.
Then, as I watched Arthur sitting by himself, I realized that this is exactly what I needed to overcome. This was it. What I was experiencing was the emotional isolation fostered by a society founded on the illusions of credit and debt. All artifical exchanges aside, people are people. We’re all moths looking for a light of some kind. Shouldn’t that unite us? I quietly reminded myself to have faith in my own beautiful personhood, and sat down next to Arthur.
Arthur was fascinating. He immigrated to Miami two years before the rest of his family did. Despite his bachelor’s degree in computer science and strong work ethic, he got stuck working menial jobs. Nevertheless, he saved as much money as he could and diligently worked to finalize the paperwork to grant his family’s immigration to the U.S. I was filled with respect and awe. I couldn’t imagine how lonesome it must have been for a husband and father of three to temporarily leave his family.
After a moment of empathetic silence, Arthur changed the subject back to me and said, “What you are doing...it is crazy.” “I don’t know about that,” I began somewhat hesitantly. “For me, this is sort of like your decision to immigrate to the United States. I’m sure you must have been terrified. I’m sure there were people who called you a fool. But it was something you felt, in your heart of hearts, you had to do.”
The temporary lull in conversation was excruciating. I realized only after the words tumbled out of my mouth the potential they had for offense. What he did was courageous. He left his home and lived alone for two years so that he could make a new life for his family. I was just a spoiled college kid bored with life... I started to backpedal in pitiful attempts to contextualize what I said, but he stopped me.
“No,” he said. “You’re right. It’s different, but it’s also pretty much the same.”
Later, after dinner, the elephant in the room stared at the four of us: it was well after dark and somewhere around 50 degrees outside, so what should be done with me?
Finally the subject was broached. Tathiana and Sandra thought I should stay. Arthur said I was welcome to sleep on the couch and leave with Tathiana when she went to work in the morning. However, he said he thought I should keep going, speculating that I would have an easier time finding long distance drivers at night.
“You have a long journey ahead of you,” he said. “You can’t afford to waste any time.”
I can’t really explain how I knew, but somehow I understood that Arthur was a prophet. Fate was speaking to me through him. I thanked Tathiana’s parents for their love and kindness. Then I bid them farewell. The on-ramp near the Vasquez house saw very little traffic at night, so Tathiana offered to drive me to the next exit north. On the way, driving along I-75, we saw a rest area. We agreed that would be the perfect place to find long distance drivers.
We pulled in and started looking at license plates. Almost all of them were from Florida, which was discouraging. Then, as we idled slowly through the parking lot, I saw one that wasn’t.
Knowing how to approach the car was a new challenge. As a hitchhiker on the side of the road, I was minimally obtrusive and ultimately passive. I liked that. Approaching people and asking them for rides seemed so much more invasive, aggressive, and frankly, weird. It made me really uncomfortable.
But Tathiana wouldn’t indulge my insecurities. She was insistent. We’re all spirits in motion. And as much as it is sometimes noble and wise to accept more passive transportation, I guess sometimes you have to have enough faith in your own intuition to be proactive.
I knocked on the driver’s side window of the car.
“I couldn’t help but notice your license plate isn’t from Florida,” I said. “Where are you from?” “South Dakota,” she said. “Perfect!” I exclaimed, thinking that I would likely be able to ride with her most of the way home. “Is that where you’re heading?” “No,” she said. “I’m going to New Orleans.”
I cannot describe the supernova of ecstatic excitement that erupted through my spirit in that moment. I made no attempt to conceal it. My face exploded into a crazy wide-eyed smile and my voice jumped an octave or so.
“Oh my god!” I yelped. “I’ve wanted to go there so badly! May I ride with you?!”
Bewildered doesn’t begin to describe how she must have felt. Despite her better judgment, the kind woman, whose name was Mary, consented. I gave Tathiana the most emphatic bear hug ever and said farewell.
“As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” —Marianne Williamson
I spent a week in New Orleans. I’d never found a place that fit me so well. Superstitious as it may sound, I can’t help but wonder if some intangible energy pulled me there, some universal force or maybe just the spiritual power of my own heart.
Perhaps it’s coincidence, some surreal stroke of luck, that I was at the right place at the right time to meet someone who was driving the 657 miles from Tampa to NOLA. But I suspect otherwise.
You see, despite prudence urging me to stick to I-75 and thumb back to the Mitten, I had been quietly fantasizing of ending up in NOLA. Two close friends, both Midwesterners who had fallen head over heels for the The City that Care Forgot, had talked of the bohemian oasis as though it were a home I’d yet to know.
Coincidence or not, I’m so grateful it happened. The one drawback to my stay in NOLA was that it left no realistic window of time in which to hitchhike back to Michigan. However, in an unspeakably endearing show of support, my parents bought me a last minute bus ticket home. Eternal gratitude goes to them for their love and support in spite of my insufferably idealistic whims.
As delighted as I was to get to spend a week in NOLA, I felt a lot of cognitive dissonance about not accomplishing what I set out to do. In fact, I felt like a coward, like I had taken the easy way out. I was so dejected that I scarcely talked to anyone on the zigzagging Greyhounds that bore me home.
Late in the day in Nashville, about an hour before I boarded the bus to Detroit, I started talking to a 29-year-old woman named Catherine.
Catherine had a wearied vivacity about her, as though her face were glowing with wisdom and grace. Several years ago, she had worked as a preschool teacher and was considering buying a house with her fiancé. For all intents and purposes, she was living the American Dream. But something in her changed.
She decided she needed to be doing something else with her life. So she quit her job and became a wilderness counselor for troubled youth in the Outward Bound program. As a result, she and her fiancé broke off the engagement. I was fascinated. I immediately explained my journey to her and told her I felt like I had failed at what I set out to accomplish.
She seemed amused. She pointed to everything that had happened to me and asked how I could be disappointed with myself or my journey. She said, in a very reassuring sort of way, that sometimes you have to be humble enough to let your plans change. As to my concerns of what to do after graduation, Catherine quoted John F. Kennedy: “Whatever you are, be a good one.”