The Masters of Opportunity

I know what you are thinking. I know what it looks like, but you’re wrong. They are not just simply liars, con-artists, and thieves. I don’t want to defend them, but I have to. Yes, some of their tactics were questionable—no doubt. They made choices and did things that would make you cringe. They made me cringe. I began questioning them and their lifestyle choices starting day one. Well, at least when it directly affected me. If it was none of my business, then I just let it lay. I had agreed to walk with them “for a bit” and part of that agreement was that I could jump off their crazy train anytime I wanted—no questions asked. I knew I still had a lot to learn. They were right about that. Maybe that food poisoning was a blessing—I don’t know. But they were wrong too because I wasn’t just a kid.

Prof had a better map of Michigan than I had, so we laid that down across the forest floor. It was just he and I looking at the map. Caring Sue and the boys were adjacent, but within earshot. They were breaking down their camp readying themselves for travel. He pointed to their route, “Okay, we’ve been shadowing 75 since Tennessee. We did take that detour around Detroit using US-23 because it was a more direct route, but now we’re back along 75. So we were just going to continue to shadow it using whatever northbound roads suits us. Some of us would like to break away from 75 and shadow 23 all the way up to the bridge. Look what that does.” He traced it with his finger. It would be nothing but coastline all the way up and around.

I gave their route careful consideration. I gave it some time. I had never considered it, but the 23 option was quite a route. I was so focused on Walloon Lake that I never saw it. He looked to me after quite some time had passed, so I said, “Well, I was taking M-46 west to the town of Six Lakes, then I was going to take M-66 north to the Petoskey area. I kind of fancied the idea of traveling a 66 even though it isn’t that 66. Then I was going to use 31 to take me to the bridge. Actually, probably 119 on that last bit—you know, for the coast experience. I have been avoiding 75 because it is the road most traveled. I’ve been seeking the road less traveled.”

Gently shaking his head he mumbled something indecipherable. I think it was just self-directed mumbling. Just mental exhaust. For some reason I hesitated in regards to mentioning the Hemingway cabin. After I answered him and it was his turn to speak I quickly thought it over. I knew I had to say something. I couldn’t just let it go. It was a big part of my trip. It wasn’t the ultimate goal and was merely just a sideshow, but still. I had been thinking on it a lot. I wondered to myself—why are you compromising? No, why are you preemptively compromising? I had to say something. It was a must. In fact, we could not proceed any further without me saying something, so I just said, “Also, I forgot to mention something. There is a cabin called Windemere on a lake called Walloon not far from Petoskey that I must go visit. I can join you guys in this straight shot, but this might be where our roads diverge from one another.” I then pointed to Petoskey on the map.

Prof looked at me over his glasses. He seemed to be studying me. He nodded a bit. He mumbled some more. I think he was just inputting coordinates into his cerebral cortex. “Windemere. Walloon. Petoskey.” He just continued to stare at me. I think over the course of the stare he blinked at least ten times. And I don’t mean rapid succession blinks either. These were just normal blink every few seconds kind I blinks. Perhaps it was a bit awkward the way he stared for so long. But I studied him as well. And I hadn’t forgot about what I had done to him the night prior. There wasn’t an ounce of fight anywhere in this man. He seemed very kind, like I couldn’t have found a more gentle soul anywhere on the earth. He really seemed to have a good heart. My heart on the other hand was kind of racing. Not that I had been inappropriate with him. Maybe I was just a bit assertive. At any rate, I was either asking strangers to make a fifty mile deviation, which is a day’s worth of walking right there, or I was telling them the point where we part ways.

Caring Sue heard our conversion and said before Prof could even respond, “We need to get to the bridge ASAP.”

Prof turned to her and said, “Yes, Caring Sue.”

“Don’t give me that.”

“Give you what?”

“You have a tone—it is almost patronizing.”

“I know. I’m sorry. You know I am not much of a worrier. I know racing there would give us more time to solve the problem, but we don’t even know if time is what we need yet.” She didn’t seem interested in a back and forth, so Prof turned to me and said, “What is this cabin?”

“It’s Windemere on Walloon Lake…”

“Right! In Petoskey, you already mentioned that. What of it?”

“Well, it is just the Hemingway family cottage. Do you know Ernest Hemingway?”

Prof again looked at me over his specs. He seemed to be assimilating what I was saying as if he were on some sort of delayed feed, like the sort that news reporters often contend with when reporting from afar. Finally he looked away from me and toward the others and said, “Carin’ Sue, boys—do you we know Ernest Hemingway?”

When he asked that question that way, I wanted to immediately correct him because it seemed like he misunderstood me right off the bat and now he was disseminating confusion. Of course they don’t know Ernest Hemingway. Neither do I. Nobody does. What I meant was—have you ever read any of his books? However, before I could even clarify Prof’s statement, Machine spoke up saying, “You’re damn right we do! I think we all read For Whom the Bell Tolls at one point or another last winter. I think we all liked it. I read it a couple of times actually. You guys remember that one? We passed it around.” Like I said, Machine was a man of a few words, but he was excited about this. He might even have been more excited than me. He continued, “This is an actual place where fact meets fiction. We got to go! I mean, you don’t mind, do you Piper, If we all tag along?”

“No, no. Of course not. That’s fine.” This actually wasn’t totally the truth. We were still pretty far from Petoskey—a few weeks out by foot. A realization was starting to hit me now. A realization that I now had a level of commitment to these people. At least until Petoskey. Our paths had become tied. I felt a slight feeling of dread. I would be lying if I didn’t tell you that there was also a level of allure. I had never had this happen before. Aside from one literature teacher, I never met anyone who had read Hemingway. Usually I have to explain to people who he is and what he was about.Then when they find out that he writes books, they really start to lose interest. Reading is a lot of work. It takes time, imagination, focus, and commitment. That is a lot to ask of another person.

Caring Sue chimed in again with her piece. “”I know you don’t want to hear this, but we don’t even know how we are going to get across the bridge yet! Remember? Are we going to swim?”

When she said that, she revealed to me what the aforementioned problem was at the bridge. That was no problem at all! I couldn’t hold back!. Excited, I said, “That’s easy, Caring Sue! Let me show you!” I knelt down to my pack and went into one of the small pockets on the front. I pulled out a piece or blue colored copy paper that had been folded three or four times. I couldn’t get it out fast enough“This right here. Don’t take my word for it—read!

Caring Sue looked at the flier and began smiling. She began to read it allowed, “Yes! Listen to this! The 35th Annual Mackinac Bridge Walk on Monday, September 7th 1992. The walk begins at 7am. You are free to walk across at any time, but the cutoff is 11am. Here’s the thing. The walk begins in St. Ignace which is in the Upper Peninsula and ends in Mackinaw City which is down here.” There was an audible sigh. “Hold on, you didn’t let me finish. We can pay a $2 shuttle fee and a school bus will take us to St. Ignace. We don’t have to walk across! We’ll just carry on our merry way from St. Ignace!”

She passed the flier on to Prof. She was all smiles. No worries. She then walked up to me and put her arms around me and said, “Piper, you are a blessing and a gift! Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you! You have no idea how big this is!” That was strange what she said and did. I wasn’t sure how to handle it. I had never had a woman say and do such things to me before.

Then Prof came up and shook my hand as hard as a man in his late sixties could. He said, “Yes, Piper! I don’t think you can comprehend how important this is to us! I can’t believe the chances! What are the odds? Unbeknownst to us, we’ve got to thread a needle! What a small window of time! The good news is that all we need is two bucks and to get there on time, and we have plenty of time to be on time!”

Brother Stephan came up and took my hand with both of his. He said, “We have been walking in darkness. Not knowing our path has put a lot of stress on us, but you have come to us and shone a light in our dark corner. The stress has dissipated. Today, we will walk at-ease and at peace. Thank you.” Then he bowed. He was still holding my hand.

Then Machine said, “Seriously, man. We have been arguing about it since Arkansas. No joke. It seriously is a load off.”

Then Bill stepped forward and said, “What if I wanna walk across the bridge?”

Caring Sue said, “Shut up, Bill.” And that was the end of that.

At this point they were all packed up, the fire was out, the canteens were full, and they were all ready to go. Prof was folding up the map. Caring Sue then said, “We have almost two months to get to the bridge, which is two hundred miles from here on straight line. We can take our sweet little time getting there. I don’t care. I’m up for whatever excursions you guys desire, but once we get across that bridge, we’ve really got to get a move on. We’ve got to find a place that can keep us up for a good few months and we’ve got to get a good shelter built. We’re going to be there through the hardest months of the year and the longest nights of the year. For better or worse it is going to be home. I don’t mind putting some time and effort into it. We’ve got to have wood stacked. We’ve got to get a good store of canned food and other non perishables. Cheapest thing to do would be to buy a forty pound bag of rice.  We got to get deep enough so that we’re not happened upon. And we got to carry it all.”

Caring Sue was the rudder. She kept everything on coarse. She was good at what she did. She knew when to fight and when to yield. She never fought futile battles. And she never lost. If we were to do anything it was because Caring Sue either thought it up or at the very least put her seal of approval on it.

We were indeed camping in the Shiawassee Flats, so my suspicion was confirmed. They were also able to tell me what day it was, so I was recalibrated. I now knew with certainty when and where I was. We packed up and we were off—west on 46. They agreed upon my roundabout scenic route with a stop at Windemere on Walloon Lake in Petoskey. The called me their “Michigan Guide” since I was the only one native to Michigan. They were the same as me. Well, at least in terms of seeking out opportunity. The bottle collecting resumed, although it was now done for the group, which was fine with me. When we got into the town of Six Lakes, which was probably a good seventy miles from the Shiawassee Flats, we decided to unload our haul of empty bottles and cans. It was no small sum. After that we would see about dinner and finding a place to hunker down for the night. We would start heading north on 66 in the morning.

We took a pass behind the A&P. I figured it was to look for bottles, but suddenly Bill hopped up and then went into the dumpster. He dug around for quite some time while the rest of us stood watch. Then he popped his little body up and said, “I got a gallon of milk. It is a day old and it’s still cold. Carton of eggs with three broken but nine seem to look good.” He handed them down where they were ultimately handed off to Caring Sue to catalog and inventory. Then then he said, “I’ve got 3 boxes of Spartan brand trisquits that are dated February.”

Prof declared, “I bet they are not even stale!”

“What is that? Three-four months ago?” asked Bear.

And so Bill tossed them down too. Then he said, “Oh! Almost forgot my head—of lettuce!” And that was tossed down as well. Then he popped his little head out and said, “Okay so there is a mixed bag of fruits and vegetables—probably pickings from the produce aisle. A lot of it is probably too ripe, but there might be something. I am going to pass it down.”

And he did. And they took it. Then they went through it. Pulled out a whole host of bruised fruit and vegetables—apples, avocados, bananas, cucumbers, grapes, green peppers, and the like. While they sifted through the fruits and vegetables, it occurred to me that I had been eating out of the garbage because that is what they have been feeding me. As we continued to walk, I decided I would be remiss if I did not say something. So I said something right from my place at the back of the line. I asked, “You guys will really drink a gallon of milk and some eggs that came out of a dumpster?”

Caring Sue said, “Where do you think those eggs came from this morning?”

“Really?”

“And the sausage.” She smiled, “Come think of it—there wasn’t anything there that we didn’t reclaim.”

I must have given an expression that spoke volumes. Bill added, “We do it all the time, boss. People throw out stuff that is still good. We don’t eat too many things medium rare though.”

Brother Stephan was kind of fired up about it exclaiming, “You have to think about the sacrifice the animal gave as well. This milk was intended as sustenance to feed her calves. Right or wrong, human beings have intervened in that process. We ought to at least have some respect for that. At the very least. Throwing a cow’s gift into the dumpster is a lot of things, but respectful isn’t one of them. The dates on things are more or less arbitrary anyway. And then you couple this with the fact it is still cold to the touch? Hell no! Tonight, we drink milk! And tomorrow morning? We drink milk! And if there is still some left, then we’ll be drinking it for lunch too!” He looked at me briefly. He was fired up, but he had a bit of a smirk on his face.

Then Prof said, “I know you just got over food poisoning and you almost died. Of course you are squeamish. Of course you have reservations. Of course you have anxiety. We’re not going to force anything down your throat…”

Then Caring Sue gave an unnecessary ahem. Prof looked to her and she said, “He’s already been eating reclaimed food. I had to be a little stern when I was spoon feeding him. That yogurt was from the dumpster.” She almost seemed kind of amused by my misgivings. Though I wasn’t totally sure.

Prof said, “Well, we didn’t know then. If we ever got to spoon feed you again, we’ll keep it kosher, okay?” Then he went on, “Bottom line, Piper: You already had a plan in place before you met us that apparently didn’t include reclaiming food. Don’t let us take you from that plan. So. We’re going into the A&P here. We’re going to buy some things for supper tonight with the bottle and can money—of course you are entitled to that. You threw in as many empties as anyone. Anyway, just buy your own stuff to supplement what the group is offering. You see what is what.”

“I am actually not that picky of an eater. It is just…it seems like such a desperate act. Have we arrived at dire straits? Now, we eat garbage!”

“No Piper, it is not that at all. You think we are perverts, but it is you who is the pervert, or perhaps more aptly put—the victim of perverts. If left unchecked, you will eventually go on to pervert a few children of your own. We live in a very wasteful culture. It’s a throwaway culture. I, for one, am very appalled by what I see. I know I am not alone.” I could hear the faint sound of a ‘here-here’ come from one or more of the boys. “We just gorge ourselves daily and we buy, buy, buy. It is almost like we think a state of pure eternal bliss will just manifest if only we had just the right combination of food, drink, and things. So we’re constantly cycling through things. Throwing away perfectly good things to make room for new things. Why? Let us just call it—the pursuit of happiness. Meanwhile, we completely take for granted what our ancestors went through. For most of the time in human history, life has been hard. Incredibly hard. All of a sudden though, in the past couple-few decades life has become easy. Incredibly easy. Startlingly easy. Anyway, before I regress too far, I will just say that one of the byproducts of this throwaway culture we live in, is that a lot of perfectly good resources just get thrown away prematurely. Why? Because a truck just arrived with new product—it is a seemingly endless supply. So it is not a desperate act on our part to skim off the top of what is heading to a landfill. It is a deliberate act perpetrated by conscientious objectors to our gorge and waste culture. We eat well, Piper. In fact, we eat better than 92% of the world.”

“Is that true? The number?”

“Ah hell, I don’t know. Probably. Think about it.”

I did and it wasn’t long before I did come around. Bear was by far the best cook among us. And some of the things he would cook up just absolutely teased the olfactory nerve-endings. Well, for me it was a tease. Until I finally caved. He knew what he was doing with the sugars and spice. This isn’t to say that Machine Gun and Caring Sue weren’t fine cooks themselves, because they were. Cooking was just one of Bear Bacchus’s things. He sure knew how to whip up a hell of a feast—pun intended because he was usually pretty sauced while he did it. Fitting way to end the day if you are a Bacchus.

Dumpster diving was just merely one of their ways of seizing opportunity. The next morning we were shoving off out of the town of Six Lakes, when Bill decided to stage a gig right in the center of town. It was on the sidewalk that just happened to be right in front of the bank. This eventually brought some undue attention unto him. He just set up shop right there with a hat and his guitar. We dispersed and left him there to try and solicit some tips. We watched from a ways off. People were tossing coins into the hat. It was Friday. The bank was busy.

Caring Sue said, “Piper, why don’t you go up there and dance? A younger guy hovering around getting into the music might get other people to stop and do the same. Maybe you can help a crowd to stick.”

I shook my head, “Oh, I don’t know how to dance!”

She smiled, “You don’t know how to dance?”

I didn’t answer. I was frightened. I didn’t want her to get any wise ideas.

It was too late though. She stood up, dusted off her bottom, and said, “C’mon!” She grabbed me by my hand and tried to pull me to my feet. “Come dance with me, Piper. Saying you don’t know how to dance is like saying you don’t know how to breathe.” As we approached the street she said, “Remember, we are never going to see any of these people again. It doesn’t matter what they think of you. Leave your self-consciousness on this side of the road.” She looked at me intently and said, “Do it!”

I looked to her and said, “Do what?”

“Take your self-consciousness out and set it down right there on the side walk.”

“What?”

“C’mon!”

I decided to get smart with her, so I said, “I wear my self-consciousness on my sleeve.” I then proceeded to take my shirt off—a metaphorical shirt that is.

She said, “Oh it is a button down, huh?”

“Yeah, with that tricky double button at the top.”

“Come on.” She grabbed me by the arm and began to escort me across the street. I guess the joke was over. Well she started it, and so ended it. When we got to where he was playing, she whispered into my ear, “Okay, stand beside me and follow my lead. So I want you to just sway with what he is playing with your whole body–torso, butt, arms legs. Stretch out. Reach. I want your hands and feet out as far away from your torso as possible. It isn’t dancing, but an exercise in opening up. Creating a space. A domain. We’re going to start you off with a bigger space than you need. Do it just like this. We’ll do it together. Move your hands and feet about while they are out there. Close your eyes and try to feel the music. Lets just do this for a few minutes, okay?”

I didn’t answer her, but if she were to have glanced over she would have seen that I was complying. Had Caring Sue just simply thrown me out onto the dance floor right beside her and expected me to know how to move properly, she would have lost me almost instantly. I would have been paralyzed with humiliation and what would have followed would have just been inhibited awkward movement that would have only served to compound my embarrassment exponentially. I probably would have just awkwardly apologized to her as I sleeked away awkwardly. Instead, none of that was necessary because she knew how to teach. She started right at the beginning with the basics.

As it turned out, it was a rather short lesson because not long after a police officer pulled up. He threw on his lights and promptly exited the cruiser. Caring Sue hadn’t noticed yet. She was still lost in the music, so I tapped her on the shoulder. She turned to me, “Oh! Let’s see what happens. We might have to skedaddle.”

Bill on the other hand wasn’t the least bit alarmed and actually threw caution to the wind. He wasn’t ready to wrap it up at all and he wasn’t going to. Oh, no. In fact, he was ready to throw gasoline on the fire. The police officer put on his hat and came around the front of the cruiser. His hands were resting on his belt. He made a straight shot approach toward Bill. Bill had his rhythm firmly established and he wasn’t going to back down. He looked right at the police officer and he began to sing—Early one morning while making the rounds, I took a shot of cocaine and I shot my woman down. I went right home and I went to bed. I stuck that loving forty four beneath my head. Got up next morning and I grabbed that gun, I took a shot of cocaine and away I run. Made a good run, but I run too slow, they overtook me down in Juarez, Mexico.

The police officer stood right in front of him with his arms crossed. But he was smiling. He was actually smiling. And he was even tapping his right boot a little bit. He even let Bill finish the song.

After Bill finished he said, “Morning Officer, I didn’t even see you standing there! You blend in with crowd so well!”

The police officers hands were no longer across his chest, now they were resting on his belt. He said, “Morning son, you got a gig here in town tonight?”

“Can I get one?”

“Well, I don’t know. I’m not your manager. The Flat River Saloon hosts live music and I figured that is where you came from or were headed.”

“No sir, we were camping at the Nature’s Chain of Lakes last night. We just came into town for some supplies and then were heading out.”

The police officer looked to Caring Sue and then to me and then he looked back to Bill. He said, “We haven’t had any complaints, but when you put your hat out like that, it is called panhandling, and of course we don’t allow panhandling in Six Lakes. I’ll tell you what though, that was one hell of a Johnny Cash cover! You know just cause I’m a police officer it doesn’t mean I don’t have a heart. I love Johnny Cash as much as any prisoner! Pops listened to him! He was a cop too!”

Then Bill said, “It actually isn’t a Johnny Cash song. He just covered it and made it more famous.”

“Really?”

Bill shook his head, “Yeah.”

“What about that one song about two brothers—one is a cop and the other is a crook. It…”

“It’s actually a Bruce Springsteen cover. Highway Patrolman.” Bill was smiling.

The police officer smiled, “Are you serious?”

“Yeah. It’s a good song whoever wrote it though.”

The police officer said, “Yeah well, that is what I was going to say. That song kind of says a lot about love, and the law, and the fine lines there.”

“Sure does.”

“Well, you’re not really doing any harm, but I can’t let you stay out here. I’ve got to have you pack it up and move on. I don’t know what you are doing on the streets anyway, you should be in a studio, and then out on tour. You’re not going to give me a hard time, are ya?”

Bill said, “No, sir. We don’t want any trouble. I was just killing time. Wanted to play more than anything, and if someone wants to give me a few bucks, I’ll take it. But our friends are actually waiting for us across the street. I guess they’re done shopping so we’re heading out.”

He looked over his shoulder and then looked back to us, “Well, you folks have a good day.” Then he pointed to Bill, “Get yourself a record deal.” We all wished him well as well.

He turned around and walked back to his cruiser, taking off his hat before getting in. We were already in motion back to the others across the street. Prof said, “He is just sitting there. Do you think he is going to shake us down?

Caring Sue shook her head, “No. We’re okay.”

“What do you think, Bill?”

“We’re fine. He was cool actually.”

“Just the same, what are we holding?”

“Why are you looking at me when you ask that question?”

“I’m not, Bill. I’m looking at everybody.”

“I’m just saying. Carin’ Sue pulled morphine out of her hat the other night—freakin’ morphine! Nobody is looking to her!”

Caring Sue responded, “That’s medicine, Bill. It is not fun and games. Piper needed that. That is why I have it. Someday you might need it and you’ll be glad I didn’t let you boys just have fun with it.”

“That is not what I mean. I don’t want to have that argument again. I’m just talking about the cloud of suspicion that always hovers over me.”

Prof said, “Nobody is accusing you of anything, Bill. We’re just trying to stay out of trouble.”

Caring Sue said, “He isn’t shaking us down anyway. Bill was playing Cocaine Blues as he walked up the sidewalk and the cop thought it was funny. He didn’t even ask for ID.”

Bear Bacchus said, “All I know about is that three quarters of a spliff we bought off that college kid in Columbus. I’m holding that. We don’t got nothing to worry about, Prof. We’ve been jonesing, remember?”

Brother Stephan said, “I do have a little bit of mushrooms.”

Bear slugged his arm, “You dirty dog! You’ve been holding out!”

“They are not toys, Bear.”

“The hell they’re not!”

Stephan said, “Exactly.”

Bear said, “What?”

Stephan said, “What?”

Bear said, “That is my game. You can’t play my game.”

“Well, I have the thing that you want so I guess today it is my game.” Then he turned to Prof and Caring Sue and said, “It isn’t a lot. Hardly enough for one person.”

Feeling the defeat, Bear pulled out a bottle from his vest and was about to twist it open when Caring Sue said, “Bear! He is still right there! Put that away!” Then she turned to Prof and Stephan, “We really need to get going! The Devil finds work for idle hands—let’s get a move on!” Bear inconspicuously took a swig anyway and put his bottle back.

Bill said, “I could use one of those.”

Caring Sue said sternly, “Another time, Bill.” Then she looked to Prof with raised brow and said, “We need to get a move on. Seriously.”

Prof pursed his lips, nodded, and said quietly, “I know.”

Then out of nowhere Stephan said, “I also have a few peyote buttons. Eight to be exact. I bet he wouldn’t even know what they are though.”

Bear just looked at him dumbfounded. Stephan noticed but just looked away. Then dumbfounded turned into pseudo sadness as Bear said, “We’ve been walking side by side all these years. I thought I knew you. I thought what we had was special. That it meant something to you. Where did you get them Stephan? Tell me.”

Stephan smiled and said, “Shut up, Bear. I found once cacti in Texas when we were there last. I picked it, sliced it into you know cucumber-like rounds, and then dried it out.”

Bear’s jaw dropped and then he said, “That was like…” He turned to everyone else who was equally unsure of the time line, and then turned back to Stephan and said, “…fours years ago! Right? Three or four years ago? Yeah! I think we were in Texas in nineteen eighty eight. You have been holding out for this long?”

“Well, not really. I kind of forgot. Then I would remember. Then I would forget again. And I don’t even know that there has been an opportune time for us to partake.”

Bear said, “We make time!”

Stephan said, “Bear, I’m going to say it again: These things are not toys. Nor are they drugs. They are not for you to have fun with.”

“I beg to differ!”

“I know you do, but it doesn’t matter because I am the one holding them, and I will see to it that the proper people take them at the anointed time.”

Of course, we didn’t get shaken down and we began north out of Six Lakes on Michigan State Road 66. This is where I really got a feel for my new companions. I don’t want to say that I began to resonate with them. I cannot even express to you how repulsive such an idea is to me at present. Of course, I am going to go into much more detail, but first I am going to give you a disclaimer of sorts. I am just telling you the truth. I am just telling you what I saw. I am not going to continually put a moral judgment on every action that I tell you about from here on out. If you want me to just be blunt, call a spade a spade, and tell you how I really feel about it—they were a sorted entourage of hell-bound nay-er-do-wells if there ever was one. I did not want to fit in with them. I didn’t particularly want to be part of their pack. I didn’t outwardly protest, but I was guarded. That rickety machine of theirs, for all its faults, and they were many, traveled really well.

Their machine knew what it was doing. It knew how to seize opportunities—both in terms of city and wilderness. It knew the laws well. Well, well enough to know how to skirt them anyway. Yet, when confronted by the law, their machine almost always professed ignorance. There wasn’t a single one of them that had an identification card. Indeed, I saw it asked of them many times by many an officer. It was asked of each member of this party at one time or another at least five times. And it was always routinely denied. They just did not have one. Simple as that. That was their story and they were sticking to it. And it worked because they always managed to wiggle free.

It was a different time though—the early nineties in America. It was almost like law enforcement didn’t have anything to do. Every town was Mayberry, USA. Sure, the people I was walking with were a bit eccentric, but nobody ever felt threatened by that. Not that I am aware of anyway. And as far as I know, these were their “legal” names. This is what they used. I never heard them use anything else. They were Prof, Caring Sue, Brother Stephen, Bear Bacchus, Outlaw Oklahoma Bill, and Machine Gun. I never heard them referenced any other way. Prof, Caring Sue, and Brother Stephan never referred to Outlaw Oklahoma Bill as anything other than Bill. He was just Bill. I would later learn that the rest of his moniker wasn’t fondly embraced by everyone.

My spot was in the back. Prof and Caring Sue usually walked beside one another up front. They weren’t a couple. A big part of why that is not possible is because one of them is a homosexual. Aside from that, they look like a great couple, but they are not. In fact, I have heard them referred to as being a couple on more than one occasion. It got to the point that they just started letting it slide. That point had been reached long before I met them. Stephan, Bear, Bill, and Machine were not their children. Another thing that was often mistaken. Not quite so often though. Though they didn’t necessarily refuse the label of “family” none of them were related by blood or marriage. However, if it behooved them to be considered a family, then they adopted it without second thought.

I don’t know how they came to be, how they found one another, and then clung together, and just started walking—it is beyond me. All I can say is that they did, they have, and it happened. Prof and Caring Sue were probably bona fide hippies back in the sixties. I never heard them say that or speak of it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out to be the case. I think Prof probably was born in the thirties. I want to say nineteen thirty five, but I am not certain. Caring Sue was born in the late forties.

Stephan was probably born in the late sixties and Bear was probably born in the early seventies. They usually walked beside one another behind Prof and Caring Sue. I don’t know why. They were like yin and yang. Oil and water. Maybe that is why. I know people of the New-Age religion like to get all whipped up in a frenzy about the yin and yang, but I’ve seen it in action. It isn’t necessarily as beautiful, balanced, and harmonious as they think, though I guess there is something to it. Bear Bacchus is a rather antagonistic person. It is just the way he is wired. He usually doesn’t mean any harm. He is a circus bear if anything. Still can be scary though. He is always looking for a button to push or a person who is hung up on particular thing. Just mischief I guess. Better not let Bear get a whiff of it because he will gnaw at it incessantly once he finds it.

Brother Stephan on the other hand seems to have no buttons to push or agenda to peddle. He walks lightly and peaceably on the earth. He is as cool, smooth, and as easy-going as they come— much to the chagrin of one Bear Bacchus. And there is something almost saintly about the way Brother Stephan turns the other cheek. I think he actually appreciates Bear. He uses Bear’s rather abrasive approach to smooth out his own rough edges. In this way he takes the reflection that Bear provides as a mirror very seriously. This in turn changes how Bear operates. He doesn’t expect to be taken seriously. He knows he is a sophist!

Bill and Machine usually walked together behind Stephan and Bear and just ahead of me. Bill would play his guitar while we walked. It was his one redeeming quality. He could play a guitar well. One could shout out a request and he would pull it out of his hat for you. He was that good. And his tastes were wide and varied. I’ve seen people of all walks of life shout out a request and Outlaw seldom missed a target. Things you would think there was no way in heck he would know that—well he would know it. Admittedly, sometimes he would have to improvise and play an alternate hit in that vein or something like that, but he rarely let his audience down. He would go on for hours while we were walking down the road. Sometimes it was us that would ask him to put his guitar away or else he would just keep on going. He just plays through the blisters.

The way that Stephan balances Bear is the about the same way that Machine balances Bill. Machine is quiet, unassuming, and rather stoic. He doesn’t want the mic. He doesn’t want the spotlight. He is a passenger. An observer. An excellent listener. A confidant. I suppose the thing Bill wants above all is an ear rather than a mouth. If Machine Gun is your friend, he’ll look after you like a pit bull. I don’t know why Machine protects Bill so much because the only person Bill is looking out for is himself. I’m not going to mince words—Outlaw Oklahoma Bill is a scoundrel! He is a crook. A rat! This is all I am going to say for now, but you’ll see what I mean as I go along.

At any rate, this is how we walked together down the road almost all of the time. The six of them in the order I spoke followed up by myself as the caboose. As far as I know, nobody ordered that it should be this way. There was no rule written down somewhere or some oral agreement made way back when. It was just how we always ended up. It was almost like each of our bodies just had its own mass and force that placed it in that particular orbit. Or perhaps it merely had something to do with primate hierarchy. Regardless, it was not just on 66. It was on every road that I walked with them. We ended many a day together. Likewise we began many a day anew together and each new day brought the same pecking order. I actually liked the order. There I was kind of hanging off the back of this train. I could cut loose any time I wanted. I didn’t even have to lickety-split. All I had to do was say, “Hey! I’m jumpin’ off! See ya!”

In addition to Bill’s guitar, we were also comfortable walking in silence. Sometimes we did just that. And sometimes we would just talk. They had all been walking together for many years. In some instances, it was decades. So they were like family and were long past the days of idle chatter meant to fill an awkward void. There were no awkward voids. Sometimes we would walk a hole day in almost complete silence. And all was well. It just meant that nobody had anything worth saying. Then another day would be full of debate, philosophizing, sophistry, and other musings.

When we did have conversation, it was almost always unlike any conversation I was ever accustomed to having with anyone really. These people did not only think outside the box, it never occurred to them that there was even a box. They were busy walking most days and in the instance where they stayed over at a place for a number of days, weeks, or even months, the time was not whittled away “catching up” watching television and movies. There was none. Ever. We saw headlines from the newsstand in the marketplace as we walked by. Likewise a television may have been present and broadcasting while we perused the aisles of a marketplace, but it wasn’t something that ever informed us. Yet, these people were actually well informed. It was a complete mystery to me. Bill might have been a crook, but he also read—a lot. Good books too. He was no slouch. None of them were. They were all rather well-read. More well-read than anyone I had ever met, and I went through the public school system!

Like I said, it was a mystery to me at first. I thought maybe they were just name dropping. I thought, Am I being hustled? But then I realized I had nothing really to be hustled out of and they really didn’t just drop the names. They knew of that of which they spoke. How does this group of dropouts come with such a profound knowledge of the western literary canon? Allow me to explain.

We went to every thrift and resale shop that we ever happened upon on our walks. It was just a given. If we found a place that would give us access to a phone book, this was always priority. Someone always needed new shoes. Seasons would change which means you need a different sort of clothing. They would get rid of old attire and pick up more weather appropriate garments. Sometimes they visited these stores for entrepreneurial reasons. They would buy something for the sole purpose of reselling it somewhere else at a profit.

In this one instance, they spent an inordinate amount of time perusing the book shelf of a Salvation Army. I figured they were looking for first editions or otherwise valuable books. Like I said, they’ve done this before. I once watched Machine buy a first edition hard cover of a Kurt Vonnegut novel for one dollar from a Good Will and then go sell it to a book store in the same city for two hundred and fifty. What they were doing now though, wasn’t that. It couldn’t be. They were pulling out a lot of books. It was easily going to be a fifty pound pile of books at the rate they were going. The books weren’t in any particular order. They never are. They were just stacked on shelves in the front of the store—down the whole length of the store. It was going to take all afternoon. I brought this to their attention and they said that they planned on spending all afternoon doing just that. Then I mentioned that the stack of books was a lot of weight and that we are a nomadic people that had to carry that weight.

Prof said, “We’re not nomadic right now, Piper. Winter is coming. We’ve got a home now, remember? We’re not carrying them very far.”

“It’s twenty five miles!”

“Is it?”

“You know it is! We left at six this morning and got here about eleven! We got to walk that again!”

Without lifting his eyes from the shelf Prof said, “So we’ll leave at two and we’ll be home by dark.”

They were all so intent—the whole lot! Finally, I had reached my boiling point and my pot started to whistle, I said, “Listen! Winter is going to set in soon and we are not ready! Not really! We need more! Much more! We don’t have time to fart around all day looking through stupid books!”

At this point, they all looked up. I didn’t mean it. Not the last bit. They just seemed amused though. They still weren’t taking me seriously. Prof said, “Piper, you know we are going to be holed up in that shelter until at least next March. Even then, it is iffy. Who knows? There is not going to be anything to do. We’ll have a deck of cards and a few board games, but for the most part—it is books. You know, we’re all going to go kind of crazy.” Then he walked over and showed me his stack. “And they’re not stupid books!” He elbowed me on my arm and smirked. “Look here. I got Jack London South Sea Tales. Oh and look at this! This is about as high brow as you can get!” He showed it to me. It was Dante’s The Inferno. I looked at the rest of his stack. He had a copy of Sense and Sensibility, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Sun Also Rises. He had a couple of other astronomy-like books. One of them being written by Carl Sagan. A book by by the comedian George Carlin. And he had a biography of Bob Dylan. When I looked at that one he said, “We’re not just picking up books for ourselves. I picked that one up for Bill.”

Bill made his way over, saw, smiled, and said, “Yeah!”

The Prof looked at me, “I bet you could read a book a day, Piper. Am I wrong? And we’re going to be holed up in there for probably the next hundred and twenty days. Think about it. Machine and Bear are probably going to read that Dylan book too. So yeah, we need you to pick out a dozen or so books. Caring Sue and Stephan aren’t even here. It isn’t just for you. Someone else will want to read it after you’re done. You know, we didn’t really say much about why we were coming here today, but this is it Piper. We’re walking tens hours in cool damp weather with about twenty five pounds strapped to each one of our backs. Why? Because we don’t want to go fucking nuts this winter!”

I guess it was I who was not thinking it through. They we’re buying their winter library. It was a necessary step in the process. A necessary chore. Mental hygiene. And I’m carrying on like a child. Our winter library was going to weigh about hundred pounds or more. We would carry it to our shelter which was about twenty five miles away. And in the end it was going to be worth every penny and worth all the effort. That was all this particular day was devoted to—the accumulation of intellectual and mental fodder to last the winter.

So the mystery was solved. The depth and breadth of their knowledge of the written word was a creature born of necessity, and like everything they do, it was an opportunity seized. After all, if you are going to use your imagination to stave off madness, why wouldn’t you just stick to the Classics?

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