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2003-09-29

Hi again! If you hadn't noticed, I am traveling around the US and writing about it. I am looking for nice, fun people who can put me up for a few nights and feed me and pay my way (since I am broke) and show me a good time (since I like good times). If you think it might be fun to host me for a day or two or three, email me at justingrace AT mac DOT com with your info and address and phone number. I am especially looking for places to stay in the southern USA and the south part of the East Coast. I will be traveling all over the USA, though, so email me no matter what! Here are the places I will be in the next few weeks that I am still looking for a place to stay at:

• Texas: Between Austin, TX and Louisiana
• Mississippi
• Alabama
• Tennessee
• North/South Carolina
• Georgia

Thanks in advance for your help! And now, more of my banter...



US Tour Day 13, Part 2: Earp, California


It was so hard to leave California. There was this great gravity, and breaking free from it took more effort than I'd estimated. I have so many friends and so many memories in that huge state. I never really fathomed how many ties California had around my heart until I actually tried to pull away from her on this trip.

It started when I left Los Angeles proper. But, then I was only going as far as Riverside, which for all intensive purposes is a suburb of LA. There was only a little sting.

Crossing the Arizona border brought with it a bigger sting—a new, unrecognized feeling. In fact, this sensation was so foreign to me that I almost didn't register it. The human brain has the tendency to ignore the relevance of that which it does not understand. The feeling was fear.

It was like having a character from a book show up at my front door. Oh, I've read about you. I didn't think you were real, though. What are you doing here?

The drive was long and empty, and I had plenty of time to figure why fear had showed up on my mind's doorstep today. Not like it took much time to figure it out, though. I was leaving my comfort zone in a major way. California was comfortable for me. I was leaving its warm embrace to dive into some serious unknown.

But, how scary can it all really be? I tried to think about what sort of things I might encounter that might be so scary. I contorted my mind, but, I just couldn't come up with anything. I tried harder. Still nothing.

Of course! How could I imagine that which my mind hadn't yet begun to grasp even the most preliminary building blocks of? The mind can not grasp the unknown. The possibilities of what might happen in the next month would be fabricated from some stuff that my mind had not even toyed with yet. Ah, the fear of unknown possibilities!

The fear didn't stay long. I didn't let it. I let the fear visit for a while so I could get to know her better. But, I made up my mind to not get too attached to this stranger I had heard so much about. I observed hers and my relationship objectively. And, then I bade her farewell—thanks for the visit, but I have so much more to do and I really must be going.

So she left. Fear is an emotion like any other, and we can choose to react to it however we'd like. I chose to be forgiving of my own fear, and to be calm and objective—the way one might view a birthmark on their skin, merely another part of me, and surely nothing worth turning this car around for.

Alone again, I stopped in the ghost town of La Paz to juggle some maps and consider my next few hours. I decided to head north to Earp, California.

Why Earp? Well, I wanted to take a swim in the river is the short story. But, the short story is lifeless without the long story. And, the long story involves getting to know my father.

I didn't have much of a relationship with my father for most of my life. I lived with my mother and usually only saw him one weekend a month. As I got older and he moved away from San Jose we saw each other less and less. The four hour bus ride to Modesto, California was pretty daunting for a 12–year–old to make alone.

We didn't drift apart, though, as we never were really together.

I didn't look forward to our times together when I was young. But, I didn't dread them, either. They were just this thing that I thought was a part of life. My dad tried his best to spend time with me and relate to me in the ways he could. It's just that, in my immature mind, his best wasn't good enough. And, I turned what I perceived to be a failure on his part into an emotional wedge which I placed between us.

He always seemed like a man that never wanted to have children in the first place. I thought maybe my mother had tricked him or something. Or, maybe he got drunk, blacked out, and woke up the next morning one tablespoon of semen lighter. It isn't uncommon to see men who don't seem excited to be dads. From what I can see, most men don't really want to deal with the kids they create.

Look around at the men in our culture. You don't really see many of them getting out of bed every morning and being excited about just doing dad sorts of things. Instead, they tend to derive their self–worth not from parenting but from solving the problems of their world—engineering solutions to financial, logistical, technological, and economic situations.

Now, my dad wasn't mean to me. And, he didn't abuse me by any stretch of the imagination. But, something seemed missing to me, or skewed or shifted. See, in my perception, he regarded our relationship more like a responsibility—a chore he wasn't looking forward to—rather than an opportunity. I was disappointed and hurt by this. I thought that dads were supposed to be superhero parenting machines.

I carried this pain for many years.

It's almost funny how unoriginal I feel about this now. I was just like every other kid on the planet who was mad at their dad for not being more dad–like, although I had no actual, concrete example of what dad–like should have been.

And, all the while my dad was dealing with his own issues. He had a new wife and another son with her. He had a marriage, a job, pets, hobbies, car troubles, a house to fix up, money to worry about, guitars to play, records to listen to, clubs to be excited about. And, what I didn't realize was that, just like everyone else, he was upset and disappointed with his parents, too. Each day he experienced stabbing pangs in his heart when he thought about all the many ways his parents weren't the people he wanted them to be. Nobody told him that they were going through the same trials that he now experienced in his adult life, as did their parents before them and theirs before them.

As children we are taught that parents are perfect and that it's reasonable for us to think they'll live up to standards presented by television, storybooks, movies, and our imaginations. Nobody ever tells us that our parents have their own very real problems that they navigate each and every second of their complicated lives.

Life can be very challenging. It's big, complicated, and time–consuming. Life is hard, such is its nature. Then you throw kids into the mix! They break things, cause trouble, eat all your food, take up all your time, and spend all your money. Nobody tells kids that. Nobody told my dad, his dad, or his dad. Nobody told me, that's for sure.

But I didn't know all that yet. So, over time, my feelings of pain and disappointment regarding my father escalated to hate. It wasn't hate in the sense of violent and destructive feelings towards another person. It was more like the controlling and unhealthy thing which many people inaccurately call love: a consuming attachment to the outcome of every situation with him, and obsessive clutching to unfair standards which I set for him in my mind, and heart–stomping sadness each time he didn't live up to my unreasonable standards. Yet, I continued to want a part in his life, and I wanted him to want a part in mine.

Considering the pain I inflicted on myself each time I chose to be disappointed by him simply being himself, I learned that it was better for my mental well–being to let the times between our phone calls and visits stretch longer and longer. So, I wasn't surprised that I hadn't spoken to him in many months.

I didn't even know how many months it had been when I got the call from his brother. He told me that my father was, after a long, sad pause, missing.

Missing?, I asked. I thought that word was reserved for dogs that jumped the fence, abducted children, and stray socks. But, not biological fathers.

His wife and other son, Brandon, had gone to Disneyland for the weekend for a mini–vacation. My dad stayed home. When they returned he was gone.

I don't remember exactly, as it has been many years now, but I think he left them a note explaining that he was sorry about being a bad person or a bad dad or something along those lines and that he was leaving and not coming back. It was basically a suicide note, only it was written by someone who was in a state too weak and broken to commit to something as decisive as suicide.

I suppose he probably meant to end his life in some way when he grabbed his axe and knife and a few other little things and walked out to the road and stuck out his hitchhikers thumb.

Mindsets shifted; expectations changed. I never expected to hear from my father again. And, he probably never expected to have his suicide attempt thwarted by being picked up by two loving people who offered for him to live with them for a while until he figured things out. And, after months of wondering about him, I probably never expected him to write me and tell me that I was the only person he would be contacting for the time being from his place of hiding.

The two people brought the wayward hitchhiker home with them to stay. And, in a sense, my dad got his wish to end his life. Four hundred miles from home, just across the Colorado River from Parker, Arizona, my father ended his old life and started carving out a new one in a tiny town named after the legendary Wyatt Earp.

During his months in Earp, my father and I started to actually talk for the first time. He apologized for so many things. He told me about his emotions, his struggles, the depths of his heart. And, for the first time I realized that this man David was not by definition a father, but rather a human being just like everybody else. He needed to be loved and understood based on his own values and goals for his life, rather than by my ideas about how his life should be.

And, as I learned more and more about David the Person, I started to realize that not only could I love him, but I really liked him, too. I definitely liked him way more than David the Dad. This worked out better for both of us. We both could get excited about this David Person, while neither of us were all that impressed with the David Dad guy.

So, on either sides of a chasm of years of misconnections, we started to build a bridge between us so that we could come visit one another where we lived, the homes of our true hearts. It was much better than sitting across that canyon of silence and wondering, flailing, and failing—as we had surely done for my entire life.

My dad came home sooner than I expected—less than a year had passed since the time the old David disappeared. The new one had vast improvements over the now obsolete model. Where the old one was guarded and always needed to be right, the new one was vulnerable and humble. Where the old one would use a sharp sense of humor to protect himself at the expense of others, the new one used his humor to illustrate parables or to point out how silly he was being that day.

Like a great city quickly rising up where there was once none, this new man became one of my best friends in the space where there was emptiness. We went from never talking to talking many times each week. I used to think only painful, afflicted thoughts about my father. Now, I think about how thankful I am that I have such a dedicated friend, someone who cherishes me as a person and who rejoices in my victories with me. I like him, I love him, and I respect him. How can I not? I am simply playing follow the leader as he has learned to like, love, and respect himself.

My dad sounded surprised when I phoned him from Palm Springs and asked him how to get to Earp. I can imagine him wondering what would compel me to go to such an out of the way place, especially a place that surely holds memories of such a confused and challenging time in his life. For my dad, Earp was a place that started in darkness and became light over time, through great effort and shedding of his protective layers. Why would Justin want to go to Earp?

Simple. Earp was the birthplace of my new dad. I wanted to see it for myself, I wanted to smell the air, and I wanted to walk on the ground where this great person was born, where my ideas of love and parenting and commitment to another person were challenged and broken and rebuilt.

But, I didn't tell him that on the phone. I just told him I wanted to visit because I knew he spent some time there some years back.

He got a little quiet and after a short, pregnant silence he told me that I should swim in the river. The water is cool and clean and beautiful there. Don't go in too far, though. The current is strong towards the middle and it can pull you away. I don't remember exactly how to give you directions to it, but you should go and swim in the river. I used to swim in the river there.

Earp is not the typical desert town that time forgot. Earp is the town that time never heard about in the first place. There is nothing there, save for a few timeshare homes on the shore of the river, a trailer park, and a general store. Earp is like a desert wasteland theme park. But, instead of fun rides and teenagers laughing all they have are tumbleweeds and mounds of desert dirt baking in the sun. Even the abundant, cool water of the river doesn't seem to quench any of the thirst of this parched town.

Two Native Americans sat outside the general store. They looked unhealthy, and I could almost smell the scent of generations of defeat on their breath as I walked by. Both were obese. One was missing many teeth. One was in a wheelchair.

The woman inside the general store asked if she could help me, and I told her that I needed to swim in the river, please. She didn't know how to get down to the river to swim. This said a lot about her relationship with that place, as the river was no more than a thousand feet from her store. She gestured to the man in the wheelchair, and said maybe I should ask him.

He didn't know where to go either. Neither did a woman in a truck with a baby in the passenger seat. Neither did the woman at the mobile home park.

This was the wrong plan of attack. I guessed I would have to find my own way to the water. It turned out to be harder than I thought. In a way that I imagined probably echoed life in general there, every road I took led to a dead end.

Determined, I drove down a thin, serpentine road that wound north, around and up and over the desiccated earth—over rolling hills resembling the ancient grave mounds on the now deserted viking island of Björkö and other such places long since buried by many hundreds of years of neglect. After ten miles I came to a dirt road leaning east towards the river. I ducked down it into a neighborhood of river–front timeshare houses, each of them empty and lifeless, once again echoing the town. There were no children playing or boats or swimmers or ducks or anything. I was alone with the river and the cool–ass LA County Coroner towel that I was very glad I had for such an occasion.

The Colorado River was just like my father told me. The water was cool, in the sense that cool represented the most perfect temperature possible at that moment in time. And it was clear. And it was clean. And swift. I swam out towards the middle, and the current quickly sucked me downstream.

I didn't swim long. I didn't need to. I only wanted to be there long enough to pay homage to the place and to my past and to feel the same waters that birthed my father. Lightning didn't strike, no magical visions appeared to me, the oracles of old did not reveal truths unknown. There was only peace and quiet as I glimpsed one facet of one person. And I felt one more facet complete.

And then I left that holy place, en route to Scottsdale, Arizona. I didn't need to stick around. The sacrament was complete. The sun was getting low in the sky, and I had this feeling that I needed to keep moving—there were other religious moments waiting for me down those winding desert roads, across mountains, through valleys, and in the moments shared between people known and unknown.


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