So, as you might have ascertained by the title, my trip to the Tetons and Cali has not gone as smoothly as planned. About 5-6 hours down the road, right outside of Rexburg, Idaho (about 70 miles West of Jackson, WY) my van started pulling to the left and smelling like burnt rubber. I took it back to Rexburg and a shop swapped out a caliper for 180 of my gas dollars and then decided that wasn’t the problem (though it was getting old). Better yet, the problem was a brake fluid proportioning valve. Never heard of it? Of course not, because it’s an obscure part that never goes out, making it very difficult to find, especially in a city the size of Rexburg (pop. 24,500), forcing my mechanic to go to Idaho Falls to get it. So this all went down on the Wednesday before the 4th of July and the mechanic told me that he wouldn’t get down to Idaho Falls till Monday the 6th of July, 5 days stranded at the least. Not too mention, it will cost another $50-$100 dollars, which on the low end empties my checking account and on the high end overdraws it (and the shop doesn’t accept credit cards). So starts my stay in Rexburg.
As I sat in the mechanic’s shop my head whirred with the implications: “Where am I gonna get the money? I’m not going to ask my family, who are either too poor or will put conditions on the money. Even if I do fix it, can I still make it to California? If I make it to California on my credit card, will I be able to get work in time to make my next credit card payment? I thought this was the right path, is this some kind of bad joke, God?”
On the positive side, there was a free campground that the Teton river runs through where I was able to park my van and stay. At the campground I started reading my book Living on the Devil’s Doorstep: From Kabul to Amsterdam, which is about a missionary family on the hippie trail in the 70s (highly recommended BTW) and the chapter I read starts out with a memoir of their bus breaking down multiple times while driving across Afghanistan. That was a bit encouraging, I decided that maybe I still am on the right track and this is just a temporary setback, though I’d be lying if I said I was immediately comforted.
The first order of business the next day was to find some way to scrounge money. I checked with an employment agency in town, closed till Monday. I also checked craigslist and stuff at the library, dead end again. So I tried something I had never tried before: panhandling. A city that is 90-95% LDS and has the slogan “America’s Family Community” is not the best place to make a panhandling debut. I was a bit conflicted about doing it anyways, since I have a pretty good work ethic, but then again, it’s not too different from hitchhiking in some ways. I also didn’t feel too bad about it because I have given plenty of money to homeless people over the years and even the clothes off my back. I feel like God has a cosmic mutual fund of generosity that one can draw dividends from if it is invested in, kinda like karma. Jesus did say after all “he who gives others water will receive water” (not that that is the ultimate motive for giving). I also consoled myself with the thoughts that it would be a social experiment to help me understand what it is like being in the shoes of the desperate and it could be a practice in Franciscan spirituality (St. Francis of Assisi was dedicated to poverty and supported his order by begging).
I figured that I would take a humorous approach, after all, it would sort of be like getting paid to be a comedian. So, making fun of a homeless cliche and taking advantage of the time of year, I held a sign that read “Revolutionary war vet, anything helps, happy 4th (almost)”. In addition to this, I donned my very homeless looking army surplus jacket, a baseball cap, and an eye patch. I started at Wal Mart at about 9 AM and continued until about 12 or 1, overall I made 4.50 — pretty weak.
My first patron was a kid of about 16 named Fisher and my other Donor was a middle-aged man. Besides them, only one other person stopped. She offered me food (which I understand, I have taken that approach with homeless people as well) but I declined. She then thanked me for serving my country, which took great effort not to laugh at; after all she did just thank me for fighting in a war over 200 years ago. I’m not sure if she didn’t read my sign closely, was having a blonde moment, or legitimately didn’t know what the revolutionary war was. I heard another guy arguing with his wife in the parking lot: “We’re not giving him any money, Goddammit!” I almost died laughing — ok, Scrooge. Other then them, most people just ignored me or pretended to be on their phone — “maybe if we don’t look at him he can’t see us.”
Like hitchhiking, getting ignored by hundreds of people in the hot sun takes its toll — one starts to hate people and make generalizations about them, as they were probably doing of me. “Nice Corvette sir, did that cost you 50,000 dollars? Do you think you could spare one dollar you stingy bastard?” Such were my thoughts, and worse I must admit. I kept thinking that if 50 people gave me a dollar or 100 people 50 cents, then I would be home free. While I was mad, I also could understand where they were coming from. I have given a homeless man a twenty and taken him to a “health clinic” only to see him walk down the street to a bar.
Yet, addiction isn’t always the cause of homelessness, sometimes it’s the result. The overwhelming sense of isolation, alienation, insecurity, meaningless, shame, and not to mention scorching sun and hunger can definitely get to one. I’ve never struggled with alcohol, yet in my hitchhiking chronicles from last summer I noted how at times I felt a strong urge to drink due such feelings. It’s hard to sleep outside too and one guy told me that getting drunk helps.
Anyways, I went “home” discouraged to return back that evening and try another scheme. This time I tried to dress the part of a pirate to draw attention. I wore bandanna, the eye patch, a tank top, and some jorts (jean-shorts). My sign read “Marooned . . . need booty ($50) for ship repairs.” After a while I got bored with that and wrote “Why is the rum gone? Need $ :)” on the other side, hoping that someone would pick up on the Jack Sparrow reference and the attempt to poke fun at another homeless stereotype. No luck though. Some people laughed, but no one gave anything. After a while I wielded the “rum” sign as a cynical jest towards my audience. I imagined them saying “see all homeless people are worthless drunks” and moving on. I laughed inwardly at their misinterpretation, scorning their middle class Mormon values and judgmentalism. I went back home, pissed and cynical. The next day I stayed in bed until 11 or so, which I never do, but what did I have to get up for? Folgers, that was it, Folgers in my cup was the best part of waking up that day, or so I thought. I hung around camp almost all day scheming about how to make money and trying to avoid exposing my sunburns to the scorching 96 degree heat. I didn’t succeed in making up any new schemes, but I had something of an epiphany that evening.
I had been arguing with God and myself about the experience (these arguments had been going through my head for days by then):
I told myself “These people aren’t obligated to help you, you know. They didn’t force you to get in a rickety old van and drive across the country.”
“yeah, but it’s not about obligation, it’s about love. I was never obligated to help out a homeless alcoholic, I could say that he had his chance and blew it. People should held one another out.”
Then I feel like God said, ” Maybe that’s how it SHOULD be. But do you really expect this world to be as it should be? I tried to help people and they hated me, even killed me, yet I still loved them. Maybe you should focus on loving them instead of yourself. You whine about not having provision but didn’t I say in my word ‘If we have food, water, shelter, and clothes we should be content with that?’ But you aren’t content, you want what you want how you want when you want.”
I pushed these thoughts out of my head and went fishing and wading on the Teton and had a pretty good time, though I didn’t catch anything. The thought occurred to me “Would it really be so bad if I had to live here a couple weeks, or for the summer?” I just got a sense of how inflexible and nonspiritual I had been acting. I began to realize that this little episode was bringing out deeper fears about my future, family, career, etc. I realized how much I had put my security and happiness in things like recognition, having a nice middle class life, having a family, a career, etc and really how unimportant the love of God and loving others was to me at that point. I told God that if being in unimpressive circumstances, not having recognition, and having a poor simple life was what it would take to be perfected in the love of God, then so be it. I’ll stay in Rexburg forever if I have to ( I cringe a little as I write that). God was taking the steel wool to my soul and it hurt good. There is a reason my van is called The Cosmic Monastery.
With a more positive attitude, I wandered Rexburg and talked to the locals, mostly Mormons. I had many spiritual discussions with them and even read about 50 pages of the book of Mormon (all that I could handle). There really are Mormons from all walks of life though — they aren’t all skinny, white guys with wire rimmed glasses and bikes. I met a hippie Mormon in the store, some hipster Mormons in the park, hick Mormons, intellectual Mormons, artistic Mormons, even a party boy Mormon. The last guy asked me for some weed. I shared with him a bit about the spiritual joy and altered states of consciousness. I shouldn’t be surprised, people are people, despite having a weird religion.
I discussed with some about why I don’t accept Mormonism: Joseph Smith was a dirt bag, the formulation of the book of Mormon is very suspect and it seems an unnecessary addition to the Bible, and the theology is whack (Jesus is the devil’s brother?). I didn’t convince many, but perhaps I helped some think about it, since that was probably the only conversation they had had with a non-mormon for months.
I was able to find a Baptist church (though I’m not Baptist) a stone’s throw from my camp site. It was small but I really liked the people there. One of the interesting guys I met was “Ping”, he was a Chinese guy who went to BYU and used to be a Mormon, but became a Christian. He told me that it was empty and had a bunch of weird doctrines and that Mormons try to convince themselves it is true, while he knows Christ is true, because He set him free. He enthusiastically showed me all the weird doctrines in “The Doctrines and Covenants” book, which is Mormon holy writ.
Eventually it was that church that bailed me out of my predicament: I helped them with some yard work and they paid for my van’s part. I did about 3 dollars worth of work for probably 100 dollars worth of work on my van. Ironically, on the way out of town I met some broke travelers who said they made 30 dollars in one hour panhandling. Perhaps I just suck at it. Anyways, I drove out of that town as fast as I could.
I have been in Eureka for a couple weeks and have more to write about but little time to write, so I will try to keep you posted as much as I can.