The last hamburger

The trip to LA took 3 nights and most of 3 days. Somewhere in the California desert I consumed what would be the last animal flesh that would pass my lips for as long as I would spend with Stephen and his followers. I wolfed down a hamburger without ceremony.

Sixty hours on the bus, even with adjoining seats to myself most of the way, had numbed me out in mind and body. I had less and less idea of what I was heading for, though I didn’t yet miss where I’d been. There was no fear, but neither was there excitement or anticipation. I’d flung myself into the unknown and was ready to accept whatever awaited me.

Anita and her bus would be there to pick me up, but whether I’d have a girlfriend on that bus or not, I had no idea. Fact was: she’d left me and I’d refused to leave with her. The affair had, in my mind, been over. Only Stephen’s book and its creative approach to explaining life – not Anita’s phone call – had convinced me to change my mind. Or so I made myself believe.

But was I really like these people? I’d only met four of them. I’d never heard nor laid eyes on Stephen, the driving force behind it all, the teacher, the idea guy. And in moving to California I was going counter to an old, though silly prejudice I’d held against the Golden State for years. All that surfer girl bullshit and Hollywood glitz just went against my grain. The Summer of Love? I’d been in Europe then, and had decided that being there must have been the superior planetary experience.

So, after the interminable traverse of the LA suburbs, I deboarded and found my way to a bench in the lobby. I sat alone amidst the other bus passengers and the oddball vagrants in the Trailways terminal  – my duffle bags snugged up to my feet for security. The best I could hope was that this adventure would all work out for the best. Suburban Maryland, my good old friends and family, they were all behind me and 3,000 miles away. And in their place? I had no idea.

I stared at the floor, wondering how long I’d have to wait.

“Clifford?”

Two large feet in canvas tennies had stepped into my view, next to my duffles. I panned up the long body to a frazzled beard and dreamy eyes.

“Uh yeah, that’s me.”

“Hi. I’m Erik. We’re outside waiting for you.”

And with that, he reached down, snatched up my bags and strode toward the door. I followed him out into the sunlight. The yellow bus I’d watched disappear in Virginia was now wrapped in three broad horizontal stripes of blue – dark on the bottom, medium in the middle and light blue along window level. The roof was pure white. And standing in the doorway was Anita with the two girls.

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The surrender moment

It became my routine for the next 3 weeks to get home from work after midnight – wired from the bright lights, noise and activity of the depot – and read the book. Sometimes I’d toke up first, sometimes I’d eat, but always I’d spend at least an hour trying to decipher the strange jargon of this Stephen dude.

His was an almost poetic mix of Western cowboy slang, drug-inspired invention, scientific techno-speak and religious scripture. The book consisted of questions from the audience – always brief – and answers from the teacher – almost always extended, but often tinged with humor. Apparently these “classes” took place on Monday nights, and many of the attendees were curious about the nature of their weekend experiences on psychedelics. But somehow Stephen was always able to make a link between the vision or hallucination and either ethics, science or both.

My first two readings left me more far confused than enlightened, but obviously something was getting through because, aside from the The Bedside Mad reader, I’d never read a book more than once.

I spent New Year’s Eve reading the book for the third time and suddenly it clicked. More than any priest in my church growing up, or any politician – even the ones they’d shot – this Stephen guy was able to explain to me the connection between my emotions and my inner compass. At least, in my own desperate way, I was able to accept his explanations as making more sense than any others I’d heard. And there was no doubt that in the world’s condition, a better working explanation was needed.

The next morning the phone rang. It was Anita, calling from Colorado. “This is really cool,” she said. “You should come out and join us. But only if you’re ready.”

I was ready. Two days later three of my closest friends drove me and my two duffle bags to the Trailways bus station.

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To drop or not to drop

The book was barely a half-inch thick. On the cover was a 6-sided symmetrically colored mandala, full of the concentric swoops, like what you see when you’ve just looked straight into the sun, then closed your eyes. The title – Monday Night Class – was on the back, over a color photo of a gangly long-haired, bearded guy sitting, with knees bent into the air, on a low stage, evidently explaining a point to a large crowd of people. Inside the book, the print was purple. There were no page numbers. The frontispiece was a full-page portrait – printed in the same purple ink – of the bearded guy looking back at you, straight into the camera lense but more than that, right into your soul. It gave me a chill.

As we drove back across the Potomac River to our apartment in Virginia – after Anita’s announcement that she fully intended to join these people on their circumnavigation of the country – I found myself actively resisting the urge to join her, but she didn’t care. All she needed was for me to fix up the school bus she’d bought during the summer while I’d been in New Haven, vainly trying to start up our lefty political magazine.

As she’d told me, the bus caper was part of her life dream – to drive off into the sunset and “find a piece of land.” I hadn’t come to that place yet; I didn’t understand the bus, nor was I ready for the driving off or the finding of land. I’d visited a small commune in West Virginia with its goats, outhouse, pungent smells and pervasive dirt. The people were nice enough, but damn it, some substantive changes needed to be made in this country and…well, I just didn’t know.

I committed to helping her pull out the bus seats and build a bed platform from 2-by-4s and plywood. I wasn’t happy that she was so eager to leave. Our relationship was casual, but the fact that she had two sweet young daughters and I’d become their erstwhile male figure felt important to me. Anita was five years my senior, which meant she had gone through more life adventures than I. And here she was, going off for yet another adventure that I was choosing to miss.

Within two weeks, the bus was ready. Anita’s sister had agreed to go with her to help with Anita’s two beautiful young girls, Janine and Krissy. One small problem: only I had experience driving the bus, and  both occasions had been terrifying. A school bus feels enormous and uncontrollable when all you’ve ever driven is a car and a motorcycle. I agreed to drive them to where Route 66 split off from the Beltway and headed south and, in the process, provide them with their driving demo. From then on, they’d have to figure it out.

Aside from instruction about double clutching and warnings about the lack of power steering, not much was said on the way to the departure point. My friend and roommate, Tom, followed us. I pointed out the lack of synchromesh in first gear, then stepped down to the ground as Anita settled into the driver’s seat. Tom and I watched as she crunched the bus into gear, carefully accelerated, and hit the speed limit. Krissy and Nini waved goodbye from the rear window as the bus disappeared into the distance. I felt a pang of envy.

They were off on an adventure. I would continue slinging bags of Christmas mail at the airmail depot until midnight. Tom and I got into the car and, there on the seat Stephen’s picture looked up at me from the book cover as if to say, “So now what are you gonna do?”

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