The first thing I do when I get home from school is check the kitchen table for mail. Mostly, all I get is junk because the folks at Ranger Rick Magazine are shitty at math. I’m sixteen. It’s eight years since I subscribed, and I’m no longer interested in keeping up with nature friends. One day I got a letter from Ranger Rick saying, “Hey, where have you been?” and also a letter from the United States Army asking, “Have you considered life after high school?” Maybe Rick gave them my address. Usually, I couldn’t care less about mail, but a few weeks ago, I wrote Mr. Jordan, someone my parents used to know who has a boy’s camp in Eagle River, Wisconsin. I asked if I could work for him this summer. I hope he answers soon.
Family, church, and school…the foundation of fucking America. They all drive me crazy. I need to get to a thinking place and away from everyone who tries to do my thinking for me.
Mormons annoy me the most. A few years ago, Mom thought my older sisters dated too much. Two guys came to our door, one thing led to another, and pretty soon we all signed up. Some of it never made sense, but everyone got so enthusiastic. I was only ten, so goodbye Ranger Rick and hello Mormonism. Once they got hold of us, church before school, church after school, church on weekends, church, church, church. No time for anything but Mormon everything. That gets irritating if you want to have an interesting life.
Mom and Dad don’t go to church anymore. They got tired of the bossiness and constant activity, and then they found out one of the elders was getting sexy with church boys and no one wanted to hear a thing about it. So, they got mad and quit, but that left me in a precarious situation. I only have a few friends, every one a Mormon, because when would I have time to know anyone else? So, I still go, but it’s increasingly uncomfortable.
I like some of the people and I want them to like me too, but they only like me if I’m the same as them. Also, no one wants to talk about anything except how goddamned delightful it is to be goddamned Mormon and how sad it is that everyone isn’t Mormon, and god forbid you say goddamned because that’s against the goddamned rules, and you’ll go straight to goddamned eternal darkness. You’ve never heard so many rules. They don’t want me to think. They want to tell me what to think, and then they expect me to act all goddamned giddy and grateful about it. It all seems like a great big fake-off to me. That’s why I wrote Mr. Jordan and why I watch the mail like a crazy person.
It’s another day of no letter from Mr. Jordan, so I look in my parents’ Rand McNally Road Atlas. Eagle River is 1,952 miles from Sedro-Woolley, Washington, where I live now. I see what roads lead there and places I would explore if I could drive. I like thinking about going places. Every day at school, I think about transporting myself to where no one knows me. Sometimes, it doesn’t feel like me who shows up in my own life. It feels like a play, and I’m just in the cast. I don’t want this part, but they need this character, so I pretend, and now I’m a person I don’t like. They don’t like me either but they need someone in this role, and that someone is me.
It rains a lot where I live. It’s one of those cold, crappy weather afternoons. I walk in our front door after another irritating day at school. I’m always glad to come home after a day like that. I take off the big coat I always wear and leave it on the chair next to the door where Mom tells me not to. I walk in the kitchen and see a minty green envelope on the table. I know what it is before I see my name because it has a dark green pine tree in the corner. I grab it and BINGO! My heart pounds so hard I think it might jump out of my goddamned shirt. I don’t say anything. I carry my letter back to my room and hold it like it’s something that might break.
Even after all my anticipation, I don’t hurry. I put the envelope on my bed and sit next to it. For the first time, it occurs to me that Mr. Jordan might say no. I can’t stand the thought of this. After a while, I pick up the envelope, put my finger at the edge of the gum seal, tear away the flap, and pull the folded typed page free.
Thank you for your letter enquiring about a job at Camp Towering Pines. I am happy to offer you a position as Dishwasher. The dates of employment are June 15th to August 15th. The salary offered is $400, room and board included. Please let me know as soon as possible if you will be joining us.
Regards to your parents,
I feel like I’m holding a ticket to the rest of my life. I read my letter over and over and think about 1,952 miles and how it will feel.
I leave my room and look for Mom to share my news. Dad’s just come home from work and I hear them greeting at the door, then I hear Mom yelling, like she’s aiming all the way to the back of the house, “David, come get your coat off this chair. Put it away, and do it now!” When my face appears around the corner, she’s still yelling and feels silly, but I can’t think about that. I have news and can hardly wait to get my coat hung up. Dad talks and talks about something that happened at work as they go into the living room and find their sitting spots. I follow, but I don’t sit. I hold my letter, and wait for a turn. Dad won’t stop talking so I flap the green envelope and letter to get him to wind it up. Finally Mom says, “Okay, David, tell us what the Jordans have to say.”
They both know I planned to ask for this job, but Dad hasn’t been part of the conversation. I don’t think Dad expected me to do it. I read the letter and wait for someone to say something, but it’s quiet for a long time. Finally, Dad says, “I just don’t think David knows how to put in a day’s work.” He doesn’t say this to me; he says it like I’m not in the room. No one knows what to say next. Mom and Dad don’t look at each other and don’t look at me.
I stand, envelope in one hand, letter in the other, not flapping anymore. I never cry, not ever, but suddenly I feel as if I might, so I head through the nearest exit and go back to my room, sit on my bed, and listen to my heart pound some more. I have never hated my Dad, but right now I do. He has to take back what he just said. He has to let me go to Wisconsin, and when I do, I am going to work so hard that he is going to feel stupid and sorry.
I come home the next day and go right over to the closet and hang up my coat, because I am not interested in having a conversation about it. I start back to my room, but Mom calls me to the kitchen. She’s standing at the counter in an apron and is measuring stuff and putting it into her Mixmaster. She has a half can of Diet Pepsi on the counter next to a carton of eggs and a glass of melting ice cubes. She reaches for her can, refreshes her drink, turns to face me, and leans against the counter. She looks pleased with herself and I think she must have had a talk with Dad. She takes a nice long swig of her Pepsi like she has all the time in the world. I know this game; it is not a game she would play before delivering shitty news. I wiggle around to encourage her, like when you have to pee extra bad. Finally she says, “David, I think you’d better write Mr. Jordan. And look into how to get yourself to Wisconsin because it’s too far to walk.”
I feel dopey when I smile too big, but I can’t help it. I feel like doing a jig around the kitchen but I don’t want to knock the house down, so instead, I go to my room and have another look at the Rand McNally Road Atlas. I think about how I’ll get through six weeks of school and how to get to Wisconsin, because I’m definitely going to Wisconsin.
Six weeks have turned into one. Junior year is over, and good riddance. I can’t think of anything more irritating than jocks. When girls walk by, they stand in the halls and yell numbers, one to ten. I feel sorry for girls when they yell two or three, and hoot like a bunch of apes, but to tell the truth, nines and tens don’t enjoy it either. I wish they would shut up and go back to their caves. I just try not to attract attention. I don’t say much at school. I usually only talk to people I already know, but I got a kick out of talking about my summer plans. When I did, it was like I suddenly changed to a foreign language. Most people had no idea what I was talking about. In my town, going to a kegger in the next county rates as about the most exciting thing anyone could think to do.
The other news is that I have a Greyhound bus ticket to Rhinelander, Wisconsin. That’s as close to Eagle River as Greyhound goes. I hoped I could fly. I’ve never flown, except in crazy dreams. I’d like to look out and see the tops of clouds. Maybe next time. Greyhound has the best deal. With Greyhound, I can go anywhere in America for seventy-five dollars. Mom gave me seventy-five dollars for an advance birthday present. Mom also gave me a giant green duffle bag that used to be in the army. I put all my stuff in there. I’m ready to go except I still have to wait one more very long week.
Today’s the day. I could hardly sleep, but finally I did, then I woke up about an hour later so I took everything out of my green bag and packed it all up again just to use some time, and make sure about what’s in there. I spend the day pacing around the house. The bus doesn’t leave until 11:10 p.m.
Finally, I put my bag in our Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser station wagon and Mom and Dad drive me to Seattle. It’s already dark. Starting out on a long trip when everyone else is going to bed makes this seem like even more of an adventure. It takes an hour and a half to get to the Greyhound station. Dad’s still not embraced my plan, but on the way, Mom tells stories about the summer, right after they got married, when they worked at this same camp. “I still thought there was nothing your father couldn’t do, so when I needed a haircut, and he offered, I said sure. I handed him the scissors and put a towel around my neck. He asked me, How long do you want it? and I said oh, about here. About thirty seconds later he tells me he’s finished! I tell him it takes them an hour to cut my hair in the beauty salon, and he says, Well I don’t know why… Oh lordy! I had to go down to the dining hall with my hair like that. Ma Jordan took one look and asked, Pat, what happened to your hair? She said, Don’t you ever let him near your head with a pair of scissors again!” Mom and I laughed, so did Dad, but I don’t think he wants me to see him laughing too much.
We park near the station. I drag my army bag from the car and over to the bus. I find the guy who takes suitcases. I show him my ticket and hand him my bag. He attaches a tag to the handle, tears off half, hands it back to me and tells me to wait until they make an announcement to board. The three of us walk over to a place out of the way.
Dad is still quiet. I figure he’s gloating about how right he’ll be when I call collect and beg to come home. I think about how wrong he is, and how sorry he’ll be for everything. Then Dad reaches into his back pocket. The next thing, I don’t see coming. Dad takes out his wallet and hands me three twenty-dollar bills, just like that, without a lecture or anything. I don’t know what to say. I’m not mad anymore. I feel awkward, and lumpy in my throat. I say, “Thanks Dad,” but it comes out squeaky, which embarrasses us. We don’t know what to do with ourselves, but Mom saves us by handing me a big brown sack with handles on it.
I look, and it’s full of food. I can tell she made it especially for me. Right on top I see two of my favorite things, a bag of dried apricots and a big bag of peanut butter, tomato, lettuce, and mayonnaise sandwiches. I also see she’s put the Rand McNally Road Atlas in there. I think this is an excellent idea. I can’t say anything because I don’t want to squeak so I just make a goofy smile.
We look and see people starting to make a line. Dad tells me, “You better go,” and puts his hand on my shoulder but then puts it right back in his pocket. It feels like we should do something. This is when most people hug, but we don’t know how to hug. We don’t learn to hug until after my brother dies. Finally Mom leans in and pecks at my cheek. This is a big show of affection for her, and it’s embarrassing. We have run out of things to say. None of us knows how to get me into that line without having to touch each other anymore, so I say, “Thanks for the snacks Mom … and Dad, do you have any more of those twenty-dollar bills?” When we laugh, it’s an okay time to go, so I smile goodbye, take my bag of snacks and walk over to wait with the other passengers.
I hear the announcement, the bus doors open, people start to board, but I mill around at the back, where there isn’t a line, just people waiting for a line. I feel shy about jumping in. I try to figure it out and look back at Mom and Dad. Dad still has his hands in his pockets and looks at the ground like someone might have dropped some change. Mom has her arms folded across her chest but her eyes pointed right at me. Then she does a funny thing, she makes this motion with her hand and says the word “PUSH” but without making any sound, just making her lips move and her hand do a pushing thing. I can see on her face she did it for a joke, but she also probably doesn’t want me to spend the rest of my life waiting around in the back of some line, so I get in there and I get on the bus.
Now I am worried about where to sit. All the seats have at least one person in them and I have to make a decision. I wish I was sitting and someone else was deciding. I know for sure, I don’t want to sit in back. In my experience, the back of the bus is where you get your ears boxed, and where people mess with you. I know this is not the same as the school bus, but I will not take that chance. I can see the best seat is the very front seat, across from the driver. It has plenty of room and lots of windows, but that location would require strategy. Two churchy-looking ladies have claimed that spot, so I keep looking. I see a guy about my age halfway back on the driver’s side with an open seat next to him. He looks like a weirdo, but I’m a weirdo too, and he doesn’t look like a weirdo who will box my ears. I cross my fingers and make my way down the isle. No one ahead of me takes that place, so I shove my bag under the seat, sit myself down, and feel very much relieved. I don’t talk right away. I watch everyone get situated until the motor starts and the bus begins to move. I look and see Mom and Dad, right where I left them, still not touching. Mom waves as the bus leaves. They can’t see me, so I don’t wave back. They turn and walk back to the Vista Cruiser and we drive away.
Weirdo guy is a chatterbox. I find out he has a name and he’s going to Spokane where he will visit his father, who’s divorced from his mother, and he has a girlfriend. I mean Weirdo has a girlfriend. Maybe his father has one too, but that’s not the point of this. Weirdo has a girlfriend and he wants to tell me all about her. I have friends who are girls, but I don’t know the first thing about girlfriends, because I’m more interested in boys, in that way. No one knows this, including me, except that’s practically all I think about. I’m ashamed of this. I’ve heard it’s a phase some boys go through. I hope that’s true. Maybe this summer it will go away.
I don’t know what to say when Weirdo blathers on about his girlfriend, but I feel like I should say something. Even though I don’t have a girlfriend, my friend, Sue, gave me her graduation picture two weeks ago and when she did, she drew a heart and wrote “Love Sue” on the back. Before you know it, I am reaching for my wallet and taking out that picture and telling weirdo guy all about my girlfriend Sue. Sue this, and Sue that, and we like to do this when we’re not doing that… I don’t know why I did that, except when Sue gave me her picture and I saw what she wrote, there was a tiny little corner of my brain where it occurred to me that it might come in handy at a time such as this. Still, I am surprised at myself. I guess I didn’t really expect to find myself in a time such as this, but now I sure as shit have. So, I just keep telling this big fabrication to weird guy, who thinks it’s the truth.
This next thing is just mean. I’m not one bit proud of it, but it’s exactly what went through my head. I thought, since I’m telling this big lie anyway, why don’t I have a picture of a prettier girl than Sue? As soon as I think this, I feel like the jocks in the hall. I think about my funny friend Sue, who gave me her picture and wrote “Love” on it, and I feel shitty. Also, who would believe a prettier girl would be my girlfriend?
It’s the middle of the night. Weird guy finally stopped talking. I’m glad because I’m not interested and I feel bad about starting off my new life with a stupid lie. I look up the aisle at the other people. Most of them are asleep or look like kids waiting outside the principal’s office. Even though I’m feeling disappointed with myself, I’m still too excited to think about sleep. I do think about snacks, but I couldn’t eat in front of weird guy and all these people so I leave them for later. I look out, watch the lights whizz by, and wait for the sun.
We arrive in Spokane just after daylight. Weird guy gets off with everyone else including the churchy ladies. I grab my bag, coat, and Rand McNally Road Atlas, which I have extricated, and plant myself in that luxurious front seat P.D.Q. I’m pleased with myself for snagging a premium seat so early in my bus-riding adventure.
We won’t leave Spokane for an hour and forty-five minutes. I decide to stay on the bus. It’s boring on an empty bus, but I use this opportunity to get into my snacks. Under the sandwiches, I find four bags of cookies. Mom made excellent choices. I know because I try some of everything. I don’t know when I’ll have another private moment, and I don’t have anything to distract me, so I eat and eat and before I know it, I have a belly ache. I’m glad to have some lounge room to lay back and look at my atlas.
The new driver opens the bus and looks at my ticket. He looks like someone just spit on his birthday cake. He has an abnormal amount of hair on his ears and in his nose. He checks tickets as people take their seats. I think about Greyhound commercials on TV where all the handsome bus drivers smile and look like someone you would like to be your dad. The Greyhound people I see don’t look like anyone you’d put on TV, and they don’t go out of their way to enhance your Greyhound experience.
It seems like more people wanted to go to Spokane than Billings but we still have a fairly full bus. Rand McNally says Spokane is 542 miles from Billings. It should take eight hours to drive, but we stop in all these little towns. We have to let people off and let people on, and “If you decide to exit the bus, but are continuing on our journey, you will need to return to your seat by, blah, blah, blah…” I can just see me getting off and getting left in a little town that looks just like the town I escaped from.
I stay on the bus until I work up my nerve to get off at a station in Idaho that has a cafe. I walk up to the counter, take out one of my dad’s twenty-dollar bills and order a large chocolate milkshake, because it would not occur to me to order a smaller size. I look to make sure no one from the bus can hear, and I order two baskets of fries. The counter lady hands me my order and I take it to the furthest corner so no one will see. I leave the second basket in the bag while I eat the first. They are big baskets. I regret my order by the time I am half finished, but I have spent money and I do not waste fried food, so I switch the empty basket with the fresh and eat the second basket in a hurry so I don’t miss the bus.
By the time I get back to my seat, I don’t feel good. I’ve never been awake this long, I ate too many sandwiches, cookies, most of the apricots, and now I’ve consumed a giant milkshake and two big baskets of fries. This next part is embarrassing, but I’m beginning to worry about a number two experience. I’m a private person. I’ve seen the bathroom on the bus. It’s fine for number one but I’m a big guy. It’s about the size of a box Mom would bring home from the discount grocery outlet in there, and even without my contribution, it stinks. The idea of going big, opening the door, and having someone look at me and know they’re thinking “Wooooo-hoooooo, did something die in there?” No-way-no-way-no-way! Also, I’ve not been to the bathrooms in the bus stations but I know a toilet in a stall right next to another stall is not a comforting environment for this kind of thing. I feel achy and a little lurching in my gut. I concentrate on the map and try not to think about a potential emergency.
You’d think the front seat is best, but now that I’ve been here, to tell you the truth, it feels like a place churchy ladies should sit. The only person I can see is the driver. He reminds me of my algebra teacher, seriously unpleasant Mr. Gallagher, who made me sit next to fuck-face Steve Deeble all last year. Everyone thinks Steve Deeble is so goddamned hilarious, everyone except me, the butt of all his goddamned stupid jokes. He’s even a whole year younger, which is even more irritating. Up here in front, I can’t keep an eye on things, unless I get up and walk to the toilet.
I go to the toilet when I don’t have to, just to move around and see what’s what. Lots of people on the bus I would never meet in normal life. Sedro-Woolley doesn’t welcome different kinds of people. I heard a story. I don’t know if it’s true, but knowing who I go to school with, I would not be one bit surprised. I heard a black family tried to move to our area, before my family did. They didn’t live there long before someone burned their house down. That’s exactly why I’m on this bus, to get away from people like that—to be clear, the house-burning kind of people, not black people. I like black people, or, I will, when eventually I meet them. I’ve read all about Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad and watched Roots on TV. Black people and I will get along just fine.
I wonder about everyone on the bus. I would like to talk to them except I wouldn’t know what to say. The truth is, I am shy. I don’t think people at church would say that, because sometimes I act like a fool just to break up the monotony. I can’t stand it when everyone gets all lordy-lordy and serious. I’d rather laugh with my friends than sit around all lordy-like. Mormons don’t understand laughing. Mormons laugh like someone has just told them, “Okay, everyone, on three, it’s time to laugh.” I like to get them going when they think they shouldn’t. The best laugh happens at exactly the wrong time, and I have learned, there’s no better wrong time than church. My point is, acting crazy at church to break up the monotony is not the same as having conversations with complete strangers, so mostly I keep to myself, hoping no one will sit next to me and that I will not have to go number two.
I found an acceptable single-occupancy bathroom with a door and a lock and avoided near catastrophe in a bus station just past Missoula, Montana. WHEW! I hope I can hold it now until I get to Wisconsin. I feel bad, but I left the rest of my sandwiches in the wastebasket. They were warm and soggy and I didn’t want to take any chances.
On another observational walk to the bathroom, I decide, in the future, I will sit in the back of the bus. I’m not going to spazz out and move all my stuff in the middle of the trip, but I feel like a dork sitting next to the teacher’s desk in front. For now, I go back to my seat. I look at my watch and the map and it seems like we are not moving. I know we are, but I can’t help but look too much. I wish I could sleep and wake up a long time from now, look at the map and find out we had traveled a long way, but I’m still too keyed up to sleep.
It takes all goddamned day and a good chunk of night to get to Billings, where we have a three-hour layover. It’s 12:30 a.m. I’ve been traveling more than a day. I get off and take all my stuff so we can get a new bus. I stand in front of the Greyhound station. It’s summer, but the air is cool. I look at the streetlight and see dive-bombing moths. They’re not like moths at home.
It’s the middle of the night. I’m sixteen. I’m traveling alone. I look around and I know Billings, Montana is not where most people think of as an ideal location, but to be honest, this feels like a big deal adventure destination to me. According to Rand McNally, I’m 886 miles from anyone who knows me, or who expects a weirdo Mormon kid, or who might box my ears, or tell me not to eat two baskets of fries at once, or thinks I don’t know how to work, or who’d get a big kick out of making me the butt of a stupid high school joke, from anyone who cares if I have a girlfriend or don’t, and from anyone who’d keel over in shock if I said goddamned right out loud. It seems like it could be dicey to stand here in my big coat, holding what’s left of my snacks and my Rand McNally Road Atlas, so I walk into the station, find a bench, and take a seat. While I wait for the next bus, I think about the brand-new person I’ll be when I get to Wisconsin.
That summer, the summer of 1977, Elvis Presley died, Jimmy Carter occupied The White House, Anita Bryant led her crusade against gay rights, Watergate figures went to jail, records were broken, games won and lost, earthquakes, wars, political maneuverings, very little of this filtered down to my idyllic corner of the world. My summer centered on one of the beautiful lakes that dot the landscape of northern Wisconsin. It was populated with boys that go to sleep-away camp, and the good people that worked at Camp Towering Pines. It’s a time I remember for camaraderie. That summer, darkness did not suddenly become light, but for a moment, I felt the warmth of light upon my face. It was what I needed. A moment in the company of good people—smart, funny, kind, interesting people. A place and time to catch my breath and consider the adult I would soon become.