Letters from the road: The people you’ll meet

Hello, Cheyenne! How are you? I am doing swell. I am sitting at a picnic table in Northern California, writing you a letter. I suppose that latter information is obvious from context. This isn’t an official campground I’m at, it’s a makeshift (and presumably illegally “constructed”) hunting camp in a clearing. There’s not much to it. An impressive fire ring, a plywood bench, some shelves and a floodlight nailed to a tree, and also this picnic table, which was stored upright under a repurposed scrap of discarded carpet. Some distance off is a toilet seat affixed atop a metal drum; I haven’t had the courage to lift the lid, let alone try to, you know, use it.

When I first got here I thought it was a grow operation — I’m not sure if I’m still in Humboldt County or not — and I thought that certainly some unkind person would be emerging to chase me off. But there’s a feed trough for horses nearby, and I really can’t imagine a surly marijuana grower smoking a bunch of his product and then saying, “You know what? I think I’m gonna go for a trail ride.” Although earlier today a dude and his girlfriend rode up here on a four-wheeler looking for rolling paper and matches.

And that’s what your letter is all about, Cheyenne: The people you can meet. I’ve met a couple of characters this past week. One was at a coffee shop in Santa Rosa. I mean, he wasn’t in the coffee shop, although he did ask about the advisability of riding his motorcycle through the front door. He was in the parking lot, sitting on his broken motorcycle, talking to any chump who would listen. Unfortunately, one of those chumps was me.

The conversation began with him observing the scars on my legs and expressing his approval of my totally awesome scar “tattoos” and then realizing that they weren’t tattoos, but the real thing. His inability to discern the difference between an actual traumatic leg injury and a tattoo depiction thereof should have been my cue to say thanks and goodbye, but I missed that cue. Hard.

The guy on the motorcycle asked me how I got the scars, and then he started asking things like, “What do you think? Should I just walk in there and clock the bitch?” For the record, if anyone ever asks you this, the correct answer is “no”. Do not answer as I did, by saying, “Who? Where?” Sometimes additional information is not necessary to answer a question, and asking for that information will earn you a disappointed “Don’t you know, man??”

Then he started asking me how he could end the pain, if I would like a ride on his broken motorcycle, if suicide was the answer, if I would beat him up, and he also cheerfully suggested that he had a knife I could use on him if I liked. At which point I disengaged and called the cops — maintaining my lifetime record of only calling 911 to report white people — and then split when he was distracted by the task of parking his motorcycle in the street.

I saw a cop car heading toward the coffee shop after I took off, and the next day’s police blotter said he’d been arrested. At which point my white liberal guilt kicked in full-scale as I wondered whether he’d be subject to California’s three strikes law. The sad thing is I think his motorcycle was just out of gas.

After that I took off from Santa Rosa and made my way toward the coast. I stopped at a fruit stand on the road out, and sitting in the parking lot I was approached by a man who noticed my Iowa license plate and wanted to give me a fist bump for American Pickers, a History Channel show set in Iowa. He smelled like alcohol but I ignored this and continued talking anyway. Pretty soon we were talking about all the weirdos that live in California and also everywhere else. And that was when he dropped what I like to call “The Wisdom”:

“Now, you can’t carry a gun everywhere. And fuck a knife. A lot of cops, a lot of rangers, they’ll give you grief if they see a great big knife on your belt. So you know what I carry for self defense? A road flare. That shit is 800 degrees, man. No one’s gonna come at you if you’re waving an 800 degree burning road flare in their face. Scares the hell out of ’em.”

He went on to say how innocuous they look, and they’ll fit right in your pocket, and stranded motorists on a busy highway really appreciate it if you throw one their way. I said I thought this sounded great, and I asked where I could get one. And you know what? He gave me one. Right there. And also a bag of corn chips. Wow!

So in the world of people you can meet, I fit somewhere between the tweaker on a broken motorcycle and the drunk ‘Nam vet at a produce stand handing out road flares for self defense. Creeped out by one, conversant and friendly with the latter. And to think I ever thought I had trouble fitting in in the world.

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