One fine spring sunrise 40 years ago, under a California Sycamore in a field fronting Hwy 101 between San Jose and Gilroy, I woke to a pleasant mix of morning sounds - birds chattering in the branches overhead, light morning traffic 100 yards away, a spade breaking dirt in the tiny garden of a mobile home in the adjacent trailer park – and the not-so-pleasant feeling of morning sun baking the contents – me! – of my goose-down sleeping bag. The discomfort of the heat drove me from my sleeping bag to air myself out and take stock of my surroundings.
I'd been dropped off just before midnight, so I was now getting my first look at the place I'd bedded down. Before me lay a broad, fallow field, its plowed furrows running parallel to the highway for several hundred yards. Behind me and not more than 15 feet away was a low fence separating the field from a tidy mobile home park. And all around me, to my chagrin, was a veritable minefield of dog doo. Apparently, 15 feet is the average flight distance of a shovelful of dog crap heaved over a low fence. Amazingly, I had walked to this spot and laid out my sleeping bag in the dark of night without stepping or lying in any of the scores of piles of dog excrement dotting the immediate landscape.
On the other side of the fence, the spade was being worked by a fit old guy with bronze skin and silver hair. He might not have been much older than I am now, but to my 18 year old eyes, he looked pretty old. The two of us weren’t but 20 feet apart and the fence was low and insubstantial enough that we could see each other and exchange good-mornings, which we did. He quizzed me about where I was from (Tacoma, WA), what I was up to (hitchhiking), and where I was headed (south). He insisted that I must have a destination in mind (no, just a direction) and asked if I didn't need to get back to a job or something (nope). I thought maybe he was taking a dim view of my lack of itinerary, but at the end of the interview, he announced, to my surprise, “I've got half a mind to jump this fence and join you.” Delighted by his response (and reasonably sure that the other half of his mind would prevail), I played along and invited, “Come on over.” He laughed and motioned with his hands to draw attention to his trailer and little garden plot and asked with good humor, “And leave all this? I'm stuck here. Enjoy your trip for both of us.” He wondered if I'd like a cup of coffee before taking off, but I wasn't yet a coffee drinker and didn't want to delay my start that day anyway. I didn't have anywhere to go but didn't want to get there too late! He went back to scratching at the dirt and I finished stuffing my sleeping bag and strapped it to my pack.
I slung my backpack onto my right shoulder, worked my left elbow and arm through that side's shoulder strap, and gave the pack and myself one good in-unison bounce to set everything in place. I turned an analytical eye to the strip of dirt between me and the highway, mentally plotting my zig-zaggy route through the fecal minefield. Ready to go, I called over the fence, “Last chance.” My new friend leaned on his spade, shook his head no resignedly, and raised his hand in a gesture that seemed at once a wave good-bye, a salute, and a surrender to circumstance. I nodded my understanding, turned, and, after a couple giant steps and a few side steps, tramped out to the highway. Crossing to the southbound side, I stuck out my thumb.
As I stood there on the shoulder of 101, I had time to reflect on the morning. Enough time, in fact, to interpret it. I decided that the trailer park was a metaphor for being stuck in one place; the field and the highway were freedom; and the fence represented the responsibilities, demands and expectations that would one day bring an end to my wandering. Oh, and all that dog crap - it represented all the stuff I'd have to dodge in order to enjoy my freedom.
About a year earlier, James Taylor had released Gorilla, and the chorus of my favorite song from that LP came to mind as I stood at the side of the highway:
I've been wanderin' early and late
From the New York City to the Golden Gate
And it don't look like
I'll ever stop my wanderin'
No, it don't look like
I'll ever stop my wanderin'
Backpack at my feet, sun on my cheek, smile on my face, song in my heart and thumb in the air, I resolved to stay on the freedom side of the fence as long as I could; to keep the fence low enough to jump if ever I found myself on the stuck side of it; to always watch where I stepped; and to never stop my wandering.