For years I saw the John Muir Trail as my turning point. I set out escaping responsibility and came back to accept it. I left focused on drugs but returned focused on nature.
Reality is more complex. My aspirations began changing months before the trek.
Getting kicked out of summer camp hit me harder than I admitted to myself. Adding up all my weeks there, I’d lived in a refuge of sailing, riding, canoeing, and nature studies for a total of nearly a year. The owners of the camp had been kind to me. I felt safe and accepted there. I knew my dad sent me there because Della didn’t want me around, but the camp was so nice, I felt grateful for it.
When my grandparents picked me up, they knew something had gone wrong. I was leaving early, right? But though the camp owners told my dad what happened, they didn’t tell my Grandma and Grandpa. I felt too ashamed to talk about it, so a wall of silence kept me isolated from the two people I trusted most. I knew there were problems with my decisions, even if I couldn’t name them back then.
A month after leaving camp, I embarked on a road trip with my sister. By the time it ended, I had more reasons to question my choices. Jan and I headed west from our grandmother’s house in Detroit. Jan had been there all summer, even though my dad was paying rent on her apartment in Santa Monica, where she sometimes attended college. I’d been there two weeks, which had been how long I spent there every years since my mom died.
Our grandmother had called her son in a panic. According to Gross Pointe gossip, Jan was hanging with locals who were heroin addicts. Our grandmother had only one barely-sighted eye, and she was used to ignoring the alcoholism that runs in our family. Even so, she could see Jan was in trouble. Our dad flew in from LA, and soon issued the command: “Jan, you’re driving home! Tomorrow!”
“Fine. I’ll leave.”
He must have figured she’d circle back as soon as he returned to LA. So he added a safeguard: “You’ll take your brother with you.”
While in Detroit, Jan had purchased an Austin-Healey Sprite. It must have looked flashy when new, but Michigan’s weather had dulled its shine. A skirt of rust spots dotted the body where it met the chassis. When the top was up, you couldn’t see out the back; the plastic window had turned brown. The car left oil spots wherever it was parked.
At age fifteen, I didn’t worry about the vehicle. I didn’t care why I was sent on the trip. With only a learner’s permit, I was driving cross-country!
Jan and I loaded the tiny car with our suitcases and headed west. My father gave me $60 for the journey, which even in those days wasn’t enough money for a 2200 mile road trip. So we slept by the sides of roads and shoplifted many of our meals. The cash we reserved for essentials, like gas and vodka.
We spent our first night near the intersection of two farm roads outside Lincoln, Nebraska. Jan’s Detroit boyfriend had given her directions to this point, because marijuana grew wild along the side of the road. We arrived after dark and slept under tall bushes.
In the morning my eyes widened to the sight of seven-foot pot plants looming above me. They formed a dense stand between the road’s shoulder and a field of corn. We spent an hour or so stripping branches off the lanky plants and stuffing them into two garbage bags. Jan didn’t like the effects of pot. She was doing me a favor, helping me resupply the stash that had run out shortly before we hit the road.
We didn’t know that wet vegetation would mildew if packed in plastic and stowed in a car’s trunk in late summer. When a moldy smell started wafting from the back of the car, we splurged on a motel. We hoisted the heavy bag into the room and hung the branches everywhere we could. They dangled in wilting green masses from rods meant to hold up the shower curtain, guest clothing, and drapes. Though the room was warm already, we cranked the heat. We then went out to score dinner. When we returned, the air was so pungent—even outside the door—it might as well have phoned the cops. I felt uneasy, but Jan seemed unconcerned. We slept in an overheated room surrounded by drying marijuana.
My first taste of the herb came the next day. A branch near the heater had dried enough to ignite. Excited, I rolled some crushed leaves into a joint before we left the room. I fired it up when we hit the Interstate. I smoked the whole thing and felt…nothing. In those days most of the marijuana available in the US was very mild compared to what’s sold now, but the Nebraska pot wasn’t just mild, it was useless. Only when we climbed toward Rocky Mountain National Park did one of my joints cause a barely noticeable high, though it might have been altitude sickness. We should have known: the wild ‘marijuana’ was hemp that escaped cultivation. I’m not sure why we kept it with us. I wish we’d left it in a dumpster.
We made our way west. A stop in Bryce Canyon became the highlight of our trip. Jan’s withdrawal symptoms had eased, and the multicolored sandstone spires looked psychedelic. I smoked some hemp, imagining it was making me high. Jan laughed at my folly, but in a kindly way, and I laughed with her.
That good day was soon followed by a bad one. With Jan driving, we set out on a two-lane road through a rust-colored terrain of massive Buttes and little else. As miles clicked by, the heat grew intense, and we grew thirsty. We broke out bottles of vodka and tomato juice, which helped for a time. Soon we were badly drunk. The booze and heat made me nauseous and irritable.
We switched places, and I began driving. I looked down and saw the gas needle below the quarter-tank mark. The map didn’t show any towns for a long distance. I doubted we could make it. We asked each other questions. Why didn’t you check the gas? Why didn’t you? Why didn’t you buy some water? Why didn’t you?
The needle drifted further down as massive buttes drifted past us. We couldn’t enjoy the scenery. Jan seemed unconcerned. Her nonchalance frustrated me. Why don’t you help? Help with what? Partly because I was drunk but mostly out of anger, I listed the ways she fell short in my eyes: useless in a crisis, taking so much LSD she ended up in a mental hospital, hanging out in drug dens, getting hooked on heroin. I stopped—too late—only when she turned toward me, her eyes brimming with grief and humiliation. We’d fought plenty over the years, but this time I’d crossed a line.
A stall seemed inevitable.
I tried to guess whether it would be safer to wait with a disabled car or start walking. We’d last longer if we stayed put. But what if no one comes? Then we rounded a bend and saw an intersection with an antique but open gas station. We pulled in and let the owner fill our tank. He started asking about our travels, but a closer look pulled him up short. He called for his wife, who took in our ragged appearance and ducked back inside. She came out with a pitcher of lemonade, beckoned us to the stoop, and filled us each a glass.
The trip continued for another week. We rode through Reno at night, marveling at the neon signs, like kitschy galaxies lining the strip. We spent two days in San Francisco, where we stayed in a filthy hotel near Union Square, with a view of a brick wall. We could afford this luxury because our dad had wired us a little more money back in Nevada. We drove to the University of California Medical center where—ten years later—I’d enroll in medical school. Jan wanted to take a look at the nursing program, but the giant buildings overwhelmed us. We drove by without stopping.
We didn’t talk about what I’d said in the red desert. We acted like we were back to normal.
We took the winding Coast Highway south toward LA. The views were gorgeous, but the engine ran poorly. Soon, it began making a click-click-click sound. But it kept limping down the road, so we kept driving. Just north of Santa Barbara, the sound grew louder: BANG, BANG, BANG. Soon the engine sputtered and died.
There was nothing to do but leave the car by the side of the road. We walked to a phone both and called our dad. He told us to hitchhike home.
The next day Jan and I drove back to Santa Barbara in our father’s convertible Mustang. My friends Philip and Brad rode with us. We linked the Sprite to the Mustang with an ten-foot tow cable. Then Jan drove the front car with Philip, while Brad and I rode in the back one. I sat in the driver’s seat, steering the Sprite and keeping my foot poised above the brake.
It was an insane setup. Even at age fifteen understood that. I told Jan to stay in the right lane and drive as slowly as possible. But when we pulled onto the Ventura Freeway, she hit the gas. Soon we were whizzing along in the left lane. My speedometer read 70 mph. Frantically waving to get my sister’s attention, I watched Philip light up a joint and pass it to her.
I’m amazed the Sprite didn’t slam into the back of the Mustang. I must have had good reflexes, and there weren’t any sudden stops. If the Highway Patrol had seen us, they’d have had plenty to work with: pot smoking, an illegal towing rig, a trunk load of what looked like (and the law would consider) marijuana.
My sister used our adventures as fodder for funny stories, but I felt things had gone too far. When Jan rolled the Sprite a month after our return, my unease grew stronger. She was lucky. Aside from huge bruises, she’d not been harmed. But even she wasn’t laughing this time, and I felt scared for her.
Soon after starting school, I sold the Nebraska hemp to a kid in school. Fully dry, it weighed a pound and looked like regular green weed. He smoked some before buying, but he was probably already high, because he didn’t notice the product was no good. Why I thought it acceptable to sell worthless leaves is something I’ve struggled to understand.
One influence is clear: my dad’s moral blind spots. Shoplifting? Stick it to the man! Throwing beer cans at tailgaters? The assholes have it coming! Infidelity? Marriage is unnatural, a plot to keep the masses in line. The only behaviors I was sure he frowned upon were animal cruelty and capitalism. It took me years to find an ethical compass, because he didn’t give me one.
The fact I’d been raised with neglect, loss, and abuse must have figured in, too. It made me focus on raw survival, and I wasn’t benefitting from an environment of fairness and generosity. But that formative effect is harder for me to grasp. These days, writers like Gabor Maté help us understand how unresolved trauma alters interpersonal style. But even so, such deep-seated effects feel like personal failings. When I look back on my moral choices, I feel shame. It helps to know why my ethical compass took so long to develop, but the shame remains.
Before I sold the hemp and defrauded my classmate, I focused on how selling the hemp enabled me to buy a pound of something better. I divided the new batch into lids and peddled to friends. It seemed like a good plan. Smoke for free and make money. I remember feeling twinge of conscience, and what I did must have hurt my reputation, but I was used to tuning out pain.
You might think I hid my dealing from my dad, but I gave him and Della one of my bags. I’d often dipped into the huge stash they kept in their bathroom. I’d never told them about my pilfering, but now I made a show of repaying them. My father accepted the lid good-naturedly. Della scowled.
To deal, I needed a scale to measure out the bags I sold. So I’d stolen a torsion balance from my chemistry class. It was a fine device, gleaming with gray enamel. I was proud of it despite the ‘Property of Los Angeles Unified School District’ warning riveted to its case. When the guy I sold the hemp to asked to borrow it, I lent it. When he—predictably—refused to return it, I stole another scale from the same classroom. A beam balance, the second wasn’t as elegant as the first, but it did the job.
Not long after, my chemistry teacher approached me. “How does the scale work for you, huh?” His voice was soft, his gaze penetrating. Normally clueless about people, I read the message easily. This teacher knew about my crime and was letting me get away with it.
That threw a switch. Unease had been building and building. What happened at camp, the way I’d treated my sister in a life-threatening situation, the madness of using a tow cable on a freeway, Jan’s subsequent car crash, my vague feelings of guilt about deceiving a classmate, all of it had been working on me. When the teacher made clear he knew what I’d done, I began studying in a way I never had before. I went from getting middling grades on my chemistry tests to getting top ones. I started doing better in other classes, too.
One day, I brought the scale to school in a paper bag. While the other students were busy watching a chemistry demonstration, I retrieved it from my locker and put it back where it belonged.
Thus, I’d started changing even before the John Muir Trail. Thinking back, I believe it was the teacher’s attention that made the difference. The dominant flavor of my upbringing was neglect. It’s likely my mother suffered from postpartum depression. And it’s certain she was already suffering from it by the time I started forming memories. She felt overwhelmed and wasn’t able to be the sort of mother I know she wanted to be. Her hospitalizations after the divorce left me feeling even more unwanted, and her suicide even more. After she died and Della took over, I faced years of coldly calculated abuse. But the fact my father refused to admit it was happening or do anything to stop it was something that affected me even more deeply. I knew Della was sick, and I knew she wasn’t my parent. But my dad? I spent nearly every school day afternoon. After Jan left home, I ate most of my dinners alone. Only rarely did anyone seem interested in what I felt or wanted. And materially, I lived in a state of manufactured poverty, eating substandard meals while my parents ate in restaurants.
The neglect wasn’t continual. My grandparents fed me well and helped me feel safe. The owners of the camp were kind to me. But because I was sent back to Della year after year, I didn’t end up feeling very wanted. .
So when the chemistry teacher made clear that he’d seen what I’d done, and that he saw my distress and didn’t want to add to it, he unearthed my desire to cooperate and connect. It’s an adaptive biological tendency all of us are born with, however deeply our experiences have buried it. Thanks to how that teacher took an interest in my welfare, I grew more concerned with it myself. From then on, I studied more and rebelled less.
This was a huge change, but it was incomplete. For one thing, I continued to steal, and I was regularly taking and selling drugs. For another, my improved study habits were oriented toward pleasing my teachers. I felt little inner drive to learn for its own sake, or even for the sake of my future. That was what the JMT hike changed: I came home with a passion and a plan.