Labyrinth 10: Change

Labyrinth 10: Change

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.
Of course, reality is more complex. My orientation 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 paradise 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.
When my grandparents picked me up, they knew something had gone wrong. I was leaving early after all. 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. It seemed obvious I was making bad decisions.
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.
I’d spent a week with my dad’s mother in Detroit. Jan had been there all summer, even though my father was paying rent on her apartment in Santa Monica, where she sometimes attended college.
Our grandmother had called our dad 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 put his foot down. “Jan, you’re driving home! Tomorrow!”
She did not argue. “Fine. I’ll leave.”
He must have figured she’d circle back as soon as he left town. So he added a safeguard: “You can take your brother with you.”
My sister’s Austin-Healey Sprite would 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. It didn’t matter 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 trip, 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 most 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 some 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 garbage bags. Jan didn’t much 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 hot trunk. 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 in August the room was warm already, we cranked the heat. We then went out to score dinner. When we returned, the room was so pungent, 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 once underway. I smoked the whole thing and felt…nothing. In those days the marijuana was very mild compared to what’s sold now, but this 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. Apparently, the THC content was too low to be felt without a touch of 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.
The best day was followed by the worst. 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 though, we were badly drunk and feeling nauseous from the heat.
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, further than we could make it. We asked each other questions. Didn’t you check the gas? Didn’t you? Have we seen any other cars on this road? Sweating under the glaring sun, all we had to drink was vodka. The tomato juice mixer might have helped a little, but it was gone. Why didn’t you buy some water?
The needle drifted further down as the buttes moved slowly past us. We couldn’t enjoy the scenery. Jan seemed unconcerned but irritable. It frustrated me that she wasn’t helping me figure out what to do. As if there is anything we can do! Partly because I was drunk but mostly because I was pissed off, 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. 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 before we die of thirst? 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. His 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 galactic neon signs, over-the-top and alive with light. We spent two days in San Francisco, where we stayed in a filthy hotel room 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 Hospital, where there was a nursing school and where—ten years later—I’d enroll in medical school. Jan wanted to take a look at the nursing program, but the huge blockish 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. It was a stunning drive, but the engine began making a clicking sound an hour north of Santa Barbara. The car was limping, but it was still moving, so we kept going. Then, not far from the first Santa Barbara exit, the click became a BANG, BANG, BANG, then a sputter, then silence.
There was nothing to do but hitchhike to my dad’s house. We called him to tell him what happened, but he didn’t offer to come get us.
The next day Jan and I drove back to Santa Barbara in my dad’s Mustang. My friends Philip and Brad rode with us. We linked the Sprite to the Mustang with an eight-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, and 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 Jan’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 to my mind, 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 pervasive 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 personality, not moral choice.
Self-reflection came much later. Back in my junior year, I only 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.
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 lids. 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 to him. When he refused to return it, I stole another scale. scale from the same classroom. A beam balance, the second wasn’t as elegant as the first, but it did the job.
It also spurred a conversation between me and my chemistry teacher. Turns out, he knew I was the thief. Rather than reporting me, he took me aside. “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 was letting me get away with a crime.
That threw the 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 lingering guilt about deceiving a classmate, all of it had been weighing on me. When the teacher made clear he knew what I’d done and planned to let me off the hook, I began studying with an earnestness that had eluded me 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.
The change in my behavior was huge, and it predated my summer in the Sierras. Reflecting on it now, I believe it was spurred by shame and remorse. The important ingredient, though, was kindness. The teacher must have been upset at losing the scale he knew I’d stolen. He probably guessed I’d stolen the earlier one, too. But responded with understanding rather than condemnation. The dominant flavor of my upbringing was neglect. Yes, there was bereavement; my mom, a grandfather, and a beloved dog were all lost in a single year, and I’d been repeatedly uprooted, with the feelings of loss that entails. And there was abuse, plenty of it. But mostly I felt neglected, both emotionally and materially. After Jan left home, I ate more than half of my dinners alone. I’d spent nearly every school day afternoon alone since moving in with Della. I don’t remember anyone acting very interested in what I felt or wanted. And materially, I lived in a state of manufactured poverty, eating substandard meals while my father and stepmother ate in restaurants.
The neglect wasn’t continual. My grandparents—in particular—fed me well and helped me feel wanted. But my faith in their support was undercut when they sent me back to Della year after year.
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 innate 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 engaged in school and less inclined to rebel.
This was indeed a huge change, but it was incomplete. For one thing, I continued to steal and sell drugs. For another, my improved study habits were oriented toward the recognition and support of teachers. They had little to do with imagining a healthy future. That was what the JMT hike changed: I came home with a plan.