It is 1969 and I’m amongst a picket line of hitch hikers just east of Oakland California. We are strung out along the I-80 entrance ramp. The sun is setting on the age of Aquarius and most drivers aren’t picking up scruffy strangers. Experienced hitchhikers understand this shift. We sustain a gentle competitiveness and subtly sell ourselves. My marketing plan is straightforward. I am single, traveling light, and don’t have a dog or guitar. Traveling light also describes my wallet. Contained therein: Six bucks, a fake ID, and a drivers license.
At 17, I have thousands of miles of hitchhiking under my belt. I am more resolved then worried. 3000 miles of open road is just a puzzle to solve. At most, this is a five day trip. That’s about a dollar a day for food and drink. Sleep will be grabbed while in motion. I am entering a realm best described as “whatever it takes”.
Just three years later, the treasury is empty once again. I am in southern Colorado and have just flunked out of school. There is a big industrial sawmill on the edge of town. A skeptical foreman is eventually convinced that I am the right candidate for a job sorting and stacking lumber.
After inserting my white ass, the crew was now “only” 98% Chicano. This was the era of “La Raza”. People of Mexican heritage were no longer taking shit from Anglos. Reverse discrimination was new to me. I needed the money and survived intimidation and pounding isolation. It was a price paid for screwing up.
Each day, the work whistle blew at 7 AM. Standing in the din of whining blades, I pulled on my pitch-encrusted gloves and rounded up a deep breath of sagebrush and smoldering saw dust. It was time for my daily mantra: “whatever it takes”.
I was now in the cycle of menial, low wage labor. Over the next five years, I loaded, drove, sorted, drilled, painted, stacked, printed, and cleaned. Straight time pay never exceeded a hundred bucks per week. Nevertheless, I harbored a belief that hard work, dependability, and initiative would signal a worthiness for more. And eventually it all worked out.
Yet I continued to dance on the edge of self –inflicted breakdowns. It did not just involve money. I once mismanaged water. On a hot May afternoon, I was near the bottom of the Grand Canyon. The hike back to the rim was nine tough miles. Water and energy were low. Once again, I was isolated and in trouble.
It was a long afternoon. At each switchback I sat down and rested. On the steep pitches through the Redwall, I quietly murmured, “what ever it takes, what ever it takes”. This misadventure was due to a disregard of warnings about heat. I had done a dozen strenuous canyon hikes but always in the fall and winter, never in the baking heat of late spring. I almost became one of those dire stories used to warn away foolish tourists.
I had more resolve than brains and more optimism than ability. After digging deep holes, I always clambered out. It was both a strength and weakness. I never learned to prioritize goals, plan judiciously, or recognize my limits. A bit of crafty resolve, a dab of native intelligence, and smiling good fortune was always at the ready. Yup, whatever it takes. A lifetime of near misses was offset by missed opportunities, a general failure to advance, and a trail of faded relationships.
I write these stories with the help of voice recognition software. ALS has bound me to a wheelchair. I dribble a bit while eating and my shirt is stained with food. I might smell of urine and generally sit in a galaxy of crumbs. But this morning I made a tasty pot of coffee. It wasn’t easy. Standing was a perilous challenge and measuring beans was quite inexact. But it tasted damn good. I can still call down a ration of “whatever it takes”.