It was summer of 1971 and we were in a later-model Volkswagen Beetle off on the first leg of a three-week tour of the U.S.—well, as much as we could see in that short a time anyway. It was late at night and we were somewhere east of Phoenix, Arizona. The three of us were tired and none of us could face driving anymore. We found a roadside pull out, with a couple of cement picnic tables and a place to put the car and us. I immediately spotted the best place to put a sleeping bag—we were very competitive like that—but I could see in the moonlight something that didn’t seem right. After staring at it long enough, we decided it was a rattlesnake. It wasn’t moving a bit, but we decided to toss a rock the approximately 20 feet to the snake. It was a square hit, but nothing. Dead. But I tossed another one because, well, it wouldn’t hurt. Nothing. Dead for sure. The other two guys turned to walk away and scoffed a bit when I decided to toss a third stone. Another direct hit. But this time the snake bolted from its perfect spot to a hole, which was approximately 20 feet from where it was minding its own business—fortunately it was 20 feet at a right angle to where we were standing. Now I’ve run into rattlesnakes before and on occasion, accidently. I saw a friend once go straight up into the air in a Cirque du Soleil movement when I yelled at him that he was going to step on a rattler. That snake got away fast. But this snake in the Arizona desert apparently had some kind of accelerated adrenal system—it covered the 20 feet to its hole while my sympathetic nervous system was just getting ramped up. And I’ve got a pretty good startle reflex. Unsettled, we slept on cement picnic tables that night and hoped that was not a bit of foreshadowing.
Though we fiddled around a bit, I think our first real stop was Pittsburg where John—who also had the car—had some graduate school friends. So we did some touring and spent some time in discussions with a group of folks who were touting the virtues of Karl Marx. I was a college drop-out at that time, but that didn’t stop me from asking a few questions. I still don’t understand why they thought the socially responsible system was a Marxist system. Maybe it was just fun to be for something that wasn’t an immediate part of the very real mess we all lived in. Besides, passion for change was considered a virtue and a kind of responsibility in any case. Still, I couldn’t help wondering if they—or I—were projecting our reality or correctly apprehending an objective, social reality.
Next stop was Washington DC. We were traveling on the cheap, but John also had connections in DC. So, we didn’t have to sleep on cement in DC either, though it has been rumored to be rife with rattlers of one kind or another. It was ridiculously humid, but we did all the tourist stops, parking wherever we liked. And everywhere we parked, we got a parking ticket. However, we had California dealer plates and John assured us the way it worked was that the tickets couldn’t be traced to the car or us. Nick and I certainly new it couldn’t be traced to us, so, we collected both memories and parking tickets. I can’t tell you how easy it is to tour when you can drive right up and park. Apparently, some time later, I understood that cars no longer received just tickets, but a devious device that clamped over a tire and made it and impossible for the car to move. I guess that one must get a bit devious to deal with the devious. But we got in under the wire and so were off the hook.
Before we could depart DC, John got a message that he had to return to California immediately—he had a job that entailed some responsibility and his vacation was cut short. John put me in possession of the car and Nick and I were now off to wherever we wished, as long as we had the car back at the end of the three weeks. We decided to head to Lorain, Ohio so that Nick could visit with someone he knew. This was not a journey I wanted to make as I did not get along with this person. But I agreed, though I think I was a bit testy. And then Nick became a bit testy. And because we are male and couldn’t let a little thing like testiness get in the way, we became mostly quiet. Sometimes one projection gets one into trouble and another one keeps the trouble at bay. Nonetheless, it’s a long road and a longer day when there is even suppressed tension and one is traveling in a Volkswagen Bug, especially when the weather turns stormy and one gets lost. Sometimes rattlers are indeed cleverly disguised. We tossed an occasional conversational rock or two at each other as we went along—especially when we didn’t know where we were—to see if the rattler had died, but it was alive and well and the on-guard tension remained.
Sometimes things like rattlesnakes and tensions go away of their own accord and without our continued projecting rights and wrongs on the entire canvass. On some level I think we both knew that we needed a mess like we needed another row of toes. So, to both our credits, and despite some close calls, we simply waited our mess out.
At some point before Lorain, we found our way and also caught a break in the weather, the kind that opens with a beauty that will drive away the grump in the grumpiest of people. And just that quick, the tension was gone. I think that was an important lesson for me and one I wish more people knew about: If we wait, even if we can’t let something go entirely, rather than keep projecting our versions on each other, we are not as likely to punch holes in each other that will only cause more work, not to mention a history likely to be dragged around as yet another item in our wagon of wounds.
The rest of the trip was a good one, even though I hit a pothole in Arizona on our return and managed to wreck not only a tire, but a rim. I was responsible for the car, so I had to foot the $40 repair bill, not an easy thing for a person on a five-dollar-a-day budget. At least I got the car back safely from a good trip and a lesson learned, though it still had to be remembered a few times as the future unfolded.
I still see John and Nick occasionally, but we went our own ways and lived our own lives. I think unnecessary projections still go on—at least I know I’ve been guilty of them when it comes to relationships, especially with females. But I’ve learned and relearned a lot with each new mess. And it gets a bit easier each time to go just beyond the horizon of our indignation to find the landscape devoid of projected human suffering and have that storm lift leaving a beauty that renders us speechless, empty of trouble, and full of the wonder of it all.