It was the weather that reminded me. Or the time of year, or the feeling that I’ve been having lately that my future is hidden in my past. At any rate, as I lay on the couch last night, there it was, in the front of my consciousness, clear as if it happened yesterday instead of 30 years ago.
My brother and I are standing in front of a gas station in nowhere Utah, next to his red Ford Econoline van. It was late at night, bitterly cold, in the 20s, with desert wind whipping through us. Standing in the flat fluorescent light, we were looking at the driver’s side rear tire, the one that was so bald that you could see the threads on the ply, as it slowly went flat. Again. We didn’t have a spare.
Our problem was simple. The gas station had a used replacement, for $10, but it wasn’t the right size, would imbalance the van, and eventually screw up the transmission. We could pull around back, sleep in the seats until morning, and drive around the small town looking for other places to buy really really cheap used tires and hope that they had the right size. Or we could throw the wrong-sized ringer on, fill up, and gamble on making it back to Ohio before we blew the tranny. It was a delicate call; my brother had everything he owned in that van, and I had everything I gave a damn about — which was the exact same size as what fit in my backpack — stashed there as well. Nobody cared about the van; I think my brother’s plan was, upon reaching Ohio, to park it on the side of the highway, take the plates off, and hitchhike back to wherever he was going to be living.
I had spent the last six weeks living with Eric in a tiny town in southwest Oregon. He was working as a drug abuse counselor, and I was — well, I was kind of in between things. I had dropped out of college to work in the woods, then wandered out to northern California for a winter ascent up Mt. Shasta. That didn’t go so well. We were stopped by an avalanche, and then a bitter fight broke out in the group between those who wanted to go on and those who wanted to return. I was with the forge ahead crowd. There are times in your life when you really don’t care if you live or die, but just want to accomplish some damn thing along the way.
Wiser heads prevailed, and we turned around. But lost in that acrimonious retreat was my planned comfortable stay of a month or two or six with one of my fellow climbers. She was a well-developed, strawberry blonde girl from New Jersey who had left the East Coast for the mellow hippie life in California. We had been planning to make the most of things, but that wasn’t going to happen now.
We got to the base of the mountain, I got a ride to the nearest highway, and without much forethought, stuck my thumb out on the northern route. I hoped my brother would be glad to see me.
That in itself was somewhat questionable. Despite (or perhaps because of) having shared a room when growing up, we were never close siblings. At all. He was nearly eight years older than me. He wasn’t quite a star on the high school football team — he was an interior lineman, after all — but he made quite a name for himself. He was tall and broad, standing 6’1″, where it would be only years later that I would reach my peak of 5’8″. He was blasting the Rolling Stones from the speakers when I was just discovering the Monkees. He lived large, laughed loud, and ate a lot, including what he could get of my dinner serving.
I learned to eat fast, but there was still not a lot of room for the developing me in that environment. I had to find a place for myself where he wasn’t taking up so much of the oxygen I needed to grow. So I went elsewhere, in so very many ways.
Probably to him, I was that no-fun kid brother that always got in the way and cramped his style, but I really don’t know. We never talked about it.
When I got to Grant’s Pass, Oregon, I knocked on his door and he welcomed me in and gave me a piece of floor to sleep on. But for our association by blood, we were essentially strangers. Gradually, over dinners and breakfasts, we found points of connection, and built a little bit on those.
I found parts of jobs here and there, places where I could walk to in town, washing dishes or working in a leather shop. I had no real plans of what to do next. Eric took me to an aikido class, a martial art imported from Japan in the early sixties. I was enthralled, and vowed to start training in it, as soon as I — well, as soon as I whatever.
A letter arrived for me from my parents. A college I had applied to, the Western College Program at Miami University in Ohio, had accepted me as a mid-year transfer student; I was to begin in January. I was as surprised as I was excited. This school was a unique new type of program, where I would be learning about one discipline in the context of others. I would be studying art through its relationship to Einsteinian physics, literature through the context of social revolution, science through the lens of social energy policy. I would be living on a campus separate from the rest of the University, in dorms and buildings set aside specifically for the students and faculty of the Western College Program. The thought of it thrilled me in a way that no academic studies had before.
I was surprised, too, because my interview there with the Assistant Dean had not gone so well. The ending at my previous school had been abrupt. It occurred in the middle of a class where a representative of the National Forest Service was explaining to the class how 2,4-D, one of the ingredients of Agent Orange, was actually a very safe and efficient way to thin large swaths of national forest. I silently gathered my notes, stood up, walked out of class and over to the admissions building where I signed the papers to drop out of school. Learning bullshit wasn’t why I was going to university. I went to the woods to make my living.
We went through that, the Assistant Dean and I, and I tried to explain how I was just sick and tired of being taught by rote, of having to memorize this and that, and how I actually believed little to nothing of what I was being taught. I didn’t know what I wanted, but I did know this: somebody had to teach me how to think. I was hoping that school would.
At the end of the interview, the Assistant Dean shook my hand. “I don’t know if we’ll admit you, Avery,” he said. “If we do, I think it will be a mistake.”
About the same time the letter from my parents came, Eric said he was thinking of leaving Grants Pass. He was ending things with both girls he was seeing, and the grant that had funded his position was also coming to an end. It was time for new horizons, and maybe the place for him was Ohio, get a new start on things. So we made plans to drive back across the country together in his beat-to-hell van.
A couple weeks later, van packed to the gills, oil filled and gas checked, we pulled out of town. Somewhere, deep, deep inside me, something turned over. I took a deep breath and let it out, slowly, like I’d seen them do at aikido class. Time was starting again.
To save money, we were trying to get across the country non-stop. We took turns driving. We didn’t even stop for the sandstorm in Nevada, with winds so strong that the van had little piles of sand where the wind had driven it through the cracked molding on the doors.
Parked at the Utah gas station, Eric and I pulled all of our money out of our pockets and counted it up. If we bought the tire, we had no margin for error. If anything else went boom, we were sunk. What were our odds of finding another tire for that price, in the right size? And what about the gas we would waste looking for it?
I looked at him, he looked at me. We both nodded. It was the only joint decision we had made in our entire lives. Eric went in to tell the attendant to pull the rim off. I stood looking back where we had come from, the cold wind chafing my cheeks. I was pretty sure that we weren’t going to make it. The front right tire was looking pretty threadbare too, and we were putting in a quart of oil every time we stopped for gas.
Maybe it was the cold wind that made my eyes water, maybe it wasn’t. But as I looked back to the West, I saw a life that could have been. Maybe I could have patched things up with that strawberry blonde. We could have easily found a cabin to live in, or maybe a patch of land and built our own. Logging was strong there at that time; dangerous as hell, but the pay was good. I could have stayed living and working in the woods. The woods was where my soul had always been.
Instead, I was probably going to be standing on the edge of the road in Nebraska, freezing half to death, eating my last cheese cracker and trying with my brother to figure out what the hell to do with a fully loaded shot-to-hell van and no where to go. I was 21 years old and already tired of problems that, once solved, left you exactly where you started.
Three days later, I was sitting at a bar in the basement of one of the dorms on the Western College campus. In those days, the drinking age was 18, and campus bars were not unusual. I was the only patron; the other students would not be arriving until tomorrow. In the background, a Kenny Loggins song was playing.
“Are you gonna wait for a sign, your miracle?/This is it, make no mistake where you are.”
I knew, without a doubt, that I was where I was supposed to be. I felt in my gut that my fight for knowledge would be joyful and shared with people who were seeking much the same of what I was. I knew my future, at least for the next few years, and it looked wonderful. I took a pull on my beer. This was my miracle.
EPILOGUE: That, unfortunately, was the last I spent any extended time with my brother. With nothing more than a few shared weeks to hold us together, we again drifted apart. After graduating from Western College, I moved back to the East Coast, and he stayed in Ohio. We saw each other maybe once a year at Christmas, and rarely spoke to each other in between.
Then, several years ago, I got a call from his wife. Eric was in the hospital she said, the victim of a bad heart and a nasty infection. He’d lost consciousness, and wasn’t expected to live. A few days later, and he was gone.
In a month, I will become two years older than Eric was when he died. I cannot help to wonder, had we both made it to our elder years, if we would have ever found again the common ground that we once had in that tiny town in Oregon.