Lincoln City, OR
When he first called out to me, while I was setting up my tent, I couldn’t tell if he was threatening. When he came over, he turned out to be a lonely guy looking to chat. CJ had a cane and walked with a pronounced limp; he had the habit of saying ’Right?’, especially to indicate that the answer was self-evident.
He wanted to walk with me the next day and I had no reason to say no. We stopped at the food store where he could pick up some supplies. While he was loading up his pack, a woman came over with a few treats for Blackjack. A Mexican man came over to sit on the bench and gave him a tip about a local church that gave away free food on Wednesdays. ”I’m passing through town, so I won’t be around.”, CJ said. It was Tuesday morning; there were dozens of pumpkins for sale outside of the grocery store.
He asked me if I’d ever been to jail as we walked up to the smoke shop. He smoked rolled cigarettes by the dozen, choosing pipe tobacco because it was cheapest. In the morning, his hacking cough reverberated through the campsite. ”I hope I’m more than halfway through my life,” he told me. He turns 46 next month. When it rained, he preferred to sleep under bridges: ”I’ve only slept under about 500. They’re dry, you can set up your little cookstove, and you can play cards with your buddy. The ones under freeways are loudest, but you usually don’t have to worry about critters like raccoons. Spiders, sometimes.” ”Right?”, I replied.
Don’t get the sense that he was a hardened hobo on the run. He was friendly in a way that bordered on neediness. When we saw each other after that first day, we’d hug. One time he went to the shop to pick up some food for himself and returned with ”food that (I) can eat”: those multicoloured pasta noodles that have been flavoured with veggie essences. A few days later, when we met up again, we used the noodles to play chess. We made a board out of his cardboard sign. It was folded in two: one half said ”HUNGRY” and the other half said ”NEED DOG FOOD”. ”I need a new sign,” he told me, ”because all people give me is dog food.” ”Right?”
That first day together, we walked down the beach, past the spot where the leaves had danced a few days earlier. We saved a couple miles by hitching a ride across the channel to the desolate spit. We sat side by side on a log, watching the surfers tow into the big waves, and ate lunch. He had tuna and summer sausage out of a can; I ate bagels and organic cheese; we shared the almond butter.
The tide was high, forcing us to trudge through the soft sand. Angular, multimillion dollar homes lined the beachfront. We admired them from afar. Some homes had round sitting rooms ringed with windows that looked out to sea. ”I wonder where they find round couches and round TVs,” CJ mused aloud. ”Right?”
As we passed the golf course, CJ told me how he had stumbled on a frisbee golf disc in the bushes in Alabama and had taken up the game. At the lake, a few days later, we played frisbee while waiting out the storm. Blackjack would snap at the disc excitedly, but then CJ would throw a stick into the woods, occupying the dog for a few moments. ”I gotta teach him how to collect wood,” he told me. Blackjack foraged in the forest, returning with the same stick. ”I don’t want to teach him to play with the frisbee, because if he moves your disc while you’re playing disc golf, it can cost you a stroke.” ”Right?”
By the time we reached the main highway, it was late in the day and I was impatient to move on. CJ was reluctant to say goodbye. I hurried on, quickly passing the Italian Riviera. When I stopped to admire the herons outside of the art gallery, I saw CJ pass out of the corner of my eye, but when I came back to the road, he was gone.
We bumped into each other a few more times over the subsequent days, always arranging to meet further down the line. I’d walk and he’d hitch, and sometimes we’d walk together. Once, he had to go backwards to load up with food supplies before the big storm. I asked him to stop in at a cafe to pick up a book that Danyelle had promised to me. He passed me on the road, having hitched a ride in a blue pickup with a cracked windshield. The driver was a teenager who didn’t say a word. Later, CJ told me that he had convinced him to drive a few miles out of his way by offering him a hit out of his pipe.
That night, he told me he had once been in a thrift store in Alabama trying to trade a carpenter’s level for a book. The store manager had offered him 12 paperbacks in exchange for the level. ”I was travelling on my bike at the time, and what could I do with 12 books? I couldn’t carry all that extra weight. I had to stop for a day or two and read through one just so I could leave it behind.” It never occurred to him to take only what he needed. This was CJ. He liked NASCAR, he liked his LL Bean tent, he liked gathering and hanging onto things, even when they didn’t serve his immediate needs. He took photos of sunsets and Blackjack on his cellphone; he was going nowhere and liked to tell people as much: ”if I was in a hurry, I wouldn’t be walking!” ”Right?” This is America in 2010.
The waves crashed heavily into the headlands and I saw whales as I arrived in Depoe Bay. As night fell, I started chatting with the Trinidadian owners of the local ice cream cafe. After some time, I was offered a space on the cafe’s couch: the owner said I ”looked trustworthy” and that I could ”help myself to anything I liked.” I mused over 16 flavours, choosing none. I slept well under the tiki torches with views to St John.