FOR a time in my twenties, when the baby was still in diapers and jobs were scarce and the years ahead of me seemed infinite, I would spend an occasional afternoon in a neighborhood bar in Eureka, California. The bar, which I never frequented at night, was next to a laundromat where, between dollar draft beers, I would wash, dry, and fold my family’s modest collection of Goodwill scraps. The bartender replenished free helpings of salty popcorn, and the San Francisco Giants played, with varying degrees of visibility, on the color television. (This was before cable and satellite were everywhere.) I’d sit on a stool and watch the latest nine-inning daytime drama, trying unsuccessfully to avoid my idle reflection in the large mirror behind the amber-colored bottles of Jim Beam, Cuervo Gold, and Wild Turkey.
Despite my support, the Giants weren’t going anywhere in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and neither was I, sitting in a dark tavern in the middle of a weekday, drinking beer between wash cycles and watching my life tick away pitch by pitch. I was postponing the day when I would eventually give in and take my place in the world of homeowners and pension holders, a world I honestly wanted nothing to do with and routinely mocked. In the meantime I was hoping that a passion would take root in me, or, at the very least, a lucky break might come my way, but I lacked a real plan. I believe I wanted to live under the radar, scribbling breathless prose in my journals and making just enough money to buy a weekly box of grains and cheeses at the Arcata Food Co-op. The world was more forgiving toward slackers and dreamers then: you could live such a life and still hold together a family.
I was in a state of denial, of course, not only about the future, but also about the present. For there were many days I didn’t write in my journal, or even look for ways to better my family’s economic picture. I simply did nothing. Looking back from a distance of decades, I wish I’d been more aware that we are given a certain unknown number of days in our short lives. The moments wasted in stupor, meaningless labor, or (how to solve this?) slumber can never be recovered. And I’ve frittered away my share, always foolishly betting on redemption in the days yet to come.
MY start-and-stop approach to work and career took me all over northern California, from the precious groves of threatened redwoods to the soggy coastal bottoms filled with egrets, both great and snowy. In the hills above Petrolia I spent a week earning a certificate qualifying me to shear sheep. The instructor, a New Zealander who went by the name “Barton,” would not tolerate loafers or wiseguys. When he wasn’t criticizing our clumsy techniques and pointing out the bloody nicks and cuts we inflicted on the poor merinos, he spun fabulous tales of shearing competitions down under, where the wool flew off in record time and the bars were so wild the walls and floors had to be hosed down at the end of each night. I had a fantasy of starting my own shearing business, traveling the curvaceous country roads from farm to farm, trimming wool and listening to stories of rural America. But as with most physical tasks, I was hopeless at this one. My hands oozed lanolin, my confidence sagged, and I realized that sheep were not in my future.
Then it was back to Eureka to attend a weeklong nonviolence workshop for antinuke activists. When we were finished with our training, we would be sent to central California to protest the imminent construction of the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, which happened to be sited on a major earthquake fault line. I sat in a stranger’s living room with other well-meaning novices while a man acting the part of a law-enforcement official poked us hard in our chests and yelled nasty things about our hair, politics, and work habits. Like Gandhi clones, we were to take the abuse and sit in a lotus position until hauled away by the authorities. But I was no Gandhi. What I really wanted to do was punch this guy, hard, and make him stop shouting. I had never felt so much rage — and this was on the first day! During the spaghetti-and-salad potluck that followed the hazing, I slipped out the back door never to return.
Next I tried my hand as a tree planter. Although the job sounded simple — every nine feet, dig a hole and insert a tree plug — it was backbreaking labor, often performed in driving rain on near-vertical slopes. Each morning at 4:30 A.M., about fifteen of us would board a beat-up van to be driven to some distant spot in the slick, clear-cut coastal hills and dumped off there. On the way we would discuss politics, books, and the latest food fads.
“I heard that wheat-grass juice makes your memory sharper.”
“Only if you mix it with equal parts carrot juice.”
“I thought it was beet juice and spirulina.”
Those conversations with other young men in a similar state of career inertia had an enabling effect on me. We were the tribe of the longhaired, bearded, and uninsured. Dressed in colorful natural fibers and armed with dog-eared copies of Be Here Now and Co-Evolution Quarterly, we were searching for something beyond the American dream of money and status. Meanwhile, our more focused peers were getting their MBAs or law degrees and accumulating capital. Sure, they had health insurance, mortgages, and dependable cars, but who was more centered?
Tree planting was mind-numbing piecework. Experienced planters literally ran up and down the hillsides, quickly digging holes and jamming hemlock seedlings into them in one fluid motion. I was more thoughtful in my approach, and also hampered by a thickening depression brought on by our work environment. The land on which we planted trees was a barren moonscape where, just days earlier, had stood a magnificent old-growth forest full of birds and bears and owls. The wasteland that remained was mute except for the rapacious sounds of chain saws from the next ridge over. As other planters ran past me with the agility of mountain goats, I often paused to straighten my aching back and look over the battlefield. How could these tiny nursery seedlings I was shoving into the soil ever replace a mature forest? I made barely twenty bucks a day. After three weeks I simply ignored the alarm clock one morning. I was not missed.
THERE were other attempts at economic normalcy: a failed tryout as a milker at a dairy; a five-minute job at a nursing home, where I walked into the day room, took one look around at the traffic jam of elderly residents slumped in wheelchairs, and walked out. I spent two days working for an angry roofer who never said a word until he fired me, and I clocked three days cutting hops in southern Oregon before I was fired for telling the foreman he had bad karma — which, I assure you, he did. Really bad karma.
I actually made it through two month-long seasons of daffodil picking, stooped (once again) in the unceasing coastal drizzle, bundling a dozen yellow-flowered stalks at a time with a rubber band and dropping them off at the end of the long rows. The daffodils were shipped across the country, where families placed them on dining-room tables to brighten the cloudy days of late winter. As the cold, muddy water seeped into my socks, I told myself that I was helping to alleviate America’s winter blues. I worked alongside the same type of young men — and, this time, young women — who’d planted trees with me. We were all white kids from the cities and suburbs, drawn by the freedom and “romance” of the migrant existence. The goal back then was to disengage from society and live as close to soil, wildlife, and weather as possible. To regularly watch the sunset and the moonrise. To pay attention in a world of sleepwalkers.
When the season ended around the first week in February, some of the pickers moved on to the next seasonal job while others collected unemployment or lived “off the grid” in vans or tepees on public lands. But I suspect that more than a few went directly to a college admissions office. Hard work in the rain has a way of converting the most radical holdouts to the warm, dry world of the university.
During my two seasons of cold mud and yellow flowers, I made friends with a couple I’ll call Jon and Becky. They lived life as I thought it should be lived: moving from state to state like butterflies, following the crops from south to north and back, never setting down roots.
Jon and Becky were the fastest daffodil pickers in the group, and always made more money than the rest of us. Sometimes we would gather after work at their furnished rental in the fog-enshrouded town of Samoa, on Humboldt Bay. Over miso soup, crusty sourdough baguettes, and soft chunks of havarti, they would spin stories of their itinerant life, following the harvests: cherries in Michigan, peaches in the South, red-delicious apples in Washington State. They unfurled their bedrolls on the edges of fields and orchards and forest-service campgrounds. They worked hard, cashed their paychecks, and then hit the road, leaving not a trace.
“The land is magical,” Jon said. “It holds all the answers.”
I longed to follow Jon and Becky’s lead, but somewhere along the way I lost track of them. The addresses they gave me were all for general delivery in towns like Canyonville, Oregon, and Marquette, Michigan. After a while whatever infrequent letters I sent came back. I still wonder how long they held out before they finally gave in to comfort and security. Or had they discovered the right way to live?
Between jobs, I retreated to my neighborhood tavern to kill time and catch up with the fortunes of the Giants. The news was not encouraging. We were all in a slump. In 1982, a typical year of underachievement for me, my collection of odd jobs netted me an income of $6,351. Finally in 1985, approaching thirty, I cashed in my migrant chips and began classes at the University of Idaho. I wanted to believe that it wasn’t a change in attitude but the demands of a young family that pushed me to improve my lot. Truthfully, though, I was not cut out to resist the tide of conformity.
I am now fifty, more or less twice as old as that kid who picked daffodils, cut hops, planted trees, drove tractors, and sat in a dimly lit bar contemplating his next move. My life is settled. My daughter is married to a good man, and I am remarried to a wonderful woman. I have work that engages me. I know my limitations, both professionally and personally. I have a dependable car and health insurance. My modest nest egg grows, and I might not outlast my retirement account.
No matter how much comfort and security surrounds me, though, I still miss my old tribe of day laborers. I miss the talks among the tree planters, the camaraderie of the pickers on the bulb farm, the spontaneous potlucks, the shared idealism. Those years were less lonely. Someone always had a guitar at the ready, a pot of lentil soup on the stove, and a story of a new place down the road. As I drift farther into my paunchy and comfortable years, I crave my bohemian past, which was filled with crummy jobs and desperate trips to pawn shops, but also a vibrancy that my current life lacks.
On those long, sleepless nights when I try to connect my disparate halves — Did I really live that life? How did I get to be fifty? — I close my eyes and imagine I am once again bouncing up and down in a van, on my way to plant America’s future forests in the clear-cuts of the Pacific Northwest. I have a silver thermos filled with hot coffee and a paper bag with a cheese sandwich and a blueberry muffin inside. Though it is raining and will continue to rain all day, for the moment my boots and socks are dry, and the warmth of other men’s bodies surrounds me. In Astoria we cross the long bridge from Oregon to Washington. The sun comes up over the Columbia River in shades of pink and blue. The wind blows fierce here, where river meets sea. Salmon trawlers and crab boats are already at work, bobbing up and down near the river’s wild mouth, their lights reflecting in the water. In this sweet, holy hour before work, I am a young man with a bag of tree plugs. I will climb steep ridges in the gray drizzle. I will dig and slash in the dirt with a thin shovel, and every nine feet I will drop a tree into a hole. I will do this for twelve hours. At the end of the day I will sleep like the dead. For a while it will be enough.