Since I got back to Ashland, friends keep asking me if I’m okay—if I’ve been lonely on the road. When I answer “yes, its-been-lonely-at-times-but-really-has-been-mostly-great” they look at me askance, as though there was ricotta on my chin and they want to subtly let me know, while preserving my dignity. “You’re not depressed, are you?” Jeanine asked, setting a bowl of soup in front of me. I looked around and behind me, as if she saw something I didn’t see.
Truthfully, becoming a professional hobo has had its challenges. I seem to feel the loneliest in Nevada, where space is big and empty and my cell phone never works. There were nights parked out in the sagebrush when, after a glass of wine, after reading, after watching paragliding videos, that I’d run out of distractions and feel so lonely that it almost knocked the wind out of me. Midway through such nights I’d wake up digesting deep level truths: that I’d just lost my 14-year-old dog, ended a relationship, and that my grandma was lying far away in a nursing home bed with a broken pelvis. At night, in the middle of nowhere under the stars, held by no one at all, it’s hard to blunt these truths. They cut through my defenses with their sharp contours. Being this alone, I explain, is like taking a vitamin for the soul, the silence a cleanser.
But the curios of the road never end. I stayed one night at a hotspring 15-miles outside of Wells, Nevada. In trying to find the spring, I took a wrong turn and ended up outside Donna’s Ranch—the first real live brothel I’d ever seen. It was a run-down building with a sign that read “Cold Beer, Hot Babes” and I had a strange compulsion to go inside, just to see, but couldn’t bring myself to do it. Instead I sat outside in my car for 10 minutes, waiting to see what kind of person might walk out. No one did, but one thing I noted were the nice cars parked out in front—nothing fancy or anything, but not the broken down Montecarlos and sagging yellow Plymoths that I would have expected. Just regular cars.
After this wrong turn, I found the hotspring and was happy to see it was a beauty—nestled streamside, surrounded by granite spires, and long enough to swim laps in. A frosty wind howled up the canyon, but the three kids splashing about in the steam of the spring were undeterred. I walked to the edge, frost-coated grass melting under my feet and the kids guided me to the easiest place to get in. From nearby Elko, they entertained me with singing pop songs from their favorite popstar, Taylor Swift. The wind blasted our faces with glitter-sized bits of frost, the kids spashed and took turns with the snorkel mask. “Our parents are wusses!” one of them said, jumping up and down and pointing to a truck parked near my van where a couple was sensibly waiting for the wind to die down.
“Are you here alone?” they asked. “You really sleep in your van?” “Where are you going next?” Then, as kids tend to do, they honed in on the heart of the matter: “Don’t you get lonely?”
“Sometimes,” I said. “Sometimes.”
The next morning I would wake with the spring to all to myself, the frosted grasses, the granite formations. The wind will have died down and morning pink would color the sky, and I’d hold a book and a silence. Then I’d follow my track back to Wells and stop by the only espresso shop in town– run by Donna’s ranch and pick up a coffee with lots of cream and some sugar and then get back on the road. While I’d drive I’ll savor how after the kids asked slew of questions about life-on-the-road, one of the little girls nodded her head, and affirmed me in a small but important way: “That’s cool.”