My Life’s Soundtrack – Part Three
Untold adventures reeled out mysteriously before me into the endless American landscape, as I stood apprehensively at the side of the freeway, thumb outstretched, recalling the Whitesnake song:
Here I go again on my own
Goin’ down the only road I’ve ever known,
Like a drifter I was born to walk alone
An’ I’ve made up my mind,
I ain’t wasting no more time
…’Cos I know what it means
To walk along the lonely street of dreams
The words described my life to a T. Here I go again, hitching round the States. The lonely, insecure drifter, born to walk alone, to ‘bum around the world’, to travel free….free from possessions, responsibilities, relationships.
This time, solo. Freedom to change plans without discussion, be totally impulsive, go anywhere any time. Here I go again, this time on my own.
I’d built up to this for the last eighteen months. Ever since the first trip round America was curtailed by Sue’s return to University in October ‘85 and our subsequent split in ‘86 (see My Life’s Soundtrack: Part Two – Easy Lover), all I’d wanted was to return to the States, visit all the places I hadn’t got round to the first time, then continue on to India and the rest of the world.
There were similarities and differences between the first trip and this one.
Once again I planned to stay in the States for several years, and once again I only stayed 6 months. Although my plans didn’t extend to taking 50 years to see America (a year for each state) as some travellers I’d met suggested, I did intend to take my time immersing myself in cultures across the country, taking in states I hadn’t ventured into in ’85.
I worked out later that I hitch-hiked roughly 15,000 miles this time round – about 5,000 more than on the first trip. 15,000 miles between:
playing poker over a bottle of whisky in Pensacola, Florida…
being threatened with a blunt kitchen fork by a guy high on alcohol and cocaine, if I didn’t take my trousers off…
painting & decorating, and snorting crystal meth, in Portland, Oregon…
enjoying a charity Mexican breakfast in East LA (complete with eggs and chillies)…
running as fast as I could from a supermarket in Mississippi before the cops arrived, after being caught shoplifting two packs of 200 cigarettes, to sell to truck drivers…
and sleeping under the stars at the base of the Grand Canyon.
And much more in between.
This time the travels came to an end after 6 months, not because I needed to come back, but because I no longer needed to travel. The restlessness of my heart had been cured. But more on that in Part Four.
This trip wasn’t spontaneous, unlike the first. I’d saved my money, working at a timber yard near Lewes, and by buying and selling small amounts of cannabis – keeping myself supplied with my own ‘needs’ in the process. I’d saved up the cash for my flight and enough to live on for a couple of months or so, until I could find work over there.
I closed my bank account, handed in my notice at the timber yard, sold or gave away all my possessions except those I needed in my rucksack, and ended my relationship with my then girlfriend. Although I’d been with her for a few months, I had no great emotional attachment, though I’m not sure she felt the same way. Looking back, I was quite ruthless, determined to pursue my aim.
On this second trip to the USA, I entered via the Canadian border at Windsor / Detroit. I figured that if they didn’t let me in, I could at least explore Canada instead. On my first visit, with Sue, we’d been foolish enough to buy single flights and therefore encountered a lot of questions at Immigration at Newark airport, with our measly few hundred dollars and big rucksacks. They finally let us in for 2 weeks and we stayed 6 months, working when we could (illegally) and living frugally.
This time I was fully prepared, with an address I was supposedly going to be staying at and a return flight that I wouldn’t be using. Even so, sweat poured off me at Immigration, as I anxiously expected them to produce some record of my previous over-stay and to turn me away. Instead, there was no problem and I was free to enter the Land of the Free!
Here I go again, doing what I knew. A seasoned hitch-hiker, with expertise in all the tricks of the trade. Feeling slightly hesitant, but only because it was so long since I’d been on the road, and because in all my worries about whether they’d let me into the country, I’d actually made no plans as to where I was going to head for first!
There was one crucially significant difference this time, though. As I started out on this new expedition, I had an inherent sense that everything was going to be all right. At the time I called it a ‘positive attitude’, but it wasn’t a deliberate decision to keep an optimistic outlook. For no rational reason, I was firmly convinced that even if I got attacked, robbed – whatever happened – everything would be OK in the end. I was still an atheist, but a couple of years later, as I reflected on this time, I understood.
For some strange reason, in 1986, about a year before returning to America, I’d started to read the Bible! I’d always claimed that this ancient book, or collection or books, was full of contradictions and myths. Of course, this was just what I’d heard from other people – I’d never actually read the thing! Inexplicably, I suddenly decided it would be a good idea to read it and make up my own mind.
I bought a little, old, second-hand, King James Bible (the one with all the ‘Thee’s and ‘Thou’s) for 10p from a charity shop in Dundee (where I was living at the time), and proceeded to read the New Testament from beginning to end, followed by the Old. At the end of which I’d be able to give an informed opinion.
So my reading began with Matthew…
I made it through a few chapters of this Gospel, then forgot all about it, and the Bible was abandoned.
I barely started the New, let alone the longer, harder, Old Testament. But, as I know now, the Bible is a rather special book….
As I absorbed the teachings of Jesus in that first section of Matthew (known as the Sermon on the Mount), I was gobsmacked.
Love your enemies, not just your friends. Forgive them, love them. Pray blessings on your persecutors. Wow! If the whole world did this, I reckoned, there’d be no more war.
Even at the time, this had such a profound impact on me, that when Sue’s new boyfriend threatened me with a gun and physically chucked me out of his house on to the ground (see Easy Lover) – after my initial, instinctive thought of chucking a brick through his car windscreen, I opted instead to write him a letter of apology for having burst into his house! Never mind the fact that he’d nicked my girlfriend, stolen my reason for living, assaulted and humiliated me! I was apologising to him. I also forgave Sue.
Love your enemies. Be reconciled to them, if at all possible. Who knows, they may change in response to your actions. And even if they don’t, at least you’ve done your part in ending this world’s pandemic of war and conflict.
Even now, 27 years later, this teaching, with its ultra-revolutionary potential – and the possibility of God enabling us to live it – fills me with excitement and passion. My heroes these days are people like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, who themselves, having been inspired by the Sermon on the Mount, have applied these earth-shaking principles in real, international conflicts and in personal, individual struggles, before a global audience. It blew my mind then and does now.
How is it possible that this then-atheist was willing and able to live out this teaching? Who knows? But I believe now that God is not limited. The Holy Spirit is able to influence the hearts and minds of humans of all persuasions. And, as I stated earlier, the Bible is a rather special book.
It claims that faith comes to people through hearing (or reading) its words.
As well as the radical teaching on forgiveness, I was stunned by Jesus’ words about how God clothes the fields with wild flowers and feeds the sparrows, so why should we worry about tomorrow, about what we’ll eat or drink? Will not God take care of us? Somehow, something about this idea resonated in the heart of this young man who didn’t even believe in God!
A year later, standing by the American freeway, intuitively knowing that everything was going to be OK and there was nothing to worry about – I didn’t realise then, but later on I came to understand that faith had started to bud in my heart through reading those words of Jesus.
Conscious awareness and acknowledgment of God came months later, after I’d seen first-hand evidence for this rebuttal of worry, in the form of food, money and shelter being provided at just the right time, over and over again, during my travels.
Only this week, having googled the lyrics for Here I Go Again for this blog, did I discover that the song contains these words:
Though I keep searching for an answer
I never seem to find what I’m looking for
Oh Lord, I pray you give me strength to carry on
‘Cause I know what it means to walk along the lonely street of dreams.
I had no idea previously that this song made any mention of faith and prayer. How strangely prophetic was Whitesnake about my life!
But for now, in May 1987, here I was… on the freeway, poised to venture down ‘the lonely street of dreams’ for what was to be the very last time.