You’re not the same person you once were after you’ve come back from an adventure — the experience changes you — shifting you from your old ways and the ways of those you grew up with, to new ones. Even though you’ve returned, you find you can never come home again. You can choose to be a couch potato or you can be a sandman, full of grit and determination, taking that first step — out the door and down the road.
Early on, perhaps like most of us, I was a victim of Neophobia, suffering from the fear of trying something new. I didn’t want to leave the nest. I came to think of my situation as just another fear to conquer. So I decided to take the plunge and follow Pete Seeger’s advice. Like agoraphobia or arachnophobia, you have to get up and take your fears head on. But along the way, shit can rear its ugly head and you can lose your mojo. That’s when you need the Heron of Oblivion (not to be confused with Heron Oblivion, the rock group, but weed and more weed) to help you get it back.
Not that Kind of Coke
We had hopped the coal train to Cleveland, arrived in one piece and now had to make the return journey home the next night. The old railway worker, whom we had met a couple of weeks ago on the tracks, not only told us which train to take to Cleveland, but which one to hop back to Pittsburgh. He told us it would be loaded with a specially-produced coal called coke, heated like a bowl of happiness in super-hot ovens. Coke, with a high carbon content, plays havoc with the atmosphere, but is integral to the production of steel.
Life was Good
We huddled in the trees that afternoon waiting for our ride back. We opened our cans of beans and scooped out the gooey mess with plastic spoons stolen from my mother’s pantry. Smoking weed between spoonfuls of the cold mush relieved us of our anxieties about getting caught by the authorities. After all, we were young and agile, with a newfound ‘60s attitude, which led us to believe we could be and do anything. Life was good. Life was love. Life was high. We were riding the rails. Stoned. Copasetic. Pete Seeger must have been looking at us over his shoulder and smiling. With every drag I pulled into my waiting lungs I felt like a new person and, indeed, I was feeling fine. We were stepping out and putting one foot in front of the other.
I expected at any moment to see a hobo (we called them vagabonds back then), but no one showed up; we were left alone in our small encampment. I wanted to meet one of these peripatetic hominoids, even though I knew it might be dangerous. I lay back against the huge tree that I had slept under the night before, listening to a sparrow concealed in the browning August canopy covered with a light soot from the mills, chirping a birdsong of charms above me. The evening fell into night and we dropped further into Stoned-henge. Then a rumble and a whistle in the budding darkness. The train was coming. Our train.
We got up and made our way to the tracks. Soon, the train rumbled by and we made our run, grabbed the ladders and hauled ourselves up. True to the old worker’s word, the cars were filled with mountains of coke — different from coal, less foul-smelling, but harder than that bituminous mineral. We humans turned on with weed; the world’s steel factories got high on coke.
The Heat of the Weed
We sat down and smoked another joint. The heat of the night and the heat of the train and the heat of the weed worked their wonders on me. I was thrust into a serene pool of detachment. My body wobbled back and forth with the click-clacking movement of the train. I lay back, wanting to take in the moon’s rays, but the coke was unyielding even to my weed-bended brain, impossible to get comfortable. Still, I let my mind wander and I nearly fell asleep watching the stars blur the night sky. The Heron of Oblivion had descended and folded me in her delirious wings.
Then, with the screech of brakes and a whistle, the train came to a slow-rolling halt. I raised myself into a sitting position, feeling groggy. I figured we had stopped at a station. Dave and I hunkered down, suddenly afraid of prying eyes. I was still pleasantly high, nearly oblivious as I waited for the train to move again. Footsteps clattered on the ladder below us. I pushed my body into the shadows, heart beating like a sparrow being pursued by an eagle. A face illuminated by the moon, which looked like an expanding balloon, appeared over the lip of the car. I guessed that he was a railway official. He switched on a lamp, its light playing over the coke, circling. The light found and blinded me. I put my arms up in front of my face. We were caught.
He was as wide as he was tall. At least, it seemed that way to my stoned-hinged brain. Had to have been at least six feet two. I don’t think I had ever seen such a massive tank of a man. Had skin of armor and the pallor to match. Thuggish-looking, crew cut, graying hair, acne-scarred cheeks. Lamp in one hand and a billy club in the other. He told us gruffly to get up. He motioned us over to him. We followed him sheepishly off the train into a small station house. He frisked us, sat us down on a bench.
High Reefer Heaven
We stank to high-reefer-heaven. I waited for him to find our stash, waited to be hauled away to some subterranean railway jail. The Neanderthal, as I came to think of our captor, ran one hand up and down his billy club. Told us we were too young to be doing what we were doing. Said he had a son our age, home studying. He asked us where we were from, and did our parents know what we were doing? Said that it was illegal to ride the trains. He slapped the billy club hard against the palm of one hand. You two smell like a marijuana farm, he said, cracking a sly smile. He took our packs and began to rummage through them. He pulled 15 joints out of my pack, then found another handful in Dave’s. He lined them up on the floor. Ran his fingers over them. Lovingly. Like he’d caught a string of freshly caught fish and was going to proudly take home for a fish fry. Or to smoke.
All right, come with me, he barked. Well, that was it, then. Off to jail. He led us out a door on the opposite side of the station to another set of tracks where a passenger train, huffing and puffing, was parked. Get on, he said. Compliments of the Pennsylvania Railroad. It’ll take you to Pittsburgh. How you’ll get home from there, I don’t know. Call your parents and tell them everything.
Home but not Home
We made it home in one piece. Snuck into our houses without being caught. Of course, I never said anything to my mother or father. Dave and I were sure the rail cop was hunkered down in his house in front of his Tee-Vee smoking our joints and laughing at our misfortune. True, we had lost our stash, but gained an experience we would not soon forget. I had come back, a Stranger In A Strange Land, forever changed, in just two days time, grokking my situation. Like Odysseus, returning home to a world changed. And in the bargain, I had become a sandman.
But afterwards, in a quiet of my room, secure and shielded from the outside world, I felt suddenly deflated, as though a rain squall, coming out of nowhere, was sweeping all my accumulated sand away. I got a hold of myself and vowed to revisit the Heron of Oblivion. I lit up a reefer and got my mojo back.