Ben There

Tufts offered me 35k and Reed couldn’t give me a dime. “We’re sorry,” they’d said. “You seem like a great fit. But our deadlines are really that strict.” My senior year of high school had been a period of dissociation. Circumstances involving the hospitalization of a loved one and my own arrogance had lead to me turning in the non-custodial parent profile for the Financial Aid CSS profile a week late. “You know, if you take a year off, you can reapply for aid,” someone at Reed told me, “I can’t make any promises, but our aid is better than Tufts’.” 

Tufts was solid and straight-laced. It foretold a future in a suit. Reed had a different allure. The first recording of Howl took place at Reed, and in my estimation that made Reed worth taking a year off for. I worked landscaping until all of the fall leaves were cleared away. It was good money and my savings stacked enough to let me travel through winter. I had an ambitious plan. My friends were homesick college freshman scattered around the country, more than willing to put me up for a night, so I charted a U around America, planning to go down the East Coast and up the West. A buddy gave me the last of the weed he’d harvested that fall. I’d never smoked much, but the bud was soothing and I’d freed myself of obligations. Landscaping had also left me sore, and smoking helped with the headaches that I had begun having. 

I left Massachusetts for my trip in mid January, and caught rides, trains, and buses from city to city. I was put up in a Philly bookstore after a poetry reading and saw Obama’s inauguration from the Washington Monument while I crashed in a Georgetown dorm. My backpack had a sleeping bag, clothes, books from the Beat generation and a journal. I went through Wake Forest, and the Universities of Florida and Miami. I met my grandfather in St. Petersburg and had him take me to the Salvador Dalí museum. The time passed in a blur. My backpack ingrained a sensation of soreness. My head felt heavy and my neck ached; yet ‘furthur’ compelled me to New Orleans in time for Mardi Gras. I explored the city with a Tulane friend and a Spaniard I’d met at a hostel. My debauchery was taking a toll, but my body didn’t break until I reached California. 

My dad was working on a geology site in Southern Cali, renting a house near Joshua Tree. The plan was to meet up with him and work out in the desert. Almost as soon as I arrived I was hit with fever and flu. The thing was, I thought I had been travelling alone, but I’d picked up a passenger before I’d even left my home. A tick bite received while landscaping had left me with Lyme disease and ehrlichiosis, tick borne bacteria that can lead to headaches, muscle aches, fatigue, and a suppressed immune system. Lyme can cause neurological impairment, memory loss, and meningitis. But there in California I had no idea I had Lyme. After three days of shivering under hot blankets I was back on my feet, weary and out of it but mobile. 

My memories of that time feel affected. Like I was only half awake. I remember being so confused about how my body felt, clueless as to why my limbs felt far away and the aches never parted. By this time I was self-medicating daily with weed. Getting high was the only thing giving me relief. I grew more and more dependent, but didn’t make any connection to illness. 

After a few weeks of surveying in the desert, my dad departed. To my surprise he left me his work vehicle, an early 2000s Ford Explorer. I bummed around Joshua Tree for days. My mind was planets away. I climbed to the top of rock columns ropeless, wrote poems till the sunset, and somehow made my way down in the dark. I went to Paid Dues, a festival in San Bernardino headlined by Atmosphere and Eyedea. Leaving the parking lot after the show I got a phone call from my dad. Reed had given me as much financial aid as I could’ve ever hoped for.

A friend, Arno, hailed me from Arizona. He was travelling with his girlfriend and some Rainbow Family travellers, helping an old hippy couple close the Casbah Tea House on Fourth Avenue in Tucson in exchange for a place to stay and big bags of bud. I showed up beat but enthused. We dumpster dived, scavenged and scraped; slept in washes, parks, and parking lots. When it was time for our group to part ways, we drove I-10 to New Mexico and camped by the hot springs. 

It was there, at a campfire that we met Ma Hippy. Ma Hippy was probably in her 40s. Her son, Squirrel, was older than her boyfriend, Freedom. We shared food and music, and the next day, Ma Hippy gave me an offer that changed my life. “Whose SUV is that?” She asked, as our group huddled in a tent after a hail shower. I told her it was mine. “How would you like a trailer?” She sold it to me for $2. Wrote out her legal name but threatened to kill me if I ever said it out loud. “That isn’t my name anymore.” Apparently she had won an injury settlement and her entourage was going to buy an RV. They didn’t need the 1970s 4-wheel trailer they’d been pulling behind their truck. The trailer had gas burners, a bathroom, and a fold out bed in the makeshift living room. It desperately needed cleaning but had room to live in. 

The only road between New Mexico and Arizona is I-10. A two lane highway with a 

I thought I had been travelling alone, but I’d picked up a passenger before I’d even left my home.

speed limit of 70 MPH. On the other side of that highway was the Anarchestra compound where we could stay and I could figure out what to do with the trailer.

I hitched the trailer to the Explorer and we drove to the parking lot of a Walmart, ready to depart for Arizona the next morning. My neck was sore like it always was. I felt like I was coming down with a cold. I had been sober for days as I always was when I had driving to do, but my head felt heavy. I kept our speed to 60 MPH and we hugged the right lane as semis roared past. Arno was shotgun and his girlfriend was in the backseat. The landscape was arid as far as you could see, a wind whipping slant ways and train tracks 50 feet or so off the shoulder.

I felt it before I saw it; a black semi that must have been topping 90 MPH flew past in the passing lane creating some sort of vortex that jerked the trailer to the side. I took the foot off the gas and tried to correct the jerk, but now I could barely keep the car from weaving side to side. Arno chanted a mantra of “Oh shit” and I knew I had to get us off the road. I somehow navigated to the shoulder but the ground was sandy and the wheels gripped into a slide, slowly bringing us sideways with a terrible momentum that seemed to linger on the edge of tipping forever — until the car rolled a full 360 and a half, leaving us upside down, the trailer wrecked across the side of the highway. 

One of my nine lives died on the side of that road but not one of us had a scratch on us. It didn’t feel real that it had happened. When I was climbing around Joshua Tree I had done dumb and risky shit, but not once had I put anyone else in danger. There on that highway I could have killed my friends. I couldn’t choke that down easily. The cop told me I’d done the right thing in driving to the side of the road. “It wasn’t that you screwed up driving. You screwed up by driving that car,” he pointed, “should never have been pulling that trailer.” He let me off with no citations, feeling that a wrecked car was punishment enough. I cut my dad a check for the car and haven’t had a savings account since. 

Back home to work for the summer, my confidence was bruised and my body was weak. If I went for a run my body wouldn’t recover and I’d be sore for weeks. Sometime in August a coworker got a bull’s-eye rash, the tell-tale sign of Lyme. I’d never had the rash, but suddenly I knew I should get tested. I wanted a positive result, anything to explain how I felt. I didn’t know if I could handle it if my frayed nerves were normal. Drawn blood confirmed the diagnosis. I was given a month’s dose of doxycycline, and one week into it I left for Reed.

When my freshman year started the meds prevented me from going into direct sunlight during one of the few sunny parts of the year. The pain was still lingering and the drug habits I’d developed lingered too. I was in no shape to start my time at Reed. I managed poorly, but somehow I managed. I got past the pain. Reed is a strange rehab for all of its seductions, but I kicked the drugs too. When I look back now, mostly I just marvel that it all happened. In high school I never thought it would be hard for me to graduate from college. But it was hard. Real hard. And now, I can hardly believe that in a few more weeks I might just graduate.