A Traveling Kid Picks The Whiz-Bang
Brian Berkovitz • March 16, 2016 • Art •
A 15th century adventure-tale goes like this: A French anarchist stows away on a vessel bound for the cradle of life, the Dark Continent. Her. Upon arrival she treks the vast Sahara in style of Mecca, dressing in drag to dare the female-forbidden footing and taking multiple sex-partners. She conquers the desert and returns to France.
Soon after, France exiles our heroine for her Anarchism, and she returns to Africa. She dies at 25: no discernible traumas or illness. Cause of death, unknown. What took her?
On a crisp, sunny October afternoon I meet Eli, 19, a traveling kid from Durango, CO. Gently the creek is tumbling past the Boulder Public Library, where I join Eli on a blue-laced metal bench.
A purple baggy button-down shirt is draped from his wiry frame. A red bandana is around Eli’s neck. He’s wearing khaki pants and blue boat shoes of a soft quilt, cinch-tied below ankle. He has a long, sun-kissed face, trim jaw and a pencil moustache matching his sandy-blonde shoulder-length hair.
Within minutes he mentions the French Anarchist to illustrate the timelessness in his counter-culture lifestyle choice. Eli lives on the fringes that countless generations before him have paved.
Eli’s telling it, and in all honesty half of me feels he’s under-cutting his own feet: By linking to such legacy, what’s so original, what’s so powerful about The Vagabond? My other half is thoroughly enraptured; it has always railed against some ill-formed revile I feel for our work-oriented capitalist existence. There’s a deep sense of missing out.
As Eli tells the story of the Saharan Foolhardy, he speaks with a quiet, determined demeanor.
Eli knows what killed the heroine. He lives the answer with the resolved abandon marking the forewarned. It’s best to rewind to Summer 2015.
While working in metalwork in Colorado, Eli discovered the beams he was riveting were skeletons to a soon-to-be home for a C.E.O. at Shell Gas & Oil.
Weighing his patron against his ideals, Eli awoke a long-simmering beef.
“I stopped understanding why life was so complex,” Eli said. “It was hectic. I wondered: What if I got rid of all this?”
On June 8, 2015, Eli hitchhiked for a week, Utah-bound. Along the way he thumbed a driver headed for the Arizona border. Eli had no plans. No plans were the plan.
He landed in Indio, CA and came back to Colorado a week later. Eli broke the news of his on-the-road ambitions to his folks— Nutmeggers from Connecticut and life-long Deadheads.
“You can see how far west they got in pictures by the length of their hair,” Eli jokes.
Eli is big brother to a sister who— though they talk once a week on the Android his parents forced him to take on the road— now drives an aspect of time away that ruffles him. Eli was homeschooled until the eighth grade, a quality he suspects lent to his wanderlust.
“It left me a lot to learn socially, but it kept me out of a lot ofthe bullshit kids get from public school,” Eli adds, plopping a fat bag of long-grain rice onto the blue bench and lighting a small personal stove.
Eli claims the road sharpened his people sense. It soon became inherent to meet people quickly.
“I can walk up to a circle of backpacked kids and sit in,” Eli said. “We have to have each other’s backs. Society won’t. I don’t see it as bravery. I’m just as scared as anyone else. I’m just ignoring that this can go so wrong so quickly.”
Despite trepidation, after that foray in early June 2015, he secured his pack, hit the local highway ramp (a place of arrival and departure, a hitchhiker’s bread & butter), and lifted his thumb.
I ask where he’s been, and Eli seamlessly starts rattling, “Boulder to Glennwood Springs, Leadville, Seattle, down Oregon’s coast to Northern California, Arcata, the San Francisco Bay area, Santa Cruz, Slab City, Salt Lake City.”
His water now boiling, Eli pauses to sift the raw rice kernels. He stirs with a worn cutlery multi-tool inherited from his grandpa when he was 8.
As he does he purses his lips affirmatively, declaring his actions good, as he does often with his statements. He’s wearing a grey cap with a fuzzy orange teddy-bear pinned on and political buttons adorning. Eli’s almond gaze is obscured but present behind a pair of thin black reading glasses.
“Memory becomes more chronological with the aspect of motion,” Eli breaks the silence, thumbing the dimple in his chin. “I can’t recall days of my job. Sure, I remember the weekends, but that’s it. Your brain takes like scenarios and mashes them into one. Nothing was the same except for two weeks with my aunt in Santa Cruz.”
Eli says the constant flux of the road illuminated the wide vista of American perspectives.
For example, in Arizona there are two Phoenixes. Highway 25 bisects it, and if you’re a travelling kid—especially Queer spectrum— best be on the right side; or better yet, elsewhere altogether.
Further north, Arcata, CA is a weed-working hippy-haven that for decades has relied on traveling kids for crop trimming. Small-houses and co-operative homesteads abound, luscious Northwesternsoil provides abundance, and generous pedestrians make up for the wet clime. The only unwelcomes are “bad vibe types”— violent and belligerent offspring of a subculture, wedding radical self-rule with in-group solidarity.
Often, begging yields higher ‘kick-downs’ than performing, or ‘busking.’ Big cities are general exceptions. In The Big Apple, a decent busker can pull hundreds a day.
Once, Eli crossed multiple state borders per night in a dented $500 red Pontiac riddled with bullet holes. The new owner was green to the road and scared to hitchhike. Turns out he was also scared of driving, so Eli took the wheel.
Surprising for someone who is so reluctant to steer. Eli’s in Boulder to pick up a car he just bought.
“Patience is a big lesson on the road. A car is a struggle because a highway will make you wait. You’re powerless. The car will be in my control now,” Eli says.
As the creek gently gurgles and rushes past us I check the time. I’m a barista in Boulder and will have to clock in soon: A place to be, a job to do.
The choice: To play by the rules, or in Eli’s case “put a lot of effort into being okay with not being in control of my existence.”
Once, Eli was enjoying the last moments of Symbiosis Music Festival in Oakdale, CA, “The Cowboy Capital of the World.” He linked up with a fellow traveler who was San Francisco-bound and had a plane to catch. They spent a full day roadside, thumbs up. Just at sunset, they were on the verge of quitting when a hippy nudist family veered to the service lane and hissed their re-furbished school bus to a stop.
The vehicle had a colorful mural decorating its hull. The mom and dad had three sharp, home-schooled kids with them, and were heading to a nudist parade in San Francisco to protest the nudity ban. The year prior, the same parade was broken up violently by authorities, and with this year’s new law change, the very same officers were ordered to escort and protect the nudists they’d beaten and jailed year last.
“Wealth brings people away from their nature. The more you have the more you’re scared to lose,” Eli said. “I’m not an anarchist; I disbelieve in it. It’s never about the ideology, looking at the world with what you want to see and don’t. Assigned ideologies divide.”
As for the unifying factors of on-the-road living, it’s the sacrifices made, like piling 11 high into the back of a van, sardined on top of a wooden plank squishing down the packs, 100+ degrees in a stew of scents and sweaty shifting bodies.
“Traveling kids have no society hang-ups. Most are open to diving into a relationship. They learn to grab opportunities as they come. Everyone wants new experiences, most embrace polyamory. We’re mostly chimpanzee. People do a lot of harm in suppressing basic instinct.”
The trees are gently swaying in the early afternoon wind. Not many leaves left this time of year. A strange warm undertone is on the October air, barely perceptible, but there, for the seekers.
During my barista shift—probably when some customer imposes a servile attitude on me— I’ll be visited by my memory of college years, sitting in lecture halls filled with pretty girls and interesting discussions and a debit card with numbers in its account supported by my folks. I’ll hazily swipe at the feeling I had when I left New York for who-knew-what, and my co-worker will come put a few good bills of tip in my hand. I’ll catch the bus home, cook dinner, and soon fall asleep in my warm bed to hit the next day repeat…
…Much can be understood through a simple cup of coffee. Taking beans from the same crop, we grind one batch for drip preparation, and the other for espresso.
On the one hand, we have a dependable, voluminous cup of slow-brewed drip coffee, subjected to seven or so minutes of hot water and low-pressure, poured through a hole roughly the size of a small coin. Most people take their time with a cup of Joe.
It’s meant to be enjoyed that way. Sometimes, the subtleties in nuance will be hard to taste. Each sip will coat your tongue and stretch in sensation, more like a slow-reveal than a sudden whiz-bang.
A good shot of espresso, however, is anything but slow. In less than 30 seconds, those very same flavors, subjected to extreme heat and pressure, forced through an aperture the diameter of a sewing needle, become bold, energetic, sharp, syrupy, and highly concentrated. You end up with roughly two ounces of beautifully volatile liquid, best consumed fresh off the press. And what should happen to a perfectly good shot— exposed to the violent environment of espresso—if you let it run over its appropriate time? It burns, becomes bitter, and is little distinguishable from chewing charred ash…
…And so, back to the Anarchist and her young and mysterious death…
“Once I went out to meet the world, the world met me. You couldn’t imagine a life this eventful. The brain has to fill up on something, though,” Eli pulls from his pack a coconut cream jar with yellowish tallow to add nourishment to his rice. He readjusts the big black guitar case holding a fender he bought for $100 at a pawnshop. “It’s tiring, it’s aging. But it’s part of the experience. You live more, that’s for sure.”
Graphics by Matt Diss
Photography by Wes Adams