By Tamim Ansary
The summer that men set foot on the moon, I decided to see if I could hitchhike across North America on five dollars and the kindness of strangers. It was 1969, two years after the Summer of Love, and the best minds of my generation were telling me that the cosmos would shower me with bounty if only I would “trust the Universe.” This was so much the same advice trumpeted by my long line of Sufi ancestors back in Afghanistan that I could not help but take it seriously. It’s true that the Sufis said “Allah” instead of “the Universe” but it came to the same thing, or so it seemed to me in the summer of 1969.
Trusting the universe does not come naturally, however. A man has to learn that skill and I had not yet mastered it. For that matter, I wasn’t a really man yet, but a boy. No one could have been more timidly desirous of security and protection than I. But I figured, if I left home by myself with only five dollars in my pocket, and struck off across the continent, and ended up in places where no one knew or cared about me, I could force myself to trust the Universe. I lived in Portland, Oregon, so my goal was anywhere along the Eastern seaboard.
I was nineteen years old that year, and to most of my American friends I was still the Afghan Kid. I had been in the United States less than five years and had spent virtually all of those years as a dirt-poor scholarship student in expensive private schools surrounded by the sons and daughters of the rich, the very rich, and the super-rich. In high school, a private boarding school in Colorado, while all the other kids went skiing, I trudged to the nearest town with a bag of dirty laundry over my shoulder to wash and dry my clothes in the coin-op laundromat. Throughout my almost-five years in America, I was far and away the poorest person I knew, but the scholarship funds bequeathed to me by various schools kept me in a sort of degraded luxury.
Before that, in Afghanistan, I had been a pampered member of a privileged urban family living in a compound, sheltered from the rude men of the bazaar and from the tribal peasants who surrounded the city. In short, my life so far had taught me nothing about the nit and grit of the real world, nothing that might help me step up and take my place as a man among men. I badly wanted some romantic adventures to toughen me up and put me in touch with what was real. I pictured striding through mean cities with my eyes narrowed to slits against a cruel wind, my jacket collar pulled up around my ears, giving me that James Dean look of a man who has survived many a drunken knife fight and countless devastating encounters with beautiful girls. What I didn’t want to be was me.
“Me” was a skinny, multi-lingual, culturally confused intellectual “Poindexter” with thick glasses: I had just finished my junior year at Reed College, to which I had transferred from a place called Carleton in the Midwest, a place so frigidly bound with staid social rules I figured that if I stayed there, I would never get laid there. Getting laid was, at that time, far more important than getting a good education. At Reed, I had, in fact, cracked the virginity barrier and endured one love affair, When the school year ended, I got myself a summer job at B. P. John’s, an assembly-line furniture factory reeking of glue, petroleum distillates, and finishing oils. I left work each day lightheaded and nervous about the brain cells I may have lost. But they paid three bucks an hour, handsome wages at the time. I was bringing in money by the bucket load and spending virtually nothing because I had moved into a house that rented for zilch.
The house was on Ivan Street. It rented for zilch because it was situated in the path of a projected freeway. The whole neighborhood was slated to be torn down, and the landlords were merely waiting for the protests and lawsuits to subside so they could sell their properties to the state at jacked up prices. In the meanwhile, they simply needed to keep their buildings occupied in order to qualify for certain tax breaks. The Ivan Street house was a two story-building with a full apartment in the basement. A recluse lived in the basement, and on him I never set eyes. I had the main floor to myself, a bathroom, two large rooms, and one small bedroom, plus a kitchen. I shared this with the people upstairs, a varying number of street rats from New York, all of whom had fled to Portland for various reasons having to do with petty crimes or emotional breakdowns. These street rats became my best friends. Well, of course they did: we all had long hair.
My floor officially rented for 20 dollars a month. You may suppose that’s what I meant by “the place rented for zilch.” Twenty dollars for a three-room suite must seem as close as one can hope to come to paying nothing for rent. But actually, it was better than that. The landlord had actually forgotten about this property. He never showed up to collect any money. I for one had no idea where to send a check, had I been so inclined. As for the others—the recluse and the street rats—the question was moot: they were not so-inclined.
In one month at B. P. Johns, I saved the whole amount I was expected to contribute to my next year’s scholarship at Reed, plus fifteen dollars. As soon as I had that much in the bank, I began to think about other ways to occupy my time.
It was then that I decided to see if I could hitch-hike across the continent on five dollars. Someone told me that hitchhiking was legal in Canada, so I thought I’d go up there for the journey. Of course, since North America is shaped like a triangle, going north adds many miles to the trip east, but I figured it was worth it. I had hitched in the United States but always with my heart in my throat, because hitchhiking was illegal here and because I was often carrying a couple of tabs of LSD in my pocket, this being, as I mentioned, The Sixties.
A couple of days before I set off, I walked past a thrift store in lower downtown Portland, a slummy are near the river (urban renewal has since turned that strip of the city into a posh waterfront geared toward prosperous families.) In the store window, I saw a pair of black boots. My own shoes were pretty worn out, and, of course, I didn’t have the money for a new pair. These boots in the window were going for a buck and a half. I tried them on and they almost fit! With two pairs of socks, they’d be perfect.
Not till I left the store in those boots did I realize I had launched upon a daring deception. This was the first pair of non-Poindexter footwear I had donned in my entire life. Something about the way the leather encased my feet, something about the pointed toes and the way those hard heels clacked on the concrete made me walk differently—made me stride.
After a short time, I realized that the boots didn’t just cover my feet. They covered my whole self with a dangerous disguise. Bystanders looking at this boot-wearing fellow saw a case-hardened, street-smart tough guy, not the nerdy intellectual I actually was, son of Professor Ansary, sheltered scion of a high-status religious family in Afghanistan, pretty well-versed not only in the mysticism of ancestors like Khwaja Abdullah and Sheikh Sa’duddin but also in Hume’s doubt about the existence of an objective reality and Kant’s critique of pure reason. Yet, as soon as I put on those boots, the boots were in control: they told the little people to get the hell out of my way or get run over.
On the day of my departure, I was packing up my meager belongings to put them into storage in a friend’s basement. I had the windows open to let a warm breeze into my big front room. As the room grew steadily emptier, the garish walls came into view, painted yellow and black by hippies before my time. In the end, nothing remained except a mattress in the middle of the room, and a cheap radio that could play only three stations, all of them AM. Today AM means “talk radio” but back then it meant lowest common denominator “top-forty” pop/rock hits. On that particular day in 1969, all three stations were playing the ubiquitous pop hit of the moment, a song long forgotten now. The lyrics went:
In the year twenty five, twenty five…
If man is still alive…
If woman can survive….
I was more into the likes of Frank Zappa and Doctor John, but you couldn’t get that stuff on the radio, so I was listening to the available schlock. I had to admit, there was something strangely haunting about this particular top-40 hit—something about the sweep of time it proposed, for each stanza jumped a thousand years.
In the year thirty five, thirty five…
If man is still alive…
Sometimes the announcer would interrupt the song to bring bulletins and updates from the big news of the moment. A United States spaceship was approaching the moon. A couple of astronauts were going to land up there. On that very day, some fellow named Neil Armstrong and another man whose name I and most of the world have forgotten, were going down a ladder, rung by rung, to romp in actual moon dust. I was only vaguely aware of the whole event, and quite impervious to its drama.
To me, it seemed like nothing more than money talking—landing on the moon represented no invention, no new scientific discovery, no breakthrough to a larger truth. It was just an engineering feat. Anyone could go to the moon if they had enough time and money, was my attitude. Anyway, what was so exciting about the moon? It was just a rock.
Now, Canada—that was a different matter! I imagined a land covered with snow, walruses dotting the landscape, baying polar bears rearing up on distant hills. A man—well, a boy, really—hitch-hiking across this forbidding landscape with only five dollars in his pocket—that would be a feat, if he made it. And the boy certainly would make it. All he had to do was trust the universe.
Does the boy make it to the East Coast? Well, since I was that boy and I’m writing this 45 years later, I guess I’ve given away the ending; but the story is never just what happened but how it happened. If you want that part, read Road Trips, becoming an American in the vapor trail of The Sixties, available here.