Saturday, November 19, 2016

Total Freedom

His mother must have foreseen this image of him when she named him. No one I had ever met had a name more perfectly suited to his appearance than Dusty sitting behind the gas station with a sign asking for food. Yuma, Arizona has a tendency to make us all a little that way. That is until we are able to get inside and clean up: something my friend clearly had not had occasion to do in some time.

His hair was unkempt and matched his half-grown beard. A bare chest look red and weathered, covered only lightly by a loose, military green, sleeveless vest fraying on the edges. A small beagle lay by his side and, in his hand, a sign that read, “Hungry, Anything Helps. God Bless.”

I was on my way to dinner and asked if he’d join me. We walked together and when we came to the front door he told his dog to stay and that he’d be back. He obediently lay down by the front door. “I can take him in because he’s a service animal but I don’t want to make trouble,” he said to me.
Small talk continues while we order and sit down. Dusty grew up in Georgia and, at the age of 16, was kicked out of his home and has been a “traveler” ever since. Once seated, it is clear that his sign was not in error: he was hungry.

“Do you enjoy life as a traveler?” I ask.

“You bet! It’s great! Go where you want, when you want. No one to boss you around. I wouldn’t have it any other way,” He says with confidence and pride.

Most recently his adventures have taken him to slab city. Slab city is mostly made up of snowbirds who park RV’s around the area. It gets its name from the concrete slabs that were left over from an abandoned WWII marine corps barracks of Camp Dunlap. “Travelers” make up a significant portion of the local population, but there are a few people who stay year around. Quite a feat given the summer temperatures reach over 120 degrees and there are no utilities. Many people who come to slab city want to be “off grid” in every aspect of their lives.

I am quick to assume that slab city is just the kind of place where Dusty would feel at home so am surprised when he says, “I didn’t really care for it. That place is total tweekerville.” My face must have shown my ignorance because he quickly explained, tweekerville, you know, everyone is on drugs. It’s just not my scene.”

Having little to say regarding tweekerville, I attempt to lighten the conversation by saying, “Well at least you didn’t have to come too far.” I have been by slab city several times and always considered it fairly close to Yuma. Now it was his turn to look shocked.

“It took me three days to get here!” It was clear my definition of what made something close or far had not taken into account the mode of transportation.

“So you mostly walk?”

“That and hitch rides. I used to have a car but that got impounded. I got the car when I was in Texas. A guy said he’d give it to me if I did $600 worth of work. But he let me have it early after only doing $300 so I took off. I got picked up in Flagstaff for improper right turn, but they added on, ‘driving without a license, insurance or registration.’”

This led to a 7 day stay in jail, and, by the way he said it, you could tell 7 days was a long stay for him.  “They said I could get the car out of impound for $600 but that is what I paid for it, so I said, ‘no way,’ and hitched a ride out of there.

“In what other towns have you been to jail?” I questioned.

“It would be faster to tell you what towns I haven’t been to jail in. They always take me to jail for stupid things like vagrancy, pan handling or public drunkenness.”

I notice, as he eats, he sets aside small pieces of meat for his dog.

“How long have you had your dog?” I ask.

“He was given to me last Halloween. He’s a great companion.”

Dusty finishes his meal and we head out of the building. Once outside I see the perfectly loyal companion sitting by the door. Dusty gives him his saved bits of meat.

I wished I had asked what happens to the dog while he is in jail. My guess is it waits outside or nearby for the few days it takes for his master to “pay his debt to society,” and happily joins him once freed.

I always learn a lot from the those I interview but the lessons I want to share, I learned, not from Dusty, but from his dog.
      1. Judging: To him his master is the greatest man alive. He doesn’t see him the way the world sees him. Rather he sees him as loving and giving. He sees the good. While many dogs seem to have this natural gift, I wonder if we could choose to cultivate it in ourselves.

2. Loyalty. The dog’s loyalty was incredible to me, especially when contrasted to his owner. Whereas Dusty would, “take off” or “go where he wanted, when he wanted.” His dog would faithfully wait, only move when told, and go wherever his master told him to go.

 As positive as Dusty spoke of his “total freedom” lifestyle, I can’t help but wonder if the dog’s loyalty and servitude was a more fulfilling experience.

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