Home > Pulp Travel > Quest in the West: Chapter 4

Chapter 4

My stay in Knoxville went from being a simple sleep-over to my friend hosting a webinar for her guru, Swamiji. She had given up her name now that she’d been given a spiritual Indian name which was hard enough to pronounce, never mind spell. When I know a person’s real name I find it hard enough to call people by their trail name. Trail names are a tradition on long-distance hiking trails, and that’s how I came to be known as Cleanshave. I was one of the few guys that shaved almost every day. So calling her something I couldn’t even pronounce was something I avoided, which made me feel uncomfortable as a guest in her home.

A few random people showed up, a trailer park girl from Gatlinburg (not to be mean, she was very nice, she just happened to live in a trailer park), an ex-Memphis police officer now turned ayahuasca advocate, and two other women.

First off, I had my reservations about Swamiji. He had this idea of a new species of humans and they would perform tricks to prove their abilities such as remote viewing, third eye seeing through a blindfold. All of which made the presentations seem like a vaudeville church act. To be fair, Kreskin would do some simple tricks first to warm the audience up for the real show, but I didn’t think this was like that. I had respect for Kreskin. This was selling people fantasies, and their marketing was pretty good. Not so much on webinar production values.

I also wasn’t impressed much by Swamiji’s charisma or insight. Which was hard to say because my host, also a former hiking partner, believes, head over heels, in this guy’s power. If this guru had any power it wasn’t an understanding of the universe, but about ways to position the mind to manifest what you desire. So kind of like a self help guru masquerading as a religion or religious experience.

It certainly wasn’t realization as I understood the concept. But what do I know, I’m just a hiker trash drifter.

However, the hook that got my friend was some kind of mystical experience. That, or those, as there were multiple mystical experiences that she experienced, just haven’t been framed right. There still is very much of an ego blockage with her, and when I tried to explain my observation she told me that I was wrong.

“I used to be passive like that,” she said, “just floating wherever the current would take me.”

Then to prove I was wrong she went on to explain exactly what I had said to her, but in a way that she was right and I was wrong.

The problem, for her, is that if you aren’t fighting to bend reality to your will then you must be passive. She seemed to be missing the middle ground, where existence is both and neither.

Too many people seeing two things decide one is right, the other wrong. Often the decision is arbitrary. Her big problem was too many options. Which one or ones to pursue? For her, allowing all options to exist simultaneously and allowing them to unfold naturally wasn’t an option.

I felt a lot of blocks to understanding in her, but she was trying to understand herself, and maybe the things I was calling blocks are for her strengths. Each person has their own road. Her’s had helped me see mine more clearly.

And what more could we ask for from friends?

The ayahuasca guy was very nice and well-intentioned. Too bad we all ended up being awake until 3:45am trying to get through the webinar. There was also some awkward girl drama with the trailer park girl not making friends as easily as she’d thought. The other girls kind of pushed her out of their circle.

But it put a whole new perspective on the guru business for me. If I did ever offer anyone advice it would definitely be at a distance and not up close and personal. Not unless I could get more experience helping people get past the blocks I see.

Luckily nobody was lining up to get life advice from a homeless drifter.

I’d tried to arrange as much as I could from Ashville but the Chattanooga transportation had been a nightmare. The local bus stopped running early and the time I got in made it impossible for anyone to give me a ride. Uber requires the app, which I didn’t have room for on my phone. Not that they’ve sent the account verification email even once for any of the four times requested to get the $15 off my first ride. Then I went to get a candy bar, the sugar as a sort of alcohol substitute, because I was feeling tension for the first time in months, and some unfriendly guy walks up and tells me to leave my backpack at the door. No uniform, no name tag, no courtesy.

Meanwhile, I’m pretty sure the three kids in the next aisle were shoplifting.

I started to get mad and had to pull back and ask what was wrong. Bungled plans, shitty people, $2 candy bars and a lack of sleep? I’d only seen two sides of Knoxville, pretentious and ghetto, and I didn’t like either. Never really thought there was anything here for me, but since Asheville, I’d really started to notice what I liked and what I wanted out of a city or town.

After the next week or so there may be a kind of settling down.

With or without the treasure.

What is the blaze?

That was the question I kept asking myself.

Because the next part of the poem after, “under heavy loads and water high,” which I took to mean the railroad bridge off the Wind River and over Johnson Draw, meant that I’d be looking for a blaze.

“If you’ve been wise and found the blaze, Look quickly down, your quest to cease,” read the poem, which by that point I had memorized.

People always suggested owls for that one and I figured I’d wait until I got there to pass judgement, but if you had a blaze that was a pair of eyes with an arrow pointing down it would look like a very simple owl. Or maybe it’s not really a clue, just that your judgement has put you there, and/or a sideways allusion to Owl Creek Mountains.

If the previous line mentioned something up high, the heavy loads and water, then wouldn’t that be where the blaze is if you then have to look down?

Is it under the railroad bridge somewhere? Or in the tunnel somehow? But no, Forrest said it wasn’t in a tunnel, maybe to keep people out of the railroad tunnel when it could be dangerous.

There is a road that ran behind there leading up into the mountains. On the railroad side of the river. That might give a person an easier way to haul 40 pounds of stuff over two trips instead of having to kayak there in two separate trips.

Besides if Forrest Fenn came in from behind, he would have been at higher elevation, meaning that he would only be carrying heavy loads downhill. That seemed more plausible for an 80 year old man.

Sitting at the bus stop in Chattanooga, I realized that it was the second day after drinking whiskey in Asheville. Hence the mood change I associated with alcohol detox induced stress.

Twice that had happened on this trip. The second day after leaving Gatlinburg I got paranoid that I’d given my sister bad financial advice and if I was wrong she’d never forgive me. (It involved too much money, potentially, and she had high hopes for it.) It took me all day to hike to a cell signal and clear that up.

By the time the bus got to Chattanooga, I realized that I could have just camped there. Literally, right where the bus dropped you off on 23rd St.

The back of the property, which is no more than a vacant lot, is fenced and backing the highway. Trees and shrubs grow along it and I could have slept in their shadow.

“Not such a good idea,” Terry said when he picked me up. “There’s a crime-ridden ghetto on the other side of the highway with shootings every day.”

In fact, he apologized for making me wait in the dark in such a bad neighborhood. I still thought I would have been fine after it got a little darker.

Terry was the husband of yet another lady that I had hiked with for a brief time in Vermont. He took me back to their house, which was 17 miles north near the Southern Adventist University. The baby was in bed and I was quietly ushered towards the shower and showed my room. We chatted for a while, after the shower, then everyone went to bed. I slept in too late, having tried to get up twice but passed back out. Lack of sleep from the night before.

Twice on this trip I’d been offered a car to drive. Both times a standard, which I can drive. I just feel uncomfortable doing it. So when I found out Collegedale was the headquarters of Little Debbie’s snack cakes, I had to walk it. And using money I didn’t have, I bought too much, including a baseball cap for the sun and the road walking that I’d have to do out west.

To my disappointment there was no factory tour. “We had to stop that after 9/11,” the lady at Little Debbie’s tells me. Score another one for the terrorists. Or the fear mindset which seems to have a hold over most people… these days? Or always?

Instead, I spent my time exploring Goliath Wall and Student Cave at Southern Adventist University.

I was dropped off back in Chattanooga with no real plan and on the wrong side of the Tennessee River. I think. I wasn’t sure. But I ended up spending money that I didn’t have on tacos because it was raining out, hard.

The walk back across Walnut Bridge into downtown looked cool, but I figured I’d wait until the thunder and lightning storm slowed.

I’d managed to sell .2 BTC the night before and transferred that to my bank account to make sure that I had some money available for the rest of the trip. Just using their laptop took forever for them to charge, clean up, and figure out the parental controls.

Once I was on, I was done in minutes, with $210 deposited into my checking account.

The thought that I could have flown closer, faster and for less money had been nagging at me a few times over the previous week. But the plan had always been taking the bus and hitchhiking. That’s the way I pictured it. And I tend to get set on a plan in a way that makes it hard to deviate. Like being programmed.

We had spent most of the previous night running some tests on what I called the Firepower prototype. Like the name suggested it was a device for converting the heat from a fire or flame into electricity so that a person could charge their cell phone from a campfire or even something as simple as a candle or oil lamp. It was something I built which was a combination of an SP1848 Peltier Thermoelectric Panel wired to a 0.9V-5V USB Step-up Power Supply Module.

Heating the TEG didn’t produce enough voltage to charge anything. With an ice cube on the opposite side, creating more of a temperature differential, it generated more, but still not enough. Technically it should only need a temperature difference of 20 degrees to get 0.97V at 225MA, but what did I know? I’d had a couple of the prototypes in my backpack for months without ever being able to test them. I figured that since a candle burns at 829 °C (1,500 °F) it should easily be able to hit a 100 degree temperature difference which should have put out 4.8V at 669MA.

The tests said otherwise.

That meant after all of this was over I’d have to go back to the drawing board and redesign the device. Instead of being a future source of revenue the Firepower device was just another failed idea.

I just hoped the search for Forrest Fenn’s treasure didn’t turn out to be the same thing.

The Hostelling International Chicago Hostel was pretty amazing.

I’d only partially explored the city after lunch at Portillo’s, the reason I told everyone on the Appalachian Trail that I was leaving for Chicago. But I could totally see myself living in the building.

The bus out of Chattanooga was packed. Plus, there were no working outlets in the seats so I arrived with a dead phone. And I had forgotten to charge my backup battery in Chattanooga.

I’d arrived in town with $2.80, but checked my account balance and found more than I’d expected. Hence two lunches and a way too expensive, $4, hot chocolate at Panera earlier that morning to wait out the rain and charge my phone.

Checking the next day’s plan, Google Maps said that Megabus went further than Omaha, and into Lincoln, Nebraska. If that was true, the plan was to stay on the bus for the extra hour to get me that much closer.

But Google Maps stopped working on my phone. Updates wouldn’t go through for insufficient storage, and since I updated Facebook (which took deleting and reinstalling) my battery was draining much faster than usual. I also suspected that it was using more data as well which might be a problem out west when I had to rely on it for navigation.

But I saw more of Chicago than I have in the past, despite having been through the city on numerous occasions. And for whatever reason, I was cured of my craving for Portillo’s. Not that it wasn’t good. But one thing that turned me off was the service. The definition of sweet peppers and hot peppers is totally different in Chicago than it is back east. The female cashier got really upset when I tried to clarify, to the point of being rude. Plus, I’m not sure what Portillo’s means by gravy on the Italian Roast Beef Sandwich. Gravy or drippings? Because there was no “gravy”.

Also, they call banana peppers “Sport Peppers”, which are what I know of as pepperoncinis, which are also called pepper-chinis, yellow peppers, and sweet peppers anywhere else. But here a sweet pepper is apparently a green bell pepper. No idea what hot peppers are as the cashier was too mad to talk to me and charged me for extra peppers I didn’t want.

That was the biggest issue in my life. Pretty serious stuff when I felt like I had travelled halfway across the country for a hot dog.

A homeless guy was wandering the restaurant and told me that it was his birthday when he saw me sit down. He wanted me to buy him an Italian Beef Sandwich. When I said I was outdoors too, he said, “No you’re not,” then thought better of it.

I gave him $2 in my pocket but didn’t buy him the sandwich. A guy at the next table did that.

And sure, I was inside for the night, had been the last few days, but I also didn’t have the chip on my shoulder that he had, or the self-inflicted limitations. He mumbled something about getting out of prison under his breath and I could believe it. He hated people for having anything and didn’t understand why they got things so easy when it came so hard for him.

I was outside in a way that neither the homeless nor the homebound could understand or relate to.

The story of my life.

At the hostel there was a kid in his early 20’s on the phone with hotel security for the place he stayed at before. He had left his bags at the hotel and when he went back they weren’t there.

“I gave the bags to someone,” he said into the phone. “No, not in uniform. No, he didn’t ask me to sign anything, but they gave me a ticket.”

He didn’t look too happy at the response he got from the other end.

“But why would someone who doesn’t work for the hotel take my bags?” He asked, as if no such thing would ever happen.

“We’ll review the security footage,” hotel security told him.

I tried to imagine his life. Cushy. Insulated. Family and rich friends. Exclusive resort vacations. University that isn’t open to a lot of riff-raff. And now this. His first time out on his own and some stupid bellhop lost his luggage. He doesn’t even realize that it has probably been stolen.

Then the paranoia hit again. Fear that the treasure had been stolen out from under me. That I was too late. That there was someone else with more resources and speed seeing the obvious.

Then I realized that it was the second night after drinking two weak margaritas in Chattanooga with my hosts. Two drinks, feeling no effects from the alcohol, and yet I had to deal with alcohol detox?

“There is no competition. There is only me,” I said in between deep breaths. Forcing myself to relax.

I waited out the rain before heading towards the bus stop. Having a bagel and a couple of bowls of cereal at the HI Chicago before I left. I mapped my route to the Walmart so I could get soda and cashback, but the Google Map update was a strain on my phone. Crashing and resetting it often. Walking through what I hoped was the last of the rain was no big deal, but Walmart was nowhere to be found.

“Excuse me, do you know where Walmart is?” I asked a local.

“No, but you can Google it.”

Maybe you can, I thought.

By the time I found it, two blocks over, it was abandoned. It was here not six months ago, but it was gone now. Walmart’s are supposed to shutter other businesses, not go out of business. So I hit a bank which would charge me an ATM fee to access my own money. Just in case I want cash on me.

The guy at the bus stop came to Chicago to sell drugs and make some money.

“Cops got this shit on lockdown,” he told me. “Only managed to sell three bags and I’m done. I’m cool and all but I’d rather work a job than have all that.”

So, back to Iowa and his wife. “It’s raining there too,” he told me. “I shoulda brought an umbrella.”

“As long as they don’t have the AC on the bus we’ll be fine,” I said.

When he tried to sit near me on the bus I backtracked a couple of seats.


You can download the entire book of Quest in the West in PDF format here!

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Quest in the West: Chapter 5
Quest in the West: Chapter 3

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