The Stardust Cowboy
I miss my best friend most. I met Byron in the Office of Disability Affairs at Wright State University, in Fairfield, Ohio. At the time I was going to university in secret, having revealed my affairs to no one but my oldest sister. Byron and I were book scanners for visually impaired students’ books, stuffed in a basement office in the student union. We talked about Resident Evil 4, Marvel Vs. Capcom 2, and comic books while we waited for the audio files to compile.
Of the things I had to sacrifice in order to survive, it is my proximity to my favorite man that I regret most.
What I gained from saying goodbye, however, only had one price: Everything.
Byron gave me a place to stay when my dad threw me out of the house for having PTSD and autism. My dad hated me for not living up to his expectations. I learned eventually that PTSD came from being in pain for so long, that the pain itself became a part of my identity. I couldn’t simply let go of the what I had experienced - the ones who caused my pain were my mother and father.
My love for them cascaded reflexively with my suffering at their hands. My dad told me constantly to stop being lazy, and to stop blaming my mom for my heartache. She was as twisted as a balloon animal, and she gave my sister and I Borderline Personality Disorder, or Stockholm syndrome.
Byron helped me pick up the pieces. He was the coolest guy I ever met. He was part Keith David, part Phil LaMarr, and part LeVar Burton, with just a dash of James Earl Jones. Byron had this subtle way of giving me hope, and he made me strong.
That was the thing, once I had enough strength, I had to leave, I had to be far enough away that I would be free. That was what it took to finish my work and finally beat BPD. We weren’t destined to be friends forever. Borderline would have destroyed me if I had stayed. In order to forge a new destiny, I had to do something it wouldn’t expect. I had to destroy life as I knew it. My old identity had to go.
The day I was cleared the board, I got in my car and headed for San Francisco, to accept a job as a retail clerk for The North Face’s flagship store in Union Square. I had spent the night at my girlfriend’s apartment, with my things packed up in my car hoping nobody broke in and stole it while we slept. In the morning, I drove to my dad’s car shop with her hand in mine.
My dad begged me to postpone my trip.
Fire trucks lined the asphalt, outside the shop which was half the length of a football field deep, on watch after they had extinguished a blaze that destroyed nearly everything inside. To no surprise, my father told me he hadn’t bothered with fire insurance. I stared at the smoldering ruins inside as water gushed past the garage door frame listening to his contempt of reason. Part of me knew something had to happen to try to keep me there. Something like this had always happened when I finally had a chance to strike out on my own. My family always needed me for something. That was the day I was free because that was the first day I told my father to fix it himself.
When I left, I had no plan. I had no place to live. I only had my black ’93 Civic, a trunk full of 80’s toys, $200 in my bank account and a back seat full of North Face gear. The money went almost entirely to gas. I stopped in Kansas City at the end of the first day and traded all my toys, except a G1 Jetfire, for one night’s stay at my cousin’s apartment.
She and her husband didn’t have much money to buy toys for their son. It seemed a waste to pass the opportunity to give them away in a flourish of charity. Adult collectors have gasped and groaned when I told them what was in the collection. But, what they didn’t understand about the roughly $8,000 in toys I left with her was that the toys had been bought to bribe my loyalty and submission. If I was the very best boy, and if I never showed anger or hurt, then I could have a toy. I shed the reminders of my past, of the years when my mother pit me and my sister against each other for her amusement. I left the toys that reminded me of the false love my own mother showed me. She was socially obligated to do so, or she might go to hell.
From Kansas City, I headed to Denver. People say that Kansas is flat, but it’s not. All the hills just happen all at once.
I cried to each time I started driving. I was scared. I was going West. I hoped it was far enough to escape my past.
When I hit Denver, I only had time to stop for supplies. I was driving hard to make Yosemite. I had reserved a ticket to hike to the top of Half Dome, for which the north side was taken to name The North Face brand. I had built myself a golden obligation but it required that I use forced relaxation. The camping trip was a buffer to wait for my final paycheck to deposit.
I spent too much money in Denver at the REI store. I did the math and realized I was going to run out of gas before I made the park. I used my phone to find a path to the nearest REI. I was too far to turn around, which meant that my only choice was a detour to Grand Junction costing me almost as much fuel as I would gain from returning most of my supplies. I didn’t have much, and I didn't have much to return.
I made it into the heart of Utah as night fell. I slept in the back seat of my car, weary from the road and my second day of travel. I had never seen the mountains of Utah. I didn’t even realize it was such a rocky state, despite having skied at Park City as a child. I snuck into the parking garage of a resort for the night. It was the end of the off season, and I calculated that no guards would be deployed to ticket cars that didn’t pay for parking, since all were supposed to be employee vehicles at that time of year. I was right and as the sun and the cold woke me up hard and fast, I set to finishing the last day of driving.
I drove all day. Somewhere in the desert night of Nevada, I had prepared to dive into the first rest stop I could. The only one open that late was out in the middle of a stretch of highway so long, time lost meaning. There at the edge of time I found a green adobe building I had already been to in one of my dreams. I recognized the graffiti, the white paint in the stall, and the sound of falling you can only hear in the deep desert, or in dreams.
I stood outside in the delicious night looking out into the sea stars silhouetting the mountains. Time stopped, but I kept going. I had built the trip West to collapse behind me. There was never any turning back.
I ran out of gas on the hillside leading to the Glacier Point trail head in Yosemite National Park. I was about a mile from the gift shop and viewpoint, which was fortunate since it would have been impossible to park much closer. I was out of gas, out of money, and out on my own. I was free. It didn’t matter if anyone stole the stuff out of my car, or even stole my car. I had enough food to last the next few days, and I knew I was going to get paid one last check.
I looked out at the valley floor, and beyond to where my quest would lead me. The north face of Half Dome stared me down and I laughed as tears burst from my eyes. It was like nothing I had ever seen. It was more beautiful than I could have ever imagined.
I set up camp into the wilderness from Clark point trail. I was camping alone at the site and I was anxiously awaiting falling asleep with all the anxiety of the full breadth of the finality of my choices. I had tossed my bear canister plenty far enough from my tent so that I didn’t smell like food. I elbowed a bear in the face that first night. It woke me up and I screamed when it nudged me through the wall of my bivouac. I had just fallen into restful sleep. When I woke up in the morning, the bear canister was next to my tent showing signs of rough play, still unopen. I trekked on, grateful since I didn’t have enough money to buy more food.
I passed the river where a woman had recently drowned. She had gone swimming in the heavy current waters. As she was swept over the falls, two would-be rescuers pursued her, despite signs warning not to even try. They were killed in the falls too. The water looked so refreshing and swift. It looked alive. I had never been so close to water that moved so swiftly, not in Michigan, Missouri, or Florida. It was a force like a pulse carving through the mountain daring to consume any life that chose to join its flow.
I made camp by midday at Little Yosemite Valley Campground, near the river bend further north from the falls than was dangerous. I wanted to swim, but needed to leave my campsite and set out for Half Dome. The gear I had bargained so many hours for was comfortable and kept up with my ferocious pace. I had seen the face of a titan. I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs from the top of its skull.
At the entrance to the trail leading to the top, two ticket takers who worked for the park stood idly. I produced my ticket, worn from being stuffed into my backpack with a weeks worth of gear, then unpacked and stuffed in again for security by night. I connected with them, like I had with so many others since when I was trained to at Jesus Camp. I talked about how I was on the run from my family. I traded trust for access. I gave them my darkest secrets to learn from them. They told me I had come to the right place and that I had joined the ranks of those who could brave their own mortality. They told me that I wasn’t supposed to know that a guest had chased after her camera past the edge of the guidelines and was swept to her death by gravity. As I took the steps I risked nothing. Children ran outside the enormous steel lanyards stretched between posts, while slower traffic kept to the two-by-fours bolted flat to the side of the mountain as steps.
I crept to the edge of the north face on my belly. I couldn’t even make out the trees when I peeked over the edge. I knew from driving into the park that the forest below me had trees the size of large buildings. The forest floor of the great valley looked like a soft, green carpet. I rolled over and looked up. I had to be brave. I swept my legs over the over the side and sat dangling my legs from the edge. I dared and it terrified me. I dared as long as I could before thoughts crept in and began distracting me. I moved over to a safer area where I could daydream. I looked back at Glacier point and stared at where my car would have been parked through the trees. The wind swept over my face. The sun bathed my thoughts.
I had plenty of time to think about my past, but it slipped away from me as it collided with my efforts to drink in my surroundings. I had Borderline Personality Disorder on the run. I was winning. For the first time in my life, -I- was winning. And, I was free to create a life for myself where I could stamp it out for good. The only price to do it was everything. I felt this exhilarating sensation when I went to school in secret and had crashed my motorcycle while driving drunk in the rain the night before classes started. I had been making out with a not-so-single bartender and getting free drinks at a tax write off bar in the middle of a strip mall on the east side of the city. When I met Byron, the scars on my hands and shoulder were still raw. I knew I needed a cab. But I had risked too much and gambled too hard with people who drove drunk on the regular. People insisted I could get home on my bike alone safely. I turned too late and pitched it end over end, shattering the crank case, at only 25 miles per hour. I went to class in bandages the next day. Looking out at the valley, I felt like I did that first day of school my fourth time trying to succeed at getting a degree. I hurt physically and mentally from the decisions I had made. But, I had made the right choice.
When I returned to Glacier Point the next day, I begged the crowd of people at the gift shop so that one of them would give me a ride to pick up a gas can. I held a melting ice cream bar which I carelessly ate while moving through the crowd. It was a treat I gave myself to test my account. I was going to see San Francisco for the first time in my life later that day. I was going to stand in the ocean later that day. I could have walked to the gas station with a smile on my face all 20 miles, or whatever it was.
I survived long enough to see San Francisco. I wept as I drove across the Bay bridge, the cranes like AT-ATs standing ready to battle in the bay waters and the sun dappled hills laced with fog. I stopped in the flagship store to let the general manager know I had made it and would be ready to work the next day, Monday morning. Afterwards, I drove down Geary and arrived at the beach. The ocean called me to come play with it. I took off my shoes and ran in the cold spray of the waves, crying tears of joy. I wept for the man I would have become if I had stayed in Ohio. I laughed to myself at the spark of joy I felt for my future. I knew that I would become a man who didn’t know who he was until he died.
That night I drank grappa at a bar in North Beach. It was only the beginning, and it happened somewhere in the middle. It has been 10 years now and I have become a cowboy made of stardust. What came next, and what came before, will have to wait until next time.