I was already hitchhiking back toward the States, but I was taking my sweet time. After a ride in a sports car from a sunglass-merchant and philosopher named Mephistopheles I found myself living in Zihuatanejo, cleaning pools for a hotel manager in exchange for an air-conditioned, Polynesian-style bungalow to stay in. I was taking cooking classes and practicing Tai Chi under masters and I was swimming out as far as I could into the bay from Playa de la Ropa. I had made friends with a shaman who worked with Rodrigo y Gabriela, tending their tired hands and who assured me she could set up a meeting. Another friend knew an archaeologist busy excavating Mayan ruins who needed another hand in her crew. I was going to stay here a long time.
Then one day, I checked my email and discovered that Tomas Garreton had died.
He had fallen off a train.
I walked around the concrete buildings for hours on the outskirts of town, following behind children as they shouted and chased each other through the empty canals. Lazy dogs lifted their heads from the coveted shade to sniff the exotic stranger.
The hotel manager told me of his father’s death and how he had been a hero to many, how people had come from all around and there was music and feasting and biplane pilots who flew close enough to the earth to tear the grass from the ground and I don’t know much is true and how much is lost in this man’s love for his father and then I realize it is all true. The shaman takes my hand, she is filled with pity because she knows that Americans do not know death, that they try to sweep it under the carpet like so much bad business. “In Mexico, we know the truth about death,” she tells me. “Nothing is lost.”
That night, I sat listlessly as the dinner party complimented the “gringo stilo” food I had prepared and suddenly I knew I had to leave, had to go and pay my respects. I finished up my commitments and got back on the road two days later, my new friends urging me to stay, or at the least, to promise to return.
Everyone stops to pick you up in Mexico. It seems to make sense to them, you need a ride, they have a car. And admittedly, they are curious – there are no other white hitchhikers here.
The flipside is that everyone is only headed to the next town over. I might get thirty rides in a day. I would rise before dawn and still be marching in the dark, thumb out as the wild lights of the fiesta that defines all Mexican nights began to thump and call in the short distance. I was in a hurry to arrive before Tomas would be sent off into the beyond and all of a sudden, I would let nothing stop my progress north.
I would imagine Tomas there with me, in a truckbed, or across from me on a bench in the back of an collectivo, beneath a metal roof that resembled a covered wagon, smiling big with a look that always said, “Can you believe this?” I imagined him screaming above his ringing mandolin. A last journey together.
Six schoolbuses had parked themselves across the only southern highway and my ride and I were at the back of a long, sweaty traffic jam. Women appeared carried trays of cookies and bread and men called out prices, carrying coolers of ice cream on their shoulders. The schoolbuses bore signs demanding new schools and children kicked soccer balls in the dust between them. Women called out to me, coyly cooing, “Guido, Guido.” The police stood about, idly smoking cigarettes.
Before I left, Tomas advised me if anyone demands “Dame un peso” (Give me a peso), there was only one proper response. A drunk man, joining in on the merchant scene, approached me, the only gringo in the state, and tried to sell me a car jack. I told him I didn’t need it and he said just that. “Dame un peso.”
“No. Tu dame un peso.” The crowd erupted into laughter and the drunken man waved me off and moved on.
I crossed the border into my home country and the only ride I could get was in the back of a police car. The officer told me hitchhiking was illegal in Arizona, but he was headed to Tuscon if I needed a ride. I stood at a gas station in Tuscon for hours. Nobody would give me a ride, but they insisted I take dollar bills. They handed them over gingerly, as though I might bite. They ran from my eyes and words.
Finally, a prostitute gave me a lift to Phoenix, and I used the money to get on a Greyhound bound for Sacramento. Tomas’ celebration of life was two days away. I slept in a park, and a meth dealer cheerily woke me in the night to inform me we were neighbors.
Hitching north from there was a breeze, in the plush vans of young explorers and the electric hybrids of grey-bearded hippies headed to the mountains. Northern California thrummed with excitement for the coming of autumn.
I stood on the interstate outside of Medford, the sun setting in long rays behind the golden mountains. I had seventy-five cents in my pocket and held my thumb out triumphantly, determined to catch my last ride tonight. I saw something I hardly believed but which I can never forget, something I wasn’t meant to see: a man in a suit behind the wheel of a sedan, flying past me unseeing at eighty miles an hour. He was weeping and screaming and he held a pistol against his temple.
A trucker from Bulgaria gave me my last ride to Portland and that night I collapsed into a familiar bed. Soon, I would be back in Astoria, baking bread to fund a new adventure south, but for now I needed to rest. I was at the end of a journey of thousands of miles. Hundreds of people from all over the continent had traveled their own long distances and had weathered their own adventures to gather and say goodbye to our friend Tomas, who had always seemed to move too fast and to possess a spirit too large for life on this subdued earth. We would bring piles of instruments and cans of spray paint and stumble to the train trestle near where he had grown up and we would climb into its rafters and sit and reflect. We would all feel like I was feeling, like a hero had fallen, like there was a secret here we should realize but could not understand, like horrible injustice had proven itself in the world again but we wanted to know better.
Tomas, who had undertaken so many journeys and arrived on our doorstep, unexpected and filthy and filled with an undeniable, contagious mirth, who would proceed to wreck our environment every time but never prove himself unwelcome company, Tomas would not change. Still, he arrives at my door, too familiar to knock, coming right in and everything around me tries not to fall apart, but he knows he is always welcome to stay here awhile before he travels on. In this way, nothing is changed. Nothing is lost.