Guilty as Charged
If Purgatory exists, I imagine it looks something like the Concord District Courthouse’s waiting room: a torturous realm of eternal, soul-sucking silence; overly air-conditioned, reeking of floor cleaner, lined with wooden benches crammed with faces of desperation and dread. The few empty areas are filled with cheery motel-paintings and attractive potted plants—a feeble effort to distract you from ripping out all your hair and then screaming at the mirror.
I nervously fidgeted with my paperwork; I had a lot at stake. If I were convicted, I would need to pay fines equivalent to two months worth of budget. This meant that I would either have to remove two countries from my route or skip eating lunch for six months. For a brief, humiliating moment, I humored the idea of trying live webcam modeling from the road, but quickly overruled it; Asia’s connection speeds are too slow, plus whenever I try to do ‘sexy face,’ it looks like I’ve suddenly gone blind.
I hired the sneakiest, con-artist lawyer I could afford. His name was David and he a short, older man with a sad comb-over and a conniving, phony smile. “What are we charged with?” he queried when I first visited his office (his basement).
“It’s a funny story,” I chuckled. “But basically I was pulled over driving an unregistered vehicle that wasn’t insured. Also, the front license plate was missing. And the back license plate belonged to a different car,” I said. I went on to explain how my car had broken down and how I’d just traded it in for a new car, but hadn’t finished the paperwork yet and bullshit, bullshit, bullshit. It was a fairly indefensible position; they caught me with my pants down and were ready to administer their great, black dildo of justice.
David thought quietly for a moment and then leaned forward, very serious. He squinted his beady eyes and nasally declared, “You’re the victim here.”
I blinked. “Is that so?”
I found his amusing confidence comforting; at least until ‘Steve McDonald!’ was called in the courthouse waiting room, and I suddenly realized that the judge might just laugh at that defense. I gathered my things and followed David to the door.
I’ll have to skip Bali and Brunei, I decided. And I’ll have to start practicing my sexy face.
When I first learned that I would need to fly back to America for a court case, I was surprisingly happy. I suspect this was some form of homesickness trying to manifest itself, despite the fact that I was quite homeless. As my trip unfolded, I increasingly found my thoughts drifting back to last year on Cape Cod; nostalgic memories of my house, of my family, of my friends, of starlit bonfires and micro beer on the beach, of mind-bending, black-lit, neon body-painted dance parties, of the crippling hangovers that invariably ensued, of ritual Sunday night hookah sessions with Fiona, Matt, Cassie, and Joe.
I think that time was the pinnacle of my booze-fueled early adulthood; my golden age of hedonistic idiocy. For my friends and I, it was that transitional period between college and career; that beautiful period of life when stress and responsibility are supplanted by impermanence and immediacy, when you get to drink tequila out a squirt gun, eat a bag of mushrooms in a bathroom stall, and then wake up to find that you’ve had Tweety Bird ironically tattooed on your lower back. You can say stupid things you don’t mean and make stupid mistakes you won’t remember or regret. Nothing means anything, because everything is just for now. In February, you’ll start your career. In February, you’ll move to Dallas. In February, you’ll finally buy your one-way ticket to Asia.
But now I was crawling back in June, hoping the party hadn’t ended.
I booked a round-trip ticket from Beijing to New York, a two-month vacation home.
I often used to wake up in the middle of the night, look around my hotel room, and for a brief, disorienting moment, not know where I was.
Then one night, I woke up to find that I was in my own bedroom. Very abruptly, I was home, and Asia seemed a very distant, intangible notion. My old boss was kind enough to give me my old job back at the pub, and within a week, I happily fell back into my old routine.
I happily reunited with family and friends, I drank tequila out of a squirt gun, and I sprawled out with friends on a blanket on the beach, drunkenly pointing up at constellations that don’t exist and listening to the crackle of the bonfire. I danced all night under black lights and did my best to deny the fact that any time had past, which, at times, felt achingly obvious; many of my friends had moved on to bigger and better things elsewhere; the black light paint felt itchier than I remembered; the micro beer tasted less pretentious; the beach seemed windier, the hangovers more punishing. In fact, nothing I was doing lived up to my rose-tinted memories, and I found it very frustrating. Overshadowing all of this was the worry of my impending court case and premonitions of legal doom. I quickly grew disenchanted, and started to long for the road again.
Then suddenly, as abruptly as I had come home, I was boarding my flight back to Beijing to resume my travels—but as a result of the court case, I had a new, altered route.
On my first day back in China, I hired a driver to take me to an abandoned section of the Great Wall called Jiankou, a crumbling stretch that winds along a steep mountain ridge, plunging up and down at death-defying angles. While the ‘tourist’ portions of China’s Great Wall have been restored to the point that they are no longer historical, Jiankou’s position is so inaccessible and treacherous that it has managed to retain its historical integrity, and much of it has been dramatically reclaimed by the forest. It is often regarded as the most beautiful, but dangerous stretch of the Great Wall.
I packed enough food and water for two days, as well as a tent, which I pitched in an abandoned watchtower called Jiuyan Lou, or ‘Nine Eye Watchtower’—the former general’s living quarters. By sundown, I was sitting on the parapet, snacking on peanut butter with my fingers, humming along to a playlist that a friend had made for me before I left home, and watching the sun dip below the karst mountaintops, bathing the silent, ghostly ruins in shafts of orange light.
It was at this moment that I thought I felt my cellphone vibrate and instinctively reached for my pocket—only to remember that I didn’t have a cellphone anymore and that nobody would be calling me again for at least another year and a half. My new drinking buddies were Transience and Solitude. I was alone; I was alone on a mountaintop, eating peanut butter with my hands, sadly bobbing my head to club music, and nobody would call me again for another year and half.
I suddenly missed home. I suddenly missed having a normal life. I suddenly missed a million little things that until that moment had seemed insignificant.
I missed my cellphone ringing. I missed people knowing my name. I missed the thoughtless comfort of routine. I missed having more than two pairs of clothes. I missed having a temporary ceasefire with my bowels. I missed waking up in the middle of the night and knowing exactly where I was.
I had been so caught up and frustrated trying to reenact old memories that my whole summer had slipped away and I never took a moment to appreciate it for what it was. It’s not last year anymore; everyone is getting older; every party has its end; you can’t fetishize nostalgia or try to relive the past—the best you can do is to try to enjoy this moment now. This might sound like cliché, idiotic, and useless advice, and that’s because it is. Such tendencies are out of your control.
Last year, you were pining for the year before last. Next year, you’ll be pining for today.
Tomorrow, I’ll be pining for this spectacular view, a snapshot frozen in my memory of the Great Wall undulating into the distant starry night. Except the wall will be taller, the slopes will be more precipitous, and the stars will be burning a thousand times brighter.
My focus is solely on the future now, building anticipation for my new adventures, as well as my newly altered travel route.
Much to my shock, my wonderful crook of a lawyer somehow convinced the judge that I was faultless (a preposterous lie) (she seemed to find his wormy antics amusing) and all of my charges were dismissed without incurring a single court fee. With the money I had set aside to pay the fines (plus the extra money I’d raised at the pub), I was able to adjust my route and add two new countries to the journey…
I hear South Korea is nice in November.
I hear Outer Mongolia is terribly cold in October, but that happens to be the time when the Kazakh nomads’ hold their Eagle Hunting Festival—and I couldn’t possibly miss that.
So upon further reflection, fuck my cellphone.
Next stop: Ulaan Baatar.
For photographic eye-candy of the Kazakh nomads’ Eagle Hunting Festival, and to see how Backpackology got banned in Kazakhstan, check out the Photo Travelogue, “A Steppe Too Far?: Eagle Hunters, Cultural Darwinism, & Getting Banned in Kazakhstan”
Or read about the epic, disastrous journey to reach there, hitchhiking across the Gobi Desert in “The Long Road to Nowhere: A Hitchhiker’s Tale from Outer Mongolia”