Yogi Berra The Doppler effect of speeding cars: approaching and departing. We were in the middle, the place where ‘to’ and ‘from’ meet. I was waking up and he was going to sleep—another meeting place—a thread that weaves the conscious with the mystic fabric of the imaginable. When the night dances with the morning, it is only for a moment. And that was the moment I saw them, the three crows who keep watch at the gateway, the Ferrymen at the River Styx.
It was as if events had culminated to this point. Waking there beside the highway, it didn’t matter that the thickness of my sleeping bag couldn’t coerce the cold cement beneath to soften. Something inside of me was just too big. It scratched and gnawed and prodded from the center. It pressed against the edges of my being, like an embryonic bird too far grown to continue justifying its shell. There comes a day when nothing can stop it from being born. Thrust into an inevitable journey.
“G’night, Sunshine.” Chuck rolled over, pulling his sleeping bag in tight. A brief gust of warmth and patchouli puffed past my face.
The stream of cars was only steady enough to keep silence from getting a word in edgewise. Just as the low hiss of a vacation-loaded minivan faded into the distance, the higher pitch of an approaching hatchback or four-door sedan took its place. The hatchbacks sounded like the frothing of a Minneapolis café au lait.
It was becoming that jelly-purple periphery of morning, when the sun began to seem like more than just a rumor. Laying in the serene stasis just outside the margins of the highway, it was clear freedom had found this place a suitable habitat. We could choose to go one way, to adventure off to the west if we liked. Chuck had friends in Cali. Or we could go east. At that moment, we could choose to go anywhere we wanted. Nothing tied us down. No parents. No school. No rent. No jobs. No responsibilities. Pure unpasteurized freedom. I was scarcely aware of this thought when a Volkswagon Bus lolled past emitting Janis Joplin, who crooned irony from beyond the grave, “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose…”
Choices are tiny origins. Most are fleeting moments, often too wily to catch; moments in which we exist suspended at an instant, just before the road ahead of us branches out into two markedly different paths. Sometimes a mere step in one direction can cause a cascading chain of events to follow, and once a path is chosen they continue at a pace that cannot be stopped. The floodgates are open. The current will now carry us barreling forth along one side of the boulder instead of the other.
But there is that sole pivotal instant, the point where everything could have been vastly different with a single discrete step. It is the veritable bifurcation station, that slippery place usually too precarious to balance on more than a millisecond. Most often we are not privy to the unveiling of these moments as they occur. We seldom notice them at all—though they seem to be almost sarcastically obvious in hindsight. Hindsight: that condescending know-it-all. It stands by smirking as we toil through life on a learning curve. We bungle through our days, ever surprised at the clear injustice of stepping in dog poop while minding-our-own-business, skipping directly through the dog poop factory. Hindsight. Cause and effect. Our choices and their progeny.
On that morning, there under the overpass, I caught one of those ever-elusive moments of choice. It was as if I’d accidently stepped on it, then realized what I’d caught, and so held it in place long enough to stretch it out, examine it, marvel and wonder. It was like finding out a fairy had flown into my butterfly net. A clear cut moment of choice, so unmistakably presented before me in all of its splendor.
There I was, still half in my sleeping bag. My visual field was slanted at the same steep angle as the concrete hillside beneath the bridge. We lay midway between the wide highway above and its bisecting freeway below, Chuck and I. It was my turn to keep watch while he slept. We’d only just crossed over into the Oklahoma border, having hitchhiked away from the vast Indiana popcorn fields near my high school. The sun was just beginning to melt the crisp dew, waking the green from its slumber deep within the night-frozen, silver blades of grass. The music of the air, as it ran its fingers through the hair of the morning, began to override the sounds of the late-driving travelers and the early-rising semis. They passed right by us, like they didn’t even know we were there.
Time didn’t exist in that moment. I rose to one elbow, and the world faded as I bore witness to the lyrical movements of three crows nearby, who seemed deeply steeped in a ritualistic dance. They’d drawn a circle in the dew as they stirred. I watched, rapt to the point of being spellbound. Everything around me narrowed completely as they conjured and leapt and danced about the grass. Inky wings spread high while feet stamped low. They hopped and twirled and cawed and chanted. I could hear the shaman’s drum beating, the tempo pounding into my ears. My own heartbeat. I was a witness to this sacred moment, an honored guest attending the ceremony, eyewitness to the true essence of meaning intrinsic to this moment; yet I was alone in my choice. The crows knew. They lived somewhere beyond time. Chronos. Crow-knows. They knew as the Fates do what this choice would mean. They celebrated. They danced. They churned the world back into motion.
My eyes became blinded as the morning sun rose above the curtains of the scarlet horizon and the showtime of the morning began. I squinted against the white light. When my eyes adjusted they were gone. The crows had remained somewhere within those scarlet curtains, within the veil that cloaks the bare and timeless features of truth.
The semis returned. I looked around, sitting up all the way. The road stretched out to the right, beyond the lump of sleeping bag where Chuck was sleeping, and out further to the places I’d never been. I didn’t know what awaited me there. The road also stretched just as far to the left, but I’d already come from that place. Part of me knew I could choose to go back. It wasn’t too late to return, to say that I was young, that I’d made a mistake. It had only been four days since I’d abandoned my new high school to set out on the road. I could get my diploma, probably eventually go to college. I could aspire to a meaningful career, perhaps get married, and maybe even have children some day. I could live a life where things would be stable, where the things I expected came true. I could choose a direction where all would be predictable and comfortable and safe. As I gazed back down the road to what I knew, the sun began burning tears into my eyes.
I turned again toward the right. There I could see the path that the sun was now illuminating for me. It was the path I knew I’d already chosen within that brief and elusive moment where the crows danced. Before me lay a future I couldn’t guess. The unknown was courting me with its elbow crooked, enthusiastically awaiting my accepting arm, so it might lead me out into our own dance. Make no mistake: I was fully aware it was the hard road I was choosing. I’d heard the crows that morning, giving both warning and blessing in a simultaneous whisper during their supernatural ballet.
I chose a life with grit. It was purposeful. Deliberate. Of course I was not privy to the precise details of the road I’d chosen, but I’d willingly selected my direction that morning by the highway, thus welcoming the path which would lead to juvenile detention centers and homelessness, to rape and addiction, hardship and heartbreak, needles and the deaths of those I cherished. I’d willingly opted for the road which led to violence and domestic abuse, to having suicidal thoughts, to feeling as if I’d been thrown away. I’d invited the journey toward selling my skin one song at a time, to acting like a jackass and going to rehab, to brushes with cancer, to bearing the storms of seemingly insurmountable poverty, and to withstanding such unmanageable, impossible pain. I chose a path barreling toward a frenzied crescendo, as if my life were a soul-shredding solo being played by a mad violinist. It all happened in one mere moment when I took that single step; when I chose which road I would travel rather than the other. The maestro had always been me.
And each of these moments were worth it.
It is only through the experience of such things that I can now experience precious insight into what it really means to love and be loved. It is only through the experience of such things that I now know how to help others, that I am even able to appreciate warmth and kindness, that I no longer take anything or anyone for granted. I can now know true beauty when it surrounds me. I can know what it means to be awake, alive, to not squander time. I can squeeze significance and meaning from the tiniest of things. And now I can see that I have value. The hard road was a gift that led me to true happiness, for I can now see the colors and spices that life sprinkles over even the mundane.
And it could have all been vastly different with a single discrete step.