(Excerpted from Chapter 15: Back to the Land: The Grateful Unrich…)
In April I buy a culvert and hire a backhoe to put in another driveway off the highway. We buy a metal frame building kit from our crazy neighbor Fred and put it up near the road.
We drive to Tahlequah, Oklahoma where Jill drops me off. I have $1,000 in my pocket, most of what we have to our name. I hitch a ride with a trucker all the way to the Mexican border, then catch consecutive buses all the way to Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. I spend $400 on Guatemalan textiles, spend one night in a hotel, and head back north via Palenque, Mexico where I spend another $400 on Yucatan hammocks. Without sleeping I catch the next bus for the US border.
I arrive at the border around midnight carrying a grain sack full of hammocks and my old Nepalese rucksack full of textiles. I am told that due to the volume I will have to wait until morning and clear customs. There is no way in hell that I am going back into Matamoros at this hour. I light a cigarette and drift back into the shadows. At 1:00 AM there is a shift change. Using the chaos to my advantage, I slip across the border unseen.
I stop at a phone booth to call Jill and to make sure they haven’t seen me. I tell her the deal, hang up and take off on a dead sprint through weeds head high with 100 pounds of now-contraband goods on my back. I do not stop until I reach downtown McAllen five miles later. It’s 2:00 AM. I duck into Denny’s and drink coffee all night.
At 5:00 AM I go to the Greyhound station, get a ticket and am soon headed north. The bus is stopped at a checkpoint south of San Antonio. I panic. But my contraband goes undetected. Jill picks me up in Fayetteville. The entire trip takes just eight days. Trail of Tears Trading Post is now open for business. The highway department takes down our signs – hand-painted and constructed from rotting plywood. We drive down to their office, retrieve them and put them back up. They take them down again. We go get them and put them back up.
Eventually we wear them down. We buy bulk trinkets from Sunday New York Times ads and go to auctions for additional inventory. We cover the metal frame structure with a blue tarp. We are open Friday-Sunday, hauling the stuff out every Friday morning and bringing it back in on Sunday night, barring rain.
We dig and plant a huge organic garden. We can pickles, tomatoes and sauerkraut; and freeze corn, peppers and okra. We plant fruit trees, strawberries and forsythia. We sell produce at our stand. Jill learns to make jewelry, with the help of a girl from Bartlesville who stops by our stand one day. Her name is Joni. In a three day weekend we usually knock down $350 or so.
Joni stops by again, this time accompanied by a friend. We agree to let Larry move his VW van into our back woods. Soon he is joined by his Oklahoma fugitive friends – Chris and Ken. I am leery but want to help them escape the city. At first the woods seem to transform them from their urban pettiness. But my naive attempt to reform these common criminals has no lasting effect.
I purchase a 1978 Chevy van for $550, so I let Larry drive away the Plymouth, which I’ve allowed Ken to buy with no money down. They take it on a 150-mile joy ride to some Tulsa bar and blow the engine.
I agree to let Ken do work to pay off the car. He starts complaining, none of them find work and our chickens began disappearing. They begin to spend more time in the house than in the woods and generally become a major drag.
Tonight a car pulls up at our stand at midnight. I grab my .22 rifle and fire a high shot in its general direction. I hear voices plea for mercy. It’s Chris and Larry. They have been on a midnight raid, stealing a canoe from a nearby White River outfitter. They want to stash it in our woods. I am livid.
Ken has the mind of a child wrapped in a 6’2” 230 lb. body. He is growing increasingly frustrated at Larry’s unwillingness to pay him for blowing up his car so that he can pay me off. Today he physically attacks the much smaller Larry in our home. I step between them and tell them to take it outside, which they do.
I sense a looming showdown with Ken. He has done a ton of cocaine in his time and is unbalanced. Part of me wants to kill him and bury him in the woods. I would be doing society a favor. He brags of his prominence on the streets of Stillwater, streets ruled by the same fear that runs these factories, that runs America. He is a symbol of the might-is-right paradigm that rules the land. I finally kick them out.
It is the end of October, a full year since we loaded the Plymouth and tore out of the cultural desert of Great Falls, MT. The initial landing was a rough one, our feet churning instantly, having gambled our life savings for a chance to live in the country, a chance to move further from the grid of industrial America.
Political activism has taken a back seat to on-the-job political struggle and the politics of separation from the system, of creating a new system. Lacking the collective will to form a revolutionary army, much less a back-to-the-land brigade, we tired of waiting and set out on our own to make real revolutionary change in our own lives. It has been a lonely road of endless work and endless struggle. But we have succeeded in many ways.
Today I make the last payment on our land. Bill Trotter is so blown away that he takes an extra $750 off the price. We have gained his respect.
Our neighbor Bob has grown his hair longer. We drink whiskey together sometimes and I sense a curiosity in him to learn more. Still he clings to his Roundup and his 9-5 routine. His wife June – a ward of Bentonville-based Wal-Mart – has an intense fear of fire, especially of the two acre blaze we lit last spring to burn the front area where the garden now lies.
Our neighbor on the opposite side is Maggie Cochrane, who knows everything and will tell you all about it until your spinning head feels like it might fly right off your neck. She’s a gatekeeper for the system and doesn’t like it much that we’re selling hippie garb on the highway. She complains weekly that our chickens are dangerously close to her petunia patch. During her latest rant I promise, to her horror, to kill them all that very day. And I do, bringing Bob and June the very last one.
Maggie’s daughter Patti – a real piece of city work – is building a $100,000 house behind Maggie’s and far too close to our trailer. Her security light – an oxymoron if ever there were one – shines directly into our bedroom window.
Where we hoped to find serenity, we discovered only the constant whir of lawnmowers, weed eaters, brush hogs and other tragedies of industrialization. Some days I wonder if we would enjoy more sanity in the heart of New York City, where at least I wouldn’t have to pretend to like the idiots behind the machines.
Winter has come early to the Ozarks, sending tour buses scurrying west out of Eureka Springs in search of straighter roads. My mother is on one of those buses and visits briefly. While she is here our friend Joni hits a tree while driving drunk. We rescue her from the emergency room before the persistent but fumbling nurses can attempt yet another botched blood-alcohol test, then nurse her back to health at our house.
Karen Menges – who has ditched her coke-head husband – visits. So do Grandma Henderson, Uncle Claire and Mary. Jill’s nephew Gabriel comes to stay with us for two weeks. Jill’s folks come for a visit. We rescue a hitchhiking carnie from a looming ice storm and are stuck with him for three days. He tells us exactly how each carnival game is rigged so you can’t win.
My mind remains tangled in the same knot of worry and rage that has defined my existence here. America is crumbling amidst the bloody entrails of the global poor – victims of greed and deception. Arkansas is a prime laboratory for a flurry of unsavory economic experimentation. The carnage is visible. Little Rock has a higher per capita murder rate than Washington, DC.
This corner of Northwest Arkansas is home to the worst union-busting corporations in America. Firms like Wal-Mart, JB Hunt – the trucking firm that pioneered the use of on-board satellite tracking systems to monitor its drivers – and Tyson – whose corporate chickens lay scattered on area roads – are a fine metaphor for those Mexican desperados and urbanized hillbillies who have forsaken their simple rural lives for the promise of cash and a daily snort of methamphetamine.
There are rumors that Tyson is involved in the Columbian coke transfers near Mena. Northwest Arkansas foreshadows America’s future – a low-wage manufacturing base run on fear, an Orwellian nightmare incarnated in the form of fast-moving assembly lines manned by crystal meth freaks, a rest stop for headless corporations bound for Haiti or Taiwan or Sri Lanka.
Our ten acres are filled with the sadness of a thousand slaughtered warriors who resisted this looming nightmare, who wanted only to remain on their land. Most days my insides feel like metal grinding on metal. I am irritated and impatient. The writing is on the wall. It’s time to go.
We put a sign up at the Eureka Springs library advertising our place for rent for $275/month. A pair of lesbian fruitatarians answer the ad and we agree to let them move in early. They live with us for nearly a month. It is not pretty. They have three dogs of their own.
I sell the metal frame building and build a bed in the back of the 78’ Chevy Van, supported by milk crates we grabbed on a midnight run from behind the Garfield Quick Stop. I arrange two R/T courier flights from Miami to Caracas, Venezuela for $100 each. I have to get out of this country again for awhile. The lesbians will watch Buck and Milo while we’re gone, then we’ll meet them in Florida in January where we’ll pick up the boys. After paying off our place we have only $1000 left.
It is December 3rd. We arise at 8:00 AM in the parking lot of a Jonesboro, AR truck stop. Last night I slept better than I had in a long time, free of sedentary life in a home-made bed atop all we own in the world in the back of the 1978 Chevy van that we now affectionately call Tubs.
This morning I set about cleaning the house on wheels. Our departure had been hasty. I am struck by how a space gets easier to clean as its size decreases. It is a nice change from the drudgery of keeping up a home, growing a massive garden, feeding chickens and continually putting “things” away. Simplify, simplify, simplify!
Often life seems a trade-off between boredom and danger. It occurs to me that there will be new dangers in our life on the road. I load my .22 rifle and stash it in a safe but easy to reach location. The road has a history of abusing nomads, whether denying them the right to graze their herd or running them out of a grocery store parking lot. My nerves are not calmed when the first thing I see upon entry into the truck stop are shiny laminated clubs – sawed-off baseball bats that seem to beckon every fat paranoid trucker to step up to the plate and take a whack at the pizza delivery guy.
We stop for the night in Birmingham. The weather has been gloomy all day and I keep seeing grey herons – birds of incredible sadness. We pull into the driveway of Jill’s Aunt Linda and Uncle Jimmy. Jimmy works in the steel mills and is a union man. Linda has numerous health problems, which somehow seem connected to those steel mills. The road out of Birmingham is covered with freezing rain, turning quickly to a sheet of ice.
We drive in rain until we reach Tallahassee, FL. I like this college town, despite getting run out of a hotel parking lot where we munched down a $3.99 Hungry Howie’s large pepperoni. It’s nice to be around black folks. They make more sense to me.
Once we pass Crystal River, things turn from redneck hunting camp to geriatric ward for the East Coast rich. We head east at Naples and drive through the Everglades on the Tamiami Trail, watching alligators with egrets on their backs.
We roll into Miami after dark. Jill has a premonition that we will die if we fly out of here. I wonder if it is real, or just a fear-inspired thought brought on by this city of venomous impoverished rage and haughty opulence living side-by-side. The drive from Little Havana to Coral Gables tells the tale. I feel as though sometime in the near future this city will explode from a fire caused by internal combustion.
We try parking in a couple of different places, but I keep finding myself reaching for my rifle. Finally we decide to head back out into the Everglades and get some peace and quiet. If Jill wakes up and still feels her vision of doom, we will forego the trip and head back north. If not we will come back in the morning when things are a bit less volatile. We find a nice quiet pull-out and doze off to a symphony of frogs, crickets and cicadas.
At first light there is a knock on the van. It is a park ranger and she informs us that we have spent the night at a place known locally as “Dead Body Road”. We tell her it beat the hell out of 42nd Street in Miami. She doesn’t like that response. Now she gets very serious and tells Jill to come with her. She asks her who I am and if she is in danger. It takes awhile for Jill to convince her, but finally we are left to morning coffee.
Jill feels better today about Venezuela, so we drive back to Miami and hatch a plan. First, we pick up our courier flight tickets near the airport. Then we stop by a storage unit and ask how much it will cost to store the van for one month. When the man says “Fifty dollars” I nearly faint. That’s the price of a hotel. I forego fainting and pop the critical question, waving fifty greenbacks in front of him, “Would you mind if we sleep in the van tonight in the storage unit?” No problem. It’s a coup d’teat. We cook dinner over our two burner stove in the quiet, dark and safe storage unit. We sleep like babies.
Morning is hard to judge, but we manage to arise by 8:00. We walk to a nearby La Quinta Hotel. We casually walk into the lobby and ask when the next airport shuttle is leaving. “Ten o’clock sharp!” replies the portly Haitian woman. I nod disinterestedly, playing the role of arrogant businessman, and head for the free breakfast bar. I grab two coffees and several Danishes and carry them to a bench outside where Jill waits with our backpacks. We finish these and I head back in for coffee refills and a few oranges and apples for later.
It is 10:00 and I am about to authenticate my standing in the community with loud complaints about the slow service, when the Haitian woman pokes her head out of door. “Are you waiting for the airport shuttle?” she inquires. “Yeah”, I respond briskly, while scratching my balls. She quickly ducks back inside and makes the call. Soon we are on our way to Miami International Airport, a good five mile drive, on our own private airport shuttle bus.
I fly out today, while Jill will fly tomorrow. The one drawback to these $100 courier flights is that there is only one flight per day. No problem. We have located the top floor pool and shower rooms in the airport hotel. Jill can sleep safely at the airport and even get freshened up for her trip tomorrow. I wave goodbye to her at the American Airlines departure gate and ready myself for a solo plunge onto the mean streets of Caracas.
Dean Henderson is the author of four books: Big Oil & Their Bankers in the Persian Gulf: Four Horsemen, Eight Families & Their Global Intelligence, Narcotics & Terror Network, The Grateful Unrich: Revolution in 50 Countries, Das Kartell der Federal Reserve & Stickin’ it to the Matrix.
You can subscribe free to his weekly Left Hook column @ www.deanhenderson.wordpress.com