A chance encounter on the Pacific Coast Highway

I so much wanted the day to be a good one.

But there was fog everywhere. Fog up the coastline where it rolls in with the waves and surfers; fog down the coastline where it beats upon the rocks disturbing gulls and people trying to do yoga on the beach. Fog in San Clemente, fog in Newport Beach.  Chance people driving the Pacific Coast Highway, peeping out their windows or over handlebars into a sky of fog, thought they were driving on no highway at all, but in clouds with no exit ramps.

The fog didn't come on little cat feet. It muscled its way in like a neighborhood dog looking for food, and decided to stick around until its goal had been met.

"It can't be like this all the way to Portland," I said to myself at a red traffic light in Huntingdon Beach. 

And then the universe stepped up to answer, sending me Leonora.

She pulled up right beside me on her motorcycle and asked, "Going on a trip?"

She was probably in her mid 20s. She had on a white helmet, white jacket, sunglasses, chaps, a ponytail. She had a slight Spanish or Italian accent. I didn't take much notice of her motorcycle, other than it had some really nice tan saddlebags.

"Yep, going to Portland."

"All the way on Highway 1?"

I told her it would probably take a month, but yes -- all the way on Highway 1.

"Where are you off to?" I asked. (I admit it was a stupid question.)

She shrugged her shoulders and said, "To work."

I nodded my head in what I hope portrayed compassion.

"Is it always foggy like this?" I asked (Another stupid question, but it WAS foggy.)

"Yes, this time of year it is, but it should clear up by 9."

And then I asked her name, but before I could comprehend what she was saying (her accent got a bit in the way), the light changed and she was off.

I followed her for two more lights then did a partial California lane-splitting move to pull up right beside her.

"What did you say your name was? Spell it."

L-E-O-N-O-R-A, she said -- and just in time.

The light changed, she waved, and then she was gone.

Leonora, I repeated to myself.

Five minutes later the fog cleared and the sun came out.

The king and his four cats

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away (but curiously much like our own), there lived a king who had four cats. He didn’t particularly like cats, but he had them because all the other kings had pet animals and cats seemed to require the least amount of his attention.

One day, the king noticed the oldest of the four cats was scratching itself because it had a flea on its back. “But since it’s just one,” the king thought, “it’s no big concern at all. Before you know it, it’ll just disappear all by itself. I’ve got this under control.”

The royal vet could do nothing but shake his head.

By the next day, the cat had more fleas. So, the king took decisive action and put flea powder on the cat – just the one because the other cats weren’t showing any signs of having fleas; besides, they were younger, more agile, and probably too fast on their feet to even get fleas, he thought.

“Now I’ve really got this under control,” the king said. “There could’ve been hundreds more of those nasty buggers, but I put a stop to that. It will soon run its course faster than you’ve ever seen before.”

Again, the royal vet could do nothing but shake his head.

By the next day, there were even more fleas. Maybe thousands more. “But there could’ve been millions more if I hadn’t put powder on that old cat,” thought the king, who was so proud of himself for being proactive. “But, I might as well put powder on the next oldest cat, just to be safe.”

And he did, even though it was a tad late. The cat already had fleas and had been spreading them all over the castle.

“Well,” said the king, “I’ll just isolate those two cats in an upstairs chamber, and the fleas will die out faster than you would ever think possible. Of course, there’s no need to check the other cats for fleas because they are the youngest and most healthy. Besides, if you look for fleas, you’ll find them, which might mean all these cats have fleas, and I can’t have that. No, I simply can’t.”

“Why are you shaking your head?” the king asked the royal vet. “I’ve got this completely under control. Better than you can possibly understand.”

By the next day, there were hundreds of thousands of fleas in the castle, and all four cats were scratching their itchy skin like mad. “Okay, I’ll powder them and isolate them all in the upstairs chamber for as long as it takes for these horrid fleas to die off. It might take weeks, or months, or years – but they WILL die off.”

But the cats started to get fussy all alone in the upstairs chamber. They howled, meowed, and growled for hours and hours until the king couldn’t stand it anymore. The next morning, he opened the doors to the upstairs chamber, lowered the drawbridge so the cats could cross over the moat, and let the cats out to roam, as all freedom-loving cats should.

And the fleas spread throughout the kingdom. Millions of them. The people were so angry with the king and his flea plague, that they approached him and asked what he planned to do about it.

“Do about it?” the king said to his subjects. “If I hadn’t found that first flea when I did, and powdered all my cats when I did, there would be billions more fleas throughout the land. Possibly trillions. But don’t worry about it. I have a plan. Some people say it’s the greatest plan any king has ever come up with. Before you know it, these fleas will be gone and out of your hair – quick and easy.”

A little boy, scratching at his flea-infested head of hair, asked the king in a little boy voice, “But when?”

“Patience, boy,” said the king. “It is what it is, and the faster you learn that, the better.”

At the back of the crowd, somebody whispered, “I think we need a new king.”

Understanding Walt Whitman

I am no better than you; you are no better than the planets in your orbit; we are a part of each other and compliment the world in which we live.

I am the young man who assembles the two bean burritos for your lunch every Thursday, hoping to never accidentally slice off the tip of my forefinger while cutting up onions for a mere 25 cents above minimum wage.

You are the mechanic who peers inside my car’s engine wondering just how long it’s been since I’ve had my oil changed. That long? Well, it’s a miracle this car is still on the road.

I am the grizzly, old school bus driver who works hard at ignoring the noise of confined children. I secretly wish I could be their age again, sitting in the back and making the younger kids giggle every time I belch another letter of the alphabet

You are the welder sitting behind the wheel of your pickup truck, tapping the steering wheel with your fingers, wondering when this school bus is ever going to get moving. You’re running late and can’t afford to lose your job. Oh, to be a student again, you think. Responsibilities? Get to class on time, eat lunch, play a bit of basketball, absorb the mysteries of history and math, maybe even dissect a frog or two. Those were good days.

I am the trash collector who is happy not to have to work in an office; but boy, sometimes this stuff really stinks.

You are the old fisherman stranded on a boat in the middle of the lake, frustrated that you forgot to refill the fuel tank, but thankful that your wife packed an extra sandwich and a cold beer.

We are the teachers who at times have trouble making our classes understand; the preachers who voice having the same problem; the dairy farmers who wake up with the stars; the police officers out on midnight patrol.

We are the homeless who stand on the street corner, holding signs for help; the activists standing on other street corners holding different signs; the grocery store cashiers who smile and say, “Have a great day,”; the other grocery store cashiers who keep looking at the clock.

We are the writers, the musicians, the artists and poets who bare our hearts and ask, “Was it good enough? You’re not just trying to be polite, are you?”; we are the cooks, the waiters, the gardeners and delivery people who think, “This may not be much, but I will do the best that I possibly can.”

We are alike and different; each a wondrous one-of-a-kind creature made of exactly the same ingredients -- molded star dust destined to grow into ourselves, do our taxes, forget to take out the trash, eat too much ice cream, go on fad diets, tell long stories without noticing the glaze in our listener’s eyes, get sick, rewrite our wills leaving everything to charity (those relations shouldn’t have looked so eager for me to pass on), and then eventually die and decay into fertile dust, making way for new leaves of grass.

I’m not sure if I’ll ever fully understand the essence of Walt Whitman. But if he spoke truth when he wrote, “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you,” then without doubt we all have a little bit of him inside us – a little bit that whispers in our ears: Be kind to those who are different, because they are us and we are them.

How to live forever until you die

Bike in Galveston

When I'm sitting on the couch reading a book or watching reruns of whatever is on Netflix this week, I feel old. When I'm sitting on the saddle of my bike watching the countryside zoom by, I feel young again.

When I see photographs of the back of my head (that can't be MY bald spot!), I feel much older than I should. When I see photographs of me on my bike, wearing a bald spot-covering helmet, I feel young again.

When I'm sitting behind the wheel of my old car, heading off to Wal-Mart to pick up some groceries, I feel old and decrepit. While my hands are gripping the handlebars of my motorbike, steering it to wherever I want to go, I feel as young and free as a child on his first bicycle.

When I'm pumping gas into that old car, I imagine the people around me thinking, "I'm never going to be so old that I have to drive something like that." When I'm pumping gas into my motorbike, I imagine the people around me thinking, "I want to be just like him. And when I save up some money, I'm getting a bike just like that."

People on motorcycles always look like they're on an adventure, heading to places others only dream of, having the time of their life.

Well, most of the time we are. And that's what will keep us young -- well, until we get splattered across the road by some stupid 18-wheeler.

But hey, that's life.

Taking a walk on the wild side

If you put on your best pair of walking shoes tomorrow morning and walked one mile every day for a year, you’d be in Memphis by next February, which isn’t very far at all, but I hear Graceland is worth visiting at least once, even if it’s just to say you’ve been.

Since it’s pretty easy to walk a mile in about 20 minutes, you’ll have plenty of time left during the rest of the day to set up a tent, eat a bowl of oatmeal, update your Face-a-Gram page – or, better yet, just walk another mile.

If you walked two miles every day for a year, you’d be 730 miles away in Knoxville, Tennessee – the gateway to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. You might want to bring a jacket. But whatever you do, don’t ask a local for directions to Fort Knox and its vaults full of gold bricks. You’ll end up looking like an idiot because it’s not in Knoxville. It’s in Kentucky. Go figure.

Walking two miles takes up only about 40 minutes of your time, so you might as well walk three miles and make it an hour.

If you walked three miles every day for a year, you’d be in Virginia, somewhere in the Shenandoah National Park, being ever so thankful you packed a pair of long johns along with that jacket. Oh, the countryside, the trees; the smell of wood smoke and cooking bacon. Why has it taken you so long to get here? Will you have enough willpower to go back home one day?

Walking for an hour gives you just enough time to do plenty of thinking – thinking about your goals, your dreams for the future. What books should I read that I haven’t read yet? Do I really have enough time left in my life to learn Norwegian? Should I repair the skylight or save up my money and buy a new motorcycle? Probably the best thing to do is walk another hour until you stumble upon the answers.

If you walked six miles a day for a year, you’d wake up on Day 365 in Malden, New Brunswick, just a few miles from the Confederation Bridge that leads to Prince Edward Island. I’ve never been to Prince Edward Island, but I read L.M. Montgomery’s “Anne of Green Gables” and thought I’d like to go. 

Two hours of walking each and every day can melt away the tonnage you’ve gained over the years and years of sitting, eating, watching TV on the couch until you fell asleep and woke up just in time for a midnight snack that would hold you over until you really woke up, went to work, sat some more, ate some more, and gosh this is getting a bit wordy. But that’s what happens when you start taking long walks. You end up thinking in long sentences.

Imagine this: If you walked three hours a day for a year, you’d be somewhere in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean (if you could walk on water), so you might as well walk four hours a day and spend the night in a cozy bed and breakfast in Dublin. Of course, you’d have to answer a lot of questions like, “Where are you from?” Texas, you’d say. “How did you get here?” I walked. “Across the North Atlantic at this time of year?” It’s okay. I was wearing a jacket and long johns. “Why didn’t you just take a plane?” Good question.

If you walked almost every day for four years, you’d make it all the way around the world and wake up the next morning in your own bed wondering, “So, what do I do now?”

I have a suggestion. How about go for a motorcycle ride?