When booking my flight to leave South America I noticed that I was scheduled to have a brief layover in Houston, Texas.
¨Interesting.¨ I remember thinking.
It must be stated that I have had a fascination of sorts with the state of Texas ever since seeing the movie Friday Night Lights. I explored my options a bit and discovered that, at no extra charge, I could turn my two-hour layover into a two-week layover. Done deal. I was beginning to consider myself a bit of a backpacking expert and figured a few weeks in a first-world country would be a walk in the park. Remember that phrase, it becomes quite ironic.
Now one of my quick discoveries upon landing in the Lone Star State was that I was by no means willing to spend $100 USD to spend a night in a motel. I had just come from the land in which a room would cost no more than $3, and even then I was hastily ready to decline if a more suitable option was present.
So my frugal nature dictated that I continue where I left off in South America. Hitchhiking between cities and camping in any spot I´d deem reasonable. This pertained, but did not limit me to, forests, fields, parks, hidden bushes, and in one of my lower moments, a small patch of grass behind a Dick´s Sporting Goods, which, to my sleepy-eyed discovery, bordered a set of train tracks, quite literally. So you can imagine my dismay when, at about 3:45 am, a freight train came barrelling through with the speed and noise of a Boeing 747. I thought it was the apocalypse. But even an early morning soiling and repentance wasn’t enough to deter me from my practice. I really am quite cheap.
The train was a one-time occurrence – thank the Lord – and more often than not it was the sheer pain in my joints and lower back that awoke me. And on a couple of occurrences, it was a pair of Texas Police officers who were wondering ¨just what the hell I was doing¨.
That was another thing, no one could grasp the notion that I was ¨Backpacking.¨ It just wasn’t a concept in the Great State of Texas. People were constantly offering me money or perishables due to the assumption that I was homeless, police officers were always questioning my motives, even bus drivers would inquire, with a sense of inquisitiveness, about the contents of my backpack. Then they would listen with utter fascination as I listed off my supplies.
I even met one gentleman, who at his behest, made me repeat what I was doing to an onlooker because he couldn´t remember the foreign and novel word he had just learned.
¨I´m backpacking¨ I stated.
¨That´s right, he´s backpacking!¨ He pronounced with conviction. I think he felt proud just to be associated with me. The whole state of Texas seemed to adopt this utter fascination with what I was doing.
My routine would include exploring different cities in Texas, in insufferable heat, then at nightfall, I would find a covert place to pitch my tent, and after a few hours of extreme discomfort, I would fall asleep. I would indulge in as much sleep as my uncomfortable body, or the Texas Police Department would permit me, before packing up my tent and doing the whole thing over again.
That´s why, on the morning of June 20th, I was surprised to be awoken, not by discomfort or constables, but by water. A whole shit ton of water.
I was camping in a park in San Angelo, like I had the previous two nights. The park was atypically verdant, with trees and a small pond. Through the park, there weaved a paved trail, that, by day, was occupied by families walking their dogs, cyclists, casual strollers and the like. The traffic was a constant throughout the day, but come nightfall it was barren. Thus, without too much hassle, I was able to wander into the shrubs and pitch my tent.
I asked an elderly couple who I caught strolling if the park was a safe place to camp, and they assured me it was. This had become an inherent concern of mine after discovering that someone had been stabbed, no more than 100 meters away from me, one night while I lay snoozing in a park in Dallas. The information was shared with me by two men the next morning at a local bus stop. We were awaiting the bus that would take us to the city center, and me the hell out of Dallas. One of the gentlemen – who had the good fortune of finding a place that supplied Rum Slushees at nine in the morning – pointed out crime scenes like they were landmarks worth observing.
¨Yep, someone got stabbed outside the 7/11 last night, and over there, there was an assault rifle attack in which eight people were killed…that was last week¨. He retold the events with a level of concern that dangerously teetered along absent.
I was quite taken aback by this. These were scenes of violence of the highest degree, and I could throw a baseball from where I slept to either of the two.
The man continued ¨The Bloods have their territory up here, the Crips over there…but the worst gang of all, is the cops¨.
At this point the other man, who hadn’t mumbled a single word, began nodding vigorously in agreement. At that moment I made a pact to myself that I would 1) Get the hell out of Dallas and 2) Never camp again.
I camped that very next night. Apparently, the threat of imminent death is more appealing to me than parting with my money.
So, fortunately, when I awoke the morning of June 20th, it wasn’t to an assault rifle, or the Bloods or the Crips but to water. Lots and lots of water. The events proceeded as follows.
1:30 am – I awoke and took note that it was raining. I knew this on account of the water that was dripping on my face from a hole in the top of my tent. This was a tent that I was previously over-ecstatic to have purchased for a low sum of $34.99. I then took the hoodie I had been using as a pillow, put it on, mumbled a few incoherent profanities, then drifted back to sleep.
3:14 am – I rolled off my sleeping pad and into a quantity of water that a small child might go snorkeling in. I was then very much awake. With the water and the cursing becoming a bit more prevalent, I sat up and weighed my options. Suddenly a big flash of white light filled my tent, followed instantaneously by what could only be the sound of someone firing a nuclear warhead into a series of megaphones. At this point, I took note that I was in the midst, in the heart of the midst, of quite the thunderstorm. As if being tired, cold, miserable, and soaking wet weren´t enough, I now had to contest with the possibility of instant vaporization from one of the lightning bolts that accompanies TNT-on-steroids-type thunder.
From 3:30 onward I sat huddled up, cold, sodden, and tired. I did nothing but stare at my watch, awaiting daybreak or hypothermia. The latter sounding more and more pleasant as time progressed.
4:39 am – An apparent break in the thunder and lightning. The rain had also died down. It was still pouring by the standards of anyone who has ever existed mind you, but it definitely tempered. This was my window. I could see that. I would leave this park and go find a motel or hotel with towels and a warm shower, and I would pay whatever insurmountable sum they demanded. I didn’t care about the cost.
4:40 am – I recognized that the hypothermia had taken its effect on my judgment. This became evident upon discovering that I did not care about the cost of something for the first time in my life. I then recognized the urgency of the situation I found myself in.
4:43 am – after collecting my belongings and taking note that the ones who had the capacity to absorb water – which was most of them – had in fact done so, I shoved them carelessly into my bag, unzipped the tent flap, and stepped out. Although it was dark, I could tell something was askew. The foot that had stepped out of the tent was now submerged, along with half my leg, in water.
4:51 am – After packing up my tent, and breaking it in the process, I left my hallowed campground in search of the paved path that would lead me the fuck out of this park. I trudged through the shin-deep water towards where I knew the path was located. Being in shin deep water didn’t escape my concern, in fact, I discovered it to be rather odd since I was camping on a somewhat elevated mound. Gradually shin-deep water turned into knee-deep water which turned into waist-deep water. This was becoming rather disheartening. And to make matters worse, it appeared as if the lighting had returned in full force.
4:59 am – I arrived at where I thought the path to be. But instead of a path, there was a fucking river. This confounded me to a concerning degree. Had I wandered the wrong way after disassembling my tent? Had I mistakenly wandered into the pond? No, because I remember taking note of how the lights of the houses shone off the water. If I was in the pond where were the houses? Had I wandered into the forest and stumbled across another lake I hadn’t taken notice of earlier? Again, no not plausible. I wasn’t sure if I was disorientated or simply losing my mind on account of hypothermia. One thing I knew for sure was that dead or alive, I was leaving this park.
5:09 am – After wandering around aimlessly, wading through water, in search of a path that I wasn’t even sure existed anymore, I tripped on something that was unmistakably concrete. I had found the path. Submerged in water, the location was just a few steps further than where I had initially thought the path existed. So I wasn’t losing my mind, I was just trapped in a flood. Hooray.
Now my task became simple: follow the path until it leads you out of the park and onto the main road. The whole concept seemed so straightforward that I think I might have even shed a smile. So I followed the path, traversing the water until it led me around a bend, and into a river. A river with currents, literal currents that looked like they could wash away a village, or at least a 185 lb. me without so much as a wisp in the current. As if the sight wasn’t ghastly enough, a log, which I´m only assuming stood a proud tree just a few hours before, sailed by with a speed familiar only to those who frequent auto tracks. This was a tree who, undoubtedly, for the last few months, was praying for rain. Poor fucker, irony sucks. Then I realized those could’ve very well been my famous last words. If that tree wasn’t in the next state by now I would have knocked on wood.
Eventually, I was able to traverse the water with my pack over my head, whilst taking very small, yet careful steps. The water got deeper and deeper until it reached nipple-level and stayed constant. For that, I was very grateful. Eventually, I made it out of the park and to the main road. I knew there had to be a hotel somewhere so I picked a direction and started walking (left: because I shoot left in hockey).
Every so often cars would pass, and I would try to give them my most sympathetic look. Occasionally I would catch a glance of ¨Oh you poor soul, I hope you have somewhere to be tonight¨. More frequent was the look that said ¨Ha fucker, look how warm I am in my warm car, which I´m driving to my warm house, where I´ll sleep in my warm bed¨. A few kind souls in a white truck even felt it necessary to slow down and flip me off. But more often than not people didn’t bother to look. Even a cop car passed without so much as a glance.
God I hate people.
At around 5:45 am I reached a motel. It was seedy looking, it was rundown and it was called Motel, just Motel. Perfect, I thought, it must be cheap. I bounded ahead with a sense of something that wasn’t quite faith but was stronger than hope.
I entered the lobby in a way that I assumed Jesus did upon returning from forty days in the desert. From the looks the staff gave me, I must´ve looked the part. I could tell they didn’t know whether to run and assist me or call the police. So I trudged my way up to them, making a mess out of their lobby on the way, and inquired about a room.
The cheapest room was to cost $75, and check out was at 11 am, which was five hours away. Although it included a breakfast, I couldn’t do it. I simply could not spend the equivalent of $100 CAD on a room I was going to spend all of five hours in. It had appeared that the warmth of the lobby was fending off the hypothermia and returning me to my old self once again.
What was then agreed upon was that the friendly staff would let me use the laundry room so I could dry some of my clothing. I shuffled over to the laundry room, with branches, leaves, and mud trailing in my wake. I put my clothing in the dryer and sat atop of it for a few conscious moments before falling, no collapsing, into a slumber.
The next thing I knew, I was being tapped on the shoulder, and I awoke to a creepy man in very close proximity to my face.
“Come with me” he whispered. “And bring your things”
I´m not sure if I was still half asleep, or just beyond caring, but whatever the motive, I followed the ominous man, who I recognized to be the custodian.
The man led me to a room, which he opened and gestured for me to enter. I did. It was a typical hotel room, clean, comfortable, and in surprisingly good taste. I was beginning to wonder why the janitor had brought me here when he spoke, interrupting my thoughts.
“I was watching you sleep, you looked pretty cold. Why don´t you sleep here for a while, and when you´re ready you can come down to the lobby for some breakfast.”
I was very much surprised by this. What did he say? I was watching you sleep? No, no after that. You can sleep here for a while? Yes, that´s it.
After some feeble protests on my part, I was encouraged, practically forced to go have a sleep. Which I did. It was comfortable, it was peaceful, and best of all it was warm.
After waking up, I packed up my sodden belongings and headed for the lobby to thank the mysterious janitor for his gracious hospitality. Unfortunately, though he was nowhere to be seen, and upon inquiring at the front desk, the receptionist told me he had finished his shift and gone home to sleep. True to his word though, the man had informed the receptionist, and at her behest, I indulged myself of the breakfast buffet.
So as I sat there, flooding my Texas state-shaped waffle with syrup, I wasn’t thinking of the irony that encompassed my breakfast plate, rather I was thinking of a man. One man, who, through one act of kindness, had changed a terrible situation and made it into a memorable one. For all the cars that drove passed that night, so long as there is at least one man like our custodian friend, humanity will be alright.
I stated earlier in this post that I hate people, and now I have to retract that statement and leave you with a new one.
I hate most people.
A sign I stumbled upon the very next day.