Ozark National Forest, Arkansas
Country Courtney and I stood in the parking lot of a Love’s gas station, drinking shitty coffee, when a man with a big black truck pulled up next to us.
He pointed to the canoe on top of Courtney’s car. “Where did y’all just float?”
That morning we paddled eight miles on the Mulberry River in Ozark National Forest, Arkansas. The paddle trip was a much needed break from the hours of monotonous highway driving. We departed from Asheville, North Carolina and our goal was to reach Durango, Colorado (27 hours) in five days.
“Oh, the Muberry!” the man exclaimed with a big smile. “Ain’t it nice?”
“Sure is,” we nodded with enthusiasm.
The Mulberry waters were pristine, with a milky greenish blue hue. The waters changed abruptly from serene and calm to white water rapids thrusting us into canyon walls. When we put our canoe in the water, the clouds were dark, ominous and leaky. Nothing could change our minds about paddling that day.
It took half an hour for the sky to break open and release it’s cleansing waters upon our canoe. We paddled close to the shoreline in a futile attempt to find coverage under the pines, but ultimately allowed the water to pour into our boat from the clouds and the rapids.
The second we pulled our canoe out of the water was the second the sun came out. By the time the canoe was tied to the top of the car, we were sweating and longing to be back in the water or under a rain cloud.
When we said goodbye to the Ozarks, we met Parking Lot Man.
“What are y’all doing out here?” Parking Lot Man asked, pointing to our Virginia license plates.
“We’re making out way to Colorado,” Courtney said.
“What are y’all doing out there?” Parking Lot Man asked.
“I’m going to be a raft guide,” Courtney said about herself, then pointed to me and said, “And she’s working in wilderness therapy.”
“Oh, now that’s real neat!” Parking Lot Man said.
Parking Lot Man told us about his family growing up in the Ozarks. We marveled at the beauty of the mountains with their steep canyon walls, fluffy green peaks, and rushing rivers.
“The Ozarks are amazing,” he raved. “There are parts of the river where you are all of a sudden deep in a canyon that looks like New Mexico!”
“They reminded us of the Blue Ridge mountains too; with sweeping grassy meadows leading up to rounded mountains,” Courtney said.
“And the color of the water was as green as some parts of the Yuba River in California,” I said.
“Ah, it’s gorgeous out here!” Parking Lot Man agreed.
After talking for a few minutes of ideal idle chit chat, I asked Parking Lot Man my favorite question:
“What do you think the world needs more of?”
“Pot and mushrooms,” he said immediately with a chuckle. “Donald Trump should do mushrooms. Can you imagine?”
“That thought scares me,” I shook my head. Any thought related to analyzing Donald Trump’s brain activity scares me.
“Ain’t that the truth now,” he laughed.
Parking Lot Man pointed to his blue jeans, plain black shirt, cowboy boots and said, “I dress like this, but I’m a half hippie. I love hikin and floatin and bein outside , ya know?”
“Mm hmm, we sure do,” I said.
“Why are you asking that question?” Half Hippie Parking Lot Man asked.
“I’m writing a book about people’s answers,” I said, shrugging.
“Oh now that’s pretty neat,” he said, nodding. “Have you guys heard of the shopping cart theory?”
“No,” we shook our heads.
“It’s the idea that people can govern themselves if the government would let them. Like in parking lots: people put back their shopping carts. No one is gonna beat you up if you don’t. No one is going to fine you or arrest you. Most people will put it back, ya know?” he said, throwing his hands up in the air.
“True. Even when people don’t put their cart back, someone else just grabs it and uses it,” I said, thinking of all the times I put a shopping cart in a random parking space and drove away out of laziness.
Half Hippie Parking Lot Man made eye contact with me and said with a shrug, “It’s the right thing to do, ya know? I wish people would just do the right thing and love everyone, ya know.”
“Hell yeah,” Courtney nodded.
“The shopping cart theory, eh?” I smirked.
Half Hippie Parking Lot Man shook his head with a smile. “Anyway, I love what y’all are doin- going to Colorado. I tell my kids: don’t get a degree, don’t waste your money! I’ll buy you a backpack, drop you off at the trail-head of the AT and pick you up.”
“That is fantastic advice,” I said.
“I wish my parents told me that,” Courtney agreed.
“Work here, I don’t care!” he said, pointing at the gas station. “Save up a grand and go on an adventure!”
“Hell yeah, let em accumulate life experiences,” I nodded.
“Damn straight! You can be rich with experience,” he said. “I just quit my job and started selling cars. I’m making way less money, but I’m happy now,” he said with huge eyes, as if he couldn’t believe it. “I have more time off to spend with my kids and time to spend on the water- I have a life again.”
“That’s beautiful,” I said.
We waved goodbye to Half Hippie Parking Lot Man and wished each other safe travels. After he drove away, I wished I had thought to give him some pot.
Connecting with Half Hippie Parking Lot Man was a gift to me. This type of easy connection with a stranger is exactly what I was looking for when I started asking this question.
It affirmed my love for humanity.
It is easy to connect with others, especially over a shared love: paddling in nature plus pot and mushrooms.
This conversation was particularly special to us in the time of social distancing. Half Hippie Parking Lot Man was the first person we talked to in over seven hundred miles. Traveling during covid-19 time was confusing as hell, and lonely.
Every state so far had different rules. When we left Asheville, all businesses were closed. We crossed the Tennessee state line: coffee shops and restaurants had been open for two weeks. We slept in the dirt in national forests only- no campgrounds, no friend’s houses, no hotels. Sleeping in the dirt, however was ideal for us.
At gas stations, we were meticulous and avoidant of people. We used wet wipes to touch the key pad button and the nozzle for fuel. We sanitized our credit card, our hands, the car doorknob, the pump: we sanitized everything we touched before and after. We never went inside a gas station to use the restroom; but instead peed (and pooped once) in the bushes behind the building.
This type of evasive traveling was foreign to us. It was sad to be in a head space of fearing human contact. It was annoying, but we wanted to respect the risk. We needed to protect ourselves, others, and everyone we were going to be working with.
Our interaction with Half Hippie Parking Lot Man restored my hope for human resiliency. We will always find a way to connect. Humans need connection, we rely on connection to feel happy.
Social distancing is not a term I support.
I prefer physical distancing.
In this confusing and scary pandemic, we don’t need to be lonely as well.
We can absolutely connect from a distance.
Talking loudly is an easy option.
Half Hippie Parking Lot Man connected us to Arkansas, a man who was raised and is now raising kids in the Ozarks. In honor of him, I invite you to talk to a stranger from a respectable distance. I invite you to quit your job and hit the river. I invite you to live a life outdoors in connection with others. I invite you to light up that joint and take a psychedelic float downstream.