Unexpectedly and without conscious choice I’ve crossed some unseen divide and found myself among homeless people who do not worship at California’s altar of money and materialism.
In the space of days my walking pilgrimage has taken me from Tinseltown and mainstream America to a sometimes shadowy world of heartache, broken dreams and disillusionment.
“We’re not homeless; just residentially challenged,” one of my newfound friends quipped. Most of his peers are driven by economic circumstance, a handful by choice.
Brett is dirty, dishevelled, sun-damaged and missing most of his teeth, but offers to share his meagre food supply and makes me a gift of a tide table that includes the cycles of the moon. It’ll be invaluable.
He greets me as an equal and recognises a novice to living on the fringe of society, explaining where I can camp for free and how I should avoid trouble with the authorities and any campers who are drinking heavily. “Rummage
in the garbage for a couple of those large black plastic bags,” he suggests. “They’ll keep you warm and dry.”
I realise with mild shock and some amusement that despite my clean short hair and freshly-shaved cheeks, carrying a heavy backpack can brand me not as a hiker, but a homeless person in some eyes.
For days I’ve trudged past beachfront mansions that are monuments to conspicuous consumption, each wearing a prominent warning sign: No Trespassing – violators will be prosecuted.
And while I’m walking one of the most celebrated coastlines on the planet, I’m constantly buffeted and battered by the wake of colossal cars and pickups, obscenely huge motorhomes and trucks delivering to one of the world’s most wasteful and resource-hungry markets.
Drivers are invariably alone in their behemoths and stare fixedly ahead, seeming to avoid eye contact. Perhaps they fear that what I have is contagious!
The natural beauty is awe-inspiring and I’ve enjoyed my conversations, recognising the spark of divinity that lives within each of us. They’ve all seemed nice, whether rich or poor.
My first night in my sleeping bag is wondrous beneath a canopy of stars and a magnificent full moon, although the rumble of traffic intrudes and competes with the roar of jets overhead on a busy flight path to LAX Airport.
Although it’s wonderful to be camping wild again, I’m cold, uncomfy and sleep eludes me as I think of the tranquillity and loving embrace of the Findhorn community which has adopted me as one of its own. Hey, but who’s complaining? A pilgrim accepts whatever is and sees all of life as a gift.
By 5.30am I’m walking again and dawn is a rich reward, the early golden light illuminating dolphins cruising the shoreline, their aerodynamic bodies gleaming like priceless jewels.
Further along a seemingly endless row of motorhomes is crowded closely together and a teacher and her husband greet me with curiosity. “Isn’t this great? We are so blessed,” she enthuses. I like her attitude of gratitude and wish her a joyful weekend break.
A few hours later I’m caught in a Catch 22 situation of being a pedestrian in a car-worshipping society. Warning signs steer me off the highway and the only way north is to a naval base where I’m again blocked. “You have to have a car around here,” the guards explain, stating the obvious.
Eventually Joe, a kindly navy man, invites me into his pickup and I cradle his lovingly created wooden display frame on my lap. He tells me he’ll soon be 38 and able to retire after 20 years in uniform, heading back East. “It is too fast-paced and unfriendly here,” he laments. “My Dad’s also retiring and I’m looking forward to being home, in forests and working with wood. It’s very meditative, sort of like walking,” he says.
That night I camp near two homeless Army veterans. Bob is a 64-year-old Vietnam vet with badly injured legs who looks a little past his sell-by date, his diet a cocktail of painkillers, cigarettes and booze. His friend David is a 53-year-old cancer survivor with a wonderfully probing mind and a love of the outdoors. We get on immediately.
David admits that he sometimes feels isolated and recognises that this is probably a legacy of his Dad’s suicide. “Our church-going neighbours prevented their children from playing with me, fearing that the apple would fall too close to the tree.
“We have a church on every corner but we’re pretty Godless,” he says.
He’s anything but and inspires me with his penetrating insights. He sees trees and especially the towering Californian redwoods as an antenna between heaven and earth, insisting that in the outdoors he feels the interconnectedness of all things.
David lives on a modest disability pension and doesn’t miss his wife, house, van, car and motorcycle.
Staring into the campfire with sadness, he recalls: “I’ve slept by rivers, streams and creeks and they’re all polluted. You can’t drink the water. We’ve ruined everything.”
But he finds solace and delight in the unexplained mysteries of life and unseen realms, recognising that there is a guiding intelligence behind everything.
“I love learning,” he insists, thanking me profusely for drawing his attention to the Chinese art of feng shui and for sharing my understanding of the movements of energy.
She takes me on a tour of the downtown area that ends at the superb public library where I write this on a borrowed computer.
I marvel at my good fortune to meet angels everywhere!