Shane and I practically hit the highway in our graduation caps and gowns. During senior year of high school in English class we read On the Road by Kerouac. We were the tramps Bruce Springsteen sang about in Born to Run. We planned a vague itinerary of the American west designed to drink beer and meet girls in many different states. Shane’s sister resided in Taos, New Mexico. Her home would be our base camp for adventure.
Hitching across the country gave ample opportunities to work out my juju. Juju is often undetected mentalism that is practiced by savvy hitchhikers on every approaching vehicle. Juju’s a subtle craft, engaged not just for rides but for adventures. With strong juju a hitchhiker could ensure that only cool people with pre-rolled joints and cold six packs would stop. When juju didn’t work, and it often didn’t, I gave the passing vehicle the finger.
In order to reduce the weight of our backpacks we brought a half gallon of Dr. Bronner’s pure Castile peppermint soap. The label announced it’s 18- in-1 could be soap, shaving cream, massage oil, shampoo, and toothpaste. The first morning I brushed my teeth with it, I understood why parents washed potty mouths with soap. I only shaved only for novelty. Neither Shane nor I were interested in massage. It wasn’t that kind of trip. In the shower the peppermint made my balls tingle. Used as a shampoo my hair quickly attained the consistency of hay. None of these developments of helped my juju. We ditched the Doctor in Illinois after getting some Crest and Baby shampoo.
At a Denny’s in Missouri, I got directions from a cute girl who worked behind the register, and afterwards I bent down to tie my shoe. As Shane passed behind me he kicked me in the ass. I guess he thought it might be funny to see me fall over. His boot stung my tailbone. I couldn’t confront him or he would’ve called me a wuss in front of the cute girl.
Outside Fairplay, Colorado we decided to test our respective jujus and compete to get to Taos. I gave Shane a head start. Just before he disappeared into the back of a VW van he said, “Last one to Taos is a rotten egg.”
Outside of Raton, NM on Route 64, a dark blue, gas-guzzler pulled over for me. The man in the driver’s seat said to call him Gary. He was dressed in a Boy Scout uniform. Gary told me he worked training scout leaders at their national headquarters -Philmont Ranch - just up the road. He seemed about forty-five years old with a blocky build and thick features. Gary wore olive shorts, low cut hiking shoes, and forest green stockings with red edges. His short-sleeved shirt was covered with merit badges, medals and patches. Gary finished off his outfit with a red kerchief along the neckline. He wore black rimmed glasses and his dark hair combed over to cover a bald pate. I told him about my previous trip cross-country with Mr. Ellis – my scout leader.
“ Wow, Kevin, five weeks traveling around the country with the Boy Scouts. What I wouldn’t give to be able to do something like that.”
“Mr. Ellis was a special scout leader alright.”
“You know my hometown Cimarron’s a real wild west town. The St. James Hotel was the site of twenty-six killings. People say it’s haunted.”
“Cimarron. I’ve always liked that name - don’t know why.”
Later at a truck stop I looked at a movie magazine while Gary pumped gas.
“Do you enjoy movies?”
“That’s so funny, I thought you could be an actor.”
Gary extracted the hose out of the car’s gas tank. I didn’t offer to contribute to the expense. He brought back a couple of cold Cokes in goose necked bottles. Gary put the Coke between his legs. The bottle’s sweat made it look as if he peed his pants. I pretended I didn’t notice. There were some moments of silence then Gary angled himself in the driver’s seat to get a better look at me.
“One of my hobbies that I really enjoy, especially out here, is photography.”
“Oh I love the scenery around here, it is so different from back home. I’m thinking of moving out here.”
“Yeah we could use you out here Kevin. Anyway, sometimes I take pictures for my buddy Jose. He’s an amazing art teacher at the University of New Mexico. He teaches a life studies class.”
“You know, drawing the human figure. Charcoal mostly.”
“Yeah he’s always looking for models. Trouble is, none of the college kids want to do it, not even for $20 an hour.”
“$20 an hour!”
“Exactly. Kevin, you seem pretty comfortable in your body. Would you consider modeling for me sometime?”
“ Sure I’d pose for some photos. That would be cool.”
“Now Kevin, this is for a life studies art class, so they’d want to see your whole body”
“ You don’t have to worry about anybody seeing you naked because I’ll pull off up the road and we’ll walk aways into the woods. So you’ll be safe from any ‘wienie peepers.’”
I never heard the term before, but after a few seconds I deduced without Gary’s help what one was. I agreed and Gary pulled over at the next picnic area.
The garbage can was overflowing. Some rodents scattered after we shut the car doors. We walked up a dry streambed filled with small sandstone boulders and patches of grass. The pinon trees surrounded us and the high-desert air carried their crisp smoky scent.
Gary said, “I’m going to give you some privacy here for a few minutes Kevin and prepare my equipment. I want you to take off your clothes, leave them here on this rock and I’ll come back and we’ll start shooting.”
Three noisy crows perched in the trees behind me. I felt a taut string in my stomach like I might get in trouble with the law. I took off my boots and socks, and after glancing around, my shirt. Telling myself to act like a professional model I slipped off my underwear and jeans in one move. I folded my jeans over my underwear (so Gary wouldn’t see), and put the pile of clothing on the large stone.
Even though it was a warm day, with my clothes off, and the sun behind some clouds, it didn’t take long before goose bumps covered my body. After checking for scorpions I squatted on a flat rock and strove to keep dirt from getting up my butt.
Gary appeared in the stream bed. A Nikon camera with a large lens hung from his neck. Over his scout uniform he had a tan photographer’s vest, the kind with pockets full of gadgets and rolls of spare film. Everyone I knew had a Kodak Instamatic. Gary read the light meter by my nose, seemingly oblivious to my naked seventeen-year old body.
Seeing his equipment and manner eased my discomfort. He started taking shots, and after about ten or so clicks I remembered that I enjoyed having my picture taken. Under Gary’s direction, and adding in some of my own creativity, I got into different positions: sitting, crouching, standing, and all the while pensively considering the vastness of mountains of the Wild West
“Great. This is really great Kevin. Now I’m going to go off for a few minutes. I want you to get a hard on and then I’ll come back and take some more shots.”
He turned and started walking away.
“I don’t want to do that.”
“OK, that’s cool, that’s cool, no problem. It’s just that you seem pretty comfortable, and this is for an art class.”
If there is such a thing as male intuition, its drumbeat got louder.
“OK that’s cool, that’s cool, no problem. But you know we’ve only been going for thirty minutes or so. What if I threw in an extra $20 for your trouble. I think I can still get you to Taos before your friend.”
“I don’t think so.”
“OK Kevin. But you know, I expected more from you being a scout and all.”
I put my head down and got dressed. We walked in silence back to the car. Gary put away his equipment and vest.
As he pulled onto the highway the car spewed gravel behind it.
I asked about the merit badges on his uniform.
“This little beauty is one I’m particularly proud of – it’s the Good Shepherd medal for service to youth and ministry.”
He pointed to a red, white and blue ribbon, and below it a pewter cross with a thin shepherd’s crook over it. Gary continued, “ The Scouts only give about five of these a year. You can only get the good Shepherd if someone else nominates you. My church sponsored me in secret. My whole family plus a lot of my buddies from the national headquarters surprised me at the ceremony. It's quite an honor.”
Gary abruptly remembered a scout meeting and dropped me by the side of the road six miles from Taos. He turned around to go in the other direction, smiled broadly, and even waved as he sped away.
At the time I recall thinking I could never be president of the United States now, because if I ran someone would dig up Gary’s photos and use it against me.
I never told Shane about Gary.
I never told anyone.