In 20 years of residing at the Oregon Coast, I’ve observed and met a lot people living out of backpacks, bindles, totes, cars, trucks, ancient RVs, buckets strapped to bicycles, even a briefcase once. Most of the people were men and they came in all ages. Most were alone. Some had dogs and one had a pot bellied pig. One carried a ferret in his pocket. A few carried cheap guitars or ornate walking sticks.
They were all on the move at different speeds. Often the movement was in circles or meanders. I’ve met these people in state parks, parking lots, beaches, clearcuts, street intersections, dive bars, coffee shops. I’ve met them during all seasons but the encounters in the winter rain particularly stand out. Many of them remind me of lyrics from Bob Dylan songs. I saw a multitude of them in the aftermath of 2008’s Great Recession.
We talk about their rigs, some of them quite astonishing to behold in their jury rigging with wire and duct tape. The displays in the dashboards of their vehicles were often quite remarkable. We talk about their dogs, destinations, driftwood and whatever else drifts through at the moment. Frequently, our talks don’t contain any linearity to them. I’ve asked these men a million questions and they have always responded with complete candor. It’s like Bob Dylan said: You’re invisible now / you’ve got no secrets to conceal.
A guitar is always a good conversation starter and I often pay for a gig right there. (Big tip for any Rolling Stones tune.) When we part, I typically give them one of my books or a can of dog food if they have a dog. I’ve written about these men for years in my essays and books but recently reconsidered their fluid situations with new questions after listening to mix tape of Bob Dylan songs I made 30 years ago. I hadn’t heard it in two decades.
In another era, these men might have been called, “drifters.” It was a semi-pejorative term, but there are countless examples where the drifter character exerted a powerful, nearly mystical anti-hero presence in books, movies and songs. To quote Bob Dylan from his most famous song: How does it feel / how does it feel? To be on your own / with no direction home / a complete unknown, like a rolling stone. Bob Dylan has drifted for over half a century and chronicled insights from his remarkable personal journey into a Nobel Prize for Literature. Drifting got him somewhere.
I often caution myself from overly romanticizing these men. Several were outright miscreants. Some appear wracked by addictions and mental illness while others suffered from obvious poverty. A few seemed on the run, perhaps from bad divorces, bad raps, bad luck, bad decisions, bad debts, capitalism, trauma of one sort or another, maybe even a sex offender status.
Does this constitute being lost? Being lost to a productive role in the economy? Do these men need help finding themselves a new, healthier path? I have no idea.
In my experience, though, this type of wandering men is not the majority. I have met many who demonstrated ingenious creative skill in a variety of fields: art, crafts, poetry, mushroom sales, music, healing, spirituality, conserving nature. Many of these men can, if prompted, instantly articulate a philosophy of life in considerable detail. How many of us can do that standing in the parking lot of a grocery store? In the rain?
Have they found the unique ability to live absolutely in the moment? Have they found the utter simplicity and non-materialism that so many of us crave? I have no idea.
I don’t know where I’m really going with this discursion. Sometimes writing on a subject without a direction is the best place to get somewhere interesting. I do know I want to learn more about this curious rambling version of the Lost and Found story on the Oregon Coast. There are many layers to it, some concrete, some opaque, just like a great Bob Dylan song.