By Ed Whitley
We had been trying to hitch a ride for half an hour without any luck, our sandals flapping on the hot road, our backpacks growing heavier. A flipper from the snorkeling gear on my back scraped against my left leg and left a faint chalky line on my tanned skin. I stopped for a moment to lick my finger and rub it out. A car approached and we quickly assumed the posture of the weekend hitchhiker: straightened arms forming a square without bodies, rigid thumbs forming a square to our hands – the geometry of naivete. We had yet to develop the slack-necked dirge of the career hitchhiker: the slow, deliberate steps of some-one never in a hurry but always headed somewhere. The car passed us by. I looked back at Jen’s sunburned face and she gave me a fat-toothed smile. I lifted my eyebrows. This was the soundless dialogue that kept us walking. He too-big necklace dangled across her chest. “I got it when I was in Egypt,” she had told me earlier that week.
“What’s it supposed to be?” I had asked.
“A beetle. It was a gift from the family I was staying with.” It hung from a simple leather cord, was a big as a golf ball, and indignantly dared any article of clothing to go with it. Only Jen had the confidence to wear that necklace, I thought. But she didn’t wear it with the overt confidence that inspires self-deprecation in others; Jen had a self-contained assurance that could feel comfortable walking in silence with another person on an empty road. She could do that. She could dress a room in silence and leave you wrapped in your own sound.
“All this walking makes me feel like I’m back on my mission,” I said, trying to make conversation. Jen obliged.
“How long have you been home?”
“About a year. No wait -” I did the math. “A week from tomorrow it’ll be exactly a year.”
“Wow, I’ll bet it’s great to be back.”
“Yeah, it is. It’s good to be back.” I looked down at my feet.
“I’m thinking about serving a mission.”
I looked back at Jen. “Really?”
“That’s great. How soon?”
“Probably in December.”
“That’s great. That’s really great.”
Pause. Feet scuffled on the road, heads turned to check for a possible ride.
“So why did you go on a mission?”
“Oh, I dunno. That’s a hard question to answer. I guess I knew it was the right thing to do and that it was the right time of my life for it.”
“Are you glad you went?”
“Well yeah, I mean, who wouldn’t be? I mean, it was a great experience, you know. A once-in-a-lifetime kinda thing that you sort of have to do. You know?”
“I mean, I’m totally glad I went and all, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything, it’s just… I dunno. I’m just glad to be home and I’m glad that it’s over.”
I wished that Jen hadn’t brought up my mission. I’d only been home for such a short time that I was still trying to make sense of the experience, and sometimes I didn’t know what to think. Part of me remembered the aching beauty of seeing a family give themselves to God and another part of me remembered that I’d baptized families just to get my mission president off my back. Grace, in my mission, was not a gift from a loving God, but an economic contract between a priesthood-bearing CEO and his multi-level marketing team. If you came up in the black at the end of the month, you were saved; if you came up red, forget it. My mission president’s loud, former-drill-sergeant voice found its way into my head to fill the silence of the road: “‘ I the Lord am bound when ye do what I say, but if ye do not what I say, ye have no promise.’ Clearly, then, elders and sisters, whoever does not complete his baptismal goal with the Lord will have no promise. No promise of baptisms, no promise of a happy and successful life after the mission, no promise of a spouse and a family. Now get out there my little army and make me proud. I think that everyone who serves a mission should first do a tour of duty with the military because that teaches you obedience and discipline. In the Army they’d tell us to go find one or tell them that no it was too hard and we couldn’t do it? No! We’d just go do it and we knew that we could do it because they had asked us to and we did whatever they told us come hell or high water no matter what and it came to the point where we’d find a green frog and we’d paint it pink, elders and sisters we would paint that frog pink because that’s what they’d asked us for and we were going to deliver it to them no questions asked, so elders and sisters I don’t ever want to hear a word out of any of you that this is too hard and that you can’t do it, because the Lord needs you to do it no matter what happens or how tough an area is or whatever excuse you come up with it’s not good enough for the Lord…”
Jen tugged at my sleeve and guided me toward a VW van that had just pulled off the side of the road. The VW drowsily urinated some fluid from its engine black and jostled back and forth under the stress of its tenuous existence. A kid about my age in the passenger seat opened up the side door while the driver grooved to the Bob Marley playing on the worn-out car stereo. It sounded like a bootleg from a live show. As we climbed in, I started to look for a place to sit down. Jen managed to find a seat among the mass of sleeping bags, foam pads, and backpacks, but it took me a while longer and I felt like a chicken circling around her nest before she finds the right way to sit on her eggs.
“Thanks a lot for picking us up,” I heard Jen say.
“No problem,” the guy in the passenger seat said. He was looking at us over his shoulder. He told us his name, but all I remembered was that he was the guy with the grin. He had short hair with the start of some dirty dreadlocks. The driver had on a large woven hat that covered what might have been dreads in a more advanced state, but I couldn’t tell from where I was sitting. He hunched over the steering wheel, obviously entranced by the curves of the road. The guy with the grin kept talking. He and his friend were from Oregon and had only been here a few weeks, alternately working and camping on the beach. We compared notes.
“Have you been to Kapa’s beach?” Jen asked.
“Yeah,” said Grin, “We were just there last week. Beautiful. Are you guys coming from there now?”
“No,” I answered, “we were just snorkeling at the tunnels.”
“So how’d you guys end up in Hawaii?” Jen this time.
“Jah brought us here.” He grinned even bigger and turned to face the road. I looked at Jen quizzically. He means God, I thought. Jah. It fit, but we didn’t ask them more about it. My MTC training started to kick in and I thought about building on common beliefs – Ammon, King Lamoni, and the Great Spirit; the whole schtick. I kept my mouth shut, though.
Jen got him talking again. “So have you picked up many other people today?”
Grin: “Yeah. Whenever we get the chance we try to pick people up. It’s good karma.”
Jen: “I’ll bet you’ve met a lot of cool people.”
The driver spoke for the first time. “Tell them about the lady from this morning.”
Grin smiled even bigger at the memory. “We picked up this lady who’s into the whole Indian-Native American scene. When we told her we followed Jah she told us this story, said we reminded her of it. You wanna hear it?”
He started the story: “She told us this story about this mouse who lived in some mouse village and one day he hears a roaring sound that none of the other mice in the village heard. They said he was crazy for hearing it but he knew that he heard it so he went to go look for where it came from. Se he went to go find this roaring sound and came to a cliff and from the edge, he could hear the sound really loud, but he couldn’t look over to see what it was so he jumped. He jumps off the cliff and while he’s in the air he sees that it’s a river that’s been making the roaring sound, but he’s never seen a river before so it’s something totally new to him. Anyway, he falls into the river, but he totally jived, right, from what he’s seen so he goes back to tell all the other mice but they don’t believe him and tell him he’s crazy. And since his hair is all messed up from being wet he looks different than they do so they kick him out.”
He paused for a second to swallow and wipe his mouth. “He goes to see the river again except for this time he heads for the mountain so that he can see the whole thing and won’t have to jump again. He’s heading up the mountain, right, and he comes across a fox or a wolf or something and it’s wounded and it asks the mouse to give him his eye. The fox or wolf or whatever says that if he can eat the mouse’s eye he’ll be all better.”
Grin: “Trippy, huh? But he does it, right. The mouse gives him one of his eyes and he gets all better. So then the mouse keeps going and he runs into a bird…”
The driver: “An eagle.”
Grin: “Yeah, right, it’s an eagle and it’s hurt too and it asks the mouse for his other eye.”
Me: “Why his eye?”
Grin: “I dunno, he just does. Only the mouse knows that without his eyes he can’t ever see the river again, which is a problem.”
Jen: “what does he do?”
Grin: “This is the cool part: He gives the eagle his last eye and starts waiting to go blind and die there on the mountain when all of a sudden he feels himself flying.”
The driver: “He turned into the eagle.”
Grin: “Yeah, he turns into the eagle and he looks around and he sees the river and his old village and the mountain.”
Jen: “That’s cool. I like that.”
Me (quieter): “Yeah, that’s neat.”
“So that’s what the lady told us.” He wiggled his eyebrows. “Pretty there, huh?”
“Anyway,” he ran his fingers through his stubby hair, “that’s what it is like to follow Jah.”
Grin turned back around and I started paying attention to the Bob Marley on the stereo. The wah-wah on the guitar was great. I remember that especially.
We didn’t talk much about that. We listened to the music, swayed with the pull of the winding road, and felt the warm Pacific air in our lungs, in our mouths, and across our skin. I rested my head on my knee and got into the rhythm of the road – the bumps, the humming of tires on pavement. I watched the ocean breathe and tried to pronounce the lyrical, over-voweled Hawaiian names of the road signs. “Anahola.” I mouthed to myself. “Anahola, Anahola, Anahola.” I looked over at Jen. She was flying with her eyes closed.
When they dropped us off, the one with the grin shook our hands – not firmly like a missionary, but a friendly tug on fingers.
“Positive vibes,” he said.
We thanked him.