It was such a long time ago. I’m old now, road weary and weather beaten. Rode hard and put away wet, as the cowboys say. The years have left their marks. This body of mine seems like it belongs to someone else. It sags where it once was drawn taut; joints that moved swiftly and fluidly now ache from the simplest of labors; a young mind that was quick and sure, eager and open, is now old and rests from long fatigue, no longer confident and certain, but managing to stay open just the same. The somewhat boyishly handsome face that held a vigorous smile and saw life through two inquisitive eyes has long surrendered to an old one—recognizable, but with its youthful glow replaced by the seasoned countenance of age. Wrinkles and all, I still see that young man sometimes when I look in the mirror.
I was young in 1974, and I look back upon that youth with a grateful fondness for the opportunities it offered, and how I stumbled through them largely unscathed. Which is not to say that I traversed them unaffected.
No mobile phones or World Wide Web in 1974. There was pretty much no digital anything for the average person, except for microwave ovens and pocket calculators that did simple math and cost as much as a small farm. It would be another five years before I got my first computer and first logged on to what was then the internet, using a three hundred baud modem that had a cradle that held the phone receiver. Nixon resigned that year. The war in Vietnam wouldn’t officially end for another year, though US troops had just pulled up stakes and headed home, leaving a disillusioned and defeated South Vietnamese populace behind. The Apollo moon landings had only recently occurred, and the Space Shuttle hadn’t been invented yet. Patty Hearst had her picture taken holding an M1 carbine. Muhammad Ali knocked out George Foreman.
Some of the people born that year included Kate Moss, Robbie Williams, James Blunt, Penelope Cruz, Cee Lo Green, Alanis Morissette, Hilary Swank, Amy Adams, Jimmy Fallon, Joaquin Phoenix, Ryan Adams, and Leonardo DiCaprio. Pretty impressive list.
And among those who left us were Samuel Goldwyn, Adolph Gottlieb, Chet Huntley, Bud Abbott, Agnes Moorehead, Duke Ellington, Charles Lindbergh, Cass Elliot, Walter Brennan, Oskar Schindler, Ed Sullivan, Walter Lippmann, and Jack Benny. Not to disparage those born in 1974, but I’m thinking that, all up, the world took a bit of a loss that year.
But I digress while attempting to draw a backstory. Suffice it to say, 1974 compares with life today about like we would have viewed 1934 back then. The sojourn that Gizmo and I experienced took place in another universe. Once out on the trail, we were cut off from everyone back home. We were pretty much cut off from everyone most of the time. Even riding alongside a highway, the cars and trucks passed us by as if we weren’t there. We shared no communication except an occasional wave; we had nothing in common with them.
Letters were mailed to me via general delivery, to whatever small town we might pass through in the weeks ahead. I instructed friends and family to address letters this way:
To: John Egenes & Gizmo
Care of: General Delivery, (Name of Town, State)
“Please hold for man on horseback”
I suggested they send letters to arrive well ahead of us, and normally I figured on a month or more of lead time. I learned early on that our mail shouldn’t be sent to large towns or cities where I would have to lead Gizmo through town—oftentimes far out of our way—through traffic and crowds, to get to the post office. Instead, I filled out the post office forms so that our mail would be forwarded to very small towns that I thought would have only one or two streets and a handful of residents. Without Google Maps or any sort of satellite steering gadgets, the only way to choose which towns to send mail to was to pick the ones with the smallest lettering on the map. I stayed away from the ones in bold print, or those that were circled or marked by a star.
Because of our isolation, if I sent a letter, I couldn’t expect an answer, and the likelihood was that I wouldn’t get one. I wouldn’t even know if the person had received mine. No phone calls, no email, or texts, and no posting selfies of Gizmo and me on social networks. Those paths to self-indulgence didn’t exist then.
For whatever it was worth, Gizmo was my sole company, and I was his. The connections we now take for granted were unimaginable back then. The wireless umbilical that links us today would wait almost three decades to manifest itself. A letter was a rare and precious thing to me, and a phone call even more so. Human contact was something that occurred in real time, face-to-face. My social networks were located around campfires, café tables, and at impromptu stops on the side of the road.
I relied upon dead reckoning to steer our course. Since GPS devices wouldn’t be available for more than twenty years, the idea of looking down on Earth from space by using software on a handheld contraption wasn’t even a dream. Paper maps served this purpose. But maps don’t put the areas they cover into the larger context of the entire earth. Maps focus upon your own area of interest, and your world becomes limited to that. The advantage of this is that you aren’t distracted by places and objects that lie outside the boundaries of your map. You concentrate upon your own trail and not upon options and possibilities that are offered elsewhere. The paper map limits your choices because you can’t zoom in and out.
To while away the time, I spent countless idle hours twirling my single action Colt, practicing gun tricks, and listening to my companion’s incisors tearing blades of grass from the ground. Gizmo spent his off hours grazing, dozing, watching and listening to the world around him. We talked quite a bit—or rather, I talked, and he acknowledged through a series of grunts and sighs and by snorting loudly through his nose. I talked a lot, but it was Gizmo who had the most to say. After a time on the trail, I learned to listen to him.
In 1974, riding a horse across the continent was both a reason for, and a method of, disconnecting from society at large. It was a physical disconnection for Gizmo and me. I wanted to divorce myself from my culture on purpose. Today’s digital ecosystem doesn’t allow for that. Smart phones and internet connections insure that a traveler today is always connected—daily, hourly, and minute by minute—to friends, family, and anyone who subscribes to their social network pages and feeds. It doesn’t matter if the horse and rider don’t have a smart gadget and an internet connection. Passersby will certainly have them and make sure the pair are always connected by posting pictures of them and commenting on social media. More photos can be taken and sent from a handheld device in a few minutes than were taken on our entire journey.
Attempting a long ride today would still be a long and difficult process, but being truly alone is no longer possible. Forget about privacy and seclusion. Technology has left its footprints on our reasons for following our dreams and has even altered the dreams themselves. We no longer have a say over that part of it. One can be alone, but one can no longer be in the wilderness.
When I was a kid, a family would climb into their old Nash four-door sedan and take off on a trip through the American Southwest, traveling along Route 66. It was just a narrow two-lane highway that took them to sparsely populated (if at all), empty lands. Gasoline stations were in short supply, so the travelers made sure to fill up at every opportunity. Bottled water wasn’t yet available, so they carried drinking water in a canvas bag with the name “Desert Water Bag” stenciled in bold red letters across its front, and they hung it from the front bumper of the car. This bag could, quite literally, save their lives if the Nash broke down in the middle of the desert.
The Desert Water Bag wasn’t a kitschy, retro item. It wasn’t hung on the bumper to look cool. It was a necessity that was meant to insure the family would live through the trip. Driving out west was still an adventure, a trek into the great unknown. It was a time before the gentrification of the American Highway, before the Stuckyfication of America’s empty lands; passing beneath an arch meant that you were headed into the Utah wilderness and not into a fast food scullery. When you pulled off the two lane to gas up, you got a twenty-five cent pass to see two headed snakes and real mummies in the bargain.
For Gizmo and I, things still weren’t all that much different from the nineteen fifties and earlier, and we saw a world unlike anything shown on the nightly news. We saw real people, real wildlife, and real countryside. We even saw a couple of two-headed snakes. None of it was filtered through the screen of a smartphone. We saw mountains and valleys, rivers and deserts. We traveled freely across the land and squeezed tentatively through crowded cities. We slept on the prairie with coyotes under the stars. We were guests in big, fancy mansions tended by servants and grooms, and spent nights in abandoned mines that had long outlived their bounty. We slept with the dead in graveyards and pondered our existence with truth seekers in clandestine meetings. I came to know that more animal slaughter is performed with an automobile than with a gun, not on purpose but through indifference. There were times when I longed for company (and I know that Gizmo did, too), and times when we couldn’t leave crowded civilization fast enough. Wild horse herds tried to steal my young horse away, and humans threatened us. But more often, the wild horses left us alone, and sometimes a complete stranger would bring me a plate of hot food and some hay and grain for Gizmo. Through all of this I came to know that Americans were different from what was depicted on the nightly news, that they were the people you pass on the street every day, people who mostly shared life with a live-and-let-live philosophy.
Traveling across America by car, you become like water flowing through a clear pipe. You see your surroundings at a distance, and the inhabitants see you, but neither actually connects with the other in any meaningful way. Handheld digital devices magnify this effect. They disconnect you from your immediate environment. When walking, riding a horse, or even bicycling, you remain within physical grasp of your surroundings. Slow travel requires a physicality that produces a far different view of the world, one not possible with the automobile and the handheld.
We no longer know what it’s like to be removed from constant contact, even temporarily. We no longer experience a life without instant gratification or know the need for time to pass to solve a problem. We don’t know what it’s like to not know the answer to something.
When Gizmo and I made our journey, 60 percent of today’s world population wasn’t born yet. That seems a bit staggering to me. It means that most people alive right now didn’t exist then, and it makes it a bit tougher to fully explain how it felt to be isolated the way Gizmo and I were. Smartphones, iGadgets, Droids, tablets, Bluetooth, wireless dongles, camera drones, GPS, wearable computers … all these digital contraptions serve to place each of us squarely in the center of our own universe. My digital connection allows no direct reference to my place in the overall scheme of things. I cannot see where I fit within the whole. The scenario distorts my importance so that I no longer need to adapt to the world around me. Instead, I command it to adapt to me, and it does. I have become the center of my universe.
In 1974, walking step by step, foot by foot, mile by mile, I always knew where I was in relation to the grand scheme of things because that grand scheme amounted to what I could see and feel around me. It’s something that hasn’t changed for me. Today’s digital connections are wonderful, but being face-to-face still beats staring at a screen. And all this is coming from me, a very early internet adopter and die-hard computer geek.
Today with a smartphone, Gizmo and I would never be lost—I could never manage to get us lost, as I did a few times—because GPS devices wouldn’t allow it. I could point my handheld at the night sky to find out what stars I was seeing. There would be no need to memorize where the pole star Polaris is or to know which one was Sirius, the brightest star in the heavens, or to know how to find the summer triangle of Vega, Deneb, and Altair because my device would tell me. In 1974, to tell Gizmo the names of the constellations, I had to know them.
Photographs serve as our memories. The act of taking them causes us to relinquish our responsibility for remembering. I’m grateful for having the pictures I took during our journey. They serve the same purposes that today’s digital photos do and enhance my memories of the seven months we were on the trail.
I took about 350 photos during our ride. I don’t know how many were taken by others, but I’ll assume the same number, so maybe 700 photos over a seven-month period. With a digital camera or smartphone, I could easily have taken that many pictures each morning before we saddled up.
Shooting thousands of photos seems to offer a more detailed accounting of the story, but in fact, it has the opposite effect. By taking that many pictures you end up experiencing life through the device’s screen, leaving no room to savor it. The device steers the experience. You are directed by your camera. You change your behavior—your itinerary, your plans—to suit the way you collect photographs and videos. Your memory of the experience is watching a small video screen. You take thousands of digital pictures, and the more pictures digitally recorded, the less you experience the real world. I took 350 pictures in the seven months we were on the trail, an average of fewer than two pictures per day. When I did pause to take photographs, I usually took several photos at a time, but I would often go days or weeks without pulling my camera out of the saddlebags. Scarcity makes things precious and serves to focus our memory. If I had taken thousands of photos of our ride, no room would have been left for contemplation, no time set aside for deliberation.
You could still get away with stuff in 1974. Not as much as you could have twenty years earlier, but still, lots of things slipped under the radar of the powers that be. You could drive a car without registering or insuring it (though you might get caught if a cop pulled you over for something). You could still sneak into a movie theater. You could still hitchhike most places. Sometimes I feel as though Gizmo and I got away with making the ride. I’m not sure if we would be allowed to do it today, with pressure from various agencies and groups. And I’m not sure they wouldn’t be right in their opposition to it. There were aspects of our trip that were environmentally unfriendly and terribly cruel to Gizmo (and to me, but I don’t count).
We were not then the paranoid, frightened people we are now. It wasn’t a perfect world, by any means. America was already well on its way to losing its innocence in the year that Nixon resigned his presidency. And so were Gizmo and I. It was a time of great turmoil, yet it still held the promise—a fading promise left over from the heady idealism of the sixties—of a better life for all.
The parents of today, who now have children in their teens and twenties, were babies in 1974. The ten-year-old girls who wrote to me after the ride asking for pictures of Gizmo (never of me) are now in their fifties. We’ve moved on from 1974 and left that sweet, naïve innocence behind. The vast, empty, isolated wilderness is now accessed instantly—through a disembodied vision on the screen of a smartphone. The past becomes just another selfie.