The last time I saw my dad was one year, 8 months and a couple weeks ago. I had just lost my house, butchered my goat and sold all my chickens for $60. With that in my pocket, I told him I was headed east around the planet. The night before I left, him and his girlfriend took me and JR out to Thai Pavilion. When we said goodbye, he gave me a hug and a secret-sly handshake with a $100 bill palmed in his fingertips. Thanks Dad.
Tens and tens of thousands of miles later, Ed and I were limping into Laos’s ancient royal capitol of Luang Probang on our last $50 between us. For weeks now we had been ripping our hair out, squeezing kip and denying the fast-approaching reality: we didn’t have enough money for our whole trip. We had come to Luang Probang to sort ourselves out.
Here in Luang Probang, after 9 jobs in 6 countries, I finally ended up doing what I swore never to do: asking for money. I have no inherent or moral objection to begging, its just that flying a sign has never been my deal. I’m a hobo, not a bum, and I’m proud of that fact. Or at least I was.
But our hands were tied! Because of Ed’s limited time, we can’t stop and work. And after a few months of putting it off, I realized I couldn’t think of anything else.
We put an appeal out through our Lost on the Mekong website, asking for people to help produce our film. We said we were asking for help telling a story – our project which we are legitimately quite proud of and is truly being done for an overwhelmingly important cause. This is all fact. But it still casts a bitter taste in my mouth. At the end of the day, we were still just two broke dudes asking for money.
Then something incredibly happened. Within two days, friends and family stepped up in one great, buoyant cloud of cheers carrying us on. People we know, people we don’t know who just support our project – long lost relatives, friend’s moms and even a few old train riding buddies. Thank you SO much, everybody! And of course: my dad donated. Thanks Dad.
But holding other people’s money is a strange thing. We can’t just do whatever we want anymore. These past few weeks we’ve been too broke to do anything of the sort, but before we would occasionally celebrate a long hot bike ride over a beer or take ourselves our to a $3 sit-down restaurant. Now that we had asked for help with our film, though, we can’t really justify expenses that aren’t directly related.
So, being the marginally responsible kids we are, we went wild. The way we figured it, the $50-or-so we had left was the very last of our own money we had left. And after a pretty broke set of weeks, we threw ourselves a spending-spree. We got a guesthouse with two beds, paid for somebody else to do our laundry, at at white-people restaurants and drank beer watching World Cup. Sorry Dad, I know Mexico is your team but I just had to root for Cameroon.
We woke up the next day hung over. Not from booze, but from money. “What did we do last night?” We had blown through what easily could have been a week’s budget pretending to be flip-flop tourists on Luang Probang’s backpacker circuit.
Because of how paypal works, it would be a few days before we could access any of the donations through Ed’s bank account. This was fine, though, because we still had just enough money to buy some supplies and take a ferry boat over to the river’s east bank. Our plan was just to camp out for a couple days, then come back to access the cash before continuing our journey down river.
And I was STOKED!
Camping is one of my greatest joys in life. I probably got it from my parents. For a few very memorable summers growing up, they packed my sister and I in the family Colt Vista and took off camping around North America. I remember sleeping in their old “Gimme Shelter” tent – a mildewy remnant of their own cross-country honeymoon bike trip. I remember camping the Southwest: ancient wonders of Mesa Verde cliff dwellings and getting stuck to a prickly pear cactus at the Oregon Pipe National Monument in Arizona. I remember the Deep South: watching an alligator tear apart a nutria in a swamp outside Biloxi and stumbling into Jimmie Buffet playing a crazy backwoods crawfish feed in Alabama. The East Coat: an old handmade Quaker cabin and visiting Mystic Seaport. The Midwest: catching twinkling star lightning bugs before thunder storms and hiking the Glen Helen in my dad’s native Southern Ohio. The West: catching turtles in a pond outside Salt Lake and coyotes in twilight. As a small child I got my sister lost in the Oregon dunes. And of course, I remember camping in my native Cascadia: The first time I ever went backpacking, we hiked to a remote beach and my dad brought freeze-dried beef strogonof. It was disgusting. Years later, when I joined Thurston County Search and Rescue, my dad took me shopping for gear and drove me to every meeting. My parents showed me that the world is a big, beautiful place – and its supposed to be seen, appreciated and interacted with. The last time we went camping together, just the two of us, me and my dad slept inside a hole in a huge huge huge cedar tree on the Oregon coast. Thanks Dad.
So anyways, I love camping! And it may sound strange, coming from a guy who lives in a tent, but I don’t actually feel like I get to go camping that often. On this bike trip, for instance, we typically ride all day – often not setting up the tent until after dark. By the time we get some wood together, start a fire and cook our dinner, we’re ready to just pass out. And as soon as light cracks back into the sky, we’re up and on our bikes trying to stay ahead of the tropical heat. Its sleeping in a tent, and its fun, but its not what I’d call camping. Camping, to me, is a dedicated activity which you have to set our to do. And I don’t get to do that very often. I wanted the rare rare luxury of staying two nights in the same spot.
“The only problem is that we won’t be able to get ahold of our dads on Fathers Day,” Ed mused on the rusty ferryboat.
“I doesn’t matter,” I mumble distractedly. “We’ll wish them happy Fathers Day when we get back.”
“Its not the same thing, though, is it?” Ed stares at me sharply. “I hate the idea of a dad going all day without hearing ‘Happy Fathers Day’. That’s horrible!”
“Really?” I snap out of my river reverence. Was it really that strange? What’s normal? I typically forget my family’s birthdays, and they often forget mine. No one in our clan is very big on phones or internet, and my total correspondence with my pop these last two years amounts to about a dozen emails, a couple letters, one phone call from Europe and one time on Christmas when we half-figured out how to Skype.
Its not that we’re not close. My parents are two of my best friends. The last email I got from each of them said how they were both reading “A River’s Tale” – a book about tracing the Mekong – a soggy copy of which I’m now re-reading myself on the river’s bank. My family all loves and supports one another in a million ways, we’re just not the type of people that need to talk every day. Or catch Father’s Day exactly. I don’t think, anyways.
So Ed and I started cycling. It was one of the best rides of the whole trip: an idyllic wooden town gave way to deep, beautiful jungle dotted with intricately carved pagodas filled with saffron clad monks. We had heard their was an abandon temple somewhere, and we hoping to camp in it.
But the road took its toll. Our bikes are in bad shape. Much of the roads we’re riding on are mountain-bike trails that not even a 4×4 could navigate. Twisted tangles of roots and rocks know our wheels all around – we slip in mud and bang into the never-ending pothole of a trail. At this point my bike is missing a front derailer, a front break and a few gears on my back side. Every day a new sound emerges, and at first we take it very seriously and try to figure it out, but then we remember that we don’t have any tools or ability to fix anything, so we just laugh and chalk it up to one more noise in the creaking, crunching, grinding, rubbing symphony that are our bikes. Ed’s most recent development was a mysterious drag on it – something which completely baffled us until- riding along on that Fathers Day camping trip – the back wheel completely seized up and we finally realized it was a sign that the barring was completely fucked.
We sighed in the heat. “I guess this is where we’re camping.” The location was breathtaking. We had broken down in a thick forest monastery. A quiet, peaceful place. We probably wouldn’t have chosen the spot if we had other options, simply because the access down to the river was a looooooong long long long long long long temple staircase, but we didn’t have much choice. So we lugged the bikes and all our things all the way down down down to the beach, and set up camp.
Lately we’ve been getting really into campfire cooking. We have a pot, and a small water bottle full of oil. We like to see what we can do. So far we’ve had In And Out of the Fire Fried Rice, Pot-Fucker Stuffed Cucumbers, Camping Pad Thai, Long Hard Day Stir-fry, roasted onions and garlic, and yes… the occasional hotdog. Tonight, in honor of Fathers Day, Ed cooked the special Salerno family spaghetti sauce just like his dad taught him. Young monks from the Wat came down to help us collect fire wood and brought us a big giant monastery candle. After dinner we sat around star gazing.
The next day Ed grabbed his wheel and headed back towards the village to see if anyone could help him fix it. While he was up top being kidnapped by friendly monks helping him fix the barring, I set about to make the best camping spot ever. I gave our bug screen a tarp porch – critical in the blazing sun – a front door that we could literally sit in with our feet in the water – swam around our own private swimming hole, found the perfect plank for a bench, and set a kettle of Mekong Tea on the fire. It was, in my humble opinion, quite dreamy. When Ed came back – bike temporarily fixed – it was time to bust out the fishing tackle.
I’m not really what you would call an avid fisherman. In fact, that’s an understatement. I don’t really know how to gut a fish. But my dad was born to be on the water. In land locked southern Ohio, his highschool yearbook predicted he would be a clam digger. And when I was a young child – yes – he was a clam digger. These days he focuses on growing mussels – a small farm which is has been busting ass and pioneering on since before I was born – but before all that he worked on a fishing boat off the coast of Florida. We didn’t go fishing a LOT when I was a child, but my dad was always interested in NEW ways of fishing. Together we have dropped perch sinkers off his rafts in the Puget Sound, cast-netted flounder in bayou country, fished shrimp off a bridge on the Gulf Coast, fly-fished bluegills on my grandparent’s pond, crab potted, gone after deep sea rock fish, and even talked our way into trailing an immense, possibly illegal, drift net with local fisherman off the Pacific coast of Mexico. I remember it clearly – the sun hadn’t risen yet and the net hung out like a long, glittering curtain of phosphorescence.
It’s lucky to have all these different fishing experiences to draw from, too, because our equipment for fishing here in the Mekong is a bit meager. We have: a few tiny hooks- cheap ones with no hole to thread- a spool of fishing line, a water bottle, and a really cool bead somebody gave me in Tibet which is probably pretty sacrilegious to use as a weight. Also a hot dog. Not exactly the chicken gizzard trick my dad taught me, but I was optimistic about catching our dinner.
There we were, sitting around minding our own business way down at the river’s edge fiddling around making fishing lines, when who should turn up but a couple nosey Lao cops demanding to see our passports. We feigned misunderstanding, taking pictures with them, instead. They left scratching their heads. A few minutes later more cops showed up – the English speaking division – and to make a very long story short we were kicked off and permanently banned from ever returning to the east bank of the Mekong – for exactly what crime we’re still unsure. It was one of the best camp spots I’ve ever had.
Back on the west bank, we had to find another camping spot. But before we could, it started raining. We took shelter with a group of friendly young Vietnamese construction workers in their barracks. It wasn’t the first time Vietnamese construction workers have taken us in in Laos. Just the other night we were taken in, housed, wined and dined by a happy, dancey bunch building a resort just up river. Usually when this sort of thing happens, there is a limited range of communication. One of the easiest questions to get across, though, is: “Do you have any children?” “Yes!” My new Vietnamese friend in the tin rain shack beams, holding up two fingers. A proud father. We sat in the shack, rain hammering a sad rhythm, and I thought about two little Vietnamese children missing their dad far away in Laos – thought about how hard this young man works to support himself and his family – and thought about how hard my own dad always worked to support me. ‘Dads are great’, I thought, and I wished my new friend Happy Father’s Day.
Father’s Day continued, as Father’s Day is prone to doing, and of course it took a few more twists and turns. Ed helped some villagers build a new porch, and after he was whisked away on the back of a moto with celebratory lady-boys, I lost the new campsite and wondered around in a pitch pitch black jungle for a few hours before getting attacked by ants. Standard procedure.
All this has dragged on long enough. The point of what I’m trying to say is Happy Father’s Day. Happy Father’s Day Nate, Troy, Dan, Tate, Pheap, Samedy – all my friends with kids – many of whom I haven’t even had the thrill of meeting yet – I love you all and you’re all great dads. Happy Father’s day to all the male figures who took a part in raising me, and all the good dads in general. And most of all: Happy Father’s Day, Dad.