Free Spirit: An Unconventional Childhood on the Road

One boy's tale of an unconventional childhood with a free spirit mother and a journey to utopia.

Rainbow Gathering

Author Joshua Safran heads to Rainbow Gathering.

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Author Joshua Safran tells the harrowing, yet wryly funny story of his unconventional childhood in Free Spirit (Hyperion Books, 2013). At just four years old, Safran’s mother took to the open road to escape Ronald Reagan and threats of nuclear war. Free Spirit is more than just a coming-of-age story, though. Safran reconnects with his Jewish roots and overcomes adversity through a journey of the spirit. This excerpt was taken from the prologue.

By the time I was ten I had hitchhiked for thousands of miles and befriended hundreds of remarkably strange people. My mother and I had danced around bonfires and lived in vans, buses, and an ice cream truck. Some nights we slept blissfully under the stars, others I lay awake frightened by the howling of wolves. Fear was commonplace, part of the will you kidnap me or won’t you calculation inherent in every hitched ride.

I was familiar with fear, but not like this. The repeated doses of terror and the pervasive dread were new forms of craziness, imported into the wilds of Skagit County, Washington, by my mother’s latest boyfriend, Leopoldo. He was a former Central American guerrilla fighter and brought with him demons from the Salvadoran civil war and a serious drinking problem. My mother was convinced he was the messianic revolutionary hero she had foretold in clairvoyant visions. I was pretty sure he was going to kill us.

From where I stood, shivering at the gas pump in my frayed thrift store sweater, survival was now a matter of statistics. Even if he didn’t murder us outright, how many nights in a row could we race up Cultus Mountain with Leopoldo behind the wheel before our luck ran out? I stamped my feet to keep my toes from going numb and tried to steel myself for the impending drunk drive up the mountain. Home, for now, was up there at the end of a long, muddy trail. A tiny wood-plank cabin with no electricity or running water.

My mother sat cross-legged in the passenger seat of the car. Through the frost on the window, her face looked like a jagged mosaic, one eye refracted into shining shards of silver in the moonlight, the other lost in darkness. I could tell she was meditating, trying to use her imagined third eye to heal her real eyes, blackened for looking at other men. Leopoldo had punched her in the face a few nights back, part of the same jealous rage that left an ugly hole in the back window of our Chevy Citation. I could hear my mother chanting now as she slowly raised her palms into the air to psychically summon blue energy to protect us.

I shook my head and clenched the icy handle of the gas nozzle with both hands. The numbers on the rusting pump spun upward with an antiquated whirr. Leopoldo was supposed to be paying for the gas inside but, since he was savagely drunk, it was just as likely that he was practicing his kung fu on an aisle of snack food. Or lighting something on fire. I kept looking back at the little store, half expecting the building to burst into flames. A moment later Leopoldo’s bulky silhouette darkened the doorway, and I watched him walk face-first into the glass door. He rattled himself against the glass like a giant angry moth until he figured out that he had to pull the door open.

Leopoldo staggered out into the night, his arms brimming with colorful merchandise. A fat white woman followed him out. “Hey, you gotta pay for those,” she called after him half heartedly. She was dutifully fulfilling some step on her theft prevention checklist. The last thing she wanted was further contact with the raggedy reincarnation of Che Guevara who had just spent the last five minutes screaming at her from under his red headband about her complicity in American war crimes.

“Josh!” Leopoldo yelled at me as he stumbled forward, lighters and plastic ice scrapers tumbling out of his arms. “Get the fuck in the car!” He liked to shoplift the shiny little things they stocked up front by the cash register. It was impulse theft. From past experience, I knew the crime was technically called petty larceny. And I knew that once he hit five hundred dollars it was called grand larceny. As I scrambled into the backseat, I wondered why he never larcened any candy. That, at least, I could forgive.

“Josh, get fucking in!” Leopoldo yelled.

“I’m already in,” I said between chattering teeth. I couldn’t tell whether I was shaking from the cold or from fear, or both.

We churned through the gravel parking lot and launched onto Highway 9 North. Around the next corner, Leopoldo began weaving between lanes. “That woman, she calling to the policía!” he shouted, killing the headlights so the cops wouldn’t be able to see him. “She dirty fucking pinche whore!”

“She was just doing her job, Leopoldo.” My mother spoke at him with the slow intensity of an animal trainer trying to reason with a gorilla who had just ripped the door off his cage. “Leopoldo, way too fast.” She braced herself with one hand on the dashboard. “You’ve gotta slow down!”

He sped up.

The flicker of some distant light in the rearview mirror unleashed a powerful wave of paranoia, and Leopoldo began screaming: “¡La policía! They following us!” The engine revved into an unhealthy roar, and we were thrown back into our seats as Leopoldo tried to break land speed records in our rundown Chevy. He was still ranting about the CIA and secret cameras in the woods when we reached the straightaway before Clear Lake. With no curves to worry about, the needle of the speedometer disappeared in the shadows, and the car began to tremble and buck.

Blind drunk as he was, Leopoldo still spotted the Old Day Creek turnoff. He yanked the wheel hard, and we went spinning across the road, over the graveled shoulder, and through a small grassy field. As we pulled out of our nauseating spin, I clawed at the seat, trying to regain control over my roiling innards. The car whined, and the wheels tore desperately at grass and mud, and then we found traction and charged back onto the roadway.

This was the part of the ride I had been dreading. At the mouth of the forest, the road narrowed and wound its way up the side of the dark mountain for three long, fragile miles. The roadway was slick with rain and slush, and the curves leaping out of the darkness were sudden and sharp. All it took was one errant little tug at the wheel, and we would be plummeting down the precipice to the unforgiving rocks below.

Leopoldo had forgotten about the CIA and was now screaming at my mother: “You cheating on me! You fuck José! You fuck the other mens!” As his paranoia blossomed into fury, he wrenched the car back and forth across both lanes. Each time he dipped the wheel a little further into the narrow shoulder at the edge of the cliff, flirting with the promise of sudden death.

My mother had completely abandoned any pretense of control. Now she was shielding her face with her arms as we hurtled around each curve and shrieking: “Pull over! Stop, stop! Please!”

I had been on Mr. Leopoldo’s Wild Ride before, and I knew there was no use in yelling at him. Panic and chaos only excited him, and each new danger propelled him faster forward toward some inevitable climax of fire and death. I took deep breaths and struggled to control the hysteria building up inside of me; I had to accept that there was no safe way out of this. He wasn’t going to slow down, and the car was moving too fast to jump out.

The seat-belt buckle was missing in the backseat, so I knotted the two lengths of belt together as best I could and closed my eyes. It was time to pray, but I didn’t know which higher power to call upon. My mother’s Spirits and Mother Earth and Gaia reeked too much of moss and marijuana. The hell-obsessed Jesus that the trailer park kids taunted me with was too scary. And the elephant-headed Ganesha that my Mexican-American “Uncle” Tony worshiped was too silly. Yet I sensed that there was something out there. An omnipotent being who ruled the entire universe and also, somehow, cared about me personally. I had taken to calling him Edward because the name sounded so regal and exotic.

Free Spirit: An Answered Prayer

I knew revelation waited around the next corner, and it was to Edward that I now directed my prayers for an easy landing. The Janicki Road cutoff would require a hard right and, at the speed we were going, only a miracle would keep us from flying off the road. This left two possible outcomes: hurtling off the cliff or hitting a muddy ditch at 45 m.p.h.

I gripped my surrogate seat belt and braced for impact. A moment later Leopoldo stomped on the brake pedal with both feet, and a hideous screeching tore at my ears. My head snapped to the left, and a terrible force spun the world around me. An alien scream involuntarily poured out of my mouth.

When I opened my eyes, I saw that someone had answered my prayers. Against all odds, we were still on the road, sliding slowly forward. Leopoldo was cursing wildly in Spanish, slapping at the gear shift. My mother was looking back at me, screaming something. My head was still spinning, and I couldn’t make out the words. The engine revved, and we began to surge forward again.

“Get out of the car, Joshey! Jump!” my mother was screaming. “Jump, Joshey, jump!”

This was the most sense she had made in months. Nothing could be worse than another minute with Comandante Leopoldo at the wheel. I pulled the seat belt apart in one tug, popped the door handle, and leapt into a rush of cold, wet air. The bushes came at me sideways, cracking and crunching. I plunged into an endless thicket, every branch in the forest whipping past my head. And then I came to a stop in a clump of slimy ferns. The forest floor smelled like old bread.

I pulled myself up and climbed back onto the roadway slowly, flexing my limbs as I went, checking myself for damage. One pant leg was torn up to the knee, and my skin burned and stung here and there, but nothing was broken.

The darkness was punctuated by the red glare of taillights ahead of me. My mother was standing in the middle of the road, yelling back into the idling car: “No! Then, you let me drive! No!”

Leopoldo finally gave up on her, and the car lurched forward, fishtailing down the road and out of sight.

“Are you OK?” my mother asked me as I limped up to her. She looked like she was going to cry.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” I said. And I meant it. Things could have been so much worse.

My mother ran her fingers over a dozen little scratches on my face and nodded. “You’re OK,” she said, and then she shrugged. “Leopoldo gets like this sometimes when he drinks.” We walked down the road together, the frozen mud crunching under our feet. Dark walls of forest framed our narrow horizon. After a time it started snowing. Soft little flakes that blanketed the ground before us, muffling our footfalls. We walked together in complete silence like the only people left on Earth.

Adapted from Free Spirit by Joshua Safran. Published by Hyperion Books, a division of the Hachette Book Group. Copyright 2013. All rights reserved. Used with permission.