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.

| October 2013

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.