Monthly Archives: July 2013

Carnivals the Chicago Way: Boogie’s Spinning Century

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The Dumbos ready to be set up in front of the Fountain of Time, and Father Time, at the head of Midway Plaisance. Modern Midways played the site of the first ‘midway’ last month. The birthplace of the American traveling carnival was still alive, as kids played in the reflecting pool after going on rides.
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Writer’s note: This is my sixth month of my coast-to-coast, year-long journey working in traveling carnivals and living on carny wages. I’ve now worked in five carnivals and hitchhiked 8,000 miles between jumps.

“Work is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.” ― Studs Terkel

Boogie runs a spinning Century, near the first Ferris Wheel at the birthplace of American traveling carnivals.

Standing high on the launching ramp, neighborhood crowds lining up below, he’s proud to be part of it all – Chicago, history and living in these days.

Boogie runs the Century Wheel, a premium Ferris wheel in use in the bigger traveling carnivals. A Black man in his 30s and strong-looking, Boogie wore a flashy, baggy jacket and he had a way of attracting other carnies to the wheel to talk to him. Something about Boogie, people like talking with him.

During a rain break I got a chance to talk to Boogie.

I mentioned that I was woken by a cow face looking at me that morning as The 30, the carny quarters in Chicago Heights. The owners keep 40 Black Angus cows on the same lot as the carny quarters.

He laughed but he wanted me to know that cows are part of Chicago’s history.

“Remember, a cow is responsible for all the good shit we have around over there,” he said pointing to downtown Chicago, the side tourists and photographers focus on.

He was referring to the legend of “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow,” which was blamed for knocking over a lamp and starting the 1871 Great Chicago Fire. After the fire, Chicago rebuilt and has been reinventing itself ever since.

Boogie was hazy on the details but he knew about the Union Stockyards, which operated near our site.

He also knew the first Ferris Wheel, a elephantine version of his wheel, operated just a few blocks away, “a long time ago.”

However, I was up on my Chicago history because I’d recently been rereading “Devil in the White City,” which featured the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition.

I also spent years as a journalist in the area and drank in the Chicago history and lore.

Where Boogie was hazy, I stepped in with the background. After that night, he consistently would ask, “Why you know so much about Chicago?”

I was glad he knew what he knew, it meant some inner city kids in Chicago still grow up knowing something about its past and see how it still spins through their lives.

EyesLikeCarnivals traditions

The 1893 World’s Fair is called “the fair that changed America” by some and it still lives in names and traditions in Chicago.

The concept of a midway with games and shows down a main street of entertainment was a centerpiece of the fair.

These days, Chicago has Midway Airport, Midway Airlines and the Monsters of the Midway, the Chicago Bears. Restaurants, bars and even churches have Midway in their names.

The quintessential Chicago traveling carnival I was working for is named “Modern Midways.”

Galesburg, Il.-born George Washington Gale Ferris built the Chicago wheel with 36 cars, holding a capacity of more than 2,000 people. It took 20 minutes to turn twice. Some cars had waiters.

The World’s Fair appeared for six months and drew crowds of 27.5 million at a time when the entire country had only 65 million. (btw, we now number about 312 million)The fair made such a national splash that waves of smaller traveling carnivals followed with rides, games, freak shows, burlesque, carousels and Ferris wheels.

They spread out from Illinois and, as one carnival manager recently told me, Illinois is still “a busy state for carnivals.”

Traveling shows or circuses, even smaller versions of the Ferris wheel have existed for centuries but the North American carnival traces back to that Chicago World’s Fair, with its Ferris wheel and midway.

The second spot of the summer for Modern Midways, was along Midway Plaisance, the exact mile-long site of the original midway.

At that Washington Park jump, we put up a Big Eli, made by Eli Bridge Co. of Jacksonville, Il., which traces its roots back a century. Boogie ran both rides, the Century at the first jump in Gage Park, the Big Eli along Midway Plaisance.

We were also just blocks away from the union stockyards, at one time the largest meat producing square mile in the world. Meatpacking names from that era like Swift and Amour still thrive.

It’s squalid conditions became the subject of Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle.” Also a journalist, Sinclair worked in the stockyards before writing the book, as I’m working in traveling carnivals hoping to write a book.

Another writer Bertoldt Brecht wrote a play about downtrodden labor in “Saint Joan of the Stockyards.”

Brecht was a favorite of Chicago author Studs Terkel, who I interviewed a few times. Terkel quoted a Brecht poem in his autobiography “Touch and Go.”

“Caesar beat the Gauls. Was there not even a cook in his army?”
“Phillip of Spain wept as his fleet was sunk and destroyed. Were there no other tears?”

Studs wrote “Working” about the people not included in history’s narrative. I also wrote a five-section special edition of the Elgin Courier-News in the 1980s called “Working,” citing Terkel. It included nearly 100 profiles of Fox Valley area people from a struggling car washer to rags-to-riches entrepreneurs.

Studs called the newsroom to compliment me. I was out at the time but the compliment made it to the whole office as our loud secretary yelled his words across the newsroom to me later.

“Studs Terkel called and said he loved your series, whatever the name of it was,” she yelled.

I chose carnivals to write about because they operate in town centers across the country. The focus of the community often is an annual event and each has workers with lives as colorful as the carnivals they work.

Along the way, so many people I meet can relate how they once worked with a carnival, loved carnivals, or always wondered what kind of life carnies live.

“EyeLikeCarnivals” isn’t “The Jungle” or “Working” or “Saint Joan of the Stockyards,” yet it is in that tradition of living, working and writing about the lives inside history’s big narrative outline.

People like Boogie who shifts the Ferris wheel lever back and forth, watching today’s crowds thrill on the ‘modern’ midway.

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The Big Eli made in Jacksonville, Il. on the first midway along Midway Plaisance, with the University of Chicago Hospital in the background.

Carnival the Chicago Way: Welcome to “The 30”

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Who you lookin’ at? A herd of 40 Black Angus cows mix with the carnival quarters and rusted-out rides along US. Route 30 near Chicago Heights, Il.


Video of a carny saying “Hey, I just woke up” and shooing away cows in the carny quarters in The 30.

“What I have ever sighed for has been to retreat to a Swiss farm, and live entirely surrounded by cows – and china.”
Charles Dickens

I spent my first night in a filthy carnival van, scratching and flicking off bugs when I was woken by the feeling that eyes were watching me.

I looked up from the seat and saw a cow’s big dumb face looking at me, its face practically pressed against the window.

If he had said “Good moo-ning” it would have been perfect.

Crawling out of the van, I walked around the cow and saw a herd milling about between the carny bunkhouses, cars and rusted-out carnival rides.

We arrived in the far-south suburb of Chicago Heights after working a show, so I knew we were parked in a field. I knew the owners had cows. I didn’t know we lived in a field with 40 Black Angus cows.

Then, walking out of nowhere came a carny on his way to the donniker. His name, of course, is “Ham Bone.”

Apparently, my awe of the cows and the widespread decrepitude gave Ham Bone a good laugh at the new guy.

“Welcome to The 30,” he said. “Wait till it rains, then it’ll be “Welcome to The Dirty 30.”

He was referring to US Route 30, the coast-to-coast highway called the Lincoln Highway in these parts. The Lincoln Highway was the first bi-coastal highway in the country. After US Route 66, this is the most fabled road I have traveled. One morning a carny pointed at the rising sun and said, “My house is right on this highway out that way, in Ohio.”

The ‘winter quarters’ of Modern Midways is along Route 30, on the edge of Chicago Heights, a far southern Chicago suburb.

Ham Bone was right, it rained that day as it did much of last month. Each morning and evening, I was greeted by ankle-high, sometimes shin-high recipe of mud and cow manure.

One morning I woke myself up with the greeting, “Mud and cow shit everywhere, honey, what’s for breakfast?”

Anthropomorphizing cows

I spent the first week in the van, suffering innumerable bites. My skin felt like a scratchy, infested overcoat.

When a few carnies quit, I was told there were rooms in the bunkhouses but no rooms had doors that closed or windows with actual windows in the frames. Any sort of mosquito, bug or cow could come in the front door or window.

Still, anywhere was a relief from that van, which I’d compare to an old, trashed Petri dish on wheels.

Coming out of the rancid showers you were likely to be more dirty than going in. At one trailer shower, the door was off the hinges and on the back read, “The girls don’t like seeing your hairy ass so close the door.”

In my weeks there, the showers often didn’t work or were cold. That along with the lack of a nearby laundromat made the human stench in the van rides back and forth from the shows “a kind of hell on earth,” one carny from Florida remarked.

The donnikers were more than 100 yards away through an obstacle course of mud and wood planks. In a hurry, sometimes, your frantic run for the toilet was blocked by a bull.

That concept prompted Marine Eric to object.

“If you have diarrhea, you’ll never make it. You’ll have to do it next to the cows. Say, move over cow.”

The cows were also a great source of humor for us all as they began showing up in stories about cows operating rides while we sleep, or sneaking into bed with us to keep warm.

The cows could have superpowers, they could even outsmart us. Cows had attitudes and were guilty of wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy and gluttony.

During my final tear down in Chicago last month, Peanut told me that I was going to miss my family, the carnival. Even the cows, he said.

He was right for linking the family with the cows.

I loved The 30, I just didn’t know it when I was shin-high in bullshit.

Living Road: Runners on Road for Life

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Robert Shackelford and Vanessa Runs in front of their home, with artwork of “Grateful Dead”-style skeletons running with their dog and cat. The ribbon refers to “The Summit Seeker,” her book published this year.

“Shame on the soul, to falter on the road of life while the body yet endures.”
Marcus Aurelius

Standing roadside for hours in heat or cold or rain, the most difficult part for this hitchhiker is dealing with this hitchhiker.

I’m living on carnival wages, so hitchhiking is a necessity, as well as being a great source for stories.

So one thing doesn’t torture me, the thought that there is an easier way.

Still, the biggest single ache, comes in the form of self reflection that whirls in circles. It never seems to advance much unless I sit and write. I suspect mathematicians don’t get too far without writing down, or typing out equations.

“This project will fail. The sun is giving me cancer and is shriveling my face. People who hate me are right, my insights are as inspiring as a tin road. Why would anybody pick me up?”

Cars and trucks go by like the world, or my life. Then the world stops, my breathing stops, all because a car stops.

The waiting is a dull pain that seems like it will never go away and getting a ride is a trip.

Magic rides ahead

Dropped off late by former carney Fast Eddie in Fort Nelson, British Columbia, I walked up a hill to an old baseball field to sleep in a mosquito-filled scorer’s box.

In my bivy, I was safe from the mosquitoes but the wooden box buzzed like a beehive.

It was the July 4th weekend, so this far north it’s light until after midnight and then again around 3 a.m. I hit the road’s shoulder at 4 a.m. and did the same the next day.

At about 9 a.m. the third day, I decided to confront drivers who went into the tourist center with my all-American Fourth of July pitch.

“Hi, are you Yanks? Happy Fourth. Going to Alaska? Help out a fellow American?”

But the charming and dark-haired Vanessa Runs and her burly, adventurous co-adventurer Robert “Shacky” Shackelford had seen me the day before and had already decided to pick me up if I was still there talking smack to myself beside the road.

From the Patch to running caribou

Fort Nelson is on the northern tip of the Rocky Mountain range, also known as “The Patch,” the oil and gas producing region of Canada – the biggest importer of American energy.

Hitching this part of Highway 97 is best when drivers have stories about making a living on the Greater Sierra Oil and Gas Field. Here, permafrost and ice roads make crossing the muskeg and boreal forest possible.

“Is fracking controversial up here,” I asked the local tourist center assistant.

“No,” she happily said, “why would it be.”

Energy industry trucks, heavy equipment trailers and forestry haulers passed by me as I stood, hoping to get a slow ride from a Patch worker with stories of brutish labor in white, dark primal winters.

Smoke stacks and plants dot the town’s outskirts but over the horizon is a wonderland of rivers, mountains and provincial parks.

On the western edge of Ft. Nelson there’s a giant metal bear and a welcome sign. On the back of the bear, graffiti read, “Hitchhiker’s are Bear Food.”

More like bug food, I thought.

Vanessa and Shacky picked me up and we headed through the Northern Rocky Mountains and Muncho Lake provincial parks and past the Muskwa, Toad, Liard, Coal and Hyland rivers to Watson Lake.

Suffice it to say, lots of moose, bear, goats, sheep and buffalo crossed our path. We whizzed by snow capped mountains and high rivers, due to heavy rains in recent weeks.

Vanessa made me a few snacks. I took a video of a caribou running beside the van. By the end of the day we reached Watson Lake, about a 320-mile, seven-hour trip.

The only way to explain it to my fellow Chicagoans would be to say it was better than a Natural Geographic 3D IMAX movie at Navy Pier. The skyline is higher and snow capped. And the wild life doesn’t shoot you for your iPhone.

We all left home in February

In the midst of this beauty, on a sunny British Columbia day, Vanessa and Shacky talked about living their dream life.

She’s a 31-year-old former Canadian health editor, blogger, author. He’s 43-year-old former navy petty officer and electrical engineer for a San Diego DNA firm.

They shut off their lights, let the bank take their home and took off in their van in February, the same month I left Chicago.

What is it about February?

Their new home is a Realta 22-foot Winnebago camper with solar panels on the roof and an Aloha Hawaii, four-inch green-skirted bobble doll on the dash.

They’re both bloggers and ultra-marathon trail runners. Vanessa already wrote and published a book, “Summit Seeker,” which started like EyesLikeCarnivals, with a blog (she recommended EyesLikeCarnivals go to e-book like hers.)

Check out their adventures and lifestyle recommendations at VanessaRuns.com and SummitSeekersAdventures.blogspot.ca

When I mentioned I am living on carny wages, they mentioned Craig’s List Joe, who made a film about living off Craig’s List charity for a month.

As for their inspirations, they pointed to DriveNachoDrive.com, which is written by a couple who quit their jobs in 2011 to drive slowly around the world in a 1984 Volkswagon Vanagon, to discover “culture, food, recreation.” Part of their trip is being financed with t-shirts, coffee cups and gym bags with their logo.

Their chief inspirations are in the running world, barefoot, minimalist and ultra marathon. The reputed founder of the ultra marathon movement Gordy Ainsleigh wrote the foreword to Runs’ book.

They talked about runners like KenBob Saxton, author of “Barefoot Running, Step by Step.” They introduced me to Pat Sweeney, a vegan sponsored by a beer company who runs “insane” races, including a nude 5k, a beer race and a Krispy Kreme race.

People they know people who write or film their lives like Steve Kroleschel, who made the film, “The Beautiful Truth” and operates a wildlife refuge in the Yukon.

Is the carny life for them?

They’re traveling people, why not travel with a carnival.

Before they met me, they said they were seriously thinking of joining a traveling carnival. They still might.

They hope Vanessa’s blog and e-books will earn some money along the way. All cashed out, they believe they can live another two years off savings but they are prudent and want to work. They’d like to work in national parks, or farms, or with ecological groups in the United States or South and Central America.

In the meantime, they are driving around Canada and Alaska viewing mountains and wildlife. They run two to three times a week. They are always on the lookout for races.

In her blog, Vanessa recently wrote about George Bernard Shaw quitting his dead-end job to become a full-time writer. Another person living his dream.

“I want to be on the road for the rest of my life,” Shacky said during our ride. “There’s a lot to see still.”

As for hitchhikers, Vanessa wrote the following on her blog.

“Every hitchhiker we pick up confirms my suspicion that strangers are inherently awesome, trustworthy, and good human beings … dangerous men are more of a minority than we believe.”

Signs point to road home

I left them in Watson Lake, Yukon. It’s most famous landmark is the Sign Post Forest.

The “forest” was started by Carl K. Lindley who was working on the Alaska Highway in 1942 when he thought it would be funny to put up a signpost for his hometown, Danville, Illinois.

Travelers have joined in on the fun and now there are 76,000 signs in the Watson Lake town center.

The Sign Post Forest is thick with messages but all with a similar theme – from here, home is far.

Vanessa and Shacky drove into a parking lot and pulled the shades to sleep in the land of the midnight sun.

I stood across the street from their camper and thought of the two runners inside, so sure of great adventures ahead and so surely in love.

I didn’t wait a half hour before a brand-new white Mack Pinnacle, 22-wheel truck with a silver bulldog on the hood stopped and the driver asked if I could keep him awake all the way to Whitehorse, Yukon – 270 miles and about five hours away.

“Why else would you ever pick up a hitchhiker in the middle of a sunny night?”

After two desert dry days in Fort Nelson, I had a 600-mile hitchhiking day.

So much of my time hitchhiking, I think of roads. Of Patch workers on ice roads. Of roadside running caribou. Of traveling carnival convoys. Of runners in love living their dream lives on the road.

There’s a lot of living on the road and some rides go far.

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Michael Sean, Shacky and Vanessa at the Sign Post Forest, Watson Lake, Yukon.

Eyes Like Carnivals kicks off with interview of realty TV star, before website, before TV series

With the mother of all doubt on my only good shoulder, I left Chicago in February to work a year in traveling carnivals coast-to-coast while living on a carny salary.

That meant many of my posts have not been about the five carnivals I’ve joined from California to Chicago, to New York, to Alaska, they’ve been about hitchhiking that same route – about 7,000 miles.

So far.

I’m still no closer to a book deal but EyesLikeCarnivals has been rewarding.

On the train ride from Chicago to San Francisco, the classic route of the Zephyr, I met a fella who called himself Puma Cabra. That fella now has a reality TV series on the Discovery Channel, starting tonight at 10 pm, EST.

I interviewed him with the Colorado Rockies going past us in the background. He mentioned “Naked and Scared: Naked in Borneo” is being filmed in two months.

I asked him about one of the themes of Eyes Like Carnivals – jobs

Another question, I’m not including in this post, was his memories of the best times in his life. I may show that at the end of the year.

This film reminds me I should be taking more of them. I can’t on the carnivals so far, because I am incognito. More hitchhiking films are in order when I leave Alaska, after playing Fairbanks in a couple weeks.

I face every hitchhiking trip with a certain amount of dread, they are difficult, time consuming, weather-beaten ventures mostly rewarding only when I turn my head to look back.

Rainbow Road Trip, Part II

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Electric Leprechaun dumpster dives.

Yugen/yoo-gehn/n. (japanese)

An awareness of the universe that triggers emotional responses too deep and powerful for words.

My hosts of the open road weren’t just driving cross country, they were counter-culture idealists on their way to something that could change their lives.

They were on their way from Vermont to Montana in order to join a huge Rainbow Gathering. They weren’t just party bound, though a party it will be.

Apocalypse Julie, Rainbow Eric and the Electric Leprechaun found me hitchhiking at a Chicago oasis and though I joined them in the same faded red 1998 Subaru Outback, we were pointed in different directions.

I wanted a tour of their sub-culture.

These counter-culturists didn’t know what they wanted but they wanted more than rivers and mountains flashing past. More than anything ordinary, they wanted something too deep and powerful for words. They wanted more.

Leprechaun chasing a Rainbow

I’m using their funny nicknames because they believed in fun, as if it were oxygen. Though in their 30s, they loved fun mixed with child’s play.

“Insanity workout. Insanity workout. Insanity. If you’re not insane before the workout, you will be after,” Rainbow Eric yelled repeatedly.

Electric Leprechaun knew this to be his cue. On the short side, with red hair, red beard and red shirt, Electric Leprechaun sprung into action.

In a hardware store parking lot in Sparta, Wisconsin, passing drivers wondered what was going on as the four of us rushed to form an enthusiastic circle in the center of the lot.

He touched his nose. We touched our noses. He touched his toes. We touched our toes. He sat in the parking lot. We did too.

“Meditate,” he said.

We crossed our legs and sat in a lotus position for what seemed like hours.

Then he got up and walked away without an expression on his face.

The promise of insanity was unfilled in me, but it was a successful exercise in roadside spectacle.

That same evening we passed over the Mississippi River and stayed in Great Bluffs State Park, with its stunning river valley overviews.

We told stories around the campfire. Rainbow Eric told a story of his first Rainbow Festival and how he realized how many good things happen to him when he needs them the most. Apocalypse Julie told one about grandparents who teamed up to be private investigators, she might want to join them when she gets back home.

Electric Leprechaun told a story about his first dumpster dive. He was in his early teens and found high-tech stereo speakers. Ever since, he’s been looking for treasure (pot o’ gold?) in dumpsters.

I thought of that story often when we pulled over for rest stops or gas. He always darted off to a dumpster. At one gas station he came back sharing broccoli, cauliflower, donuts and cookies. At several others, he just ate his pizza or pork sandwich.

Electric Leprechaun is no new-age eater. He rolls his own cigarettes and eats junk food from dumpsters.

At one point, Apocalypse Julie told me the leprechaun is “famous” around Burlington because he’s lived with everybody and he lives “off the grid,” not needing money for most of what he loves to do.

The Burlington area near the University of Vermont has long been a haven for American counter-culture and the 38-year-old Electric Leprechaun has lived there front and center.

He says its best days have past though, “because of the cops.”

He does occasionally work. He talked about panning for gold in Alaska and taking either $6,000 or $12,000 out of the rivers there.

That image, I thought, the leprechaun panning for gold.

Mostly, he talked about his photography (which I viewed it on his iPhone), paintings, music (guitar and cello), sewing and numerous other pursuits. He says he’s written a book, “Zen and the Art of Trans-World Dumpster Diving.”

He talks about his love for his two daughters and seeing the world.

Sometimes he would end his stories with a twist and laugh like a central casting mad man. He thought the laugh was funny, and he was right.

He told me about other “intentional communities” outside the Rainbow Gathering, with names like Blueberry Hill and Dancing Rabbit. I told him I’d visited Findhorn in Scotland.

He had opinions too about America. He was concerned about homelessness and wanted America to be a more friendly, informed place.

He’d let in the world’s homeless and they’d have to close down the government. Our government, he says, doesn’t want people to travel because people who travel gain knowledge and knowledge is power.

He was fond of playing his iPhone under his conductor’s hat. Once, I asked who was playing the violin (badly) and he said, “It’s a friend of mine but I don’t think he liked that violin.”

I still can see the look on his face as something akin to Jack Benny on the violin came wafting from his hat.

He told stories about being raised in privilege. His father is a college economics professor but college was a waste of time for him.

Much of the time on the ride, he was quiet, living in his private world where I imagined he visited far out ideas and made himself laugh.

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Eric upside down

Eric objected to being called a hippie until Apocalypse Julie chided him, “don’t betray your people … if you’re not a hippie then everything I know about you is wrong.”

Eric likes Julie, so he relented, whether he believes he is really a hippie or not.

Rainbow Eric has black curly hair, tinted glasses, blue eyes and a bit of a belly. When he talks, he comes off as smart and earnest.

“We’re all pretty out there,” he warned once.

He has hitchhiked a lot and once lived in Slab City, California. He wears a T-shirt made of hemp and he’s on his way to the Rainbow Gathering, not his first.

He once wrote an incredible reggae song that he’s never sung and he’s never heard sung.

“I can’t sing it. It’s too good. It’s in a pitch I can’t reach. I don’t know where it came from but it just came to me. It’s really good though.”

Then he smiles. Ya!

At several stops along the ride, he’d walk off, find a tree and do a handstand and come back. Helps the circulation to the brain.

Apocalypse Julie is right, he might be a hippie.

Like everyone in the car, his long-term plans are up in the air.

As a hint of Eric’s future, I looked at the books he was reading. “Sea-Steading” by Jerome Fitzgerald, about traveling the world while living on a sailboat. “State of Wonder” by Ann Patchett is about an Amazon jungle adventure.

I suspect he’s looking for a place or way of life to feel most alive.

Rethinking Rainbows and Leprechauns

Rainbow Gathering people say there is a kind of magic going on there. Some of it, no doubt, is drug induced.

I asked my ride if they just walk around high for days on end. They were offended, no, they said.

I was under the impression you all smoked weed and did hallucinogens.

“But not hard drugs,” Eric said, “like heroin or crack.”

Leprechauns are the trickster fairies of Ireland, in some stories they have a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. They live in a dream-like dimension and only sometimes pop back into this world.

Their trick is that there is no end to a rainbow. No X marks the spot. There are, however, scientific explanations for rainbows. One of the definitions of rainbows in the dictionary is, “illusory hope.” They just don’t capture the magic.

I’ll be missing their drive back to Vermont after the Rainbow Gathering and won’t know if they achieved anything transcendental, or what the Japanese call yugen.

Goodbyes were said at a McDonald’s in Butte, Montana. We hugged and Eric said I was their friend now.

Then they beat it out of town in that old Subaru and melted into their dream-soaked mountains.

Hitchhiking to a Rainbow in Big Sky, Part I

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The Electric Leprechaun, middle, Rainbow Eric and Apocalypse Julie “in repose” on their Rainbow Gathering road trip.

“If you label it this, then it can’t be that.”
― Tom Wolfe, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test

As I got out of the car at the oasis near O’Hare Airport, I looked over the driver’s shoulder and saw a little man with a red beard, red hair and a small hat jump high up to the top of a industrial sized dumpster to look inside.

The Electric Leprechaun was in Chicago – dumpster diving.

My 4,000 mile hitchhike from Chicago to Alaska began in that bizarre flash.

Bidding a quick goodbye and thanks, I grabbed my backpack and went straight to the little fella, who I found out later was born in Ireland.

“You want a ride, we’re going to Montana,” he blurted out, recognizing our eyes had met.

The Electric Leprechaun led me to Apocalypse Julie and Rainbow Eric, three 30-somethings from a commune near Burlington, Vermont, on their way to the Rainbow Gathering, in the Rocky Mountains of Montana.

Echoes of the 60s

We rambled toward the Mississippi River in a faded red 1998 Subaru Outback with 130,000 miles on it, jammed with tents and gear; a Hawaiian hula bobble girl in a green grass skirt on the dash; and a GPS with a sassy female Aussie accent.

Inside the car, Electric Leprechaun piped up about his Des Plaines Oasis dumpster booty.

A gourmand of ‘le garbage,’ he commented on the food from Sbarro, McDonald’s, Panda Express and Subway. The meatball sandwich with Parmesan, “tasted a bit corporate.”

Driving into the setting sun, they told me about living in a commune painted purple with pink dots, where the motto is, “Cut consumption, not foreskin.”

About a dozen people share their lives with Fan Belt Cat, “42 bicycles,” and dumpster meals.

I wondered how much this ride might resemble the magic bus in “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.” Carina-Carina – their car’s name – was no magic bus but they shared ‘merry pranksters’ DNA, calling themselves ‘hippies’ and living solidly inside a counter culture still alive in America.

Except, while Tom Wolfe wrote about a new wave, my pranksters were more like rogue waves – a collection of waves from different directions and storms.

They lived in the moment, looking out Carina-Carina’s window for the unexpected, and were bound for hippie glory town, Rocky Mountain Oz, the Rainbow Gathering.

They had a sassy GPS but were lost except in their common goal of seeking a different way to live.

Post-60s hippies, they deal with the failure of earlier LSD-fueled dreams and the lingering love for a similar vision.

They personified what I thought of as the Rainbow Gathering, a group of people gathering in a National Forest to express their vision of the world and their sense of community.

It’s roots in the 1960s, Rainbow Gatherings attract tens of thousands of people from around the world focused on peace, love and harmony. All of them aligned against mainstream capitalism, consumerism, dirty energy, mass media and popular culture.

I too want peace, love and harmony and I’m against the way things are now.

My vision is more limited, I want to get to Alaska to join a traveling carnival and tell their stories.

Which makes me less utopian, less ambitious and less far out.

Still, hitchhiking to Alaska carries a 60s vibe and I am a surprise on their cross-country road trip. I’m no prankster but I’m a real trip.

Apocalypse Julie vs. potatoes

She has a fresh complexion, bright eyes and strawberry blond hair. She wears a chopstick with ornaments in her hair, a flowered sun dress and pink, orange and green sunglasses.

She says she got the nickname from volunteering for two years in post-Katrina New Orleans, much of the time as a FEMA mechanic.

Claiming she’s a veteran of 50 Rainbow Festivals, she says she spent about a decade of her 31 years on the road following Rainbows.

She’s interested in my EyesLikeCarnivals project because she once sold funnel cakes for an Eire, Pa. carnival until she could raise the bread to split town.

Everyone in the car is multidimensional but she’s got the a stack of professionally designed business cards.

Separate business cards say she is a pet taxidermist; hairdresser; underwater investigator; licensed private investigator; licensed motorcycle courier; gymnastics coach; home douche provider; mechanic; zipper fixer and more.

“I probably have a short attention span,” she says of her wide interests.

She runs the commune’s bicycle “chop shop,” as the Electric Leprechaun calls it. People in the house gather abandoned or old bicycles and fix to sell. In a house with just a trickle of a cash income, it pays some bills.

The worst job she ever had, she says, was setting up a hair cutting spot at a Rainbow Festival. Hippies don’t like hair cuts, she rediscovered, “they like to put things in their hair like bones and feathers.”

She eventually went back to University of Vermont and got her degree in international development but she eschews the Peace Corps., hearing stories about “people who waste a couple of the best years of their lives in a hut” somewhere, nowhere.

Also, she hears you might have to get up early and she hates getting up early. Despite her many skills, her aversion to early rising limits her options.

Just when you might be amazed by her far out commune, her business cards and her 50 Rainbows, the Electric Leprechaun chimes in, “she’s allergic to potatoes.”

Apocalypse shakes her head ‘yes,’ wincing at the bane of her existence – the common potato.

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Part II will feature the Electric Leprechaun, a Rainbow Eric video, and the end of the Rainbow road.

Rocky Mountain Bicycler on Carny Life



It’s amazing how many people, when I tell them about EyesLikeCarnivals, tell me about their own connections to carnivals. I met this New Lenox teacher in Butte, Montana, at a McDonald’s. I was hitching from Chicago to an Anchorage carnival. He worked in a carnival and knew carnies.

Rainbow Eric’s Views on America

I hitched from Chicago to Butte, Montana with three Vermonters on their way to the Rainbow Gathering in the Rockies. Eric balked at being called a ‘hippie” but agreed when Apocalypse Julie chided him. You see her and the Electric Leprechaun in the background in Sturgis, South Dakota as I ask Rainbow Eric what he thinks of America. He calls for the destruction of TV, urges more bicycle riding and being nice to one and other. Oh, and America, try not to try each other’s patience so much.

I’ll write more on this three day ride as soon as I can muster the time.

Hitchhiking Vignettes: Love in Every Gum

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Denturist Eric’s gives his views on America. He says he is “delivering love with every set of dentures.”

“The first thing I do in the morning is brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue.” Dorothy Parker

Hitchhiking out of Butte, Montana on I-15, I was seeing few cars and wrote in my notebook “Ninety degree heat. No cars. No water. No food. No fun.”

Then came that burst of euphoria when a car pulled to the side of the road.

I often compare hitchhiking to ice fishing for sturgeon. You sit there looking down into an ice hole, doing nothing for hours. Then your mood swings instantly when you see a shadow in the water.

Eric the denturist was on his way to Great Falls, along some of the most beautiful highway in America.

We’d spend the next 150 miles speeding alongside the Rocky and Big Belt mountains, the Boulder and Missouri rivers. The few clouds in the sky added shadows to the forests and refracted light to the waters around rafters and swimmers.

I was hitchhiking from Chicago to an Alaska carnival. I asked big questions, about America, his work, his passions.

Eric is a former professional snowboarder who has gone through several transitions, his latest incarnation is as a denturist, a licensed healthcare provider fitting dentures and other mouth prosthetics.

“I’m delivering love with every set of dentures,” he said. “It’s hard to let dentures go after I’ve worked so hard on them. They are like my children.”

He’s a serial entrepreneur, having started several businesses in photography, construction, carpentry, cleaning services. This one is doing well and he was traveling to Great Falls, he said, to consider opening a branch office for his business.

“If you are going for the glory, you have to do it full throttle,” he said.

He has two guiding philosophies.

“One is ‘This planet is spinning, just try to hang on,'” he said. “Two is ‘Life is tough. You have to fight back.'”

Before I get out of the car he lets me know he is focused on living life to the fullest, not getting “trapped in the lifestyle of self-indulgence.”

“For folks like me, it’s all or nothing,” he said. “More speed. More air. That’s a pretty simple recipe.”

Hitchhiking vignettes: “I just don’t like to work”

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Brian Tanzman doesn’t like to work so he loads up and gets ready to ride the Alaska Highway out of Otter Falls Cut-Off, Yukon Territory.

“If you don’t want to work, you have to work to earn enough money so that you won’t have to work.” – Ogden Nash

Mild-mannered Brian Tanzman works in San Diego as an auditor the first three months of every year.

Then he puts down his pocket protector and calculator and goes traveling the other nine months. On his current adventure, he’s riding from Anchorage to Glacier National Park, Montana.

He’s been following the same seasonal pattern for 10 years, racking up an impressive list of adventures including kayaking the Mississippi River and walking the Appalachian Trail.

“People in real life think I’m totally crazy but the people I meet on the road think I’m totally normal,” said Tanzman, at Otter Falls Cut-Off, in the Yukon. “Of everyone I meet, I’m going the shortest distance.”

I met him hitchhiking my way from Chicago to Anchorage, to join a carnival. I was at the gas station/restaurant there and saw him with his packs. I’ve ridden my bicycle on three cross-country trips so I was interested in his fully-packed bicycle parked outside.

“I met a couple who are legally blind and they’re bicycling to the tip of South America from here,” he said. “I want to cycle the length of South America. I want to see the Andes. I’m going to have to learn some Spanish first.”

He intends to travel the world on his three month salary for the rest of his life.

Expenses are minimal, he says. He pays for food but camps outside. He pays for a storage locker in San Diego, health insurance, cell phone service and that’s about it.

“I just don’t like to work,” he said. “And I haven’t been eaten by a bear like all the locals said.”