I was about 20 years old at the time, living in southern california with my parents. I enjoyed playing chess and one night I met another young man at the local chess club. His name was misha.
After some chess and chatting he asked if he could crash at my place for the night. I was reluctant at first. It was my parents house and I knew they would not be receptive to waking up to a strange man in the morning. He was charming and magnetic so I uncharacteristically agreed to let him sleep on the couch for one night.
He only stayed that one night but he hung around the local area and we grew to be friends. It turned out he wasn’t homeless, he was a gypsy. As I understand it, the difference being that he voluntarily eschewed material possessions. He had the clothes on his back and a small backpack with a few items. One time we were playing chess at a shopping mall and were asked to leave by a security guard because misha didn’t even own shoes.
Of the few items he did possess, one was a book that he gave to me titled ‘diet for a new america’. This book, written by john robbins, detailed the abusive conditions that millions of animals face in factory farms around the country. I am not a spiritual person; I would describe my life philosophy simply as kindness. The book had a profound impact on me, perhaps more than any other single thing. I have been vegan for the last 30 years and in addition to saving some animals from suffering, I think my health is many times better than it might have been.
As misha and I honed our chess skills we hatched a plan to travel to las vegas to participate in a chess tournament that had some pretty large cash awards for the top performers. I should mention, that in addition to being modest I am also very intelligent. I was quite good at chess and was used to demolishing my opponents. One extremely strange aspect to my relationship with misha was that in the hundreds of chess games we played together, I was never able to beat him. Granted, I wasnt a world class player (not even close) but that he never even made a mistake once that I was able to capitalize on is pretty amazing. Clearly this man was more intelligent than I was and wouldve succeeded at whatever he chose to do. And he chose to wander the earth without shoes.
At the time I owned a 1979 honda civic hatchback that had been in an accident that prevented the driver side door from opening. I folded the back seat down and leveled the area with some pieces of cardboard I scored from a dumpster. I snagged a couple of ‘free’ milk crates that I put behind the front seats and filled with my worldly possessions. I was able to roll out a foam pad that covered the back area and laid on top of the milk crates to make a fairly comfortable bed.
So it was that in early summer I kissed my mom goodbye and misha and I set out on our ill conceived plan to cross the desert with no a/c and car camp in las vegas. For two smart guys we were extremely short sighted in 1. Not realizing that it was going to be over 100 degrees every single day and that 2. There was an army of security guards chasing away vagrants from every establishment in las vegas.
In order to realize these things we were going to have to first cross the southern california desert. We employed the 260 air conditioning system once we left the congestion of the populated area. This was 2 windows rolled down while traveling at 60 mph. For any of you that are thinking of using this system yourselves, I strongly advise against it. Yes I think we nearly died. There is a small town called needles on the california border and boy do I love needles! We managed to stagger into an air conditioned diner where we sat in stupefied silence for half an hour while drinking 5 glasses of water each.
That evening we camped on the outskirts of vegas, far enough away to not be harassed by security guards. I slept in my decked out civic and misha wandered off to find some bushes to crash in.
A magnificent (hot) morning dawned and we snuck up to a house where no one appeared to be home so we could use their garden hose. It took just a quick minute to refreshingly drench ourselves and it took another five minutes for us to dry off in the plentiful sunshine.
I do not need to relate in detail the events that followed. We were constantly hot, sweaty and on the verge of dehydration. And we were constantly told to move along by official looking goons in security costumes. We had to seriously weigh whether it was worth the 100 dollar entry fee for each of us to participate in the week long tournament. Would we be mentally sharp enough to play our best chess while enduring these conditions? In the end we decided to change plans and head south. I had an intentional community directory that listed a bunch of communes across the u.S and we decided to visit some of those.
As we headed into arizona I did not know that my time with misha was just about up. We had made it to the town of sedona and he mentioned that he knew some people nearby. He directed me to drive out on some dusty old road. The surrounding area was beautiful and barren and I drove for some time without seeing any signs of a settlement or even another car. The road grew bumpier and at some point I told misha that I did not want to go any further down this road. He accepted this with the graciousness that he exhibited naturally every day that I knew him. He calmly got out of the car with his backpack and headed out into the desert. With no shoes.
I never saw him again and I have wondered many times where he was going in the desert. What would have happened if I had followed him further? To me he did seem otherworldly and he left an impression that I still recall fondly, decades later.