There is a culture, on the road.

That isn’t exactly right. Maybe I should have said, there is a culture OF on the road. Or maybe I should have said: There is a culture of “on the road.”

I mean it in the way they used to talk about a “ tribal culture.” And actually, I should have just said tribe.

There is a tribe of “on the road.”

James Michener wrote about it once in “Drifters.” I was one of those, on one of the circuits between Europe and the Mideast and India. Others rotated between Europe and Africa, and visited places like Marrakesh. We’d meet in transport centers like Istanbul, or on a kibbutz in Israel, on trains to and from Afghanistan.

Not through Afghanistan. There we’d have to disembark and get on buses or jeeps in Kabul or Herat to cross one or another of the borders. There are no trains through the Khyber Pass.

Then, as now, it is fascinating how many accents there are on the road. Yesterday, I was the lone North American.

“People in South America call themselves ‘Americans,’ too,” said Cheyenne, my seat mate on the bus up from San Jose. The accents are French, German, mostly. There are Dutch, and Poles. There are Canadians and yes, there are young people from Massachusetts, Texas. But most of the travelers grew up in other cultures, speak with a heavy accent, and speak Spanish fairly well, too.

It seems to flow, this tribe, driven not by season as much as by a blend of curiosity, common values, similar definitions of beauty and “cool,” and ease of living. This  “on the road” culture of my past is obviously still vibrant, and I obviously don’t “belong,” because I’m too old, wear too many clothes, and frankly, was never really that carefree or good looking.

God these kids are good looking. Some of them are surfers, all of them seem amazingly healthy, quite apart from their youth. Maybe it’s fresh air and sunshine. Maybe it’s the minimal diet of beans, rice and fish, many of them are vegetarians. Maybe it’s genetic, and they are the spawn of good looking privilege. But so many of these kids are genetically gifted, it’s not like walking down any major city street. It’s not even like walking across a college campus.

And they have their own style. T-shirts, shorts and sandals, mostly. Dreadlocks abound, those of some young men longer than those of any of the women. But some of each have shaved heads. Tattoos are essential, either simple ones, like the small tattoo of an Native American dream catcher on the neck of the young Polish woman at the bus station in San Jose, or incredibly ornate “sleeves” of multiple colors. Backs, shoulders, ankles, chests… all are a canvas.

Earrings, nose rings, other rings certainly. I’m sure some could set off an airport metal detector, but they don’t fly much, except maybe between continents. And if airlines allowed them to stack themselves six-deep to save a few bucks, I think they would.

At the butterfly sanctuary are some wonderful young people. But they are no more members of the tribe than I am, perhaps even less. My barrier is age, theirs is earnestness. They are between jobs, or between university and a job, working for room and board in Costa Rica, which is a pretty good gig, after all.

They are responsible. They wear polo shirts with the logo of their employer. They are not “on the road.” Or maybe they are, but at one end of a spectrum.

At the other end are what I used to call the “stayed too longs.” I don’t remember which of us coined the phrase, but I do remember the first reference. We were wary of those who had spent too much time, and spent all their money, in Goa on the coast of India. There were drugs of every sort in Goa. Hashish, opium LSD… You could get high for pennies in the 1970s, eat for a few pennies more, and sleep somewhere for not too much more than that.

We’d see those who had burned through everything they had, and more, who were drifting back to Europe. For some reason, many were French. Sometimes English. Occasionally American. Their clothes were in tatters, most of their belongings could be knotted up in a bindle, and they were horribly skinny.

“Whoa. He stayed too long,” we’d say.

Eventually, it stuck. We called them “StayedTooLongs,” and kept away from them, because they’d steal your ear wax to sell you a candle.

They would be at the other end of the spectrum from the young etymologists at the sanctuaries today, waiting for the female scorpion to give birth, excited to watch her carry her young on her back, or feeding the spectacular butterflies (some bigger than my hand!) with wings that iridesce to warn off birds with a message that they are poison if a mouthful.

I don’t see any StayedTooLongs on the road here, in the rain forests near Santa Elena. You have to want to get here, it takes effort. And once you’re here, there’s too much to do. Maybe they are all down at the beaches. But then again, that’s where the surfers are, and where the sport fishermen from Texas were going, men my age, the ones wearing polo shirts over big bellies and jeans and deck shoes, in a group laughing loudly on their way to the plane from the airport bar in Houston.

Some call these young travelers nomads, and that makes sense. And perhaps that’s another reason I don’t belong. Even though I’ll be here, somewhere, a month or so, I still have a home and things to do I’ve got to get done. A young man from Switzerland, I believe, has an incredibly awkward Hang drum on his back. He explains that it’s worth it, though, he can earn a hundred dollars or so playing for an hour and that nearly pays for his trip.

Then there’s the wonderful family from Canada. Mom, Dad, Akayla, Niko. The tether between parent and child is strong but flexible. These kids don’t know what they have, but will always be better for it. They will always be part of this tribe.

Today I headed into the jungle. Sort of. I did the zip line, because you just do. I walked the forest trail, because I’ve been told to be wary of snakes. The bushmaster is the largest of the pit vipers, and the fer-de-lance is called by some the ultimate viper because it packs seven times the venom. I hoped I see one or the other, from a distance to be sure, and maybe a sloth, and a monkey.

Being here offers both sides of jaded. The concrete lined trails were not very romantic, the suspension bridges more contrived than the trails through Forest Park in Portland, those up South Sister, at the tip of Fidalgo Island. But rather than jaded, it’s also possible to realize how incredibly lucky we are in the Pacific Northwest.

Still, I’d hoped for something a little more raw.

Until I came upon the monkeys.

(For photos of the forest trail, click here)

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About Erik Dolson

Erik Dolson is a writer living in Oregon

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