One May in 1689, having sold everything he owned, the aging haiku poet Basho began walking a five-month haiku pilgramage across Japan and wrote, “The Narrow Road to the Interior.”
In my 50s, inspired by the legends, stories and people of traveling carnivals, I too hit the road. I didn’t have Basho in mind but later I understood his belief in the road as inspiration for imagination and art.
On a February in 2013, I boarded the legendary Chicago-to-San Francisco train The Zephyr heading into a punishing snow storm for a carnival year both reckless and hard wired into me.
I played traveling carnivals in California, New Jersey, New York, Chicago, Alaska, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Texas, Georgia and Florida. I followed carnival people to their homes in Showtown USA and to the mountains of Mexico.
A ride jockey in Alaska, I ran a golden Ferris wheel. A jointee in Texas, I ran the crooked Tubs of Fun game.
A ticket taker at the Florida State Fair, I listened to the freaks talking about themselves in Wade Hall’s World of Wonders freak show. No, I don’t get up on stage because they don’t see the inner freak in me.
This cardboard carnie made pilgramages to carnival holy grounds in Gibtown, St. Martha’s Catholic Church and Midway Plaisance.
Hitchhiking between carnival jobs, I traveled the Alaska Highway to US Interstates 5, 10, 25, 30, 35, 40, and 95 — and parts of storied Route 66.
I took videos, wrote blogs and took notes. West to east, north to south, I crisscrossed 36 United States and crossed Canada down to the tip of Mexico.
Back home in Chicago, high-up in her favorite tree, my eight-year-old daughter Grace called her carny father from her cell phone. Separation from family is part of the life in carnivals. Through the phone I could feel I was hurting most, the person I loved the most.
Beatings. Gaffs. Bed bugs. Stolen wages. Near broke. Near homeless. A donniker nicknamed Bowels of Hell. Sleeping in the middle of a cow herd. Cold showers from a garden hose.
I worked atop a carousel pole in a lightning storm. A big, smiley, laughing friend sat on the end of his motel bed one night and laid back to die.
One woman stood outside her bunkhouse one swampy, foggy morning and felt like screaming.
“What is wrong with us anyway. Who in their right mind wants to be a carny!”
Sex, beer and corn dogs. Sublime 4 a.m. walks back to the bunkhouses. Singing in the van ride after the show. Chruch Calls. Cutting up jackpots. Tornadoes of happy, excited children. Carnival workers with huge broken-tooth smiles. An Alaskan summer sun staying late just for us and a homemade stew of peace.
Seasonal workers from Mexico, South Africa and other countries mixing up with the Americans. Work. Fun. Flirting.
So many people in their youth, living out the beginning of their life stories in traveling carnivals. The veterans living their whole lives in carnivals didn’t want any other life. If they won the lottery they’d come back and buy a ride.
Crowds of people so excited along the carnival midway. It took me a long time to learn this trick but you can hear their inner voices if you wish it. There’s a sweet science to it.
A whisper spreads across a person’s neurons somewhere deep inside. Come close. You can hear it.
… thrill me …
I can be gloriously unmoored in the hard wonder of traveling carnivals.
Word Key: Ride Jockey=Runs Rides: Jointee=Runs Games: Donnikers=Port-a-Potty: Church Call=Sunday crew meeting: Gaffs=tricks or cons: Slough=Teardown of carnival; Cutting up Jackpots=telling stories with other show people