Once I was cleaning my apartment when a story came on the radio about a cholera epidemic in the Sierra Madre mountains. While the reporter talked about the poverty, cold and isolation of villages in northwest Mexico, I was standing in front of my closet holding an armload of old blankets, literally wondering what to do with them. The answer, obviously, was to put the blankets in my car and drive them up to those villages, which eventually I did. This was a moment that changed my life - radically - but I had no idea it was happening.
Delivering the blankets wasn't my first thought. My first thought was simply trying to picture the villages up in those mountains - what they looked like and what life might be like up there. My next thoughts were about my life and what I was doing, and how utterly and entirely different our situations were. They were living in the Mexican outback dealing with poverty, cold and cholera. I was living at the beach, teaching English at San Diego State University, cleaning my apartment to put off grading papers, and wondering what to do with my extra stuff. In certain respects, you couldn't get further from those villages than where I was standing.
Then I started thinking about delivering the blankets. Not so much in terms of a humanitarian gesture as much as just to wonder if I could I actually do it. There were roads, after all, that led from my apartment to Mexico, and then at least theoretically up into the mountains and those villages... If I decided that that's what I wanted to do, could I actually make it? My vehicle at the time was a '68 VW van I'd bought three months before for $500. I put my odds at about 50/50.
Like most people I wanted to help the poor, and like most people I did very little about it. If I was going to make the trip, the thing to do would be to collect as much warm clothing and blankets as possible. Although my first thoughts were about the adventure, the more I contemplated it the more I realized the simplicity and righteousness of such a mission: collect warm clothes, put them in your car and drive them up to people who were cold. Little by little the proposition became irresistible and I started asking everyone I knew for whatever extra warm clothing and blankets they had: fellow teachers, students, family and friends. Within two weeks I had enough clothing to open a small store.
I spent my nights listening to the radio, cleaning and folding clothes and marveling at how nice, and how much of it there was... just for the asking. This was back in 1999, after eight years of peace and prosperity, and we had lots of extra clothes. On Thanksgiving break I packed the van and roofracks with boxes of clothing and blankets and headed east. Fully loaded, Ol' Bessie managed about 52 mph, and I spent my first night out on a dirt road in the Arizona desert, alone under the stars. It was cold, of course, but I had something like a hundred blankets to keep me warm. I went to sleep that night knowing that I was Doing It. I had a van filled with warm clothes and blankets and was on my way to find those villages. I was on a mission.
I can see now that this diary is going to go on much longer than I expected, so I'm going to cut to the chase and fill in the details later. After three days, two breakdowns and a couple of moments of sheer terror, I made it up to the villages. I got the clothes and blankets to the people who needed them, and miraculously, I got back out. On my way back I had over a thousand miles to nurse Bessie back home and contemplate everything that had happened: I'd taken some ten or twenty thousand dollars worth of clothing from people who didn't need it and brought it directly to people who did. I'd had the adventure of a lifetime along the way, and this in a lifetime bent on adventure. More than that though, it was the first truly useful thing I'd ever done.
By the time I got back to San Diego I was a changed person. I quit teaching, sold the van, and started a charity. I bought a four-wheel-drive pickup and spent the next three years driving clothes, blankets, school and medical supplies up to the Sierra Madres. It took about two dozen trips, but I managed to reach pretty much everyone in the northwest Sierra Madres: forty different villages spread out over some five or six thousand square miles. By the time I was done I could put my finger on a globe and say "There. The people who live in this part of the world are at least a little better off because of what I did." It's hard to describe what that feels like, but I guess the best way to put it is this: I felt like I could die at any moment and not have to worry if my life had been worthwhile.
And none of it, I assure you, would've happened if it hadn't been for that one moment standing in front of my closet listening to the radio with an armload of blankets.
To be continued...