In the Middle of Nowhere but Not Lost: Eric Chaet’s ‘People I Met Hitchhiking On USA Highways’ Works To Change the Odds
ADAM MICHAEL LUEBKE
I remember the first time I was truly alone. Years ago, far from home and in unfamiliar territory I stood, stretching my legs beside my old maroon Chevy. I was in Eastern Montana, parked a few hundred yards from the desolate highway. Hopped up on coffee and rock music, I’d sailed west along lonely I94 all morning, starting from the very southeastern tip of North Dakota, heading for Northern California.
Light green and brown pastures shone in the afternoon sun and converged with the blue sky at the far horizon. Hills like small waves rolled in all directions. Eight hundred miles behind me was home. I was suddenly terrified. How small I was. Standing beneath an enormous sky, and atop a land that looked to stretch toward infinity. In my gut I knew I wasn’t much bigger than the pebble under the sole of my shoe. In that moment, in the heavy silence of the open prairie, I experienced the greatest sense of myself, in relation to everything else, than I’d ever had before.
It was that experience I thought about when I came to the twentieth page of People I Met Hitchhiking On USA Highways. Eric Chaet stood quite literally in the middle of nowhere, but he wasn’t lost. To be more specific, he stood in the middle of South Dakota (which is somewhere, but when you’re in unfamiliar territory, alone, with only a backpack filled with sunflower seeds, water, dirty clothes, a stapler, and silk-screen posters, it can really feel like nowhere.) He’d been hitchhiking with strangers all the way from Indiana and his most recent ride had just dropped him off in a place with “…no buildings, no utility poles, no wires, no ‘ramps,’ no signs forbidding pedestrians.”
Bellowing cattle stared at Chaet as he dug through his backpack. He pulled out a poster he’d “been stapling on posts from New York to Indiana.” On top of that particular poster were the words: SEEK TRUTH. At the bottom: DEVELOP CAPACITIES. In the middle was the drawing of a bearded face “full of dissatisfaction, indignation”, but “too simplified to be anybody’s face in particular.” The posters were indications of what Chaet thought was missing in the world. He aimed to change that. Other posters read: YOU’RE LIKE ME IN THIS RESPECT—WHAT YOU DO HAS ITS EFFECT, and HELP ONE ANOTHER SUCCEED.
When one driver who picked up the author asked him if it was possible to really have any success at changing the world in a positive way, Chaet replied, “I think that, before I began, I had no chance of success, but that, now that I’ve begun, I’m changing the odds.”
Maybe it’s Chaet’s uncluttered writing style, or his refusal to embellish scenes or characters, or maybe it’s his sincerity in always offering only meaningful work that might help somebody else that strikes me as a reader and a thinker. But his work is not flashy. His writing does not make a cheap attempt at grabbing the reader from the opening pages. People I Met is closer to a meditation, a call to action, and a solemn prayer. Not a prayer that simply throws all troubles and worries to the wind and asks for an instant solution from God, but instead a prayer that constantly seeks guidance and a deeper understanding. It’s a prayer that seeks to refine even itself to become clearer in its purpose, stronger in its accuracy, and more capable in its real world application.
Chaet’s book, and more importantly his devotion to direct and honest writing, delivers as profound and humbling an experience to those willing to undertake it as standing alone in the far flung big land of Montana did for me. This book, in some ways, is akin to shutting off the loud music, parking the car, unplugging the television, and disconnecting from the Internet for awhile. People I Metstrips away the glamour and artificial stimulation of other books and offers something much more unique.
But the reader has to sit with Chaet’s writings, his so-called poems, and his essays, to really experience them to their fullest capacities. At first People I Met seemed simple and plain. The story of a backpacker’s journey. A remembrance. But with a little time, a little thought, the book unfolds and reveals itself to the reader, more and more, as the reader allows it. Suddenly, what seemed like thoughtful writing becomes the documentation of an entire mindset, firm and resolute. There is nothing soft about this book. The concepts in it are age-old: principles as solid as stone, yet least understood by most people. Devotion to doing good work. Changing minds and changing hearts in a world that revels in gaudy spectacles and intriguing illusions.
Yet, the very tragedy of Chaet’s style lies in a society mostly unwilling to take time to grow with a piece of art, or with an extended idea. More than ever before we are consumers, and we gobble up books, movies, and music like we devour orders of fast food. Perhaps it’s our way to put off the idea of death, or our responsibility to ‘do good’ in a world that seems mostly beyond help. People I Met asks us to meet it halfway. It is not willing to be sleazy, sensational, or flashy to first flag our attentions.
The book offers crisp storytelling, practical philosophy, and snippets of lives from a host of people who come in contact with the author. It does not waste words. It offers invaluable insights. It is intimate and honest and becomes a sort of friend. Los Angeles fiction writer Donald O’Donovan called the book “companionable”, and I think that’s a suitable word for it.
Chaet’s writings are timeless and based in a shared human reality. People I Met will act as a mirror and reflect yourself back to you, again and again. Chaet’s words will nudge you a little further into your psyche, and will continuously ask you to hold multiple view points and to challenge the ones you didn’t realize you’d been clinging to.
To read Chaet’s work, please visit his site 100 Peculiarly Useful So-Called Poems — many of which have been re-posted at DDA. You may contact Chaet through his website. Find People I Met Hitchhiking… here.