Carl Houston sat in his Toyota Tacoma, eating gas station sushi. His shirt was dirty from multiple days of use with the brown stains on the side where he would wipe his fingers after pinching off a chunk of long cut dip. By all accounts he is your average Texan as far as you could tell from a distance. His hat is worn, obviously a favorite, the dip ring in his jeans is quite pronounced, and the symbol of the snake on his shirt, coiled as if to strike, further blends him in with any other average liberty minded American. His beard, a staple of the veteran community was finally filling in. He took pride in his beard, more so than the hair that was left on his head of which there wasn’t much. His hair began falling out at 26, not long after returning from Afghanistan the first time. His beard was merely a course correction in his mind.
He had been living in a hotel for a month now. Outside the gate at Fort Bragg, North Carolina were ratty motels and hotels that could be used cheaply. Every military installation has less than stellar business nearby for young Soldiers with a new found steady pay to spend their money on. He listened to the radio hoping for something old. New country music didn’t appeal to him. He hummed along waiting on the house keeping crew to finish his room. They were in the room when he returned from scrounging for cheap corner store food that he loves so much. He could hear his wife telling him that one day he would get some weird new food poisoning if he kept living out of day old heat lamp food. She was the smartest of them, which is probably why she was no longer living with him.
The idea after the split was to move back to Texas and use his family name to try to make his own way. Carl was born in Corpus Christi. Texas schools would talk of Texas history like it was a country all by itself. Growing up it was just known and understood that Texas was the greatest country on earth. It would sound funny later when he moved to Washington and expected to see WA state flags all over everything. The attitude of Washingtonians seemed to be indifference towards the state. It truly baffled Carl. Texas would always not only be a place, but a state of mind for Carl. A true stereotype in the flesh.
Carl just finished 15 years of service in the U.S. Army, completed 3 combat tours, Afghanistan then Iraq and again back to Afghanistan. He could not wait the next 5 years to receive retirement. The agreement between Maya, his soon to be ex-wife, and himself was to allow his service to expire after the last trip to Afghanistan. “You said things would be better if I got out” he yelled at his wife. “You said you would be my rock!” His frustration was understandable. The Veteran Affairs office had lost his claim paperwork 3 times previously. His requests for mental health counseling were delayed, and often felt like they were being ignored. The time would go by and his battle would continue to play out in the home. He never understood why he was angry, yet he was. He knew something was missing, yet could not identify it. A longing to belong to something would not aptly describe the thoughts that often sped through his head.
The final straw was the night Maya walked in on him with his Beretta in his mouth, eyes closed, weeping and slowly, silently muttering to himself even through the barrel of the pistol “Do it you pussy!” She reached over and pulled the pistol from his mouth. She sat next to him and said “If you are not going to find a way to get help, we cannot stay here anymore.” The idea dawned on him he would be away from his daughter. A factor that for some reason seemed to cross his mind less and less. “One day our daughter will walk in here and see your brains all over the wall, and I don’t want that for either of you.” She stated firmly and with true empathy. “My husband, the love of my life, died in Afghanistan in 2004.” This would normally have set him off. It was not the first time she had made that statement, and hearing it over and over the last year was wearing him down. She was of course right, but the realization was sometimes too much. It was at that moment he realized she could not be the rock he needed her to be. It was unfair to expect that of her. The very notion was a selfish one. He knew she would be going back to Washington State, where they met. The Puget Sound is beautiful. The memories of their first few years there were the same memories that got him through days of no sleep and a tempo in Afghanistan that would break most humans. How could he expect her to take care of him, when he wasn’t capable of taking care of himself? The shame this caused in him manifested itself slowly to be the catalyst to his biggest adventure.
“Finally” Carl exclaimed as the cleaning lady finished up and closed the door behind her. He could feel the familiar churning in his belly thanks to the gratuitous love of fried and microwaved gas station food. “She was always right” he silently said to himself as he walked towards the door. His back pack was sitting next to the night stand. He always had a "go bag” ready for immediate exit. Inside he had his collapsible AR-15 carbine, 6 magazines filled with .223 ammunition, ten Cliff Bars and his back up pistol, a .38 caliber revolver which he usually kept strapped to his ankle. His former father in law had given him a foldable large Gurkha blade. It was always too unwieldy to carry, but he truly loved his father in law and always kept it in his bag for sentimental purposes. Along with the Gurkha blade there was his issued Benchmade quick release knife. Now that he was no longer active duty it was technically illegal to continue to own it, but he wasn’t going to simply turn in his favorite carry knife just because his status changed. He also carried “zip ties”, fifty feet of type 3 nylon parachute cord, and a filled reusable water bottle. In the outside pocket he kept some first aid supplies such as pressure dressings and medical tape and two quick application tourniquet’s he carried with him on his deployments. He didn’t have it fully stocked, and quit building his bag once he decided on his final course of action. The final gadget he had was an impulse buy last year. He was tired of not being able to charge his tablet on deployment so he bought one of those solar trickle chargers.
“Let’s see what’s on TV shall we” he said to no one. He was alone in his room. There was a series about Thomas Jefferson on the second channel he flipped to. Carl looked to the TV a bit perky. Carl loved history. None of his travels had brought him to places where he could indulge in much history tourism. Stationed in Hawaii then Washington, then 3 years at the armpit of the Army Fort Polk, Louisiana. His last duty brought him to Fort Bragg where he finally realized his dream of becoming a paratrooper. He had always planned on taking the family to visit the historical cities now that they were not far away. Virginia had the Jefferson museum inside of his home of Monticello and Massachusetts had Peacefield, the home of John Adams. In all of history these were the two figures he always was enamored with. Sure George Washington was a great general and a great first president, but Adams and Jefferson together created a story that was greater than even the bible in his opinion.
Carl watched the documentary on Jefferson. The narrator talked about how the Hemmings family was finally recognized as being members of the Jefferson family. The idea that Jefferson fathered children with one of his slaves never sat right with him. He had the power to legitimize them, but chose not to. It was a fundamental flaw Carl could not ignore. Unlike many people, Carl was able to read and recognize the good and the bad. All humans are flawed, and in some degrees hypocritical. Once he understood that concept perspective became easy. The narrator on the television began to speak of Jefferson’s early life. Carl wondered to himself how much of this was real. “How much do we really know about his early life?” he once again asked an empty room. Not getting a response had become normal. He sometimes spoke just to see if he could remember how. His conversations had been limited to veterans groups on social media. Veterans being a rather surly bunch, this often led to arguments more than conversations. As the show played on, Carl laid on his bed, listening to his stomach churn. The history of Monticello and Jefferson were laid out in as much detail as possible in a 2 hour documentary. Carl realized that before he completed his final act on this earth, he should at least see the homes of his favorite historical characters, aside from Stephen F. Austin and Samuel Houston. Carl began to mentally plan a trip to Monticello and then Peacefield. He fell asleep thinking about Jefferson and how he could have married Hemmings after becoming President. Jefferson had the power to capitalize on the words he wanted to insert into the Declaration of Independence.
When Carl woke up, there was no light in the window. The hotel clock on the nightstand read 4:22. One day I will sleep through the night, he thought to himself. “OK motherfucker, seems like today could be the day” he said while checking his bank balance. If he lived out of his truck, he could make this final 512 dollars he had last a lot longer, by why postpone the inevitable. He gathered his belongings, taking care to ensure his 9mm was not showing and that his secondary was strapped well to his upper ankle. No need to let one of them be seen and get arrested before I can lay in that hot Padre Island sand one final time. He finished loading everything into the truck. He checked the bed, to make sure everything was secure. His compulsion to pack as efficiently as possible, and keep it as secure as possible could trace back to his time as a vehicle commander in Iraq during his second tour. “Cargo becomes projectiles during a rollover or IED” his old Platoon Sergeant would say. He finished up his rigorous inspection of the items he packed in his truck. For some reason in his head all he could continue thinking about was Monticello. Over and over again even as he got ready to move inside and check out of the hotel, Monticello was a thought that continued to creep itself into his every thought. The idea of finding a bit of land and building a home from the resources felt like an unachievable dream.
Carl moved towards the door. He instinctively felt for his wallet in his back right pocket and his Grizzly can in his back left pocket. His phone was in a holster on the outside of his pants tethered to him by his belt. He was ready to leave this place and never come back. The employee looked at Carl and his rough, unkempt beard, lip full of Grizzly, and a new T-shirt on finally. Four weeks and the clerk had only seen 4 different shirts on Carl. Most of them ragged and holy, but not in the godly kind of way. This shirt was not his normal “Don’t Tread on Me” shirt. It was a simple field of blue with one lone star on it. “New shirt?” the clerk asked. “First time I’ve put it on” Carl said, not looking up to meet the clerk’s eyes. The clerk pushed the receipt across the counter. “You are all set, no need to sign anything” “OK, thank you” Carl said in a low volume as he turned on his heal and began heading out the door. “Take care of yourself Carl!” the clerk said as he exited. Carl did not acknowledge the clerk. He just kept walking to his truck. His resolve was firm. Monticello, Peacefield, and then Padre Island. He would watch the water, breath the South Texas air and end his life.
He stared at the phone as his vehicle gently vibrated as the fan clutch activated. The AC was not yet blowing cold, and wouldn’t in this North Carolina heat. He slowly reached for his phone, typed in a search to find out where exactly Monticello was. He had never been to Virginia. Looked like a day’s drive. He had done that before with few stops. This time though, he would not be in such a hurry. He placed the vehicle in reverse while the route loaded. He wanted to see the house of Thomas Jefferson before he checked out. “Might as well finally give in to the voices in my head.” he said to himself as he chuckled at the absurdity of it. He had spent most of his time resisting all of his initial instincts for so long that the idea of giving into one of them felt very free. “I’ll die free.”
The trip was mild torture as most long silent trips can be. Carl made sure to keep the radio on, or have a podcast going at all times. This was the technique he used to keep his thoughts from taking over. Carl worried that one day he would lose control and become everything he hated. He knew it was a daily struggle, and that soon the struggle would be over. But first he would entertain this ever growing thought that was propelling him to a state he would never had gone to. “This is my new mission” he postulated. Most missions had an end state, and yet there was no intended outcome. He had hoped the reason for convincing himself to make this trip would become visible upon arrival.
Carl stopped for Gas after 3 hours. He was almost to the border of Virginia. He put the cheapest gas in the tank. His truck hated the cheap gas, but spreading his last bit of money out was important. He did, after all, need the money to return home to Corpus when this trip was said and done. He pulled out of the fueling lane and parked near the truck stop entrance. Now seems like a good time to grab some food he thought to himself. He went in and made a straight line over to the food roller. He grabbed a corn dog and picked up a bag of Jerky. This would get him through the rest of today’s leg of the trip. He estimated he would make it to Monticello today. He intended to camp out nearby and visit the museum the next day. Carl loved camping in the woods and Virginia seemed to have plenty of rural untouched area. Carl found a rural road that led into what seemed to be untraveled area. He backed up his truck into an opening surrounded by trees. He used these trees to set up a tarp tied above the bed of his pickup. This would help at least keep him dry as he slept for the night. He began browsing his phone checking his Facebook and Twitter. More outrage over the president. The positivity he once found online had been replaced by hate. He closed both of those apps and opened up his video app. Dave Rubin was someone he initially found on Facebook through an ad. He talked about why he “left the left” and decided to move over to his YouTube channel. Since that day he had slowly been looking at life differently. The Christian Republican born to Texas Republicans, with a lineage that traced back to the founding of Texas, his upbringing had not been one of tolerance. While looking through Dave Rubin’s videos he found two discussions on both Adams and Jefferson. Carl decided to listen to “Who Was Thomas Jefferson?” with Rob McDonald who is a professor of U.S. history at the U.S. Military Academy. The last words Carl heard before falling to sleep that night in the back of his truck were “…He died 50 years to the hour of the ratification of the Declaration of Independence.”