At the freight yards, my mother, who hadn't grasped the nuances of hobo behavior, politely asked a railroad man which train was bound for Grand Junction, as if she had a first-class ticket tucked inside her purse. He snarled at her. "That one," he said, "and don't let me see you." She and the others jumped aboard and watched miles of wide-open western landscape roll by. After a few days, my mother hitchhiked home, but her appetite for adventure hadn't been satisfied, only whetted. She immediately signed up for a grueling wilderness rock-climbing course in Utah, then took off bicycling in Ireland, followed by a horseback trek through the Wyoming Tetons. The summer I was 11, she moved my three sisters and me to Mexico to experience another culture. The four of us always wondered why she wouldn't just play tennis or join the garden club like the other mothers.
But she couldn't help it: My mother got her restless spirit from my grandmother, who had an adventurous past of her own. Her husband left her when she was pregnant with my mother, and she raised her child alone, on a teacher's salary, during the Depression. But in the summers she'd pack up the two of them and explore the West, sleeping wherever they landed when night fell—a Navajo chicken yard, a desert gulch. They'd pull out the portable stove and eat pancakes every meal. "It never occurred to me that we were poor," my mother says.
Not long after hopping the freight train, when I was 6 or 7, my mother told me she wanted me to be more "independent" than my older sisters because she was soon going to be very busy. When she explained what independent meant, I decided it sounded like fun. Part of this new independence meant going along with my mother, who was looking for adventure closer to home. When she heard that realtors in our neighborhood wouldn't sell houses to African-American families, she got involved in the civil rights movement and brought me to demonstrations, meetings, and trials. I missed some school, but our outings made a much more lasting impression on me than some of my classes would have. One day we went to a church where I sat enthralled by the words of a compassionate man with a musical voice. Only later did I know how lucky I'd been to hear the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preach.