When Everything Changes

Last week, this author was honored to present at Michigan’s highly regarded Rally of Writers. In addition, I was invited to join with six other storytellers for Storypalooza, the Rally of Writers Warm Up at Schuler’s Books in Okemos.

In a format modeled after NPR’s MOTH series, each storyteller was allowed a maximum of 8 to 10 minutes to tell his or her TRUE story. The event was to be good old-fashioned storytelling under the theme When Everything Changes. One by one, each storyteller stepped to the podium and delivered a talk ranging from funny to intense and from emotional to observational. No powerpoints. No notes.

In preparation, I drafted the story below, and then did my best to retell the gist without props. I thought perhaps readers might be interested, so here goes:

When Everything Changes

By Patrice Johnson

The year was 2003. It brought the Space Shuttle Columbia Disaster, the completion of the Human Genome Project, and the Iraq War began. “No Blood for Oil” became the rallying cry of anti-war activists. The country, still raw from 9/11 terrorist attacks two years earlier, was dropping the hammer of the Patriot Act.

On a personal level, my son Tyler graduated in June among the top of his class from the California Institute of Technology, arguably the most prestigious theoretical physics institute in the world. Top science journals had published two of his research papers in artificial intelligence and in quantum physics.

Seems Tyler had shown, mathematically, that Star Trek-like teleportation is theoretically possible, and he’d used group theory to write a computer program that could measure complex evolutionary factors. Artificial Intelligence magazine called his work “Digital Darwinism.”

Tyler was happy. He had a full ride with a $16,000 annual stipend to pursue his Ph.D. at the University of New Mexico. He was at the top of his game.

Our family could not have been prouder.

We never saw the storm clouds rolling in.

You see, the natural world was the bedrock of Tyler’s spirituality, and he was passionate to the point of unflinching about protecting the environment. He’d become friends with a string theory grad student at Caltech, and while our Tyler was normally independent-minded, he spoke of Billy in terms that rang of reverence and hero worship. We never met Billy, but Tyler told us he was considered a modern-day Einstein.

I refer to Billy as Danny Blair in my book, The Fall and Rise of Tyler Johnson.

The two used to conduct marathon physics sessions and then go for long runs. Sometimes they’d boulder or “builder,” as Tyler called it, explaining that they liked to climb desert boulders and Pasadena buildings.

August 2003, Tyler was home—we lived in Pennsylvania then—and we were preparing to drive him to the airport to fly to Albuquerque and begin this doctoral work.

“I’m going to segue to Cali,” he said, “to pick up my stuff and say goodbye to some friends.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Jim said, and in what struck me as uncharacteristic generosity, he added, “We’ll pay to have your things shipped.”

But Tyler declined and insisted that he wanted to hike California’s Channel Islands. There was no deterring this son of ours.

Afterwards, we read in FBI documents that Billy had planned a send off party for Tyler. In keeping with their tradition of “ninja nights,” Tyler had paid $200 for bumper stickers to read “SUV’s = Terrorism.” But the stickers arrived misspelled, and someone came up with the bright idea to use spray paint instead. In the early morning hours of August 22, the night of binge drinking deteriorated beyond repair when someone torched vehicles at a Hummer dealership, and an outbuilding burst into flames.

No one was hurt, but during the melee, someone tagged a vehicle with E.L.F. The FBI interpreted the letters to stand for the Earth Liberation Front, which they considered one of the nation’s “most dangerous environmental extremist movements.”

Tyler woke the next morning to news broadcasts that the FBI was on the hunt for what was now referred to as domestic terrorists. If apprehended and convicted, reporters said the perpetrators would face mandatory sentences of up to life in prison.

The Fall and Rise of Tyler Johnson begins with Tyler sitting in his friend’s car. In the face of panic, he turned to writing in his journal in order to force his mind to concentrate through a logical decision-making process.

In the end, he decided to flee the country, and his Japanese girlfriend, Yuki, insisted on joining him.

Vancouver—Amsterdam—Paris. Lost and confused, the couple gravitated to the comfort of a bookstore. There, as they were combing through a rack of travel materials, they found a brochure featuring a remote desert island south of France.

Corsica became their destination.

Tyler + on ostriconi
Tyler shortly after arriving at Ostriconi Beach, Corsica, France.

On arrival, they managed to survive in remote deserts and mountains. Sometimes they migrated to the city streets of Paris and Marseille.

Tyler grew up fast and learned to think more deeply than most people with more years under their belts. He trained an insightful, compassionate eye on experiences that most of us will never know, showing in depth what it is like to live on the run and in the wild. Early on, he and Yuki were adopted by a dog, and when this dog killed a calf, Tyler experienced the anguish of putting the creature out of its misery. It was then that he realized that this was the way of his new world.

Tyler journaled many of their struggles—how they managed to feed themselves in the wild, or to survive lip-parching thirst in the deserts. From staving off starvation and physical threats on city streets to surviving hypothermia and lightning strikes in the mountains, he documented his remarkable experiences.

Once, Tyler was on a mountaintop when a Canada Air plane barely missed crashing into the peak and killing him and all on board. He survived wild boar attacks and lost a tooth at the punch of a local resident who suspected him of trespassing.

He learned to subsist as an undocumented migrant farm worker and as restaurant bus boy, working well below minimum wage. He wrote of his and Yuki’s stretching a jar of Nutella over a period of weeks.

In many ways, Tyler’s journals chronicled a romance, too, for he and Yuki struggled to preserve their relationship despite their hopeless situation.

In the end, Tyler was taking photos in the wintry mountains and writing about another Into the Wild-like expedition when an avalanche crashed down on him. He did not survive.

While some might say Tyler died free, it is also true that he was a prisoner to a moment when everything changed in his life. He was trapped in a cascade of irreversible consequences that one mistake, six years earlier, had set in motion.

January 2010: French rescue mission turns into a recovery mission high in the mountains.

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