Old Man Perry

The only thing I love more than seeing new places is meeting new people, and the most fascinating people I have ever encountered have inevitably been on the road. I met some people decades ago that I can still recall vividly today, and I’ll tell you about one of them today.

There’s something about people traveling; they’re almost always in a transition in life; taking gap years, fired, divorced, broken-hearted, or just plain drifting, and you meet some of the most insanely interesting people.

One I will never forget was Old Man Perry. I met him on my first ever trip to Asia, and he taught me a life lesson I still remember.

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I’m standing in the baking hot sun beside a railway line, waiting for a train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. It’s hotter than the devil’s armpit, and there’s no sign of the train. I’ll come to learn that train times are merely suggestions in this part of the world, but since this is my first trip to Southeast Asia, I don’t know that yet and am starting to worry I’ve missed it.

A red-haired, bearded guy is standing beside me, and he introduces himself as Ritter. We start talking about traveling and inevitably get around the topic of where the hell the train is, when an old man scuttles across the platform and says, “did I hear you guys say you were waiting for the train to Chiang Mai?” in a distinctly American accent.

“Yea,” Ritter replies. “Are you?”

The old man has a weathered face, a dirty blue cap, and he’s wearing a Hawaiian shirt and khakis. He has yellowish teeth, penetrating brown eyes, and a lighter and some rollup cigarettes in his shirt pocket.

He replies that he is waiting, and he’s well used to trains being late in Thailand. He tells us that he first came here in the 1970s when barely a Western backpacker could be seen, and he’s been taking trains here and there ever since. “It’ll get here when it gets here,” he tells us.

I look at the plastic bag he has in front of him. It’s one of those big multi-litre bags, and it’s filled with clothes. He catches me glancing and says, “that’s all I have in the world. I might have a crate of books in an aunt’s house in Canada somewhere, but I haven’t seen her in 20 years, so I dunno if they’re still there.”

I smile and wait for him to continue. He starts to tell Ritter and I about his travels. We quickly find out that he’s not actually on a trip — this is his life! He’s been traveling ever since he first came here in the ’70s. “I just never went back,” he says, shrugging.

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It turns out that the train is not coming, and so we find hotels for the night and meet back there at the same time the next day. That morning, we all board for the overnight trip to Thailand’s northern capital. We’re all sitting together, so the conversation continues as the scenery changes from city buildings to bamboo huts and shanty’s with laundry hanging outside them and eventually to rice paddies with farmers working in them and huge mountains.

Ritter and I have a lot in common. He’s a philosophical guy who’s into Qigong and Tai Chi. I like his easy manner, and my instinct tells me I can trust him. We will end up traveling together for a few weeks, and it will be a lot of fun.

Perry is different. I find him interesting, but I also can’t figure him out. How the hell has this man survived for the best part of 40 years on the road? Eventually, over the course of the next few days, he’ll tell us it’s by teaching English, buying and selling various goods, and smuggling marijuana from time to time.

The conversation turns to why we’re traveling, as it always does in these situations. I am honest about the fact that I’m a little lost; don’t know what I want to do, and want to travel in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and the area for a few months to see the sights and see what I want to do after that. I have an idea to teach English and am using this trip to investigate the possibilities.

Perry nods knowingly. “The worst possible situation is to be stuck in the system,” he tells me, sounding like a true 1960’s hippy. “Being stuck in the middle is what fucking kills your soul. As far as I know, there are only three ways out of the system…over, under, and around.”

I stay quiet and smile, hinting at him to go on.

“You go over by becoming rich and successful, escaping the drudgery once and for all by making enough money to get out. You go under by being like me — drop out and refuse to participate in it. You go around it by being useful, such as by volunteering in the Peace Corps or getting into charity.”

Those were probably throwaway words to the old man; just road chat, but it has stayed with me ever since. I tried under and around, and now I’m finally trying to go over, but I still agree with him that being stuck in the meat grinder is a fate I’d rather escape if possible.

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Hours pass by, day turns to night, everybody falls asleep, and when we wake up, we’re pulling into Chiang Mai station. Ritter is still there, but Old Man Perry is gone. We both look at each other and laugh, wondering where he went.

A few days later, in a little village called Pai in Mae Hong Son, we run into him again at a cafe. We get deeply stoned with him and talk about all sorts of stuff like whether humans have evolved or were created, whether the universe is finite or infinite, and lots more. He keeps telling us that EVERYTHING, from Bangkok to Chiang Mai to wherever we’re going next, to the very stars in the sky, WAS BETTER IN THE ‘70s.

Eventually, Ritter and I decide to go on into Laos, a beautiful country completely and absolutely undisturbed by modern capitalism (it was one of the last true communist states), and we bid Old Man Perry goodbye.

To be honest, I was getting a little tired of his nostalgia for the ’70s by then, but I’m still glad that he shared his wisdom with me about escaping the system. He also helped me decide there and then that traveling permanently was not the path to go down. I’d met many inspirational people who had made it a lifestyle, but if he was the end result, it wasn’t for me.

Based on the fact he was in his late 60s or 70s then, and he looked worse for the wear almost 20 years ago, he’s probably dead by now. Whether he’s still roaming or resting at his final destination, I thank Old Man Perry for the laughs, the memories, and the lessons!

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