April 19, St. Petersburg, Fla. – We spent 10 days in St. Augustine. We hadn’t planned to stay a day in St. Augustine.
Then again, we seem to have an aversion to plans. To eschew planning is our only plan. The map for this journey is charted by a cartographer called Serendipity.
Our St. Augustine residency started on the night of April Fool’s Day. We were on our way out of town. I was ready to go. “No overnight parking” signs were posted all around the parking lot. Violators towed at their own expense. We have nothing in our budget for recovering towed vehicles.
Becky made sure Max was belted in. She locked the camper door. Soon we’d be on U.S. 1 heading south. As she reached for the passenger door, the guy in the next RV over said something to her. Then he said something else.
She was trapped. I tapped on the steering wheel.
They talked about RVs for a bit. He had an older, more fuel-efficient model of the Behemoth. When I overheard him say he’s a former boxer, I threw up my hands. If you can’t beat ’em, interview ’em.
I have no clue about his boxing career. He does, however, bear the look of a battered pug who’s hit the canvas a few times.
I asked him his name.
Arturo Augustine Valerio, he said.
Arturo Augustine Valerio. That is a major league name. Problem is, the Internet does not know an Arturo Augustine Valerio. And the Internet knows a lot of people.
I found myself in back of his camper, looking at boxing photos. Wahlberg. Frazier. Marciano.
He said he trained Mark Wahlberg for “The Fighter.” Showed him how to hold his hands and move his feet.
The Internet is ignorant of this as well.
“I’m waiting on a check for $19,000. and another one after that.”
He said he took up the Sweet Science when he was 9. He’s 53 now. Said his grandfather taught him the ropes. So to speak.
Later, when we had wandered back into the parking lot. He moved into a fighter’s crouch. He shifted his shoulders from side to side. He rubbed his nose with an imaginary boxing glove. Then he told me he could hit me three times before I threw a punch.
I told him that estimate sounded a bit low.
As we chatted, another stranger walked into the scene. He appeared to know Arturo. I know this because he said, “how’s it going, Artie?”
The new stranger struck up a conversation with Becky. He asked where we were from.
She had at least two choices, Pennsylvania and Washington.
She said Pennsylvania.
He asked if we’d ever heard of a musician named Jefferson Pepper.
Had we ever.
Becky nearly came undone:
“Oh my God!” she cried out in disbelief. “We’re great friends with him! He is one of our best friends.”
“I love Jefferson Pepper!” the new guy said.
Get the hell out of here, was my first thought.
Chaos broke out. A rainbow festival in the Walmart parking lot.
The new guy is called Mark Badgley. I am suspicious of his professed love for Jefferson Pepper. Not that Jefferson Pepper is unworthy of Mark Badgley’s love. It is a damn shame more people do not love Jefferson Pepper, that he remains obscure.
I question this stranger’s professed love of my friend. I ask if maybe he’s mistaken Mr. Pepper for another artist.
Because I know Jefferson Pepper would want to be sure. Mark said he knows his stuff, man. He followed Dylan. He followed Neil Young.
He knows Jefferson Pepper.
In fact, it is Jefferson Pepper he turns to when he needs to be grounded.
“I love Jefferson Pepper,” he reiterated. “I’m a musician, but I’m not talking about me. I know who Jefferson Pepper is. Jefferson Pepper’s an amazing musician. I love his work. It’s very truthful. It’s right on. What he says in that one album it’s just so solid.”
Word. Take that world. Jefferson Pepper rules.
I still do not know just who this man is who calls himself Arturo Augustine Valerio. No similar name shows up on the reliable boxrec.com.
Mark said he met Arturo in a guitar shop in Melbourne, Fla.
Arturo was happy to see Mark.
“He knows I’m a champion,” Arturo said. “He’s a good friend of mine.”
Arturo said he’s from Boston. At least his accent gives credence to that claim. Don’t need no Internet for that.
“Mahk, ” he said, “where’d you pahk?
Mark likes Arturo. I was hanging out in Mark’s camper and chatting, I asked about Arturo. I had repaired to the nearby McDonald’s following our meeting and tried to pin down Arturo’s background and claims to Wahlberg et. al.
I found nothing.
I think Mark thought I was worried about Arturo, specifically Arturo’s interest in Becky. I’m a jealous guy, but hadn’t thought about Arturo in this way.
“The thing about Arturo, he’s not a pervert,” he said. “He’s a poon hound.”
Truly, that was great to hear. Mark said Arturo got run out of Melbourne due to his fondness for women. Likes to bring them to his camper two at at time.
“He brought this women there one day, a nice-looking woman,” Mark said. “She was on something. He said, ‘You can have her if you want her. I bought her for you.”
Mark said he did some business today. Sold a sailboat. He had a bit of money, and he went on a shopping spree.
“Well, I’m a businessman,” he said. “I bought three sailboats. I have all these bought and sold things.”
I took the opportunity to quiz him some more on his J-Pep bona fides. He bristled just a bit.
“I totally know who Jefferson Pepper is, OK?” he said. “I mean, his songs are heavy.”
He ain’t heavy, man. He’s my friend.
He laughed. He said he’s coming down from a buzz. He said it’s cool.
He said he’s never been arrested in St. Augustine.
“I love Jefferson Pepper,” he said. “I love him.”
April 2, St. Augustine – Tuesday morning at McDonald’s.
Internet is down.
Mark Badgley walks in.
Mark Badgley is in the house. We’re hanging out on St. Augustine’s Miracle Mile. The free wifi may be down, but our spirits are up.
“Laughter changes my whole day,” Mark says. “All I do is rant on Facebook anyway.”
Mark’s got some interesting Facebook friends. They’ve got colorful names like Rainbow Citizen and Cherokee Sunshine.
Rainbow Citizen is very radical, he says.
I think about last night, when Mark told me he once sold weed to Jerry Garcia’s daughter. She was 14. She had pink hair. He thought the pink hair out of keeping with Jerry’s roots back in the Haight.
Mark lived in Eugene, Ore., at the time.
As we were saying goodnight, Mark said something about wanting to work to rid the world of fear, so kids can be kids.
That might sound a little weird.
Weirder still: When I returned to the behemoth, we watched “The Rise of the Guardians,” which we’d rented from Mr. Redbox. Ridding the world of fear so kids can be kids is more or less the theme of “Rise of the Guardians.”
It was kind of like Jefferson Pepper, Part 2. Only more eerie. Downright freaky.
I cannot explain it. There is no explaining it. But it happened.
Mark is almost restrained this morning. Unlike me, he has changed his clothes.
Last night he told me about the 12 cars and boats he bought last year. He told me about the house he bought in Sebastian for $55,000 cash and then flipped for $54,000.
Says he once had a boat here on the Matanzas River. He’s been coming to St. Augustine for 25 years.
He’s towing a Mercedes behind his 30-foot RV. He’s bound for Bloomington, Ind., where he has a girlfriend. He has a home in Michigan on Hamlin Lake. He says he needs to do something about the VW Beetle he bought. It’s sitting in a lot in Nashville.
“I used to come to Gainesville,” he says. “I lived in Florida when I was only 18. I had high times in my life back when I was seeking the magic mushrooms. That’s Tom Petty. He said you can attribute his career to the mushrooms growing in the fields outside of Gainseville.”
Mark is an inventor. His designs are inspired in large part by Buckminster Fuller, the genius who popularized the geodesic dome.
How in the world was Mark able to buy 12 cars and boats?
He is not independently wealthy. He got his money the hard way.
He was burned up in a fire. The smoke detector failed. He was awarded a judgment in the neighborhood of $150,00.
“It was in Nashville, Ind.,” he says. “My dad has Alzheimer’s, and I was taking care of him. I was living in nice house on the edge of a state park. I could see deer out my window.”
Mark says he was burned so bad he was in a coma for 18 days.
I said, “Jesus.”
“I did see Jesus,” he says. “I went to some really far-out places. I will always cherish that experience.”
That was nearly four years ago. It gave him an idea. Something’s always giving him ideas.
“I am very, very conscientious of fires now,” he says. “I actually design these firewalls. One of my girlfriends has a custom-built cabin up by Taos. I started designing triangulated firewalls. I am very good at ideas but very stuck at getting my ideas across.”
Marks phone rings. It’s Artie. He lets it go to voicemail.
Mark calls himself a “domehead.”
“Years ago I designed a geodesic car,” he says. “Those Bucky Fuller cars always stuck in my mind. I was a dome freak. My forte in life is applied geodesic design.
“The man had answers for all energy problems and all the world’s problems. He’s my main inspiration.”
Now he’s involved in designing amphibious vehicles, among other things. They’ll drive right off the boat ramp, into the water and around the world, if you desire.
“They’re very environmentally sound,” he says. “None of them will run on fossil fuels, of course. They’ll have solar-steam electric battery systems, but not like the ones we have now.”
The visions come to him in the night, he says. He doesn’t bid them or reject them. They simply appear.
“I can’t help it,” he says. “I see actual visions of geodesic vehicles. They first started coming to me in 1977. I started channeling this stuff. I was up there alone in my cabin and I started envisioning this stuff. I read about phenomena when you can actually visualize things and see them.
“It’s not called crazy.”
We all laughed at that one.
Naturally, I ask him what’s become of all of his inventions, designs and visions. I ask him what’s gone wrong that he’s here in the McDonald’s talking to me.
“I have come close to success,” he says. “I have been offered backing.”
“I’m difficult.,” he says. “I have personality glitches. I have a way of undermining myself.”
Is he crazy? Is he a genius?
Where is the border line? If you can parse your insanity, if you can see your personality glitches, can you truly be insane?
What is sanity, anyway?
Now he’s out smoking a cigarette.
I am alone in the computer room. Yes, they really have a computer room at this McDonald’s. That might be the most bizarre thing of all.
There’s not enough time in the day for Mark to discuss all his designs. He talks about pedal-powered merry-go rounds which produce energy. Fountains which purify water.
The way his gray hair emerges from beneath his Kokopelli ballcap suggests he could use a shower. Well, so could I.
Hes got a madman’s laugh. He’s got a hoarse cackle that rolls into a full-throttle smoker’s hack. He’s got a reassuring smile. His features remind me of a photographer I knew in Bremerton, Steve Zugschwerdt. He came from Iowa, another can-do kind of guy from the Midwest. Mark, like Steve, has a son named Levi.
Levi is 29. Mark doesn’t have a relationship with him.
He has three other sons. One’s in Eugene. One’s in Minneapolis.
His son Robin is in Ocean Beach, San Diego. Right now he’s en route to Maine from San Francisco on a bamboo bicycle.
He’s back. The narrative picks up where it left off. Or somewhere close.
“Then I got into designing centrifuges,” he says. “Dizzy world. I designed an amusement park called Dizzy World.”
I am getting dizzy.
He wants to get in touch with Richard Branson. Has an idea or two he’d like to run by the billionaire entrepreneur.
“Richard Branson has an exercise room that produces energy. He started that. I like Richard Branson. Lately I’ve been Facebooking him. There was a time I tried to approach him and challenge him to finance my amphibious vehicle.”
What will become of Mark? What will become of me, for that matter?
He says he’ll get another chance. If not Richard Branson, someone else.
He’s got the ideas. His head is swirling with them.
“I’ve had people that were millionaires try to back me,” he says. “I’m elusive and difficult. Fame and fortune is something I’ve never accepted, even though I’ve come close. I could havemade it a long time ago.
“I’m a pretty frustrated person. That’s why I play the Frustration Blues.”
I’ve heard from Mark a few times since he left St. Augustine. Last I heard he’s hanging in Bloomington, Ind., where everything’s blooming. That’s what he said.
Later that day, we were on St. Augustine Beach. Arturo had showed up at the McDonald’s. Mark had fixed the refrigerator on his RV. Arturo said Mark’s the best mechanic he’s ever met.
Then again, he also said he trained Mark Wahlberg for “The Fighter.”
Anyway, Mark volunteered to work on the behemoth. I figured I should see where this might lead.
Mark fiddled about under our hood for hours, trying to see if he might figure out what’s causing that infernal “check engine” light to stay illuminated. He thought maybe the distributor cap was faulty. It wasn’t.
We took a break for lunch at a place called “Stir it Up.” Coincidentally, perhaps, Mark wore a Bob Marley T-shirt. Oh, little darlin’.
He tried to pull off the O2 sensor when we got back to the beach. He couldn’t pry it free. Eventually, I persuaded him to give up. It was a valiant effort.
He called from the road on the following afternoon. He was near Jacksonville, and it was pouring down rain. He said he’d talked to the mechanic at the Working for Jesus garage next to the McDonald’s with the computer. Just so happens this guy’s named Mark, too.
Mark Badgley came away from the conversation with the idea that this other Mark might fix the behemoth gratis if I would agree to accept Jesus as my savior.
I thanked him again for his generosity, and said I’d check out the Jesus mechanics.
And that, well, that’s a story in itself.