You’ve met a lot of people during your travels.
Like, a lot.
No seriously. A lot, a lot.
But some of the most memorable and cherished people you met came from El Camino de Santiago, an 800 km pilgrimage originating in the little French town of St. Jean pied de Port and ending in Santiago de Compostella, Spain. It is a unique walk, drawing people from all parts of the globe, for a myriad of reasons. Pilgrims meet, speak, share, and form walking groups bound by purpose, similar walking speeds, and a bit of shared suffering.
You adored the core members of your walking group, the numbers of which rose and fell depending on injury rates and rest days taken. You would part ways and meet again, always unintentionally. Everyone walked their own walk. But some people re-appeared so frequently that their magnetic pull would bring you to meet them again, outside of Spain.
There were Fred and Jenn, your favorite French Canadians whom you would later intercept in Porto, Portugal a week after the end of the Camino. You went up the hill, chugged some port, did the tour for the second time in your life, and then had a heinously confusing drive back to your host’s house (a drive Fred and Jenn will remember for a lifetime).
There was Grethe the Trail Angel, a Danish woman who often stirred you to tears simply for being a warm and inspiring human being; you visited her two months later in Denmark, where she wined and dined you, brought you along to her family’s annual picnic which included a sandcastle building contest (you won, of course, but not without drawing blood); and bought you lunch in Copenhagen.
There was Niny, the incredible Dutch woman who riveted you with stories of her life and repeatedly saved everyone’s asses with her fluency in five languages; you stayed with her in Utrecht. She took you on a paddle through the canals, long walks in and around the city, and did you the greatest favor of all: allowed you to crash in her flat for a long while to re-charge your travel batteries, where you did little else but veg out and go on long training runs.
And then there was Paul…
He was a gregarious fellow with a face built around a smile. He walked and talked and laughed. He celebrated early-morning walking breaks with a beer in one hand and a shot of Jack Daniels in the other. He loved good times and good company. You loved his energy. And you’d finally met your match when it came to walking-talking energy. You and Paul got along like fish in water and chatted about everything from diet and exercise, to health food and supplements, to your shared desire to go back to school to become physical therapists.
Alas, Paul was a short-lived member of your walking group; after a fit of rain, Paul had to stay indoors on account of his tricky ear. He offered to pay for yours and (a very wet) Katie’s hostel that night, if you wanted to stay on with him, but you insisted on sticking to your itinerary.
That’s when he slipped a 20-euro note into your palm, suggesting that you stay in a hostel that night anyway, rather than camp in the rain. You stood there, shocked, bent on refusal.
Paul said, “You will pay me back by coming to Bend, Oregon and cooking me a dinner.”
Okay, maybe you didn’t promise to make him dinner, but as time went on, it began to feel that way. Paul became a devoted reader of your blog. You told yourself again and again that you would certainly have to make good on that 20 euros, get yourself to Bend, Oregon, and make him dinner.
* * *
“Where you going?” your driver asked. He’d picked you up in a little town called Weed, California.
“What’s in Bend?”
“Some guy I met in Spain. He spotted me 20 euros on the condition that I come to Bend and make him dinner.”
This statement delighted you. It made you consider how wonderful and spontaneous travel can be; two people can meet halfway around the world, know each other for just a handful of moments, and effortlessly reconnect down the line.
Your travel buddies know this well: the freedom and flexibility of their lives that makes last-minute visits possible: “You’re in Estonia? Come swing through Warsaw on your way to The Netherlands…” Sure. Why not? No problem. On a shoestring budget, the trip costs virtually nothing aside from time and energy, of which people have less and less to spare.
You’d love to brag and say that you were going to Bend solely to cook Paul dinner. Oh, if only your life were as light and carefree as it used to be. Over one year later after meeting Paul, you were in San Francisco, faced with the task of going home to Seattle to put out some fires, catch up with friends and family, and ship your stuff to California. You understood that Bend, Oregon was a halfway point between the two cities.
You shot Paul an email, told him that you were on your way to make him dinner. He laughed and said he couldn’t believe you remembered. You told him that you would leave on a Sunday—grab your first-ever Craigslist Rideshare to escape the Bay Area, and then hitchhike up to him.
Hitchhiking! Your friends cautioned you against it. “Why not fly?”
Why spend a hundred bucks on a plane ticket when hitchhiking is free? And you get an adventure!
You explained your rationale: first of all, Paul was in Bend, which you’ve always wanted to re-visit; second, hitching through central Oregon and Washington, on highways that cut through farmland, desert, and mountains would not only be gorgeous, but easy, and you would get to avoid the risk of getting bogged down in Salem, Portland, Vancouver, Olympia, or Tacoma along the way (thumbing out of a city is a royal pain in the butt); third, you’d never yet had the opportunity to distance hitchhike in the United States. So in your mind, this was a win-win-win situation.
You admit to a bit of nail biting about hitchhiking in the USA. This may come as a surprise to many, considering the 30,000 kilometers you’ve already accumulated in Europe, and a smattering of kilometers in India. What’s the big deal, anyway?
Well… umm… the country is literally covered with guns! And what about the fact that the United States boasts something like eight times the rate of gun-related homicides when compared to other developed countries? What about the incarceration rates? The number of people on psychiatric drugs?
Fear, fear, fear, fear!
You are ashamed to have let your imagination get the better of you. You balked from hitching in your own country for years, simply because after years of travel, you still don’t trust people (which may be why you never get yourself into trouble). Americans are a special kind of crazy, so you thought.
On the other hand, the hitchhike might be exceptionally easy. You’ve never had the luxury of doing so under same-language-same-culture-familiar-infrastructure circumstances. You speak American English, for god’s sake! You understand that staring, unlike in some countries, is considered rude. You can hear the intonation in people’s words. You’d know it immediately if some guy was intent on misbehaving.
Then there was the belief that even though Americans are afraid of everything, they are inordinately friendly and ready to help. This you believed to your core, especially after Angus said, “The difference between the USA and [Ireland] is that if you walk into a pub and say, ‘I’m gonna be the best boxer in the world!’ we’ll say, ‘Shut up, you wanker. Sit down and drink your beer.’ But in the US, they’ll say, ‘Awesome! Pull up a chair and tell me how you’re going to do it!”
That’s the United States. Friendly, open, curious. So who wouldn’t pick up a nice looking lady smiling with her thumb out?
* * *
HITCHHIKING SAN FRANCISCO TO SEATTLE (DAY 1)
– 1 –
Rideshare: Technically not a hitchhike, but still a car full of strangers. You’d thrown this lift together last-minute when your original rideshare guy flaked. At 9 o’clock in the morning, the “gold whip” pulled into the Lake Merritt BART station parking lot, and you found yourself greeted by your bartender-rapper-lady-driver with a hungover, ashen-faced, black-clad gentleman lying in the backseat. After a few minutes struggling with an iPhone mummified in Scotch tape, Rapper Chick headed north.
They were hippies, both of them. Sort of. Rapper Chick had been a backpack baby, whose parents schlepped her city to city, country to country. The man in the back was a bit of a wanderer himself, never content to work the same job too long, but handy at a number of things. The three off you discussed the shared economy, American fear mentality and the downsides of too much technology. They were nice, easy to talk to, and sad to see you go.
“What you’re doing…” said the pale hungover fellow (too much whiskey the night before), “I think it’s pretty righteous. Traveling around like that. Hitchhiking.” He hinted that he would like to cross paths some day again. You said the driver had your information and stepped out of the whip.
– 2 –
You waited only four minutes before a classic yellow car (just back from the car show), the make and model of which escape you, grabbed you. The driver was an energetic old fellow who’d said, “Hitchhiking! I did that, too! All over Europe.”
It was really all over the world. Alone. With his wife and babies. Often with no money. Sometimes with money.
You were impressed.
He talked at you, incessantly about himself. You chalked this up to him being an old man; older people have a tendency to waffle on forever, reliving the good old days in their heads despite their audience. It also didn’t help that he was nearly deaf.
When you got out of the car, he insisted on teaching you his fail-safe hitchhiking method: “Always look like you’re ready to go. Either wear your bag, or have it right there by your feet. When you lock eyes with the driver, start walking down the road like you already know he’s going to pull over.”
You rolled your eyes.
– 3 –
Then there was the depressed hippie, for whom you also waited four minutes. After first saying, “So what’re you going to Bend for?” he allowed you to say approximately twenty-five words before cutting you off and, too, talking about himself incessantly. Only everything he uttered was depressing.
“This is a tough world. We all don’t have the same advantages. I had to make do with what I got. It ain’t always easy. And I moved up here for a quiet life. I go into town about once a week, shop for the things I need, eat at the Applebee’s, and head home. I seen you there, standing. Thought what the heck, it’s someone to talk to. This world’s going down hill. I’m just tryin’ to make ends meet. And I don’t want nothin’ to do with death. This whole life is death. One thing gotta eat another thing to live. Everything is death and destruction. You mind if I smoke this? Yeah. I used to do them drugs. Now I just smoke grass. First time I smoked, I was fourteen years old. I’ve been high ever since…”
On and on and on he went. You couldn’t get a word in edgewise, and the energy in the truck was heavy and sad. His body language was sad. Slow. But not deliberate. He sagged in his seat. He smoked his joint, hot-boxed the interior, and you rolled down the window to suck at the clean air wafting in.
He dropped you at a lonely crossroads and turned down a local road.
– 4 –
The next car, ten minutes later, carried two guys. It pulled over quickly and the guys each jumped out to arrange the back seat, which was littered in beer cans, cigarette boxes, coolers, munchies, and clothes. The license plate read Nevada. They were headed to Seattle, each of them originally being from Washington.
You didn’t feel the best in that car, you must admit. The driver seemed cool enough. He had hitched his way across the USA years ago and had also been a hardcore backpacker, even doing a section of the Pacific Coast Trail with little more than a pocket knife and some fish hooks.
But his buddy was a different story. He looked a bit like The Dude from The Big Lebowski. He was drunk, and high. He kept finding excuses to turn around and look at you, reaching for another beer, or the giant mason jar packed with weed. He said things to you like, “You have gorgeous eyes.” Ugh! “You know any good live music scene, being from Seattle?” Please stop talking. “You got a boyfriend?”
He flirted with you off and on, constantly gazing upon you with a look of warm interest. Stoned interest. Drunk interest. But harmless interest. He used a few tacky lines, including, “Maybe we’ll have to swing by your place some day and cook you dinner.” To this, you did not know how to respond. Your eyelids dropped. You were exhausted. The passenger offered you his jacket as a blanket. You passed out in the back seat, against your best judgment, but you were simply too damn tired to remain awake.
You felt far more comfortable with the driver, whom you suspected was monitoring the exchanges between you and his friend, in case tension mounted. But he was clearly not a person with good judgment: he was speeding along Oregon’s very slow highways, with open containers, a mason jar full of weed, and a transient in the back who could easily be carrying illicit substances. He was covered in gold, and you later pegged him as a drug dealer, based on a few comments he made about how to make a living in Tahoe.
They dropped on you the Bend Parkway. You dodged traffic, ran across it. Then realized your error and dodged more traffic. Trespassed over a railway, dropped onto Greenway Ave, and noted the police car that had been tailing Paul, who came to swoop you.
You’re sure the police were concerned for the safety of the nice looking lady who jumped out of a car on the busy parkway.
ONE DAY IN BEND
Paul is the man. You doubt you’ve met anyone else with more interests aligned with yours. His house was tidy, but full of outdoors sports equipment: bikes, skis, boots, camping cookware. Health food items like quinoa, fresh fruit, raw almonds, green powders, and ginger chews lined the shelves of his kitchen. He takes his chef knife seriously (and now, so does your finger). He drinks Old Rasputin. He watches documentaries on the environment. His magazines: cycling, runner’s world, and others you couldn’t leave sitting unread.
You arrived with a headache and highly fatigued, but please to be there. You used a few fresh greens you’d brought from Berkeley to add some color to his bean soup, cooked up a veg stir fry, and sat down to eat. Part of you imagined going to the supermarket to obtain a few crucial items to cook a thoughtful meal, expecting Paul to live like a bachelor and stocking only mustard in the fridge (he, too, loves his mustard), but you were wrong. His food was all delightfully healthy. It felt silly trying to make good on twenty euros with the guy’s own produce, but what could you do?
Paul drove you to Mt. Bachelor the following morning. He took you on a walking tour of Bend. The two of you wandered into the Deschuttes Brewery for four free samples and the best beer tour of your life.
Then you went to Ten Barrel for lunch. Headed home and learned about a few of the violent murders that had happened recently. “Two women abducted and sodomized another woman because she had allegedly been flirting with one of the murder’s boyfriend.”
Despite the shocking news, the day ended gently. You cooked dinner again—something similar to the night before. And then decided it would be funny to check out the local Monday night hip-hop rap show at a sushi restaurant. Random.
SAN FRANCISCO TO SEATTLE (Day 2)
– 5 –
His name was Richard. He drove a van. You’d been waiting about fifteen minutes. He’d passed you once, pulled a U-turn, came back, did another U-turn, and pulled up next to you.
Now normally when someone doubles back for you, it’s a bad sign. Guys sometimes just seem too eager to have you in their car. But Richard felt okay. He had to move a bunch of tools around. The van was filthy. But he got you inside.
“Where you from?”
And he cut you off and talked about himself.
“I used to be a downhill skier. I wanted to go to the Olympics. I was trying to be the fastest guy in the world. I’m small. I ain’t heavy like them other guys. But I never quit. Til I got injured. I traveled around a lot like yourself. Went to Europe, too. Joined the French Foreign Legion. Went to The Congo. I was shot in the ass. I’ve been injured a lot. Yes. They shot me in the ass. I should be dead now. I’ve nearly been killed many times. And I’ve killed many people. Killed them rapist, pillaging motherfuckers with my bare hands. I’m a strong guy. Fuck! I can’t believe I’m sixty! I’m sixty! And you’re how old? Thirty? I’m literally twice your age!”
You didn’t like hearing that he was weighing his age against yours, just after telling you he’d killed people. It rubbed you the wrong way.
“I mean, what would a girl be doing with a sixty year old fart like me?”
“Stop telling people you are sixty and maybe it won’t matter,” you offered. He didn’t look a day over fifty.
“You’re thirty. I just met my daughter. She’s thirty, too. And she’s got three kids. I didn’t even know I had a daughter. That was couple weeks back. I used to be proud of the fact that I’d never knocked up a single girl.”
You acknowledged that the reunion must have come as a great surprise.
“I’ve been workin’ construction my whole life. I can build. I’m also a mechanic. No. I’m a magician. These hands–” he held them up for effect, taking them off the wheel– “work magic. I just have to lay them on a car and it starts workin’ for me. But I ain’t no mechanic. I just fix everything. I’m a tough mother fucker. I’ve been workin’ my whole life. I ain’t big. You’re tall and lanky. I’m like, sinewy. Tough as a mother fucker. I used to get into all kinds of trouble. I was a hot head. I used to do lots of drugs. I dealt pounds of cocaine at one point. But I don’t do drugs no more. Just pain killers. Love those. I’m on a lot of pain killers right now. I’ve had a lot of injuries that cause me a lot of pain.”
Richard had begun to repeat himself. You didn’t like it. He seemed very one track, like he had a narrative he had to tell. It wasn’t a good sign. When men talk at you, and not to you, and their volume increases, it usually means trouble.
“You know, I like you, Marie,” he said. “I like you a lot.”
But you haven’t said anything!
“I’m gonna do you a favor and drive you across to the north side of town and drop you on a good road.”
You were pleased by this news, but also not. Most of all, you wanted to just get the hell out of his van as soon as possible.
“Yeah, I like you,” he continued. “Will you do something for me, Marie?”
“It depends on what that thing is,” you answered flatly.
He didn’t respond.
You asked, “So… you see hitchhikers around here often?”
“I never pick up hitchhikers unless I’ve got my .45 with me.”
Ohjesushchrist it’s true! The United States is covered in guns!
“You got a weapon with you, Marie? Anything? You should have a gun with you, or a knife, at least. Pepper spray. I got this here knife–” he pulled out a four-inch pocket blade, much larger than the little one you’d noticed clipped on his right pocket. He handed it to you.
Holding his knife made you feel worse. Possibly because you knew that in a worst-case scenario, you could stab him with it and he’d surely be able to rape and kill you anyway.
“I’ve had that knife for a while. It’s a good one. ‘Course I don’t need a knife. I can kill with my bare hands. I’m a tough mother fucker. But I ain’t into hurtin’ unarmed people. I don’t kill unarmed civilians. That’s wrong.”
You said coolly, “From what I know, the people who have registered hands and know how to kill have the strongest ethics and are more peaceful than people who think they know how to inflict harm.”
Please be true, please be true, please be true!
“That’s right. Yup.” He talked on and on about guns, death, drugs, rapists, pillagers, and more. His voice was frenetic, sometimes skipping like a record. There was anger and tension in it, then sudden calm and cheer. You wondered if he was struggling to hold things together. You wondered if it would occasion him to play head games with you. Sometimes men just like to scare women… so on and on he talked about all the things that make ladies feel uncomfortable. Especially about how he was always prepared to kill something.
Please! Stop sharing this information!
The large folding knife sat between the two of you.
You had every logical reason to be afraid of this guy, and truly, you wanted out of the van as soon as possible, so you watched the road for a service station. Anything that seemed appropriate. Your gears were grinding. But one thing wasn’t: your stomach. You paid careful attention to what your gut what telling you, compared to what your brain was telling you. Brain said, “Get the hell out of this guy’s van, you stupid beezy!” Gut said, “Me? Worried? Nahh…”
So you told your brain to shut up and forced yourself to maintain a cool, composed smile, and relaxed body language. You forced him to talk about his daughter and his grand kids until he dropped you at a service station.
As you wrestled your bag out of the back of the van, you realized your hands were shaking.
– 6 –
After five minutes, you climbed into a beater driven by an old Alaskan man with a teeny-weeny, mangy doggy. The type whose fur is all stinky and matted, who can’t see through its own long hair, that shivers a bit, but loves to sit in a girl’s lap.
The old man had just bought a house and told you all about how happy he was for the good deal. Conversation was warm, friendly, and easy. The lift was short and sweet, but where your highway split off from the main road, there was very little traffic.
– 7 –
Five minutes of waiting. The driver’s name was Kevin. He handled a large truck fully loaded with hay. He was on his way to the Columbia River. It was certainly the best lift you’ve had in ages, and one of your favorite truck drivers. He was a huge wall of a man, but with the energy of a gentle giant. The truck was tidy. He offered you water and soda. You chatted with him for hours.
You learned that he was a lovely liberal with a conservative upbringing. He said things like, “My daughter is a professional baby maker,” scoffing at the fact that she already had five children.
“But you have five kids, too,” you reminded him.
He held up a cautionary finger. “Two of em ain’t mine. They’re my step kids.”
“Oh, I see…” Three’s the limit.
Kevin talked for a while about his “gay stepson.” And his “gay stepson’s” “partner.” They lived together with Kevin and his wife.
“The thing is, you wouldn’t know he was gay. He don’t dress gay. He and his partner never show any physical affection towards each other when I’m around. I guess outta respect. I appreciate that. I guess the two of ’em, they want to open a salon or something.” He spoke carefully, suppressing a laugh and shaking his head gently from side to side, a pendulum of potential patronizing.. You couldn’t tell if he was a bigot. Kevin mulled over how to phrase it. “A salon. These two guys… I have to say…”
Say what? Is it a joke? Too stereotypical?
Kevin said it,“They’ve saved me a lot of money cutting hair and doing nails. I’ve got a lot of girls. And my wife, too.” He smiled almost painfully amused. “They’re really great to live with.”
You wanted to laugh. It wasn’t what you expected to hear. Kevin surprised you in a lot of ways, stating that he was becoming more and more vegetarian, that he was happy to see more of the region converting to organics, that he would love to live in San Francisco. But when he said these things, it was with the pitch and cadence of a cautious country boy who possibly felt he lacked the vocabulary to talk about liberal ideas in a politically correct way. His stepson was not his stepson, but his “gay stepson.”
You and Kevin laughed and talked and chewed tobacco together. He got a kick out of you. “Well, you ain’t green from it yet.” You admitted to a few nasty habits you’d picked up in India. You talked about differed religions, cultures, misunderstandings. To your horror, Kevin also told you about a few recent murders in the area. You shook your head in disbelief.
All in all, it was a spectacular lift. He smiled broadly and said, “Take care of yourself, kid!” You threw his door closed and marched over to a line of trucks.
– 8 –
You didn’t wait for this lift. Walked right up to another truck queuing for the bridge over the Columbia. The window said, “NO RIDERS.” Didn’t seem to make a difference.
Your driver looked like Santa Claus. He was a man of few words. You pried him for information about the local industry. Confirmed that he was hauling dairy cow feed. You asked about his family, about his world views. Whether he was happy.
At some point, like the others, he talked about violence and murder in the region. Some Fed Ex guy opened fire on someone. One kid stabbed another kid because he couldn’t get a date to the prom. Two boys abducted another boy, took him out to the woods to do drugs, and then shot him over a debt of thirty-five dollars.
“Are you kidding me?” you said. “Is there something in the water that’s making people so violent?”
– 9 –
Four minutes of waiting.
The first thing you noticed was the passenger’s bloody, scabbed knuckles. He was a young-faced, blond, blue-eyed country boy with the hint of peach fuzz on his upper lip. The driver, Scar Face, was Hispanic; it looked like someone had stabbed him in the jaw with a broken beer bottle years ago. You crawled into the back seat next to two child seats. The third one was in the trunk.
Peach Face turned back to look at you, eyes smiling. It wasn’t long after you gave him the Reader’s Digest version of your life and why you were hitchhiking that he asked, “Do you do a lot of drugs?”
“Drugs? Well. I’ve definitely done them. Most of them. But I can’t say I do a lot of them.”
He wanted to know more. You listed them off. He talked about his favorite drugs. “Drugs have changed my life. They taught me that we are all the same. You and me. We’re the same. It’s all this universal energy. Cosmic. Shit like that, you know? Life is an illusion. I’m just a little kid playing with a bouncing red ball in the corner. The red ball is what I perceive. It’s there for my amusement.”
“I’ve never heard anyone describe it that way,” you said pensively. You weren’t sure if you could agree. Then again, people see what they want to see. What you want to see serves you in some way, possibly for your own amusement, sense of purpose, or whatever. If you see the world as positive, beautiful, and full of possibility, you might just create something incredible for yourself. If, like the depressed hippie, you see nothing but barricades, death, sadness, and misery, you might create a reality in which you are destined to be depressed. Mind over matter. East vs. West?
–you tuned back in.
Asked Peach Face, “What happened to your hands?”
He turned his hands palms down. “Oh this? I destroyed everything in my path.”
Perhaps he saw your eyes, how they widened ever so slightly in exasperation. “Tell me more about that.”
“I needed to destroy everything in my environment. My phone, the walls, my TV, my furniture. Everything. I had to let it all out. Sometimes I get that way. The anger needs to come out–”
“A psychiatrist recently told me that anger is a safer emotion than sadness.” You explained how you are a crier. How your cup brims with frustration, feelings, and more and overflows. All the time.
“Nah, I get angry. And it gets me into trouble, too. I get involved in shit. Always in trouble with the police. Dumb shit. And when I got angry this last time, ’cause I broke my phone, I had to walk to work in order to call in sick. They were like, ‘But you walked here. You’re here at work!’ and I held up my hands and showed them. I can’t work. I’m a custodian. I need my hands.”
You asked him if he knew it when he broke a knuckle, or if he just kept punching. Whether he’d gone to the hospital for it. Whether he would be able to return to work soon.
“Yeah, soon. Hey, you know how to make lots of money real quick?”
You laughed. “If I did, do you think I’d be hitchhiking?”
This made Scar Face laugh. “No kidding!”
“Listen,” you said. “I don’t know how to make lots of money. But I can tell you that it’s not what you earn, it’s what you keep. It’s about investing in value and knowing the difference between what you want and what you need.”
“Yeah, that’s my problem. I spend too much. On dumb shit. Shit I don’t need. Man, I gotta become the next Bill Gates. All I need is an idea!”
Scar Face: “You could be the next Facebook kid! That guy who started Facebook. What’s his name?”
“You also need a bit of luck. And you need to put in a lot of time,” you interjected. “Bill Gates admitted to getting lucky with the things he had access to. But he also put in a lot of time.”
The boys didn’t seem to hear this. They spouted on back and forth about getting rich. They just needed to find a way that didn’t take work.
You suggested selling drugs and sex.
When they finally dropped you off, after driving in circles and arguing about the best place to leave you waiting, they thanked you for the tips and wished you well. You smiled and shook your head from side to side, thinking guys like that, despite their criminal records and poor judgment, were still fine and helpful people.
– 10 –
Waited five minutes. The lift was short and sweet. The driver, about your age. An aquatics environmental engineer. Or something. Seemed to think he knew a good place to leave you. A lonely crossroads with no traffic. Perhaps he was wrong.
Then again, maybe he was right.
– 11 –
You waited fifteen minutes at the lonely crossroads. No one seemed to be going in your direction. You smiled, kept your head up, thought about how four string cheeses and a Cliff bar wasn’t enough to eat that day. Cars and trucks passed. You waved at them amicably. Many drivers shrugged their shoulders, smiled, and waved their hands in apology.
When you saw the truck, you knew it would stop. You locked eyes with the driver and practically pointed him to the shoulder. At the passenger door, you confirmed he was going in your direction and climbed in.
You’ve met a lot of people who have traveled. You know a lot of people who are still traveling. There are many types of travelers: the spoiled Euro Trip backpackers, the freegans, the hippies, the road trippers, the campers, the serial couch surfers, long-term volunteers, the walkers, the monks… You are fascinated by how people travel, by how they budget, by the choices they make. What works for one person may not work for another.
You’ve prided yourself on being pretty badass, minimalist, and independent. But you’ve also met plenty of people who go at it harder than yourself. You feel a lot of respect for most of them, and disdain for some others. You have strong feelings about travelers who travel because they don’t have their shit together, and travelers who can organize and choose to do what they do. You’ve had the “why I don’t ever pick up hitchhikers” talk more times than you can guesstimate; it’s because many people who have been reduced to hitchhiking have possibly made poor decisions and are not organized–and those are the people you don’t want in your car.
Which leads you back to your driver, who was an interesting fellow. He was enormous, with hands that could crush a skull. He was a property manager, a handyman, and a former MMA fighter. He’d hitchhiked around the United States one summer, alone, with nothing.
“I left my hometown with eight bucks in my pocket. I came back with eight bucks in my pocket. I didn’t have anything. Just my clothes. I slept behind dryers at laundromats, or near heat vents on the roofs of buildings. I hopped freight trains. Went to parties. Dodged the cops. I was in trouble a lot. But that hitchhiking trip was the time of my life.”
You talked about what traveling teaches. About the kindness, the goodness in people. You told him about your previous drivers. About the ideas you’ve heard from everyone, from all walks of life, economic classes, political and religious affiliations. “Even these two boys I just rode with. I think most people look at them with distrust. And maybe they should. But my experience of them was nothing but kindness and interest in me as a person. I try to show people the same. You get what you give.”
Your driver agreed. “People have helped me so much. I owe a lot to the world. I’m doing my best to be a good father right now. A good husband. A good worker. And to enjoy my life. You make me miss the freedoms I had then.”
The conversation never dwindled. It felt nice to meet someone with shared experiences. He understood exactly many of the scenarios you described from your own travels. “Keep doing what you’re doing,” he said. “I’m really glad I met you today. I almost didn’t take that road. I had this inner conflict. I normally drive the other way. But something nagged at me and said to go in your direction. Now I know why.”
You smiled at this. Shifted in the car, preparing to get out after he pulled into town.
“I’d like to give you some money,” your driver said. “And I don’t want you to refuse.”
You drew a breath. Worded carefully, “I can’t say this isn’t the first time someone has offered to give me money. Normally I do refuse.”
“When you told me that you left home with eight bucks in your pocket and came back with the same amount, I think I understand why.”
He wanted to Pay It Forward.
Your driver came back from the ATM and handed you $120. You told him he was crazy. He told you, “I owe much more than that. You might be the first traveler I’ve met who will understand.”
You think you do. You hope you do.
– 12 –
You did not wait for your next lift. You walked past the service station pumps and up to the window of a truck with a broad, tight-lipped smile on your face, squinting against the five o’clock sun. He was an old timer, happy and astonished to see you. “Get on in!”
He was in his seventies. Worked as a King Country Sheriff after twenty-five years in the service. You asked him about crazy things he’d seen on the job, things he’d seen in Vietnam, the prevalence of PTSD in soldiers, the care they did and didn’t receive.
He wanted to know all about your travels and about India. And he complimented earnestly. “What you’ve done is just… amazing. Truly amazing. I have so much respect for people who get out there and live their lives. My wife and I are looking to travel soon.”
“Where do you want to go?”
“Italy. The Mediterranean coast. And to Germany. Those are the two places we really want to go.”
You told him about Slovenia.
– 13 –
Your final lift of the day took two minutes to obtain. She was your first lady driver. She was pleasant, but cynical. She had a low opinion of her eighteen-year-old daughter.
“She’s fixin’ to buy a camper van with her boyfriend and road trip all over the U.S.”
You issued a low whistled. “Expensive.”
“That’s what I said. She’s got no money. She’s gonna have to get a job.”
“She’s never purchased a vehicle before. She doesn’t know what to look for. What questions to ask. She doesn’t know if it will break down on her. She won’t have money for repairs… or towing… she’s going to have to worry about parking it…” you listed all the downsides to road trips.
The woman laughed in agreement. You asked her about her other children, about her late husband, who’d died of cancer. She was still emotional about it, but talked freely. It seemed that she was nearly done raising her kids and wasn’t sure where to go from there. Her conversation was appropriately cautious with her stranger hitchhiker, but by then end, the two of you were laughing about everything from traffic jams to cassette tapes. She left you smiling, and you waited outside her hotel for your brother Rory to come and swoop you.
THE TAKE-AWAYS: THOUGHTS ON AMERICANS
There are too many to generalize. On this one hitchhiking trip alone, you feel as though you caught a lift with just about every kind of person you might find in the region: old-timers, young people, travelers, hippies, rough necks, truck drivers, delinquents, drug dealers, loafers, anxious parents, folks struggling to make ends meet, former athletes, a young professional, a retiree, a proud and slightly unhinged weapon-carrying murderer…
People are people. At the end of the day, what matters is how people treat each other. You learned a lot about the people in Central Oregon and Central Washington, some about the local industry and agriculture. But you learned the most from the ideas of the people.
Americans are an odd bunch. Three and a half years in Europe, hitchhiking, and you never once heard someone describe a recent local murder (you were alarmed the numerous stories of violence you heard in just 24 hours). Europeans, as a group, ask you more questions; Americans are happy to launch into talking about themselves. Europeans make racist comments about Turks, Americans about Arabs. The wait time in America is about 2-3 minutes shorter.
Distance: 822 miles / 1,323 kilometers
Total number of lifts: 13
Men: 10 + 3 male passengers
Animals: 1 dog, 1 dog
Number of inappropriate comments: 1
Number of guys flirting: 1
Number of less-than-totally comfortable lifts: 3
Average wait time: 5’30”
Gifts received: $120, a handful of hard candies, fresh strawberries
Gifts declined: one bottle of water, one beer, one sandwich