It was dark when they let me out at an exit about fifteen miles north of Louisville. There was a gas station in sight just up the road. There were many cars going by but the area did not look much populated: the road was long and straight with stretches of bare lots, dilapidated woods and an abandoned auto-garage; an old house here and there with dirt on the faded wood sidings. The gas station was on the left, the same side as the on-ramp, and just before the station was a road that dropped down and wound off into a wooded neighborhood. The moon was out, full and bright so that all was dappled with silver-bluish moonlight and was peaceful. There was a Salvation Army depot on the road to the left and would have been a good place to sleep behind, but as I neared the gas station I could see a cell-tower next to it pushed back a little, and after the cell-tower were fields, soccer fields with low fences and goal nets set out. The fields rolled, running up to the highschool that was behind the gas station and to the right, opposite the cell tower. I stood at the top of the road next to the gas station and looked down it – there was a field to the right behind the cell tower that ran uphill to the soccer fields, and farther down the road was a church, closed and dark save for a light out front. The church was surrounded by tall dark trees. I didn’t feel like sleeping yet and I walked to the gas station.
The station was well-kept, bright and clean. A roof with fluorescent lights above the pumps. Through the front window was the old cashier, packs of cigarettes above his head and the clear cases with the rolls of lottery tickets in them. It was a large store for a gas station and a couple of people were picking items from the low shelves, Pepto Bismol and toilet paper, a person looking for the two-percent milk. I didn’t walk inside, instead dropped my knapsack on the sidewalk on the side of the station and sat down next to it against the wall. I dug from my pack the cigarettes I’d been given and watched the people coming in and out. I watched the cars that drove by and the way the station’s lights gleamed off the roofs and hoods and side panels as the cars past.
I felt easy about the day. I had wanted to get as far as Nashville, if possible, but I was glad how far I’d come. I imagined the very real possibility that I could have spent the entire day at that first on-ramp outside of Columbus, how pathetic and disappointed I would have felt standing there watching night come, having wasted a whole day going nowhere. I would’ve felt helpless and I knew I would’ve turned back. Instead I was pleased in my heart, could feel the gentle pressure of the corners of my lips curving up. I hadn’t come far but I’d made it to Louisville in a day and tomorrow I’d be in Nashville. I put my head back against the wall and exhaled a cloud of blue smoke. The cigarette felt good in my lungs. I hadn’t smoked one since Cincinnati.
I’d yet to come far but I was anxious for the morning knowing this was just the beginning. Tomorrow I’d be in Nashville. I’d get on Route 40 and take that Endless Highway straight west across green plain and barren desert, over mountain and right into beautiful shining Los Angeles. I hoped it wouldn’t take more than two weeks. I hadn’t come far but I felt I could go anywhere. And I had lied this morning – I had been scared. I was throwing myself into the wild without a clue what would happen, if I would get anywhere or if hitchhiking was even still possible. I hadn’t come far but I felt now a reassurance, a reassurance that yes, this would work, I would make it and I saw unrolling before me the long highway and the landscapes I was soon to cross. Tomorrow I’d be in Nashville, onto Memphis and across the Mississippi into Arkansas and Texas and across the desert and the Rockies to the Pacific.
Being out in the world in such a way, when I had nothing to go by but wit and luck and whatever was on my back, this excited my heart and filled me with an eagerness that would not subside. I felt I could go anywhere by the trick of my thumb, could cross states and countries and continents and entire hemispheres without plane or car or even money. Such was the majesty of hitchhiking: the realization that I was not tied down, that I needn’t possessions and bank accounts and financial security. To throw myself to the wild, to the chaos – I forced myself to find and create order in that chaos (this is how one vagabonds) and for that there is no greater analogy than for life, for freedom. This is the only feeling I knew could settle my restless soul, the wanderlust and the vague aching in my chest because I could not find it in me to settle down and submit to the soul-shriveling consistencies of a steady job for forty years living in the same place surrounded by the same people and ideas and conversations.
Finally glad to be alive. But it wasn’t even that, it was more than that, because here I finally understood that all there is is to be alive, that this is life: the myriad of experiences and flavors of emotion all rolled into the very impulse that sent me out there in the first place. Tomorrow I was on to Nashville and I would keep going from there and I wouldn’t stop because I knew now that I could go where ever I pleased and that where ever I went I would be fine and okay because this here is my home, here, at the gas station, and when I got farther down the road that too would be my home, in Bowling Green and Oklahoma City and Albuquerque New Mexico, along the Mississippi and the dried river banks of Texas towns – these too are my home, and the realization burned a blissful excitement in my chest, put freedom and love for the world in my heart because I knew then that all of this is I, is for I and because of I and God would frown if I did not take upon myself the saintly imperative to experience all of it, to take into my heart all that I could with gentle loving hands and declare: This is my home! not an address or a building or a territory or a nation, but this! the Earth! This is where I live and with every ounce of me I am here to enjoy it!
* * *
I got up then and found the cardboard dumpster behind the station. The boxes were already collapsed and I tucked a few beneath my arm. The ground would be cold tonight and it’d be nice having something to separate me from the cold of the earth. I walked down the road and found I could access the fields from behind the church where no one would see me. There was a long hill here and at the top was a warehouse, so that looking from the gas station the warehouse was far behind the highschool. The field was cornered at the bottom along two sides by woods. Here in the corner of the field was a round outcropping of tall shrubs. I knew I’d be fine even in the middle of the field, but I felt safer behind the outcropping; in case someone bothered to look down the field they still wouldn’t see me. I laid out the cardboard and placed my sleeping bag right on top. It was chilly but I had a good sleeping bag and with a hat on my head and my coat as a blanket I’d stay warm. I sat down in the grass and ate a peanutbutter sandwich and a few handfuls of trailmix. When you haven’t much food it’s nice to sleep with a lot of fats in your stomach. It was a clear night and I could see the stars except for around the moon because it was too bright. There was much rustling in the woods and I imagined it to be deer. A train passed in the distance, its whistle announcing its passing. I got in my sleeping bag and pulled it tight around me. My knapsack served as a pillow. I was excited for the morning. I looked up at the endless pricks of diamonds and waited for a shooting star before I fell asleep.