The Wanderlust Misfit

Don't Run From Anything, Run Towards Everything

Archive for the tag “hitchhiking”

Society Devoured

I was dropped off along 275, the main highway circling around Louisville, Kentucky. Just ahead the highway split, three lanes to the left, two to the right, and on the far right, one lane going into an exit ramp. There was an overpass up ahead and a number of large green signs stood above the highway. I stood there before all this, a man in a concrete channel, no-man’s-land with cars and tractor-trailers bowling forth. A deer with a flattened mid-section lay dead next to the guardrail. I waited for a pause in the traffic and ran across the exit lane, stopping when I got to the part of the shoulder that formed a wedge on the asphalt between the exit and the rest of the highway. Directly above me three green signs spanned the highway, the one on the right with an arrow saying 65 South. This was the road would take me into Nashville, Tennessee. Traffic howled past, the eeerrooo eeerrooo eeerrooo of tires streaking down the pavement filling my head with this drone of vibrations. The two lanes in front of me ran beneath the overpass before curving around into 65. Before the overpass and to the right was a long stretch of grass sandwiched between the exit and the highway. The grass looked sickly, I could smell the stale fumes of exhaust pipes, and a man in an orange vest was going around in the grass picking up trash, placing it in his trash bag. Anyway, this is where I stood, in the grass along the highway, walking backwards with my thumb out because I didn’t have a sign. Although there was a shoulder here people would be hard-pressed to stop, given the steady stream of speeding traffic. My arm was sore from being held out.

Eventually (it took about 45 minutes) a tan sedan circa 1990’s pulled over beneath the overpass, its bumper loose and tailpipe coughing. I grabbed my knapsack and ran over, climbed in the front seat without bothering to ask the driver where he was going.

‘Nashville, huh?’ he said. The driver, Drake Muldoon, had a very deep, hollow voice, not loud or booming, but thick and low. The car backfired plumes of smoke as we gained speed and pulled back on.

Drake was a large man in a solid color t-shirt, the neck of which had been cut. He also wore sweat-shorts that rose above his tree-stump knees. His face jiggled when he talked, his jowls loose and hanging above a neck that sloped down from a hidden jaw-line. He was a massive man whose seatbelt didn’t fit and you can guess correctly that he did not fly on planes because of this. His shoulders and arms were massive; elbows, wrists and knuckles hidden under thick, soft pudge. The center console was inaccessible for a reason you’ve probably just assumed. His chest looked like something small children would sleigh-ride down and his stomach, the top half at least, rested on the steering wheel so that one time, when Drake sneezed, the driver next to us held down his horn in return and forcibly extended his middle finger.

‘I get that a lot,’ rumbled Drake.

‘From honking at people?’

‘That’s usually not why.’

This took me a moment to realize and I uttered ‘Oh’ without looking at him. The conversation here stopped in the fashion of someone mentioning a recently dead dog: both people are awkwardly saddened.

‘So what’s in Elizabethtown?’ This was the wrong question for me to restart the conversation with.

‘I do my food shopping there. The Wal-Mart there gives me extra good discounts.’ I noticed then, curiously, that the back seats of the car had been removed, thereby tripling the trunk space.

‘You know, I’ve been hitchhiking once,’ he said. ‘Well, sort of. You see what happened was, a few years back I blew out a tire.’

‘Shit, you didn’t have a spare?’

‘ – Oh, no, I had a spare. I just wasn’t able to fix it though, and I couldn’t find anyone else to fix it on account of my dead cellphone. I was two miles outside of town still and I had to walk the whole way back. I couldn’t catch a single fruggin’ ride.’ He paused and glanced over at the glove compartment. ‘Hey would you open that up and pass me the Fatty Cakes?’ I told myself this wasn’t true. But as I passed the box there was the label. Undeniable. Fatty Cakes, a picture of four pink, hand-sized cakes with glazed icing, one of them cut in half to reveal a cross-section of what appeared to be a pink, meat-like substance, albeit more gelatinous, and a center filled with some sort of flesh-colored icing.

‘I’d offer you some but this is my only lunch till I get there.’

I felt like being sick but I couldn’t stop watching, the way this fleshy cave smacked and smucked up and down, clumps of processed gum and fat globbing up and down saturated with sweet saliva, I could see the pink gooey strands of chemical-laden spit every time the open hole mushed up and down, pink slime on flat wet smucking lips.

Transfixed by disgust.

‘Where was I? Oh, yes. It took me seven hours and not one person would stop. I haven’t a clue why.’ The serving size of Fatty Cakes was one half. There were four cakes in each individual package. A second package of cakes was making its way towards the soggy hole. ‘I thought I was going to drop. I mean, I was really huffin’ n’ puffin’. I stopped for a few breaks, you know, grab a couple sodas and some snacks for energy. But, man, there ain’t nothing harder than walking in the heat. Seven hours, seven hours and I had my thumb out the whole time. Not one person stopped. I don’t know why. Does that ever happen to you?’

‘All the time,’ I lied. Drake Muldoon continued to talk with his mouth open and I watched as bits of chemicalized gelatinous fat sprayed from his mouth. By the time the Fatty Cakes were gone a layer of pink goop like soggy crumbs was slowly slipping down the windshield. Drake, vexed, turned on his windshield wipers, waited twenty seconds and turned them back off. I watched a fly land in the goop, feel around with its proboscis and, uninterested, fly away.

*          *          *

            Drake let me out at the top of the exit before driving on. Here, to the left was an overpass, across the street was the on-ramp and to the right of that was a small shopping center. In front of the shopping center was one large Old Country Buffet and along the street were nine signs standing tall and bright, one for each of the nine fast-food stores that occupied the whole of the shopping center. The parking lots were full. It was very cloudy here and I wanted to get a good hour at the on-ramp before the rain came. First I needed a sign.

I was kneeling in the grass next to the Buffet’s parking lot scrawling NASH in big bold letters on a piece of cardboard. I was taking my time, making sure the letters were even and filled in because I assumed people would be less inclined to pick up a stranger with a sign that looked like the product of a four-year-old. Next to me was a blue dumpster full of cardboard. Fortunately there had been a slot on the side so all I had to do was reach my arm in, instead of climbing in, to retrieve a piece of cardboard.

While I was filling in NASH with the permanent marker, a large chartered bus pulled into the parking lot. The windows were tinted and the exhaust smelled especially foul. The bus doors swung open. Streaming out came a line of large rotund women throwing their chubby arms up singing praises, these women in their Eucharist-receiving bests with their arms raised and faces at the sky shouting allelujahs streaming out of the bus and into the Old Country Buffet. The last chubby church-goer in line stopped at the door and flipped the Open sign over to Closed.

There was a traffic light down the road so that I could see most of the vehicles before they reached the on-ramp. This gave everyone plenty of time to see my friendly smiling face and the cardboard sign I was holding over my head. I would stand along the road and as traffic came I’d backpedal along with it, holding the sign and jutting my thumb. I’d backpedal till I got to the on-ramp then backpedal some more, waving at people who never waved back.

This was taking a while. People were seemingly unaware I was standing on the corner and this all gets discouraging, running around and waving and not so much as a curt wave ‘No!’. But that just adds to the feeling, because when a big sleek white pick-up pulled over after ninety minutes I was thrilled as if my faith in humanity had instantly been restored.

‘I’m going to Bowling Green. You want a ride?’ The driver was an older man with a powerful and rusty voice. When I said Hell Yes he asked if I liked cats because as I climbed in a half-breed pit jumped on my face and slopped up my nose.

‘Down Sarge! I said down, damnit!’ The driver hit the dog on the head and the dog went over to his side. ‘I know he looks big, but he’s still just a pup. He’s friendly as all hell, really, but watch out ‘cus he’ll bite ya’.’ Rex, the driver, was towing a twenty foot fishing boat to a lake outside of Bowling Green. He tried to get down there once week – not that he was any good at fishing but because it helped him clear his head. He was hoping the rain would hold.

Sarge kept jumping on me and Rex told me to hit him over the head. I did, and Sarge took to chewing my hand instead. Rex would then curse at the fifty-pound dog and, grabbing Sarge by the scruff of his neck, pull him over. Rex told me he wouldn’t have picked me up if I wasn’t running backwards with traffic, waving ‘like a lunatic’, because he doesn’t ever stop for hitchhikers who just stand around passively waiting. I told him Thanks. He told me people don’t help those who don’t care enough to help themselves. Then Sarge got a plastic cap stuck in his mouth and Rex asked me to retrieve it, which I did, afterwards wiping my hands on my jeans.

‘Thanks, that damn dog eats anything. Really, even shit that’s clearly inedible and toxic. I don’t know if it’s just the way he is, or maybe something with the way we’re raising him – the other day he was eating a hunk of rubber! But either way, he’s just a dog. They don’t got the intelligence we do, obviously, they lack our freedom of choice. So I can’t get mad. Of course, who the fuck knows! Maybe he does. In which case it’s a good thing he’s a pet ‘cus he wouldn’t survive too long without someone paying his medical bills and telling him what he ain’t allowed to eat. But that’s fine for them, dogs fit fine in a tyrannical social domineering. Fortunately it don’t work for humans ‘cus we have freewill. Dogs do seem to learn though. You don’t see habitually drunk dogs or dogs – besides pups – eating shit they ain’t supposed to. It makes honest sense though, ‘cus what family would empty their fortune on a dog that can’t learn? Or, worse, one that refuses to learn? It ain’t easy, and if pets had freewill there wouldn’t be a way in hell the richest nations could make it work.’ Rex leaned forward, peering up at the sky through the windshield. ‘I sure hope this rain holds out. But, well I suppose it’s got to pour sooner or later.’

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Don’t Drink and Drive, You’ll Spill Your Beer

It was a sunny morning, fresh, cool. I still had the sign with Louisville and South on either side and I kept flipping it over to keep people amused. I wasn’t at the on-ramp for more than an hour before a pick-up truck pulled over on the shoulder, shining white in the early yellow sun. The driver was Mac, a sturdy and amicable graying man in his fifties. It was Saturday. Mac kept answering his phone for work. He was giving orders about fixing a leaky roof, telling Mark and Joe Stalig what job sites they needed to take their crews to. Then something about an ice-cream paddle from ma’s. He needed it to make ice-cream for the party and, yes, the moonwalk would be there by noon.

‘It gets stressful,’ he said to me, putting away the cellphone. The heat was on and it was warm and stuffy.

‘You work and work hoping things get easier as you get older, but,’ he sighed, ‘nope. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m one of the fortunate ones, I do what I love for a living – building people homes. Looking back though I don’t know how we used to do it, without cellphones. I’m on this damn thing day long telling people what to do, but even back in the eighties and nineties we had the same number of jobs. It’s like people had less questions, knew better what to do. Things seemed less complex.’ His phone rang.

‘I need to get to 65 – ’ I said as he took out his phone.

‘Wheel get ya there.’ He took the call and then hung up, continued where he left off. ‘There’s more paperwork, too. A damn lot more. It seems like every time I need to move a piece of equipment or use a certain kind of nail I got a folder of files to fill out. It don’t help no one, let me tell ya. ‘Cept maybe Father Time getting gray.’ He picked up the phone again. It was about his grandson’s fourth birthday party. He put the phone away and continued.

‘I might be one of the fortunate, but I’m not sure I can keep doing this much longer. Nothing about age – I’ll work till I die, son. But the business, it’s changed so damn much and so much harder to conduct. The stress keeps going up while the profits keep going down. I’ll be working at a hardware store soon enough. Maybe even a gardening center. There’s one in town – that’d be nice. It wouldn’t be so bad if it were just a bust economy, but they keep compounding it. It’s been coming from both sides for a long time. It were just the economy people would still find work for themselves. My uncle drove a cab during the Depression. Used to be a man could paint his car yellow, slap a taxi sign on it and be in business for himself, be able to feed his wife and kids. But that’s long been regulated out of practice. Now, if you don’t got hundreds of thousands of dollars you ain’t allowed to register a taxi, which means, unless you’re employed by a taxi company, you ain’t driving a cab. And you can bet damn straight it ain’t the taxi driver that that law’s making rich. And it ain’t just taxis either, but construction, farms, manufacturing, grocery stores – everything in this country regulated with laws the businesses themselves wrote, because they don’t want the little guy coming -in -on -their -profits. And if you ain’t got a sterling resume and impeccable background, those companies are never going to hire you. Employers don’t read people anymore they read resumes and Facebook profiles. So make sure you stay off the grass, son; you so much as step the wrong the way and you are fucked for life! This is my exit here. I’ll let you off at the bottom.’ The road was stop and go with traffic. Louisville was just a mile south. Mac made a right and pulled an illegal U-turn when there wasn’t any traffic coming and stopped just before the on-ramp.

‘One more thing. Let me tell you something, son. If a man can’t do what makes him happy, what feels right to him, in here [he jabbed his chest with a finger], that man might be alive, but he’s loong since stopped living.’

*          *          *

            The on-ramp here was without a shoulder and with so much traffic coming in fast it would be hard for anyone to stop. But of course, someone did. After 45 minutes a Lexus hit the brakes on the ramp in front of me.

‘Where are you going?’ called a voice from the car. He seemed about nineteen.

‘I need to get to 65.’

He thought a moment. ‘I don’t know where that is.’

‘It’s the Southwest corner.’

He thought again. Traffic was coming up behind him. ‘Screw it – hop in!’ I heaved my knapsack into the backseat and climbed in the front. I hadn’t closed the door when the driver hit the gas and shot up the on-ramp, neglecting to yield as the car dashed into traffic. He jerked the Lexus to the left, splitting an impossible gap between two cars and he did this twice more till we were in the left lane, the HOV making good speed.

‘I’m Jack-fred.’ We shook hands. ‘And no, it’s not heph,’ he paused, ‘inated.’ He had a bottle of gold Bacardi between his legs and he took a swig.

‘You’re drinking?’ I said, simply.

‘Oh. Sorry.’ Jackfred took another swig and passed me the bottle. I put my seatbelt on, took a large drink, wiped my chin with my sleeve and passed the bottle back.

‘Don’t worry, I’m good at this. I do it all the time. Did you have DARE in school?’

(D.A.R.E. was a program in elementary schools that sent police officers to tell students why they shouldn’t do drugs. The officers would describe the effects hallucinogenics and other sorts of intoxicants. This had the interesting effect of sparking the curiosity of children who realized then that life didn’t have to be so boring and mundane.)

‘They brought in drunk goggles one time to show us what it’d be like, being drunk, and they had us stumble around the room for a while. Well my friend asked if he’d be able to walk normal if he practiced enough with them on. The cop, she said yes. Well, same works for driving. Did you go to college?’ I lied and said no.

‘Me neither. I wasn’t ever any good at school. I’m not dumb, by any means. I read too much. Just I’m unmotivated. But,’ he said as he took another swig. ‘I might not be the sharpest kid but I’ll bet I’m the youngest alcoholic. At least I have something going for me. I mean, look at me. I’m not going to be a doctor, or a lawyer, or any of those other suit and tie jobs. And what the hell does it matter, anyway? I got a marijuana charge on my record. I’m lucky to have my $15 an hour job. And if I’m real lucky I’ll be making thirty by the time I’m fifty. Retirement? Hopefully Heaven has those. No, what I am is a face in the crowd, a loser low-life who’s only chance at a clip in the paper is an early death. ‘Ya sift through life and your years flit away in the wind like dust, no one remembering who the fuck you were. Like you never existed. And in 13.66 billion years? You never existed, my friend.’ He took another swig and passed me the bottle. I decided to hold on to it for a few minutes.

‘It’s the only thing lets me feel alive anymore. Not knowing for once where I’m going or what’s coming. That’s the real problem. I know it, and I know you know it – the sound of the water falling keeps growing, louder, and louder, and louder. All I do anymore is drink. I try and get laid, but that never works. I know this isn’t how it works, but I’m when I’m drinking I feel like I’m in control again, as if I really do get to choose where I’ll go. I know when I’m sober it’s not true, but when you drink enough it knocks out your reason and you don’t feel like you’re going along with it because you can’t understand it. When I drink, I call it the temporary lobotomy. They would sever the frontal lobe, you see? the seat of reason, and then they’d be docile and just go along.’ He motioned with his hand for me to pass the rum. I took another swig and handed it to him. He took a long drink and pulled out a pack of cigarettes, lighting two and passing me one.

‘You know why we don’t have jobs? They don’t want us to. Dependence makes a wonderful shackle. And what the fuck exactly are you and I supposed to do about it? Vote? Sickens me. Congress yells and ‘argues’ and then nothing happens. They argue about cutting $100 billion. We pay $200 billion on our interest! They argue about nothing! Meanwhile the middle class keeps shrinking and the median household income shrivels away. But you know who’s doing good? Stock prices keep soaring quite nicely. Maybe we should all be investment bankers. Yes, I think that’s it. I’m going to quit my job at the strip mine and move to New York City. I should be able to afford a flat there.’ He reached beside him and pulled out a can of beer. He popped the tab, squeezed his eyes shut and chugged the can empty. While driving eighty miles an hour in the HOV lane.

‘They’ve got us by the balls, man. You think they were ignorant what they were doing to the housing market? Heck no. They knew full well. They had a gynecologist, a fucking vagina doctor telling them they were destroying the market. Bullshit he was the only one who understood it. And then they did the same thing to student finances! The same, exact, thing! They’re not ignoramuses. Just giant, gaping anuses. And would it matter if they destroyed higher ed? Fuck no! You think anybody would do anything about it anyway? Are Phil and Tim and Betty really going to get up off their fat asses and demand change? Fuck no! But if they can stroll into a voting booth and think they’re voting for change, that’ll satisfy them. ‘Cus the easiest people to control are the ones who think they’re free, Allen, remember that. Allen it was, right? I mean, when the fuck are people going to wake up? They’re being screwed like sheep in a barn full of perverts! We’re on the lazy river, Allen, the lazy fucking river when we should be building water slides! And guess what? The people don’t care! They get to be lazy and sit on their asses and cozily float along! Ignorance really is bliss. And the perverts have done a WONderful job keeping them blissfully ignorant. They took out the ladders, Allen! The ladders, in the lazy river – they’re gone! They took them out and we’re stuck here on the lazy fucking river and can’t you hear the water falling louder and louder? I sure can! But is anything going to change? Fuck no! Not as long as Pete and Joe get to sit undisturbed eating Doritos in front of their HDTV! Clearer than life, they say! Sit on your ass and don’t do a thing! Even if they knew the truth do you think they’d do anything about it! Knowing the truth, it demands action! Demands revolution, Allen! And do you really think anyone is ever going to want the inherent chaos and strife when instead they can so easily lose themselves in their indolent excesses!’ Jackfred paused to chug another beer. He tossed the can out the window and it hit the car behind us.

‘Successfully preoccupied! That’s what they’ve done! Because they know people aren’t going to do shit when they’re cozy and safe! Why the fuck would anyone want upheaval? Why would someone want to start a revolution when they’re content, and happy, and safe. And that’s just the fucking point! Why stress yourself and wake yourself to the truth? Why use reason? They know people won’t ever do a fucking thing if they have their cheap Luxury, simple, mindless Entertainment and their indolent fucking Comforts!’

As Jackfred forcefully enunciated these three nouns they came down the highway at us, floating quickly above the road and they went splat, spluck, splick, right on the windshield as if they were insects. Accept these words were much larger than insects. And much more alluring. The large, bright, juicy letters stuck to the windshield and covered the whole of it.

‘Fuck!’ yelled Jackfred. ‘Quick, take the wheel!’ I grabbed the wheel and tried keeping it straight, not knowing what was in front of us but hearing the disturbing sound of water rushing, as if falling. Jackfred opened the bottle of the rum and climbed out his window so that he sat where the window was rolled down and, with the bottle of rum, began pouring it across the windshield.

‘Quick Allen! The book in the back!’ In the back seat was a very large copy of a book titled, ‘The Benefits of Critical Thinking’. With one hand on the wheel I used my other hand to pass Jackfred the book and used the hardcover to scrape the words from the windshield. The words slid down the hood and disappeared beneath the car. Jackfred climbed back in and took the wheel.

‘You heard the waterfall, didn’t you?’ he said. He finished off the rum. ‘So how’s hitchhiking?’

‘As a means to an end? I’d say it’s less unhealthy than alcoholism.’

‘I should try it, sometime.’

‘Yes. I think you should.’

‘I’ll drop you off up here.’

‘Thanks.’

Heavenly Hitchhiking

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.

Mainstream Blinded

There were many creatures along the side of the road, among the burst tires and bags of garbage, and as I walked along I watched the bees and the butterflies in the flowers, fat spiders sitting in the middle of their webs and I swatted my way through hovering swarms of gnats.I was walking along the highway in the grass as night came on; the time of evening when the blue sky darkens and all the shadows blend together.  There were no guardrails here and there were fields through the woods on the right. The highway sloped up a slight hill and carved a gap in the woods at the top, and this is where the sun sat, orange and slipping. Traffic was slow here and I wasn’t bothering to hitchhike – there’d been a sign for an exit and I knew I couldn’t have more than two miles to go. I’d get to the exit with some sunlight still remaining, find a place to lay out my sleeping bag for the night, and I would hitch the rest of the way to Louisville in the morning. That was the plan. But, being on the road means living by coincidence and surviving on happenstance… and plans are just peachy ideals that never happen.

Up ahead a long, shiny-red four-door pulled over in the shoulder. I stopped walking and stood still, for a moment eyeing the car. Then I tucked my thumbs under the shoulder straps of my knapsack and ran over.

‘Hey! Where ya headed?’ called a voice as I neared the passenger side. I waited till I stopped running before I answered.

‘Louisville. How far south are you going?’

‘We’ll get you most of the way. Hop in.’ There were two of them in the car. I tossed my knapsack in the backseat and climbed in next to it. As we pulled onto the highway I gave my standard lines of appreciation and we began the standard ‘get to know you’ chit-chat.

Chris was the driver, his friend Bosco in the seat next to him and both were university students, third-year accounting majors driving from Columbus to Louisville to visit Chris’s girlfriend who, per Bosco’s words, was having a party ‘full of bitches and hoes’. The conversation had been plain and sedated, if not awkward, and both of them sat uncomfortably in their seats, not once glancing back. They even came off contemptuous; to add to that their outfits: both wore starched Polo shirts, unbuttoned, Chris in yellow and Bosco in pink, and they both had brown hair spiked up with gel and the spikes bleached blond. Chris wore a visor made of jean material – it was upside-down and backwards, sitting askew on his head. Bosco, he wore a very fine pair of sunglasses, with the sun half under the horizon. The car smelled the way male locker rooms do in highschool, a stuffy concoction of cheap body-sprays. Chris leaned back as he drove, one hand on top of the wheel while Bosco continually adjusted his sunglasses and fixed his hair in the shadowy mirror. They glanced at each other. There had been an uncomfortable pause in the conversation. I was seated in the middle in the back.

‘So you’re a hitchhiker?’ said Bosco, still facing forward.

‘Yup.’

‘Where is it you’re going?’

‘Los Angeles. I’m heading to Nashville first, though.’

‘Why don’t you just drive instead?’

‘Oh, I don’t have a car.’

‘Do you work? or are you in school?’ said Chris, the radio low as he began scanning stations.

‘I studied journalism at WVU, for a while.’

‘That’s a fun school.’

‘You’re into news?’ asked Bosco. ‘What do you watch? I’ll put on Fox or ESPN every so often.’

‘Well, I don’t have a TV, so I go online for news. A lot of independent news sites.’

‘You don’t have a TV?’ said Chris.

‘Nope.’

‘What do you do for fun then?’

‘I’ll read, or walk around. Get drunk at the bar and talk to strangers. I get a lot more done too without a TV. It’s cool.’

‘Are you one of those people who hate the ‘main source media’, or whatever it is you guys call it?’ said Bosco.

‘No, it’s just that they only care about their ratings.’

‘What else are they supposed to care about? If they want to make money they kind of need ratings.’

‘Journalists are all poor. And if you tell the news for money you wind up telling the news people want to hear. Which ends up not being news at all.’

‘That’s dumb. I’d rather watch the news people that’ve been around for decades. At least they’re doing something right.’

‘Hey, am I good to change lanes?’ said Chris. Bosco several times tried tilting his head back and to the side, in a motion that might suggest a person to move their right.

‘I can’t see over there,’ said Bosco.

‘You’re fine,’ I said. There weren’t any cars near us, just red taillights lined up ahead of us.

‘Just keep following this main stream of cars,’ said Bosco. The conversation found a lull then and Chris turned up the radio. The music went… ‘Bump, Bump.. fuck the bitches make mo-nay, Bump, Bump.. make the mo-nay rain awn them, Bump, Bump.. spread the mo-nay like se-men, Bump, Bump.. bring the bitches to the dawg pen, Bump, Bump….’

            ‘Do you work,’ asked Chris.

‘Yeah, I don’t get how this whole hitchhiking thing works,’ added Bosco. ‘I mean, I’ve seen you hitchhikers before but they’re all dirty homeless bums.’ I took this to mean I wasn’t a dirty homeless bum.

‘Yeah, true that. Do you actually get rides? I mean, I probably wouldn’t’ve, I wouldn’t’ve, stopped if I was alone. Just safety, ya know?’

‘Yeah I get rides. Sometimes I have to wait a couple hours, other times not even ten minutes.’

‘That’s ridiculous!’ went Bosco, emphatically leaning forward and throwing himself back in his seat. ‘I can’t believe people actually stop!’

‘What do you for money?’ said Chris. ‘Do you work?’

‘Yeah. I just finished saving up for this trip. I’m going to get a job once I’m in LA so I can pay my way back.’

‘Where do you work at?’

‘Oh, like restaurants, or stores sometimes. Part-time jobs.’

‘I thought you wrote for a newspaper or something? Don’t you work for a newspaper? I thought you said you were in journalism?’

‘I only went for a couple of years.’

‘He dropped out,’ said Bosco to Chris.

‘Why don’t you go back and finish?’ said Chris. ‘Even in journalism you’d make more money than fast-food.’

‘I thought about it, but what I really want to do is to write my own stories.’

‘People don’t read no more,’ muttered Bosco.

‘You should go back to college and finish your major. It’d still help you make more money.’

‘Talk about making money,’ said Bosco, ‘me and Chris here are gonna be owning our own accounting firm in a couple years. Semester and a half till we graduate! Woo!’ they slapped hands. ‘It’s gonna take a few more years, but, we already got a dozen clients hand-picked and a prime location to set up at. All we need is a few more years saving up. We got prime internships –paid internships, which nobody gets– and we’re makin’ bank, brah! Yeah!’ they slapped hands again and butted shoulders. ‘Gon graduate, top class, makin’ shit-tons at Weinstein and Shulberg, know how we do, yeah, yeah. Then full-time makin shit-tons like boss, set up shop and sit back. We gon be loaded, brah! We’re only twenty-one and we got the rest of our lives planned! Get a hello to that! Yeah!’ They slapped hands again, a much more excessive handshake than the last. I was still in the middle seat, my hands folded between my legs. ‘If you ever need a loan let us know, we do that too!’

‘Yeah, I sure will.’

‘People don’t really still hitchhike, do they?’ asked Chris.

‘Oh yeah, they’re still out there.’

‘Why don’t you just get a car and drive to LA? Or better yet, buy a plane ticket?’

‘Too expensive.’

‘It’s not even $600 for a ticket!’

‘Yeah but still, it’s more fun hitchhiking.’

‘Seems like too much work,’ said Bosco. ‘You ever get jumped or raped or anything? I’m pretty sure you would jumped or raped, doing what you’re doing.’

‘Nah, that doesn’t happen.’

‘I’ve heard about it, ya know.’

‘Are you just going to wander around like this for the rest of your life?’ said Chris.

‘I don’t know. There’s still a big world to see – ’

‘What do you do for food?’ Bosco was adjusting his sunglasses.

‘It’s all in here,’ I said, patting the knapsack.

‘Don’t you want nice things?’ said Chris.

‘What if the food runs out?’

‘I’ll get some more.’

‘You obviously must not have savings then, the way you’re living around like this,’ said Chris.

‘I have some. I mean, I saved up to get me there and then I’ll – ’

‘And people really give you rides?’ said Bosco, incredulous, almost annoyed. ‘Aren’t cops supposed to arrest you? Hitchhiking’s against the law, you know. Nobody does it anymore, did you know that?’

‘So I don’t get why you just don’t work instead and buy yourself a car,’ said Chris.

‘Well, I like hitchhiking.’

‘You like sleeping outside and getting rides from strangers?’ said Chris, sarcastically incredulous.

‘Wait,’ paused Bosco. ‘What do you do if you’re left somewhere that doesn’t have a hotel?’

‘That’s what the sleeping-bag’s for – I’ll find a field or some woods.’

‘You can’t do that – you can’t just sleep outside, dude.’

‘Dude, you can’t just get rides with strangers. You can’t. You can’t just blindly trust people and jump in the car with whoever. You better watch out man. I’ve seen shit on the news, movies and stuff. That’s how people get killed, dude. You better wise up.’

‘I don’t get it – why don’t you just stay at nice hotels? They have beds and TV. That’s a ton better than a sleeping bag in the woods, dude. What’s up with that?’

‘It’s expensive.’

‘ – that’s why I’m saying you need money, dude! You can’t just go around all the time being poor like this! Don’t you ever want to have a job and be happy!? Don’t you want to be allowed to retire? If you’re smart you should’ve started your 401k years ago!’

‘Wait wait wait – you can’t just sleep anywhere in fields. There’s laws against that, do you know that? Trespassing laws, soliciting, loitering – there’s laws you’re breaking doing this.’

‘Yeah dude, don’t you get what it means to be a citizen in a free country? It means you have responsibilities, certain things you have to do. You can’t just live outside the system your whole life and expect to survive, or even be happy! You can’t just live on the side of the street, dude. You  just can’t do whatever you want! What kind of country would this be!’

‘Don’t you want nice things? Don’t you want a hot wife and a G7? You should really go back to school, dude. At least then you’ll be allowed have a decent career and maybe even a retirement package. You can’t just do whatever you want – like he said, that’s not what kind of country this is. You need to do like we are, cus we’re doing things the right way, just like everyone else. While you’re out here running around doing whatever it is you do, I’m making something of myself, I’m gonna be different, brah. I’m gonna have nice clothes and a big house and – ’ Chris cut him off.

‘Hey, are there any cars over there?’ Chris had his face real close to his window, peering out of his side-view mirror. Bosco was nodding his head to the right again, the way people with muscular dystrophy do.

‘I don’t know, I can’t tell. Hold on.’ Bosco took off his seatbelt and turned all the way around so that he was on his knees in the seat, facing backwards. ‘I don’t see anything. I can’t tell.’ There weren’t any cars near us, just a line of red taillights straight ahead. Chris was craning his neck, trying to see every which way.

‘Forget about changing lanes dude,’ snapped Bosco. ‘There’s nothing over there. Just follow those cars. Follow the main stream of cars!’ he pointed.

An idea came to me then, an idea whose hypothesis I knew had to be tested.

‘Oh look! There’s an eight-point deer grazing!’

‘Where?’

‘He’s just off the road up ahead!’

‘Don’t be dumb. Nothing’s over there.’

‘Yeah there is, I see him. He’s there grazing.’ The deer truly was there.

‘Nothing lives over there! There’s nothing outside the road, dude.’

‘What are you talking about? There are entire ecosystems over there. The side of the road is teeming with life!’

‘If there was something off of the road, trust me, I’d see it,’ chimed in Chris.

‘Obviously. Just follow the main stream of cars, dude,’ said Bosco.

The Fringes Get Cold

‘I’m glad as hell I got out of there. I loved it, but once I realized we don’t get sent in for the people no more, that’s when I bailed. Had to. You can’t just keep going along knowing you’re a pawn for someone’s private gain. Fuck that. I AWOL’ed. Ain’t no going back. Never is and it ain’t never easy, either. If it were easy we never would’a let it be taken. But I’ll tell you, it’s worth different things to different people. To me, there ain’t a greater feeling that a woman can’t give you.’

I’d been picked up in Kentucky by Mitch who had been seven years in the Marine Corp. He was a tough looking bastard, wide-jawed with big arms spotted with black tattoos. His voice was gritty, hollow and he cursed a lot. Gave me half a pack of Marlboro Reds.

‘What road you need to get on?’

’71 South,’ I said.

‘There’s an exit for it up here somewhere. I don’t think we passed it yet.’ The turn for 71 was, in fact, back north, back past the exit where the priest had dropped me. Mitch turned around and drove all the way back, back an exit north of where he’d picked me up. He pulled over on the side of the highway before the off-ramp to let me out. I told him, Thanks again for the smokes. He wished me luck and pulled out, made an illegal U-turn across the median.

The off-ramp was a wide turn through brown woods and it took my walking to the top of it before I realized it didn’t end, but joined right into 71 South. It kept going and I hadn’t expected this. Stuck on the freeway. But I was positive it’d be worth it.

Traffic here was slow and wasn’t worth trying to hitchhike, and if a passing cop saw me he was sure to stop. That’s how it worked, hitchhiking on highways. I never fret the stopping cop but I knew there was a warrant for me twenty miles north in Ohio, from a couple of tickets I had refused to dip into my hitchhiking funds for. I wasn’t going to risk it, but I needed to get off the highway, and soon, before dark. I could see the ramp curving up and joining with 71. There wasn’t much traffic. I was going to have to walk it. If a cop did stop I could say, ‘Look, I didn’t have a choice, look where I was dropped off. I haven’t been hitchhiking here, just walking to the nearest exit.’ I could lie and say I lacked identification. I wriggled my knapsack around, adjusted it to comfort and buckled the strap that went around my waist, tightening it.

The guardrail didn’t begin immediately and I walked along just in the grass on the side of the highway. A car gave a honk as they passed. Ahead was a bridge, the overpass for the highway I was just on. A two foot shoulder. That would be the margin of error for the seventy mile an hour traffic and me on foot with my cumbersome knapsack. Two feet of cushion between safe passage and my skull in a windshield. I stood before the bridge to let two cars pass. The wind they dragged tugged me forward. I waited a moment to see if any other cars came around the bend, took a breath and turned and ran, feet falling thud thud on the pavement, elbow scraping along the railing. Below the cars and trucks were shooting out from under the bridge, the whir of tires on pavement echoing beneath me. I kept trudging with my heavy knapsack, half-way across with a horn blaring louder behind me, the car swerving to the left almost swiping the car beside it. The car straightened out as the horn faded.

Whew! I stood and caught my breath on the other side. (Later, when I was at an airport, this knapsack, with all the same items in it, weighed in just under fifty pounds. For subsequent travels I’ve decided to rectify this.)

The highway in front of me was long and gently rising, carefully turning into a bend that took it out of sight behind trees in the distance. The sun was still out, hung far down the highway just next to and a little above the trees where the highway disappeared. It was a cold sun, its rays clear and crystal like thin narrowing shards of glass. The whole highway, the vacant woods and even the sky were all in shade so that, walking along in the shoulder, everything was more shadowy, icier and more lonely and the day felt much later than it truly was. I hoped to find an exit soon. I didn’t want to sleep in the woods. The woods along the side were at the bottom of a very steep hill and looked wet, boggy. There weren’t any signs on the highway. Cars passing at lonely intervals. A tractor-trailer came rushing by, the force of its wind tugging at me, tugging me towards the massive crushing thick black tires and the churning axles. I forced a step back. The truck passed and I climbed over the guardrail to get away from traffic.

The pavement of the highway ran beneath the guardrail and wrapped over the top of the hill as a way of preventing erosion, from keeping the top of the hill from washing away and causing the highway to sink. There wasn’t much room for walking here. A few feet to the right was the beginning of the hill, a very steep and rocky forty foot drop to the foot of the gray woods. Through the trees I could see in the distance a road, a few small houses with wide yards. I felt something tug at my knapsack and Snap! I spun around to see my sleeping-bag hit the pavement and slowly roll to the edge of the hill. I lunged and got a foot in front of it. The bag that my sleeping-bag was rolled-up in had caught on the guardrail, tugging it out the bungee cords that secured it to the bottom of my knapsack as I walked. I took a moment to reattach it.

The ground along the side of the highway where I walked began to rise, climbing up a hill, and as the elevation took me higher the distance between the guardrail and the edge of the steep hill began to close, shrinking until it became impossible to walk besides one foot carefully in front of the other. There were crevices here, places where the run-off from heavy rains had eroded the pavement. Some of the crevices even ran beneath the guardrail and I had to step over them as I walked. The highway was soon forty feet below to my left, at the bottom of a cliff, and the steep hill, perilous with acute rocks and loose gravel, had grown in height as well, so that I now found myself walking along the thin edge of a very narrow and sharp berm. When my right foot slipped down on the loose gravel I held a hand on the guardrail for balance. The hill continued its climb. The crevices were numerous and grew in size, deepening, and the thin trail of pavement which I followed became less and less there, crumbling into the crevices, disappearing in the cracks. I stopped. My eye had caught something. It was dark now but the thing, it glinted, stuck against a crag in the crevice. I went to my knees to peer down and saw an orange hard-hat, the paint faded and browned, covered in dust from the road. There were tools down there too, old and discarded, and gloves and a single, mud-covered boot. I stood back up and brushed my jeans off. At the bottom of the hill I noticed a town had appeared, stores and shopping centers, the lights of cars stuck in traffic along perpendicular grid-planned roads. My foot slipped, the pavement giving way into the wide crevice. The gravel clinked past the helmet and tools. The crevice extended to the edge of the hill and went down quite a ways so that, even though it were night, I could see the loose gravel and a broken hammer spilling far down the side of the hill. The minor avalanche was illuminated by the digital glow of a building that stood at the bottom. It was a tall building, steel and gleaming glass, very official and financial in appearance. All of the lights were on in the windows. It was a tall building but it looked small from such a height. I looked over the guardrail to the other side. The vehicles were toy cars along a ribbon of gray. Headlights like dots slowly moving in a distant fog. I kept going. Kept walking and the crevices had grown wider, crevasses a foot wide that expanded like alluvial fans down the side of the steep hill, merging together so that now that the pavement where I stepped was nothing but a thin, fragile ledge, a ledge perforated every foot by foot-wide crevasses that ate the side of the hill. I continued, relentless and resounding in my head the determination to make it. I stepped carefully, testing each step before placing my full weight on my feet.

The hill climbed higher and turned to sand. No longer sharp rocks and gravel but sand, a magnificently tall hill of soft sand with the same crevasses as before. Far below I could see the town, fast-food and fancy restaurants, shopping centers and malls, hotels with pristine sheets and cable. I imagined folks walking together along the sidewalks under nostalgic street-lights, eating ice-cream and stopping in the stores to browse. Friends meeting at the local pub to flirt with the bartenders and order thick ales. At the bottom of each crevasse was a road. And these roads, though dark at the immediate bottom, were lined with streetlights and the red and white lights of cars. The roads were laid out in a web, so that at the bottom of each crevasse the road angled straight to the city-center. Each road was lined with the large and bright signs restaurants and stores have out in front. They were very small from such a height. There was a circular road in the city-center in the distance where all the straight roads eventually ran; a road circling a cluster of tall, gleaming glass structures. All of the lights on in the windows.

I realized how easy it would be, how easy to sit down on the top of the hill, place my knapsack between my legs and scoot myself down the sand to the city. Hell, I could even walk it. I could get myself a hot meal, go have some drinks and laugh with friendly faces, sleep in a clean bed and be safe and warm and comfortable and enjoy luxuries and simplicity. I could go and have that. But I knew I wouldn’t be able to get back. The wind in the dark tugged at me on the high ledge and bit my face. I staggered, holding onto the guardrail. Imagined a hot burger and thick ale. How would I get back up? I couldn’t walk back up. No way. There wasn’t a highway here, either. Couldn’t be. Once I was there I wouldn’t get back. Wouldn’t leave. Couldn’t. I won’t.

In the cold, desolate wind, stepping gingerly from crumbling ledge to crumbling ledge in the withering heights. My feet felt like bricks, my legs concrete columns soon to dissolve. My back like a hunchback with this ever-heavier knapsack. The hill grew steeper. I could no longer see the highway. Gusts of wind came cold from the sky, blowing hard and down. Gusts of cold air sucking down the crevasses, pulling at me, swirls of dust around my head being sucked into the crevasses begging me to follow. I wouldn’t. I couldn’t. I won’t have it! I imagined a homestead in the wilderness. A small ranch with a wife and children. I wondered if I would find this. I thought of a comfortable job at a desk, in a warm office. Suit and tie and bank accounts insurance make sure you pay your mortgage for the car you bought without affording credit debt foreclosures bank statements pay them pay them pay them. I won’t! I refuse the submission of my heart! Refuse the enfeebling of that which sustains my heart-beat! I kept trudging heavy footsteps that I could no longer make light, falling thud… thud on the fragile ledges, gravel crumbling down the soft sand. Gusts of cold, sand-filled wind whipping in desolation, pulling me down. The cozy town at the bottom. I kept going. The hill climbing.

And then I saw it. A sign for a weigh station. The sign towered up ahead, lights along the bottom edge pointing up to illuminate the words: WEIGH STATION. The legs of the sign were stuck far below in both sides of the sharp hill. I walked beneath it and the sign seemed hundreds of feet above my head, hundreds of feet wide. The prospect of rest on the side of the road, on the fringes of town, of finding a place to sit and warm-up and eat food – this lightened me, reinvigorated my morale and motivation and once again I marched with steadfast purpose and resolution, anticipation. I would be able to find someone there! An end to the brutality of isolated misery and tribulation! I am not alone! There would be someone, someone to lend me a hand and get me the hell out of here! I kept walking, faster, excited. Camaraderie. Salvation. Vindication.

I smiled knowing all worked out. The highway had risen and I saw ahead the right lane split – the entrance for the weigh station. I could see the building, the rest-stop. Closer and closer I walked and the fence for the entrance was shut. Closed, read the sign.

Holy Water Steaming

I caught a couple of quick rides after Frank dropped me off (just north of Cincinnati) and I was standing on an on-ramp on a busy road of shopping centers and super-markets. Once you are in or near a city it’s very hard to get out because most people are only driving a short distance, going to pick up a gallon of milk or buy a pair of dress shoes for dinner; nobody picks up hitchhikers while running errands. The trick in these situations is to find a ride of considerable distance, to wait until someone offers to drive you out of the city. The morning had brightened considerably and though the sky was still cloudy there were curtains of sunlight that would come down and make me warm. I took off my coat and strapped it to the top of my knapsack. I had a long piece of cardboard that said Louisville on one side and I would flip it over sometimes and it said South on the other side. This way, if no one was stopping for Louisville, I could hope someone would stop for South.

I stood in the mushy grass below an overpass and whenever the traffic light changed a wall of cars and trucks slowly turned onto the on-ramp. There was a wide shoulder here. Mostly I was given apologetic shrugs or a finger pointing off to the side, meaning the driver was quickly turning off . The first car to stop was an economy sedan and the driver said he was only going a couple of exits. I said No, Thank you, I’ll wait for a longer ride. I was still on the north side of the city and I was tired of short rides. I knew I could take short rides all day and not get twenty miles out of Cincinnati. Waiting for the long ride was the right thing to do and I knew that, that’s how I was going to get out of here.

Forty, long minutes later a pick-up truck pulled over. I threw my knapsack over my shoulder and ran up to the passenger side.

‘Hey bud, I’m only going a couple of exits but you can ride in the back if you want.’ The driver was wearing jeans and boots. The bed of the truck was clean, mostly empty and a fine way to travel. The bottom of the on-ramp looked muddy and lonely. I needed to move, something in me too restless for idle waiting. Impatience won out and then I regretted this.

*          *          *

            The pick-up stopped at the bottom of the off-ramp for me to hop out. There was an old gas station across the street, a junk yard at the corner and a few overgrown car lots: I was in the empty-lot side of town where people stare at you like you’re an outsider to be rid of. On top of that there wasn’t any traffic. On top of that, the on-ramp was a very tight, twenty-yard-long curve with nothing of a shoulder to pull over, just curb and concrete walls. A concrete fjord. This was literally the worst place to try and catch a ride.

Somehow, seven minutes later….

An old, maroon Grand Marquis drove down the on-ramp and came to a stop. Red brake lights turned to white and the Grand Marquis began reversing, swerving widely to the left and right as it backed up. The back tires went up over the curb and the car jolted to a stop, the back bumper inches from the wall. I ran over to the passenger side.

‘Hey, where are you going?’ came a high-pitched, excited voice.

‘I’m trying to get to Louisville.’

‘Okay, I can take you a little ways, at least out of the city. Hop in.’ The man collected some papers and a leather book from the passenger seat and placed them in the back. I climbed in and stuffed my knapsack between my knees. The gear-shifter was behind the steering wheel and the man struggled to put the car in drive.

‘I’m Nick by the way.’ Nick smiled and we shook hands. He seemed very kind. Nick was wearing a black suit and he had neatly parted, blond hair that was greasy and the strands stuck together in clumps. He was thin, and he had a youthful, clean face covered in a scruffy three-day beard. Nick had a black collar on, an odd collar with a white tab at the throat.

‘You’re a pastor?’

‘Oh yes. Well, priest, technically. I’m Father Cherobyi from the Church of Ruptured Spirit. But don’t let the title fool you. I’ve been hitchhiking myself, you know. That’s why I stopped. I know how much it stinks to be standing there and nobody is stopping.’

‘Well thank you. It was very kind of you.’

‘I have to make a stop first but I’ll only be a couple of minutes. Then, if you’d like, I know just across the border in Kentucky there’s a few truck stops across the street from each other. I figure you won’t have a problem finding a ride from there. I’ll take ya’ if you like.’

‘Okay, cool,’ I nodded appreciatively. ‘Thanks a lot.’

There was much traffic on the highway and men in hard-hats and orange vests were working on one of the lanes. The traffic was condensed and would stop and go frequently. Nick’s eyes were squinting in the sunlight.

‘So what’s in Louisville?’

‘Well, really I’m going to  Los Angeles. But I’m going south to Nashville first to get out of the cold.’

‘There’s a storm coming up from the south, I hear. It’s supposed to rain all over. Did you bring a raincoat?’

‘I have a couple of ponchos.’ We were both silent for a moment and Nick had a quaint, peaceful smile that rested askew on his face, his head a little back and to the side. ‘How long have you been a priest?’

‘This is my sixteenth year in the ministry. But I’ll tell you, I never in a million years imagined myself as becoming a priest. I adore it very much, having the sort of order that comes with serving the church. I lived a very hard life – ’ The tractor-trailer in front of us came to a stop and Nick waited for the last moment to use the brakes. We both went forward with the momentum and were pushed back into our seats when we stopped.

‘I love God dearly, we have a very close relationship, Him and I, and we talk throughout the day. Right now even, right now I’m getting to better know God. All you have to do is focus your heart. Yes, I love God more than I ever have, but that doesn’t mean I am without pain. Priests are human too. I hope you know that. The first time I saw Heaven, and I remember this as though it were verse, was when I was in a coma for three days. I saw everyone that I ever knew and this tremendously bright, white, gold light was shining through all of us. Then I was in the Garden of Eden and lush fruits and trees and all of the gorgeous green was all around me.’ The priest was beginning to bore me now. His eyes were still squinting though the sun had gone in. A cellphone began to ring and the priest felt his pockets.

‘Hello? Yes. I’m giving a friend of mine a ride, though. I thought you wanted to meet at the CVS? Okay, I’m on my way there. I’m good to go. Should only take me fifteen minutes. Okay, see you there.’ The priest put his phone away. The cars in front of us were stopped and he waited for the last moment again, braking hard.

‘You see, God isn’t just all around us, but he’s within all of us as well. The best way to get to know God and be close with him is by getting to know your fellow man. Honestly, the best way to connect with God is to open yourself and connect with people. Treat everyone like your best friend. Love everyone like a brother. Then you’ll know God. I’m closer than I ever have been to God, that’s true. But it’s not to say I am without needs. God is within all of us but we also have urges, certain urges that are so difficult to ignore because they are so much a part of us as is God: the need to eat outside of hunger; the need to love only physically and not for your heart; the need to find serenity in the openness through things not naturally within us – urges as such.’ The priest curled his forefinger behind his collar and wiggled it.

‘Before I ever joined the ministry, and this was years ago, but I used to hate God. I would stand in my bedroom, my head turned up and I would – take his name in vain!’ He shouted this last part, his hand hitting the steering wheel on each word. He took a deep breath and settled himself, itched at an open pimple on his cheek. There were many of these, large and red beneath his scratchy beard.

‘I was angry then. This was a difficult time for me. I was angry at God because I couldn’t understand the things He did. I would curse at Him and yell at Him for taking my brother at such a young age. My brother, you see, he’d fallen in with the wrong crowd after his marriage. His wife gave him two caps of methadone and it killed him. She even showed up at the funeral, whispered in my ear that she’d done it on purpose. She wanted his house and car. I made her leave but I’m not vengeful. I know God will punish her in ways I never could. We’ll be getting off here in a few minutes. I just have to get something real quick, and then I’ll take you into Kentucky. I used to hate God but I’m at peace now. I know he has plans bigger than I can ever understand. It’s true that I love Him more than ever but I still have a lot of pain. I don’t touch things as much as I used to, because I know it’s not completely right, but, well, when I was in that coma I was there because I’d tried to kill myself. I thought it was possible to take the pain and the urges out of me and I took enough Oxycodones to kill five men. Then, as soon as they released me I went home and crushed up fifteen more so that I had a three foot line of white powder on my coffee table. Did it all at once.’ We turned off the highway here and onto a main drag in downtown Cincinnati. The sidewalks were dirty and lined with shady corner marts, liquor stores and the sorts of places that sell prepaid cellphones and bail-bonds over caged-in counters. The priest made a phone call.

‘Are you on 14th still? 26 and Main? Man, you guys sure move around a lot. Huh? Oh, he’s fine, just passing through on his way down south. Yes, five minutes.’ The priest hung up. He was noticeably excited now, tugging at his collar and picking at the open sores beneath his beard.

‘I try not to touch things, I swear. I won’t even bother with people my age. The young ones, they have the sweeeet stuff.’

I was becoming nervous now and I asked the priest if I could smoke in his car. He said Okay.

‘And I certainly don’t touch things like I used to but I still have a lot of pain in me and I have to be able to take care of my needs or I’ll wind up in the hospital again.’ With a finger he tugged at his collar. He eyes opened like curtains being raised and he looked me straight in the eye while he said this, while drifting through oncoming honking traffic and drifting back to the right side. ‘I still have these urges and it’s fine and normal we all have them. We wouldn’t be human without them. If we could only ever act good and right and moral we would not be free.’ Cars began honking, we had drifted into oncoming traffic and the priest nonchalantly and without looking turned back into the right lane. ‘In the Bible it is stated that He wants us to be free. He gave us these urges for a reason. Do you get it? God put the Devil in us!’ The priest broke eye-contact and made a hard right-turn, came to a hard stop along the curb. Hurriedly he pulled a New Jersey Devils’ jacket from the backseat and put it on, stashed his collar in the center consol. He quickly reversed back down the street, turned left going backwards onto the main road, slammed the brakes and put the car in drive. The priest drove down another two blocks before pulling over in front of a fire-hydrant.

A high-school aged black kid came up to my window. ‘Yo yo you lookin’ fo TJ?’

‘Yes sir – ’

‘Pull in front of these two cars here. This spot’s hot.’ The priest did what he said and the kid came back over to my window. ‘How much’u lookin’ fo?’

‘Just a twenty,’ said the priest. ‘And if it’s good you can tell TJ he’s got a new customer.’ The kid, standing on the sidewalk in the middle of the city in the afternoon pulled out a small cellophane bag and dug around in it with two fingers. The priest extended his palm out across my chest, in the direction of the sidewalk. The kid dropped two, small, tan crumbles into the priest’s palm. ‘That’s not twenty,’ said the priest.

‘Yeah it is. That shit’s fi’a yo.’

‘Nah, don’t do me like that, brother. I know what twenty looks like, I ain’t new.’ Reluctantly, the kid dug around again and placed a few, smaller crumbles in the priest’s palm.

‘That still ain’t twenty!’

‘Man I ain’t given you n’mo. I’m tellin you that shit fi’a yo. You be good straight with that.’

The priest placed the tan crumbs into a receipt, folded it up and tucked it in the sun-visor. The kid began walking away. ‘Hey hey hey!’ called the priest, quickly getting out of the car. He stopped abruptly standing dead-stiff in front of the car.

‘That ain’t the fuck we do things, motha’fucka!’ The kid had turned around when the priest got out of the car and he was standing tall on the sidewalk with his arm straight out, pointing at the priest. There was a small, silver revolver in his hand. ‘Get the fuck back in the car you stupid motha’fucka!’

‘Alright alright, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.’ The priest slipped back into his seat. Hands sweaty and white on the steering wheel. ‘I just wanted another twenty. That’s all.’ Slowly, the priest took a twenty dollar bill from the center consol. The kid was standing next to my window now, the bottom of his hand resting on the window sill, leveling the small revolver at the priest. I was still smoking a cigarette and I wasn’t sure where to ash. The kid took the twenty, stuffed it in his pocket. He gave the priest less than he had the first time.

‘You fucked up motha-fucka. Best try a dif’rent approach next time.’ The kid put the cellophane back in his pocket, the revolver in the back of his jeans, pulling his shirt out over it before walked away.

‘Sorry about all of that. I’ll take you to Kentucky now.’ The priest silently started the car, slowly pulled out into the street. He smiled crookedly at me. ‘It’s all true what I said, and if you listened than personal needs affect no other than the person.’

Storm Dread

‘Aren’t you scared? About what you’re about to do?’

‘I’m nervous as hell, but, I wouldn’t say I’m scared. I’m nervous as hell but I know once I get going I’ll be fine about it.’

The morning was early, cloudy and gray and cold, the kind of cold that can go through your clothes and make your bones stiff. I was sitting in the front seat next to Beverly who I had asked to drive me far enough out of Columbus, Ohio. Beverly was broad shouldered, had a smooth face and blonde hair and I could tell she was very tired, the way her eyes were puffy.

‘I’m trying to think of a good place to drop you off, but.’

‘It doesn’t really matter. I’ll catch a ride where ever. Here, this next exit has a gas station. That’ll work.’

The car slowed down coming around the off-ramp, stopped at the sign, sped back up going across the overpass and pulled into the gas station on the other side. A man was walking out with a coffee, steam rising from the cup in the gray morning.

We were twenty miles south of Columbus, along Route 71.

‘Thanks again for driving me. I really appreciate it.’

‘My pleasure.’

‘Guess this is goodbye then.’ We both leaned in for a hug. ‘Be good, best of luck in school, and I’ll see you again in a couple of months.’

‘Are you coming back to Columbus?’

‘Yeah. February or March, probably.’

‘Alrighty, then. Well, be safe out there Allen.’

‘I shall.’ I lugged my knapsack out of the backseat and put it on my shoulder. ‘Thanks again Beverly!’

‘Bye Allen!’

I shut the door and watched the little red car pull out of the gas station, into the road and back on the highway. People were hurrying in and out of the gas station store, yawning as they filled their gas tanks and no one seemed to notice me. There was a dilapidated motel across the street with an overgrown parking lot, broken windows and a falling roof. The wind picked up and I shivered, walked around to the side of the gas station and found the dumpster. There was a piece of cardboard on top of everything. I dug out my permanent marker and scrawled ‘CINCI’ as neat and as bold as I could. Then I went back across the overpass to the southbound on-ramp.

Traffic was slow but I didn’t worry about it – it was cold and very windy and I looked young, clean shaven with thin glasses and I was not a big person: pity always plays a factor and I’d get picked up in no time, no time at all. I placed my knapsack against the guardrail and stood in the cold, dry dust on the side of the onramp near the top where it met with the road. Behind me was a dry, overgrown field that ran downhill until it met with the woods that followed along the highway. Down the street were a few small warehouses and a junk-yard but that was it, the rest was dry woods and dust. I stood there and sometimes sat on the guardrail when there wasn’t any traffic, standing up to hold up my sign and jut my thumb whenever I saw a car slowing down to turn onto the on-ramp.

Twenty minutes.

I was holding my sign and I thumbed at a car as it rolled into the on-ramp and sped past. The southbound off-ramp was across the street and there was a gleaming white pick-up truck at the stop sign.  The truck across the street beeped once and the driver flicked his hand towards himself. I slung my knapsack over my shoulder and hurried over to the passenger side. The window was down.

‘I gotta drop this trailer off down the street,’ said the driver. ‘Then I’m heading down to Cinci. I have to come back this way though, probably about thirty, forty-five minutes. You can come with me to drop it off if you’d like. Or wait here, whatever you’d like – I’ll be coming back this way, like I said.’

‘Okay, cool,’ I said enthusiastically. ‘Yeah uh, I’ll wait here I guess, see if anyone else stops. You going all the way to Cincinnati?’

‘Yeah – well, like fifteen miles north of it.’ There were cars pulling up behind him.

‘Okay, awesome. Yeah, I’ll wait here. Thanks a lot, man!’ I backed away from the truck and he drove off. He was towing a trailer with a pop-up camper on it. I went back to the on-ramp to wait.

I was wearing a tan Carrhart coat and I waited as long as I could before zipping it up – with such a large coat people like to think you’re hiding something. But the wind was so cold, icy in my chest and I’d begun to shiver. Gray clouds moved swiftly over the sky, looking soon to storm. I’d hug myself to stay warm and when there wasn’t any cars I’d sit down on the guardrail and watch the big farm equipment that bumped slowly down the road.

An hour passed before the man in the pick-up returned. He came to a stop on the side of the on-ramp and I ran over, tossed my knapsack in the bed on top of old tool boxes and spare parts and climbed in the front. The floor was littered with old fast-food bags that my feet made crinkle because there was no place else to put them. The driver, very somberly, glanced over, placed his hands back on top of the steering wheel, and slowly gave the truck gas as he pulled back onto the on-ramp, onto the highway.

‘Thanks again for the ride. I really appreciate it.’

‘Sure thing.’

‘Boy, it sure is cold out there.’ I don’t like silent rides and the driver said nothing. ‘I’m Allen.’

‘Frank.’ He shook my hand with a cold, loose grip – as if his hand were limp.

‘So what did you have to drop the camper off for?’

‘Repairs.’ He glanced over and he had big, heavy eyes like a Basset Hound and a rotten nose. There were a few powdery threads hair beneath a blue hat that said Navy and had military insignia pins on the brim. Reluctantly, as if for my own sake, he added, ‘I usually fix them myself, but, no time.’

‘You have more than one?’

‘Why are you hitchhiking?’

I looked over at Frank and he was staring out the windshield. ‘I have some friends in Los Angeles that I’m going to visit. I figured it was either I go now or wait till Spring.’

‘Is that it?’ I didn’t understand the question.

‘Well, I want to go South to get out of the cold, so I figure I’ll get down to Nashville and take Route 40 all the way west from there.’ It was very gray outside and I could hear the wind as it whipped around outside the window.

‘Trying to get away from this storm?’

‘Yeah – I kept thinking it was going to rain when I was back there waiting.’

Frank swallowed and his knuckles curled back and forth on the steering wheel. ‘See all this corn out here? And the signs posted along the road?’ He paused for a moment. ‘The signs say what kind of corn it is. They’re all different. But none of them will grow in the wild anymore, they can’t, because we’ve modified them so much. Take a handful of their seeds and spread them around and they’re useless. I’ve stocked up on natural seeds. Pounds of them.’

‘You grow corn?’

‘No, I don’t have to yet. I do live on a farm though, two hundred acres in the middle of nowhere. I’ve always been more comfortable in the woods, forests. Safer. Away from everyone.’

‘You live by yourself?’

‘No. No one can make it by themselves.’ It was very gray outside now and very dark, as if near night or in a heavy storm in the late afternoon.

‘It won’t rain just yet,’ said Frank. He clenched his jaw and stared out the windshield as if he were empty inside. ‘You see these tractor-trailers? People are buying them and burying them ten, twenty feet underground. They’ll use commercial air-conditioning vents to get into them and they’ll fill a few feet all around the trailer with concrete. I know a guy who buried several and connected them all.’ Frank leaned forward in his seat until his chest was at the steering wheel and then sat back again, knuckles curling the steering wheel. ‘I have large freezers buried in my yard. Filled them all with canned food and dried goods. I’m very good with electronics and I’ve put together a CB radio and have solar panels on the roof. The farm’s completely self-sustaining and my brother and I are working on a water purification system for the well.’ Frank turned his wide, heavy eyes at me and my chest blackened, I don’t know why.

‘Do you know where you’re going to be?’ he asked.

‘When?’ I saw Frank’s heart beating quick and hollow and I could no longer see where we were going, without headlights driving deep into black swirls.

‘It has to happen soon and thank God I know how to live off the land, what plants are edible and what plants have medicinal uses. We have back-hoes and the right farm equipment and a small oil well way in the back – we’re surrounded by forests, have our own fields and a fleet of pick-up trucks, the old sorts without all the new electronics in case of EMP’s or electrical storms and we have lots of ATV’s. We have a chicken coop we just finished, cows that we breed and pigs and we can make our own bread provide all our own food.’ Frank was speaking swiftly, his head turning and swerving and tilting as he spoke and as he spoke, his wet lips loose smacking up and down, I could see in his mouth a black nothingness and out of this came the word DREAD and it was dripping with his black saliva. This affected me deeply.

‘We’re completely self-sufficient and have several dogs and motion-activated cameras surrounding the property which is on a hill partially surrounded by a ridge and my brother’s wife is a field nurse, I’m trained in electronics, two of my brothers are in construction though really we’re all very handy and my son’s a wonderful mechanic. The bunker is protected against radiation and has enough food for thirty people for three years but there’s only twelve of us so we can wait out the worst and we’re completing irrigation ditches lots of feed for the animals and we know how to hunt and have dogs lots of guns and munitions and we all know how to fight – my brothers and I and our sons all served. No one will be able to fuck with us.’

‘Wow. I don’t know how to do any of that.’

Hitchhiking Lives!!

I made it!

After a week of rambling across the North American continent, I made it. It took me just over one week and it was one of the most exciting, desperate, heart pounding, soul freeing experiences I’ve ever had. I survived on peanut butter sandwiches and Pop-tarts and apples and oranges, slept in the woods and open fields and almost froze my ass off in the Arizona desert and I woke up on separate occasions covered in slugs and ants. But you know what, I met the coolest bastards and sang at the top of my lungs with rambling saints and rode with addicts and truckers and now it’s time to soak up the sun and liquor and good times on the gold coast.

I was picked up often by older folks who had gone hitchhiking themselves — albeit twenty, thirty years ago. They’d tell me how easy it used to be to catch rides, that they never had to wait — out of one car and right into the next. Their rides would even buy them dinner! These were the aging Hippies, the older folk who came of age when the youth roiled and searched. I thought I made pretty good timing myself, only taking eight days including the day I spent visiting a friend in Oklahoma. It was funny though, how some drivers would be surprised how fast I was getting around while others were surprised how long it was taking me. My average wait time? 30-45 minutes. There were a couple instances where I had to wait well over three hours, and other times when I caught a ride in under 10 minutes.

I’ve been told I have an addictive personality. Well, guess what, world! I’ve found my new high! because I know of nothing so freeing and spirit-lifting as hitchhiking, as living by your wits and sleeping under the stars, rising with the sun and spending an entire week outdoors breathing fresh air and truck fumes. It’s dirty, it’s tiring, lonely and sweaty and grimy and you’re a vagabond and a wanderer but there is nothing as exciting as seeing someone pull over, throwing your bag over your shoulder and sprinting over, clueless as to who the hell you’re about to spend the next two hours (or two days) talking to. And once you’re sitting there, sitting comfortably in a seat and talking with your driver, you look out the window at the passing scenery and a giant smile burns onto your face from the fire in your heart as you realize, I’m making it! I’m crossing a frigging continent! And this is what I’ve learned: that most people are good, with honest intentions. Of course there’s a lot of scumbags out there who look to take advantage, to rob and panhandle, but the vast majority of rides are people looking to pass forward some good. I got picked up often up by guys who’ve hitchhiked themselves and were trying to pass forward the favor. I got picked up by people on long, lonely drives, looking for friendly conversation and was even offered rides by folks on their way to work.

The looks on people’s faces when you tell them you’ve hitchhiked. They’re surprised, in awe, amazed that such modes of travel \still  exist and work and these big excited smiles stretch across their faces. Other people call you an idiot and will promptly tell you how many people get butchered on the road. Oh well, (for them).

I’ve had some people, usually young people around my age, say they’re envious about the lifestyle, that they wish they could get up and just go like that. I’ll ask them why they can’t, and this is usually the response: I’ve got work, I’ve got school, responsibilities, man. Bullshit! haha. Listen, if you want to do something you have to just get up and do it. You can’t wait around. You can’t plan. Draw a line on a map and stick that thumb out! (But, do a bit of research first. And okay, some planning.)

Anyway, I’ve decided that the reason behind my wandering stems from a feeling of being un-free. I felt a cog in the machinations of someone else, a marionette dancing to someone else’s strings and I was sickened by it, inflicted with malaise and apathy, listlessly going through the motions and listlessly following the necessary steps I’d been drilled into understanding were the only way to success and happiness: Graduate high school, graduate college, get a nine-to-five and car payments and a home mortgage, get married and pay taxes and have kids. Bullshit! There has to be something else and I grew despondent, wanted to rip my skin off for a desperate attempt to find something, something else! Anything! I was sick of consumerism and the disgustingly palpable corruption in Washington and the endless wars and I couldn’t deal with it any longer. So I decided to throw myself out there. Decided to explore the fringes of society. I decided to hitchhike.

People are sick of doing what they’re told, sick of sitting around and sick of not moving — there is a growing sense of despondency among the masses, I keep hearing about it and I know you do too; that feeling of dread that something terrible is going to happen and that we’re helpless to avert the coming disaster. People are sick of the rich getting richer, the middle-class shrinking and again, the corruption. Something has to give, and time and again comes the phrase, “We need a revolution.” People are tired of feeling like mindless gears in a machine they can’t control and the freedom that is no longer felt is in dire need of expression. Allow for a history lesson: The Beatniks in the 1940’s and ’50’s lived with the dread of knowing that at any moment, a nuclear bomb could fall and vaporize everything they ever new. They felt they didn’t have control, and a search for higher meaning, for freedom and control of the self began: the Beatniks began to wander. The Beat movement morphed into the Hippie movement — more people searching, grasping for a higher purpose outside of bland consumerism and war and political corruption. The Hippies traveled. They hitchhiked. The Beat and Hippie movements were both born of discontent, of youthful angst, of a feeling of dread and a desperate sense to once again feel ‘in control’ of their worlds.

But then it was silent. For forty years it was silent.

Now, in 2012, what do we have? We have incorrigible corruption in government, with no politicians willing to take a stand. We have an ultra-rich class that continues to grow richer while the middle-class continues to shrink. The Beats had the Cold War. The Hippies had Vietnam. We have the perpetual ‘War on Terrorism’ and the ever-present threat of indiscriminate bombing feeding fear and the need for spying on the public, indefinite detention, the TSA, the endless bombings of foreign villages.

People are sick of it. People are getting anxious. The youth are filled with ill-content and the desperate need to once again feel free is ripping out the hearts of young people around the country. People hear about hitchhiking and a big grins matches the excitement in their hearts.

People are beginning to search again, the road again filling with wanderers and the discontent youth.

So hear this, America: Hitchhiking is not dead! It might be a rusted shell of what it once was, but it sure as hell isn’t dead!!

Hitchhiking is making its return and the youth are beginning to search once more!!

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