‘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.