A Volkswagon Beetle never picked me up. Neither did a Mini Cooper, nor a PT Cruiser, nor a Porsche, Jaguar, Beamer, etc. Ironically, I never rode in a VW van, either.
After one hundred and thirty-seven rides, I had learned to stop hoping for a lift when certain vehicles approached. Any of the cars above were out. Handicap stickers were a sure bet against me. And RVs—whether motorhomes, fifth wheelers, or any type of travel trailer—were just as hopeless.
We learn to extrapolate at an early age. Functionally, it’s a necessity. Run into a sliding glass door, touch a hot stove, and you figure out where bruises and burns come from. Even the basic concept of object permanence is an extrapolation. How many peekaboo games does it take to realize Mom will still be there when the blanket comes up? Yes, she could disappear, especially if she’s speedy and missing a maternal instinct, but with enough cycles of cry-laugh-cry-laugh, we realize she’s not going anywhere.
Once we learn to extrapolate, we extrapolate to learn. What spices work well together? What movie reviewers do you agree with? Where can you safely speed, and where will cops ticket you for going five over? Who can you trust?
I had arrived in Wenatchee a full day ahead of schedule, so I hitched an hour north to camp for the night in Pateros, a town I knew well from family vacations. The next morning, I looked for a ride back to Wenatchee—a ride to my friend’s wedding and the conclusion of the Traveling on Trust project. I gave cursory waves to the RV vacationers that approached, but my hope lay in the pickups and the SUVs.
Again and again, this trip has surprised me, and the thirty-seven foot motorhome that pulled over me surprised me yet again. I met Bob and Kat—about to celebrate their fiftieth anniversary next month—and their golden retriever, Abby.
Bob welcomed me inside and turned the foldout bed back into a couch. “We weren’t expecting to pick anyone up,” he apologized, then climbed back into the driver’s seat.
“We usually don’t pick up hitchhikers,” Kat said, “but you looked young and you smile with your eyes.”
A cane and a handicap sign lay on the floor.
In the hour’s drive between Pateros and Wenatchee, the couple told me about growing up in Aberdeen together, teaching in Kent after their wedding, and finally retiring to a little place in the Methow Valley. Bob doesn’t like traveling, so motorhome trips like today’s are rare, they explained. We stopped at a fruit stand at the drive’s halfway point, and while Bob took Abby for a walk, Kat bought me coffee and told me about her stroke four years ago. The handicapped sign was hers.
“You aren’t supposed to talk about religion or politics,” Kat said, back in the RV, “but I do anyway.” We discussed Christianity, divorce, and the state’s marijuana law all the way into Wenatchee.
After a certain point, extrapolation hinders learning. It doesn’t leave room for disasters, or for on-the-road dinners, or for strangers. New Orleans’s levees could handle expected weather without a hitch, but Hurricane Katrina defied precedent. So did Pompeii, and so did the Flood. On this trip, I would have starved had I followed culinary standards whenever I prepared a meal. But popcorn can serve as breakfast, and although it’s not the best method, you can cook a trout by boiling it in tomato soup. As for extrapolating about strangers, I found a ride in a motorhome. And another in a carpet cleaning truck.
When I graduated college, my friends and I agreed that more than anything else, our education had shown us how little we actually knew. My understanding of the world felt much more complete back in high school, when I was studying the surface of subjects and moving in the same familiar circles. College exposed me to depth, variety, conflict. Now, when I pick up a Shakespearean sonnet, I know that there are at least three different ways of reading it, each supported by scholars and academic articles. I know that even the punctuation is up for debate.
So it is with people.
After riding with a hundred and thirty-eight strangers—plus passengers and those I met in small towns—the extrapolated assumptions I make about people no longer fit. Most of the surprises I found during this trip were people who overthrew my stereotypes. A former bounty hunter now works in the ministry and hopes to plant a church in Africa or Southeast Asia. A grimy trucker helped found his college’s economics honor society. A “tough guy” with tattoo sleeves, sunglasses, and gangster goatee said “God bless” after driving me three miles through Taos. A couple in their fifties, financially successful and some of the most outdoorsy, active people I have met, believe in Atlantis, aliens, and astral planes.
This is not to say I now view people as blank slates. I don’t reject all my extrapolated knowledge about people, either, just as I don’t reject the high school explanation of “Sonnet 18.” And for the most part, I still learn by extrapolating. I’ve learned hitchhiking is not only safe, but rewarding and inspiring. I’ve learned most people want to be good, and they want to be trustworthy—it’s circumstance and social shoehorning that gets them in trouble.
But I try not to stop there. I take whatever extrapolated knowledge I’ve gained with a grain of salt, and I use it as a starting point. So when I meet a stranger, even if he is “your typical Vietnam vet” or she is “a total Colorado hippie,” I keep asking questions. What events in her backstory would she say most define her? Who does she love? What does she think makes a good person?
I took this trip to gain a practical education, to see how life unfolds outside of theories and textbooks. I learned much, certainly, and I know more about people and life and virtue than I did before I put my thumb out for the first time in Mount Vernon, Washington. But as with college, this trip taught me that I know very little. The world and its people are complex. Faith is complicated. Virtue is anything but simple.
I find this exhilarating, and also reassuring. Questioning is eternal, and answers are mutable—offering endless, fascinating discovery. And no one has a corner on understanding. You can figure out some people in a way that no one else can, just as certain people can figure out you better than anyone else. There is no static rulebook to personhood.
Question by question, person by person, I will continue to search for little answers. I won’t extrapolate those answers to explain every context, and I won’t expect to become a master of understanding. But with every bit I do learn, I will grow, and in the process, I will connect with a stranger, or learn more about a friend, or better love a relative. And in the process, I’ll find some damn good stories.
I dropped my pack over the barbed wire fence, followed by my sign, and then the sandwich and iced tea my last ride had given me. Dusk had ended half an hour ago, and right now, a spot behind the only tree in sight looked like a good enough place to pitch my tent. The scraggly juniper wouldn’t hide me from any passing eyes, but at least the highway fence would separate me from the road—which, judging by the last ten minutes, wouldn’t have many passing eyes traveling on it anyway. And besides, I’d be gone at first light.
I knew I wouldn’t make it to my friend’s wedding. I had hoped to be in Oregon by now, but Thursday night found me in northern California, still fifty miles from the border—and five hundred and forty miles from Wenatchee, my end point. Nine and a half hours of drive time remained.
The optimistic part of me compared that to the whole day and a half left until the six-o’clock wedding on Saturday. But the rest of me knew better.
Viable hitchhiking time is not the same as viable driving time. Night hours are out. Early morning and late evening are long shots, too, since few drivers take to the roads then, and most that do avoid anyone hitchhiking at such a strange hour.
And I couldn’t expect to find ride after ride that would take me all the way to the wedding in one brisk procession. Hour-long waits would bloat my pace, and I knew I’d stumble into Wenatchee just in time to find an empty church and a long-completed ceremony.
I ate my sandwich inside my tent. Mosquitoes whined and perched on the mesh like vultures. Tomorrow, I would start hitchhiking at first light—even before sunrise—and I’d keep it up until total darkness. Then first light again, until Wenatchee or the six-o’clock cut-off. I don’t pray often, but I did that night.
Only half a dozen cars passed in the first half hour. Not because the road was never traveled, but because it was too damn early. I knew it, and I knew I didn’t have a way around it. Even if I gave up and bought a bus ticket—an idea that grew on me with each passing car—I’d still have to make it to a major city first. The only way to leave this highway junction in Remote, Northern California was by private vehicle. I smiled at an approaching minivan and knew my smile looked fake.
But the minivan pulled over.
A man a few years older than me rolled down the passenger window and waved me over. He was alone in the van, but the seats were filled with boxes, bins, and backpacks. He was moving.
“Where are you going?” he asked.
“I’m going north.” Even to myself, I sounded hopeless.
He paused. “How far north?”
“All the way to Wenatchee, Washington.”
“No shit.” A smile, wry and a little suspicious, started and kept growing. “That’s where I’m going. You can keep me awake.”
Highway 50, Nevada
Five hours in bristling Nevada heat. Five hours of drivers whipping past, unsmiling and unwaving. Five hours of suffering on US50, the “Loneliest Road in America.”
Half the vehicles that passed me were semi trucks or white work vehicles with emblems on their sides, driving thirty miles between mining facilities and ruled by their company’s no-rider policy. In no other area have I found such an even ratio of commercial to personal traffic. As for those few personal drivers, at least those from Nevada—they don’t like hitchhikers.
Bafflingly, Nevada, the state of legalized prostitution and rampant casinos, the state of radical libertarians and military-grade personal arsenals, outlaws hitchhiking. Nevada’s residents evidently support this law, based on their glares and “don’t expect me to trust you” shrugs. It was worse than when I thumbed without a sign.
One water bottle remained, and I knew I was already dehydrated. I had a can of tomato soup and two cups of ramen, but my larger problem was time. Time and distance. My friend would get married in three days in Wenatchee, Washington, nine hundred and fifty miles away. And three hundred of those miles stagnated in Nevada.
Eureka’s gas station gives out “I survived Highway 50” certificates. It should give a medal to anyone who thumbs it, but I’m afraid the locals would stone any hitchhiker who tried to claim the prize.
After five miserable hours, two Californians saw me: Steve, a middle-aged owner of an aviation software company, and Bill, his retired father.
Steve glimpsed the “Traveling” part of my sign and flew past. “No one’s going to pick that kid up out here,” he said to his father.
“We’d need to make some space.”
Camping gear filled their rented minivan, and the back seats were collapsed to leave enough room for sleeping. They drove a quarter mile more, and then Steve pulled over. The two of them rearranged food, clothes, and sleeping bags and made a U-turn.
“We cleared a seat for you,” Bill told me, after they pulled onto the shoulder. “Sorry about the mess.”
“After this wait, a mess doesn’t bother me at all.”
“The only parts we planned ahead of time were the train and the flight festival,” Steve said, describing their trip of the past three weeks. “We’re big aviation buffs, and we thought we might as well extend it into a full vacation. This is the first vacation I’ve been able to take in five years.”
The two rode a train from the Bay Area to Chicago, where they rented a van and headed to AirVenture Oshkosh, “The World’s Greatest Aviation Celebration.” After that, they improvised each day. A visit to Yellowstone, then the Tetons. Many small detours to local airports. They had spent the day before at Bonneville, watching homebuilt cars race in Utah’s salt flats. Salt still littered the floor and hung in clumps behind the wheels like snow.
All along the way, they stuck to three rules:
1) No interstates
2) No chain restaurants
3) No chain motels
Sometimes the rules put them into diners that were long on history and short on flavor, and in motels that were barely better than sleeping in the back of the van. But even the bad experiences, they said, added to the trip.
“It looks like the next excitement is the junction with 361,” Bill said, pointing to a road atlas.
He commented on significant landmarks as we went, which along Highway 50, include any and all junctions. He pointed out a handful of mining towns, a few brothels, and not much else. Steve spent more time remarking on the road’s straightness than he did describing the nonexistent sights.
Even the freeways avoid Nevada. I-15 dodges most of it, and I-70—which begins all the way on the East Coast—stops in Utah, as if some planner thought the country should end before Nevada begins. I had to agree with him.
But I will admit, Nevada has a certain barren beauty. Ridges of mountains run north to south, divided by swaths of wind-blasted sagebrush. Between ridges, the roads really do run straight, so much so as to make a Roman roadbuilder envious. The sheer emptiness was awe-inspiring.
“We going to stop in Fallon tonight,” Steve said, “and then head to the Bay Area tomorrow.”
“If you could let me off at the far edge of town, that would be great,” I said. “If I can’t catch another ride before dark, then I can just pitch my tent off the road.”
Steve glanced at his father. “We’re going to buy you dinner and put you up in a motel for the night.”
I’m used to people inviting me to dinner. I’m used to staying on a stranger’s couch or sleeping in an RV. But a motel offer was unprecedented.
“I’ll be fine in my tent—you don’t need to—”
“No, I want to. Just as long as you don’t mind a crappy, non-chain motel. Fallon isn’t exactly a tourist destination.”
We ate at Jerry’s Restaurant, and the food was one of those bad experiences that added to the trip.
“I’ll tell you why I’m buying you dinner and a motel room,” Steve said between bites. His roast beef looked more like a cow pie than a piece of meat. “I traveled a lot in my twenties, and I met a lot of good, generous people. I went to Hawaii, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand—all over. But what really inspired me happened in New Zealand. Well, I guess it started in Hawaii.” He took another bite, grimaced, and thought of where to start.
“When I was in Hawaii, I ended up meeting this guy who was a housesitter, but he wanted to take off and keep traveling, so he offered to pay me to finish his job. I didn’t have a place to live, so I took him up on it and moved in. A while into it, the owners called.
“‘Who are you?’ they asked.
“When I explained how I was the housesitter’s housesitter, they were fine with it. They said they’d be home in three weeks, but I could keep staying there when they came back. I ended up doing that. I stayed in their home—with them there, too—for three more weeks, and at the end of it, they invited me to this big wedding party. That’s where I met this New Zealander who said I should come to his country and travel around there.
“I ended up doing it, and that guy—who I had just met randomly at a party—let me stay at his house with his family for the whole month I was in New Zealand. But it gets crazier. He let me use his car for two weeks to drive around the whole island and explore. That was his family’s only car. The guy was walking to work in the rain while I was off sightseeing.
“That’s why I don’t mind helping you out. I couldn’t reciprocate with him, because he got caught with marijuana and can’t come to the US, so now I’m paying it forward. There’s a good community of travelers out there, and I’m just putting my share back into the general fund.”
I nodded. “It’s a damn good community.”
“Just pay back into it when you can,” Steve said. “You’ll get opportunities.”
I nodded my agreement.
“So what’s your plan from here?” he asked.
“Get out of Nevada.” I laughed. “I’ll hitch in to Reno, and take 395 north all the way to Washington.”
“Reno’s not the best place.” Steve grimaced. “We can take you in to Carson City tomorrow. It’s smaller, and you can still get a ride on 395 from there. And we’ll buy you breakfast, too.”
Back in my motel room that night, I showered, washed a change of clothes in the sink, and enjoyed air conditioning—all welcome luxuries in Nevada. What had began as one of my worst days—stuck on America’s loneliest and least friendly highway—ended up as one of my best. And I couldn’t help but appreciate that it had been Californians, not Nevadans, who had finally picked me up.
Land is abundant in the central western states, but people are scarce, and so roads are scarce, too. Flip through an atlas and compare Utah with Michigan, or Illinois, or even Kansas. In any state east of the Mississippi, cow pathers have options. Roads crisscross to form a grid, and those crossing the state can choose between dozens of US and state highways without so much as even seeing a freeway.
In Utah, though, the population and the roads stay in a clump east of the Great Salt Lake. You know the rest of the state is empty, because Price makes it onto the big country maps, the ones that show just a few major cities for each state. Less than nine thousand people live in Price.
Interstates stretch all the way across the state, but that’s because something has to. Those going to California or Colorado or Arizona need to get through Utah somehow, and God knows they don’t want to get there via Nevada. The few highways that branch off from Utah’s interstates take tourists to and from the National Parks.
All of this made the state a problem. I sat down and mapped out an interstate-less route that would take me all the way from Colorado to Nevada. I would start in the northeast and zigzag west, then take the windy and crooked UT153 to the town of Beaver—just about the only place in the whole of Utah where you can cross I15 without driving on it. On the other side, the roads condense even further to Highway 50, which would take me almost all the way through Nevada.
The first day was great. Rides abounded, and I made good time. The first drive took me from Dinosaur, Colorado, to Roosevelt, Utah. Oil had brought traffic to the region, and I saw a miniature version of North Dakota. Open jobs, high prices, overstressed infrastructure. My driver said the town of Roosevelt gained its first stoplight recently, a prevention against oil truck backups. She also, true to Utah stereotypes, encouraged me to join the Latter Day Saints community and travel with a two-year mission.
My second driver was a gregarious off-duty officer for the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
“I’m going to Nevada,” I said when he pulled over.
“I can take you as far as the turnoff to 191.”
“That’s great. I’m going south from there.” I threw my backpack in the truck bed.
“So you’re taking 191?” he asked.
He laughed. “No one takes that road. You’ve got a ride all the way to Price, if you want it. I figured you’d be going west to get to Nevada.”
Although he’s never hitchhiked, my driver, Dave, picks up hitchers often. If they look clean, he lets them ride in the cab. Otherwise, they go in the truck bed. When he heard about my trip—no interstates and all—he smiled and shook his head. “I can’t believe you’re doing this. What does your mom think?”
As we drove, he told me about the area, both on and off the Ute Indian Reservation.
“Have you heard of cedar rats?” he asked.
“They live in the cedar forests, north of Roosevelt. People—not actual rats. Most are up there with no electricity or sewer, and they bring in their own water.”
“Hiding out from the law?”
“Most of them are hermits—a few are crazy, or have gone crazy. But a lot come from Salt Lake, and they’re just sick of people.”
Even from the highway, I could see why the cedar rats picked backcountry Utah.
“My dad works for the power company, so he has to go up through their territory every so often,” Dave continued,” and there’s the checklist of stuff you have to do. Stop at a certain point, honk twice, wait for them to come out.”
“They come out with a gun?”
“Oh yeah. Then Dad’ll tell them he’s just passing through to work on the power, and they’ll let him go, but they just stand and watch until he’s out of sight.”
“I want to meet one.”
After half an hour on US191, we had seen just half a dozen other vehicles. If a US highway gets that little traffic, a dirt road to hermit country, I realized, would be impassible to hitchhikers. Especially when the people going there are either misanthropes or the rare power truck worker.
An hour later, Dave dropped me off in Price, that metropolis of 8,400 people..
“Thanks for the ride,” I said.
“No, thank you.” He pulled out his phone. “Hold up, no one’s gonna believe this unless I get a picture. Give me a thumbs up.”
I caught four more rides that day and ended up with an LDS family for the night. The next morning, the mother took me partway up a road even more desolate than US191. Over the whole twenty-five miles, we saw one pickup. I had her drop me off at the junction with Forest Service road 306—the back entrance to Fish Lake. Fish Lake is a popular lodge and camping area, but the back entrance is about as popular as an Antarctic golf course.
I stood for a few minutes, listening for any approaching engine, and then sat down and pulled out my book. It took a chapter before a car passed, but it was going on the state road and I doubt the driver even noticed my turnoff.
It was twenty-one miles to Fish Lake Lodge, and ten miles to the nearest “major” road. I had a fifty-five pound pack, and I did not like the idea of walking. I experienced a moment of self-doubt.
Twenty minutes later, a four-door Ford pickup made the turn. I stood up, unrolled my sign, and focused on looking very charming and sweet and innocent.
The pickup, driven by an old lady, pulled over.
“You aren’t going to kill me or anything, are you?” she asked.
“I won’t. I promise.” I gave her one of my cards and beamed. I wasn’t letting this road’s only driver get away.
“Well, I can take you up to the lodge.”
That was hitchhiking for most of Utah, continued over the next half-dozen rides. Backcountry, scarce traffic, nothing but wilderness between towns. Drivers were friendly, at least, and my waits were all under an hour and a half—until Junction.
In the small town of Junction, I planned to catch a ride on UT153, which goes forty miles though a national forest and ends up in the small town of Beaver, with nothing but outdoors in between. That nothing, I learned, also applies to vehicles.
I read fours chapters of Garrison Keillor. I worked on my farmer’s tan. I watched the horses corralled beside the road. I talked with the houseowners across the street, who walked over and gave me a sandwich and a water bottle and then raised their eyebrows when I told them my plan.
Nine times in two and a half hours, I heard a car approach. Each time, I leapt up and unfurled my sign, and I smiled and waved like every driver’s best friend. Two of those cars turned into driveways after they passed me, which meant just seven cars were actually taking UT153. That averaged out to one every twenty minutes.
The ninth vehicle stopped for me.
“We’re going up to Ten Mile,” the passenger said. Beaver would still be thirty miles away. “That’s where it changes to dirt road.”
Dirt road. I was hitchhiking on a dirt road. I might as well be trying to visit those cedar rats. “Do you think I could find a ride from Ten Mile to Beaver?” I can be stubbornly optimistic.
“Mostly just fishers and hunters going up there. You’d probably get stuck.”
I took the interstate. I trudged back to town and hitched south, where I found a paved road to take me to I15. Even so, I only used sixteen miles of freeway in Utah.
Because of my meanderings, I didn’t see Salt Lake City or the National Parks. I tripled the time it took to cross the state, and I missed some of the nation’s most famous landscapes.
But I learned about Utah’s oil boom, its Indian reservations, its mining history. I met Latter Day Saints instead of tourists, and I saw country that no one but locals and off-roaders see normally. When I have the time, there’s no way I’d rather travel.
Hitchhiking is easy in the Colorado mountains. In Dolores, I caught a ride with Kai and Haley, modern-day hippies without peace signs or tie dye. He drove with aviators and a blond goatee, in a 4Runner packed with camping gear, food and beer, guitar and banjo.
“We’re gonna check out some hot springs by Rico,” Kai mumbled. I had to lean forward to hear him.
“Where are you headed?” Haley asked. She turned around, and I envied Kai. Haley didn’t wear beauty, that farce of makeup and manicures and three hundred dollars of clothes and hairstyling. Hers was an inescapable beauty, untouched by her oversized, paisley sweater and dirty, jawline-length hair. If anything, the grittiness made her prettier.
“Up to Telluride,” I said. “I keep hearing it’s worth a detour.”
They didn’t talk much after that. We all watched the mountains. Then Kai lit a cigarette, and Haley packed a one hitter with (legal) marijuana, and the silence was comfortable.
We passed Rico with no sign of the springs, and Kai and Haley made no effort to look harder. “We’ll just go to Telluride, too,” he mumbled. “I don’t want to get stuck out here.” She put in a Snoop Dogg CD.
In fragments, I learned their story. They worked seasonally with Canyon Country Youth Corps, where they had met. The corps, made up mostly of twenty-somes like themselves, did some trail maintenance, but focused more on removing invasive species. Their fall season would start Monday.
This drive was part of their break. They had hiked around Durango yesterday, and they were taking the rest of the week to explore the mountains and the hot springs.
Haley switched Snoop Dogg for Johnny Cash.
I asked them if they had hitchhiked. They had, quite often.
“I was stuck for four days once,” Kai said. A four day wait didn’t shock me, if he had hitched in the same corduroy vest and thrift-store pants he wore now. He had been in some mumbled city in California, trying to reach LA. “But people kept giving us stuff. We got five hundred dollars.”
He nodded. “Then we found some Indians going to UCLA and rode with them.”
“My longest wait was a day and a half,” Haley said.
My four hours in Crookston and northwest Kansas didn’t seem so bad.
The view opened up, and we looked down a valley of evergreens with a ceiling of thick, gray clouds. I spent too much time watching to take a picture.
“We need a station,” Kai mumbled. I noticed the gas light, burning orange. He packed the one hitter and smoked.
Pink Floyd’s The Wall took us the rest of the way to Telluride. We filled up, and as I headed down the street, I saw the two embrace. Their hair, his shoulder-length and hers with a few tiny dreadlocks, blended perfectly. The same dirty gold, tangled and greasy and beautiful.
Those thick, gray clouds started raining while I was in the Telluride library. I covered my pack with a plastic poncho, pulled on my rain jacket, and waited for a break in the downpour to dash to the ski town’s free gondola. I headed up and over one mountainside and down into Mountain Village, which is even more of a resort community than Telluride. I explored briefly, taunted by restaurants and frustrated by an empty stomach. Since Santa Fe, a few drivers had given me food, but none had given me money to spend as I willed, and I refused to break into the last of my gifted food reserves: a box of NutriGrain bars. I fled temptation and headed to the rainy parking lot.
The first car stopped. I didn’t even have my sign out. He drove me to the junction with the main road, and–apologizing that he wasn’t going the same way as me–let me out in the rain.
Again, the first car stopped. Again, no sign. Hitchhiking in the rain is wonderful.
This driver, David, had lived in the area for the last ten years, initially as a Telluride ski lift operator, and now as a restaurant dishwasher and a maintenance man for a rich Texan’s ranch. Raised in Missouri, he moved west for the mountains, and he’s amazed by the people who stay in the east and Midwest, where life is too crowded and the scenery is too bland.
But many of those who do come to Colorado frustrate him. He told me about its transient community–not transients in the Kansas hitchhiker sense, but in the seasonal ski resort employee sense.
“They’re here to party and work as little as possible. Both in hours and effort,” he said. “And the party scene isn’t even that great.”
It’s hard to find long-term friends, David added. Too many people come and go, living there for just winters, or a few years, or only one season.
Then our routes diverged, and I returned to the rain. I had to wait until the third vehicle, this time, but it came with a dinner invitation. The driver, Gale, came to Telluride as a ski bum more than thirty years ago. A wife, steady job, and half million dollar home later, he’s now a well-established local. He still skis, and he also ice climbs, hikes, dirt bikes, drives jeeps, and mountain bikes. In the summer, he and his wife take their camper into the mountains every weekend, almost without fail.
That dinner turned into a night in his camper, out of the rain, and then breakfast the following morning. He offered me a place to stay the next night, too, after I spent the day detouring down and up the famous Million Dollar Highway, a precipitous and gorgeous converted mining road.
I managed that detour in just two rides, both with drivers as outdoorsy and active as everyone else I met in the mountainous part of Colorado. I spent the scenic drive from Ridgway to Silverton with a high school geology teacher. His motto: “I live cheaply so I can play.” The teacher hitchhikes some himself, but only to return to his car after a thru-hike or a run of backcountry skiing.
On the return drive, I found a woman who had spent the last ten years as a climbing ranger in the Tetons. A Kansas City native, she fell in love with mountains when she attended college in Vermont, and she has stayed close to the vertical world of climbing ever since. We stopped in Ouray, the “Switzerland of America,” so she could show me the ice park, where sprinklers turn a narrow canyon into hundreds of ice climbing routes every winter.
Hitchhiking in mountainous Colorado is not just easier–it is profoundly different from any other area I have encountered. On the Million Dollar Highway alone, I saw three other hitchhikers. Three, in just sixty-eight miles. I saw just as many on the entire Washington to Michigan leg of my trip.
And in the northern US and the Midwest, my average wait was forty-five minutes. Then I would often be picked up by a driver who had hitchhiked himself back in the day, but just as often I’d get a ride with someone who never had thumbed–and many of those hadn’t even picked up a hitchhiker before.
Generosity differed, too. Not in size–drivers everywhere have continually overwhelmed me–but in type. Earlier in the trip, people often gave me money. Twenty bucks here, five there. In Colorado, though, instead of money I was offered dinners, a place to sleep, local outdoor information.
I think all are connected. Colorado attracts the outdoor enthusiasts, the transient workers, the recreationalists without hitchhiking qualms. The resulting prevalence of hitchhiking removes its stigma, and drivers are quick to help. And those drivers are also more likely to know what a hitchhiker needs, and so they do not just resort to giving money.
Cash is not only the most liquid form of wealth; it is also the most liquid form of help. Twenty dollars can be used however the recipient so desires–which we fear when giving to alcoholic panhandlers, but also hope when giving to someone with unknown needs. When a mother who has never met a hitchhiker before gives me cash, she does so because it’s the best chance she has of actually giving me something that helps on this trip.
But when an experienced hitchhiker picks me up, he knows what a roadside traveler needs. He does not revert to money, but instead gives meals or lodging directly–easier for me, because I don’t have to spend time hunting for a local diner or cheap grocery store, and more reassuring for him, because he knows he’s feeding a person, not funding a scam.
I don’t prefer any one type of generosity. I set out to discover the virtues of the American people, and seeing them displayed in any form is more than satisfying.
Chama, New Mexico
Dustin made me nervous. The combination of a tough-guy goatee, black-on-black sunglasses, and oversized gangster shirt with way too much gold lettering made him someone I wouldn’t have smiled at had we passed on a sidewalk. A cool chin lift, maybe, but not a smile. Certainly not an hour-long conversation.
Dubstep blasted from his beat-up Toyota 4Runner as he slammed to a dusty stop beside me. At least there was a girl with him.
“Where you headed?” Dustin pushed up his sunglasses, and I could at least see his eyes. I put him in his mid-twenties.
“I can get you as far as Pagosa Springs.”
I opened the door and found a mess. Car parts, tools, and a lot of stuff filled the backseat. And where I would have thrown my pack, there lay a scoped .22 rifle.
“I’ll make some room for you.” Dustin hopped out and put the rifle in the back, which was even more crowded with stuff. The camo barrel stuck out above the seat and pointed at the ceiling A collection of .22 cartridges, bbs, spare change, cigarettes, and a can of chew littered the floor.
“Are you from around here?” I asked.
Dustin nodded. “We’re both from Chama. This is Shannon, by the way.”
“Pleasure to meet you.”
“We’re going up to meet my brother.” For all his tough-guy appearances, Dustin had a friendly voice. Not high pitched, exactly, but certainly no imposing bass.
“What’s it like in Chama?” I had only seen the visitor center and an artist-owned blacksmith shop. With a population of 1,200, Chama asked for exploration, but it was a ways from the highway and I had wanted to cover more miles that day.
“It’s a shithole,” Dustin said.
“It’s not that bad, I guess. But when you grow up there, you want out. It’s too small.”
“Not enough options?”
“Small town drama. There’s not enough to do, so people get bored and gossip.”
“You’re just passing through,” Shannon added, “so you don’t see all the shit that goes on here.”
I found out that Shannon works on the town’s narrow gauge railroad, Chama’s biggest tourist draw. Dustin helps his father manage a rich Texan’s ranch.
“The ranch owner’s a good guy,” Dustin explained. “He lets us hunt on his land and fish in his pond. And he’s always polite–acts super thankful whenever he talks with me or my dad. He’s not one of those rich assholes at all. I’ve found some good sheds on his land, too. Have you heard of sheds?”
I store lawn mowers and paint and wheelbarrows in sheds, but if Dustin hadn’t know about those until he stumbled upon them, I figured the Texan wouldn’t have been so appreciative of Dustin’s caretaking skills. “What are they?”
“Antlers deer and elk drop in the spring. I find them and sell them–go hiking in the mountains and make some money doing it.”
Shannon lit a pipe and passed it to Dustin. He turned up the stereo, and house music thumped and marijuana smoke slipped out the windows for the next few miles. I watched red cliffs and bright conifers. The light in New Mexico makes everything vibrant.
Dustin took a switchblade from the dashboard and played with it.
“That an out-of-the-front one?” I asked.
He passed it to me. “I just bought it. Most of my knife collection is somewhere in the backseat.” He reached back and found another knife, this one a fixed blade. “They’re all over back there.”
We talked knives and hunting until we neared Pagosa Springs. Then Dustin rolled down the windows, turned the volume even higher, and dropped his sunglasses back over his eyes. His speakers sounded about to blow. We cruised through town and met Dustin’s brother, Jesse, in a parking lot on the far side.
“Jesse’s wife and kids aren’t with him,” Dustin said, “so he can probably give you a ride to Durango, if you don’t mind waiting a few minutes.”
“I don’t mind.”
“I’ll ask him.”
I heard their conversation from the other side of the truck.
“He’s not gonna call the cops, is he?” Jesse asked.
“No, he’s cool. I smoked in the car on the way over here.”
“I don’t want a DUI.”
“He’s cool with it.”
Jesse agreed. Then he gave Dustin a few bills and Dustin gave him a few buds, and the brothers smoked together and planned a trip up the railroad next weekend with Dustin, Shannon, and Jesse’s family, and they talked about Dustin’s new switchblade and sunglasses until Dustin had to leave.
“I love you, bro,” Jesse said.
Dustin and Shannon turned back east, and Jesse and I headed west. Jesse kept his truck clean and uncluttered.
“I wish I had done something like what you’re doing,” Jesse said after I told him about my trip. “How old are you?”
Unlike Dustin, Jesse was clean-shaven and dressed in work clothes. But he talked in the same gentle way as Dustin, and they had the same smile. “Man, this is good stuff. This is the highest I’ve been in months. I’m twenty-eight.”
“And you’ve got a family?”
“Yeah–three kids. Six, five, and a baby.”
“So when you were my age, you started being a dad.”
He nodded slowly. “I think about it a lot, you know, how things would be different if I hadn’t got married or had kids. I don’t regret it–I can’t imagine life without them, but I still think about what would have been different. I’ve never really done a lot of traveling.”
We talked about his family a while longer, and then about sheds, and then about marijuana.
“Is Dustin a dealer, or is he selling just to you?”
“I don’t know what Dusty’s got going on. Maybe I just don’t know the right people any more, but I haven’t been able to find any good weed in Durango. We were talking when he got out of jail, and he said he could hook me up. Man, this stuff is good. Sorry I’m all over the place.”
“Don’t worry about it. Are you and him pretty close?”
“We are. Always have been, kind of, but I’m really trying to spend time with him lately. Our oldest brother died this year, so we’re all focused on family now. Dusty’s a good guy.”
Jesse drove me a few miles past his house and dropped me off at a Wal-Mart. He told me about Durango (a lot of active people), recommended places to visit (a microbrewery and a local hike), and made sure I knew about the bus system (stops at Wal-Mart and goes north through town). We went our own ways, and I waved to Jesse as he drove away.
Initial impressions are useful. They’re often accurate, and they give me a sense of how to talk with a new driver. Type of vehicle, style of clothing, music choice, things on the dashboard–all are clues to character. I can figure out within a few minutes if hunting is a safe topic, or how to go about the subject of religion, or politics, or drugs. But those impressions only go so far. What matters most in a person–how he treats others, who he loves, what he struggles with–comes out later, and sometimes it comes out as a surprise.
Even after ninety rides, I relied too much on initial impressions. Early in the trip I stopped caring about “red flag” traits, like smoking or swearing–traits that reflect one’s environment far more than one’s character–but I still based my many of my expectations on my first ten minutes with a person.
Dustin reminded me, yet again, that I cannot box up a person, I cannot reduce him to a dictionary definition–not if I really want to know him, anyway. The thug blasting dubstep as he cruises through town is more than an arrogant punk. The middle-aged mom driving a minivan and listening to a Christian radio station is more than a churchy prude. Sometimes the drivers that most intimidate me turn out to be the kindest, and the wisest. Sometimes when an evangelical picks me up in hopes of converting a hitchhiker, she ends up being the most accepting, the most willing to talk honestly and openly.
We have all heard that “you can’t judge a book by its cover.” But we still do. The homeless man. The pastor. The truck with hay bales and rifles. The Prius with Obama bumper stickers. Some of them do match our initial impressions. But many don’t, and by treating them according to our impressions, we not only push them into the very role we dislike, but we also handicap ourselves.
When I meet a new driver, I try to see him or her as a mystery–a mass of stories and feelings and beliefs that somehow made him or her pull over and help a stranger. Sometimes it’s an easy mystery, one I could have solved in a few minutes, but other times it’s a fascinating one. But regardless, any mystery is more interesting than reading the dictionary.
“Brother, this town is delicious.” Heather leaned forward to peer farther out the windows, looking like I do when I drive through mountains. “Can you believe it? Get a look at that building.”
More than twenty artist-owned galleries fill the town of Salida, “the biggest little art town in Colorado!” according to one brochure. Packed between galleries sit coffee shops and hole-in-the-wall restaurants, bicycle shops and outdoor equipment stores. All the storefronts have found a mix of quaint and eccentric that captured Heather, and many others, too. Unlike other small towns I’ve visited, people crowd the downtown sidewalks.
“I cannot get over how adorable this town is!”
The first thing I had noticed about Heather was her hair, several inches short and impossibly spiky. The second, her smile.
“Brother, are you sure you don’t mind waiting?”
“I’m totally flexible when I’m hitchhiking.”
“I don’t know how long this will take, but I’ll call you when I’m ready to go.”
I headed across the street to explore art galleries, and she headed up it to pitch her work. A gallery called Eye Candy had shown interest when Heather had contacted them about hanging some of her pieces. This visit would be the last chance in an unsuccessful whirlwind of pitches that had kept her driving across the state over the past four days. “We don’t deal with photography,” she had heard in Vail and Aspen. In other places, her work just didn’t connect with the gallery owners.
I hoped for Heather’s success and stepped into a different building, filled with nature photography.
“Are you the artists?” I asked the couple standing inside.
They were. “My work is on the far wall,” the woman said, “and his is on the other.”
I looked around, trying to show equal interest in both walls. “Are you from Salida originally?”
“We moved a few years ago,” she said. “Most people in Salida aren’t from here, actually. People come for the art community.”
“It’s not like some Midwestern towns,” he added, “where everyone lives there because they were born there. People live in Salida because they want to, not because they’re stuck here.”
The woman returned my question.
“Washington State. Across the water from Seattle.”
“What brings you down here?”
I answered the usual questions, and then stopped in a few other galleries before Heather called me.
“She likes my stuff!” I could hear Heather’s smile through my phone. “I’ll be a little longer, but you can come in a look around. I’m sorry I’m taking so long!”
Eye Candy describes itself as: “Rare treasure from vintage pinup girl art, distinct sterling estate jewelry, local pottery and paintings, glass, bullets, faeries, leather to feather! A site for sore eyes!” Art filled the window display, interior display cases, and the walls–save the wall directly behind the counter, where the gallery owner was clearing a space for Heather’s work.
“You must be the hitchhiker.” The middle-aged owner introduced herself as Nikki.
“She used to be a pilot,” Heather said, “but quit to do this!”
“Didn’t like it?” I asked.
“I loved flying. But you do anything for twenty years, and you need a change.” She has run Eye Candy for the past year and a half.
While Nikki put one of Heather’s photos in the front window, Heather whispered to me: “She took one look and said, ‘Yes. Let’s hang this.’”
Nikki ended up hanging six more. Photographs of age-beaten trucks and weathered buildings dominated the wall. As is standard, if a photograph sells, Heather and Eye Candy will split the profits fifty-fifty. Today, though, Heather made nothing.
Almost fifty years old, she quit her corporate job in May. Her company of ten and a half years changed hands, and the new management “treated her like shit.” She had to spend six months away from home, make cold calls, pressure clients, and work under the demands of “more, more, more.” So she quit without notice and took up photography full time, with the support and encouragement of a few friends.
I’ve been told that the self-employed–whether in art, business, or farming–work for free for the first six months, or first year, or first two years. Two months in, it’s held true for Heather. She has enough saved up to last a few months, and she is willing to sell her motorcycle and downsize from house to yurt to stretch that period even further.
“Everyone keeps telling me I can’t do this,” Heather said, back in the pickup, “and I’m like, ‘Why not?’ So far, the more I’ve let go, the more I’ve received. It sounds like New Age garbage, but it’s not.” She smiled. “I’m doing what I love. Sure, I spent a few nights in the back of my truck instead of in a hotel on this trip, but that adds to the experience.”
We spent the next few hours driving through southern Colorado, paralleling mountain ranges to the west and east. “I can’t wait to tell my friends about you,” she said. “You’re taking your trip at the right time, brother. This is exactly what you should be doing. I’m getting into it thirty years too late. Look at that!”
We flew by a drive-in movie theater.
“I need a picture.” She turned the truck around and parked on the side of the road. “Hand me my camera, will you?”
I rummaged through the back seat and passed her the camera bag. The Sangre de Cristo mountains and a dark, almost-storm sky set the backdrop.
Heather clicked away. “This is delicious.”
Her photography focuses on a type of antique called primitives–”stuff people actually owned and beat all to shit.” Old locks, cars, signs, buildings. In all of them, Heather sees stories.
She started photographing when she was twenty. Heather spent several years taking pictures for a newspaper and working in their darkroom, and she’s been using Photoshop ever since it premiered.
We stopped several more times. An abandoned barn-style house, built alone in the windiest valley in southern Colorado. A boy staring through a fence, a mutt beside him and a junk-filled lawn behind. A “Hippies Use Backdoor” sign and a wooden sign for a wild game butcher. She saw personal histories in all of them.
“My photos are me,” she said. “The ones I show have the same texture as me, and the same vibrancy. I don’t have some abstract, lofty artist statement–my art is what I find beautiful.”
At Fort Garland, we parted ways.
“Sometimes it feels like someone’s going to call me and say, ‘Get back to work! You can’t be doing this!’ I mean, this day has been too good to be true.” Heather beamed. “I saw a beautiful sky, got my art in a gallery, and I met you!”
Since then, another gallery has agreed to hang her work, bringing the total to three. Art income is still nonexistent, and the work is long and demanding, but she loves it. “You’ve inspired me,” she said during one phone conversation weeks later, when I agreed to house-sit for her during the month of September. “I’m looking into yurts. I’m going to make this happen.”
Heather’s work is viewable at: heathercurtisphotography.com
Noah's Ark, Colorado
I’ve had many “first experiences” in these past weeks. Seeing the North Dakota oil fields, sleeping in a semi truck, riding in a car going a hundred and ten miles per hour for half an hour. But the most unexpected was whitewater rafting.
Outside Buena Vista, a girl a few years younger than me pulled over. “I can take you as far as Noah’s.” She wore her blond hair in a messy braid.
“Is that on the highway?”
She nodded. “It’s a few miles down the road.”
I hadn’t seen anything called “Noah” on the map, but I got in her car, anyway.
“I’m Kenzie.” We shook hands.
“Josh. Where are we going?”
“Have you heard of Noah’s Ark?”
“The one in the Bible.”
She laughed. “It’s a rafting company. My parents own it, so I’ve always worked summers there.”
Besides whitewater rafting, Kenzie explained, Noah’s Ark offers backpacking and hiking, rock climbing, canoeing, fishing, and an elaborate ropes course. Her parents started the organization in 1983, and the number of customers–usually youth groups, families, and church teams–has grown ever since.
“I wasn’t going to stop,” Kenzie said, “but then I read your sign. I’ve only picked up three other people. Two were hikers on their way back to the trail, and the other one was a girl.”
“What does your sign mean?”
I’ve heard that question enough to develop an elevator pitch: “Hitchhiking is all about trust, on everyone’s part. I’m trusting drivers, and they’re trusting me. And I’m trusting God, too, I’m realizing more and more.”
“I prayed before I picked you up.”
“That’s probably good.”
“We have staff dinner in an hour, if you want to come. I’ve brought random people before.”
I had ate a late and large lunch of Mexican food, but hitchhiking without money makes binge eating my preferred strategy. I accepted.
“Is Noah’s a Christian company?” I asked.
“Not officially. Most of us are Christians. Maybe all of us. But we take all sorts of customers and don’t do organized prayers for them or anything. I mean, we don’t hide it, but we just try to be good examples.”
We pulled into the camp, six miles from where Kenzie picked me up. She introduced me to her father, who seemed suspicious but accepting, and then she gave me a tour of the grounds. I found a shower and, once clean, rejoined Kenzie and the cooking crew.
“You can find a place to hang out until dinner,” Kenzie said, “or you can wash dishes, if you really want.”
I decided to scrub cooking pans. After days of depending on generosity, working felt immensely satisfying. I washed with a high school senior, who showed me how to operate the camp’s sprayer and sink system.
“Where do you sleep while you’re traveling?” he asked.
“Usually I go a hundred yards or so into the woods and pitch my tent where no one can see me. When there’s no woods, it gets rough, and I either camp in plain sight or just go in my sleeping bag and cover myself with bug spray. But about a quarter of the time, someone invites me into their home or trailer.”
“Are you scared a lot?”
“Always.” I laughed. “But not much. I’m always a little on edge, but after the first few days, I found out people who stop for you just want to help.”
The questions kept coming until it was time for dinner, and then I volunteered to join the servers. I dished salad onto the plates of those who didn’t protest. Even among healthy, athletic rafting guides, salad is not popular. Halfway through a series of “no thanks” and “I don’t have room” and “who are you?”s, I recognized the girl serving spaghetti. We looked at each other, turned away, and looked back again.
“I know you from somewhere,” she said.
“I know, and I can’t figure it out.”
“Did you go to Calvin?”
“Graduated this May.”
I learned about Dutch Bingo when I came to Calvin. When two Dutch-blooded strangers meet, they inevitably start working out common relatives and friends. “My aunt’s brother’s niece was your father’s high school chemistry teacher!” After spending four years in Grand Rapids’ Dutch community, I am now proud of my ability to play Dutch Bingo as an honorary Dutchman.
The spaghetti server–named Susan–and I compared dorms, housemates, majors, and clubs. No overlap. We started naming friends.
“I spent semesters in England and DC,” I offered.
“You lived in DC with Lauren, right? In that big house?”
I nodded. Lauren and I, along with thirteen other students, had shared an eight-bedroom house last spring.
“I visited there!” Susan said.
A few Calvin students had slept in our basement during their spring break. I tried to imagine the tanned girl in rafting clothes as a cold weather, city-dressed tourist.
“We played that board game.”
The memory came back, playing Settlers of Catan on the other side of the country. “It’s good to re-meet you.”
Susan and I ate dinner together, and I told and retold my story to dozens of teenage and twenty-some rafting guides.
“You should come rafting tomorrow,” Susan said. “I’ll probably have room in my boat.”
I hesitated. I had never been whitewater rafting, and besides, I had already detoured up Mt. Elbert the day before. “Can I camp here tonight?”
“I’m sure! I’ll ask, just in case.”
Both parts–camping and rafting–passed approval. But rafting depended on how full Susan’s boat turned out to be.
“If you don’t have room, I’ll take him,” another guide volunteered.
“Or in my boat,” someone else said.
So I pitched my tent and spent the evening talking with Noah’s Ark staff and their customers. The next morning, I watched Kenzie, Susan, and the other “river rats” prepare the rafts, waiting to hear who, if anyone, had room for me.
Minutes before launch, Susan’s boat had an empty spot.
“Boots or barefoot?” I asked. I had no other shoes, and no time to borrow something else.
She grimaced. “Boots.”
I scribbled out a release form, grabbed a paddle and the closest helmet, and jumped into whitewater rafting.
Susan and I shared the raft with five Texan girls and their leader, who were enjoying the recreation half of their week-long homeless ministry. They laughed and screamed and sang as Susan guided us through 3/3+ rapids. My helmet–two size too small–squeezed my temples, and water splashed into my boots and pooled there.
But soggy socks and a sore head didn’t matter. The Arkansas River was beautiful. I passed cliffs red and brown and gold, saw rock formations as abstract as New Mexico clouds, and all the while savored sunshine and the smell of sage and conifers.
It’s easier, I think, to find new experiences through strangers, when you’re already entering with an open mind and a readiness to learn about someone new. As I grow closer to someone, I ask fewer questions. I content myself with maintaining our level of friendship, or focus on having fun instead of learning about his life, or decide I know enough about her and that a challenging discussion would only make things awkward. With someone I know, I play it safe, except in those rare, open moments of tragedy or emotion.
Strangers, though, are fair game. There’s no consequence to prying, no cost for full disclosure. And because they are new, they somehow seem inherently more interesting. I’ll gladly spend an hour listening to a new-to-me photographer talk about her artistic philosophy, but when I’m with a friend, I keep the conversation to topics where I can participate through more than just questions.
But acquaintances like Susan are more than Dutch Bingo partners. Each houseguest has passions and experiences and stories to share. Friends offer more than mutual interests and activities. Even immediate family has “before I met your mother” stories and knowledge that doesn’t come up at the dinner table.
No, my Aunt can’t take me rafting, and my grandpa didn’t dodge the draft by living out of a backpack in the Canadian Rockies for eight years. But they do have their own interests and stories that I’ve never cared enough to ask about, and some of those are just as interesting as what I hear on the road.
I hitchhike to learn about life and people. But when this trip ends, my learning doesn’t have to slow. I can go paddleboarding with my uncle. I can ask my friend about the Australian music scene. I don’t have to avoid the people who graduated high school with me when I spot them down the aisle in Fred Meyer. I don’t need strangers to find new experiences. They just make it easier.
Buena Vista, Colorado
I had my first group hitchhiking experience of the trip with two Colorado Trail thru-hikers and a crazy man. I met the hikers in Buena Vista, a town shadowed by fourteeners and well trafficked by rafting companies. The two brothers, Brian and Seth, had hitchhiked into town to resupply, and they were about halfway through their thirty-five day trek.
“You hiking the Colorado Trail, too?” Brian asked. He was my age, and had just graduated from Florida State with a math degree.
“We going Denver to Durango,” Seth added, the shorter and younger of the pair. Both had several days of blond stubble.
“I’m hitchhiking,” I said, “but I’m ahead of schedule, so I’m going to hike Mt. Elbert tomorrow.”
“Right on, man.” Seth repositioned his pack. “We came over that earlier today. Wicked views.”
I’ve found that hikers are some of the friendliest people, and Brian and Seth–largely isolated for the past two weeks–were downright gregarious. They shared hiking stories as we walked through town.
“Seth’s foot starting acting up, about a week into it,” Brian said. “Really hurting, hard to walk.”
“But then we met this guy,” Seth interrupted, “who just happened to have an extra insole my size that he just gave to us. And later we met this girl, Bekah, who we hiked with a for few days, and she was like an angel.”
“The night we met her, our tent ripped,” Brian explained. “The tarp split and it was raining and cold, and Bekah let us pile into her little two-man tent to stay dry.”
“And the next morning, while we’re talking about it and laughing, some old guy camping next to us overheard and came up and offered us his tent.” Seth laughed. “He was just going to give it to us. But the thing was huge. Like one of those massive, heavy Wal-Mart tents, and we couldn’t lug that around. But, man, this has restored my faith in humanity, you know?”
I did know. “Did you fix your tent?”
“We hitched into a town and bought a new one.” Brian said. “The guy who picked us up drove us around for two hours, to all sorts of outdoor gear stores he knew about. He just said, ‘I’m not doing anything today’ and kept helping us. He even bought us all lunch. You hear a lot about Southern hospitality, but really, the West does hospitality the best.”
The brothers come from northern Florida. Unlike the rest of the state, that region, they say, is still part of the South.
“I’ve never craved sweet tea so much in my life,” Seth complained. As they shopped, he added a can of Arnold Palmer to their supplies. “No one knows how to make it up here. This is the best I can get.”
Restocked, but with their ultralight packs still twenty pounds lighter than mine, the three of us started off for our trailheads. Only one road goes north from Buena Vista, so we decided to hitchhike together until our paths diverged.
Hitchhikers generally agree that the larger the group, the harder it is to find a ride. Groups of all males have it especially rough. But Buena Vista’s locals see enough roadside hikers that hitchhiking doesn’t carry the same stigma as in the rest of the country.
We got a ride with the second vehicle we saw.
We threw our packs in the back of the pickup and loaded into its backseat. “Do you live around here?” I asked the driver, an older man with a white beard and long gray hair.
“I’ve got a ranch house out here. I can get peace and quiet there, finally,” he said. “I used to live in Denver. Shitty place. Too many people, and too many jerks.”
“The country is great for getting some elbow room,” Brian said. “What do you do for work?”
“Disability.” The old man laughed.
“That’s a good gig, if you can get it,” Seth said. “I mean, not the being disabled, but…”
He trailed off, and I watched the Arkansas River flowing beside us.
“I used to panhandle in Denver,” the old man said. “Got treated like shit. Everyone glares at you or ignores you–like they blame you. But no one wants to be out there. And you have to keep moving, because if you stay in the same spot too long, people recognize you and stop helping. One time, I got eighty bucks in one day, though.”
“I bet you’ve lived in a lot of interesting places,” Brian said.
“Hell, yeah. Spent three years in a mental institution.”
None of us responded. I noticed the truck drift over the centerline and then settle back into its lane, and I wished I could check the speedometer.
“I heard those aren’t great places to live,” Brian ventured.
“Horrible. People telling you what you can do and can’t do. No freedom. They experimented the shit out of one guy. Tested all these new drugs on him and made him worse than he was when he came in.”
“Did being there help you?” Brian asked.
Our driver shook his head. “It just made me more bitter. I attacked a bunch of cops with a machete, but the case didn’t hold up, so I got three years in an institution. The case still didn’t hold up when I got out–so now I’m even more angry about it.”
None of us asked the questions we wanted to ask. We kept the rest of the conversation to small talk.
“This is the road to our trailhead,” Brian said. “Coming up–at the corner, see?”
My trail started twenty miles further, but I scrambled out of the truck with Brian and Seth. We all parted ways, there. Our driver returned to his peaceful ranch house, the brothers caught another ride and rejoined the Colorado Trail, and I caught a ride with a pickup and rode up to the Mt. Elbert trailhead.
Established: Feb. 26, 1867
2010 population: 2,928
Julie Winters had a good life. Good enough to feel guilty about, she said, then added, “I’m paying for it now.”
That morning, like every morning, she visited her husband. They married fifty-three years ago–high school sweethearts then and great-grandparents now. The visit with her husband had lasted about an hour, and she would go back twice more that day, as per usual. Sometimes, he is aware enough to smile, and sometimes even to hug her. Other times, he recognizes his dementia and lays in depression; but other times, he believes his hallucinations. Most often, though, Julie simply sits by his bed and helps him eat.
Julie stopped by the library on her way home. Proud member of the town’s beautification team, she took a bucket and a hoe from her trunk and set to work on the front flowerbeds.
I plodded up the hill, fully backpacked. “When does the library open?”
She glanced up from her weeding. “Not until ten. You’ve got a while.”
I wiped sweat off my forehead The day’s heat hadn’t started, but I guessed it was still above seventy. “Want some help?”
I took off my backpack and Julie and I weeded the flowerbeds, me hoeing and her bucketing. When we finished, she offered to buy me coffee, so we drove the six blocks to White Field’s, a downtown cafe half a mile from US Highway 36.
The rest of downtown housed the new courthouse (the old one burnt before Julie’s time) and three-screen movie theatre, as well as the bar, a handful of restaurants, a few secondhand stores, and several other businesses, their storefronts built together like rows of teeth. Vacant buildings interrupted the occupied ones like cavities.
In the cafe, we joined Irene Maybell. Irene had spent sixty-seven of her ninety years in Norton. Julie’s first Sunday in town, she and her husband tried the Methodist church, where they picked the same pew as the Maybell couple.
“I said ‘you’re stuck with us, now,’ and they were.” Irene took a shaky sip of coffee. “Now, we’re the only two left in that pew.”
The women talked about the town’s flowerbeds, its home-owned fair, the new Dollar General up by the highway.
“We need more stores downtown,” Julie said. “No one has a reason to come here, anymore.”
“There aren’t any stores left,” Irene agreed.
After coffee, I wandered back to the library to meet the Norton Chronicle’s general manager, advertising director, and reporter: Dana Paxton. A middle-aged hunter, mother of three, and small town supporter. The interview went both ways, and for every detail I shared about my trip, I learned two more about the town.
Its biggest employer: the prison. As in many small Midwestern towns, the prison offers many well-paying entry-level jobs, as well as possibilities for promotion. Norton’s prison is medium-low security. Earlier, the building served as a low security facility; even earlier, a mental institution; and when it was constructed, a tuberculosis sanatorium. Norton citizens take pride in the building, more than a hundred years old.
Valley Hope, a national U.S. rehab service, started in Norton in 1967 and also provides jobs, as does Prairie Dog State Park, the hospital,and several local manufacturers.
But the economy really depends on agriculture. That agricultural base saved Norton from the recession. While the rest of the country suffered, crop prices stayed high and small-town Kansas flourished. I rode with the owner of a drywall company and learned his business had grown throughout the recession years, with 2010 as its best year on record. When farmers have money, everyone has money.
Recently, though, farmers haven’t. Drought limited the wheat harvest to twelve bushels an acre last year–down from the expected forty–and crippled upland game bird populations, too. According to Dana, a hunter can fly in for a solid week and come away with just two pheasants. And her father, who raises buffalo, had to cut his herd for lack of food. People are desperate for rain, Dana said. “Everybody’s mood depends on the weather.”
Even with a slow economy, Dana likes a small town. “In a city, you can’t walk out and see the stars. You can’t hear the coyotes crying.” She laughed. “And here, people will either rat on your kid, or they will watch out for your kid. I feel safe here.”
So do many in Norton. I heard of numerous teenagers who left town, chasing work or excitement, only to come back with a spouse and children ten years later. But in that gap between high school and childbirth, Norton offers little attraction. Jobs are scarce, and life is boring. Just 6.4% of Norton is between 18 and 24 years old. Comparatively, Topeka is 9.8%; Denver, 10.7%; and Chicago, 11.2%.
I found one of Norton’s 6.4% in a secondhand store–a twenty-three year old named Valentine, with a business degree and a management position with one of the local manufacturers.
“I guess it’s a good town, but everything is at least an hour away,” she said. “And Denver’s five hours away.”
The county sheriff had a similar complaint. Discover your Sunday afternoon project requires a special screw or an extra brace, and you’ve got a two-hour hardware errand that consumes the rest of the day. And the local stores’ cramped hours make even basic supplies difficult to gather, with only a narrow window open for supply runs.
“There aren’t really options here,” Valerie continued. “I mean, I’d like to try ice skating, but that’s not even a possibility. And you only have five or six restaurants, so after a while, you know everything on the menu. There’s just no variety.”
Some of Valerie’s friends host board games nights, but she mostly spends her free time walking her dog or watching movies. “The bar’s pretty popular, but I’m not into that, and I don’t hunt or fish, either. The lake is fun, but the water’s been low for a few years. Really, Norton’s not a good place for people my age.” She hopes to move to a city soon, employment permitting. “If you want to go somewhere in life,” she concluded, “you have to leave the small towns.”
I stayed until the evening. I again rendezvoused with Dana, this time for a shower and dinner with her daughter, and then she dropped me off along Highway 36 in the north part of town. There, Dollar General, fast food, and miniature strip malls attracted drive-by customers and once-downtown businesses.
Just before nightfall, I caught a ride with a minivan full of five boisterous ladies: three sister grandmothers and two of their daughters. One lived in Norton; another, a nearby town; and all had grown up in small-town life. None matched any definition of old, aside from wrinkles and dyed hair.
“We’re five bored ladies in Norton, Kansas! We’re gonna drive you to the next town!”
I jumped in. Three family stories erupted at the same time. Laughter ricocheted throughout the van, and I shouted answers to a benevolent interrogation.
One daughter called her husband. “We’re taking a road trip to Oberlin! … A hitchhiker! … We just found him!” She lost service and the call dropped. “That’s not good. He’ll be worried now!” She giggled.
Two others remembered a prank, and the story exploded with shrieks and shouts and laughter.
In a lull, one of the grandmothers leaned toward me. “You have to make your own entertainment in a small town,” she explained. “Remember, no one is too old to blow bubbles.”
“Or too old to play in the median!” her sister yelled.
That is Norton. Add some drug addicts and partiers, and a few old families entrenched in social superiority. Throw in the nation’s only gallery of unsuccessful Presidential candidates, remember the annual picnics and auto races, listen to the uproar over the first annual Biker Bash and wet t-shirt contest, and you have Norton, Kansas.
It has history–not the majestic London type or the Very Important Washington DC type–but a simple one. It has diversity–limited, of course, to three thousand varieties–and it has its eccentricities and its dramas and tragedies.
They might not be the kind that impact the United Nations or get taught in the next generation’s classrooms, but they’re a manageable kind. When I walk through Norton, I can get a sense of things. I can put my fingers in the dirt and feel the town breathe, and I can dive for stories without drowning. Norton does not lead or boast or stun–but it can be known. And in that, I find comfort.
A sheriff’s truck pulled into the nearby lot, and a cop got out. He was young, with short, military-style hair.
“Hello!” I put my thumb down and rolled up my sign. “How’re you?”
He nodded. “You’re technically hitchhiking, which is illegal in Kansas.”
I stepped away from the curb. “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize.” I smiled at his sunglasses.
“I won’t charge you or anything, but we have a system around here to shuttle transients along.” He didn’t smile. “I’ll drive you to the county line and pass you off to the next sheriff. He’ll drive you through his county and pass you off, and so on, until we get you wherever you’re going.”
Convenient, had my goal been a place instead of an experience. “I know hitchhiking’s illegal on the interstates,” I ventured, “or if I’m obstructing traffic, but from what I read, I thought this was legal.”
“Well, it’s kind of a gray area. We won’t do anything about it, but we like to keep transients off the roads.”
On the topic of hitchhiking, Kansas law simply states: Code 8-1538 (a) No person shall stand in a roadway for the purpose of soliciting a ride. A roadway, legally, means the part of a road meant for regular driving. The roadway only stretches from one white line, across the yellow centerline, to the other white line. Shoulders and sidewalks and roadside gravel are fair game for ride solicitation.
But I smiled and nodded.
“Where are you headed?” the cop asked.
“What’s in Norton?”
“I’ve got an interview there.”
“What’s the job?”
“Actually, it’s about this trip.” I pulled a card from my wallet. “I’m hitchhiking around the country, and their newspaper wants to interview me.”
He glanced the card and handed it back without reading it. “Well, we can get you to Norton.” He motioned toward his truck. “You can throw your pack in the back.”
I rode shotgun, but before he turned the key, the cop asked for my ID. “You have any warrants I should know about before I call this in?”
“None that I know of.”
He radioed in my license number and found a clean record.
“We might as well officially introduce,” I said, after he returned my ID. “I’m Josh deLacy.” I offered my hand and he shook it.
As we drove through Jewell County, I asked about Mike’s background. Six years in law enforcement, including his time in the Navy. Kansas’ heat doesn’t bother him, nor do small towns. He fishes and hunts, and he resents the tourists who shot all of Kansas’ trophy bucks. But his biggest pet peeve, as an officer, is when kids text while talking to him.
“I was raised to respect elders and authority,” he explained. “If someone’s respectful to me, I’ll be respectful back. But if someone’s rude and arguing, things won’t go well between us.”
We stopped at the Jewell-Smith county line. “I’ll be nice and wait until the other sheriff comes,” Mike said. “I’ve got good air conditioning.”
He waited ten minutes, and then an older, heavier cop arrived.
“Where’d you find him?” the new sheriff asked Mike. “The penitentiary?”
Instead of referencing degrees and GPAs, I shook Mike’s hand and wished him well, and I transferred myself into the new truck.
“James Dean,” the sheriff introduced. I checked his name tag before I believed him. “Nice to have a transient who doesn’t smell. Usually they haven’t showered in a couple days.”
I warmed up the resurrected movie star by listening to his job complaints (budget meetings, the department’s lack of a secretary, problems with the part-timers) before I asked what I really wanted to know: “Hitchhiking isn’t illegal here, is it?”
“No, we just like to keep transients moving. Few years ago, one hitchhiker broke into a house and shot a few folks, so people around here get nervous when they see a transient. They call in, and we just pick him up and shuttle him through the state.”
“How many do you get?”
“This is a slow year. We’ve just had a couple, before you. Usually we’ll get one a week or so, but if there’s a disaster or something, we’ll get more, like with the fires in Colorado or those tornados in Joplin.”
“People looking for a new place to live?”
“Mostly people looking for work. There’s a lot of construction after a disaster. Course, lots of people always say they’re going to Colorado for work.”
“But really going for pot?”
We talked about speeding tickets for the rest of the drive. James Dean dropped me off at the county line and turned around, and I was left to wait for my next ride.
He showed up a few minutes later, in a car, this time. I put my pack in the backseat.
“Do you have any weapons on your person?” Deputy Webb Conrad asked. Only one other driver–and no other cop–ever asked if I was armed.
Some have told me they were armed, and one even let me hold his loaded .38 pistol, but no one else asked about my capability for harm. Or they realized that if I did intend to harm them, asking about it wouldn’t do any good.
“I’ve got a knife and pepper spray.”
“Could you put those in the backseat?” He ran my ID. “It’s nice to see someone who’s not the usual hitchhiker. I’ve never ran into anyone doing it just because before.” A few miles out, he said, “I should’ve asked if you wanted a ride with me.”
“I could have said no?”
“Sure. You’re free to hitch on these roads.”
With just half an hour until sunset, I decided guaranteed rides all the way to Norton was not such a bad option. Besides, the cop was answering all my questions about northwest Kansas crime.
The answer: there’s not much.
Speeding, petty theft, drunk driving, and drug abuse. A large elderly population makes prescription pills the worst drug problem; often, someone will report a break-in but not notice a theft until the next day, when checking the medicine cabinet. Meth use is growing again, but ever since a major bust campaign several years ago, labs are almost nonexistent, at least to law enforcement’s knowledge.
The cop talked about his experiences with death, too. His first assignment was a head-on collision between a Ford Explorer and a semi truck, and after that one, he says he can handle any accident scene. He managed to find himself covering nearly all the area’s vehicular deaths for a while, which gave him the nickname “Deputy Death” and enough experience to get used to bodies twitching and making sounds. “You get numb,” he said. “I can laugh about it now. You have to.”
At dusk, I switched into Sheriff Larry Land’s car, and he drove me into Norton. He radioed the town police and got their permission for me to camp at the fairgrounds.
“You can hitchhike out of here after your interview,” he said. “If someone calls in, I’ll just pick you up and move you along.”
So far, Mike Perrie is the only cop who has stopped me from hitchhiking, but his interference was more help than hassle. More often, when I see a cop, I wave, and he or she waves back and keeps driving. Before Kansas, a few officers stopped, either to run my ID, or ask if I need help, or just to find out what I’m doing, but then they wished me luck and moved along.
“That’s really cool!” one sheriff said, after I explained my trip. “That’s so cool what you’re doing.” He gave me his card and cell phone number if I ran into trouble or needed anything.
So, to answer a question I often receive: Hitchhiking is not illegal. There are illegal ways to hitchhike (depending on the state, interstates and on-ramps are often off-limits, and standing in the roadway is always a no-go), but in general, the law allows it.
That allowance is good. For most hitchhikers, a fine or jail time is counter-productive. Down on their luck, traveling the only way they can afford, punishment would only drive most hitchhikers further into poverty. Toward crime, or welfare, or helplessness. A hitchhiking ban, without any cop-shuttle alternative, would keep the downtrodden from doing exactly what they ought: taking initiative and pursuing self-improvement.
Take, for example:
A broke forty-some ex-felon, unable to find a stable job with his criminal record, thumbing to a week-long construction gig on the other side of the state. A homeless father and his formerly drug-addicted son, searching for job opportunity and a place without a familiar drug culture. A young mother squatting on a generous landowner’s property, hitchhiking to and from the grocery story once a week.
All these cases are real. I met the first man in North Dakota, and I learned about the others from drivers who had picked them up. Outside of television, the Kansas killer is the only murderous hitchhiker I’ve heard of. Most hitchhikers are simply–and harmlessly–trying to take care of themselves in the only way they can.
As for the rare few who hitchhike to learn, any law that prohibits well-intentioned empathy is a law I will proudly break. In a world of racial, economic, and geographic divides, hitchhiking lets you personally meet and understand the other sides–and that, more than any official regulation or restriction, promotes a respectful, healthy society.
So I support Kansas’ hitchhiking law–or rather, its lack–and I support anyone who hitchhikes as a means of self-improvement. I only hope that the practice remains legal; and if not, I hope law enforcement models itself after Mike Perrie, who recognizes the purpose, not the letter, of the law.
Indiana to Kansas
I was hungry and sunburnt and stuck at a truck stop metropolis in northwest Indiana when I met Glen. In the two and a half hours prior, a woman going the wrong way offered me a ride, a cop checked if I was a runaway, and a dad and son asked about my story when I ducked into a McDonald’s to use the wi-fi.
It would have been a tolerable day if it been cooler than ninety-plus humid degrees, or if there had been a nearby place to hide a tent, or if I had been closer to my next destination of New Mexico. But as it was, I was unhappy.
So when a semi truck pulled out of the gas station and onto the shoulder, I was more than ready to get in. I placed the trucker in his fifties. Overweight, slightly grungy, friendly without being too friendly.
“I’m going west,” I said.
“I’m going all the way to Kansas City, so hop in.”
“But here’s the thing.” I grimaced. “I’m not using any interstates.”
The trucker laughed. “You picked the right truck. I’m cow pathing it almost all the way there. Name’s Glen.”
It sounded good enough for me.
In our initial introductions, I discovered that Glen used to chair his church council, and he had also served on the school board. He was a father of two, a former farmer, and a backpacker.
“So why are you stickin’ to the cow paths?” he asked.
“One of my buddies calls me a cow pather, because I take all these little roads instead of the big interstates.”
“I guess I’m cow pathing, too.”
“Have you ever seen a cow path? A real one, I mean.”
“I might have to explain it, then. Cows always take the same route, so they wear a path in the grass. But it’s not a straight line–it’ll go this way for a while, then turn, then go over there. Just random bends, all over. And back in the day, these US and state highways were built to go from town to town. An east-to-west road would jump three miles north to hit one town, then go south to run through the next.”
“You actually get to see the country that way.”
“Remind me to show you my map. If you’re a cow pather, you’ll get a kick out of it.”
We drove a good ways into Illinois, sharing our lives and talking abut trucking. Glen’s Kenmore–or rather, his company’s Kenmore–had over a million miles on it, half of the “tractor’s” expected total. Its engine had been rebuilt at 600,000 miles, and would likely be replaced again.
Glen works in two-week runs. On the trip, he left his home in south Texas to haul cargo northeast, and he was now carrying a load of flour back across the country. When he returns to Texas, he will get a few days respite, and will then start another two weeks of driving.
“I’ve gotta stop pretty soon,” Glen said. “It’s getting close to my fourteen hours. Fourteen hours after you start driving, you’ve gotta be parked for the night. And you can only actually drive for eleven.”
We pulled into a truck stop, and Glen bought me dinner at McDonald’s. We claimed a table and talked, and we continued talking well after both of us had finished eating. We discussed racial issues (“Don’t judge a person for what they look like; judge a person for what he does”), environmental conservation (Glen hopes someone can develop orbital solar panels soon), and government regulations (truckers have to cram as many miles as they can into their fourteen hours, driving despite any mid-day exhaustion).
“I’ve got two bunks in my cab,” Glen said. “You can take the top one tonight, if you want. If you’re comfortable with that.”
“That sounds great.”
“I can sleep outside. I’ve got a sleeping bag–”
“I’m not making you sleep outside!”
The bunk was comfortable, compared to a tent, but nothing like a real bed. Glen kept the truck running, since it had a tendency to not turn on again once shut off, and a steady rumbling soon pushed me into sleep.
I awoke six hours later. Glen was already outside, performing the truck’s daily checkup. We ate breakfast–McDonald’s, again–and I swallowed my morning introversion and tried to be a decent conversationalist.
Truckers, Glen explained over greasy breakfast sandwiches, range widely. As far as intelligence goes, the bell curve sits farther left than it does for the general population. But Glen’s mentor had a Ph.D. and two masters degrees, and Glen himself was a salutatorian and a founder of his college’s economics honor society. Most truckers are overweight, due to long hours sitting and a fast food diet, but some bring resistance bands and take the time to shop for healthier meals. As far as gender goes, Glen guessed women make up five percent–up from point five percent, back when no semi truck had power steering.
Then we finished eating and returned to the road, cow pathing through the rest of Illinois and into “Missoura.” We didn’t stop again until the truck’s two 150-gallon tanks needed filling.
“I don’t mean anything by this,” Glen started, “but when you buy more than fifty gallons, you get free showers. They’ll probably give us two without asking anything, but if they don’t, we’ll say you’re part of the trucking team.”
Truck stop showers are nice, or at least this one was. Each person gets a private bathroom supplied with fresh towels and soap. At $12 normally–a price set to deter non-truckers–they were clean and roomy.
Before we returned to the road, Glen remembered to show me his atlas. Highlighted routes tracked through almost every state. Glen tries to take a new cow path each time he makes a run, even if only for a few miles. He keeps track of every major road he’s ran end-to-end, too, including half a dozen interstates and almost as many highways.
Farming and crop failure talk kept us busy the rest of the way through Missouri. Near the Kansas-Missouri border, we stopped for a last dinner. Glen again insisted on paying.
“I picked this guy up!” He told the startled Arby’s worker. “He’s a good kid.”
She looked as if she couldn’t decide whether to call the cops on one of us or both of us.
“If you ever make it down to south Texas,” Glen said between bites, “let me know.” He wrote his phone number and address on a scrap of paper. “I’ve got a condo down in South Padre Island, and you’re welcome to stay there whenever you want. I’m usually out trucking, and it’s just sitting empty for six fifty a month. You’re over twenty-one, right?”
“Then you could drive my car, too. I’ve got good insurance, so even if you crash it, I’m not out too much money.”
Talk with someone for more than a few hours, and they are no longer a stranger. Talk with him for sixteen hours–about faith, about politics, about messy divorces and financial troubles and kid problems–and you have a friend.
Glen dropped me off a few miles into Kansas. Exhausted from talking, struggling with too many nights of too little sleep, and overloaded with conservation-inspired thoughts about God and marriage and money, I pushed my way through the woods and set up my tent. I fell asleep at 7:30 and slept eleven hours.
When I awoke, I decided that if I do make it to Texas, I will take Glen up on his offer. But only if I can buy him dinner this time.
I lost my sign. My beautiful sailcloth and housepaint sign. Passengers would see it and smile; kids in the opposite lane would twist around to read the lettered side. More than half my drivers mentioned it, and many said it was the reason they stopped.
But in Marquette, Michigan, I left my sign in the back seat of a car bound for Canada, and I didn’t even realize it until an hour later. But at that point, I had already joined an impromptu tour of the city, and since I was the only attendee and the guide was new, I had to bottle my frustration. Ditching a girl you had just met and just asked to show you the town isn’t good form, especially not when you’re ditching so you can sulk over a sign that’s sixty miles lost and counting.
I tried to listen to her, and I thought I was doing a good job, until she steered us into a laundromat and pointed to a wall of advertising posters. “They aren’t big, and I don’t think they’ll last, but maybe could you write on one of those?” Eleven by seventeen, flimsy as hell, and promoting some local indie band.
I stole one.
The next morning, I scrawled “Traveling on Trust” in black Sharpie on the back of the poster. If a driver ran me over, there’s a possibility he could have read it just before hitting me. But for anyone else, I might as well have written “Serial Killer.”
Hitchhiking without a good sign, I learned, is damn hard.
Smiles became rare; waves, obligatory. No one honked or threw a peace sign. Old ladies often stare at me without shame, but now it seemed like everyone else was, too. I was a panhandler, a parasite, a bum with a thumb.
Finally, a former hitchhiker stopped and drove me to the next town, a whole three miles away. There, I waited again, holding my little piece of paper and trying to look young and harmless. I succeeded at that, at least. A hatchback pulled up, driven by college student named Hailey who kept a bike and hiking boots in the back.
“My roommate’s about to do a hitchhiking trip down south,” she said, “so I figured I should help you out. What does your sign say?”
I rode with Hailey across the Upper Peninsula, and then across the Mackinac bridge (the world’s third-longest suspension bridge), where she introduced me to the Upper Peninsula tradition of paying for the vehicle behind you as well as your own. Those who know the system pass it back when they find their bridge toll already paid, and on good days, chains of benevolent drivers emerge.
We parted ways on the other side of the bridge, and I meandered along the lakeshore, thinking of how to replace my wayward sign. I realized my best hope lay in Rachel, a college friend who lived in central Michigan. If I could make it to her house, I could make a new one.
“You’ve got a good pack there,” said a middle-aged man who had came up behind me. “Were you a Scout?”
“I wasn’t, but my dad was an Eagle Scout.”
“Well, you’ve got everything tied up right. Where you headed?”
I told him. He introduced me to his wife, and we talked together and watched the waves.
“If you don’t mind going a little east, we can take you along Lake Huron,” the man offered. “That’ll get you closer to your friend.”
Not only did it get me closer, but it came with another tour. The couple showed me a shipwreck and a lighthouse, the world’s largest limestone quarry, and a town of just a few hundred Polish potato farmers. They even gave me place to stay the night, complete with a shower and a load of laundry–and without ever seeing my sign.
I am not the only person the couple has helped. Three years ago, they let their high school son’s girlfriend move in with them, away from her own broken home. Now, she studies in a pre-med program and uses their house as her legal permanent address.
I pulled out Sharpied poster the next morning. This time, cars roared by at forty-five miles an hour, carrying with them any chance of someone reading my sign.
Fortunately, a side road fed into the county highway, and while waiting at the stop sign, a high school science teacher and her ninth-grade son saw me. They drove me east to west across the state, and then a pair of hippies saw me outside a gas station and “got a good vibe.”
They had been hippies in the ’70s, and now they were hippies again. Although he used to make meth, he now denounces the “deep addiction” drugs and sticks with pot, peyote, mushrooms, and LSD–and the last three mainly at music festivals. The couple married on 4/20 and live in a commune, completely debt-free. He smoked a joint as he drove.
“Don’t get caught up in money,” she warned me. “I used to work in DC with a big company. Spent so much on rent and car payments and keeping up with the Joneses, and all it did was stress me out. Now my life’s simple again, and it’s great.”
The hippies dropped me off near Rachel’s house and then, for an evening, night, and morning, I relaxed without worry. I didn’t take surreptitious notes after every conversation; I didn’t keep track of roads and whereabouts; I didn’t sleep with a knife.
Instead, I learned how to use a sewing machine, and Rachel and I ironed, cut, and sewed a new sign for me, bigger and even more durable than the last.
* * * * *
Hitchhiking worked without my sign. I still made good time, and I still met good and generous people. But every ride came as even more of a surprise than usual, and while I waited, I felt like a pariah. Young and clean-shaved, with decent clothes and a haircut, but nevertheless an object of suspicion, disapproval, pity. The politeness I normally received vanished, for my exoticness and deliberateness was not there to inspire it.
I never blame someone for not picking me up. It is not his or her duty, nor is it “safe.” But, as a result of this trip, I now question our relationship to strangers. When I make eye contact with someone in a coffee shop, when I sit beside a person on a bus or a plane, when I walk past a mediocre busker, I usually ignore him. I blame it on being an introvert. Or on awkwardness, or not having energy or time, or simply believing that ignoring strangers is a normal, expected response.
When I lived in DC, I would pass hundreds of people in a half-hour walk, and I let them become scenery. In a city, it is simply practical–maybe necessary–to move within a bubble of self-isolation. Operating like that, you don’t waste four dollars on a stranger’s bridge fee or sacrifice an hour showing a distracted hitchhiker around town. You gain efficiency and avoid awkwardness, and you don’t force someone to interact with you when she would much prefer to stay secluded.
But when I ask people what they like about living in a small town, most refer to neighborliness. People nod or wave or smile at each other. People say “good morning” when you pass them on the sidewalk. You know everyone on your block and half the people in town, but you acknowledge new faces, too, and strike up conservations with them when you’re waiting for your dinner or your coffee. Strangers are people, not scenery, and when you’re the stranger, that difference matters.
This is not to say that towns trump cities, or the opposite. It is, however, to raise a question: Why do you–or why don’t you–wave at someone, even if he doesn’t have a sign or an out-of-the-ordinary mission? By recognizing someone as a person, what do we gain, and what do we lose?
What is our responsibility to strangers?
Lakenenland, Upper Peninsula, Michigan
The highways can surprise you. Just off two-lane MI-28, for instance, well away from so much as a gas station, I found a sculpture park, quirky and free and controversial.
Lakenenland, named after its creator, is unaffiliated with any city or artist collective. It is not a tourist trap or a commercial venture. Lakenenland is simply one man’s art–made for art’s sake and shared with anyone lucky enough to find it.
“Look there!” My driver pointed right, and I glimpsed giant, metal sculptures: brightly colored animals, cylinders bent to form letters. “It’s a U.P. highlight–our free sculpture park.”
We flew past, and jack pine and white pine again dominated the view.
“Everyone loves the place,” she continued. “Or at least my friends and I do.”
Hailey, an environmental studies major at Northern Michigan University,” had picked me up outside 21,000-person Marquette, the Upper Peninsula’s largest city. She lives in a house of seven students, eats local and vegetarian, talks freely about her former depression, and loves art and any activity she can do outdoors.
“We should go back there.” Hailey pulled onto the shoulder and let the car behind us pass. “If you aren’t coming through again soon, you should see the sculptures now. Is that okay?”
“I’ve made way better time than I had hoped, so any detour’s fine by me.”
“Good. I don’t really go anywhere quickly–I always get distracted or find something interesting to explore.”
We turned around, then pulled into the park. No visitors, security, or monitoring equipment awaited us, and we were free to explore as we wished. More than fifty statues filled the area, spaced out along a short dirt road loop. Visitors usually walk, taking time to read occasional descriptions or climb on the sturdier statues, but for the sake of time, we drove, and Hailey narrated as we went.
“This is one of my favorites.” She pointed at a pig labeled “corporate greed,” literally shitting on the “average American worker.”
She had me take a picture of a Big Dipper sculpture, another favorite, and then another, an oversized and blackened snowmobile. The sculptures ranged from political to playful, serious to oddball. An antlered red dragon, an anatomically correct male dinosaur, a pair of giant lumberjacks. One piece related the demise of a local union; another depicted a god holding a globe and warning, “One more fight over there and I’m drop’in ya.”
Tom Lakenen, a pipefitter, made them all from scrap metal. The park is strange, certainly–and by extension, so is its creator–but I think Hailey said it best: “Weird people are the interesting ones. I take weird as a compliment.”
A sign at the end of the dirt loop explained the park’s history: “Several years ago I started creating these pieces as a hobby. Eventually my yard became full and I had a hard time finding places to display them. I thought about trying to sell some except I’m kinda proud of them and have so many hours into each sculpture that I’d hate to see them go. This is when Lakenenland was born.
“Although I’ve never been to a sculpture park, this is what I’m trying to create. You are welcome to go through and I hope you enjoy it.”
Tom does not charge admission, although he does accept donations. Hailey put a few dollars in the donation box, and I did the same. Beside the donation box–which doubles as a sculpture of its own–I spied a stack of Lakenenland bumper stickers, also free of charge.
“Worth the detour?” Hailey asked.
I nodded. “You don’t see this stuff along the interstates.”
Before we left, Hailey drove closer to the entrance signs. Near the giant “Lakenenland” display, I spotted smaller “No Trespassing” signs. Hailey made me get out and read them.
Lakenenland welcomes anyone, twenty-four hours a day, every day of the year, the signs explained–except members of the local planning and zoning board. For them, admission comes with a fine of “$5,000 per person per day.”
Tom and the board have a history. He started the park in his backyard, in the Chocolay township just south of Marquette. But as the sculptures multiplied, the township ruled that they left the realm of “ornamentation” and entered that of “signage.” A battle ensued, and, bitterly, Tom moved to a new location.
Now, he continues to expand his roadside sculpture park, and when he can, Tom talks with visitors and explains his work. In the winter, he often sits by a campfire and roasts hot dogs for his cold-weather guests.
Lakenenland fits well in the Upper Peninsula, an area known for its quirkiness. The sculpture park is eccentric, but genuine; against the rules, but good-natured; removed from civilization, but worthwhile. And because of all of that, I found it worth far more than just a detour.
“I’m not trustworthy,” Cindy said. “Every number’s half of what I say, and every story’s half as good.”
She cackled, then twisted so she could wink at me, crammed in the backseat. She rode shotgun and fidgeted constantly. Cindy was fifty-five, but small enough to find unending ways to fit in her seat; legs curled beneath her, then braced against the glovebox, then shaking along with her laughter.
Her boyfriend, Len, drove. Shaggy hair, gray stubble, and a calm voice. His last drunk was 22 years ago; his last drink, seven years ago. “I’m allergic to alcohol,” he explained. “Every time I drink, I break out in handcuffs.”
Cindy slapped Len’s thigh and cackled some more. “Break out in handcuffs!” She twisted in her seat again and offered me a drink from a half-full squeeze water bottle. “Want some wine?”
“You a pretty straight-laced kid?”
“Not really. I just like keeping a clear head when I’m on the road.”
“That’s smart,” she nodded soberly. “You’re a smart kid. Don’t give that up! I wish I was smart, but my only gift is the gift of gab.” Len nodded vigorously and Cindy laughed. “Only problem is, I don’t like people. That’s why we’re driving out here–Len found me a house in Brule. Saw it in the newspaper and now we’re gonna check it out. Get away from the city!” She winked again.
Len and Cindy found me in the outskirt of Duluth. “I saw you with your sign,” Cindy said, “and I told Len, ‘We’ve gotta turn around–give that kid a lift!’” I had squeezed into their clunky, ramshackle car. Clothes and clutter filled the backseat and trunk, but Len and I managed to clear just enough space for me to fit with my backpack on my lap, smashed between my body and the back of Len’s seat.
“How far you goin’, sweetheart?” Cindy asked.
I explained my trip.
“And you’re from Seattle?”
“Pretty near there.”
“I’ve got a Seattle ballcap in the trunk I’ll give you. You can smoke weed there, can’t you? Len, let’s move to Washington!”
Cindy turned back to me. “What you’re doin’ is really cool, hon. I mean, really cool. You know how some people collect cats or dogs?
That’s how I collect sons. You’re gonna be my new son. So you better stay safe out there!” She lit a cigarette. “You don’t have to worry about this ride, at least. We won’t kill you.” Cindy looked back at me and winked. “Or maybe we will!” she cackled. “I’m just kidding, sweetie. …or am I?” She winked again.
Quiet in the driver’s seat, Len shook his head. I glimpsed his exasperated smile in the mirror.
Cindy knocked cigarette ash out the window. “I’ve raised two boys. They’re thirty-eight and thirty-one, now. Got pregnant with the first at seventeen, and I paid my dues raising ‘em. Now I’m livin’ how I want. I started smoking in my fifties. You don’t mind if I smoke, do you?”
“No thanks. I try to keep away from cigarettes.”
“That’s good. I do, too. I’m just bad at it!” She giggled. “I smoke weed, too. I already said that. And I’ve tried LSD and mushrooms, but I don’t do those too much. She named another drug, but Len changed gears and I missed the name. “But I’ve only been to court once!”
“For a drug charge?” I asked.
“For violating leash law. I almost got a DUI once, though. I was comin’ home from the bar with a joint in one hand and the music blaring–speeding, of course–and I saw red and blue in the mirror. I threw out the joint and pulled over, and I just knew I was screwed.
“The cop asked if I’d been drinking, and I said, ‘Yes, officer. I had a few long islands at the bar.’
“‘Those are pretty strong,’ he said.
“I played innocent: ‘Oh, are they?’”
“‘I’m afraid so, ma’am.’
“Well, I failed the breathalizer, of course, and then I had to walk the line, say the alphabet backwards, count down from three hundred by threes. But I aced it. This cop’s nice, and he says, ‘Now, ma’am, this won’t happen again, will it?’
“I say, ‘Oh, never, officer,’ and he lets me go. No charge!”
We reached Brule, a town so small it doesn’t even have a four-way stop, and Len pulled over so Cindy could find the address of the house for sale.
“You want to come with us and see this place?” Cindy asked me.
“Sure. My days are pretty flexible.”
But the address wasn’t in Cindy’s purse. Or the glovebox. She scoured the front seat, picking up receipts and paper scraps and scattering them again. I checked the back, and Len checked his side.
“I wrote it down somewhere! I’ll call Kelly–she can check the paper.”
But Len didn’t have service, and Cindy didn’t have a phone. I volunteered mine. No answer. No answer from two other people, either.
“Let’s go down to the bar,” Cindy suggested. “Someone there must know.”
But no one did, and Cindy couldn’t find the address in the trunk, either.
“I’m sorry, Len.” she sounded heart-broken. “I’m always doing things like this! I can never keep track of anything.”
“If you weren’t wasting my time, I’d be wasting my time,” he consoled. “It’s fine.”
On that note, we exchanged goodbyes. Cindy scrawled her address and home phone number on a scrap of paper, then turned it over and wrote some more. “Don’t read it until I leave, otherwise I’ll cry!”
I got out of the car, and Len started the engine.
“Wait!” Cindy shouted. She got out and ran back to the trunk. “I almost forgot!” She found the Seattle baseball cap and gave it to me
After their car rounded the curve and disappeared, I read Cindy’s note: “We will be thinking about you, sweetheart,” it read. “You will be in our thoughts and prayers. XXOO.”
I first heard about the veteran walking across America when I was still a full state behind him. “We saw him last week,” a family told me. “He’s carrying a flag all the way across the country.” And from another driver: “He’s walking from Washington to Washington! And pushing this flag cart, too.”
As I gained on him, I learned more. “He’s following highway 2—just like you!” And finally, the motive: “It’s for soldiers who died in battle.”
A few miles outside of Floodwood, Minnesota, I found him. I interrupted my driver mid-story. He wasn’t offended. “Don’t apologize–I’d walk with him, too, if I could. You’ll hear some good stuff.”
So we stopped and everyone got out to meet the walker. But the driver had a destination and a deadline, and by the time I had pulled my pack from the trunk, he had returned to his car.
“Mind if I walk with you a while?” I asked the veteran.
“Not at all.”
The man was Sgt. Chuck Lewis. Sixty-two and decked out in running gear, he pushed a beefed-up, three-wheeled baby carriage. It held his supplies, two full-sized flags (American and Christian), and a row of smaller flags for the Marine Corps, prisoners of war, and other groups.
He walked quickly and—on most issues, anyway—knew where he stood.
“We talk about the 99 percent and the 1 percent in this country,” he said, “but the real 1 percent are the men and women in uniform. They’re the only ones who really sacrifice for their country.”
I asked about doctors and teachers. He answered with a new subject.
“We’ve got more suicides than casualties coming out of Iraq and Afghanistan. People think Vietnam was bad, but they don’t look at the wars now. We’ve got a problem, and our country has to do something about it.” Chuck talked about one soldier who came back from Iraq and retreated into his house. No one realized he had returned until they found his body, days later.
Amid ideas and opinions, I gleaned Chuck’s backstory: a marine during Vietnam, though never sent abroad. Then he worked for the Navy with weapons research and development. After retiring in 2001, he volunteered with veterans organizations and a project he called “Standing for the Fallen.” During the holiday seasons, he stood beside the street in uniform and with his flags, reminding people of the servicemen and servicewomen who can no longer share the holidays with their own families.
But, tired of petty squabbles among veterans organizations and sick of undervalued military deaths, Chuck wanted to do more. On March 31, he changed “Standing for the Fallen” to “Walking for the Fallen” and began a 3,300-mile journey from Everett, Washington to the Vietnam Memorial.
“I almost left on April first,” he said, “but someone asked if it was an April Fool’s joke. So instead I started on March 31.” Since then, a typical day is twenty miles of walking, a lunchtime phone call to his wife, and a lot of waving.
We neared the town of Floodwood, the halfway point for Chuck’s trip, and he invited me to a dinner that a local group of veterans and their wives had planned for him. I tagged along and did a poor job of blending in.
“What’s your cause?” several sixty-somes asked me.
“I’m just trying to learn.”
“You aren’t walking for a charity?”
“No, getting some experiences. And I’m hitchhiking–I don’t have to walk much.”
“You can’t hitchhike in this day and age,” one woman declared. “There’s too many crazies out there.”
“I’ve made it this far, and I’ve only met good people.”
“Well, it’s not safe anymore.”
Then dinner arrived, and Chuck shared stories with the group, plus some general observations. “When people stop to ask what I’m doing,” he explained, “I usually ask if they identify as conservative or liberal–no parties, just conservative or liberal. Most say they’re conservative, and some say they don’t like either term. But only five self-identified as liberal. That makes you think.”
I listened to discussions about Vietnam, current politics, and the military today, and the veterans’ shared values acted as an incubator. Premature ideas hatched and stumbled about: opinions that would not have survived cold counter-arguments, denouncements that could breathe only in a closed and homogenous room. Some seemed the result of a one-up-manship game of chicken, speakers making bolder and bigger claims as if to out-patriotize or out-Christian the others.
Some veterans lamented the end of the draft. All agreed that the military deserved more respect. And boot camp, evidently, has gone soft. “You used to go in there and get straightened out. You knew how to respect authority.” A few blamed violent video games for school shootings, and one veteran blamed divorce. “Look at all the school shooters,” he said. “All males. All missing a father figure.”
They brought up the problems in our country: no prayer in schools. Abortions and too much birth control. Gays in the military. Gays in general.
“It’s just going downhill,” one woman lamented. “But we know it has to happen. Look at history, and we know things have just kept on getting worse.”
But, as has often happened on this trip, I could not write off their ideas. Amid a dissimilar generation’s hyper-conservativeness, I found some ideas I respected, and some I even admired.
As dinner wound down, the couple hosting Chuck for the night extended the invitation to me. Eager for more time with Chuck–plus a shower and a tick-free night–I accepted. I heard more about his thoughts and his trip, but one topic stood out to me.
“In Vietnam–and in these wars now–the enemy isn’t in uniform,” he said. “They hide behind women and children. They even use women and children. You can’t tell who’s against you and who’s neutral. The only ones you can depend on are your brothers and sisters in uniform. Those are the only people you can trust.”
I have the luxury of living in a relatively safe culture. To a large degree, I can find friends in strangers, and I can afford to trust recklessly. I find the unknown inviting and, at the very least, interesting.
But when I imagine a context in which the foreign is legitimately dangerous, in which “stranger” is synonymous with “enemy,” I understand withdrawal. Home is a known good, and if our attempts to explore end in violence or chaos, it makes sense to shun the unknown.
I will not assume causation. I will not try to psycho-analyze a roomful of veterans, nor attribute an entire worldview to how one views the unfamiliar. But for me, it works like one of C.S. Lewis’ models. “Such is my own way of looking,” Lewis writes in Mere Christianity. “But remember this is only one more picture. Do not mistake it for the thing itself: and if it does not help you, drop it.”
I rarely wait more than an hour for a ride. The average, actually, is somewhere closer to half that. Sometimes I get out of one car, wave goodbye, and before I can even walk across the parking lot and pull out my sign, someone else pulls up and offers me a lift. Those are good days.
But in Crookston, Minnesota, I waited for three and a half hours on the side of Highway 2. I started in the early afternoon, on the edge of the 8,000-person town in a near-ideal spot: 35 mph speed limit, gas station across the street, and a wide shoulder and empty church parking lot for eastbound traffic. Drivers had more than ample time to see me, and abundant places to pull over. I thought I’d be in western Minnesota by supper time.
Traffic came in groups every few minutes, bunched together by the town’s last stoplight. Most people smiled or waved, old ladies stared blatantly and unabashedly, and a few drivers honked or gave a happy thumbs-up. No one, to my frustration, stopped. So after an hour, I blamed mid-day short-distance driving and hiked over to the Polk County Historical Museum to kill time until work let out for the day.
When you enter a building with a full backpack, people tend to ask what you’re doing. I buried the day’s frustration and swapped my story for the town’s. The elderly volunteers explained how–although the population was almost the same now as in 1910–Crookston had evolved from a place where “you were related to half the people in town” to a varied and mutable college community. For the next hour, I heard stories of growing up in Crookston, back when the park used to have a toboggan track all the way to and over the frozen river; of controversial current events, like replacing the outdoor public pool with an indoor one; and small-town portraits, such as the sixty-year old who keeps her property free of pigeons with a 12-gauge shotgun.
When I turned to leave, one volunteer handed me a twenty. “Before you go, you need to stop by Widman’s candy shop and try their chippers. The place is over a hundred years old, and still owned by the original family.”
I had time before the five o’clock traffic rush–a relative term, out in the small towns–so I accepted the money and got directions to Widman’s. A wonder of hitchhiking and couchsurfing and any traveling that puts you in contact with a local is getting the insider’s scoop. A long-time resident knows more than a guidebook, and a local can show you what defines the town, not what defines its tourism.
My mood much improved, I trekked a mile through Midwest heat to see the old-fashioned candy shop. When I arrived, my backpack again prompted questions about my story. I finally managed to ask about the chippers, and the owner offered me a sample of a giant, ridged potato chip, coated in a quarter-inch of chocolate. They’re a local favorite, and understandably so. I ordered half a pound. But when I tried to pay, the owner refused. “Save it for a meal,” he said. “Keep on traveling.”
By the time I made it back to my near-ideal hitching spot, the traffic had begun. Instead of just a few mothers and elderly couples, I waved to intermittent streams of middle-aged men and high school kids.
This time, people stopped, though none to give me a ride. Instead, a car stuffed with Latino high schoolers gave me two water bottles, and then two black girls stopped to pray for me and feed me breadsticks, water, and a soft drink. Two butch, middle-aged women in a pickup offered me a ride in the wrong direction, and a kid I placed somewhere between “bro” and “thug” gave me two more water bottles and apologized for having a full car. In two hours, I gained: more water than I could drink, more than enough food for the evening, and more diversity than I had encountered in any other day on this trip.
So although my total wait time was up to three hours, although the after-work rush had ended and dark was approaching, and although Crookston offered no convenient place for me to spend the night, I was happy.
And then another van rolled up, this one with a mother and three high schoolers. “Can we invite you to dinner?”
Dinner would mean a break from the road, a loss of dwindling daylight.
“If you need to keep trying for a ride, I understand, but we’d really like to hear about what you’re doing.”
I squashed my inner planner. “Dinner sounds great.”
“Terrific. We’ll meet you at Happy Joe’s.”
The mother and her husband had promised each other they would never pick up a hitchhiker, especially not with children in the car. Sharing a meal, fortunately, was allowed. So we ate pizza and I learned more about Catholicism and St. Christopher, the patron saint of traveling.
“I couldn’t do something like what you’re doing myself,” the mother told me, “but I’m really encouraged by your trust. It’s inspiring, and refreshing to know that there are so many good people out there.”
Laden with leftover pizza, I returned to the road for one last shot. Half an hour later, and after nearly a full day of waiting and defied expectations, a University of Minnesota student pulled over and gave me a ride out of town.
It is impossible, I realized, to predict the details of a day that depends entirely on strangers. But much to my type-A chagrin, I am learning that unpredictability is not a bad thing. When I hitchhike, I expect apathy. I imagine vice. To be ignored by drivers, hassled by cops, assaulted by criminals–but I cannot predict virtue. Altruism is illogical, and so the generosity I encounter defies my expectations.
Beyond helping a stranger travel a few miles, a few patterns of virtue have emerged, such as dinner offers and invitations to stay the night, but much of the goodness I find remains unique and surprising, and it emerges from equally unique and surprising sources. A drug addict called me her new son and gave me a baseball cap; a Vietnam vet taught me a self-defense technique. A camp host gave me a free tent site, and one waitress let me spend a full rainy day in her diner, even during the Friday night dinner rush.
In time, perhaps, I will be able to expect and predict such goodness. The options and sources of virtue might be limited. But so far, I have been continually surprised and overwhelmed by generosity. Even from an analytical standpoint, the variety of virtue–and here I mean real virtue, not timid obedience or legalistic rule-following–the variety of virtue makes it far more interesting than the commonalities of vice.
Oil Fields, North Dakota
California had the forty-niners, Alaska had the Klondike. And now, North Dakota has the Bakken. It’s a gold rush without the gold, and it has turned North Dakota on its head.
Between 2.1 billion and 7.4 billion barrels of extractable oil lie in the Bakken oil formation, depending on which estimate you read and how much rock fracturing technology advances in the coming years. To get it out of the ground, oil companies are drilling 100 new wells a month, a pace likely to continue for upwards of 20 years. Extraction will continue long afterward.
But the current drilling rush–which started in 2008–has opened jobs for “anyone who wants one.” I heard that line again and again from Montana to Minnesota, and then again from anyone who has a relative in the area. The statement usually comes with an opinion, but regardless of how they feel about it, the Bakken affected everyone I met in western North Dakota.
The oil fields first came up through a warning. “Go through South Dakota, dude. It’s bad up north. Seriously.” This was in western Montana, from an 18-year-old who, although he talks big and likes even bigger stories, was genuinely concerned for me. “There’s too many guys been alone too long. They’re rapin’ people up there. Even men, dude. Don’t go.”
But the next day, when I found a driver going through the rest of Montana and a ways past Williston, I decided zooming through 500 miles of flat and boring was worth risking one kid’s horror story. So I rode with Tim, a middle-aged water truck driver for an oil company.
At $30 per hour, he likes his job. “Oil’s where the money is, man. Work a few years, and you’ve got enough to buy a truck with cash and put a good down payment on a house. And you got an education–they want guys like you. You’d get $80,000 a year, starting salary! You can’t beat that!”
A safety inspector I rode with later seconded the idea. “There’s money in the oil fields,” he quipped. An Australian citizen, the inspector works in North Dakota for six months a year, in stints broken up by family vacations and trips back home. His pay, plus his wife’s income, is enough to fund holidays around the world, usually for two or three weeks at a time and multiple times a year.
But although it’s available, the money does not come easy. Prospectors suffered in the California and Alaska gold rushes, and so do oil chasers in North Dakota. Physically and emotionally, the work is tough. Most drive trucks or do hard, manual labor, pulling twelve-hour days without weekends. Tim, for instance, works 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. on a 24-days-on, 8-days-off schedule. He says the work is hardest after 4 a.m., when the sun comes up and he fights to stay awake.
Accidents are common. I saw one worker’s camper flipped over in the ditch, and I heard of an oil-truck collision that happened just days before at an intersection I drove through. A driver had dozed through a stop sign and smashed into a pickup.
In their off hours, workers live in modern versions of company towns. Clumps of the cheap, temporary housing litter the area around Williston and Minot. Picture a dozing housing developments smashed together and filled with single-wide mobile homes. Furnish those like college dorms and put four men in each one. You have an above-average “man camp.”
Tim lives in one of these better ones. Each worker has his own room, and each pair of rooms shares “a shitter and a shower.” His place came fully furnished, and unlike many of the others, it even has a television. But in other man camps, workers live in rooms “smaller than a prison cell,” and less homely, too. Such housing might have been cheap to build, it is not cheap to rent. Depending on the oil company you’re working for, a glorified dorm room can run between $300 and $1,600 a month.
And while the Montanan’s story of wanton rape might be overblown, it has a kernel of truth. Some women live in the man camps, but oil work is a male-dominated profession, and families, as a general rule, do not follow the workers to the oil fields. “There’s a woman behind every tree in North Dakota,” Tim joked bitterly.
The result of exhaustion, bad housing, and loneliness: tension, to put it mildly. One night, Tim arrived on site to find ambulances and police cars. In weeks prior, two Texans had relentlessly bullied a college kid. “A guy just like you,” Tim said. At the time, everyone else ignored it or laughed.
But one night, after weeks of abuse, the kid took a .44 revolver from his truck, and he shot both Texans in the stomach. “I suffered,” he said. “Now it’s your turn.” The kid turned to the onlookers. “Why isn’t anyone laughing? It’s not funny anymore? Why’s no one laughing now?”
Things settled down a bit after that, Tim said, but the oil fields are still rough, at best. In their eight days off, men go home, take a vacation, visit a friend–anything to get the hell away from North Dakota.
The rest of the region feels the oil rush, too. As it was in California and Alaska, existing infrastructure can’t handle the employment boom. Take the city of Williston, for example, right in the heart of oil country. Three years ago, its population numbered less than 15,000, but now, it has 33,000 people, with a projected 2017 population of 44,000. According to the US Census Bureau, Williston’s growth averages out to a new resident every four hours.
The result is housing shortages, RV influxes, near-constant traffic. The check-out lines at Wal-Mart stretch clear to the front doors. “They’re running at full capacity, and they can’t keep up,” Tim explained. “I have to shop during the day. You go on a weekend or in the evening, and those shelves are bare, man.”
The prices at Wal-Mart are as high as the lines are long. Demand for groceries and basic supplies has residents facing sticker shock wherever they turn. Gasoline in Williston costs $3.74. Ironically, in Fargo–almost a full state away from the oil–you can fill up for $3.27 a gallon.
But stores have to raise wages and well as prices, as one local whose DUIs keep him from driving an oil truck explained. He said he could make $14 an hour flipping burgers at a Williston McDonalds, but the conditions there are bad enough to keep him east of Minot. The high pay is necessary for two reasons: residents have to make enough to survive the cost of living, and businesses have to attract employees whose peers make $30-$40 an hour in the oil fields.
“You see all these restaurants with ‘Now Hiring’ signs, and it’s because of oil,” the Minot man said. “Their cooks keep quitting to take trucking jobs.” Cut out from oil money by his driving record, he did not hide his resentment. “Everyone who’s not in oil hates oil.”
I met one driver in Michigan whose brother moved from Minot to Fargo to escape the oil culture. He got a good price on his house and fled east.
The biggest divide between those broken and made by the Bakken, though, lies between farmers. Most farmers who bought their land in recent decades neglected to also buy the accompanying mineral rights. So when an oil company moves in, the farmer gets a one-time payment, but no share of the extracted oil. Instead, he loses a piece of farmable land and has to deal with the region’s inflated prices with the same income as before.
Those who inherited their land from grandfathers or great-grandfathers, though, retain the original mineral rights, and when an oil company drills, those farmers get a sizable cut. Some make as much as $80,000 every few weeks. Those families pay off the house, buy a new truck and tractor, get a motorhome or a boat, and set aside enough for an early retirement–all for just a few negotiations with a big company.
National debate rages as to whether the economic boom justifies the environmental cost, but for those in western North Dakota, at least, the debate is also a personal one. Driving through the region at night, I saw an agricultural landscape dotted with the flames of oil wells and the lights of drilling rigs, the latter like lonely high-rises amid miles of cropland. The people here actually experience the issues most of us only argue about, and after speaking with many of them, I realize that I know far too little to condone or decry the oil rush.
Instead, I find myself agreeing with a waitress I met in Michigan, whose fiancee has driven trucks in North Dakota for the past three years. “After three or four weeks out there, I can tell it in his voice,” she said. “He needs out–he starts to hate it there. What a lot of people don’t realize, is that while you make a lot of money, you sacrifice so much else.”
One of my best rides took me nowhere. I was picked up in Ponderay, Idaho, near the Big R grocery store, and–three hours later–was dropped off in the same spot.
Kathy and Sharon, a mother and nine-months-pregnant daughter-in-law, saw me on their way to get groceries for that night’s dinner. They don’t usually pick up hitchhikers. But as they shopped, they talked about me: smiling and waving, clean, traveling on trust. If I was still there when they left, the women decided, they would invite me to dinner.
“You aren’t a freak, are you?” Kathy laughed.
“I like to think I’m not.”
“I guess you have to be a bit of a freak to go hitchhiking, but that’s not too bad.”
“My name’s Josh.”
“Want to come to our house for dinner?”
“Great. Sharon’s pregnant, so we’re really hoping you’re not a freak. You seem like a good kid.”
As far as pre-ride introductions go, this was one of my favorites. Kathy just said out loud what everyone else thinks. Both parties always trade a few sentences and glances before the hitchhiker jumps inside, trusting their abilities to spot an actual freak in just a half-minute conversation.
We drove off, and, as usual, I explained my trip. The women shared a little about their family: their husbands like hot sauce spicy enough for their bodies to reject it, and–for reasons unknown but unrelated to hot sauce–Kathy experiences seizures. The seizures, often connected to stress, come as frequently as several times a week or as rarely as once a month. Picking up a hitchhiker is not exactly a stress-relieving activity, and I appreciated Kathy’s dinner offer all the more.
Fortunately, the little dog on Kathy’s lap stayed quiet. The dog is a seizure predicting dog, meaning it has the rare and unscientific ability to anticipate a seizure and give Kathy enough time to sit or lie down before it hits. “She’s saved me from broken bones and lot of hospital trips,” Kathy said. “I hardly go anywhere without her.”
The family got lucky with their dog. Not until Kathy’s seizures began several years ago did they discover their pet’s natural talent. Had they bought a designated and fully trained seizure dog, it would have run them roughly $30,000, and even then, successful pairing with the owner is not guaranteed.
When we pulled into the driveway, I saw the husbands, Michael and Jeff, standing in the garage.
“We tried calling them when we thought about picking you up,” Sharon told me, “but neither of them answered.”
“So they don’t know anything about me.”
The women went inside to cook dinner, and I was left outside with their husbands. Incredibly, Michael and Jeff were unfazed. The family doesn’t pick up hitchhikers often, but they often open their home to those in need. We did Trip Explanation Round 2, and then Jeff asked how much I knew about bottled water.
“I usually just drink tap.”
He nodded. “That’s good. Bottled water is a product of advertising. Companies and society manipulate us into wanting things that we don’t actually want. Have you heard about the aquifers in India?”
“I’m afraid not.”
“Bottled water is using them up. Nestle and Coca-Cola–the two biggest bottled water companies–are buying up aquifers in rural villages. They send in their equipment and take all the water, so the villagers can’t even use their own wells. Once they’ve drained the aquifer, they move on to another village and do the same thing. They’re destroying people’s lives for profit, and no one’s stopping them.”
For the first time on this trip, I started to worry. It was only four o’clock, and we had already started on conspiracy theories.
My expression must have given me away. “We’re not conspiracy theorists,” Jeff assured me. “We just do our research. Most people just focus on Wal-Mart and sit-coms and ignore reality.”
He and Michael moved on to the problems of capitalism and the dangers of processed food. But as they talked, I realized–to a large degree–that I agreed with them. I added a few ideas I had read in Michael Pollan’s books, and I talked about the problems of materialism and “stuff accumulation.” By the time we migrated inside, we got along just fine, bottled water paranoia be damned.
And then, heavenly words from Kathy: “Do you want to do a load of laundry? And shower?”
Once I was clean, our conversation turned–as it so often does between the Cascades and the Great Lakes–to hunting and trapping. After my story of unsuccessfully trying to trap squirrels in my backyard, Jeff went to the garage. He returned a few minutes later, carrying a bent washer with two extra holes drilled through it. “Want to see a locking snare?”
With the washer, he showed me how to rig a wire snare that won’t release once tightened, and then how to set up a deadfall. He gave me the materials. “In case you get hungry.”
When Kathy and Michael’s daughter came home, the family made sure I wouldn’t have to snare animals that night, at least. I did try one drop of the warned-against hot sauce, which the guys judged to be around 90,000 Scoville heat units–or ten times as spicy as a jalapeño pepper. My eyes turned red and I sweated through the rest of the meal. Michael laughed. “This is one of our milder ones.”
When I climbed into Kathy and Sharon’s car that afternoon, I expected a meal and some conversation. But as so often happens on this trip, I received far more: cleanliness, lessons in snaring and seizures, true hot sauce, and–most importantly–a family of loving people I can call friends.
And the next day, when I looked up those aquifers, I found out that Jeff and Michael were right.
North Cascades Highway, Washington
In eleven rides, I made it through Washington state, and in eleven rides, I learned who will pick up a hitchhiker.
My trip officially began on June 20th, during a rainy afternoon in Mount Vernon. I had bussed down from Bellingham, and, finding myself in the middle of a small city with no nearby highways, I covered my pack with a poncho and walked. Residential urban areas are not good for hitching. People notice you–they stare, act shocked, smile, wave–but they don’t stop. One driver in a military uniform did pull over, but only to apologize. “I’d give you a ride, but my house is right by that stop sign.”
Not until I had trekked a few miles through suburbs did I find a willing driver going farther than the next block. Not much farther, but after our introductions and some brief conversation, he offered to pass his house and take me all the way to the start of Highway 20, the road I would follow through the rest of Washington. As we drove, he told me about his car: a customized Volkswagen Rabbit powered by vegetable oil. He finds waste vegetable oil, filters it, and gets more than 40 miles to the gallon.
From there on, rides were easier to come by. Highway 20 doesn’t have many competing roads, so when drivers stopped, we were always going the same direction: east. I quickly figured out the best places to stand: near a wide shoulder or turn-out, in a low-speed area, after a stoplight, by a long and straight stretch of road. The first gives drivers a place to pull over; the second and third and fourth give them time to see that I’m not the normal hitchhiker.
Most people do not expect me. Well-groomed, smiling, clean. “Some of those other guys look like they’ve been rolling in the mud,” one driver said. Several times, I’ve been told I remind people of a friend, or a son, or a past version of themselves. And almost always, the driver comments on honesty. “You just look like I can trust you, man.”
I knew I would be placing my trust in strangers on this trip, relying on first impressions and snap-judgements to accept or deny rides, but I was unprepared for just how much trust I would receive. After reading other hitchhiking narratives, I expected to ride almost exclusively with men, and usually by men who had done some thumbing themselves.
But of those eleven Washington rides, four were from women. One woman was alone, and the other three were with children–a baby, in two cases, and a four-year-old and a five-year-old in the other. A girl my age passed me near Okanogan, on her way to visit her parents. “If he’s still there when I go back, I’m picking him up,” she told them. Half an hour later, I met Rachel and her son, Charles, for her first experience with a hitchhiker and a five-mile ride to the next town. We’re now friends on Facebook.
As I made my way across the state, I rode with a “mostly retired” couple coming home from a doctor’s appointment; two thirty-somes, a joint, and two bowls; a mid-twenties real estate appraiser who told me about his church; a middle-aged agricultural engineer about to go backpacking. I was picked up by a self-labeled hippie who ran security for an Occupy Seattle camp and now worked as a website developer and blogger, and later by a Vietnam vet with a log cabin house and a four-square-mile tree farm.
Those who gave me rides defied patterns in age and gender, in economic status and political ideology. Some are hitchhikers themselves, others are totally inexperienced. Many are Christians, some oppose all religion, and a few hold to other faiths. I have observed only one commonality in those who stopped for an atypical hitchhiker: they are all deserved trust. They were generous, they were honest, and they were good people.
When Gagan Basra (his real name) was young, he used to walk–multi-day or multi-week treks across country. It gave him time to think and see the land. He’s no longer in shape for a hundred-mile expedition, nor is he a young man anymore, but he still dayhikes when he can and thinks back on his earlier travels.
Gagan grew up in India, but for the last year and a half, he has worked as general manager for Okanogan Inn & Suites. While walking from one edge of town to the other, I stopped to use the hotel bathroom and escape the sun. When I entered, backpacked and sweating, I found Gagan in the lobby, talking with a maintenance worker.
I couldn’t tell who was in charge, so I asked both where I could find a bathroom.
“Do you have a room?” Gagan answered.
He started to deny me, but then looked at my backpack and stopped. “Are you walking?”
“Walking and hitchhiking, all the way to Michigan.”
“From western Washington. I started near Bellingham yesterday.”
“You want to see the country?”
I nodded. “I just graduated, so now’s my chance to learn and get some experiences. I’m taking the highways, sticking to small towns. I’m avoiding interstates, because all you see there are cars and concrete.”
He nodded. Then, “I’ll unlock the bathroom for you.”
I thanked him, and when I came out, he asked if I wanted anything to eat. Gagan pointed to the continental breakfast and offered cereal, waffles, fruit. “Whatever you want–help yourself.” I had finished my leftover Concrete burger that morning, so I was more than happy to accept.
He disappeared behind the counter while I ate. But when I stood to leave, he reappeared and asked if I wanted any more to take on the road. I declined, mentioning the oatmeal and pasta and stove I had packed from home.
Gagan shook his head. “What’s your favorite cereal?”
“I’ll get you some.” He went downstairs and brought back a full 39-ounce bag, dwarfing the box of cookies he also carried. “Take these. Do you need a place to sleep?”
The offer of a free hotel room shocked me. Then tempted me. But it was just after noon, and I hoped to reach Idaho by nightfall. I turned down his offer.
He pulled out a twenty. “Take this. For the road.”
“I can’t! You’ve already given me food!”
“No, no. I insist.”
I told him about my rule against money.
“Then use it for dinner. Same as me giving you food.”
I wavered. “How about five dollars for a meal, not twenty for a meal.” He swapped bills, and I accepted it. “Thank you, thank you.”
We talked a little about his travels, and a little more about mine. When I turned to leave–again–he took out another five. “Make it two meals.”
So I have broken my rule against touching money. People like Gagan hear about my trip and remember their own travels, or feel inspired to take a trip themselves, or just feel glad that someone else is out there doing it.
“I can’t believe you’re doing this, man!”
“Back in my twenties… I hitched around Chicago, Boston, and all the roads in between.”
“You’ll learn a lot, I’ll tell you that much.”
For some, I become a sort of proxy, their connection to a dream or a memory. For others, I am their hope, living on trust in a way that they are too afraid to do themselves. Others see me as a son or a grandson, and they become invested in my safety and the trip’s outcome.
All of them want my experience to succeed, and they want to feel involved. But for many, limited by schedules or families, all they can offer is money. They can’t waste a half hour on lunch or invite me into their home. So they wish me luck or pray with me, they give me a business card or email or phone number, and–because they want to contribute something tangible–many give me a twenty dollar bill.
In Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle, a woman in a working camp goes into labor. Steinbeck’s protagonists rally the camp and collect bits of cloth to use in the delivery–far more cloth than necessary–and the birth is safe and clean. Afterward, Mac explains why he collected so much: “Men always like to work together. There’s a hunger in men to work together … Every man who gave part of his clothes felt that the work was his own. They all feel responsible for that baby. It’s theirs because something from them went to it. To give back the cloth would cut them out. There’s no better way to make men part of a movement than to have them give something to it. I bet they all feel fine right now.”
Since a meal rarely costs more than $10, I set the rest of the money I receive aside for writing. Already, I have learned and experienced more than will fit in twice-weekly blog posts, and those who have helped me along the way have done more than keep me fed–they are extending the time I have to translate this experience into a longer piece of writing.
Because this experience, I am reminded again and again, is about far more than myself. It is the baby of In Dubious Battle. It is an experiment and an expedition in which many have a stake, and it belongs to everyone who has given me a ride or told me a story. It belongs to everyone who encourages me, who prays for me, who reads my posts. Gagan Basra is just one of many who have overwhelmed me with generosity, and in return, as just one stakeholder in this journey, I will do my part to document as much of this experience as I can. In accepting money from strangers, I commit to using it as best I am able.
In 1938, people knew about Concrete, Washington, if only for a few days. On Halloween Eve, 1938, listeners throughout the town tuned in to hear Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds radio broadcast. Like more than a million others, Concrete’s listeners fell for the broadcast’s realism. They heard not a radio play, but convincing news reports of a real-time Martian invasion.
Tripod war machines land on Earth and destroy bridges, railroads, power stations. The New Jersey militia fights back in vain, millions of refugees clog the roads, and the Martians advance on New York City.
Then, in Concrete, Washington, the lights go out. Radios silence, phones go dead. The town panics. Some families flee to the mountains, others rush to guard their moonshine stills. People fill the streets, ready to shoot the aliens and defend the town. Meanwhile, those who missed the broadcast stare out their windows, dumbfounded
After the initial hysteria faded, the town learned that their electrical sub-station had short-circuited, and its citizens slunk back inside, relieved, embarrassed, and furious at Orson Welles. News of the mistake spread internationally, and for a few days of laughter, people knew about Concrete.
When I passed through it, though, the town had returned to obscurity. With a population of 700, it had shrunk from its former–although still limited–glory. At the time of the War of the Worlds broadcast, Concrete housed 1,000 people and the Superior Portland Cement Company plant. Once known as “Cement City,” the town still shows those days of prosperity; locals will point to the old cement silos and tell you about the abandoned industry.
Now, however, residents who can’t find jobs in education or service must commute to a not-so-nearby city. Or, as many in Concrete do, turn to meth. The drug is cheap and easy to find. It staves off hopelessness, at least at first, and it keeps people entertained in a place where “there isn’t much to do.”
On my way out of Concrete, my driver, Sue, pointed to decrepit homes visible from the highway. Rotting porches, moss-covered roofs, broken windows. Some of them are meth labs, others are abandoned completely. “If you go in there,” Sue said, “all you’ll see are beetles and maybe a dirty mattress with a big blood stain.” It reminded me of a rural version of Detroit.
But a few houses, she said, are still technically homes. Devoted to their drug, meth users along Highway 20 live in buildings that are not merely broken, but toxic. The problem is cyclical. “You’ve got these tweaker parents,” Sue explained, “and their kids grow up in broken homes. They’ve got no one to say no, no job prospects. They end up just doing the same thing.” Concrete High School a four-year school, enrolls more than 220 students from the surrounding area. This year, Sue said, just 32 students graduated.
I spent my first night in Concrete, before I learned the extent of the town’s problems. I ate at Cascade Burger and heard about the classic car night and Saturday farmer’s market. The girls working there told me about the old-fashioned movie theater, museum, and drive-under school, and they suggested a good place to pitch my tent where no one would find me. They told me drugs were a problem, but their complaints focused on Concrete’s boringness. Fortunately, the night passed without incident.
But the next morning, a woman walking her dog warned me that hitchhikers have vanished around Concrete. “Just disappeared,” she said. “And they were older and bigger than you.”
The next person I encountered was Sue. A small, blonde girl about my age, she pulled over and introduced herself: “I’m kind of a hippie. I like to help people.” Sue wore a long-sleeved camo top and kept her hair in a ponytail. Her car, well-used at best, had a problematic brake pedal, so she used her parking brake instead. Her baby rode in a car seat up front, quietly sucking on a bottle beneath a mound of blankets.
Sue picks up hitchhikers despite her only experience thumbing: when she was sixteen, she decided to hitch a ride while walking home drunk from a party. She found one around 2 am. After she got in and the truck hit 35 mph, her driver turned to her. “You’ll have to pay for this ride. And I don’t take cash.” Sue jumped from the vehicle and ran.
She and her husband hope to leave Concrete eventually, but for now, cheap housing and family ties keep them there. Her parents, a welder and a nurse, still live in town, along with her younger sister, an honor roll student who found a place in a local church. She has friends in the area, too, although very few from her high school days.
Sue showed me a campsite where I could stay with her friend John if I failed to find another ride that day. John is brain damaged and paralyzed on the left side, the fault of a drunk driver and an evening walk. “Stay off the roads on the weekends,” Sue said. “Just about everyone here drinks and drives. I’m serious–it gets dark, you find a place to stay the night.”
Sue has no love for what she calls “Redneckville.” In one particularly meth-ridden stretch of Highway 20, she said she rarely drives this part without her husband, a high-rise construction worker who commutes to Seattle. “I’m too small to go around here,” she said simply.
Concrete has come a long way from panicked families rushing to fight Martian invaders. I might laugh at its history, but when I think of the broken families that produce more meth addicts than graduates, and when I think of Sue, the hippie trapped in a town she does not trust, I’m much more inclined to cry.
8/16/2013, My Narrative
8/14/2013, Someone's Story, Virtue
8/10/2013, My Narrative, On the Road
My Narrative, On the Road, Virtue
8/4/2013, Introspection, Someone's Story
7/25/2013, Small Town Study, Someone's Story
7/25/2013, Introspection, My Narrative
7/22/2012, My Narrative, Someone's Story
7/18/2013, Small Town Study
7/17/2013, Introspection, My Narrative
7/15/2013, My Narrative, Someone's Story
7/1/2013, Introspection, My Narrative, On the Road
6/29/2013, Small Town Study
6/28/2013, My Narrative, Someone's Story
6/26/2013, Someone's Story
6/25/2013, My Narrative, Virtue
6/23/2013, Small Town Study
6/22/2013, My Narrative, Someone's Story
6/22/2013, On the Road
6/21/2013, My Narrative, Virtue
6/20/2013, Small Town Study
6/17/2013, My Narrative