Thanks again to Alyssa for her strong edits. I couldn’t have asked for a better Ear or hitch partner.
Welcome back to the Kingdom of Fear. The stream of friendly Mexican smiles are replaced by chickenhearted stares en los Estados Unidos. Our longest wait of the entire 2,500 mile hitch – six hours with our thumbs out in Laredo.
It was a fine piece of highway – steady traffic and a wide shoulder . We looked engaging – well rested from a vacant lot and well fed on a hearty breakfast of chicharron from a retired steel worker looking to chat his empty morning away. But despite our genuine smiles and amusing gesticulations for the passing cars, despite inexplicably holding off the roadsides horrors and keeping up our spirits, it was no rides and no smiles. Just fearful vacant mugs.
It’s disheartening, sickening even, to cross back into Amerika. I shudder at the flood of foreboding, the dark dreadful angels fluttering over the conversations. “Isn’t it dangerous? People are more crazy now. Aren’t you afraid of getting killed? It’s not like the old days after all.”
Actually, it’s exactly like the old days. Nothing has changed. Since the Great Depression, the Russian Revolution, the Enlightenment, the martyr of Christ, the Roman Coliseum and the death of the Buddha, the world’s maintained a roughly constant percentage of serial killers and gentle giants and slavering fairies and long suffering mothers and violent pederasts and dependable fathers and bombastic hardheads and gossiping old hags and altruistic saints and vicious pigfuckers.
Why does everyone assume that the road is filled with killers? When was the last time you even heard the story of a hitchhiker getting murdered? There’s no evidence, not even anecdotal. (Though my mother suspects that’s because we simply disappear into freezers in hidden cabins).
But I don’t want to downplay the perils. Hitchhiking is fiendishly dangerous. That’s because I’m in an automobile, one of the greatest killers in our land. Catching a ride in one of those monsters of metal and glass and speed is the greatest danger I face in my wanderings – worse than helmetless biking down Fifth Avenue counting coup on the yellow cabs or chasing off packs of wild dogs in the slums of Mumbai or stepping on snakes in the Mojave.
I may die hitchhiking but it won’t be because the driver likes the taste of my liver. It’s because he wants to make eye contact while pouring out his life story.
The most dependable rides come from the old boys who used to hitch themselves. I ask them why they stop and it’s almost always the same answer about paying it forward. But mostly they want a receptive Ear who will prod them with questions about jobs, families Even the most dull of accountants can’t talk longer than I can listen. With a patience honed over the years, my Ear is the service I offer in exchange for a ride. As Heinlein said, the easiest way to get the reputation of a sparking conversationalist is to not say much.
Sometimes, however, they become maddening monologues of bigotry or homophobia or empty boasting about tagging bitches. I just nod and let them hang themselves on their own vicious rope. It’s a window into a world I never see, it’s a reminder of an appalling reality that I must never forget exists. The close-minded and the colorless fade into a blur of cowboy hats, evil chuckles, acrid sweat, stale cigarettes and dirty snickerings. These are the worthless rocks to be sifted and discarded in my hunt for diamonds.
Because then there’s days like this when we hitched out of Austin and Aly said, “It’s like a competition to see who can be the most awesome at picking up hitchhikers.”
We got a late start because of my insomnia at the house of a Manhattan family that I used to tutor in the city. They decided to move to Austin for a few years of ‘family adventure.’ Three towheaded boys play in the backyard with the gregarious pitbull. At night they watch Love Lucy and Charlie Chaplin together. It’s eerie to see their oldest son, a spitting image of myself at that age – ravenous geekdom with National Geographic posters on the wall and overflowing shelves of books. To see a family that encouraged the pursuit of such passions was the just the medicine I needed.
I met Aly at a Wal-Mart after her night drinking with gutter punk friends who hitched from NYC to Austin with two dogs, a guitar and an accordion. I thought it was hard for me to get rides. I wonder who’s picking them up?
Thankfully, Aly was in charge of our grub sack and typography. Under the highway’s cloverleaf, she created two signs out of discarded cardboard: ‘East’ & ‘KY’. We waited by a barely serviceable downramp, sitting on the concrete wall hoping that one car might have the guts to pull over onto the narrow shoulder where the traffic from I-35 merged.
After our sardonic appeal to the Mexican road god of San Cristobal, we decided to experiment. We began a hunt to find the correct road god to beseech in each state. In Texas, surrounded by the soulless strip malls and long lines of gas stations at the highway junction, I started by asking Moloch for a ride out of town. Of course, we got the ride I should have expected from Ginsberg’s metal headed bull of consumerism and xenophobia (see the illustrated version of Howl).
A taciturn Mexican man let us into his car after a lengthy show of distrust and caution. “I only picked you up because you weren’t Negritoes.” We sat in dragging silence, quietly admiring the famous bluebells and Indian paintbrushes that line the Texas highways. In a rare show of saying something vaguely interesting, our driver told us that it’s a large fine to pick these wildflowers, the pride and joy of the Lone Star Interstate. He drove us an hour out of his way, taking us all the way to I-10 and it’s heavy traffic galloping towards Houston (Why is that the racists are often the kindest drivers? The ones who go the extra miles or buy a meal?). He offered to drive us all the way to Houston for twenty bucks but we begged off from the hours of eye gouging boringness in an overheated car.
It was a lousy section of highway: low visibility, little traffic coming up the onramp and not much of a shoulder to pull over. But none of that mattered because we finally struck upon the magical and most powerful of Texas road gods. I shouted to the heavens, “Oh Ron Paul, in your infinite libertarian wisdom, we ask you for a ride through this, your great state of individualism. We ask for a swift journey to the border of your land so we will not drain your welfare coffers with our bottom-feeding ways. We pray that you intercede for us with the faithful Texicans who follow you, the clear sighted souls who abhor the Federal Reserve that threatens to bring this great country to its knees by secretly stealing from its citizens with the insidious monster of Bernake’s inflation. Oh Ron Paul, reveal your mercy to us, humble individualists striving to be free.”
I had barely finished saying the words when a cheerful Mexican truck driver in oil stained dungarees pulled over. I napped in the back while Aly practiced her Spanish, a pleasant ride to a cloverleaf on the far side of Houston. The skies were thick and gray but only a light drizzle fell – enough to excite the pity of passing drivers but not soaking us to the point of messing up their car seats.
I had barely finished thanking Ron Paul for his gift of the last ride when a Mustang jumped two lanes of traffic to pull into the shoulder. We ran up to find Matthew motioning us inside. “I’m only going 40 miles but it’ll get you out of the city.” As we settled in, he waved away our thanks. “I always stop for hitchhikers. I think I probably picked up around 100. It’s almost always fun – sometimes the smell isn’t great but I always learn something new. I only ever had one bad experience.”
“What happened?” Aly asks from the backseat.
“ A guy tried to steal my car.”
“What’d you do?”
“This,” in a flash, he whips out a bone handled buck knife as long as my forearm. It glittered in the passing headlights as Matthew smirked. “And then I told him to please get out of my car.”
“That’s a nice piece of hardware for keeping you safe,” I said with a whistle.
“I can handle myself. I got a concealed weapons permit and an AR-15 in the trunk.”
“Where’d you get that?”
“The National Guard takes care of me. It’s a pretty good gig. I can pick up extra money guarding shipments going overseas. Most importantly, they pay for my degree. I’m studying history and philosophy. I just can’t get enough of that stuff.”
He turned out to be a well rounded young gentleman with a Persian girlfriend he met while they were both in costume at an anime event. He had a penchant for the Gnostic wisdom of Hermes Trismegistus and rambled on about the Mayberry qualities of his quiet Texas town.
After he found out about my love for MREs (Meals Ready to Eat – the military rations that are an epitome of food science, the most delectable and weight efficient of road grub), he returned to the truck stop where he dropped us off with an entire carton of the military meals for us. 15,000 calories of prepackaged perfection complete with self heating elements. He left us with hearty hugs all around and promises to keep in touch after a final photo with us for his girlfriend. He wanted to prove to her that the hitchhikers he picked up weren’t particularly crazy.
And it is here where I feel like my words fail me (that is to say, fail me more than usual). How do I describe Greg, perhaps the kindest gentleman of our trip? A man with the forearms of Popeye and the bone white mustache of a Civil War general. I must admit, I first thought of him as one more kindly working stiff who followed the black gold – raised amidst the endless derricks of Texas and then to the rigs in the Alaskan tundra, over to the oilsands of Russia and out to the deepwater rigs off the California coast. He had thick competent hands that worked him out of the field and into the office where now he has to “deal with those pencil neck geeks in Houston.”
He wasn’t supposed to give us a ride in the company vehicle but he didn’t care. “Better put your seatbelts on though. They’re watching all the time. The car reports if I speed or don’t buckle up. That’s how it is with big businesses. But it’s a good firm. I been with them 31 years.”
As the last hundred miles of Texas slipped past, he talked mainly of his work. Usually on the road, that’s almost the only topic that men have or want to talk about. Unless I find glimmers of other interests, I usually keep my questions moving in the direction of employment. Gary said, “It’s gotten so much tougher lately with Obama screwing everything up.” My rectum clenched in fear of having to endure another racist rant but Gary remained a gentleman. “I’m sure he’s a good guy and means well but these new regulations cause so much waste. Now if you open up a brand new O-ring and don’t use it immediately, you have to throw it away. After the oil leak in the Gulf, they put a bunch of new laws in place but then only gave us a year to inspect all the equipment according to their new standards. Some of these pumps things are twenty years old and they want us to get the original certificates from the manufacturers. None of those firms keep paperwork going back that far so even if we pressure test a pump to four times what it needs to hold, we still have to throw away a $40,000 piece of equipment. It just makes you sad to see so much waste.”
Our bond deepened as we met the Queen Bitch who would haunt our next three days of hitching – a drenching tropical storm that moved east at the pace of a cow’s amble. Most nights, we’d get clear of her only to have that thundering miscreation catch up to us the next morning. I cursed her thoroughly each day though she did reveal one more wonder of hitchhiking with a smartphone. With a weather radar app, I could see just where she was and figure out where to be dropped off to avoid her for as long as possible, hoping hard for a ride out from under her skirts as the rains fell harder.
With Greg, we drove through the vicious heart of the storm and were glad to have his steady hands on the wheel. It’s here that he started to talk about the wife he loved, showing us photos of her on his phone and even a grudging admiration for her nine little dogs. He talked about how he messed up his first two marriages but finally found the love of his life. He listened to our adventures coming up through Mexico with a gentle endearment. He thought we were just the most adorable couple to be out hitching together so we couldn’t bear to break it to him that we were only travel partners. But he worried about our safety out there on the road and wanted to keep hearing from us until we reached my home.
He certainly deserved some text messages on our whereabouts after the gift he gave us that night. Where he turned off the highway, he got us a motel room for because that Queen Bitch of a storm would be soon on our tail, soaking whatever patch of grass and sky we grabbed for the night. So instead of sleeping with our heads in the cold mud, we washed our clothes in the room’s sink and took long hot showers, sleeping between fresh clean sheets so we could face the drenching storm the next day with renewed vigor.
I’ve given out my card to countless souls on the road and have heard many promises to be in touch, to send their info, to shoot me an email about that book or article or friend that I would love. Never, but never ever, has anyone followed up on that. Until Greg. Once we got to Bowling Green, he called me at eight on one Saturday morning with apologies for not getting back to me sooner. “I wanted to say thank you for letting me know you got there OK.” Than with a hint of shyness, “I kind of liked hearing how you were doing so you can keep letting me know if you don’t mind. You stay safe out there, ya hear”