I started this hitchhiking trip in style when my grandparents picked me up at my front door. They were going to see their newest great-grandchild, Corrina Alise Ingels. We drove an hour west on the Pennsylvania Turnpike (Motto: We’re the only game in town and you will pay as such). The highway curved through central Pennsylvania’s rolling farmlands while we admired the brilliant fall colors. After telling Pap to watch the road, Grandma admitted to me that “I couldn’t do what you’re doing because I’d have to tell the driver how to drive.”
After being dropped off outside the toll booths at Carlisle, I broke out my big smile and a cardboard sign with Pitt written on it in big black letters. I only had to wait ten minutes until a grizzled coal barge pusher named Walt pulled over and said he drive me almost all the way to the city. He was returning from a weekend with his girlfriend who he met on Yahoo. I love the concept of internet dating. I do not understand how it creeps people out. When you meet someone at bar, you know much less about them then if you spend a few months talking on the interwebs first. When you look at someone’s profile on a dating website, you can see if you have compatible interests. Until there’s a popup balloon next to a girl’s head at the bar stating her favorite books, ideal first date, plans for the future and a funny anecdote from her life, I maintain that you get better discrimination with Match.com.
Walt and I talked easily as we rolled through the beautiful foliage of western Pennsylvania. As I prefer, he spent most of the time talking. He told me about his daughter who was jumping on the bed when she fell out of the sixth story window, landing on her head and fracturing her skull extensively. The doctors said if she was any older than six, she wouldn’t have been pliable enough to bounce back from her injuries. Amazingly, she came home in ten days and suffered no ill effects. I prompted this story when I told Walt about a video I saw while helping my mom in the nursery at Lancaster County Bible Church. As I held a happy little guy named Peter, I watched a video called 99 Balloons with tears streaming down my face. I cried so hard that I started Peter crying as well.
Walt only got a driver’s license at the age of 26 because he could hitchhike anywhere so when we got off the Turnpike, he wouldn’t even let me pay the toll. He planned to drop me off at the Pittsburgh Tubes leading directly into the city. I later realized that he took quite a long detour so he could show off the area he has spent his whole life and the coal plant where he worked for the last 30 years. He moves barges filled with 2000 tons of coke for the plant that runs 3.5 miles along the Monongahela River where he also fishes. He talked about working at the plant, told stories about places he used to hang out and pointed out sights like the beautiful motel of river rock that the owner spent the last 25 years building. I liked Walt and his pride in his community.
From the Tubes, a father returning his son to Pitt dropped me off right at the Cathedral of Learning, the second tallest academic building in the world (Moscow State University is first, stinking Russians). I met a nice girl sitting in the grass who signed me into a computer with her Pitt ID so I could use the Internet. I needed to find a place to spend the night. I sent out a bunch of requests on couchsurfing.com and asked my “Amerika” email list about friends in the city of steel but nothing had come through yet. I was facing a night sleeping in a study room in the library when I got emails almost simultaneously from my friends Colin, Asa and Dave.
They pointed me to a farm coop inhabited by a bunch of anarcho/lefty types about a mile away. On my walk there, my 32 pound bag starting to get a little heavy so I stopped at Subway for one of those wonderful 5 dollar footlongs, a special treat to myself. I walked out an hour later with a date with one of the sandwich makers, a biology major from Kathmandu. It’s amazing how much you can impress someone just knowing “Namaste”. The best part: we’re going to the Carnegie Museum of Science. I love science dates. (Editor’s note: She later stood him up) (Assistant editor’s note: ha!)
I felt good as I continued my walk. The area got increasingly depressed as I moved down the hill with the majority of the buildings abandoned and boarded up. I turned onto the dark cobblestone street of empty houses and trudged up the hill. I started feeling a little nervous and had my hand on my freshly sharpened jackknife. Then I knocked on the door and was welcomed with open arms to the Landslide Community Farm.
Patrick Young, a steelworker union organizer, bought the house two years ago for six grand. Now it’s the headquarters for the farm, home to a variable number of residents and a place to crash for transient friends. The farm itself is just getting off the ground as they finish soil testing. Amidst the ruined foundations of houses swept aside by a landslide decades ago (hence the name), they’re building retaining walls and throwing out seed bombs for vegetables. On the road between the farm and the house, their small orderly garden patch hints at the nice farm they will one day run.
Back at the house on my first night, I’m really digging the vibe of this place. A bucket of homemade mead ferments in the kitchen near the compost. A teakettle of hot water always warms on the stove for tea. The kitchen sinks drains into a bucket and they save the water to flush the toilets.
An interesting mix of people appear in the house at random. Warm and welcoming people. Friendly and willing to share. When I walked in, I met JP. We ended up staying up late and watching Ian Anderson doing flute solos on YouTube. He left early the next morning to finish his last week on a medical study in Chicago that will pay him $3,500 after a week spent almost motionless in a boring room. A deathgrass band (bluegrass/punk hybrid) named the Black Death All Stars stopped by for a few days on their way to a show in NYC. The lead singer has a penchant for box wine and a tattoo on his ass that says “drunkest kid in drunk town”. The fiddle player makes her own instruments and also paints twisted and beautiful pieces of art. Mckenzie, an Oregon girl, hopped trains to come East for the first time with her dog, Jack, who she rescued from a starving existence of beatings tied outside a neighbor’s house. Jack travels well on the trains and the two of them make quite a cute couple.
Jon exemplified the spirit of the house for me. On the road for the last eight years, he travels with almost no cash, trusting to fate and fast fingers. Always giving of what little he had, his easygoing ways and joie di vivre was infectious. Most of the people residing in the two houses, one owned and one squatted in, lived with a little money earned from odd jobs. It makes their sharing of everything all the more impressive. Dinner always appears from somewhere with several people throwing in what they have. The food comes from dumpster diving, food stamps and from the nascent farm. They shared, they laughed and lived together easily and happily. JP wore a shirt that said “The American Dream Never Happened” and I’ve mentally dubbed this happy group as dropouts from the American Dream.