Steel City to Derby City

While hitchhiking, I have about a two hour time limit until reaching the “I have lost all faith in humanity” stage. The time limit tends to shorten when I’m hungry or tired. I was both when I started the trip from Pittsburgh to Louisville. My adopted sisters, Margaret and Elizabeth, dropped me off on 79 with a box of Cheese-Nips and a giant sign that said “Louisville – I don’t smell”.

In the warmth of an Indian summer, grasshoppers jumped away as I walked up the highway to a good spot. Let the waiting begin. After a rather enjoyable two hours spent talking to myself, I near my limit of patience and my grin becomes forced. Men drive by alone in Cadillac SUVs with West Virgina plates and passing high school kids flip me off. I just shake my head in response. Whenever I get to that point, something surprises me. This time, a man named Ken pulled over in his old Buick and quickly said, “Like to help but on the the way to work, hope this helps” and shoves some singles into my hand. “Faith in humanity” tank successfully refilled.

The wait continues a few more hours until Officer Ging from Ohio Township pulls in front of me with lights flashing. He laughed when I asked if he was taking me to Louisville. From now on, this will be my standard line with police officers. He told me it’s illegal to hitchhike on the interstates while I feigned starry eyed ignorance. “If you don’t have any warrants, I’m not going to jam you up.” He really liked that last phrase and repeated it several times. Before getting back into his car, he warned that I might be in for a long wait. “People are scared to pick you up with the world as violent as it is. Good luck. Don’t want to jam you up.”

After about four hours on that damn 79, my savior finally appeared in the form of Mark, a vet sporting a glorious full gray mustache. With a laid back friendliness that immediately put me at ease, he told me about Vietnam where he only stayed eight months. His unit shot down a Russian MiG and came home early to parades and celebrations. At least on base. He got spat on everywhere else.

Now he works as a weld inspector but Mark takes pride in his skill as a jewelry maker. He won some contests as a younger man. After the Army, he went to a reservation with a Native American buddy where he picked up big chunks of turquoise off the ground. It all became pieces for his mom, sisters and aunts. While working in Australia, he met the owner of a jade mine who took Mark on a tour. The crazy Aussie brought dynamite along and had Mark detonate it in a corner. I like the idea of getting jade by blowing it out of the mountain yourself.

As I have heard so many times in the last few days, Mark still didn’t know who to vote for in tomorrow’s election. He already mentioned his love of guns and I asked if that didn’t make him more partial to McCain. “No”, he drawled in my favorite line of the ride, “I’m crazy enough that nobody can take them away”. I really enjoyed Mark’s company and it ended too quickly. He dropped me at 70 so I could have some options for getting closer to Louisville.

I only waited twenty minutes until a Panther Expedited Shipping van pulled over. Alan likes driving packages all over the country because it gets him out of the house. It also reminds him of his many lone wolf hitchhiking trips around the country. He once got arrested for truancy in Alabama. He stayed at the jail three days while the cops made him run errands like taking the cars to the car wash. He got free meals at the local diner and at the end of his time, they dropped him at the same spot they picked him up. “They just wanted a gofer,” he said laughing.

Politics came up as we drove from one swing state to another. When asked who he likes, Alan said, “Well, I don’t like black people” and leaves the sentence hanging while looking at me expectantly. Not quite knowing what to say, I quickly respond, “That makes it pretty easy then doesn’t it?” He soon mentions the strength of the KKK in his area and I only later realize that he dropped hints about his own membership. I simply do not know what to do with myself in these situations. I loathe this man for his prejudice but he’s also a funny, crotchety grandfather who’s taking me to Cincinnati and letting me spend the night in his van.

I learned about Alan’s life growing up in Pittsburgh after the war. When still an infant, his dad died in a bomber over Europe and his mom remarried an alcoholic and abusive bastard. At eleven, Alan finally left to live with his grandparents. He immediately started working for his grandfather in the electrical business where he learned the two rules of electrical work: never cut two wires at once and never stand in a bucket of water when cutting a wire. For a day spent in dirty crawl spaces and holding flashlights, Alan received a dollar. If he complained about the low pay, his grandfather would say, “I’m giving you something much more. I’m giving you a trade.” He received his electrical certification at 19 and took over the family business, much like my grandfatther and uncle who ran Pelger Electric. During this time, Alan bought into a meat market where he met his wife, a regular customer 20 years his junior. His best and most obviously rehashed line of the night: “I guess she just liked my meat.”

Alan started the day at 1AM to help his daughter deliver papers before his run to Indiana. He picked me up at sunset and his driving made a little nervous because he didn’t pay attention very well. We dropped off a package at Siemens and found a truck stop to sleep at after midnight. A trucker chapel with a neon cross sat on the grass next to the parking lot. He bought a Prison Break with Charles Bronson and a two-disc Steve McQueen set. We went to sleep watching McQueen as a laidback flyboy over England, the same profession that killed Alan’s father. By the time we parted early the next morning, we had spent over twelve hours together and Alan had eaten nothing, drank two sodas, pissed twice and smoked at least two packs of cigarettes. I don’t know how he did it. The man was a machine.

I sat around the truck stop and wrote until dawn when Popeyes opened for me to buy a sandwich. I had no idea that a sausage, egg and cheese could taste that badly. It almost impressed me, the skill to make something that poorly. After starting off on the wrong highway ramp, I soon realized my mistake after the more than usual number of funny looks. I finally got myself on the right track and waited by the road for an hour until a Florence County cop pulled over. Officer Stanaland laughed at my trite line, “I expect you aren’t here to take me to Louisville.” He offered to drop me off at the next exit if I stayed off the highway. Before getting in the car, he asked if I had any weapons or drugs. I said no and then he found a knife and mace on me during a quick pat down. He smiled knowingly when I said, “I don’t even think of those as weapons.”

Not much traffic at the highway on ramp. After forgetting my “I Don’t Smell” sign in Alan’s van, I made a new sign out of a long piece of styrofoam I picked out of the trash at a construction site. I used it to amuse myself with light saber battles, blowing up trucks, and as a leaning post while I waited for a kindly stranger. When someone pulled around the turn, I soon learned to throw the sign into my hands to catch their eye. Truckers often indicated that they would if they could and I always give a friendly wave and nod in response. Sometimes a pretty girl gives a nice smile but not too often. As the sun climbed high, I neared my “lost faith in humanity” time limit until Daryl pulled over in a beat up little truck.

Another ride, another character, another man I enjoyed and loathed. I liked Daryl because of his passion: handcrafting air guns. Not kid’s BB guns but big things powered by CO2 to hunt deer, bear and moose. Only four other people manufacture these by hand and Daryl proudly spent most of the ride talking about his passion. Daryl only pissed me off once I started complaining about my racist ride yesterday. “Well,” he replied, “my great-granddaddy was a Grand Dragoon in the KKK. My granddaddy and daddy were both in the KKK so I’m not racist” while giving me giant winks. Fuck, I thought to myself, not another one. Especially not one I liked so much except for his last revelation.

Once again, I ignored it because I didn’t know what else to do. I found out about the two true loves of Daryl’s life: Tinkerbell and Sarah Palin. A Tinkerbell mug rolled around on the dashboard near the steering wheel with a rubber Tinkerbell cover. “She’s my girl,” he said with a big grin. Maybe Tinkerbell broke up his first three marriages? Hopefully the stripper he’s married to this time won’t mind the other woman being six inches tall with wings. Before Palin’s selection, Daryl was ready to vote for the socialist, hoping that Obama would screw up the country so badly that another Reagan could take over in 2012. However, the Caribou Barbie brought him back to the McCain camp because he wants a politician who could survive if dropped off in the middle of the forest. I suggested she could live off her tits for several weeks.

Daryl certainly made the time pass quickly and soon he dropped me off near the University of Louisville campus. After a short walk over to a couchsurfing house, I finally could rest after a weird 24 hours of travel.

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3 Responses to “Steel City to Derby City”


  1. 1 Neal November 11, 2008 at 4:44 pm

    You ever see that website of the guy who takes a picture of himself each day for 6 years? Simpsons did a Hoomer spoof of it too.

    You should do the same thing each place you spend 2 hours questioning humanity.

  2. 2 Geneva Brandt November 25, 2008 at 6:05 pm

    Hey Lex… Wow … what an amazing story-teller you are. I feel like I am reading one of Anne Lemott’s books. Anyway.. if I could time travel… and I know this won’t sound exciting to many… but I’d go back to early June, 1990… I’d spend some time with my dad. He died suddenly on the 26th. I never did got to say
    good-bye. :'( Keep up the writing… Love, Geneva
    PS Guess who got invited to the Obama Inaugeration? Even Jordan is excited.

  3. 3 Goody November 26, 2008 at 7:05 am

    Where drivers angry upon discovering that you did, in fact, smell?


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Lex Pelger

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