I scored my two best rides of the trip during the three day journey between Nashville and New Orleans. In consequence, the gods of hitchhiking decreed that the rest of the trip must then be hard. It didn’t start well as I walked backwards for a few miles along the 440 loop around Nashville to pick up 65 going south. Nobody seemed to see me in spite of my giant New Orleans sign and I barely won a race with a white shirt being pushed down the highway by the rush of air from cars and trucks. I had a few more miles of walking along 65 until I finally found a spot with clear visibility and a strip of shoulder behind me for easy pullover. This walking took up quite a few precious hours of daylight but luckily John soon stopped to pick me up for my first ride in a big rig.
“I’m not supposed to pick people up but fuck them. It helps to pass the time.” A big talker with an easy Mississippi drawl, I heard about his two bachelors degrees (computer programming and law enforcement), his computer work with the Army and growing up on a farm with three brothers. He didn’t realize you could buy meat in a store until the age of 14. John kept me laughing with jokes, stories of a blue nature (this is the term I will use in my column for my hometown paper) and his adventures hitchhiking. Many of the stories seemed too perfect but what do I care if he’s a liar? Fuck it. It helps to pass the time.
I heard my first joke in trucker lingo:
What’s a lot lizard with a mattress strapped to her back?
Explanation: An owner/operator is a trucker who owns his own rig. A lot lizard is a prostitute that hangs around a truck stop John added, “Why pay for it when you can get it for free from guys at rest areas?” It reminded my of my only German language joke. In the Bavarian part of Germany, they use the greeting Grüß Gott which means Greet God. So a Bavarian gets on an elevator and says Grüß Gott to the lift attendant who replies, “We’re not going that high.”
He started ranting about Arabs and my mood went sour. He lost friends in the Pentagon on 9/11 and now won’t even walk into a store owned by “ragheads”. He claims the government gives them 500 grand when they come to this country and that’s how they buy all those gas stations and mini-marts. When I asked who actually gives them the money, he ignored the question. “They stink,” he said. “All of them. Have you been in one of their stores after they’ve been there for awhile? It smells terrible.” You had to be there to realize the excruciating irony of this sentence. When he stripped down to his birthday suit to sleep that night, the truck cabin stank of rotten cheese so badly that I applied deodorant under my nose and wrapped my face in a flannel shirt just so I could sleep amidst the stench.
After a night in the top bunk of his truck and gentle refusals of his polite yet persistent hints at hanky panky, he dropped me at a TA truck stop outside Montgomery. Unfortunately, I didn’t pay attention and ended up in the middle of a long construction zone with limited visibility only a short stretch of road for people to pull over. I tried for a few hours until a redneck cop kicked me off the highway. I’m glad he did because at the onramp, I immediately got a short hop from a taciturn nuts and bolt salesman that got me out of the cops jurisdiction and to an idyllic stretch of highway, a hitchhikers dream.
And so was my next ride. A bright green VW bus pulled over and I hopped in to find Nicolas and Sophie, a young couple headed to Mexico for six months of sleeping on the beach and exploring the Pacific coast. From Montreal, he worked as an audio mixer for shows and will DJ in Mexico to make extra money while she loves her work as a trauma nurse. They enjoy living cheap and he has trained as a mechanic so he can take care of the VW. I got so excited to find such a neat couple that my fast talk sometimes overpowered their English skills.
After a few minutes, I heard a noise behind me on the bench seat. Holy shit. It’s a kid. And what a kid. 14 months with little brown curls. For me, one of the worst part about the road is the lack of kids to entertain and here I had a captive audience. I soon got him giggling and laughing. Once we reached a rest stop, this little guy really started to impress me. His mom would put him on her back and he would hold himself there by gripping onto her shirt and yell “Giddyup” in French while she galloped around the yard. Apparently, he also talked pretty well but it all sounded like gibberish to me. Those French. They have a different word for everything. It’s like a whole other language (Thanks Steve Martin).
I started to love this family. They made simple meals out of their basket and didn’t worry when the baby ate food off the ground. They listened to great music as we rolled down 65 and she told me how she kept going to shows while pregnant and now the baby loves music and dancing. They’re hoping to get pregnant again while in Mexico. If I don’t see them when they come through New Orleans, I’m sure I will see them again. We all agreed it was the best part of our respective trips so far. Here’s their blog entry about our meeting.
But with the good comes the bad. As you can imagine after being in a hippy van, I was slightly confused when they dropped me off outside Mobile. I walked the wrong way along the highway for two miles with an increasingly heavy bag and wasted the last sunlight where I might have gotten a ride. For some reason, I found this the hardest walk of the trip so far. Pissed at myself for making a rookie mistake, I stopped at McDonalds for my customary three dollar menu items. A man came in asked for five bucks for food. I told him, “I’m hitching and that’s all I have to get to New Orleans tomorrow.”
“Oh,” he said and paused. “How about three dollars then?”
“Man, I’m sleeping in the fucking woods tonight.”
He finally wandered off.
I bought two Yuenglings and setup my little camp in a culvert by the railroad tracks. I slowly savored the beer as I listened to Woody Guthrie’s Asch recordings and fell asleep. On the day before, I heard about an incoming “Arctic blast” on the radio. I woke up to a clear cold day that reminded of a perfect Pennsylvania autumn day. I laughed at the weak ass Southerners who considered this cold. Then I got to the highway and froze my balls off. I’m usually pretty tough when it comes to the cold. My family attributes it to my dad ripping out our home’s heating system when I was baby and then getting fired from his job. We only had a Franklin stove for heat and the high/low thermometer in my room often read just above freezing. However, this Alabama wind wrecked me. I couldn’t even hold my New Orleans sign because my fingers hurt too much and the wind drove me back a few steps whenever a truck sped past.
After a miserable and cold wait, I gave myself ten more minutes until giving up and getting a coffee. I’m glad I waited because I got picked up by my other favorite ride of the trip, Billy the trucker. He grew in Kentucky, the oldest in a family of eight. They lost their father when someone accused him of cheating in a poker game and then shot him in the head. Billy started working in the strip mine to support his family and now has five children of his own and a new granddaughter who’s obviously the apple of his eye. When I borrowed his cell phone to call my possibly worried parents who hadn’t heard from me in three days, I saw his phone’s background picture was a shot of his wife with the caption, “My love.”
We stopped at a hole in the wall truck stop where he bought me a sandwich and coffee and kept asking if I didn’t want anything else. By this time, we had spent several hours together and simply enjoyed each other’s company greatly. I felt proud of him when he told me about going back to get his GED at the age of forty just because he always wanted to get it. He liked the math and science and now uses algebraic equations to calculate his fuel efficiency and mileage. We talked easily through the pine forests of Alabama and over the marshes of Mississippi. It felt like father-son bonding time.
We stopped to pick up his load at SNF Poychemie at Port Bienville right on the Gulf Coast. Before we could enter the compound, the security guard made us watch a pointless five minute safety video (fucking lawyers, I blame them for much of America’s ills). On the plus side, I now have a SNF Polychemie visitor safety card that is valid for the next year. Once we finally entered the plant, we found out that someone else already picked up Billy’s load. The broker screwed up and Billy was pissed. In thirteen years of driving, this never happened to him. His company soon gave him a new pickup in Lafayette.
He dropped down to Route 10 so he could drop me in New Orleans instead of saving 30 miles by taking Route 12. His company tracks him with GPS and if they ask why he took the long way, he’ll them there was an accident on 12. I asked “What happens if another driver goes through with no problem?”
“Then I’m screwed,” he said with a big grin. As we crossed the bay before New Orleans, we laughed like little kids as the bumpy road threw us out of our pneumatic seats. I told him that if I didn’t have an old friend from high school and a mentor waiting for me in New Orleans, I’d stay with him all the way to Laredo. Just before he let me off, Billy suggested something I had been thinking too. He told me to take his number so maybe we could ride together again once I start moving come spring. I hope we do get to ride together again.
The drive into New Orleans depressed me as signs of Katrina and Gustav appeared frequently. I walked into the city along St. Bernard Street and most of the houses were still boarded up. If I don’t have a place to stay I thought to myself, they’ll be plenty of places to squat. I haven’t paid rent yet in this country and I don’t want to start now.
I stumbled upon Bourbon St and I’m glad it was 2PM on a winter day. I don’t think I could have handled more than that. I hate touristy spots and this one reeked of it. Stupid T-shirts like “I showed my tits on Bourbon St” and “I’m fucking fucked.” Promoters trying to get you into their bar. Packs of college guys with big colored plastic cups of booze taking up the whole sidewalk in their clusterfuck. I also hit a personal low on this walk when I picked up half an unwrapped snickers off the street and happily enjoyed my free dessert. Hello to the Big Easy.