Saturday, September 4, 2010

I Picked Up My First Hitchhiker Today

A Long Drive

He always dreaded the trip back home. Not being home, of course. But just driving there. It was a 9-hour drive from Mississippi to Kentucky, and all he had to keep him company was the satellite radio and the stack of 100 CDs at his feet. He always silently thanked a heavenly power before each trip for even having the choice of music to play, much less 100 funky jams he's been collecting since high school and XM's myriad music stations. And today was a Saturday, and a Saturday on Labor Day weekend means college football. So if all else fails, at least there'd be a game to listen to while making the monotonous slog up the interstate.

There were only two choices he could make- either take the I-20 East to Birmingham and then ride the I-65 North all the way up to his hometown's exit, or take I-55 North to Memphis, I-40 East to Nashville, and ride the 65 the rest of the way. The 55 route was a smidge longer, but at least he felt like he was getting somewhere. That trip was in three legs, while the I-20/I-65 route was just an endless stretch of concrete for hours and hours, before an even more endless stretch of concrete. For an energetic and easily-distracted guy like him, the best trip was the one with the most turns and most cities to drive through. So he made the decision to take the Memphis route.

It was about 11 AM CDT, and he figured that accounting for the time zone change, he'd be home by 9 or so if he drove the speed limit. He sipped his mug of coffee and riffed through his CD stack before settling on Too Short's "Get In Where You Fit In," the loud, explicit rap lyrics pleasantly blasting from his open windows into the tamed suburban ears of his tame, suburban neighbors. The trip may be a long one, but good music, as always, will ultimately prevail.

He sang along to the insanely outrageous lyrics until all of the album's good songs had been played, and he casually pressed eject, waiting for the CD to pop out while using his free hand to turn the XM knob to the blues station. The air conditioning was starting to slightly chill the tips of his nose and fingers, so he shut it off and pressed the DOWN button on the power windows instead, both driver and passenger side.

Muddy Waters' "Big Leg Woman" blared over the car speakers, and he then shifted his free hand to the sunroof and pressed down on the rooftop button until the sunroof had fully extended outward.

There, much better.

He somehow couldn't stand the closed-off feeling of a car when all the windows were rolled up and the sunroof not in use, especially on a beautiful Southern Summer morning like this one. He turned the stereo up as loud as it could go, and unabashedly crowed out Muddy Waters' lyrics while others drove by, ogling.

It would always surprise him that other people were so serious in their cars all the time, especially by themselves. The way he saw it, if you can't have fun and let loose in your own car with nobody in there but you, then when can you ever be free? Why were people so serious while driving? Why weren't they also blasting their favorite tunes, singing loudly and foolishly, belting out their own harmonies with nobody else to judge them? And more importantly, why are people judging other drivers having fun behind the wheel? Whether it was at a red light or on the interstate, he always found it quite off-putting that whenever he looked at a passing driver while in the midst of musical reverie, they always had an astonished "well-I-never" sort of expression. He felt life was too short to be so unhappy all the time. If you've got good music, enjoy it. Wanna dance in your seat at a red light? Play air guitar? Drum along to that drum solo? Go for it. And screw anyone else who hates on you for having fun in your own vehicle.

He'd been on the road for about three hours at this point, and was getting near Memphis. Usually a little after passing through Memphis was when he made his first bathroom break/fillup of the long way home. The line marking how much fuel was left in the tank lingered just under the 1/4 mark. Maybe another hour or so to go before the next fillup. He wasn't in any hurry. It was a beautiful day, and he wouldn't be home until nightfall. Maybe he'd stop for food before getting to Memphis- the next exit had a chinese buffet close by. Eat at one of those around one, and he'd be good until 9 that night.

A Long Walk

At a gas station outside of Memphis, Tennessee, the man giving young Dillon a ride from Little Rock opens the door of his truck, and steps outside to pump. Dillon sighs, runs a hand through his hair, slings his backpack over his shoulder, puts Ruby in the re-usable Wal-Mart tote bag, and thanks the man who drove him Eastward on the I-40.

It was a brutally hot one today; the heat index had to be in the nineties, which shouldn't be happening in September. Back in Maine, where Dillon was from, even the hottest August days rarely reached 80. And even then, there was always a cool breeze blowing down from Canada. Here in the South, all Dillon had to go with the oppressive heat was the sweltering humidity; the sun pounded down upon his long hair and pale face, while the black asphalt, reeking of a fresh layer of tar, blasted the heat collected from the sun upwards into Dillon's makeshift denim shorts, which used to be jeans once upon a time.

To make matters worse, poor Ruby looked up at him with those adorable 4 month-old puppy dog eyes and whimpered as they set out on foot from the gas station to the exit ramp. She was a trooper, and could walk for about a mile or so before simply stopping, cocking her head, and whimpering for Dillon to pick her up and carry her more. She made for good company on the road, and was extremely protective. The nights he spent sleeping in the woods were a little easier with her love and comfort, and safer too, as she growled when even a squirrel came within a 30-foot range of her master. Ruby was also the deciding factor in a carload of 17 year-old girls picking up the 21 year-old long-haired hitchhiker with the smelly green t-shirt, torn jeans and scraggly beard. He loved his dog, and she loved him.

Dillon found out right away that Tennessee was not the friendliest state toward hitchhikers. It was somehow even worse than Spokane, where the police officer had told him straight away while waiting on the ramp that if he came by again and he was still trying to hitch a ride, he'd be arrested and jailed. At least in Spokane, people acknowledged Dillon's existence. In Memphis, Dillon had been lucky to even get a bird flipped at him from drivers passing by on the ramp. He did his best to make sure people saw that he was wearing a backpack, meaning that he had some semblance of a destination in mind and had made preparations for the trip. He also made sure people saw Ruby. He figured having a cute puppy in his arms would make drivers more apt to at least slow down and look.

After more than an hour in the oppressive Tennessee heat, Dillon decided to start walking. Maybe people at the next exit ramp were a little friendlier. Surely they would react to the puppy, and be more receptive to Dillon's best attempts to look non-threatening. The walk started off optimistic; Dillon didn't bother sticking his thumb out. The drivers whizzing by at 70 miles per hour, even if they were the kind of folks who picked up strangers, just didn't have the means to pull over immediately, let Dillon aboard, and merge back into the path of thousands of cars traveling at 100 feet per second.

One mile became two. Two miles became four, and five, and then six. Dillon passed another ramp, but this one didn't have any nearby gas stations or restaurants, so trying to thumb a ride there would likely be futile. The heat only seemed to build in intensity. The cars that flew by only cast more warm air at him, his matted, oily hair becoming more disheveled, Ruby huddling deep inside of the bag, the sound of the monstrous diesel engines of the 18-wheelers undoubtedly making her squirm.

All Dillon wanted was to get home to his parents; this trip had been three or so years off and on, from East Coast to West Coast and back. His open-minded New England family was surprisingly encouraging when he told them of his plans to see the country via hitchhiking and depending completely on the hospitality and altruism of total strangers. Sure, there were come creeps out there, but Dillon's friends who had hitchhiked before just told him to trust his gut. If the driver who wants to pick you up seems like the kind of guy who would rape, stab and rob you, then don't get in. If it's too dark, pitch your bedroll and find a scattering of trees out of sight from where anybody would see you. Drink lots of water. He'd be just fine, they all said. And so since age 18, Dillon had enjoyed his life on the road. It was somewhat stressful not knowing how or when your next meal would come, but it was also incredibly liberating to be off the grid, to not pay rent, to not worry about day-to-day obligations with which the career-oriented folks were consumed. And every once in a while, Dillon would make it back home to Maine, and always had a bed to sleep on, family to love on him, plenty of food to eat, and familiar faces around the community. He hadn't been home since May, and the last few months had been especially trying.

By mile thirteen, Dillon's energy and patience had slowed to a trickle. It was mid-afternoon, and Dillon's body ached from the walk. His water jug had emptied around the ten-mile mark, and his thighs started to chafe from the same boxer shorts rubbing the insides of his legs raw. His belly rumbled, but his pockets were empty. He felt like he should be sweating more considering the weight on his back and the convection oven of heat he was trudging through, being attacked on all sides, from above and below, by triple-digit temperatures. Nobody even showed the slightest interest in even slowing down, let alone stopping.

He finally stopped on a ramp just outside of an Exxon station outside of Memphis. It was still another 50 or 60 miles to Jackson, TN from here. Easy. All he wanted to do was get to Knoxville; his map showed that there was a road there that connected to I-69, and if he hopped on that, he could miss Virginia entirely and head straight to Pennsylvania. But first, he had to wait and hope a car getting back on the road would be willing to open its doors to a smelly stranger with a ponytail, a dog and a backpack.

Two and a half long, hot hours passed, and not one driver even looked his way. Dillon was on the verge of once again slinging his bag over his shoulder and trekking along the interstate, having to be content with making incremental progress and sleeping off a day of stomping on concrete. Would he ever get out of Tennessee?

Taking the Risk

The needle hit the empty line, and his car beeped annoyingly as his mileage meter was replaced with a message proclaiming "LOW FUEL." The driver pressed the trip reset button on the dash to clear the message, grumbling.

"I KNOW I'm out of gas, baby, just hang with me," the driver said to himself, oblivious to the absurdity of talking to machinery. The next exit was the Arlington/Collierville exit, just a few miles outside of Memphis. He figured it was good enough for a stop, as the bulk of the Memphis traffic had thinned out at this point. It was a good 50 or 60 miles to Jackson, TN from here, and it'd be another 100 or so to Nashville. And after Nashville it was easy as pie to cross over to Kentucky and drive the final leg to Elizabethtown.

The clock on his dash read 2:55 PM. It was on Central time, albeit 25 minutes later than the actual time. He figured this stop and maybe one more down the road, and he'd be home right like he'd scheduled.

He stepped out of the Saturn and briefly admired the collection of bumper stickers he had accumulated over the months thanks to the number of online grassroots issues and causes he aligned himself with. He hoped the "BOYCOTT BP" and "BP: Billionaire Polluters" stickers would serve as a healthy balance of public discourse on the road, considering the number of "DRILL HERE, DRILL NOW, PAY LESS" stickers he'd seen in Tennessee.

After a quick trip to the bathroom, he impulsively bought a green tea tallboy before prepaying for gas.

"That'll be $1.08," the cashier informed him. "That gonna be all for y'all?"

"Naw," the driver replied, doing quick math in his head. "Lemme get this and...$23.92 on pump 4."

"25 even, bud." The cashier swiped his card and handed the driver his receipt, which the driver politely declined with a wave of his hand as he made his way toward the door.

The driver held his finger lossely on the pump's trigger as the gas flowed into his tank, careful not to squeeze too much air into the tank. He recalled reading somewhere that squeezing the pump too hard means more air and less gas, meaning less bang for your buck. Unemployment and bills were squeezing him pretty tight as it was, so he was content watching the numbers tick upward slower than usual. The man at the pump behind him gave him a glare as they made eye contact. The young driver told himself it was either his Mississippi license plate or one of his bumper stickers. Hell, maybe it could've been the soccer jersey he was wearing. Or maybe the guy glaring at him was just a dick.

The pump stopped at $23.92, just under 9 gallons. At 32 mpg on the highway, 9 gallons would take him almost all the way home. Awesome. The driver hung up the pump, dilaed around the XM dial to find the SEC channel where Kentucky and Louisville were facing off in the second quarter, and started off down the exit ramp.

The driver noticed right away a guy wearing a plain-looking green t-shirt, with long, greasy hair and a backpack. He was carrying a puppy in his arms. The driver remembered the words of a couchsurfer from the Czech Republic he hosted, who had made his way from New York City to Mexico by thumbing rides.

"Never pick up a guy who isn't carrying anything. Chances are likely that he's shady. But I can guarantee you that just about everybody carrying a backpack has somewhere to go, and someplace to come back to. So they aren't gonna kill you, because they actually need a ride."

Even though the driver never picked up a hitchhiker before, he felt strangely at ease as he pulled up onto the shoulder and rolled down the passenger side window.

"Where you headed, my brotha?"

"Knoxville, man," the hitchhiker said. "But I'll go wherever you're going."

"Well, I'm headed East to Nashville, and the 24 picks up there and takes you right to Knoxville. Hop in, dude!"

And with that, the hitchhiker climbed inside the Saturn, put his backpack in his lap, and cradled the puppy in his arms while the driver took off down I-40, putting more miles between them and Memphis.

"Man, thank you SO much for picking me up. You have no idea how long I waited," the hitchhiker said.

"No prob. You looked like you could use a hand. And I figure a dude carrying a backpack and a dog can't be all that dangerous. You know you're the first hitchhiker I've ever picked up?" The driver said to his new passenger.

"That's cool, man. I'm glad you did. I was seriously about to start walking down the 40. I just walked 13 miles from Memphis, dude. I'm wore out. My name's Dillon, by the way."

The driver shook his hand and told him his own name.

"What about your little buddy there?" The driver asked, scratching the tired puppy's head as she dangled it over her master's lap. "What's his name?"

"Her name's Ruby. I got her while I was on the road; there was a father and son selling a whole litter of puppies, so I got the cutest one."

"Sheeit, I'll bet that gets you all kinds of rides, eh?" The driver chided.

"It depends, man. Certainly not in Tennessee. Nobody picks up hitchhikers here. You're the first one since Little Rock."

And with that, Dillon filled in the driver on the details of his trip, how he'd chosen vagrancy and travel since age 18, and about which places were better for hitchhiker's luck, and which ones weren't. The driver sat entranced, listening to the hitchhiker's stories while he riffed through his CD collection, looking for a mix that he felt would vibe most harmoniously with Dillon's style.

Making a New Friend

"Hey man, you like the blues?" The driver asked.

"I don't know much about it, but I like what I hear so far, I guess."

The driver popped in a homemade CD, and a simple, almost tribal-sounding wailing blues guitar riff blared over the car stereo.

"This is T-Model Ford. Probably one of the coolest bluesmen still alive. He's 90 years old, doesn't remember his birthday, can't read or write, did time on a chain gang for killin' a man, and didn't pick up a guitar until he was 58."

"No shit? Where's he from?"

"Forest, Mississippi," The driver said proudly. "Mississippi's the home of the blues. Memphis tries to claim the blues and Elvis, but they got nothin', because both of those things came from The Sip. T-Model was probably one of the coolest interviews I've ever had with anyone."

Dillon asked the driver his story, and as the miles piled on the odometer, the driver told his new friend the story of him moving to Mississippi to take a job and falling head over heels in love with the state, her people and her culture in the meantime.

The CDs rotated in and out of the player, one by one, and the mid-afternoon haze steadily morphed into the milky gold of early dusk, where the sun is right in one's line of vision. The flat Western Tennessee landscape soon transformed into steady rolling hills dotted with the lightest accents of early Autumn on the very tips of some of the trees as they drew nearer to Nashville. The driver took time relaying the last few months of current events to his passenger, who sat silently as his ride prattled on about the Gulf oil spill, the state of the economy and his own projections for what would come out of the upcoming midterm elections. He told Dillon about the book he had written, and the one he planned on writing if he ended up going on a grand bohemian adventure of reckless vagrancy of his own.

At the driver's request, Dillon, in turn, filled him in on what his family was like, his part of Maine, his likes and dislikes, what he carried in his pack for a cross-country hitchhiking journey and the various blessings and hardships of life on the road. Much of the time Dillon simply spent sitting quietly, enjoying the feeling of air conditioning on his unwashed face and of Ruby's affection. Occasionally she would climb over to the driver's lap, lean against him and lick his face while he drove. The driver would eventually hand her back to her master when she started putting her paws on the steering wheel.

Before long, darkness had set in and the two had talked their way through Nashville and all the way to the Kentucky/Tennessee border.

"Hold on, I'm gonna call my boy real quick," the driver said, pulling out a cellphone.

After a short conversation, the driver informed Dillon that they would be meeting his friend at "a hellacious BBQ joint" just outside of Elizabethtown, in nearby Munfordville, just across the time zone border. Time was meaningless to Dillon, who hadn't owned a watch since age 18. After telling his ride, the driver laughed in disbelief. The driver told Dillon he thought it remarkable that two people living in the same country, speaking the same language, could have such vastly different lives.

The two made excellent time, Munfordville being their first stop since Dillon had first gotten picked up outside of the service station roughly five hours ago. Neither had been hungry or thirsty or needed to use the bathroom, and Ruby slept soundly the entire way. Dillon had a brief conversation with the driver's friend from Munfordville, while the driver walked into a small shack just off the exit ramp, sporting a sign that read "BIG BUBBA BUCK'S BELLY-BUSTIN' BBQ- TASTES SO GOOD YOU'LL SMACK YA MAMMA!"

The driver emerged carrying a sandwich wrapped in foil and a handful of napkins.

"It's pulled pork, hope you're not a vegetarian or anything," the driver said. "The barbecue here is really good, you'll see cars from all kinds of states in the parking lot here."

The air outside was much cooler, compared to the blistering mid-afternoon heat in Memphis. The driver, clad in shorts and a soccer jersey, shivered slightly. Ruby, restrained to a leash, was suddenly energetic after eating a bite of Dillon's sandwich. She jumped on the driver, eager to be petted and glad to walk around. The three of them stood outside of the restaurant, Dillon smoking a cigarette he had bummed from the driver's friend. Night had fully set in at this point, and the only lights around were the faint glow of the fluorescent lights of nearby gas stations and the moon overhead.

"Is your sleeping bag warm enough?" The driver asked. "It's a lot colder up here that it was in Mississippi this morning."

"I'm from Maine, so this is nothing," Dillon assured the driver.

After a few more minutes of conversation, the driver wished his friend well and climbed back into the car with Dillon and the puppy, heading down the road.

"So how does one hitchhike at night?" The driver asked.

"You don't," Dillon said with a polite chuckle. "You don't want to ride with anyone who would pick up hitchhikers at night, and no normal driving at night would stop to pick up a hitchhiker. I just sleep in the woods. Ruby keeps me company."

The driver put on a Jazz CD, and the two rode on in silence as the sound of ride cymbals and saxophones pierced through the night air and the steady hum of the tires on the road. Dillon watched the different signs go by as the Saturn traveled onward through Southern Kentucky- Kentucky Down Under, Horse Cave, Glasgow, Abraham Lincoln's Birthplace. The driver filled Dillon in proudly about his home state's claims to fame; the Kentucky Derby, Bourbon whiskey, fried chicken, tobacco and college basketball.

"Kentucky is a state that bases its economy and culture on gamblin', drinkin' and smokin'," The driver had said casually. "That's why we're all so crazy."

The driver maneuvered the Saturn onto exit 94, going up the ramp toward Elizabethtown. The Saturn stopped at a red light a half mile down the road, the turn signal blinking almost exactly in time with the beat of the Jazz in the background. Ruby whimpered softly in Dillon's lap, sensing that she was about to leave the comfort of the warm car where she'd been for the bulk of the day.

"This is home for me, bro. I'd say you can come on in and sleep on the couch and be warm, but I'm not sure how my parents or my cats would feel about me bringing in a hitchhiker and his dog late at night. But I'm gonna drop you off at a trailhead down the road, you should be alright there."

"Oh, don't even worry about it, man. This ride really helped me out. And all I need is a sleeping bag and some tree cover anyway," Dillon said.

And just as soon as he had climbed in the car in Memphis, Dillon climbed out, puppy in his arms, backpack on his shoulder, and opened the passenger door. The driver offered his hand and told him his name once more.

"Stay safe, bro. Hope you get back to Maine in one piece."

Dillon thanked the driver once more, and disappeared into the woods.

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