I sat in the back of the speeding pickup surveying the desert in the direction the other hitchhiker was pointing. “There’s water in those mountains,” he said.
I wasn’t so sure. There wasn’t anything green as far as I could see. The truck was approaching a gas station where the guy wanted to be left off.
“You see this green part on the map? That means there’s water out there.”
I looked at the green areas that said National Forest on them and thought the guy would be lucky to find even a single plant in those mountains, let alone water. Those green spaces only meant it was national land.
“Are you sure?” I said.
“Yeah. I’ll be all right.” He waved to the driver to pull over.
I’d been weighing whether I should go with him. I had always wanted to learn to live off the land. That’s what the guy planned to do. He said he’d learned how to do it from a book by Chief Eagle Feather or somebody. I had read several of those types of books, but never expected the advice to actually work.
This was my first long trip where I was completely on my own. I’d done a lot of hitchhiking, like the summer I sold dictionaries in Oklahoma, but those were all short trips, I never had to sleep en route.
For those reasons this felt like a lot bigger adventure than when I left home in Michigan.
I’d traveled to California the fall after graduating from Notre Dame. I’d worked a few summer jobs, cracked up my dad’s car, then made the trip with my brother, Bern, and a couple of his friends.
My dad had a long talk with me while we were driving down to Lansing to get the substitute car the insurance company had found to replace the one that I’d smashed.
“I know you want to go to California, but I’d rather you stayed here. There’s nothing special about California.”
I disagreed. There’s the mountains and the ocean, but he said I’d rarely see them since I had to make a living and the mountains were at least four hours away from the city, I didn’t have a car, and besides, Michigan had plenty of nice places to go.
I was unconvinced and undaunted until—”Larry, couldn’t you just stay for a while longer, just a year or two. Your mother and I need your help to support the family right now. I hate to ask you, but it won’t be for long.”
I felt my heart sink; I couldn’t say no if they needed me.
I said goodbye to my father, who was continuing on to Ohio for work. I returned to Spring Lake. I was the oldest son of 11 children, with five brothers and five sisters. I had an older sister, who was long gone from home. I was tired of the responsibility and weight of so many expectations. I wanted to be free, on my own.
The next day while speaking to my mother—a kind, round, long-enduring woman—I was depressed and angry that I was not going.
“How much of your stuff are you going to take? I’m not sure you’ll have room in John’s car.”
“I’m not going. I have to stay.”
“You’re not going? Why not, you’ve been planning this all year?”
“Dad said you need my help. I need to stay and help make money to support the family.”
“He said that?” she asked incredulously.
“He said he needs me to help make money for a while, that I can go later.” I had a tone of angry, yet hopeless, resignation in my voice as if I were used to having my dreams grounded right before they were about to take off.
“You go,” she said. “He shouldn’t have asked you to stay. We’ll make it somehow. He had no business doing that. You go, Larry. We’ll be all right.”
“Really, you mean it?” I was so happy I could’ve kissed her, should have. I couldn’t believe my mother would take my side against my father. I couldn’t believe she would put my concerns above her own.
The pickup pulled to a stop next to the gas station. In the still, silent air I felt the hundred degree heat baking me and everything else. The scrawny hitchhiker got out and said goodbye. I waved to him as he fixed his pack. I looked in the direction he said he was going to go, across the flat, light-drenched sand towards the gray mountains at least five miles distant, carrying neither a water bottle, nor a sleeping bag.
Earlier, I had pulled out my salami, cheese, and bread. He looked starved.
“No thanks, you go ahead.”
I cut a slice of salami with my army surplus jackknife and stuck it in my mouth even though I wasn’t hungry, “Are you sure?”
“I don’t want to eat up all your food.”
“I have plenty.”
“Well, maybe just a little bit.” He reached out and took the salami and the knife; he tentatively cut a slice and bit a dainty bite out of its circumference. Then as if something was awakened in his stomach, he popped the whole piece in his mouth, cut a larger piece and quickly devoured that. Then he took some cheese, then some French bread, a swig of water, more cheese, some salami, back to the bread, then a little more water at which time he looked up from this very focused meal.
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah, I’ve got a lot more in my pack. Why don’t you finish it, there’s too little to put back.”
He finished off the sausage, cheese, half the loaf and some more water. Then he handed back the knife, “Thanks,” and the bread, “I was pretty hungry. Haven’t eaten since yesterday.”
Earlier yet, that same day, when I had been dropped off in Baker, I found myself a good spot part way up the on ramp to the interstate.
I had a red pack with all my stuff—sleeping bag, jacket, clothes, food, map, a couple books, everything I thought I needed and could fit. I wore hiking boots and should’ve been wearing a hat. The sun was unavoidably bright and everywhere, but I was used to this searing California sun.
When I looked up from fixing my pack I realized I’d made a mistake. I should’ve stayed down near the entrance to the ramp, because now there was someone else standing there. This short skinny fellow in dirty, dark blue, work pants, no shirt, with a small, green, beaten up, army surplus pack at his feet—couldn’t have had much in it.
I was angry. I’d gotten there first! Now the scrawny bum was going to get the first ride. I felt superior and self-righteous about it. Here I was, all equipped and fully dressed, and this miscreant was going to get the ride. Way out here, I thought, it will take forever to wait for one ride, let alone two.
The scrawny guy waved, “Hey, you take the first ride, okay?”
Not long after that the pickup stopped and told us both to hop in the back.
“Where you going?” I asked my fellow traveler.
That’s when he told me where he planned to live.
“In the desert? Why?”
“When I get so I can’t take living in the city anymore, I go to a place like this. One time it got so bad, I had to get out quick and decided to steal a car. And as long as I was gonna steal a car, it might as well be the best, so I stole a Pantera.”
“I got caught and spent two years in prison.”
“It was a big mistake.” He fell silent. I told him a little of my own story, but it paled in comparison. I was going to a friend’s wedding in Minneapolis. I was tired of my old routines, my job, a place that I shared with Bern and John. I needed an adventure; I needed to find out something.
That’s why the idea occurred to me that maybe I should see if I could tag along with him. Maybe this was the person who could help me find that something out.
However, I wasn’t ready to take the chance that this fellow really knew what he was doing. It was too big a leap and besides that, I would miss seeing my friends, my old college friends.
After fixing his pack, the hitchhiker went into the gas station. It was one of those little huts with oil cans, maps, and bathrooms. As the pickup took off under the blazing sun, I watched to see the hitchhiker start across the expanse of sand and rock towards the mountains in the haze on the horizon. But by the time I lost sight of the gas station, the hitchhiker had not yet emerged.
He’s still a question mark to me. Sometimes I picture him at that rundown gas station, sometimes, haggard and dirty, scraping by in those desolate mountains.
My mind shifted to my own trip—to see my old college friends, good friends who had once save me when I was in crisis. Rick was getting married. Both he and Kelly had gone to grad school at the University of Minnesota. It had a good drama school. Kelly was studying history of the drama and Rick was focusing on directing.
There were a few other friends from Notre Dame there too. I wished I could’ve somehow gotten back in school. I had applied to the University of California at Irvine for admittance into the writing program, but had not heard back. I felt like my life was in Limbo. Kelly had written about the wedding, asking if I could come; Theo was going to be there too—the biggest hearted person I had ever met. Perhaps this was the opportunity that would make the difference.
Despite these warm thoughts, there was a certain despair looking out on the desert from the back of the speeding pickup. The barrenness sweeping to the horizon matched the barrenness of my prospects, but I hid that from myself beneath the excitement of the adventure of going somewhere new, on my own, moving at great speed through the middle of nowhere.
This is the First Installment of a memorable hitchhiking trip I took in my twenties.
The story continues with http://viewsfromthebridge.org/journeys/hitchiking-series/hitching-to-zio....