September 3rd, 2013
I step out of the bus into the cool fresh air. First step of the journey completed. I rode without a ticket so it’s more of an accomplishment to have arrived here without getting caught. I can’t even count the amount of times I’ve been paranoid on public transportation for this reason, but today, I just watched the city and its people.
The view from here is spectacular, San Francisco Bay is spread out right in front of me. On the right is the city with its highest buildings shrouded by low steady moving clouds, on the left is the Golden Gate Bridge with its iconic towers hiding in a fog as well. I put on my sweater to fight the morning chill and head for the bridge.
The bridge is longer than I thought. Walking across it gives me time to take some photos and think. From the halfway point I look out onto the city, just another little world upon worlds of littler worlds. I’m intrigued enough by the place that I could spend the rest of my life there. That idea is overwhelming. The bridge I’m standing on is overwhelming and I feel vulnerable out in the middle of it. Out on the bay is a lonely looking ship heading for the fog. I snap a photo and continue.
I get into this mood or mindset when I feel overwhelmed that I call “The eye of the storm”. My world is spinning around me and I am calm. It’s how I handle things. I’m about to enter into a world that I’ve developed I fear and love. I’m on my own so there’s no room for fussing, I just enjoy the breathtaking view of the bay and keep a steady pace. I think about what I’m doing only enough to be aware of what I need to do but not too aware where I step out of the eye and get tossed around.
As I touch solid land again I see my next destination up to the right on a hill. It’s a rest stop/lookout area mainly for tourists that cross the Golden Gate Bridge to see a nice view of the city. This will be my hitch spot. It’s not the best but it’s on the 101 north, outside of the city.
I get to the rest stop exit which is also an on ramp to the 101 and the adventure begins. Well, actually nothing really adventurous happens right away. I write the word “north” in one of my journal pages and hold that out to the cars passing by. Usually I can have a good idea of how good a spot is based on the looks and reactions of the drivers. I can just tell that 99% of these people are tourists heading back to San Francisco who look confused about where they’re going. This is not a good place to hitch.
After about an hour with no sign of luck I decide to walk to the next on ramp a half mile up the 101. My reasoning is that even though there is much less traffic passing through, they will all most likely be heading at least a bit north instead of trying to turn back south.
Hitchhiking is more proactive than it seems. I guess you could sit in the same place and eventually you’ll get picked up but every bit of thought that goes into it will increase your chances. I put thought into the clothes I wear. People can be very judgemental about how one dresses and although I may not agree with judging somebody by what they wear, this is a game and if I play by the unwritten rules, things will be easier. I look alert and look each driver in the eyes as they pass by, I don’t want people thinking I’m drunk or lazy and I’ve seen people change their minds in a second by looking them in the eyes. It’s about attracting the people who might or might not pick you up, they are a greater percentage than people who will pick you up no matter what.
I get to the other hitch spot and although there is less traffic, I already have a better feeling about the place. I can see people’s faces considering stopping which is hopeful. I’m there for almost another hour before somebody finally stops. I note how different my reaction is compared to a few years ago; I would get so excited and run to the car. I’ve lost count of the amount of cars I’ve hitchhiked in but it is no big deal now. That being said, I’m happy somebody finally stopped.
The guy’s name is Kevin. He’s got a full beard and long red hair. His car is messy but fairly new. I can tell this is not the first time he’s picked somebody up. He says he can only take me a few miles and I’m grateful. He spent three years when he was younger hitching around the whole United States and he said it sucked. He didn’t have money and didn’t work, just bummed around. He said he would sit for days on the street and just think. He jumped quickly into politics and seemed very upset about Reagan. He seemed to want to get a lot off his chest and talked faster than he drove. Out of nowhere he pulled over and said he had to get off and it just ended like that.
I’m in some heavily populated urban area with freeways going every direction. This is not the most ideal place to hitch once again but I’m happy to have made some progress even if it was only five miles. I waste no time, put my sign up and stand on the on ramp. 15 minutes later I hear someone yelling from across the street and see that the yelling is for me. Some man waves me over and I grab my stuff and run to his car.
As I approach the car, I can see from the outside that this guy is most likely living out of it. It’s some cheap early 80’s Toyota, filthy and full of junk. I come up to the window and before I can say anything he tells me to get in. I ask him where he’s going since his car is not pointing toward the on ramp.
“North, now come on!” His answer couldn’t be more suspicious since I’m holding a sign that says “north”, so it is too obvious of a response. I ask him where exactly and he names some place I’ve never heard of. I don’t know my way around here anyway so I just take his word for it, get in and hope for the best. He takes off right away and tells me we have to make some stops on the way. Another really sketchy thing to say.
I’m grateful to still be in this eye of the storm mentality otherwise paranoia or fear would cloud my thinking. I read the guy closely and pay attention to everything he says to catch any inconsistencies. I also am careful of what I choose to say to him and make it seem like I’m more broke than I really am. I’m not saying much anyway as this guy is an even faster talker than the last one. I can smell the alcohol on his breath but he seems to be driving fine so I accept it.
He tells me that he’s Irish, a fighter and that he doesn’t put up with people doing wrong. He’ll fight anyone no matter what their size. He talks about money a lot, how he used to make “x” amount per week, that he has a motorcycle, two cars, a boat, a home. He brags about his previous paychecks then looks me intensely in the eye to see if I’m impressed. I politely show approval and that is good enough for him.
We go down some random side streets to an industrial part of town. He gets out with the engine running and asks some guy for directions to the recycling center. He trusts me in his car with the keys and that makes me trust him a bit more. I’m aware that people will use this trick of putting their faith in you so that you will naturally reciprocate it, at which point they take advantage of that trust but somehow I think this guy is not clever enough to think that way. Still, I stay alert, calm and somewhat detached from the whole situation.
We spend about 30 minutes at the recycle center to turn some cans he found yesterday into money. Before we got here he bragged about how he could make $100 per hour by collecting cans. After emptying half of his back seat, he ended up earning $8 and forgot to brag as we left. He’s just happy he remembered to take his meth out of one of the cans he was hiding it in before they were lost in the waste abyss.
The next stop we make is a Lutheran soup kitchen. All you can eat delicious food with dessert and a lunch pack for later. I worked hard for my money and I’ve been eating peanut butter and jellies and leftover food from restaurants to survive while these people spend their money on drugs and eat for free. I’m very impressed with the attitude of the volunteers who work there. They are kind even to the ungrateful ones and don’t seem to have a hidden agenda of proselytizing. Food without judgement.
I meet a couple of the guy’s friends at the kitchen and he tries to sell one an outboard motor that he swears he found and wasn’t stolen. I don’t think 8 bucks is going to be enough for his next fix so he’s hustling. He goes to throw away the rest of his food and I stop him to eat his leftovers, I hate to see food go to waste.
We set off again. I ask when we’ll be going north and he gets frustrated.
“I told you we’re getting there, just one more 5 minute stop”.
I don’t mind taking a long time, I’m in no hurry, I just want to make sure he hasn’t forgotten.
We make our next stop at the social services building. Supposedly the state “owes” him some welfare check so he needs to square that away. He says they like giving money away to white people like him, that the mexicans and blacks just abuse it. It’s surprising to see the kind of people waiting in line for their checks. If I saw them on the street I would’ve thought most were working people, except for a couple of them, my new friend for example.
The 5 minute stop turns into one hour and by the time he’s ready I feel eager to get onto the road again. We get back into his sweltering car and he decides right then that he needs to rewire his stereo. He rips off the plastic covering beneath the steering wheel and haphazardly pulls out a ton of wires disconnecting and connecting things. I think he’s just going to mess everything up but he gets it within 20 minutes and it seems like he knows what he’s doing. Based on everything he’s told me about himself, I gather that he’s been a hard-working jack of all trades his whole life and lost it all to drugs.
We finish off the drive and he drops me in a pretty good place. He offers to buy me a soda before I leave and gives me his phone number in case I’m ever in the area and want to go sailing on his boat. I’m glad to have met him and don’t regret spending the last three hours only covering a distance of 10 miles. Deep down a good man crippled by addiction and doing his best to hold on to dignity.
Back on the road again. I’ve been on the road for 6 hours and am 20 miles north of where I began. Progress is progress and I can’t complain. Within 20 minutes of waiting with my sign a wave of exhaustion overcomes me. To my standards, I’ve been partying hard the last few days in San Francisco and it is catching up. All I want to do is lay down but I’ll waste valuable daylight hitching hours and I won’t be able to sleep tonight if I do. After about an hour I decide that if nobody stops in the next half an hour i’ll take a bus to Portland, which is still another 700 miles or so.
Right before my quitting cutoff time, someone pulls over and I instantly get a second wind. A really layed back, calm dude by the name of Kenneth says he’s going 30 miles north so I jump in. After talking to the guy a bit, I’m strangely reminded of myself. He’s about the same age as me, comes from California, is into traveling, camping, outdoors stuff and is currently saving up to move to South America. We connect easily, we both have a calm air about us as we nonchalantly chat about life. He hands me a portable vaporizer containing hashish and I enter a new world.
Suddenly I am more aware of how crazy of a situation I’m in. I’ve been avoiding thinking like this, being careful not to step out of the storm epicenter. The meth addict experience seems like a dream now. I’m about to be dropped off on the side of the road in a foreign place to me to hitchhike hundreds of miles north to pick up a motorcycle and ride it thousands more miles through unknown places. I can’t think too deeply about these things or else I won’t do them. In this present moment, I’m glad I decided to hitch, I feel safe and it has already been a great experience.
Just like everything in life though, it comes to an end. I find myself walking down the side of the road again after having almost forgotten my bag in Kenneth’s car. I get to the on ramp and have so much more energy and feel much more inspired to keep going.
Looking every driver in the eye as they pass by becomes so much more interesting. I have a two second glimpse into a different person’s life each time. It is somehow different than just looking at someone as they walk down the street. People out walking know they’re in public and act differently. People are almost at home in the little world of their cars, their safe havens. Metal and glass create a barrier from the outside world and they let certain guards down. I see people laughing, angry people, bored, hurried, shy. Some seem to have their worlds invaded when they catch my eyes looking into theirs.
One jeep flies by at such a quick pace while flooring it and I don’t get a look at their face. To my surprise the jeep pulls over and my social observation session is taken to a more intimate setting. The guy’s name is John and he looks excited to take me. He says he’s never taken a hitchhiker but that I looked trustworthy. He works for a mechanic shop and is delivering some parts to a city about ten miles north of here. He is very enthralled with me and asks me all about my travels. I gladly exchange stories for mileage.
He seems to be so into what I’m saying that he doesn’t see a car pull into his lane and slams his brakes. He apologizes immediately and adds that he’s a good driver. I had such a vivid dream last night where I was driving with my family on the freeway and we had a terrible accident. It felt so real and scary. Luckily by now though I have stepped back into the eye of the storm and that near accident didn’t even manage to startle me. Often, the idea of something can be much more frightening than the thing itself.
John is so sweet and feels so embarrassed so I assure him that it is ok. Right as he’s dropping me off, he asks me if I believe in gun rights and I think it is some indirect way of asking me if I’m carrying one. I’m not sure what he wants to hear and I end up saying a bunch of words without saying anything. Before he hears what I ultimately believe, he excitedly hands me a bumper sticker that says “Gun Bless America” with an American flag backdrop. I accept the gift and thank him as I get out.
The rides seem to be coming faster and faster because within ten minutes of waiting, I find myself in another vehicle, this time a truck. The first thing I notice when I step in is a cup holder with a bong sitting in it. Trash is strewn about and there’s a bucket in the center seat whose contents are hidden by a handkerchief. The bed is filled with what looks like metal working tools. The guy is really cool and doesn’t seem afraid or excited to have me. He just smiles and says he can take me to the north part of the town a few miles away.
Within the first couple minutes he reveals the contents of the bucket and it is not a shock to find out it is filled with marijuana. He thoroughly describes the process of how to turn it into hash which is what he intends to do with it. Before he lets me out, he hands me a nugget for the road and like most gifts I accept it thankfully.
As I get out I see a beautiful girl dressed up as a hippie on the side of the road holding up a sign so I have to go talk to her. I greet her and ask if she’s hitchhiking too and she says she’s “flying”. A couple of weeks ago I learned that term; asking for money by holding up a sign. She looks like she doesn’t want to chat because I’m costing her money every second she’s not flying her sign so I bid her adieu. I was going to give her the nugget I just obtained because I don’t really want to be carrying it but her loss I guess.
After a quick break of eating some of the lunch pack from the soup kitchen I go back to flying my trusty “north” sign. About 20 minutes later I see the very same girl drive by in a van and wave to me. What the heck! Why wouldn’t she pick me up being a beggar and all? Doesn’t matter, I just wasn’t meant to go with her.
The way I look at it is that every car that doesn’t stop was not meant for me so I don’t get angry when people don’t stop. It makes things easier to accept plus it is fun to believe in destiny.
The car I was meant to ride in finally pulls over another 20 minutes later. The guy is heading about 250 miles north to Humboldt county. Finally a nice long trip! I can totally tell that this guy is an ex-hitcher who has helped out many others as well. His name is Ian, mid 40’s, cool attitude with hair down to his shoulders. In the back seat is some african conga drum and trash all over. We connect right away.
Throughout the 4 or 5 hour conversation Ian and I find out that we have so much in common. We share many similar values, both skateboarded many years and both hitched around a ton. Ian talks about how hitchhiking was an important developmental time in his life. He says with hitchhiking he learned to adapt to all kinds of social situations, learn tolerance, understanding, open his mind to new ideas, overcome fears, learn how to go with the flow and fulfill the adventure bug inside him.
It’s great for me to hear somebody about 20 years my senior seeing hitchhiking in such a positive light. I couldn’t agree more with him as well. I think about the first times I hitched and how scared I was. Then, after many times, how I eventually learned to shift my concentration from taming my own fear to engaging with the drivers better. I’ve been in hundreds and hundreds of cars meeting people of every ethnicity, age and social class. Everybody has their own life styles, opinions, expertise and overall view of the world.
I look at each experience or new point of view like adding a new puzzle piece to my picture of life. Each time I add to the scattered pieces, a more clear image begins to slowly emerge. It is impossible to ever finish the complex puzzle because I could never experience every possibility but it is solving the puzzle that is the fun part, not looking back at the finished work. I’m a complex animal with natural instincts and while some other more primitive animals may only strive to eat and mate, I as a human strive to know as well.
Ian was an alcoholic for his whole life and has been sober for 10 years yesterday. He has three children whose intelligence he loves to brag about. He’s a tradesman who never went to college but doesn’t regret it. He’s had a rough life and has overcome many obstacles and came out as a loving and proud father who couldn’t ask for more. He helps who he can and tolerates everyone. He is happy and knows it.
I feel like I could keep talking with him for another 4 hours but the time comes where I depart. He lets me out at a rest stop a few miles before his turn out. It is sunset and I won’t be hitching any more today. I’m up in the mountains with no towns nearby, the place is deserted. It’s my own little home for the night.
I enjoy a nice dinner of soup kitchen food from earlier and then roll up some of the home-grown weed that was given to me as a gift earlier. I’m in a safe and calm place up in the mountains plus I think this stuff will not be so powerful. 15 minutes later I realize how wrong I was as I find myself hiding in the shadows in the back section of the rest area, paranoid that the driver that just pulled in is going to find me and get me. Directly behind me is the dark forest with bears that can smell the food in my bag.
Murderers, thieves and hungry animal swirl around my head. I’m too involved, thinking too much, I’ve stepped out of the eye again and got caught up in fear and chaos. I’m aware of this and embrace it. It feels good to feel fear and to focus on it for a while. In the part of my day when the least is going on and I am safer than my paranoia will lead me to believe, I face fears which are actually more internal than external. Hanging out in the eye of the storm is great for coping with chaos but eventually I have to let the storm pass over and face what is out of my shell.