July 18 1998, Saturday
setting: northeast of Columbus, Ohio on I-270
he thing that struck me about the construction being used in this Columbus, Ohio condominium development was how very cheap it all was. The sheathing was exclusively particle board, and the structural wood, excepting perhaps the floor joists, was all knotty two-by-fours. In order to get away with two-by-four rafters and ceiling joists, the cross-sectional sets had been pre-assembled into giant internally-braced triangles. The problem with this design, though, was that the attic was broken up into small unusable spaces by lots of supports set at odd angles.
I tried unsuccessfully to break into a nearby set of condominiums closer to completion, hoping perhaps to find power with which to fire up the laptop and work on my musings, because I'm crazy like that.
Every now and then loud airplanes roared unseen to and from a nearby airport. That, in concert with the interstate noise, made the condominium grounds anything but tranquil. Who would pay to live in a place like this?
When I was sick of the condominium construction site, having gotten all the necessary decline of western civilization lessons therefrom, I jumped the fence back to I-270 and continued to the next access ramp and resumed hitchhiking.
t was to be another long wait. These big cities breed both wealth and paranoia, and neither are good for the hitchhiker far from home.
Eventually a dirty newish black car pulled up. The guy wasn't going far, but he could take me some two miles away down to I-70, which was where I needed to be.
The ramp from I-270 South to I-70 East was one of those high speed but tight turns, and it was running heavy with traffic. There was no good place to pull over, and again I wondered if I'd ever get a ride. As I hitched, I watched some guy down in the "wilderness" at the center of the cloverleaf loop I was on. Was he trying to find a stash of drugs? Was he hiding a dead body? Eventually he emerged from the trees carrying a car wheel and then drove away. I wasn't satisfied; what was his story?
Suddenly a newish pickup pulled over. It was driven by a lone middle-aged woman, a rare but occasional source of rides. She immediately got to talking about how most people don't give rides to hitchhikers, but, as for her, she made a comment about "what I have on the other side of this seat" (implying a weapon). I was careful not to make sudden movements after that. But she was nice enough, if a little too tough for my liking. She claimed to work for the Ohio Department of Tourism, the 1-800-BUCKEYE people. She only drove me a few miles to the east. Stevie Wonder was on the car stereo.
he ramp where I waited next should have been a perfect place for getting a ride. The traffic was moving slowly and didn't come in big bursts. The problem, though, was the demographics. The place was lousy with sport utility vehicles, minivans, and shiny new bubble cars. (I can't wait to see what they'll look like when they're old and full of rust.) Times like this, when you find yourself waiting waiting waiting on the ramp for that one good ride, staring hundreds of cold-hearted people in the eye, you find yourself fine-tuning and perfecting your personal philosophy about the art of hitchhiking. The techniques and science of hitchhiking may well be one of the most thoroughly examined in all of western thought, since there's little else that can possibly cross your mind when you're trying to get your ride. Hitchhiking is like fishing, or dating, or any practice where you know you only have hope of interacting with a small fraction of the many in the pool of available subjects. You find yourself taking what comes to you, knowing that those who fall for you are exceptional, very different from the average. In the case of those who pick up hitchhikers, they tend to be generous risk takers. More often than not, they smoke and speed and supply their riders with food, cigarettes, beer, drugs and money.
I remember once on the Oprah Winfrey Show, the subject of hitchhiking came up. In a rhetorical flourish, Oprah expressed the mainstream American view, "What are you, crazy? You think I'll let you into my car?" She didn't stop to think that no hitchhiker would ever expect her to pull over and provide a ride. She's not the type. She's rich, famous, female, black, and probably drives a new Mercedes Benz. That's five demographic strikes against her right there.
As a hitchhiker, I've often wondered what is meant by some of the strange hand signals people make as they whip past me. Since people making these signs never stop, I may never know. If you, the reader, have ever made any of these signs, send me some email and tell me what you were trying to say when you:
Sometimes it's obvious what the message is. In cars that are jammed with people or stuff, it's clear that there's no room. But I get a kick out of minivans that go by, driven by apologetic people waving their hands indicating no room. There's no way such people would give me a ride even if they had lots of room. I've never hitched a ride with a minivan in my entire life. Minivans are specifically marketed to people (young parents, especially) who are overly concerned with issues of safety and security. The television minivan ads are mostly about crash survivability and air bags, not power and sex appeal. But then, I don't get many rides with sport utility vehicles either.
The Sun had been scorching me during most of my prolonged waits, and by this point I was noticing reddening of arms and I could feel a burn on the back of my neck. I tried to stand in whatever shade I could find, but that usually amounted only to what little was cast by the "No Pedestrians" sign on the access ramp.
When I'd run completely out of hitchhiker thoughts, I did my best to teach myself the names of the various brands of sport utility vehicles. All that raw four wheel drive power just to schlepp people back and forth to their dreary jobs! I wonder what is it about a poor working stiff that makes him march down to the dealership and tell the dealer that only the largest sport utility vehicle will do.
I took off my boots and did my best to dry my socks, soaked by walking on dewy grass last night. But then, quite suddenly, I had a ride.
It was a young, quiet blondish red-headed boy, handsome and covered with freckles. He was wearing a flannel shirt, perhaps partly as protection from the sun. As usual, I launched into meaningless chit chat, but he wasn't much for conversation, so I soon shut my yap. Most people who pick up hitchhikers are weird in some respect, fighting authority in some way besides the simple generosity of offering support to strangers in need. In this lad's case, the music he played was Tool. Good choice.
As we came off the once-glaciated terrain, suddenly there were hills again. For me, home has always been where the hills are.
As he was letting me out on Ohio Route 13, the red-headed lad spoke the first thing of any consequence, asking if I had enough money. I guess most hitchhikers don't carry a 500 balance on their check card. I said I was fine.
It was a kind of a lonely exit, but after awhile, an older sportscar pulled over and two guys, perhaps in their mid 20s, urged me to climb in the back. These guys had short hair but they were metal heads all the same. The stereo played Megadeth all the way to I-77. I nodded off to sleep occasionally on the way.
he ramp from I-70 East to I-77 South carried sporadic traffic, less than I expected. As I sought the perfect place to catch a ride, I found a mostly-full bag of pretzels. When I realized they weren't stale, I knew there was nothing that could be wrong with them. I get obsessive when I eat bag food, so almost finished the pretzels then and there. It was kind of a stupid thing to do, since they were rather salty and no water was available. But then I found bushes of plump, ripe blackberries, and I feasted like a bear. This, people, was living off the land in an old school way.
My next ride was in an older reddish car driven by an extroverted man and his vaguely neurotic wife or girlfriend. They were both in their forties and she would have been a lot prettier if gravity had been pulling a little less forcefully on her facial features. They both had strong mid-Ohio accents and spoke in a dialect that indicated little or no higher education, though they put out an alternative, almost hippie vibe that spoke of a love of nature and possibly a back-to-the-land ethic. They were on a fishing expedition to Marietta and were traveling in convoy with another vehicle.
As we approached Marietta, the southernmost Ohio town on I-77, they told of horrible flooding and tornados that had hit the area a month ago, killing a number of people. From the raised grade of the interstate, I could look down and see that the streams and rivers had been blasted clear of sediments and snags by powerful currents. This part of Ohio seems to be especially cursed with tragedy and natural disaster. There's a memorial nearby to a dirigible crash that killed something like 20 enlisted men.
arietta sits hard against the Ohio River. There's a big blue-painted iron bridge over to Wild Wonderful West Virginia, but to cross it I needed a ride. So there I was, burning further in the hot sun, being mocked by frat boys, reviled by protective young mothers, ignored by others, and pitied by plenty. I would have expected more of a community spirit from a town still rebuilding from the wrath of God.
Eventually a newish bubble car pulled over, the kind that never offers rides of any kind. A well-dressed businessman inside said he was only going down one exit and couldn't really help me, but that Jesus had told him to give me some money. For some reason I tried to argue that I had plenty of money, but then I quickly realized that taking this guy's money was only doing him a favour, making him feel like he was doing the right thing. Certainly I couldn't argue with him about a supposed message from Jesus. It would have been like trying to convince a psychopath that a little leprechaun in the sandbox hadn't told him to burn down houses. Christianity (as well as other religions) has an interesting effect on people's behaviour. It makes people do altruistic things for selfish reasons. Here's a guy in a nice car, probably haunted by guilt about his successes in life (camel going through the eye of a needle and all of that), taking pity on a downtrodden hitchhiker because he believes it pleases Jesus to do so. Back before the invention of surveillance cameras, Christianity and Santa Claus were pretty much the only tools the authorities had to control people's behaviour when their repressive agents weren't physically present. I predict a gradual decline in religions as hidden cameras become increasingly ubiquitous. Technology has supplanted man, now it's time to move on and replace God as well.
Two long-haired rockers pulled up and I climbed in the back. Their faces were heavily lined, probably more from crystal meth than from age. They were drinking beers, but they never offered me any. I snoozed intermittently as they drove all the way down to Charleston, the capitol of West Virginia. Two state capitols in one day.
The music played by the rockers was strictly classic rock: Boston at first, then AC/DC. Among the Boston songs was "Hitch a Ride," sort of an early 80s hitchhiker's anthem. I sometimes sing it softly to myself as I try to psych people into stopping to pick me up. Today was the first time I really noticed the doo-doo-dachicka-doo-doo lick in the song, a lick that is now virtually mandatory in modern rock and has been ever since Nirvana popularized it back in 1991. The Boston version of that lick is done with an organ, of course, so it's not quite the same I suppose.
We traveled through a hard rain, but it was mostly sunny by the time the rockers set me loose in Charleston.
uch as I had done last evening in Fostoria, I took a leisurely stroll through downtown Charleston to the best hitching location, the access ramp that starts virtually beside the capitol building itself.
On my walk, I passed through an increasingly scary neighborhood full of rundown buildings and doth protest too much neighborhood watch signs. A young African American gentleman asked me about my digital camera which he saw me holding, concluding with, "That's really neat!"
There was lots of activity down at the Charleston Arena, one of many things crammed entirely too close to everything else in the limited Kanawah Valley floodplain near the gilded capitol rotunda. As I drew close, I imagined something very cool must be happening, a massive low-fi rock convention or, at the very uncoolest, a monsters of modern rock mega concert, complete with Bush, Everclear and Stone Temple Pilots. The milling throng gave no indication one way or the other. Whatever it was, it must not have been a hip-hop extravaganza; very few blacks were in attendance.
But then, as I rounded the arena, I caught a glimpse of the star attraction and had no further interest in the shabby spectacle or any of the people who'd come to watch. It was a fucking monster truck rally, complete with Big Foot and Bear Foot.
I ate a couple cheap burgers at a nearby Rally's, a sort of unwitting greasy spoon franchise. When I got up to leave, rain was falling in big distantly-spaced drops from hastily gathered clouds. I sought shelter under an eave and wrote "Virginia" in big letters on the back of a printout of a recent installment of Down the Rubadub in a Terry Nutkins Stylee.
When the rain had quieted, I found my way up to the interstate and stood at the beginning of the ramp. Around this time a scruffy-looking toothless dreadlocked hippie guy emerged from underneath an overpass toting a big backpack and started walking towards me. Shit, competition was not what I wanted. But, at least for this particular phase of rainlessness, I was first. I mumbled a disgruntled hello at the hippie as he continued past me down the ramp several hundred feet beyond me and started hitching there, getting only traffic that had already rejected me. We both stood there thumbing for a long time until rain began to fall again. The hippie was evidently less serious about getting a ride before nightfall than was I; he retreated to his overpass with the first few drops, but I stayed out and made the best of the sympathy factor conferred upon anyone dogged enough to hitch in the rain. Sadly, it didn't pay off, however. Eventually the rain was falling too hard even for me (especially given the computer equipment I was carrying), so I sought shelter under a different overpass. This one was crowded with refugees from the monster truck rally, and having nothing in common with them, I barely noted their existence. I did take a few pictures though.
When the rain slacked a tiny bit, I returned to the ramp again, well before the toothless hippie competition. He emerged after the rain had completely stopped, but only thumbed for awhile before completely giving up.
At this point I was determined to get myself a ride before nightfall. Light was growing dim and a thunderstorm was approaching. I didn't want to have to spend the night in Charleston.
A big shiny white Cadillac was coming towards me. I have good luck with Cadillacs, or at least I feel as though I do. I made a strangely emphatic whole-body gesture as the car rolled past, as if I knew I'd be climbing in. Whatever it was, the mojo worked. Soon I was in the back seat being driven by an elderly man and his schoolteacher wife. They didn't play any music (thank God!), and they didn't bother me too much. I mentioned somewhere along the line that I'm an artist who also does web pages, and I ended up giving the woman the URL of my art website.
I get a surprising number of rides from senior citizens; I think many of them are still living in the 40s when it was natural to pick up hitchhikers. Now of course, most people have the delusion that hitchhiking is dangerous, and hitchhiking is an art in decline. The sad thing is that in a generation or two, the people who hitchhiked and gave rides during the hitchhiking golden age will have mostly died off, leaving a world of security-obsessed minivansters. Maybe we'll be experiencing another oil crisis by then and another hitchhiking golden age will be upon us. We can only hope.
he elderly couple took me all the way down to Beckley, a fairly large town high on the Allegheny Plateau in south central West Virginia. It was well past dark by the time I resumed hitchhiking, but the ramp was unusually well lit and I figured people could get a good look at me despite the enshrouding darkness.
After an hour of useless thumbing, however, I decided to pack it in for the night. The air was warm and I figured I could sleep outside comfortably without any covering. Near my ramp I could see a well-tended but obviously abandoned house. When I went to look at it more carefully, I could see it was locked. But the porch looked fairly cozy. There was already a layer of cardboard, no doubt the bed for a previous hitchhiker. I lay down and soon fell asleep.
But I don't think I slept long. I awoke to the sound of nearby footsteps. I looked up and saw someone hurrying away. Perhaps it was some other homeless person who had intended on using my spot. Everything was tainted now, of course; I needed some other place.
I walked up a nearby hill to a region full of warehouses and small wholesalers. I found a few big sheets of one-sided corrugated cardboard, the kind which is smooth on one side and exposed corrugation on the other. It's more flexible than regular cardboard and I figured it would make a good blanket. I ended up setting up a fairly comfortable nest in the mostly unmowed grass beside a warehouse.
But again my sleep was interrupted. Storm clouds had gathered. At first it had been silent flashes of distant lightning, easily ignored. But now it was thunder too. I needed shelter. There was an open UPS truck, but it creeped me out for some reason. So I headed back to the abandoned house whose porch I'd used earlier in the evening. Now there was a car parked out in front. Maybe it wasn't abandoned after all!
The only real option at this point was the interstate overpass, a bridge crossing over I-77. I had no idea what I'd find when I walked underneath. Usually the slopes on either side of these overpasses are too steep for any kind of use, and highway engineers (never sympathetic to the plight of the homeless) have been careful to edit out any comfortable flat spots. Under this overpass, however, the steep slope was comprised of small (fist-sized) rock rip-rap, and the topmost edge had formed a narrow ledge, just wide enough to accomodate a sleeping human. I stretched out my cardboard and, using another layer as a blanket, waited for the arrival of the storm. As cars whipped past below, they roared by with a frightening whooshing sound, but I soon became acclimated to it all and felt fairly comfortable.
The lightning was now illuminating either side of the overpass in bright blue-white trapezoidal flashes. I could hear rain pelting down. Then the wind started blowing. The earthwork around the overpass seemed to channel all the wind directly through my cardboard wrap from my head down to my feet. It was just a little too cold for comfort. Every now and then thunder would boom. Once it came very very close; I wonder if lightning had hit the tall Exxon sign, the one on double telescoping steel poles just 100 feet from the other side of the overpass.
The rain lasted a long time, but none of it ever spilled through the bridge's drainage system to me. I was dry, even though the wind was making me far too cold to sleep. But then I found a way to snug the cardboard tightly around my head. With a pocket of still air around my body, I could at last get some sleep. And I slept well. By the time I next awoke, the Sun was already above the eastern horizon. That's late when I'm working under my hitchhiker schedule.
one year ago
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