Sunday, January 17, 2010

Rule of Thumb #8: Listening is an art form

Day 8: May 22, Hope, British Columbia to Rock Island, Washington (303 miles)

Natalia—at the time of the hitchhike—had been my girlfriend for the preceding nine months. We met the summer before in Coldfoot. She worked as a lodge cleaner for a few months before going back to La Grande where she was enrolled at Eastern Oregon University.

We didn’t become intimate until her last week that summer. One evening she knocked on my door in a white dress, offering to help me practice my Spanish.

She was from Ecuador. She had golden-brown skin, a thick accent, and an air of exoticism that seems to make romantic forays all the more exciting.

It was her smile that—more than anything—made me fall for her. It exuded warmth and an unalloyed sincerity. Between that and her artless, unaffected manner, everyone couldn’t help but become endeared to her.

What developed is common for the young at heart. We became afflicted with affection; diseased with high hopes. My dreams of exploring the world were momentarily stifled now that I had sweeter and softer conquests in mind.

While I acknowledged that I had lost my capacity to exercise rational thinking amid the hazy daze of early love, I thought things would be different with Natalia. She was so sweet and kind and caring; I thought I could really see myself growing old with her. With a self-assured grin, I proclaimed to my friend Josh: “She.. is.. the.. one..” Once, looking into her eyes, as we laid in a tent atop a soft bed of sphagnum moss, I had the odd experience—in a moment of sublime intimacy—of seeing my face in hers—a phenomenon that only verified the uncommon bond I felt between us.

But then she left for Oregon to go back to school. And I stayed in Coldfoot for the rest of the year. I did fly down to Ecuador to visit her family's home during her winter break, but in the nine months we were “together,” we had only seen each other for a few weeks.

Without the boons of physical companionship, my affection waned. I began resenting our weekly conversations, and my response to her I love you’s, became more and more insincere. By the time May rolled around, Natalia was the furthest thing for my mind.

But as I approached the American border and neared Oregon, something awoke within me. I smelled her luscious mane of black hair and dreamt—not of exploring my continent—but of traversing up, down, and around her silky Spanish curves. Natalia, again, incited a mutiny of my mind. I cared for nothing more now than to move. And to move fast.

Having never hitchhiked before, I originally had no idea if I could get out of Alaska, let alone make my way into a remote community on the quiet side of the Beaver state. But by now, I knew that anything was possible. It was only a matter of time before our long-awaited reunion.

La Grande, though, was still a long ways away.

I cooked up a pot of oatmeal, packed up my tent, tucked in my shirt, and made a new sign for the town of Princeton, British Columbia, which was en route to the Canadian-American border, just north of Washington.

The first car to pull over for me was driven by a cop, who, not without some cordiality, asked me about my journey. I responded honestly, except fibbing that my parents knew where I was and what I was doing. He wished me luck and said farewell.

A half an hour later, Keith, a spry 77-year-old retired drilling machinist, pulled over for me.

“Ya got any money?” he barked.

“Yeah. I have money,” I responded, feeling unthreatened.

“Good!” he growled. “The first thing ya know when you’re givin’ a fella a ride, they’re asking ya for food, then for money and then they’re stinking up your fuckin’ car!”

Amused, I assured him that I wouldn’t ask for food, or money, and told him that I didn’t think that I smelled.

I asked him where he wanted me to put my gear and he retorted, “In the backseat. What, do you want me to strap it on the fuckin’ hood?”

Clearly trying to test my intelligence, I responded, “Well, I thought you might like me to put it in the trunk.”

Keith’s curmudgeonly personality was balanced with grandfatherly charm. He asked me where I was going; I told him, “Oregon. To see my girlfriend.”

“Sounds like your pecker is taking ya across the world,” he said. I laughed.

Keith droned on for hours, going into exquisite detail about engine technology while I fantasized about Natalia and admired verdant farmland which slowly—as we headed further east—turned into arid wine country. I’d pepper the conversation with “Mmmm hmmm’s” and would occasionally make him stop to ask him what a Union bit or something or other was just so it appeared that I was following the conversation all along.

I was merely playing my role as hitchhiker, giving a lonely old man—what appeared to be—an attentive ear.

But Keith wasn’t so bad. He had some catchy sayings like: “You’re not worth a dime until you make your boss a dollar” and “If someone can build it, you ought to be able to take it apart and put it back together.”

After Keith dropped me off, a lumberjack drove me through the vineyards and dropped me off at the border.

Walking back into the States was both exciting and nerve-racking. Surely I thought my bedraggled appearance and the way in which I was traveling would raise concerns with border guards. But—much to my surprise—I walked across without being subjected to rigorous inquiry. I reproduced my “South” sign and continued on my way, now through the lower-48.

The Pacific Northwest, I found—like most of the places I passed through—was easy to hitch rides out of. I had another seven rides that day, including my second female driver, Celia, a 60-year-old, who was charmed with the story of my journey thus far. An 80-year old couple—Bob and Esther—picked me up and told me that they were “some of the few left who still like to trust people.”

John, a shirtless 19-year-old, pulled up in a run-down 80’s sports car in the town of Orak, Washington. He was thin and muscular, just out of basic training and on his way to Iraq where he’d serve as a scout. He joined because he blew 10K on pot and had to pay it back quick.

“I just told my recruiting officer that I want to get in shape, fuck up and kill a lot of people, and come home.”

“Is that exactly how you put it?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he said, matter of factly.

A guy in Wenatchee asks me if I want a beer before pulling a Budweiser out from between his thighs, which he'd slug lustily. Bob—another driver—stops at an EZ Go and buys me a burger. My last ride is with a single mom and her kid, formerly a carnie and hitchhiker herself. She dropped me off at Rock Island—in the middle of the state—where I’d set up my tent next to railroad tracks across from a gas station.

Oh, the joys of hitchhiking. Every hour I entered someone’s life; every day I gleaned new stories. I wasn’t just traveling, I was traveling outside the formula. I might as well have been floating through space, trailing my hand in stardust.

I struggled to fall asleep that evening—not from the stimulation of my day’s travel nor the howling coyotes in the desert night—but because my heart beated loudly for my beloved, just one state, and one day away.


Seth Miller said...

I believe you mean Wenatchee. And it's crazy that you were dropped off in Rock Island. I've driven by that gas station probably a hundred times.
I've really enjoyed these posts but especially now that they are in my neck of the woods.

Ken said...

Seth--"Wenatchee" is right. My bad. Thanks. Some beautiful country up in those parts. Rock Island, however, left me with not-so-warm feelings. Couldn't get a ride that night, and had a very difficult time the next morning. Plus some truckers nearby and coyotes--that night in the tent--had me scared enough to get my knife out for the first time.

Samantha said...


(I absolutely love the people you meet.)

Seth Miller said...

Yeah when I saw that is where your trip ended I laughed because that is one 'town' I would not want to spend a night in.
Keep up the good work. I'm looking forward to reading about the vandweller facebook groups that I'm sure are starting up.

Mimi said...

Hey, you're in my neck of the woods! Well, Washington that is. But not for long... we're leaving to take a spin around the country.

... and to Seth Miller (above) there already is a Vandweller Facebook.

Spork said...

I like the new page format/layout Ken...

Ken said...

Dawdy-- hitchhiking is certainly a cultural experience. It's easy to get to know a lot of people; too well sometimes.

Seth- Thanks. Been meaning to get this dang thing done forever. I have another cross country hitchhike I want to write about, but must finish this one first. Appreciate the kind words.

Mimi--Washington was perhaps the best state I've ever hitchhiked in. Had no problem getting rides.

Spork-- thanks, I've been meaning to put a banner photo up and make it a little more reader-friendly for about a year now.

Ty said...

I really love these "Rule of Thumb" posts. Keep up the good work.

Anonymous said...

You look hot in the new pic in front of the van ;)

Ken said...

Ha. Thanks, anon--I got tired of seeing me in mid-chew with a ridiculous facial expression.

RomanaS said...

Oy Ken, what the heck happened to your van? I've been reading the blog for some time and I don't recall any mention of the van having scratches all down the side. Or did I just miss something? I just re-read the "a man with a van" and "pimping my van aint easy" posts and there's no mention of scratches.

Ken said...

Romana--yes, I had a bit of an accident this past week, which I'm incredibly embarrassed about since it was with a stationary object. Expect a full explanation in the next post.

Spork said...

Reminds me of a story my cousin likes to tell about an old farmer who, after bringing a new pickup-truck home from the dealer, would immediately take a big swing with his shovel and inflict a major dent on the tailgate. The idea being that once you have a significant scratch/dent you can quit worrying about "that first scratch".

I think scratches/dents add character, well done!

Ken said...

Spork-- those are comforting words, though I think the van had enough dents/scratches/character before my little accident. Regardless, I'm getting over it and probably won't end up fixing it, which I initially resolved to do.

RomanaS said...

Oh just fill it with some bog / filler, sand that back and spray it over. Easy done.
Come on, it'll be character building.
At the very least I would just spray it over with some clear varnish in a can to prevent rust.

Anonymous said...

Hi Ken.
I’ve been reading your stories since fall. You remind me of myself at that age. I have a daughter, I’m curious of your thoughts. Shes 21. I asked her what she sees in the next 5 years for herself, what are her goals or dreams. With no hesitation she said ‘finish school, get married, have a baby.’ Just like that. Later she said the married part is just for us, her parents. I’m shocked I asked her why a family so soon (my wife and I didn’t start our family until our upper30s). what about traveling the world?. She said she moved a lot growing up and has seen what she wants to see. We did move a few times, but have been where we are now since she was 10 years. I’m her father and I want to support her and her dreams. But her dreams are a lot smaller than what mine are for her. What would you say to her?

Ken said...

Ty--Sorry I missed your comment. Appreciate it. Next one is this Sunday.

Romana-- thanks for the advice. My eight years of schooling have left me with little practical knowledge--I best let an expert handle it before I make things worse.

Paul-- I was affected by your message. I'm preparing my response.

Anonymous said...

i dunno if you wrote the guy above (paul)in private, but i'd be interested in your response to his message.

Ken said...

Paul-- not sure if you still read this blog, but I thought I'd try to let you know that I posted my letter to your daughter.

Mägi said...

It's not creepy that I'm still reading all of these.. right?
Certainly not.

It's been pretty rad reading your blog like your book.

I'm jealous of two things - your strong ankles and gender.

Hitchhiking as a lass means they generally want to:

1) Comment on your looks.
2) Warn you about the world.
3) Put their hand on your leg.
4) Call to tell their friends about you while you're still in the car.

And the entire world goes a bit frigid on you when you mention it. I never saw my mom cry over what I do until I was about to leave Seattle for West Virginia via thumb.

Overall, though, every ride has been rad and it's always worked out well. Try not to let gender hinder me... not dead yet...

Glad Washington was semi-good to you.

Love reading about what you do.
Be grateful you're not a girl.