Friday, February 26, 2010

Rule of Thumb #10: When there's nowhere to sleep, start turning knobs

Day 22: June 5, 2007. La Grande, Oregon to Park City, Utah (538 miles)

Leon looked like Larry David with a full-body tan. He was driving from Oregon to Salt Lake City where he was going to guide a rafting trip down the Jordan River.

I nodded off in the passenger seat of his sedan, tired from only three hours of sleep the previous night and unconcerned about dozing through the uninspiring aridity of Idaho and Utah.

Leon was a devout liberal and much of our conversation was spent grieving over the Bush administration and the loss of our country’s wild lands. When we stopped in Boise, I was surprised to see—in such a staunchly red-state—a food co-op replete with organic foods and lefty magazines.

Leon had some catchy observations that he’d gleaned over the course of his travels like: “The larger the Winnebago, the smaller the dog in it” and “The bigger the American flag, the more harm the business does to America.”

I thought I’d try my hand at “digital hitchhiking” so I contacted Leon through a Yahoo rideshare group. The ride worked out well, except that I was now expected to help out with gas money.

He picked me up in La Grande that morning, where I’d just spent a week and a half with Natalia.

Leon dropped me off on the side of the I-80 just outside of Salt Lake City amidst speeding cars and winds that threatened to push me and my sign to “Cheyenne” over the concrete guard rail and down a steep scree slope.

I imagined that I’d have little trouble catching rides in Utah—a state where I figured upstanding Mormon men with parted blond hair wouldn’t pass up the opportunity to spread the good word and help a stranger travel across their state.

Vern was no Mormon. He drove a gray Grand Marquee that looked like one of those beat-up cars that are thoughtlessly crunched under giant wheels at Monster Truck Rallys.

He was 28. It looked like he hadn’t grown up in the land of churches and pasture, but in one of fists and steel-toed kicks to the ribcage. His head was shaved, except for a yarmulke of stubble on top. “Eat Me” was tattoed on the backside of his hand. Across his knuckles and the rear of his neck were scars and fresh scabs. He just “got out” and was coming back from his ex-girlfriend’s in Salt Lake who allegedly “fucked up his car.” In passing, he mentioned something about having a drink.

“Watch out!” I yelled when he was going to ram the tail of the car ahead of us. Vern swerved into the entrance lane on our right and put the pedal to the floor. The Marquee zipped past the vehicle and flung itself back onto the thruway while I frantically searched for a seat belt buckle that had fallen in between the cracks, lost forever like a frozen corpse in a mountain crevasse.

He said he couldn’t wait to see his ex-girlfriend again so he could beat the shit out her. I wanted to learn more about his troubles, though I chose not to reopen freshly sealed wounds. His driving was bad enough.

We hadn’t been driving more than ten minutes, but smoke began seeping out from the cracks of the hood and the dials on his dash twitched nervously. He pulled over and poured in three bottles of oil. Each time he added coolant, it volcanoed into his face. When we got back in, we learned that the battery had died.

Vern was not the sort of guy I wanted to be stranded with in the middle of Utah. I wanted nothing more than to start walking east and go off on my own. But I decided that since he was kind enough to pull over for me, I ought to stay with him until he got things figured out. Neither of us had cell phones, so Vern etched “Help” on one of my squares of cardboard, which all passing cars would ignore.

His situation would have been enough to frustrate anybody: Poor, jobless, just out of jail, ex-girlfriend fucked up your car, stranded on the side of the road, and now no one’s pulling over to help.

I would have lost it by the third time the coolant rocketed into my face, yet Vern seemed oddly serene. Perhaps he was... Though I figured he was far from a state of peace.

I decided that he used detachment to disassociate himself with the chronic misery of everyday life, like one of those depressed and languid zoo animals who suddenly and unknowingly mauls the trainer because there was no more room to repress the unexpressed.

Soon, Vern would explode too. And I didn’t want to be around for it.

“I feel like I’m 85,” he said. He looked worn-out. He told me about his tragedy-stricken life. I could tell there was a good guy under his exterior, but something—an abusive father, an addiction, or just bad luck—had warped him into something ugly.

Eventually a cop pulled over for us. Vern used the cop’s phone to call his sister in Evanston, Wyoming who begrudgingly decided to pick him up. The cop drove me in the back of his car to Park City, Utah, just a few miles up the road.

It was dark, so I made my way over to a gas station where I ate a mini Pizza Hut Pizza. The winds felt like hurricane gales, almost tipping me and my large pack over in mid-step. From the window, it looked as if the wind was going to strip the shirt off a guy struggling to fill up his gas tank.

I knew my tent couldn’t withstand such winds, and because I was in a residential area, there weren’t many places to set up camp. I, to no avail, tried to charm a couple latina cashiers into offering me a place to stay. No place was offered, but they did mention a Mormon church in town that might be unlocked.

I was reluctant to enter. Even though I found an unlocked door, I felt like I was trespassing. The long, partially-lit hallways were decorated with well-rendered paintings of Jesus and Co. doing gallant things. When I determined that I was alone, I bedded down on a couch, using my towel as a pillow and sweatshirt as a blanket.

I was exhausted yet wide-awake: the same “wired and tired” feeling common to mountain climbers. Each time I dozed, I woke soon after, worried about some church elder hanging over me in a purple frock with an ominous and disapproving gaze.

To make things worse, I had an inexplicably random and raging erection—the type that makes a man feel like he’s going to pass out from the pain. I squirmed throughout the night, worrying that the sides of my penis would split open like an unpierced hotdog in a microwave. Was this the wrath of God?—Was He inflicting upon me some cruel Biblical punishment for trespassing on sacred grounds?

Between the pain, the fear, and the wind that battered against the sides of the church, I only netted a couple hours of sleep.

I thought of Natalia. And Leon and Vern. Lives connected intimately one moment and severed the next.

I was happy, though. I was alone but alive, scared but spirited, abroad but at home.

I was back to my wandering ways on the open road.

Monday, February 22, 2010


From above, they might look like a brigade of prime-colored parachutes descending into a Scottish stone fortress. From eye-level, they look more like the camp of a Mongolian raiding party.

In front of Wilson Gym at Duke there are tents. Lots of um.

Green tents, red tents, blue tents. Old tents, aged tents, new tents. There are gigantic, twelve-person tents and humble three-persons. In the middle there’s a massive, seven-foot-tall, eight-person Eureka Copper Canyon. On the edge there’s a two-person sitting atop an inflatable mattress. There’s a fly tent—just a tarp and guy lines—with the words, “The Fortress,” duct-taped on its roof.

Two tents snuggle under an enormous blue tarp for warmth like lovers spooning under covers. Others are elevated atop concrete blocks and orange rimmed three-quarter-inch plywood. The grass around the tents is trimmed short like a golf fairway, except that it has browned from trampling feet and rain showers. In shaded areas, the ground looks freshly manured; the few blades of grass yet to be smooshed are caked in sludge. To keep sneakers from sinking into mud pies, paths have been blazed from tent to sidewalk made with everything from spare plywood to plastic crates that once carried pop bottles; one even has a cobbled footpath.

The city of tents is called K-Ville, or Krzyzewskiville, named after the famed basketball coach, Mike Krzyzewski (pronounced Sha-sheff-ski) who’s led Duke to ten Final Four appearances.

There must be at least fifty tents. Soon, there will be more. With some tents holding as many as twelve students, K-Ville is home to hundreds of Cameron Crazies—the suicide bombers of the sports world known for their elaborate chants and an ardor of almost Biblical proportions for Duke basketball.

K-ville began in 1986 when a group of students—determined to watch the much-hyped Duke-UNC rivalry game—elected to sleep in tents in the ticket line. Ever since, it’s become a fixture on campus, except now there are elaborate rules that tenters must abide by to be awarded their coveted tickets. The most devout live in K-Ville for months.

Each tent is subject to random checks by monitors. During the “Blue Tenting” period that lasts from January 30 to February 22, at least one of twelve students must be present in their tent during the day and six of twelve must be present at night. If they don’t pass the checks, those living in the tent are bumped to the bottom of the wait list and are thus in jeopardy of not getting tickets.

One might expect K-ville—comprised of hormone-pumping, funnel-guzzling college students who’ve been haphazardly thrown into coed sleeping arrangements—to be a breeding ground for unrestrained licentiousness, hallucinatory experimentation, and a healthy disrespect for authority—a modern day Woodstock sans bellbottoms, good music, and pubic hair.

Yet, one can’t leave K-Ville without noticing a baffling sense of order. It’s reminiscent of a well-led galleon of the Royal Navy: guy lines are taut; stakes are well-fastened, tightly-secured rain flies flutter in the wind like ocean sails, and a jovial air of social harmony is palpable.

A trio of underclass males toss a football. Others bask in the sun with laptops or textbooks resting on thighs. An Asian girl and a white guy eat from a plastic container with chopsticks. A duo of blondes gab, pausing to check for text messages. Another gal is passed out, her head hanging over the back of her folding chair.

Walking past the tents is like flipping through TV channels; or like taking a stroll through a schizophrenic’s warped psyche. For each tent there’s a different voice. One talks about his American History assignment. Another’s having a coughing fit. Someone else complains about how everyone in his tent is sick. “The high today is 62. Thank god. It’s been less than 40 for the past week.”

Crows are cawing; someone strums a guitar; tennis balls thud against rackets from nearby courts. Inside, students snore. In tents with doors ajar I can see a rat’s nest of clothes and sleeping bags shuffled into a disorderly heap.

I have one word for my fellow classmates: Respect. I know how cold it’s been, and it’s no easier for them to get out of their sleeping bag when it’s thirty degrees outside than it is for me. Plus, they have to contend with the snores, smells, and idiosyncrasies of fellow tenters, not to mention those meddlesome early morning monitors.

I find something admirable about caring about something so meaningless. It gives me hope that we might dedicate energies to something that’s actually important.

I see the allure to events like K-Ville and backwoods religious revivals: that sense of unbreakable solidarity, the shared belief in something intangible, the clarity of purpose—that, with a suspension of disbelief, we can momentarily cast aside all doubt and bask in the ridiculousness of believing that one side is good, and the other, evil.

Plus the lessons learned in K-Ville—how to stay warm, how to keep the inside of a tent dry, and how to come to appreciate physical discomfort—are arguably more valuable than those taught in classrooms.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Rule of Thumb #9: When there’s no alternative, walk

Day 9: May 23, Rock Island, Washington to La Grande Oregon (296 miles)

I hitchhiked not just to travel; I did it to feel something.

On the van tours I guided the preceding winter, the tourists—enamored with Coldfoot and intrigued with the characters who chose to live there—would often ask me if I was going to write a book about my experiences. I’d always think to myself, “What would I write about?” I wake up, work, exercise, read, eat, and sleep every day. And the same the next. Pretty much the same routine I had back in New York.

Even though I lived in a town surrounded by untrammeled wilderness, I’d managed to bring with me the schedules, cubicles, and order from home—the very things I sought to escape.

I suffered from a perpetual neutrality, a “nothingness.” I felt none of the emotions in their fullest extremes. Not joy, not anger, not sadness. Nothing. In ways, I was more machine than human. How can you feel anything when everything is planned? When every day is the same?

The Regime of the Routine had to be toppled; the sacred schedule, desecrated. I hoped, on this hitchhike, to emerge from my cubicled casing metamorphosed into some freer, feeling version of my old self, if only until I reentered civilized life upon my return home.


In Rock Island, Washington the previous night in my tent, I unsheathed my knife for the first time, worried about the cackling coyotes and a few latinos by my tent whose indiscernible speech woke me in the dark.

The following morning was beautiful: mid sixties, sunny, and blue skies. I became frustrated early on, though, because—despite the heavy flow of traffic—no one was pulling over for me. Bored and restless, I started walking the thirty miles to the I-90 near Quincy. Several times a minute, I’d turn around to hoist up my “South” sign for passing cars.

Eventually, a few short rides got me to the interstate where I thought I could start putting some major miles behind me. I no longer cared about the unique personalities of my drivers, nor the ever-changing landscape. Today, all I wanted was to be in the arms of my girlfriend. Natalia was the only thing on my mind.

Because I heard that it was illegal to hitchhike on thruways, I went no further than the entrance ramps, which worked well so long as I chose a spot where drivers would have plenty of room to pull over.

My “South” sign, however, was beginning to prove ineffectual so I amassed several cardboard boxes at a McDonald’s on which I wrote the names of small towns along the way: Kittitas, Yakima, Richland, Kennewick and finally La Grande.

With Natalia in reach, I never felt so impatient. I was moving swiftly, catching rides within minutes, but upon getting stuck for a half hour in Kittitas, a desolate farm town—the sort where I expected to see an errant tumbleweed blow across a deserted main street—I worried not just when but if I’d ever get a ride.

It was funny how at the thirty-minute mark—here and elsewhere—I’d always resign myself to such thoughts. Watching the minutes tick and the cars fly by, I couldn’t help but imagine myself standing in the same place weeks later, starved, weather-beaten, and decaying into a brittle bag of bones with my emaciated thumb still extended. Either that or I’d have no choice but to venture into town, buy a cowboy hat, get me a pickup truck, find a belle, and join the community for good.

Juan Hernandez, a Mexican immigrant with a contracting business in Yakima, would keep me from calling Kittitas home.

Juan wasn’t going in my direction, but he took me to my next stop anyway, stopping first at a Wendy’s where he forced me to gobble down a burger and fries. He spoke in broken English, but his passion for his new country and his god was palpable. He told me how happy he was to raise his baby girl, Genesis, in America and to be able to buy nice clothes for his family.

When he dropped me off, I had to fight back the tears. Oh, my countrymen… This wasn’t the last time that generosity was difficult to bear. I realized I was never really traveling alone. I walked a line above a net of compassion stretched out by the hands of strangers. Oh, my dear countrymen.

I made my next sign for Richland en route to the I-84 where I knew I could head straight east to La Grande, Oregon where my girlfriend lived. A newly bought Prius pulled over for me—notable, for it being my first “nice car.”

Kevin was in his late sixties and had retired from the nuclear power industry. Due in part to his career field, much of our conversation revolved around the end of the world.

He told me that the world was going to end in 2012—when the Mayan calendar abruptly concludes. Amused, I said, “We’ll see.” He—with no shortage of pride—said, “No, I will not” before listing a medley of illnesses that made me think he’d be lucky if he made it through the night.

I told him how excited I was to see Natalia, but he scoffed, advising me to be on the look-out for a pair of silk boxers on her dorm room floor—an instant buzz-kill if there ever was one.

With nothing better to do, he took me past Richland to a rest stop on the I-84. As I inched closer to La Grande, my heart rate increased exponentially. I was just 100 miles from her and there was still daylight. I told Kevin to try to make it to the apocalypse. He wished me luck.

I drew my last sign to La Grande with gusto. I colored the letters in with blue and yellow crayons, drawing a background of rolling hills and a setting sun.

I got a quick ride to Pendleton, Oregon now just 45 miles away from my destination. Before dropping me off, the driver asked—oddly—if any male drivers have asked me to have sex with them. This was a myth I’d heard before, but had yet to encounter. If I had the slightest inkling that my driver had ulterior motives, I was quick to mention my girlfriend.

Pendleton—less than an hour from La Grande—was actually the very last town I wanted to be in. There was little-to-no outgoing traffic, and because there was a prison in town, those heading in my direction had a reason not to pick a hitchhiker up.

I waited three hours on the entrance ramp with my sign, watching the daylight (and my chances of seeing Natalia tonight) dim. There was a truck stop in town, so I walked over, hoping to work up the courage to ask a trucker for a ride. But I did nothing but dawdle by the fuel pumps, paralyzed by my fear of rejection.

Instead of begging, I filled my water bottle, tightened my pack and decided that I was going to walk the last 45 miles to Natalia’s. While it might take a couple days, this walk would, I justified, give our long-awaited reunion its proper storybook ending.

After a mile, though, I was panting, sweating, and lamenting my decision because now, I realized—looking at the hills in front of me—that it would be an uphill climb for the next twenty miles.

About a fifth of a mile ahead of me, a semi pulled over. Did he pull over for me?, I wondered. I quickened my trot as best I could under my 50 pounds of gear. I knocked on his passenger-side door before pulling the latch.

He looked like Buffalo Bill. Silence of the Lambs-Buffalo Bill, that is. Curly golden locks fell on his shoulders. He wore jean short cut-offs so low I could see the bottom half of his ass muscle. He had a way about him that made me preemptively clench my ass cheeks together. He called me chicken leg, and didn’t seem to care in the slightest when I told him I was going to see my girlfriend.

No moves—however—were put on me. He dropped me off in La Grande two exits past where I was supposed to be, so I took a taxi to Natalia’s dorm.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Radio Interview with Dick Gordon

I'm on the radio show The Story with Dick Gordon today. It's very NPRish and, in my opinion, very good. Click here to listen. Scroll to the bottom of that page to play the interview.

* Correction: Wary of committing an act of dishonesty, I should point out that I exaggerated that I put all of the 18K I saved in Coldfoot towards my debt, when I probably kept about 2K for myself, spending it on things like the GRE, applications to schools, a trip to Ecuador, gear for a summer canoe voyage, as well as my fair share of used books purchased online.

Also, in The Buffalo News interview I said that I'd routinely swat 40-50 mosquitoes at a time. This is a ridiculous aggrandizement of fact. While I was routinely attacked by hundred-strong swarms of mosquitoes, the most I ever killed at once probably never exceeded 25. If that.