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.
It was 10:30 pm. I walked into the dormitory, found her suite, and knocked. She shared a kitchen and living room with two other roommates. But no one was there. If she had answered then she might have seen my heart pulsing violently, making my shirt flutter with each beat.
I hadn’t called Natalia once during my trip. I had no cell phone and at some point my phone card ran out of money. Plus, I didn’t want to get her hopes up if I couldn’t make it. She had no idea I was anywhere near La Grande.
I felt overly-excited, panicky. Every sound in her dorm hall causes my head to swivel squirrelishly. Will she be as excited to see me? Will she be alone? Worse: will there be a pair of silk boxers lying on the floor?
I knock. Nothing.
At that time, she was walking around campus, trying to alleviate the anxiety stirred by—what she hoped would be—my impending arrival.
I turn the knob and it opens. I enter. No Natalia. No roommates. No silk boxers.
I remembered, then, that I hadn’t had a shower in three days and I hadn’t shaved in four. I worried that I’d be greeted not with a passionate embrace, but directions to the nearest bathroom.
Not sure where she was or when she was coming back, I jumped into the shower. Afterwards, I lathered my face with cream and began to scrape off my stubble. That’s when I heard her come through the front door. She went to her room. She figured I was her roommate, rummaging around in the bathroom.
Unable to wait any longer, I cracked open the door and saw her. She looked at me instantly. Her mouth opened and her eyes widened. She ran to me, holding out her arms. She cried into my bare shoulder. I held her, wearing nothing but my towel, the cream from my face leaving swabs of white in her dark hair.
We went to bed and made love before falling asleep together. I’m sure I dozed into slumber with a smile, contented with the reminder of what it’s like to be human.