Days 25-28. June 8-11, 2007. Aurora, Colorado to Niagara Falls, New York. (1,757 miles)
“Keep your hands where I can see them!” the cop screeched. “Put them on the hood of your van!”
Tom and I stood side by side with our palms flat against the hood of his massive white Chevy. I’d seen scenes like this played out hundreds of times in movies, so I spread my legs as wide as I could, as if struggling to do a split.
Tom—a Korean-born, American-adopted, 29-year-old cook—had picked me up that morning in Aurora, Colorado. I knew an old friend just outside of Denver so I stayed at his place for a day, vegging out, watching films, and updating my journal. I found Tom on Craigslist where he put up an ad looking for passengers to help pay for gas on his road trip from his home in Oregon to the east coast.
Around the time we drove through Lincoln, Nebraska it was getting dark so we decided to get off the I-80 in hopes of finding a quiet place to park and set up camp for the night.
On a sleepy country road we happened upon an abandoned school next to what looked like a thousand-mile-long square of cornfield illuminated by the moon. The stars sparkled and crickets strung us a steady electric hum. We cracked open a few PBRs and boiled ramen noodles on our stoves for dinner.
It was a fairly idyllic scene until we were interrupted by a dark figure who advanced toward us with a flashlight. We called out “Hi there!,” but he turned off his light and shuffled away in the opposite direction. Tom and I looked at each other, shrugged our shoulders, and continued enjoying our meals. Fifteen minutes later, another man bearing a flashlight emerged from the cornfield.
“How many of you are there?” the man growled in the dark.
“Just us,” Tom said casually.
“How many of you are there?” he repeated. He came close enough so that we could see he was a policeman.
“Is there anybody else?”
“No just us,” we both said, each, now, with voices quavering.
“Keep your hands where I can see them! Put them on the hood of the van,” demanded the cop, who sounded far more frightened than we did.
“What are you guys doing?” he said, oscillating his light from side to side.
“Camping, I guess,” I said.
“Do you have anything… You know… illegal?”
“Can I see your IDs?”
“My wallet is inside in the center console in the van,” Tom said.
“Can I go in and search your van?”
“Yeah, sure, I don’t care,” Tom said.
“YES OR NO!?” the cop roared, clearly dissatisfied with Tom’s word choice.
“Sure, I don’t care. I mean, Yes!” Tom sputtered nervously.
The cop proceeded to scour the van for anything, you know, illegal. I was still pressed against the hood, my groin beginning to feel the strain. After he got done looking in the van, he dipped his hand deep into my back pocket, giving my ass a deep tissue massage as he struggled to fish out my wallet.
“This is private property,” the cop said. “You can’t be here. Why do you think it’s okay to be here?”
“We didn’t know,” I said. “Sorry.”
“Well you can’t be here. People get pretty heated in these parts. You guys just wait here. I’m going to see if anything was stolen.” He ambled over to the abandoned school that, from what we could tell, only contained a scattering of wooden chairs draped in spider webs.
Seeing that the chairs were still in place strewn across the floor, the cop let us go and gave us directions to Mahoney State Park, where we parked for the night, electing not to pay the required camping fee on our way out the next morning.
Tom was headed to Grand Rapids, Michigan to see a friend from a Bible camp he used to work at. For the whole next day we play acted our dialogue with the cop.
“Okay, I want to be the cop this time,” I’d tell Tom. By the time I got to “YES OR NO!?” I’d be giggling uncontrollably.
While Tom snoozed in the passenger seat, I popped in a Neil Young CD mix that Natalia had made for me. We were cruising along Iowa’s Highway 30—one of the prettiest roads I’ve ever been on. Tom and I had—it seemed—wandered into a Norman Rockwell painting. The modest country homes looked as if they’d just received a fresh coating of paint the week before. The fields were neat and trim, with lines of rich black soil in between the crop rows. Curvy, parallel arcs of corn stood strong and erect.
Tom was smart and funny and we got along. And like on almost all my other rides, we ended up sharing intimate details of our lives. I told him about my Natalia conundrum: how I thought I’d found the “one,” yet didn’t have the slightest urge to settle down. He told me about the depression he’d suffered from for years, related to his adoption. He even admitted that he’d even tried to take his life.
Tom was a Bible “literalist” meaning that he takes everything the Bible says literally. “Even Noah’s Arc?” I asked. “What about Adam and Eve?” I asked him these questions politely, but deep down I couldn’t help but question the sanity of someone who believes it’s possible to live inside a fish for three days. He wasn’t pushy with his beliefs and I didn’t force the issue, so we managed to dodge what could have been a bond-breaking religious row.
After having my first (and last) White Castle burger experience in Illinois, we parked for the night on a patch of grass near Lake Michigan. Tom slept on the bed in the back and I wormed into my sleeping bag on the van floor in front of the middle pilot chairs. In the morning, we could see the towers of Chicago in the distance.
We arrived at his friend Michelle’s parents’ home in Grand Rapids in the late afternoon of our third day together. Their home sat nicely in an affluent, upper-middle class suburban neighborhood. The family ordered us a pizza and we recounted the scene with the Nebraskan cop much to everyone’s delight. Michelle said we could sleep there tonight.
The family looked a little too perfect. The father wore slacks, and tucked in a polo that had a little alligator stitched onto the breast. The mother wore a yellow sundress. Michelle’s brother—get this—parted his hair. Hedgerows were expertly trimmed and the home was immaculately clean. Their coffee table was so polished I could clearly see my three day’s worth of stubble.
Maybe they really were perfect. But it all just seemed so strange to me because I come from a family in which males are considered “overdressed” if they're wearing something more than a six-year-old pair of briefs; and a home where things are “clean” even when a tumbleweed of golden retriever sheddings bounce from one end of the kitchen to the other.
After supper we went down into their refurbished basement where Michelle and her brother popped in the film “Bruce Almighty.” Halfway through, her father came down the stairs. I saw Michelle look at him frightfully and I wondered what was about to happen.
Tom saw what I saw, too, so all eyes were on the father who sat down on the sofa and nervously rubbed his hands from his thighs to his knees.
“So,” the father said, looking at me and Tom, “have you guys been sleeping in your van at night?”
Tom said that we had been.
“Well,” the father started. “I’m not really comfortable with two guys sleeping here with Michelle and her mom.”
“That’s fine,” Tom jumped in, eager to get started on ‘damage control.’ “We totally understand.”
“Me and Michelle’s mother talked, and we’re not very comfortable with two guys in the house. I thought you guys all knew each other better. I’m sorry. I hope you can see it from my perspective.”
And so, we were kicked out of the house. I’m not sure what did it. Maybe it was the fact that I was a hitchhiker. Or that Tom and I had only known each other for two days. Or perhaps the mother was taken aback when she caught me swiping my finger on her mantel piece in search of a morsel of dust.
Tom and I went back to the van. I derided the father, but Tom was more forgiving. No one appeared to trust us, but Tom trusted me enough to let me sleep in his van, and drive it half the time. In fact, we got along so well that he decided to take a detour to Niagara Falls so he could see the Falls for the first time and to drop me off at my home.
On our fourth and final day together, we opted to take a shortcut through Ontario, Canada, but Canada wouldn’t let us in because Tom didn’t have his registration or passport, and because there was something on his record about peeing on a police car in a drunken stupor five years before.
Instead of going through Canada, we drove through Detroit, a city that—between the mile-long lines of contiguous graffiti and pavement so cracked it looks like it rains anvils in Michigan—makes the roads of Buffalo (my equally depressed hometown) seem like the sort of place where floating angels welcome road-tripping visitors with harpsichords.
Then we briefly passed through Ohio and Pennsylvania en route to New York.
I knew that, at this point, with a few hours of daylight left, I was finally going to make it home. I hadn’t seen my friends or family in over a year. While I had lived away from home before, I’d never been gone for more than a couple months at a time.
As I drew closer, I became more and more excited. I was ready for my journey to end. I was, however, a little anxious about telling my mom about how I traveled home.
At a gas station in Pennsylvania, I cooked up my last Mountain House meal on my backpacking stove. A gruff-looking middle-aged clerk rushed out to ask what I was doing.
“Just boiling water.”
“Whew…” he said, greatly relieved, his hands on his hips. “I thought you were lighting a bomb or something. You never know these days.”
For the last year I’d been almost completely out of touch with the news, but I thought I surely would have heard something about terrorists targeting Sonocos and Exxons in rural America. Oh, the paranoia. Over the course of my journey, I’d learned that paranoia had swept across our once wild and courageous and free country as if some giant cropduster had flown over in sown fear into the bellies of every man, woman, and child.
Almost every ride would tell me something along the lines of: “You know, you shouldn’t be hitching in this day and age. It ain’t how it used to be. Nope. Times are different now.” They’d look wistfully out the window, imagining a different time—some time long ago when the world was supposedly a safer, kinder, nicer place.
By the time this journey was winding down, I’d come to a very different conclusion—a conclusion that I still wholeheartedly believe.
The Nebraskan cop, Michelle’s father, and this gas station clerk live in a world where people fear before they trust. It’s a world where people are afraid to go for walks at night. Where parents don’t let their kids wander through their neighborhood. Where young men and women don’t think about embarking on adventures for fear of all the terribleness out there.
I’d seen a different world. One that is full of beauty and wonder and adventure. A world where people are welcomed with open arms into open homes. It's a world where we see the best in people instead of seeing the worst. A world where even a cynic can come to love and feel pride for his country and countrymen.
This world, of course, is not devoid of danger, but it’s not crawling with marauding hordes of rapists, child molesters, and face-masked henchmen as many seem to believe it to be.
As Tom drove us through my rural-suburban hometown of Wheatfield, the streets that I’d driven a thousand times before seemed different now; they carried a strange air of “newness” to them. Yet, they looked exactly the same.
We arrived at my home late; around 10:30 pm. I knew my dad was probably out working the night shift and I predicted that my mom had fallen asleep in her bed with the TV on. Tom parked the van and I walked into the house (unlocked as it always is) and up the stairs to my parents’ room.
I anticipated a dramatic embrace. “Ken!” I figured my mom would exclaim. “My baby boy. You’re home!” She’d leap out of bed, give me a hug and kiss me on the cheek.
I went into her room and woke her up.
“Mom, I’m home. It’s Ken,” I whispered.
She lifted the covers and moved her feet to the floor without saying a word.
I remember how, under my bedroom door, she used to slide newspaper clippings about how to get on the fast track to become a biomedical engineer, or some career or other that didn’t befit my interests or education in the slightest. I remember how, when I told her I was moving up to Alaska again, she exclaimed, “Oh, no you’re not.”
She was looking facedown at the rug, probably piecing her thoughts together, trying to figure out what I'd been up to again. So it was fitting that her first words were “Ken, why do you do this to me?” which she uttered (rhetorically) before staggering to her feet and giving me a hug.
“How did you get here?” she asked.
“Uh… well a guy named Tom gave me a ride.”
It was late and I didn’t want to further excite her by revealing how I’d gotten across the continent. I led Tom to the couch in the living room where he’d sleep for the night. I stretched my limbs to the corners of my water bed underneath the Super Mario fan whose revolutions had whirred me to sleep many a night before.
I thought about how much I’d seen and how far I’d come. I’d fired a Tommy Gun in a gravel yard in Alaska. I’d seen 30 black bears one day in British Columbia. I crossed the border of two great nations. I’d slept in a Mormon church. I’d seen mountains and lakes and rivers and wavy green plains. I’d been in vehicles with ex-cons, drunks, addicts, hunters, truckers, immigrants, carnies, retirees, doomers, and a 300-pound Yukon woman. And I’d seen and said goodbye to my beautiful and loving girlfriend.
I’d spent the last month traveling across 5,500 miles of our great continent. From Coldfoot to Niagara Falls; from my new life back to my old one.
I think it’s true that—as the proverb goes—that it’s not as much about the destination as it is the journey; and that upon arriving at your destination—depending on your expectations—one might feel disappointment; that it may seem anticlimactic.
As my lids closed, I’m sure I was smiling because I knew, right then and there, that my journey was far from over. No, no, no. This… this was just the beginning.
The next morning my dad took us out for breakfast, I took Tom to the Maid of the Mist at Niagara Falls, and then we shook hands and said goodbye, making promises to stay in touch, which we never held ourselves to.
That afternoon my aunt came over and I recounted my journey to her and my mom at the kitchen table. They were visibly upset, yet seemed entranced with the tale. While my mother didn’t appreciate being lied to, she did acknowledge that she would have been worried sick otherwise.
Natalia and I kept our long-distanced relationship together for the summer, but we had a cordial separation in the fall.
I suppose I haven’t said anything about why I was traveling home. In just two weeks I would embark on a 60-day canoe voyage across Ontario, Canada. I and three others would live as the 18th Century voyageurs, paddling birch bark canoes and using gear and clothes that were “period correct.” But that is, I’m afraid, another story that will have to be told another day.