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  • Ken Ilgunas

Days 1 & 2

I’m on the road, headed to Canada.

After three hours of sleep, I woke at 6 am, walked to a bus stop, and commenced my 1,500-mile journey north so I could start my 2,000-mile journey south. Right now, my goal is to get to northern Alberta, where I’ll begin my walk.

I took a bus from Denver to Fort Collins, Colorado. Without any better idea, I took another local bus to the I-25, where I could stick my thumb out. To my surprise, there was another hitchhiker standing right where I’d hoped to stand. His name was Chris and he was eager to talk to another backpacker because he’d been standing there for hours. It was no wonder why. He had burly butcher’s forearms, a shaven head, and he was in his late 40’s. He told me that he’d just gotten out of jail and was headed to California to talk with his ex-girlfriend, who, apparently, out of spite, cut up all of his IDs. He asked me how much money I made hitching rides. I said, “None, I don’t like to take charity, just rides.” (Because all the rides I’ve hitched, from my point of view, have been mutually enjoyable, I do not consider myself a burden, or the ride, charity.) He said hitchhiking is the way he makes money, and he once left Kentucky with $400. I thought that was kind of shitty, but he clearly wasn’t wealthy, so I gave him three candy bars and began walking down the I-25 with a cardboard sign strapped to my pack reading “NORTH.”

My feet were sore on account of my broken toe and a welt that I received when I stubbed my foot against a strange bolt protruding from Josh’s backyard. I was walking for half an hour in between the interstate and a cornfield, where thousands of grasshoppers haphhazardly leaped to and fro. An old man in his Volkswagon was peering at my curiously. I nodded hello, he drove off, pulled around, and picked me up.

His name was Ron and he was coming from Denver, where he attended a model railroad sale, and was headed home to Cheyenne, Wyoming.

He handed me a juicy plum and a napkin, which I quickly devored because I’d forgotten to fill my bottles with water. He talked about his mileage per gallon, and I casually mentioned something about how fuel standards had recently been raised, and while he didn’t seem to disagree with that initiative, it gave him cause to ridicule Obama.

I asked him what he disagrees with Obama about and he said “Everything!” Looking at me suspiciously, he said, “You don’t like the guy, do you?”

“I wouldn’t call my self a fan,” I said. “But I’m not anti-Obama.”

Ron, clearly dissatisfied with my response, said, “Well, if you say another good word about him, I’ll throw you out of this car.” He was joking, but I got the sense that he was perfectly serious at the same time.

“I’ll hold my tongue,” I said obediently.

He went on a rant about how Obama had poorly responded to the Libyan crisis, and expressed disgust that he hasn’t closed the base at Guantanamo Bay. “He’s done everything wrong,” he screeched. “Everything.”

I kept trying to derail the conversation by bringing up his hobby for collecting toy trains, which he’d speak about enthusiastically before something made him think of Obama again.

I’d come across men like Ron before, and I see their vitriol smeared across internet message boards. They’re men that are unhappy with there lives, and Obama becomes a receptable into which they channel all their anger and regrets and bad decisions. By directing their hatred at him, they can redirect the hatred they have for themselves onto someone else. It gives them clarity, being able to blame one person. Don’t blame yourselves. Don’t blame the Democrats. Don’t blame partisan gridlock. Don’t blame how modern society divides and alienates. Don’t blame rapid technological development that has changed our way of being. Don’t blame the consumer-capitalist machine. No, blame Obama.

But there’s more. There’s an underlying racism in their hearts that pulls the strings like some puppeteer that they may not even know exists. If Biden was president, he’d surely receive vitriol from the Ridiculous Right, but not nearly as much as a black guy with a funny name.

Ron was actually really nice when he wasn’t talking politics, and he gave me his number in case I got stuck in Cheyenne, where he dropped me off. “I’m sad to see you go. Give me a call if you get stuck,” he said, “and I’ll come pick you up.”

I normally have success hitchhiking on entrance ramps, but I waited on the I-25 ramp again, for 30 minutes, and had no success, so I began walking. My foot was in even more pain, and I instantly regretted my decision to walk instead of stand with my sign out, but I plodded on until Jacob, a JAG in the National Guard, pulled ahead.

Jacob was part of a task force in Afghanistan who set up tribunals so that prisoners, who’d been held for years without trail, could finally be sentenced or go free.

Jacob was a breath of fresh air after Ron: free-thinking, open-minded, and determined to find the truth.

He told me how complicated the situation in Afghanistan is, where the Afghans are 80% illiterate, easily propagandized, and offered a month’s salary for planting a roadside bomb. He said he got to know a ton of Afghans, living with them, eating with them, even affectionately holding hands with men, which is a common Afghan custom. “If someone here in Wyoming was in their situation, I don’t think they’d act differently.”

Wyoming, by the way, didn’t leave the most romantic impression on me. Looking over the landscape, I saw an oil rig dipping into the ground, a giant two-chimneyed coal factory, and an army of revolving windmills in the distance. Man, Wyoming likes their energy, I thought.

Jacob let me go in Casper, Wyoming just before dusk. I held out my sign on an entrance ramp again, but, again, had no luck. I could see that the I-25 had a nasty, potentially dangerous culvert ahead, so I took a side road. My left foot was in worse shape than ever. It was getting dark, and I heard an ominous “pop” in my sock, which was a blister breaking. I didn’t even know I had a blister, but clearly it had something to do with the welt. Each step forward was painful because I was stretching the loose skin of my broken blister. The broken pinkie made things worse.

I got my medical kit out of my pack, cleaned the wound with alcohol and draped bandages over the suppurating blister. I hobbled down the road, nervous, now, because it was darker and this appeared to be a low-income industrial part of town with no trees I could escape into. Luckily, I soon happened upon a campground, but it was full and I didn’t want to spend the $20 anyway. Behind the fence of the campground, though, I saw a small creek with big bushes next to a railroad. I left the campground and set up my sleeping pad and bag under a tree, hoping that no one would see me. It was a warm night, but altogether uncomfortable otherwise. A train would roll by noisily every hour, and the small creek was rank. The odor was extremely offensive, made so all the more by the chemicals and waste surely mixed inside. Yet its odor, like one’s farts, was embraced as much as it was repelled. I was astounded to see one train holding car after car of windmill blades, a a promenade of gigantic blue whales.

In the morning, I got a lift from Blaine, an oil worker headed home to Billings, MT. He’d just finished a 12-hour shift, after 12 straight days of work.

He said the work was long, hard, dangerous, and he had to labor alongside assholes. He’d been doing the job for six months, grudgingly, but had to because his mom needed help, as she had cancer and couldn’t work. He had a son too, who he had to provide for. He told me about all the dangerous chemicals he was daily exposed to, and the high cancer rate in local towns. Recently, some of the oil had contaminated a local water supply, so large cisterns had to be set up in town, though the people still showered in the contaminated water.

He also warned me about my hiking route, telling me about the wolves that had spread out from Yellowstone, after they were repopulated there, along with cougars, grizzly bears, freakishly high winds, and snow that could come to Montana as soon as this month. “Do you have warm clothes?” he asked. “Not really,” I said, thinking about the foolishness of my path and my planning.

The desolateness of Montana was frightening. We drove over flatland, then slightly lumpy hilly land covered in hay colored grass but nothing else. No trees, no creeks, no rivers, just grass and hills and deer and black cows. I thought about hiking over that and how easy it would be to get disoriented, to go thirsty, to be whisked off your feet and dropped to a gory death by an errant and angry zephyr.

We got a breakfast buffet at a J.B.’s chain restaurant. I offered to pay, but he refused to let me.

He let me go in Billings, and I walked the I-90 for an hour before getting a ride with a couple in there twenties from Maine, Molly and Josh. They were on a several-month long road trip to California, where they’ll take a flight to New Zealand and travel there for four months.

Overall, the collective IQ of my drivers has been through the roof, and the conversations, well, unforgettable. Sometimes, walking down the road, on my own, I find that I am experiencing something close to ecstasy, an overwhelming joy sets me aglow, and I feel so thankful for this life, with which I may do anything I fancy. Oh, what happiness to live my own life, fully and unabashedly, wholly and unfettered. Yes, there will be misery and I will be miserable, but right now there is no happier person on this earth than me.

I write this from my iPad in my tarptent in a dark Montana night, maybe 100 miles south of Great Falls, in the Lewis and Clark National Forest, with a clean, cold gurgling creek to my side.

Onward north tomorrow. I best get moving. Winter is coming.

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