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  • Ken Ilgunas

Rule of Thumb #11: No storm, no sunshine

[My apologies to those who were loyally following this little series. It started off as a “weekly” series, later became a “bi-monthy series, and it’s now a “whenever the hell I have time” series.]

Day 23: June 6, 2007. Park City, Utah to Aurora, Colorado (511 miles)

Hail, sleet, rain, snow. A dreary, overcast sky lavishly hosed me with every cruel form of matter it could devise. For eight hours I stood on an entrance ramp to the I-80 in Park City, Utah. My cardboard sign to “Cheyenne” got so wet the “enne” was about to tear off down the middle crease, half because of the unremitting rain, and half because my numb fingers couldn’t keep the sign from falling into the puddle forming around my feet.

Oh, how I hated. I hated each and every goddamned driver that left me standing there alone, hungry, cold and poor. How could they let someone suffer when all they had to do was pull over and take me as far as they were going? Why are they all so heartless?!

As each car approached, I flashed an innocent half-smile (as I always would), hoping to give drivers the impression that I was harmless. But as each passed me by, I snarled, stomped my foot, and let loose a flurry of curse words that dribbled from my lips like venom.

To their credit, with the way I looked, I doubt I would have picked me up either. I was wearing a navy blue rain suit with a large conical KKK-type hood that made me look like a deranged fisherman. I bought the rain suit from Wal-Mart for $10—a misguided purchase considering how little the suit did to stanch the ingressing rivulets of rain that saturated my underclothing. Behind me, my pack sat upright covered with a giant black industrial garbage bag that fluttered in the wind. No wonder no one was pulling over. I looked less like a daring adventurer and more like a bum trying to carry his trash across state lines.

I needed to regroup. I went to a nearby gas station, bought a cappuccino, warmed up, ate my third peanut butter and jelly sandwich of the day, and made a new sign—this time reading “Wyoming.” I decided that I’d try to hitch a ride until this new cardboard sign falls apart, which—at the rate the rain/snow was falling—gave me about an hour before I’d be forced to head back to the Mormon Church or find somewhere else to bed down for the night.

While I was redrawing my sign by the gas pumps, a man filling up his white pickup—who’d supposedly seen me standing at the entrance ramp earlier—looked at me and, shaking his head, said, “You’re crazy, man.”

I had had enough. Too often had hundreds (thousands!) of vehicles on this road and on others passed me without even deigning to look at me. Too often had vehicles with empty front and back seats heading in my direction insensitively zipped by. And now this insolent bastard was calling me crazy.

“You know what asshole,” I said, incensed. “I’m here freezing my balls off and you and your no-good state has the gall to let a guy who needs a ride freeze on the side of the road. Crazy? Crazy for coming to Utah—this hellhole—that’s for sure.”

“Listen, kid…” he said conciliatorily.

“No. You listen to me. I’ve been out here for eight goddamn hours. Now unless you’re going offer me a ride, I’d keep your trap shut and start minding your own business.” I said the last part while threateningly sliding my sleeves up my biceps.

“Sorry, man,” he said. “How bout I take you to the next town? Looks like you could use a warm meal too.”

That’s how the dialogue ideally would have unfolded. Instead, exhausted and demoralized, I silently watched him fill up his tank. Besides, I thought, maybe he’s right.

The rain looked like it’d never stop. Slowly, the creases of my new square of cardboard, sopping wet, began to tear. I was moments away from losing the “ing” of my “Wyoming” when I heard someone honking behind me.

She was gorgeous. She was tall, and her long blond hair poured down her shoulders from beneath a cab driver’s cap. She wore checkered pants and high heels. She looked like she might have been 30. She also looked a little kooky and crazy (maybe even a little kinky). She told me she was a single mom and was heading to Coalville, just a few miles up the road.

I had, up until then, turned down really short rides, but I was sick of Park City and desired the solace of a warm car if just for a few minutes. Our conversation was short and spare, but she gave me her number and told me I could stay at her place that night if I wanted to.

I had no reason to believe the offer was anything but platonic, yet I couldn’t stop myself from fantasizing.

This is what you wanted, isn’t it Ken? A few weeks to live outside of rules and laws and conventions. A few weeks of liberty. A few weeks to experience life as fully as I possibly could: loving, hating, surviving, saving—hell—killing if I had to; whatever it took, so long as I felt like I was truly living for once.

But then I thought of Natalia back in Oregon, probably still upset about my absence and how we parted without “figuring out” how to deal with our long-distanced relationship.

I told her that, yeah, it was getting late and that it would probably be a good idea for me to call it a day. “Sure,” I said. “I’d love a place to stay.”

I took a shower, put on a pair of dry clothing and sat on her couch where she brought over a can of Bud for me and a glass of wine for her. She told me all about her ex, and how he left her and her daughter with nothing. “It’s so lonely in Coalville,” she said. “If only I had someone to keep me company once in a while.”

I put the beer down, leant over and pressed my nose against her cheek…

Instead of letting the events transpire in such fashion, I accepted the piece of paper she wrote her number on, which I knew I’d never call, even if I were to get stuck in Coalville.

I sat down on a curb and started making a new sign outside of a mom-and-pop convenience store called Sinclair’s. My new sign was for “Evanston”—a town just inside the Wyoming border that I could get to if I got lucky with a quick ride.

As I was putting the finishing touches on my sign, a black kid in his late teens came up to me wondering what I was doing. After telling him where I’d come from and where I was headed, he seemed to be in state of amused disbelief. I thought he might have been inspired with my journey but he instead told me, “You should save up your money and do it when you’re older. When you can really experience the country.”

“Nah, man,” I said grinning. “There’s no adventure in that. With age and money, comes kids, wife, security. You gotta do it when you’re young and free.”

He got a call on his cell phone and I got back to work on my sign. We shook hands and wished each other luck.

Fifteen minutes go by and a tall ranch-owner picked me up and took me to Evanston while we listened to Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young on the radio. He dropped me off at an Arby’s in Evanston. In the bathroom, I cleaned myself up, hoping to land one more ride before nightfall.

After an hour, Travis pulled over.

“I’m going all the way,” he said, referring to my sign to Cheyenne. “I know you, by the way.”

“You do?”

“Yeah, your name’s Nate, right?”

“Umm. No. My name’s Ken.”

“Well, I suppose you can ride with me anyway.”

Travis had just come back early from a trip to Italy. Italians, he said, were “a bunch of thieves.”

He was young, maybe 25, and headed to Colorado where he was a grad student at the University of Denver, specializing in artificial intelligence.

He said he wanted to “crack the code” on AI technology by being the first to create a machine that can adapt and evolve on its own. It was delightful conversation and to amuse him I freely told him my most eccentric ideas and philosophies.

Like on all my long rides with drivers, we’d share intimate details freely, knowing that we’d never see each other again. He told me about how his girlfriends have all cheated on him, and bemoaned how there were no good women left.

“Spanish girls,” he said. “I need a Spanish girl. They’re chill and full of passion. They wouldn’t cheat on me.”

I told him of my own Spanish girl, and how she’d never betray me. Before we said goodbye, Natalia told me she’d follow me anywhere. Some might be quick to point out how I had it all: a girl and the freedom to roam. But whether in Alaska, Mongolia, or on Mars, I knew—no matter where I went—unless I had no binding human attachments, I’d never feel how I did right then and there, sharing stories with a stranger, listening to the wheels purr atop prairie-flat interstate songlines, soaring beneath constellations sparkling in a chrome-blue Wyoming sky, lazily watching the conveyor belt of yellow dashes—their passing reminding me of how far I’d come and how the road—a means to get from one home to another—came to be a home in itself, one that I’d embrace in storm and sunshine, love and hate: my dear, dear, open road.

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