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  • Ken Ilgunas

Rule of Thumb #8: Listening is an art form

Day 8: May 22, Hope, British Columbia to Rock Island, Washington (303 miles)

Natalia—at the time of the hitchhike—had been my girlfriend for the preceding nine months. We met the summer before in Coldfoot. She worked as a lodge cleaner for a few months before going back to La Grande where she was enrolled at Eastern Oregon University.

We didn’t become intimate until her last week that summer. One evening she knocked on my door in a white dress, offering to help me practice my Spanish.

She was from Ecuador. She had golden-brown skin, a thick accent, and an air of exoticism that seems to make romantic forays all the more exciting.

It was her smile that—more than anything—made me fall for her. It exuded warmth and an unalloyed sincerity. Between that and her artless, unaffected manner, everyone couldn’t help but become endeared to her.

What developed is common for the young at heart. We became afflicted with affection; diseased with high hopes. My dreams of exploring the world were momentarily stifled now that I had sweeter and softer conquests in mind.

While I acknowledged that I had lost my capacity to exercise rational thinking amid the hazy daze of early love, I thought things would be different with Natalia. She was so sweet and kind and caring; I thought I could really see myself growing old with her. With a self-assured grin, I proclaimed to my friend Josh: “She.. is.. the.. one..” Once, looking into her eyes, as we laid in a tent atop a soft bed of sphagnum moss, I had the odd experience—in a moment of sublime intimacy—of seeing my face in hers—a phenomenon that only verified the uncommon bond I felt between us.

But then she left for Oregon to go back to school. And I stayed in Coldfoot for the rest of the year. I did fly down to Ecuador to visit her family’s home during her winter break, but in the nine months we were “together,” we had only seen each other for a few weeks.

Without the boons of physical companionship, my affection waned. I began resenting our weekly conversations, and my response to her I love you’s, became more and more insincere. By the time May rolled around, Natalia was the furthest thing for my mind.

But as I approached the American border and neared Oregon, something awoke within me. I smelled her luscious mane of black hair and dreamt—not of exploring my continent—but of traversing up, down, and around her silky Spanish curves. Natalia, again, incited a mutiny of my mind. I cared for nothing more now than to move. And to move fast.

Having never hitchhiked before, I originally had no idea if I could get out of Alaska, let alone make my way into a remote community on the quiet side of the Beaver state. But by now, I knew that anything was possible. It was only a matter of time before our long-awaited reunion.

La Grande, though, was still a long ways away.

I cooked up a pot of oatmeal, packed up my tent, tucked in my shirt, and made a new sign for the town of Princeton, British Columbia, which was en route to the Canadian-American border, just north of Washington.

The first car to pull over for me was driven by a cop, who, not without some cordiality, asked me about my journey. I responded honestly, except fibbing that my parents knew where I was and what I was doing. He wished me luck and said farewell.

A half an hour later, Keith, a spry 77-year-old retired drilling machinist, pulled over for me.

“Ya got any money?” he barked.

“Yeah. I have money,” I responded, feeling unthreatened.

“Good!” he growled. “The first thing ya know when you’re givin’ a fella a ride, they’re asking ya for food, then for money and then they’re stinking up your fuckin’ car!”

Amused, I assured him that I wouldn’t ask for food, or money, and told him that I didn’t think that I smelled.

I asked him where he wanted me to put my gear and he retorted, “In the backseat. What, do you want me to strap it on the fuckin’ hood?”

Clearly trying to test my intelligence, I responded, “Well, I thought you might like me to put it in the trunk.”

Keith’s curmudgeonly personality was balanced with grandfatherly charm. He asked me where I was going; I told him, “Oregon. To see my girlfriend.”

“Sounds like your pecker is taking ya across the world,” he said. I laughed.

Keith droned on for hours, going into exquisite detail about engine technology while I fantasized about Natalia and admired verdant farmland which slowly—as we headed further east—turned into arid wine country. I’d pepper the conversation with “Mmmm hmmm’s” and would occasionally make him stop to ask him what a Union bit or something or other was just so it appeared that I was following the conversation all along.

I was merely playing my role as hitchhiker, giving a lonely old man—what appeared to be—an attentive ear.

But Keith wasn’t so bad. He had some catchy sayings like: “You’re not worth a dime until you make your boss a dollar” and “If someone can build it, you ought to be able to take it apart and put it back together.”

After Keith dropped me off, a lumberjack drove me through the vineyards and dropped me off at the border.

Walking back into the States was both exciting and nerve-racking. Surely I thought my bedraggled appearance and the way in which I was traveling would raise concerns with border guards. But—much to my surprise—I walked across without being subjected to rigorous inquiry. I reproduced my “South” sign and continued on my way, now through the lower-48.

The Pacific Northwest, I found—like most of the places I passed through—was easy to hitch rides out of. I had another seven rides that day, including my second female driver, Celia, a 60-year-old, who was charmed with the story of my journey thus far. An 80-year old couple—Bob and Esther—picked me up and told me that they were “some of the few left who still like to trust people.”

John, a shirtless 19-year-old, pulled up in a run-down 80’s sports car in the town of Orak, Washington. He was thin and muscular, just out of basic training and on his way to Iraq where he’d serve as a scout. He joined because he blew 10K on pot and had to pay it back quick.

“I just told my recruiting officer that I want to get in shape, fuck up and kill a lot of people, and come home.”

“Is that exactly how you put it?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he said, matter of factly.

A guy in Wenatchee asks me if I want a beer before pulling a Budweiser out from between his thighs, which he’d slug lustily. Bob—another driver—stops at an EZ Go and buys me a burger. My last ride is with a single mom and her kid, formerly a carnie and hitchhiker herself. She dropped me off at Rock Island—in the middle of the state—where I’d set up my tent next to railroad tracks across from a gas station.

Oh, the joys of hitchhiking. Every hour I entered someone’s life; every day I gleaned new stories. I wasn’t just traveling, I was traveling outside the formula. I might as well have been floating through space, trailing my hand in stardust.

I struggled to fall asleep that evening—not from the stimulation of my day’s travel nor the howling coyotes in the desert night—but because my heart beated loudly for my beloved, just one state, and one day away.

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