Up front warning: I think this is the most self-indulgent thing I’ve written in the life of NuckolBall. But it’s my birthday, so I get to do what I want. Think of this post as a birthday present to myself. And It has been a strange present to unwrap, that much is certain. Turn back if you wish; you have been warned.
I turned 47 a few weeks ago, and my birthday was bleh. It was on a Sunday, and the plan was to go for a family hike. But it was pouring rain, so we stayed in. We played a couple games and went out for wings, but mostly everyone just schlumped around the house. We were all quarantined; no one was allowed to leave to do anything fun because it was my birthday.
Although, I did get in a hike on Saturday. I went to Tyler Arboretum and did a 6-mile loop on the grounds. And as I was out there, I had had the strangest thought: I was kind of sick of hiking, which seemed impossible, but there it was. I like to pay attention to how things smell, but there’s not a lot of smell when you hike in the winter. It just smelled like cold air. And while I usually I love hiking alone, I felt lonely.
I lived in my car when I was 23. For a year.
Hitchhiking Story #1
Before I left on the big road trip, I spent months planning. Nearly every day at work I would take my lunch break and go to the local sporting goods store. It was an escape valve for me. I bought every conceivable piece of camping gear, which was weird because at that point in my life I had spent a grand total of three days backpacking.
But when I envisioned myself out on the road, I envisioned week-long packing trips. I saw myself telling stories about long treks in the Rockies or describing the deserts of the Southwest. So I set out on the road with a pile of shiny gear.
My first stop on the roadtrip was Crater Lake National Park in Oregon. I set out for a 3-day, 2-night trek, but I muscled through and managed to cover the route in two days. I checked that off my list and pushed on.
My next stop was Mount Rainier National Park in Washington. I got up to the park headquarters mid-morning and plotted out a 4-day, 3-night trek. I spent an hour preparing my gear in the parking lot, then I headed into the cafeteria for lunch. Money was tight, but I laid out the full $18.99 for the all-you-can-eat buffet. I needed to pack in the calories before the trek. I was gonna be out there living on canned beans and peanut butter for the next few days. I stuffed myself silly, and then headed out onto the trail.
To this day, that was the most beautiful day of hiking I’ve ever done. I went down along a dark green valley that was thick with wild flowers of every color. On each side of the valley was a chorus of tall pines. Mount Rainier towered behind me. I can literally remember thanking God for giving my eyes.
By 3 PM I was at my camp site. I set up my tent. I wrote in my journal. I read. I wandered. I tried to hold off eating. I ate. By 6:30 I went to sleep and was up well before dawn.
It was a wet, misty, cold day. My tent was drenched in dew, but I shook it out as best I could and stuffed it into my pack. I had 8 miles to cover that day and I wanted to get moving. As an expert hiker, I took great pride in covering ground quickly. I set out, continued down the valley for another mile or so, then took a right. The path now started to take me upwards.
Ok, so let’s talk about that day.
I can’t describe any of the park. All I remember is climbing. Endless, mindless, senseless climbing. I remember false peaks, a series of them. I’d see the top of the climb and I’d push and pant and close my eyes and put my head down and I’d finally get to the top. Then I’d look up to see that it wasn’t the top at all.
I basically approached that day like I approach everything I do – I went full force 110%. I went as far as I could, as hard as I could, until I collapsed. Then I’d dump my pack, sprawl out on a rock, and pant.
And here’s the kicker: it was cold. As an experienced packer, I carried minimal weight, which meant I had only brought shorts and two T-shirts. I was soaked in sweat and I was freezing. Especially when I stopped to rest. I’d barely catch my breath before I was shivering.
It was a day of unchecked misery. The only good thing is that I covered the 8 miles before noon – if you really want to call that good news. I set up my tent and I changed into my last dry clothes. Everything else was soaked and I still had two days and two nights to go.
I hung my wet clothes up over the tent ropes, then I went for a short hike along a side trail. I observed the plants and noted the views and did all those things expert hikers do. I got back an hour later and my clothes were still drenched. And I finally admitted to myself: this was awful. I tried to kill some time reading, but it was cold sitting out in just my T-shirt. I hadn’t brought anything warmer. So I finally crawled into my sleeping bag, and I made a little bargain with myself. If my clothes were dry when I woke up, I’d keep going. If not, there was a ranger station a mile away. I’d head over and get a ride out. Maybe I’d go back to my car, grab warmer clothes, and start again.
An hour later, I was at the ranger station. The conversation went like this:
“Hey there, sir. I just ripped the heck out my tent.”
“Yeah. My car is parked over at the main headquarters. Is there some kind of a shuttle?”
“Oh. No, there’s nothing like that.”
“Oh really? You don’t…um…wow. Well, would anyone be heading that way. Maybe I could catch a ride?”
“We don’t really do that. It’s a good fifty miles to the headquarters.”
I had miscalculated about a lot of things. The ranger even asked me if he could help me fix the rip. When I declined, I’m pretty sure he knew I was lying. So I ambled out to the parking lot and put my thumb out.
I covered the 50 miles in about 3 hours. National Parks are pretty easy places to grab a ride and people totally responded to the ripped tent story.
I was back at my car before 5:00 and hit the all-you-can-eat buffet for dinner.
Hitchhiking Story #2
Our second story starts in Cleveland a few months later. I stopped in there to see an ex-girlfriend. She told me that our mutual college friend, Eileen, had just returned back from Germany and was in North Carolina. And for a lot of stupid reasons, I decided to hitchhike down to see Eileen.
I don’t remember the exact sequence of events and rides, but I’ll do my best to piece it together. What I can tell you is that the loneliness of hitchhiking is unlike anything I’ve experienced before or since.
A nice man in a pickup stopped and gave me my first ride. He took me a long ways, almost to Columbus. Then a truck driver picked me up. He was looking for conversation to help stay awake, but he was quiet and I was tired. There were long periods of silence and soon he pulled over and told me that was as far as he could take me. By then it was 2 AM.
When the truck pulled away, I was standing on a deserted traffic median. I was pretty exhausted. I pulled out my sleeping bag and laid it out on the median behind some bushes. I figured I’d get some sleep.
But the sleeping bag was nappy and scratched at my skin. It was muggy as hell, but the bugs were brutal, so I couldn’t be outside of the bag. But most of all, I wanted to keep pushing on. I’d already covered more than 250 miles; I loved the progress I was making. I loved the idea of being this road genie. Drop me off in Ohio and POOF! – I pop up in North Carolina.
It’s funny. You picture a man hitchhiking and you picture a man carefree and at ease. No schedule, no rush, no stress, no anxiety – but that wasn’t it at all. I wanted to go. I wasn’t in the moment one bit. All I could think about was getting through this.
I gathered my stuff up and went back out onto the road.
A delivery guy in a van picked me up. He had Ronald McDonald hair and a wore blue jumpsuit.
“I didn’t see you until it was too late to pull over. So I went and looped around at the next exit a few miles ahead, then I came back so I could get you.”
The guy seemed nice enough, but that was a lot of effort to pick up a hitchhiker. In fact, that seemed downright creepy. I was suddenly wide awake.
So as we talked, I slowly slid my right hand to my pants pocket and carefully slid my swiss army knife out of my pocket. Then I dipped my hand down between the seat and side door. It took some doing, but I managed to get the big blade out with one hand. I kept up a cool conversation the whole time; he never suspected a thing. But if this guy was planning to try anything, I was ready.
And thinking back on this, it’s hard to believe I was literally in that situation. I was sitting next to a man and I had a knife in my fist. A knife. That was a real situation. Good Lord.
He took me along for a couple of night deliveries and each time we stopped, I was ready with my knife. He never tried anything funny, though. He pulled over at a diner near dawn.
“I can’t have you along for the next delivery, but I’ll be back this way in about an hour if you want to wait.”
But I didn’t wait. I grabbed some breakfast and then I thumbed a ride almost immediately with two teenage kids. And for the life of me I can’t remember their names.
This was somewhere in West Virginia and we were in a small town. These two guys were both younger than me and living more carefree lives. They were major stoners and basically their entire life amounted to a sense of “screw it.” They took me to the house where they lived. It was a tiny, shabby place and there were no adults. Their phone had been turned off, so we drove to a nearby gas station to try and see if their calling card still had minutes on it. They were delighted when the call went through. The call was to their drug dealer, who was willing to have them come over to buy some weed. But the dealer was not OK with a hitchhiker coming along. And truth be told, I was pretty happy about it too.
They dropped me off at the edge of town and after a while, a brother and sister on their way to college pulled over and gave me a ride. They wanted to have deep philosophical talks with a mysterious hitchhiker, but I was ragged tired at this point and didn’t perform the part well. They pulled over to get breakfast and didn’t invite me to join them.
The rest of that day was really tough. Hitchhiking is surprisingly emotional. Every car that approaches makes your heart rise and you feel a maybe-maybe-maybe sense of optimism. Your eyes and ears play tricks on you and you think the car is slowing down. But then it doesn’t and your heart plummets. Rejection after rejection eventually becomes a deep sense of despair.
But then when a car does stop, all of that evaporates instantly. Elation lights up your whole body and suddenly you’re sprinting down the side of the road feeling like you’ve win the World Series.
I never achieved any sense of peace or balance. I didn’t sit and chill and wait. If I didn’t get a ride, I walked. I pushed myself as hard as I could.
I wasn’t on major highways anymore, so any ride I did get was usually only for a few miles. There weren’t any truckers, just locals. I had several stretches of time when I sat there, thumbing every car that passed. There was a highway not far off, and I figured I’d have better luck getting a ride there. So I put my head down and walked the four miles to the highway. By then it was getting dark. I was covered in several layers of sweat that had dried on top of each other. I smelled awful. My pack felt like it was full of boulders.
That highway was the low point. It’s a lot harder to get a ride a night, for obvious reasons. I was physically tired, but I was also pretty spent emotionally.
I was dizzy, but I kept on walking down that highway, thumbing car after car without any luck. I walked for a solid two hours.
I got to a spot along the highway where I could see a small town and a traffic light a ways off. So I scrambled down the bank, climbed over a tall chain-link fence, and then made my way through some brush until I got to the road that led into the town.
There was a bar there and I went inside. I found out where I was and figured out that the town Eileen was in was just 20 miles away. So I got change for a dollar and went back to the pay phone. I’d had it. I was calling Eileen and getting a ride. Maybe I hadn’t made it the whole way like some magic road wizard – but I’d come close and I’d done it in just 24 hours. And I was so spent; I’d had it with this ludicrous hitchhiking thing. What a mistake. What an idiot.
I called the number I had for Eileen. A loud man picked up the phone.
“Hi! Is Eileen there?”
“Wha?” he shouted.
“Eileen? This is her friend Mike. Eileen?”
“She’s moved out. They got their own place now.”
“Oh. Do you have a number for…”
“Who is this?”
“My name is…”
It turned out it was Eileen’s father-in-law. He didn’t know who I was; he had no use for sorting out who I was; he hung up on me. And I about wanted to die.
I literally staggered out of the bar. I was out of breath and light-headed and crushed with misery. I saw a church down the dark street. I stumbled down there and went around to a deck out back. I laid my sleeping bag out on the wood. I crawled inside it feeling utterly wretched. How was I going to get to Eileen’s? I’d never make it. What was I going to do?
I started to cry. And this wasn’t a manly cry. This was a messy, boogery sob.
And I don’t know what you believe about God and prayer and all of that, but I started to pray. That helped. That calmed me down. Especially because it felt like God answered me directly. Inside my head, God said: You can’t call and get a ride. You’re too tired to hitchhike anymore. You can’t walk the 20 miles. It’s the middle of the night. There’s only one productive thing you can do: go to sleep.
I woke up and it was eight in the morning. It was quiet and sunny and comfortably cool. I silently got my stuff together and slipped off the porch. I made my way back through the brush, back over the fence, and back to the highway.
The third car that passed pulled over and picked me up. This was my last ride, but I’ll never forget this guy.
He was scraggly, quiet, and skinny. He had a sad black beard that looked awful. He was 30 at the oldest. He was headed to his job at a factory, and he was drinking a beer and smoking a bowl. That’s how grated-down-to-nothing-miserable this guy’s life was. He was headed to work and getting drunk and stoned.
He dropped me off at a gas station, and I sat in the nearby grass. I pulled out my book and read for a good hour. The sun was shining on me and the world smelled like morning. I eventually finished up my chapter, then I packed up and made my way over to the road. I put out my thumb and got a ride on the first try. It was truck. It was Eileen’s husband.
I’d made it.
I took the bus back to Cleveland.
Hitchhiking Story #3
I was in the SouthWest, and again this was a few months later. I’d long since given up the solo backpacking thing and gotten into an amazing rhythm. Each night I would arrive at a national park. I’d spend the night in the parking lot, sleeping in my car. Then I’d wake up at dawn, go on a 4-6 hour hike, get back in the car, and drive to the next park. Using this method I hit Zion, Carlsbad, Organ Pipe, Death Valley, Grand Canyon, Big Bend, and lots more. It was just magic. I was dusty and tan and slim.
It was in this state of mind that I picked up a hitchhiker.
He was sitting on the side of the road. He looked like this:
That’s not really him, but the features are pretty close. Leathery skin. 50s. Wrap around sun glasses. Mullet. He was holding out a 5 dollar bill.
SO…two strategies when picking up a hitchhiker.
- Don’t be friendly at first. Take it slow
- Don’t say where you’re headed
Strategy A gives you a chance to size things up. You might discover that you want to get the hitchhiker out of your car. If that’s the case, you just say: “OK, this next exit is where I’m getting off. Good luck.” Then you drive away.
However, you can also try…
- Be super friendly from the start
- Tell the hitchhiker right away that you’re on this road for the next 270 miles
When you follow this strategy, it’s a lot harder to get rid of a hitchhiker.
Needless to say, I followed Strategy B.
His name was John. He was a Vietnam veteran. We started chatting right away. I was in such a great mood and the SouthWest was vast and open. He didn’t have anywhere in particular he was headed, so he said…
“Hell, maybe I’ll just come with you all the way to that Saguaro National Park you’re talking about. I’d like to check that out.”
Strategy B – not a good strategy. Jon didn’t have any money. He’d been dicked over by his girl. He’d been cheated out of a good job. More and more anger crept into his demeanor. He had a Sprite bottle in his backpack, and he kept pouring shots of it into the plastic bottle cap and throwing them back. I could smell the wreak of liquor.
Dread seeped over me. I did not want this guy in my car and I absolutely did not want to take him to Saguaro National Park or spend a night there with him in the car.
He picked up on my apprehension as I got quieter, so he fumbled more, trying to find the right thing to say. He wanted my mood to be friendly again, but that had drained away completely. He’d say blunt things and fake laugh at what he’d said. I’d smile and keep my eyes forward. I glanced at his arms. They were muscular. He was in decent shape. Plus he was a Vietnam Vet. Plus I’d never been in a fight in my life.
Suddenly through the fog of dread:
“You’re a good lookin’ one, aren’t you?”
He reached over and pinched my cheeks between his fingers. I slapped his hand away.
We drove in silence for the next 20 minutes. It occurred to me that he wasn’t wearing his seat belt, so if things got really bad, I could run the car into a pole. I’d survive, but he wouldn’t. That was honest-to-God what I was thinking and it wasn’t just my imagination running away with me.
I had to get him out, but I didn’t have any idea how. I spotted a rest stop up ahead.
“I’ve got to make a phone call,” I said. I hoped he would get out and step away from the car. If he did, I was gonna hightail it out of there. But he knew I wanted him gone.
“OK, pal,” he said, not making the slightest move to leave the passenger seat. “I’ll be right here when you get back.”
Weakly I made my way across the parking area. As I did, two guys approached me.
“What’s up, bro? How’s it going?”
“I’m good, thanks,” I responded. These guys looked like a mess. Their clothes were dirty. One was tall and one was fat.
“You lookin’ to buy anything?” the fat one asked. “We got a lot to choose from.”
A flare shot off inside my brain. Drug dealers! Yes! I smiled back at them.
“Nah, I’m good. But hey, my friend in the car back there might be interested. Give him a try.”
I hustled to the phone, pretended to make a call, then made my way back to the car. The two drug dealers were there, but John the hitchhiker wasn’t buying drugs. He was trading drugs he already had. The dealers pulled out a small bottle of liquid, and then dripped several rows of it onto a paper towel. Acid. They handed it to John, who in return handed them a plastic bag filled with pills.
The dealers walked off. John and I drove out of the parking lot.
“Welp!” John said as he lifted the paper towel in front of him. “Let’s try it out.”
“Hold on,” I said and authority was suddenly back in my voice. “You’re not doing that in my car.”
“I’m not gonna do it,” he fumbled. “I’m…I’m gonna sell it.”
I was barely on the highway and I pulled over onto the side of the road.
“Look,” I said, “you just made a drug deal. I can’t have you in the car.”
I had him. He knew it; I knew it. That was a legit reason for ejection. He’d screwed up big time.
“I’m just…I’m not…”
“John, come on. You gotta go. You have to respect that.”
“I can’t…I just…” He was struggling to come up with something. He did not want to leave that car.
“Look,” I asked. “Do you have any money?”
“No! I don’t have any money.”
I pulled out my wallet and open it.
“Here,” I said, handing him all I had. “This is…32 dollars. That’s all I’ve got. Take it. Here. But you’ve gotta go.”
It was somewhere between an act of charity and being mugged. It still took another minute of him trying to think of something to say, but he was beat. He took the money and stepped out of the car.
I floored it before he’d even closed the door.
I don’t know what all that means or how it’s relevant to me feeling lonely on a hike the day before I turned 47. I’m not 100% sure what advice I’m trying to convey here. By no means do I want you boys to try hitchhiking. Like I said, this is a weird one.
At 47, I’m technically in my late 40s – which seems impossible and irrelevant at the same time. I don’t feel old. I don’t even feel like an adult; I don’t even know what that means. I have kids, I own a house, I have a retirement account, I have a business card with my name on it, I can sign waiver forms. They let me rent a car without any second thought.
But I’m not boring. And I’m almost never bored. I resent boredom. Actually, I’ll take it one step further. Truth be told, I like adventure. And I actually think that’s the message I want to convey. Adventure.
It’s a silly word, right? Adventure is what happens in movies. That’s not a real thing. Adventure? Certainly not a realistic goal in life, is it?
I have to respectfully disagree.