By Amien Essif
The following is a creative non-fiction piece I wrote about the first stretch of a trip I made from Denver to Portland in the summer of 2013. Another bit of writing that came out of that same experience–an essay about the tension between freedom and capitalism–was published on the Guardian in December and you can read that here.
Stand at the corner of 20th and Market on the west side of Denver and stop cars going north by using a thumbs-up or a sign indicating “Cheyenne” or “North.” Put down your sign when police cars pass. Enjoy the sound of traffic as the ambiance of escape. When someone picks you up—hopefully within thirty minutes or so—ask if they can drop you off at the Love’s service station just before Cheyenne. Adapt your conversation to the interests of the driver. Prevaricate if it keeps things friendly. Whenever the conversation stops abruptly, turn your attention outside of the car window: the Great Plains. The Rocky Mountains will unfortunately be on the driver’s side.
Keep tea or instant coffee in your bag since you’ll probably be able to score free hot water at the Love’s. Ask the attendant with long black hair, the one who whispers to her co-worker while you’re at the beef jerky display. She’ll give you water. You can make a good lunch for cheap here (and most gas stations): jerky, Planters nuts, and green apples which are two for 99 cents right now. The nuts and the jerky packages have plenty to read while you eat on a curb surrounded by dead grass and scraps of Styrofoam plus the occasional scavenger bird or someone pissing behind a bush and reading something on their iPhone, and you should try not to chew loudly so that they don’t notice you’re in view. Once you’re finished eating, get back to work.
The truck-driver—he’s just bragging—the one folding clothes in his cab at the weigh station who says he’d crossed the country a dozen times when he was your age, that you shouldn’t walk around parking lots asking drivers for rides but get right on the Interstate and hold your sign out. Don’t expect to go as far and as fast as he did in his hippie days. Advice from dudes who hitchhiked in the 1970s is worth listening to because it connects you to the last century with anecdotes, but it won’t work because everything has changed since then. This is 2013. Develop your own method. One tip, though: If you make a cardboard sign, mark Casper, Wyoming as your destination. Casper is the next big town on your route, about 180 miles from here, and most people will be familiar with it. Also, since you’re on the front side of Cheyenne right now, a lot of the traffic is going into town, so your best bet might be to ask people at the pumps if they’re headed toward Casper. If you stay friendly and outgoing (but not aggressive) you probably won’t get kicked out by one of the managers who has now spotted you and is trying to decide what the protocol is for dealing with solicitors. With a little luck, you’ll get a ride all the way to Casper from the guy who is now finishing up his burger and watching you through the window of Wendy’s trying to figure out if it would be safe to pick you up and put you in the back seat with his four year-old nephew whose first name happens to be your first name and who will ask you strange questions during the two hour trip like “How many years were you a baby?” and “Guess what? You’re gonna die!”
At Casper, Interstate 25 turns abruptly north (as if deflected by the state’s western emptiness) and the route to Yellowstone is a westward trickle of state highways which will not meet an interstate for over 300 miles. Stand at the crossroads of Old Salt Creek Highway and 20/26 (toward W Yellowstone Highway) and try your luck. If you can’t catch a ride west before dusk, make camp. There’s a sort of dry trench running along the south side of 20/26 where you’re likely to find a good spot to sleep unbothered. Pick out the milk thistle with a stick and clear the ground of stray rocks so that you can have a comfortable place to lie down. Make sure you have a book to read, but something with short chapters like Joseph Campbell’s Myths to Live By or Zen Antics: A Hundred Stories of Enlightenment, but not something too topical because you likely won’t care since you’ve left the racket behind. The point of reading by headlamp is to distract yourself from mosquitoes and all the distant sounds that sound like footsteps. Reading by headlamp in the dark is a decent blinder, preventing you from staring at the traffic cone under the adjacent bypass for twenty minutes trying to locate your pocketknife until you identify your aggressor as a traffic cone. Fall asleep to the feeling of being invisible, unknown, and nowhere.
Wake up before six. Morning traffic is more ambitious, drinking gas station coffee and listening to 101.7 FM, hoping to cross more land and water than Lewis and Clark by dinnertime, though most of them won’t want to take you because that’s a hell of an investment to promise a stranger ten hours in your passenger seat and what if they’re dull and cranky and halitotic? Brush your teeth if you can, just to be nice, though it really doesn’t matter. Once you’re in, you’re in. Better: Look like someone who has brushed their teeth. Comb your hair with your fingers, tousle the sleeping bag side of your head for symmetry, then clean your fingers nails. If you wake up too early because you’ve crossed into Rocky Mountain Time and hadn’t realized, spend the extra time making a second cup of tea, meditating, stretching, and doing some calisthenics. There’s nothing like a good warm up to prepare you for a day of standing and sitting. You might also want to spend five minutes adding serif to the letters on your cardboard sign, as long as the sign isn’t still too humid from the dew. Serif is the flourish mark at the ends of letters and it helps attract attention to your sign. It could also signal a sense of humor on your part, and the type of superfluous skill associated with the leisure class and which is not correlated with violent crime.
It’s okay to get angry at drivers who don’t look at you or who look at you as if you’re roadkill or the way they might look at the guy dressed like a taco standing in the middle of suburbia holding a sign that says something about low prices. But you’re nobody’s servant so laugh it off. Whistle as the sun starts to warm you up. If you’re too educated to go in for clichés like “turn that frown upside down,” then recall that psychologists have shown how behavior can trigger the emotion that is normally its cause. In other words, smiling can improve your mood. If you become bored, try to think through the implication of intentional happiness and how this relates to why you left home in the first place. Don’t panic when you realize that one or two hours have passed and you’re still outside of Casper which is more or less an island of something in the middle of nothing. Move to a better spot or just suck it up and keep whistling like you’re in a film about how hitchhiking is the materialization of freedom in a complicated new century. Stay fresh. Act like every car is the one that is going to pick you up because when it is, you’ll get this strange feeling of clairvoyance, a resurgence of meaning in a morning that was sloping towards absurdity. When the car rolls to a stop and puts on its flashers, don’t forget to collect your backpack as you run toward the car. Jog docilely in order to give the impression that you’re not attacking but rather trying to save them time. Bend down to the window and ask if they are going to whatever city was written on your sign in improvised Cambria type. If they tell you that they’re going to Bucknum, or another small town with a name you don’t recognize, fish your map from your backpack and check to see if it is in fact a good stretch. If you calculate that Bucknum is actually only eighteen miles down Highway 26 and is in the middle of the fucking desert, decline the ride. Decline politely so that you don’t make things worse for future hitchhikers, but once you return to your former spot and find the guard rail where you ate a power bar for breakfast and watched the stoplight turn its trick over a hundred times, it’s best to release your disappointment and anger. Some people experience a certain release in breaking glass beer bottles by lobbing them into forsaken areas. Many states have strict laws against littering on the highway, but Wyoming is one of the states without many laws, and, in any case, you are the only thing around that is not an automobile, a long stretch of asphalt, or a piece of trash.
Get a Ride
Pessimism, superstition, indignance: Forget about it. Don’t start planning to camp again in the ditch where you spent the previous night and don’t resign yourself to going into town and blowing all your cash on a big meal, a hotel room, and a bottle of whiskey. Just because cynicism is sobering doesn’t mean it’s any wiser. Remember that probability is strangely unpredictable and look at the next car as if it is the car that will take you all the way to Yellowstone. Pick up on subtle signifiers like the considerable age of the station wagon and the driver’s long beard and the outdoor sports bumper stickers cluttering his windows, but do not take these signifiers too seriously because any experienced hitchhiker worth their salt will tell you that you never know who will pick you up or when, or where anyone is going, or why. (“Why” is the least practical question in hitchhiking, and while relevant to the overview, this article is about “How,” so I’ll stick to that.) When the rusted and stickered wagon drives off without slowing, don’t dwell on your mistaken assumption, but meet the gaze of the next driver as if they will be your driver. They will. As this car does indeed slow and swerve to the shoulder, note that you guessed correctly, simply by intuition, and therefore assume as you jog politely toward the black Mercedes that all your troubles are behind you. If she smiles at you and clears the passenger seat of children’s toys saying she’s going to Jackson, just south of Yellowstone, don’t waste time checking your map. It is not always necessary to check your map. Go with your gut for once.
The driver might ask if you want to put your backpack in the trunk, but don’t. Always keep your belongings nearby in order to avoid theft. For an excuse, tell them that you prefer to keep it on your lap in order to have access to your water and your map, etc. Even if the driver is a young mother with soft features and could be stereotyped as trustworthy, keep your bag with you in order to avoid a racist line of thinking.
And as she merges into the empty highway that wobbles in the heat at its most distant point, do not miss the opportunity to enjoy the total fulfillment of a simple desire, and also the comfort of firm German upholstery and Mahler on the radio. Appreciate the utter contrast of this sensation with that of one minute previous when you were standing in near isolation and dread and losing hope and getting sunburned and examining your own elongated shadow and whistling despite yourself. Whether you can believe it or not, it doesn’t matter now. You are being taken. Make small talk, give the driver a reason to feel that she’s made the right choice, make her feel good about herself, and don’t forget to rehydrate after a long, dry morning. Think about moving at such speed, look at the salted sky, remark on the feature of the landscape, see visions of Yellowstone, and don’t think about how to get home.