We pick up our regularly-scheduled hitch-hiking program where we left off, in a rest area just south of LA.
It was with great hope and a general sense of well-being that I settled onto the grass at that early-morning rest area just south of LA, cardboard sign propped against my pack (I-5 north!) and a great brick of an unread vampire novel in my lap. So imagine my surprise when, but a handful of pages later, a curly-haired man with a scruffy face was calling my name (Hey you!) and pointing in the direction of an idling SUV, stumbling as if he hadn’t slept.
“You need a ride?” He said. I stuttered and told him I did, dazed a little at being pulled so quickly away from my vampires and into the present tense, like a portal that closed too fast and caught the heel of my shoe. He named some town I hadn’t heard of, but then, I don’t know California.
“Is that on I-5?” I asked him. “How far?”
“Pretty far,” he said. “Ten hours?”
“Great,” I said, and hopped up. The car was blandly colored and fairly new, pulling a small u-haul trailer. Another man sat in the driver’s seat, soft and rounded with a baseball cap pulled down over his eyes. As I climbed into the backseat, the curly-haired man turned and eyed me a bit bashfully.
“We smoke pot, crank, drink beers.” He paused, almost embarrassed. “You still want the ride?”
Crank? Really? I thought. But I did like the man’s honesty, and they were going far.
“As long as you guys don’t drive drunk,” I said, somewhat lamely.
“Oh, no, no, we don’t do that.” They said, nodding their heads. We were all in agreement now. We had reached some sort of compromise.
The men turned forward and pulled out of the rest area, the driver muttering as he cut into traffic, glancing at the exit signs overhead. The radio had been set to “scan” and as we drove it jarred unevenly across the dial, settling on each station for a good fifteen seconds before that song ended abruptly and another one took its place.
“You hand me a rockstar?” Said the driver, over his shoulder to me. “In the cooler.” There was a cooler next to me, red, and full of ice. I opened the lid and found beer, soda, and an assortment of massive energy drinks. I handed him one, cold and wet, the size of a potato gun. The curly-haired man, meanwhile, was cursing over a small iphone in his hands, tapping at the screen with his blunt, stained fingers.
“You know how to work these things?” He asked, turning and holding the thing out to me like a kid who cannot unscrew a jar of pickles. I took the iphone from him. He had a map on the screen, some sort of GPS. It was I-5, and a small blinking dot where we were, headed north. A third of the landscape was caked in some sort of dried food, as if he’d dropped the phone in his milkshake.
“Yeah, we’re fine.” I said. “We’re going the right way.”
“I want to know how to get around the city,” he said quickly, blinking. “Like a highway that cuts off and goes around the city.” I scrolled out on the map and looked for alternate routes, and the man and I spent a few minutes passing the thing back and forth, watching the blinking dot move along the green line, suspended in a blank white landscape of crusted milkshake. We finally found a route and turned off in the nick of time, the driver man muttering and swearing as he cut across traffic to make the exit. Then we were set for a bit on our route and the curly-haired man nestled the iphone in a hoodie that lay balled-up between the seats, taking off his baseball cap and scratching his oily scalp for a length of time. The car fell silent except for the chattering of the radio, pulling us from station to station in quick, random jerks, never lingering long enough for me to relax. I sent frustrated vibes their way, hoping they’d turn it off, but instead they talked to each other, quiet and mumbling, seeming to forget I was there at all. Suits me, I thought, cracking open my vampire novel and putting four hundred pages between me and reality. Every now and then the curly-haired man would pick up the iphone and thrust it my way, to check and make sure we were still on track. The wallpaper on his phone was of a sticky-faced kid, blonde ringlets against a background of grass, looking up into the camera with fair blue eyes.
“I got five kids.” Said the man, rummaging around in the cavity between the seats, pulling out a plastic CD case. He cracked it open and next thing I new a handful of clear stones rested on its smooth surface, like pieces of fancy rock-salt. “You want a line of crank?” He said, looking over the seat at me like he was offering a tin of Christmas cookies.
“No, thanks.” I said. He turned and busied himself with the rocks, chopping at them with a device that was hidden from view. I could see his face reflected in the passenger side-view mirror, bent over his careful work, eyes focused in anticipation. Then there was the tube of a ballpoint pen, so quick I would have missed it, and a swift brush of the nose with a forefinger. The rocks went back in the case, the case went back in the cavity between seats, it was as if nothing had happened.
I looked back down at my book, and the car was gone for a while. The men were silent, mostly, watching the road ahead, the burned-out hills to the right where wildfires had just swept through. Oprah lost a house, I thought, but I didn’t say it. The curly-haired man turned to the soft-faced driver.
“I miss June.” He said, matter-of-fact.
The soft-faced driver nodded, thoughtful.
“Maybe you do love her,” he said. His phone rang just then and he picked it up, fingers fumbling at the buttons. It was his wife. She wanted to know where they were, what was taking them so long. “We had to get the trailer,” he said, into the phone. “then we had to turn around and go back. Yeah. She was being difficult. I don’t know. Yeah, we got it. She might call again. Yeah, I hope it works out.” the voice on the other end prattled on for a bit, small and thin as a tin cup. “We got a hitch-hiker,” said the man. Yeah. She’s real polite. Quiet. She’s a train jumper! She’s pretty cool.” I smiled to myself in the backseat. The man set down his phone and fiddled with the radio, turning it up, down, off, on again. He put in a CD and turned up the volume, skipping through the tracks and pulling it out again. Then he was distracted changing lanes and for a moment we had some quiet jazz, before he came back into himself an punched the “scan” button again.
Later that afternoon, we were back on the road after stopping to eat massive, warm burgers at a highway exit. I’d developed a new piece of hitch-hiking wisdom, which was “never look a gift cheeseburger in the mouth”. Instead of looking the cheeseburger in the mouth, quietly pull a slice of gluten-free bread from your pack and slide the burger onto it, or whatever you need to do to make it edible to you, even if that means cracking your door a bit and dropping the meat and cheese onto the asphalt. I even ate the fries, which were good, for fastfood fries, and came in a little carton with the words “our cooking oil contains no trans fat” printed on the bottom, so you wouldn’t feel so bad when you ate them all and were left staring at an empty carton, which seemed to scream poverty and gluttony, excess and food scarcity all at once.
The men were tired. The had had, it seemed, a difficult journey thus far, with lots of setbacks and missed connections and driving-through-the-nights. They were, apparently, shuttling a motorcycle for someone or other, from somewhere south of LA to the town where they lived, on the coast up past San Francisco. I was having a hard time, watching the backs of their heads as they talked, piecing together the story of their trip or of their very existence- why did they have such a nice SUV (with heated seats, even, I thought to myself, as I flipped the switch for mine) when they looked so ragged? The curly-haired one could be a homeless man, for all his fumbling speech and weathered, unshaven face, and the driver looked straight but was very obviously high on drugs, and had been for some time. They took turns with the crank, snorting a line every hour or so as we drove, and the driver chased his meth with frosty energy drinks the size of my arm. As we pulled through the drive thru at the burger joint it all seemed to come together in his stomach, and he turned away from the wheel, eyes wide.
“I’m feeling it. I’m fucking feeling it. Do you guys feel it? Like a fucking rollercoaster man, like waves.”
As evening fell the lack of sleep threatened to catch up with them (I offered to drive, but they wouldn’t have it) and they switched to burning the stuff, little puffs of smoke from a small glass pipe. I could see it all in the side-view mirror- the curly-haired man bent over the flame (window up, of course, although mine was inconspicuously cracked) and sucking on the pipe, passing it to the driver and then, at last, letting out a mouthful of bitter smoke. The whole business smelled of burning plastic, and I frowned intensely to myself in the backseat, watching carefully so I wouldn’t miss a puff and forget to open my window, and somehow expose myself to a whiff of second-hand crank. As they smoked they talked back and forth about pounds, and ounces, and the going price of things these days, and I realized, with a wave of relief, as if I’d finally found the last cardboard piece to a jigsaw puzzle and fitted it into the frame, that they were drug dealers. Sort of career drug dealers. Grown-men-with-kids drug dealers.
The curly-haired man did, indeed, have five kids. One of them called, the five-year-old whose picture was on the phone.
“I heard you were on top of the RV,” said the man. “Gramma told me. What were you doing on top of the RV? You know you’re not supposed to be on top of the RV. You better behave when I’m away.” The kid screeched through the phone. “Ok, I’ll be home late tonight. I said, daddy will be home late tonight. Uh-huh. I love you. I said, I LOVE YOU. I MISS YOU. I’LL SEE YOU LATE TONIGHT. BYE.” The man turned to the backseat and asked me, could I please pass him another beer. I opened the cooler and fished one from the ice. A fog had fallen outside the window. Orange groves stretched on into nothing, the trees heavy with fruit.
“You traveled far?” asked the man, as if noticing me for the first time. So far they had just let me read, for which I had been extremely grateful.
“I’ve been hitch-hiking all the way from North Carolina.” I said. The man shook his head appreciatively.
“Man,” he said. “You’re not afraid of much, are you?”
“No,” I said. The curly-haired man was quiet. The soft-faced man looked at me in the rear-view mirror.
“What are you afraid of?” He asked, curious.
“I’m afraid of the woods at night.” I said, after a moment. “I’m afraid of being alone in the woods at night.”
The man seemed to consider this.
“Are you afraid of death?” he asked. I thought for a moment.
“No.” I said. The men nodded, and turned to each other.
“That’s good.” said the driver, sober.
“Are you?” I asked. The day had gone dark now, and there was only the fog, and the hum of wheels on pavement. The man seemed to deliberate, and then he gave his answer.
“No.” he said. We all fell quiet then, lost in our own murky worlds, which seemed to clear, every so often, in moments like these, like a glass of lake water whose silt has settled to the bottom. I wasn’t sure what the curly-haired man was afraid of, or if he was afraid of anything at all. He seemed old for his age, worn down from a lifetime of drugs (First smoked crank when I was eleven years old! Smoked pot when I was seven!), his body like an old car that barely ran. A cripple, I thought. He’s a cripple. But then, aren’t we all, after a while? Being able bodied is, after all, just a temporary state- a sort of dream that makes our eventual, more enduring existence seem that much more dreadful- we start out strong, most of us, with parts factory-new, and lose springs and bolts on the bumpy dirt-track of life- ending up with a sort of compromise, between our desire to live and the inevitable passage of time.
We drove on in silence, stopping once so the curly-haired man could dash off into the citrus orchards to steal fruit, running like a stooped, startled elf, disappearing in the perfect rows of trees that turned, as you passed them, like the spokes of a bicycle wheel- returning finally with a shirtful of oranges, eyes lit up like he’d just robbed the chicken house, and I felt, suddenly, as if I were in The Grapes of Wrath.
“Let’s go, let’s go!” He cried, paranoid, dumping his loot into the cooler.
“Yeah!” I said, laughing, “The citrus police are gonna get us!” The men laughed, then, too, and we all ate an orange. Mine was ice-cold and not quiet ripe, but I loved it anyway. It tasted of plants, of sunlight, and of what life could be pulled from chemical soil.
We neared the split for San Francisco, and I almost considered going with the men and having them drop me off in the city, because I had never been there, and I have friends there. But then I thought of the dirty clothes in my pack, and of the everlasting chunk of cabbage, and how badly my shoes needed polishing, and I knew in my heart that what I wanted, was to be home. Or as close to home as I could get- a warm room in a friend’s house and my extensive flannel collection. So I had the men leave me, just before midnight, at a rest area where I-5 continued north, and when they stepped from the car to check the trailer I shook their hands, and said Thank You, and I really, really, meant it. They rubbed the sleep from their eyes for the five-hundredth time and pulled away, and I buttoned up my wool jacket against the cold fog and stood, staring, at the bank of vending machines, trying to decide if a gross minty candy bar would bring up moral, and if so, how much, and would it be worth the sugar-crash afterward. I wondered, too, if the trees just beyond the grass would be any good for sleeping, and if it was going to get much colder than this. I’d barely sat down on a concrete bench and unwrapped the shiny foil from my 75 cent moral-booster when a man with a fat little dog on a leash approached me and, peering at my face through the bundled scarf, asked if I needed a ride north. He was, he said, headed all the way to Bingen, Oregon, which at first I had never heard of, but later, while headed north through the cold, humid night, I learned from his laminated atlas was a town along the Columbia river, a mere ninety miles east of Portland.