Elijah WaldThe "Riding with Strangers" Hitchhiking Book Tour

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Riding with Strangers

Obviously, the only acceptable way to do a tour for a hitchhiking book is by hitchhiking.....so with the book out and spring in in the air, I spent a month bumming lifts from bookstore to bookstore across the country.

If hitchhiking teaches one lesson, it is that every trip is different. Crossing the country for "Riding with Strangers" took only sixteen rides, including eight on an off-the-interstate side trip through rural Missouri and Iowa. Setting out on my book tour, it took eleven rides just to get from Portland, Oregon, to Boise, Idaho. A mere 420 miles, and it took a day and a half. Some rides came as quickly as the ones in the book, others took an hour of waiting by the highway.

None of that should be taken as a complaint. They were a good day and a half. For the first time in all my years hitchhiking in the US, I was taken home by a driver, up to a cattle ranch seventeen miles north of I-84. He had picked me up at dusk, just when I was beginning to worry that I'd be stuck all night at a rarely-visited rest stop southeast of La Grande. He was a blues fan, tempted by my guitar. I was prepared to stop in Baker City and get a room, but he told me there was a bike rally in town, and no rooms to be had. So instead he took me to a party, then up to the ranch, driving mountain roads lit by heat lightning. The peaks still had snow on them.

Other rides? Not all were memorable, some just friendly guys taking me a few miles along. The first came so fast I figured it was an omen- the second car that passed after I took a bus out to the highway near Portland. Two were in the back of pickup trucks-- one from a guy with his front seat full of junk, one from a family of four. There were three in the front of pickups, two from semis, one a sort of camper/pickup, and the rest regular cars.

My second ride was a trucker. I climbed into the cab, and he said, "If the radio is too radical for you, just tell me and I'll turn it off." I asked, "Radical which way?" Turned out it was a Sirius satellite gay left-wing talk show, lamenting the loss of civil liberties and demanding that the Democrats seize the macho high ground and denounce the Republicans as wussies willing to trade their liberty for safety. The driver was Mexican-American, cursing the right and telling me he'd been a bus driver, but lost his job because of his mouth. He preferred trucking, because he didn't have to deal with passengers. He'd picked up a guy from Tennessee a couple of weeks back who couldn't take the radio and asked to be let out, so he was trying to be polite. I asked how often he got home. He said, "Every year or so." He drives full-time, all over the country. He was dropping a load at Hermiston, and called the dispatcher to see if they could give him another going toward Boise, so we could keep riding together. No luck, though, so he dropped me at the exit, and I was back on the road.

A short ride took me to a much worse spot- I was accepting all offers, no matter how short. It was an entrance ramp before a small town, and cars were coming up it several minutes apart. (At every ramp, I walked to the end and tried tempting drivers off the highway, which is legal in Oregon, but I didn't get one all day.)

After a while, I gave up on that spot, and walked three miles to another ramp. Not much better, but I stopped to rest there, and got a short ride from a couple of hardcore metalheads. "I just got one word for you: Pantera!" The driver was richly tattooed. "That guitar got you the ride. I don't even like hitchhikers, doggy."

They dropped me at a truckstop, and the weather was looking threatening, so I asked around, didn't find anyone, walked out to the ramp, stayed there till the rain started, walked back to the truck stop, and got a ride from a Native guy going toward Baker City. He was going home from his job setting up wind turbines. Union construction work, and a lot safer than bridges, which were his usual gig. He was going to bring his son on the job next week. "My cousins give me shit about working for the white man's money. I tell them, 'bro, that money paid for the beer you're drinking.' He almost got in a bar fight a couple of weeks ago, because a guy was talking about how they should close the border and deport all the illegal immigrants. I asked him, 'Where did your people come from?'

Then came the rancher who took me home, after a pleasant evening in Baker City. It's a beautiful town, actually, with fine old Victorian buildings and a grand hotel with an art nouveau stained glass ceiling.

The next morning, a Mexican trucker picked me up, going to Salt Lake City. He spoke virtually no English, said he's been driving for four years, but everywhere he has a load there are always some Mexicans on the lot, so it isn't really a problem. His family is from Zacatecas, and all but one of his eight siblings live in the same part of Bakersfield, along with his parents, uncles, aunts- everybody but one brother and the grandparents have come north. He just bought his own truck, second-hand but it looked good. About fifteen miles west of Boise it began making a funny noise, though, so he pulled over and I was on my own again.

That's when the family in the pickup took me another ten miles. Then I was walking to the entrance ramp, and the second car coming was a blue Boise city taxicab. The driver was a young woman, and she pulled over. She normally works nights, but had given a neighbor a lift and didn't mind taking a drive. I said I was going about five miles past town, to route 21, then thirty miles up the mountains, to Rosalie Sorrels's house, down a dirt road by a creek. She said she had nothing else to do, so drove me to Rosalie's door. Rosalie saw me coming up in a cab, and assumed I had chickened out and abandoned the hitching scheme, but I introduced her to Susana, and we all sat down and had some rum and ginger ale.

From Idaho, it was a straight shot down route thirty and over 80 to Boulder with a Mexican truckdriver. I did my reading at the Boulder Bookstore, then headed east on I-76. This whole trip was bedeviled by the fact that I had to keep to my reading and interview schedule, so I was feeling pressured. I left Denver Wednesday morning, and had to be in Iowa City by Thursday night. If I had to do that again, I'd cut straight up to I-80, and try to catch a through truck from Cheyenne into Iowa. As it was, I had short ride after short ride from Denver up to Sterling. Even had to backtrack once, when a nice driver took me ten miles past his destination to the truck stop in Brush, only to find that there was a women's prison there and big signs warning drivers not to pick up hitchhikers. So back we went to his original destination, where I quickly got a ride to Sterling. Unfortunately, Sterling had not one but three prisons...

I stood for four hours on the entrance ramp, occasionally taking a break to query the few trucks on the nearby rest area. No luck, and after a while I hatched the scheme of calling the local newspaper, the Journal-Advocate, and offering to give them an entertaining story ("Hitchhiking author stranded in Sterling") in return for a ride up to the Flying J in Julesburg. The editor got interested, but when the reporter arrived he explained that he didn't have time to give me a lift. I did the interview anyway, then checked out the gas station across the street, which also functions as a bus station. I really needed to get to Iowa, and figured that if I could persuade a bus driver to drop me off at Julesberg, though it wasn't a scheduled stop, I could pick up a truck there and ride through the night. It turned out that the only eastbound bus would leave at 8:30, and it was already 7:00, so I figured I'd hitch one more hour, and if no ride came I'd pay my way for fifty miles. As so often happens, I waited another 45 minutes, and just when I was thinking of packing it in, a truck pulled over and took me through to North Platte, Nebraska.

I spent the night in a motel--my publisher was paying expenses--and the next morning walked a mile down to the Flying J. My first ride was a 27-year-old truck driver with his Philipina wife (she was studying, but didn't yet have her license), who treated me to the full-scale 9-11 conspiracy rant. Not only that, he provided me with a DVD proving not only that the Bush administration was behind the whole thing, but that the planes were switched for drones and the towers were pre-wired with explosives....... Be that as it may, he got me past Grand Island to another truck stop, where I picked up a Peruvian trucker with a huge combine harvester on a flatbed. He had been driving for less than a year--before that, he was an engineer for John Deere, but had gotten divorced and decided he'd like to see the country. He said he never listened to the radio, because he loved just hearing the engine turn. He dropped me at a truck stop in Council Bluffs, exit 3, just over the border into Iowa. That seemed like a good idea, since I would have the truckstop traffic and if no one there wanted to take me, I could always go up on the interstate (god bless Iowa).

Only, no one at the truckstop was interested, and I was in the middle of a commercial strip, with overwhelmingly local traffic. The smart thing would have been to stay there until a trucker turned up who'd carry me, but I had just hanging around a parking lot in town, so I decided to walk up to the next exit and see if it was better. It wasn't. Nor was the next. Another four miles and I'd be at the last exit, catching the traffic heading out of town, and I'd already walked five. So on I trod, with my left thumb out just in case anyone cared to take pity on me. I've almost never had any luck that way, but three miles along a car pulled over. A grizzled old biker, recently tatooed on both arms to cover the track marks from his druggy days. He had a cooler of Budweiser, and was knocking one back, but seemed to be driving fine, so I sat back and had a beer--I figured it was for my own good, since any beer I didn't drink, he would. He has a farm outside Des Moines, and said he'd be happy to take me through town and drop me at the rest area on the east side, after a detour to show me the capitol dome and point out the stretches of highway he'd helped to build. He kept drinking the whole way, but it didn't seem to affect his driving, and I thoroughly enjoyed the conversation, which covered everything from favorite drugs to his affection for his teenage daughter--he said that was the only thing keeping him from packing it all in and hitting the road himself.

At the rest stop, I quickly picked up a truck. Actually, he turned me down because of company regulations, but he seemed so sympathetic about it that I asked if there were any scales before Iowa City (knowing that they weren't). He shook his head, but when he came out of the men's room he waved me over and took me on through.

Friday morning I borrowed a car and went up to Cedar Rapids, where the local Fox TV station broadcast an interview and two song segments live from the side of the highway. (I sang Townes Van Zandt's "White Freightliner Blues" and Big Bill Broonzy's "Key to the Highway.") My reading was that night, at Prairie Lights bookstore, and I stuck around Saturday, figuring that Chicago was so close that it would be easy even on a Sunday....

The hitch to Chicago was kind of a disaster, amusing in restrospect but tense at the time because I had an interview scheduled that evening. My friend in Iowa City overruled my suggestion that he drop me at the rest area just west of town (wrong way, but presumably a good place to catch a through ride) and instead took me to an exit east of town where he remembered seeing a full truck stop. As it turned out, it was not a truck stop but a trailer lot, and I was stuck there for three hours before I decided to get the hell out. I went up to the gas station, and just asked drivers if they could take me twenty miles in either direction. Finally hit someone who let me ride in the back of his pickup, back to the rest area I'd originally wanted, twenty miles back, west of where I'd started... But it almost immediately provided a hog carrier headed for Kentucky, who dropped me at a rest area outside Davenport.

Very neat, except the rest area attendant forbade me to talk to anyone, and said that if I didn't get a ride in two hours just sitting there quietly, "You got to start walking." I probably should have just started walking right then, but the weather was lovely, so instead I sat outside the toilets, playing guitar next to a sign saying "Hitchhiking author needs ride to CHICAGO," with my book propped up next to it. After about ten minutes, a woman came over and said, "Is that you? I heard you on the radio." She was headed back to Iowa City, but agreed to take me over to the Illinois Welcome Center--only that turned out to be off the highway, and forbidden to trucks, so we backtracked yet again, and she dropped me at a big truck stop west of Davenport...

I spent an hour there, watching an air show and asking truckers for a lift, before getting a guy in a big van, on his way to Rockford. He is a professional photo-finish photographer for bicycle races, and chatted about racing and his old hippie days, then took me past his exit to the service area outside DeKalb. It was getting to be evening, so I hung out by the restaurant, politely approaching drivers--private cars, since truckers were unlikely to be going into downtown Chicago on a Sunday evening. It was probably another hour, but I found a retired college professor who not only drove me into the loop, but came to my reading at 57th Street Books the next evening.

Chicago to Cleveland was pretty straightforward. I was staying in Gary, so got a lift out to the first service area on the toll road, and it was two trucks to the service area right before the I-80/I-90 split. The second driver was a musician as well, and asked me to play several songs in the cab, then when we got to the service area he got out an electric keyboard that was leaning up behind his bed and we jammed on a blues.

Again, I figured I'd try for a private car to get into town, so stood outside the restaurant, playing guitar and asking people as they walked out. Aside from a ten minute break when a cop car pulled in--you never know--I stayed on the job for about another hour, then a woman came out and offered me a dollar. I hadn't even asked her for a ride, and she thought I was just busking. I thanked her and declined, and a few minutes later her husband came over from the parking lot and said that they weren't going to Cleveland, but would give me a ride in anyway. He played harmonica, and they were both truck drivers, though today they were just driving a car to visit their daughter.

I did a reading at Mac's Backs in Cleveland Heights, and had arranged for the store owner to take me out to the first rest area early the next morning, but... I got a call that afternoon from the New York Daily News, saying that they wanted to do an interview and send a photographer to take my picture out on the highway. I told them to have him call me, and when he did I asked if he could give me a lift out, since he'd have to be there anyway and that would spare the store owner from getting up at 5:30 a.m. (Normally, I wouldn't bother to be out that early, but the weather report said rain, and I had 640 miles to go and wanted to make it that day.) He was thoroughly happy with that idea, so we met up in the morning and he took me out there and did the session, then I shortly got a truck going another 30 miles to a Flying J. He was a musician as well, and played me a CD he was working on with his sons. It was rock, mostly love songs, but also one about trucking.

And that was about it. At the Flying J, the second truck to come down the ramp stopped and gave me a lift. He had seen me back at the rest stop, and heard people talking on the CB about how someone was shooting photos of me. And he was going all the way to Worcester. His only caveat was that I had to put up with him smoking pot--not a problem, as it turned out; he only took a couple of hits every five hours or so. There was one kind of tense moment, when we got pulled over for inspection. There was a national 72-hour truck inspection happening, and we were pulled off west of Elmira. I had to hide back in the bed, as usual, while they put the truck through a one-hour inspection, testing lights, breaks, etc., then doing all the paperwork. I was having bad dreams of getting thrown off the truck, especially since my driver had opted out of taking I-90, so we were in rural New York, off the main road to Boston, and at a rest area where no trucker could pick me up...but we passed, I wasn't found, and ten hours later my driver dropped me in Lexington, having decided he might as wel go on through to I-95 and put me in town...

And there it was, one more cross-country trip.