Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach
As I mentioned in my last post, I’d planned to hitchhike for a couple days. My plan was to hitch up to Grant’s Pass, Oregon to go to the bachelor party for a good friend. This is the guy who was instrumental in my getting a job a couple years ago as a sport salmon fishing guide on the Kenai River. He’s maybe thirty or thirty-five, marrying a woman he met in high school, first marriage for both. Besides, in all my life I’d never been to a bachelor party.
I decided to hitchhike because my wife and daughter would be coming to the wedding, and I didn’t want to take two cars. At least that’s what I said. Really, I wanted to be on the road again. I’ve hitchhiked up and down this coast from San Diego to Seattle, I love the open highway.
People’s reactions were a bit of a surprise to me. Not one person said “Man, that sounds like a great trip.” Instead, “Really?” was the most common response, with a tone suggesting I’d departed my senses. “Take your pepper spray” or other advice to protect myself and be careful came in second. Nobody seemed to think it was a sane plan in the slightest. No one thought it would be fun. They all were concerned for my safety.
But I’ve hitchhiked thousands and thousands of miles, including coast to coast and Canada to Mexico, and I’ve never once felt physically threatened or even been scared when I was hitchhiking. Hundreds and hundreds of rides without incident or fear for my safety.
It reminded me, though, of the ways that we keep ourselves from adventures. Sure, something could happen on my next ride, past performance is no guarantee of future success. But I refuse to let the fear of that kind of outcome rule my life, it’s a long-standing matter of principle with me.
So early on Wednesday, my wife dropped me off on Highway 1, and I started hitching north. I needed to be in Grants Pass by 5 PM the next day. It’s about 460 miles to get there (750km). I had decided to take the Coast Highway rather than Highway 101 because none of it is freeway, you can’t hitch on the freeway, and I hate hitchhiking at the freeway on-ramps. Plus I fished commercially for many years along the coast and I love to see it again. But most of all … it is stunningly beautiful, while Highway 101 is nowhere near as spectacular. I went for the beauty and for the ocean. Here’s my gear at my takeoff point.
I didn’t have to wait too long for the first ride, maybe 45 minutes. It was a short ride, about four miles into Bodega Bay. But I was really glad to get the ride, because I’d forgotten one crucial item—sunscreen. I was already frying.
There’s an art to hitchhiking, and I’m a lifelong student of that art. First, the sign is crucial. The best signage in my history was when I’d just gotten out of high school. Me and a friend wanted to get to Santa Cruz. I stood in front with a big sign saying “SANTA CRUZ OR BUST”. My buddy stood just a bit further down the road with a sign saying “WE’LL TAKE EITHER”.
In any case, I had a great sign for this trip. On one side it said “OREGON WEDDING”. But I knew once I got to Oregon that wouldn’t mean much, so the other side of the sign said “GRANTS PASS WEDDING”. It was made of thick cardboard, and it was specially cut so it folded up and went into the pocket on my guitar case. It was held up by my little wheelie bag, which is hidden behind and holding up the sign in the picture. So I didn’t have to hold it or keep it from flopping in the wind.
Next, the guitar. A man carrying a guitar is a whole lot more likely to get picked up. Plus I wanted to play guitar with the groom, although that never came to pass, he was a little busy. In any case, the guitar was an indispensable prop, and it’s great playing it to ward off boredom while hitching. I have a guitar case with backpack straps, so it’s easy to carry.
Next, the clothes. You need to look clean-cut, shaved, and showered. You don’t have to be any of those things, but it is essential that you look the part, and it’s easier if you really are all of those.
Next, luggage. Smaller is better, especially with the current crop of small cars. My little wheelie bag was small enough to hide behind my sign.
Next, the “NO”s. No sunglasses, people can’t see your eyes. No floppy hats, same reason. No shorts, no sandals, no weird attire. No walking stick, it looks like a weapon.
Finally, location, location, location. You can stand all day in the wrong spot. Level ground is best. The advantage is psychological. If it’s on a downhill, people don’t want to stop ’cause they’re rolling downhill, and if it’s uphill, they want to keep going to make it to the top. Also, sight lines are critical. The drivers need to be able to see you in time to judge you and make a decision. So you can’t be too close to a bend. But on the other hand, it’s a Goldilocks deal—too short a sight line is bad, but if they have too long to make the decision, they may slow down and then change their minds and speed up again. You also need an open place for them to pull off the road safely. Picking your spot is critical, and when I find a good one, I don’t leave.
I found a decent spot across the road from the little store where I got the sunscreen. But it wasn’t the best, and so after an hour with no luck I walked a quarter-mile to where I knew the situation was more favorable. After about a half hour, I caught a ride with a middle-aged man going to work. He took me about 25 miles, to just past Fort Ross. He was taciturn, unusual for someone picking up a hitchhiker. I drew him out as best I could.
He dropped me off north of Fort Ross. The location was abysmal, no sight lines where the turnout was. So I started to walk. After walking a quarter-hour, I found an OK place, but the turnout was small and not very visible. I hitched a bit, then started walking again. I found a slightly better place for the turnout, but it was close to a corner, not enough time for the drivers to make up their minds. I again tried for a bit with no luck, and set out walking again. I walked about a mile, and was passing through a very bad spot for walking, a twisty section with almost no room on the verge to get off the road. A car pulled up beside me and stopped. It was the man who had given me the last ride. I jumped in as quickly as I could, it was a blind corner and he took a chance to pick me up.
I rode with him to the town of Gualala, about 25 miles. He had gotten injured on the job the previous week, and now he had to go to the doctor. We had a bit more time to talk, and besides we were now old friends twice met. He sounded a number of themes that I was to hear repeated throughout the trip.
One was a lack of belief that the climate was going to harm us. When I said that the climate was warming, and had been for centuries, that was no surprise to most of the people who picked me up. When I said that I thought people could and did affect the climate by cutting down forests, people agreed. When I said that black carbon soot could warm the northern regions by melting snow and ice, people said that seemed reasonable. When I said that a slight warming wouldn’t be a problem, not one person demurred. And when I said that CO2 level wasn’t what controlled the temperature of the earth, the general response was on the lines of “Yeah, I didn’t think so.”
Now, this is the attitude that is generally associated with Republicans. Me, I’m a climate heretic and an independent who has always voted against the Republican candidate, which should not be mistaken for voting for the Democratic candidate. My grandmother and my mother raised me, and both of them were strong FDR style Democrats. A joke current in the family when I was younger was about the guy hitchhiking in the Great Depression times. He sticks out his thumb, and a big Cadillac pulls over. The driver says “Son, are you a Republican or a Democrat”. “I’m a Democrat like my mom and my grandma, and proud of it” comes the reply, and the car pulls away without him.
After a bit, another car pulls over, and the driver says, “Son, what’s your political persuasion”. “Well, I’m pretty sure I’m a Democrat, although lately that hasn’t been panning out so well.” The driver snorts, and again the car drives away. The guy starts hitchhiking again.
When the third car pulls over, he can’t believe his eyes. It’s a beautiful woman in a red dress, driving a Lincoln convertible. “My good man,” she says, “which political party do you favor?”
Being a typical victim of testosterone poisoning, the answer is foreordained. He swallows his pride and says “Ma’am, I do believe I just became a Republican.” “Hop in”, she says. “We’ll go for a ride.”
He can’t help looking at her, she’s gorgeous. The wind is tossing her hair as she drives along, and she doesn’t seem to notice that it’s blowing her dress higher and higher up her legs. He can’t stop himself from looking and imagining, staring … suddenly, he shakes his head as if awakening from a dream, and shouts “Stop the car! Stop the car!”.
“What’s the matter?”, the woman asks.
“I’ve only been a Republican for ten minutes”, he replies, “and already I want to screw somebody.”
Now, there’s a point to my telling this story. Do you know how I can tell that that’s a joke, and not really something that might have actually happened?
Because Republicans don’t pick up hitchhikers.
Oh, back in the day, the odd Republican farmer or fishermen or carpenter might pick up a hitchhiker. But by and large, you know who has picked me up my entire life?
Poor people. Perhaps not poor right now, but people who have been poor. People who know what it is to sleep rough. And by and large, these days those are Democrats and not Republicans.
Here’s what the folks who picked me up had in common.
1. They all supported the Occupy Wall Street protests. I didn’t push to see why, I’m a guest in their car. The common thread expressed was anger that the people who brought the economy down had gone unpunished.
2. Curiously, only one person thought climate change was even a slightly important issue. The general sense about the question was “meh” or “whatever”.
3. Not a Republican in the bunch.
4. They all were very disappointed by Obama. Different reasons were given, but not one person was happy with his performance.
5. Like me, they all either were or had been dirt poor in their lives.
But I’m getting ahead of my story. The day was clear, with a few of those high hooked clouds that scientists call “cirrus spissatus” and fishermen call “mares tails”, and the sea is beautiful in Gualala, so I filled my time by feasting my eyes on the world. After a while, two surfers picked me up, headed up to Point Arena. I’m a surfer myself, so that works. One was interested in sharks, so I entertained him with tales of various friends’ encounters with sharks. The surfers didn’t care about the economy, Wall Street, Main Street, or any street that didn’t lead to the beach. They thought that the earth would solve the climate problem.
There seems to be some unwritten rule in hitchhiking that nobody is going to the far side of town. You always seem to get dropped off on this side of town, and you have to walk to the far side. Point Arena was no different, the surfers dropped me at the south end. However, a most curious succession of events took place there. I was walking through town when a guy came up smoking a cigarette and started talking to me. This is what hitchhiking is about for me, taking the pulse of the people and the place, meeting new people, listening to their stories.
So we talked for a few minutes, about this and that. Suddenly, he says “Do you smoke dope?”
Hmmm … how to answer. What are his motives? Hmmm. My brain is racing, I’m sure I’ve got the deer in the headlights look.
So I figure I’ll stick to the truth, in a pinch I’ve found that works best. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, in the past I have indeed partaken of a wide variety of psychoactive substances. So I confessed as much to him. However, for the obvious reason I did not say that I hadn’t inhaled.
“Well, did you leave home with any weed? You really should have some when you’re on the road.”, he said. He seemed concerned.
This man wants to sell me something, I thought. I expected his next words to be “Herb, don’t leave home without it.” I admitted to him that somehow, that oh-so-essential item had slipped my mind when I was preparing for the trip, leaving me woefully and totally unprepared for the harsh crush of drug-free reality. Then I waited for his sales pitch, to see how this would all play out.
“Man, you should have some with you. My friend gave me these six baggies when I was leaving the house this morning. Here, let me lay one on you,” he says. He pulls out six baggies, picks one out, and stuffs it in my coat pocket.
I see. He’s not a salesman. He’s my new friend. He’s just given me a bag of weed. In downtown Point Arena. On the sidewalk of the main street, which is Highway 1. In broad daylight. I belatedly notice that the cigarette he’s smoking is hand-rolled …
But as Bokonon says, “Peculiar travel suggestions are just dancing lessons from God,” and he should know. So I thanked my new friend for his dancing lesson, and I walked on down to the far end of town, wondering just how on earth this dance was going to play out. Up on the hill at the top of town, I found a perfect location for hitchhiking, the dream location. Here’s a picture:
The traffic cone was already there, we have a post to highlight my guitar case, plenty of space to stop, just the right distance the other way for people to look me over, it was great. Plus in California it’s illegal to hitchhike on the pavement, and there was a legal sidewalk there to stand on … with a baggie of dope in my pocket …
I stood there for maybe an hour. It was getting late. Finally, a car with a couple of guys in their 20’s stopped. Unfortunately, they were only going about 15 minutes outside of town, and night was not too far off. I said I wanted to stay in Point Arena if I couldn’t get to another town, I didn’t want to sleep rough. “C’mon,” one guy said, “hop in, I want to hear you play guitar.”
“Can’t do it,” I said. “But actually,” I told them, “I think that the real reason you pulled over was not so that you could give me a ride. It was so that I could give you this.” I pulled the baggie out of my pocket and handed it to the passenger. He didn’t immediately recognize it. When he did, he looked up at me, and then back down at the baggie, and up at me, and back down again. I could see the gears stripping in his brain. They’d pulled over to give a ride to some random white guy in his sixties, and the guy has just handed him a bag full of dope, and thanked them for their kind offer of a ride. “You sure?” he said.
“Yeah, I’m sure”, I said.
“My pleasure”, I said, and he didn’t likely realize what a great pleasure it was indeed to be rid of it, gone to a happy home. They drove off all smiles. I stuck out my thumb, feeling much lighter.
It took a while to get a ride at Point Arena. As happened for the whole trip, people loved the plot of my story. They loved the guy hitching to the wedding. They loved the guitar. They thought the sign was great. They just didn’t stop. Say what?
Finally a charming middle-aged woman pulled over. She was going to the town of Manchester, if a single store and a post office can be called a town. It’s rare to be picked up by a woman, so I hopped in, even though I knew it meant I might spend a real cold night.
She worked at whatever jobs came down the pike, she said, supporting her three sons. The local economy was moribund except for the people legally growing marijuana under California’s medical marijuana act. Fishing and logging were both dead before the current depression, and now tourism is dead as well. She didn’t grow herself, her friends made $20 per hour “trimming the buds” as she called it, clipping off all of the leaves. She cleaned houses. She did landscaping. She scraped by. She said people were unhappy with Obama because he was breaking his word and arresting legal marijuana growers. Go figure.
When I told her what had happened in Point Arena, she cracked up. “Oh, that’s just P.A., it’s always like that.” Always like what, I thought? What else is “like” what just happened to me?
When we got out to Manchester, she said she lived in the KOA, the Kampgrounds of America chain of camping sites … with her three sons, 15, 13, and 12. I said my mom had four sons and I didn’t realize until I grew up what toil and heartache that meant. I thanked her for the kind offer, and said I was going to be on the road for as long as it took.
It took a while. The sun was just setting when I got my final ride of the day. The driver was a fascinating guy. He’d been a Peace Corps Volunteer in Senegal in the nineties. Well, in the eighties I’d done an in-country inspection and assessment of a number of Peace Corps projects in Senegal, so that worked. We laughed about living by the salt flats at Kaolack. He talked about how he’d started a garden project supplying vegetables to the local hotels. I told him I’d assessed a similar project in Papua New Guinea, and we discussed the difficulty of making a project succeed in the third world.
He wasn’t surprised by my views on climate. “The climate has always changed”, he said. He didn’t think we had much to do with it. He drove me all the way to Fort Bragg.
I spent the night in a motel. In the morning, I had a choice.
Highway 1 goes along the coast then inland (blue line) from Fort Bragg (A) and connects to Highway 101. There’s also Highway 20 from Fort Bragg which connects to Highway 101 in Willits. There’s a bus to Willits in the morning at 7:30, and there’s very little traffic on Highway 1 north of Fort Bragg. I chose the bus, $3.75, and rolled into Willits early. Of course, the bus goes to the south end of town, and that town is a long sucker. I walked forever, guitar on my back, towing my wheelie bag behind me.
And then I waited. And waited. Lots more traffic than on Highway 1, that’s the good part. Nobody stopping, that’s the bad part. Finally, a woman stopped without me seeing her, and then honked her horn. I gathered up my junk and walked to her car. She was a lawyer who had been working on social causes of various kinds her whole life. It turned out that both she and I had been arrested in the same peaceful sit-in at the Oakland Induction Center in 1967, so that worked. I was convicted of disturbing the peace, although we called it disturbing the war. A lifelong Democrat, she was upset with Obama for his lack of action against what she saw in very 1960’s terms as the pluted bloatocrats plundering the public purse, or something like that. Whatever it was, she was very against it and she felt Obama hadn’t done a thing about it.
Of all the rides I got, she was the only one who thought that climate might cause problems in the future. She admitted that she wasn’t sure what those problems might be. But it didn’t seem to be much of an issue to her. She was passionate about the Native American tribes she represented. She wasn’t passionate about climate.
She dropped me off in Laytonville. And there I stood. And stood. And stood.
I was reminded during this time of what is often the most difficult part of hitchhiking. For me the hardest part is to not blame the people who don’t pick me up, to wish them well instead. Here’s the problem. As the person is driving by, you turn and watch them, and suppose you think “Yer a heartless wanker to pass me by like that” or the like. When you turn back to face the next car, that anger and bitterness is still in your face, and people can see that from afar.
One of the most important parts of hitchhiking is looking people in the eye. You want them to see you as a real person, not as a generic hitchhiker. You want them to know you are honest, that you can honestly look a man or woman in the eye. One of the drivers said to me “I never pick up someone looking at the ground.”
And if when you turn to look the next driver in the eye, your face is full of frustration and anger, the driver will say “That guy looks angry”, which is a double-plus ungood thing for a hitchhiker. People are afraid of angry men, and with good reason.
So my practice is to look the driver in the face as they approach. If they turn me down, I want them to do it to my face. And then when I see that they have chosen not to pick me up, I pull in my thumb and I give them a nice wave and a big smile, and I truly wish them well. Nor is it a sham or a pretence, I don’t want anything bad to happen to those folks, and I am truly at ease with their decision not to pick me up.
It is a sort of meditative practice for me, scoping out the people and wishing them all the best regardless. Often I can tell early that they’re not going to pick me up, and they seem genuinely surprised when I just wave and smile. Some people seem unable to look at me. Some older women seemed to take it almost as a personal affront, that a man of my age and mode of dress would stoop to hitchhiking. Some women just cracked up laughing at my sign and my scene, and pointed me out to the other people in the cars. But they all passed me … and I wished them all good speed.
Finally, I thought “Dang … I may not make it”. I can divide as well as the next man. From Laytonville it’s about five hours run to Grant’s Pass. It was ten AM. The bachelor party was at five PM. Closer and closer, tick tick tick, another hour went by … and then, amazingly, an 18-wheeler truck stopped and the guy said “I don’t know if we can fit all your gear, I don’t have a sleeper. Where are you going?”
“Grants Pass”, I said. “I’m going right through there”, he said. “I’ll carry my gear on my lap, I’ll fit it in.”
The trucker was great. Most truckers these days won’t pick you up. About my age, he had a most curious history. Every business he’d ever worked for had folded. He’d run away from home at 14 because his stepfather beat him, and hitchhiked all around the US. He’d worked for a whole string of sawmills on the West Coast, moving from one to another as each one went under. Then he got into trucking, and every concern he’d worked for had gone under. He said he could read the writing on the wall, he was hauling construction materials, and the construction industry in California is in the dumper … his company is in trouble, they’ve let most workers go. He was only still employed because like me, he’s a generalist. There’s not enough work for a truck driver, but for a truck driver who can work in the shop and can drive forklift around the yard there’s just enough work.
But he’s happy as a clam. He’d built a shovel-head suicide-clutch Harley Davidson from parts. That’s a bike I rode a bit in my youth, I knew that bitch of a ride, so that worked. We talked jobs, and biking, and women. He’s been in hiding from his ex, who went nuts when he wanted a divorce. She trashed the whole house, scratched up her face, and then claimed he tried to rape her. He finally was able to prove that he wasn’t even in town when it happened, but by the time he could come up with the proof he’d already been ordered to go to anger management classes. Then she started stalking the classes. The cops warned him she was after him, so he’d finished the classes and moved to another town to escape her. But he had a new girlfriend, and she had her own motorcycle. He said he was actually even thinking of adding a back seat to his Harley for her. I said if he was willing to make that sacrifice for her, she must be a fine woman indeed.
He told me about hitchhiking on the freeway in Illinois as a kid, and being ordered off the freeway by a cop. The cop wouldn’t give him a ride, just made him walk a mile through waist deep snow … the stories rolled back and forth as the miles rolled by. He was upset with Obama just because he didn’t seem to the driver to be getting things done. He didn’t believe in man-made climate change, seemed he thought God wouldn’t allow man to be that powerful.
So at forty minutes before five o’clock, he dropped me off on the side of the highway in Grant’s Pass. I almost forgot my sign in his truck, I jumped up and beat on the door as he was leaving. He handed it to me with a knowing look, and said “Here’s yer sign …” I cracked up and said I knew that song, and I did, too. He was lots of fun to ride with, he was what hitchhiking is all about.
Of course, I wasn’t quite there yet. I still had three point six miles (5.8 km) to go to the bachelor party according to my phone GPS. So I started walking. I figured I’d just about get there. I had a feeling that the groom or some of my friends would be coming along the road, so I turned around when I could, but mostly I just walked, pulling my little bag and carrying my guitar.
I arrived at what I thought was the address. A lady was driving out. I walked towards her car to ask if I had the right place. She seemed frightened, put up her hand to stop me, and backed up her driveway. Egads … am I that scary? I flatter myself that I’m five foot eleven tall (180 cm), and I weigh maybe a buck sixty (72 kg) soaking wet, hardly an imposing figure. Maybe she was just having a bad hair day. Maybe I’m uglier than I think, perhaps my habit of avoiding mirrors has a downside, I didn’t know what scared her.
But the next house proved to be the one. I walked into the party at about ten minutes after five. I hadn’t told anyone I was coming, and a couple of them had passed me while I was walking from town to the party, and as a result much hilarity ensued. Everyone was smoking some kind of big panatella cigars, I don’t know if they were Cuban, but they gave me one and said they were fifty dollars a box or something. It was a very easy-smoking cigar.
Or at least that’s what they told me, I can’t say because I didn’t inhale … they said the lady next door was a Deputy Sheriff. I asked them to explain the strange visitor next time they spoke to her, I felt bad about scaring her.
Anyhow, that’s where I’ve been. The bachelor party, well, that’s a whole other story that ends up with the best man’s best friend, who is 80 years old, getting bitten by a camel. And the wedding was outrageous, outdoors in the sunshine right down by the Rogue River, a portentous place for a fisherman and his lady-love. The groom’s party arrived in a boat with the groom at the oars. The party included his grandfather (who was his best man), his father, two sisters, a brother, and the couple’s two-year old son. Grandfather for your best man, father, and son at your wedding, that’s something special for me to see. I got to dance with my 19-year-old daughter, that was special too, life doesn’t get much better.
Today we drove back. I’m not sure what my conclusions are from my trip. I went in part to see what’s going on out there. I found that there are a lot of frightened people in America these days. It’s much harder to hitchhike than it has ever been, people are more afraid of strangers, my theory is they watch too many cop shows.
But they’re also afraid on a deeper level, afraid for their jobs, afraid that Congress has sold out to the lobbyists, afraid that money talks and they don’t have much, afraid that their town or county will go bankrupt paying obscene pensions, afraid that their leaders have failed them and that the American dream is dying and they don’t know why. They don’t care much about what the climate will do by 2050. They are concerned with getting through the month.
I fear I have no magic plan to fix that. All I can do is continue my practice, to look each passing man or woman in the face, to hope they breast the tide of their fears and go venturing and adventuring in this marvelous, mysterious world, and to wish them well on their journey wherever their dancing lessons might take them.
My regards to everyone, we now return you to your regularly scheduled programming.
… from Willis’s upcoming autobiography, entitled “Retire Early … and Often” …