A Matter of Patience
Date: April 26th-May-27th, 2010
My friend Leland and I are standing by an onramp near Valencia, CA, drowning in a suburban sea of gas stations and fast food. We’ve been here nine hours and counting. We were dropped off around 10:30 that morning by a woman that owned a wood-cutting business in Frazier Park, just north of LA. I’m still breaking in my hitchhiking feet, and today has been a delicate and precise killer of any and all romanticism. Cars roll by, understandably apathetic to the plight of two bearded men stumbling about in the ragweed mixed with crushed Starbucks cups, diesel exhaust, and a healthy dose of despair. I’m holding a greasy sign that reads: “PCT Hikers! San Diego or past L.A.” Seems reasonable to us.
Leland and I had finished up with school a month earlier. Leland was on his way to hike the whole Pacific Crest Trail, stretching 2,650 miles from Mexico to Canada. I was joining him for the first 200 miles of the trail before returning home to Oregon. We were both excited, I’d been planning for weeks (Leland for months) and it was finally happening. We were giddy with freedom. But right now, with the heat and the fumes and a pounding headache, freedom is overrated.
We tread water in the octane ocean until nightfall before throwing up our hands in defeat. We don’t have the luxury of extra time. I sheepishly call a friend of mine who lives in LA. She picks us up, ferries us through the void, and drops us off in San Clemente. For a hitchhiker, you could consider it cheating. But hey, we’ve got places to be.
I learned that effective hitchhiking isn't as simple as walking to a highway and pitching one’s thumb into the air. I don’t mean to sound like an avid hitcher (I’m far from it), but I did experience a comprehensive beginner’s course. And it showed me California’s whole body; from curvy, organic top to voluptuous, spray-tanned bottom.
The primary lesson about hitching is to understand that drivers are making a split-second decision to pick you up based on several factors that one must address*. In doing so, one favorably affects the psyche of Driver X to step on the brake pedal and say “yeah, why not?”
*That said, there are several environmental and social conditions outside your control that can help or hinder your cause, depending on where you are. Examples include:
- the proximity of a college
- inclement weather
- local population size
- people generally having a good/bad day
- number of Subaru owners in the area.
1) Appearance. Obviously this aspect is crucial. Clothing is important, yes, but the manner in which you stand and present yourself is equally vital. Keep a straight back but be relaxed, maybe toss out a peace sign once in awhile. Sunglasses are a risk - people need to be able to see those windows to the soul. Also avoid all-dark clothing and mysterious hats. No large bladed weapons should be visible (or even with you, for that matter). An ice pick slung over the shoulder has never worked.
2) Location, location, location. You can be the friendliest-looking person in the world but if a car has no time to see you or has little room to pull over, forget about it. Drivers need a couple of seconds to take you in and consider things. Preferably, you can find a spot near a stop sign or curve that forces the car to slow down. This is why the top of onramps are the most successful places (plus, everyone’s got to pass through one to start long drives). Be advised that standing on the shoulder of Interstate highways is not only a bit dangerous, but illegal in many states. Police officers will stop and tell you to take a hike.
3) Number of your party. The hitchhiking party itself is a component often overlooked. Try to hitchhike with a member of the opposite sex if you can. People go nuts for couples on an adventure. On this particular trip, it was two dudes, which I’m sure slimmed the percentage of success. But in the end, we were pleasantly surprised by how openly folks picked us up anyway. The PCT hiker angle probably helped, but I’m sure it was just our rugged Mad Max vibe.
4) Mindset. Stay positive. The hazy cocktail of car fumes, weird looks, boredom, and aching legs makes for a swift mental downfall. This can cause one to forget the reason they set off for adventure in the first place. When this headspace sets in, an aura of negativity hangs over you like a rain cloud.
Rather, use this time to meditate on the human condition, write a song in your head, or go to your mental happy place and stay there. The pessimism poison will eat you from the inside unless you muster the strength to overcome. Do what you must. Personally, I practice on my harmonica while I wait. Leland practices his freestyle rapping, which becomes increasingly abstract as time goes on.
Right off the top, I'll address my privilege as a male. I don’t have as many safety concerns as women might have, and I'm sure this breeds ignorance when it comes to hitchhiking. I will say I’ve met several badass women that are seasoned hitchhikers. And generally, they’re smarter than guys about all this stuff. Okay, moving on.
One thing you can’t change is the overarching social perception of hitchhiking, which is perpetuated by fear and suspicion. Thousands of successful hitching stories happen every year but are never heard about. And yet, every so often, a hitchhiking nightmare is reported and thrown about by the media. I think of it like airplane crashes. But to believe hitchhiking is totally reckless is to believe it all died with the sixties. It certainly wasn’t any safer then, especially since everyone wasn’t carrying iPhones that allowed them to make emergency calls and broadcast their location. I’m not saying it’s safer now; it’s just that people imagine serial killers behind every wheel when you’re hitching. I’d wager that most people that express this sentiment have rarely, if ever, hitchhiked themselves. Like anything else, don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.
That said, it’s important to use common sense, be prepared, and trust your gut above all else. If you don’t feel you could adequately defend yourself, drive your own car for this trip. If having a small knife attached to your belt makes you comfortable, do it. If someone pulls over but you get a bad vibe, you don’t have to take that ride. Even if they’re offended you rejected their goodwill, don’t worry. They’ll drive out of your life forever in a few seconds.
The question is: what’s more dangerous; to be the hitchhiker or to pick one up? Given the lack of vehicle control most are inclined to say being the hitchhiker, but the only way to find out is try it. Cool people exist and they will pick you up. Sure, you may have to withstand poor music tastes, but these people all have something in common: a dedication to helping out your fellow human. Remember: no matter where you are, you will get picked up eventually, guaranteed. It’s just a matter of patience.
Our trip includes moments that are sketchy, enlightening, heart breaking, terrifying, exhilarating, inspiring, and downright liberating. Below is a profile several characters I encountered throughout California. Like Leland and I, you may notice a remarkable pattern in the people that picked us up.
- Name: Don’t remember. Maybe Kyle?
- Pick-up Location: near Sacramento, CA
- Vehicle: Green Ford Explorer
I notice broken glass all over one of the backseats. Nothing else is in the car. Leland rides shotgun and I settle amongst the sharp and pointy shards. The driver is about our age and tells us he’s been partying at Lake Shasta all weekend. On the last night he drunkenly locked himself out of the car by accident and, at the urging of his belligerent comrades, punched through the backseat window to solve the dilemma. His bandaged hand and damaged car are the extent of his worries, and he seems otherwise content and comfortable with life. Not much of a talker. Doesn’t really care about anything we are up to.
- Name: Eric
- Pick-up Location: Modesto, CA
- Vehicle: Silver Lexus SUV
A run-of-the-mill upper middle class insurance salesmen, Eric had just been canned from his job a few days earlier. After sixteen years with the same company he just gets dropped. His wife doesn’t work and he has no idea what to do. He gives off a vibe like Ed Norton in Fight Club or Kevin Spacey in American beauty, someone about to throw away his suburban cubicle life and start screaming for once. I’m pretty sure he hasn’t ever picked up hitchhikers before. Maybe this is his first foray into the unknown.
He’s a nice guy with a great taste in music. We listen to some Charlie Parker, Fela Kuti, and some psychedelic jazz I’m not familiar with. When we part ways he says he dearly wishes he could drop everything and come with us. We’re rooting for you Eric, wherever you are.
- Name: Jason
- Pick-up Location: San Clemente, CA
- Car: Black Dodge Pickup
Two minutes after picking us up, he turns to us and says: “So, have you two boys accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and savior?”
We endure the next straight hour of preaching from Jason, an ex-heroin addict who genuinely seems stoked on life, and finally land in San Diego, our destination for this portion of the journey. Jason buys us a pack of smokes and a pizza, then wishes us a good journey. He says he’ll pray we find Jesus up in the mountains. We tell him we’ll keep an eye out.
- Name: Stacey
- Pick-up Location: Santa Rosa, CA
- Vehicle: Maroon Toyota Corolla
Stacey has a car full of luggage and is barely able to squeeze us into her already tiny car, not to mention both of our bulging backpacks. She seems anxious but is immediately open and honest. We ask her if she’s moving or going on a trip. She tells us she’s fleeing from a domestic abuse situation she couldn’t handle anymore. Stacey pulls up the sleeve of her shirt to reveal blue bruises all over her arm and shoulder.
“I’d show you more, but taking my shirt off wouldn’t really be appropriate right now,” she says.
Leland and I can’t find the words to respond, but Stacey doesn’t really expect us to. She tells us to not worry about it, that she feels good about leaving. She’s intending to stay with a friend that will keep her safe. She’s the first driver who actually seems interested in our mission, and we chat for awhile about the PCT and hitchhiking. We only go a short distance with her, and when we’re dropped off, Stacey tells us to keep doing things that keep us happy and alive, to not corner ourselves into situations that can bring you down.
- Name: Dizzy Dean
- Pick-up Location: north of Windsor, CA
- Vehicle: Black Jeep Wrangler
Easily one of the highlights of the whole trip, Dizzy Dean is the hero that saved us from a long day of being hassled by cops all over the onramp. The location is terrible; it’s a small country community with a trickle of traffic. Earlier in the day, someone that’s way too nervous must’ve called the cops on us. Two squad cars come speeding over to us and an officer gets out, hand on his gun and doing that slow little walk towards us with his other hand up like a stop sign. He tells us to stay where we were and keep our hands where he could see them. His voice is way too intense, shouting at us like we were holding AK-47s. He quickly figures out we aren’t, reminds us to stay standing where it’s legal, and lets us be.
Every hour or so after that, a different cop would come by and tell us to move, sometimes back to a place we’d been told to leave already. What we were doing was totally legal; I just think they didn’t have much else to do. I like to imagine them talking on the radio amongst each other like “Hey Bill, you seen those hitchhikers yet by the onramp? Go tell them to move to the other side of the road. I’ll come by later and tell them to move back. Let’s see how long they can take it.”
We asked all of them to give us a ride a few miles up the road to a better spot, but they all declined. I guess we did smell pretty bad. Luckily, Dizzy Dean doesn’t give a shit.
The sun is about to set, we’ve been here all day, and our psyche is rattled. Leland and I are starting to turn on each other in frustration so we decide to call it a day and find a camping spot. This is a last-resort maneuver. Waking up in the same place you didn’t get a ride the day before is extremely demoralizing. Fresh landscapes are the mental fuel of hitchhiking.
We’re walking across the road towards the woods beyond when a black Jeep comes roaring around the corner. Leland throws his thumb up in a hail-mary attempt. The tires screech to a halt. No way.
“Hop in fellas!” we hear.
He introduces himself as Dizzy Dean. He mans the wheel of his black Wrangler, which has roll bars but no cover on despite dark rain clouds in the distance. Dean looks just like Uncle Kip from the movie Napoleon Dynamite, only a bit crazier. His eyes always seem to be darting around and an incomprehensible mumble constantly streams from his mouth. This is a man who has reached the “permastoned” stage of life. He guns the motor and takes off with a small “Yeew!”
Through some loud, windy conversation, we pick out that Dizzy Dean works on marijuana fields in Mendocino County, where he trims plants, prepares plots, gathers supplies, and makes deliveries. Weed is his life, he tells us, and he’s happy as a dog. He jumps from story to story without a breath in between and just guffaws every couple sentences or so though the incoherent speech. Every few minutes he reminds us he knows everything there is to know about weed. I totally believe him.
He drives like a bat outta hell, and there’s no seatbelts to speak of in this vehicle. I can’t recall if I saw license plates on this rig. A lumpy canvas bag rests in the back, but that’s it in an otherwise empty vehicle. I sit in the backseat, gripping the roll bars with white knuckles as Dizzy Dean swerves through cars, cruising far past the speed limit. Thumping, sweaty music comes from his speakers. It sounds like a trio of didgeridoo, juice harp, and drums. Oh, and by the way, he’s ripping whiskey from a bottle this whole time.
Though I’m somewhat terrified at this point, there’s a moment that will stay with me forever. I’m sitting in the back leaning against the roll bar, wind whipping through my hair, the golden sunset shining through distant hills onto my face, and I feel completely free like never before. Putting my life in the hands of this crazy man driving a seatbelt-less car is strangely liberating.
He tells us he knows the perfect spot to stay the night, and he pulls off the highway into the back of a Best Western parking lot, where beyond a fence lays a small nest of trees in a vacant field. Inside the trees we’re invisible from both the highway and the motel. Truly, a perfect camping spot. He gives us both high fives and roars away into the setting sun, whiskey in his hand and a Marlboro on his lips.
While eating the free continental breakfast at the Best Western the following morning, we vow to never forget the great Dizzy Dean. I’m still not totally sure he really existed.
- Name: Kimberly
- Pick-up Location: North of Windsor, CA
- Vehicle: Red Toyota Prius
I’m surprised this woman stops. She doesn’t match the profile for a stopper: single woman in her thirties, nice clean car, no bumper stickers, etc. She gives us a big, warm smile and is immediately interested in our journey, gushing over our aptitude to give the PCT a try. Bubbly and personable with a slight party vibe, Kimberly is one of those drivers you hope for.
She tells us she’s been down in wine country with some friends having a grand old time. We ask what the occasion was, and she shares that she was diagnosed with terminal cancer a few weeks ago and is making sure she has as much fun as she can. It turns out the pattern of her cancer is almost identical to one of my old friends, who was diagnosed, fought it and beat the first round, and then finally succumbed when it came back even stronger in the second round. When our paths cross with Kimberly, she’s in that second round. At some point, she’d completely accepted her fate.
Needless to say, it’s surreal to spend a few hours with Kimberly in her state, hearing her life story that breaks my heart and reminds me of my friend I lost in the past. When we part ways in Ukiah, I have no idea how to say goodbye. I’m used to telling people to have good lives when I leave their car, never to see them again, but that’s not an option now. Words escape me, and all Leland and I can do is give her a hug. She says thanks and that she’s happy to help us on our way, that we should never miss a chance to live fully without regrets. You really never know what might happen.
[Travel note: At this point Leland and I parted ways. He stayed behind in Garberville, planning to hitch a different route back down to the Sierras and start up the trail again when his foot had healed. He had a massive infected blister that forced him off the trail, so he decided to hitch with me for a while back north while he recovered. As for myself, I had to get back to Eugene.]
- Name: Steven Ray
- Pick-up Location: Eureka, CA
- Vehicle: Blue Ford Truck with white racing stripes
I spend a half-hour in Eureka, and it’s not a good one. I get dropped off in front of a Burger King where this jackass wearing a wife beater and rope sandals is harassing girls as they leave the building, shouting “you want my dick, bitch?!” and, “you know, you’re not very hot, but I’ll take you for a ride.” An old homeless man is also standing near the door, begging for change, and he hates this kid as much as I do. He tells him to shut up, that he doesn’t want to manager to chase them off because he’s got nowhere else to go. The kid tells him to fuck off, that he has every right to “tell these girls the truth, that they just want dick.”
Meanwhile, I’m just standing there looking for a place to go hitch. The homeless man looks like he’s about to start swinging fists when the manager comes out, yelling at all of us to leave immediately or he’ll call the cops. When the kid starts talking back I decide to get outta there ASAP. I cross the street and stick out my thumb as I walk. I didn’t want to be in this town anymore.
Within five minutes a blue pickup comes to a halt and a young man welcomes me aboard. He says he's Steven Ray, an Apache Indian who had migrated to northern California from Arizona for work. He is a calm, articulate fellow wearing basketball shorts, KSwiss shoes, and a baby blue FUBU jersey. He has striking facial features and a long, black braid hanging off the back of his head. I tell him I’m headed to Oregon and he says he can get me a couple hours up 101 to Crescent City, the northernmost town in California.
When I ask him his destination, he tells me no place in particular, that he’s just out for a drive to clear his head. He says things have been pretty messed up for him lately, that the reservation he lives on is undergoing some serious turmoil. According to Steven Ray, cult-like religious groups had taken to kidnapping or murdering those who didn’t join, using these methods for demented leverage over others.
He tells me the following scenario: say, for instance, that a woman joins the group but her husband doesn’t. The woman wants the kids to join as well but the husband won’t allow it. The group kidnaps the children until the husband joins. If the husband intervenes or fights back, he is often killed. On top of all of this, Steven Ray says, add serious alcoholism or methamphetamine addiction for most everyone involved.
Here's the catch: this is the exact scenario is playing out in Steven Ray’s life when he picks me up. Apparently, his meth-addicted ex-wife and her brother had kidnapped his three children two nights before. All under the age of six, the three kids are most likely in the back seat of her car without their child seats, swerving through California's northern counties.
Upon sharing this with me, his tranquil demeanor that initially felt inviting became unnerving. I'm thinking "What? Your kids got kidnapped and you’re just chilling in your truck, shootin’ the shit with a hitchhiker?" Don’t get me wrong, I feel for Steven Ray, but the way he’s holding himself makes me nervous. Clearly his mental state is in crisis and being in a car with him on his “head-clearing” ride isn’t a great idea. For the first time I notice a weird gleam in his eyes. He also has a habit of maintaining eye contact just a little too long after saying something, which doesn’t help my nerves.
I ask him if he’s okay, if he needs to talk about it or just leave it alone. He smiles and replies that he’s fine, that this sort of things happens a lot on his reservation. He doesn’t mention how it usually ends, though, and I don’t ask.
Steven Ray says he has to take a leak, so we pull into a small trailhead parking lot just off the highway. Not soon after, a forest ranger Jeep rolls in on a routine sweep of the area, looking for known cars and people that are smuggling drugs (meth and cocaine to the reservations, mostly). Now, these aren’t your hat-tipping rangers reminding you to prevent forest fires; these are assault rifle-carrying, body armor wearing, shotgun-rack-in-the-high-suspension-Jeep rangers. They we not there for us, but certainly looked curious as to why a Native American was just sitting there in a tinted pickup with a hippie-lookin’ white guy. I’m feeling that now would be a good time to leave, but Steven Ray has other plans. He rolls down his window and shouts over to them, telling them to come over. Are you kidding me?
They slowly approach the vehicle, hands on their weapons and arches on their brows. Steven Ray’s personality takes an immediate, dramatic shift at this point, and he beings talking rapidly, shifting his weight back and forth and jerking his head around. No longer the calm, articulate man that picked me up, Steven Ray starts blabbering away like he’d just snorted a grab bag of blended narcotics. The interaction goes something like this:
“Hey man I’m just an Indian guy trying to get to this Indian gathering thing up north and I don’t have the directions and I don’t know but I’m just an Indian and you’re looking at me like I’m acting all weird and hey man I’m just trying to get to this Indian thing because I’m an Indian and I’m not doing anything!”
“Sir, your speech and thought process seems a little blurred, have you consumed any drugs today?”
“What? No man I’m just an Indian man and now you’re talking about drugs like I should be acting weird and now I feel like I’m acting weird because you said I’m acting weird but I don’t think I’m acting weird but I’m worried I am acting weird now and you’re making me all nervous and I’m just an Indian trying to get to this Indian thing and I’m being totally normal!”
This goes on back and forth for a while. Meanwhile, the other ranger has time to slowly circle the truck, looking carefully in all the windows and bed. I realize I never even looked around the truck myself, and that the possibility of there being something incriminating is entirely possible. I do know there is a huge bag of weed in the glove compartment because Steven Ray showed it to me.
When the second ranger passes by my window, I make sure to point out I’m hitchhiking and that I don’t know this guy at all. The ranger nods and says he understands, which lessens the anxiety coursing through my body at this point.
After a while of listening to crazy ranting, the other ranger realizes Steven Ray is just trying to get a rise out of him, hoping they’ll make the first move and cause a big scene. It seems like they’re used to dealing with this kind of behavior, so they eventually decide they’re wasting their time, despite Steven Ray’s constant efforts to keep the conversation going with all sorts of bizarre questions and uncomfortable jokes. The rangers pull away and the two of us are left sitting in silence.
Steven Ray pulls back onto the highway, muttering about how much cops hate on the natives. He assumes a stern look, eyes straight ahead, and doesn’t say anything the rest of the drive. He pops in a CD, “The Red Light District” by Ludacris, cranks it full blast, and we don’t exchange a single word until we say goodbye in Crescent City.
The following morning, a trucker picks me up and takes me to Grants Pass, OR, where finding a short ride home to Eugene is easy as pie.
Sitting in the car on the final leg of the journey, I realized something. Every other person that picked me up had something unfortunate happen to him or her within the last week. And the degree of unfortunate-ness increased with each ride, starting with a broken car window and ending with a kidnapping. In the middle was losing a job, domestic abuse, and terminal cancer. Everyone else was fueled by Jesus, weed, or both.
You’d think people that stop would be interested in what the hitchhiker is up to, but the opposite was true in my experience. Sure, they asked where I was going and what I was up to, but mostly they wanted to talk about themselves. To tell me their life stories or what was worrying them or what they thought about the second coming. They dumped their shortcomings and transgressions into something that’s soon gone forever, like throwing spoiled leftovers into a trash bin on pickup day.
Maybe the hitchhiker reflects something the driver wants. Perhaps it’s a reminder to be spontaneous, a way of submitting to that temptation that pulses in the back of one’s heart and mind and asks “what if I dropped everything and just left?” Or maybe it’s as plain and simple as just wanting to help someone.
Hitchhiking proved to be an intense human experience above all else. Jumping from car to car was a whirlwind of problems, stories, dreams, and rants. Few are rich, most are poor, many are happy, and the rest are sad. And though distinctly different, the characters that played a role in my own trip all had the capacity to trust a stranger and share a piece of themselves, a quality that’s hard to find these days.
I doubt I’ll ever find out what happened to Steven Ray and his kids. Dizzy Dean is probably still out there, guzzling whiskey between bong rips (if he’s even real, of course). I’m sure the bro from Shasta replaced his window and runs a Fortune 500 company now. Hopefully Stacey is safe with somebody that makes her happy. I'll bet Jason is still choosing Jesus over the needle. Maybe, by some miracle, Kimberly’s cancer went into remission. And maybe Eric went and got himself a new job. Or maybe he didn’t. Maybe he went home, packed a bag, and - for the first time in his life - went hitchhiking.