In the spring of last year, I found myself hundreds of miles from home, in a strange neighborhood. It was the first night of a hitchhiking trip across the country, and I was looking for a place to roll out my sleeping bag.
The LA lights twinkled in the distance as dusk fell.
Rewind to a couple of months ago. I’m in Jane Law’s cozy office. I had taken a fantastic course in Japanese religions with her a previous spring, and I wanted to let her to know how much I had enjoyed it. At least that’s what I thought at the time. My days in Ithaca were numbered, and I felt a strange urgency to be reconciled with what I thought of as the past.
“So, what do you want to do with your life?” She asks.
“I want to be a designer.”
“OK. What else?”
As we talked, the shadows in the room become elongated and formless. She was as fearless in conversation as she was in lecture. On the receiving end of that fearlessness I felt exposed, like a child with a hand in the cookie jar when the light is suddenly flipped on. She told me about her travels in the past. She told me about her research in the present. I told her about my concerns for the future.
Her parting advice still comes to my mind whenever I’m unsure of myself, as was the case my night in San Bernardino.
“Try it. Go away for a while.”
I walk faster now. The pale stucco houses stretch on. Their shadows are long and tangled, and soon they melt into the rest of the night.
I curse myself for my naivety. For thinking that this would be easy.
It’s dark when I spot a ladder going up the side of an empty office building. I climb up and throw my things in a pile. I crawl into the sleeping bag, and look up into the boundless black blue sky. Far off, the lights of an airplane blink, blink in place.
Who still hitchhikes?
It turns out there’s a sprawling road culture. Like any culture it comes in flavors that weave and blend together.
I can’t help but feel like a tourist, and that’s probably what I am. I’m going home when it’s over. Maybe I’ll begin a 9 to 5. Maybe I’ll write a blog post or two about my experience. Maybe I’ll fill it with blurry phone photos.
Danny is something else. With the patchwork pants, mutton chops, and crazy ‘fro, he looks as if he was spit out by a punk concert deep in the New Mexican desert and then decided to keep on walking. And that was 2 years ago. He busks to pay the way. He’s indignant at people who admonish him to “get a job”. He’s nothing but friendly to other travelers.
“I’m going to Maine.” He says.
“I’m from San Diego originally, and it’s the farthest from San Diego there is.”
He’s looking past me now, eyes tinged with the soft orange of dusk.
“I’ve tried, but I’ve never made it. I feel good about this time though.”
100 miles out of Phoenix, Andrew stops at a Wendy’s to buy us burgers. He’s been driving for about 2 hours. I am ravenous. I wolf my Son of Baconator down.
Andrew is a Jehovah’s Witness. He made it known at the start. He also made it known that we didn’t have to talk about it. Aware of discomfort that comes with the door-to-door evangelism, he’s simultaneously eager to talk about his faith, and restrained by his own social grace from doing so.
We stop and pick up two more people: an old rancher and a young hitchhiker. He extends the same dampened religious enthusiasm to them.
He drops me off at Arizona State University, because I don’t know another landmark in the city. He gives me 5 dollars.
Sometimes I hunker down in a McDonald’s rest booth and work. I manage to pick up small web dev gigs that let me keep traveling.
As I hammer away into the Terminal, huge freight trucks scream past on the highway outside. Sometimes I take the work to bed. I take it into my sleeping bag.
The weirdness of the situation eludes me at the time. In retrospect it is very weird: a guy lying on his stomach in a survival bivvy staring at a glowing screen. A lantern in the pitch black night. The irony is almost malicious: I left home to do exactly what I did at home, only without a roof over my head.
I wanted to see the US, as much of it as I could, before I started working in earnest.
“What were you looking for?” A friend asks when the whole thing is done.
Truth. Beauty. Love. Nothingness. Sure, all of the cliches.
And I must have been looking for an answer to my own cynicism as well. I was incredibly frustrated by the end of college. Despite having had some fantastic professors and friends, I felt all too complicit in a system that was preparing me for a lifetime of collecting gold stars. Something I had been good at; something that had allowed me entrance into the system in the first place.
It’s easy for me to point the finger at authority figures. At the system. The truth is that the opportunities for growth were there. I just never looked for them. The real problem was my own lack of intellectual and creative inquisitiveness.
Life goes on.
The sun is coming down, and I can see the downtown of Austin. It’s been months since the first night in California. I’m elated - to see my good friend Sam mostly. There’s so much I want to tell him.
Thank you for reading! Part II is coming soon.