At the beginning of this 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.
A couple of months ago, I was in Jane Law’s cozy office. I had taken a great course with her a previous semester, and I wanted to let her to know how much I had enjoyed it. My days in Ithaca were numbered, and I needed closure.
“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. I realized that while I had studied fairly hard over the past 4 years, I hadn’t done much thinking for myself at all.
She tells me to try going 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 subculture. Like any subculture it comes in many flavors that weave and blend together.
I can’t help but feel like a tourist, and that’s probably what I am. Maybe I’ll go home afterwards and write a blog post or two about my experience, and then fill it with blurry phone photos.
Danny is something else completely. With the patchwork pants, mutton chops, and crazy ‘fro, he looks as if he was spit out by a desert hippie commune and then decided not to go home. 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.
In the beginning have a web dev gig I carried over from school. Simple web applications that I work on with the McDonald’s Wifi.
As I hammer away in my editor, huge freight trucks scream past on the highway outside.
Sometimes I take the work to bed. 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.
I was chasing a bunch of clichés for sure: adventure and freedom and friendship and love.
And I was chasing an answer to the cynicism I had bottled up during my schooling.
As time went on, I slowly accepted that the faults I saw in my college experience were the faults I saw in myself, reflected across the aisle. There were opportunities for growth everywhere. I had just neglected them.
I worked a couple of jobs along the way: waiter, barista, busser, food prep, delivery boy. I got a temporary place in a few cities. I scrubbed floors and toilets at midnight. I’d look at the floor tiles and get the vague feeling that once upon a time I had been a student but that was now a very long time ago.
Some people were puzzled when I told them what I had studied and where. I’d shrug and say I liked restaurants and cooking.
It’s been months since the first night in California. The sun is coming down, and I can see the downtown of Austin. I’m elated - to see my good friend Sam mostly.
There’s so much I want to tell him.