The first hitcher to sit in my shitty car was a middle-aged hobo stranded on the outskirts of Bozeman, Montana. It was April so the air was nippy and the ground laid over in a drab brown. For the next ten hours I’d be cutting through mountains without stops for anything other than gas and roadside pisses. I was bound for Portland and knew Bozeman’s rest stop had free wi-fi. I stopped in to scoop some. In the lobby was a dirtied pack with ripped cardboard propped atop it. Scrawled across the sign was a city I knew well. MISSOULA.
In time its owner rejoined her sole belongings. It was clear this lady was homeless. She was chubby, unwashed, and in layers of well-worn, mismatched clothing. I later learned she’d been at the rest stop nearly three weeks and spent most nights roughing it in a ditch. The staff let her hang inside throughout the day but she had to sleep out there at night. I tended to my internet business, all the while peeking over to see if anyone offered this woman a ride. The only person she spoke with was the bathroom janitor. I gauged the size of this she-hobo’s pack and went back to my car to judge if it’d fit. My car was piled high with clothes and a variety of supplies stolen from my parents’ basement. I knew if this lady had a diarrhea emergency there were fifty rolls of extra soft to back her up. But the emergency never came and her shit fit so off we went.
I probed her with questions as we drove for three hours. Where do you live? How often do you hitch? Why did it take so long to get a ride? She’d spent so long at the rest stop because most people offered food rather than rides. Those who proffered transport were truckers. She said she wouldn’t ride with one of them again. I got the impression she’d been raped by one or more but I didn’t press any further. She’d been in the lifestyle for going on ten years and Missoula was one of her favorite cities. She could get a shelter bed but planned on constructing a shack from blocks and lifted lumber. She kept saying that she hated the shelter in Zula. They made their occupants perform chores in exchange for bed and board. “Slave maids. They just want a bunch of slave maids.” I thought she was a bit ridiculous on that point but then again I hadn’t worked in years and hoped to never again. Since she didn’t want to be a slave maid she’d spent her rest stop weeks mentally designing a hobo hut that she was now determined to actualize. It sounded to me as if she were building herself a dog cage but it was the household she desired. I told her if she ever got it done I’d come stay a night so we could drink and swap stories. She said she didn’t drink so I’d have play the Drunk for the both of us.
I was in yet another transitory phase of life and something of an ever increasing mess. I’d just scored a big bag of drug study loot but felt more miserable than ever. I didn’t know how much to tell her but before long we were discussing our interpretations of family love, friendly love, and wanna cum in ya love. I knew this interaction would be over in a hundred miles so I let loose about what made me sad or caused worry. All the usual suspects were at play: loneliness, my lack of direction, and always being in my head, hard at work on constructing another pile of imagined misery. She told me of her stories and struggles which then acted as my emotional ballast. Her family didn’t get the way she was living and so they were estranged. She spoke of not getting too hung up on what other people thought about your life, even if their concern was coming from a good place. That ya gotta get yourself to a good place even if it takes selfishness. Simple advice but it stuck. She kept reminding me that I was young and had endless opportunity before me. That I could change. That even so far into life she could change hers into something new if she wished it. That these mental and physical transformations happen over years in subtle ways. So subtle that you don’t even notice until you’re five years gone from the person you thought you’d always be. As we rolled deeper into the mountains I thought on what it meant to take life advice from someone who lives in a ditch.
She cracked the window and smoked a rolly now stained with the coffee still wet on her lips. She asked if she could use my Visa to rent a room for the night in order to organize but I declined. I gave her the untouched McDonald’s sitting beneath my seat and she added it to the Taco Bell she’d been gifted earlier. We rolled into Zoo Town as the day was approaching black and I left her off on Orange Street. I was glad to have had her and enjoyed the human connection that interrupted twenty-four hours of alone time in the car. I never forgot this woman and told whoever I could about the hours we shared. Some got it. Some didn’t. My parents were disapproving but relieved I’d scooped a woman as opposed to a man. Some transient who’d gut me just to fuck intestines lined with unprocessed poopies. But I didn’t really care who told me it was dangerous to pick up a hitcher. I knew I could get a pretty good read on someone after just a few words exchanged on an on-ramp. So though this she-hobo was my first rider in time more followed. Each was different. Each was interesting.
Years after that first ride I was on a return trip from Portland to North Dakota and saw a man hitching mid-Montana with a sign for my home base. By this time I’d had a fair number of riders with a variety of experiences so instinctively pulled over when I saw him on the shoulder, miles from any town. I offered a ride in exchange for the sign. His name was Richard. He was in his 50s and well-tanned the way so many hobos are. Richard’s frame was more thin than muscular and he had long black hair pulled into a pony. His face was pocked and rough in a way that matched the calloused hands he used to greet me. I told him I’d been driving for fifteen hours. It was clear I was something of a jittery, tired mess. In time we stopped at a grocery store and Richard bought donuts to keep me awake and him alive.
I collected his stories too. He’d had his appendix out in Idaho and the pack he carried tore his stitches, causing him to wheeze blood. He told me how when his organ first exploded he was camped deep in the woods, far from any signs of civilization. But his spot happened to be on a ranger’s patrol and when that person heard his shouts he was saved. If not for that he would’ve died in immense pain, spending his final moments writhing beneath the trees as his body killed him. Screaming for a death that wouldn’t come for hours. But he emerged and was now heading for North Dakota. He hoped to profit from the oil boom, plying his trade of carpentry.
I let him know Grand Forks was the wrong half of the state but he wanted to organize on our eastern crust before spinning back west to land a job. I’d been listening to storytelling podcasts before I got him and when our conversation cooled I hit play once again. The first story was a girl recalling the first time she jacked a dude and the surprise spray that graced her face. Thankfully Richard laughed at the story as I’ve heard more than a few hitchers and homeless proselytize on their main squeeze Jesus. He kept trying to buy me food the whole way home, fearing my body was on the brink of shutting down. I told him of all the tricks I use to stay awake — loud music, gobbling raw coffee grounds with jalapeno juice, and slapping my face while screaming to the empty road. I thought it best to not bust those out in his presence. We finally arrived to Forks in the middle of the night. I knew the shelter was closed but drove him by so he’d know its location. A few blocks later I left him at the ND/MN border where he was going to sleep on the river bank. I cruised out into the country where awaiting me was my childhood bed. That night as I prepared for sleep I thought of Richard resting on the river bank. He was in my car much longer than Missoula lady but we spoke a lot less. That was okay. Once again it was just nice to have a few hours of company and a couple free donuts. I went by the shelter a few times but never saw him out there. It seems the fate of those who ride with you is almost always unknown.
Not long after the ride with Richard I was up in Fargo screening for yet another drug study. As I left town I spotted a boy-girl couple hitching off an on-ramp. They too were headed to my homeland about eighty miles north. It was odd to see hitchers here as most ride the east and west corridors of I-94, not the north and south of I-29. North on 29 is what takes me home and so I cruise it often when returning from whatever city I’m living in. But 94 connects to Minneapolis or Washington as opposed to 29’s Manitoba and South Dakota. And yet here headed north were these two so I pulled over. I asked if they had a knife to dig into the lock of my back door as it’s broken. Within seconds a blade was produced and we were on our way. I learned the two had just come from Virginia. In the previous twelve months the dude had been to 48 states, or at least that’s what he told me. For now he was headed to my home turf to renew his license. His mom lived there and he used her place as his permanent residence. After that they planned on hopping a train to Portland to see Furthur and then another to work a California harvest. I told them I was kinda jealous and knew my stories couldn’t match theirs.
He’d been hitching and train hopping with his dad since he was fourteen. Now he was 22 and with this pretty girl a year older. She looked completely normal — curly blond hair, a soft and pretty face, and she wrapped her body in nice clothes. She used my phone to text her sister. Later on I read her words. They said she was in North Dakota, safe, and that she’d lost her phone in some other state along the tracks. She texted from the backseat where she sat with their packs. Her boyfriend was beside me. Every now and then she’d lean forward and rub his shoulders which caused him to tilt his head in pleasure. I’m always jealous when I see a traveler dude living the lifestyle with a cute and cool girl, wishing she’d fallen into my life instead. Her dude looked rough, like a busted-up redneck who’d already lived a few decades longer than his age would tell ya. He donned extremely dirty jeans strung together with patches. On his face were the stops and starts of a beard that never really took off. His neck was littered with tattoos and he was missing most every tooth. Those remaining were thin splinters and often brown or broken. But he was much friendlier and intelligent than his appearance would imply.
From Fargo to home was only an hour but that was enough for him to tell a story. I didn’t prompt it, he just had a good yarn at the ready for people like me who’d enjoy. A couple years back he’d been drinking on a train car with some old hobo he thought of as a friend. In time they both got to be blackout. The old hobo, his mind off in some devil land, pushed my hitcher out the train. My hitcher woke on the ground with a mouthful of blood. His scanning tongue swirled through a cavern now unfamiliar, its stalactites and stalagmites nowhere to be found. Sometime later he encountered this old hobo out on the road. The hobo felt horrid about pushing his friend out the train, an act he couldn’t even recall. As penance he had my hitcher watch as he used a set of pliers to yank teeth from his own mouth. He plucked them one by one ’til he had a healthy handful. It was the act of a madman but one who wanted to make things right.
As my hitcher finished this story he had the girl dig through his pack. She produced a green prescription bottle half filled with teeth whose roots seemed to be intact. They were a gift from the hobo — proof of penance. She handed them up in a nonchalant way, as if she’d been asked to do this many times before. He shook the bottle and each tooth rattled against the plastic. I asked how often he brushed them, followed by a swarm of corny jokes in the same vein. After he let me eyeball the special pills in this bottle it went back in the pack. He said he’s going to carry them around for the rest of his life. A keepsake. The best gift he’s ever gotten.
Once to town we got off the interstate and pulled into Wal-Mart which is where they’d requested. At an intersection out front were some dreadlocked travelers with a traveler dog. They had a sign asking for boots to work the upcoming sugar beet harvest. Earlier in the ride my hitcher had remarked he couldn’t work it anymore as he go in a fight on the job. He noticed the people at the intersection. “Is that Punkface?” He and the girl grew excited. “That’s Punkface! Must be here for the harvest.” My hitcher had just come from Virginia, was now in North Dakota, and within five minutes of being in town had spotted someone like him that he knew. It was such a hippie-hobo moment that seems so commonplace in their world. I dropped my hitchers off and later saw them set up at Punkface’s intersection. The girl held a sign asking for help. I knew from talking with them that they were using the last of their money for booze at a deer themed country bar. But that was fine. I was glad to know them.
Its been a couple years since I met those two and got to see the prized bottle of hobo teeth. In fact I rarely see hitchers anymore. Once while flying out to Portland the girl beside me shared her hitching stories from Hawaii. After Portland she was gonna thumb down to Costa Rica and live in a tree fort. She offered me acid and we hugged goodbye when my sister came to get me. But despite the occasional random encounter like that it seems hitchers are increasingly rare. I’m on the road more than ever but they’re just not there.
That way of life seems to be dying from a plague of fear, no one willing to interact with someone they don’t know. No one realizing you’ll hear stories from a perspective you couldn’t even conjure in a fit of fantasy. That just like you the hitchers don’t know who ya are or what intentions ya hold. That there’s an act of trust and a willingness for adventure implicit in the interaction. But despite all that I don’t always scoop the hitchers I see. At times I just want to be left alone or feel as if I have nothing to say. But I love knowing there’s always someone trying to cross America with little more than their thumb, a pack, and an acoustic. I live out a different version of the road yet we both know of the gifts it gives. Still, I envy what they do. At times I fantasize of copycat action just to see what it’s like. To never know when you’ll go from foot power to 70 mph. But there needs to be people on both sides of the equation for it all to work. So in that I hope there’ll always be folks unfurling a thumb or willing to pull over and see what the road has to offer. Perhaps it’ll end in the best prescription ever.