Hobo Teeth

The first hitcher to sit in my shit 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 sat 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 wearing layers of mismatched clothing. I later learned she’d been at the rest stop for three weeks and spent her nights roughing it in a ditch. The staff let her hang inside during the day but she had to crash out there at night. I tended to my internet business, all the while peeking to see if anyone offered this woman a ride. The only person she spoke to was the janitor. I gauged the size of her 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. 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 didn’t press further. She’d been in the lifestyle for going on ten years and Missoula was one of her favorite cities. She could nab a shelter bed but planned on constructing a shack from blocks and lifted lumber. She kept saying she hated the shelter in Zula. They made their occupants do 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. She spent weeks thinking up a hobo hut she was now determined to actualize. It sounded like she was building a dog cage but it’s what she wanted. I said if she ever got it done I’d stay the night to drink and swap stories. She didn’t drink so I’d have play the Drunk for both of us.

I was in yet another transitory phase and felt like an ever increasing mess. I’d just scored a big bag of loot but felt more misery than ever. I didn’t know how much to tell her but before long we were discussing family love, friendly love, and wanna cum in ya love. I knew this interaction would be over in a hundred miles so let loose on what made me sad or caused worry. All the usual suspects were at play: loneliness, lack of direction, living in my head. Constructing a pile of imagined misery. She told me her stories and struggles which in turn acted as my emotional ballast. Her family didn’t like the way she lived and so were estranged. She spoke of not getting hung up on what others think of your life even if their concern comes from a good place. That ya gotta live true to yourself even if it takes selfishness. Simple advice but it stuck.

She reminded 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 means to take life advice from someone that lives in a ditch.

She cracked the window and smoked a rolly now stained with the coffee still wet on her lips. She asked to use my Visa to rent a room in order to organize but I declined. I gave her the 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 approached black. I let her off on Orange Street. I was happy to have had her. I’d enjoyed the human connection that disrupted 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. But I didn’t care who told me it was dangerous to pick up a hitcher. I knew I could get a good read on someone after a few words exchanged on an on-ramp. So though this woman was my first rider in time more followed. Each was different. Each was interesting.

On a trip from Portland to North Dakota I spotted a man hitching mid-Montana with a sign for my home base. By now I’d had a fair number of riders so 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 drove for fifteen hours and was something of a jittery, tired mess. Eyes red. Hair greasy. In time we stopped at a grocery store and Richard bought donuts to keep me awake and him alive.

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I collected his stories too. He’d had his appendix out in Idaho. The pack he carried tore his stitches causing him to wheeze blood. When his organ exploded he was camped deep in the woods, far from 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 pain, spending his final moments writhing beneath trees as his body killed him. Screaming for a death that wouldn’t come for hours. But he emerged and was now headed 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. When the conversation cooled I hit play on my iPod. 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. I’ve heard more than a few hitchers and homeless proselytize on their main squeeze Jesus.

He tried buying me food the whole way home, fearing my body was on the brink of shutting down. I told him 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 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 river to sleep on its bank. I cruised out to the country and landed in my childhood bed. That night as I prepped for sleep I thought of Richard resting on the river bank. He was in my car longer than the 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. The fate of those who ride with you is almost always unknown.

Not long after the ride with Richard I visited Fargo to screen for yet another drug study. As I left town I spotted a boy-girl couple hitching from an on-ramp. They too were headed to my homeland just 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. And yet here headed north were these two so I pulled over. I asked if they had a knife to pop the lock of my back door as it’s broken. 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 of Grand Forks to renew his license. His mom lived there and he used her place as his permanent residence. From Forks they planned on hopping a train to Portland for a show and then another to work a California harvest. I said I was jealous and knew my stories couldn’t match theirs.

The male had been hitching and train hopping with his dad since he was fourteen. Now he was 22 and with this girl a year older. She looked normal — curly blond hair, a soft and pretty face, her body wrapped in nice clothing. She used my phone to text her sister. Later on I read her words. They said she was safe in North Dakota and that she’d lost her phone along the tracks. She texted from the backseat where she sat with their packs. Her boyfriend was beside me. She leaned forward to rub his shoulders and he tilted his head in pleasure. I’m jealous when I see a traveler dude living the lifestyle with a cool girl, wishing she’d come into my life instead. Her dude looked rough, like a busted-up redneck who’d lived longer than his age would tell ya. He donned dirty jeans strung together with patches. On his face were the stops and starts of a beard that never 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 friendlier and more 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 to 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 blacked out. 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 tongue scanned through an empty cavern, 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 recall. As penance he had my hitcher watch as he used a set of pliers to yank teeth from his own mouth. He plucked ’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 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 before. He shook the bottle and teeth rattled against the plastic. I asked how often he brushed them, followed by a swarm of corny jokes in this 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 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. At an intersection out front sat dreadlocked travelers with a dog. Their sign asked for boots to work the upcoming sugar beet harvest. My tooth holding hitcher looked out at these people. “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 minutes of arrival spotted someone he knew. 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 they were using the last of their money for booze at a deer themed country bar I’d told them about. But that was fine. I was glad to have met them.

Its been a couple years since I met those two and their 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 insane stories from a well earned perspective. That just like you the hitchers don’t know who ya are or what intentions you 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 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 fast food. 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 the math to make sense. 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.