Memphis, TN to Asheville, NC: 484 miles
Punctured by the overhanging telephone poles, the falling sun spills dirty golden light through the trees and out across the highway, momentarily glinting in mirrors and windshields of each passing car, glistening in the crystals embedded in the asphalt at my feet. I’ve been out here three and a half hours now, glued to this onramp a few miles outside of Memphis where Melissa and Rob dropped me off this afternoon. But when the sky starts to fade and potential rides become pairs of headlights, it’s time to drop my thumb and give up for the day. One elderly Indian man had stopped and offered to take me just one exit down, which I declined because the ramp I was on was good, and one pretty girl in a convertible two-seater smiled at me. One guy offered me his middle finger, and just about everybody else ignored me, though most of them noticed me and probably thought about me for at least a moment. I wonder if any of them are thinking about me now, wondering if I got a ride, where I will sleep.
I fold up my cardboard “NASHVILLE” sign and strap it to my pack, and then I ditch the ramp and head down to a gas station/Dunkin Donuts to get a cup of coffee. Actually, this is good, I think to myself as I walk along the edge of the road in the fading twilight. I need to relax. Not getting a ride today is forcing me to slow down. I’m feeling the same fear right now that I feel at the beginning of every expedition: the idea that this journey will not be a success; that I will fail. It’s not hard for me to wait for a ride that I know will eventually come—what’s hard is not knowing if one will come at all. As the minutes and hours tick by, I doubt myself. What am I doing wrong? Is this spot ok? Is my sign clear? Am I smiling enough, gesturing properly?
Inside Dunkin Donuts, the guy working there asks about my pack, and I tell him I’m about to hitch to DC. He’s excited, and he asks me a slew of questions about my travels and then gives me two donuts. He seems reluctant when I go outside, like he wants to do more somehow. I sit out on the patio for a while, enjoying my coffee. I’m doing nothing wrong, I realize. I just need to be patient. There are people in this world who would gladly reach out to help a traveler, and even if I am not doing everything perfect—regardless of whether I have a sign, if I am sitting or standing or smiling, if the onramp is good enough—those people will recognize me as a traveler. I just need to put myself out there and then wait for them to find me.
I head back inside to use the bathroom and say goodbye. “Are you religious?” The guy asks me on my way out. “I’m sorry if this is weird, but…would it be ok if I pray for you?” He places his hand on my shoulder and we bow our heads. “God, please watch over Dave as he makes this journey.”
I wander back to the highway and turn off onto a path that leads up into a field where I lay out my worn sleeping bag beside a scraggly tree. The moon gleams overhead, and Orion watches over me (it’s still winter in the cosmos). Soon the Big Dipper rises, and I sleep, safe in the tall grasses.
* * *
I’m on the ramp again at dawn. In under 30 minutes, a black Nissan SUV skids to a halt into the shoulder ahead of me, gravel crunching beneath tires. I sling the pack onto my shoulder and run up to the open passenger window. The guy reads my sign. “Nashville?” “Yeah, where are you headed?” “Nashville!” “Alright!” I toss my pack into the back seat, hop up front, and the ramp falls away behind us.
“MAN it feels good to be moving!” He smiles and lights a black and mild. “Were you out there a long time?” “About three and a half hours yesterday, couldn’t catch a ride.” “I saw a homeless guy the other day in Little Rock,” he tells me. “And usually I try to give somethin, even though I’m not rich…but I didn’t have anything with me at the time. Then I saw you just now, and I thought, maybe this is my way to do a good deed. Plus I saw that Nashville sign, and I thought, hey, that’s where I’m goin!” I laugh. “Awesome, man. Well I really appreciate the ride….” “It’s no problem. Do you want a coffee or anything?” He pulls off at the next exit and buys two coffees and two hot dogs. Then we hit the road again, chatting over soft music. He’s 46, and he just lost his job with FedEx during recent cuts. He’s from Arkansas, but now he’s going back to school in Nashville. He tells me about his exploits in the clubs of Memphis last night, a girl who seduced him and then stole his wallet (he got it back) and his friend who got too drunk and was a horrible wingman. It feels so good to be soaring down that highway, and the ride flies by. As we approach the outskirts of Nashville, I pull out my atlas and try to figure out my plan. Do I stay in Nashville for a while? Cut straight through? If I cut through, where will I have the best chance of catching a ride—just before we reach the city, in the center, or on the far outskirts, if he will take me that far? I end up asking him to let me out a couple exits before his, just outside the city. It’s a beautiful onramp, straight and wide, but there are not a huge number of gas stations around, so is this a bad spot for trying to catch long distance drivers? When I climb out, I thank him profusely for the ride. “Hey,” he smiles. “I believe that what goes around comes around. So…this is good for me too.”
It’s only ten or fifteen minutes until a car stops. It’s a guy my age, an outdoorsy type, and he throws open the passenger door as he pulls up. “Throw your stuff in the back and hop in.” “Ah thanks man but let me ask, how far are you headed?” “Oh, just into Nashville…” “Ah, ok. Thanks for pulling over, man, I really appreciate it, but I’m gonna wait and see if I can catch something that’ll take me through the city.” He wishes me luck and drives off. Not long after, a cop drives past me (white car, METRO POLICE stamped on the side), but he doesn’t slow down or acknowledge me. So I wait. I’ve got no sign this time, just my thumb—I figure, last time, a clean hop from Memphis to Nashville would have be awesome (and it happened), but now, I have to get through Nashville, plus the next big city is Knoxville, and that’s still almost two hundred miles away. So maybe it’s better to leave the request open ended and just thumb it.
After 35 minutes or so, a black Dodge Charger noses into the shoulder. “Where you headed?” “Virginia.” “Oh shit!” I jump in. He’s on his way back to Norfolk to return to the military base out there. He was in Little Rock and Memphis visiting family during some time off over these last two weeks. We chat for a long time, exchanging military and travel stories. He takes me straight through Nashville, clear across Tennessee and through Knoxville, from the flat land up into the hills of Eastern Tennessee and the Appalachians, not far from the Appalachian Trail. I was planning to leave I-40 where it intersects with I-81, which cuts north through the mountains all the way up into northern Virginia, but I decide to stick with this guy for another 80 miles on 40 down into Asheville, North Carolina. He ends up going out of his way to take me all the way into the center of downtown. It’s around five when he drops me off. “Thank you so much for this ride, man….” “Hey, thank you, man, you helped me stay awake for this long drive.” He has taken me 300 miles, the longest ride I’ve ever gotten while hitchhiking.
I walk into World Coffee Café in downtown Asheville and sit down with a cup of coffee to take stock of my situation. I’m a bit surprised I made it this far in a single day. Both of the people who gave me rides today told me it was a coincidence that they ended up on the ramp—normally they go a different way, but they had taken that exit for some random reason. So, perhaps I might have been able to do a better job choosing spots with more potentially long distance traffic, yet ultimately it didn’t matter—the point wasn’t that I had to do things perfectly; the point was that I had to try. Just trying, even with mediocre technique, proved to be enough for chance or God or the universe or just sheer luck to help me make it work.
I finish my coffee and leave the café when the sky begins to pinken. I’ve heard that Occupy Asheville holds their General Assemblies in Pritchard Park just a couple of blocks from this café, but I can’t find anybody there. I’m not sure where to sleep, probably down by the river somewhere, but I begin to walk in the opposite direction without knowing why. I wander down a long hill past administrative buildings and a police station complex, and then I scramble up a wooded hill of pine needles and bushes and I whack through a bramble thicket until I stumble across a wooden boardwalk looping through the forest. A wooden bench abuts a section of boardwalk, surrounded by blooming pink and white trees. The sun slants through quivering foliage, and dozens of honeybees buzz around me in the golden light. Some animal shuffles around in the leaves, but I can’t get a glimpse of it. I realize that the boardwalk connects to a path that cuts through to a flight of stairs that leads up to a neighborhood. People walk by occasionally, but I don’t think anyone notices me hidden amongst these trees. When nobody is around, I lay down my tarp and sleeping bag in the underbrush. I walk around to the path and see that my bag is mostly invisible. When it gets dark, I lie down. Jupiter and Venus burn overhead as stars collect around the moon, high in the sky. Down the hill, across the road and up the other hill back into the city, some building is lit up. The distant lights filter through the foliage and cast patterns that camouflage me into the forest floor. I can see tiny people moving around, maybe inside a parking garage, but nobody can see me, hidden up on this hill in the underbrush. The chimes of the clock tower ring out over the town. And, sharing the hill with honey bees, ticks, and a curious woodchuck, under the cover of darkness I sleep.