Asheville, NC to Abingdon, VA: 116 miles
I awake to a pastel sky and six clock tower chimes. Every insect in North Carolina has apparently decided that beside my body would be a good place to gather during the night, and I brush away as many bugs as I can and stuff my things into my pack. I wander down the hill and back up through a sleepy Asheville and watch the streetlights in a square slowly flicker off one at a time. When I finally find a coffee shop whose patio is bathed in morning sunlight, I’m their first customer of the day. The barista has beautiful tattoos that I admire while she brews me a mug of dark roast. The back of her shirt droops to reveal a peacock feather rising towards her shoulder blade. Another girl behind the counter has script written across her collar bone, upper arms, and hips.
When I sit down with the coffee, I reach into my pack for my notebook and instead wrap my fingers around a stowaway slug, which is a nice feeling. Morning sunlight, steaming coffee, blank lined page, the sound of my pen clicking open; what more could I need in this world? The first thing that comes out is: “I woke up in a nest of ticks. That’s good.” I laugh and then set the pen down and walk into the bathroom to wash my face. When I come out, the barista with the peacock feather gestures at my pack. “Are you trekking somewhere?” I smile. “How could you tell?” We chat for a while, I sit outside soaking in the light, and in a while I take the city bus up to the beautiful UNC campus. I wander through a few administrative buildings and smile at people, just because I like college campuses, and then I sit in the woods for a bit before zigzagging down the leaf-crunching hill to I-26, which hits I-81 70 miles north of here. When I find it, the onramp is perfect— right next to campus, arrow straight, wide gravel shoulder.
I’m on the ramp for maybe two minutes. Two cars go by, and then a pickup truck skids into the gravel ahead of me. I toss my pack into the truck bed and hop into the cab next to a beautiful girl my age with tattoos on her left arm. She kicks the truck into gear and we chat, I thank her for pulling over, she tells me how great a day she’s been having, she shows me her new chakra bracelet and I show her the slab of labradorite around my neck. She pulls off at the next exit to get gas. “Where are you going, anyway?” “I’m on my way to DC, but right now I’ll just go as far north as I can, wherever you’re heading.” “Oh, shoot…I’m not going anywhere.” As it turns out, hitching is really common in Asheville. She thought I just needed a ride somewhere in town. She ends up looping back around and taking me to basically the same spot she picked me up from, then dropping me off just a couple miles down the road. She apologizes for not asking before picking me up, and I laugh and tell her it’s been a great ride anyway.
From there I get two rides in quick succession, each just a short hop, that take me through Weaverville and then up to Mars Hill. Both of these drivers warn me not to take anything less than a ride all the way to Johnson City from here, because there is nothing in between and I will get stranded if I get dropped off somewhere in the middle. But the first guy tells me that Burnsville (one more exit down) should be the last stop before the empty gap. So I’m thumbing out of Mars Hill, looking for a ride 50 miles north to Johnson City. It’s a curved ramp, which is not ideal, though there is some space for cars to pull over on the left side of the ramp. The traffic is decent but a little light, so I’m waiting for a while in between cars. A state trooper goes by but ignores me, and then another one passes just a few minutes later. They don’t say anything, but it still makes me nervous. So when a guy stops and says he’s going to Erwin, I hop in and ask him if he’ll just take me up one exit to Burnsville, from where I will then try to catch something all the way up to Johnson City. He’s a yoga instructor, he tells me as we pull onto the highway. He just moved here to North Carolina, and I’m his first hitchhiker. It’s not five minutes before we arrive at Burnsville. I get out, he drives away, and I realize I’ve made a mistake. The ramp is beautiful, a long, straight, empty patch of asphalt that stretches away up into a clear blue flecked with billowing patches of popcorn clouds—but the place is desolate. I haven’t waited more than 15 minutes for a ride all day, but 40 minutes go by and no more than five cars drive past. At this rate, I will literally never catch a ride. And there are no gas stations anywhere, no place I can go and try talking people into giving me a lift up the road. In fact, an examination of my map shows that the actual town of Burnsville is another 16 miles away down a curving two lane road. Another 20 minutes and a car or two go by. Ok. So, I made a serious blunder, I should not have left that decent spot in Mars Hill. This is bad. What now? I can’t keep waiting here. I could be here for days. Should I defy standard hitchhiking etiquette and walk up onto the actual interstate? There are no prohibition signs, yet supposedly the cops will hassle you if you’re on the highway, and cars going 70 miles an hour are pretty unlikely to pull over for someone. Should I try to catch a ride back down to Mars Hill, if that’s even possible? I can’t even find the onramp to go the other direction. There’s a long curving road that goes under the overpass I’m next to, and I think it might turn into the onramp, but the loop is so large that even after trudging ten minutes down I still can’t tell. And if I do try that, I could miss a possible ride in the RIGHT direction.
Eventually I decide that I have no choice but to go back. I stand just beyond the overpass, hoping that this road does indeed loop around into an onramp. There’s marginally more traffic here; it comes in bursts of 5-6 cars every 5-10 minutes, probably spaced out by a faraway stoplight unseen from here. I waste another hour, then chastise myself for my impatience and try to enjoy the beauty of the place I am standing, try to recognize that this is not time wasted, this is time unmoving in a beautiful place. Shortly after that, a big white dusty SUV pulls into the gently curving shoulder ahead of me. I hurl my bag into the back seat and jump up front, profusely expressing my gratitude. The guy is going all the way down to Asheville, directly to the ramp by UNC where I started today. I ask him to take me the one exit down to Mars Hill, and he actually takes the exit and drops me directly beside my onramp so that I won’t have to walk across the bridge.
So, here we go again. Cops take the ramp frequently and ignore me or nod. Two cars stop, each of them only going a couple exits, so I turn them down, resolved not to get stranded again. Finally, a guy in pickup pulls over. “You going over the mountains into Tennessee?” He asks. “YES! Johnson City???” “Yup.” “Alright!!!!” I hop in, and we take off. “Yep,” he says after it’s too late. “I can getcha about halfway there.”
I cringe. Of course, there’s nothing I can do. A few miles later, he leaves me in an empty mountain chasm far more remote than Burnsville. Still three miles from the Tennessee border, the ramp is half a mile long and after half an hour I haven’t seen a single car and begin to doubt that I ever will. An abandoned gas station is carved into the rocks a mile away across a gulch. I’m really screwed now, I decide. Down a steep hill, a stream trickles through grassy meadows. Am I meant to just slow down and stay here or something? I do not know what to do. It’s only five or so, but I am preparing to spend the night here, the whole week possibly. A cop circles around just to loop back onto the highway the other direction to set speed traps. Literally there is no traffic going in either direction. Well…I have no choice. I shrug and begin the trudge up the ramp out onto the interstate, where cars are traveling at 70 miles an hour and there is barely any space for them to pull over. But what else can I do?
Amazingly, after 45 minutes, a utility pickup truck actually stops fifty yards ahead of me. I clasp my hands together and pray as I run to him. The guy is heading to Erwin for a job. He stutters a bit and peppers me with questions. “Where do you sleep?” “Oh, usually just outside, wherever I end up at night.” He pauses thoughtfully. “How do you make money?” “I don’t, really. I play a bit of guitar on the street, but more than anything else, I just don’t really spend money on anything.” Pause. “Doesn’t it get lonely?” And it goes on like this for a while. As we approach Erwin, I tell him over and over again how he has saved my ass. Ultimately, he takes me an exit out of his way to get me to the busier ramp at the end of town fed by Main Street. When I get out, he hands me ten bucks and won’t let me refuse it.
The onramp has a railing, but there is plenty of shoulder for cars to pull over. And being in Tennessee again (finally!) means standing in front of “Pedestrians Prohibited” signs, but I’m back in civilization, I’m a 30 second walk from food and water and people at the cluster of gas stations over there, so I couldn’t be happier. I lean my pack against the sign, sit down on the railing, and casually toss out my thumb at passing motorists.
It’s not long before a green Ford SUV with marijuana leaf bumper stickers pulls up beside me. “Where you headed?” A smiling guy shouts through the open window. “Tell me you’re going to Johnson City,” I say. “Yep.” “AHH!!” I hop in and we zoom down the ramp onto the highway. “Man, I learned something today,” I say with a grin. He laughs. “By the way, I’m Dave.” “Ben.” He reaches out his hand, and I shake it. “What I learned is…you gotta keep the faith, always.” He looks surprised. “Well YEAH, brother! You can never lose faith.” “Yeah. I mean, I’ve learned that so many times before. But on the road it’s always amplified. Because there are so many times when it seems like you might be completely screwed. And then, somehow, things always work out.” He nods. He’s from Vermont, he tells me, and he has hitchhiked over a million miles in his life, and he shares some of his own stories of remarkable human kindness.
As we approach Johnson City, I realize that he is actually not going there—he’s going much further. So I end up getting a ride with him all the way up to I-81. He lets me out at the junction. Unfortunately, it’s a horrible spot. There is no onramp—it’s one of those interchanges where cars take the exit still going at highway speeds, so now I am illegally standing on the Tennessee interstate trying to hitch a ride from motorists passing me at 70 miles an hour, all over again. It’s a one lane exit and the ramp is long, but the cars are going so fast that they can’t see my face and barely have time to slow down. I have only a little water left, and I’m extremely far away from an exit with a gas station or anything. I could be in trouble here too. Seriously, it’s just one thing after another. Hitchhiking is so exhilarating and so frustrating. Each time you get dropped off, you’re left in a new situation, a new challenge with different variables, different pros and cons that require different strategies and leave you with a new variety of possible ways out. I shrug and smile and stand there with my thumb out. I’ve made it pretty far today already, and it really is humorous, how things goes from so bad to so good and back again.
But sure enough, inside 30 minutes, a guy in a tan Taurus skids to a halt 50 feet ahead of me and starts to back up as I sling on the pack and jog ahead to him. It really is the most exhilarating feeling, seeing those brake lights glow and the car slow to a halt in the shoulder. A cursory look inside gives me the strong feeling that this guy is decent, and I hop in without bothering to ask where he’s going, because anywhere would be better than here. He’s in his mid 40s, he’s on his way home from work, and he spits yellow-brown tobacco juice into a plastic bottle. As we drive, he periodically reaches into a pouch and stuffs handfuls of loose leaves into his mouth, and he tells me the story of the chemical deforestation of the redbud trees on the I-81 corridor in southwestern Virginia. He takes me a good 40 miles up 81 across the border from Tennessee into Virginia and leaves me in a small town called Abingdon.
I like Abingdon. There’s nothing here; just the typical fast food, a couple motels (morning traffic), and some gas stations. Maybe it’s just the soft light of the evening, but there’s something nice about this little place. I’m not exactly sure what my catching out strategy is going to be; the ramp situation is far from ideal. There are actually two different onramps—one for eastbound and one for westbound traffic from the crossroad—which means that at either ramp, my potential northbound traffic will be cut in half. And I’m not sure if either ramp is even feasible. They both loop sharply up to the interstate. One ramp is a bit straighter but has less stopping space, and one ramp has a bit more space for cars to pull over, but the curve is tighter. And the “Pedestrians Prohibited” signs are right at the entrance, which doesn’t give me much room to work with.
I stand at the tighter ramp for about five minutes, but then I am overcome by a powerful impulse to walk across the street to the McDonalds, so I do. Inside, I immediately meet a teenage guy who is headed north and would be happy to ask his dad if they can give me a ride. (It’s almost too easy: Hi. Do you know the name of this town we are right now? No, I am just traveling through. Oh really, me too, which direction are you going and would you like to give me a ride?) His dad also says he’d be happy to help out, and all of a sudden I have another ride. But then it turns out they actually aren’t going up on 81, they are taking another smaller road, so we all decide it would be best for me to just stick to the interstate.
I buy a cup of coffee and head to the door. On my way out, a lady notices my pack and smiles. “Are you a through hiker?” (She means, am I hiking the Appalachian Trail from start to finish?) I lay out my sleeping bag to dry a little bit and then lean back into the bench with my cup of coffee, relaxed and finally at ease. There’s a little daylight left I could be trying to use, but I’m perfectly happy to spend the night here. As I look around, I shake my head a little bit and smile. What am I doing here? This is the road. I had no idea I would end up here, and I have no idea where I will be 24 hours from now. Across the road from where I sit, not far from the onramp, the sunlight slants into an empty field of bushes and straw. I can sleep there tonight.
Finished with the coffee, I wander across town to a gas station and Huddle House. I’ve still got some cardboard and a sharpie with me, and I consider flying a sign (Roanoke? Or, up 81?). But it will be ok. So I just sit out there in the warm delicate air, soaking the sunset into my body, completely at peace. My pack leans up against the bench beside me, water bottles in side pockets, tarp and ground pad strapped onto the back, cardboard protruding from empty spaces. I feel like a traveler right now.
When the sunset dries out and a chilly wind kicks up, I step inside. I don’t feel like another cup of coffee, so I ask the waitress for a glass of orange juice. I pull out my notebook and write for a bit, reflecting on the day’s mistakes and successes. I don’t know what morning will bring or how I will get out of here, given that the ramps aren’t too good. But that is ok. Again—this was reinforced constantly throughout the day—even if I am doing practically everything wrong, there will be people who want to help out a traveler. People who would even stop on a highway going 70 miles an hour.
In the Huddle House, as I’m writing, I notice a family across the room glancing over at me every so often. The kids are probably around ten or twelve. At first, the son watches me over his menu, and when I glance up, he hastily turns away with a shy smile. After a little while he says something to his dad, and then the father starts glimpsing over his shoulder every once in a while. I imagine the conversation they might be having. Dad, see that guy with the big backpack? Yep, he’s probably just traveling through here. Is he a hitchhiker?? Yes son, a real live modern day hitchhiker. He’s drinking orange juice at ten PM. He’s probably got only what he can carry on his back and is sleeping outside tonight. When they stand up to leave, I catch the dad’s eye and we exchange nods.