4 Days, 970 Miles, 24 Rides: a Hitchhike from Memphis, TN to Washington, D.C. (Day 3 of 4)

Day 3
Abingdon, VA to New Market, VA: 245 miles

My eyes open at daybreak.  I lie still for a few moments in this patch of brush, invisible to the cars and the town, and pink clouds puff overhead in a great blue sky.  It’s a chilly morning.  I trudge over to McDonalds to get a coffee, use the restroom, and throw on another shirt.  Then I hit the onramp.  It’s a tough angle, but I realize that if I stand back a ways, almost on the road where the turn lane begins, there’s enough space for a car to pull over without too much trouble.  I’m right in front of a little bakery, and old ladies keep showing up and waving at me as they go inside.  Inside of an hour, an SUV rumbles up.  The guy pulls over not in the space I created but before me, with plenty of space, which means he must have seen me in advance and already decided to help me before even driving by.  Once again it hits home that all I have to do is put myself out there, and the people in this world who would seek to help a traveler will find me.

He takes me damn near all the way up to Roanoke, over a hundred miles.  We drive with the windows down, listening to Pearl Jam XM Radio, and the strong wind and morning light stream in over the hills.  I tell him about my trip so far, the faith I’m trying to keep, how the first two guys who gave me rides said it was a coincidence they were even on my ramp, and how happy I am that he picked me up from this less-than-ideal spot.  It’s the same for him too, he tells me with amusement.  He normally doesn’t come this way.  “But I had just gotten these new pants,” he says.  “And they had ripped, so I had to take them to this tailor here in Abingdon….”  I laugh.  “So, the Universe ripped your pants so that you could meet me.”  He cackles.

He leaves me in Salem, just a few miles short of Roanoke, at a beautiful ramp.  There is as much space as I could ever ask for, a good amount of traffic, and it’s still not even ten in the morning and I’ve already put a hundred miles behind me.  Within ten minutes, a guy pulls over and pops the trunk of his aquamarine Civic.  I lean in the window.  “Hey!  Where you headed?”  “Just a couple exits up.”  “Ok, thank you, but I think I’ll wait for a longer ride.”  “K, no problem.  Can you close my trunk?”  “Yep, I was gonna.”  Literally two cars later, another guy pulls over.  I lean in the window; he’s wearing an unbuttoned Hawaiian shirt, and a chain dangles down over his tanned chest.  “I know you’re not going far,” he says.  “I mean—I’m not going far.”

“You’re not?”

“But hop in.”

“Where you going?

“I’ll take you to a good spot.”

“I’m not sure, this is a pretty good spot right here…I might just wait for a longer ride.”

“Nah, hop in, man.  You’ll never get a ride here.  I’ll take you to a good spot where you can definitely get a ride.”

I throw in my bag.  “But wait, what spot?”

“I’ll take you up to where 81 hits 581.”

“Wait.  Is there an onramp there?”

“Yeah, yeah.  The highway splits.”

“…like, cars are going slow?”

“Yeah, they can slow down.”

I hesitate

“Yeah, come on.  Seriously, you’ll never get a ride here.  This is a good spot that I’ll take you.”

Something does not feel quite right.  (Are you getting that vibe too, just from reading this?)

I was hesitant at first.  Then, after I threw in my bag, my stomach flipped.  And now, as I’m about to climb in, I’m still getting a bad vibe.  Not from the guy, exactly, but from the situation.  I consider pulling my bag out.  But then I shrug.  What the hell.  Let’s test my intuition, test my ability to trust myself.  And it is a ride, at least.

As we drive, I am uncharacteristically quiet.  Something still feels wrong.  We make small talk, and he tells me about his hitchhiking and traveling days.  The more he talks, the more comfortable I grow with him, but I’m still not feeling good about the situation.  A couple minutes later, still on the interstate, he turns to me.  “Ok, here it is.”  We are going 70 miles an hour.  He hits the brakes and starts to pull over onto the shoulder.  “Wait—this is the exit?”  “Nah, just right here.”  “I thought you said there was a ramp.”  “There is—look.”  He pulls back on, cuts across the highway, and parks on the left shoulder.  Trucks rush past us, rattling the car.  He points across the median to where the highway splits.  “Over there.”  “Oh, dude.  I can’t actually hitch on the highway.”  I’m not doing this again.  “Sure you can.”  “Nah, man.  It’s illegal in Virginia.  If the cops see you out there, you’re gonna have a big problem.  That’s why you stand on onramps.  And when people are flying by at 70 miles an hour, nobody is gonna stop for you.”  “Sure they will.  There’s tons of traffic out here.  You’ll never catch rides on the ramp like where you were.”  I look over at him and we make eye contact.  “I can’t get out here, man.”  “You can’t?”  “No, I can’t.”  There was a brief silence.  “Please just take me up to the next exit.”  He obliges.

At the exit, I ask if maybe there’s a local bus station where he can leave me (so that I can undo what he has just done to my route, because there is no way to hitch out of this part of town).  He scratches his head.  “Not really…”  Eventually, he tells me that he has a few minutes, so he can take me up to the edge of town.  At the north end of Roanoke, we pull up next to an onramp.  “But you should walk down there on the highway where cars can see you,” he insists.  He lets me out, and I ignore everything I’m feeling and simply thank him for going out of his way to take me here.  There is no point in saying anything else.  When he drives away, I shake my entire body like a wet dog shaking off and I scream internally.  “WHEEEEEEEWWWWWWW,” I tell the sky.  That was nuts.

So, I ask myself.  What did I learn from that lovely experience?  TRUST YOUR INTUITION.  My gut told me it wasn’t a good idea to take the ride with him.  Yet at the same time, I definitely am grateful for the experience.  I felt like it was a bad idea to get into his car, but not a dangerous idea.  That’s what I felt, and my instincts turned out to be accurate even on that level of subtlety.  Next: he was a good person.  He thought he was helping me.  His intention was to help me—he just had a bad idea and horrible knowledge of effective hitchhiking strategy.  And he ultimately took me out of his way to help me, albeit after I insisted.

It’s not an absolutely terrible spot, where he leaves me.  It doesn’t take too long to get a ride, and when a friendly guy in a Ford Focus offers to take me just four miles down, I accept the short hop.

Now this is an interesting spot.  I arrive at 11:45AM.  The ramp is around the corner from several busy truck stops, and lots of out of state license plates pass me, which means people are probably heading long distances.  The onramp isn’t my favorite ever, but there is definitely enough space to pull over before the guardrail begins.  So this should be a pretty good hitching spot, no?  Also, bizarrely, there is a ‘no hitchhiking’ sign—a thumb with an X over it—but it’s facing the OFF ramp, next to the “Wrong Way and Do Not Enter” signs.  This continues throughout most of Virginia, and I never make sense of it.  No hitchhiking backwards up the off ramp?

I lean against an ‘Adopt a Highway’ sign.  After an hour, two hours, I’ve got nothing, even though a steady stream of cars continues to trickle by.  But it’s ok.  I don’t feel discouraged or doubt myself this time.  I am doing everything right and I know it—the spot is completely fine, I am smiling, the traffic is good and appropriate.  I suppose I could make a funny sign (“I don’t smell”) or something, but that’s about it.  So I wait, patiently, trusting in the Universe and the goodness of people, knowing that my ride is on his or her way, somewhere in the world, and that This Too Shall Pass.

During this two hour wait, at least a dozen police, state trooper, K9, and sheriff cars go by.  Probably more than that, actually.  They drive past on the cross street, and they either ignore me or they don’t notice.  So, what exactly is the deal with hitchhiking and cops?  Is it actually illegal?  The truth is, it varies state to state, precinct to precinct, officer to officer.  In most states, the law reads that an individual cannot be standing in the roadway to solicit a ride.  (Why would anyone stand in a roadway under any circumstance?)  Most states post those “Prohibited: Pedestrians, Bicycles, Self-Propelled Vehicles, etc.” signs at the base of the ramps.  The general rule of thumb (pun intended) seems to be that if you stick to the onramps and do not go past those signs up onto the highway, you are ok.  Though many officers have doubtless witnessed me hitchhiking, I’ve never had an interaction with one of them.  I’ve heard that often, cops will run ID checks on hitchhikers just to make sure they aren’t felons on the run, but in general, they have more important things to deal with.  Sometimes, if they are having a good day, I’ve heard stories of cops actually giving people short rides.  On bad days, I’ve heard of people who have received tickets.  All of this is running through my mind as these police cars drive past me.  I’ve also heard that Virginia State Troopers are supposedly harder than average on hitchhikers and transients in general.  So when a state trooper pulls into the left turn lane and sits there with his blinker on, waiting to turn up onto my onramp, my heart stops.  Damn.  I whip my thumb down, slowly pull out my water bottle, and take a few sips, fully expecting to get kicked off the highway.  Actually, I’m just ready to have a nice, polite chat.  Maybe I’ll get out of a ticket, maybe I’ll even finagle a ride.  But I am sure it’s about to be my first cop/hitchhiker interaction.  The light turns green, the trooper pulls onto the onramp, he glances at me, and then speeds up away onto the highway.

After two hours, I go up to the gas station to get something to drink.  I sit outside with the soda, halfheartedly flying a sign for a few minutes, and then decide to just go back to the ramp.  I start to think about where I might sleep if I can’t catch a ride.  Stay strong, man, I tell myself.  I’ve been stuck for a lot longer than this before.  Time ticks by, cops pass, and finally, after another hour, a beat up old sedan pulls into the shoulder!  I hop in next to a girl in her late twenties who immediately gives me an apple and her water bottle.  The driver’s side seatbelt buckle is broken and hers is buckled into the passenger one, and she deftly unbuckles it, loops it around mine, and then buckles mine, thus strapping us both in.  “Wow,” I say.  “That’s pretty clever.”  “Oh, it’s been this way forever, so I do that with my friends all the time.”  We SOAR.  It feels so good to see that onramp disappear.  I thank her over and over again.  She takes me 60 miles up the road, and we jam out to music the whole time.  It’s a sweet ride.  She starts to pull off at exit 213, just south of Staunton, and she even offers to take me up a little further if the ramp or traffic is bad.  But it’s a good spot, so I thank her all over again and we hug and part ways.

When she leaves me, I’m elated.  What a beautiful ramp—long and straight, good traffic.  I even have a guardrail to sit down on and relax.  This spot was practically made for hitchhiking.  There’s a gas station not too far away, and there’s even a stream far below down a hillside (water source) and sleeping spots for sure.  I am feeling so good.  I feel triumphant.  I made it so far….  I’m just outside Staunton.  I have friends of friends in Staunton, if I get stuck.  I’m making excellent time, and above all, this is working.  I am actually going to make it!

After thirty minutes of bliss, a chill backpacker type guy pulls over.  He’s only headed the few miles up into Staunton, so I turn down the ride, not yet wanting to leave this place.  Ten minutes later, another guy pulls over.  He’s also going to Staunton, and I say no.  I decide that if the next car is going to Staunton as well, I’ll know that this ramp is used mostly by local traffic and I’ll take the ride, maybe to a place better for catching something long distance.  Another car immediately stops.  “Where you headed?”  It’s a smiling guy with a stubbly face.  “Staunton.”  “Cool, sounds good!  I’ll take what I can get.”  I hop in.  He’s really friendly, and it turns out that he’s a former hitchhiker as well.  “Yeah, I’m gonna take you to a spot, it’s a great ramp with a lot of traffic heading out of town, just past the junction with 64.”  He knows what he’s saying, and this time I trust when he tells me it’s a good spot.  It’s not a long ride, and soon we approach the place where 64 splits off.  I tell him about other guy—“he told me he’d take me to a good spot, and he tried to drop me off like right there…” I point at the interstate junction as we fly past.  My driver frowns.  “That’s a terrible spot.”  “I KNOW!!!”  We get off at the next exit, and he does a U-turn and then pulls onto shoulder directly in front of the highway entrance.  He’s the first person all day who hasn’t made me run across six lanes of traffic to get to the ramp.  I profusely express my gratitude and he drives off.

Now this is actually quite possibly the most beautiful ramp I have ever seen.  The pavement stretches up into the distance and the shoulder is huge, big enough for even a truck to pull over.  The “Pedestrians Prohibited” sign is like twenty yards up, giving me way more than enough space, and the ramp cuts up through a small canyon, with rocky hills on either side.  This protection feels comforting; only people actually going up onto the highway can see me.  I like that better than having everybody and their grandmother who are driving through town watch me as they drive by.  I’m at the edge of Staunton, so most of the traffic is probably headed a decent distance north.  There’s a solid stream of cars, yet there are also breaks in the traffic, which lets me relax and soak it up rather than exhausting my arm.

15 minutes later, Brent pulls over.  He’s going up to Weyers Cave—not terribly far, but it’s a decent hop, especially since it’s getting late in the day.  I almost hesitate to get in because the spot is so good.  But the point of a good spot is to catch a ride, and I have done that, so it’s time to go.  When I tell him I’m on my way to DC, he says that he goes up there sometimes to protest.  “Oh, for Occupy Wall Street?”  “Actually, for the Tea Party.”  “Oh…wow.”  “Have you protested with Occupy?”  “Yeah, I have.”  Then we have a moment of reconciliation.  We all agree on the fundamentals: the system is broken.  “Yeah,” he says.  “If you think about it, we are all saying the same thing.  We say, the government is too big, and it’s corrupt.  You guys say, the banks and the corporations are too big, and they’re corrupt.  Which is basically no different.”  I nod.  We talk about travel, and we discuss the way different parts of the country are unique in their own ways.  People up in the northeast are in so much of a hurry.  And when they come down south, they tell him how surprised they are at everyone’s friendliness.  He just shrugs.  This is what he’s used to.  “But southern cooking,” he says.  “That is something I love.”  “Yeah, I actually just had my first gumbo the other day!”  When we reach Weyers Cave, I thank him for the ride.  “Now I’ll definitely make it up to Harrisonburg by tonight,” I say.  “Is that where you’re trying to get tonight?”  “Yeah, I’d like to.”  And he actually pulls back onto the highway and takes me the rest of the way up there.

Brent drops me off, and suddenly I’m standing in the middle of the suburbs of a college town.  I set my pack down and look around for a minute, taking in the surroundings: gas stations, a Panera, some restaurants, a strip mall with a Wal-Mart, Barnes and Noble, and some other stores.  I head across the street and walk into the bookstore.  At the counter in front of the café, I smile at the baristas.  “I know it might be silly to walk into a coffee shop and ask this question,” I say.  “But…do you know if there are any coffee shops around here?”  (I want to find a normal café, maybe something with an outdoor patio where I can dry out my sleeping bag, some place I can sit down and try to meet people.)  They can’t think of anything, but I chat with them for a few minutes, they give me a cup of coffee, and another lady asks if I’m hiking the Appalachian Trail.  I do need to let my bag dry before it gets dark (it hasn’t rained, but I’ve woken up each morning sopping wet from the night’s dew), so I sit outside on a bench for few minutes and lay my bag out in the sunlight.  What now?  I text a friend I have here, but she’s out of town tonight.  And the onramps suck.  How am I getting out of here?

I hike down to the end of the strip mall.  Two college girls pretend not to look at me and my raggedy filth as I walk by, so I decide I should embarrass them and talk to them.  “Is there a local bus that comes around here?”  I ask at the exact same moment that a bus pulls up in the center of the huge parking lot.  I walk over to the stop and check the route information, hoping to see something that might take me just an exit north out of town, but I can’t make sense of the complex timetable.  Plus, I have no idea where I actually am.  Instead, I wander down to the edge of Wal-Mart to look for a place I might stealth camp tonight, but I don’t see anything.  As I’m walking back, I weigh my options.  Should I go check the ramps?  Hunt for a spot to sleep?  Suddenly I get another powerful impulse to just walk back into the Barnes and Noble and make myself at home.  So I shrug and decide to do just that, even though I have no idea where I’ll sleep, how I’ll get out, or what I’ll do when it gets dark.

In line for another coffee, the guy behind me nods at my pack.  “That looks heavy.”  “Yeah, you wanna feel it?”  He uses both hands and lifts it up off my back.  I laugh.  “Ah, yeah, hold that up a little longer….”  I ask if he’s from here, and he tells me he is.  I ask if he has any idea about bus stuff, but he says there probably isn’t anything that heads out of town.  “The next major city is Winchester, and there’s probably not much before then,” he says.  “Hell, I’d take you, but I’m not going up that way.”  “Thanks dude…well here, get your coffee….”  “Want me to buy you anything?”  “Nah don’t worry about it.”  “Are you sure?”  “Yeah.”  “Are you sure!”  I laugh.  “Yeah, yeah.”  He waits for me at the cream and sugar station.  “How about this.  Look at this map with me so I can pick your brain for your expert local knowledge?”  “Absolutely!  Here, I’m already set up, my stuff is over there.”  I follow him to the table and slough off the pack.

I explain that I’m trying to make it up to I-66, which goes east into DC.  There’s a rest area fifteen miles north of Harrisonburg, and I muse that it would probably be easy to catch a ride out of there.  He thinks for a moment.  “Well, I’d take you up there if you want.”  “Wait, seriously?”  “Yeah.  Do you want to go now?”  “Wow.  Dude, this is amazing.  Well, what are you doing right now?  Did you come here to study?”  “Oh, I was just gonna screw around on my computer.”  “Ok.  You wanna do that for a little while, and I’ll just write, and we can head out whenever you want to?”  “Sounds good.”  We chat for a little while longer about school, travel, careers, textbook prices.  Then he turns to his computer and I flip open my notebook and we get to work.

Half an hour later he’s ready, and we take off.  We fly onto 81, and the sunset burns into the hills.  I talk about travel and faith and trust and how he has saved my ass.  He tells me that he’s been looking for a job, and he just had his first interview today.  He walked into a jeweler just to borrow a pen, and someone asked why he was all dressed up.  “Oh, I’ve got an interview today.”  “Have you ever done sales?  You should fill out an application.  Hell, you got time?  I’ll interview you right now.”  Then he was at the bank, depositing a couple checks.  Again the manager asked what he was dressed up for.  “I have an interview….”  “Good luck.  I’d hire you.”  “Uh…really?  You would hire a 20 year old college kid?”  “Yeah, definitely.  You know what, go fill out an application on the website.”  So now he suddenly has three prospective job opportunities.  “You know,” he says to me.  “I don’t necessarily believe in karma, but I think that things come around.  And I had a great day today, so why shouldn’t I help someone else have a great day?  Giving you this ride is just my way of completing the circle.”

When he drops me off at the rest area, I thank him a hundred times, and we part.  On my way out of the bathroom, I run into him again.  “Eh, I figured I’d use it while I’m here.”  I stand outside looking at the posted rules (no camping or panhandling, but it says nothing about loitering or soliciting rides) and the Virginia state map.  When he comes out, we say goodbye again.  “Oh, by the way…” he holds out a wad of bills.  “It’s $17.  It’s all I have with me.  You have to take it.”

He drives away, and I’m alone at the rest area in amazement.  An attendant in an orange vest is walking around checking trashcans and wiping down water fountains, and I wonder if he cares that I’m here.  I strike up a conversation with him to find out how he reacts to me, but he just seems bored.  Away from the main building with the restrooms, covered picnic benches are scattered across an expanse of grass and sidewalks.  I leave my pack at one of them and explore the area.  Beyond the truck parking, a hill drops steeply down to a wide concrete drainage ditch, out of sight from the rest of the area.  Cars leave the parking lot and slowly make their way back to the highway; there’s plenty of space to stand and hitch or even chat with people through their windows.  And right in front of the bathrooms/vending machines, there are a handful of wooden benches where I could sit and strike up conversations as people arrive.

I head back to my picnic table and write for a little while by yellow lantern light.  The temperature has dropped, and I pull on a warm hat against the cold.  When the stars are twinkling overhead, I make sure the attendant isn’t around and I scramble down the steep hill to the ditch, where I drop my pack and lay out my sleeping bag.  The lights don’t reach me down here.  I wriggle into my bag, zip myself into its warm, and sleep soundly.

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