New Market, VA to Washington, D.C.: 125 miles
I sit on the bench in front of an I-81 rest area on a chilly Saturday morning, flying a sign that says “TRYING TO GET HOME TO WASH DC.” I’m a little nervous about the rest area attendants (the guy from last night is gone and there are two new people this morning) but they still ignore me. I appeared over the crest of the hill in stealth mode this morning when nobody was looking, so I do wonder if they wonder where I came from. A ride does not come quickly. I’m out there for three hours. I smile at people. I watch the sky. I use the bathroom. I scribble in my notebook. Waiting becomes a meditation, an exercise in patience, and I try to stop focusing on the ride and start enjoying the blessed warmth of the rising sun, though thunderclouds have begun to darken the horizon. An old woman walks by and wishes me luck, and gray clouds tumble in over the sun. The sky flits back and forth between pockets of sunshine and threats of rain, and I remind myself to keep faith and not to worry.
People are friendly, at least. Many of them come say hi and tell me they can’t give me a ride but they hope I find one soon. A happy Québécois man strikes up a conversation with me as he’s doing exaggerated leg stretches. “Ave yoo veezeeteed Canada?” he asks in his thick French Canadian accent. I mention that I had just traveled through BC and the Yukon a few months back. “Ah, BC ees good, eh?” “Yeah, it is so beautiful…. So you’re heading back to Quebec right now!” “Yes?” “Is there any chance you’d want to give me a ride up a few miles?” “I canNOT! We ah com-PLEH-tly fool. It wood be a plehzoor, but zeh ees no space even for a bag of peanoots!”
I make friends with one of the new morning attendants. “So, you’re trying to get to DC,” she says. I smile. “How did you know? Hmm, you must have seen my sign.” I lower my voice to a whisper. “Is it ok for me to have this sign out here???” She doesn’t care at all, so I take it out and prop it up against my bag even more obviously, and under “TRYING TO GET HOME TO WASH DC” I add “even just 30 miles up to I-66 would help a lot!” Not five minutes after this upgrade, a trucker type with tattoo sleeves glances at me as he strides by. “You hitchhiking? Where ya headed?” He doesn’t even read the sign. “I’m heading to DC.” He looks blank. “I’m heading up 81, just trying to get up to the junction with I-66 if possible.” “Up to 66. Ok, yeah, I’ll take you up to 66. Come on.” “Ah, THANK YOU!” I leap up, sling the pack over my shoulder, and follow him over to a white pickup with two other guys sitting up front. He tells me to hop in the back. “Thank you so much—this is incredible. Can you guys let me out one stop before we get to 66?” They tell me to just knock on the window.
So I lie down and lean back against the cab and we cruise. The wind rushes over me and I face backward, watching the road zoom away into the distance. Some people we pass point at me and wave. Through patches of cloud the sun smiles down on me and grazing cows. I knock when we approach my exit, and they all nod. A couple minutes later they pull over onto the shoulder just before the exit ramp, I jump out and thank them profusely, and they smile and drive off. There is seriously nothing I love more than getting a ride in the open bed of a pickup truck.
I walk the quarter mile up the off ramp (ramps are so much longer on foot than in a car) and then I cross the street and head to the onramp. The spot is beautiful; the shoulder is wide and traffic soars onto the ramp from both directions. Trees sway on both sides beneath unfurling gray. This is the last exit out of a little town called Strasburg, the last exit before I-66, just two miles away from the junction. I figure, if I can find anyone going to 66, even if it’s only a short ride, I’ll at least be pointing in right direction.
I’m not out there fifteen minutes before a guy stops. “Yeah, hell, I’ll take you to 66,” he says. I ask where he’s going. “I’m going the other way, but it’s right here, I don’t mind taking you up there.” We fly, he tells me a strange story about cowboys, and soon we merge onto 66. He drives for about a minute or two, and then he pulls over in front of an ‘unauthorized vehicles prohibited’ police turnaround. “Um…would you mind taking me to an exit?” “Nah, this is fine, man.” “Uhh…please?” “No, I can’t go any further, because I’ve gottta turn around right here.” “What? How far is the next exit?” “It’s just a hundred yards up the road.” “Can you take me?” “I don’t have too much gas. Don’t worry, people out here are friendly. You’ll get a ride in no time.” Is it because I’m so close, on my last highway with only 60 miles to go, that I get careless? Rather than just go back with him in any direction until he can leave me at an exit, I actually get out. He offers me a few bucks, does the illegal turnaround, and drives away. I walk 50 yards down the road and realize I am screwed.
I look around. There is absolutely nothing here. The highway stretches into infinity in both directions. Old farmhouses rest on a hilltop half a mile away. Tall golden grasses whip in the gusts of wind that sweep across the roadway. I pull out my tattered map and squint. The next exit is, amazingly, eight miles away. And to go back would be at least two miles to the highway junction and another two to the last exit. So I’m at least four miles from anything. I silently curse the guy who just took me here. I stand trying to hitch for about ten minutes, and then realize that this is going to be completely impossible. Nobody’s gonna stop going this fast, especially if they wonder why someone decided to kick me out of their car here in the middle of nowhere. Not to mention the illegality of standing out here on the interstate. I actually start to hope for a cop to show up—yes, write me a ticket, but please just get me out of here. Well Dave, how in the hell are you gonna get yourself out of this one? After a moment’s pause, I grin. This kind of situation is what I thrive on.
There’s only one thing that I can really think to do. So I hop the barbed wire fence that runs along the interstate and scramble down a hill to an unlined 10 mph road that weaves up towards the farmhouses. Everything is deserted. The clouds have evaporated and the sun burns hot. When I finally reach a house, I follow a path through the yard up to the front door and I ring the doorbell. What the hell am I going to say? Hi, I’m a hitchhiker and I got stranded not far from your house because somebody just dropped me off on the side of the highway but ya can’t hitchhike out on the interstate like that because it’s impossible to catch rides when cars are going so fast and now I don’t know what to do or where I am? Suddenly the door opens. An old woman waves her hand at me. “Dorsey’s in the workshop,” she says before letting the door go. “Wait! I’m not looking for Dorsey. I…uh….” I falter. “I’m a traveler, just passing through, and I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind giving me some water.” She stares at me, studying me for a moment. “Hang on,” she finally says, and she lets the door slam. I hear things clanging through the window. A moment later she returns with a cup full of ice water. “Just leave the cup on the stoop when you’re done.” “Thank you so much. Oh, also!” “Yes?” “Can you tell me how to get to the closest town?” “That’s Strasburg. It’s a long way. Just keep following this road, turn right at the corner up there, then left, then it‘ll take you to 11, turn right there and that’ll take you in to town.” “Ok, thank you….”
The door shuts and I’m left on this woman’s front stoop. I drink the water and set the cup down. This hasn’t particularly helped my situation. I return to the road and start walking again. Maybe I can try to flag someone down if I see a car. Or, I might be able to hitch once I hit 11, wherever the hell that is. As I approach the next property, I see a guy on a riding mower up a hill on his lawn. I wave, he waves, I signal and take a step up the hill towards him, and he rides over and kills the motor. Two barking dogs follow him, tails wagging. “Hi,” I say. “So…uh… I’m lost.” I grin.
He chuckles. “Well…where you tryna get?” “Umm….” so I launch into my story. “Shoot,” he finally says. “So you’re tryna go out to 66…well, the nearest exit is way down in Front Royal.” He thinks for a moment. “Well…come on up here, the dogs don’t bite, I’ll run and get the keys to the truck.” “Excuse me?” “Yeah, I’ll just take you down there myself.”
And he drives me six miles through curving wooded back roads to the ramp in Front Royal: civilization again! And what a beautiful spot this is. I’m near a McDonalds and a gas station, the ramp is great, and I’m just under 60 miles from DC. This is it. I just have to get down this road (actually even just as far as Vienna and I’ve hit the metro system) and I’ve made it. I prepare to hit the road, but instead I just walk up the hill beside this ramp to a little spot next to a nice grove of pine trees. I sit on my pack in the shade and relax for a few minutes, soaking it all up.
I hitch for twenty or thirty minutes and then suddenly feel a strong impulse to walk over to McDonalds. I hesitate for a good moment, because I am trying to hitchhike here, not sit around in McDonalds, but my intuition has been trustworthy on this trip (as always), so I shrug and listen to the urge. As I walk up, I see an old homeless guy with a pack sitting outside. He smiles when he sees me. I shake his hand, and we chat. He just made it from Albuquerque to Knoxville in three rides, and then from Knoxville to here in another two. Before going inside, I ask if he needs anything. “Nope.” “How much money you got?” “Bout $75.” “Shit, more than me.” (I’d started with about 20 bucks, which had gone into food, coffee, and local transportation; I now had $35, the sum of the money that had been given to me on the road by different people. If I’d had more than he did, I would have split my money with him.) I go in, wash up, get a coffee, and sit down next to my pack. I can tell that the woman next to me wants to ask me questions, so I strike up a conversation with her. She’s so excited to talk about travels, and she wants to give me a ride (in her mustang convertible) but I have to turn it down because she is going north on 81 and not east. She really wants to do something for me, and I try to explain that her willingness alone is enough of a gift.
So finally I return to ramp, ready to move east. I sit on my pack, thumb and fly my DC sign, and after a joyful hour or so, a small beat up black 2-door civic pulls over. I run up to the window; they are heading to Woodbridge. It’s far east, but south of DC on the I-95 corridor. Why not. The guy in the passenger seat hops out and folds the seat down, and I stuff in my bag and crawl in. These guys have full tattoo sleeves, chain smoke cigarettes, and drive stick shift with loud hip hop bass pulsing through the car. They’re on their way to a mechanic job out in Woodbridge. They are great, and we are enjoying each others’ company when after ten miles the car begins to overheat. The driver swears and slams his hand against the dashboard. (“This keeps happening,” he turns around and explains to me.) So we pull over, they whip out the tool kits, pop the hood, and deftly perform some sort of practiced jerry rigged surgery. Finally they get it to work, we get back on the road, and the car immediately overheats again. They pull off, add bottles and bottles of antifreeze, tweak their surgery, and we get back on the road. Ten miles down, the car overheats again.
Sweating on the side of the highway, cigarettes droop from their mouths as they lean under the hood, trying not to burn themselves on the hot car. “Bet you’re glad you took a ride with us now.” “Actually, this is one of the more efficient rides I’ve had.” Finally, in a fit of anger, one of the guys simply rips the offending part out of the car. Some random nuts and screws go in instead, and we just hit the road. The car does not overheat again. I’m trying to figure out when they will pull off 66 towards Woodbridge and when I should get out, but they suggest I just come all the way with them—there’s a bus terminal, and I could catch something up to the metro in Springfield. So we settle into the drive. They ask me about the kinds of people I meet through my travels. I tell them how that’s probably my favorite part about being on the road. People all have their own little rituals, their own little universe. “Right now you guys are drinking Monster and smoking cigarettes and listening to hip hop cranked up. Yesterday there was with a guy who chewed loose leaf tobacco, and the lady with a spotless car who drank herbal tea and listened to classical music, or there are people with a cross or rosary beads hanging from the rearview. Whatever it is, I get to step into each of these little universes for a couple minutes. “Have you met any crazy people?” I laugh. “People always ask me that. But I’m sorry to say that I don’t have any good stories there. The worst thing that’s happened to me is getting dropped off in a bad spot.” “So you think there’s more good people in the world than bad?” “You know, I just met someone a couple days ago who broke it down like this. He estimated—and this was about hitchhiking only, not about the goodness of people in general, because he was only talking about whether people would stop to give you rides—that 10-20% of the world wants to help you out. 70-80% of people don’t care if they see you out there. And 5% are bad people who want to hurt you.
“I’ve been thinking about that. And there’s no way that could be. Because here’s the thing. When you are standing on the side of the road, often hundreds of cars will pass you before you get a ride. Hundreds. If 5% of the world was bad people who wanted to hurt you, that would mean that 1 in 20 people want to hurt you. 20 cars go by every 15 seconds on a highway.
“So, rather than 1 in 20, here’s my estimate. Each day on the road, probably at least 10,000 cars notice you. (This is combining: time spent standing on ramps. Time walking on highway not hitching. Time walking through town with pack. Time sitting out flying a sign. Etc.). If none of these people come try to hurt me, that means that in my personal experience, less than 1 in 10,000 people want to hurt me (that’s 0.01%). That’s based on a single day. I’ve been on the road like this at least a hundred different days, so that makes it 0.0001%. So, based only on my own personal experience, which I completely acknowledge might be different from that of others—in my experience, the breakdown is more like this: between 0.1% and 1% of people will go out of their way to stop for you and help you out. 98.9999% of people pass you by (at best, they want to help but don’t, cant’, or are afraid to, so they could be considered potentially good, and at worst, they are harmless), and less than 0.0001% of people (maybe MUCH less than that) are bad and want to hurt you.”
It’s not long before we arrive in Woodbridge. They take me out of their way to drop me off directly at the transit station in Dale City, where I thank them profusely and we part ways. It is then that I learn there is no bus up to the Springfield metro on weekends.
I ponder this one for a moment.
I ask a bus driver what he would do. He suggests that I take a taxi. I am fifteen miles from the metro. I call a cab company and they tell me it will probably be about 30 bucks. So I say yes. Even though 30 bucks is the same amount it would cost to get to DC from Boston; I realize that it is much less about the money as it is about the feeling of having accomplished what I set out to do. Taking a $30 bus from Roanoke, Virginia would have felt like giving up. But taking this $30 taxi the last fifteen miles? I could easily camp out until Monday and catch a bus. I could search craigslist for a rideshare. I could make a friend on couchsurfing who might drive me the distance. I could find my way to a coffee shop and try to meet someone. I could even attempt the tough hitchhike up suburban I-95. But there is no need. It’s 5PM on Saturday, day 4 of this journey, and I’ve made it far enough. I’ve done what I needed to do.
The taxi shows up. My driver is named Gabriel and he’s from Ghana. He’s amazed that I hitchhiked here from Memphis. We chat about life, work, travel, and he encourages me to visit West Africa. I tell him he is my last ride home at the end of this journey, and he is thrilled. When he drops me off, the final price is $35—the exact amount I have been given over the last four days.
I hop on the subway in Springfield. I can’t believe where I am. I slip on my headphones and rest my arm on my huge pack, staring out the windows into the sunset as we cruise up the highway past clogged traffic. I stand out. My clothes are ripped, my face caked with dirt, my dreadlocks a tangled mess. I sit in silence. All these people with briefcases or purses, on their ways home from work or school or a day in DC, none of them know who I am or where I just came from.
In downtown McLean I walk into my favorite coffee shop, the place to which I always return when I am in town, the place where I have spent hours upon countless hours engaged in the act of writing. The sunset is still raging when I arrive. Matt is behind the counter. When I walk in, he throws up his hands. “You’re back!” He makes my favorite drink and I tell him how I got here, in between customers. Then I sit out on the patio writing until he gets off work and joins me outside. “Well,” he says when it’s dark and we are ready to leave. “You need a ride anywhere?” I smile. “Yeah.” I ask him to drop me off at a trail by my neighborhood, and I stand in the woods for a long moment looking up at the sky through darkened tree branches. Then I shoulder my pack for the last time and walk down the street to my house.