"Gas jugging" and coke dealers: hitchhiking for the first time (Ann Arbor, MI to Chicago)

A clumsy, narrative manifesto

Chicago (West) Please!


Gas jugging: click here to jump to how Matt and Galen got free gas crossing the country

[The bulk of this was written the day after I returned, and I would be enthralled to receive comments and criticism. I hope you find it entertaining]

Final night in The City of Big Shoulders, and falling asleep under the stars had a romance about it. Considering the city lights usually wash out the dim pokes from above, the timing seemed fortunate. Indeed, that grassy area hinted that the Traveling Gods purposefully carved it out, with proud grins on their faces high above. A divine reward, since I decided to indulge my pull to hitchhike a bit and pay them proper respects.


The back of my eyelids eventually shut out the still slightly spinning stars, and the grass that cradled my body felt like a down mattress, or maybe even one those adjustable beds that look royally comfortable on TV infomercials late at night. You would be right in sensing that I was feeling smug at this point.

Yet still, to my not entirely unexpected chagrin, the romanticism quickly faded a few hours later when my eyes shot open to the slowly creeping sunrise and the loud crack of a tee-off down the fairway along Lakeshore Drive. I hoped it was perfectly directed; the masochistic sort of human that would voluntarily get out of bed that early to hit a ball on grass was owed some reason to not regret it. My sudden dislike for this individual was compounded by the fact that my head was throbbing, mouth parched, and I could count a handful of ants crawling on me that I guessed represented the ten percent of the iceberg floating above the water. A weird mix of how-did-I-get-here-again laughter and moaning quickly drew muttered whispers directed toward the heretofore unnoticed vagrant laying in the rough, including at some point the words “hobo” and “dressed up or something”.

But let’s rewind.

A few days previous, the laboratory had become a bit tiresome. A few good experimental results and even more ambiguous and not so great results were being compounded by two months of unreasonably long hours of studying and self-imposed nerve wracking for the medical school admissions exam. This led the summer road to whisper, then yell.

A quick exchange of messages with an old roommate revealed a not-so-convenient time to visit in Chicago the coming weekend. Other friends were coming and he had paid organ performances every morning for funerals. Apparently it wasn’t problem, but reading it from the computer screen conjured images of it being said either genuinely or muttered in that aloof, hesitant way that is viscerally understood as just being polite. Knowing him well I interpreted it as the former, and my own concern for his situation was drown out by stubbornness in wanting to hitch to Chicago after first casually, then seriously, reading about thumbing.

Stage set: backpack, tent, a change of clothes, toiletries, knife, cardboard, marker. All of it was laid out nicely, ready to be packed in a smooth and efficient manner.

Yet with curious timing my future-oriented attitude was nipped in the bud when the neighbors called saying they needed help polishing off the last bit of a keg that night. Woops. So after a short delay of chewing the fat—and making the hitching plans known so that it would be harder to back out—I moseyed over to the campus computer lab to print off some maps of the route to Chicago. It was more or less a straight shot, but I wanted to get maps of the greater Chicago area so I would have my bearings if dropped in the South or West Side in an inopportune time of day. There was no delusion to disregard my unimposing appearance, meaning a bit of preparation was in order. I had been to Chicago on at least two separate occasions, but it didn’t help in recalling the here and there of the city.

Drinks helped oil banter until far too late considering my discount of the all too pressing issue of packing for a trip to Chicago and back preferably without being raped, murdered, or robbed. I still had the lingering belief that that actually happened to hitchhikers (thanks Hollywood). The intoxication of possibility provided the adrenal push, and the existential need to explore what some deemed a suicide ticket provided the resolve to carry it through.

I excused myself from the neighbors’ with the mission to pack for the next day. Like lots of other missions mired in procrastination and casual drinking, it rapidly crumbled at the sight of a bed and the clock reading 4am. Alarm set at 8am. Lights out. I needed to have some energy to put on a smile while sitting on the highway on-ramp, or at least that’s what the veterans recommended on the online tips. No need to look like what the media had already determined a hitchhiker looked like. That is, a bloody, murderous rampage waiting to happen.

The paradigm for hitchhiking, and good travelling in general, is “less is more”

The alarm was predictably followed by the sharp realization that alcohol, and an incredibly low tolerance of it, often leads to uncomfortable mornings for my head. After stumbling in messy form to the painkiller and quickly sucking it into my body cavity, there was a brief moment of clarity in which I mentally shook myself, took a few gulps of water, and realized the packing wasn’t going to be as difficult as anticipated. The paradigm for hitchhiking, and good travelling in general, is “less is more”; I took stock of what was necessary, not so necessary, and shoved the former into the neglected backpack that was desperate for attention the night before.

A longer than expected hike to where Jackson hit I-94 was checked off the to-do list, during which a metamorphosis from “head ache” to “raised heartbeat resulting from acute awareness of what the hell is happening” occurred; a shorter, slightly stumbling blond-haired college student transformed into an even sweatier-than-normal-palmed, dilated-pupil child in the face of the unknown. The words “CHICAGO (WEST) PLEASE!” scribbled themselves in Sharpie onto a white cardboard background, and arms that pretended they knew what they were doing suspended it hopefully. My expectation was at least a 30 minute period of hailing automotive passersby before a driver would consent, but it took less than the time required to make the sign. Hot damn.

Two kids with a guitar, an assortment of clothes in the back seat, and the pungent smell of body odor pulled up in a rusted Lumina and opened their car with smiles.

“We’re heading to Madison and passing through Chicago, hop in man!”

I absolutely, enthusiastically obliged. With my best efforts at concealing initial anxiety at being in a stranger’s car and disbelief that it had occurred so swiftly and effortlessly, conversation flowed freely and abundantly. After about 10 minutes I more or less mentally relaxed, and all parties seemed to acknowledge the sort of indescribable trust that occurs in those sorts of situations that society never really addresses and your parents never warned you about. I mean, I was asking to get into the demonized “stranger’s car”. I was hitchhiking, which is fundamentally just asking to ride in a car. The action itself was not what queued up preconceived notions, but rather the state of mind—and to some, the assumed reckless abandon of “safety”—surrounding the action.

Galen and Matt were from Vermont, Galen having finished one year of college and Matt a high school drop-out. Within my little hitchhiking bubble, “drop-out” didn’t have the sort of negative connation it usually does, but rather a nice ring that proclaimed an understanding that you can learn just as much from the road and actually living life as sitting in a classroom trying to appease teachers and filtering through potentially useless information. Since the fellas didn’t have much in the way of financial security, they were making it across the country “gas jugging” or "gas canning". Not wanting to appear naïve and admit my ignorance of this subtly subversive-sounding term, I just waited and carefully observed an incredible episode when we made a stop a gas station.

Upon pulling up to the station, Matt hopped out and fetched a two gallon gas tank from the trunk. Carefully eyeing a very middle class-appearing man pumping gas, he approached with an innocent countenance.

“Sir, my friends and I are trying to get back to school and ran out of fuel, could you spare a splash of gas?”

The man was helpless to deny the baby-faced, innocent young “scholar”, and slid the nozzle into the tank to fill it up. Smirking while walking back, Matt dumped it into the tank and waited for the next opportunity to arrive. Time after time along the few hundred miles to Chicago the method never failed. They had received at least $300 in gas since Vermont. The underlying psychology was really quite simple; people don’t like to donate money when they have no idea where it is going, but when a young gentleman approaches downtrodden and desperate even the most miserly individual can spare five or six dollars worth of gas. It’s a classic win-win situation. The donor has done his good deed for the day, can pat himself on the back, and think, “there’s no way I’m going to Hell after that Jesus-caliber helping-of-the-poor”, and the recipient receives $5 worth of gas and, more importantly, the chance to extend a life-altering journey.

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0 #1 Sarah Hogan 2010-04-19 01:55
Hello Tyler,

I am a writer in Chicago working on a piece about modern-day hitchhiking. I stumbled across your blog and it seems like you've got a wealth of experience "thumbing it".

I would love to ask you a few questions about your experiences on the road, if you're willing.

Please email me at m.edu if you get the chance. I would love to talk to you.

0 #2 Chris 2010-10-19 17:20
"When the unknown and unpredictable have infinitely more potential, why constantly relive the known and predictable in such a short amount of life?"
I found this quote very inspirational. I have recently been traveling the Midwest using my own car, but your weekend adventure seems to have had more occurrences than my entire 2 weeks on the road.
0 #3 Tim Shey 2011-06-09 20:59
This is a very good paragraph:

"Initially shaped by the ratings-hungry media and overprotective fear mongering, my preconceived notion of hitchhiking was obliterated by reality, and I couldn’t help but wonder how many other beliefs would fair equally as poorly when abruptly confronted. So I suppose there were no real, solid lessons to be gleaned, but rather just a severely needed reminder: if escape, if growth, if tasting excitement is the goal, I needn’t more than slip into the world around me—the real world that I all too often gloss over. The world took me by surprise: cars became opportunities instead of things to dodge, getting in strangers’ vehicles was the goal instead of the fear, strip malls along the freeway became imaginary adversaries instead of objects that are mentally filtered out, and people were stories and not statistics. My surroundings all had new color, yet never changed."

I enjoyed your story a lot. This is definitely original stuff.

I have been hitchhiking the United States for most of fifteen years now. I first read the first part of this story on Digihitch.com.

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