"Gas jugging" and coke dealers: hitchhiking for the first time (Ann Arbor, MI to Chicago) - Page 2

After a ride of about 6 hours with these intermittent stops, we rolled into the Windy City along the shore and I hopped out right near my friend’s apartment. That was it, hitchhiking. Good people, good chats, good stories, and I learned about an interesting way to fill up your gas tank. After exchanging knowing smiles and contact info, I stepped out into the streets of Chicago with disbelief at the ease of how things work if you just surrender yourself to what some like to call “The Universe”. Or, to sum up my attitude at the time, doing something having many possible outcomes, both good and bad, armed with the attitude of non-interference unless disaster is nearly unavoidable. On this ride, disaster could not have been more opposite to what actually occurred.

Most consider travel time a burden, but if utilized in a non-traditional manner, a potentially dull part of travelling becomes extraordinarily interesting and fulfilling

A joyous reunion between former roommates and various night activities ensued that were, considering the intricacies of getting there, a natural continuation of my trip instead of something to wait for while idly pushing the gas pedal. Going out at night in a new city is usually preceded by multiple variations of “this night is going to be awesome!”, yet rarely does it achieve the expectation unless one is content to part with significant amounts of cash, equates awesome with being belligerently drunk, possesses a fondness of perception altering drugs, and/or is particularly enticed by performing coitus with a possible reservoir of venereal diseases. This is a symptom of, as far as I can tell, a cliché but willfully accepted neglect for the journey and fixation on the destination. Most consider travel time a burden, but if utilized in a non-traditional manner, a potentially dull part of travelling becomes extraordinarily interesting and fulfilling. Thus, “going out” becomes just icing on one delicious, migratory cake.

Indeed, hitchhiking was a fresh topic of bar conversation in what would otherwise be a mundane pattern of feigning interest in the details of someone’s life. From it came an invitation, politely declined, to join a bachelorette party and participate in activities that I believe would have endangered my abilities to reproduce. I suppose my weekend quota for pushing societal norms was more than fulfilled with hitchhiking. So with two nights of exploring the Chicago nightlife, a day of recovery and beach between them, losing contact with the person I was staying with, and a plan of sleeping on the golf course that would have otherwise been abandoned as incredibly ill-conceived, Sunday morning made itself known with me slightly greasy, sleep deprived, and the sound of golf-club-smacking-ball lingering in my ear. Ah yes, and the accusation of being a hobo. Yet the most prominent feeling was that of delight. Well, and a dash of humility.

Propped up on a bench near the golf course, a call came in from my host apologizing; his phone died and he was too blitzed to remember to plug it in when he got back. The preoccupation with how I was going to get out of Chicago and back to Ann Arbor took the place of any sort of disappointment that he left me locked out and on the street. Honestly, I couldn’t have cared less, since the grass ended up being a descent place to shut my eyes. There was also something unfortunately hilarious about the fact that the golf course was directly across the street from his apartment building with a security guard that wouldn’t let me in the night before—and the backpack that contained the tent for situations when I didn’t have a place to sleep.

Internet reconnaissance revealed hitching out of Chicago as a task not to be taken lightly. The general consensus was that it was best to take a train out of the city into the suburbs and then get to the highway, lest one is dropped in a neighborhood that would gladly beat any sort of naïveté out of an unsuspecting transient after taking everything valuable. Yet on my smugly assholeish high horse thumbing out of downtown didn’t present itself as much of a challenge. How hitchhiking was more tolerable than public transport wasn’t too clear, but it didn’t help my smugness that I ended up being right about getting out of the city. The harder part was the suburbs.

After parting with my friend around 9 am and a promise to hitch back soon, I made my way to the closest on-ramp to Lakeshore Drive. After a mental debate over what to put, a few not-so-masterful marker strokes painted “94 E” onto the cardboard. I feared it was too general, but didn’t put Ann Arbor to avoid unneeded specificity. After about thirty seconds with the sign, a Jag stopped with an Australian professor from the University of Chicago, willing to take me to the I-94 on-ramp. Realizing I was damn lucky with such a short wait, we took off through the city center and ended our discussion with the vacuous conclusion that “Americans need more perspective”. A display of his appreciation that people were still hitchhiking took the form of a certified banknote with Mr. Lincoln staring at me. I reflected for a moment that I actually thought Lincoln Avenue was a pain in the ass, but there was no time for that with the on-ramp beneath my feet.

With the same sign, forty five minutes passed when a minister with the Seventh Day Adventist Church stopped and welcomed me into his car. After learning he was heading to “Lansing”, I was enthused and settled in for a long ride back to my beloved Great Lake State. The conversation quickly turned to what Seventh Day Adventist meant, since I was essentially clueless. The protracted explanation failed to sink in with two hours of sleep and a lack of caffeine, conditions not too appropriate for a theological discussion. He explained how the Sunday Sabbath was a remnant of pagan syncretism when the dirty, dirty idolaters worshiped the sun. Another filthy display of syncretism was the Christmas tree, which he claimed was a phallic symbol back when fertility wasn’t something you could go to a clinic and fix. His claim was comically backed up by rhetorically asking what I thought the decorative bulbs represented.

When Mr. Willis got off the highway after about 30 minutes, it appeared like a gas stop. A quick glance at the fuel gauge and spotting of a water tower displaying “LANSING” indicated to me that there was a difference between Lansing, Indiana and Lansing, Michigan. Disappointment crept in, but a cheerful blessing from Mr. Willis pushed it aside as he directed me towards the best route going east. I gave my thanks and hopped over to the on-ramp with the trusty “94 E” sign and the additional “MICHIGAN” written for clarity. I felt my luck was too good to not get a ride.

Two and a half hours later, I was still surrounded by the generic gas stations, strip malls, and fast food restaurants that plague just about every suburban highway exit, and no ride. I could tell the Travelling Gods were getting back at me for my prior smugness, and they wished to drain it out of me with excessive UV exposure and dehydration. The wind had blown my hat off several times and was taking its toll on the structural integrity of my sign, neither of which was good for morale. With sign torn, arms burnt, mouth cottony, and patience waning, a hitchhiking no-no was appearing like a good option. Stripmallville, Indiana was thwarting attempts at leaving from its right-angled grip, so I jumped over the on-ramp retaining wall and onto the freeway shoulder.

Ten minutes passed before a 90s Honda Civic pulled to halt, and then actually started backing up in the shoulder towards oncoming traffic. Figuring this was a hint of intoxication, I was skeptical on the approach. A goofy smirk from the driver and the smell of giggle weed wafting out the passenger window justified the skepticism. A relieved sigh let itself go past my lips upon sitting in the car, without much concern that the driver was flying like a kite. Originally from Puerto Rico, he was driving back from Chicago to work in Boston after visiting his baby mama and a daughter.

“Fumas?”

He offered a menthol Newport, and in a desperate attempt to stay awake I sucked it greedily down to the filter, extracting as much nicotine as possible. Two hours of sleep on grass (albeit well-manicured), moderate sunburn, and thirst teamed up and proved a formidable opponent to nicotine’s nervous stimulation and a light sleep ensued. A few minutes passed when a gentle nudge interrupted the much needed shuteye, accompanied by his beckoning that I roll a blunt. Saying I wasn’t familiar with the technique, he took it upon himself to cut open the cigar with his thumb, fill it, and roll it back up. This, while riding with a moderate swerve at about 90 mph, was still not enough to arouse much concern in my exhaustion. I took the opportunity to offer him my knife to help in the task, serving as both a nice gesture and indication that I, well, had a knife.

After a quick nap and a food stop, we got back in the car. I saw a conflicted look on his face, and asked if everything was alright. Revealing his girlfriend was pushing him to stay in Chicago and work, he made it known in a strong Puerto Rican accent his irritation that the insolent female would suggest such a thing.

“She should be happy I visit. Damn, it’s a privilege to be with a man, they need learn live with us, no?”

I half-heartedly muttered that her attitude was ridiculous, seeing as I wasn’t about to get into a possible argument over women’s rights; I was quite familiar with the Latino machismo, and reluctant to disagree with the cultural views of my link to Michigan.

Rehydrated and nourished with a chicken sandwich, I was better able to take in the semi-fresh air of the highway and remember the feeling of attachment to the road. After a long silence, I tried to break the inherent awkwardness of picking up a hitchhiker with a question about what he thought about Sotomayor, a fellow Puerto Rican, being appointed to the Supreme Court.

“Eeeeeeesa puta me metió entre rejas! Diez años!”

“Por qué?”

As it turned out, my Puerto Rican friend was a cocaine dealer fresh off a ten year sentence, and the judge that put him there happened to also carry the name Sotomayor. Trying not to fall into uncomfortable dead air resulting from my shock that I was in a swerving metal death trap going about 95 mph with a baked coke dealer, I squeezed out a laugh and gently prodded as to how he ended up there. Despite the obvious discomfort with the situation that had just emerged, it quickly faded when the conversation turned to the various merits and drawbacks of land-based versus water-based automotive toys. Well, and noticing that he had missed the exit to I-80 and was heading on east I-94 straight to Ann Arbor. After conversing a while I indicated the upcoming exit as my final destination, and said farewell.

“Que dios te bendiga!”

“Igual a tí!”

Slowly retracing the route on Jackson road that I had taken two and a half days prior, I was searching for lessons or aphorisms that could sum up the experiences of the past few days. My mind in no state to really reflect in great depth, the only conclusion drawn was that life, if you just let it, can take you in places you wouldn’t otherwise go. Recalling that conclusion after a bit of rest, though, it seems a bit lacking; many let life take them in places like addiction, violence, or insignificance, and that wasn’t really what I was going for. Perhaps a bit of judgment with a yearning for newness was a better way to describe my approach, but that certainly was not a good catchphrase.

The actions realized and decisions made were the result of a confluence of previous experiences that led a college kid hitchhiking to Chicago. Hardly unique, but what was striking was the rapidity with which the trip was able to alter the decisions I will be making in the future. It confirmed a lingering suspicion of mine—that when traveling, it isn’t particularly helpful to plan how to get to a destination, but to carry a mental framework that fosters adaptation to, and acceptance of, circumstances that arise. This loosens an otherwise tight schedule that may allay a bit of anxiety and exchanges it for the exhilaration of living improvisationally. Our ancestral forefathers weren’t evolutionarily selected because they were exceedingly good at being comfortable and having well-planned lives, but because they were so damn good at making something livable out of the harsh and uncomfortable.

Each person is constantly changing, a result of the accumulation of new experiences that shape a way of life, a trajectory. A lifestyle that promotes routine in daily life can feel so restricting to some of us, and is so hard to wake up to, since it hinders access to that primitive human desire for diving into the unfamiliar. Even worse, it can lead us to stop examining ourselves from an outside perspective since the only one we experience is our own comfortable one. There is no intention to promote hitchhiking here; what I mean can emerge from something as simple as reading a book by an author you don’t agree with, or trying that Turkish restaurant without having a clue as to what Turkish food is, or just meeting someone new. So many live with prejudices against the unexplored, and these beliefs are sustained because they themselves haven’t done or tried the unfamiliar. When the unknown and unpredictable have infinitely more potential, why constantly relive the known and predictable in such a short amount of life? If one carries on through life just repeating “good” experiences or reaffirming comfortable prejudices, is that really a life or just a numb cycle of sameness? But I’ll pause on waxing philosophical lest I exude naiveté; the thrill of hitching came from having no idea what was going to happen and the random conversations, both serious and playful, with people I never would have met otherwise. Learning about what others find important and exciting to them enhances awareness of, at least vaguely, what is important and exciting to me.

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.

Special thanks to Robert Wells for his critical revisions.

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Comments  

 
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.

Thanks,
Sarah
 
 
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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