Excerpt: Riding With Strangers

From Chapter 12: Mexican Driver

When the fish are biting, every hook will take. I hadn't even set down my pack before a pickup pulled over on my left. Or rather, two pickups, the first pulling a second that was tilted up with its front wheels on a two-wheeled tow dolly. I wasn't ready, and at first thought the driver was just pulling over to check something on the trucks, but he smiled and waved for me to come on. He had dark skin and a narrow black moustache, and up close his smile revealed a gleaming silver cap with a star cut-out.

"Where are you going?" The accent confirmed that he was Mexican.

"Cleveland."

"OK."

I got into the cab and switched to Spanish: "¿A donde va usted?"

"¿Hablas español? ¡Qué bien!"

He spoke hardly any English. He was trying to learn more, which was why he had picked me up, but since I spoke Spanish, we stuck with that. His name was Arturo, and he was headed for El Paso, then across the border to Ciudad Juárez. He was in a partnership with three other guys, buying cars and pickups over the Internet, then taking them down to sell in Mexico.

He explained that they did most of their buying in the northeast; this time he was coming from someplace near Syracuse. He had driven up with a partner, who was headed south with a full load on their eighteen-wheeler car hauler while he drove the two pickups. Both of the pickups had been in accidents, but they still ran fine. They had cost fifteen hundred dollars each, and would sell in Mexico for twelve thousand dollars. Even adding in the travel and the import duties -- NAFTA has done nothing for small businesses -- it was a good profit. Arturo asked if I lived in Cleveland, and I explained that actually I was headed for Iowa, where I had friends, and had just picked Cleveland as a likely stopover.

"Then why not come with me to St. Louis? Isn't that closer to Iowa? I should be there around nine or ten tomorrow morning."

A tempting offer. I missed Mexico and was enjoying Arturo's company. And St. Louis was certainly a lot further along. I even had friends to stay with there. On the other had, I wanted to see Cleveland, and from there it would be a straight, easy shot along I-80 to Iowa City. On the third hand, my map did not suggest that getting out of Cleveland would be any kind of picnic: there is a spaghetti maze of downtown freeways, and highway planners give scant shrift to the needs of hitchhikers. It would be a full morning's work just to get back on the road. But on the fourth hand, what was the pleasure of hitchhiking if I let myself be trapped out on the freeway and couldn't stop where I wanted? I had time for a day or two in Cleveland, and what sort of lazy sod would pass up a visit just because it would take a bit of effort to get back to the highway?

Following this train of thought, I would soon have more hands than Shiva. And why make the decision now, in any case? We were not even in Pennsylvania yet, so Cleveland was more than two hours in the future.

The toll road ended at the Pennsylvania state line, and we were no longer limited to highway service areas if we got hungry. I hoped that, as a regular on this route, Arturo would be privy to a secret network of Mexican restaurants where even in the wilds of the Rust Belt one could get a decent bowl of chile verde. By now there are Mexican colonies in almost every part of the United States, and restaurants to feed them -- or at least a convenience store or gas station with a sideline in fresh tamales -- and it seemed simple logic that a Mexican truck driver would travel from oasis to oasis.

No such luck. Arturo was not aware of any oases east of Oklahoma, and in the meantime he was relying on Subway as the safest purveyor of gringo cuisine. He spotted one about half an hour into Pennsylvania, and I consoled myself by ordering extra jalapeños on my turkey deluxe.

It was nine o'clock when we reached the outskirts of Cleveland, and with Arturo heading south on 71, any place I got out would still be an hour from the downtown, even if there had been a decent place to get out -- it was all highway, with nothing but forest and more highway as far as the eye could see. And it was dark, and might start raining again, and Arturo had taken advantage of my translation skills at the Subway and was pressing me to come with him to St. Louis. (Highway translation: another small service we hitchhikers provide. I once served as linguist and cultural go-between for a whole convoy of Moroccan immigrants on their way home from Germany -- they actually offered to pay my bus fare back to France if I would stick with them until we reached the ferry at Gibraltar.) Arturo was quite capable of making his own way, but my presence made his life a little easier, especially if he had to drive through the night. So Cleveland remained nothing but a sequence of reflecting white letters on successive green exit signs, shortly followed by Akron, with Columbus ahead.

From Chapter 27: The Easy Life

It is one of the oddities of hitchhiking, how many drivers seem to admire or envy you for being out on the road, by yourself, with no visible ties to anything. It is the other American dream, the flip side of the good job, the house in the suburbs, the spouse and 2.4 kids. And it has the added allure of being within reach, something they might grab hold of if things were just a little different. I once had a millionaire pick me up and spend our whole drive talking about how much he wished he could get out on the road like I was doing. He only interrupted the fantasy to draw my attention to a cherry red sports car: "I've got three other cars, and that Porsche that just passed us, did you see the girl inside? That's my mistress, she's a modern dancer. I have a factory making directional systems for guided missiles, I could give you a job tomorrow -- but you wouldn't want that, would you? You have a better life than I have. I wish I could just pack it all in and join you."

I used to think those wistful monologues were pure bullshit. I would listen politely, but I felt like saying, "No, you don't really want to get out here on the road. Because if you did, you'd do it." I was wrong, though, or at least unfair. Because I was lucky from the beginning. I didn't have parents who needed me to support them, I never had kids, and the first woman I proposed to turned me down flat. I don't need a stable income, and what I do need I can make as a musician and a writer. So it's easy for me to pull up stakes and hit the road when the mood strikes me. And yes, other people can too, almost any of them if they want it badly enough, but it is not always such an easy decision. I have met guys on the road who have abandoned families -- a couple of women, too, but mostly men -- or whose parents haven't spoken to them in twenty years and may be alive or dead. And they don't talk about the freedom as lightly. They talk about how they were trapped, how they really had no choice, and they may have a fierce joy about them, but also the sense that if they were better men they might have stuck it out and fulfilled their responsibilities.

For most people, though, the responsibilities are beside the point. If they think about it seriously for even a minute, they are perfectly conscious that they would not want this life. They like knowing where they will wake up tomorrow, and have no real desire to sleep in backyards and be rousted by cops at four in the morning. You have to be a little strange to enjoy that. But I'm glad that they at least like to toy with the idea. It is a kind of reassurance for me, implying that I am not completely and inexplicably nuts. And of course, the vicarious sense of freedom they get from picking up a roadside wanderer gives them another good reason to pull over.

My current driver told me he had once hitched home from North Dakota with his ex-wife. They'd gone up there to deliver a pickup truck, and were going to take a bus back, but they were having breakfast in a diner full of truck drivers, and he decided to ask around. He found a guy heading south, and after that they were passed from truck to truck, the drivers arranging the rides over the CB. He shook his head, smiling at the memory. "That woman was a lot of fun. She was game for anything. And I really enjoyed that trip. Now, I got diabetes and heart trouble, and I need a cane just to get from the front door to my car. I'm all old and beat to shit."

He had planned to turn off earlier, heading west to the small town where he lived, but took me another ten miles up to Wayland, just a few miles from the state border. He said that would be a good place for me, because the truckers would all be taking a little branch road due north from there, the shortcut into Iowa.

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