Thanksgiving is a time for family, food, and fellowship, but it’s also a time to reflect. Even our friends north of the border can partake of these sentiments; they’re not betrothed to any one day, even if life’s hectic pace demands a scheduled timeout! in order to fully partake. The sentiment of “thanks” is oft misused so much as to be trite, but chances are if you’re reading this you’ve been taken care of somewhere along the way – even if only to acquire the means to take care of yourself.
But this shared passion for gearheadism that makes us all Hoons, can lend a little perspective to our lives. It takes a special breed of motorhead to harbor a secret love for both a Chevy Vega and a Ford GT, but we all have these bi-spectral allegiances. They speak to all walks of life, an appreciation for what it takes to get the job done in order to appreciate the finer things, or just to survive the rat race far longer than anyone gave us credit for. What Ferrari owner hasn’t had a soft spot for that first craptastmobile that got him from point A to B? It’s in many ways a cliché, but it’s true: sometimes it’s those little things in life that see us through, and provide the stepping stones to bigger and better things, to be the most thankful for. And sometimes what you have to be thankful for, however little it may seem, depends solely on your perspective…
So while site traffic is slow here on this holiday weekend, and my respective family and in-laws are food-comatose somewhere in Bufu, KY, here’s something a little different: a true story I wrote a few years ago, contrasting the divergent yet shared longing that unites both motorhead and pedestrian alike, and the simple acceptance of blessings wherever you may find them. Apologies to the few of you who may have seen this elsewhere; it’s a long read but it might be just the thing to keep you occupied for a bit while all that cranberry dressing percolates.
Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours, and safe travels ahead wherever – and whenever – you may roam.
He springs to his feet and hefts his pack to his shoulder, grabs what looks like a banjo and gives a loose tug on the chain leashed to the dog that’s already trotting ahead. It all happens in a blur in the side view mirror before I even come to a stop on the on-ramp shoulder.
I feel a sense of atonement watching his long strides to the car, a weary smile on his face. I roll the window down, and the snout of some sort of beagle-labramutt mix pokes through. The hitcher leans down hopefully.
(I’ve passed a fair number of hitchers by, always feeling guilty for doing so, with either somewhere to be in a hurry, or too much crap in the car, or not going far enough onward, or going too fast to slow down – all just lame excuses to be too complacently selfish, really. Yet it was uncanny to see one now, after already deviating significantly from my normal routine, running late but with nowhere to be in a rush, unable to think cohesively after a long day. So it was settled: I had to stop.)
“Hey man, are you going to Louisville?”
“’Fraid not, but I can take you as far as Frankfort.”
“Ha ha, sweet! Thanks!”
The door is barely cracked open and the dog immediately hops right in the back seat as if he’s called it home for years and was meant to be there. Without niether prodding nor complaint, he climbs over the vacant child seat base and curls up on the seat behind mine. His lanky human companion fumbles with some long poles and the instrument that is -indeed- a banjo, placing them on the empty rear passenger’s seat. He wedges his overstuffed pack onto the floor in front of them, lowers the front seat back and climbs in. I don’t detect the faintest hint of hesitation when he realizes his pack prevents him from backing the seat up for more legroom, instead forcing him to plant his knees firmly against the dashboard of my suddenly-tiny Thunderbird. But beggars can’t be choosers, so he doesn’t complain as he shuts the door and gives me an enthusiastic thumbs up. I turn off the hazard flashers and shoot up the entrance ramp to I-64. On this waning weekday evening on the edge of Lexington another minute has elapsed, but not a single other car has passed us.
“Wow man, thanks for stopping.”
“Not a problem.”
I steal a sideways glance as I merge in: he’s young – say mid-twenties max – tall, and most definitely a salty veteran of the road. He wears a long tired face too old for his years, a toothy (and unbrushed) childlike grin, and long black knappy hair that challenges me to try not to think about when he last washed it. His oversized baggy pants are that frayed patchwork style of khaki, red, and denim that would cost eighty bucks at the mall, but I get the distinct feeling they’re homemade, durable, and imbued with the dirt of thousands of miles of authentic wear. Braving the odor of sweat and dog, I flick the air vents on and roll up the windows so we can converse without wind noise.
“So where you headed to in Louisville?” I ask.
“Oh I got friends there I’m supposed to meet with, you know where Butchertown is? Is that in Louisville?”
“Um, yeah I think that’s a neighborhood but I’m not really sure where it is. I could take a guess but I’d hate to direct you wrong – I’m not originally from the area myself. I grew up in Chicago.”
He looks disappointed for a moment, but chuckles. “That’s cool, Chicago’s a great place. We’re pretty close to Louisville, though, right, from Frankfort I mean. About an hour?”
“Yeah, about an hour, though it depends on where in Louisville you’re going, and how fast you’re driving… you can get there in well under an hour.” I nervously chuckle at my admission of leadfootedness, but I’m not speeding this time.
“Heh heh that’s sweet. M’name’s Nick”. He reaches out a long hand; I accept the greeting and we shake firmly but casually.
“Nice to meet you Tony.” He points to the back seat: “Sorry about all that, I don’t normally carry so much crap, but I just couldn’t turn down a free banjo!”
I laugh at the sheer brevity of his statement. “You mean someone just gave you a banjo? Haha, that’s awesome!”
“Heh heh, naw man, he was a friend, wanted me to have it. Heck I’ll play anything, so I figured why not learn the banjo? It’s basically a two-string guitar. That’s what I used to play.”
His voice is soft and raspy, exuding brash innocence and muted excitement – and a little too much of the happy-fun-smoke, I am certain. He chuckles with a combination of humility and nervousness after almost every sentence. His eyes are dark and almost wild, but calm. We talk for a bit about banjos and bluegrass music: I tell him I have an honest appreciation for those country boys who pick like madmen on crack; he says they’re the best stringers in the world and that’s why he wants to learn; I say you should head back the way you came from and hit the festivals in eastern Kentucky; he says I’ll be back there soon enough. I ask him what he does, why he’s hitching, and where he’s going if not just to Louisville.
“Oh man, I’ve been doing this for six years. I just wander around, playing music, hitching rides… doing whatever I want to, really.”
Wow, an authentic wandering soul! I can’t help myself: “Really? That’s amazing. I mean, so many times I’ve wanted to just say ‘Fuck this corporate life and all its sundry bullshit’ and do just that. Seriously”. I rarely speak Italian (talk with my hands) while I drive, but I smack the steering wheel for effect anyway. He laughs in his dry manner and eyes me slyly; then I realize I’m still donning my corporate hospital name badge some three hours after leaving work. Oops. I recover by changing the subject: “…Which means I have to apologize, because most of me wants to take you on to Louisville just for the ride myself, but I’ve got a wife and baby at home and I’m running a late day already.” I don’t mention how he’d still be standing there if she were with me, and that she’s probably going to kill me for picking him up by myself anyway.
He coughs and says “Oh no man, believe me this is great. I really appreciate it…” and the sincerity in his voice is genuine.
* * *
“So,” I segue, “In six years, have you ended up sort of focusing on one side of the country? East coast, west coast, one side of the Mississippi or anything like that?”
“Heh heh naw man, I been both places. Er, I mean, everywhere. I don’t stay in one place very long. I’ve already been around the county twice so far this year…” – he sees me turn in genuine envious surprise – “Yeah man, just since January Two-Thousand And Five.”
“No kidding? Shit, for someone with no place to go in particular, you’re making some pretty damn good time my friend!” I try not to sound accusatory, and he laughs sheepishly.
“Yeah, I guess. Well I had a girlfriend and we had a car earlier this year so that made things easy for a while, but, uh… that didn’t actually work out, heh heh…” The poor guy blushes, and I can only imagine what kind of girlfriend he would have had; I try my best not to picture Mickey and Mallory from Natural Born Killers.
“Eh, no biggie for you I’m sure…” (/Macho machismo) “…So then, of all the places you’ve been, if you had to settle down to call home or just pick a favorite, where would it be?”
His eyes widen – comically – as if the notion of settling in gives him terrific pause, and the idea has never even once crossed his mind. He stays dead silent for a few moments, allowing the smell of wet dog to hit me. Shit, that’s going to linger… “Hm, probably California.” He doesn’t elaborate, so I prod: “Really? I always tell myself not to knock it before I go there, but I don’t think I’d like California. Too much…” I can’t find the one magic word so I blurt out, “…political stupidity out there.” Ah crap, he might think I directed ‘stupidity’ at him!
“Oh no man, northern California’s great! Real pretty, laid back, great stuff out there. Now, southern California…” he drifts off, obviously at a loss of words himself, which helps me feel better. “Well, Sou-Cali’s cool too. Nice beaches. But northern’s so much better. Got the redwoods and stuff, and some great communities too.” The way he said ‘communities’, I heard the wink-wink nod-nod – I’m almost afraid to ask.
“Yeah, I’ve always wanted to see the redwoods myself.”
“Heh heh. It’s awesome. Man, you seen Star Wars? You know the Ewok village and stuff? They filmed that all there; you can go through and see exactly where they were at. It’s wicked.”
“Really? I’m not enough of a fanboy to look it up, but I always thought it looked like a Redwood forest, but I didn’t think they’d actually been allowed to use one! So I was right, huh? I’m surprised they let ‘em get away with that – bet they had to clean up like mad.”
“Aw no way. That stuff is still there.”
“What, the Ewok Village? In the trees?”
“Yep”. He grins, amused by my dumbstruck demeanor. “People even built their own stuff too.”
“You mean the original is still there like some tourist attraction, or people live there and commute, or it’s a campground, or they built replicas somewhere else or something?” The ideas fascinate me, but I’m afraid I know where this is really going…
“Yep, the original stuff is there, and people have made their own too.” Uh-huh…
“And they live there?” Nick nods; I take the bait. “Er, who?”
I see the answer coming a mile away… I mean, seriously: Northern California + abandoned tree houses + people squatting there + the guy telling me all this = Another sheepish grin of admission to confirm it:
“Ha ha, Hippies, basically”. Ding! We have a winner!
* * *
I tell him the furthest west I’ve been is Arizona: “I’m sickened to realize that was nine years ago – holy crap do I feel old now – but one of my friends in college was from Phoenix and flew me out for a week that summer; we spent a couple days in Phoenix-Snottsdale and then drove north through Sedona and up to Flagstaff and the Canyon.”
“Oh man, that’s sweet. You ever been to Tempe?” I apologize and say no, the one week I was out there was booked solid. “Oh that’s too bad. There’s some great people out in Tempe.”
Right. I’m afraid to ask; I half expect him to invite me to a sort of local Burning Man or something. So I tell him about Sedona. “Yeah, in Sedona, or near it – I can’t remember for sure now – going through the mountains there, is an old mining town or something. It was all but a ghost town until the arts community revived it, so now you can go from shop to shop in these old cliff-side buildings for authentic woodworking, pottery, Indian jewelry and all that”.
Nick is genuinely intrigued, and respectful. “Yeah I think I’ve heard of that. You’ve been there? Lucky! What was it called again?”
I tell him again that I’m not sure just what the name of the artisan village is, but if he makes it to Sedona, he won’t miss it. “Cool man, I’ll have to get over there next time by”.
* * *
Realizing there’s suddenly less than 10 miles to go, I jump to the questions I’ve always wanted to ask a veteran hitcher.
“So how long do you normally have to wait for a ride? Is it consistent, can you predict the wait, or anything like that?”
“No telling man; sometimes I don’t even have to sit before the next one comes along. But other times it seems like forever. I once camped out for 3 days before someone stopped. I was there for quite a while before you stopped, actually… seemed like every car that came my way looked and took the other exit for Ohio instead.” Fft, that’s Lexington for ya, I say to myself, thumping my own transplant status.
He goes on to tell me how he hiked through the woods toward where I picked him up, and wood hikes all the time. “Lots of trails out there. Some of the best are in Tennessee. You can wander for days. But man I forgot how hot it gets here, this time of year. In the middle of the day I thought the humidity would kill me!” I tell him that if he wants a true taste of death by humidity he needs to walk around Chicago in July, and what’s really bad about Kentucky in May is the sheer overwhelming onslaught of allergens in the air: “fucking pollen bombs turn this car yellow every morning. Look, you can still see it on the hood even now.”
He laughs and nods, and I continue: “So really, how hard is it to do what you do; I mean, what can you do? Can a person really just bounce from place to place these days, and wash dishes or something to barter for room and board and food? Pop in on a construction site for a day? There’s a part of me that says it must be hard, but that’s probably only because I’ve never had or chosen to do so.”
His response is quick and telling: “Aw, it’s easy. I could wash dishes, clean rooms, and all that, but I mainly just sing and play, that earns me some money I make last till the next round, as long as the rides come.”
“So you have a talent, then? That’s cool. So you just pop in a bar and sing then, or what? Heh, I figured if I ever decided to try, I’d do it under the guise of photojournalism or something. Not that it would help, I guess.”
“Wow, it’s really interesting you say that, because I studied photojournalism for a while in community college. Had a camera when I started, but I had to sell it and the photos too. I’d like to do it again sometime.” He pauses thoughtfully for a moment. “But yeah, I got friends all over the country now. Every state I go to, which is basically all of them, there’s someone I can call on, and it’s awesome. So we either head out for the next deal, or they take care of me for a while. Shoot, you just gotta get out there and do something man, there’s no wrong way to do this. I’m like a jack of all trades, I’ll even do roofing if I have to. But I do art mostly when I’m not playing. Drawing and painting and just random stuff.”
Hmm… he said ‘art’, wink-wink nod-nod. “You ever do a lot of tagging?”
He laughs like a renegade who’s been caught painting his name on the sergeant’s desk while turning himself in: “Yeah, a while back. Ha ha, everyone does at some point, you know?” I chime in: “Yeah, hopefully it’s just a phase most people go through; I did briefly for a while. But I don’t know; I have mixed feelings about it. I appreciate the spirit behind tagging and all, but I remember in high school, the city would send buses to wait for us. One day they made the mistake of sending a brand-spanking new one out there, I’m talking so new it still smelled like plastic. I was on there before almost everyone else, dreading what was about to happen. And sure enough, it wasn’t moving for 10 seconds before the markers and rocks came out, and every seat and window was marked and gouged and scratched, looking like it had been in the ghetto for years”. He looks at me with a sort of sad comprehension, and says “Yep, definitely, man. Just a phase.”
“So where do you play, when you meet your friends; you said you meet up and ‘head out’ a lot…?”
‘Oh, we play a lot of festivals. There’s a big one I’m heading back to after I get my friends in Louisville, it’s back in West Virginia. Good times man, it gets bigger year after year. Darkstar Orchestra is going to be there.” He says it with breathless reverence, then catches me up to speed on Darkstar Orchestra: a Grateful Dead cover band that does Jerry Garcia’s legacies proud. It actually sounds somewhat intriguing, as they don’t just borrow the lyrics, but strive to rekindle the sounds, melodies and atmosphere of ‘Dead shows.
“So what kind of festival is it? I’ve never heard of anything big in West Virginia.”
“It’s a peace festival. You know, hippies and stuff. We protest like Greenpeace without all the violence.” I almost laugh, as it makes sense in a sad way, as he continues: “It travels from year to year. Last year it was in California, about 30,000 people in some podunk county; we multiplied their population tenfold for one weekend. You had one little store to get toilet paper and candy for about 10 miles either way.”
Toilet Paper and Candy: so those are the true staples of the wandering spirit. “I’m sure the locals appreciated that.”
“Hell yeah! The owners of that one store, they probably hadn’t sold half of anything in there for years until we showed up. We were the best thing that ever happened to them.”
“Ha ha, I’ve been to some Nascar races in some bufu little towns that seem to only exist for the one or two times a year the race crowds show up. Those places are the best.”
“Yeah, but these people kept shop year round, cuz it’s all they have and know, and never really got ahead. By the time we were ready to leave after 3 days, the owners told us they were going to take a trip to the Bahamas.”
“Wow – some crowd! Sounds like it worked out for everyone, then.”
“Yeah man, it always does. It always does.”
* * *
I exit as per usual, and pull on the shoulder. “You want me to take you on in, someplace, like drop you by a McDonald’s or something?” The idea seemed good in my head but sounds utterly ridiculous as I say it. “Nah, I gotta wait for the next ride, and right here is perfect, actually. Need to cross over to the other ramp over there. Come to think of it, this is the same exact place I was dropped at the last time I hitched to Frankfort! Took a little while from here…”
“Well, the first exit is near the State Patrol HQ, and I wasn’t sure if you’d be hassled. Lemme pull up further then, you can cross more easily.”
I pull up further and stop, and Nick opens the door with noted care not to hit the guardrail. He gets his pack from the back and sets it down, then fumbles with the banjo and poles (walking sticks?), trying to swing them out over his shoulder and the door. “Come on, Chico,” he says encouragingly, but the dog only raises his head lazily. I’m comfortable now, he seems to say, and you’re gonna have to force me.
Nick reaches back, trying to smack Chico’s hindquarters but finding the child seat base in the way. “Come on you stupid dog,” he says with more love than frustration, as he finally gets hold of the leash coiled around Chico’s paws. With a few concerted tugs, Chico finally rises, and takes his time lumbering out of the car.
I consider the two of them: companions sharing the world on a plate. Free, as Tyler Durden said, in all the ways that you are not. He may never work in a manufacturing plant or a hospital. I may never hitch and wander across the US twice in 5 months, or play banjo in a Grateful Dead cover band. Yet for all his meanderings and self-effacing humility, I could see myself in a different time, in a different place, in his shoes. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I’d like to try them on.
Nick shuts the door as I lower the window. He extends his arm once more.
“Hey Tony, thanks for the ride and the conversation. It was great of you.”
“No trouble at all- The least I could do, I’m sorry I can’t take you the rest of the way.”
“No man, this was great. You take care.”
“You do the same, man… Good Luck!”
I see them crossing in the rearview as I pull away. The next morning, they are gone.
* * *
Author’s Note: The preceding is a true story, originally published on my former blog two days after it happened in 2005. Regretfully, I haven’t sparked a similar conversation since, and my daily route has changed.