(One of two new posts. See the other one.)
The very day after I wrote about trimming weed and mentioned we’d probably keep at it for another couple weeks, we got downsized. A deal fell through, and our grower couldn’t afford to keep feeding us. Things change fast in this game, and you have to be able to just deal. We decided we’d had a good run and made decent if modest earnings, and it’d be really nice to move on and see vistas a little grander than the fluorescent-lit, blackout-curtained little room where they’d had us trimming (while, in the next room, they listened to vapid gangster rap and Keeping Up with the Kardashians).
So we hitched out of the little town we’d been in1 and went to visit our friend Willow from back at Sprout House, while she’s visiting her brother Juniper at the homestead/community that he helped found, a few hours away in the same mountains. And as we left, we wandered into a patch of classic hitchhiking. You don’t get too much classic hitchhiking these days—stretches that perfectly match the images that we all have, whether or not we can say exactly how we got them, of the good old days of wandering the country with a long tie-dye shirt, shaggy hair, and endless optimism. These days hitching still works, but it seems to have lost a lot of the innocent simplicity that we always think of it having had in the ’70s. Nowadays the talk isn’t as often about where to find hot springs, weed, and parties, and how the whole world, soon, might really be able to live in harmony. These days it seems people talk more about how those of us here in this car have grasped that people are basically good and trustworthy, but there’s a lot of fear and mistrust out there and it’s hard to find people who’ll share their basic human decency. And they talk about modern troubles of a society a little further fallen from grace than it was a few decades ago—more friends who’ve died of harder drugs, more of the difficulty of living when the rich are so much richer and the poor so much poorer, and more of the strange broadened array of worries that comes when you can see your friends’ lives and troubles in such minute, up-to-date detail on social media.
But as near as I can tell, there are still patches, and perhaps always will be, here and there around the continent—patches that move and dissolve and reform like sunspots—where it feels just like you’re back in that simpler era. At the edge of our little trim town, a little old white pickup wheeled around from out of nowhere, stopped near us, and produced an ancient man in a baseball cap, who asked us in a nearly impenetrable Southern accent, “Y’all havin trouble findin a ride?” And as he hugged the hairpin turns through the mountains, we slowly realized he was driving us into one of these patches.
He’d just come from the farmers’ market, and we tossed our packs into his truckbed with all the tiny shriveled eggplants and cantaloupes he hadn’t been able to sell. “Yeah, ah’m goin’a Weavaveel innyhaah; ah laak t’ get m’ moonshaan theya. They’s a drugstaaw where I c’n git whiysky half what it coss in taahn heea,” he said with a sly, wrinkled grin. On the way he told us stories of stuff that had happened along the road since he’d moved there in ’53 from Alabama. “Raat theya,” he said, “two min wint ova the idge. They din’t come back up, alive.” And, “This corna heea, a gaa was dribe’m ’is truck an he saw (what he thought was) a deea. An deea season was awn, an he heyd ’is gun, s’ he got raat aaht an shot it. An thinn heea comes the rainja, an he siz, ‘What did you jus shoot?’ The guy siz, ‘Ah shot a deea.’ The rainja siz, ‘Boy, a’ yew cullablaand?’ ‘No sir.’ ‘Ah think you aah. Tha’s a elk.’ An they took his laacense an his gun an his truck. He coun’t git it all back fer sumpm laak, sebm yeeas.”
He dropped us off at the far edge of Weaverville, where we tried unsuccessfully for the rest of the evening to get further on, to Willow Creek. But while we stood there at the side of the road it seemed everyone who went by us had been sent by a casting agency. A classic teenager, wearing a shirt that said, It’s not that I’m not paying attention, I just don’t care, skateboarded home from the high school behind us. A pair of moms walked by, and when Misty said, “Enjoy the walk!” one of them said, “Thanks! Just getting back into it—it’s only been a month!” A classic homebum burnout even stopped by, with a faded Misfits skull tattoo, to ask us for rolling papers and then hang around us a little longer than we wanted him to.
Finally it got dark on us. We gave up hitching and simply popped on down to a spot we’d scouted out while we were standing there—a concrete drainage channel, dry and almost tall enough to stand in, that cut under the road right below where we’d been hitching. Other hitchhikers who’d spent the night there had left graffiti, including “Andy Onion”, who’d drawn a crude onion, and someone who’d left a saguaro cactus, arms upraised, with a big smile on its face. We took out our can stove and cooked up a potful of rice and split peas, and ate chocolate peanut butter snacks.
The next morning, after a couple more hours on the side of the road (during which a couple passed us of whom the man had long, thinning, white hair and a tie-dye shirt), we got picked up by who else but a retired hydrographer who now lives on the coast and does photography and painting. We listened to albums of folk music on his stereo all the way to Willow Creek.
And from there we covered the last leg of our trip to Juniper’s homestead with perhaps the most classic ride of all: Hugh. We didn’t even put out our thumbs for him. We were sitting outside the grocery store after getting some sausage, and he mistook Misty for someone he knew. Once he realized Misty wasn’t his Spanish friend Olga, he introduced himself anyhow: “My name is Hugh, man.” He stood shorter than Misty’s 5′2″ with a bushy gray beard and gleaming mischievous eyes. “I just live up by Orleans.”
“Oh,” I said, “…are you going back there?” Our destination was right on his way.
“Well, I’ve got to go back that way sometime tonight, because I’m a campground host up at Perch Creek Campground. I don’t know what my day’s going to look like, but… I can get you there.” He gave me his number and went through about twenty different screens putting mine into his phone, before wandering off. We needn’t have bothered with the phone numbers. We went off to a patch of grass by the road to wait, and while we sat there Hugh passed by us several more times, from various directions. Willow Creek is a small town and he made it seem even smaller. One of those times he shared a joint with us and gave us what would otherwise have been his seventh or eighth coffee of the day, a thick concoction more syrup than brew.
While we waited for him we met still a couple more pure characters. Off to one side of us, a middle-aged drifter who was clearly not all there walked around aimlessly, proclaiming to no one, “I am from the U.K.” (in a perfectly American accent). Later a young guy with long brown hair came up to us barefoot and shiny-eyed carrying an old frame pack, and introduced himself as Nathan. He told us about how beautiful his many months of travel had been, and how excited he was about seeing more still, and accepted a pair of socks from me before walking off up the mountains to camp out under the stars.
Hugh finally came to get us around dusk, but then only went as far as the bar to look for his friends. “I’m trying to just have a little time with my friends before I get on the road. Once you’re on the road, you know, you’re committed to that hard, lonely drive,” he said in front of the bar, and left us another syrupy coffee while he looked for them. He looked for his other friends, right after that, at the AA meeting. “It’s all these local crazies like me, and a lot of us have quit drinking. I haven’t had a drink in eight years,” he explained. “But our lives are still just as crazy and messed up. We’re all still drunks, we just don’t drink.”
Finally he came in from the AA meeting with a cup of coffee that we shared around, his emotional tank apparently full enough. He loaded us and his dog into his little dented-up Kia, lit the third pipe of weed we’d seen him smoke so far, and drove us off down the road. As he drove he shared around another pipe or three and told us about the time he got a flat and had to walk 27 miles back home from the bus stop in Hoopa. “See that tree?” he said, pointing excitedly. “Thats my tree! I got there at 3 a.m. and slept under it until sunrise. It was cold.” A little further on, we stopped for a restroom break and then stayed there in the silence for a few minutes. Stars spilled prodigally across the sky over us, the road a tightrope along the edge of a canyon furred with trees. No other cars and no other light. Hugh crossed over the road to the drop-off side and sang into it, with full high spirit, a song in a Native language, one, I assume, of this area’s patchwork of tribes. We just listened, entranced.
When we got to the homestead everyone there knew Hugh already, even though he’d never been down there; they’d met him in town and around. “You’re Willow’s friends! How perfect that Hugh brought you!” they said. “Hugh-man is an angel among men.” We found Willow and Juniper and got our bags, and Hugh wandered off to join a campfire party that was forming.
He never did quite make it home that night. We saw him the next morning on the porch, somewhat quieter and more measured from a night of sleep, but diligently drinking coffee and smoking to get back to his usual self. But we sank ourselves into visiting our friends and let our classic hitching trip come to an end.
It’s not always so perfect and pure, this hitching life. More often it’s only short moments of that mostly bygone time that surface into our own present: the sly grin, the frighteningly fast turn-hugging with complete self-confidence, the bowl shared around. Very possibly it never was quite like that, not all the time. But mythologies start somewhere.
You may have noticed I’ve been obscuring details about our trimming situation, like the name of the town and any identifying details about our grower. They were a bit paranoid about their occupation—growers get robbed and busted here every year—so I thought it’d be polite. ↩