|Ride the wave of experience, and see where it may take you...|
Chapter 1 of the following excerpt is featured on the Digihitch.com Website...
|The following is Chapters 1-3 of my book of assorted travel stories from ten years of wandering; including Europe, Alaska, Hawaii, the Western U.S. and India:
"Following My Thumb: A Decade of Unabashed Wanderlust"
*Now published and available on Amazon.com! Click here for more info*|
Standing on the side of the road outside of Valdez, Alaska, waiting for a ride. We could see our breath as we stood there in zipped jackets, our hands in our pockets. Though it was late spring, it was a standard Alaskan spring-cold, overcast, damp. Not feeling much like spring. The birds were not yet chirping in ecstatic delight to welcome the new season. They must have been huddled in their nests, same as all the people.
We were about ten miles out of town, and the silence was deafening. Pure wilderness rolled away from the road and for hundreds of miles east and west. Cars were scarce. We had seen less than a dozen in two hours. And they weren't compassionate faces that stared out from behind the windshields. It seemed the people around here didn't have much time or care for hitchhikers. Our plight wasn't their concern. It was Alaska. If they knew you, or simply knew of you, they'd go well out of their way to save your hide. But if they didn't, then you might as well be a moose. Okay, so perhaps we weren't yet in a plight. It was spring, not the dead of winter. But it could become one soon enough, if we didn't get a ride the heck out of there. We might die of boredom and impatience, or even worse: Delusional Hitchhiker's Syndrome. It's bad, believe me. You get dizzy and disoriented, and may forget where you are or where you're going, as warm cars continue to speed by, the occupants staring out at you as if you're an escapee from the local mental hospital. After a while you start to play the part, acting in strange, impulsive, socially deviant ways-yelling and singing into the air, hopping around in circles to entertain yourself, telling dumb jokes aloud to the wind and any animals that might be listening. And of course, the worse the condition gets, the less chance you have of getting a ride.
But my friend Josh and I weren't the transient outcasts we may have appeared, despite our predicament. We were just a couple of college kids out exploring the world, on a spontaneous hitchhiking road trip after finishing up the school year at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. The few paved highways of interior Alaska make a huge loop that covers about a quarter of the state. We wanted to explore as much paved ground as we could in the week that we both had free. So far, we'd been east from Fairbanks almost to the Canadian border, and then south down to Valdez on Prince William Sound. Now, we were headed north and then west across the Chugach Range towards Anchorage, north from there up to Denali National Park, and then full circle back to Fairbanks at the center of the state.
We had spent the previous night at a free campground on the outskirts of Valdez. That morning, we got a short ride out of town from a local going home, to smack in the middle of nowhere. We were both wishing we had just stayed near town and waited for a longer ride, so that we could get a hot cup of coffee about now and break up the monotony. Finally, we saw another car in the distance, coming towards us down the long, straight stretch of highway. We each pulled a hand from our pockets, thumb extended, ready for action. As the vehicle approached, we could see that it was a large Suburban wagon. Our expectations rose as it neared.
"Gabe, man, this is our ride, I can feel it," Josh said to me.
We held our outstretched arms high. As the vehicle came closer, we could tell that the two occupants were both young women-beautiful women too, one blond, the other brunette. They seemed to slow as they approached. We both had sudden visions of rescue, warmth and romance swirling in our heads. It was perfect. They would pull over with warm, inviting smiles on their lovely faces and offer us a ride in their roomy wagon. We'd stretch out in the back seat and have engaging conversation along the way, connecting with the two beauties like old friends, enjoying the pristine Alaskan scenery so much more now that we were moving down the road in comfort. We'd all go out for lunch at a pizza parlor in the next town, and then continue down the road. That night we would decide to split a hotel room between us to economize. The next day, we'd go backpacking together in Denali National Park, and end up falling in love in the wilderness. Afterwards, the four of us would get an apartment together in Fairbanks for the summer, and have wild parties of creative inspiration and romantic abandon.
It was a classic hitchhiker's dream. But it passed us by. They smiled slightly and waved half-heartedly as they continued down the road at sixty miles per hour. They hadn't slowed down a bit. It was the Hitchhiker's Syndrome already beginning to set in, a mirage of our frigid imaginations. For a brief moment it had seemed so real, just a few feet away. But then it was all rushing away from us at a mile a minute.
I stood in the middle of the road after they had passed, my arms raised in protest.
"How could you pass us by?" I yelled after them. "Do you have no respect for destiny?!"
I lay down in the middle of the road on my back and started laughing uncontrollably. It was definitely setting in.
I first started hitchhiking when I was eight or nine years old. My parents were hippies and we lived up a dirt road, outside of a small town in rural Northern California. The school bus would take me five miles out a paved road from town, and then drop me off at the bottom of our gravel road. From there, it was a mile-and-a-half walk to the top of our long driveway, and then another quarter-mile down to our house. For my short little legs, and after a long day at school, this seemed at times like an impossible trek.
But, of course, my dad thought it would build character (which, twenty years later, I'll admit it did) and my whimpering went unheeded. So what if there were a lot of hills to climb after a hard day at school? When he was a kid, he had biked halfway across Los Angeles to go to a school outside of his district, because he played trumpet in the school band. At least I didn't have to dodge noisy city traffic and breathe exhaust on the way, and then try to play a trumpet in tune. I was lucky to have clean mountain air to breathe, and the soothing sounds of nature to accompany my stroll.
So I walked reluctantly home every day, creating little games to keep me going. I'd pretend I was on an explorer's expedition in a foreign land, searching for some kind of treasure along the way-maybe a coin or a hubcap, or even a Native American arrowhead. Or else I would pick a spot a ways down the road, and then tell myself all I had to do was make it that far. When I'd made it to that point, I would choose another point down the road and keep going, one short step at a time.
One day, while walking home with my head down, halfway there and wondering if I was really going to make it this time (as usual)-or else end up curling up in the woods to take a nap-a car came down the road and pulled alongside me. Sometimes I did get a ride, if my mom or dad happened to be coming home from work, or else one of our immediate neighbors drove by. I lifted my head in expectation, as the man rolled down his passenger window.
"Hey, kid, you look beat-you want a ride? I'm going on up the road to Richard's."
I didn't recognize him. He wasn't one of our neighbors, or anyone else I had seen drive by before. I considered hopping in-but then remembered my mom's caution about accepting rides from strangers. Well, he knew someone I knew. Richard was a friend of my dad's. But technically, he was still a stranger, if a friendly one.
"Uh, no thanks," I said. "I'm not going much further."
Only another long, hot, blistering mile or so.
"Alright, kiddo, no problem-see ya later..." He continued down the road.
This set me to thinking. I was really tired of walking all the way home every day after school. A half-mile would have been fine. Down our long driveway after a ride from a neighbor was no problem at all. But a mile-and-a-half felt, at that moment at least, like cruel and unusual punishment. I wasn't going to do it. I wanted a ride, and I was willing to wait for it. I had a good book in my backpack; so I sat down just off the road and started reading. It was warm and sunny, and I was happy not to be walking. I loved reading-so suddenly I was doing something I loved, rather than hated. What a stroke of genius! Why hadn't I thought of this earlier? I felt like that guy must have when he invented shoelaces. Maybe this wouldn't make me rich, but it would certainly improve my quality of life.
I reasoned that I could safely accept a ride from anyone I recognized, and so wasn't a stranger. After reading for a half-hour or so, a car came down the road. I recognized the car as a neighbor's, so I stood up and stuck out my thumb-just like I'd seen older guys doing while on family road trips. The car pulled over. I hopped in and got a ride all the way to the top of our driveway.
The following day after the bus had dropped me off, I walked a quarter-mile up the gravel road to a nice spot in the sun, sat down in the grass and started reading. When the first familiar car came along, I didn't even get up. I just looked up from my book and held my thumb up high. The car pulled over. It was official-I was a hitchhiker.
I arrived in London, England, the day after my eighteenth birthday, in an undeniable state of culture shock. Other than having lived in Vancouver, Canada the first few years of my life, I'd never been out of the United States. Now, in a matter of ten monotonous and claustrophobic hours, I was rather abruptly six thousand miles away from everyone and everything familiar to me. It was not unlike stepping into an elevator, and then stepping out onto a different planet. Of course, I wasn't really certain what I was doing there, so far from home. It had just seemed like the thing to do-go somewhere far, far away, just me and my backpack, and see what happened.
As is too often the case, reality doesn't hit you until you're dumped headlong into the water-and then it's sink or swim. I now had four months of solo traveling ahead of me and, before even stepping off the plane, the thought of it was already freaking me out. I would spend the first month or so hitchhiking around the British Isles, and the next three months traversing mainland Europe by train. At the time, four months alone away from home seemed pretty much like forever.
My first day was a nightmare. I got off the plane around noon, went through customs, and then made my way via the London Underground into the city-to find a totally unexpected hot and sunny day. Though I was from California, and had just left behind a warm day in San Francisco, somehow it was extremely disorienting. I was mentally and physically prepared for clouds, rain, cold, or all of the above. I had on three warm long-sleeve shirts as I stepped out of the Underground station, my massive pack clinging to my back, the sun glaring down on me and my blinking, bewildered eyes. I felt something like a caveman transported unexpectedly to modern times-totally overwhelmed by the chaotic cityscape before me, and totally standing out.
I was resolute on finding a campground somewhere near the edge of the city, rather than staying at a crammed hostel, so I could spread out and organize my travel belongings, relax, and then get a good night's sleep without worrying too much about being robbed my first night. But, due to complications involving my tourist map, unfamiliarity with the local transportation system, and faulty directions on the part of well-meaning Londoners, I didn't find the accursed campground until three or four more runs on the Underground, miles of walking around London in the hot sun, bus rides literally back and forth, and finally a $40 taxi ride-and eight hours-later. It was sundown when finally, thankfully, I was dropped off in front of the green lawn of the campground. I walked doggedly to the office, paid for a small campsite, set up my tent, crawled into my sleeping bag, and crashed.
My previous hitchhiking experience was pretty limited. Other than having thumbed up our dirt road as a kid, in high school I'd started hitching the six miles home whenever I missed the school bus, or else wanted to stay in town late. And, once, my best friend Abram and I had done a day trip over to Mendocino on the coast, thirty miles away. That was pretty much it. Now I was in London. A little different scale from small-town Northern California. And besides, everyone was driving on the opposite side of the road. This meant learning to look the other way when crossing the street, as well as using my left thumb to hitchhike. And my pack was so damn heavy. I still remember when I first bought it, how proud I was of its immensity and all its fancy pockets and zippers, delighted that I had enough room to take along everything I was sure I needed-including four big, heavy novels that, for some reason, I thought I'd actually get around to reading. Hey, at least I could get the thing (barely) up onto my back-let's hit the road!
I had no idea how to begin hitching out of London. I got another expensive cab from the campground the next morning, and asked the driver to take me to a freeway heading southwest out of London, towards Cornwall. He dropped me off somewhere at the edge of the city near a freeway on-ramp. I paid the fare, and then hiked over to the on-ramp, groaning under the weight of my pack, to stick out my (hopefully) fruitful thumb.
The problem was, there was almost no shoulder next to the on-ramp where I could stand. I found myself basically squeezed up against the guardrail as cars flew by just inches away from my outstretched arm. And, in addition to risking my young life, I felt, once again, totally out of place. Though I was somewhere near the outskirts of London, I was still in the midst of bustling city-a phenomenon I'd experienced only a few years of my life, and had never really gotten used to. My small childhood hometown had literally one stoplight when I was a kid. I'd felt like I was visiting a foreign land whenever I went to San Francisco with my family.
But now here I was standing on the London freeway, attempting to stop traffic, my frazzled blond hair gleaming in the sun like a neon sign, and a backpack so big it might as well have been a billboard over my head reading "I'm a tourist-run over me". Despite trying to portray myself as someone who knew what they were doing, I undoubtedly didn't. This was clearly dangerous, and most likely illegal. I was amazed when, fifteen minutes later, I actually got a ride-and from a lorry driver no less, a big-rig that pulled over and held up traffic while I tackled the daunting task of getting myself and my backpack up into the enormous vehicle. My pack seemed to double in size, now that I had to lift it not just up to my waist, but up and over my head. The truck's seat was so elevated that I had to hoist my pack-reeling under its weight-onto the top foot-step at about chest-height, and then crouch down underneath it and push it the rest of the way up with my back, head and arms.
By the time I had actually gotten myself and my pack firmly into the passenger seat, I was so dazed and worn out by the ordeal that I'd temporarily forgotten I was in a foreign country halfway around the world, and stuck there on my own for the next four months. I started to wonder if I was really the adventurous soul I'd first set out as, or if maybe I should just go back home and sit under a tree.
A couple of hours later, however-after bullshitting with the lorry driver for a while, and then sitting back comfortably in my seat high above the freeway, listening to Pink Floyd on my walkman, watching the beautiful English countryside roll by effortlessly-was thinking to myself: "yeah, man-now this is what it's all about!"