Wiz Khalifa seems to have his idea of young, wild, and free, but he’s obviously never followed a voice down an endless highway. You’ve never felt truly free until you put everything you own on your back and walk away. When you do, there are two very powerful emotions: the first being freedom and the second being loneliness—a lot of it. My heart constantly aches with loneliness. It’s a never-ending thing for me. I’ve been through breakups, deaths, and moving, but the loneliness has never hit me as hard as it did on the highway. The thought that you are more than 100 miles away from anyone you know and stranded will beat you down to your knees like no other feeling in the world, but the freedom blowing on your face will keep you going. I met a very diverse range of people who wanted to help me, and a lot of people who treated me like the scum of society. This short hitchhiking experience changed the way I think, and reminded me that the people with the biggest hearts are usually down on luck themselves. This is my story about my first day of medium-distance hitchhiking at 18 years old.
I’m not quite sure what drove me to do it. It might have been loneliness, hardships, or just plain wanderlust, but I knew I wanted an adventure that would teach me what no school can. I embarked during a very hot afternoon when the temperatures were reaching near 100° with nearly 30 lbs on my back. My walk to the highway lasted about 2 ½ hours and stretched near 8 miles. About halfway, my fifth toe started to rub on the side of my boot, and each step felt like someone was rubbing a cheese grater against it. Luckily, I brought a small first aid, and taped up my toes before they started bleeding, but they would still hurt like hell the rest of the trip. As I approached the I-44 on-ramp, I walked over some train tracks and crossed down into a dry creek, and I came out covered head to toe in hundreds of grass burrs. It took about 5 minutes to get them off me as I walked to the on-ramp. I stood there with my thumb in the wind and a sign that read “WEST” that was written poorly on an old spiral notebook with a sharpie. I was there for about 90 seconds until an old station wagon pulled over about 20 yards past me. That would be my first ride.
I ran over to the car. It was beat up with trash covering the interior and a man who looked about 30 was driving it. As I opened the door, he smiled and asked where I was going, and I told him had no destination in mind and that he could take me as far west as he could. I climbed in and noticed two mixed babies. The one next to me in the back seat had beautiful green-blue eyes. He told me that he was a single dad who was trying to escape a past life of crime and hard drug abuse, and that he tries to pick everyone up because he knows what it’s like to be down on luck, and tries to help anyone who needs it.
“I’m David.” he said, as he offered me a cigarette then lit one up for himself.
I shook my head.
“So you’re not sure where you’re going?”
“Oh, man, you’re just jumping right in? You’ve got balls.”
“Thanks, I guess.”
“Do you have a knife with you? If you don’t, I’ll give you one.”
“I do.” I said and nodded.
“You’ve got to be careful who you take rides from; there are some crazy people out here.”
“I know. I’ll try to be careful.”
“If someone puts a gun to your head, fight him or you might be knocked out and wake up chained to a fucking bed. I have a couple buddies who that happened to.”
A couple? I thought, this guy must really be concerned because he’s scaring the hell out of me. He continued to give me a safety lecture and told me stories about his past. He used to be a junkie who was hooked on drugs like heroin and meth.
“Don’t ever shoot anything up. That will get you quick, but if you’re ever handed a fat joint, smoke that shit.” He said laughing.
He asked if I had any money to eat with, and if I didn’t, he would give me something to eat. I told him no thanks and that I had “some” money. We pulled onto the off-ramp at Gray Summit, and I got out. He said he would take me farther if he could, but he wasn’t sure his car would make it much further. I said goodbye and walked to the next on-ramp.
This on-ramp wasn’t nearly as busy as the one in Valley Park, but I lifted up my sign and stuck out my thumb. Behind me, I noticed a skinny man wandering back and forth at the bottom of the on-ramp. It was obvious that he was under the influence of something and waved at me like he was calling me over. He started walking towards me, but I ignored him and continued trying to get a ride. A few seconds later, I made eye contact with woman as she gave me a double look and pulled over. I jogged over to the car with Louisiana plates and noticed that it was in bad shape like the last car, but the inside was nice and clean.
“Do you know this area?” she asked.
“I’m going to the next ramp where someone said there was a pawn shop. Do you know where it is?”
I actually did know of the pawn shop she was talking about and told her, “Yeah.”
I got into the car and we took off down the highway. She said that she was from Louisiana, and spoke with a very thick southern accent. She talked about how she lost everything and didn’t have any money left.
“I was living in New York when the twin towers came down, and when I went back home to New Orleans, hurricane Katrina hit and I lost everything.” She said in a hesitated tone. “Now I’m here.”
We pulled off the highway and I directed her to the pawn shop. It was a run-down looking pawn shop on a gravel parking lot.
“You can either get out and walk to the nearest truck stop, or I’ll give you a ride there when I get back.” She told me.
She mumbled, “Let’s see how much this is worth” as she headed inside the pawn shop.
After about 2 minutes, she burst out of the pawn shop running and crying. She opened the back door of the car and threw something back there as I grabbed onto the door handle to open the door.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“Yeah, I’m fine.”
I felt bad for her, but I was concerned for my own safety as she didn’t look very sane at the moment, so I stepped out as we said goodbye and good luck to each other, and again, I walked to the on-ramp.
This was when the “highway loneliness” started to hit me. At the ramp, I did my regular routine. There were only about 5 cars going by a minute, and I waited about 10 minutes until a really nice lifted Dodge Ram stopped by me, and I climbed on inside. A middle-aged man was driving who was wearing a work shirt and looked a whole like R.A. Dickey. This was by far the most normal person to pick me up so far. He said he works in the oil fields in Oklahoma, and he works around here when he is off. We talked a little bit about both our trucks, and not too much longer, he let me out when we got off the highway.
In a matter of seconds, I realized that there were almost no cars coming by, and this was the first time I would have considered myself stranded. Luckily, there was a service road running next to the highway, and I climbed the steep embankment up onto it. I knew to get a ride, I would have to walk to the next town down the highway, but I didn’t know how far it was. Never-less, I began a long and hot walk down the service road. At this point, I began to become delusional; I imagined a car full of pretty college girls stopping to ask if I need a ride, but then I realized that I was probably 20 miles from any pretty girls, period. I walked a few miles with a car passing every 2 minutes, but none stopping. I finally reached an on-ramp, but it was completely deserted with absolutely no cars going by. I took off my backpack and sat down on a guard rail. This was the nadir of my trip—my feet hurt like hell, my legs were sore, I was soaked in sweat, I was so hot I felt like fainting, my water was almost gone, and I felt lonely, very, very lonely. I realized that the next town couldn’t be more than 10 miles down the service road, so I got up, slung my backpack on, and resumed the walk.
After a couple miles, the sun finally went behind the clouds, and it didn’t seem as hot now, but the best news is that there were actually cars passing me. It wasn’t too long until a very nice looking car stopped. I opened the door, and the interior was very clean and cool. The driver was a very nicely dressed middle aged woman—a mother. She was either black or oriental, but I frankly didn’t pay enough attention to tell. I told her who I was and what I was doing, and her answer to about everything I said was, “Oh, boy” in a concerned tone. She continued to lecture me about how dangerous hitchhiking was, and that she would be scared to death if I were her son. She drove me about 6 miles to the next town, and left me with a warning to be careful—that’s not the first or last time I would hear that.
I walked up to the gas station and just collapsed with the pain of loneliness. This was where it hit me the hardest. Even though there were so many people around me, I felt so desolate. There was a cute girl who just pulled up to the gas station, and she stared at me like I was lost. I guess I started to feel a little better then, but I just got back up and walked to the on-ramp. It was starting to get dark, and I was standing there for about a half of an hour waiting for a ride. There weren’t many cars going by, and most of the drivers just gave me the “he’s crazy” look. About 40 cars and 3 cops passed me until a little beater finally stopped.
This was an older man in his 60’s who apparently worked some sort of government job, but I didn’t bother to ask. He was very quiet and spoke very few words, and seemed to be giving me a ride just because of generosity. The ride lasted about 20 minutes, and we really didn’t have a conversation, but he got me pretty far. I got out of the car and bid him a good evening just as it was getting dark. That would be my last ride of the day.
You know you’re delusional when you look at a field and think, “That looks comfortable.” But in all honesty, it was. There is something about just lying down in a field and sleeping that screams “freedom.” There is also something about it that screams, “Illegal”, but I try to ignore the latter.
At that point, I’ve learned a lot. I know it’s cliché, but it just reinforced the whole “don’t judge a book by its cover” idiom. It also taught me that even though how bad a person could have life, someone always has it worse, and even though your own life might suck, it will always make you feel better by helping someone else. Another thing that it taught me was hitchhiking, even though it’s looked down by most people, is a great way to have fun and a cheap way to travel. I’ll be doing it again in the future, and hope to video log it. I’ll be going even farther next time—let’s just hope I don’t “wake up tied to a fucking bed.”