In July, I bought a one-way plane ticket to my best friend's bachelorette party and wedding. Not being a good with details, especially when it comes to travel, I didn't give much thought to how I'd get home.
After spending a few lovely days revisiting my old haunts and catching up with dear friends, I ended up standing outside a truck stop somewhere South of Detroit armed with nothing but 30 bucks, determination and a sign that reads "Oregon or I-80." I could have easily scrounged up enough for a bus ticket, but as anyone who has spent three days on the hound will tell you; that's not the kind of torture you're willing to pay for twice.
I have hitchhiked before. A lot, in fact. Just not by myself. Standing there holding my sign, reality hit. Like a sledge hammer. Was I actually doing this? My hands were shaking, my stomach tied itself in a knot and my imagination ran wild. After an hour in the sweltering Midwest afternoon, however, all I wanted to do was GO. I didn't care anymore, I was ready to move.
All day people stopped to give me water and snacks, but no one was going my way. Except for a man who asked if I wanted to make some money. I smiled sweetly and declined. At least he had the good manners to ask.
Near sunset, a trucker finally stopped. He told me he was going to Toledo first thing in the morning. He lived in town, and said I could sleep in his truck. One of the greatest things about traveling this way is how it forces you to rely on your instincts to make split-second decisions. There's no time to second guess yourself.
I looked at this young man with bright blue eyes, and saw sincere concern. I said "OK."
True to his word, I spent the night in his surprisingly comfortable truck cab complete with AC, reading light and stereo. Not only did he bring me dinner, he made it himself. We ate together at a picnic table like we were family. In the truck cab that night, reading "Cannery Row" (it seemed appropriate), it occurred to me that this might be my last opportunity to rest for a long while. I turned off the reading light, and slept well.
We said our goodbyes the next morning at a truck stop near the 280 interchange. He called out on the CB to see if anyone was heading West. I got a ride immediately, going all the way to Fargo, North Dakota. I had planned on sticking with the more direct, well traveled I-80, but the thought of covering such a distance was too tempting. The Northern route is more scenic anyway.
His name was Dale and he talked non stop for 900 miles. Much of it was half crazed rambling; aliens, signs of the apocalypse, you get the idea. In the midst of his craziness were some great stories, though. Driving oil rigs out of the badlands, wrangling cattle in Montana and Wyoming, not to mention some absolutely terrible jokes. This guy's life story conjured up images of a completely different time. One part wild West, two parts Dust Bowl-era Depression.
We passed Chicago, and then the North Woods of Wisconsin. Swamps and cornfields as far as the eye could see.
We rolled into Fargo around midnight singing "Come on Feel the Noise" at the top of our lungs. He made some calls on the CB, but all was quiet. We made our way to his home in Neilsville, Minnesota. This, I thought, was definitely a place none of my well traveled friends had ever been. I chatted with his very sweet girlfriend for a little while before spending the night in an actual bed and waking up to pancakes.
Later that day I found myself stuck at the Flying J in Fargo, harassing truckers for use of their CB's every 10 minutes trying to find a ride. A guy says if I ride around with him for a couple of weeks he will buy me a bus ticket. I'm thinking "How stupid do I look?" as I smile and say "Thanks, but I don't think so."
Hours pass. I buy postcards for friends who would find the fact that I'm stuck in Fargo hilarious. Yes, they really do talk like that. They are also the most eerily polite people you're ever likely to meet. I even send myself a postcard.
It's at this point I panic and make the worst decision of the whole journey; I devour two gigantic spicy cheese dogs. All I can say is that it seemed like a good idea at the time. I lie on the pavement in a grease-induced haze for what feels like forever, trying not to vomit. Eventually the sickness passes, and someone offers to take me to Jamestown, 90 miles to the West. I jump at the chance.
We have such a nice time talking that he takes me to Bismarck instead. He went out of his way, off his route, just to get me a little closer to home.
I got a ride to Kent, Washington right away. This was the only driver I was on the fence about, but if I took this ride I'd be on the homestretch. So I climbed on in. His name was Richard and we stayed up all night talking. Imagine a slumber party with half-recognizable landmarks passing by in the dark, and in place of your best friend sits a stout 40-year-old truck driver. He told me about his recent divorce. That he couldn't imagine doing anything else for a living, he just loved movement too much. There were two million miles on his truck.
I told him that I always wanted to see the badlands, but never got the chance. We reached them in the middle of the night, and he pulled over so I could stare into the abyss.
We stopped somewhere in Montana near dawn and I slept in the top bunk of the cab.
We hit the road late the next morning and headed to a blessed, sacred, real live old-school truck stop diner.
There are some experiences that stick with you. Real truck stop food is like that. I ordered the classic gobbler, which came on the largest croissant ever created. Home style turkey, stuffing, and real cranberry sauce served with waffle fries. This is what I call fine dining; cheap, quality food in large quantities. It just doesn't get any better.
We passed the continental divide, and drove into a glowing rocky mountain sunset that seemed to stretch on for hours. Again we talked through the night, stopping in Eastern Washington to sleep. He dropped me off at the port of Tacoma, where we exchanged information, and a big hug. There's no doubt in my mind that we will meet again.
After getting kicked out of the truck stop, and having a border patrol agent question and ID me, I finally got a ride to Portland. The new driver was quiet, so I stared out the window digesting everything that had happened.
Five days, five rides, eleven states, 2,534 miles, a handful of people I will never forget, renewed faith in humanity, one massive gobbler, two spicy cheese dogs, and a new friend.
I arrived in Portland late, and took the train to my car. I bought my last gas station meal and drove the four hours home.
I thought about all the times I sacrificed the things I wanted just to be with someone, and all the times I was so afraid of failing I couldn't even bring myself to try. I arrived in my small coastal town at 2:30 in the morning certain that I would never stand in my own way again.