The weirdest day (1/2)
To be fair, the weirdest day wasn't really a day. It was more like a slow succession of hours spanning over two days. These were brought to me in their own specific context, each of them building upon the previous one, and thus producing a greater effect on the protagonist. Here, I shall try to recreate the premise for you. So let's rewind to the previous day.
As you already know, I was hitchhiking on I-5 which stands for Interstate 5. It's a freeway, the American autobahn or a motorway in British English. In the US, they call them freeway while the smaller major roads are called highway – all this being a little bit confusing to me because I used to think that the word highway meant autobahn, but it doesn't. In the US, it is technically illegal to hitch from the interstates. However, it is usually fine to do it from the on-ramps (freeway entries). In Oregon, it is even legal to walk on the shoulder of the freeway (there is a provision in the Oregon vehicle code that allows it). And, as you will see later, that served me a couple of times. Now, let's start our story at a suitable point in time. Mmm let me think... OK, I got it.
I was standing on an on-ramp somewhere between Portland and Eugene, in the heart of the Willamette Valley of Oregon. For once, I didn't know where I was because a Latino had dropped me off at a truck stop, wrongly thinking it would help me get a ride. The truth is truck drivers don't pick up hitchhikers, they just don't. That's a myth from a long gone era. Anyway, I had made a sign saying SAN FRANSISCO. Yes, with a spelling mistake induced by the fatigue of everyday hitching and the dodgy practice of crafting hitchhiking signs in the middle of the night. I had folded it at 'SAN FRAN' to avoid the shame of such an obvious mistake. The morning had passed already and nobody was stopping for me. The sun was shining and it was hot. The cold weather of the North was long behind me. Fleece, rain and down jackets were packed in and around my backpack as they had become obsolete. I was daydreaming, thinking about the distance yet to cover, staring at the man hitching on the other side of the junction, himself dreaming of an antagonistic destination. A black dog was patiently sitting at his feet and he was holding a sign that read 'Traveling on kindness', he seemed to have all the time in the world.
Suddenly, in what seemed a rather sharp maneuver, a car pulled over. "I usually don't pick up hitchhikers," he said, "but I felt like doing a good deed". His name was Jon and he was only 22. His aunt had died in the Vegas shooting a few days before. Obviously, he was pissed. In his anger, he had researched and scrutinized everything he could find online about the man. It felt as if he couldn't understand why someone would ever do this, he couldn't believe it happened, and he had to find out the motive. I can't blame him, I don't understand it either. We talked about it for a while mostly because I thought it might make him feel better. As time went by, we passed a town called Roseburg which is described that way on hitchwiki.org:
"Roseburg is a town in Oregon. It can be a very difficult town as the citizens are conservative and the roads windy. Exit 119 and below is advised for hitching south and Exit 127 and above for hitching north as anything in between is impaired by poor roads and/or construction. Even the on-ramps are of poor condition. Avoid this town, if possible."
I hadn't read this passage at that time but luckily Jon dropped me off at Exit 119 near the small town of Green. We stopped at the gas station and there was a fast-food (Arby's), a truck stop (Love's) and another fast-food (Taco Bell). He wanted to buy me lunch but I only accepted a coffee because I do not like to take advantage of the fact that I'm hitchhiking to get free meals. Later, I understood that it was rather common for people in Oregon to try to help us out by offering us food or other kind of help. I'm saying us because even if I didn't know it yet, I had become one of them, the transients, the homeless or whatever more or less euphemistic word you want to use to describe this group of people. I was part of them in the minds of Oregonians. It didn't matter how clean I looked or what kind of gears I was carrying around – in this case, a yellow backpacking tent and a silver sleeping pad. From now on, to everyone around me, I was a poor and dirty hitchhiker. Looking at us, they thought, he must be poor, somewhat dirty and probably hungry. For Jon, it was a bit different because we had time to talk so he could see that I wasn't dirty (I hope). And yet, before leaving, he took out some cash from his pocket and spoke.
"I know it's not much but–"
"Oh, please don't give me money," I said.
I tried to be as polite as I could while attempting to explain that I didn't need money, that I was hitchhiking for adventure. And a couple of times after that, I would have to repeat over and over again that I was fine. Until I understood that there was nothing that could change the way they saw me.
After sipping down my coffee, I spent the rest of the afternoon trying to hitch a ride near the freeway entry. No luck. Not only did it seem that no one cared about me but it looked like all the traffic was heading North toward Portland, when I wanted to go South. I walked back to the gas station to have a break. There, a man approached me.
"No luck, eh! They can't stop there, it's a 500$ fine," he said.
"Oh, thanks, I didn't know that... Where is a better spot ? Up there, at the exit of the parking lot?"
"Well, there at least you get the trucks before they start accelerating"
Why does everyone think I will get picked up by a truck driver?! During my two months of hitchhiking, I only got one single ride from a trucker. And the only reason why he decided to pick me up was because he wanted to talk, a lot. He talked continuously for 5 hours straight – that was a long ride, believe me. Anyway, I decided to try again at the traffic lights so I could get all the traffic and not only a few cars exiting the parking lot. But again, I stood there for two hours, in vain, before eventually giving up.
I never hitch at night. I just don't see the point. So, I headed back to Arby's and wasted two dollars on an apple pie that looked so much better on the picture. They were talking about the Vegas shooting on TV. A trucker struck up a conversation about it. "I'm sure they'll still find things about him we don't know", he said. Even though I was tired, I felt that it would be nice to talk to someone after hours of rejection on the side of the road. So, I jumped into the conversation.
"Where are you going?" he asked.
"San Francisco," I said, "and you? Are you going North or South?"
"I'm going South", he said, before pausing for a second...
"Truck drivers don't usually pick up hitchhikers, right?"
"Hmm... No, we don't. It's just that it doesn't suit us"
"What do you mean?"
"It is just not convenient," he said. "Where are you gonna sleep tonight?"
"Well, I was about to start looking for a place to set up my tent. Somewhere no one would bother me."
"I know where. Come, I'll show it to you. I promise you no one will bother you there."
When we got out of Arby's, it was already pitch-dark but the lights of the stores produced a glow embracing the whole place and made it feel as if the night hadn't come yet. I followed him behind Arby's and the spot he showed me was the same I had scouted before. I wasn't too sure about it. It was too close to the gas station and I thought they might not like it. On the other hand, it was hidden behind a small building so it wasn't in direct sight. It was dark, I was tired and I didn't have other ideas so I decided to go for it. I pitched my tent, laid my sleeping pad, rolled out my sleeping bag and slowly slipped inside the warm and comfy cocoon. I was already asleep when I suddenly I heard a deep voice.
"Security! Sir, I can't have you sleep here."
"I can't have you sleep here. You must find a designated campground."
"Uh... OK, sorry. I'll move."
"You have five minutes."
Five minutes. What a joker! Anyway, I had no choice. So, I did everything backward once again. Slipped out of my warm cocoon, rolled up my sleeping bag, packed up the sleeping pad and unmounted the tent. While doing so, someone approached me and started to talk to me with a raspy, crackly voice. I hadn't seen her coming but I knew by her voice what kind of person I was dealing with. I raised my eyes, revealing a pale and very skinny woman. She was a drug addict. Meth or heroin I would say from how bad her face looked.
I finished packing and left. I walked in the dark with my flashlight looking for another spot to pitch my tent. Of course, there wasn't any campgrounds here and he knew it. But there was a hill overlooking the highway so I decided to climb it. From there, nobody could see me but I could still watch them, which somehow gave me a feeling of security. On the other side of the road, right in front of my tent, a big and pretentious signboard was overlooking the road. It said:
Who is Jesus? 855-FOR-TRUTH
Unfortunately, I didn't have a SIM card so I'd have to bare with the burden of ignorance a little longer. Despite this, I slept like a rock for the rest of the night. In the morning, I got myself a quick breakfast at the Taco Bell and hit the road. I gave myself an hour or so, hitching by the traffic lights, but quickly gave up and decided to walk along the freeway like the transients do. A homeless I had seen the day before was standing in the shade eating potato chips.
I kept walking along the freeway. It didn't take more than two minutes before a white car pulled over. I opened the front door, bent over to greet the driver. It was a white man wearing white T-shirt with his arms covered in tattoos and a shaved head.
to be continued...