Author: Bernd Wechner
Published on: November 1, 2000
It was a busy month and the publishing houses seem to be doing thumbers a favour this year. Two books landed on my desk again, and both contemporary American hitching tales! In a day and age, where most everyone's convinced that hitch-hiking in America is dead, for the wacky lunatics, homeless and social drop outs, two decent, not-so-young Americans, one black, one white, have hit the road to prove them all wrong – or perhaps, to convince themselves they're all wrong? Whatever the reason, they both scored, and they're in your bookshops right now!
Aaron Hamilton, a retired teacher living in California wanting to visit his brother in North Carolina balked at the price of a bus ticket and gave hitching a thought. He'd only had one serious hitching experience 43 years earlier, and got frost-bite on that trip, but it did impress him. "Hitchhiking has always been the most intriguing, fascinating, hazardous, embarrassing, disappointing, and, at the same time, most gratifying experiences" that he knows! Besides, he's a faithful Christian, and not blind to America's decline into paranoia, so by laying his fate into the hands of strangers he hopes to provide an opportunity for sharing and trusting, and to demonstrate the power and joy of such. He planned to write a book, and share that message – it became From Here to There Hitchhiking (Vantage Press, New York).
Tim Brookes, a practising teacher living in Vermont found his own mid-life crisis echoed in the country around him. The America he loved was ailing. The mood was down, and he found himself reminiscing, of that first cross country trip, by thumb, in 1973. He formulated a plan: "Go back on the road. Compare it to my previous trip. Find out what America was really like now.". Besides, the idea of catching up with some of the people he met then grabbed him. To his surprise, everyone he knew thought him mad, even his wife. Their vehement objections only galvanized his resolve, so he sold the idea to the National Geographic, they paired him up with a phographer and now we have "A Hell of a Place to Lose a Cow" – An American Hitchhiking Odyssey (National Geographic Society, Washington D.C.).
Hamilton left in October 1996, and took six days to cross from west to east. It is hard, very hard at times, and he reminds himself constantly of his mission, to sustain himself. But it's not as most would expect because of his colour, it's mostly sheer inexperience! It's a charming if at times mundanely prosaic text, as this gentle old man faces the reality of the road with touching naïveté.
After a string of mistakes on the first day he lands at a truck stop in Stockton. After 4 hours trying to find a ride here, he throws the towel in and heads for the next freeway on-ramp. It happens to be in Stockton's red-light district! He waits 3 more hours for a short ride to another ramp in Stockton, where he promptly remarks "I was struck with the reality that this had been a disastrous, catastrophic first day" and, lo and behold he waits until 10 a.m. the next morning before giving up and walking to the next freeway on-ramp where he gets a ride in 10 minutes and notes "I have been awake now for about twenty-eight hours and the effect is beginning to distort my perception ...".
He spent the second night in a shared motel room with that driver, and third night at a truck stop again fishing rides all night, never pausing to sleep ( "I am exhausted, and so tired. However, my mission, my mission."), which he did again on the fourth night!
"... but that was all right, too. No hitch-hiking trip is complete without being forced to stay up all night in a truck stop somewhere, waiting for a driver to wake up or just waiting for dawn, eyes stinging, nose itching from cigarette smoke, folding your arms and putting your head down on a Formica table." writes Brookes. If only Hamilton would put as much faith in that Formica table as he does in his Big Brother J.C.! It is this unwavering faith that God will deliver the right ride, in His good time, that keeps Hamilton doggedly thumbing, even past midnight in a red-light district!
He's a hitch-hiker, an old black hitch-hiker at that, so you might think he'd meet with some signs of disrespect, and sure enough he does: "I would swear (again) that he gave me the ?@%$ sign with his whole arm as he drove by. I get the sign twice in one afternoon? I can't believe it." Heck, I've waited in places where I get the finger once every 10 minutes. I've even had eggs thrown at me!
It's a short book, rather stilted prose, in a very documentary diary format, but it's an icon all the same, and a charming read. It warms the heart to follow Hamilton's honest, simple, bumbling adventures across the land, and have him conclude: "I am so very thankful that all went so well. From here to there, there was not a drop of rain to dampen the road. There were a minimum of insults, but there were an abundance of blessings and positive rewards.... I appreciate the opportunity to reaffirm faith in humankind, and to declare the same to the world in this volume. There are lots of beautiful people out there ..."
Mike McIntyre, on his penniless hitch, along a similar route two years earlier thought back on a friend in San Francisco, an African American, and reflected upon injustice. His friend would never have this freedom, he thought. Well Hamilton didn't go penniless, but all the same leaves me wondering. He met with no difficulty outside of his oen inexperience ... just what is the balance between fact and prejudice in our own fears? Who's to tell? Hamilton, with the love of Jesus, was brave enough to test it and fared as well as I'd expect anyone to.
Brookes left two years later, and took a month to cross from east to west and back again. The contrast could harldy be harsher. He's an experienced hitch-hiker, knows all the tricks of the trade, is equipped with more than he needs on a generous expedition budget, has a backup ride with his photographer Tomasz from time to time, and is relaxed! Where Hamilton scored one ride half way across the country, surprising even himself, Brookes may have broken all short-distance records with a 400 yard ride in Lake City, Minnesota.
Still, he's not without his problems, or his fears from time to time. And while the context may conjure a rather plush, unauthentic image, he shows himself once in a while to posses that true hitcher's spirit. After a full day's drive with Tomasz, rather tellingly he observes "I was bored... The very idea of playing journalist, of going on the road and reporting back about the state of the States, seemed ridiculous. The America I found was an America I was creating, Staring out of the window into the darkness, I saw my own reflection." and really cherishes the road. "All you have to is get out of the car. All you have to do is get out of the car, and things come to you. It never fails. It's just a matter of getting out of the car," he tells Tomasz, and suddenly it seems as if the Photographer is not a plush ride when needed, but a necessary contrast to remind him of what he loves in the road ...
No, in spite of the odd bus, train, ride with Tomasz, Brookes plods his way rather faithfully across the country and back again. There a few hardships (an occasional near death experience, or that lurking fear of one), but mostly joy, with welcome philosophic interludes on the meaning of it all – the kind of reflection that 25 years affords one. And there is much food for thought in this story, for a culture so hooked on security, control and comfort. Like so many long hitches I've known, the mere fact of discarding control, embracing the unknown, brings with it the impossible!
He's picked up by the that old folk legend Ramblin' Jack Elliot for example, and Jay, who was one of five friends who founded Wizards of the Coast and made a mint with that world-wide collector's phenomenon, Magic: The Gathering. But so many ordinary folk too, bring treasures with them along the way.
Even when things are less pleasant, the rule of the impossible holds. After one harrowing ride with a reckless speed freak for example: "By the I got out I was shaking and my nerve had gone. That's it, I thought. I've had enough. I'm too old for this kind of thing. I couldn't even bring myself to stick my thumb out. From the rubble beside the shoulder, the cars and trucks looked not like opportunities but lethal weapons – a deer's-eye view. Yet I was standing there ten feet back from the highway, feeling small and beaten, not even hitching, I got picked up.... After Walter dropped me off at Kitchener, I was wandering reluctantly through stringy grass toward the on-ramp, thinking, I still don't want to do this, when a car pulled over and another young guy called out, "Are you hitchhiking? " and he had a ride with John, who had time so he drove 50 miles out of his way to drop him in Toronto. "If I wasn't going to the drivers, they would come to me, " Brookes rightly concludes.
Brookes too, writes in diary form, one day one chapter, dated, and placed, but the text is much fuller, and all the more charming in many different ways, he's not just an experienced hitch-hiker, but an experienced writer, a teacher of writing no less, at he can tell a story. The mission fell by the wayside somewhere, National Geographic threw in some token photos, but nothing to do with the trip (more to do with Tomasz' trip in the background) and one tiny little frame on the dust-jacket where one imagines, one can see the author (though his charming wife and two daughters are clear to see). "As for how America has changed in the last quarter-century, I can barely even conceive of America as a single place, having seen so much of it, and its vast contradictions. Instead, it seems to be me who has changed," Brookes concludes – not much of a result really for a plan that read "Find out what America was really like now.".
But Brookes felt that coming on early in the trip, and far more importantly, the real conclusion to this tale: "I've got to do this trip again in ten years' time to see what happens to all these characters, I thought, even if I'm in a wheelchair.", an I'll be there to hold him to his word!
Two charming books, two charming tales, two charming chaps, each in their own way, they both serve as icons of the times, and I'm so happy to see the thumb back on the bookshelves!
Both books are available through Amazon on-line.