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Stories >> More Hitchhiking Insanity

Another Return for Another Try

I took a trip up to Vancouver to visit my father. I couldn't stay long, and wanted to make it back to San Francisco in time for a friend's show. I'm not very enthusiastic about hitchhiking these days, but it's passable in the Pacific Northwest. You can always tell a lot about a place by how motorists respond to hitchhikers, and up there you're never waiting long for a ride.

I made it as far as Portland in one day, where I walked to Lisa's house and had a great time full of crowded kitchen reunions, getting doubled on bikes to nighttime fires, looking at hilarious sailing pictures from our trip, picking cherries and raspberries, doing Karaoke for the first time, and talking excitedly about future plans. I was a little hesitant about continuing to hitchhike south of Portland, but I'd had such a refreshing experience thus far. With clouded logic, I made a determined trip to a Portland on-ramp — intent on rejoining the 'Drive-Time Hitchhiking Club' that I was apparently kicked out of when I turned 18.

This was a mistake.

I stood out on that Portland on-ramp for hours. It was fucking miserable. My optimism was gone, and all I could think was “I should have known!” The on-ramp appeared to have been perfectly designed for thwarting hitchhikers. There was no shoulder, so cars couldn't really stop. Waiting across the street at the intersection light was just as bad, since it was timed just right to turn green as cars approached and turn red again when all the cars had gone past. You can hitchhike on the interstate in Oregon, but there were only two lanes at that point — and the right hand lane was the turning lane for another highway exit! I eventually gave up and wandered down to the steel bridge to watch for trains at S. Portland Junction. After another hour of waiting there, I realized that I didn't have enough water to get on a train anyways, and decided that I'd keep trying to hitchhike until dark at least.

I went back to my dreaded on-ramp and stood out for another half hour before some guy driving a tire truck finally stopped. "Yeah, I saw you here when I came by at 11am this morning, and what is it — 3pm now? I thought you could probably use a ride." He only took me about 15 minutes outside of town, where I stood on another ramp and pretty immediately got waved over by an older-looking guy in an Oldsmobile.

I opened the door and asked "Where are you headed?" The moment between asking that question and getting a response is a moment of incredible anticipation. My heart almost stops beating during that interval. The answer could be the key to your whole day. "Two exits down" or "All the way to Mexico!" could make all the difference in the world. So, after waiting almost an entire day for only one ride thus far, I almost jumped for joy when he responded "I'm going to LA," and I learned that this would be my last ride of the day.

"LA! Alright! I'm going to San Francisco..."

I got in. Two little dogs were yipping at me from the back seat, so I turned around and let them sniff my hand, while I continued talking with the guy behind the wheel. "What are their names?" I asked.

Now, there's also another distinct hitchhiking moment. You feel it when you get in a car with someone and assume everything is normal, until all of a sudden it hits you “oh shit — this guy's not right.” You'll suddenly realize you're in a car with someone who's obviously drunk or schizophrenic, but for some reason you miss it for the first 15 seconds.

After asking about the dog's names, I turned to look at this guy and realized he was still mumbling something about San Francisco "...first there's weed, and then shasta, and I guess after that comes that long straight shot..." I looked at him strangely. Had he even heard me? What's he mumbling about? Oh — oh no, this guy's not right. He started to accelerate up the ramp, and I buckled my seat-belt. We emerged onto the highway in a lane that ended ahead. With his foot still on the accelerator, he took his hands off the wheel, looked over at me, and asked "Have you ever been so tired... that you can't sleep?"

The car continued to accelerate, and he still wasn't even holding the wheel. We drifted across three lanes of traffic and ran off the road onto the shoulder of the fast lane — still accelerating. I grabbed the wheel, looked over my shoulder and turned us back onto the highway. "Seems like maybe you've been driving for a while, huh?" I asked nervously with one hand on the wheel, steering through traffic. "I've been driving for a looong tiiiime," he responded. "Yeah, well, I'm a pretty good driver so maybe we could switch off and you could rest some" I offered. He started mumbling something about how his nephew picked up a hitchhiker who turned out to have a gun. At this point we were accelerating towards the back of a semi, so I swerved us out of the way into the next lane. "Hmm, well I don't have a gun and — you know — I'm a pretty good driver." We started to come up on a rest-area turn off, so I took a chance and turned the wheel down the off-ramp — hoping that he'd hit the brakes once we were in there. He did brake some, but we ran up fully onto the sidewalk and almost crashed through the bathrooms before coming to a complete stop.

I reached over and put the car in park, then took my hand off the steering wheel. We sat in silence for a while, engine still idling, as all the other freaked out rest area people stared at our car up on the sidewalk. "Seems like maybe I should drive a ways, huh?" I finally asked.

He didn't say anything, but I got out and walked around to the driver's side. I opened the door, and he slowly slid himself over into the passenger seat. I got behind the wheel, reversed us off the sidewalk, and drove back onto the highway.

It was 4pm when I got picked up, and I drove clear to Sacramento. The guy's name turned out to be Wayne — he was from Yuma Arizona and had been visiting his daughter in Port Angeles. At first I thought he was drunk, but eventually I began to think he was just... old. He either had dementia, Parkinson's, or had taken something. He literally never stopped talking the whole time. He just kind of mumbled on and on, pretty incoherently. I couldn't follow him at all, so I just ignored him. He didn't seem to care or notice that I wasn't listening, although sometimes I would catch bits and pieces of what he was saying "Now Claude, old Claude was so tough that I couldn't cut him with a... with a chainsaw. When I tried chewing him up I just couldn't do it.... Well then I was shot through the back here and it came out my neck, I took that gun and threw it in the river..."

I hadn't driven a car in a long while, so it was actually pretty fun. Leaning forward into the road ahead, we cut straight across Oregon and northern California. The scenery was amazing, and accelerating through the mountains was almost like playing a video game. The driver's side window wouldn't roll up, and I was so into the driving that I'd attempt to get further into it and escape Wayne's mumbling by sticking my head out the window. So here was this incredibly surreal scene of me driving a speeding Oldsmobile across the state of Oregon, next to this 70 year old guy with dementia who's mumbling incessantly, while I completely ignored him with my head out the window.

It seemed like the entire contents of a 20lb bag of dog food had been emptied onto the rear floor-boards, so the dogs alternated between eating that and curling up to sleep.

We almost ran out of gas near Dunsmuir, so I pulled into a gas station to see what would happen. Wayne didn't seem to notice, and kept mumbling. Eventually the attendant came up and asked if we needed some gas. “Gas?” Wayne asked. “We're almost out of gas,” I said to him. “Oh,” he commented, and handed his credit card over to the attendant.

We got into Sacramento at 1:30am, and I reluctantly gave him back the keys. "Now Wayne, there's a motel six right up the highway there. I strongly recommend that you spend the rest of the night there. It seems like maybe you should call it a day and get some rest. Drive carefully." I watched with disbelief as the car jutted out into oncoming traffic, only nearly avoided collision, swerved back up the on-ramp, and disappeared onto the interstate.

1:30am in Sacramento. Late-night partiers drove into the Denny's, music blared from the trunk of a car in a nearby parking lot, and I walked under the street-lights still reeling from how strange that ride had been. Did that guy really exist? Did that just happen? It's strange to have those kinds of experiences by yourself. Sometimes things are so surreal, you wish someone else had been there to confirm it. There's nobody to laugh about it with, so all you can do is laugh with yourself. I chuckled and shook my head the whole way over to the train yard.

They'd patched the hole in the 14th St. fence. I started re-opening it with some wire cutters, but didn't get it all the way opened before I heard a westbound train coming in. I squeezed through what I'd gotten open so far, nicked my hand in the process, and got across the tracks before the train started coming in. I smiled when I saw the doublestacks, spotted a rideable 48, and caught it on the fly. I'll say this and that about riding trains these days, but when it all works out perfectly it's such a great feeling. The sound of catching a train on the fly is so satisfying "crunch...crunch...crunchcrunchcrunch—whoosh!"

I got some sleep, interspersed with staring up at the starry sky from the floor of the well, and woke up just as we were zooming past the Power Machine. It slowed down enough for me to jump off on the fly, and I breathed deep at my return. 5am.