Monday, July 13, 2009

My 'Failed' Attempt to Autostop

I've got no strings on me/
I'm feelin' fancy-free/
How wonderful to be/
On the open road!

- Goofy, “A Goofy Movie”


Hitchhiking had always seemed a mysterious road ritual, a quiet highway anthem taken by the breeze. When I was younger, I would listen to my Dad regale about his annual pilgrimage from Poland to Norway, first by train from Kraków to Szczecin, then by ferry to Malmö, Sweden, and finally by ‘autostop’ [hitchhiking] all the way up to the strawberry farm and dynamite factory where he worked in Trondheim. Or my mom talking about hitchhiking down to Bulgaria and Greece, once even on the back of a motorcycle. Occasionally, my ears would fill with the song of the road as other people shared their own experiences.

As my ears filled, my mind glowed. I wanted to try as well.

I figured I could do it and probably survive, uneasy about it as I was. So I committed my safety to God, checked local laws and rest stops locations, and decided to put myself into the trust of other people.

Having just come back from Thailand and the Philippines to Grand Rapids, my destination was Buddahville, NJ – beautiful 07002. My route was simple: I-96 E to US 235 S to I-80 and all the way east. I made my sign: “Mom’s in NYC,” with room to bulldog clip my route signs underneath.

On the morning of July 8th, with my trusty Kelty external frame and eight dollars worth of groceries – PB&J on whole wheat, Vienna sausages, and Craisins, I was dropped off at the intersection of I-96 and East Beltline. Quickly, I discovered that it was an awkward intersection for getting rides – three way traffic competing to get onto a one-lane exit ramp with less than 10 feet of shoulder for pullover. I stood there for about an hour and a half before getting picked up by a professor from Cornerstone University. I asked him to take me a few miles down 96 to the Cascade Meijer exit, where I’d certainly have better luck. Though it was but a few miles, the short ride recharged me, encouraging me to keep at it, as my cheek muscles already were lightly sore from smiling at drivers passing by.

I got out and ran across 28th Street, and I immediately saw my spot. I dropped my 40+ pound pack (Greek books weigh more than they ought) and kept it up about half an hour, until a prof from Ferris U going to Lansing picked me up. We shot the breeze the entire way down to Exit 110, Okemos, where he dropped me off, wishing me the best.

I marched down the on-ramp and started displaying my sign, but to no avail: for an hour only three cars came down the ramp, and the cars driving down the highway were going too fast to see my sign properly. I thought I was stuck, until I heard a car driving down the ramp. Excited and as eager as a Girl Scout (I suppose), I turned around and held my sign above my head like the Ten Commandments.

Problem: the car stopped.
Problem II: it turned on the red and blues. It’s the 5-0.

Out comes an officer from the Ingham County Sheriff’s Department – maybe 25 years old. He asks what I’m doing and we start talking. In the end, after running my files and discovering I am not a mass murderer and warning me about the vague legality and ignominious history of autostop, he gives me a ride as far as his jurisdiction allows – mile marker 122: Webberville. From the small cramped spot in the back of his cruiser, we had an awesome conversation about education, budget cuts, and the role of government. He let me out at the truck stop, and we parted ways.

The truck stop was a nuzzled in between a McDonalds and a Mobile gas station. I spent the next two hours until 3:30 PM walking from truck to truck, to my disappointment finding all of them were heading West and not East. Six PB&Js later, I finally went inside to order a burger. Strategically positioning my sign if any truckers heading my way walked by, I sat down and waited, as the smell of corn-fed beef filtered through my nose. The truck stop restaurant was classic Americana – screen door entrance, chalkboards and maps covering the counters and walls, a deli and grill, and, to top it all off, it was run by an Egyptian guy named Enzo wearing an Italy track jacket. It was marvelous.

As I’m soaking in the place and starting to feel the tingling of sunburn, a trucker saunters over and offers to buy me a cool drink – Arizona Ice Tea. In the meantime, one of the ladies from the grill brings me my burger, sets it down on the dull yellow tabletop, tells me, “We already bought it for you,” smiles, and leaves it for me along with the change from a ten. I was so blessed by that outpouring of goodwill and hospitality, and, as I devoured the burger – the most delicious I’ve had in a long time – I thanked God and savored the sweetness of the moment.

After eating, I went back the trucker, who was there till 2 AM, when he had a shipment of fish to deliver, and recommenced conversation. We meandered over a myriad of topics: the radio, BBC, energy drinks, atlases, technology, Joseph’s reunion with his brothers in Genesis 45, high fructose corn syrup, television, highway history, interalia. But it was 5:30 PM, and I had to get moving. I thanked him, and as I left, he bought me another AZ. Downing it, I was out.

My luck however was unchanged. Everyone was still heading west or perhaps north and south. The one trucker heading east lamented that he couldn’t take me – he was company-operated and would get fired if he took me and were found out. Thus, without success and with counsel, I decided to return east.

I scrawled a “Grand Rapids” sign and ran across the road, offhandedly flashing it an oncoming car. It stopped right on the dime. Opening the door, the driver smiles and asks, “You don’t happen to have a gun, do you?” “No, sir,” I answered. Grinning wider, he quipped, “Good, ‘cuz I do.” And thus we were off. He promised me to drop me off at a rest stop on I-96 W, from where I could easily get a ride back, yet he got so involved into telling me about his bowling league and cigarette lighter collection, that we missed the exit. “It’s all right,” he said nonchalantly, “I can just drop you off in downtown Lansing.” In the end, after accidentally taking the exit to MLK Drive, he dropped me off on Saginaw, right off I-96 on Exit 93b.

The light dimming, I looked around for a ditch to sleep in if I didn’t get a ride back. I spotted a few pines and high grass near a bridge and took note, but decided I would be back in GR in a bit anyway, so there was no point. As the sun dropped lower and lower, however, so did my confidence in the drivers, who just stared inquisitively and sped up. I called up Gracie to tell her that I was going to sleep by the road that night and would return the next morning; right on the ball, though, she told me that Dee and Josh (who had been wanting to take a drive anyway) were coming to pick me up.

Thus, I set my sights upon a Burger King. I received puzzled looks from the staff as I walked in (“Where are you from?” & “How far did you walk?”), but we quickly hit it off in conversation – my time in Thailand and the Philippines, that day’s trip, their families, and travels in general – which lasted all the way until I got picked up at 9:40 PM.

I finally got home three days later by getting a ride with friends from Grand Rapids to Erie, PA, and then, after a night there at Eben-Ezer Camp, with family friends who were leaving Erie for NYC.

Reuniting with my family (sans youngest brother Jeffrey, who's working up at Word of Life Island), donning Thai clothing.


I am still processing what I've learned on the 120 miles or so of road I covered with strangers , the hours of conversation with various interested and interesting individuals, and the time I spent in between those two waiting and thinking. But already, one thing I know: it was not a failed experience.