Crossing America in an 18-Wheeler
‘FRONTIERSMAN, BEAR ATTACK DETERRANT’ The label read. It was a parting gift. I was now as prepared as I ever would be for my hitch hiking adventure across the United States.
Starting in New York I needed to make it to LAX in time for a departing flight in several weeks’ time. I had little in the way of monetary funds, and even less in the way of back-up plans, or for that matter any plans at all.
I had gone as far as enlisting the services of a Craigslist driver to get me out of the City and past New York’s 37 toll points. Not even on the highway yet and my singular plan was failing in spectacular fashion. As it turns out, those who solicit their services via Craigslist are not required to possess either a basic level of competence or intellect. Born and raised in New York, Dwayne was really struggling to locate the Westward bound highway. Becoming somewhat agitated and irrational by the fact I could give him no exact address to enter into his GPS, I asked Dwayne to pull over at his nearest convenience. Whilst it was neither the spot I had intended on being dropped, nor was it safe, to this day I believe I narrowly avoided becoming the newest member of a religious cult.
Walking directly up the on ramp past the sign that prohibited pedestrians to be on the highway, I did my very best at pulling off a confident swagger. But given the weight and size of my backpack, I looked and moved like I was a beached whale. I was exerting all my effort just staying in a straight line.
I had been ignorantly optimistic that I would be picked up straight away. Instead, after shuffling for about an eternity (20 minutes, tops) and making it a whole 800 meters a van finally pulled up ahead. A tinted black window rolled down. My heart was experiencing some crazy palpitations.
“What are you doing?” the driver yelled at me. The man in the van had pulled over not to offer me a ride or unburden me of my cumbersome backpack, but to berate me as to my stupidity. I was mocked once again by another stranger before I finally made my first hitch.
His name was Pablo; he was a chauffeur driver. We talked of all things art, illustration and philosophy and he gave me a Kit-Kat before we parted ways as he took his exit off the highway.
Straight away, I found myself another ride: the epitome of the ultimate American. We sat in silence in his orange pick-up truck, him driving home after a hard day’s work to go and feed his goats.
I was once more on the side of the highway, and there was no mistaking that the sun was setting. I was banking on the fact that I would be able to find a ride that was traveling much further west, lest I’d have to find somewhere to stay for the night. Instead, I found myself walking along the side of the highway with the only light coming from the headlights of passing cars and trucks. Wearing the majority of the clothes I owned and supporting 20kgs on my back, I was sweating like a champ even with mounds of snow piled next to me.
Eventually, a car pulled up behind me, red and blue lights blazing. The highway patrol had come to my rescue! Putting on my thickest Australian accent, I exclaimed that I had no idea that what I was doing was illegal. The pair of patrol officers gave me a pat down and searched my belongings. They put me in the back of the police vehicle and escorted me to a truck stop on the border of Pennsylvania. We chatted about ideal ski destinations.
Stranded in an unknown location, my only alternative to forking out for the nearby motel/brothel was to proposition strangers to take me further. I struggled to pick a potential ride out of the crowd of obese red-necks mulling around the fast food restaurants. Instead, I relocated to the truck refuelling station. I had high hopes I would be able to find a trucker heading far west with whom I could proposition a ride.
I grazed the truck stop for a potentially harmless ride share, unsure on how to judge the overall sanity of a truckie. As far as I was aware, truckies were generally coked up ex-cons running rampant on the highways. Without showing much discern, I sequestered a driver as he approached the store. After giving me the once-over, he accepted my request.
As I walked around to the passenger side of the cabin, I hastily tried to memorise the license plate number and all defining characteristics of the truck. If the only photographic device I possessed wasn’t a polaroid camera with no film, I would have attempted to discretely take a photo. If the picture was to ever resurface, it would be when my body and belongings were found in a ditch somewhere on Route 66.
The drivers name was Eddy, or at least that was what I understood through his thick Russian accent. To him I was Geena. For hours we struggled through conversation. In the wee hours of the morning, Eddy suggested I take a nap in his bunk in the back. Leaping on the opportunity to be horizontal I scrambled into the back of the cabin.
I was giddy with excitement. Here I was crossing America in an 18-wheeler. Instantly, I fell asleep. I only woke when the truck began to slow down. It would seem Eddy too needed to take a power nap. I tried to insist that I would sleep perfectly well in the passenger’s seat. After five minutes of debate Eddy near-on picked me up and tried to carry me back to the bunk. This wasn’t looking promising. Lying in the not-so-large bed next to a somewhat larger Eddy, I tried to assess my situation. My shoes were sprawled somewhere under the front seat, along with my backpack and the bear mace. The situation I had found myself in wasn’t looking optimal. Eddy tried his best at a sneaky squeeze and grab. He was no more handsy than a 15-year-old boy at a school dance, and despite his best efforts, I had to break it to him that my only intentions lay in getting to the West coast.
As promised, Eddy took me as far west as he was going. We parted ways at the border of Ohio and Indiana. I remained at the truck stop long enough to find myself a free Wi-Fi connection and leave a garbled Facebook update as to my current whereabouts.
It was here that I met my next ride: Heva, a little Columbian man who came up to my waist. He promised me that I would be his princess and that he would get me exactly where I needed to go. Not thrilled by the prospect of being a princess, I climbed into his truck regardless. Should I have had the faintest grasp of the geography of the United States, I may have been spared an unnecessary tour of the American highway network. We headed north to Michigan so that Heva could empty his load before we headed west again.
During my hitchhiking encounters, everyone presumed I was a lot more destitute then I actually was. Don’t get me wrong, I keep it hobo, but I definitely wasn’t afraid of a good feed and a shower. Heva insisted we eat well while I was with him, thus it was his shout at all of the finest Mexican highway restaurants, and not even the most well-fed of travellers would turn down bulk tacos and enchiladas.
Heva and I finally made it to Kansas. He invited me to accompany him to a barbecue with some old friends of his. Maybe I should have been more sceptical about heading on over to a soiree with a whole group of Columbians, but at this point “no” wasn’t in my vocabulary. How do you say “no” in Spanish anyway?
Having gotten wind of the fact that it was to be my birthday in just a couple of days, Heva had organised a surprise party with his friends for the occasion. I spent the evening being serenaded with feliz cumpleaños.
Unable to take me closer to California, Heva’s birthday gift to me was a Greyhound bus ticket for the remaining half of my journey. Heva had totally come through on his promise!
As we drove to the station, my new Columbian best friend and I blasted Miley Cyrus’s ‘Wrecking Ball’ through the stereo of his 18-wheeler. Oh what strange tales travel does gift upon us.