Monday, July 28, 2008
RENO, NEVADA - July 28 -- 'What happened to walking?' commented an anonymous viewer recently.
It's been replaced. Replaced by something we've never tried before in our entire lives. It's called hitch hiking, and it's invigorating.
We've also been called out before for having a constantly fluid summer project. We wouldn't have it any other way. We're learning as much as we're telling along the way. Although the west has already been discovered, we're discovering it for ourselves for the first time, navigating throughout it thanks to kind strangers who feel like showing us around. If we were to walk throughout the deserts without a support vehicle, not only would we be risking our health and possibly our lives, we wouldn't see one damn person for 100 miles and would therefor not have any stories to tell aside from describing how bored we were. And also, being low on steam and money, we are wanting to reach the Pacific sooner rather than later.
'I could hitch rides across the U.S. too,' the viewer finished off the comment.
My advice. Do it! It's incredible. It's a perfect way to roll the dice at never knowing who you're going to meet and where you're going to end up. You can only do so much on foot - typically 20 monotonous miles a day. It's the lack of agenda and not having any more possessions other than what we can carry that allows us to blow like tumbleweeds across the vast country. We walked 600 miles out east and had many stories to tell. We've given our feet a rest out west, but the stories keep on coming, and that's what really matters. Oh, and it's nice to not have feet that look like someone took a cheese grater to them.
MOAB, UTAH - Amanda dropped us off at the Maverick gas station on the north end of main street. The rock climbing guide said this would be our best chance to catch a lift out of town. It wasn't more than five minutes after she drove off that a petite woman parked in front of our bags and asked us where we were headed.
'I can take you three hours west,' she said like it was no big deal.
Sarah was a white water rafting guide. It seemed like guides took to us well, maybe because they could relate to our kind. She had her boss' Mercedes for the week and there was plenty of room for a couple wanderers.
Instead of riding with her all the way to Richfield, we parted ways just 45 minutes away in Green River. We did so because this was the road that led north toward Salt Lake City, and Denny and I had decided that was the direction we wanted to go. It seemed silly that this was our mission since we could've ridden all the way there with Liz two days prior, but there's no sense in thinking about those things, and we wouldn't have gotten to experience Moab had we not done it this way.
GREEN RIVER, UTAH - The road sign said it all - 'Next service station - 106 miles.' It was official. We were in the middle of nowhere, aside from a pair of gas stations. One shared a building with an Arby's. The other with a Subway. We opted for the $5 footlongs and decided it was healthier crowd on that side of the road, so maybe they'd be happier and want to give a couple kids a lift. I'm not sure this theory makes much sense, but when Denny stated it, I nodded my head.
We waited six hours on our asses. After the first hour, we decided to split up. I took the Arby's crowd. One couple pulled up with a license plate that read 'IAHawkz.' I chatted with them about our Alma Mater, but they had no room in their car. It brightened my afternoon nonetheless.
Denny and I agreed to reserve phone calls only for good news. Text frivolous things, but only call when something good happens. I had switched posts and decided to sit by the on ramp, multiplying the number of passersby. One shirtless man stopped when he saw my Salt Lake City sign. He was prepared to take me, but when I said there was one more, he sped off before I could convince him to wait.
A few minutes later, I heard a pair of honks. A 55-year-old Navajo Indian couple had come to our aid. I promised them my friend was on his way but panicked on the inside when Denny didn't answer his phone after three calls. I was certain we were going to blow it. I asked questions about where they were coming from until Denny finally appeared. They didn't have the room for us, but they made it anyway. Howard and Beverly were carrying a 4,000-pound load of flour from their motherland in New Mexico up to their home in Salt Lake City. They had made this trip four times a year for the past 35 years.
'Have you ever picked up people before?' I asked.
'Oh yeah,' they said simultaneously, launching into a series of stories of helping folks on foot.
With the windows down and the cool mountain air blowing in, Denny couldn't hear a thing in the back seat, so I did most of the conversing over the course of the next three hours. I don't have too much in common with the Navajo tribe, but we related to each other that evening in spite of our contrasting backgrounds. Beverly handed us necklaces to protect us from ghosts and hugged us goodbye as we parted ways. She made us promise to call her to let her know we were safe.
SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH - We checked into a Motel 6 for the night - a luxury in our summer world. I went to fetch some McDonald's for dinner. The dollar menu is a close second to $5 footlongs when it comes to eating for cheap. A beggar asked me for some money on the way. I didn't have money to give, but I did buy extra double cheeseburgers for him for when I passed back by.
While in McDonald's, an NBA player whose name I don't know, was purchasing food for a homeless man. I knew he was in the NBA since a pair of kids hadn't stopped whispering about it in front of me in line. The man only ordered two things.
'You sure you don't want more?' the tall, well-groomed athlete said to the scruffy, smelly man next to him. I know he wanted more, but he didn't ask for more. I had goosebumps.
When I walked back to the hotel, the man who asked for change was gone. I ended up eating too much that night.
Denny and I grilled a pair of Mormon girls staying next to us with questions about their beliefs late into the night. I have so many questions for religious people, but I'm always afraid of offending them. We escaped without conflict.
Liz, who had given us a ride from El Paso to Moab, picked us up the next morning to take us to her favorite burrito joint. We got to share the backseat with her three beautiful girls ages 15 months to 9 years. Life always makes sense to me when kids are around.
It was funny to see someone we had grown close with a few days earlier just a few days later. Liz dropped us at a popular exit off of I-80.
'Mom, where are we going?' asked the 9-year-old.
It was a fair question. Maybe she'll understand what we were up to some day. Then again, maybe it will never make sense to some people.
I-80, UTAH - We switched posts several times, trying to form the best strategy. We were new at this. I don't think it would be nearly as exciting if it were easy, but you lose hope quickly when hundreds of drivers pass right by without even acknowledging your presence.
Denny was a quarter mile down the road when a truck stopped next to me at the Flying J. The woman in the passenger seat was wasted drunk, but her husband seemed just fine behind the wheel. Preparedness meets opportunity equal a ride west. And opportunities weren't showing their face too often that day, so I hopped in the truck bed.
'My friend's just down the road,' I explained through the back window.
Denny did a double take when he saw me stand up in the back of an unfamiliar pickup.
'He's trippin' out, isn't he?' laughed the intoxicated woman.
Denny hopped in as I explained we were destined for Nevada, just over the Utah border. This would get us a quarter of the way to Reno.
'You can have some Heinekens if you want,' the woman offered, pointing to the case next to us.
'Thanks,' I said as the truck began doing 80 on 80.
It wasn't the safest thing I've ever done, but boy was it liberating. Denny and I hardly spoke as the wind whipped at our bodies. The sky seemed bigger that day as we watched mountains and fluffy white clouds and salt fields pass by. After nearly 70 days in a row spent together, I think it's safe to say we knew what one another was thinking.
As we slowed down in the gambling mecca, Wendover - otherwise known as little Reno - we asked to take a photo of the woman.
'Want a photo of my boobs??' she asked.
We were thankful she was joking. She laughed hysterically at her own joke as we hopped out of the truck and thanked them.
WENDOVER, NEVADA - We found the on ramp to 80 west and sat for 10 minutes before getting restless, wondering if another entrance to the freeway would be more productive.
Denny and I walked a half hour roundtrip before we realized this was the only on ramp around for miles. We regained our ground and took a seat, holding up a pair of signs - 'Reno?' and 'Going west?'
We noticed a man across the road from us holding his own sign asking for money due to the fact that his car was broken down. After a few minutes, he began walking over to us. I'll admit I sighed when I saw this, thinking he was only trying to get something out of us.
The man who was missing his front teeth explained that he had been hitch hiking for 38 years and that it was obvious our odds would be increased if we walked 10 feet and sat on the other side of the on ramp.
I handed him $2 for his advice even though I had no idea of its value.
When he retook his seat on the other side of the street, I flashed him a peace sign.
'Happy travels,' he yelled, pointing to something going on behind me.
I was oblivious to the white van that had pulled over. Denny was already climbing in.
I stared back at our friend, who was smiling and waving goodbye. I'm sure he was proud of the advice he had given. He sure knew what he was talking about.
'Hurry up goddammit!' yelled the shirtless, shoeless man in the van. Denny and I were in a frenzy, trying to throw our bags in the trunk and take a seat. I wasn't sure why this man was in a hurry, or why this man who was in a hurry had bothered to stop for us, but I was sure we were destined to make it to Reno by sunset.
We warmed up to Mike immediately. The Detroit native had his degree in bio-psychology and was living in Sonoma county in California. He chain smoked and pounded iced coffee. He was on his way home from a roadtrip in Atlanta, where he was visiting a girlfriend. I found it very intriguing and relaxing that he didn't ask any questions about what we were up to or why.
I sat in the back, reading 'Love is a Mix Tape', and dozing off while Denny chatted it up with Mike, who drove at speeds reaching 100. We would cover the 400 miles to Reno in no time at all.
RENO, NEVADA - Scotty, one of my best friends in the world, laughed at the sight of us as we embraced in a powerful man hug. His girlfriend Taylor introduced us to their dog Betty.
'You guys sure look dirty,' Scotty commented. He promised us showers, clean clothes, and pizza. Plus, I knew the company was guaranteed to be good. What more could a couple hitch hikers ask for?
Friday, July 25, 2008
SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH - July 25 -- I had never taken a lesson in rock climbing and had never seen it done in person. But there I was, being taught how to belay from a professional guide in Moab. After Brian, who had taken a college course in rock climbing, was done making it to the top of the 80-foot climb, I strapped the equipment around me to begin ascending. I only made it halfway to the top before succumbing to defeat. I felt pretty pathetic. Scott made me feel better though, telling me he was impressed on how well I did without ever trying the sport before. It was a little disappointing for me at the time, but looking back it was one of the highlights of the summer.
It's the west, so we can't walk or else we could die. We made signs - 'Heading West?' I thought we should've been more hip and written, 'Headin', but nevertheless we sat with our sign off the side of the road by a hotel near the outside of town. There was no action for an hour and a half, so we headed back into town where we picked up a couple of padlocks to lock our stuff up as we roamed around. A guy at the counter made a comment that we must be rich to be able to travel across America. It was an ironic statement because our funds are nearly depleted.
Scott and Amanda were waiting off the side of the road. They asked what we were up to and eventually invited us back to their house. We all hung out for about fifteen minutes before they had to go back to work.
'Okay, guys, I'll be back in about an hour, just pop in a movie if you want,' Scott said.
Brian and I were all alone in their house, watching Anchorman, a movie who's lines have monopolized our conversations at times during the summer. Scott soon came back and had us trail him in his 5-speed Subaru so he could return his work vehicle. We had only known each other for a short period of time, and he was already trusting us completely.
He brought us to a free dinner later that evening that a group of locals put on every night in the town park. The small group was dynamic, with older men mingling with younger guys and girls. There was a sense of passion for the outdoors that was hard to resist because of the warm vibe.
They call it 'dumpster diving.' Going through the garbage of local businesses who throw out food that expired that day.
'We probably eat better now after we started dumpster diving because we eat whatever produce they throw out so it gives us a better balance,' Amanda said.
Once a store gets a new shipment of fruits or vegetable, they put all the old food in a box and throw it in a dumpster out back. There's nothing wrong with the food except it's not as fresh as the new shipment. Even packaged food is thrown out if the expiration date has passed. We snagged a bag of rolls that expired the same day as the dive. It may not sound like the most glamorous of ways to gather food for dinner, but after seeing how well it worked, I feel like a sucker for spending money on the same food they get for free.
Throughout this trip we have lived the lifestyle of many people, but none that viewed life with such simplicity. Scott and Amanda's passion was to be outdoors, rock/ice climb as often as they could and live with limited complications.
Scott told us of Moab, 'It's a hard place to get rich, but an easy place to get by.'
Wednesday, July 23, 2008
MOAB, UTAH – July 23 – I was wide awake for it being only 7:45 a.m. Getting dropped off at a gas station in a town of barely over 1,000 people in the heart of West Texas will do that to you, I suppose.
It may seem like something always works out on this journey, but before it does, we are left feeling vulnerable, intimidated and doubtful that our serendipity will kick in.
We threw our bags down and formed a game plan on a bench.
'Okay, how about this. I'll take a loop around the Flying J and see what's going on,' I proposed to Denny. 'You watch the bags. Cool?'
I returned with the following valuable information:
'Okay, there's a sweet section for truckers to hang out that's completely empty. The chairs look pretty comfortable. And then there's a bunch of booths with outlets.'
We found a booth to our liking. Denny began to work on the blog while I played a round of Big Buck Hunter in the game room while building up the courage to participate in the day's lesson of humility.
'Okay, I'll sit out there for a couple hours while you work,' I told Denny. 'Wish me luck.'
I debated making a sign from cardboard. What should it say? Heading west? Have room for a couple more? Please help?
I skipped the sign, placed my bag strategically on the ground against a pillar so the padding would provide a comfortable hangout and pulled out the Time 100 most influential people in the world edition. I picked up where I left off - Baitullah Mehsud - and prepared for a long game of waiting.
Denny and I learned a slang term on the Appalachian Trail called 'yogiing.' It means asking without asking. Professional 'hinting at' in a way. It's not about taking advantage of people, but simply planting ideas in their heads that their help could be of great importance.
I will admit we are getting good at this, but we only reserve it for times of desperation. I was fully prepared to break out necessary techniques on this morning as I stared into the monotonous, dull landscape of West Texas.
I tried to concentrate on the magazine, but my attention span gave out at Ashfaq Kayani. I traded it in for my journal and tried to express my thoughts in ink.
Middle of nowhere...mid July...sitting on my belongings...at a gas station...in Texas...kind of funny...kind of sh**ty...
'What the hell am I doing with my life?' was the final note I would write that day.
I noticed a 30-year-old woman, four children ages 2-7 and a dog unload from a van that had just pulled up. Obviously Denny and I would not be invited to this party, but the sight broke me away from my frustrations. The children had a bounce to them that would make anyone smile. The mother followed behind the troop and caught eyes with me.
'Got your hands full, huh?' I said from my floor seat, trying to spark up my first conversation since parting ways with Denny.
She gave a polite acknowledgement and proceeded to let the dog pee in the grassy area. I put my pen back to paper, but no profound thoughts released from my mind. The family passed back by, and this time the woman stopped to chat. I'm not sure what people think when they approach us. Do they feel sorry? Or does the curiosity of our story just get to them?
I explained to Nancy that my friend was inside the gas station, and that we had hiked quite a bit in the east, but with the cities being so spread out in the west, we were looking to head toward the pacific without risking disaster in the desert.
I didn't say too much more before she offered - 'Well we're going to El Paso. I'd have to move some stuff around, but I'm sure we could make room for ya.'
El Paso was 445 miles to the west. I trust nearly everyone I meet, but my brain wouldn't let me believe her at first.
'Are you serious?' was all that came out.
'Yeah, if you want.'
'Um yes, that would be so great. Thank you so much! I'm going to get Denny!'
I thanked her three more times and put her 7-year-old son, Dillon, in charge of watching my bag.
'Dude, pack up,' I said for effect.
Denny, concentrating hard on the screen in front of him, asked 'Why?'
'We're going to El Paso.'
'Are you serious?'
I nodded with emphasis.
'How'd you pull that off?'
'I have no idea.'
We packed up quicker than necessary, imagining the ride might be gone if we wasted a second. Denny introduced himself to Nancy.
'You're not going to murder me, are you?' She asked, jokingly with a hint of serious.
What do you say in this situation to someone to comfort them? I can't remember what wise words we attempted to offer. Regardless, we piled in the van, introducing ourselves to our fellow passengers.
'Dillon forgot to watch your bag, so I watched it for you!' exclaimed six-year-old Skylar.
This led to a six-hour special of 'Kids Say the Darnedest Things.'
-'Smell my feet.'
-'Hey Danny? I love you.'
-'Mason is a Cheeto face.'
-'I want you guys to stay forever, but I know that you probably can't.'
-'Our cat is a boy cat because she has a wee-wee.'
-'I remember you. I met you when I was a baby. You held me.'
-'We're going to Texas!' (the trip began in Texas)
-'The house next door is empty. You could move in there!'
Denny played co-pilot the majority of the trip as I tried to entertain four kids who threatened to burst out of their seat belts and car seats with every move. I disposed of already-been-chewed gum and tissues covered in fresh boogers and pretended to smell the girls' feet when they promised they smelled like rainbows.
When the DVD player power cord began having issues (ironically we were watching Short Circuit) I thought I was in trouble. Denny MacGyver came to the rescue by using a hair tie and a pen cap to fix the situation. Everyone was happy again.
I reluctantly let every child handle our digital camera - worth more than everything left in our budget - after they broke out into an improv song begging to take videos and photos. They were too cute. The word 'no' vanished from my vocabulary.
I managed to drift off to sleep. The kids were very polite, allowing me to doze on one of their pillows for a while. As soon as my eyes cracked open, Kendall shouted - 'Can we do another wideo?' Of course she could.
I would say I played the role of babysitter, but the environment made me feel more like a kid. Denny bonded with Nancy in the front seat, then we switched spots for the final leg of the journey. I chatted with our savior of West Texas, ensuring her that although we may not have looked like it by hanging out at a gas station, we were in fact ambitious guys.
I stared out the window at nothing. There wasn't anything resembling a town for 100 miles. Had Nancy not come along, I might still be sitting on my bag.
I pulled my identification from my Eclipse gum packet to present it to the guard at the Military base in El Paso. Nancy, whose husband is in the Army, had invited us for dinner and said we could camp in the yard - which eventually led to camping on the bunk beds in Dillon's room.
The six-hour ride had not only had no hints of awkwardness, it was a blast. But once we pulled into the driveway and Nancy began explaining to her friends and neighbors that she had met these two guys at a gas station, Denny and I shifted uncomfortably. We knew who we were, Nancy and her kids had a good idea, but I suppose these people didn't.
Jessica, the neighbor across the street, began asking lots of questions. Most of our answers drew a laugh from her and something to the effect of, 'That's crazy!'
Nancy mentioned to her good friend Liz that we might be interested in a ride up to Utah since Liz was moving to Salt Lake City the next day.
'We'll definitely have to discuss that later,' she said.
A few hours later, I found myself on a walk with Jessica and Liz, chatting like we had known each other more than a day. Jessica mentioned that the day was so crazy, she wanted to write a book about it. Liz mentioned that the odds for catching a ride with her in the morning looked good, just as long as she could clear enough space for a pair of wanderers.
Denny and I helped Nancy with a few things around the house - tidying the kitchen and moving some furniture around. We also cleaned out the entire van, removing dirty diapers, peeling suckers from the floor, vacuuming, and giving it a wash. We went to bed that night still uncertain of our fate the next day.
We played with the kids all morning and afternoon. While I worked on writing back some emails, Denny had an internship as Mr. Mom. He ran around the house finding band-aids for boo-boos, cleaning up the dog's poop, refilling cereal bowls, and being an all-around entertainer. While Denny worked on the blog, I had lunch duty, which was a bit simpler since all I did was heat up pizza for the youngsters who were fading due to the heat.
Mason got his head stuck in between the bunk bed and the wall on more than one occasion. Skylar and Kendall then got the idea that climbing on our shoulders would be the afternoon's main event. They agreed each time would be their last. This went on for hours.
'When you get married, tell your wives you're waiting five years before having kids,' Nancy said.
It seemed like a whole lot of work. But I could see how much she loved them and what they meant to her. Hell, I was starting to love them. I was ready to go find a wife.
Utah was a go. Liz made us promise not to kill her.
'I promise you we'll be friends by the end of this,' I said.
About four minutes into the trip, I think we were. We laughed. A lot. At one point, Liz, who was having some medical issues, not to mention her husband had been deployed to the Middle East, let a few tears fall in front of us as she spoke passionately about her spirituality. We had only known Liz for a day, but we were sharing our deepest thoughts about religion, politics, and the very important subject of the opposite sex. People seem comfortable opening up to us. And we're comfortable having them do so. I just hope the things I say have some sort of substance.
Liz proposed the question, 'What drives you?' I've been thinking about it ever since, unable to come up with a definitive answer. She explained a program she designed, initially for Army wives, about the power of positive thinking. She explained that if you say the things you want to be as if they're currently happening, that it will work wonders for the psyche. 'I am a great wife,' she used as an example. Of course, that one didn't really work for Denny and I, but we got the point.
Liz didn't like to drive at night, and the giant storm above didn't help the scenario. We decided to grab a bite to eat at the only open restaurant in town - McDonald's. I ordered the two strangest things I saw on the menu - a Green Chile Double Cheeseburger and a Salsa Roja wrap.
'You can only get these in New Mexico,' I informed Denny and Liz as we chowed down. They took the comment in stride.
I saw Liz scanning the menu.
'Wait, did the woman at the counter tell you that you could only get these here?' she asked sincerely since she hadn't seen the info behind the counter.
She caught me at a bad moment as Dr. Pepper squirted from my nose. We all began laughing hard.
'Did you just make that up?' she asked, boggled that anyone would do so.
I nodded my head, but couldn't get any words out. Finally...
'But I bet it's true.'
We checked into the Super 8. Liz suggested we all split a room since she would be afraid to be in one alone. I was glad she offered this because I didn't want to say anything, but I knew our budget was tight. Denny and I shared a bed, which is bigger than our tent, so we got to spread out a bit.
When I woke this morning, Liz had already gotten her breakfast and Denny was sound asleep. I walked down to the lobby to eat. On the way back upstairs, I paused, figuring a nice gesture would be to get Denny some food and bring it to him in the room. After 64 days on the road together, sometimes I worry we take our friendship for granted.
'I am a good friend,' I repeated in my mind. I think the power of positive thinking worked because Denny smiled, thanked me and wolfed down the food. It was the start to a great day.
We took photos out the car window of the amazing rock formations, endless skies and bright lightning bolts. Something about the west makes my heart beat with a bit more passion. Maybe it's the sense of freedom, thinking that maybe not everything has been discovered. I can't exactly describe the feeling, and those are the best kind in my opinion.
We told Liz to drop us in Moab - a town that has always infatuated me. I convinced Denny it would be a good place for us with its open-minded people, outdoor-friendly attitude and license plates from all the lower-48 states.
I had trouble wrapping my mind around the idea that we were in Utah a week after leaving New Orleans. This certainly wasn't the same trip as walking from town to town out east. The west was a different game, a tougher game in a way. We are simply playing by its rules, knowing that if we don't, there could be consequences.
It may be a different sort of adventure, but it's all part of the same journey of not knowing where each day might lead or who we might meet. The west is much different from the east, but it's all part of one incredible country.