Thursday, May 17, 2012

Road Atlases

I saw him again on the highway.  He stuck his thumb out in a futile gesture, just going through the motions, knowing damn good and well that no one was going to stop for his tired, weathered ass.

So of course I stopped.

I’d seen him last maybe twenty minutes before, tired and sun-dried on the road near the Sun Fresh Market.  He’d had the look of someone who’d been on the road with no end in sight: back bent from carrying his pack, hat looking like it had been through a stampede but still keeping the sun out of his eyes, his shades helping it to save his sight from years of hard road glare.  Always looking down, just one foot in front of the other, unless maybe there was a ride in the offing.

Most hitchhikers, when you stop for them, will run.  They know that anybody with a car thinks they’re in a hurry, and gods forbid that some jackass without a ride makes them wait another thirty seconds.  Anybody who speeds through a yellow light or guns it through a red one doesn’t want to wait on some bum carrying the world on his back.

Of course, some people will just pretend to stop, so they can watch them make that thank-god-I’m-not walking-anymore dash and then take off again.  If the hitcher is desperate enough, you might be able to make them sprint a couple of times, let them think maybe it was a mistake, before flooring it and leaving them coughing in the exhaust and wincing away from the gravel.  It’s rare, of course.  Even having a car stop isn’t too common.  But it happens.

I’ll almost always stop for a hitchhiking woman, though not for the reasons you might think.  Throughout the world, to varying degrees, a woman on the road carries her life in her hands, and sees it in the fists of almost any passerby.  I’ll pick up a woman on the street simply because then I know she’s with someone who won’t expect anything in return, let alone think he’s entitled and take what isn’t offered.

But I never saw many women walking the road when I was younger, and they’re almost gone now.  Too many rapes, too many serial killers.  Today’s whisky-girl is either with someone, or she stays on the side roads, away from traffic and the Father Dowling who could be Ed Kemper in disguise.  If you’re a lady of the road, civilization is the Dunwitch Horror and it will absolutely gobble you up.  It’s just safer and cleaner to stay where the Wild Things are.

Of course, there’s the other side of it, too.  Any hitchhiker could be a carjacker with a gun, which is why women drivers generally won’t stop.  All the world over, women are seen as victims, and it’s been a self-fulfilling prophesy for thousands of years.  Being large and male does give me certain luxuries.  I’m also faster than I look, and I always make sure a hitcher is beside me, never behind.  I’ll play the gentleman, no mistake.  But they’ll always be in reach, and I am comfortable with violence.  Besides, life is nothing without some risk.

This fellow was an old man, bearded white, somewhere between twenty-six and sixty.  Time on the road had done its work: skin tanned into old leather stretched tightly over bone and sinew, pitted lower incisors, a back like a croquet wicket.  I’d mentioned that most hitchers ran.  He walked.  He was too tired for anything else. 

Like I said, he’d done this for a while.  He knew enough to get in with his bag in his hand, “Thanks, Brother,” then ask if he could pass it into the back seat.  If the bag goes in first, once again, the driver may just floor it, laughing, and leave the would-be hitcher with no food, shelter, money, or recourse.  People talk about how poverty breeds desperation and crime, and it does.  But they forget that wealth gives people the leisure for casual cruelty.  Often times, the difference between a knight of the road and a beggar in the mud is his pack.  So I helped the old Atlas stow his planet in back, and asked him where he was headed.

“South, brother,” he said.  “Way South.”

I was heading that way myself, and allowed I could get him as far as the college, which would be a good ten miles jump for him, easy.  He gave me his name, and as we shook I gave him mine.

“No way!”  He laughed.  “My old CB handle was Coyote!  That is too cool.”

So we two Coyotes laughed together and talked awhile as we headed South on I-35, looking for a truck stop where he could rest, wash, and start the next leg of his journey.

Mostly he talked, and mostly I listened.  Part of that was because he was getting hard of hearing, and it was just easier that way.  Part of it was that he hadn’t had anyone listen to him in a long time, and he needed someone to talk to.  That sat well with me.

He said he spent his winters in Texas helping with the horses on a ranch, and he had the walk to prove it.  He was short on supplies, since he’d been robbed not long ago at a truck stop.  He’d left his pack in the main room while he bathed, and someone with a car just took it.  He hadn’t been able to brush his teeth in two weeks.

We stopped off at a drugstore and picked him up some cheap supplies, and he continued his tale.  He was fifty-seven years old.  He was headed to Wichita to stay with some friends for a few days, then light out again to Ohio.  Seems his father was there, dying, and probably going to live just long enough to lose his house.
“I mean, he built that house,” the other Coyote said.  “Him and his uncles and a neighbor.  I mean, hell, I was hammerin’ nails when I was five, you know?  And now the goddamn government’s taking it all away.  And he’s a veteran, he landed in Omaha!  He fought for you, he fought for me.  And now . . .” 

He trailed off, looking out at the passing scenery before he went on, more calm.  “I ain’t never voted, you know?  Don’t believe in it.  Who you gonna vote for, this liar or that liar?  This thief or that thief?  I’d burn it,” He looked at me with new intensity.  “I’d set it on fire, the whole fuckin’ thing, before I’d let them have it!  Nothin’ but ashes, man.”  He looked out the window again.  “Nothin’ but fuckin’ ashes.  Let ‘em take that.”  And he was quiet for a long while after.

I nodded.  I’d read a story long ago about a boy who had a pet frog he loved more than anything.  The neighborhood bullies had cornered him and his pet on a rooftop, ready to take it from him and smash it in front of him.  So the boy threw it off the rooftop himself, to its death, rather than let them kill it.  When surrounded by superior forces, sometimes destruction is the only physical freedom left to you.

I took my fellow Coyote further out of my way than I let on, dropped him off at a McDonald’s with a couple of bucks for food.  He didn’t like taking it, but he liked staying hungry even less.  Sometimes I think about hitting the road myself, carrying my own world on my back and just dropping off the grid entirely.  Getting away from the people, the forms, the noise, the basic wrongness of civilization.  Maybe I’d wander for months, maybe for years.  Just take off, and see the world one step at a time.  But ultimately, you will notice, I am still here.


(Bottom Atlas picture courtesy of, all rights reserved by original creator.)

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