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A girlfriend of mine once defended me to her father by saying, calmly, “Not every one who wanders is lost.” The dad kicked me out of the house anyway. But the damage had been done. Not everyone who wanders is lost. Of course I had to see her again. That was during the summer after my second year in college, and when I decided to leave school the following winter, I had but one destination in mind. Except that I was heading to Kansas City, where I figured jobs were easier to come by, instead of Wichita, 200 miles to the south, where she was living and asking me to go.
The following is the story about how I went from Kansas City to Wichita. The why is obvious. She was like sunshine. And so I went to her. It was my first but not last time hitchhiking. I've since hitchhiked from Boston to Georgia. From Philadelphia to Miami, Kansas City to Chicago, Mexico to Vegas, LA to Mexico and Miami to New Orleans. I've hitchhiked for dances, girls, nostalgia and fun. But those reasons only matter at night when it's just me and the moon and a constant shiver warming my body. During the day while I’m walking and hitching I feel many more ways. Hitchhiking does that. It makes you vulnerable.
It is beautiful too. On my way from Kansas City to Wichita a pick-up truck stopped by my side. The two guys in it explained they were heading in the other direction but thought I could use some money. I thanked them so genuinely, I think, that they were inclined to decline. ``Don't thank us,'' the driver said, as he pointed heaven-ward. Fortunately, I had enough gratitude to share all around.
But perhaps that episode needs an introduction for it to punch. I had dropped out of school to move to Kansas City, as I said, to be closer to a girl I liked. When Amtrak dropped me off in Kansas City at dawn I walked without direction until I say a rock station’s billboard quoting Mick Jagger: ``I know it's just rock 'n roll but I like it.'' Nothing had ever made more sense to me. Of course. Life was a thing to be lived — no justification required — so I walked onto Interstate 35 heading south. If I was going be close to her I was going be close to her.
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Cities are big. I walked eight hours on that fucking interstate before I left the city. It was hopeless. There weren't even embankments for cars to stop to pick me up from. But maybe the next car will stop? None did. For eight hours! It wasn't until the sun was setting that I got a ride. He dropped me off at a truck stop about 15 miles outside the city and gave me $5 and wished me luck. I stayed in that truck stop for two nights, hoping that some driver would disregard his insurance policy and give me a ride. ``Maybe if you had better tits,'' one guy told me. I liked him. He talked to me. He called me an idiot for not knowing what I was doing, but I could tell he didn't mean it.
With the third dawn I simply stood up and once again got on I-35 and started walking to Wichita. And within a matter of minutes I got a ride. From a police officer. He said I wasn't allowed to walk on the interstate (for my safety). I was too tired and out of place to be or look anything but pitiful. He took me to some highway station and looked through my wallet for anything and everything personal. He told me I should be at MIT and not on the road. I told him I disagreed. Then he asked me if I was carrying any drugs. I told him I wasn't. And he took a Ziploc bag labeled ``Shitcake'' out of my jacket containing mushrooms. I had forgotten about that bag. A little jail time is good for anyone, someone once told me.
``I ask because of this bag,'' said the officer.
``It was a gift from a friend before I left school,'' I said. ``They are actually shitaké mushrooms, and they are fine to eat.''
Though I was telling at least part of the truth (they were a gift from a friend), I don't think he believed me. He nonetheless offered me a ride back to the next exit—back toward Kansas City or toward Wichita? I chose Wichita.
It was back roads from then on, he said. And that's when the Christian guys in the pick-up truck told me to thank elsewhere. No, I wasn't in charge here. I had no control. I was wrong to design a ride from the truck stop, or to try to trick someone into giving me a ride. No, Wichita was to be given, not taken.
Within minutes of this realization, an old couple gave me a ride for an hour or so. Then I got a ride from a mother whose son was paraplegic. She told me how her neighbors ignored her. She told me to be careful ``cause people here are narrow-minded, I should know.'' She told me how she's the only person she knows who would pick up a hitchhiker. And she stopped at a convenience store and bought me a cake. A cake! I wish I remembered her name.
She took me to the next town, where another police officer picked me up. He was the county sheriff and also a law student at Kansas State University. He drove me to the county line. It was almost evening then, and a snowstorm was brewing.
``It's gonna be pretty bad,'' he said. ``What are you going to do?''
``I'm going to go before it starts falling,'' I said. That was the attitude. I couldn't stop. There was no need to stop. I had availed myself to the musings of the universe and I was sure the damn thing wasn't about to let me down. Right at nightfall a couple (about my age) picked me up. She was driving and he was quiet. She explained that he was her ex-husband, her first. He needed a ride to Topeka to clear some traffic issues, and I wasn't supposed to tell her boyfriend anything about this because “my boyfriend has a temper, too.” This was when her ex-husband first spoke.
``I'm sorry,'' he said. ``You know I'd never hit you.''
``Yeah,'' she said, ``but you sure smashed the fuck out of the car window, didn't you?''
``Because I didn't want to hit you,'' was the last thing he said.
Sure enough the window was covered by plastic and his right hand was taped. I didn't know what to say. My thoughts were of peace and sharing and giving yourself to the wisdom of the universe. I didn't have anything to contribute.
But she did. She asked me what I thought of the job she'd done on the car. Specifically, did I like the Confederate flag she'd hung above us? I told her it was ``bad-ass'' and that ``the Yankees still have it coming to them,'' but she didn't seem to know what I was talking about.
It finally came out that I was going to Wichita to meet a girl that I very much wanted to touch. This she understood. But, she concluded, I would spend the night and the snowstorm at her house. We would have to pretend I was an old high school friend so that her boyfriend would be okay with it. We got our stories straight.
After we dropped off her ex-husband she told me she didn't really like her boyfriend. All she cared about was her daughter, the one she'd had with her second husband. The courts had given him custody and she was working hard to earn them back. She didn't like her boyfriend but it gave her a place to live. And it wasn't until we got to their trailer home that I found out she was 19 years old.
Her boyfriend came home and they yelled about me for a little bit before he went to the bedroom. She stayed on the couch with me looking at photos of her baby, of her high school, friends and other things that I couldn't help but feel she should have more of.
I made it to Wichita the following day and showered and spent the day with my girlfriend before, once again, getting kicked out by her parents. I spent the night in a park, in a sleeping bag, where she snuck out of her house to join me. Even under the moonlight she was like sunshine.