Monday, May 11, 2009

We Won't Kill You

When I am about the throes of boredom on long trips, usually just as my desperation has reached a crescendo and I am considering pulling over for a nap or to inject espresso directly into my veins, options present themselves.

“We Won’t Kill You” was the sign the two hitchhikers displayed slightly west of Forrest Hills, which in my mind takes the cake for creativity – or I suppose the most elaborate lie. They were no doubt interesting people. With this in mind, I turned around, went back east an exit, and returned to pick them up, right as two others were trying to pick them up as well. All three of us were veterans. One was an older man, a Vietnam vet, the second was a young female Marine leaving quite soon for Iraq, and then I show up in the fray. I, traveling the furthest west, won the competition.

Last year, when in Salt Lake City, I had some fantastic conversations with two Rainbows named Pirate and Pixie, which I have been informed are probably two of the most common names in that crowd. Eight months later, I find myself having similarly fantastic conversations with the polar opposite of the transient community – the Gutter Punks. Though the definitions are somewhat ambiguous, Rainbows are probably best described as hippies of all ages that travel the country attending as many Rainbow gatherings as they can manage. They like to receive stuff, as I best understand it. At the other end of the spectrum are the Gutter Punks, which are just as wayward, but not interested in receiving stuff. They, interestingly, like to DO stuff (well, some of them). They are also often identifiable by their buzz cuts, interest in underground punk bands, and unique vocabulary (which seems reminiscent of English soccer hooligans). At any rate, I have traveled with Annie and Josh since Arkansas, and will be dropping them near Albequerque, New Mexico. I am thankful for their company, and for helping me stay awake.

Both groups hop trains, hitchhike and squat in older buildings, but their ideologies are radically different, and my two new travel companions informed me that Rainbows are to Gutter Punks what Cripps are to Bloods. Rainbows take. Gutter Punks do. Both Annie and Josh recently departed New Orleans, squatting in any number of abandoned houses in the eighth ward, attending concerts, working where necessary, and struggling to avoid arrest for bogus charges like obstructing sidewalks by merely walking on them. Cops, it would seem, have mostly outlawed anybody that even LOOKS vague atypical. Naturally, it impedes their travel as well.

They had intended to quickly hitchhike out of New Orleans, hit a major highway, and head west to visit friends near Santa Fe, but found getting rides difficult in the south. Cops would give them brief rides to county lines and deposit them in the middle of nowhere, or locals would drive them about two miles down the road and simply announce that they needed to get out. If I had to guess, these kind souls felt they were doing their civic duty and getting vagrants out of the community’s back yard. A few, however, had never driven outside of said small communities and no interest in driving further. That task done, they abandoned their passengers and continued. I understand wariness of hitchhikers, but have found the discourtesy they encountered somewhat appalling. One cop was dispatched late at night because, “somebody called in and said they couldn’t tell if it was a male or a female walking down the road.” Somehow this involved detaining them for well over half an hour in the rain.

And so, stuck in remote southern towns and far from truck stops, the pair resorted to creative signs to test which would attract anybody willing to give them rides.

“The South Will Rise Again” seemed to go over well, but instead of stopping, the white folk would drive by honking and cheering, the black folk would speed by laughing at the realization it was a joke, and the older folk would crack their windows, sympathetically hand them money, and quickly drive away. Few rides came, and those that did were extremely short legs that usually deposited them in even worse locations. Forrest Hills, Arkansas is apparently the hometown for the man who founded the Ku Klux Klan. Rides were scarce.

A sign reading “What Would Jesus Do” was also unrewarding. Annie, standing in the MIDDLE of an on-ramp waving this sign, discovered instead what the locals do: roll up all their windows, overtly lock their doors, and drive FAR around her in the middle of the road. “Out of Water,” which was true, also yielded little help. This made three veterans (all Marines) trying to pick them up at the same time all the more comical.

Annie is originally from Bakersfield, California, grew tired of an illustrious career working in a porn store, and chose instead to see some of the country. Josh, a skateboarder from Colorado, also left for his own reasons. Months later, they have no intention of stopping, though both will be returning home for brief visits before continuing. They have often found their luck with hitchhiking much greater in the southwest, which is to their advantage. Both have no interest in visiting the southeast for quite some time. The local populations are simply too hostile.

As for my part in all this, I have learned of a subculture that until two days ago I could not distinguish from nearly any other transient group. I have learned that for all their substance abuse and drug problems, the smarter ones of the bunch (like my passengers) are making every effort to help them clean up and settle into a more sustainable lifestyle. At any rate, none of them intend to do this forever. There are college plans, thoughts of joining the military, and writing endeavors. Zines (small, independent magazines) nationwide track this culture’s progress, review events, restaurants, bands, travel locations, and offer travel tips for how to do it safely, not attract unwanted attention from the local constabulary, and ideally how to do it all without getting arrested. A few bad apples in every bunch continue to land several in jail (appropriately), and the rest disband and move on before they are found guilty by mere association. I remain impressed that people can contentedly get by with so little. But then again, I’m unwilling to forage in a dumpster for food.

I will be dropping Annie and Josh outside of Santa Fe, and continuing my travels west towards the edge of Arizona, where I will turn north and head into Colorado and Utah, eventually Salt Lake City. I have much driving left, but am thankful to have been entertained and accompanied for nearly 1,000 miles. If I am lucky, there will be other hitchhikers in need of rides. If I am luckier still, they will be as enjoyable as the two with whom I will soon part company.

America would be well served to invest a little energy meeting her many characters. The vast majority are worth knowing. I have been privileged to meet two more.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw All Rights Reserved


  1. we go again with your very interesting travels and fascinating folks along the way. Keep on writing!

    On a lighter note, I met my husband of 25 years by picking him up hitchhiking so you never know who is around the corner...

    He did not have a sign that said "marry me? " but he did have the best looking legs I have ever seen on a guy and believe it or not, that is why I picked him up.

  2. Sarah, that's a great story! (and, to me, a good enough reason to pick up a hitchhiker..:)

  3. On the road again...

    Great Story Sarah. Great story Ben.

    Well I live in Los Angeles and you just don't do that here.

  4. Isn't it against the law to pick up hitchhikers?

  5. Dumpster diving for food is always more successful if you have a dog. Dogs have good noses and can usually locate the good stuff without unnecessarily digging though huge piles of trash.

    I would imagine that one would drive with the windows down after hauling these folk a thousand miles...or dump a bottle of "au du toilet" on the seats.

  6. Yo yo yo! I'm catching up on the posts here. Now this is more like it: meeting and investigating other people.