By Craig Park | I stood by the highway on-ramp and waited for the next potential ride. I had changed out my selection of signs, and I was testing the effectiveness of a minimalist “South?” on a floppy cardboard rectangle. I hoped the one-word request achieved the necessary generality. People don’t tend to stop for hitchhikers demanding specific destinations, but my open-ended pleas struck me as inevitably effective given my proximity to a north-south highway. “Inevitably effective” might have been a bit too much confidence, though; after the fifth or sixth refusal, I started to worry that I wouldn’t make it out of Jersey by nightfall.
But I couldn’t complain; I had manufactured this urgency. It was spring break, I couldn’t afford the ski trip I’d been invited on, and I’d opted to toss myself downstream into a more unpredictable sort of venture. Eventually one of my signs (a simple “Please?”) persuaded a local landscaper. I tossed my backpack into the car, climbed in after it, and accepted the driver’s nervous offer of a cigarette.
The first few days were a blur of densely packed humanity, punctuated early on by a sudden car crash. The airbags failed, and I wasn’t wearing my seatbelt, but the crash was over too fast to be terrifying. Afterward, I spent a night at the home of a NASA rocket scientist; his wife served BLTs for breakfast, and the two of them helped me find my way south out of Baltimore.
Eventually, I ended up in Rocky Mount, North Carolina—the place my mother would call my home. I had half-intended to pay the parents a visit, but now didn’t seem like the right time. My family had always been loving, and stable, and financially prudent, and I did miss them, but it is often a parent’s fate to care more about a child’s safety than his happiness (at least for the first half of the child’s life). I didn’t care to explain my presence in town or my method of transport, so I kept moving. I considered shooting for New Orleans, but I doubted I could make it there before Mardi Gras concluded. I thought about heading east, for Charleston or Wilmington or somewhere else with a beach, but smacking into a coastline seemed like a waste of open road. Atlanta was the only other city that tempted me, so Georgia it was.
A southbound friend dropped me at a rest stop near Fort Bragg, where I recommenced my harassment of travelers and truckers and the occasional army convoy. It wasn’t long before a leather-clad ex-hippie said he had a bit of room to spare. I followed him to his car, an unmarked white van with bars on the rear windows. No seats except the driver’s, he said, so he’d have to lock me in the back. I told him to wait a moment; I needed to grab my bag from inside. As I liberated my backpack from the employees-only storage room, I was stopped by the rest stop attendant—Charlie, a jolly Army vet who’d been sharing tales of Vietnamese whorehouses while assisting me in my search for a chauffeur. This one smells like trouble, he said. You won’t be able to see which way you’re going. No telling where that man’ll take you.
I took a moment to consider my options. Charlie was right, of course. But my preference was for a treacherous and speculative unknown. Jogging back out to check that my ride hadn’t departed in my absence, I found my transport waiting, back doors open. After being patted down for weaponry, I tossed my bag into the van.
The back was full of leather and motorcycle parts and unidentifiable electrical equipment. I climbed in, watched him padlock the doors shut. The front of the van was sealed; I could see his head, but I could barely hear AC/DC on the radio. I relaxed onto a large paint can, reflecting that if ever I was to be robbed, brutally murdered, and left on the side of the road, this was going to be it. Bars on the windows, locks on the doors, but it’s a very primal fear that comes from such circumstances, and I believe that the greater nameless fears are cured by the more tangible lesser ones.
The driver never gave me his name—just said he was The Tile Man. Eventually he pulled over to offer me a six-pack of beer. Perhaps accepting alcoholic beverages from overly friendly strangers violated some additional precept of basic prudence, but I wasn’t one to turn down a free drink. In any case, if I had merely wanted to get to Atlanta safely, I would have taken a Greyhound. So I sat back, enjoyed a Bud Ice, and watched the yellow lines and white dashes blur out the window. Before long I shouted at my driver to let me off at a rest stop near Laguna.
There was no rest stop waiting at Laguna, so I rolled further southward with The Tile Man in search of somewhere to disembark. He eventually dropped me at a South Carolina gas station, in a town small enough for everyone to know each other’s middle name. Two gentlemanly tobacco-chewers were waiting outside the station, and I spent an hour soaking up their thickly accented, plodding approach to storytelling. One had a son who had hitchhiked across the states a few decades ago. My kid made it all the way to Texas, he said. I bet you’ll get where you’re goin’. Between the two of them, they knew almost every car that pulled into the station. Oh, that’s just Jim from down the road, they’d say. No point in asking him for a ride. He’s just stoppin’ to grab some cigarettes and a Megaball ticket.
My eventual ride was with a twenty-something hipster who regaled me with tales of train-hopping from Florence to Philadelphia. After that it was all rainstorms and micro-lifts—a 1970s BMW convertible with wires protruding from the missing glove compartment; a volunteer firefighter still wishing he’d grown up to be a policeman; a middle-class father gassing up an SUV and passing me a wrinkled five-dollar bill after telling me no, he couldn’t take me down the road a ways.
I met Frank Chapel at a truck stop somewhere in South Carolina, and he took me west into Georgia. He was a long-distance trucker, and he had just snagged his first two hours of sleep in as many days. Mumbling apologies for popping a pill to combat his fatigue, he climbed into the driver’s seat and launched into a frenzy of anecdotes and diatribes that didn’t stop until we were well across the state line. He expounded on obscure traffic laws, explaining how cattle-haulers sometimes had clearance to drive 10mph over the speed limit. He was behind schedule, he said. Had to make up for lost time, so I had better hang on.
I never saw the speedometer—it was tucked away behind cigarette packs and broken CDs and half-torn maps—so I gauged our speed by the frantic pace of our conversation. He knew every highway overpass and weigh-station, but he kept us moving fast enough that his stories could barely start before the landmarks that sparked them were far out of sight. He rambled about his son, about his time in an El Paso orphanage, about the MREs he was hauling to Mississippi. At the end of the ride, though, all he could talk about was his own velocity. How fast he’d gone through his three wives, or how the only time he ever saw his daughter was when she’d ride with him across Texas. How he never stopped hauling, and how he didn’t give a damn about traffic signals.
Somewhere just across the George border our highway acquired stoplights, and he plowed through each one with the same friendly cackle. It could turn purple and I’m still gonna run it, he said. The faster he went, the more necessary it seemed that he not slow down. I liked knowing that he was never going to take his foot off the accelerator. Speed lends a deceptive feeling of necessity to a journey, and Frank Chapel’s joyride was one violent dose of necessity.
Finally, Frank asked me where I was headed. Atlanta, I said. Why you wantin’ Atlanta, he asked. I wasn’t honestly sure, so for a moment I let my thoughts grow larger than my words and said that maybe Atlanta was just Nazareth or Jerusalem and I didn’t have the time to figure out which. He nodded, told me we’d be close before morning, but said he couldn’t take me all the way.
I spent the few last miles marveling at how deceptively sustainable this all felt, how vigorously I could subsist on self-justified momentum. Why does the moment before arrival always feel like salvation? We were barreling west, and by 5 a.m. you could see the light pollution creep up over the horizon to paint a disjointed fluorescent dawn on the wrong side of the Earth. I mistook it for the sunrise. When I finally realized that I could see the city, I got homesick for where I was, wanted to never make it to where I was going, wanted to spend the next three days always five miles outside Atlanta—moving 90 miles per hour and never getting anywhere.
Craig Park is a College senior from North Carolina.