Thumbing For Truth On Highway 101
by Jasper Mushroomjesus
Hitchhiking is a dying art in the United States. On almost every freeway onramp, a sign is posted with a thumb crossed out. There are exceptions, like Oregon, where a person is free to walk down I-5 with an extended thumb to catch a ride. I am often told that in the 1960â€™s, hitchhiking was an accepted means of transportation where a hopeful traveler could thumb a ride without the anxiety many people feel today. Fear of the unknown or unfamiliar might present itself in the form of a hitchhiker on an onramp.
Perhaps fear struck the heart of America in the 1970â€™s when the I-5 killer, Randall Woodfield prowled up and down the west coast, picking up female hitchhikers who he would rape and kill. The interstate conceals predators like Randall, but arenâ€™t all vehicles potential metal jaws that could slam shut at any moment with fatal consequences? Consider this statistic: According to the National Highway Traffic Administration, an average of 43,000 people are killed each year on the road, yet speed limits have not decreased, and one need only view a freeway from an overpass to see the thousands of Americans who choose to travel by them. So why exclude the environmentally friendly ride-sharing act of hitchhiking? After all, Randall Woodfield preyed upon hitchhikers and was not one himself. If a person feels the urge to take the risk that accompanies the extended thumb, why should he or she be denied the right to do so? We can smoke, drink, join the military and drive a car, all of which kill more people every year than hitchhiking.
At the age of 18, I set out on my first hitchhiking quest. It was a spiritual quest more than a journey to a specific location. Eager to see the world from a different perspective, I began walking down the road one afternoon. Carrying only a small backpack which contained a black cassock (monk robe), a hooded sweatshirt, and a Bible, I was picked up on a little two lane road in Bonney Lake above the Puyallup Valley. A disheveled man in a small Geo Tracker pulled over and opened the door. He reeked of coffee and cigarettes.
â€œYouâ€™re lucky you found a traveler,â€ he said as I boarded his vehicle. His name was Mark. He had fled his home in Indiana after a rough break-up with his wife, driving directionless, frantically searching for some compass to gain bearing on his chaotic life. I was also searching for something to ground my broken heart after going through an existential breakdown just a month earlier. Mark had fled his home, and I had been exiled from, what I thought would be, my Garden of Edenâ€”a safe haven from an insane world.
St. Anthonyâ€™s Greek Orthodox Monastery in Arizona had sent me home to Washington after they realized that my fragile mind had become warpedâ€”a psychotic breakâ€”which the black robed monastics were ill equipped to deal with. After six months of prayer, meditation and sleep deprivation, I had an epiphany and felt a divine sweetness pour into my heart. The abbot informed me that the experience was a delusion of the devil. I tried to force my mind to believe him, but my overworked mind snapped and the abbot sent me home on the next plane to Washington.
In the drizzly winter of 1998, I tried to convert my home in Washington to a miniature version of the monastery, placing an icon of Christ on the television and trying to force the family to pray in regular rhythms, like the monastics. With a deep sigh of discontent, my mom realized that it would be better if I lived with a bachelor, Deacon Gideon, a friend of the family who lived in Wilkeson, a small town in the hills above Puyallup. Gideon didnâ€™t mind listening to my deranged ramblings about what it meant to be a true Christian, but after spending a couple weeks living with him, my restless mind was drawn to the road, and so now I find myself looking into the restless eyes of Mark in his Geo Tracker.
â€œIâ€™m going to California,â€ I told Mark as I closed the thin door.
â€œCalifornia it is,â€ he mumbled. I couldnâ€™t tell if he was tired, drugged, or both, but his bloodshot eyes were an indication that he had been on the road for quite some time.
We conversed about the end of the world and what would happen in the year 2000 as we drove down I-5. I was heading for the relics of St. John of Kronstadt in San Francisco which I had visited two years earlier. Mark explained that he was on the run, that his wife had taken everything: the house, his daughterâ€”everything.
He signaled with his thumb to a pile of clutter in the back of the Tracker. â€œThatâ€™s all I have left,â€ he said with a sigh. He reached down to a mug of coffee and sipped it thoughtfully, glancing at me out of the corner of his eye.
â€œThis is all I have,â€ I held up my green Jan-sport backpack. It wasnâ€™t true. I had a warm home, a family that would miss me, but at the time, the backpack was the sum of my possessions. We were both lost, estranged from our former lives which had the simple comfort of familiarity and routine.
We drove through the long night and arrived in northern California as the sun began to rise when Markâ€™s Tracker broke down. I urged him to leave it behind and come with me. Mark rummaged through the back of his Tracker.
â€œThis is my daughterâ€™s baby book,â€ he said holding up a large photo album. â€œIt has her birth certificate and all her photosâ€¦ I canâ€™t leave it here.â€ His eyes reflected his tortured soul. I looked down to the ground, feeling pity for him. I had nothing and was on a mission to find myself, but Mark was like a sad leprechaun, on the run with his pot of gold, or at least pictures and memories of it. His family, his daughter, all he knew and loved was broken and lay in shattered pieces in the Tracker. I walked away with my thumb out. Mark stood, watching me, clutching his daughterâ€™s baby-book to his chest.
The weather was cool and I put on my black cassock from the monastery. An old couple in a beat up car picked me up. The woman was fretful and called me â€œFatherâ€, thinking that I was a priest. She begged me to forgive her and take away her burden; she explained that her father had been the flight captain that was in charge of the nuclear bomb which was dropped on Hiroshima. Her husband, who was driving, had been diagnosed with cancer and had six months left to live. After explaining that I was only a novice monk who had been expelled from a monastery, the womanâ€™s eyes flashed and she fell into a fit of rage.
â€œGod doesnâ€™t care, my father didnâ€™t knowâ€”how could he?â€ she screamed. I was riding in the back seat and she turned around to face me. â€œYou tell your God that he should have warned my father; you tell him and make sure he hears you because he wonâ€™t listen to me.â€ She stared at me waiting for a response. I opened my mouth to say something, but closed it again, looking blankly into her wild eyes. What would my abbot say to her? I had witnessed people come to the monastery with looks of desperation, much like this woman; they would cry seemingly inconsolable, but the abbot would whisper softly to them, and an invisible burden would lift.
â€œGet out!â€ She hollered. Her husband shook his head and looked at me in his rearview mirror.
â€œJust leave him alone,â€ the old man said calmly to his wife.
â€œIâ€™ve had enough of this bullshit,â€ she yelled, and ordered her husband to pull the car over. We had travelled fifty miles when they dropped me off under the canopy of towering redwood trees on the side of highway 101, a coastal road that snakes from Washington to California.
The next couple of rides brought me to San Francisco, as the first stars peaked out. I spent a restless, cold night in an abandoned building near the ocean, wishing I had packed more than hooded sweatshirt to keep me warm. I shivered through the night on cold concrete, falling in and out of consciousness, now understanding why the homeless slept on cardboard.
The next day, as I awoke in a dreary haze, I made my way to an Orthodox Cathedral to visit the relics of Saint John, encased in a glass coffin inside of the church. Hoping for a sign or some form of guidance, I looked down at the shriveled corpse dressed in golden vestments. He looked emaciated; the remaining skin was black, wrapped like tight leather around his skeleton.
Instead of guidance, the words from the cartoon, Animaniacs, went through my mind, â€œMr. Skull Head Bony Handsâ€. I smiled at the thought, and then became horrified at my lack of reverence. Confusion and shame caused my stomach to churn as I stumbled backwards away from the saint.
I stormed out of the cathedral in a daze, feeling lost and saddened. The city looked gray and evil as painful emptiness filled my heart. The store-fronts and people were all caught up in their mundane affairs; God was dead to them. I tried to keep my thoughts away from judging as I recalled Jesus saying, â€œJudge not and thou shall not be judged,â€ but everything around me was hideous and sinful. Was it San Francisco or Sodom and Gomorraâ€”and what was the difference?
As I wandered directionless, my mind reeling, I came upon an old bum in a wheelchair, his thin translucent hands were folded on his lap. He was asleep, but had a cardboard sign pinned on his chest. The sign said: I am a Viet Nam veteran and was hurt in the war. I am in pain and need help with laundry, food, everything. God Bless.
As I stood reading the sign, the man opened his eyes.
â€œCan I help you,â€ I asked him in a soft voice. I didnâ€™t have any money, but felt that I could help in some way.
â€œSon, when I look in your eyes, I can tell that Iâ€™m not the one that needs help,â€ he said. â€œIâ€™ve seen people in Nam that have the kind of look you have in your eyes. You got one oar in the water and youâ€™re going in circles. Youâ€™re going to end up in an asylum or jumping off the cliffs.â€ His gray eyes looked into mine with a peculiar peace and wisdom. They were calm and steady.
â€œBut where do I go? I was at a monastery andâ€¦â€ I threw up my arms in a dramatic shrug, gesturing to the evil world. I felt a lump growing in my throat as tears began to form.
â€œWell you know you canâ€™t go back there, so now you need to decide what to do. Why donâ€™t you go back to your mother?â€ He said the words as a matter-of-fact, as if I had told him my situation in detail.
I was blown away. How did he know so much? Looking back, I realize that he was the sign I had prayed for. He was the miracleâ€”an old bum in a wheelchair in front of a grocery store.
â€œSo you think I should go back?â€ I asked him. I wiped the tears from my eyes and felt a sweet relief. He knew me, so he would know what was best.
â€œYou canâ€™t just wander around the way you are now,â€ he said looking me from head to toe. I started to cry again. It wasnâ€™t what he had said; it was more of a release of internal tension that had been building up since I left the cathedral.
â€œThank you,â€ I said, smiling, wiping the snot away from my upper lip.
â€œJust decide and commit to it,â€ he said. The moment he said the word â€˜commitâ€™ a sense of resolution and determination came upon me. The city was still gray and evil, but I would leave it, and like Lot leaving Sodom and Gomorra, I would not turn back.
I walked away from the man in the chair feeling refreshed. I made my way to a freeway onramp heading north and stuck out my thumb. I was lucky to catch a ride that brought me all the way to Tacoma from San Francisco. My short excursion to find myself was sobering, but also magical. The homeless man had taught me that it was better to live life with a plan, yet our meeting seemed more than coincidental and was completely unplanned. Nevertheless, I made a plan for the rest of the summer and stuck to it. I went commercial fishing for salmon up in Alaska which demanded my total attention, both physically and mentally. The hard work and company of gruff sea men helped me adjust to the mundane world away from the monastery.
After coming home from Alaska, I enrolled in Tacoma Community College, and graduated from high school in the Running-Start Program. While studying, my mind kept wandering back to hitchhiking. By spring break, I was eager to head out on the road again, but with a sense of adventure rather than desperation. In fact, for the next five years, whenever the opportunity arose, I would pack a small bag and hitchhike around the country. More often than not, California was the destination of choice, but in the summer of 1999, I caught a ride on an 18-wheeler to New Jersey.
The three day trek across the country was more-or-less dull, for as soon as we crossed the Rocky Mountains, the flatlands and corn fields seemed to stretch infinitely in every direction, but it was good fortune to catch a ride heading such a long distance. My goal was to reach New York City and see how the Big Apple differed from the Northwest. The trucker dropped me off in Newark, New Jersey, an industrial arm pit which had the stench of chemical plants and mills. I boarded a light-rail train to New York emerging near Time Square. The flashy lights and bustling crowds mixed with Orthodox Jews in their black suits and curly side burns made me feel as if I were in a movie. The streets were filled with yellow taxi cabs, bumper to bumper, jockeying for position. A driver screamed out, â€œHey watch it buddyâ€, to another cab, with the clichÃ© East Coast accent, and I smiledâ€”it was all so surreal.
After seeing the Statue of Liberty, I took a bus to Central Park as twilight set in. Finding a secluded place to camp was difficult with people jogging, bicycling and strolling in all directions. Walking off a trail near a pond, I spread out my sleeping bag on relatively flat ground near some bushes, but small, unfamiliar bugs began to buzz around my ears. They were smaller than mosquitoes and more determined to suck my blood. All I had for protection was a small piece of screen which I had cut out of an old tent, but the swarming pests were small enough to fit through the small openings in the mesh to feast on my face. I kept adjusting, hoping to get tired enough to sleep through their ruthless assault, when I heard someone whispering in the dark.
An old effeminate man was kind enough to warn me that police swept through the park and ticketed people for vagrancy. According to him, the spot I had chosen would be easily spotted and was not nearly as secluded as I had hoped. He explained that he had been homeless before, and like me, he preferred sleeping in the park rather than alleys with their acrid smell of urine and trash. He was gay and, ironically, worked at an â€˜Out of the Closet Thrift Storeâ€™, but he still liked coming to the park to get away from the bustling city.
After taking me on a night tour, looking up through the trees at the towering buildings beyond, he showed me a small crevice under a cliff where I could spend the night. To my relief, the little nook was not only safe from police patrols, it was far away from the insectsâ€™ watery breeding ground. I spent the night in peaceful repose, thanks to my midnight guide.
Finding a place to sleep is the most difficult task a hitchhiker faces. Interestingly, people can wander through the night on methamphetamine undisturbed, but the moment they lie down, they are harassed by the police. Of course people donâ€™t want bums and vagrant transients to make a permanent home on their sidewalks or in front of their businesses, but often times, the homeless shelters are full and there is nowhere else to go. While traveling, the words of Christ did little to comfort me as I recalled Jesus saying in Mathew 8:20, â€œFoxes have dens and birds of the air have nests, but the son of man has nowhere to lay his head.â€ Ironically, even a church porch isnâ€™t a haven from the authorities who would roust me as I sought shelter for the night. Sleeping under the stars is okay in the summer or in arid regions, but in rainier climates, it is necessary to find a place out of the rain. The most tranquil place is often under a freeway overpass, which, surprisingly, is dark and peaceful. The muted sounds of traffic overhead are much like gentle ocean waves, a sound which may help lull a person to sleep.
One of the most comforting things about hitchhiking through the United States is the abundance of food. In almost every city, there are soup kitchens that offer the food to the homeless, often times three meals a day. My first priority when I arrive in a city is to find a homeless person and ask where the free food is. I look for a person who is a long term resident of the area and usually receive a plethora of information.
The alternative to hot meals served in a church cafeteria or soup kitchen is dumpster diving. Strangely, the food that I found in the dumpsters was often times exactly what I was in the mood for. The amount of food, clothing and other items in the trash amazed me. Dumpster diving seemed to me the best and most environmentally friendly way to sustain myselfâ€”the food would otherwise rot in a dump and probably produce methane gas in the atmosphere if I didnâ€™t rescue it from such an unholy fate.
Finding perfectly good items in the trash became a way for me to connect with the divine. It appeared that God was looking out for me and blessing me with clothes that fit and scrumptious treats in the trash. Perhaps this is what Jesus meant when he spoke in the Sermon on the Mount, â€œAnd why do you worry about clothes? Consider the lilies in the field and how they grow. They don’t work or spin yarnâ€¦Now if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will He not much more clothe you?â€
Although foraging for food and clothes in the trash wasnâ€™t as glorious as Christâ€™s metaphorical lily, the sight of me dumpster-diving would inspire good deeds. People would see me rummaging through a trashcan on the street or on the edge of a dumpster and would offer to buy me some food. I didnâ€™t turn down any charity, but unlike other vagrants, I felt too embarrassed to ask for spare change.
In Stockton California, a bum introduced me to what he called â€œThe Hitchhikers Credit Card.â€ My friend and I had been hitchhiking for hours without success when a thin toothless vagrant walked up and asked for our permission to fly his sign at the end of the I-5 off-ramp. We were both trying to get on the freeway, so we didnâ€™t mind him holding his small cardboard sign on the other side of the intersection. We were amazed at how many cars stopped to give him money, and after only fifteen minutes, he walked across the street to where we were hitchhiking with a bag of fast-food burgers.
â€œAre you guys hungry?â€ he asked as he held out the bag to us. He explained that he only flew his sign until he had been handed eight dollars for his daily dose of heroin.
â€œYou made that much money in fifteen minutes?â€ I asked, dumbfounded by his progress.
â€œSure, itâ€™s easy money, but I canâ€™t do it for long because all the police know me, but Iâ€™m not greedy, so I only get what I need and move along.â€ He handed us the bag, which was heavy with burgers. â€œI donâ€™t eat this stuff, it just sits in my stomach like a brick, but I donâ€™t turn it down either. I usually give it to my friendâ€™s dog, but I saw you two standing there.â€
â€œThanks,â€ we said in unison. He chatted with us a bit longer and told us that we werenâ€™t likely to get a ride out of Stockton which was a town full of crime.
â€œYou fellows need to get yourself a sign; donâ€™t you know theyâ€™re the hitchhikerâ€™s credit card? I bet it wouldnâ€™t take you too long to raise enough money for the bus.â€ We thought about it and agreed that it was a good idea. He let us borrow his big black permanent marker and we found cardboard to construct a sign.
â€œBe sure to write â€˜God Blessâ€™ on your sign. People see the words and it makes them feel guilty, so theyâ€™re more likely to help you out.â€
After we had constructed the sign, we went to the two different off-ramps. My friendâ€™s sign read, Please Help God Bless, short and sweet, but I felt a bit more creative and wrote, Broke as Jesus Traveling Home Homeless. In two hours we were handed nearly $100, more money than either one of us had made working a job in such a short amount of time. We were able to buy bus tickets to Santa Cruz and made sure to tuck our â€œcredit cardsâ€ in our packs for future use. Later I learned to read a book behind my sign to help pass the time; this technique had the added benefit of making me look sad or depressed with downcast eyes.
The attention I received as I held my sign varied from disgust to pity, but most people seemed apathetic. Usually, the people who donated the most money were Christians that wanted to pray over me. I never refused a blessing and enjoyed the tingly sensation I would feel when someone touched my head as they said a prayer. Oh Father God, bless this man and bring joy and happiness into his life; and help him find you, oh lord, for you are merciful and gracious. Amen. I started out hitchhiking to find myself, but soon realized it was a way to find other peopleâ€”people who all had a story to tell or advice to give. Whether they wanted to pray over me or visa-versa, they are all pieces of my psyche now; a field of lilies in fragments and pieces in my memory. It never was about the destination; I never found myself. The new perspective wasnâ€™t what I thought it would be, it was the interconnectedness attracting me to hitchhiking: the mysterious unknown face, the characters that are out there on the road, waiting to pick up a hitchhiker from the side of the road.
Thumbing For Truth On Highway 101