After the Untitled Music Festival, I hopped on Interstate 64 in southern Virginia for some hitchhiking. I have always wanted to hitch across the country, so I decided to start there and head for Portland, Oregon. So far, so good!
Anyway, after finding a spot on the I-64 West on ramp in Lexington, Virginia, I settled in and began the waiting game that is soliciting random strangers for rides. I had one goal, which was to get to Louisville to see my friends John and Kait by my birthday. John and Kait walked across the U.S. last year with a gang of dogs, volunteering and inspring people along the way while raising awareness for animal rescue and pet therapy. I met them in Iowa when they were on their walk last summer and immediately fell in love with the whole crew. It was June 3rd when I started hitching in Virginia, my birthday is June 6th, and Louisville was about 430 miles away. Definitely doable, but I could very easily end up stranded somewhere and miss my goal. I reeeaaaally wanted to spend my birthday with friends and not sleeping next to a noisy highway, as much as do enjoy it most of the time.
So the sun was beating down and I pulled out my silly wide brimmed hat for its first use in a while after leaning my backpack against the on-ramp’s metal guardrail. As I did this, a guy about my age rode up to me on his bike and asked me what I was doing and how long I’d been wandering around, then told me that he has been itching to hit the road and travel for years. I said, “Well, just do it then, man,” which I could tell made him pretty uncomfortable. He said something about being nervous about it, and I told him that I’m pretty much terrified every single day I’m on the road.
Just as the guy on the bike rode off, two police cars pulled up in front of me. Here we go, I thought, then greeted them with a smile as they walked up to me. As expected, they were both nice guys and basically just wanted to run my ID to check for warrants and see what I was up to. They both wished me luck and went about the rest of their days.
After not too long, a guy in an old Ford truck pulled over to the shoulder. There were a bunch of wooden chairs in the bed of his truck. He said that he could take me about 40 miles to Covington, Virginia, which sounded perfect to me. He was a woodworker and had started his own business a few years back. He said that things had really taken off and that he actually had too much work, which is a problem that a lot of people would like to have today. He talked about Jesus a lot but wasn’t pushy about it, and was a very nice guy.
The woodworker guy dropped me off after a nice ride and I hit the next on-ramp out of Covington. After about an hour, a small SUV with two young guys who looked to be about 18 or 19 years old sitting in the front seats eased onto the shoulder in front of me and waved for me to hop in. They were both extremely physically fit and had huge muscles and were tall. I noticed after a few minutes that they were twins. Both of them were in the military, one in the Army National Guard and the other awaiting his basic training for the Air Force. They both worked for the same construction company and were on their way home from work. As we shouted over the roar created by all of the vehicle’s windows being down, we flew by a sign that said Welcome To West Virginia. They dropped me off in Beckley, West Virginia and I camped off the side of the road.
In the morning I caught a ride pretty quickly with a guy who worked for a construction worker union. He traveled all over West Virginia for work and could take me clear to Nitro, a town just west of Charleston. He took me on a more scenic route that parallelled the highway, which was a nice break from the fast pace of the Interstate. West Virginia is a hilly, beautiful place. Its rugged landscape and thick forests make it one of my favorite states. He told me all about his own travels, but mainly about his time in New Orleans. The guy absolutely loved New Orleans. He showed me some of his favorite pictures from his last trip there, which was on Halloween. He was a single man in a wild city, that’s all I’ll say. “I’m really just a pervert,” he said, then continued, “I’ve had a few girlfriends in my day, though, and a few boyfriends too. I only do that out of town, though. It’s hard in a small town where everyone knows you.” The conversation was a bit odd, but he was so easy going and genuine that I didn’t feel uncomfortable at all.
After he dropped me off, I hit the on-ramp in Nitro and began the waiting game once again. After about 30 minutes, a brand new, shiny Volvo approached. I thought about not throwing my thumb up at all, as it looked like the kind of car that would never give a grubby guy like me a ride. I did anyway, then the car lurched onto the shoulder. Consider me surprised. The guy inside was clean cut, tall and incredibly nice. I would never doubt a person in a shiny car again. He was on his way to Huntington, West Virginia, the home of Marshall University, because his son was being recruited to play basketball there. We talked high school ball, AAU, college ball and everything else. The miles flew by as we shared stories.
I ended up getting stuck at the Huntington exit for a while. The on-ramp was very narrow and unsafe for me to be on, so I decided to try and catch a ride at a nearby gas station. After starting a conversation with a couple of guys, they offered to take me back east one exit to a better spot, and I took them up on their offer. Going backwards is clearly not ideal, but it was really for the best. I ended up not catching a ride for the rest of the afternoon, but spent a good amount of time talking with a Norwegian guy who was out riding his bike and collecting bottles to make a few bucks. We got to talking about religion as his dog rolled around in the grass by the road and he said, “Those people with the Jesus stuff who think they are going to heaven but ignore you and are mean to you, just like they are to me, they are going to hell! You are going to heaven, my friend!” in his thick accent.
I ended up camping behind a truck stop on a hill amongst the ruins of a couple of old highway signs that had been grown over by trees and shrubs. They must have become useless when the highway shifted around some years back, I think. The lights from the truck stop illuminated my chosen camping spot enough that I didn’t even have to use my flashlight when getting set up, even though it was already completely dark once I wandered up there.
The next morning, I got picked up by a guy in a really crappy car who was blaring some really loud rap music. He didn’t say much, but took me about 20 miles as he cranked the tunes and sipped on the beer that was in his cup holder. “I’ve got a Harley, but I decided to take the car today ’cause I felt like drinking and driving,” he said.
From where he dropped me off, I got picked up almost immediately by a crazy old lady and her daughter. The old lady swore more than any person I’ve ever met. A cop zoomed by us going well over the speed limit and she screetched, “You gotta have your lights on to do that, cocksucker!” She ranted on and on about how much she hated the people at her job, but she was sweet in the most strange sort of way. The ranting old lady dropped me off at a gas station and gave me a dollar before she drove off.
I was then again quickly picked up by a guy who noticed my backpack at the gas station and asked which way I was heading. I said west on 64, and he said that he was going that way too and to throw my stuff in his truck. He told me all about the five year prison sentence that he just finished serving last year. He was able to cut his 10 year sentence in half just by working, attending classes and staying out of trouble, but said that most guys in there would rather just sit around all day than put in even the smallest effort to reduce their sentences, which seemed really sad to me. He ended up dropping me off at the WalMart in Morehead, Kentucky. Only 140 miles to go to Louisville!
I gave the dollar that the crazy swearing old lady had given me to a guy who was panhandling at the WalMart exit and talked with him for a while. He told me that he’s been just panhandling and drinking beer with the funds he receives for the last 30 years or so in town, but that he’s looking to move to Las Vegas and do the same thing there because the weather is nicer than in Kentucky. He was actually a very pleasant, refreshingly honest guy.
After camping in the woods near Walmart, I woke up and it was June 6th, my birthday. It took me until I had my camp about halfway taken down and packed away before I even remembered that I was experiencing my first day as a 25 year old. I didn’t think about celebrating too much, and quite honestly, felt disappointed about how far away from Louisville I was. All it would take would be one long cold streak of not catching a ride and I wouldn’t make it there in time.
With that thought, I packed up quickly and hit the ramp nearby. Thankfully, I caught a ride after maybe half an hour with a Vietnam veteran named Richard. He was heading to Lexington to go to the VA hospital and could take me that far. He said not to try anything sketchy because he had a .44 pistol under his seat. I assured him that I wouldn’t. Once I got settled into his passenger seat, he told me that liked having company for the ride to see his doctor because his radio didn’t work. Vietnam veterans are my absolute favorite, and I’ve found that many are very willing to share their stories. Richard told me all kinds of interesting things about his combat experiences. When I thanked him for his service, he said, “Well, thanks. That’s real nice. But it wasn’t like it is today back then. Nobody cared that you had just returned from combat back then, nobody said thank you. I didn’t tell anyone that I’d fought in the war for years.” I wanted to reach over and give him a big hug after he said that. Such a sweet guy.
Once Richard dropped me off in Lexington, I was getting seriously close. Louisville sat just 80 miles away. One more solid ride and I’d be close enough that John and Kait could probably come get me. I wasted no time in hopping on the Lexington ramp and getting started. Things did not go well for quite a while. After about an hour and a half, a police officer pulled up. He rolled down his window and said, “Hitchhiking is illegal, you know?
“Yup, I know,” I said as nicely as I could.
“The old ladies have been calling in about you, so I have to stop and give you a warning,” he said with a smile.
“That’s not too surprising. But what else am I really supposed to do? This is my only way of getting around.”
“Well, you know, it’s illegal,” he said.
With that, we were at a bit of an impasse and exchanged a few confused nods back and forth as I leaned down and talked to him through his rolled down passenger side window. After a few seconds of silence and awkward nodding, I told him that I was just going to keep trying if that was ok, and he said that it was, then drove off without saying much more.
This whole thing made me quite nervous, as old ladies love to rat me out (not even close to the first time this has happened), and I really hoped that someone would pick me up soon. If the officer did have to come back, I’d be in quite a predicament.
So I kept trying. I smile and waved and tried to look as normal as possible, and finally, it paid off.
A guy swung his truck onto the gravel shoulder, rolled down his window and said he could take me to Shelbyville. I had no idea where the hell Shelbyville was, but at least it would get me to a new ramp in what would hopefully be a different area of police jurisdiction. So I hopped in his truck and heaved my backpack its bed, we exchanged names, and he told me where Shelbyville was. To my very pleasant surprise, I learned that it was only about 30 miles from Louisville, and likely close enough that my hitchhiking would be done for the day and I would make it there to celebrate my birthday with friends. It started to rain during the drive, soaking some of my gear in the bed of his truck. I didn’t even care one bit. I had made it!
Once he dropped me off, I called John and he began making his way out to get me, and soon found myself at his and Kait’s funky green and yellow house in the hip Highlands neighbhorhood of Louisville. I got the grand tour, showered (MUCH needed), played with the dogs, and shorthly thereafter, Kait showed up.
That morning I had been 140 miles away, which seemed like a nearly insurmountable distance, and nervous that I wouldn’t make it in time. But there I was, newly 25 and spending time with two of my favorite people in the world thanks to a bit of persistence, the kindness of random strangers and a measure of good luck.
Happy birthday to me.