Burger and coffee in tow, Nemo and I walked to the nearby on ramp. Maybe it was because I was feeling so optimistic about people, and hitchhiking, and life in general, but the scenery seemed especially beautiful, all blue and green and quiet. The stretch of highway we were on was pretty empty, so I got ready for a long wait, but after only about 15 minutes Phillip stopped.
Phillip was, in a lot of ways, Wisconsin personified: he was a beer connoisseur. He knew how to turn just about anything into jerky and explained the procedure at length. When we stopped for gas, he came back with a package of fresh cheese curds. (I somehow failed to eat any poutine in Montreal, so I was really glad when he offered me a curd.) He was gearing up for a two-week canoeing trip with a friend, which he was really excited for.
Unfortunately, the canoeing trip was the silver lining on a pretty dark cloud: Phillip finally had time to go because he’d lost his ROTC job due to cuts from the budget sequester. He had been a field artillery instructor, so he knew a lot about guns, and told us a fair amount about the technical details. All in all a friendly, “All-American” guy.
Phillip took us to the point about 50 miles from the Minnesota border where I-94 splits from I-90. He was taking 94, but we needed to be on 90, so we figured that if we waited on the ramp for 90, we could be sure that anyone who stopped was going the way we wanted to go. Unfortunately, there’s pretty much nothing in that area, so there were few cars. That wouldn’t have been a problem, except the rain which had been right behind us since Michigan had finally caught up with us.
When Phillip let us out, it was just beginning to drizzle. We got out our rain ponchos and covered the bags as best we could, but soon the rain was coming down cold and hard, and the wind made keeping anything dry almost impossible. I found myself thinking almost fondly of the hot, sunny roadsides of Michigan. Things were looking a bit bleak, but then Stephen stopped.
To be honest, I initially misjudged Stephen. He was quiet in a way that seemed kind of creepy to me at first, and I was extra alert in case I needed to jump out of the car suddenly. I’d like to think that the weather contributed to it: a cold, dark, stormy late afternoon, middle of nowhere, getting picked up by a stranger. The horror story practically writes itself. But really I should have known better, because Stephen wasn’t creepy, he was just shy.
Stephen was living in Sparta, Wisconsin, population a little bit under 10,000. But he didn’t like living there much, because it felt way too large for him. He grew up in a nearby town with 600 people, and his graduating class had around 25 people. Living in such a small town, he didn’t encounter strangers often, hence the slight awkwardness when we first got in the car.
Stephen worked for Direct TV, but liked working on a couple of local dairy farms on the side. He liked a lot of different genres of music, but he’d noticed that every tractor he’d ever been in that had a radio seemed unable to pick up anything other than the country stations, and joked that it was probably a conspiracy.
He was driving to La Crosse to pick his girlfriend up from work, but he had some extra time and said that he didn’t mind driving a little further to get us into Minnesota. So we crossed the Mississippi together, and he dropped us off at a Kwik Trip surrounded by farm houses.