Day 4, Part 3: Wisconsinness and Rain

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.

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Day 4, Part 2: Human Kindness

Mac dropped Nemo and I off at a truck stop, where we got a ride from Paco, who worked at a restaurant in Milwaukee. Paco, like Lou, was originally from Mexico City, but he had lost his taste for big cities. He tried living in Rochester, NY for a few months, but the people were too unfriendly, and there was too much crime. So he moved back to Milwaukee, which was more his style. He had worked for Outback Steakhouse for a while, but large corporate-owned restaurants don’t care particularly much about the employees, so now he was working at a local restaurant instead.

Paco dropped us off at another truck stop, handing us a $45 Outback coupon as we got out of the car. (We never had a chance to go to Outback, especially because the goal was to avoid cities as much as possible (it’s a huge pain to try to get a ride out of one), so that coupon is still chillin’ on my dresser. When I eventually do go claim my blooming onion, I’ll think of you, Paco, and how great it is that you don’t have to work there anymore.)

Nemo and I were standing in front of the truck stop, trying to figure out what to do next, when Larry came to talk to us. He was an older man with an impressive beard, and he offered to buy us lunch. We declined, but he came out a few minutes later with two big cups of coffee, and said that he’d ordered us a burger, and it would be ready in about ten minutes.

I wish I’d had the chance to talk to this obviously wonderful man more, because that gesture really hit home for me something that I’d been thinking more and more during the trip so far: people are SO much nicer than I had ever realized. If there is one reason that you should hitchhike, it’s so that you can experience firsthand how great almost all of your fellow humans are.

While we were waiting for our burger, I was passing the time looking at the front page news stories in the news boxes out front, when I noticed something whose significance I wouldn’t really know until a few days later. The top story in USA Today was about the tornado that hit Moore on May 20. At the time I didn’t really think anything of it, because (1) we Okies pride ourselves on not being fazed by tornados (after all, ubiquity breeds indifference: there’s a tornado watch or warning weekly in the spring, they test the tornado sirens every Saturday at noon year-round, and a third of the pictures on the Wikipedia page on tornados were taken in Oklahoma (possibly because a lot of Okies react to tornados by going outside and taking pictures before diving into the closet/bathtub/storm shelter)) and (2) Moore is kind of known for constantly being hit by tornados. So my brain interpreted “tornado in Moore” as “business as usual.”

Later, of course, I found out how much more devastating this tornado was than most, and how much more deadly (there were 23 deaths caused directly by the tornado). But the response goes along with what I was feeling that day: when I flew back in to Oklahoma City, about half the people on the plane were coming to volunteer. Over the next month or so, massive quantities of food, water, diapers, and other supplies were donated.

The world can be a shitty, shitty place, which can pretty easily make you feel like people are inherently bad. But everything I’ve seen, especially on this trip, tells me that people are good, naturally, and bad, situationally.

Day 4, Part 1: Immigration and Super-Effective Divorce Classes

First, I want to apologize for not posting anything for two weeks. Grad school and various personal things have been throwing me off, but I think I have things figured out for now.

Back to the story. The next morning around 5:30, Nemo and I woke up in the puddle behind the elementary school only to realize that it was starting to drizzle. So we packed everything up and went to a covered pavilion in the nearby park to get situated. The rain started coming down pretty hard, which gave us a chance to catch up on our logs. Eventually the rain let up, and we set off to find the next ramp.

We got a ride right off the bat with Lou, a construction worker who had a two-year-old daughter. Lou loved big cities, but he was living in the Milwaukee area to be near his daughter. He was born in Mexico, but left after a year of college because he couldn’t afford the tuition and textbooks.

He told us that he was living here illegally, which presented him with a problem that I have never heard talked about, even though it has to be pretty common. Lou was working a legal construction job, which meant that he had to pay taxes. The problem is, because he didn’t have a social security or other identifying number, he couldn’t get any of that money back. So contrary to what people who are anti-immigration sometimes argue, Lou was paying more in taxes than a citizen or legal immigrant would, while receiving less of the benefit.

Lou dropped us off, and we were next picked up by Mac and his dog, Cynthia, who was pretty skittish (Mac said she was a rescue). Nemo and I both got a weird vibe from Mac, but neither of us was sure why, other than that he seemed “too nice.” A one point his wife, Janice, called about something to do with their kids (they had four under the age of seven, including a set of twins). They were having a disagreement, which was understandable because (as Mac explained after he got off the phone) they were in the middle of a divorce.

Mac’s demeanor was surprisingly calm the whole time, and he kept saying things along the lines of, “I hear you” and kind of hung up on her in the most polite way possible (“Janice, I understand, but I can’t argue about this right now, so I’m afraid I’m going to have to hang up,” all without any tinge of anger), and I think maybe that was the key to why we were getting a weird vibe off of him: it was like he had taken a divorce-themed conflict resolution class, and it had STUCK. So while he was (understandably) probably pretty upset, he was doing a really good job of putting up a positive front, and maybe that extended to us as well.

At any rate, the rest of the trip we got to assure people that we hadn’t run into any problems by saying that the only person we weren’t sure about was simply too nice.

Day 3, Part 2: Illinois, Briefly, and Sleeping Behind an Elementary School

Shkelqim let us out at a truck stop in the Chicago area, where we realized that we were FINALLY OUT OF MICHIGAN. Michigan is great and all, but there’s only so much time you want to spend standing around somewhat aimlessly on its roadsides during a heatwave.

Nemo and I stood near an exit from which both cars and trucks were leaving, and we had another fairly short wait before we were picked up by Randy, who was a sales/maintenance guy for a company that sold supplies for printing presses. He was more straight-laced than you would expect a guy picking up hitchhikers to be, but one of the biggest things I learned on this trip is that you can’t really predict who will and won’t stop for you. He liked golf (his clubs were in the trunk) and had four daughters between the ages of 16 and 23.

Because he was taking us all the way to the Milwaukee area, we had a good hour to talk, and talk we did, about hiking (Randy once tried to hike up a rather tall mountain but, despite training for it in advance and being in good physical shape, got altitude sickness and passed out on the way up), recent changes in marijuana laws in the U.S., the weird sound he kept hearing his car making (probably just one of those useless plastic bits they put on the bottom of cars for aesthetic reasons), and his plans to move back to Chicago after the kids were out of the house. Basically just an all-around nice hour with a nice dude (though “nice” is of course an inadequate word).

Randy let us out at a truck stop, since we’d had such good luck at them that day, and we ate a meal that was more delicious than it sounds (or looked, probably): sandwich bread dipped in salsa, cold baked beans from a can, and an apple. The truck stop wasn’t very busy, and despite splitting up to each wait at a different exit, we waited about two hours for anyone to stop.

We did finally get a short ride from Carlos and Juanita, who showed us pictures of their two teenage sons. Although communication was a little shaky, Carlos told us that he used to hitchhike when he was young in Mexico. They dropped us off in Greenfield, Wisconsin. Unfortunately, the closest on ramp had no shoulder, just a curb and then immediate tall grass. So not only was it impossible for cars to pull over, there wasn’t really even anywhere for us to stand. It was also getting dark, so we decided to try and find a place to sleep.

Unfortunately for us, Greenfield is the suburbanest of towns, so there weren’t any discreet wooded areas to set up camp. We wandered around a too-well-lit park before settling on the area behind an elementary school. We didn’t want to be seen from the road, so we decided an area at the bottom of a hill would be best, but that was of course where the water from the frequent rains (they don’t call it Greenfield for nothing) collected, so we were essentially sleeping in a big puddle. We elected to not set up the tent for stealth purposes, so it became a tarp for us to sleep on top of. It wasn’t all that bad in the end; good-quality, warm sleeping bags make a HUGE difference.

Day 3, Part 1: The Importance of Hats and a Little Bit About Albania

The next morning, Maria drove Nemo and I to the grocery store, where we loaded up on canned beans, bread, salsa, and fruit, and then on to the ramp. She was reluctant to say good-bye, but we promised to keep in touch. Almost immediately two police officers stopped to make sure that we were going to stay on the ramp and not walk down to the highway itself, but they were friendly about it and soon left.

Nemo stood and watched for cars while I sat and tried to catch up on my log, but we didn’t have to wait long before Christine and Tammy stopped. They weren’t going far, but took us a ways down the road to a strip mall, and gave us $10 to buy lunch with. We ate at Subway, then continued on to Walmart, where we bought a couple of incredibly dorky but also incredibly helpful hats. (Everyone: listen to your parents and wear a hat when it’s sunny outside! It will make you at least 40% less miserable, I promise.)

Like this, but cheaper.

Like this, but cheaper.

By this point we had been in Michigan a full day longer than we had anticipated, thanks to the previously mentioned difficulty getting longer rides. To remedy this situation, we decided to try to get to a truck stop. So when Sierra and her father, Frank, picked us up, that was where we requested to be dropped off. Sierra was remodeling her kitchen and had a bunch of construction materials in the back of the car. They took us to a nearby truck stop and gave us some Burger King coupons that they had in the glove box for good measure.

The truck stop idea turned out to be a good one, because a truck that was on its way out of the parking lot stopped for us after no more than five minutes of waiting. The driver’s name was Shkelqim, and he owned his own truck rather than working for a company, so he “didn’t give a shit” about the insurance company and their regulations about having extra people riding in the cab, a situation which often makes getting rides from truckers impossible.

Shkelqim was an Albanian immigrant who came to the United States some time after the Albanian Rebellion of 1997. Between 1997 and 1999, he said, Albania was in anarchy. There were a lot of guns circulating at the time, and people would drive around shooting at random people for target practice. If a relative was killed in one of these random shootings, it was expected that you would get revenge, which of course led to an inescapable cycle of violence. Shkelqim’s father was killed in one of these shootings, but Shkelqim, who was 13 at the time, decided that he didn’t want to live his life trapped in that cycle and was able to move to the United States.

Shelqim said that the political situation in Albania is more stable now, and it’s no longer dangerous to visit, but people are still wary because of its reputation, which is a shame, because he said that the beaches in Albania are some of the most beautiful in the world (and, after seeing some pictures, I can’t say I disagree.)

Albania-Beach

Day 2, Part 3: Maria and Lake Michigan

After refilling our water bottles at the Steak and Shake, Nemo and I walked to the nearest on ramp.  At this point we were frustrated by our slow progress and tired from standing in the heat for so long. Unfortunately, we had a long, boring wait. Add to that being in a very treeless area on the hottest day of our trip, and I was starting to question the chain of events that had lead to that moment. Fortunately, that’s when Maria showed up.

Maria was a born-again Christian who had two teenagers at home. As we drove, she asked us if we had been to Lake Michigan yet, and when we said that we hadn’t, she offered to take us there. Maria asked where we were planning to sleep that night, and when we told her we were camping wherever we could, she offered to let us sleep at her house. So we dropped our bags off on her porch, then drove on small rural roads to nearby South Haven. Maria pointed out the blueberry bushes growing in rows on small roadside farms.

Being from Oklahoma, where all our lakes are man made, it was strange seeing such a big lake. Lake Michigan just keeps stretching toward the horizon until you can’t see any farther. Another surprise is that, at South Haven at least, the lake has sand beaches. We waded in for a moment, but the water was still freezing that early in the year. In the car, Maria showed us how many bed and breakfasts had sprung up in the past few years. Apparently, South Haven used to be a well-kept secret among locals, but in the past five years a lot of rich people from Chicago have been coming to visit or even build lake houses.

Maria told us about how she became a Christian. She had been a partier, which had taken a toll on her body, and eventually she became really sick and was afraid that she might die. Thankfully she recovered, but the experience made her realize that she needed to change, because she was responsible for her children and couldn’t just leave them like that. Her aunt took her to a Pentecostal church, which felt so much more real and joyful than the times she had been to other churches, and she knew that she had found what she had been searching for. Her life took a dramatic turn for the better after that, and she’s never looked back.

Back at Maria’s house, we met her two kids who were still living with her (her oldest daughter was living in Kalamazoo and had kids of her own), Ara, who was 16, and Xavier, who was 11. Nemo took stock of the ingredients that were on hand and cooked a delicious vegan dinner for everyone. Ara and Xavier were really sweet. Xavier played baseball, and Ara wanted to someday visit Australia.

We set up the tent in the back yard, leaving the rain fly off because it was a nice night, and I quickly drifted off. I woke up a few hours later, sleep-dazed, to lightning and Nemo trying frantically to get everything inside. It started raining just as we got everything in the door, and we slept in the living room that night (fortunately Maria was still up and helped us get set up).

Meeting Maria is a good example of the merits of hitchhiking. How else are you going to meet a great person who can go from stranger to friend so quickly, who will open their home to you, take you sight-seeing, and have dinner with you, all because you both happened to be in the right place at the right time?

Day 2, Part 2: “A Big Knife and a Baby”(?!), Plus Some Quality Music

Nemo and I decided that the curb in front of a Hallmark store looked like as good a place as any to eat lunch, so we pulled out our packed food (including homemade schnitzel and bean loaf, nom). There we met Sherrie, who noticed our backpacks and was curious. She sat down and talked to us for a little while. She was concerned about us, but thought what we were doing was pretty exciting at the same time.

After lunch we were getting ready to move on when a police car pulled up to where we were sitting. My first thought was “Not this again,” but they made it clear that we weren’t in trouble, though they did want to see our IDs. They told us that they just wanted to check us out because they’d gotten a call about a couple of suspicious figures with backpacks who were carrying “a big knife and a baby,” which, what? Nemo thought it was probably a prank call, though I like to imagine that they just confused us with the OTHER two people with backpacks coincidentally wandering around the strip mall. Once they determined that we had neither knife nor baby, they let us continue to the on ramp (after giving Nemo a band-aid for a cut he had just gotten on his leg, because they were friendly and awesome).

Here’s where the series of very short rides began.

We got a very short ride with Jay, who worked three jobs. One of the jobs was at a used car lot, and he was driving a van from the lot.

Next we were picked up by Jackie, who always tried to pick up hitchhikers when she saw them because she had a daughter who hitchhiked. Her daughter was in college at Maharishi University of Management in Iowa. She was an advocate of doing these things while you’re young and don’t have too many responsibilities to get in the way. Though she seemed to still be having adventures, such as her recent trip to Ireland, where she had the best beer of her life on a tour of the Guinness factory. She was only going a short way, but she gave us $20 as we were leaving the car.

We decided to move our stuff into the grass because the shoulder was narrow, but quickly noticed that there were roughly one billion ticks crawling around in there. Seriously, there seemed to be about three of them on every blade of grass. Simon stopped next, and I just hope that we didn’t help those ticks invade his car. He had a guitar in his trunk and was listening to The Books (a band which sound-collages audiobook and other speech samples together) and Alabama Shakes. He worked in Alaska monitoring how much fishing boats were bringing in and looking at the age and gender of the fish to determine how many fish are still in the area. (The key to telling a lot of this about a salmon is the ear bone, he told us.) He dropped us off in Kalamazoo.

We got a very short ride next with John, who had a Don’t Tread on Me bumper sticker and a Confederate flag pinned to the ceiling of his truck. We listened to Dr. Dre (yep), and he gave us a good flashlight before dropping us off in front of a Steak and Shake.