As I lay marinating, an hour shy of the Oregon border – where the Klamath River meets the Pacific Ocean (a region that receives 80.4 inches of rain a year compared to the national average of 36.5) – one irrefutable question cocooned in my thoughts. “Why are you here?” it justifiably reasoned. “Why are you putting yourself through this again?”
I was on a boundless Californian beach, spread-eagled. Postcard-perfect coastline cut the horizon; a star-dappled sky resting on top. The springtime scene had arranged itself before me, a picture of rare seclusion. Except – quite understandably – I couldn’t put my mind to rest.
Maybe it was the gale-force wind battering the gnarly bush I’d taken shelter under. Or the dull, gnawing hunger that had cooly grasped hold of my body. Perhaps it was even the rain gradually seeping through my timeworn sleeping bag, forming an unwelcome, lukewarm footbath. I couldn’t be sure. No answers for this mild existential crisis were immediately forthcoming. But in a way, masochistic Englishman that I am, this must have been what I wanted.
It all began around 5,000 miles to the east. January 2012. Each and every day, I would trundle up to the top floor of the exquisite Brutalist library at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. There, with its high-watt tungsten glow and the hot hum of printers, I could leaf through my ominous stack of Deleuze, Derrida and Foucault in relative peace. But, never destined to be an armchair anthropologist, I grew restless. Words without experience are meaningless. Humans are what interest me. Besides, I had always sided with Mr. Marx – philosophers interpret the world, but the point is to change it.
So, on a hastily-concocted whim, I flew to America. The month-long window between the end of semester and the beginning of exams seduced my wanderlust-prone desires like a greasy-haired Italian predator. After reading of Horace Greeley’s nineteenth century rallying cry for the colonization of the American West: “Go West, young man” and the region’s quixotic depiction in Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” the Californian coastline has always inhabited a place on the mantelpiece of my mind. It’s the heartland of that teasing twenty-first century commodity: hope.
With a heady cocktail of bourbon and first-day jet lag still swilling in my head from the night before, I began the day as the local Asian bakery was just starting to prepare their quotidian selection pork buns and bean-filled pastries. San Francisco seemed to have one every few blocks.
Hurtling across the city, I made my way to a street just beyond Golden Gate Park. Spacious and slow-paced, it was – I’d been told – an ideal spot to join onto the historic Highway 101. My plan, for now: to hitchhike from San Francisco to Portland, Oregon in a single day.
I’d done one similarly epic journey before, thumbing my way from London to Morocco. But this was different: back then, I’d been with a partner. And even so, on that occasion I had still managed to have all of my possessions – other than the clothes on my back – stolen. But that’s another story. This time there would be no counterweight to paranoid thinking. The smallest threads of doubt could go forth and multiply.
This was not an attempt at a Kerouacian bacchanal, or a voyage of self-discovery. Nor was I naive enough to think that all would be required to travel those 600 miles was a barely outstretched thumb, like in the orgiastic 1960s heyday. For that, I could thank Charles Manson, the diabolic cult leader who drained the nation’s trust with sixteen orchestrated stabs. Rather than unbridled bonhomie, the unknown now caused an unease. Circumspect relatives warned that it wouldn’t be possible. Nonetheless, forged from the over-ambitious young man mold, I knew it was technically possible.
Anna was my first ride, exactly from the recommended spot. A bespectacled fifty-six-year-old lady with a habit of scratching her right forearm when searching out a particular thought in the depths of her memory, she did so with regularity on the four-lane highway. “So, where are you from?” she asked, disappointing me with her inability to decipher my proudly tea-infused accent. “I can tell you’re not from around here.” A little European country you probably haven’t heard of, I quipped to myself, still waltzing with the euphoria that always accompanies the offer of a ride.
We hit a bumpy section of road, and Anna instinctively reached across to protect me. Her hair had begun to slowly grey, silver specks dotted around like a light morning frost.
Formerly a high-school teacher, she spent hours shuttling between her quaint houseboat in the Bay Area’s floating world, Sausalito, and her increasingly infirm mother’s place, further along the 101.
I got the impression that it wasn’t the first time she’d given a stranger a ride. There were no preliminary, furtive glances when I first got in her old, gearbox Volvo; no attempts to calculate what threat I posed. Instead, Anna chatted breezily, occasionally raising her barn-owl eyebrows, awaiting my input. She was a significant disc in the backbone of America’s feted hospitality.
“I wish I could take you further,” were her last words as she dropped me off at a leafy side road and turned back southward.
The sun had shaken off its sleep by now. It cleansed my hands and face, as fresh air pushed by with each passing car. Their white, rectangular license plates, most lined with palm trees, were like miniature homages to the landscape. It felt good to be in the Golden State.
Not long after, a scarlet convertible screeched to a halt at my feet. “Do you need a place to stay the night, hun?” a blur of brown hair asked, with the pungent whiff of seduction. I gratefully refused. Amongst other reasons, I couldn’t give up before I’d even begun. But, at the same time, I was breaking my rule number one: no matter how little the distance offered, never turn down a ride.
Hitchhiking tends to flow in breathless peaks and extended troughs. Like London buses, rides come bunched up in a cluster: the rest of the time can be a distinctly unsexy wait. So, it’s important to flow with the rhythm.
By lunch — an assemblage of trail mix and dry bread — I’d only made a few dozen miles more ground. I had the affable João from São Paolo, an enterprising DVD distributor, to thank for that at least, as well as for the pack of Marlboro Reds that now jutted out from my top pocket. But perhaps the gods of the road had indeed disproved of my rejection, because my progress shuddered to a halt.
Technique becomes key at this point: some grin maniacally, some gyrate wildly, others, desperate to draw attention, conjure up roadside theatre performances.
The variations around the world are quite fascinating too. My trusty thumb would not work in the Middle East – it’s an insulting gesture, equivalent to flipping the bird. Instead, a downward-facing palm is customary. In Poland, the hand is held flat and waved, yet in the Netherlands, this may indicate you’re looking for gay sex. Go to Greece and an index finger pointed at the road is the norm. In Cuba, meanwhile, picking up hitchhikers is mandatory for government vehicles, if passenger space is available. Yet in perhaps the early twentieth century’s most notable depiction of hitchhiking, Tom Joad, the protagonist of Grapes of Wrath, uses the straightforward method of asking: “Could ya’ give me a lift, mister?”
I prefer not to reinvent the hitchhiking wheel, sticking with the solitary thumb, while trying to broadcast an innocent expression on my face. The road had narrowed along this stretch. During the prolonged periods of silence, the humidity became more apparent and you could hear birdsong. The embankment was close enough to see into the eyes of everyone who drove by, with their lives bound up in variously furrowed and placid expressions. And yet, the drought persisted.
I gave short shrift to friends’ suggestions that I might get sliced up and made into a chutney on a lunatic’s shelf. But perhaps drivers feared me, the other. Mutual trust is imperative. Yet, according to the FBI, from 1979 to 2009 there were only 675 reported victims of sexual assault and murder along interstate highways. From a population in excess of 300 million, who travel by interstate for a quarter of all journeys, this figure is paltry. You are more likely to be killed by a falling coconut.
There is no scenario in which I would have knowingly hoped for a ride from my next patron, however. Under the sizzle of peak afternoon sun, my gaze became glued to the asphalt, hypnotized by its serpentine trail. Then, a hairy hand suddenly gripped my shoulder from behind. Adrenaline flared; my muscles tensed. Was this it?
It was merely a chisel-jawed highway patrol cop. But any relief that passed over me was temporary, as he sternly quizzed: “Did you know it’s illegal to hitch directly off a highway in the state of California?”
Of course I knew that. But playing the stupid-tourist card, I channeled my inner Hugh Grant, all accentuated British vowels and panicked mumbling. His eyes softened. “Get in,” said Officer Haynes. “I’ll take you to a safer spot.”
I had never been in a police car before, and a peculiar sense of guarded power swept over me. “We’re in Mexican cartel territory now,” he explained with a glint in his eye, evidently taking pleasure in every word. “If you’d have strayed across into one of those fields, you could have been killed.”
Gangs from south of the border, he said, would grow huge quantities of cannabis in California and dispatch armed watchmen to protect their crop. “Good luck,” he said, abandoning me at the perimeter of his patrol route.
Focused on the straight and narrow, I decided now was the time to use a secret weapon. The hand-torn bottom segment of a cardboard box would be unleashed. I scrawled “OREGON” on it, with what I hoped would be a charming subscript: “I’m British and I drink tea.” How could they resist?
Then I met Richard. A rusty station wagon cut across two lanes and slowed to walking pace. I was ushered into the moving vehicle.
“Oh, those?” the severely balding man responded to my flustered expression. The passenger footwell contained a week’s worth of fast-food wrappings. He gave a cursory sweep of his hand toward the detritus.
Richard was a frantic character with a rough, nasally voice carved out through consuming tobacco in just about every way imaginable – sniffed, smoked, chewed. I wouldn’t be surprised if he used it to season his meals.
Richard had driven from Queens, New York City. He had spontaneously borrowed his mother’s car after a stranger in his local bar told him of the riches to be gained through gem-hunting. “California,” he fired off like a malfunctioning morse oscillator, “has one of the highest densities of precious stones in the world.”
The California Gold Rush may have been 150 years ago, but it had not ended for Richard – his deep-set eyes searched and scanned the sloping granite precipices on each side. It wasn’t long until he spied a prodigious rock face on the side of the highway and pulled over.
It then became clear that, fortunately, the loud shunting noise from the trunk was not in fact a corpse, as my mind had devilishly imagined. Rather, there was an entrancing selection of colorful rocks of all structures and semblances.
As I was busy fingering through the goods, Richard had already begun mounting the side of the cliff, hacking away at its muddy surface with his bare hands. “There’s jade to be found here!” he proclaimed. He planned to have a jadestone the size of his head intricately carved by Chinese specialists, thereby multiplying its value. All he needed to do was find it. But soon we were back on the road, passing by signs for Laytonville, then Leggett.
The surroundings gained a more weighty presence. The flora and foliage became thicker, the trees leaned in. Every now and then we would punctuate the drive with a stop to a rock shop – such a peculiar subculture. One store owner who we visited had inherited seven tons of stones from his father, and presided over it proudly. He had a handlebar moustache that dipped at each side like a frown.
I delved through the cheap riff-raff allotment and acquired a cobalt rock that fitted perfectly in my palm, and another that was tiger-orange, marbled with an unblemished white.
We had made ground, but the day aged on. As the sunlight’s beat filtered down to a firm tap, Richard proposed: “It will require taking a longer route, but do you want to see something special?”
I agreed without hesitation. But I also knew what the repercussions would be. And we drove deep into what is known as the Avenue of the Giants.
The titular giants were sequoioideae, California’s magnificent redwood trees. These are no ordinary plants. Dense vegetation unspooled on each window and swathes of canopy blotted out the sun. The atmosphere retained the salient sense of a time before, trapped in the amber of a moment.
The avenue was home to such mystic organisms as The Immortal Tree – estimated to be nearly 1,000 years old, it survived the 1964 flood of the area, a 1908 attempt at logging, and a direct lightning strike. Enormous, hulking tree trunks dotted the side of the road further on. They had been organically hollowed out over time, large enough to drive a small car into. I drank with my eyes.
The light had gradually shifted into a heavy, metallic blue. Some miles on, Richard showed me the door quite unceremoniously. We stopped, said brief goodbyes, and ended our ephemeral companionship. Darkness came quickly.
Which brings us back to beginning. The beach would be my savior, I misguidedly thought.
The fact that I had failed in my mission didn’t bother me. In fact, being on a sandy shore at night had a mischievous novelty to it. But the passing of time became painfully slow. I gritted my teeth. My cigarettes were soggy. The black sky resembled a Mark Rothko painting. Like a window into the soul. The vision of Portland loomed large, with its vegan donuts and avian paraphernalia.
From the morning’s first band of grim light, I rose. A mindless walk took me to a gas station, just opening up. I bought a black coffee, but didn’t drink much. It felt better to keep the heat in my hands for as long as possible.
But, then, I was pitied. While stopping to refuel, two drivers offered a lift at the same time. “We see a lot of drifters around here,” one said.
The other, Louisa, who had a son my age, said she’d take me to my destination. My mind filled with white.
I fell unconscious – open-mouthed – in her toasty SUV, and awoke some time later to see the snow-capped surroundings of Grant’s Pass. I blinked again, and we weren’t too far from Salem. I couldn’t help think of the line by T.S. Eliot about returning home from a long exploration, and to know the place for the first time. The compassion of humanity consoled me. It would only be a couple of hours until I’d be with my friends in their quaint house with a veranda, eating homemade granola and poached eggs freshly-laid by the chickens in the backyard.
“So this is what you like to do in your spare time?” Louisa giggled. “I suppose that from the edge, you see all kinds of things you can’t see from the center.”