7/25/2014

Hitchhiking to Ohio

Sailing Valiant 42
Before joining the Peace Corps and heading off to Vanuatu, I'm going sailing with my Uncle Matt. The plan is to do a shakedown trip to Lake Superior, after I graduate in August, and then, once hurricane season is called, make an Atlantic Ocean crossing to the Caribbean. I've done a bit of sailing, with Scouts and here at Clemson, but I've never been offshore cruising. Like backpacking, the most important thing is not the gear that you carry, but rather, the crew that you're with. 

I'd seen my uncle here and there, at the family events, but I'd never really spent time with him as an adult. And the same goes for his wife, my Aunt Karen. In order to make sure we don't kill each other at sea, we decided it would be a good idea if I came up for a week, to test the waters. 
Seeing as my car died though, on the way back from St. Anthony's triathlon, I had to hitchhike up there to see them, in Cleveland, Ohio. The first leg of my journey, from Clemson to I-81, was identical to the route I took hitchhiking to Maine last summer. I had several moments of déjà vu, through out, starting with the bus down to the interstate and apexing at an onramp that butts up against a house. Last year I saw a man in the backyard, watering his petunias. This year I saw that same man smoking on his front porch. I waved. He didn't. 
The first ride of my trip, Louis, was a bit confounding, in many ways. Most of the folks, who've pulled over for me, in Upstate South Carolina, tend to be of the Appalachian persuasion. A few to few teeth, not the most intellectually engaging, but wonderful individuals, nonetheless. Louis on the other hand, is a vascular surgeon. He's wicked smart, and I found myself, still half asleep, in the midst of a conversation about medical singularity.
The discussion took an unexpected turn though, when he made a phone call. He didn't return a call or look up a contact; he typed in all ten digits from memory. At first I thought it was his wife, based on his demeanor during the conversation, but then he told her I was in the car. There are very few husbands that I've ridden with who've done so. Off the top of my head, I can honestly think of only one or two. Then the shoe dropped. 
Louis: "Do you know who that was?"  Me: "Uh, I don't know... Your wife?" Louis: "Nope. My mistress."
The Adulterer
The Adulterer
And he said it with such a sense of boyish glee. The same man who had just minutes earlier told me about his thirteen-year-old son and seventeen year old daughter, was now telling me about why he's cheating on his wife. Why, after waiting until 30 to get married, he is now unhappy with that decision. His guilty subconscious bleeds out in front of me. He tries to compare his life to The Lord of the Rings. Are you twelve?  The parallels between what he is saying and my own life happenings are almost too much to handle. It's like I'm sitting shotgun with my own father six or seven years ago. Do I yell at him? Do I tell his wife? Do I point out that just moments before he was talking about teaching his kids "right from wrong"? Should I even be in this car!
The last twenty minutes of the hour-long car ride my brain was struggling to maintain some semblance of a conversation. When Louis pulls over, on the east side of Spartanburg, he tries to convey some idiom about pirates and travelers. Essentially, "Don't fucking tell anyone what I just said." Ok, Louis.
Once out of the adulterer's car, my brain was alphabet soup. There are words and letters in there, but they're just floating around aimlessly. I can't make sense of them. So I do the only thing I can do, I stick my thumb out. For two and a half hours I wait, stewing in nothingness. My next ride is only going twenty miles, but I need company. I need to get out of my head. 
The ride was from a youthful black man who was heading to Gaffney because his daughter was giving birth (at first I thought he meant his wife, he was so young looking). I don't know his name because he never gave it. He was talking on his bluetooth headset the entire ride and all but ignored me. Having just read Malcolm Gladwell's Blink though, I was still thankful. Of all people who'd have an excuse not to pick me up, I'd say he had one of the few valid ones, but yet, he stopped for me (then sped off to the hospital). 
In Gaffney, Dave pulled over to pick me up. Dave was training to be a muay tai fighter, but then Jesus spoke to him. Now, he's training to be a missionary. About once every trip you get someone who'll pick you up with religious intentions. As an agnostic humanist, it is my inclination to just diffuse the topic and move on to more amicable subjects, but I could tell that Dave wasn't going to let it go. Thus, we had an hour-long conversation about dogma, superstition, and super-naturalism. He was awesome though and drove me an hour out of his way, to I-77 north of Charlotte. And on top of that, the exit he dropped me off at had a Cookout.

My next ride, Michael, brought me up to Statesville, about a half hour up the road. I-77, between Charlotte and I-81 is a no mans land. It's beautiful country, but there's nothing. A small town every twenty miles or so and that's about it. The spot Michael dropped me off at was surprisingly busy, but it was scorching hot. There was no shade, and the sun was glaring off of the driver's windshields. So, after a half hour, I decided to walk a mile down to the next exit. The satellite view of the on ramp looked pretty nice, but it wasn't. The adjacent, large grassy area was separated from the roadway by a massive curb. There was no pull over spot.  
Not wanting to walk a mile backwards, I decided to thumb it there regardless. There was shade at least, and soon enough Lanita (who was indeed white) recklessly pulled over to picked me up. She brought me two miles down the road, where I-40 and I-77 meet, a spot that Michael offered to drop me off at hours earlier. It was now 17:30, so I just kind of said, "screw it". There was construction on the interstate, so traffic was rather slow. And after moving a few orange barrels, I had quite a nice pull over spot set up.
Pretty soon thereafter, this beat up old sedan going the opposite direction honked and waved at me, and I waved back. They looped back around for me, I figured, when I saw them a few minutes later coming towards me and starting to pull over. I grabbed my bag and started running up to their car, but then they sped off. This is one of the most crushing and cruel things that can happen on the road. Cursing under my breath, I returned my bag to its original spot and went back to smiling and waving at every car that passed. 
Then, a few minutes later, the car was back. It pulled over closer this time, but I wasn't quite as spry getting there, this time around. As it turns out, CJ, the black guy riding shotgun, thought that I was his cousin. They noticed that I wasn't and drove off but then felt bad, so they came back around to get me. The female driver said that she could take me to a truck stop up the road, but that was a farce. They drove me 15 miles to an exit with a lowly, dinky gas station, and I soon found myself back on the interstate. 
Within minutes, a Hispanic truck driver makes eye contact with me, looks a bit shocked, and then motions, as he starts to pull his massive tractor-trailer off the roadway. As I run up to the behemoth, I notice it's point of origin, Grand Rapids, Michigan. The driver is named Juan, and he speaks very little English and I very little Spanish. This actually works to my advantage though. At first he thinks that I'm a truck driver and that my truck has broken down. He is going all the way up to Columbus, Ohio, so I'm fine with the ambiguity caused by the language barrier. I get Juan talking about himself and his family, so that way when he finally does realize that I'm not a trucker, he will feel a connection towards me and will be less likely to give me the boot. 
We stopped just over the boarder, in Virginia, to sleep for the night. After a not so subtle hint, Juan agreed to let me stay in his second sleeper bunk, like I did on my return from hitchhiking to Indiana. In the morning, he also agreed to take I-70 to Columbus instead of cutting over on a highway. This put me within a few hours of Cleveland, only a day after setting out. Of all the truckers I've ridden with though, Juan completely lacked the sense of urgency that was so innate in the others. That man stopped at nearly every truck and rest stop between the Carolinas and Ohio. But hey, it was still faster than standing on the side of the road.

Valiant 42 foot cutter
My Uncle's Sailboat, a Valiant 42 Cutter Rig
Juan dropped me off on the I-70 side of the intersection with I-77, so I decided, rather quickly, to walk to the interchange. On my way there, Office Roe, who's been an Ohio State Trooper for 29 years, stopped me. He wasn't much a fan of me walking on the side of the interstate, and he was even less in favor of me hitching the junction. I pushed his buttons a bit, but he was still nice enough to drive me a couple miles down the road to a rather busy exit with an excellent pull over spot.

The interstate system around Cleveland is a nightmare. Usually you have to deal with a beltway in major cities, which is a pain, or two, like when hitchhiking to Dallas/Fort Worth, but Cleveland... it takes interstate ataxia to a whole new level. With that in mind, I was already planning to take a city bus into the heart of the city, if I didn't get a ride there. I tried to get Officer Roe to take me all the way to Akron, which links up with the Cleveland bus system, but he wasn't buying it.

My next ride came pretty quickly, though. It was a two-door sedan that had doubled back for me. I had to cram into the back seat with this rather sketchy looking dude. The main thing I remember about the driver was that he had incredibly hairy ears. I've never seen ears that hairy before. His daughter was in the passenger's seat, and she had never heard of The Peace Corps before. They got me about a quarter the way there, to Newcomerstown.

Alvin, who's an EMT medic, got me up to New Philadelphia, and my ride into Akron was the epitome of hitchhiking wisdom. Alvin dropped me off at a good exit, but I still waited quite a while for my next ride. This old, wily midwestern man pulled up and offered me a lift. When I asked how far he was going, he responded, "ten minutes how I drive." So at best it was a ride fifteen minutes down the road but not quite to Akron, aka the middle of nowhere. I politely declined, and the moment I stuck my thumb back out, I had a ride to Akron.

A guy named Jan, yes Jan, picked me up on the south side of Akron. I was rather tired, having been on the road all day, but I put all of my energy into trying to maintain a conversation with him. Jan was one of those rides that you know you're the most interesting thing that's happened to them this month, if not all year. He was definitely a thinker, but his logic had never been formally doctored. So, it was rather hard to get at any deeper conversation. Also, he had retired in his fifties, nearly eighteen years ago, and had, essentially, done nothing with his life since. I knew that if I kept him talking, he would keep driving towards my bus stop.

As we got to where I thought the stop should be, the bus was already pulling out. Jan started honking and waving; I said a quick thank you and darted across the road to catch it. Since he was about to take a left hand turn, the bus driver didn't even bother taking my fare. I departed my free ride into downtown Cleveland exactly 36 hours after I left the tipi in South Carolina. I made amazing time.

Uncle Matt picked me up soon thereafter, and I spent the better part of the next week either with them or scrubbing, waxing, and buffering chrome on Gypsy, the 42 foot cutter that we'll be sailing. We went out on her twice, while I was there. The first time was with Big Brothers Big Sisters, as a part of their Big for a Day program. We took two teenage boys and their chaperones out, for what was likely the kids' first time on a sailboat. It was very interesting study in self-confidence, watching the boys and a really cool program, I think.

The second voyage was a sunset cruise on my birthday. We could only be out for an hour or so with the Big for a Day kids, so it was nice to really get out there for a few hours. We had a really good sail on the way back in, averaging around six or seven knots. 
In order to get back to Clemson, in time for work (figure modeling with the Clemson art department for $17 per hour), I bought a $40 Megabus ticket, from Cleveland to Atlanta and my girlfriend picked me up from there. You've got to love Megabus.

If you're looking to learn how to hitchhike, check out my book- The Hitchhiker's Guide to: Earth.

Source: RogueWave AnMed Health Google Maps Valiant Sailboats 


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Location: Cleveland, OH, USA

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