9/18/2014

With the Wind: From Sailboats to Sub-Saharan

Sick to my stomach, clutching the toilet as the boat heaves for the thousandth time, I vomit. Stomach acid runs up the back of my throat and into my nose. I'm crying out of sheer reflex, and there's no end in sight. The waves are only supposed to get worse throughout the night.
This. This was my fear. I've made all these plans to go sailing with my aunt and uncle, Karen and Matt respectively, and my body simply says, "No." That, no matter how hard I tried, no matter what patches, pills, herbs, or roots I put into my body, it just would say, "No."


At this point, you might be thinking that I'm the kind of person who gets nauseous at the IMAX, but that couldn't be further from the truth. I love roller coasters and amusement park rides. I've only ever been remotely motion sick twice, once when I was reading in the back of a van with no AC that was traversing mountain roads in Australia in 90 degree heat. And the second was when I was in a private airplane that was doing incredibly tight circles for a half hour while we awaited permission to land. They were trying to conserve fuel, so we were pulling Gs with our holding pattern. In neither case did I come close to blowing chunks. I just felt a bit dizzy and that soon passed. Atop that, I was raised on the water, in Charleston, and I never had a problem there either. Yet, I had this fear that my body would just say, "No."


The morning after my graduation, I headed north with Matt and Karen. The plan was to do a two week shakedown cruise to the North Channel, from Cleveland, Ohio. It took a few days for final preparations and provisioning. A week after I got my diploma though, we set sail.

A majority of the trip up there was, regrettably, spent motoring. The wind was blowing from the north, when we set out, so we would have been trying to sail to weather while also fighting the current as we went up two rivers, the St. Clair and the Detroit. My watch was set from four until eight, in both am and pm. I loved it! When I woke up, in the early morning, the stars were still up. I got to watch the sunrise over the watery horizon and enjoy the early hours of dawn. In the evenings, I was on watch through dinner, which helped to pass the time, and I got to see the sunset and dusk take over the sky, before heading down to my birth to rest.  
Governor's Bay at Sunset
The only place we stayed for more than a single night the entire voyage was Presque Isle, Michigan. The marina had courtesy bikes, so I was able to cycle all over the "almost island". The small town had two lighthouses, both over a hundred years old and one still in commission. The only other port of note was Mackinac Island. It was once a military base and is now a giant tourist trap. But it is a nice tourist trap. No cars are allowed on the island, so all traffic is pedestrian, bicycle, or horse drawn. In the winter, when Lake Huron freezes over, you can snowmobile to other islands, but at that point, the population has dropped from its summer time high of 20,000-30,000 to a quaint 500-600.


Just like when I hitchhiked to Maine last year, I felt this odd desire to visit in their arctic off-season, after the summertime rush, when the locals were actually doing the things that they enjoyed. Maybe I'm just a naive southern boy who'd freeze his ass off, but during the peak months, there are more seasonal workers in places like Macinac Island and Par Harbor than there are locals. We also docked in: Port Huron, Mackinaw City, and Put-in-Bay, and laid anchor in Governor's Bay and a few other anchorages around the North Channel.


I didn't get seasick. I learned a lot, and I was a very hospitable crew member, but still the "No" came. Since the inception of the idea of me sailing with my aunt and uncle to the Caribbean, it had been under the pretense of me being a student, a sailor in training. I had done a little sailing with scouts, I got my merit badge, and some with the Clemson sailing club, but I still had much to learn.


For one reason or another though, Matt decided to give me the boot and give my spot to a more experienced friend, who's been sailing longer than I've been alive. He did offer that, if I paid to fly down, take a puddle jumper, and a boat taxi, I could join them in the British Virgin Islands. I said "thanks but no thanks", out right. That completely kills the sense of adventure and puts me in the same category as the wives who see cruising as simply an extended vacation.

After all of that, I went to go visit one of my best friends, Mirco. The last time I'd seen him, I had just graduated high school, and I was backpacking and CouchSurfing through Europe. He's doing an exchange program at Lehigh University, to kick start his masters degree in theoretical physics, and I wanted to go see him.
I left my uncle's house the morning after we got back from the shakedown cruise. I took the same bus to Akron that I took hitchhiking up there, earlier in the summer. The bus dropped me off down near I-80, The Ohio Turnpike, and I walked around the tollbooth to get to my first spot. There's kind of a risk and reward to hitching on toll road on-ramps. All of the traffic has to slow down to pay the toll and stay at a moderately low speed, as all of the lanes merge back into just a few. But, there are toll plaza rent-a-cops who are a lot less friendly than actual state troopers, whom they threaten to call. And no matter how cool the cops are, if the turnpike guy wants to charge you for "trespassing," he can.

My first ride, Bruce, picked me up rather quickly. He is the vice president of a software consulting firm. Our conversation was one of those where I don't know if he's just a quiet guy, or he just thinks I'm an idiot. Either way, as soon as Bruce pulled over to let me out, before the tollbooth at his exit, a State Trooper was parked behind us. Damn.

Luckily, the officer was really chill and, I think, new to the job. He told me that I had to be in front of the toll plaza, otherwise the rent-a-cops would complain. A very important thing to know about law enforcement officers, the thing they care about most is not having to deal with you. Sadly though, the cop didn't want to not deal with me enough to drive me 20 miles, to the next service station on the turnpike. I thought I was totally screwed. It's really easy hitching after a tollbooth but rather a daunting task before.

The Road Gods were on my side, though. They were doing construction on west bound on and off ramps, so they had to share one, using this computerized stop light system. Traffic was backed up for miles to get off on the exit. Hundreds of people were pissed about that fact; I couldn't have been happier.

It took a while for a driver to come around who hadn't pooped in their diaper about the gridlock. My second ride was a rather hippie fellow named Josh. He used to grow hydroponic weed, but then, at 22, he and his girlfriend had a kid. After getting busted for drug running, he wanting to be a responsible father, so he gave up the marijuana trade and went into aquaculture, fish farming. If you gave a brief physical description of me: male, tan, in his 20's, rather skinny, long brown hair usually in a pony tail, a thin mustache and goatee, you would also be describing Josh. It was rather uncanny.

There were definitely differences though, ideologically . He's more worried about natural, organic, and GMO free than the fact that he's consuming sugar water and inhaling tobacco smoke. Josh is also very into perpetual motion; I'm rather a fan of physics. But I did really enjoy our conversation on aquaculture and aquaponics. It was something that, given more time, I would have wanted to do at the tipi.


He was also nice enough to drive me out of his way, even though he was headed to a music festival in Youngstown. It was Labor Day Weekend, and the roads were gloriously busy. I looked into using Craig's List's Rideshare, but I was getting picked up far too quick, for it to be worth meeting up with these guys, on their "trip across nation."

My next ride, Mark, was going all the way to Boston, Massachusetts. Mirco doesn't have a car, and Bethlehem, Pennsylvania is just out of the scope of the northeast's public transportation system. Otherwise, I would have taken the ride all the way up there, met him, and seen our mutual friend Lauren (she just finished up at Harvard and is now doing a two year stint at Yale... she's not very bright). 

Mark works for Oracle, building data mining software. He got a degree in philosophy, math, and finally computer science, spending a grand total of seven years in undergrad. His conservatism rather surprised me though, being in the tech field and from the northeast, but we were able to have a really great dialogue. He rightly pointed out that, though we were rather far apart on several issues, it was nice that we were both still able to have a rational, civil discourse on the subjects at hand. Usually, I try to avoid such matters, when hitchhiking. You never know when an Ace The Treasure Hunter is going to go off on you.

The bonus of good conversation, when hitchhiking, is that the driver will generally, if you ask, take a route that is more in your favor than theirs. Usually this only amounts to a ten to fifteen minute difference for them, but it can mean hours for you. Mark was nice enough to take an alternate, longer route that put me on 476, a straight shot to Allentown. Had he not, I would have needed at least one more ride to get there, and that could take five minutes or five hours. It never hurts to ask. If I hadn't, I wouldn't have gotten to experience my next ride, which was, undoubtedly, one of the more memorable I've had in a while.

Mike screeched to a halt to pick me up, before my bag was even in place. He was probably only in his forties yet he lacked all but his canine teeth. As I went to ask him where he was headed, his doberman pincher, Missy, tried to eat my face off from the backseat. I then noticed that Mike was also had a peg leg. At this point I think I should note that I was one good ride away from Allentown and there is a city bus from there to Bethlehem/Lehigh University. The sun was setting, and I wanted to be there for dinner.  So when a soft, feminine voice, barely audible over the traffic and Mike's saying "Come on an' get in!" emanated from the back seat, I foolishly hopped in.
I tried to go cruising,
but life said "NO, NO, NO."

That old run down Suburban took off like lightning bolt, the moment my door clicked shut. "We gots to get to Philly." Mike was saying. It was at that point I actually took note of who was in the backseat, keeping Missy from devouring my flesh, his eleven year old son, John. This was a relief. Mike didn't strike me as Father of the Year, but kids and the elderly usually mean you're safe.

Driving like an absolute mad man with his left leg, because the right was made of aluminum, Mike told me all about his days as a criminal and why John was the reason he gave it up. The boy's mother fell deep into drugs, and he manned up to take care of him. While in the car, for the brief time that I was, I could sense the damage caused by having a father like Mike, though. Was John actually better off than foster care or being adopted?

The parable of the dog in the back seat mirrors this question almost too perfectly. The reason he was driving recklessly down 476 was because they'd had to move out of the city. The reason for the move was the dog. They weren't allowed to have pets at their old apartment, but yet Mike still chose to get a snarling beast. When the neighbors finally got fed up, Mike chose to relocate the family instead of getting rid of Missy, the dog who harasses and bites his children to the point of bleeding. They moved for her, instead of putting her up for adoption.

I've been hitchhiking on the east coast so much that I have these moments of déjà vu that are only squelched when I pull out my map and see that I have actually been there before. Where Mike dropped me off, the Allentown service station, was such a place. Last time I was there, I caught a ride all the way up to New York City, and now, all I needed to do was get 10 miles.

The public transit system for the area, LANTA, sucks. Their website is near useless, the buses don't run remotely on time, and the squalid level is a solid nine. Thankfully, it was only $2, but I found my bus stop by mere chance, and it took 90 minutes to get to Lehigh. That means they were averaging just under 7 miles an hour, on-route. I missed dinner.

I spent the long weekend drinking, drinking, and making all the good bad decision at Lehigh University. That's apparently about all that they do there. I heard someone say that they have classrooms on campus for some reason, but nobody really goes in them. The last night that I was there, Mirco and I had some really great talks about life and the universe, which honestly isn't much different from how our conversations went back in 5th grade, just a little more informed.

The original plan was for me to head to Lauren's, but her schedule got too busy. So I went to see another Lauren's. My friend Lauren from Clemson works at the Rodale Institute. She's developing their animal husbandry program, and she gets to hangout with hogs, chickens, donkeys, oxen, goats, and sheep all day. It's only about forty-five minutes from Bethlehem, in Kutztown, so I said, "Sign me up!"
Chicken Farming
Eight black and one white chick... that's awkward

I left Mirco's at six in the morning and took the seven o'clock bus towards Allentown, so ten miles down the road and at eight thirty, I was hitchhiking to the Rodale Institute.

My first ride was Steve, an old retired fellow. I said I was going to Grim Road, and he said he could take me there. It turns out that there are two Grim Roads, and mine was ten minutes further. Steve was, by his own admission, just going home to lounge around, but did he take me just up the road? Nope.

And it worked out for the better. It was such a pretty day, and I was on a backcountry highway. So I just opted to start walking and enjoy the morning. I was in no rush. About three quarters of an hour into my stroll, a car pulled over up ahead of me. It was Zach.

Zach had just finished through hiking the AT. His backpack was still in the back seat! So I got to ask him about what it was like, and more importantly, where my dad and I should go, that coming week, when we backpacking. He suggested either New York state or Northern Virginia. He was a really awesome guy, and I gave him my actual contact information, not just my blog, which is rather rare.

For two days, I volunteered (which I guess is a pretty normal thing at Rodale) and helped Lauren take care of the animals and, much to her joy, organize her computer. 

Fun Fact: Electric fence clips have shockingly poor design.

Smelling like straw from the stables and hay from the (non-existant) horses, Lauren and I made are way down to her parents' house. Since, I had gotten to the Allentown service station, nearly a week before, my phone had slowly stopped connecting to network towers. At first I thought it was just Allentown or being on the farm, but it turns out, after two hours on the phone with tech support, a visit to a not-Verizon Verizon store, a "corporate" Verizon store, and an Apple store, that my SIM card reader had gone bad and no one wanted to give me a replacement.

"We can send one to you."
I'm traveling. I have no mailing address.
"We can overnight it where you're staying now."
I have to leave in the morning.
"Could you drive into this major city three hours out of the way and get it?"
I'm hitchhiking and on a budget.

Hitchhikers are a customer service representative's worst nightmare. (I would just like to take a moment here to thank Lauren's mother, if she's reading this, for all of her help and hospitality, as I tried to get this resolved.) So I left Valley Forge only able to connect over wifi. Because my father was heading up from the south, we went with the latter of Zach's options. He and I agreed to meet in Strasburg, Virginia and hike part of the AT in Shenandoah National Park.

Lauren's mom dropped me off at the Apple store, and when that failed, I walked over to the interstate. After traversing a rocky ledge, in order to get around the toll plaza, I was on I-76 heading towards Harrisburg. As soon as I hopped down from the ledge, before I even crossed the road to get to the right side, Keith had pulled over for me.

As I got into his truck, as he moved his New Testament out of the way. Keith is a baptist minister who followed a pastor down from Albany, New York to start a church in Pennsylvania. He works in construction, as a heavy equipment operator, in order to make ends meet. 

When Keith was younger, around my age, he really wanted to go out and just live in the woods for a couple of years. He never did it. You can still tell that he wants to, but he never will. The best he may do, by his own admission, is buy an RV, but that's not really his dream. A girlfriend turned into a wife, a wife turned into two kids, two kids turned into, "When I retire.", and "When I retire." will more than likely, will turn into "I'm too old to do it." He'll never truly live his dream.
Look Out For: Keith on American Ninja Warrior. He's going to tryout in Baltimore.
Keith turned out to be my only ride for the day, seeing as I set out late afternoon, but I was halfway to Harrisburg. There was a trucking company right next to the interchange, so I decided to sleep under the back of one of the trucks. They were up against the fence, so there was no worry about them backing over me. But that same fence turned around to bite me. While I was hopping over, it cut a three inch long gash across my left palm.

Nursing my wound, I set up camp on the cushy grass. Trucks were coming in and out throughout the night, so I didn't sleep all that well. On top of that, my hand was throbbing. In the morning, I just walked out, by the main office and around the fence. I swear, no one even noticed.

I decided to hitch the on-ramp where it has already started to connect to the interstate proper. This is a bit of a grey area legally, in some states, but it is a really helpful technique if the going is slow. It allows every car zooming past to see you, and more often than not, it's one of those already on the expressway that'll stop for you. The key is to make sure that they have ample time and space to pullover, around a quarter of a mile of straight roadway up ahead.

Bill, my first ride of the day, did just that. He went from 70 miles an hour to 0, for me. Bill is in his mid-fifties, early sixties and likes hiking in the Adirondacks. Like Keith, the day prior, he is also a devout Christian and was on his way to do a witnessing. I wasn't quite sure what all that entails, so when he invited me along, I used my inference skills and politely declined.

Back in the day though, Bill was also a vagabond and went by the travel name of Woody. In a decade, he'd racked up 80,000 miles by thumb. For a comparison, I'm at around 20,000 in the past four years. He was on the road a lot.
Bill got me to Harrisburg, and from the interchange he dropped me off at I had to walk a mile to the next exit. Rather quickly though, I got picked up by Darryl.

Darryl was on his way back from a few garage sales. He collects little glass bottles, and during the week he works as a truck driver for a small grocery chain. Of all the truckers I've met, he was one of the most down to earth. He and his wife adopted six children. Two are in prison, two are on unemployment, and the middle two are in the medical field/actually employed. He was nice enough to bring me across the Mason Dixon Line, all the way down to Maryland. Sadly though, the exit was horrendous. There was no where for cars to pull over, so I took the first ride that came, five miles to an interchange. Then, I had to walk on the side of the interstate to get to an actual exit.

On my way, I ran into the boys in blue. Not one, but four squad card responded. It was a little excessive. Thankfully, all of the troopers were nice.

"Did you know that it's illegal to walk on the side of the interstate?"
Nooo. I had no idea.
"Yeah, most people don't know it, but it's illegal."
Oh, ok. Thanks for letting me know.

Sometimes, it's just best to play dumb.
One of the four brought me down to the next exit/where I was walking to to begin with. I took a much needed bathroom break, and then snagged a quick ride from Rick into West Virginia. Rick was ex-military. He raises horses more for fun than for profit, and he's had a time share in the Bahamas since his honeymoon, many decades ago. He also got suckered into another one just a few years ago, down in the Virginia mountains, near where I was headed. Most of his other traveling is due to his wife's obsession with progressive rock.
Up until this point in the trip, nearly all of my rides had been of the 'dude alone in his car' variety, accept for peg-leg Mike and his son. Thus, it was a breath of feminine fresh air when Janet picked me up. She had passed by me, driven down to the Flying J, bought smokes and two hotdogs, driven back, picked me up, gave me the hotdogs, and then drove me to the Flying J. She was incredibly sweet, and she got me just over the boarder, into Virginia.

As we were exiting the interstate, I noticed a fellow hitchhiker on the on-ramp, so I took my time eating my hotdogs, hoping he would get picked up. It is hitchhiking courtesy, if someone is already thumbing it, to ask if it's ok to move after (but never before them) on the roadway.

Hey where are you headed to?
"Mhmhhhmh, Oklahoma."
Alright. I'm just headed down to Shenandoah.
"Hmmhmm two days. Hmmm yeah, mmmh been trying to make it down there."
Ok, been trying to make it for two days. It can be slow sometimes.
"Mhhh hmmm, I'm ah mhhh, need to ahh make it mmmh working at the faire hhmm."
Oh, the faire... is it ok if I just stand down there?
"Hmm mhhh mhh."
Great.

It's times like these that I say to myself, "No wonder so many people who pick me up tells me, 'I never pickup hitchhikers anymore.'" The Carny is chain smoking Marboros on the side of the road! Then, I'm standing there, with all of my teeth, smiling and waving at people.
Surprisingly quickly, a big red, lifted pickup truck pulled over and the driver, a lip full of tobaccy, offered the both of us a lift. It was only a few miles down the road, and it wasn't a good ride, by any means. But, I was tempted to take it. Hitchhiking anywhere near The Carney felt having your thumb out, while holding an axe, and wearing a pentagram t-shirt. It's just wasn't a good idea.

About ten minutes later a big blue truck did the Indecision Swerve:
Do we pick them up? (Starts to pull over) 
Eh, I don't know... (Back into the lane) 
Ah, but they need a ride. (Back to the shoulder)
Buuut... (Over into the lane)
Ah, might as well! (They're finally pulled over at the very end of the ramp)

I grab my bag, shout back to The Carny that they've stopped, and then run down to talk to them. The driver is Brandan and sitting shotgun is Dave. They're in their late and early twenties, respectively. Neither of them was quite keen on giving The Carny a ride, and after feeling that I'd done my fellow hitchhiker due diligence, I hope in.

To be quite honest, I was rather confused as to what was going on for about the first twenty minutes of the ride. They were headed south. I knew that. Then they put where I was going in the GPS; then they joked about going to DC, but I didn't know if they were serious. I got a good vibe from them though, so I didn't get too worried. Brandan, it turns out, is a pastor and Dave is his protégé.
Since my dad wan't going to meet me until the following evening, I accepted Brandan's invitation to stay the night and go to his service on Sunday, the next morning. He started up Canvas Church earlier this year, and it has grown so much that they are now in the process of moving to a larger space.

Brandan and his wife Kasie have a three year old son, Xander, and the church has a very young family feel to it. Back before the wife and kids, Brandan did mission work in Vanuatu, where I was nominated to serve in the Peace Corps. He showed me the bow and staff that they made for him and recounted tales of their national dish, lap-lap.

After service and a cookout, Dave ran me back down to Strasburg. I spent the rest of the afternoon book shopping. The Princess Bride and a collection of Chinese poetry were my choices for the trip. I found a neat little cafe to hangout in and befriended the staff. When my dad finally got there, we had dinner and then crashed at a hotel.


Little Hogback Lookout
By the time we got up, ate breakfast, did a Walmart run, got lost, got found, checked in at the ranger station, and parked the car it was mid-afternoon. We hiked a couple of miles and then camped next to a creek. The next day it rained, so we just sat around and read. Day three we made it down to one of the huts, and we got to talk to a few North to South through hikers. I saw a bear, as it strolled through camp. The final day, we hiked and stayed at a cabin. It was locked (as the map indicated), but we squatted on the front porch and enjoyed the fireplace/firewood that was there.

It was great being able to spend a week with my dad. It'd been five years since we did Philmont together, about 100 miles in 10 days, so he was a little out of practice. The cargo on his front weighed more the the pack on his back, if you catch my drift. Thus, he was the designated pace setter, so we only averaged about five miles a day. The distance covered really doesn't matter though. I'm just very appreciative that we got to spend that kind of time together.

The final morning, we hiked for a few hour and then hitchhiked out. It is one of the few times that the first car I stuck my thumb out for pulled over. The only other instances I can recall that happening is Stewart Island, New Zealand and 90 Mile Beach, Australia. Our vehicular patron was Brett, who did a day hike, while his wife was running a teaching session in town.

Once we got back where there was cell service, I checked my email, using my dad's phone, to see if the Peace Corps had finally sent my my formal invitation to Vanuatu. I'd been waiting over six months, since they last sent me anything, and the deadline for formal invitations was Monday, September 15th. It was Friday, September 12th. My placement officer, Drew, in the politest of terms, told me there was no way that I was going to Vanuatu. Even though I was one of the first to be nominated for my post, there were forty others who had been nominated as well and only four openings. Again, people with more years of experience than I've been alive got the position, over me.

After twenty minutes on the phone, we finally had a solution, Zambia. I wouldn't be using my IT skills, but I would still get the "classic Peace Corps experience," as Drew put it. It took until that Monday for my formal invitation to arrive, but on February 9th, 2015, I'm boarding a plane; I'm headed to Zambia.


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

Source: Mikaela in Zambia IMDb Canvas Church Google Maps


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Location: Shenandoah National Park, Virginia, USA

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