Hitchhiking a is crapshoot. You never know how long you are going to wait for a ride and, once you get one, how far its going to take you. It is a pursuit of place where planning is pointless. You are a sailboat on an asphalt river in want of wind. And you stare off anxiously at approaching chrome grills the same way that a becalmed sailor looks to the horizon for a hopeful distortion of flat sea. When it comes, and it eventually does, the wind carries you along the course that you have set with rudder and trimmed sails. But it can, and ultimately will, randomly drop you. So you travel along your route in fits and starts. You may well have an intended destination, but hitchhiking like sailing is not about expediency, it is about economy—and with economy comes compromise. And compromise invites the inadvertent. So the journey by its very nature is capricious—its foundation based upon adventure.
By my nineteenth year, I had hitchhiked the nearly 1,400 miles from my Minnesota home to northern Idaho, twice. And twice the wind dropped me, inexplicably, in Whitehall, Montana. Probability-wise, it is not easy to be arbitrarily dropped in Whitehall, Montana. The tiny freeway-side town is close to nothing and it is the crossroads to nowhere. Yet twice my ride ended there and twice after sunset.
When your ride ends after dark, your hitchhiking day is over. Nightfall makes hitchhikers look shifty and, when illuminated by the harsh glare of headlights, downright terrifying. You might as well stand on the shoulder of the road, dirt-covered, with disheveled hair and tattered clothing, holding out a thumb in one hand and a bloodied axe in the other. A ride is unlikely. And if there are two of you hitchhiking, forget it—it is not going to happen. So rather than participate in a hopeless roadside creep show that was sure to yield zero miles, I chose to sleep under a noisy freeway bridge in Whitehall, Montana. Twice.
“Damn! What were the odds?” I asked myself, both dismayed and amazed. I wondered if it was a divine sign of some sort. But of what? I tried to convey my astonishment to my traveling companion, but he replied with silence and his all-too-familiar “I don’t give a shit” glare. Brady was a man of few words who, like a mime, mastered artful non-verbal communication. He did not appear to be in a good mood, though he rarely exhibited happiness even when he was happy. Brady liked to hold his emotion cards close. But he was well aware that we had a problem. I knew that we had a problem too, but preferred not to think about it. What was the point? It would have made no difference. We were out of options and without sleeping bags, and the early spring temperature was dropping rapidly. There was no 24-hour truck stop in which to seek warm refuge. The town of Whitehall, before us, what there was of it, was rolled up and closed. This assured us of a long, cold, miserable night.
Of course, we began our trip with sleeping bags as we had planned on camping our way across the West, both for monetary reasons and to demonstrate to ourselves how tough we were. “Who needs a stink’n soft bed and a warm motel room,” I would say, jabbing into the air with my index finger to emphasize “stink’n” and “warm.” The truth was—using a term from my Great Depression born grandfather—we barely had “two nickels to rub together,” so thrift of travel was paramount. Indeed, it was compulsory. But being young we imagined ourselves as being tougher than we probably were. So we each acquired a worn brownish-green Army surplus down mummy bag that, while not as lightweight and pretty as those brightly-colored nylon-shelled counterparts sold in the sporting goods stores, was guaranteed to keep as “snug as bugs” in anything that springtime nights might deliver—or at least, so we thought. Our reasoning was that if they were good enough for Army grunts, they were good enough for us. And part of that belief may have spawned from a subconscious guilt for coming of age at the heels of the Vietnam era, after the draft had ended and no one we knew was enlisting. But ultimately, the price was right. Cheap. We tightly stuffed the bags into our respective backpacks, which contained other pertinent traveling items, like toothbrushes, extra clothing, candy bars, and tobacco products—Marlboros for me and disgusting chewing tobacco for Brady. Our packs’ contents were actually carefully planned. What was not planned was the mishap in Spearfish, South Dakota, that would separate us from those packs.
“Brilliant idea King Haakon!” Brady blurted sarcastically, as we climbed the berm underneath the freeway bridge. He usually called me by my nickname, Hawk, but when trying to annoy me, he would use my full name. And when he really wanted to get under my skin, he would preface it with my name’s Norwegian source—a bit of trivia I forever regretted telling him. I knew that he was not referring to the idea of spending the night up on the ledge at the top of the berm. Rather, he was referring to the Spearfish incident. He had been bitching about it ever since, hundreds of times throughout the long preceeding day, like a skipping record.
“Yeah, it was my fault,” I replied, sarcastically.
It did not matter to him that Spearfish was not my idea. He knew this, but he did not want to know this. Brady was not about self-accountability. It was easier to blame me. However, I was quite familiar with his bullshit so I took it in stride as part of his daily discourse. I knew the fact of the matter was that Spearfish was just one of those unfortunate occurrences that unraveled before us, like a fumble on a football field that turns a sure touchdown into its ugly inverse—a 14-point reversal of fortune. It turned out that our luck in Spearfish changed just as quickly.
The previous day we thought we had struck “hitchhiker pay dirt.” A car that was going beyond our destination of northern Idaho, picked us up in eastern side of South Dakota. Hitchhikers dream of such lifts. This would be a 1,000-plus-mile ride! And all that was required for admission was for us to be well-mannered, polite, and, if appropriate, jovial. That was nearly always the fare for hitchhiking.
Even before we climbed into the car, I had a good feeling. As I ran towards the powder blue Plymouth Duster, which had abruptly stopped 50 yards beyond us—its brake lights implying a ride offer—wondering how anyone could purposely choose such a hideous color for a car, I noticed that it had a Wisconsin license plate. It was centered between a Green Bay Packer and Blatz Beer bumper sticker. “He is one of us,” I thought. Being from neighboring Minnesota, I was not a Packer fan—actually I was taught to loath the Packers—but during my first year in college in Wisconsin, I had become a fan of Blatz Beer. At three bucks per case it was the hands down a campus favorite and by good fortune, it happened to taste pretty good too. Yet despite its Wisconsin notoriety, I had never seen any branding of Blatz Beer beyond the state’s border. So right away we would have something to talk about with the driver. And this was important, because while hitchhiking it was incumbent upon for the hitchhikee, if you were a hitchhikee of any merit, to always have a topic of conversation. This helped cut through what would otherwise be the awkward silence of riding through an often featureless landscape with a stranger. Drivers usually picked up riders because they were lonely. In my admittedly short hitchhiking career, I had already observed a correlation between driver loneliness and an inability to easily strike up a conversation. So while I was not a born extravert, for a free ride I figured that I should make an effort.
But this driver was a conversationalist. “Where you guys headed?” he asked cheerfully as the car rolled back onto the near empty freeway with us now aboard.
“A small town in northern Idaho called Renfro,” I answered being the designated speaker of the two of us. Brady, being a selective introvert, instinctively climbed into the back seat, always yielding the front seat to me when it was available. With the front seat went the duty of being our spokesperson.
“Well, you’re in luck, because I’m going through to Seattle,” he answered. “I’m not sure how far I’ll go today, but I’ll at least get you a lot closer.”
“Wow. That would be great,” I replied. “Thank you for the lift.”
“Where ya guys from?” he asked.
“We’re from a small town, northeast of the Twin Cities called Forest Lake, not far from the Wisconsin border.” I thought that mentioning our close Wisconsin proximity would win us favor. I did not reveal that I usually disparagingly referred to this same border as “The Cheddar Curtain”—a term derogatorily embracing the dairy state’s notoriety in the production of cheese. Minnesota and Wisconsin, as with most bordering states, had a long rivalry which aroused such belittling comments about each other. It did not escape my attention that the car’s rear window ledge had not only a Green Bay Packer bobble-head, but thrown into its corner was also a Green Bay Packer hat and jersey. This guy had a strong state allegiance. I would have to choose my words carefully.
“I’m Carl,” the driver said, while taking his right hand off of the steering wheel to shake mine. “I’m from Sheboygan, home of the bratwurst.”
I tried quickly to think of something that Forest Lake was known for, but came up empty. For a moment this made me feel like an inadequate representative of my home town. Surely, it was known for something—the proud hometown of a movie star? A famous athlete? A revered politician? Something. But I had nothing that could top or even come close to a bratwurst, so I simply said our names. “I’m Haakon and that’s Brady.”
Brady on cue, said “Hi.”
“Haakon? Like the bird?” Carl asked.
“No. Like the Norwegian king,” I answered. “I guess my primarily Swedish parents were into the names of Norwegian royalty for some unknown reason. Go figure.”
“Well, it’s a cool name. Different. That’s a good thing,” he said.
“Maybe. I guess. But it nearly always requires explanation. Sometimes I wished that my parents would have just named me Bob or Pete … or Joe,” I said while thinking that talking about a name was as good as anything to talk about.
Carl was about our age with rounded features and long curly brown hair. He was not quite fat, yet he was far from thin. He looked to be someone who could consume a respectable quantity of bratwursts, cheese, and beer—someone who, I thought, was destined to have a date with a cardiologist in his later years. He looked affable and he was, so we had no difficulty conversing about all topics imaginable—all the things that have ample time to come to mind while crossing the Great Plains. As we talked, I watched out my window for anything unique that might appear, like a deer, or a tractor, or even a tree. I wondered how, back in the covered wagons days, travelers could have possibly filled their time with conversation. It seemed unimaginable that there would be enough words for a slow roll across South Dakota. The state seemed to go on forever. “Thank God for freeways and combustible engines,” I thought to myself as I stared out the window into its vast emptiness.
Carl asked why Brady and I were traveling out west and I explained to him that being unsuccessful at finding summer jobs in construction and having no steady girlfriends back home, we felt compelled to try our fortunes out West—following the famous frontier-day-words of newspaper man Horace Greeley: “Go West, young man!” It was 1976, the year of our nation’s bicentennial. And it also was the year of a severe building recession. Construction jobs were few and far between. In previous summers, Brady and I had been spoiled by the relatively good pay of construction work. The minimum wages of fast food, gas station, and grocery store jobs no longer sufficed for us, as they did for most of our friends. Brady and I were wanting and willing to work physically harder to make more money.
We were both young, large, and strong and we were “union brothers.” When the laborer union business agent’s car drove towards our jobsite a couple of summers before, our foreman let out call: “All laborers get off the job, NOW! BA’s coming!” With that order, all ten of us dropped what we were doing and began to run in the opposite direction of the approaching car, scurrying away like rats off of a ship’s deck. Then just before we were out of view, the foreman yelled out again, “Brady, Haakon! You two, back here!” We each stopped dead in our tracks and looked at each other. Brady had a “this can’t be good” expression written on his face and I shrugged my shoulders in reply. Then we both sauntered back towards the foreman, looking sheepish as though we had been caught doing something wrong. A heavyset tie-wearing man in a white shirt with rolled up sleeves approached the foreman from the now parked car, carrying a clipboard. We arrived at the foreman’s side first.
“How old are you guys?” the foreman asked us.
“Seventeen,” we each responded.
“Well, Happy Birthday, you’re eighteen today.” He then strode off to greet the approaching union business agent halfway. “These two need to be signed up,” he said, motioning back towards us.
“Didn’t I see more than just them?” the BA inquired.
“Nah, just punks hanging out on the jobsite. Hooligans really. I told’m to scram.”
The BA smirked at hearing the familiar lie, but he accepted Brady and me as a consolation. So lying our ages we enlisted as “brothers” in the Minneapolis Laborers Union, Local 563. In doing so, we immediately acquired its benefits and increased wages, as well as the penance of weekly union dues. We felt fortunate though. After the BA drove off from job site and all of our cohorts returned from their hiding spots, they were each sent home, permanently. The foreman knew that our jobsite was now on the union’s radar and that the BA would be back. He did not want to provoke the ire of the powerful union and force a jobsite shutdown.
Brady and I knew that it was not luck that kept us on the job. We worked circles around the other guys and even during those minutes where there was nothing to do, we had enough sense to find something to do. Few things irk a construction boss more than seeing a worker lean on a shovel or stand idly with hands in their pockets. A boss sees neither the worker or the shovel or the pockets. He just sees dollar bills blowing off in the wind. To a boss, an idle worker is akin to watching the meter run in a parked taxi cab. Brady and I were not geniuses, but we had enough sense to strictly abide to Construction Rule #1: Always look busy. Always.
Yet good work ethics is where our similarities ended. Unlike myself, Brady was a skilled athlete, a born natural who stormed through our high school years breaking numerous sports records. He was “varsity everything” from his very first day as a freshmen, leaving many resentful upper-classmen sitting on the bench in his wake. He depicted the stereotypical jock star and was often seen walking between high school classes with an entourage of letterman-jacket-wearing admirers. I was not one of them nor was I a jock. Rather, I was a cigarette-smoking fringed-jacket-wearing “long hair” who worked at a gas station after school. Sports was not my forte, nor my concern.
Despite Brady’s high school sports notoriety, he was not popular with all of his classmates. Given an audience, he could be an outspoken ass—crude, rude, and loud. In these moments he was an unrelenting ridiculer of underdogs, maliciously gaining hoots and snickers at their expense. His surrounding band of laughing lemmings only fed into this ugliness. If you were not in his horde, it was easy to recognize this as the product of a hollow self-esteem. I certainly saw it, yet it still did not make Brady a sympathetic figure to me. Not then. Back in high school Brady and I were not friends, rather just acquaintances through a mutual friend.
But I respected his prowess as an athlete and I was particularly impressed that he had won the favor of one particular sweet, attractive female classmate. Melanie was literally his antithesis. I did not view Brady as particularly good-looking or smooth-talking. He had the same stocky build of Babe Ruth, which seemed unnatural for both considering their superior athletic propensities. And until I knew him better, I could not imagine that he could muster any measurable level of verbal charm. But he could as it turned out. Brady was a “diamond in the rough.” His girlfriend must have zeroed in on this quality and then made a conscious decision to discount his numerous unfavorable traits. I could think of no other explanation. They married right after graduation. And soon after that, I found myself working with Brady on a summer construction job.
High school athletics and his romance with Melanie was Brady’s life’s high-water mark, but both were short-lived. By the time that I phoned him nearly a year later to check on the following summer’s job prospects, he seemed to be struggling with life. His high school celebrity status and his pretty wife had both left him. He lived alone in a trailer with two dog-sized cats, Man and Baby. After I had gone off to college, he stayed at the construction job where we had worked together. He seemed content. By the time that I stopped by to see him the following spring, he was a broken man. In addition to losing his wife, he had lost his job, his two cats, and even his new Ford pickup truck. Melanie had quickly outgrown him. The other losses were attributed to the recession, an unfixed door latch, and burdensome loan payments, respectively. Brady was down in his luck, but he still had a trace of humor. “If I didn’t have bad luck,” he told me, “I wouldn’t have any luck at all.”
With no job and no prospects, I suggested that Brady travel with me out west. I had a construction job lined up in Idaho through my uncle. I had been told that I could get Brady on as well. Despite the deep national building recession of that summer, northern Idaho construction was benefiting from an influx of migrating Californians fleeing their once golden state. The pay was not as good as our former union jobs, but as my uncle used to say, “It’s better than a stick in the eye.” Brady and I had nothing going in Minnesota—nothing to cling to. No wife, no girlfriends, no jobs. A summer in Idaho would be a welcome adventure to both of us.
I had explained to Brady that living in Idaho would be cheap but primitive. My uncle owned a wooded lot on a river with a tiny travel trailer parked on it. It had electricity, but no running water. He used it as his annual hunting camp and said that I was welcome to stay there. I made it clear to Brady that he was not bunking with me in the trailer. It was too small for two big guys and even if it had been roomy enough, he still was not going to be my roommate. Brady was not roommate material. In fact, I considered him a slob and I suspected that this trait may have played a significant role in his failed marriage. And my assessment of him had not even factored in his foul tobacco chewing habit. I made it clear to Brady that once we arrived at my uncle’s lot, he would have to “tent it”—even if it rained, even if it hailed, even if it snowed. And this was alright with him. He relished the opportunity to change his depressing surroundings. “A wet tent in the woods,” he said, “would be far preferable to a lonely trailer in a city.”
Eventually the contour of the Black Hills broke above the seemingly endless 2-dimensional plains. They stood prominently, silhouetted against the dimming backlight of a setting sun. And as the Plymouth labored up their gradual grade, the previously pleasant May weather quickly turned cold and windy. Heavy rain—almost snow-looking—began smacking loudly against the windshield. Carl leaned over to turn up the heat and to divert air to the defroster. I smiled to myself, still reeling from our good fortune of being in a warm car, continuously rolling towards our destination. Brady snored in bliss. But less than an hour later, Carl began to struggle with driving. The heat from the vents was making him sleepy and the rain was making visibility a chore.
“I think I’m through for the day. I gotta get off the road,” he suddenly announced.
These alarming words jolted me and woke Brady up, instantly. He might as well have thrown cold water in our faces.
“Tell ya what,” he continued, “I’m gonna get a motel room up ahead in Spearfish. If ya want, I can pick you guys up in the morning where I drop you off, if you’re gonna camp for the night.”
I gulped, still trying to find mental footing from the unexpected turn of events. In minutes, we were going to be ejected from our heated bliss, out into cold, wet, windy night.
“Or, we can split up a room together, three ways.”
Brady and I had not planned on spending any money on lodging.
“I’ll check in as a single,” then you guys can sneak in after I get the room. You can bag it on the floor. Split three ways, it won’t cost us hardly nothing.”
And thus the seed of a criminal act was planted. Carl pulled off of the freeway into the sleepy pre-tourist-season Black Hills town of Spearfish, then turned into a small U-shaped “Ma & Pa” motel with a brightly lit neon “Vacancy” sign. As he drove by the office, Brady and I laid low in our seats. When I peeked up, I recognized that the office was strategically positioned at the gateway of the “U.” It stuck out in a glass-walled spur that oversaw the street, parking lot, and the entrance to each motel unit. If equipped with machine guns and bulletproof glass, I thought, it would have made an excellent military blockhouse. After Carl registered, he drove his car right up to the motel room’s entrance. In darkness, Brady and I slipped inside.
After we awoke early the next morning, Carl loaded his and our bags back into his car. When he returned to the room, he looked nervous. “They’re watching me from the office. I think they’re on to us,” he said, confirming the expression that I saw on this face. “We’re the only car here.”
Carefully, I peeked through the closed drapes and confirmed both the empty parking lot and the two figures staring though the large office window in our direction. “What should we do,” I asked.
“You’re never going to get out the front door. I think that you’ll have to sneak out the bathroom window and meet me in town,” Carl said.
“You’re joking, right?” Brady said. “Have you seen how small that window is?”
I knew Brady’s concern was justified. The bathroom had a window that opened into a back alley away from the view of the office, but it was quite small. Brady and I were not. To make matters worse, it was high on the back wall. We would need Carl’s assistance climbing into it backwards and then, if we were able to squeeze through, we would have to jump several feet to the alley below.
“It’s the only way,” Carl responded.
So in desperation we executed the plan. Since Brady was larger in girth, he went first. Both Carl and I awkwardly helped him maneuver backwards through the small open window. Once his legs were through and his center of balance enabled him to move without our assistance, he let out a groan, then wiggled out and fell down onto the dirt below. We heard a thud, then a curse. I stoke my head through the window to chastise him. “Quiet, you idiot!”
Brady looked up at me after brushing the dirt off of his pant legs. “I’m the idiot? Look at us … sneaking through a bathroom window into a dirty alleyway in Ho-donk, South Dakota! I don’t think I’m the only idiot here.”
It was hard to argue with Brady’s point but we were already committed to our plan, as ludicrous as it may have been. With help from each side of the window this time, and having a narrower circumference than Brady, I was able to shimmy though the window with relative ease. Brady even assisted my landing so that I did not have to fall onto all fours as he did.
“Okay guys,” Carl’s visible head whispered from the open window, “I’ll check-out at the office, then meet you downtown.”
We both nodded in agreement. This seemed reasonable as I recalled the “downtown” only consisting of a few blocks of various small businesses and shops. At this early hour, we would likely be the only pedestrians and thus easy subjects for Carl to locate. So Brady and I nonchalantly strolled out onto the main street—our two large figures being about as inconspicuous at this early hour as a couple of zebras. The sidewalks were empty and the main street had virtually no traffic. It was just Brady and me futilely trying to blend into our environment, wishing to cloak ourselves in some sort of “small town” camouflage. As we walked, we would each frequently turn back towards the motel in hopes of seeing Carl’s car appear.
We came upon the lighted window of an open cafe. Inside its large street-facing windows was a littering of old men wearing plaid shirts and baseball caps. Some were conversing and some sat engrossed in open newspapers as they sipped from white porcelain coffee cups. I few looked up as we passed the window and we assumed that our youth and unexpected presence became the topic of the moment. I few stores down a corner grocery store was lit as well. Since it also had large windows facing the street, we ducked inside thinking that we could enjoy its warmth without feeling like we were being ridiculed from behind while we watched for Carl’s car outside. But we felt uncomfortable there as well. It occurred to me that the store may not have been open yet. And old man was stocking a shelf in the back of the store. He glanced up at us but said nothing, yet I could feel his suspicion. I imagined that he thought that we were escaped prisoners on the run. Without a word, we both stepped back outside into cold and continued our nervous scan for the powder blue Plymouth.
Eventually it appeared in the distance, cresting a hill. We both sighed with relief. It approached slowly and we waved subtly to get his attention. But once we saw Carl’s face, we knew something was wrong. I felt it even before I saw Carl pointing frantically behind him as he passed us by. His unexpected signal prompted Brady and me to fall back into the shadows of a receding hardware store entrance. Within moments another car passed a distance behind him. Its occupants did not see us, but we saw them. It was an old couple in an old sedan and we both surmised that it must be the motel’s Ma and Pa.
“This isn’t good,” Brady said, expressing the obvious.
And it was not good. We waited and watched for several minutes before we saw Carl’s car appear again, this time approaching from the opposite direction. It was still tailed by Ma and Pa. But this time a police car had joined the caravan.
“Oh shit!” Brady said. “What do we do?”
“I don’t know. Just stand here, I guess,” I responded. I assumed that the caravan would stop in front of us and arrests would be made. I tried to imagine how I would come up with bail money and how I would explain being in a South Dakota jail to my mother. But the caravan did not stop. Carl, then Ma and Pa, then the police car each drove by us. As they passed, Ma and then the policeman glanced over our way, but neither car slowed. Two blocks beyond us, at the town’s only visible stoplights, the caravan turned towards the freeway entrance. And though we did not know so at the time, that would be the last that we would ever see of Carl, his car, or our backpacks.
It is always a good idea to appear somewhat miserable when you are hitchhiking. Sympathy is your ally. So it is good to act a bit—but only a bit, since this can be overplayed. It is a balancing act, really. First, to make this work, never wear sunglasses. Drivers need to see your soul through your eyes. You do not want to appear gleeful, like “man, this is the life standing here for hours with my thumb out waiting for a free ride.” But you do not want to appear cheerless either. Drivers generally do not want to be dispirited, nor do they want to deal with someone’s hard luck story. You just want to look a little uncomfortable, like “my life would sure be great if only you would make a small effort and give me a ride in your nice warm car, being you’re already going in my direction and all.” I call it the hitchhiker’s “Goldilocks Look”: not too hot, not too cold—just right.
Often wind, rain, snow, and cold help you accomplish a pitiful demeanor without having to act at all. Few things look more pathetic than a hitchhiker being pelted sideways with wind and sleet, while the driver sits in their soft, warm bucket seat, cruising down the road, shielded from the harsh elements, thinking “God, I’m glad that isn’t me!” As it turned out for Brady and me, one benefit from loosing our backpacks was that it gave us that “just right look.” After retreating from Spearfish, we felt miserable and looked miserable. But in short order we had a ride.
Surprisingly our ride was an attractive young woman in a scanty dress. When I opened the passenger side door, I nearly gasped when I saw her sweet face, and at the same time, the revealing side profile of her nearly exposed breast. It took considerable willpower on my part to focus on her eyes. “Thank you,” I muttered as I tilted the passenger seat forward so that Brady could climb into the back seat.
“You guys look as though you could use a lift,” she said.
“Yeah, it’s not pleasant out there,” I responded, still consciously forcing my eyes up. With the seatback restored, I quickly sat down myself and closed the door. “That was nice of you to pick us up.” Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Brady’s eyes, saucer-shaped. From the backseat, he had a particularly favorable viewing angle of her dress. I hoped that she would not notice his gaze through her rearview mirror.
She looked a bit disheveled. Her long brunette hair was messy and her mascara was slightly smeared. It seemed clear that the dress had been worn on the previous night, which this morning was apparently an extension of. “Where ya headed?” she said, turning to me briefly as she veered back onto the freeway. Her eyes were big and round, seemingly disproportionate to her small round face, but in a good way. They gave her an adorable look of innocence that her apparel seemed to defy. They were green and bright and had I not been distracted by her dress, I would have recognized their loveliness initially.
“Northern Idaho,” I answered, thinking that northern Idaho’s narrow slice of geography made my answer specific enough.
I loved the sound of the name, particularly the way she said it. “No,” I answered. “We are turning south just before that. Headed down to Saint Maries. Do you speak French?”
“I do a little,” she answered. This recognition made her smile broadly and she turned towards me briefly again, showing a face of appreciation.
I relished being able to gaze into her bright eyes, albeit for only a second. “You pronounced the name so beautifully.”
“Well thank you,” she seemed flattered. “But it actually doesn’t have such a beautiful meaning. It translates to ‘heart of the awl’ or ‘pointy heart.’ It was a derogatory term that French fur traders gave to their skilled and shrewd Indian trading partners.”
She was smart I thought, likely college educated. I scorned myself for having a different first impression of her—not a bad impression, just a less venerable one. “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” I noted to myself. Then I recalled my first view of her dress and I excused myself. “But I’m only human,” I reasoned.
“I kind of wish I didn’t know that,” I said, chuckling.
“Yeah, I know what you mean,” she said laughing as well. “The French language can make almost everything sound beautiful.” And then she turned to me smiling, giving me a micro-second of those eyes again. “I’m going as far as Gillette, but that should help you some, yes? What’s in Saint Maries?”
“Gillette would help us a lot,” I answered automatically, not really calculating the miles in my head, but knowing that every westward mile ultimately helped our cause. “Thank you. We really appreciate it. I’m Haakon. That’s Brady.” I did not offer my hand as I did not want to distract from her driving.
“Haakon. Like the bird?” she asked.
“No. Like the Norwegian king I guess. My parents just wanted to burden me with a lifetime of introductory explanations,” I answered.
“You’re funny,” she said, smiling while keeping her eyes on the road. “I’m Susie.”
Then I said, “Jobs. That’s why we’re going to Saint Maries.” I went into a lengthier explanation of our story—possibly a too long of an explanation with all of the what, why, where’s—that concluded with our Spearfish hotel incident. Brady sat quietly in the backseat as he usually did unless addressed directly. He watched lazily out his window, no doubt realizing that staring at her open dress could have eventually ended our warm ride. But he listened. Not much got by Brady, even when it appeared that everything got by him. He took it all in. I knew this because often some random conversation that I would be having with a driver in my attempts to be an appreciative and amiable guest, would come up later in some future conversation with Brady—always in a way to ridicule or mock me. He was more than happy to let me “put myself out there” so that he could just sit back and collect his perverted version of comedic material. I had come to accept this as routine. So I knew full well that even though he could masterfully disguise himself as being aloof, he was actually a human tape recorder with astutely keen ears.
“Wow, that sucks about the backpacks, guys. Wish I could take you all the way, but I’m on my way to work too. And I’m waaaay late. And you can see that I’m not dressed for it either.”
I took that opportunity to study her dress again.
Then she chuckled, “Well, I guess you guys don’t know what I do for a living so maybe you don’t know that I’m not dressed for it.”
This comment made both Brady and me laugh nervously.
“Would you believe I’m a nurse?”
I wanted to tell her that I would believe anything that she told me and that if she was my nurse she would make being sick or injured a fair trade. But instead I asked, “In Gillette?”
“Yeah, in Gillette. I’m a small town girl. But I’m not such a wise girl as I took up with some jerk in the Black Hills. You think I’d be smart enough to find a local guy.”
For a moment I thought of what it might be like living in Gillette and volunteering to be “her local guy.”
“Hey, can you hand me a cigarette from the glove box?”
I handed it to her, allowing my eyes to fall to her breast again. I was hoping that it was more exposed, but it was not and I felt bad for wishing it. Susie placed the cigarette in her mouth and seemed not to notice my gaze. After it was lit, she went into a lengthier explanation of her situation, clearly wanting to vent. It was something about some guy that she had just met and somehow she ended up spending the night with him at his parent’s Black Hills cabin. She drank too much. She did some drugs. He turned out to be a jerk. He maybe drugged her. She slept in too late and now she was probably going to loose her job in Gillette, where she lived with a girlfriend and a cat.
I did not get the impression that this was an atypical routine for Susie. She seemed a bit of a scatterbrain, albeit a sweet and intelligent one. This was not surprising to me as I had known a lot of people whose common sense did not rise to their I.Q level. Reliving the previous evening made her emotional, so her story did not come out as coherently as she might have thought it did. But what I comprehended was that her sweetness made her one of life’s doormats. And I hoped that one day she would find a good guy, though I thought that improbable. I did not get the impression that, for whatever deep-seated reason, she was looking for that good guy. This made me rethink my brief alternative plan of moving to Gillette in hopes of being that guy.
Brady and I heard a lot of driver’s stories while hitchhiking across the West. We would usually debrief each other of the previous ride as we stood waiting for the next. Some people liked to have someone to listen to them. This became clear early on. It was one of a driver’s greatest motivators to pick up a hitchhiker. The need to talk and to be listened to often overrode a driver’s innate concern for their own security. Because to pick up a hitchhiker, let alone two hitchhikers, a driver willfully introduced a possible wildcard into their lives. Brady and I were very conscious of this fact.
When we arrived at her Gillette freeway exit, we thanked Susie and bid her farewell and good luck. Her sad face smiled back at me in appreciation as I closed the passenger door. Then she sped off, back into her unnecessarily difficult life.
Standing on cold concrete again, we turned our attentions to the sparse oncoming traffic. Zoom. Zoom. Zoom. Car after car passed us by without even a glance for nearly an hour.
“I could sure use a chew right now,” Brady stated out of the blue.
“Seriously? You’d put the foul garbage in your mouth while trying to catch a ride? Waduya wanna guarantee that we stand here in the cold all day?”
“Look who’s talk Mister Smoke Sticks! At least my lungs don’t look like stovepipes,” he said.
“Even if I had my cigarettes, you wouldn’t catch me smoke’n while trying to get a ride. That’s tabbo,” I said. “Besides, I’m quit’n.”
“Right,” he responded in disbelief.
“No, I am. No better time than right now. I’m without cigarettes. I’m in an unfamiliar environment with a new schedule. Best time to break a habit they say.”
“I’ll believe it when I see it. You’re an addict,” he said. “I expect to see you start shaking any minute now.”
I smiled. “Maybe you’re right. All the more reason to quit,” I said. “But you should think about it too. The girls aren’t big on tobacco drool and spit cans, you know. Somethin to think about.”
“What would you know about what girls like?” he asked, annoyed.
“I know plenty.”
“You just know what your mom told ya.”
“Actually, it was your mom,” I retorted, proud of myself for taking advantage for his inadvertent setup.
He responded by giving me the finger, but my eyes caught a sight beyond his raised hand, far in the distance. Brady turned to see what I was seeing as though spurred by some mutual premonition. The broad chrome grill of a Cadillac was approaching at high speed and we both instinctively sensed trouble. On a few occasions, we had cars purposely serve towards us—presumably to satisfy some perverse sense of humor. These were always speeding cars too. So without discussing it, both Brady and I braced for a leap into the adjacent ditch.
The big Cadillac raced by us, never feigning a threatening swerve. But immediately after it passed, it slammed on its brakes so hard that it literally screeched to a halt. We could actually see the tires smoking. Then the backup lights illuminated and the big car raced towards us in reverse—right in the middle of what was now an empty freeway. We again braced for action, but the car suddenly halted along side of us, mere seconds before we would have lunged to safety. The big black car with dark tinted windows sat motionless for an uncomfortable long moment, during which we tried to access the level of impending danger. Its rumbling mufflers were like the low gruel of a lion and its reverberating exhaust actually make the ground below our feet, vibrate. Suddenly the long passenger door swung open, revealing a single passenger sitting, slouched, on the far end of its wide bench seat. A cowboy hat sat beside the figure. The man behind the steering wheel appeared to be small, but I was not sure that his perceived size was not skewed because of the large wide car and his distance. He glanced at us, then nervously up into his rearview mirror, then back at us.
“You boys need a lift or what?”
“Ya, sure,” I answered somewhat reluctantly, without moving.
“Well get on in. I can’t stay sit’n in the middle of the freeway all day,” he quipped.
We both approached his vehicle cautiously, still accessing the situation. I tilted the front seat forward and Brady climbed in once he determined that there was no one crouched down on the floor of the backseat, waiting to lunge at him with a knife to slit his throat. Then I replaced the seat back and climbed in. Just as I sat—at the precise moment my posterior made contact with the leather of the seat—the driver pressed down on the accelerator with his weathered cowboy boot. The large Cadillac’s powerful V8 engine accelerated down the freeway concourse, as though trying to achieve lift like a jet aircraft. The resulting G forces actually sunk both Brady and I into our seats and slammed my door shut before I even had the chance to close it myself.
“Sorry if I scared ya boys. I’m an abrupt man. Where ya head’n?” He had a bit of a drawl, like an accent I would know from an old cowboy movie and he looked over towards me impatiently for an answer, taking his eyes off of the road for too long of a time. His lips moved slowly even after he had asked his question. I could see that he was chewing tobacco.
“Northern Idaho,” I answered, still looking forward, concerned.
The car continued to accelerate. I could see that the speedometer was reading 80, 90, then nearly 100 miles per hour. If it were not for the outskirts of Gillette racing by in my peripheral view, I may have doubted what the speedometer was indicating, as the heavy car seemed to hug the road. Yet I was growing concerned. I did not look back, but I knew that Brady was as well.
“I’m not go’n that far, but I can take ya to Buffalo.”
This would normally be an hour long ride, but at this speed it was anyone’s guess. Brady and I never filtered rides according to the distance that the drivers were traveling. If the driver was going our direction, we got in. We figured that every ride was step closer to our final destination.
“Damn!” the cowboy suddenly exclaimed.
This raised my alarm. I glanced towards him for an explanation, but found none.
“What’s your name?” he asked frantically as though it was suddenly important.
“Bob,” I answered.
“Well Bob, I don’t know if you boys noticed, but I just passed a police-man. I was going a little over the speed limit,” he said matter-of-factly, while staring intently into his rearview mirror. The patrol car apparently had receded down a slight hill out of his view. “I do suspect that he’ll be come’n back for me. You boys wanna go for a little ride?”
I knew my answer and I was pretty certain that I knew Brady’s too.
“I’m gonna get off at this exit com’n up here,” he said, gesturing towards a freeway exit that had suddenly came into view, “and try and lose’m. Shouldn’t take long.”
In that moment my mind was jumping all over the place, but all of my envisioned scenarios included a high speed race down some back roads that would end at the local Dewdrop Saloon, where the cowboy and all of his cowboy friends spent their idle hours trying to think of ways to lure hapless hitchhikers into their web.
“Ah … how about if we get out quick at the stop sign at the bottom of the ramp?” I offered. “We’ll get out fast.”
“Well, alright … if ya do it quick,” he said, clearly disappointed in losing his spectators.
I do not believe that I had ever seen Brady move so fast—even in high school when he a football tucked in his arm and was racing his opponents to the end zone. Once the big Cadillac squealed to a stop, Brady was throwing the front passenger seat forward before I was even fully out of it, nearly slamming my face into the car’s door frame. Both of us were out of the car and on the shoulder of the freeway ramp in a flash. I quickly thanked the cowboy, gave him a wave, and wished him “good luck.”
“I’ll watch for you boys when I get back on the road,” he shouted as he sped away, once again with an open passenger door. The smoking rear tires eventually gained a firm grip on the asphalt and the big Cadillac shot off once more. The long heavy passenger slammed shut in reaction to the acceleration. A minute of two later, the big dark car was a speck on the broad Wyoming horizon, save its large trailing plume of dust. We never did see a cop car give chase now did we ever see that cowboy and his Cadillac again.
“That was interesting,” Brady said, relieved to be back on solid ground. I smirked and nodded in agreement. The ride had only taken us a few miles, but we concurred that they were miles in the right direction so we shook it off and walked back up the freeway ramp to resume our familiar imploring pose.
If we were fishermen, we would have called it a good day. Within ten minutes our thumb hooks had a bite—a large, tall, noisy white pickup truck slowed and rolled onto the shoulder. As it stopped, I remember hoping that the cab had room for all three of us, as this would be a cold day to ride in its open back. Nevertheless, hedging my bet, I feigned a pulled muscle and hesitated as we ran to meet the truck, giving Brady a wide lead. By the time I had caught up, Brady was opening the passenger door and when he saw me hesitate again, he realized that he had been duped into climbing aboard first. This meant that he had to sit in the center of the bench seat, between the driver and me. As he climbed in I heard him mutter, “you son of a …” But it was too late. Brady knew full well that to contest the seating arrangement at this crucial moment would likely result in the driver angrily speeding off, leaving two fools standing on the roadside. So he placed his foot on the running board and climbed up into the cab, having enough sense to say “thank you” to the driver as he did.
This was a tall pickup, even for a 4-wheel drive. With some effort, I pulled myself up alongside Brady, also thanking the yet to be seen driver as I did so. Once plopped comfortably onto the bench seat, I turned, as I often did, to say, “Hi, I’m Haakan and this is …” Brady’s ashen face distracted my speech. “Bra … Braaaaty.”
Sitting next to Brady, behind the steering wheel, was the biggest Indian that I had ever laid eyes on. I had nothing against Native Americans, but having just watched the movie One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, I was immediately reminded of one of its central characters—the imposing large Indian character known as Chief Broom. I gulped and hoped that he was as docile the movie’s character, but he did not look friendly. Nor did he respond to my introduction. He just starred straight ahead, ignoring me, and veered back onto freeway, driving intently but not wildly like the cowboy. Brady starred straight ahead as well, saying nothing. I presumed from the large man’s body language and the lack of conversation that this was a driver that preferred quiet. Of course this was his prerogative, but I knew that it was going to be a long awkward ride.
In time the driver mentioned, in his low soft voice, that he was going as far as Billings. I acknowledged, “that would be great.” And it would be—a two hundred thirty mile ride. Then nothing was said by any of us for the next hour. I just sat and looked off across the never-ending plain of rolling hills, while Brady and the driver starred ahead onto the mesmerizing never-ending road. Each time that we passed an exit or rest area, I would look futilely for the powder blue Plymouth that contained our backpacks.
As the sun fell low in Montana’s big sky, we passed the exit for Garryowen. I remember my idle mind pondering its odd name, as I was unfamiliar with the title of the Irish cadence that became the familiar-to-all U.S. Cavalry marching song. But I remember even more distinctly that this is when the big Indian decided to speak again, after nearly two hours of silence. He turned to Brady and me, taking his eyes off of the road for the only time I could remember and for a longer time than I thought wise, then he took his large right hand off of the steering wheel and pointed off to the east.
“Over there … that’s where Custer got his ass kicked,” he said, seemingly with pride.
Of course, we both realized that he was referring to General George Armstrong Custer and the Battle of Little Bighorn, but our minds were already racing well beyond the obvious. Why would be suddenly break his silence to announce that? It escaped neither Brady or me that we were now located well within the Crow Indian Reservation and the day was ominously growing late. Was this a signal? Was this big Indian now going to deliver us to other big Indians who might want reprisal for the centuries of the white man’s injustice? Had we narrowly escaped a group of malicious drunken cowboys only to fall into the hands of a band of vindictive Indians?
We nervously waited for more cues of our fate, but none came. The cab returned to its former silence as the pickup truck rolled on. The further we got from the Little Bighorn River, the better I felt. But I was not convinced that we would live to see another sunrise until I could make out the tall oil refinery flare stacks that surrounded Billings. These massive torches were like welcoming lighthouses indicating that we were soon to reach land.
After the big man turned off at his Billings exit and stopped to let us climb out of the cab, he handed us, what looked liked a piece of dried meat inside of cellophane wraps. “Here, buffalo jerky … better than white man beef jerky.” Then he smiled broadly—on a face I had thought incapable of smiling. He leaned towards, then reached over to pull the passenger door closed.
With darkness soon upon us, we were grateful to snag yet another westbound ride. Though after the exhilarating Cowboy and Indian rides, part of me was disappointed to be picked up by an accountant from Chicago. However the rational part of me enjoyed his ordinariness. Without further concern for our well-being, we rolled comfortably through the darkening Montana landscape. It was so relaxing that I struggled to stay awake. I considered it impolite to snooze while our host was obligated to remain fully alert. Brady, however, was not encumbered by this concern. He slumbered away in the backseat, breathing loudly, with his head tilted back unnaturally—a sore neck in the making.
Perhaps it would have been preferable on this evening to have ridden across the heart of Montana in the cold exposed back bed of a rickety old farm truck. Something less than a warm plush Buick Riviera might have better prepared us for the harsh transition to the frigid freeway underpass. Nevertheless, for some forgotten reason our host was headed for Silver Star, and that meant turning off of the freeway in literally the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night—or as the sign called the place: Whitehall, Montana.
“What time is it?” Brady asked in the clattering voice of someone freezing.
A semi truck passed overhead, creating a thundering roar—no longer making us lurch in fear as they initially had. We had grown both slow to respond, due to cold, and accustomed to the seismic noise, like people who live below the approach of commercial aircraft.
I paused momentarily to answer him. “It’s a little past four. They’ll be some light in just over an hour,” I said, trying to convey hope.
We sat half asleep underneath the bridge at the top of the berm, in fetal positions, trying to retain heat. It was increasingly difficult, though we never got cold enough to consider sitting closely side by side in attempt to pool our heat. And even if we had been warm, the noisy trucks passing overhead would have prevented sound sleep anyway. From my perch, I could see some lights in Whitehall. I kept hoping that its gas station would open so I would go buy a candy bar and take a long time eating it, then maybe buy another. I did not suppose that a small business would appreciate loiterers, but surely they could not turn out a buying customer. But it was wishful thinking. The gas station never opened during our stay. And not a single car or pickup passed by it the entire time we sat under the bridge.
“Next time you have an idea like hitchhiking out West, keep it to yourself, would ya?” Brady needled me. “You really fixed us.”
“You’re ge … ge … get’n soft,” I said, trying in vane to disguise my nearly violent shivering. “We’re Mi … min … nesotans. This isn’t even co .. cooold.”
“Yeah, ma … maybe. But there’s something to be said about wear’n winter co … co … clothes in winter weather,” he replied. “I feel like I’m a little under … er … dressed.”
“Geez! Do you want my ja … ja … jacket? Will that get you to sta … sta … stop whining?” And the bickering went on like that for the next hour, helping keep our thoughts off of our discomfort. Slowly a backlight began to distinguish the mountains from the sky. When we were assured that this was the result of eventual sunlight, we crawled out from under the bridge and walked to the upper end of the westbound ramp, resuming our attempts to garner a ride with our extended thumbs. For an hour we had no luck. It was still too dark and we still looked too shifty in the low light. But at least we could dance around a bit to generate a little heat.
It is amazing how slow the sun rises from beneath the horizon when you desperately need its warm rays. I began to believe that the earth had been knocked off of its axis and that the sun was never going to rise—that we would be doomed to forever live in twilight. The backside of the distant Rocky Mountains seemed to glow pinkish-orange forever. But eventually the giant fireball broke over the landscape’s silhouette. And it cast its intensity down upon the valley floor, illuminating and warming our concrete pathway. You could actually see the visual distortions in the atmosphere above the road as it heated. In time you could smell it as well. The morning radiance renewed my confidence. When my core’s comfort was finally met, I starred down the freeway and marveled at how gently it rode up and down the contours of the land, as though skimming over ocean waves. I noticed that at its furthest point, it disappeared briefly at the foot of a mountain before reemerging, then traversing up its side.
For what seemed like an unusually long time on an interstate freeway, there was no sound of cars or trucks, just the subtle awakening noises of the landscape around us: the slight rustle of a breeze passing over an unobstructed plane of grass, chirping birds beginning their days work, the distant bay of a calf calling for its mother, and an even more distant bark of a dog. I began to smell the strip of asphalt below my feet and it occurred to me that this intimacy with asphalt and concrete was not known to the people that raced upon its surface, detached by racing steel and spinning rubber. I thought to myself that the essence of the road could only truly be known to the hitchhiker who stood upon its surface for countless hours. Even the labors who painstakingly created it, pouring and pressing it inch by inch, could not have known it by its whole.
There is a familiarity that comforts the hitchhiker’s soul when standing on the edge of such a simple yet vast entity. It goes on forever, or seems to, and in this enormity it represents to the hitchhiker possibility, renewal, and opportunity. And that morning’s rising sun reinforced this optimism with warmth and brightness. The gloom of the previous night faded. It was another day and it would likely be our last on the road.
A whirl sound of car tires emerged from the other background sounds. It grew closer and more distinct. When its chrome grill popped up into view, it was met with the sun’s low rays, making it glare brilliantly like a star, forcing Brady and me to shield our eyes. I knew that we had a ride with this car. Sometimes you can just feel it.