Hitchhiking is a crapshoot. You never know how long you will wait for a ride and, once you get one, how far it will 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 at approaching chrome grills the same way that a becalmed sailor scans the horizon for ripples on a 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, 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. 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, curiously, 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 appear 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 will not happen. So rather than participate in a hopeless roadside creep show 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 appeared in a bad mood though he rarely exhibited happiness even when he was happy. Brady liked to hold his emotion cards close. He knew that we had a problem. I knew that we had a problem too, but preferred not to dwell on 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. Whitehall 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. 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. They were not as lightweight and pretty as those brightly colored nylon-shelled counterparts sold in the sporting goods stores. But they would keep as “snug as bugs” in anything that springtime nights might deliver—or at least, so we thought. If they were good enough for Army grunts, we agreed, they were good enough for us. 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, the US military was shrinking, and no one we knew was enlisting.
Ultimately the price was right—cheap. We stuffed the bags into our respective backpacks that contained other pertinent traveling items, like toothbrushes, extra clothing, candy bars, and tobacco products. Their contents had been carefully planned. What had not been planned was the mishap in Spearfish, South Dakota, that would separate us from these packs.
“Brilliant idea, King Haakon!” Brady blurted out 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 wanted to get under my skin, he would preface it with my name’s Norwegian source—a bit of trivia I regretted telling him. He was not referring to spending the night under the bridge. Rather, he was referring to the Spearfish incident. He had been bitching about it ever since, hundreds of times throughout the long preceding day, like a skipping record.
“Yeah, it was my fault,” I replied.
It did not matter to him that Spearfish was not my idea. He knew this, but he did not want to know it. Brady was not about self-accountability. It was easier to blame me. However, I was familiar with his bullshit so I took it in stride as part of his daily discourse. 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. 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 on the eastern side of South Dakota. Hitchhikers dream of such lifts. This would be a 1,000-plus-mile ride! All that was required of us was to be well-mannered, polite, and, if appropriate, jovial. That was always the fare for hitchhiking.
The car halted 50 yards beyond where we stood, its brake lights implying a ride offer. I had a good feeling as I ran towards it. Centered between a Green Bay Packer and a Blatz Beer bumper sticker was a Wisconsin license plate. “He’s one of us,” I thought.
Being from neighboring Minnesota, I was taught to not be a Packer fan. But during my first year in a Wisconsin college, I had become a fan of Blatz Beer. At three bucks per case it was “hands down” a campus favorite and by good fortune, it tasted pretty good too. Yet despite its Wisconsin notoriety, I had never seen its branding beyond the state’s border. So right away we had something to talk about. And this was important, because while hitchhiking it was incumbent upon the ride recipient to have a topic of conversation. This helped cut through what would otherwise be an awkward silence. Drivers usually picked up riders because they were lonely. In my short hitchhiking career, I had already observed a correlation between driver loneliness and an inability to 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 surprised me. He was a conversationalist. “Where you guys headed?” he asked 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 an introvert, Brady always climbed into the back seat, yielding the front seat to me when it was available. With the front seat went the duty of being our designated 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 mentioning our proximity to Wisconsin might win us favor. I did not reveal that I usually referred to the Wisconsin border as “The Cheddar Curtain,” fearing the driver might not appreciate the mockery of his home’s diary fame. Minnesota and Wisconsin, as with most bordering states, had a long rivalry that aroused such belittling comments about each other. It did not escape my attention that the car’s rear window ledge housed a Green Bay Packer bobble-head and a Green Bay Packer hat and jersey. The driver had a solid 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 to think of something Forest Lake was known for, but came up empty. For a moment, this made me feel like an inadequate representative of my hometown. Surely, it was known for something. 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 Scandinavian 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.” Discussing a name, I thought, was as good as anything to talk about.
Carl appeared to be about our age. He had rounded features and long curly brown hair. He was not fat, yet he was far from thin. I could visualize him consuming respectable quantities of bratwursts, cheese, and beer—someone who might have a date with a cardiologist in his later years. He looked affable, and he was. We had no difficulty conversing on all topics imaginable—all the things that have ample time to come to mind while crossing the Great Plains. As we chatted, I watched out my window for anything unique that might appear: a deer, a tractor, even a tree. I wondered how, back in the covered wagons days, travelers could have 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 the emptiness rolled by.
“So why you guys traveling to Idaho?”
“Well, with the recession, we weren’t able to find any summer construction jobs back home. We didn’t want to flip burgers or pump gas for minimum wage. We’re willing to work harder to make more,” I said. “My uncle knows a contractor in Idaho who said that he’d hire us.”
It was 1976, the year of our nation’s bicentennial. It was also the year of a severe building recession, so construction jobs were few. In previous summers, the good pay of construction work had spoiled Brady and me. Plus, we were now card carrying “union brothers.” Even though the Idaho job was not a union job, we felt that we had an image to uphold.
Two summers prior, when the union business agent’s dusty old car approached our job-site, the 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 ran in the opposite direction of the car, scurrying away like rats off of a ship’s deck. But before we were out of view, the foreman yelled out again. “Brady, Haakon! You two, back here!” Those words stopped us in our tracks. We looked at each other. Brady had a “this can’t be good” expression written on his face. I shrugged my shoulders in reply. Then we both sauntered back towards the foreman, looking sheepish as though the foreman had caught us doing something wrong.
Now on foot, a heavyset tie-wearing man in a white shirt with rolled-up sleeves, carrying a clipboard, marched towards the foreman. Brady and I arrived at the foreman’s side first.
“How old are you guys?” the foreman whispered to 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 hang’n out on the job-site … hooligans really. I told’em to scram.”
The BA smirked at the familiar lie, but he accepted Brady and me as a consolation. So falsifying our ages we enlisted as “brothers” in the Minneapolis Laborers Union, Local 563. In doing so, we instantly gained its benefits and increased wages. And even though it came with significant weekly union dues, we considered it a badge of honor to have been chosen. After the BA drove off from job site and all of our cohorts returned from their hiding spots, they were each “laid off” from the jobs. The foreman knew we were now on the union’s radar. The BA would be back and he did not want to provoke the ire of the powerful union and force a job-site shutdown.
It was not luck that kept us on the job. Brady and I worked circles around the other guys. Even during those minutes when 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 nor 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 taxicab. Brady and I were not geniuses, but we knew to abide by Construction Rule #1: Always look busy—always.
Yet good work ethics is where our similarities ended. Unlike me, 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 first day as a freshmen, leaving many resentful upper-classmen sitting on the bench in his wake. He depicted the stereotypical “jock star,” and it was common to see him 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 grocery store after school. Sports were 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—an unrelenting ridiculer of underdogs, maliciously gaining hoots and snickers at their expense. His surrounding band of laughing lemmings only fed into this ugliness. Not being in his horde, I easily recognized this as hollow self-esteem. Nevertheless, Brady was not a sympathetic figure to me. Not then. Back in high school, Brady and I were mere acquaintances, not friends.
Yet I respected his prowess as an athlete and it impressed me that he had won the favor of Melanie, an attractive female classmate. She was his antithesis. Brady was not good-looking or smooth-talking. He had the same stocky build of Babe Ruth, which seemed unnatural for both considering their superb athletic propensities. And until I knew him better, I could not imagine him mustering any measurable level of verbal charm. But he could, I later learned. Brady was a “diamond in the rough.” His girlfriend must have zeroed in on this quality while making a conscious decision to discount his numerous unfavorable traits. I could think of no other explanation. The two of them married 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 high-water mark. Both were short-lived. By the following spring he was struggling with life. His high school celebrity status and his pretty wife had both left him. He lived alone in a mobile home with two dog-sized cats. The previous September, after I had gone off to college, he stayed on at the construction job. When I said goodbye to him, he seemed content. By the time I stopped by to see him the following April, he was a broken man. Besides losing his wife, he had lost his job, his two cats, and even his new blaze-orange Ford pickup truck. Melanie had quickly outgrown him and the other losses resulted from the recession, an unfixed door latch, and burdensome loan payments, respectively.
Brady was down in his luck, yet he still had a trace of humor. “If I didn’t have bad luck,” he said, “I wouldn’t have any luck at all.”
With no job and no prospects, I suggested that he travel west with me. I could get him a job. Despite the deep national building recession, Idaho construction was enjoying an influx of migrating California retirees. While the pay, I told him, was not union, it was better than no job and no pay. Plus, it would be an adventure—a contemporary take on Horace Greeley’s, “Go West, young Man!”
“Wadda we cling’n to here?” I asked. “No wives. No girlfriends. No jobs. If there were ever two guys who needed a change of scenery, it’s us.”
I explained to Brady that while living in Idaho would be cheap, it would also be primitive. My uncle owned a wooded lot on a river with a tiny travel trailer parked on it. There was electricity but no running water. He used it as his autumn hunting camp and said that I was welcome to stay there. Brady could stay there as well, but I made it clear that he was not bunking with me in the trailer.
“You’re not room-mating with me, big guy,” I said. “The trailer’s too small. And even if it wasn’t, you wouldn’t be living with me anyways.”
Brady was not roommate material. He was a slob—a characteristic that I suspected played a significant role in the short run of his marriage. And it was not helpful that he had also acquired the foul habit of chewing tobacco. But I saw no point in giving my reasons and illustrating his particular shortcomings.
“You’ll have to tent it. My uncle has a tent you can use. You’re not staying in the trailer with me. I wanna make that clear. Even if it rains. Even if it hails. Even if it snows.”
“Tent’s fine. I don’t need no plush trailer. I’m not a pussy like you,” he said. “Besides, a wet tent in the woods would be far preferable to a lonely trailer in a city.”
Eventually, the contour of the Black Hills broke above the endless flat plain. They stood silhouetted against the dimming back light of the setting sun. As the Plymouth labored up their gradual grade, the pleasant May weather turned cold and windy. Heavy rain—almost snow-looking—began smacking against the windshield. Carl leaned over to turn up the heat and to divert air to the window’s defroster. I smiled to myself, still reeling from our good fortune of being in a warm car, rolling closer and closer to our destination. Brady snored in bliss.
But less than an hour later, Carl began to struggle with driving. The heat from the vents made 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 announced.
These alarming words jolted me out of my comfortable state of euphoria. Brady woke up instantly. Carl had 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, he would eject us 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 money on lodging.
“I’ll check in as a single, then you guys can sneak in after I get the room. Ya can bag it on the floor. Split three ways; it won’t cost us hardly noth’n.”
Thus, the seed of a criminal act had been planted. Carl pulled off of the freeway into the sleepy pre-tourist-season town. Then he turned towards a small U-shaped “Ma & Pa” motel. Its office windows reflected a bright neon “Vacancy” sign.
“Better lay low,” he warned as he pulled alongside the windows.
Peeking up, I could see the office was positioned at the gateway of the “U.” It stuck out as a glass-walled spur, strategically overseeing the street, the parking lot, and the entrance to each motel unit. Equipped with machine guns and bulletproof glass, I thought, it would make it an excellent military blockhouse.
When Carl returned to the car after doing his office business, he instructed us. “Stay down. I’ll park next to the room and go in. In ten minutes or so, I’ll come back out to get you and you can sneak in.”
“Will do,” I answered for the two of us.
True to his word, ten minutes later Carl escorted us into the motel room. Twenty minutes later we were fast asleep on the floor in our sleeping bags. The next morning, Carl loaded his and our bags back into his car. But 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. “We’re the only car here.”
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 undetected. I think 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 and high that window is?”
Brady’s concern was justified. While the bathroom window opened into a back alley away from the office’s view, it was small. To make matters worse, it was located high on the wall. We would each require Carl’s help climbing into it backwards and then, if we could 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 clumsily helped him maneuver through the small open window, feet first. Once his legs were through, his center of balance enabled him to shimmy the rest of the way without our assistance. A final grunt completed the passage and he fell out of our sight. We heard a thud when he hit the ground, followed by a loud curse. I stoke my head through the window to chastise him.
“Quiet, you idiot!”
Brady looked back 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-dunk, 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 the plan, as ludicrous as it may have been. With help from each side of the window, I was able to follow him though the window with relative ease. Brady even assisted my landing so 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 made our way out onto the main street—our two large figures being as inconspicuous as a couple of cowboys riding zebras. The sidewalks and Main Street were empty. I soon realized that we were the only moving figures and this made me self-conscious. I wanted to blend into the environment, cloaked in some sort of “small town” camouflage. Slowly walking, we each frequently turned back towards the motel hoping to see Carl’s car appear.
I lighted window indicated an open cafe. Through the glass we could see 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 their 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 we could enjoy its warmth without feeling like we were being ridiculed from behind, as we watched for Carl’s car. But I felt uncomfortable there too when it occurred to me that the store may not have been open yet. An 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 the worst of us— possibly 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. The car approached slowly and we waved to get Carl’s attention. But when we saw his face, we knew something was wrong. I felt it even before I saw Carl pointing frantically behind him. 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. Ma and Pa still tailed it. 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 make arrests. 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 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 it at the time, it would be the last we would 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. If necessary, act. But use discretion. 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 look 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 happy, not too sad—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 sleet. The driver zooming by in comfort and warmth has to think “God, I’m glad that isn’t me!” One benefit of losing our backpacks was that it gave Brady and me “just the right hitchhiking look,” without even trying. After retreating from Spearfish, we felt miserable and looked miserable. But in short order we had a ride.
Astonishingly our ride was an attractive young woman in a scanty dress. When I opened the passenger 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 myself down 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 slightly smeared. I got the impression that the dress had been worn the previous night and that this morning was an extension of that night.
“Where ya headed?” she said, glancing towards me as she veered back onto the freeway. Her eyes were big and round, disproportionate to her small round face in a pleasing way. They gave her the look of innocence that her apparel seemed to defy. They were green and bright and had the dress not distracted me, I would have recognized their loveliness right away.
“Northern Idaho,” I answered, thinking that Northern Idaho’s narrow slice of geography made my answer specific enough.
I loved the sound of the town, 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 glance at me again and smile in appreciation.
I relished gazing into her bright eyes, albeit only for a second. “You pronounced the name so beautifully.”
“Well thank you,” she replied. “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, and 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 excused myself. “I’m only human,” I thought. Then I said, “I kind of wish I didn’t know that.”
“Yeah, I know what you mean,” she said. “The French language can make almost everything sound beautiful.” Then she turned and gave me a micro-second of her 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 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.”
“You’re funny,” she said, smiling while keeping her eyes on the road. “I’m Susie.”
“Jobs. That’s why we’re going to Saint Maries.”
I went into a lengthier explanation of our story—with all of the what, why, where’s—that concluded with our Spearfish motel incident. Brady sat silently 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 result in our ride’s termination. But he listened. Not much got by Brady, even when it appeared that everything got by him. He absorbed it all. I knew this because often some random conversation I would be having with a driver in my attempts to be an amiable guest, would come up later in some future conversation with Brady—always in a way to ridicule or mock me. He was happy to let me “put myself out there” so he could sit back and collect comedic material. I accepted this as routine. So I knew that even though he could masterfully disguise himself as being aloof, he was actually an astute human tape recorder.
“Wow, that sucks about the backpacks, guys. Wish I could take you all the way, but I’m going to work. 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 I would believe anything that she told me and that if she was my nurse I would gladly trade being sick or injured in exchange for her care. 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 imagined what it might be like living in Gillette and being “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 hoped that it would be 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 tried to explain 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 would probably lose her job in Gillette, where she lived with a girlfriend and a cat.
I got the impression that this was not 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 many 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 it improbable. I suspected, for whatever deep-seated reason, she was not looking for that good guy. This made me rethink my brief alternative plan of moving to Gillette.
Brady and I heard a lot of driver’s stories while hitchhiking across the West. We would 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 obvious early on. It was one of a driver’s greatest motivations to pick up a hitchhiker. The need to talk and to be listened to often overrode a driver’s innate concern for their personal security. Because to pick up a hitchhiker, let alone two hitchhikers, a driver willfully introduced a 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. For nearly an hour, car after car passed us by without even a glance.
“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? Wadduya wanna guarantee that we stand here in the cold all day?”
“Look who’s talk’n Mister Smoke Sticks! At least my lungs don’t look like stovepipes.”
“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 convulsing 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 focused on, as though spurred by a mutual premonition. The broad chrome grill of a Cadillac was approaching at high speed and we both sensed trouble. On a few occasions, we had cars accelerate and 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 thundering mufflers of the big black car roared by, never feigning a threatening swerve. But immediately after it passed, its brake lights illuminated and we heard the screech of tires. Rubber and inertia were forced to resist concrete beyond the laws of physics. A whiff of burning tread reached my nose. Then the backup lights illuminated and the car accelerated backwards on the empty freeway. We again braced for action. But the car halted just short of us, mere seconds before our flight to safety. Then it sat motionless with its engine still growling, its reverberating exhaust vibrating the ground below our feet. Dark tinted windows prevented us from viewing its interior. I wondered who and what was inside. Its presence was ominous. I tried to access the level of impending danger. Brady’s expression informed me that he was doing the same.
Suddenly the long passenger door swung open, revealing a single passenger 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 questioned if my perception was skewed due to the car’s immense size. 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 cautiously, still accessing the situation. I tilted the front seat forward and looked to see that no one was crouched down on the floor, waiting to lunge out. Then I motioned with my head for Brady to climb in. Once he did, I pushed the seat upright and climbed into the front seat. Just as my posterior contacted the leather upholstery, I could see the driver press down on the gas pedal with his weathered cowboy boot. The large Cadillac’s powerful V8 engine accelerated down the freeway concourse as though trying to achieve lift. The resulting G forces sank both Brady and me into our seats. My door slammed shut before I had the chance to reach over and close it myself.
“Sorry if I scared ya boys. I’m an abrupt man. Where ya head’n?” he said in a drawl I recognized from the cowboy movies I watched growing up. He turned towards me for an answer, taking his eyes off of the road for too long. His lips oscillated subtly as though chewing something.
“Northern Idaho,” I answered, still looking forward towards the road, concerned.
The car continued to increase speed. My glances could see the speedometer 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 gauge was showing, as the heavy car comfortably hug the road. Yet I was growing concerned. Without looking behind me, I knew that Brady was too.
“I’m not go’n that far, but I can take ya to Buffalo.”
At a normal speed, this would be an hour long ride. But 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 exclaimed, as though a bee had just stung him.
I glanced towards him for an explanation, but found none.
“What’s your name?” he asked, in a frantic tone as though it was suddenly important.
“Bob,” I answered.
“Well Bob, I don’t know if you boys noticed, but I just passed a poolease-man. I was go’n a little over the speed limit,” he said matter-of-factly, while gazing into his rearview mirror.
The patrol car receded down a slight hill out of his view.
“I do suspect that he’ll be come’n back for me,” he said. Then he smiled. “You boys wanna go for a little ride?”
I knew my answer right away. I was pretty certain I knew Brady’s too.
“I’m gonna get off up here,” he said, gesturing towards a freeway exit that had just come into view. “I’m gonna try and lose’m. Shouldn’t take long.”
My imagination conjured up various visions of the big black Cadillac racing down dusty back roads that all ended at a Dewdrop Saloon—the kind of saloon where patron cowboys spent their idle hours getting drunk and scheming of ways to lure hapless hitchhikers.
“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, sounding disappointed.
I do not believe that I had ever seen Brady move so fast—even in high school, headed towards the end zone with a football tucked under his arm. As the car was squealing to a stop, Brady was throwing the front passenger seat forward, nearly slamming my face into the car’s door frame. Both of us were out of the car in a flash. I turned and 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 the passenger door open. 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 G-forces. A minute later, the big dark car was a speck on the broad Wyoming horizon. A large plume of dust rose in the air behind it.
“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. We never saw a police car give chase. Nor did we ever see that cowboy or his Cadillac again.
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. I hoped that the cab would have room for all three of us. It would be a cold day to ride in its open back. Yet, 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 I had duped him into climbing aboard first. This meant that he had to sit in the center of the bench seat, between the driver and me.
“You son of a … ,” he muttered as he turned towards me. But it was too late. Brady knew full well that to contest the seating arrangement at this crucial moment could result in the driver angrily speeding off, leaving two fools standing on the roadside. So he placed his foot on the running board and pulled himself up into the cab, having enough sense to say “thank you” to the driver as he did.
This was a high pickup truck 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 onto the 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 recently watched the movie One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, I was struck by his similarity to one of the movie’s central characters, the imposing Chief Broom. I gulped and hoped that he was as docile the movie character, but he did not look friendly. Nor did he respond to my introduction. He just stared straight ahead, ignoring me, and veered back onto freeway. Brady stared ahead too, saying nothing. I presumed from the large man’s body language and the lack of conversation that this was going to be a long awkward ride.
Once we were beyond Gillette, without turning towards us, he said in a low soft voice, “I can take you as far as Billings.”
“We’d appreciate it,” I replied. “Thank you.”
Then nothing else was said. The driver was clearly not a conversationalist. As this was his prerogative, I just sat quietly 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 for the powder-blue Plymouth that contained our backpacks.
After nearly two hours, as the sun sank low in Montana’s big sky, we passed the exit for Garryowen. My idle mind pondered its odd name. I was unfamiliar with the title of the Irish cadence that became the recognizable-to-all U.S. Cavalry marching song. This is when the driver uttered his second sentence. It was the first time that he turned to face Brady and me. While doing so, 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, again with his low, soft voice.
We both realized 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 break his silence to announce that? It escaped neither Brady or me that we were now located in the heart of the Crow Indian Reservation and the day was about to give way to night. Was this a signal? Was this big Indian now going to deliver us to other big Indians who might want reprisal for years of the white man’s injustice? In my imagination, the irony occurred to me that we had narrowly escaped a group of malicious drunken cowboys only to fall into the hands of a band of vindictive Indians.
Brady and I nervously waited for more cues of our fate, but none came. After those few words, the cab returned to its former silence. 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 surrounding Billings. The massive torches were welcoming lighthouses.
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 like a piece of dried meat inside of cellophane wraps. “Here, buffalo jerky … better than white man beef jerky.” Then he grinned—I had thought his stoic face incapable of such—as he leaned towards us and pulled 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, a part of me was disappointed to be picked up by an accountant from Chicago. Yet the rational side of my mind enjoyed his ordinariness. Without concern for our well-being, Brady and I traveled comfortably through the darkening Montana landscape. It was so relaxing that I struggled to stay awake. I considered it impolite to sleep while our host had to remain fully alert. Brady, however, was not encumbered by this concern. He snoozed away in the backseat, breathing loudly, with his head tilted back in an unnatural position. He will have a sore neck in the morning, I thought.
It might 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 would have better prepared us for the harsh transition to a frigid freeway underpass. But as luck would have it, our host was headed to Silver Star, Montana. This meant turning off of the freeway and ending our comfortable ride in the middle of nowhere—or as the sign called it, “Whitehall.” To make matters worse, it was in the middle of the night.
“What ti … time is it?” Brady asked, struggling to his words out.
A semi truck passed overhead, creating a thunderous roar. This noise no longer made us lurch in fear as it 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 waited for the noise to subside. “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. It was wishful thinking. The gas station never opened during our stay. 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?”
Our bickering went on for the next hour. It helped keep our thoughts off of our discomfort. Slowly, a backlight began to distinguish the mountains from the sky. Once we were convinced this was a sign 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 appeared too insidious in the low light. But at least we could dance around a bit to generate some heat.
The morning sun rises at a snail’s pace when you desperately need its warm rays. I began to believe the earth had been knocked off of its axis and that the sun was never going to actually rise above the horizon. Like a winter Alaskan, 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 stark silhouette. It cast its intensity down upon the valley floor, illuminating then warming our concrete pathway. I could see the visual distortions in the atmosphere above the road as it heated and in a short time I could smell it too. The radiance renewed my confidence. When it finally warmed my core, I stared 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 at the foot of a mountain before reemerging, then traversing up its side.
For what seemed like an unusually long time interval, there were no sounds of cars or trucks. There were only the subtle awakening noises of the landscape surrounding us. A breeze rustled over the unobstructed plane of grass. Unseen birds chirped to signal the start of their work day. A calf bayed in the distance for its mother. And even further away, I detected the faint barking of a dog.
Released by the heat of the sun’s rays, I began to smell the strip of asphalt below my feet. It occurred to me that this intimacy with asphalt and concrete was unknown to the people that raced upon its surface, detached by rolling steel and rubber. I thought to myself that the essence of the road could only be known to the hitchhiker— the one who stood upon its surface for countless idle hours. Even the laborers, who inch by inch painstakingly poured and pressed it into existence, could not have known it like the hitchhiker. Beset in task, their thoughts were too prosaic.
There is a familiarity that comforts the hitchhiker’s soul when standing on the edge of such a simple yet vast entity. The road goes on forever and in this enormity it represents possibility, renewal, and opportunity. The rising sun reinforced this optimism with its warmth and brightness. The gloom of the previous night faded from my memory.
The whirl of spinning rubber against concrete emerged against the other subtle sounds. It grew closer and more distinct. When the chrome grill popped up into view it was met with the sun’s low rays, making it glare like a star, forcing us to shield our eyes. I knew that we had a ride. Sometimes you can feel it.