HITCHHIKING & TRAINHOPPING–Part VII

THE CONFESSIONS OF FOFI LITTLEPANTS

PART VII

by Fofi Littlepants

VII. PEOPLE

Hesse wrote that each person is more than just himself or herself; he or she also represents “the unique, the very special and always significant and remarkable point at which the world’s phenomena intersect, only once in this way, and never again.”

Joey and I further recognized, with a bit of melancholy, that the moments of convergence formed by the collisions of our own unique points of intersection with those of each of the people we met, would also never come in the same way again.

I’ve already mentioned that the people that gave us rides as we hitchhiked across the country included artists, musicians, farmers, a preacher, rodeo riders, a nurse, a doctor, a prison guard (female), co-dependents, ex-hippies, ex-hitchhikers, ex-convicts, ex-drug addicts, ex-drug dealers, cancer survivors, a suicide attempt survivor, a white supremacist, immigrants, refugees, migrant workers, truckers, bikers, veterans (Vietnam and Iraq), fast food managers, a fashion designer, a cage fighter and a gang member, a soccer coach (and former player on a national team), a male stripper (and aspiring porn star), a firefighter and swinger. (though these are all very shallow descriptions that don’t capture the complex nature of each person.) There were many other people besides; below are a bit of the stories of just a few of the people who are not described in other sections. I’m sad not to be able to give every person their due because of time and space.

***

“Tanya” pulled over with a car full of teenage girls covered with dyed hair and piercings, and baby presents.

“Gawd, where are you girls going?!”, she exclaimed. “Are you hitchhiking??!! She was totally amazed to learn that we had made it to that street corner from California. She was even more flabbergasted to hear that we didn’t really know where we were going except “East”. She exclaimed: “What?? You don’t know where you’re going??? You girls need to get a map!!!!”

She would give us a ride as far she could go, she said, cause it’s dangerous!! “Gawd!!” she kept saying.

They were on their way to a birthday party, she said, at her sister’s. She was a recovering addict, and when we asked to what, she said “Everything!” This seemed to mean alcohol, drugs, and relationships. It turned out that she had been at the “Celebrate Recovery” event downtown in the park that weekend, as we had. (Celebrate Recovery is a program started by (controversial) Saddleback Church pastor Rick Warren, which is designed to “help those struggling with hurts, habits and hang-ups by showing them the loving power of Jesus Christ through a recovery process.” Joey and I had been there because Joey was wandering through the park looking for somewhere to pitch our tent to squat for the night, and had gotten picked up by some preachers, who offered us a place to stay if we promised to go church on Sunday ~ we ended up driving two hours with one of them (a very nice man who did a lot for troubled youths) to hear him sermonize at a rural “Cowboy Church”.)

Tanya was excited we were at the event. “It must be a sign!” she said. “Did you see the Strength Team??” she asked. “Weren’t they great???!!”

(The “Strength Team” was a group of men who were ex-military people and the like, who looked like they had been popping a lot of steroids. They did a show at the event in which they performed feats of strength, which in the beginning consisted of standard things like breaking blocks and bricks with various body parts, but then evolved into more unique tasks like ripping multiple phone books in half, ripping a deck of cards in half, ripping license plates in half, breaking out of handcuffs, and finally, blowing up two thick, plastic hot water bottles until they burst.

This exhibition left me with some food for thought, such as: Who came up with these ideas for feats of strength? Was there a committee within the Team that voted on proposals? Or did they just come up with this stuff when they were sitting around having beer? And how much beer was generally involved before one of these ideas was generated? Was there some concrete benefit to be derived from these feats? I could see the utility in being able to break out of handcuffs (especially given my current lifestyle), but what about ripping apart phone books/cards/license plates? Perhaps could it be a public service given that there didn’t appear to be any paper recycling in that state ~ ripping phone books and cards in half by hand might help them biodegrade? And would developing lung capacity to the level of being able to explode a hot water bottle have possibility for practical application someday? Like… what? Self-fueling a trans-Pacific voyage in a sailboat perhaps?)

When Tanya dropped us off, she insisted on giving us some cash. When we argued with her, saying all we were asking for was a ride, she said she was a co-dependent so she had to feel like she was helping people out, and after much back and forth, in the end we agreed she would give us one dollar. And she also made us and all her teenage girls hold hands, and said a very detailed, extensive, prayer for us. The prayer was basically a single run-on sentence that went on and on and covered a wide range of people and topics, but I was impressed she didn’t say “Gawd!” in the same inflection once throughout the prayer.

We thanked Tanya and all her kids for their kindness, and wished them well at their birthday party.

***

“Sam” was Canadian in his forties, with a dog. He would occasionally burst into song while driving, crooning along with the 80s hits that he had recorded, as a teenager, from his radio onto a series of cassette tapes that he played for us in his 80’s car.

He was an amiable guy, taking a detour on the road to show us a pretty park with some old railroad tunnels. After the five-hour drive, he dropped us off where we were going in British Columbia, and told us that if we needed to go back the other way, he would be going in two days. We met up again at the appointed hour, and this time, the real dog was gone, but had been replaced by a plastic bulldog on his dashboard (which Joey didn’t mind because the real dog had been 100+ pounds and had an odd penchant for repeatedly walking across Joey’s stomach, nearly puncturing her internal organs in the process.) The plastic bulldog was rather grotesque though ~ it had glassy bug eyes, and its head bobbled to the bumps on the road and to the rhythm of the 80s rock when Sam hit the breaks to jerk the car in synchronicity with the music. (Joey later told me that she had thought that the car was breaking down, but I informed her that this whiplash-inducing jerking was quite deliberate.)

On our tenth and final hour together, Sam suddenly started to let loose a string of startling revelations, which followed one after another: he had been in jail for a few months, for stealing a car. It was the fourth time that he had ended up in jail. It was because he had gotten addicted to meth. He had lost everything ~ his family, his job. His descent into meth took place when he was already an adult, married, with a daughter. It was because he was the heir to a computer parts company that his parents built, and he had been responsible his whole life, working every summer and vacation at the business. One day, after his youth had already passed, he couldn’t take it anymore. He got hooked on meth, but he was just having the fun that he didn’t get to have when he was young. He got beat up a few times (including getting his arm broken once); he also beat a few people up. Now he was off the drugs, and trying to mend things with his daughter. His parents had forgiven him. The drugs might have fried his brain, but now he could just be himself ~ he liked rock music (he was in a band for a while), and he just liked “stupid stuff” (his words).

We wished him and his bulldog luck and gave him a hug when we parted.

***

“Oscar” picked us in his sportscar that glided to smooth music, and spoke openly about his life. He was a member of a gang, he said, and had been in prison for 4 years. He has been straight for years now; he now felt old and boring at 30, being more responsible and looking out for the younger kids. His life didn’t seem boring to us ~ he was apparently a cage fighter, engaging in brutal free style martial arts competitions under his gang name; when he dropped us off, he was on his way to meet his brothers in a park where they were beating someone up.

We didn’t quite know what to tell him when we parted ~ do you wish people “luck” when they’re on their way to beating somebody up?

But really, he was perfectly mellow, and there seemed to be a logic to the beating-up of the person at the park ~ the guy had allegedly beaten the sister of one of the brothers yesterday and was being taught a lesson. And our friend was apparently going over not to join in on the beating-up, but rather, as the older wise man, to make sure that things didn’t get out of hand.

***

“Jason” picked us up in a crossroads in the middle of nowhere, and seemed very agitated. He was sick of driving, he said, he had been driving for FUCKIN’ FIVE HOURS! He spoke in exclamation points, with every other word being “FUCK!”

Over the next five hours, by picking through the profanity, we learned a bit about his life. He was moving his stuff from the north to Iowa, because he had gotten a job down there. He had been in prison for six years. It was hard, he had been very young. He had gone in as a minor for breaking and entering, but his sentence got extended because he had stabbed someone that tried to kill him. He was a “wild motherfucker” in his youth, he said, but now at 34, he had mellowed, and felt older and wiser.

His shouting and swearing was grating but I didn’t find it intolerable; but near the end, we were horrified because we came to suspect that he might have been (or currently be) a member of the KKK. When we arrived at his house, we helped him unload his stuff, and in the process, we saw that shirtless, he displayed two large tattoos, both with hooded figures on them, with “WHITE PRIDE” running along the bottom. He also had a large Confederate flag blazing across the wall of his living room.

We didn’t have the opportunity to ask him about it, since we were all busily unloading the stuff from his truck (and how do you ask someone you just met if he or she is in the KKK? Do you just say, “Hey are you in the KKK?”)

Despite these suspicions, I wanted to believe that he had good in him. I have no doubt that he was a racist, but I still felt like I had to recognize the kindness he showed us. Despite the constant swearing and aggression, we eventually noticed that he was, in fact, rather accomodating and nice in certain ways. He told us a lot about himself, he moved his stuff so we could sit comfortably, and he offered us something to drink, as well as to pull over whenever we wanted, and even to let us sleep on his couch (we didn’t take him up on it ~ we were too freaked out by the tattoos). Every time a choice had to be made, he would give us the option to choose. The funny thing was, when we made a query such as whether it was okay for us to run and get something to eat now, or if he wanted us to wait till later, instead of expressing his generosity in a standard way, like “Whatever you want is fine with me”, he would instead roar, “I DON’T FUCKIN’ CARE!!”

When he parted, he gave us his cell phone number in case we had any problems, and told us to text him to let him know we were okay.

I thought about him later, and wanted to believe that maybe he had joined a white supremacy group out of practical considerations and not an irreparable racist sentiment ~ perhaps he needed protection in prison ~ he had said that being in prison so young was really hard. And he had clearly been reforming since his youth, and he told us that he now no longer believed that everyone was out to get him, as he used to. So I hope he’ll keep growing, and maybe someday he won’t be racist anymore.

***

In a sleepy suburb of Baltimore, we were walking down the road with our backpacks to our friends’ house at around 9pm, and a police officer pulled over. “Carlos” offered to give us a ride, and seemed quite pleased to have us; he told us all about how the neighborhood was so very dangerous (which was news to my friends that lived there). We guessed that he was either really bored, or wanted to impress some girls. After he dropped us off, he sped away blaring his sirens and flashing his red and blue lights, which surely woke up the neighbors. But maybe not, because they probably had already been awakened ~ before he dropped us off, he had searched out my friends’ house in the dark, wooded neighborhood by shining the giant spotlight that was on top of his police car into all the houses on the street.

***

At Sturgis, South Dakota, about a 60 mile drive from Mount Rushmore, a Fourth of July (motorcycle) Rider’s Rally was advertised as a beautiful ride through the Black Hills that will culminate at Mount Rushmore in time for the independence day fireworks. Joey and I obviously weren’t bikers ~ we didn’t have motorcycles nor even know how to ride one ~ but we turned up there with the hope of hitching a ride with a motorcycle gang.

Sturgis is tiny town of less than 10,000, which became world-famous as the host of the ginormous Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, in which an estimated 300,000 to 500,000 bikers and their accessories congregate every year in the beginning of August; there are concerts, parties, and mayhem that go on for at least a week. The wealth of the town is based on this Rally; many people that live there only work for one month and shut down the rest of the year. We were told that we should come back for August and get a job ~ we could make $10,000 as a waitress in a week.

But that’s Sturgis in August. Sturgis in July, however, was a sleepy place where everything was closed; to say that the Fourth of July “Rider’s Rally” was a pale shadow of the Motorcycle Rally in August would be the most inadequate of understatements. There was a whopping five people that showed up: “John”, “Kyle” and his wife “Peg”, “Randy”, and “Angie”. But Joey and I were elated because they agreed to give us a ride to Rushmore for the fireworks.

Angie was in her late thirties, blond, dressed in black leather with a big motorcycle with a sticker that said, “Yes, I’m a chick ~ get over it!” She had come out all the way to South Dakota from Indiana with her dad, but her dad decided to skip the fireworks. She was friendly and funny, and offered to give us a ride on her bike. Two women on a motorcycle would look strange, she said, but “I guarantee you we’ll get a lot of attention!”

I personally had wanted to ride with Angie to see what would happen, but predictably at the end, Joey and I got distributed out to sit behind different men: Joey was with Randy, a young man that looked like he might have an excess of testosterone, but ended up being a nice guy with a slightly melancholic sensitivity (he had come to South Dakota to work and he was far away from his family, and he had lost his dad last year), and I was directed to climb behind John, who looked a classic Harley archetype, with long white hair and beard and black leather everywhere. But he was surprisingly nice, and in fact rather jovial, and didn’t mind me reaching around the gut packed into his leather to try not to fall off the bike; he probably would have made an equally good Santa as a Harley ad (though he most likely would not be very happy to hear me say that.)

The ride from Sturgis to Mount Rushmore followed a gorgeous winding road that goes through the Black Hills for about an hour; on the back of a motorcycle, with the air and wind and sound and bugs and scenery in your face, it was enough to make one misty.

Rushmore, however, looked like an evacuation in progress of a metropolis under threat of destruction by Godzilla. Thousands of cars were bumper to bumper, and people were milling around everywhere and sitting, standing, walking, camping on the road and all over the place. It took us forever to find parking, even though we were on motorcycles; one parking security nazi almost ran Angie over, and she yelled at him and flicked him off.

We waited patiently into the night for the fireworks, but the fog was descending deeper and deeper ~ we couldn’t even see the Presidential heads at all. After hours of waiting, rumors started flying that the fireworks would be cancelled. In the end, they did a test shot, but we could see nothing ~ just a slight tinge of pink behind the clouds. So we got back on the bikes and went to get some pie.

Over pie, Joey and I discovered more about what bikers talk about ~ bikes, previous rides, complaints about gun control, work, and more about bikes.

When the topic of gun control came up, Kyle went off on a big rant about how he had moved out of California because of the despicableness of the gun laws there (he thought they were too strict.) He said everyone he knows has a gun, and urged us (quite vigorously) to get one too; he offered to take us to get a concealed weapons permit.

We asked Angie if she had a gun too. She said yes, but it was because her brother got murdered by his partner and her lover; they shot him in the head while he was sleeping and tried to make it look like a robbery. She couldn’t sleep for a year. The reason she had come on this trip, all the way from Indiana with her dad, was to scatter her brother’s ashes in South Dakota.

***

“Joe”, an older trucker with a shining heart, told us about his turbulent life. He had lung cancer as well as prostate cancer, and less than a year ago his wife of many years left him for a guy that she met on the internet, taking all their money and furniture with her. Her disappearance had also caused him to lose custody of a child that he had raised since an infant ~ the only son he knew ~ a five year old whose smiling picture was tucked into his rearview mirror, who had been abandoned at his house by a woman he barely knew. At the end of each tragic story, he would say, “Well, it’s jus’ one of them things!” and drive on.

He seemed really happy to have us; he called us his “angels” and made us talk to his nephew on his cell phone, and introduced us to his trucker friends. He was also the one that knocked on our tents at 2am to tell us a tornado was coming, and flew us in his truck to safety, driving all night to beat the storm, to deliver us to a magnificent magenta sunrise in the next state (Minnesota).

I tried to call Joe at the end of our trip to thank him and see how he was. But I think he might have died because a woman answered the phone, and said that was her number and she didn’t know who I was talking about. It made me very sad, and kick myself for waiting so long to call him.

***

We heard lots of other sad stories. Victor told us about how his fiancée had died in a motorcycle crash. He then broke his back falling down some stairs and has been recovering for the last 5 years. Another woman had lupus, and her daughter did too; tragically, her friend had gotten murdered when she was young (incidentally, at the end of a hitchhiking trip when they were teenagers). One of the truck drivers we met spoke about how his wife died of breast cancer. She was gone only six months after diagnosis. He himself was diagnosed with skin cancer shortly after.

***

How do people survive so much pain?

(Some people don’t I guess. Joe had tried to shoot himself in the head when his wife left him, but was interrupted by his niece. A few weeks into the trip, I received word that a friend in the West Coast had committed suicide. I was saddened but not entirely surprised ~ she carried so much pain and there had been two prior attempts. She had been a photographer among other things, and I knew she had a print in the archives at UT Austin; as a tribute to her I went there and stared at it.)

I don’t have a moral or religious aversion to suicide, so it seems sad to me when people kill themselves, but sometimes I also marvel at the fact that more people don’t actually do it ~ many people have to bear so many burdens and sorrows in life. But I guess I find it inspiring ~ I’ve always been amazed at how many “ordinary” people, whether or not they get recognition for it, see and live through a Herculean amount in the course of their lifetime. They seem to have a resilience in spirit that is superhuman.

On our journey we saw people that were visibly bereaved, but many who were struggling to reach out, to others and to happiness. We found a poet waiting tables in a small train town in Montana, at a rest stop restaurant in which we were glumly having a grilled cheese sandwich after our 30-hour ordeal in the trainyard. We must have looked pretty pitiful (I think Joey had bits of grass stuck in her hair and all over her black fleece jacket), because he kept hovering over us and offering us more water. “Ken” seemed so nice, but blue and lonely. We found out that his girlfriend had left him and was now with some other man. He didn’t have much, but he now had an “efficiency apartment” (a studio?), which was about 45 minutes walking to work. At the end of his shift, he paid for our breakfast and disappeared. Mortified, we left him a card thanking him, with our contact information. He texted us a little poem afterwards. It went something like this: “i got 2 hearts. one wants to be happy but the other one is beatin on that one. i got 2 brains. Ones lost. The other one is looking for that one.” He texted us a number of other thoughts afterwards, all with similar grammatical errors, but many quite beautiful. We were happy for him because over time, they got increasingly joyful.

–Fofi Littlepants

_________________________________________

Read the complete:

CONFESSIONS OF FOFI LITTLEPANTS

I  Trainhopping

II  Hitchhiking

III  Other Particulars

IV  The Journey

V  Society I ~ Native America

VI  Society II ~ Identity

VII  People

VIII  Penises

IX  Of Dreams And Spirits

X  Conclusion

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