Compared to Nevada, I-17 has an abundance of suitable hitchhiker drop zones once Phoenix’s sprawl is left behind. Jeff generously decided on Camp Verde, 90-miles away; only an hour south of Flagstaff and my new target: I-40 east. Meet the new goal. Same as the old goal.
This launching pad was well-provisioned with gas stations, Subway, and a McDonald’s all within spitting distance of the ramp. Jeff hung around for 45-minutes before we said our farewells then I quickly surveyed the landscape for suitable nests in case I didn’t get a ride.
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Camp Verde kicked ass for stealth camping and amenities. It sucked ass for hitchhiking. While there was an abundance of traffic, it offered no place to pull over if someone wanted to stop. I gave it the old hour-long college try, mostly to soak up the 83-degree Arizona sun. I was mindful that before long I’d be longing for this! I didn’t know how right I was.
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No, my time spent fruitlessly hoping for a ride didn’t suck. I was joined on my little concrete island by James and his dog, Harley. James was a gregarious guy in his 50’s or early 60’s and looked rather odd in that he was wearing sweatpants and flip-flops on his approach to the I-17 ramp! He lived in Flagstaff, was somehow involved in the racing scene, and his car (ironically, I thought) had broken down nearby. Now he was stuck in Camp Verde and mysteriously struggling to contact anyone in Flagstaff to pick him up. So, he sporadically tried hitchhiking between unanswered phone calls and voice mails. James and Harley spent 20-minutes or so at the ramp then vanished never to be seen again. At least by me.
By 2:30, I was low on water and needed to pee; two closely related events. In urban settings, this generally requires refined and cultured civility if one hopes to avoid irksome lawdog complications. And indecent exposure hassles.
FUN FACT TANGENT: There are places around the US where pissing in public can merit sexual misconduct charges. At least that’s what I’ve been told. I have no first or second hand experience (that felt dirty) to pass along regarding such things. What I can tell you, however, is that Latin America takes a much different attitude toward treating city streets and the side of the road as your personal toilet. On some days, I felt like I should thank Random Pisser Guy for the basic courtesy of just turning around! Other days I felt much less fortunate.
Rather than a trip to the weeds (non-existent in this part of Arizona), it was a trip to the gas station. Once I was both drained and replenished, I walked back toward the road in search of a better location.
There’s a practical flip side to this, and maybe I’ll get into that when the narrative warrants. I can be surprisingly friendly and outgoing (depending on my mood). When I’m hitching or wandering around Latin America, I usually say hi to people, or at least look them in the eye then smile and at least nod. Some Mayberry shit? Maybe. But, it helps to both acknowledge their presence and break the ice if they want to chat and counters the pesky gringo/vagabond stereotypes I’m often fighting. It works very well.
Case in point: Brody. He was a friendly looking tattooed kid gassing up his older model BMW as I walked past. I nodded and said “Hey there” when I saw him scoping me out and he responded with, “Where ya headed?”
“Flagstaff. Then, I’m not 100% sure.”“Cool. Hop in.”
Just like that, what felt like a potentially lengthy Camp Verde encampment ended before it really began.
**I should hit pause to point out that I omitted Standing Rock in my reply to Brody for a reason. Inviting political and/or ideological assumptions is counter-productive and just bad overall policy. Let them lead. Dance accordingly. I could spit out 2,000 words on why this works and where it leads. I’ll mercifully abstain for now, but in coming posts (the election was three days away, remember!), you’ll see why for yourself. Until you know your company, projecting political ambiguity is just good fucking business. Especially these days!
The first things I noticed about Brody were his energy and how he looked at me. No. Not in a rest stop creeper sort of way. He seemed to “get it” without ever saying so. And, he was incredibly accommodating. His car was rather packed, indicating he was traveling somewhere, but happily made room on the back seat for my pack, offered water, and began asking pertinent questions. He had done some aimless hitching himself for similar reasons. He got it, indeed. Today he was driving from Phoenix to Page, Arizona to see friends saying he needed to get out of the city after breaking up with his girlfriend.
Flagstaff is less than an hour from Camp Verde, so our time was short and packed with almost rushed conversation as we tried to discuss as much as we could. He invited me to tag along to Page, near the Utah border by Glen Canyon Dam, where I could continue my trip interstate-free. My friend Gary “Walkingman” House lives in Page. I’d visited him in 2005, so I knew the area well enough to understand that it most certainly wouldn’t suck! But, it was my first day back out. If I’m being honest, I didn’t yet trust my body to cooperate if I had to walk 40-miles loaded down with water. Silly. This trip would have looked much different had I chosen to accept The Brody Upgrade. I’ve wondered how different ever since.
Brody was the perfect “back on the road” welcome wagon. He dropped me off at a Mobil station off I-40 around 3:30 and offered everything from knit hats to hiking shoes from of his collection in the trunk! I didn’t need anything, so I declined, gave him a card, shook hands, and we said goodbye.
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As soon as I opened the car door, the cold bit. If you’ve never been, Flagstaff is not “really” Arizona. Flagstaff is proof the gods are either drunk or have a strange sense of humor. One of them clearly plucked a chunk of Colorado and plopped it down in the Arizona desert. Before whatever pioneer dubbed this geographic aborration “Flagstaff”, the ancients called it "Whythefuckisthishere?" Pretty sure that’s Navajo. #TheMoreYouKnow
Camp Verde was in the low-mid 80’s. An hour up the mountain? Low 40’s and falling. I praised the self-brilliance of having my cold weather gear shipped from Chicago and replacing the dying sleeping bag in Phoenix while simultaneously hoping to catch a quick ride to Winslow to avoid spending a simulated winter’s night in Flagstaff. But, we all remember how the hitchhiking gods giggle when you feel the “need” to get somewhere, right?
I set up shop at a table and swapped my desert duds for toasty late-fall layers then checked out I-40’s eastbound ramp. Perfect. Unfortunately, the sun was rapidly disappearing and hitching at night is certifiably stupid. So, I loitered in the Mobil’s parking lot which was adjacent to semi-parking. There were several other road critters sitting and milling about, which, as we’ve seen in Nevada, can be “interesting”. It looked like several had set up on the edge of the truck lot hoping to flag down a semi. That didn’t bode well. Did this mean the traffic sucked at the ramp? Or, were they cleverly outfitted lot lizards turning tricks? No judgment. Inquiring minds want to know.
An hour later, the sun was down and I encountered a fascinating looking dude even more loaded down than I. He hauled a massive 100-liter backpack with fresh hiking poles and other new, shiny gear lashed aboard. He looked equipped to tackle the backcountry yet also slightly disoriented and with an air of frustrated desperation. I had to investigate so I struck up a conversation without getting his name. But, he had a red mohawk. Name: acquired.
Mohawk was very young, late teens or early twenties, about my height and very stocky. Even slightly plump, which reminded me of baby fat and combined with his massive gear-load to imply that this young man had recently left home and had no idea what the hell he was doing. All of the above. I thought of Jordan, but rather than being curious this specimen was outright skittish. Almost timid! I managed to learn that he had taken the Greyhound from Maine to Flagstaff. He intended to hitch west toward California but had been stuck for three days. Three days! Here? HOW? Because he was targeting trucks. And, only trucks. Again remembering Jordan, I tried sharing some hard-earned wisdom about how unproductive limiting one’s self to truckers proves to be. They know what you’re doing. Make yourself visible. If they want your goofy ass in their truck, they’ll probably stop. Target cars in the meantime! I doubt he heard a word.
Suddenly, a truck stopped at the side road directly in front of the Mobil. The passenger door swung open and a small backpack flew out to the ground. Inside, a hitchhiker was shaking hands and saying goodbyes. Mohawk was a man suddenly possessed with superhuman strength and agility. Despite the potentially pernicious load of mostly useless shit strapped to his back, Mohawk “ran” off mid-sentence, half-sprinting half-staggering across the parking lot, to solicit a ride. What a sight to behold! I doubt he spent enough time to find out which direction the truck was going, let alone how far, before he climbed in. It was manifest desperation and went so fast that the scene reminded me of Jenny in Forrest Gump.
“Where ya goin’?” “I don’t care.” “Get in the truck.” Alas, after three anxiety-ridden days, Mohawk was leaving the hospitality of Flagstaff’s Mobil behind him. I take full credit as his good luck charm. Toddzilla: Arapaho for “he who mystically facilitates escape”.
I momentarily traded Mohawk for the guy exiting the semi. I never got his name either, but we’ll dub him Salty because he was an infinitely saltier road warrior than his predecessor. Salty was a short skinny guy in his mid-late 20’s and much more at ease than Mohawk. He was almost serene. He also fully understood the silliness of soliciting rides at night and, at only 6pm, was eager to bed down for the night and continue on at sunrise.
I also had to find the night’s Five Star accommodations. I’d eyed a thick wooded area behind the hotel across the street but didn’t relish the idea of sneaking around behind the property or thru its parking lot. I also considered an unlit fenced-in area behind the gas station, but that felt like sleeping in an exposed cage at Vagabond Zoo.
Ultimately, I decided on a lone pine tree nicely situated between the ramp and Mobil’s property fence. Its branches were thick enough to provide slight insulation against what was sure to be a frigid Flagstaff night. Plus they hung low enough to provide plenty of concealment. The most important thing! The vegetation and fallen branches surrounding the tree also allied with the fence to make sneaking up on my bivy without being heard nearly impossible. Finally, there were no telltale signs (collected trash) indicating anyone frequented the spot!
By 7:00, I was set up and climbing into the bivy as the temps plummeted thru the 30’s. This was it: my new sleeping bag’s deflowering. Rather than post-prom at a Hampton Inn, this would be something closer to rocking the backseat of a Pinto at a kegger. (Sorry. Is my redneck showing?) It was rated to 17-degrees, so I cautiously expected it to be fine. But, this was by far the coldest night I’d stealth camped.
My new Big Agnes Bellyache Mountain combined with my Outdoor Research Alpine Bivy to perform incredibly. Temps fell into the low 20's overnight, yet I was perfectly comfortable despite moderate inside condensation and thick frost collecting over the entire outside of the bivy. I fell in love with my new bag and wondered why I’d never considered the lighter weight down-insulated bags before...then I remembered the cost! But, considering the deal I’d gotten at REI (almost half-price on clearance), I was thrilled.
I slept relatively well, with one weird, creepy exception. Around 4am, I woke to the distinct sensation of a small animal, like a cat, slowly climbing over me and the bivy! But there was no sound! Then, I had the feeling that someone was standing outside looming over the bivy. I tried yelling fiercely, but only mustered a feeble groan. It was as though my vocal cords were paralyzed! When I came to my senses, I quickly unzipped to nothing out of the ordinary. Obviously, I was dreaming. But, despite my best efforts at more sleep, I was up for the day!