After my creepy 4am awakening, the frost coating the bivy convinced me to stay snugly in my sleeping bag for an hour struggling to get more sleep. It was still dark, I had no idea how to deal with the frost layer before re-packing the bivy, and the condensation inside the bivy sack had collected onto the sleeping bag. All new complications needing to be dealt with. And the sun wasn’t even beginning to rise.
I purchased this particular bag in Phoenix because Big Agnes marketed the Bellyache Mountain as having a water resistant outer shell as well as containing “water repellant down”. I’d hesitated switching to a much lighter weight down-bag before because they’re traditionally known to be useless once they get wet.; the down would clump in older bags and they’d lose their ability to retain heat. But, over the last few years, technology has developed to combat that significant problem. If Big Agnes’s “Downtek” worked, the weight/packability would make one worth the investment. Despite the considerable condensation, one thing was certain this Sunday morning: the moisture hadn’t penetrated its outer shell and gotten at me. And it still felt like a furnace! So far, so good. I just didn’t want to extract myself! But, I wanted to spend another night in Flagstaff far less.
With images of Mohawk’s three day extended stay, I layered up and began the deicing/wiping/packing process. In the dark. What a pain in the ass. I’d been off the road for nearly two weeks. My method was predictably screwed. Happens every time. In a couple days, I’d have it figured out again and almost be able to set up and tear down in pitch darkness. I’d know where everything is/goes in the pack. I’d know where to place things so I’m not fumbling around looking or, more importantly, leaving stuff behind. In a couple days? Yes. Not this morning.
I needed to wipe frost from the bivy and as much condensation from the sleeping bag as possible before stowing them. But, I had no idea where my pack towel was! This seemingly small snafu led to unpacking half of the backpack looking for the fucker…only to find it “cleverly” stashed in the outside mesh pocket. Flagstaff’s nearby wildlife, and probably a few truckers, then heard colorful metaphors such as “you cocksucker!” randomly flowing from beneath this pretty mountain pine.
Then, I repeatedly misplaced the stakes. Gloves. Cigarettes. Lighter (at least three times). It was a sad, pathetic display of supposed veteran nomadism. And, yes. It happens every time. I tried keeping it in perspective; remembering similar episodes all the way back to Fort Morgan and Santa Barbara in 2008. But, I was cold and cranky; borderline menstrual.
"Fuck you, perspective!"
Then, more “cocksuckers” were spewed forth. Along with a “dirty cocksucking motherfucker.” Maybe two.
Hey, I’m not a morning person. And maybe you’ve heard about my general attitude toward cold? You shouldn’t judge. And why not be constructive in your criticism? If you know the Navajo or Pottawattomie term for either of these two incredibly useful utility words, please pass them along. I’ll scream and/or mutter those under my breath next time. And…there will be a next time.
Education: a lifelong endeavor. #TheMoreYouKnow
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After an hour of frigid Flagstaffian fun and frolic, I was finally climbing out from beneath my tree inspired to attack the Sabbath with one simple goal: off this mountain and to Winslow and its warmer weather. Since my water bottle had completely frozen, I had no need to go inside the Mobil (“Flagstaff has weeds! Yay!”) so I walked straight to the exit ramp. Another hitchhiker had graciously (lazily?) left their “Winslow” sign behind. Being the conscientious environmentalist that I am (when it’s convenient), I put it to use, strapped on my headphones, then did roadside aerobics to warm up. I was quite the sight to Sunday morning’s traffic! Thankfully, it warmed nicely as the sun slowly rose and by 9:00, the layers were steadily coming off.
I was also witness to some entertaining Panhandling Theater that was performed on the opposite ramp as a ragged looking guy flew a sign to collect silent charity from those exiting the highway. He had a good morning; hands consistently poked from windows handing over their money. I have no way of knowing how much, but it reminded me of Ernie on I-5 in Kettleman, California in 2010. I chatted with Ernie while he sat at a gas station holding a “Korean War Vet” sign and collected around $100 in just a few hours. He wasn’t exactly a poor homeless victim-of-fate. He lived by choice in a hotel across the street and sign-flying fed him and paid the “rent”. Ask me about the “homeless vet” and “god bless” signs sometime. I’m sure my Flagstaff exhibit exploited Sunday morning’s worshippers quite well.
Around 10, another relatively dapper middle age drifter appeared at my ramp. While competing hitchhikers aren’t a regular occurrence, it does happen. And there’s etiquette: don’t complicate matters for the guy who was there first. Go far up the ramp so there’s no two-rider confusion or basic competition. Or, just go away until he’s gone. This guy did neither. He stayed (considerately well off to the side, in the ditch) and chatted for 20-minutes. A friendly guy traveling to Colorado but in no rush to get anywhere. Before making his introductions, he’d been negotiating with the guy across the street to arrange a panhandling shift-change in the event I didn’t leave. He’d walked over because he was bored and wanted to say hi.
Shortly after my new pal began his rotation, at around 11:20, I was fiddling with my music, looked up, and was stunned to see what looked like a colossal luxury RV stopping with the driver waving me in. He’d seen the Winslow sign and without warning I was off. I yelled a fare-thee-well to my drifter friend then climbed aboard what was easily the swankiest, most expensive vehicle I’d ever hitched.
Larz was a rough looking character. He was around 50, stocky, muscular with a shaved head, a huge graying goatee reminding me of a skunk’s tail, and spoke with a thick New York accent. Once inside, he asked “why the fuck” I was going to Winslow. I answered truthfully: Winslow was out of Flagstaff…and warmer! Then I improvised, saying that ultimately (and technically truthfully!) I was going to Chicago. Again, just as with Brody I worked to avoid potential ideological conflicts and complications by intentionally omitting Standing Rock. Also, still thinking this was an RV, I wanted to open the door for an upgrade beyond Winslow if his destination was somewhere significantly far away. Was it ever.
This was no RV. It was a high-end tour bus. Larz said he was “delivering” it to O’Hare Airport. Chicago! (See? That’s why you creatively aim low. Leave room for improvisation and a ticket upgrade!) He was understandably leery of offering a freshly-met hitchhiker a ride all the way from Flagstaff to Chicago instead saying (quite directly) that we’d see how it went and he’d let me know how far I'd tag along. Deal. We’d already established I could ride beyond Winslow and nowhere else on I-40 would be as cold as Flagstaff! Considering the day’s goal was Winslow, it had already been a good one. And it wasn’t even noon.
In case you’re thinking my little destination deceptions are deceitful or unethical, it’s a two way street with savvy drivers. And, Larz was savvy. After chatting about my old hitchhiking days and the travels thru Central & South America, he became more at ease. By the time we’d crossed into New Mexico, he’d confessed that he wasn’t just a vehicular delivery driver. And, this was no generic tour bus. His job in Phoenix ia as a professional bus driver. This gig? Picking up Foreigner (yes, the band) at O’Hare then driving them from city-to-city on their tour. Then he’d be picking up Styx. He’d driven for several other major music acts, including Ringo Starr, as well as the Cubs during spring training in Phoenix. I never saw the back of the bus, but he told me it had twelve bunks with two lounge areas and that it’s value sat somewhere between $800K and $1,000,000.
No, this certainly wasn’t the veggie bus!
Larz was interesting himself. He was also a professional wildlife photographer so we geeked out comparing Canon and Nikon then swapped websites examining each other’s work as he drove. Larz had driven for Greyhound as well. I don’t believe I could build a more ideal Dirty Dog pilot. His New York accent came from Brooklyn and there was no simply bullshit about Larz. He looked like a badass. He spoke like a badass. I have no reason to believe he was anything other than a badass. After doing this for so long, I’m rightfully trusting and proud of my bullshit detector. It didn’t chirp once. He seemed perfect to deal with Greyhound’s riffraff.
The Greyhound stories combined with my travel tales to keep the conversation flowing thru Gallup and by Grants he’d announced he’d drop me off in Albuquerque. Shit! The one city I didn’t want to be stuck in. But, realistically North Dakota meant I had to turn north at some point. Either in Albuquerque, Clines Corners, or further east in Tucumcari or Amarillo. I know I-25 from Albuquerque to Denver as well as I know my own neighborhood. He’d made the decision easy: I’d execute my Bugs Bunny left turn in Albuquerque.
PERSONAL SAFETY TANGENT: After living in Santa Fe for 5-years, I also know something about Walter White’s old haunts. Allow me the brief indulgence of offering some wise, sagely advice: don’t fuck around in Albuquerque. If Larz dumped me in an unsuitable spot, my intention was to immediately taxi to the commuter rail station then catch the first train to Santa Fe. Thankfully, that wasn’t required.
Larz needed gas and stopped well before the city sprawl, at a Flying J atop the west mesa. After a slow conversational start, we had gotten on nicely. We chatted for several minutes while he fueled up and I got my pictures then he was off to rock and roll transportational glory.
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It was almost 4pm when Larz left. I needed food and was concerned about the damp sleeping bag stowed in my backpack. As in Primm, this Flying J had everything, including laundry facilities. I flung the wet sleeping bag in an overpriced dryer, ate, then sat myself at a table to write up a sign in hopes of finding a quick ride north on I-25 toward Santa Fe, Las Vegas, Raton, Trinidad, then eventually Colorado Springs and Denver.
I also knew I had options. Albuquerque’s downtown transportation center not only houses Greyhound and Amtrak but, as I mentioned earlier, also the Rail Runner commuter train spanning the 75-miles north to Santa Fe. This was still my best option to get north that night…if I wanted to taxi or Uber downtown. The problem was the time of day. It was going to be well after nightfall by the time Rail Runner arrived in my old Santa Fe stomping grounds. And Santa Fe’s feasible Rail Runner stops aren’t remotely close to I-25. Finding Santa Fe’s nest would certainly prove ridiculously complicated.
ANTISOCIAL BILLBOARDING TANGENT: You’d think after living there for 5-years, I’d have friends to call in Santa Fe! You’d think. Once my radio gig ended and I began traveling, aside from people I’d worked for to raise funds and my girlfriend’s friends, I’d isolated and disconnected myself from what I referred to as Pretension’s Cradle. That made the slow-cooked events of the next day both illuminating and odd. Even ironic. Stay tuned.
The Flying J is situated in the high desert making up the west mesa, where Albuquerque’s street gangs, and others, are known to bury their victims! On the positive side, at least the body-hiding desolation made stealth camping appear easy! I figured that after a night’s sleep I could seek a ride north in the morning or at least catch an early Rail Runner. Either way I’d have a good start on election-eve Monday. Considering I’d gone 300-miles on Sunday alone, I thought I could afford to relax and try to enjoy being back in New Mexico an extra night. With the exception of just one other trip, all of my hitchhiking was done while living in Santa Fe. This new, disconnected perspective on what was once such familiar surroundings was proving bizarre and more than a little nostalgic. Despite the hundreds of imaginary bodies buried nearby!
A combination of fatigue, laziness and complacency conspired to keep me lingering around the Flying J’s trucker’s lounge too long. I had sat down to write, charge my phone, and procrastinate finding a place to stash myself. Before long, I was being mildly hassled by an older transient-looking guy asking what I was doing, where I was going, then offering a ride to Santa Fe if I paid his gas. He and his buddy were also eyeballing my phone & backpack. With visions of Parrin…and the thousands of bodies buried in the mesa…I tersely (but politely) declined and suddenly found sufficient motivation to get stashed somewhere.
“Don’t fuck around in Albuquerque!”
I immediately left the lounge and walked the long way around the front of the truckstop to throw off any possible trail. I checked one possible camping spot only to find it occupied, then wound my way into the desert and all the way back around toward the back edge of the truck parking. Along the way, I’d spotted another perfect camping spot next to a tree that was encircled by desert botany. I walked toward it with visions of Primm dancing in my head only to find it occupied as well! This time by a tent! Goddammit! I quietly tiptoed from whence I came, trudged further into the desert, ducked beneath a barbed wire fence, and found an unoccupied space nestled between the barbed wire, desert botany, and the Flying J’s chainlink fence. I was protected from being stumbled or snuck up on, at least on three sides. And, since it was warm enough to sleep without the bivy, I’d have my ears and line of sight covering the fourth. Something told me I wouldn’t sleep heavily, anyhow. Not with visions of tens-of-thousands of bodies buried beneath me and after stumbling across other nearby “campers”! Thankfully, The Walking Dead never came to mind.
Typically, I’m surprisingly comfortable in my nests. Sometimes, as in Jean, too comfortable! Not tonight. This spot creeped me out. From the “ride offer” and the other people sleeping out there, to the seven year old echoes of KOB News stories about the millions of bodies buried “up on the mesa”, this was a place where my “Vern” imagination roamed wild and free. In reality, it was also a place where one legitimately needs to avoid careless comfortable complacency. My imagination ran wild, sure. But I had also risked fucking myself by waiting too long to find a proper spot.
In some sense, hitchhiking the US isn’t unlike exploring Quetzaltenango, Tegucigalpa, Cartagena, Bogota, Medellin, or Lima. If you’re an idiot who lazily makes yourself a target, people might fuck with you. No place is 100% safe except a locked prison cell. But, quite often it will be your own fault for not remaining mindfully aware of your surroundings and what you’re doing. I’ve only found myself in what I’d define as authentically “sketchy” situations while hitchhiking a few times, and I wouldn’t classify this as such despite the creep factor. But, in each “real” instance, I’d become oblivious, overconfident, complacent, and/or lazy and abandoned experience, method, and common sense. To be fair to myself, I hadn’t hitchhiked in 3 1/2-years. Albuquerque was a firm but gently useful reminder of what I already knew.
“You don’t fuck around in Albuquerque!”
A new metaphorical mantra.