Sunday, October 23, 2016

10/23/16: Barstow, CA - Jad, Drifters, and a Dirty Dog Escape

The clouds kept things warmer overnight. I was finally snug and toasty and climatologically undisturbed inside the bivy until around 7:30. I got moving immediately. Just as I finished packing up stray raindrops fell. They didn't stick around, but it was a prelude of later.

I finally had a goal: southwest on I-15.  Barstow. Of course, when hitchhiking there is no way to plan anything. So, I'd just take it a step at a time and let my arrival determine the next move. From Barstow, I was inclined to hitch at least to Flagstaff. But, it's rarely easy to switch interstates and always a crapshoot. I knew nothing useful about the I-40 situation other than there was (apparently) only one direction to go: east. Route 66's killer dies itself it Barstow.

Inexplicably, I went inside to charge and write. Somehow, I'd actually forgotten the 12:30 Barstow Greyhound that would be the best option for both Jeff and I once I arrived in Phoenix. He works early mornings, and an evening arrival would be easiest on him. And me. I wouldn't have to lounge at the luxurious Dirty Dog terminal.

After putzing around for 45-minutes or an hour, I suddenly realized my idiocy. I topped off the water, decided to forego Subway, and hustled over to the exit ramp for the first time hoping some good luck got me to Barstow by noon.

Few things about actual hitchhiking are consistent. One is: expectations and "hoping" that the hitchhiking gods mercifully conspire to assist my pre-conceived plans never works. Whenever I feel like I "need" a ride by a certain time, I never get it. The Hitching Gods have their own ideas. They've repeatedly made it clear that my "plans" (ha!) mean squat.

And thus it went.

A mix of clouds and sun made my stay on the exit ramp relatively comfortable as temps lingered in the mid to upper 70's. I thought I was an hour and a half from Barstow, so as 10:45 passed, I knew the 12:30 was officially out of the question, so I relaxed and went into "flow" mode. Even if I missed the 6:40, so what? Wash, rinse, repeat tomorrow.

Glimpsing The Cave

One flash of road magic struck as I watched a car sail by with a young girl in the back seat. As they passed with her window rolled up, she had just her eyes and nose visible with her hands perched on the window sill. The girl was looking, almost peering, at me with a bewildered, even frightened expression. She was obviously trying to decide what to make of me!

I found that fleeting mental snapshot to be a perfect metaphor for America 2016. People locked inside their bubbles (homes/caves) looking at the word thru glass (television/internet) with eyes terrified by the accompanying agenda-driven electronic narrative. I imagined the in-car exchange as going something like this:

"Mommy, why is that man on the funny hat sitting by the road?"

"That's what bad men do, honey. They wait for nice people, like us, to pick them up so they can rob and kill them. That's why you should always stay close to Mommy and Daddy." 

People of influence filling vast gaps in their own understanding with imaginary horror stories. Then, inseminating those who trust them, unquestioningly, with their own abstractly manufactured fear.

That's our media and political "authority's" relationship with their trusting children/consumers.

It also is a wonderful parallel to Plato's Cave. Having the perceived "shadows on the wall" defined for us because we can't, or won't, break the chains and have a look for ourselves. And infecting our children with our ignorance.

And we wonder why, collectively, we live in a state of perpetual pants-pissing fear of, and hated for, each other. Or are packing some righteous heat so we can brag how we're not!

Sure, maybe it didn't happen like that. Digest my little insights at as you see fit.

Thought the morning, I'd thought I'd gotten rides a couple of times. Once, a group of six or eight motorcycles pulled over and the lead biker waved me over. "How the hell is this gonna work?" I muttered, half to myself and half to him. "Hungry?", he asked. Then handed me a small snack-size bag of Doritos.

People. Get 'em alone, and without their chosen club's goofy little hat, and they usually don't suck! I smiled, looked him in the eye hoping to convey gratitude. For his basic humanity. Not the bag of chips. I shook his hand before they roared off into my blog.

A small compact car also pulled over that Sunday morning. Right next to me. But, rather than a ride, an older Hispanic woman in the passenger seat handed me an odd strip of paper. I looked at her, obviously confused and in a thick Spanish accent she said, "Voucher! Voucher!" It was a $4 gambling certificate to Wild Bill's, a casino across the highway.

I giggled. Worst gambler. Ever. I never win. Anything. But, I figured that if I didn't get a ride before the time nature and water called, I'd walk over and give it a whirl. I had visions of winning $100,000, replacing my camera, and having grand adventures in India and Nepal! Viva the land of opportunity!

Jad and The Barstow Express

Alas, we'll never know. From the (relative) comfort of my pack, by noon I was periodically joking around with a couple of locals working as sign wavers next to the exit (and getting close to trying my gambling luck) when an actual ride stopped and waved me over.

I trotted to the car, to be sure I was finally leaving Nevada, and was greeted by a guy who reminded me of a slightly older version of Andy's young buck, and doomed, friend in Shawshank Redemption! He looked about my age (meaning at least 29) and with a bit of a southern accent said something to the effect that he'd "had almost the exact same rig", meaning my backpack and gear, and that "he'd been there".

Deal done. It was only 12:45 and I was finally on the road to Barstow. Provided things went as expected, I'd have some options down yonder.

Jad was the kind of guy I used to run into, if not a lot, certainly more than I expected. He was indeed my age and on his way to Ojai, near Santa Barbara. He was a musician, former driver, and now Jack of All Trades from Memphis who'd played in bands for years and had just left Las Vegas where he'd seen a concert or two.

Jad was also significantly of the same mind. Never married. No kids. Chasing careerism and Mammon's Glory and/ or playing Existential Monopoly was certainly not for him. His thoughts on such things nearly mirrored mine, and I figured that unspoken-yet-sensed familiarity ("I've been there.") was what led him to stop. I liked him immediately.

It soon began to rain steadily, and I-15's Sunday southbound traffic out of Las Vegas slowed considerably. The morning's notion of getting to Barstow in 90-minutes was silly. It took over 2-hours leaving plenty of time for conversation on everything from metaphysics, conspiracies, politics, and society/humanity in general. Definitely not mundane chit chat!

I quietly considered an on-the-fly improvisation and exploring the possibility of riding all the way to Ojai. I knew the area, having hitched the 101 from Santa Barbara to Highway 1 in 2008. That was one of my best trips, but it felt like I'd be running to the familiar again. Plus, I remembered how returning to places in hopes of reliving past experiences had usually just ruined fond memories. 2010's Ray Debacle in Cambria, CA sprung to mind. It just wasn't the same. It never is. How could it be? But, it would also later occur to me that from the first moments of this trip, when the truck driver was hinting at me to suggest a ride just 15-minutes after Natali dropped me off, this trip seemed to be gently nudging me north. Or, at least hinting that I should remain in the US.

Yep. Jad was one of the really good ones. By the time he pulled into Ba

rstow Station and we had exchanged numbers and social media info, we'd built the foundation of a potential little friendship.

Frolicking in Barstow

The first thing I noticed in Barstow: a creeping freight train directly behind Barstow Station and maybe 20-feet beyond a chain link fence.

"Dude! I could fuckin' hop that!" I exclaimed, probably too excitedly, to Jad and unintentionally the surprised Asian tourists standing nearby!

Problem: it was raining on and off. Meaning it was wet and heightening the threat of slipping as I tried climbing aboard and losing a Clif Bar. Or a leg.

I put the Hobo Visions on hold, scouted Barstow Station's many culinary options (settling on Subway), drew up an "I-40" sign, then planted myself next to the entrance to gorge on half of my fresh Cold Cut Combo. I then found the Greyhound counter, which was conveniently in the same little traveler's mall, and learned that the 6:40 bus was sold out. Shit. Well, at least my "Hitch or Bus" dilemma was solved. Hitch today. Fail? Bus tomorrow. Easy. The ticket guy suggested I check back in an hour or so to see if anything had miraculously opened up.

The I-40 entrance was right up the street, which, as it turned out was Old Route 66. Since the beginnings of my travels, I've always wanted to do some of The Mother Road. As I walked toward the interstate I had a (slightly delusional) sense of accomplishment. I was doing it. Well, technically. I was walking Route 66 to get to the I-40 ramp.

And I almost fucked it up. "How do you do that?" you ask?


I sat down at the ramp and a car immediately pulled over. I thought I'd gotten one of my quickest rides ever! It was a Native American man in his 50's who'd pulled over, not to offer a ride, but money. Money it didn't appear he could afford to give. Not knowing what to say, or how to graciously decline, I pocketed the $5 in singles and change and sat down shaking my head. I saw the I-40 sign on the other side of the ramp and figured I'd get a semi-humorous Facebook selfie with it.

That's right Magellan. Get that selfie!

Only after uploading it did I realize it said I-40 WEST! The wrong damn direction!

I'd falsely assumed the only direction 40 went from Barstow was east, so didn't pay close attention. In reality, there were a couple of exits further west before it actually ended. That was close to a Binghamton-grade clusterfuck. I'm really glad he didn't offer a lift!

I corrected Magellan's Folly, finding the eastbound ramp on the other side of the overpass, exchanging pleasantries with two other grungy, loaded down travelers walking back toward Barstow Station and the BNSF tracks with a small dog.

The I-40 EAST ramp sucked and had unexplainably ominous vibe about it. Plus, its dual entries from the crossroad meant going half way up the ramp to efficiently catch traffic from both directions. I wasn't in the mood. After 15-minutes spent reveling in the fact I could finally raise my thumb (that law's still retarded, Nevada!), I was over it.

My target this afternoon was now Needles or Kingman. Considering it was already 4pm, even a little luck would probably mean scouting out camping in the dark. And rain was coming. I shut it down choosing instead to search out potential camping spots on my way back to Barstow Station and my futile, yet dutiful, check-in with Greyhound.

The drifters I'd seen a few minutes before looked rough, but seemed outgoing, friendly, and harmless. That's certainly not always the case, so I was curious. I checked behind a tree hoping to find them. Instead I discovered a stump decorated by hitcher/hobo graffiti. "Americana!" I'm American, so I joined in this patritotic Sharpie tradition. For America.

I also scoped out the freight train situation. Getting to the tracks was a breeze from this chunk of Route 66, but the creeping, hoppable eastbound train I'd observed earlier appeared to be a Barstow anomaly. The trains were regular, but most came sailing thru much too fast for anyone to hop, even on a dry day. There were some sketchy camping options, but I wasn't comfortable with any of them. Especially if it rained. Barstow was proving to be a bit more unaccommodating than it first seemed.

Patches & Tumbleweed

I found my vagabonding friends, nestled behind some tall bushes next to 66. I slowly crept thru a small gap, making sure to announce my presence and not startle them like the dude stumbling into my nest back in Jean! I didn't need to eat a Night Train bottle after all!

They were drunkenly welcoming and slurred an invite for me to sit "my ass" down and join them as they snuck gulps from their cans of cheap beer, trying to avoid public intoxication hassles from the police car looming 40-yards away, just sitting there with its headlights on, obviously watching them. They offered me a swig. I politely declined and without thinking about it, introduced myself as "Zilla" after "Patches" and "Tumbleweed" initiated social pleasantries.

On the surface, these two were even rougher than I'd thought. I never asked their backgrounds, but they'd both clearly been drifting a long time. Maybe years. Both were "rugged" smelling, filthy, bearded, and wearing old ball caps and clothes stretched years beyond what most would consider a reasonable lifespan.

What stuck out to me: their large backpacks. That's uncommon. Most drifters of this caliber I'd encountered carried small book bags, if that. There was more to these guys than just "homeless"; they triggered thoughts of Tom Joad and Woody Guthrie.

Another thing: their obvious connection and affection for each other. They'd obviously been traveling together for a long time and had forged a bond. Understand: that's rare. Most drifters eschew "real" friendship. Almost all of their relationships are temporary, and beyond the "single serving friends" lifestyle, they don't fucking trust each other! Or me, for that matter. These guys did. In their own urine-scented way, it was heartwarming.

Another thing that stuck out: the poorly executed anarchy tattoo on Patches' cheekbone! I actually felt self-conscious! Compared to these two road dogs? I was a sad excuse for a wannabe. And I knew it!

**Note the difference between "road rat" (bad) and "road dog" (good).** #TheMoreYouKnow

Appearance and distinct fragrances aside, I liked these guys. And the feeling was apparently (key word) mutual. They invited me to find camping and to drink with them, making offhanded comments about where Barstow's seemingly abundant homeless population slept...and wanting to avoid these spots.

Who knows? Maybe on other trips I would have taken them up on their invitation. Not tonight. Despite their good natured displays of congeniality, my Spidey Senses were tingling; there was a slight to moderate chance I'd wake up with my shit missing.

See how this traveler "trust" thing works? I could also take the opportunity to go into the whole "your stuff owns you" thing. I won't. Feel free to meditate on that yourself!

Instead, I offered them my last two Pall Malls, refused their reciprocal offer of rolled smokes, and pushed off. This would have been the perfect time to ask for a picture. Still slightly rusty, it didn't even occur to me. I've been smacking myself ever since.

The real rain moved in just I arrived back at Barstow Station. "Hiding tonight is going to be a pain in my ass", I thought as I went thru the technicality of checking in with Greyhound about possible cancellations for that 6:40 bus.

To my shock, there was now an opening! Problem: it was a last minute purchase on a Sunday meaning the ticket was expensive; more than I wanted to pay. If I could find a way to wait until noon Monday, I could save $25. But, Barstow Station wasn't a 24-hour tourist mall. And it had begun pouring.

The ticket guy offered a solution: their military discount. Even though I wasn't military? Whatever. I sort of look it. I suppose. It  made the ticket just $4 more than if I waited in the rain until Monday. So, I pounced. I'd be in Phoenix by 2am. Or so I thought.

That was a wise decision. The rain immediately became a heavy, extended thunderstorm. A legitimate Barstow weather "event", and it wouldn't end anytime soon. A heavy rain system was training to the northeast--right over Barstow. And would be almost all night.

I-15 was already a joke. The rain made it a virtual parking lot...which made my bus, originating in Las Vegas, almost 2-hours late.

The layover was spent hearing the life story of a 20-year old pregnant black girl, fidgety toddler and laundry basket of clothes in tow, who'd just been jumped by the unborn child's father's family. What I learned? She was slightly racist against her own people (her words), thought Black Lives Matter was an ironic joke ("How can you say that when you treat your own kind like this?"), and that it was likely that the toddler's father would return to Barstow with a "crew" to avenge her beating.

I tried to politely listen, until the conversation, inevitably and predictably, turned to hints for money and use of my phone. Nope. It was about then that I checked out and just let her talk. To no one in particular. Non stop. For well over an hour.

I did get a refreshing break from three cross-country bicycle tourists who peddled in to escape the rain and plot the night's accommodations. Thank God.

Once finally on the bus, I exhaled. I was going to miss my connection in San Bernardino, so despite my best efforts, LA won. I'd be paying a forced visit. I naturally assumed Greyhound would fuck it all up; that sitting in south LA for hours waiting for the "next bus" to Phoenix was in my future. I was also certain "next bus" would translate to, "next bus with a seat available..."

Thankfully, I was wrong. Greyhound got it efficiently right; my chariot awaited and departed as soon as I boarded. I was on the way out of LA almost as I arrived. I never even sat down.

That, friends, is how to properly "tour" LA. How the hell am I not writing for Lonely Planet?

Thanks, Obama.