Friday, November 11, 2016

11/11/16: Grand Island to Des Moines - Why Did You Stop?

Grand Island, NE

My main concern late Thursday night: be prompt. Don’t miss John’s 1:15 am resurrection and the ride thru Nebraska. There was little to worry about. Nebraska’s November made sure I didn’t fall into actual sleep beneath my tree. John filled up on diesel and coffee while I settled back into his passenger’s seat excited and wondering where this 48-hour day would lead.

To recap: Before bedding down, John offered a ride clear to St. Louis. Closer to Chicago, but also another urban center and St. Louis, to steal a line, "aint nothin’ to fuck with." Instead, I suggested Council Bluffs, where John would turn south toward Kansas City.

The hitchhiking gods were offering an unscripted adventure. Another opportunity to break the shackles of “plans” and “intent” and embrace taking what comes, as it comes. Improvising. That pesky idea recurs like herpes. It’s an untreated infection and I’ve had many “just let go” complexes over the years:

  • In 2008: “Synchronicity”. 
  • In 2009: “The Sidecar”. 
  • In 2010: “The Rule of Agreement”.
  • In 2013: “Plan Less. Live More.” 

On rare occasions, I’ve been able to connect and engage the concept and these are typically the times where life feels as though it’s in HD. But, it’s fleeting. Probably because it requires a commitment to presence; abandoning “plans” (ha!) and expectations with the stoic's attitude of only concerning yourself with where you are, now, and only with what you, personally, can control. From the beginning, I’ve straddled two lives. That makes maintaining a psychological state of road-presence more difficult. Maybe. Honestly, I don’t know.

As John rumbled back onto I-80 east, I sniffed the potential and remembered this still-unlearned lesson. I was also exhausted and jaded--borderline cynical--after the election that week. A return to Chicago quickly followed by an escape to Mexico sounded far better than “working on my hitchhiking self.”

Crossing the Missouri River into Iowa, I was sad to see John’s ride end. I liked and respected this Trump voter! We’d found an election week commonality unrelated to beliefs and ideology. Increasingly aware of an “organic vs. virtual existence” idea (foreshadowing!) that was quickly sprouting into what’s become a Sequoia, seeing these random organic interactions still bearing fruit was encouraging.

Beyond that, John reminded me of 2008’s Cesar and Ken. As with those classic Toddzilla’s Tales icons, we exchanged numbers and he offered to pick me up wherever our travel paths crossed in the future. The experiences from the early days had not vanished into a tribalized or anomie vortex. La Gente: they’re still out there.

Council Bluffs, IA

At 3:15, I descended from the cab into a frigid west Iowa. Temperatures were in the upper teens and a stiff wind over the Missouri made it feel worse. The T/A truckstop didn’t help much; one could say it sucked. I’ll say it: this T/A sucked. There was a Pilot nearby, but the interstate made walking the short distance a geographic pain in the ass.

Lots of things have changed since 2008, but one theme that’s thrived for a decade: I detest urban centers. They are a fact of vagabonding life, and some are better than others, but navigating even little Pocatello was frustrating! It’s easier to move and the people are typically friendlier and less paranoid in rural areas. (Stay tuned!) So, despite my growing fatigue I was motivated to get out of Council Bluffs, even if it meant sacrificing some credibility--sinning against the Holy Hitchhiking Scripture--and calling a $6 taxi to a Pilot station. Judge me if you like. Just know I made the right choice. On the ride over, I saw that walking would have been even a bigger obstacle course than I originally thought!

As in Limon, life was better at the Pilot. Sunrise was a couple hours away, nevertheless I planted myself at the trucker’s parking exit knowing full well this almost never works. The result was predictable and a sad reprise of the roadside performance art exhibition in Flagstaff: walking in circles doing aerobics to keep 20-degrees at bay. Ask your doctor if it’s right for you. Results may vary. Side effects include looking like a buffoon. Unlike in Flagstaff, this time I still froze in the wind and no truckers chose to pick up the dude dancing in 4am darkness next to the unlit road. Go figure! I found nothing more than amused stares.

My new location consisted of two truck stops across the road from each other, each a quick walk to the I-29/80 ramp. After buying something from Arby’s to temporary rent a booth in their warm dining area, I sat down intending to update my journal. Instead, I slept drooling on my coat and their table for 3-hours.

It’s ok. Laugh. Make fun. I felt absurd suddenly waking up in an empty Arby’s wiping spit from my chin, sleeve, and the table with a Horsey Sauce stained napkin. I chuckled too! I had no choice. Warmth, quiet, and lack of sleep shut my mind and body down. To their credit (and my gratitude), the Arby’s folks left me alone. Maybe it was the act of buying food. I prefer to think they were nice people letting me rest simply because the joint was empty, I wasn’t bothering anyone and, significantly, didn’t smell like pee. Then again, they were first shift Arby’s employees. Maybe they just didn’t give a damn? In the interest of battling cynicism, I'll choose to think they were nice folks.

It had warmed up by late morning. I’d rebuilt my reserves at the truckstop across the road and, ready to attack Iowa, I walked to the ramp, posted my “Chicago” sign, and took my familiar seated position expecting a long wait. Or worse. Being stuck in Council Bluffs.

Noticed the theme? I’ve never gone a full day of actually legitimately trying to hitch without at least one ride. But, psychologically, it never matters. I always expect to get stuck. It’s often the places where I feel like I’m in a great spot and “sure to get a ride” that I sit for hours on end! The hitchhiking gods do that for fun. They’re dicks.

The theme continued. I sat for less than an hour; in hitching terms, a few blinks of an eye.

Council Bluffs

When a young latino in a smallish car swerved while gawking at me, I watched, raised an eyebrow, then shook my head and dismissed him. A few seconds later, I caught someone jumping, waving, and yelling out of the corner of my eye. I couldn’t hear him over my headphones, but Swerving Guy had pulled on to the shoulder 45-50 yards down the long, wide ramp. He had either failed to master automotive brakesmanship or made an impulsive decision to pick up the hitchhiker after swerving past.

This would become one of my most memorable rides. However, not one for the, Why You’ll Love Hitchhiking memoir!


Luis struck me as strange from the moment I walked up to the car. The best adjective I’ve come up with is the first one written in my journal: “twitchy”. Something wasn’t right about him. At the risk of violating the Laws of Literary Redundancy, this is why I dislike urban centers! The people I’ve encountered are a different breed; the thumbing environments are dicier. Plus, cars stop less frequently so I’m often willing to take rides I maybe shouldn’t. Like this one. Once I escaped Council Bluffs, Des Moines was the only obstacle along 600-miles of near hitching-perfection. I wanted out. I surrendered to impatience. I got in the car. I hoped for the best.

I also immediately knew it was a mistake. My headphones were on when Luis stopped so I reached into my pocket to stow them and conserve battery. We’d barely gotten on the highway when Baron von Twitchenstein saw me reach beneath my jacket and panicked.

“What the hell are you doing? You don’t have a gun do you? I watch 48 Hours all the time! I know what’s up!”

That’s exactly what he said. I swear to God.

For a moment, I thought he was kidding. Then I saw the crazed eyes of someone dangerously freaked out. He reminded me of a cornered feral cat and, despite speeding down the interstate, felt threatened enough that his eyes frantically twitched between me and the road.

“Dude. I’m turning off the music and putting my headphones away so they don’t get lost”, I tried to say it in a calm, understanding way. “What the fuck is wrong with you” came across loud and clear.

“You sure you don’t have a gun?”

“I don’t have a gun. You wanna pat me down?”

I didn’t expect him to really do it. He did it. From the driver’s seat. Speeding, I should say swerving, down I-80.

There was a Sharpie in my breast pocket, too.

“What’s that? WHAT’S THAT?!?”, he asked thumping then squeezing my left breast in ways not seen even on PornHub. I wanted to feel violated, but my right breast was jealous. Not sure what to make of that.

Yes. I’m sure you do. Keep those insightful comments to yourself. You’re interrupting my story.

“You saw my sign, right? The one that said “Chicago”?”


“That’s the Sharpie I used to write it up.”

“You sure?”

“Promise and swear to God. Would you like to see it?”


[Jesus fucking Christ. You’re too frightened to remember what a Sharpie feels like? WHY IN THE NAME OF MONTAZUMA’S PARANOID REVENGE DID YOU FUCKING STOP?]

I showed him my Sharpie (hush, pervs) then he proceeded to pat me down/feel me up again. At least Righty got some love this time. When he’d finished, Luis was (mostly) satisfied I wasn’t Mickey Knox or the inspiration for The Door’s Riders on the Storm and calmed down.

“Hey, you can’t be too sure. I watch 48 Hours so I know you can’t trust anyone!”

[What the fuck is wrong with you? And what the fuck is it about this 48 Hours show you keep mentioning? How long have they been molesting you? There has clearly been psychological penetration. Where the hell is Chris Hanson when you need him?]

A this point, I almost had to ask: “Why in God’s name of Holy Fuckery did you pick me up?” Diplomacy won the moment. Diplomacy and and not wanting to risk triggering this short-circuiting anxiety-bomb any further.

**Author’s Note: Perhaps you think I’m using the wonderfully colorful utility word “fuck” so often for cheap effect. Nope. As it happened, my internal dialogue was a raging torrent of fucks. See, I’m sharing the more sanitized and flattering parts. The rest has been declared unsafe for public consumption. That material exists but has been classified as a Verbal Superfund Site.**

Nothing about this ride was ever “right”, but after The Groping, we settled in to semi-normal conversation. He was from Mexico City and had immigrated as a young kid. He also had a wife and two young children which, in fairness, maybe helps explain some of his suffocating paranoia. But, this in no way answered, “Did you like my tits? Were they firm enough?” or, “Why the fuck did you stop?”

Toddzilla say, “Some questions in life no have answer.” Go ahead and steal that steaming loaf of free-range organic wisdom. My gift to you. You’re welcome.

Luis had offered a ride all the way to Des Moines. But, despite calming down after the initial panic attack, it was clear that he was still uncomfortable. He was a decent guy. But, I didn’t trust him. No, he wasn’t predatory or malicious, but yes, this was still a potentially dangerous situation. Anything I said or any benign action like scratching my nether-regions could be interpreted by paranoia as a threat and pretext for defensive measures leading to countless unsavory scenarios. Like swerving off the highway. I’d found my Council Bluffs escape pod but, decent guy or not, there was no way I was sitting a foot or two away from a spastic bundle of twitching nerves for another 90-minutes.

After only a few minutes I warned Luis slowly, calmly, (erotically?) that I was reaching into my pocket for my phone (he watched me like a starving hawk). I then searched Google Maps for a suitable island on which I could abandon this mad captain’s ship. I found a Flying J (woo!) just 10-minutes east in Avoca and, in an exercise repeated the next day,  made up an excuse about feeling ill and (slowly, calmly, in my best ‘gooooood kitty’ voice) asked Luis to please drop me off there.

In the best tradition of comic relief, he was shocked! Concerned! He asked several times if I was sure I didn’t want a ride to Des Moines. Releasing him from an ill-advised uncomfortable situation was doing him as big a favor as it was me! I was stunned!

[Seriously, amigo. What the hell is wrong with you?]

By the time we reached Avoca, I had little interest in learning about what made him tick. My trusty spidey senses told me he was trouble. Whether he meant to be or not. Paranoia will destroy ya...

I wasn’t very forgiving that day. But, with time, I’ve concluded that he was likely just a case study in conflict: a guy who genuinely cared for people, thus the impulsive and spontaneous act of stopping. But, he was also tormented by his media consumption. The “news”. His electronic eyes terrorized him; made him fear the world and everyone in it. Or, at least me! I still don’t know why Luis stopped and never will. But, I’m rather certain I was his last hitchhiker! He was removed any future list of potential rides, future vagabond. No need to thank me. Your look of thankful relief is all I need. Yes, I took this one for the team. When you speak of me, speak well. Or, at least bathe once. In my honor. Try Flying J’s showers. They rock.

Had Luis’s ride happened in 2008, I would have been concerned. By 2016, I’d experienced enough to know with certainty that Luis was exceedingly rare. Along with everyone else who thought (thinks!) I’m nuts, before I started I expected to have many more sketchy encounters. But 95% of the people I’ve found have shown themselves to be decent, even downright nice, generous, and/or exceedingly helpful. Twitchiness aside, even Luis falls into this category. My breasts still long for his loving...grasp.

Abstract (presumptive, yes, ignorant) expectations failed to match the reality. That’s has been a primary theme stretching back to Day 1. By Day #3, in Fort Morgan just before meeting Dennis, I began asking, “Hey! Where are all the assholes? This can’t be right!” Counter to the dominant electronic narrative, it was right.

Sure. Assholes exist. But in my experience posing as a disposable fringe-dweller sitting along the side of the road, they’re a very rare exception. Deal with people respectfully--as individuals--and, in the privacy of their vehicles or as quick anonymous encounters in public, genuine human decency is the general rule as I’ve dealt with we Americans in person. It’s worth repeating: that theme continued with Luis, despite his skittishness! Predatory malicious behavior and dangerous paranoia isn’t common, at least in my “organic” interactions.

I’m redundantly using “in person” and “organic” on purpose and for a reason. My hitching began before social media’s talons fully dug themselves into our collective mind. I don’t know if the Social Media Age is changing us or if our virtual avatars just simply don’t represent us accurately. Earlier in the trip, Liberal Guy vs. Trump Guy had provided a poignant example, and here in Iowa the next day, I’d get another glimpse into how politics, electronic/social media, and primitive human tribalism may be conspiring to create some bizarre 21st century cyborg, half-man/half-Internet dweller, who’s being unwittingly pre-programmed for political and cultural rhetorical combat. What happens when a cyborg programmed by extremist orthodoxy exits The Matrix and wanders around The Desert of the Real? Remember the sequoia I mentioned earlier? For now, I digress.

**Perhaps a paragraph too late, you say? Think so, Hemingway? It’s my story and you’re dead! Oh, and this is finally being written and “published” in 2019 with 2+ years of context. Golly gosh, Beaver! Mom & Dad say we should pay attention to this part. It might be important! Also: don’t play ball in the house. How the hell did I go from Luis to Wally to Bobby fucking Brady? Why is Bobby Brown fucking Tom Brady?


Digression. Yes. Let’s do that.


I lingered around the comfy Flying J until 1:40 then walked to the I-80 east ramp to finish the hop thru Des Moines. This spot was stealth camping heaven! On either side of the ramp--and in my favorite spot between the ramp and interstate--were woods thick enough to hide me despite November’s lack of leaves.

Not only was I was tired after being limited to a few winks in John’s truck and Arby’s, a cold was kicking in. With these relative 5-star ground accommodations, I considered bagging it for the rest of Friday. Hey! I could actually use the tent instead of the bivy AND get a good night’s sleep! With the Flying J next door, I could then gorge on coffee and food bright and early Saturday and maybe finish this sprint to Chicago.

As I sat pondering, an older man pulled over and offered a ride to the other side of Des Moines.

“Thru the sprawl?”, I asked.



So much for my Hawkeye Hilton.

Jim was a 70-year old former construction worker from another of my old stomping grounds, Waterloo. In addition to Des Moines (the now-defunct 98 Rock and then KGGO in the late 90’s), this was another old radio home: KFMW or Rock 108.

I mention this because Iowa was proving to be surprisingly and unexpectedly nostalgic. A place haunted by several of life’s ghosts. It’s funny how these phantoms from life long gone pop up in unexpected places! Despite not being able to get out fast enough in 1999, Iowa has ghosts.

Maybe it was riding past my old apartment which sits right off the highway or being so close to other familiar sights, but once thru Des Moines and dropped off, I was a little sad not to be lingering in Iowa longer. Maybe it just the middle-age longing for a long-dead past? It wasn’t nearly as intense, but it was the same thing I felt in Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Denver and on the Amtrak paralleling I-25 over the previous week. It was connected to whatever led me to spontaneously trying to jump off the train in Santa Fe. To this day, I regret that I didn’t. Something tells me I missed something big.

I-80 Overpass, Avoca, Iowa


Shortly before 5pm, Jim dropped me off at the massive Flying J east of Des Moines next to Prairie Meadows Casino and a short couple of miles from my old KGGO studios. Beyond the Waterloo connection, he was the perfect follow-up/antidote to Luis. Opposite in every way: calm, relaxed, down to earth. Paranoia? Ha! No. Jim had hitchhiked in his younger days and therefore knew something about it beyond watching 48 Hours! He reminded me of Jack, a memorable 2008 ride in Idaho. I couldn’t survive a half hour with Luis. Jim? I’d ride cross-country with him!

With Des Moines conquered, the next goal was another familiar one: The Iowa 80. I went thru the motions, but didn’t “really” try finding another ride. In fact, I was exhausted I didn’t bother to look for camping. I used the bivy as a cot and spent a fitful chilly night on the trucker’s lounge floor.

An interesting Friday! Of course! Saturday? More of the same. One ride: fantastic. Another: creepy on multiple levels and requiring another pre-term abortion. And, the aforementioned cyborg!

Hitchhiking isn’t for everyone. But, it is never dull!