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Test Drive



Like every endurance event, this one will require some training and practice. I was out in Colorado for a week in the early spring. Leaves were budding, prairie dogs burrowing, and late winter snowstorms still blew atop Long’s Peak, a few thousand feet higher than where I set myself up – Fort Collins.

Somehow I persuaded my graduate-school-age son, Robert, who prefers walking and biking to getting in his car, to join me for a day of hitchhiking.

We walked through the campus of Colorado State University, where he does research and teaches about plant biology, with a cardboard sign that read “Boulder” in black magic marker letters four inches high. We turned left on Shields Street, the old route south toward Denver, which today is dotted with leisurely suburban developments and spread-out student housing.

As we started to walk, Rob looked up at my sign and said, with a mixture of regret and alarm, “Oh, I forgot, people in Fort Collins hate Boulder.”

Come again?

I guess there’s an old rivalry between the two towns, and the current generation of students tends to see the Boulder crowd as pretentious hipsters. A good reminder that as in politics, all hitching is local.

I noticed a lot of new cars. Never a good sign. In the opening of a New York Times story about “The World’s Best Hitchhiker,” Wes Enzinna writes that the Argentinian traveler Juan Villarino worries if he waits more than five minutes for a car to drive by. We had dozens of vehicles pass us every minute, yet the worry never diminished. Old cars usually mean more chances of a ride.

Standing at the side of the road you try to portray a sense of casual confidence while inside you the possibility that you are nothing but a fool is barely kept at bay. Each time a car passes is a tiny pinprick in the heart, a subtle, anonymous rejection, a demotion of your status in life. Who are they, these autonomous, self-propelled deciders of your fate? I wonder if they feel this ongoing tug on their conscience – are they feeling superior, or maybe they feel they are worse for leaving us by the curb? The moral vs. the material, battle of classes… The mind wanders.

And suddenly, there was Phil. Our first ride. Phil is retired, calls himself an old hippie. He is part deaf, which makes sense when he tells us about the concerts he’s seen in the past year – Metallica, Guns n Roses, some local bands, all with his new girlfriend who moved here from back East. Phil’s Geo Prism must be from the first year that model rolled off the assembly line, and the driver side of the back seat is filled with junk. I climb into the passenger seat and Rob squeezes in behind me.

Phil squeals with glee when he hears what I’m up to, and then he spins his head in shock to learn that I’m still working. “You still workin’?”

Do I look that old? The conversation turns to hair dye.

Phil has lived on the Front Range all his life, worked whatever jobs came along. He loves biker bars and drives a 750 Honda. He hasn’t hitched much himself, but he sort of remembers a time called “back then” when “everybody hitched.”

He thinks we should be on College Avenue to get out of town, so after a few miles he takes a left on Trilby Road and takes us to an intersection with a Seven Eleven, a plant nursery, a weed dispensary on the other side, and a one-story shop called “KindCare” that is drawing a lot of business. There must be a campground or an RV show nearby because every other vehicle making the right off Trilby is a pickup pulling a camper. Some nice ones, too, but not likely rides. There are diesel trucks blowing smoke, maybe more than they need to, accelerating as if to show us their macho. Most drivers seem content to ignore us, though a few passengers spare us a curious glance, their neck turning and following us as they tool on. Lots of tinted windows. Lots of people on cell phones. Trucks stickered with business phone numbers on the side.

It was a sweet afternoon, clear skies with a few clouds keeping the temperature down in the low 60’s. Walking the side of that road was a good reminder to get out there early, get a ride before the sun gets too hot. I try to imagine what this will be like in two months when the temperature is close to 90.

Today I felt no pain, except in my hands. Lately I’ve been facing an ailment that might just end one of my careers, since my hands keep flaking and breaking and sometimes bleeding, to the point where I can’t work, can’t type without pain, and sometimes I can’t even get a ziplock bag to open. Putting a key on a keyring is almost impossible.

All that to explain why, after giving the corner a good half hour, then retreating to the Seven Eleven to purchase a bottle of mango juice (it cost what Joe and I might spend in an entire day last time around), Rob and I decided to take a look inside KindCare. This being Colorado, we pretty much knew that it was connected to the cannabis industry. I was curious.

Inside, we were greeted by a rope line and a friendly man who asked for our ID. I showed him my driver’s license, thanked him, (Bless you, I always tell youngsters who ask this greybeard for proof of age) and he opened the line and let us in. Kathryn, one of six or more staffers behind the two glass counters, greeted us in her uniform black polo shirt, eager yet mellow as she explained the range of products available.

Medicinal marijuana, I’ve learned from my clients, contains either CDB or THC, and if you want to mellow out while treating your condition, you might want to try something that has both. If you’re looking for pain relief that won’t get you high, try just the CDB. But what if your hands are aging poorly (I know I couldn’t roll a joint with these hands if I were the only straight person left at the party). Sure enough, Kathryn had an answer, and we walked out with a one ounce jar of Mary Jane’s Medicinal cannabis-infused salve which I have been slathering regularly on my hands ever since. We’ll see – it’s got a lot of THC, but I don’t expect to be getting buzzed on it (especially given the proximity to New Belgium’s brewery, the Cathedral of my favorite fluid, Fat Tire).

After we hiked half a mile, a beat up van stopped. “No seats,” warned Dale, but that didn’t bother us. We both slid into the back of an ancient Plymouth Voyager with tools and trash scattered in the back, checked to make sure the sliding door Rob was leaning on was closed, and were off.

“What’s your story?” said Dale immediately, requesting plot line the way a ticket taker on a bus would ask for your fare.

He was gregarious and quick to interrupt. I mentioned that I had written a political column for 14 years for a weekly paper in Syracuse, which he misinterpreted to mean that I was involved in politics. Dale launched into his own stories of local and county politics in the prairie towns east of Denver. He portrayed himself as a rousing muckraker hated by the locals because he followed the money, and slept with a Mexican wife.

When Rob mentioned that he was a graduate student at CSU, Dale volunteered that he, too, had a PhD from Colorado State, in – you guessed it – plant physiology, the very field my son is studying. According to our kind driver, his career working to develop plant species suitable to grow on Mars had been derailed suddenly in the 90’s when a short-sighted Congress foolishly cut spending for NASA and abandoned the quest to colonize Mars.

None of which explained why he was driving around in a crappy minivan with a falling down ceiling selling ads for a monthly magazine. But he was nice enough to give us a ride, and though we each independently arrived at the conclusion that Dale was full of shit before our boots hit the pavement, we laughed with him and thanked him for getting us a bit closer to Boulder.

Dale left us with these words of wisdom – you’re two nice looking white guys, you’ll do all right. If you were black…

The gas station where Dale left us had no working bathroom, so we went across the street to another, slightly more upscale place with a car wash and a fair selection of junk foods as well as a functioning toilet. As is my custom, I bought a cup of coffee and made small talk with the young man at the counter. I don’t want to give anyone the impression that just because I’m asking for free rides that I’m a freeloader.

We walked half a mile past a half dozen prairie dogs holes to the base of a hill and waited by a stop light. A woman stopped near us, but she got out to tape a sign for a Garage Sale to the pole, ignoring us completely.

Within a half hour, a nice, cream-colored mini-SUV stopped. A young woman waved us over. Eleanor told us that she had been heading south toward Boulder, just out for a ride on her day off, which no one ever does anymore. She had been working long hours all week at her two jobs, and just needed a break.

She saw us at the light, too late for her to stop. Traffic gets going close to 50 miles an hour on this stretch of 287. But this is the cool thing – she made a U-turn at the next intersection and came back for us, pulling off on the side road and making another U-turn before parking 50 yards away and signaling us to come on over.

A nice car. A female driver. We took a second to absorb these anomalies, discharge our dissonance, and then leapt at the chance. I climbed in the front and Rob sat behind.

See what I mean. It’s a state of mind. She just wants to be helpful, and she’s just not afraid. And Eleanor was courteous. “I just rolled this blunt – do you mind?” Of course we could not mind – this being Colorado after all. She offered us a hit, which Rob and I both declined, he because he didn’t like to toke up in front of his Dad (or even behind) and me because I’d quit smoking so many years ago that my lungs would probably crumble if I inhaled anything hot or caustic.

Eleanor said she was housesitting for the moment, at her parent’s place in Boulder. She has a place in Fort Collins where she and her boyfriend spend most of their time. He does ceramics and they both work at a martini bar, the oldest martini bar in Fort Collins. Rob is familiar.

Eleanor carries a couple of extra disposable tents or space blankets to give to homeless men she meets after they’ve missed their curfew at a shelter.

She travels a lot. Most recently she had been to New Orleans, where she was struck by the large number of amputees, African-American amputees, among the homeless. This woman has a very kind eye, and a very fine 70’s soundtrack that included Elton John’s Tiny Dancer, some Stevie Nicks (Eleanor’s queen) Cat Stevens Tea for the Tillerman, and Carole King’s Smackwater Jack. That could have been put together by Joe Campo himself in 1978 (on cassette).

Eleanor would have taken us anywhere in Boulder that we liked. We were looking for a place to watch what turned out to be one of the best college basketball games of the season, Duke vs. Kansas, so she let us out near Pearl Street, where we quickly found ourselves a nice spot to have a beer and watch the game.

Since this was only  a practice run and I knew that Rob was only doing this to humor me, I felt no obligation to rough it by say, sleeping on the side of the road or thumb our way back to Fort Collins that night. I proposed that we find an AirBnB in Boulder and take the bus back to his place once morning broke (Rob had a 9 AM meeting; I had nothing pressing on my calendar.)

Before the second half began, Rob had a third option. His friends volunteered to come get us and bring us back to Fort Collins. They had been partying for the afternoon and were pregaming for the watching of 60 minutes, a special interview with the infamous Stormy Daniels. We immediately accepted. Once the game ended and Duke went back to their locker room, we made our way to the street where they had just pulled up. Kyle, who tends a monkey at home and does research on rats for work, ordered pizza, which we picked up along with some beer, and settled in.

So my first day of hitchhiking was a rocking success. We had covered about 60 miles in four hours, met three fine people, and made it home, as Bilbo Baggins himself might say, in time for pizza and a porn star.

What we didn’t know was that Mr. Dale, who left us his business card, was actually telling the truth, and has many fascinating stories to tell. He was profiled in a 2013 article in the Atlantic and has turned his plant biology growing food on Mars into a very Colorado thing – teaching weed entrepreneurs the tricks of the hydroponic cannabis trade.

So to recap:

It’s a great way to spend a day if you don’t let achieving a goal get in the way of experiencing what you’re experiencing.

People are cool, and the people who stop tend to be extra cool.


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