I prefer taking back roads. That explains why the pace of my travels is only a tad speedier than a diligent bicyclist. You get shorter rides on Rt. 20 than you would on the Thruway, but the terrain is more appealing and the likelihood of drawing the attention of law enforcement diminishes.
On the edge of Waterloo, I thought I’d split the difference, and positioned myself on the side of the road on 20 West, just before a turn off to 414, on the chance that someone going north might be headed west on the Thruway. It was a good spot, near a Tops market, which meant that someone who wanted to pick me up but couldn’t stop in time would be able to pull into the parking lot and holler to me.
Sure enough, a truck pulled into the parking lot, and a guy came running over. I asked him where he was going. He had the same question for me. Steve fixes refrigeration units and was reporting for work, but he wanted to let me know that he had seen me at the edge of Skaneateles last night and he loved the sign. He promised to pick me up if I was still waiting when he finished. We talked about our kids (he’s got two school-age kids and beams with pride talking about them). I gave him a wristband, we shook hands, and parted in mutual admiration.
It wasn’t long until another Steve stopped his GMC mini SUV and offered to take me to Geneva. Steve is 70, grew up in the Finger Lakes, and he has the easy unhurried way of someone happily retired. He grew up as one of 16 children, and used to ride his motorcycle with a friend all over the Eastern US and Canada. He talked about sleeping in farmer’s fields, and roadside showers in Maine that you could use for a quarter, and his dream of convincing his wife to take a trip across the US someday soon.
I noticed out the passenger window when we passed the Lowe’s hardware store. That’s the place Steve was headed. He drove a good five miles past his destination to get me to a better spot. We shook hands and off I went.
The air outside Geneva is sweet, and though I knew it would thin my chances of getting picked up (drivers like to see you making an effort) I leaned my pack against a pole, pulled out my note pad, and sat leaning on the pack to take notes. Suddenly I thought I smelled a dead animal. Then there was that fresh air sweet smell again. I kept jotting things down, and the stench returned.
Then I remembered Ellen telling me about The Dump.
The Seneca Landfill was not far away, and trucks hauling trash or coming back empty were blowing by me, creating this nauseating but fleeting effect. Seems like it would be tough to live near there. I grew up on Staten Island within a bike ride of the world’s largest landfill , where the other four boroughs of the world’s greatest city dumped their trash. So I feel you, Romulus and Geneva. Those trucks were headed back to Western Pennsylvania and as far as Ohio to gobble up more trash to dump in this pristine part of the Finger Lakes.
If you have bothered to click on either of the above links you will discover two things that have changed in the past 40 years. One, even garbage dumps get reviews on Google, and two, PR agents (excuse me, digital branding specialists) really do try to spin shit into gold. The Seneca Landfill home page leads with the cheery headline “Keeping Western Pennsylvania Clean.” For balance, I would substitute something like “Making Hitchhikers Wonder What Died Here.” Another reason I never went into PR.
Then there was Dave. Thank God, because if I sit on the side of the road long enough I can come up with more absurd thoughts than I can manage to take note of, and really I can learn more by listening to voices that are not emanating from inside my own skull. The back of Dave’s truck was filled with an orderly collection of a working man’s tools. He had done all sorts of construction work in his life, and at his age, which is also my age – 61, he had settled into surveying.
It was about 15 miles, and Dave and I had a lot to discuss. He sailed for years. I told him about my sailboat, the Carol Ann.
He talked about what goes through his mind when he sees a hitch hiker. You only get only seconds to decide. Dave had actually turned around and come back to get me.
He asked if I had any problems with law enforcement, and I told him about my meeting with the Sheriff’s deputies back near Beak N Skiff. His reply was honest – “You’re not black, that makes a difference.” No denying that, and he wasn’t the first person to make note of it.
There is an intense communion that can occur between two strangers who have taken a risk and chosen to be in one another’s company. People tell you things. You tell them things. Dave was the first person I opened up with about the death of my granddaughter and my friend Brendan. We talked about loss and hope and the things that keep us going, and our realization, as two men chugging through their sixties, that one day, things stop.
Dave must have sensed I was hungry for kindness. Going back to the topic of racism, he told me of a black man he gave a ride to on this same road, a few years back. It was getting near dark and he saw the man hitching from Canandaigua to Geneva. The man was deaf and could speak very little. He had a note pad, and wrote on it in pencil.
“I’m a veteran.”
Dave figured out that this man had been hassled by the police in a town where he clearly looked different from almost everyone else. He had hidden his backpack in the woods in a feeble attempt to blend in. Dave took him back to get the bag, then drove him to a McDonald’s that was on his route. The man didn’t have money for food, so Dave gave him $5 to eat. It was a comfortable truck. I realized that I barely could breathe. The kindness was saturating.
As we came in to Canandaigua we started to calculate the best places for him to drop me off, switching to logistics in the way men do to avoid too much intimacy. I realized that I was also hungry for food.
And there it was – Wegmans. The true religion of Central New York. Dave made a U-turn again, got me right to the door of the Market Cafe and we said our goodbyes. Thanks, Dave. Sail on.