The Empire State was good to me. I managed to get all the way to Pennsylvania on the back roads. And I only met three cops.
After coffee and a bagel sandwich, Sean Kirst drove me from downtown Buffalo to the village of Hamburg, and left me at a park just yards from Lake Erie. When you’re with a guy like Sean, who is so full of stories, you feel like you’re sunbathing or soaking in a pond on a summer day – you just want to absorb all the knowledge and wisdom he has to offer. It was pretty much like that from the time he picked me up at the bus station until the moment he left me in Hamburg.
One of the many things we talked about was Sean’s own cross-country adventure. He and a friend took off in the summer of 1979 on a cross-country trek that was a hybrid of Greyhound bus rides and hitching.
He still thinks of that summer as life changing – returning to Dunkirk, NY , after experiencing the road, he saw his hometown and state with different eyes.
I was at a red light. Traffic was constant but not overwhelming. The view of Lake Erie was pretty sweet, windmills in the foreground and downtown Buffalo in the distance.
There was a fitness center in the middle of the park between the lake and the road, and each time a driver signaled to turn in, it caught my attention. I watched with anticipation to see if one of them would swing around and come back for me. Those false alarms happen pretty regularly when you hitch, but I think I see it more these days. People pull over to talk on the phone and I get fooled. One man stopped and asked, “how far you going, sir?” I told him California, and that I had three weeks. He said he could take me about a mile up the road.
“Is that a good spot?” I asked.
“You’ve got a pretty good spot here, sir.”
I thanked him.
“Good luck, sir.”
I used to be “son.”
Now I’m “sir.”
That’s what 40 years and a grey beard will do.
Two more people stopped to chat with me, one a pedestrian, and the other a truck driver waiting for the light to change. Neither were going my way, but both were kind and supportive and wished me well. A sheriff’s car went by and ignored me, then turned around a nabbed a speeder coming the other direction.
And then, just as I started to wonder how long I would be in Hamburg, John stops. He clears some room for me in the front seat and tells me he’s just going a few miles up the road, to his house in Derby, or what they now call Highland on the Lake. He’s a young guy, barely 25, and he doesn’t seem to like this attempt to change his hometown’s name to something more upscale.
John likes tradition, though today may be a big change for him. He just came back from a job interview, and if he gets it, that will mean a raise to at least $15 an hour, a huge jump from the $10.50 he’s pulling down now.
His real passion is working as a blacksmith. Just for fun, he scrounges downed trees and cooks his own charcoal. The only other people I knew who did this lived in Haiti! John is a self-taught blacksmith who puts that charcoal to use hammering iron on an anvil. John says he enjoys “keeping the dying arts alive.” Gotta love that, especially if you’re a hitchhiker.
When I thanked John, he told me that before his father died in December he told him to help people out when he could. I asked him his father’s name. He said James. I told him that James raised a good man and promised that I would say a prayer for James, something I am not in the habit of doing.
He dropped me at a gas station where I was able to procure a large stash of Wild Cherry Life Savers, my favorites, and a new supply of sunscreen. I’m afraid I left my original tube of sunscreen back at Sean’s. In the gas station bathroom I manage to spray sunscreen in my eyes, only to find that there are no paper towels. After splashing lots of water on my face, probably rinsing off half the sunscreen, I push on.
I sure hope John gets that job.
There’s a school near this intersection so I decide to move a bit further west. I make my way to a stop light. A beat up blue pickup blows by, turns into the parking lot of the Tops supermarket. A voice calls to me. “Where you going?” It was Portia. Portia is on her way home from her job at Denny’s. She’s looking to take a nap at the house on the edge of the Seneca reservation where she lives with her Dad.
Portia is pretty and petite. She’s got a pink top, jean shorts, and sneakers with pink laces. A cigarette in her lips, she shifts the gears in her truck and tells me her story. The truck is a mess, both in the cab and the back, which is strewn with scrap lumber and auto parts. The truck lurches and roars and Portia smiles like the happiest woman in the world.
I ask why she picked me up. “The Sign!” she says. But it’s more than that. Portia had to hitchhike once to Texas to save herself from a bad situation. She was 13 years old. She made it safely to be with family. Life moved on, and when she came back to Western New York she joined the legion of men and women in this part of the state who got hooked on heroin. Four years ago she knew that the only way she could get clean was to leave her ex, so she hopped a bus from Colorado, detoxing as she rode toward the place where her mother lived. Now she’s celebrating four years of recovery, and loving her new life.
She dropped me at a McDonald’s, just past a Thruway entrance. She insisted that I take her picture with the sign that she liked so much. We hugged. “I love you,” said Portia as she got back in the truck. We had been together less than half an hour. There is that connection when you’ve both been on the road, and when you both have experience with demons.
I got a Big Mac (God I love those things as much as I should hate them), asked a couple going to Ohio for their son’s graduation for a ride (they declined) and then tried to figure out how to make my way west. If I stood on the road by the Thruway I might get someone going for long haul, maybe all the way to Pennsylvania. If I stood on Rt. 20 heading West, I might be watching the sun go down in a place where I could not sight any signs of a comfortable resting place. I chose east, meaning that I was looking for traffic going east on 20 but a quarter mile from the Thruway. This might result in confusion if someone going east on 20 stopped me, or if someone going on the Thruway stopped but happened to be going toward Albany, not Erie.
But first there was Cindi. As I approached the Thruway ramp, I made out the silhouette of a woman, standing by her luggage, holding out her hand. Back in 1978, it was common to have multiple groups of people hitching at a good spot on the road. We all understood how it worked – those who arrived last went further up the ramp, and the first car that stopped went to the person or group first in line. You didn’t cut ahead of anyone.
That hasn’t been a problem this time. As I got near to Cindi, I knew there was something wrong. She was sunburned. She slumped. She looked like it had been days since she had slept indoors. I tried speaking to her and what came out of her mouth was unintelligible. I heard something about family in Pennsylvania, and disconnected Bible verses, and then she rolled her bag across the ramp, back on to 20, and headed east under a bridge.
It still makes me sad when I think of her.
She was barely out of sight when a State Trooper pulled up. He had been called by someone concerned about Cindi and seemed content to chat with me, and to suggest that I move a bit further away from the entrance ramp. Hitchhiking, he reminded me, was illegal anywhere in New York State, but on Thruway property it was actually enforced. He ran my license, we chatted a bit, I passed on what I could about Cindi’s state of mind. “You’re obviously not an ax murderer,” chuckled the officer as he handed me back my ID. I crossed 20, giving up on the Thruway option, and thinking to myself, “Obvious to who?”