Whoever it was that called Colorado the easiest state for hitchhiking has never been to Craig. Craig, I was told by a fellow in Steamboat, is down on its luck. It’s coal country and proud of it. The local paper had a story this morning about a budget crisis in Moffat County. Craig is that county’s seat. Funding for the Museum of Northwest Colorado may be on the chopping block. The largest source of funding comes from the mineral leases that the Museum owns and sublets to what they refer to here as “extractive industries”.
So if your Eastern ears reflexively shut down and dismiss concerns of people who make their living off coal, consider this. Around here this is nothing to do but ranching and mining. Ranching has been consolidated in the hands of fewer and fewer owners, and mining, which once paid good wages and benefits, is going the way of heavy manufacturing in the northeast.
When you lose the mine, you lose your job, you lose your health care, you lose your truck, your house, and, in time – because they leave to find work elsewhere – you lose your kids. It shouldn’t surprise that some people will react strongly when someone suggests that they will next lose their guns. Or why the sign “We Support Coal” is prominently displayed on the main drag -outside a liquor store.
None of which directly explains why this town is such a shitty place to be a hitchhiker. From the time that this nice man, Rich, dropped me next to the Loaf N Jug Convenience Store, I’ve been standing out there with my sign (now signs) for a total of seven hours, with a break for sleep and to watch a basketball game at a roadside motel. It’s been grueling. The air is dry. My hands are starting to bleed. I’m near a red light, so when the trucks start up I get a nasty dose of black diesel exhaust.
There are a lot of cute dogs in the back of pickup trucks, and riding on their owner’s laps. Two nice gentlemen in pickup trucks stopped to offer me rides – one about four miles and the other about eight. I consulted with both of them and they agreed with the wisdom Richard shared with me, that I’d better get a ride all the way to Vernal, across the Utah line. There is nothing but high plains between here and there. Wind and sun.
A third truck pulled up by the access road last night and offered me a ride 15 miles. It was a rancher and he had come to town obviously to get some beer, which he and his ranch hands were already beginning to consume.
“You looking for a job?” The older man in the passenger seat was obviously in charge.
“No, I already have a job. I’m on vacation,” I replied.
They looked at me like they had never seen someone so crazy, and who was I to argue? It’s not every day that you see vacation brochures advertising the opportunity to sweat on a highway ramp breathing diesel fumes while your fingers bleed.
“So where are you going?”
“I need a ride to Vernal.” All three occupants of the truck started to laugh.
“Then you should get a sign that says, ‘I need a ride to Vernal.”
They had a point. My sign reading #NobodyHitchHikesAnyMore was less relevant this far west, where it is more common to see someone thumbing a ride.
I thanked the ranchers and retreated back inside the Loaf N Jug. There had been a shift change since I first set up camp on the road outside their gas station, and Amanda, the cashier from the early shift who had expressed deep concern that I was going to be left for dead on the side of the road, had gone home. This was a bustling corner store, a place where lots of people stopped to get beer or cigarettes on the way home, a spot that trucks pulling campers or horse trailers considered their last shot to fuel up before driving off the edge of civilization. .
Another cashier, a tall, unhappy looking woman, told me that she had just put all the cardboard boxes in the dumpster out back. She offered me the use of a Sharpie marker if I chose to retrieve a box. I walked around back, found a box within easy reach, and brought it back inside.
Navigating the in-and-out of gas station doors while wearing a backpack tends to be a tricky business. You want to read the pace and the body language of the person coming toward the door in the opposite direction, and try to land on the right mix of haste and politeness, offering to be helpful without being too friendly, and in my case, expecting a mild startle response when they see the load that I’m carrying. The man coming out held the door.
True to her word, cashier # 2, (her name tag was not visible) let me scratch “Vernal” on the cardboard in big black letters. I thanked her and walked back out to my perch on the road. It wasn’t a good feeling, and I still don’t understand why that spot was such a great disappointment.
For another hour and a half I stood there juggling the two signs, balancing the appeal of clever hashtag with the practicality of listing a destination, until the sun was getting ready to set, and as the shadows overtook me, I waved goodbye to one last vehicle heading west, and made my way across the road and down toward a Clarion Inn. On the way a semi stopped, and a man named Robert with an Eastern European accent offered me a ride a few miles up the road. He was almost maxed out for the day, (long haul trucks can only drive 750 miles legally in 24 hours) and it sounded like he was looking for company to spend the night. I thanked him with a wristband, shook hands and said goodbye.
The next morning, after filling up on my free breakfast and a half gallon of coffee, I saddled up and perched again on the side of the road, juggling my two signs. It was nearly 8 AM, and I was kicking myself for not getting out to the roadside earlier. It is always a judgement call whether I should give myself more rest or more time to find that perfect ride. In this case I split the difference, and if there was a perfect ride to be had from Craig westward today, I missed it.
One car, a Toyota Four Runner, did pull over just past my spot. I waved to be sure the car was stopping for me. I saw items being moved to the back seat. Always a good sign. When I got to the vehicle, I leaned my backpack against the car, tried to look inside. Through the dark tinted windows I could barely make out that the driver was a young woman in a baseball cap. I put my hand on the front door handle and was startled to hear a loud panicked scream. The car screeched and sped away, spilling my pack on the ground, missing my feet by inches.
I stood there gasping, feeling startled and ashamed. What had I done to so greatly offend this driver? This was a new one – it had never happened before. I could not figure out why she had stopped there for so long, only to pull away when I approached. I’ve had drivers on earlier trips pull over and then pull off, effectively proving that there are still mean assholes in this world. But this was different.
This was fear. I didn’t like the feeling of being judged as a threat. I’m not a war criminal, ax murderer, or rapist, but my condition as a hitch hiker evoked the fear that I might be. It’s possible that when people drive past me, they hold me in this same light. Maybe a hundred times in an hour. The difference here was the sound. When people drive by I don’t get to see that reaction – and I certainly don’t get to hear that shriek of fear. To have it happen so close shook me. That shriek still rings in my ears. Luckily nothing in my pack appeared damaged. One smashed laptop per cross country transit was more than enough.
It was time to regroup. I went in to the Loaf N Jug, used the bathroom and slowly made my way back to my post. Ten minutes later another car, this one a Cadillac, pulled over at the same spot. If there is one thing that all hitchhikers know it is that Cadillacs never pick us up. It appeared that I was about to make history! I hoisted the pack and half ran, half walked, the couple of hundred yards to the car.
Not wanting a repeat of last time, I walked forward of the front seat and made my presence known. The driver and the front seat passenger both looked up from their phones and shook their heads. Cadillac’s record is still intact.
Now I was getting pissed. What is going on here in Craig, Colorado that is causing people to stop on the roadside with no intention of picking me up? I walked behind the gas station and returned the cardboard box to the dumpster from whence it came. I started walking in closer to town, near the cluster of fast food places where at least I could find a seat in between hitching stints.
And then it hit me. It was the damn cell phones! Craig is on the edge of nothingness, and I was on the edge of Craig. The occupants of both of those cars were checking their phones before they crossed over into the dead zone. They had to get their messages before they lost service. That explained both whey they pulled over and why they didn’t even notice the man on the shoulder approaching their car. Their heads were buried in their virtual lives. That never happened in 1978!