Chapter 30: "You Still Here?"
In towns, you don’t say hello to passers-by. Not normally. But when you’re standing still on the side of the road, waiting for a car to stop, you do. Or at least I do. It justifies what you’re doing, standing there with one arm stretched out. And anyway, if you’ve been there a while, it’s something to do.
I was on the edge of Saffron Walden. It was the second day of the year. “Hello,” I said as an old man approached, cocooned in coats. Like every time this happens, it was awkward, but I’d mistimed it. He was too far away. There were no cars coming, just him. He didn’t reply. “Hello!” I tried again. Still nothing.
Sometimes the side of the road is where it happens, while you’re waiting and nothing’s going to plan. The trouble is when you’ve been there too long your bad mood rubs off. The frustration makes you less open. But then sometimes it’s the people on the side of the road who cheer you up again. It’s never been much of a problem in Britain – I’ve never waited for that long – but in America I spent most of the time on the roadside, hours and hours, sore arms and cheeks as smile turned to frown, staring at cars.
Once I was in Arcata, California and had been for 6 hours. You would have thought it would be a good place for hitchhiking, being as it was, famous for its hippies. Someone there told me it had the world record for most tree-sitters at one time: 18. “Due to its temperate climate and tolerant residents,” a website read, “Arcata attracts a large transient population. Expect to be asked for change every two minutes. Feel free to say no.”
I was trying my hardest to be one of the transient population. But I was having no luck.
Two bums cruised past, wafting an airy Hey Dude. They were indeterminately young, a couple, and their smiles were far off. We chatted for a while, their long, wild hair caught in the breeze, chased by their barely solid words. Their pupils were like pinpricks and they didn’t walk too straight either. They set off to the bushes by the highway bridge. “Well dude,” the boy said as they went, “Come join us if you wanna get swilled…”
I guessed what that meant and declined. I often wonder what would have happened if I’d joined them.
Not long after, a girl came past. She floated, dead and straight. Her hood was up and her hands were hidden in her sleeves. “Hello,” I said to her. She didn’t reply. Her face was totally blank, scolding, dark eyes fixed determined ahead. It was haunting. I stepped aside as she swept past, I don’t think she even saw me. She strode straight onto the slip road, past the Pedestrians Prohibited sign and on and on until she disappeared, onto the interstate. It was like an apparition. Who knows what was going through her mind.
Still, no ride came. The day wore on and my hopes got down. With every passing hour, the sense of dread grew. It was only my second day hitchhiking and I was in too deep, stranded in a town in the middle of nowhere. With teenage clarity, I wrote in my diary: “I very much miss home.”
A few hours later I went to find some food. Perhaps that would cheer me up. Up the road I spotted a man, leaning against a lamppost. Like me, he was holding a cardboard sign. Mine had a big Union Jack and said: Lonely Brit Heading North which I suppose in that moment was true; his said clearly and in bold letters: Help Need Love Please. I crossed over to his side.
His name was Jeremy. He was sad, with a downcast look and a sorrowful frown. Each sentence had a falling cadence, and his eyes followed the words down, down to the pavement. He was like Eeyore in a grown-man disguise. Exactly why he was sad I don’t know, he never let on. He didn’t say much at all, but we stood there together, holding our signs.
“Well,” I said after a while, a little more cheerful now, “I better get going.”
“Ok,” he sighed, a little more cheerful too. Slowly his face grew into a smile. So did mine.
Back on my corner, I felt better, buoyed by renewed conviction and determined to get a ride. An old man, stooping, hobbled across the road, his little bowlegs tucked into cowboy boots. They clopped on the tarmac. He pressed a few crumpled dollars in my palm, “Here you better have these, boy.” I tried to decline but he insisted. Then a young man came by, by the name of Eli. He checked I was ok and all was well. “You’ll get a ride,” he told me, “No problem.” He seemed to know. “If you ain’t by this evening I’ll come by again.”
Then the junkies fumbled out from the bush and smiled their far-off smiles, even further off this time. “You still here?” they drifted, “Hell, you been here a while! Well good luck to ya!”
Evening came and I was still there. It was cold by now, a breeze blowing in off the sea.
Eli came back on a bike. “You still here?”
I asked if there was anywhere nearby to stay. We both looked towards the motel, the M hanging off the flickering lights. Besides, I said, 90 bucks. We both agreed that was off.
“Here wait a second,” he wheeled back round the corner and a few moments later returned. “I got ya summin,” he said, tossing me the bag under his arm. A sleeping bag. “I’ll show ya a good place to go.” He grinned and we set off up the hill, away from the corner.
Eli rode in front and I lugged my bags trying to keep up. He spoke over his shoulder about the town and the road and his life. I don’t remember much of what he said, it was a while ago. But I do remember he was a good man with a good heart. He pointed up the hill. Past the driveways and the cars parked up, there was a huge wall of trees. The Redwoods.
“You’ll find a good place to sleep in there,” Eli told me, “The rangers shouldn’t bother you nothing, not at this time. But best stay away from the tracks anyhow.”
He turned to go. “What about the sleeping bag?” I called.
“Keep it. Give it to someone who needs it more than you one day.”
I promised I would and pushed through the curtain into the forest. It was dark in there, the trunks were taller than anything I’d ever seen, disappearing into shadow. I walked for a while through the woods. I was nervous. Every noise made me start. Was it a ranger? Or just a crazy person - I’d seen enough of them that day to keep me on my toes.
I slept at the foot of a huge Redwood, badly. In the night I was woken by scuffling a few meters away. There was whining, more scuffling and some high-pitched barks. I was dead still. I barely breathed. Then there was a strong, pungent smell. Fox poo. At the time I thought they were coyote pups, convinced there must be a mother on its way, but it was probably just foxes. The mother never came but neither did I get any sleep. Not until the morning at least. When I woke the sun was high.
I did get a lift in the end and made it to Seattle a few days later. I kept the sleeping bag all the way, though I didn’t need it again. In Seattle, I bumped into a social worker called Vegas Bleu. We went out to find someone to give it to. We found a crack addict sitting on a bench who promised Vegas this time he was going to get clean for good. He was grateful for the sleeping bag since he had no place to stay.
I spent the evening with Vegas and he told me he used to be a pimp. He’d lived in Vancouver, then a kind of haven for pimps, and Las Vegas and other places too. He had all sorts of stories. We sat on the back of a bench and he…
“You still here?” The old man in the coats grumbled, interrupting my daydream recollection. Saffron Walden and the cold January morning rushed back with a slap. I realised he’d walked past already that morning. His corgi tried to escape its lead. He looked me up and down, popped an eye and snorted, “Would have been quicker if you’d walked.”
You still here? If so thank you for making it this far! Chapter 30… Who’d have thought? Feel free to subscribe if you haven’t already and share with your friends.