Wednesday, February 14, 2007

7.) The Hitchhiking Years: Two Wyomings, a Tan Lincoln Continental, and the Ghost of Sitting Bull

I am so glad I visited Wyoming before I knew Dick Cheney was from there. When I saw it back in 1972, it was a real knockout. Sadly, by giving us this one horrible, wretched man, Wyoming will forever be known as a portal from the bowels of hell. But why dwell on that? He came from another Wyoming - I saw the righteous one.

It felt good to be out West. The thing I liked about growing up in Arabia was that it was primarily the land - the desert - and humanity was just living in the nooks, hanging on around the edges. You couldn't just wander off without water, or you'd die. It was harsh - you had to do some basic things right just to survive. I think that's the ideal way to live, when you can still feel the power of the land.

One of my big disappointments coming to America was how settled it was. The East Coast seemed packed with civilization, and if you've ever flown over the Mid-West, the entire thing has been divided up into squares you can see from the air.

So I loved getting out West, where it looked like it was still being settled, and in a way, it was. Driving up through Wyoming was great for the cowboy history. I mean how cool was it for a kid from Arabia to be in Cheyenne? Later, I looked out and saw some antelope or deer grazing way off in the distance and I realized I was seeing wildlife. This was the Wild West.

Now, I believe this was also the stretch where I got the ride with the truck driver. Despite what you might have heard, rides in semi-trucks were extremely rare. I think I got 4 of them, the whole time I was out there. It's an insurance thing, and I was told that the companies actually had cars out spying on their drivers, and if there was an unauthorized person in the cab, the driver was fired at the next stop. Who knows if that was true, but this was a real treat to get a ride in a truck - or so I thought.

I soon realized why the trucker needed someone to talk to. He had met this woman in Eastern Oregon and god-damn-it, he was in love. This was like 6 weeks before, but he told me every possible thing he knew about her, and then started in again, over and over for hundreds of miles. I always felt obliged to talk with the drivers about what was on their minds. I mean, it was only fair, and you'd hear everything: How they hated their lives and didn't trust their business partners, and found themselves trapped in bad relationships. The whole bit. This was different, because the trucker was so god damn happy, and god-damn-it, he just wanted to tell the world (or at least me) all about it. I barely made a comment. He described her to me for so long that I fell in love with her. Actually, I had gone past that stage, and I was getting tired of her. In fact, I was thinking about getting out.

I'm kidding but this guy wouldn't shut up about the new love. When we got to the end of the line, I went into a really dramatic voice. I said that I had never met this woman, but based on what he had told me, I felt like I knew her. That part was true. Then I solemnly recommended that the minute he got back with her, he should ask her to marry him. That part was staged. It was what he wanted to hear and he looked out at the road with that deep look. God, I was glad to get out of that truck.

Another problem with the script about the hitchhiking years was the lack of coherent flow. You could be immersed in this trucker's romance, and next thing you know you're in Montana walking around the battlefield where Sitting Bull's forces killed General Custer. There was a steady wind, and you could almost feel the spirits drifting around you.

The most poignant thing I ever heard about the Native Americans, came from comedian Chris Rock who noticed how you never see groups of Indians in America. You see one or a couple, but you don't see bunches. At least he didn't. We don't think about it much, but we are living on a burial ground. There was a holocaust here, and it was profound to imagine a time when thousands of Indians were camped along the banks of the Little Big Horn. Even the name "Indians" is wrong. A People named because explorers thought they had reached India? Could that be right? Where's the respect?

You know, there are a couple of subjects that make me glad I was born overseas. One of them is slavery and the other is what happened to the Native Americans. My people were involved, but don't blame me. When it comes to those subjects, I'm from Arabia.

It sounds hard to imagine now, but at the time I went across Montana there was no speed limit. You were just supposed to drive at a safe and reasonable speed. I rarely remembered the faces of my rides, but in this case, I remember the driver, and the car. He was a rich cowboy involved in titanium, and the car was a light brown Lincoln Continental with the backward suicide doors. It was an amazing automobile and we tore across the state at over 90 miles-an-hour.

I had come up through Wyoming and gone from Billings over to western Montana, and now I was going back down to Wyoming - at least the northwest corner. There, I would check out one of the most beautiful places on earth: Yellowstone. In the next post, there will be two close calls: One at the hands of man, and one from a wild beast. Stay tuned.


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