Thursday, February 08, 2007

(3) The Hitchhiking Years: Biting It in Buffalo, Panic Near Toledo

When I woke up the next morning after being attacked by a dog in Buffalo, New York, everything was unbelievably sore. I found it painful to walk. It had been a rookie mistake - described in a post below - that had gotten me into this, and I was in the process of making another. See, the golden hours of hitchhiking occur right after the first light of day. If you're camping out, you break camp, throw your pack on and head out to the road as soon as it is light. Obviously, brush your teeth, and wash if possible in a river. I mean we're not trying to be gross here.

I didn't get up early enough in Buffalo because I had gotten a motel room after the dog attack, so now when I ventured out - limping a little in pain - I walked right into the morning commute. Yes, there is even a rush hour in Buffalo, New York, and I was in it.

Who's going to offer you a ride when they're just driving to work? The people that are really driving anywhere got up early to beat the traffic - like you should have. I remember someplace where I got one of these rides to work of around 8 miles, but I was so stuck that I hitched back into the city and waited for a longer ride out.

I can't remember where that was, but maybe it will come to me. (Spokane). These last few days, I have begun to relive all these memories and it is extraordinary how much I do recall. Of course, hitchhiking is designed to be remembered. You're more alert than if you were with someone you trusted, and each stopping point is connected to the next by what one trucker once melodramatically described as "these asphalt ribbons of death." See, I remember specific phrases and this was decades ago.

So I stood there in Buffalo quite a while, and it was a drag. The morning hours are usually sort of inspiring and spiritual. You might not feel that way if you're driving to work, but if you're free to do whatever you want, it's nice. However, I began to notice that the commuters passing me on the entrance ramp that morning, were looking down at me as a transient, even with a little fear mixed in. I probably was looking a little unhappy that day, plus, it's a normal reaction - they were inside society, and I was outside. The moment I left the motel room, I was back outside of it all, and I probably wasn't looking too cheerful, either.

So there was that, but I began to notice something else in the morning commute. I saw a look of people deeply hassled by their need to get to the job, and they were looking at me - a little bit - as someone whom they envied. For them, the freeway was a way to work. For me it meant the way you took if you wanted to be free. Same freeway - big difference.

This was verified many times, when a person would give me a ride and tell me how much they wished they could just take off, too. Local citizens will tell a hitchhiker stuff they don't tell their co-workers or their own families. They'll tell you things they wouldn't tell their best friends. In fact, it's often about these people.

There's a dynamic that comes into play when you get to talk with someone you'll never see again, in the privacy of your own car. I heard a lot of frustrations out there, a few flat-out confessions, but mostly a lot of envy from people who looked on a young person out on the road as a symbol of their lost liberty. Yes, there was some evil thrown in on several occasions, but I talked my way out of that. I have been to Ireland and kissed the Blarney Stone, and I have the certificate to prove it. Before the hitchhiking years were over I had practically worn it out. Don't get me wrong - I also had to run for my life a few times as well. So there was big trouble ahead, believe me.

Still, in the early morning, everything seemed fresh and hopeful, even if you were badly bitten by a dog the night before. These were the hours of trust, even if you were stuck in Buffalo.

I eventually got going, and I was free to ponder what had happened. Yes, my spirits were low, and my courage was dinged. It had been ugly and there was some soul searching about whether or not this had been an omen. I mean, when you start out on a journey on your 18th birthday, and by nightfall there are 6 or 7 quarter-size puncture wounds on your thigh and buttocks, you have to wonder if you've made a bad call. Let's just say the phrase, "This situation is a bite in the ass", was all too real for me then.

I knew that if I called off the trip and just jumped a Greyhound back home, the rest of my life would be different. I wasn't worried about the teasing from my Uncle Ted, or any of that. It was internal - I knew this was something I had to do. This was supposed to be a fun adventure, but mostly it was a test. This was my passage into being a cooler type of person. Yes, I was also trying to get to know America as someone who was an American but grew up overseas, and, boy, did that line work with the police. But mainly this was a search for a big, profound life. This was my way to shake the jet set, the preppies, and that whole upscale scene. This was my way of becoming real. I wanted to be like Jack Kerouac, "On the Road" in search of that mystical thing: The essence of freedom and what it means to be alive. Hey, remember it was 1972, and these notions seemed quite reachable, even if you had an American Express card in your shoe.

Here is an example of my memory kicking in on this stuff. I know I made it to Toledo, Ohio that day, and I remember my last ride dropped me off, so they could take the leg of the freeway that veered north up to the city. There was another leg coming south from the city but I was miles away from where it joined 80 West. I remember that as the problem with hitchhiking near Toldeo - it's north of the main freeway, and you could get stuck away from the outgoing traffic flow. I just checked a map and that's true. See? It's all still working.

The next part I don't have to check. It's a vivid memory, for I was entering the time of evening when I had been attacked the night before. No gas stations or motels this round - I had to find someplace to camp. I looked out in these huge fields and saw an elevated little rise. There was nothing growing that tall to cover me on the way in, but I figured, if I could just make it there without the farmer seeing me, I could sleep in peace for the night.

There is nothing like the tension when you're about to disappear into the scenery. You are a sneak at that point. When I got to the cover of this little rise of bushes and small trees in the middle of these vast fields, I relaxed. It all hit me from the night before and I let my emotional guard down because I felt safe. Whoops, wrong again.

I awoke in the night when I heard a pack of dogs in the area. They seemed to be moving, and I realized if they found me, I was in big trouble. At this point, after the attack, nothing in the world scared me as much as the teeth of a dog. As far as bagging the trip, this was the closest I came, right there lying in a sleeping bag south of Toledo, Ohio.

I was still in the initial shock from being bitten, and I asked myself how many hints would it take? These were terrifying moments, but the pack of dogs never found me. They roamed around, but the barks seemed to get fainter. I drifted off to sleep, and when I woke up "at dawn's early light", as the song goes, I was a different man. It all came back and then some - the courage and the sense of adventure. Somehow, the absolute terror I felt in the night, had turned into strength and I was ready to carry on.

I headed for the freeway, not knowing that what lay ahead that day, would be the beginning of the magic. The farmhouse was still dark, the soreness of the dog bites was fading, and the fields looked mystical and fresh. I walked toward the first real day that would make this trip one of the best times of my life.


At 12:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Love your stories.....I check several times a day to see if you have added another chapter to your 'hitchhiking' stories!

Keep 'em coming!

At 1:29 PM, Blogger Bill McDonald said...

Thanks for the feedback.

At 8:57 PM, Blogger Frank Dufay said...

The only night I ever spent in jail, Bill, was for being busted for hitchhiking in Buffalo. 18 years old. 1969.

You were lucky...

At 2:01 AM, Blogger said...

Great telling, Bill. Some of the feelings you capture - like stealthing up to an impromptu campsite in the middle of the night, or seeing the freeway in a different light among commuters- are the kind of memories that still ring true among hitchhikers. Looking forward to digging through your collection of stories.


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