I was lamenting the winter cold while driving to work Friday when a haunting recollection of besieged me. It was of a day back in 1988 — a hot June day rather than a cold January one.
Driving through the blistering, late afternoon heat one afternoon on my way back from working in Baxter Springs, I spied a hiker lethargically flagging me down as the blacktop shimmered and undulated in the distance.
I pulled over, pushed open the passenger side door and he climbed in.
His jeans were light blue, his eyes wild and red, the pain in his heart beating out loud. No shirt on his back. No hat on his head. I stopped and bought him a pop and he talked of the drought.
His anguish was even more palpable because it jogged the memory of being on the road far from home myself — not in the extreme heat but extreme cold; hiking with my brother, John, from Albuquerque to Denver on Christmas Day in 1978, huddling like a couple of longtime drifters beneath a tarp in the bed of a pickup as we crested a pass on Highway 25.
A Christmas Eve Amtrak ride from Chicago to Albuquerque had started my odyssey.
My most vivid memory was of repeatedly calling back home to Chicago from truck stop pay phones and getting no answer. I must have let each call ring 25 times at least.
I also remember that the trip was full of paradoxes.
One was that, despite with the pain, I felt totally alive in a way I had not in a long time, as there was a certain high in being on the road and free of all the responsibilities and encumbrances of life.
Well, almost free. My brother, a seasoned hiker, told me I set the record for baggage taken on a cross country hike; guitar, tape player, two heavy suit cases and a backpack.
But I was free of the everydayness that can lull a guy into a stupor. What Thoreau called “lives of quiet desperation.”
Another paradox was that my job back in Chicago at that time was providing counseling and supportive services at the Greyhound Bus Station (The Big Grey Dog) in The Loop and at Union Station a few blocks away.
The services, provided through Traveler’s Aid and Immigrant Society, included: assisting young, elderly, and handicapped travelers of making connections; counseling runaway kids and seniors; and listening to the stories / scams of drifters who traveled from city to city on buses and trains to make a determination whether they qualified for assistance.
I experienced daily what “Song of The Open Road” poet, Walt Whitman, describes as “the universe itself as a road, as many roads, roads for traveling souls.”
The drifters (with whom I definitely identified on my hitchhiking trip) were a fascinating lot. Most had story of lost love, bankruptcy, death or some other grief that had originally set them on the road.
Once they hit a new town, they’d maybe work a while for a temp service, hustle a little, drink some and occasionally get thrown in jail for vagrancy before moving on to ride their thumb — or a bus or train — out of town.
They many times traveled in pairs, watching one another’s back and sharing hardship and good fortune alike — bound together by an intractable love for the open road.
Being a story enthusiast, I would many times grant them meal money and free travel based not so much on the veracity of their hard luck story but the creativity of their con.
To be sure, I loved them. Every one.
Getting back to the hiker I picked up that sweltering June day. After we drove a while he continued his story:
“I was a farmer outside Little Rock, me and my wife and little girl. We had dreams and some ground and a little livestock, just carrying on an old family story. But the weather turned hot and the rains never came. I watched and my dream became a nightmare. My wife and I fought in anger and blame ’til I hit the road and whispered my prayer.”
He went on to tell of praying to God to grant him a pardon from whatever sin had brought the hardship — the evil — into his life; that he was busted, so, so busted and couldn’t take any more.
We rode in silent, benevolent brotherhood ‘til he spied his crossroads coming along. There he opened the door and nodded his thanks, his innocence shone … and then he was gone.
— J.T. Knoll is prevention and wellness coordinator at Pittsburg State University. He also operates Knoll Mindfulness Training & Consulting in Pittsburg. He can be reached at 231-0499 or firstname.lastname@example.org.