I’VE NEVER HITCHHIKED BUT once when I was driving home from Washington, DC to Oak Ridge, North Carolina I took the back way and pulled off the highway in Buena Vista, Virginia to look for a gas station, a bathroom and a bite to eat.
Two or three miles down a two lane windy road beside a creek I found a Shell gas station with a Burger King. I filled up the jeep and got a vegie burger, yes, Burger King is the only fast food joint on the east coast that carries vegie burgers, and I walked across the street to this swinging bridge. I think it may have been an old railroad pass, or maybe if I remember it correctly, when I walked across those wooden boards suspended high above the creek, it lead to a railway.
It was all so green. Evergreen trees. Other trees. Bright green trees with bright green leaves. That’s how I remember it. That spot has become one of my favorites. I’ve gone back there a few times.
When I finished my meal and headed back to the jeep, a gang of four or five kids, some folks my age, actually called over to me and asked where I was headed. Said they were camping a few miles up the road just off of the Blue Ridge Parkway. They had walked down here to the gas station to pick a 24 pack of cheap beer and now heading back to their campsite. They wanted a ride.
I turned them away, blaming my full car. Which was true. My back seat and trunk area was full. I probably could have moved it around, or even taken them two at a time, someone sitting on another’s lap in the front seat next to me. But they were strangers. I should have done it though. I’ve always regretted that.
Next time, if I’m ever asked for a ride and the person or persons look reputable and unharming, I’ll surely say yes. That would make for a great story.
Footwalking freedom. These kids were reviving the hobo dream. Kerouac talked about “footwalking freedom” in “the Vanishing American Hobo” from Lonesome Traveler.
“There’s nothing nobler than to put up with a few inconveniences like snakes and dust for the sake of absolute freedom.”
When I was maybe 11 or 12 years old, I dressed up as a hobo for Halloween. I wore muddy old baggy pants. A torn flannel shirt. I had the classic hobo stick with a bandanna full of stuff slung over my shoulder. I think I may have even rubbed mud on my face or drawn on a scruffy beard with my mother’s eyeliner. I know, a bit weird, right. But HEY! That’s because the American Hobo, in all his glory, is still to this day idolized by kids, young and old, who dream about traveling the country, road trips with friendly strangers, this sense of complete freedom and extraction from worldly desires. This footwalking freedom.
“Benjamin Franklin was like a hobo in Pennsylvania; he walked through Philly with three big rolls under hi arms and a Massachusetts halfpenny on his hat. John Muir was a hobo who went off into the mountains with a pocketful of dried bread, which he soaked in creeks.”
But for me, now, that hobo dream is far gone. Hobos are only out in the wilderness, because that’s where the freedom is.
Here in the city, it’s all bums. Instead of dreaming about walking and sleeping for days among the red wood trees, it traipsing around city streets, face craned up to the sky. It’s still beautiful though, for me. Sunshine, rain, snowflakes, dust. City parks, city blocks, bums on stoops shaking cups at you outside your store. I guess it’s hard to see the beauty in that though. These city bums don’t have it well off at all. In these cold winter months the government opens up extra homeless shelters and something called warming buses to try to keep them freezing. I don’t like calling them bums; it’s offensive. Just homeless folks who are down on their luck.
These folks are nothing like the cherished, honored hobos that Kerouac spoke of. Einstein and Beethoven. Johnny Appleseed.
Those are more like folks such as Chris McCandless, West Virginia hicks, even some salty mountain bikers. The kids that had asked me for a ride with them and their beer just back up the mountain road. Wandering spirits. Dreamers just passing through.
Both these hobo dreamers and the city bums. As Kerouac wrote: Le passant. “He who passes through.”