It got light out and I awoke in a haze. A girl was coming down the path and I got up. She was short and had wavy hair. She asked what I was doing.
"I am going to hitchhike to South America," I told her.
"You are not ready for that yet," she told me. "You have to give blood first. You need more ramen too."
Someone else came and reminded me of something else I had to do before I can hit the road. Other people started giving me more tasks. But I got distracted talking to a friend from New Orleans. She started flirting with me and I worried that I would forget everything I had to do.
I woke up slowly. It was all a dream. I was cold and found frost on my blanket. Looking at my watch, I could see it was already 5:46! I must have slept through the alarm. With numb toes and fingers I rolled up my blankets and folded my frosty tarp, stuffing everything in my bag. I took out my last panini and put it in my pocket. I sipped some water from my water bottle which hadn't frozen because it was a sort of vacuum flask Sigg. With numb fingers and toes, I walked out to the highway. The once-squishy ground was now crunching underfoot. Once at the exit 16 on-ramp, I estimated the best place to stand and walked over there, and put out my thumb. Most cars rubber-necked and I nibbled on my stale panini. I was worried I'd have to wait a long time in the cold, but only about a half-hour had passed befor an Indian guy stopped and asked where I was going through his window. I said I was trying to get to the truck stop at exit 7. He was going to work in Allentown and offered to drop me off on the way. Once in the toasty car, he asked where I was going and I told him. He was so interested in my trip that I never learned what he did for a living. I congratulated him on being the first step in a journey of 10,000 miles. He dropped me off at the truck stop and wished me luck and I thanked him and he drove off.
There were two truck stops, a TA and a Pilot. I went to the pilot first and got some coffee. Then I went over to the TA, which seemed bigger. There, I hung out by the diesel pumps to solicit a ride. Truckers would pump gas there and then go inside to get their receipts (for logging), so they all passed me and my
Mexico sign on the way in. If I made eye contact with a driver, I would say "morning". Some folks asked me about my trip. Though I tryed not to bother anyone, the manager came out after a few hours and kindly asked me to leave. I obliged and return to the Pilot to repeat the process.
The Pilot was a smaller truck stop so there was less traffic. After about a half hour I overheard a driver telling another that they'd lost power and the pumps weren't working. I looked up to the towering fuel price marquees and noticed that they have gone out too, both at the Pilot and the TA. I hung around for a little while, but the employees closed off the whole truck stop entrance with cones and traffic stopped coming entirely. I figured I'd try my luck thumbing it on the on-ramp. So I skated back to the on-ramp and put out the thumb.
I stood where I could keep an eye on the fuel price marquees. If the power came back on, I was better off at the truck stop. Truckers rarely give rides but when they do, they go far. Truckers also never stop on on-ramps, so the only chance to get a ride in a truck is at rest areas and truck stops. In the US, you can wait several hours to get a ride, either on an on ramp or at a truck stop. But after waiting hours, wouldn't you rather get a truck going out of state than the driver going to the next exit? There were still trucks using this exit, seeing that the pumps were closed, and then turning around and getting back on the freeway. But none of them were going to stop here.
A prius with an Obama bumper sticker stopped after a relatively short time and offered me a ride to Allentown, but I figured the electricity would be back soon and I had better stay on the highway. But after about an hour, the power was still out. The next guy who stopped was going northeast to I-80. It's more of an east-west route than a north-south one, but my map promised that there was a route going down south if I go through Ohio, so I hopped in. The guy was getting off at exit 242, but I asked him to leave me at 256 because there was a truck stop there on my map.
My driver was going to pick up his dragster, which he raced professionally, despite being 74 years old. We drove mostly in silence, though the guy was really friendly. He asked what kind of music I like and I said I like rock-n-roll. He says he likes pop and is a big fan of Pink. We listen to Pink for much of the ride and I gained a new appriciation for the artist.
At the new truck stop, I returned to my post by the trucker's entrance. In the first twenty minutes or so, I met a willing driver who was going to Texas! But he was worried about a checkpoint run by the Department of Transportation. He was concerned that they would report the passenger to his company and he'd lose his job. Companies don't want a hitchhiker being involved in an accident, for the sake of the insurance liability, and they scare their drivers thoroughly against picking anyone up, sometimes even saying that there are sensors and cameras in the cab. He got up in his cab and asked about the DOT station on his CB radio. Other truckers reported that the stop was still there. After that, nothing I said could convince him to let me tag along.
I waited for three hours after that. At one point, the manager came out and assures me that it's alright if I stand there and if any employees give me trouble they should just talk to him. That was reassuring. I turned down two rides going to Chicago, but later realized it'd probably have been in my best interest to have taken them, considering nobody here seemed to be going south except the first guy I'd met to. The manager told me I'm in a bad place to be going south and offered to drive me to a bypass when he got off work at 11PM. I thanked him, hoping I wouldn't be there that late. But the sun set and I realized with disappointment that I have not gotten very far at all on my first day.
Finally, around 20:30 a guy about my age casually asked me where I was going and I told him. He offered me a ride to Chicago and this time I took it. Even if it wasn't right on the way, we would be traveling through the night at least. We still had a way to go: the full length of Pennsylvania and Ohio.
The driver's name was Igor and he was the same age as me, 23. He was from Russia but had been in the states for a little more than a year. I told him about how I hitchhiked in Russia and he was a little surprised (as the Russians had been to see an American hitchhiking in their country). Igor was a pretty smart guy. He grew up in Siberia, near Novosibirsk. His parents made little more than $100 a month combined.
"Everything is different in Russia," he told me. "The people... are so poor... you wouldn't believe it. Let me tell you about my first job!" he said, holding up a finger. "I was fourteen and I worked all summer picking apples. I picked apples all day, every day, including weekends, for only fifty cents an hour. At the end of the summer I had $40, half the money I needed for a bicycle. I borrowed the rest from my grandmother and then I had a bicycle! That was my first transportation, and I was the only person among my friends to have one. The next summer, I picked cherries and pears and whatever I could."
With his savings from fruit-picking and some more money he borrowed from his grandmother, he was able to buy his first laptop. Igor told me about how his whole life was a slow upgrade: coming to America and first arriving in New Orleans, he didn't know anyone. He got a job and met a few Russians, who suggested he move to Chicago. They said there was good work there and a lot of Russians. He got a job as a trucker three months ago. Now he earns pretty good money and is saving up to buy his own truck. As an owner/operator he plans to save up $100,000 and study to be a radiologist.
Igor spoke excellent English but sometimes I had to talk slower or explain idioms to him, as if he'd acquired a massive working knowledge of vocabulary and grammar without the experience using it. He was blond, of smallish composure, and constantly grinning and looking from the road to me, gesturing, eager to say what was on his mind.
"There's no place in the world like America!" He said. "Only here you can work so little and earn so much! Sure, there are higher incomes in Europe, but they pay it all back in taxes. Here, minimum wage is $8! That's amazing." I didn't disagree. "I bought my second car after only a year here. All my family in Russia thinks I am rich to have two cars. I say I'm not rich, that it's normal to have two cars in America. They don't believe it. They think I got to America and became a rich man."
I nodded and said "Sure, we have it pretty good." He continued. "But it can't last forever. It's not a sustainable model for world economy. Look at China! The Chinese are like slaves. Do you think they will work for nothing forever?" "No," I said. "But isn't is funny how China thinks we are going to pay them? Here they are, dishing out our goods like machines, and we say we will pay them back. Like fuck we will. If we want to pay someone, we usually screw the world's economy by just printing more money. I don't know why China doesn't understand it's being duped." "Right," he said. "Well something will happen. There will be a great war or a depression. America won't be on top for much longer!" I didn't believe that. I couldn't disagree with it, but I didn't believe it.
Knowing that we'd arrive around 4AM, he asked if I wanted to stay at his apartment in Chicago. I accepted heartily. We were almost through Pennsylvania and it was starting to snow pretty hard. He knew about it. "We're going to be going through a snowstorm. But I think it'll be OK. We will be going west and the storm is coming east. We'll hit it head on and be through in no time." He asked me to look at a radar image of the storm on his phone. It took a while to load. The snow came down thick and blinding. "Check this out," he said and turned on his high-beams. The snow rushed towards us as if we were shooting through hyperspace. "That's cool, right?" he asked. "But it's hard to see with it like that. So I just do it for a second. How's the radar look?" "It's still loading," I told him. He told me about the accident he was in. "The whole truck rolled over. I had a... dumb bell... is that right? A dumb bell?"
"Yeah, like the exercise weight?"
"Yeah!", he said. "I had a dumbbell in the cab with me and I saw it go once," he made a wide motion around himself, "twice, clear around me. I was lucky! I was OK."
He told me a little about what it was like to be trucking in America.
"The worst state to drive in? Wyoming."
"Yeah. Endless plains of ice, and huge gusting winds, sweeping left and right." I asked if he'd driven in all 48 states. He said he had. "OK, it's loaded," I told him, looking at the red and orange mass of storm on the map. "Looks like we're almost through it."
I was getting tired but Igor kept me up so he could talk to someone. He had a vocabulary app on his phone and had me quiz him. He knew a lot of the words but needed help when the definition was poorly-phrased.
Finally, around 4:30 AM we pulled into a snow-covered parking lot. Igor tried to back into a spot. There were two cars buried in the way. I thought he had enough space, but he went forward and backwards and got thoroughly stuck. I went out to stand in 14F cold and a foot of snow to direct him. He kept getting out to see for himself, and cussing the two little cars. "Let's try to push the cars out of the way!" They seemed tiny next to the big rig so it seemed like a good idea. But when we counted to three and lifted, the thing didn't budge.
The only other guy around was a Mexican guy. Igor asked him for help. They had a brief conversation and I enjoyed listening to their accents. Igor later said that he prefers to talk to foreigners because native speakers can be hard to understand.
The Mexican helped Igor get unstuck and then he parked parallel along the edge of the lot. We were picked up by his Ukranian roommate who spoke very little English. I had no idea that there were so many Russians in Chicago, many of whom spoke no English. The two shared a little house on a quiet street with one other roommate. I remember slipping along their ice-covered alley to the back door. Inside I was treated to a hot bowl of homemade soup. Delicious! I also took the opportunity to take a hot shower. I was given a whole bed in the living room to sleep on, but I didn't. I asked for the wifi password when the others went to bed and spent the last few hours of darkness on my laptop, looking at maps and bus schedules to plan a way out of the city. It was cold and I wanted to be in Mexico as soon as possible! I also emailed my Dad:
I am in Chicago... Wrong way I know but I'm working on it.
The last thing I did before leaving was brush my teeth. When I reached into my bag for my soap, my hand plunged into a sticky mess. My toothpaste tube had exploded. Toothpaste, it turns out, is the gooiest, stickiest, slop, and possibly the worst thing to have all over the inside of your backpack. Fortunately it was confined to one pocket. I scraped and cleaned it out as best I could in their kitchen sink (which was not very well), then closed the pocket to forget about forever.
< 01/16 01/17 01/18 >