This is part of the first chapter of a book I'm writing based on my experience as a hobo in the early 1980s:
I sat on a cement bench and set my backpack upright on the floor in front of me. Then, reaching into a pocket on its side, I pulled out a Rand McNally Road Atlas and opened it up on my lap, to the map of southern California. I looked at the route I had traced in yellow highlighter pen that began at San Bernardino and followed Interstate 15 to Barstow then followed Interstate 40 to the Arizona state line. This wasnâ��t the first time I had traced a route on a road map, but this one was different. This one was â��for realâ��. Ever since I was a kid I had collected maps and over the years I had accumulated a small number of road maps and atlases on which I had traced routes for journeys and adventures I was going to take â��One Of These Daysâ��. When I was 16 or 17 I remember that my best friend Dave and I had traced out a particularly complex route in a 1978 edition of the Rand McNally Road Atlas, which wound up and down, in and out, thru all 48 continental states, a trip that we planned to take by bicycle. About a year before that I had traced out a similar route in an Allstate Insurance Vacation Guide, for a walking tour I was going to take. Well, â��One Of These Daysâ�� had finally arrived, and the route I had traced on the atlas in my lap was a projected route for a hitchhiking journey that I was leaving on today (â��Todayâ�� being June 5, 1983).
I looked up from the book at the people who were slowly filling the room. I was in the basement of the Union Rescue Mission on S. Main St in downtown Los Angeles. Breakfast was over and people were filing down the stairway into the basement, some for free showers, or clothes, some to use the laundry facilities the mission provided to the street people, some to use the bathrooms. There was also a barber shop, but that was not open for another few hours. Over the din I could hear someone with a Caribbean accent singing the theme song to an old TV western:
Cheyenne, Cheyenne, where will you be camping tonight?
Lonely, man, Cheyenne, will your heart stay free and light?
For the past eight months I had been staying at the mission. Last night my friend John and I decided to â��celebrateâ�� our last night in Los Angeles so we went to the cocktail lounge on the 35th floor of the Bonaventure Hotel. It rotated slowly and we got a view of most of the city from our table near the window. We each had about 6 or 7 drinks (I had martinis and he had scotch and soda), then about 2 AM we staggered back to the mission drunk. A friend of ours who worked in the mission let us in and we slept in the seats in the chapel since we didnâ��t have bed tickets.
About half an hour earlier I had retrieved my backpack from the storage facility in the front end of the basement, in an area called â��The Cageâ��, partitioned off from the rest of the basement by a counter, along then top of which ran a section of chain link-fencing. It was manned by a fat Mexican who spoke Spanish and heavily accented broken English. He wore a white plastic-covered name tag which identified him as a recent addition to the Missionâ��s Christian Life rehabilitation program (all members were required to wear their name tag for their first 30 days on the program). He was arguing in Spanish with one of the â��guestsâ�� about the two-bag limit that each person was allowed to store in the facility, barely audible in the cacophony of voices and other sounds that filled the room. Upstairs I could hear someone slamming a door. Somewhere in the distance, a toilet flushed. The ceiling reverberated with the sound of someone pushing an electric floor buffer across the floor of the room upstairs.
Dream Cheyenne of a girl you may never love.
Move along, Cheyenne like the restless cloud up above.
I had spent the past few months in another of the Missionâ��s programs, this one for men aged 18 to 25. It was called the Crossroads School of Christian Development. It was run by a rather friendly preacher named John (in the interest of privacy, Iâ��m not giving last names) who kind of reminded me of a leprechaun. Johnâ��s assistant, also named John was a sort of mousy fellow, also an ordained minister, whom very few people liked. They were assisted by the â��Crossroads Councilâ�� a group of five rather narrow-minded and intolerant people, also whom not too many people liked and who always insisted that they were put there by divine fiat and that all of their decisions were â��directed by the Holy Spiritâ��, which was, in my opinion, a convenient cover to avoid admitting to the possibility of making mistakes and errors of judgment and to insulate themselves from criticism. . I had managed to become friends with a couple of them, but honestly thought than none of them really had any leadership skills. The â��senior memberâ�� was named Gerald, a not-too-intelligent guy who always insisted on wearing those square neckties that looked to me like a sock tied around his neck. Below him on the totem pole was William, a skinny guy who was quite friendly but a bit on the naÃ¯ve side. Devoted to his religion, he wasnâ��t too fanatical, and was actually a pretty nice guy. He and I had become friends almost immediately after my arrival. Then there was Rick, a guy whom I never really trusted, who always went around with a chip on his shoulder. And last was Sam, a spoiled rich kid whose parents had bought his job for him. His parents were among the missionâ��s biggest donors, and they had brought him there when his drug addiction and disrespect had gotten too much to handle. Within a day he had converted and almost immediately he was transferred to an administrative position and put on the council. He was one of those â��on fire for the Lordâ�� people, whose sincerity I never really took seriously. He and I were friends, but his somewhat overboard show of piety was a bit annoying. And these were Godâ��s anointed leaders. Well, it would seem that God was not a very good judge of character. No wonder the world is in the shape itâ��s in if these are the kind of people God chooses to run it. I had been in the program briefly a couple years earlier when John was running it with only the assistance of a â��coordinatorâ�� named Bob, and things had run much more smoothly then. Bob was short-tempered, foulmouthed and belligerent, but loyal to John, so he managed to keep himself under control for the most part. Once, while he was on vacation someone had found a box of pornographic magazines in his room, and he managed to lie his way out of it, convincing John that the box was already in the closet when he moved in and he never knew it was there until they found it. Shortly before my arrival here the second time, Bob had lost patience with the other John, and punched him in the face which led to Bob being kicked out of the mission for a few months, but he had recently rejoined as the assistant to the head chaplain.
Move along, Cheyenne the next pasture's always so green.
Driftin' on, Cheyenne don't forget the things you have seen,
John, the one I was traveling with (not either of the two Johnâ��s I mentioned earlier) came down the stairs and pushed his way through the crowd toward me. I put the atlas back into my backpack and zipped the pocket.
â��Ready?â�� John asked. â��Yeah, I guess soâ�� I said. John then retrieved his backpack from the Cage and we headed up the stairs.
And when you settle down where will it be Cheyenne.
As we passed the office near the front entrance, Lou, a friend of mine who worked in the office, tapped on the glass surrounding the office. â��So you guys are going now?â�� he asked, with a New Zealand accent. â��Yepâ��, John said. There was an older guy, about 45 years old, sweeping the floor with a push broom. His name was Charlie Brown (that was his real name), and he had been at the Mission for almost 20 years. â��See you later, Charlie Brownâ�� I said (everyone always called him by his full name). â��Byeâ�� he answered without looking up. As we headed out the door, a couple of my friends, Flavio and Francisco, (illegal aliens from Oaxaca Mexico and Izabal, Guatemala) passed me in the door. â��Ya me voy ahoraâ�� I said to them.
â��Going to Mexico?â�� Flavio asked (the conversation was actually in Spanish, but for convenience Iâ��m giving it in English). â��Maybeâ��, I answered, but first weâ��re probably going to Canada or Alaska, but weâ��ll see. Iâ��m pretty much just going to decide where to go when I get thereâ��.
â��Well, see you then. Good luckâ�� Francisco said.
We left the mission and walked past St Vibianaâ��s Cathedral and stopped at the corner of Main and Second Street to wait for the light to change. Then we walked up Second Street and turned left onto Spring Street and stopped at a bus stop halfway between Second and Third Streets to wait for the RTD bus that would take us to Riverside where our journey would start.
After a few minutes the bus came and we got on, paid the fare and found seats in the middle, kind of near the back. After an uneventful ride that included a fifteen-minute stop in West Covina, the bus finally dropped us off in Riverside and we walked several blocks to the nearest I-15 on-ramp. John turned into an alley behind a building and opened the lid of a green dumpster, one of three behind a long yellow building. He looked inside it then closed the lid and lifted the lid of another dumpster next to the first one After rummaging through it he pulled a cardboard box out of it. He tore the flaps off and handed me one of them. Then he set his backpack on the ground and untied the string that held the flap on the top closed and pushed some of the contents aside, sliding the cardboard pieces into the pack then closed the flap and tied the string. â��Hitchhiking signsâ�� he said, tossing the rest of the box back into the dumpster.
We stopped when we came to an onramp that had trees on both sides of it. I set my backpack on the ground and sat down on it. I unzipped a compartment on the side of it and took out a black magic marker and wrote â��ARIZONAâ�� on the cardboard. Then I put the pen back and sat facing the oncoming traffic holding the sign in my lap. â��It might be easier to catch a ride if thereâ��s only one of us hereâ�� John said, and he crawled into the bushes behind me. After a few minutes I caught the scent of his Captain Black cherry pipe tobacco. I reached into my pocket and pulled out a pipe. It was the kind that curved downward, like a Sherlock Holmes pipe. I had gotten it as a Christmas gift at a Christmas party that Chaplain John had given at his house, for members of the Crossroads program. I then took a pack of generic whiskey-rum tobacco out of a pocket on my backpack, and stuffed the pipe and then took a disposable lighter out of my pocket. I attempted to light it but the breeze blew out the flame, so I cupped my hand around the lighter and tried again. This time the flame didnâ��t go out and I held it up to the bowl of my pipe and lit it. Then I slipped the lighter into my pocket and put the tobacco back into the pocket on my pack.
After about half an hour he crawled out. â��Nothing yet?â�� he said.
Maybe we should try another spotâ�� he suggested. I shouldered my pack and put my pipe into my pocket and, carrying the sign in my free hand, we set off for the next onramp. When we reached it there was someone there already.
Helloâ�� he said.
â��Hiâ�� John said. We set down our packs and shook hands, â��Iâ��m John, and this hereâ��s Jeff.â��
â��Iâ��m Tomâ��, he said
â��Where you headed?â�� John asked.
â��New Mexicoâ�� he answered. â��You?â��
â��Alaskaâ�� John said. â��We were up at the other onramp up there,â�� John pointed with his pipe, â��but werenâ��t having much luck, so we came hereâ��
After we talked for a few minutes, John and I picked up our packs. â��Weâ��d better get alongâ��, he said. â��Weâ��re cutting each otherâ��s throats trying to all catch a ride in the same place. Weâ��ll be getting on to the next onramp.â��
â��Next oneâ��s a couple miles. Maybe youâ��d be better off to go back to the one you were at earlierâ��
â��Guess soâ��, John said
After saying goodbye we made our way back to the first onramp. I pulled out my pipe and tobacco and lit it, then sat down with my sign the same way as before while John crawled into the bushes. After about an hour a red Dodge Charger pulled up. The driver leaned over and rolled down the window. â��I can take you as far as Barstowâ��, he said.
â��Thereâ��s two of usâ��, I said.
â��Thatâ��s fine,â�� he answered.
â��OK, thanks,â�� I said, then called over my shoulder â��John, we got a ride to Barstowâ��. John crawled out of the bushes, dragging his pack with him and we got into the car, John in the back and I in the front.
â��So where yâ��all headed to?â�� he asked after we got going.
â��Alaskaâ�� John said.
â��Long ways,â�� the driver said. â��Got family up there, or what?â��
â��No, weâ��re going to try to find jobs,â�� John said. â��Thereâ��s supposed to be lots of jobs up there.â��
â��Thereâ��s a couple beers under the seat if you want someâ�� he said. â��I canâ��t drink while Iâ��m driving, but thereâ��s no reason you guys canâ��tâ��. I reached under the seat and pulled out a six-pack of Budweiser with 4 cans in it. I handed one of them to John and took one myself then started to put the other two back under the seat.
â��Yâ��all can take those other two with you if you want, for laterâ�� he said.
â��Thanksâ�� John and I both said, and I put the two cans into my backpack.
â��Just be careful, if we pass a cop, to not let them see the can in your hand,â�� he said, â��they got that damn â��open containerâ�� law.
â��Iâ��m headed up to Vegas to play the slots,â�� he said. â��But I gotta be careful not to get stopped by the cops or anything. Iâ��m on parole and I ainâ��t supposed to be out of the state.â��
â��What were you in for?â�� John asked, â��if you donâ��t mind me askingâ��
â��DUIâ��, he said. â��It was like my third or fourth offense so they sent me up for a year, then 4 years parole. I got a year and a half left to go on that.â��
Around 3 in the afternoon we reached the point where I-40 branched off from I-15. The driver pulled over to the side of the road. â��Here you goâ�� he said. We got out of the car. â��Thanks for the rideâ�� John said, shaking the driverâ��s hand. John closed the car door and then the car raced away, up Interstate 15. We walked up a few feet to a large circular onramp to I-40 that made a loop around a clump of small pine trees that were about ten feet or so tall then we set our packs down near the edge of the shoulder. I took out my â��Arizonaâ�� sign.
â��Hey, lookâ�� John said, pointing. Up ahead a few hundred feet, where the onramp started, under an overpass, was Tom, the guy we met at the second onramp in Riverside. I set down the sign. We left our packs where we had set them and went down to where he was.
â��Howâ��d you get here so quick?â�� I asked. He laughed, â��Lucky, I guess. Right after I got picked up I seen you guys at the on ramp. Well I saw you anyway, but I didnâ��t see himâ��, he pointed at John with his thumb.
â��I was in the bushes behind him,â�� John said. Easier to catch a ride if thereâ��s only one person there.â��
After we talked for a bit we went back up to where weâ��d left our packs and I picked up my ARIZONA sign and handed it to John who took a turn at the side of the road while I sat in the clump of trees smoking my pipe. When I finished with my pipe I put it back into my pocket then took my Bible out of my pack and read it for a while.
At around five PM, John got up and handed me the sign. He pointed at a store down the hill from us. â��Iâ��m going to go get us some supperâ�� he said and trotted down the hill towards the store. A few minutes later he came back with a loaf of Wonder bread, a pack of bologna and two large coffees in covered foam cups. After we ate, I took a turn with the sign until it started to get dark. Then we hid our packs in the trees in the center of the loop and went down to the overpass talk to Tom. While we were talking, I noticed on the backs of several signs on the post next to the road, a number of people had written their names, where they came from and where they were headed. I took out my magic marker and wrote my name and â��Los Angeles, 1983â�� on the back of the I-40 sign, then John did the same, then added â��Alaska or bustâ��. I looked at all the names on the signs. There was a guy from San Francisco who was headed for Colorado, and another, from Los Angeles who was going to Tennessee. Someone from Seattle had passed thru here on his way to Florida. As I read the names and places I wondered how many of them actually made it to their destinations. At about 9:00 we retuned to where we left our packs and made camp for the night.
When I woke up at about 6:00 the next morning, Johnâ��s pack was there but I didnâ��t see him. I came out of the trees and looked around. The sun was still low in the eastern sky, appearing over the mountains which looked purplish, still in shadow, except for the summits which were bathed in sunlight. Where I was, it was sunny, but still cool. Then I saw him coming back up the hill from the store. He handed me one of the two coffees he was carrying then we sat down on our packs and made some bologna sandwiches for breakfast. I looked toward the overpass to see if I could see Tom. John saw where I was looking and said â��He got a ride. A truck picked him up late last night.â��
After we ate we decided, rather than stand by the roadside weâ��d start walking and hitchhiking at the same time. That way, if we didnâ��t get a ride weâ��d at least make a few miles a day walking. So we shouldered our packs and began walking along East Main Street, then made our way to the National Trails Highway. After an uneventful walk of about 2 hours in the blazing sun, we reached a town called Daggett. â��First thing, we got to find a place to stash our stuffâ��, John said. We turned onto a road called A Street, and crossed an overpass over the freeway, on the other side of which was a pipe that went under the road, part of a now-dry drainage ditch alongside the onramp. We stuffed our packs into the pipe then went back up A Street into the town. Just the other side of some train tracks was a street called Santa Fe Street, where we found a small store. We went in and John asked for a Pepsi and I asked for a Dr Pepper. The old man who ran the store, who spoke with slight traces of a European accent that I couldnâ��t identify, got the two sodas out of a refrigerated case and we paid for them, then went out and sat at a picnic table a few feet away. John rested his head on his arm on the table. I took the road atlas out of my pack, opened it and looked at the map A few minutes later the guy from the store came out. When he saw us he walked over to us. â��Donâ��t go to sleepâ�� he said to John, â��or theyâ��ll arrest you for vagrancy.â��
John sat up. â��Weâ��re just resting for a bit. Weâ��ll head out of town before tonight.
â��Oh, thatâ��s not a problem,â�� he said, just donâ��t let anyone catch you asleep in public is all.â��
I pointed at the map. â��Next town is called Newberryâ�� I said.
â��Newberry Springsâ�� the store guy corrected.
John looked at the map. â��Looks like about 20 miles or soâ��.
The store guy pointed â��Itâ��s at the foot of those mountains. If you walk it will probably take a whole day.
After about an hour we got up and walked over to a tree next to the train tracks.
â��I think we should wait till it cools down before we continueâ��, John said. I agreed and so we sat down under the tree and I took out my pipe and lit it up.
â��I wonder where this track goes.â�� John said.
â��No ideaâ�� I said, â��itâ��s not on the map.â��
About 6:30 or so we got up and walked back to the road and retrieved our packs then continued on our way. We walked until around midnight then left the road to look for a place to camp for the night. After a while we found what appeared to be a crater about 25 feet across, about 3 feet deep, with a rim about a foot or so high. We set down our packs in the center of the crater and unrolled our sleeping bags.
Sometime in the middle of the night I woke up partially, to see some medium size dogs shadowed in the moonlight, at the rim of the crater looking at us. After a few minutes they left. Unsure whether I was dreaming it or not, I went back to sleep.
When I woke up, John already had his sleeping bag rolled up and he was standing on the edge of the crater looking around. I rolled mine up, fastened it to my backpack and joined him on the rim of the crater. I lit up my pipe and watched a roadrunner chasing a small grey lizard in and out among the sagebrush. I looked at my watch and it said 6:30. The sun was low in the sky and the desert was somewhat cool and quiet
â��I had the weirdest dream last nightâ��, I said. â��a bunch of dogsâ�¦â��
â��That wasnâ��t a dreamâ��, he interrupted. â��That was a pack of coyotes. I was hoping you wouldnâ��t wake up and panic or anything.â��
I gazed out across the desert, looking for the roadrunner I had seen earlier. I didnâ��t see it anywhere, but I did see what appeared to be a river in the distance. â��Any idea what river that is?â�� I asked.
â��I donâ��t think itâ��s a river.â�� He answered. â��Itâ��s a mirage. Thereâ��s no rivers within eyeshot of here.â��
â��I wonder what river is causing it though.â�� I said
â��I told you, it ainâ��t a river.â�� He said.
â��Yeah,â�� I said, â��but mirages are caused by an actual body of water somewhere, reflecting off the atmosphere or something. Itâ��s a kind of optical trick nature plays.â��
â��Oh,â�� he said, â��then itâ��s probably the Colorado, a couple hundred miles that wayâ�� he pointed east.
I looked at the mountains, which didnâ��t look any closer than they did the previous day. â��Jesus, are those mountains ever going to get closer? It seems like theyâ��re getting farther awayâ�� I said.
â��Weâ��re about a third of the way,â�� John said. â��We should be there by this afternoon sometimeâ��.
After we ate, we picked up our packs and headed back to the road.
As we trudged down the highway the relative cool of the early morning quickly gave way to unrelenting heat. We each carried a 2-liter soda bottle filled with water, on a cord slung over our shoulders, but in the intense dry heat our water supply didnâ��t last long and about 10:30 we came to an isolated house in the middle of the desert.. â��Wait hereâ�� John said. â��Iâ��m going to see if I can get us some more waterâ��. I handed him my water bottle and he took both bottles and went over to the house and knocked at the door. A minute later the door opened. John talked briefly with the occupant who came out and led John around the side of the house where John filled the bottles from a garden hose.
Then we continued on our way...
May 19, 2012 10:57:42 pmby Chipka Online Now! Homepage »
Very well done. You've provided a nice sense of character and mood in this, which is wonderful, and I feel a sense off anticipation for more, and that's always a good thing. I'd actually seen and read this earlier (in bits and pieces) and I finally settled down after a long while (endless delays and calls away to do something else rather than what I wanted to do.) But I got about an hour of free time and spent a part of that re-reading this. I like what I've read and I hope that there is more to this. I like the sense of outside-ness...the way events roll together and the reader gets a pronounced sense of place. The bits of repetition (mostly the theme song lyrics) really set of a nice cadence.
Great work and I look forward to more.