Here’s more of the true story of when I was sixteen and ran away from home and hitchhiked over a thousand miles and all sorts of things happened.
Chapter 8: Shadow Thumbed a Diesel Down, Just Before it Rained (it didn’t really rain but it’s from a song and the rest is true)
All right, so we got to the Columbus, Ohio bus station. We weren’t able to sleep there — I’m sure we snoozed as we sat in the chairs but security would have bugged us if we’d tried to stretch out or anything — but we stayed the night, and it was safe and warm. My memories are spotty: I know at some point I went into the bathroom and removed the trash bag I’d been wearing under my shirt since we’d left West Virginia. At one point Shadow tried to play guitar with a bunch of guys who were playing their guitars, and he tried to blame his poor playing on the fact that he didn’t have a pick; one of the guys gave him a pick and he was still very bad, and it was all very embarrassing. We were low on money and so once it was morning we got candy from a vending machine for breakfast. I don’t remember what I got — maybe a Three Musketeers bar? — but I remember feeling sick after eating it. I’d been horribly hungry, and throwing sugar and chocolate on top of the hunger was just awful. I never was able to eat sugar for breakfast again after that.
Before then, I’d been an average teenager and thought M&Ms were the ideal breakfast. The trip sparked a weird eating disorder in me. After I got back, I hated food. It was like I was angry at food for having been so hard to get. I hadn’t been fat before, by any means, but within a few months of returning I weighed less than ninety pounds. I’m short and have a small frame, but still. I got better eventually; my friends got worried and made me eat, but it was a couple years before really I had a normal attitude about food. It took me literally decades to realize it had been an eating disorder, because I’d always thought of eating disorders being about the goal of getting thinner, and this wasn’t it at all. I didn’t care about losing weight; I just didn’t want to be dependent on food. Which I know makes no sense; we’re all dependent on food. But it freaked me out nonetheless. It also makes no sense because I was a smoker, and continued to be one for another 15 years. Apparently that dependency was fine with me.
Here is a part I had forgotten, completely, until I unearthed my old diary. All the times I’ve told the story over the years, I talked about how much I’d loved hitchhiking. And I did, some of the time. But that night, at the bus station, I was miserable. We’d nearly frozen to death, nearly died sliding down the mountain, and that last driver had been truly frightening. I didn’t want to go home, but I didn’t want to hitchhike anymore either. Shadow tried reaching family in Washington, to ask if they could send us some money to take the bus. But he either couldn’t reach them or they didn’t have the money.
So we sat in the bus station all night and I was unhappy and Shadow probably tried to cheer me up, but I don’t think he was happy either.
Regardless of my misery, I didn’t want to call my parents and go home, so we continued west the next morning. We weren’t anywhere near the highway, but we looked at the public transit map until we found a bus that went close to the highway. We couldn’t afford the fare (we had spent the last of our money on our vending-machine-candy breakfast) but the bus driver driving the opposite way on that line said we could ride for free if we didn’t mind waiting till the bus came back the other way. We did not mind.
We got a lot of short rides once we were on the highway. I don’t remember them all. There was a guy who started driving off before Shadow was quite done getting the guitar out of the back seat. Shadow thought he was trying to steal the guitar, but I thought maybe not because he’d seemed like such a straight-laced guy. Besides, I thought, why would he have wanted to drive down the road with his back door open. It now occurs to me that the door probably would have closed on its own if he drove at all fast. Anyway, Shadow got the guitar out in time.
We finally got picked up by an eighteen-wheeler whose driver suggested I crawl into the… well, it’s a sort of space in the cab of the truck, up behind the driver’s head. I would swear that he, and every other trucker I met that trip, called it the “dog house,” but looking around online, it looks like maybe that’s a different part of the truck and I’m remembering wrong? Anyway, I’m going to call it the dog house. It’s a sort of bunk where the driver can sleep. I crawled in and found it full of pillows and blankets. I was freezing, and I hadn’t slept in ages, and that dog house seemed like the comfiest, coziest, best place in the world. The rumble of the road and the drone of their voices, muffled by the pillows, had me asleep in seconds. I was told later that while I was asleep I kept sliding half out of the dog house and nearly hitting them in the head. I was completely oblivious, dead to the world. I don’t know how long we drove; I don’t think we were on the main highway, but even so, according to the map it couldn’t have been more than four hours. All I know is that when I woke up, I felt great. He left us in Lebanon, Indiana, at a McDonald’s (which I believe I found on the map; it is the only McDonald’s there and looks like it’s probably the one I remember). He gave us some coupons he had for free Big Macs; I’d never had a Big Mac before and it was amazing, possibly because I hadn’t eaten since the candy bar that morning, and nothing for most of the day before that.
After we ate, we stood on the road until a pickup truck stopped for us. Shadow rode in the truck bed and I rode in the front with the driver. He was a young guy who had just gotten out of the army and was arriving home after four years away. As we drove, he pointed out farms that belonged to friends’ parents, the house where the girl he’d taken to prom lived, stuff like that. He was so happy to be home, and so glad to have someone to talk to about it. He didn’t drive us more than ten miles or so, but by the time he dropped us off, I loved hitchhiking again.
I continued to love hitchhiking for the rest of that third day. I don’t remember much about the rides we got. I know we stood on the side of a road for a long time, and Shadow sang “the ants go marching one-by-one” to me. And we walked a lot; there’s a lot more walking in hitchhiking than you might realize. We got picked up at one point by a van, and I was worried about getting in until the side door opened, and I saw a couple little kids and a smiling old lady. I don’t remember them talking much. The rides were few and far between, I guess, because we only made it about 150 miles from the McDonald’s by nightfall. It was a good day, though.
The last ride we got that day was sort of an accident. We were standing on the shoulder with our thumbs out, freaking out because it was dark and there was nowhere we could walk to, and a sharp embankment on the other side of the guardrail. A truck pulled over, and we ran to it. It turned out the guy had just stopped because he needed to pee, but he said he’d drive us to a truck stop. There was a hilarious exchange where he said, “Sure, I’ll give you a ride, just have to ‘drain the radiator’ first,” and Shadow, thinking he was actually having trouble with the radiator, offered to help. But it was fine, and we got to the truck stop. I had a hell of a time figuring out where the truck stop had been. It was just outside Bloomington, Illinois and according to my diary the name of it was “Bloomington Family Restaurant.” No such place exists now, but after a lot of searching I decided that it is either where the “TA Travel Center” or the “Pilot Travel Center” are now. They’re right next to each other. I think it was the TA place. Both the buildings are brand new, though.
We stood outside the doors to the truck stop restaurant and asked truckers if they were heading west. One of them stopped and looked in his wallet, went back inside, and I guess got change. He came back and gave us $10 to get some dinner. We thanked him; it’s always hard to know how to thank people for that sort of thing. We went in and were just finishing when the waitress came over and told us someone else had paid for our meal. We didn’t know who it was — Shadow thought he maybe recognized someone at another table, a trucker who had maybe picked him up once. The waitress didn’t tell us.
(Then it was weird because we’d been planning on getting coffee, but that would cost more and the bill had already been paid. I don’t remember if we got coffee and paid just for that or if we just didn’t get coffee or what.)
I was blown away by all this kindness. In my diary I wrote about feeling sad because it was the sort of thing I wanted to tell my mom about. We felt certain that there were no better people in the world than truckers.
After, we were in the store area attached to the restaurant — you know, like truck stops have — and suddenly the cops were there and asking for our IDs again. Someone who worked there, I think the cashier lady, had called them because I was obviously a runaway (I was going to put that “obviously” in sarcastic quotes and then I remembered that she was absolutely right). So the cops talked to us for a bit and I guess they were fine with our story and left. Or tried to leave, because the cashier lady was arguing with them. But we had IDs, and, well, honestly I have no idea why the cops left. I was SO OBVIOUSLY a runaway.
After the cops finally got away, a bunch of the women who worked there were having some kind of whispered argument and one of them was on the phone. We assumed she was calling the police again, but then she came over and told us that her sister ran a youth shelter in town. We could stay there for the night, and she would drive us there. So we went to the youth shelter with this lady. I’m almost certain the place we went was called “Connection House.” It’s not there anymore, but I found mentions of it in old Bloomington newspapers, and it’s definitely the right area.
Oh! One funny thing: while at the truck stop, I saw a little laminated card with a poem on it about someone sticking with you during difficult times, and it cost like a dollar, and I bought it because it made me think of Shadow. Only later I found out it was supposed to be about Jesus. Which hadn’t even occurred to me, somehow. In my memory it was that footprints “I carried you” poem, but I just went and read it and it couldn’t have possibly been that because it says very clearly and upfront that it is about God. I wonder what it was. I remember showing it to someone and being like “Isn’t that sweet? It makes me think of my boyfriend!” and them looking at me weird, but I wasn’t saying I thought he was a god. I just didn’t get the point of the poem.
Anyway, at the youth shelter, there was a boys’ side and a girls’ side, and it was really weird to be separated from Shadow. But the shelter was ok. I sat in a sort of screened-in porch with a bunch of teenage girls. We smoked cigarettes and I told them about my adventures so far. Between what I was doing and the fact that I was supposedly twenty, they were kind of in awe of me. I’d never had anyone in awe of me before.
I only remember flashes of the whole thing. At one point I was talking about how great truckers were, and one of the girls was like, “My father is a trucker.” I made a whole thing about what a great guy her father must be, and now I feel like total shit because, christ, she was a fifteen-year-old living in a shelter. I can’t imagine her father could have been a very good guy at all.
The only two other things I remember from my night at the youth shelter: First, the girls were making fun of how religious one of the teachers was. Second, a couple of the girls pulled me aside as we were heading up to the rooms, telling me that they were going to “get” one of the other girls and did I want to come along? I did not. I tried to show how much I disapproved of the idea. Who knows — maybe I convinced them.
Eventually it was time for everyone to go to bed. I was given a tiny room of my own, just big enough for a single bed and a small table, and I fell asleep fast.
We traveled about 347 miles that day.
[This part of the diary is a bit muddled because Shadow and I both wrote on this page and we didn’t move to a new line or anything; just started writing next to what had been written before. Our handwriting’s pretty different, but it’s also weird because there are no breaks for time passing. One paragraph was written at three different points on the trip. So I’ll break it up a bit.]
[Shadow] We are now in Lebanon Indiana, at Mickey D’s.
[Me] Sleep at last! I just had my first [I think I was going to say “Big Mac”]
[Shadow] We are now in Illinois at the truck stop. We just got $10.00 from a trucker to get something to eat. Hopefully we can find a ride to the West soon. Boy these truckers are great people.
[Shadow] Well we got to keep the $10.00. Another trucker just paid for our dinner. It just goes to show that there are still some good people in the world.
[Me] We didn’t even know him, we never exchanged words. The waitress simply informed us that our bill was being taken care of. The only thing that bothers me about this, is that when things like this happen I want to share them with my mom, and I can’t. These people who pick us up aren’t family, and although we’ll write them, they never will [be?]. When I was riding to this place I realized Shadow is my only family now. And I don’t mind. He’s the best family anyone could ever want.
Note: Some of this was different for the first two days it was up, because I got all muddled and thought we went to Bloomington Indiana rather than where we went, which was Bloomington Illinois. Don’t know how I managed that — I found old versions of the story I’ve written and I definitely knew it was Illinois before. Anyway, I figured it out when I (finally) noticed that the diary mentions Illinois a bunch of times, both in the entries and in the addresses we wrote down in the back.
There’s this song, “Highway,” by David Francey, who I know nothing about except this one song, that I find to be the perfect description of what it’s like to hitchhike. I’ve been listening to it a lot while writing this, so I thought I’d link to it. It’s not at all a punk rock song, or the sort of song I’d usually like, but it’s exactly right about hitchhiking. It works really well as a lullaby, too.