Sunday, September 11, 2016

Joe Omundson

Portland to Moab

Yesterday I arrived back in Moab to finish my 5-week journey. There are so damn many things I could write about right now! For this post I'll mostly narrate my travels and then maybe after that I'll have some more philosophical things to write about.

At the end of my last post I had arrived in my friend's basement room after a long day of hitching. I barely left that room for the next 4-5 days, and it was perfect. I rested my knee which I had injured on the hike and took it really easy. I guess I needed a few days alone indoors to settle down after my travels. Many thanks to my friend Krystle for her unwavering generosity in spite of the fact that I made her womancave basement smell like hikertrash, farts, and weed (OK maybe that list is a bit redundant).

Eventually, it was time for me to be on my way. I met up with my great aunt and we had a nice lunch together. She took me to my mom's house, where I spent the night, and met my newest cousin (2 years old) for the first time -- their family was visiting from California.

Hmm -- I'm noticing that I want the story to feel "complete" so I'm tempted to narrate every thing that happened, but for most readers it's probably not very interesting to read about me catching up with my friends and family, even though to me it was a great part of my trip. So I will focus on the hitchhiking parts. In summary, after seeing my mom & family, I went to Corvallis and Bend to visit some friends.

I didn't need to hitch on the way to Corvallis, I got a ride with family to Salem and then my friends picked me up there. I spent one night at my friends' house, who were again quite generous with food, drink, and entertainment. In the morning, one of their roommates kindly drove me the 15 miles to the junction of hwy 34 and I-5 so I could start hitching toward Bend from there.

My plan was to take hwy 34 & 20 straight to Bend. So I got to a good spot on the east side of I-5 and started putting out my thumb. Eventually the oldest-looking car I'd seen in an hour stopped for me, and I got in. When I told him I was trying to get to Bend, the driver informed me that it was completely closed due to a landslide, and I'd have to detour up through Salem. Bummer! That meant a more complicated route with more rides to hitch. But I was glad I found out as soon as I did. After a couple hundred yards he pulled over and let me out. I thanked him and started walking back to I-5.

Something interesting about Oregon is that it's the only state I've hitchhiked in where it is legal to walk along the side of the interstate and solicit a ride; normally I'm restricted to onramps or highway shoulders. I thought I'd try this new freedom and so I started walking down the onramp to get to the freeway. As I was walking past the merging lanes to get to a safe spot to wait, I held out my left thumb, and someone stopped for me. Well, that was easy! I walked up to his car, and as I was opening the door and noticing the strong weed odor pouring out, I heard a voice that sounded like it was coming through a radio -- "are you just hitching a ride?" At first I thought it was inside the car, but then I heard it again and looked around; a cop had pulled up behind us and was talking to me over the loudspeaker. I indicated that, yes, I was just hitching a ride (I wonder what else he thought we might be doing?), and he said "OK, good luck" and drove off.

Some people might have been sketched out by the weed-smelling car, but I could tell the driver was a harmless type of stoner who would have probably been less capable to drive while sober because he's always high. I wouldn't want to ride with a drunk driver but stoned drivers are more tolerable for me. So I got in. The guy was a grower from Eugene, making a delivery to a dispensary or something. He had buds sitting out on his dashboard and packed a pipe which we shared. When it was cached, he cleared out the ashes by turning the pipe upside down and knocking it on the gearshift (or whatever the equivalent in an automatic is called), and packed a different strain. He was from Eugene and I don't remember much of what we talked about. Conveniently, he was taking the same exit I needed to get on hwy 22.

My next ride came from a gal who was on her way to work. She drove me maybe 15 minutes east. She was very sweet, kind of quiet, but would laugh in this really adorable way at certain things. I felt like we could have been friends. She confided that she'd been off meth for 8 months, and because she'd been stuck for several months in a bad situation in California at one point in her life, she knew what it was like to need a ride somewhere. I felt so privileged to have had the opportunity to see her kind graciousness and her painful past at the same time. She was 100% real with me.

That's a beautiful thing about hitchhiking: because we both know our encounter is of a short duration and we will never see each other again, it creates a certain kind of safe space to talk about personal issues. Not everyone wants to go there, but sometimes people open up about their lives in ways that they probably wouldn't tell most of their friends. I don't mean to inflate my sense of self-importance, but sometimes I feel like when I hitchhike I am offering a spontaneous, unconventional form of therapy. I listen without judgment. I hold space for people to talk about what's hard. I share honestly from my own experience. Sometimes we just sit silently. And, always, I express my deep gratitude for their willingness to stop and give me a ride, which is easy to do because I feel it so strongly. When they offer to go above and beyond, by offering me a ride that's out of their way or giving me food or money, I make it clear that I absolutely don't expect anything like that but if they insist, I accept enthusiastically. I believe generosity is a form of therapy that benefits the giver, and it is much more rewarding to give to someone who is appreciative than to someone who feels guilty for receiving and turns down offers.

Of course, I am not a therapist and indeed it goes both ways. Many of the people who pick me up are in fact helping to heal my heart and it makes me feel warm. There are some very kind and generous folks out there.

My next ride was one of the more sketchy ones I've had. When he pulled up in his beater pickup truck, I tried to open the door but it was locked. He made a motion like "go ahead, just open the door." I tried again... definitely locked. Finally he leaned over and fumbled with pulling up the latch. I thought he seemed a bit drunk, and he likely was. I thought, "this is probably one of those times where it might be wise to make an excuse and turn down the ride." But I was a bit slow to decide. I ended up getting in. I'm still not sure if it was truly a bad idea to ride with him and I need to become more firm about turning down rides, or if my deepest instinct was actually that he was safe despite the feeling that he might have been drinking. The truck was loud, and the guy rambled and told stories the whole time I rode with him (mostly about previous DUIs), which was fortunately maybe only 15 minutes. I couldn't quite understand everything he said but fortunately he was the kind of guy who didn't really notice if I was reacting appropriately. The funny thing is, he actually drove very well, never swerved at all or did anything that felt unsafe. In his rambles he said a couple things that I thought were actually pretty insightful, about money and happiness. In the end I liked him.

The next time I got picked up was by a couple, which was a first for me. I kept hearing a chirping sound and was confused... were they listening to an audio recording of bird sounds? No, that would be weird. Then I realized the gal driving had a baby chick sitting on her shoulder. They'd picked it up in town when they went to the store. They were driving about 20 miles to Detroit, where they would drop me off and head to Breitenbush hot springs where they worked. But then they started playing my favorite Blackbird Raum album and we got to talking about that, and not long after that they decided to drive me all the way to Bend! It was 80 miles past their destination. We stopped at Breitenbush first to drop off the bird, then continued on to Bend, where they dropped me off right at my friends' place. So that was cool. They wanted to go to Bend anyway to check the dumpsters of some outdoor gear stores, which apparently will sometimes throw away decent gear if it's been returned and can't be sold. I liked these two, I felt they had a very respectful dynamic between them, which isn't always common. The guy was also pretty negative about certain things, and only had bad things to say about the place they were working. I kind of understand that mindset and it seemed like it stemmed from a desire for true equality and authenticity, but still, it would have been a little hard for me to be around him for an extended period of time.

So, I made it to Bend that day in pretty reasonable time, considering the detour I had to make. I stayed there 2 nights and enjoyed catching up with good friends. We went rock hounding and out to a concert. Though I don't see my friends as much as I'd like, one cool thing is seeing how their lives progress in intervals of several months at a time. One of the friends I visited is someone I had a huge crush on from hiking the PCT and it was kind of hard to go through the process of having those feelings reawakened and letting them go again. It's all just a learning process I guess.

The next morning, I started hitching at about 9:30 after my friend drove me to the highway. Bend had been my last planned stop. Now I was free to get to Moab however I could manage. My plan was to stay on hwy 20 all the way to Ontario and then take I-84 down the same way I'd come up. But... this didn't quite work out. I hitched until 1:00, and 3 people pulled over, but all of them were going a different way, turning off the highway in just a couple miles. I turned them all down in hopes of finding someone who was going farther along the 20. I got tired so I went off the road a ways to relax for about an hour. When I got back to the road, I decided to be more flexible if the next person wasn't going exactly my planned route. So at 2:15 I finally accepted a ride with a guy who was going to Prineville.

He had a pretty interesting story, he worked in a fire lookout tower for several months every year. He had just been up there alone for 21 days and was coming down to town for 2 nights. I picked his brain about that job, since I've considered doing it myself, and he said he could probably help me get a job in a tower near there if I emailed him in a few months. He took a slightly wrong turn which ended up being OK except we had to wait maybe 20 minutes for some road construction. We were pretty like-minded in our views on lifestyle and religion, and I enjoyed his somewhat eccentric enthusiasm. He dropped me off at the eastern edge of Prineville and went back into town; I hitched for another 2 or 3 hours with no luck. I could tell the vibe was much more rural and redneck-y. It seemed like most of the women who drove by were afraid even to look at me, and some of the men jeered or did weird things as they passed by. Eventually the sun got low and I started to think about where I could sleep. I looked at google maps and decided to walk about 3 miles to an area that looked possible. I walked past irrigation ditches, fields full of grasses and cows, farmhouses. Eventually I made it to my spot and made my bed on the ground without bothering to set up my tent -- it looked unlikely to rain, and the tent would have been more likely to attract attention from the highway which was still in view. The sunset was beautiful. It got sort of cold overnight but I was OK.

In the morning I walked 1 more mile to get to a lake where there was a big pullout spot, the best hitching option I could see on the map. I filled my water containers from the lake and started hitching. After about an hour with no luck, a vehicle pulled in and it was my same buddy from yesterday! He was heading up to the tower for another few weeks, which meant he could take me maybe 15 miles down the road. He went a few miles past his turnoff to get me to a spot with an adequate shoulder and dropped me off.

The first car that came down the highway was traveling pretty fast, and seemed unlikely to pull over, but I tried anyway and they slammed on their brakes to pick me up. As I would find out later, the only reason this guy encountered me at all is because he'd taken a wrong turn earlier in the morning and driven 25 miles west instead of east. When he realized his mistake, he turned around, and there I was. He wanted to get breakfast/lunch at a cafe in John Day and he bought me a burger too. He was an athletic 24 year old guy who was wise beyond his years. It turned out he was driving all the way to Las Vegas that day, and I ended up riding with him the whole way. We took the small highways as much as possible and I got to revisit a lot of the same route I took on a roadtrip earlier this year. We almost ran out of gas once. It was an awesome ride. 13 hours in a car with a stranger is not guaranteed to be a fun or comfortable experience, but we had a lot in common, found some good conversation topics, listened to a funny/interesting audiobook, and became friends. He was doing a project where he takes 1 photo of people he encounters on his journey and does a quick audio interview to go along with it, so that was fun. When I got out of the car I just started laughing because it was so warm... almost midnight and probably at least 75 degrees. It felt awesome.

I've been working on some of my hitchhiking skills, including knowing how to get dropped off at the best place to catch the next ride. So before we got there I located an onramp to I-15 N (the freeway I'd need to take to get to Utah) which had enough of a shoulder to hitch, and also had some deserted land nearby where I could spend the night. It worked out great. I easily found a safe place to camp, and in the morning I walked to the onramp.

It took almost 2 hours to get a ride. It feels like people in Vegas are a bit jaded and wary; I had a hard time even getting a wave from most people. I was actually expecting to be standing there for 4+ hours so I was quite pleased to have a ride that fast. It was a mom with 4 kids in a minivan. She had passed me once, and I remembered her being one of the few who smiled and waved back; she said she felt like the universe was telling her she had to come back and give me a ride, so she did. They were on their way to family reunion. She was only traveling about 15 minutes up the freeway before her exit, but I was very grateful because she took me to a Love's travel stop and from there I would have a much easier time. As she was dropping me off, she asked if I had money for food, and I replied that I had plenty of food but no money. She gave me $10! That was a first. What a rad lady. If I ever have kids, I want to have them with someone who picks up hitchhikers with our kids in the car. So many people default to fear and distrust, but fear is the opposite of love and I am always so encouraged when someone in a socially-perceived "vulnerable" position decides to love instead of fear me. Because I'm super harmless! At the same time, I do understand why women in general might be more hesitant to pick up a male hitchhiker and I totally don't blame them for that because I think it's not their fault that men have proven untrustworthy in their lives.

And what a relief to get this ride, because it was getting hot. I decided to try a strategy I had not tried before: sitting at the exit of the travel stop with my "MOAB" sign. I've always been standing before, and always at an onramp or a shoulder. But this was too good not to try it. I was ready to be patient and find someone going a good chunk of the distance I needed. There was a wonderful shady tree over my head, and it would provide good shade for several more hours. Hell, I could chill there all day if I had to. A guy in a van stopped, and he wasn't offering a ride but he had placed some food and $6 in a plastic bag which he gave me! I went in to the Subway and got a sandwich. Spirits were high and I felt confident.

Soon, a guy stopped and asked where I was going (maybe he missed my sign). He was going to Denver and would be driving within 30 miles of Moab. Score! I rode with him for several hours. We didn't quite have the same effortless conversation but it was still a pleasant and fast ride. He gave me ice water and a couple protein bars, and let me charge my phone. He'd been in California working for a month and was returning to his home in Illinois. Both of his sons called while we were driving and he had them on speaker phone, and that was really cute.

Now I was really in the home stretch. 30 miles to Moab. I waited 20-30 minutes and then I got picked up by a married couple. One is a mining engineer and the other has started a catering business. Interestingly, both times I got picked up by a couple, they were of mixed ethnicity and the woman was driving. Other than the Latino guy who picked me up in Washington, these were the only times a non-white person gave me a ride. I quite enjoyed these two as well and they are living in Moab pretty close to where I live.

They dropped me off a block from my home and I walked there with a big grin on my face. I fucking made it! Hitching all the way to OR/WA and back, 5 weeks of travel starting with $200! (I received another $200 during my trip as a loan repayment, so my budget was $80/week). I had believed it was possible but now I knew for sure. This was easily one of my favorite months of traveling I've ever done.

Something about hitchhiking is just perfect for me. I find it rewarding in the same way some people enjoy fishing: it's unpredictable, sometimes you have no luck and you feel like you're wasting your time and it's a bummer, you're getting sunburned and your arm is tired. But then a surprise happens when you least expect it and suddenly things are awesome again. I like the unpredictability, the chance to interact with a stranger in a mysteriously intimate way, and it's a hell of a lot easier than walking! I get to be a passenger and really soak in the scenery instead of staring at the road. The slight risk involved keeps it from getting too boring. I like the chance to engage in therapy like I was talking about before. I like how it puts me in a position where my role is simply to accept and appreciate whoever this person is... it's a good opportunity to learn something new and gain a different perspective. Humanity is just so complex and it really highlights how even the "bad people" have good qualities and vice versa.

And, it's just so interesting to do something that is not commonly done. It feels like a chance to get people to think. I am effectively saying to each person who drives by, "I could trust you. I would ride in your car. Will you help? You have a choice to pick me up or not." I think it makes some people uncomfortable to have that option and I hope it provokes introspection. Another thing is, it provides me with the experience of being an "undesirable citizen". Of course it probably says a lot about my level of privilege if putting myself in that position is something of a novelty or something I would pursue... and I'm still wrestling with those thoughts. Only a young, secure, white male would need to hitchhike to gain the experience of being automatically looked down upon for his demographic. And it still wasn't that severe. But it gives me an idea how hard it is when people are constantly looking at you like, "what are you doing here?" I see their fear, contempt, superiority, indifference. I understand a little bit better how it must feel to be a member of the homeless class of society. Even with relatively strong self esteem and mental health, it got to me sometimes. I felt angry and frustrated at the middle and upper class people for callously refusing to help a fellow human being standing by the side of the road in the hot sun, while they comfortably zoom wherever they're going in their empty car with an ice cream cone and a bored look on their face. But, it was a good lesson in maintaining my own balance even when faced with the rejection of hundreds of people. By the end I started to realize it was easier just to wave at them and let it go, instead of becoming bitter and cynical. And in the end staying positive actually helps me get a ride -- somehow I doubt the mom with 4 kids would have circled around to pick me up if we had not waved and smiled at each other the first time.

It feels good to be back in Moab. This is really a special place. I have some processing to do, decisions to make. I won't try to do that here and now. It's nice having my laptop again so I can write faster.

Joe Omundson

About Joe Omundson -

Joe Omundson is working to piece together a cohesive philosophy of lifestyle, spirituality, society, and the natural world.

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Alex Wall
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September 12, 2016 at 11:57 AM delete

Fantastic post. You are opening up a new field of study as a Nomad. I had preconceptions about hitching that were out of date. Seems this is a friendly time. But it may just be you who is obviously so good at it. Also, my Journeys were about the foot travel perspective and the camping, not so much getting to certain destinations within a certain time frame. But you have that all that too! That's why I find it so interesting to read about your adventures.

I kept finding passages I agreed with you on, and copied them, but then found others further down. Finally I realized the best thing to do was just let people read this whole thing. It is cool to read about each person you meet. You have a great style for describing things plainly. And your honest commentary is quite refreshing. I had to share this on Facebook. Thanks, bro!

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