hitchhiking

Creepy Moments on the Appalachian Trail, Part Two

Inherently, hiking isn’t especially dangerous.  But, if you do it often enough, you’re bound to come across some weird/creepy/less-than-ideal situations.  If my memory serves, in 5,000 miles of backcountry adventures, I’ve been in exactly five human interactions that have engaged my fight-or-flight response.

Sometimes, they’re simple, as in the case of a southbounding, gearless, scowling day hiker who walked past me, seemingly unseeingly, Bible in hand.  Other times, they’re a bit more drawn out, such as the case of the feather-adorned lone backpacker who spoke to demons.  The story I’m about to tell (which technically happened near the Appalachian Trail) belongs to the latter category.

It was 2011, and I was on the AT for what turned out to be a long section hike (and my first backpacking trip).  I was hiking with a friend from home, Chapstick, and he and I had just enjoyed a night in Palmerton, PA, in a jail-turned-hostel at the base of what once was a zinc-smelting Superfund site.

The following morning, Chapstick wasn’t up to hiking, but I wanted to hit the trail.  As he stayed behind, pledging to find a taxi to take him to meet me at a northern trail town, I worked on finding my way back to the trail.

I am not sure what it is about the Lehigh Valley that creates a vortex, but I’ve had serious difficulties both times I’ve tried to hike out of Palmerton.  Legend has it that there’s a blue-blazed trail back to the trail, but it seems the trail gods would prefer it stays untrammeled.

In 2011, I’d heard that the blue-blazed trail could be most easily found if I walked along the railroad tracks, so that’s what I did.

It was a hot day, the kind of hot, humid, thick-aired day you can only find in the South and Mid-Atlantic.  There wasn’t an inch of shade over the railroad tracks in the middle of the day, but I walked toward the general direction I’d come from as the sun baked down on me.

After walking for over half an hour, I came to a construction site, where it appeared that most of the workers had left for lunch.  There were two guys left, but one finished his conversation and drove away as I got nearer.  The remaining guy watched me approach.

He was in his fifties or sixties and wore a white tank and jeans, with gold chains around his neck.  I was a couple days past 22 at the time, very new to the world of adventuring/hiking/hitchhiking, and something about this man alarmed me.

He wanted to know where I was from, where I was headed, and whether anyone was with me.  I tried to be evasive and just keep walking, but he had a truck; he pulled up alongside me and kept talking.  Playboy-type female silhouettes were stuck to his car windows.  Changing tactics, I tried to be calm and politely dismiss the conversation.  He suggested that he drive me to the trail.  I assured him that I was all right; that I was merely walking what was apparently the wrong way to catch up with my friend.

Eventually, he seemed to give up and drove off.  I ran, pack and all, tears rising to my eyes, along the tracks.  I could see houses near the fence, and I hoped that I’d find someone there who could help.

As luck would have it, there was a 30-something man doing yardwork not too far away.  The tracks ran higher than his backyard, so I word-vomited down at him:

“Can I please climb over your fence?  There was this man at the construction site who really creeped me out, and I think he’s probably somewhere nearby, and I just want to get back on the trail, and I don’t even know where it is.”

I don’t remember what he said, but I know that it was immediately comforting.  I climbed into his backyard, and he had me wait on his porch (probably thinking that I would freak out if someone invited me into their house just then) as he got the keys to his car.  As I composed myself, he told me that he was an army vet who’d returned to his hometown and was in the process of fixing up his house.  I thanked him profusely as he drove me back to the trail.

As we talked, he learned about Chapstick and vowed to drive him further north, and he gave me his number, to use in case I ran into any more trouble.  When he met Chapstick, he brought a collection of pressed four-leaf clovers for us, as well as a fortune-cookie proverb:  “Great things happen when men and mountains meet.”

Those lucky clovers still remain in my gear collection, a lasting reminder of the kindness of strangers and the importance of asking for help.

Hitching a Ride in a Police Car

The general consensus among the American public seems to be that hitchhiking is terrifyingly dangerous.  Truth be told, most of the time it tends to be pretty uneventful; however, there are exceptions, and I’ve experienced several.  I’ve written about one of my favorite hitches previously, and, inspired a bit belatedly by #CrimingWhileWhite (and even more so by #AliveWhileBlack), I decided I should recount the time I hitched a ride in a police car.

It would be difficult to have lived in the United States during the last several weeks and not know about the impassioned and thought-provoking discussion surrounding race and racism that has recently been pushed to the forefront of the media’s discourse.  This bleeding heart liberal will refrain from being too political at this juncture, except to say that I have often found myself on the receiving end of white privilege.  Not just that.  Perhaps “blonde privilege” is a more accurate description.

In the summer of 2013, on the hitchhiking trip Quiver and I took and that I linked above, we headed through my favorite region of New Hampshire to get to Franconia Ridge, where we hiked to meet a mutual trail friend of ours.  Now, the western edge of the White Mountain National Forest is sort of my old stomping ground, as I spent the summer of 2010 there, doing research at Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest (thanks to the National Science Foundation’s REU program).  And, it was this fact that I used as my “inch of truth” when I was confronted by a police officer on the side of I-93.

Police officers have a tendency to harass hitchhikers.  As wanders and vagrants, we are both relatively likely suspects for misdemeanors and relatively vulnerable to attacks from authority figures.  We don’t know people in the community — or in the police department — of whatever town, state, or country we find ourselves in, and the consequences of not politely complying with police officers can feel more significant to us.

I know all of this because Quiver, who has hitchhiked 45,000 miles in 47 states, has been harassed by police officers many times, and he’s told me the stories from his encounters.  As a poor, six-foot tall, bald man who likes to wear a sarong, Quiver stands out and has found himself questioned by the police numerous times, regardless of the fact that he had completely complied with the local laws.  Some police officers have just given him a hassle; others have ushered him out of their district; still others have brought him to the department for questioning.

When hitchhiking solo, I haven’t drawn the attention of police officers.  When I’ve hitchhiked with Quiver (which is my favorite and more frequent way of hitchhiking), I have had my ID run three times.  Twice, we were completely in the right:  Our IDs were run illegally.  The third time, we were actually hitchhiking where we shouldn’t have been.

You see, near Cannon Mountain and the Kinsmen, I-93 and US-3 merge to form the Franconia Notch Parkway.  Before the merger, there are a couple exits from I-93 onto US-3.  Quiver and I were in this area, hitchhiking up US-3 and not making fast progress; everyone on the road only seemed to be going a few miles.  So, at my suggestion and because I knew that the roads merged eventually, we walked up the exit ramp and hitchhiked on the side of I-93, off of the broad shoulder.

Only moments after we got there, a police officer pulled up in front of us.  Quiver figured this would end poorly and tensed up.  With years of blonde privilege fueling my confidence, I approached the police officer innocently and asked what was wrong and how we might get to Franconia Notch.  Instantly, he softened and explained that we needed to get to Lincoln; the next thing I knew, he was offering to drive us there.

With that, Quiver and I hopped in the back of the squad car.  Seeing my friend looking incredulous made it really difficult not to grin.  We rode six miles up the highway, chatting with the now-friendly and helpful police officer the whole way.  He dropped us off on the edge of Lincoln Center and wished us well on our journey.  We thanked him for the ride.

It would be a couple years before I’d catch another equally unusual ride — in a mail truck.  (Sissy Hankshaw would be proud!)

On Being Spontaneous, Part Three

Over the last couple Thursdays, I’ve recounted the beginning of a hitchhiking voyage across New England.  By being willing to change our plans and experience whatever came our way, my partner and I ended up at a commune in eastern Massachusetts before we resumed our northward journey.

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Quiver and me atop Washington

Before setting out on our adventure, Quiver and I had decided that we wanted to spend some time in the White Mountains again, and the best time to make that happen was after leaving the commune.  Therefore, we pointed our thumbs toward Gorham, NH, and headed to Pinkham Notch and Mount Washington.

We ascended Mount Washington via Huntington Ravine, the infamous trail that I love too much.  On the way down the mountain, we saw a moose trailside — the first (and, thus far, only) moose I’d seen in my life!  If that wasn’t enough, as I was coming out of the restroom at the trailhead, I ran into Sunbeam, a woman who tends to spend as much time in these woods as I do.  Quiver and I had hiked near her for several days in 2012, and we’d all stayed at Kincora (arguably the best hostel on the trail) together.  It was so fun to see her again!

Sunbeam informed us that she was working in one of the Appalachian Mountain Club’s High Huts and that, in keeping with the theme of serendipity, none other than Gluten Puff, one of Quiver and my favorite 2012 thru-hikers, was working in Greenleaf Hut that summer.  And, with that and hugs goodbye, we headed to Franconia Notch.

The most direct route to Greenleaf Hut is the Old Bridle Path, a trail that climbs from the Franconia Notch Parkway (where US-3 and I-93 coexist).  In getting there, Quiver and I hitched a ride in a police car.  Seriously.  (But, that’s a story for another day.)

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Gluten Puff, Quiver, and me at Greenleaf Hut

Walking into Greenleaf Hut and completely surprising Gluten Puff was a blast.  Quiver and I had had these grand hopes of hiking our beloved Franconia Ridge after a short chat with Gluten Puff, but the conversation was so enjoyable that neither of us wanted to leave.  Besides, one of the most important take-aways from all the traveling I’ve done is that (apart from the Old Man in the Mountain) beautiful places are much more stationary and long-lasting than people; while seeing beautiful places is exciting and worthwhile, it’s also important to take advantage of the time we have with friends and family.  And so, Quiver and I spent a gorgeous summer day inside a hut on the shoulder of Mount Lafayette, talking with a special trail friend until lengthening shadows forced us back down the mountain.

From Franconia Notch, we hitchhiked to Burlington, VT, where (after swimming/bathing in Lake Champlain) I caught up with and introduced Quiver to Monica, a friend of mine from college.  After a wonderful night near a vineyard somewhere south of Burlington, we headed down Route 7 to Williamstown, MA (where we’d been just a few weeks earlier to hike Greylock), and then back to central Massachusetts along the Mohawk Trail (a highway).

As dusk was fading on the night before the day of Quiver’s flight out of Portland, ME, we seemed to be stuck 12 miles or so from my car.  Just as we were on the verge of making camp, a petite Asian American woman pulled up beside us and, in broken English, invited us into her car.  While her home was on the way to mine, she decided to take us all the way back to my place, and we arrived home just as darkness fell in earnest.

(One year later, I had the opportunity to thank that final driver when her name appeared on a sign-in sheet/mailing list from a project another AmeriCorps member had hosted.  She seemed as astonished as I was at our reconnecting.  Talk about a small world!)

The next day’s drive to the airport was uneventful but bittersweet.  The weeks of intentional spontaneity, of mountains, of community, of old friends and new, had come to an end.  I worked to cherish the memories and not cry because it was over but, rather, smile because it had  happened.

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Lake Champlain

 

On Being Spontaneous, Part One

On December 31, 2013, my sister made a New Year’s Resolution.  Because she appreciated where my embrace-the-unexpected attitude had led me, she resolved to be more spontaneous.  I teased her that she didn’t quite seem to have fully grasped the concept when, on January 2, she spontaneously decided to have all four of her wisdom teeth pulled.

Spontaneity has led to some experiences that I will forever treasure, but I have never really thought of it as “spontaneity” at the time.  Except once.

In the summer of 2013, my hiking companion of 1000 miles, Quiver, found himself back on the Appalachian Trail.  (This is a common pattern for many of us thru-hikers.)   That year, a friend of his was doing her thru-hike, and he joined her for several hundred miles in the northeast.  At the time, I happened to live in New England, as I was spending the summer in central Massachusetts in a circa-1790 farmhouse (on 160+ acres) that I was working to transform into an intentional community.  (That’s one of those stories we’ll have to save for another day.)

In any case, when Quiver arrived in Massachusetts, he called me up, and we decided that we should spend a few days together.  A few days turned into a few weeks, and soon the question of what we should do with the time we had together was raised.

Me, hitching a ride

Me, hitching a ride

In response, I started talking about all of the things I liked most about New England that I thought Quiver would also like to see and experience.  Apart from his thru-hike, during which he’d not strayed far from the New England woods, Quiver hadn’t been to New England since he was in his early 20s and hadn’t formed a favorable opinion of it.  I saw this as a problem, and we decided that the best way to rectify this problem was to tour the region.  Being us, we didn’t want to just get in my station wagon and drive around.  No, the best way to see the region would be to stand on the side of the road, wait for New Englanders to allow us to ride in their cars, and then travel with them wherever they were going.  I mean, I knew that 1) we wanted to enjoy Franconia Ridge in New Hampshire again, 2) that I wanted to introduce him to Burlington, VT, and 3) that he had a ticket to a plane leaving from Portland.  Other than that, we had lots of room to be spontaneous.

So, we walked to the other side of the town I was living in, stuck out our thumbs, and began traveling. When we got to Route 2, we’d barely begun thumbing before an old car pulled over to the side of the road. As soon as the car had stopped, the driver got out, and Quiver and I knew this was going to be a fun ride. The driver was a willowy middle-aged woman wrapped in gauzy fabric, and she’d gotten out of the car in order to move her guitar to the trunk.

We ran up to the car and jumped in, and the driver, whom I’ll identify as “U” for the first letter of her name, immediately offered us some wheatgrass to drink. U told us that she’d been “vortexing” (read: driving in circles) all day and that our energy had pulled her to us. While we’d only been looking for a short ride, in order to get to a road that headed north to New Hampshire, U soon began telling us about her intentional community in eastern Massachusetts. Hearing of Quiver and my passion for communal living, she offered to drive us to the community for a visit.

Quiver and I exchanged a quick glance and, embracing spontaneity, enthusiastically agreed to head east.

To be continued…