I want to give you a detailed account of my 3 days hitchhiking 700 miles down the west coast of america from Portland, Oregan, to San Fransisco. It was full of wonderful people, beautiful trees, a mountain range and at least one ride with a beautiful lady in a vintage Cadillac (the type of car that normally roars past and you think 'now that would have been a cool ride'). I really want to, but alas, in this part of the world December is harvest time for the Sacred Herb of a million momentary insights, and almost every other ride would, in the first few minutes, pipe up with 'hey man, do you get high?'
'er, well, yes, i have been known to, though be warned i get a little silly sometimes'
'no worries dude! here, i grew this myself. have a suck'. and so i would take their psychedelic-painted glassware and inhale the homegrown until the cherry dropped through the filter and the road became as Allen Ginsberg would have it- beautiful, smooth, hysterical starving naked, and as grounded and cyclical as an mbira tune.
We would have huge, succinct and groundbreaking conversations as we drove south, and occasionally our eyes would meet in the rear-view mirror and the message was clear, and then sooner or later my ride would say 'so this is where i turn off... where do you want dropping?' and i would fall out of the car, clutching my bags with a stupid grin on my face and a bead of sweat on my forehead, and within a second have forgotten all but the most basic of messages.
but those basic messages were pretty pungent.
my second ride, just after i took a photo of a burnt out house that still had that sweet-sick smell of burnt hardwood, was a man in a knackered old volvo with a greying beard, who almost immediately launched into a tirade about how he had been unemployed for 18 months and the government weren't giving him the benefits he was entitled to. he said he was only going 5 miles down the road 'but do you like a little smoke? wanna come up the hill to my friends' place and smoke a bowl?'
the house was long and perched on the side of the hill, overlooking the road we had come off, a pig farm (the biggest recycler of waste food in Oregon), and the Cascade mountain range in the distance. The inside of the house was furnished warmly, if a little threadbare, and a few late-middle-aged country folk with beards and chequed shirts smoked and sat and talked.
When I get invited back to peoples homes when hitchhiking it is nearly always- no, always- by people without much money. Perhaps they have less to fear. (Khalil Gibran- 'Is not dread of thirst when your well is full, the thirst that is unquenchable?') And there comes a moment when they look at me, after the initial storm of friendship, where they ask me basically 'so who the fuck are you anyway?'. And after i show that i am not a snob, nor a voyeur, nor some rich college kid slumming it (though maybe i am all three), the truth of them, and to a good extent the society they live in, begins to boil the lid off the pot.
these guys, like tens of thousands on the west coast of america, are long term unemployed. living with relatives or friends, losing their pride, angry, frustrated, with just enough money to fill up their gas tanks and eat. these two had been welders, and when the recession hit their boss stripped the factory clean and sailed off in his yacht to mexico with the words 'i could keep the factory open but... why bother?'. bastard. in order for them to get state benefits they need to apply for 3 jobs a week, but the only jobs going are for things they have neither skills nor desire to do. they don't qualify for free healthcare because they earn 17 dollars a month more than the threshold, so this guy can't afford his diabetes medicine and the gov't won't give it to him free because they consider it a 'non life threatening' illness.
Another guy I who picked me up said his occupation was 'dealing drugs and repossessing cars'. The first bit is self explanatory, the second astounding: basically, loan companies give unemployed people a list of other unemployed people who have defaulted on their car loans and are hiding their cars so they aren't repossessed. On a commission only basis, the former seek out the latter, chat with their neighbours, call them up and pretend to be someone else to get their credit card details, spy outside their houses, until they find the car and grass them up to the company. Poor people turned on poor people for commission.
whilst waiting at a particularly dodgy junction (hitchhiking is a legal grey area should the cops come. being caned out of your tree is multicoloured but certainly cause for problems) a man with a forrest gump accent and buck teeth said hello. turned out he was a vietnam veteran and wanted to tell me that all politicians are 'freakin' liars'.
'what did obama lie about?'
'he promised free dental treatment to all veterans. we aint got it!' .
obama made a promise, and he didn't keep it, and thus he is a liar. forget pragmatism, to people only deal in politics when a canvasser comes hassling them at election time, a promise is a promise. this guy was as jobless as all the others i had met, only he had toothache too.
Of course, there were exceptions. I got a ride in a old old truck with a man who looked like the guy in the opening scene of disney's aladdin (the one with one tooth) who made enough money harvesting and selling mistletoe (door to door) to pay his taxes for the year. 'they love it' he said.
Another guy used to be the saxophonist for legendary zimbabwean musician thomas mapfumo (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gh09mGhTQhE) . He basically told me that if I loved music enough to want to be a pro musician i should DEFINITELY NOT become a pro musician, because it sucks the joy out of music and there are so many sharks...
but back to the house on the hill. they had no TV or cable- it had been cut off- but reasoned 'it is only bad news anyway'. a car drove up and honked its horn outside. it was an old friend who had come to pick up one of the ladies who was there 'whos that?' asked my ride
'oh, thats bob'
'why doesn't he come in and say hello?'
'he just honks his horn and stays outside. thats what bob does these days'. bob, i guess, had a job. the note of resignation was rich in his voice.
i had a sack of presents- pass the parcel- that i had wrapped and was giving to people randomly on the way down. I gave one to each of my hosts in that house, and as i left realised i had left the sack inside. I went in and almost bumped square in to a lady in a dressing gown. she looked drawn, was shaking, and clearly used to be very beautiful. i said hello and goodbye and she looked past me at the biscuit tin and said 'well,', and she paused for a moment, looking for the words. 'enjoy your travels', she said. there is no way i can describe the tone that she said this in, but if i was to pick apart those 20 seconds and 3 words i would have said that she had waited in her room for me and my friends to go. that she was addicted to crystal meth (sooooo many people are here. it is a insipid, highly addictive, cheap and gnawing drug). that she hated being stuck in a random house on the side of a hill. that she saw me as some kid who had never experienced what she had experienced and that the men i was with, for whatever reason, made her skin crawl. Yeah, i have described it pretty badly there, but i guess what i am trying to say is that the recession in america is so much more stark when you get behind the numbers and headlines and bickering in the senate and realise that many, many people are having their lives destroyed by these bastard, selfish, sub-human bankers. the environment is not immune either...
the nights i spent in my sleeping bag, in my survival bag, under various trees, just warm enough and just dry enough to enjoy my surroundings and sleep well. on the last morning i poked my head out of the bag to see a huge flock of birds in V formation flying towards the rising sun.
if you want to know a place, to know its people, the solution is simple: learn the language and go hitchhike. I mean it. It is 99.9% safe (if you are a girl by herself i am not sure but it has been done plenty). I cannot overstate how much I learn from it and confirm to myself over and over again that people are more kind, wise and wonderful than we are ever given credit for. but if you want to write a blog about it, perhaps stop saying 'why not?' after a couple of bowls...