The West Coast was fantastic, but after a call from a friend in Colorado, I decided to head down to the Rocky Mountains. My funds being low, and tickets for trains or planes being well over $300 however, I decided to bum it. I searched Craigslist for rideshares out to Colorado and came up with Phillip, a recent Peace Corps volunteer, who was driving back East before he shipped out. I sent him an email right away, and we agreed to share driving and gas money.
He picked me up in Seattle, and was not a serial killer, so we hit the road in his Subaru Outback, packed to the roof and nearly rattling to pieces. It wasn’t a very romantic beginning to our quest; we started out stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic going through Seattle. It took us maybe an hour or so to get out of the city at a crawling pace. Phillip turned out to be totally cool, and we chatted music and sports for a few hours before we realized we had completely missed the turnoff to head south, and probably lost a hundred miles or so. We laughed it off, but it clearly took a toll on our spirits. We had just begun, and had already lost a few hours of travel time.
After the initial burst of energy and the formalities of getting to know one another had faded, we slipped into tired silence. Once you leave the coastline, Washington and Oregon become as flat and dull as North Dakota. Phillip was getting fatigued after driving all day, and pulled over on the side of the highway to switch seats. The seat didn’t move back much due to the mountain of luggage behind it, so the steering wheel was positioned about four inches from my chest. The odds of the airbag obliterating me on impact were high. Despite the cramped driving situation, I slapped myself a few times to wake up and pulled out onto the highway.
The car was rattling severely in the front end, but I found that the faster you went, the less intense the vibrations, so off I went at 90mph. I quickly realized I had been duped. While the last few hundred miles had been flat, wide-open road, the next leg of the journey consisted of harrowing switchbacks and mountain passes. I lightheartedly joked that Phillip had thrown me to the dogs, but behind my smile was a tinge of fear. Signs along the road warned of “snow zones,” and cars and semi-trucks were pulling off in designated areas to apply chains to their tires. The snow was coming down heavy now, visibility was low and only one lane was drivable. There was a thin sheet of ice under the snow, and I was thankful for the Subaru’s all-wheel-drive.
We were only going about 40mph now, and the vibration had come back in the steering wheel. I was white knuckle driving, praying to god I didn’t slide over a cliff, while seasoned semi drivers blasted past me in the left lane, their tire chains spinning dangerously, mere feet from my window. I imagined any second, one would fly through my windshield. After what seemed like an hour, but was probably only half that, we came back down the other side, and the snow subsided. I think we were in Idaho, but I couldn’t be sure. I pulled over at a rest stop to calm my nerves and stretch my cramped extremities. Mountains and snow surrounded us; it was a breathtaking scene. I was now wide-awake.
We drove through a few more passes, but none so taxing as the first. Once we hit Utah it was smooth sailing from then on. I cranked her back up to 90, and we cruised for Salt Lake City. We had planned on staying with a friend of Phillip’s that night, but our arrival time was now nearing midnight, and we planned on hitting the road early the next morning, so we opted for a Motel 6 instead. Following a full day of driving, that crappy motel bed felt like The Hilton.
The next day Phillip dropped me off in Colorado, and continued east. It was a very unceremonious parting; we grabbed a burrito at a small town take-out joint, I shook his hand, and walked off down the road. I wish him all the best in his travels, and I hope we meet again.
I was now close to my objective: Telluride, CO. I still had to make it over a hundred miles to the south however, and with no affordable options left, I decided to hitchhike the rest of the way.
My preconceived notions of hitching were mixed. I’m sure it had been romanticized in my mind by too many novels, but there was also fear. Not fear of being axe murdered strangely, but more fear of the social stigma. Even a thousand miles from home, I was ashamed of what people would think. I walked along the highway for a few miles working up the courage, my hands awkwardly in my pockets, and my backpack weighing heavy on my shoulders. I continued this way for maybe half an hour or longer, and finally I took my hand out of my pocket and turned my thumb up toward the sky.
I was picked up almost immediately. A rusty white pick-up pulled over in front of me. An unshaven man in dirty clothes was behind the wheel, the cab was cluttered with tools and junk, and the bed was filled with oddly shaped black garbage bags. He was exactly the stereotype of the stranger you should not get in the car with, so I jumped right in.
He turned out to be a really nice guy; in keeping with everyone I’ve met so far this trip. He was headed to the dump and could only take me a few more miles, but I was grateful, if not still a little nervous. He told me about how he used to work the oilfields before they dried up and that he used to hitchhike around himself. I think his name was Jim, but I can’t be sure now. At the turn off for the dump he dropped me off on the shoulder, I thanked him, and he drove off.
With new-found courage at not having been axe murdered, I put out my thumb with confidence now. I was picked up right away by an old timer named Art. He had a small puppy with him that proceeded to gnaw on my hand with its sharp little teeth. Art was full of random knowledge about the area, and he went on about the history of the different landmarks for maybe 45 minutes. After quietly zoning out for a bit, Art started my pop quiz. I was embarrassed, as I hadn’t been listening for a while, and couldn’t even tell him the name of the bluff he had been talking about for the last 15 minutes. I think he forgave me, but his stop was coming up anyway so we parted ways before the quiz could continue.
My next ride was a family in a red pickup. I think they were nervous since they had their kids in the car, and I looked a little sketchy at this point, so they had me hop in the back. It was a little cold out, and the wind was sharp, but I felt as free as a dog with its head out the window. I smiled at all the cars we passed, and held my knapsack close for warmth. This was the open road I had longed for, and it was exhilarating. They arrived where they needed to go, and I hopped out and waved to them as they drove off. I never did get their names.
The car right behind them picked me up right away; it was a big white Suburban with some small white lettering on the rear windows. The driver rolled down the window and waved me over. “I can give you a ride if you aren’t weirded out by my cargo,” he said. “What is it?” was of course the thought that instantly went through my mind. Instead of asking that however, I sort of just stood there staring stupidly. “I have a body in the car,” he said, not waiting for me to articulate my query.
Sure enough, lying in the back of the Suburban was a rather large, black body bag. He quickly explained that he was a mortician transporting the recently deceased back to the morgue. The subtle etching on the rear windows confirmed this, so I tossed my pack next to the corpse and jumped in. I can’t remember the name of this particular transporter of the dead, but he was not your typical mortician. He was upbeat and seemed rather cheerful, which actually made me more nervous. He was on the phone with his wife for much of the trip though; that reassured me a bit.
It was around this time I received a call from my friend John in Telluride, informing me that there was a reasonably priced shuttle bus from the airport in Montrose to Telluride. That being where my driver’s final resting place was, I decided to end my hitching adventure and pony up for the bus. The shuttle ride was uneventful. I was not at all afraid of being axe murdered, which I found strangely boring. I was glad not to be hitchhiking though as the sun went down and the snow started to fall. The lights of Telluride appeared up the road, and I got that tingling feeling in my chest.