Seven Lengths of Vermont
Hitchhiking: a world beyond routine
It was a December morning, all blue sky, bright sun and shining white snow, the kind of brilliant, dry-cold morning that tempts some of us to quit our jobs, abandon our possessions and trot out unencumbered into the world. I wasn’t completely unencumbered myself, but I was “going light,” and certainly feeling my freedom as I approached the mailbox at the end of my driveway in Ferrisburgh and walked on past. In a small pack I carried the bare essentials for winter camping, along with five ham sandwiches and some pipe tobacco (the latter two items comprising my “recreational vagabonding survival kit”). I wore fleece mittens that I hoped would keep my thumbs warm on this, their big day.
A quarter mile later I reached the edge of that loud, rushing river known as Route 7 and dipped my toe in. Here was a road connected to other roads connected to other roads, the beginning of a new adventure. And here in this first road, mashed against the double yellow line, was a wrecked life that was not a life at all: torn black fur, red glistening guts, a hump of meat frozen to the pavement. I thought of approaching the mangled carcass, of kneeling, looking close, maybe saying a little prayer, but a truck whooshed past and I stumbled back. And that’s when it hit me, where I was and what I was doing.
So, this is what happens when a soft-bodied, warm-blooded creature dares to engage, on foot, the violent road-river’s relentless flow, I thought. In an instant, all that makes hitchhiking taboo, its shadow and grit, crowded my mind: psycho killers behind the wheel, tires bearing down in the darkness, loneliness, boredom, icy ditch campsites thick with trash and thorns and skeletons. I raised my thumb like a little white flag of peace, offering it to the highway. How good an idea was this?
It turned out to be just about the best idea I’ve ever had, though I wouldn’t begin to sense this until 20 minutes later, when my first ride pulled over. The driver’s name was Bram. He was from Burlington. His car had a bumper sticker that read, “I Love My Doula.” He was clean-shaven, and so was I, having chopped my beard on the hunch that a fresh, friendly face with nothing to hide could increase my appeal as a traveling companion.
Generally a driver’s first question to a hitchhiker is “Where to?” That can be hard to answer when you’ve got no specific destination in mind. I told Bram that my goal was to tour the state, letting each ride lead me to the next in a sort of random, aimless chain reaction powered by human generosity and kindness.
Bram said he was going to Cornwall, west of Middlebury, and I said that was fine by me. Other than a desire to tag the Massachusetts border, and then the Canadian border, and then circle back home, I would impose no design on my travels. Meeting neighbors, drinking coffee at general stores, mooing at cows, generally experiencing the villages and vistas and moods that our huge small state has to offer — this was my project. Bram nodded in understanding.
It turned out that he, like many of the 51 strangers I traveled with over the course of five days and 36 rides, had done some hitching himself years ago. As an 18-year-old, he thumbed with a friend from Burlington to Seattle. While crossing the Mississippi River, talking of Huck and Jim, they got the idea to paddle it the following summer, Bram said. When the time came, the friend backed out, and Bram set off solo on the 56-day voyage. More recently, with his 78-year-old mother in the bow (her idea!), he canoed the Connecticut River all the way to the Atlantic.
At a rural intersection a little north of Cornwall, Bram answered a business call on his cell: “I can’t talk right now,” he told his caller. “I’m wrapping up an interesting discussion with a hitchhiker.” Our conversation had meandered from business ethics, to 401(k)s, to following the heart’s path, to the complicated joy of getting caught in the rain, and now to goodbye. I couldn’t thank him enough for the ride — not so much for the miles as for the immensely positive tone it lent the beginning of my trip. If everybody I meet is this cool, my head will explode!
I felt momentum and positive energy on my side, and I knew right then the very truth that would be proved to me again and again in the days to come: Hitching is a free ticket to vivid encounters with Vermonters from all walks of life. Each of them has a story, a personal brand of wisdom and a unique relationship to some feature — a forest or farmhouse or community — of our shared home. Their stories pass us by every day, in every vehicle we honk at or simply ignore. Hitching, by providing a time and space for fellow travelers to meet and talk, can slow the stories down and, on occasion, invite them to invite us inside.
Bram and I got out of the car, shook hands and stood squinting in the sun for a minute. Then I was alone on Route 30, waiting to raise my thumb in the air.
There was a lot to take in that first day, and not just the staggering friendliness of the strangers I met: Michael, the guitar teacher blasting opera; DeMar, who’d lived his whole life in Idaho and Utah; Xtian feasting on a massive block of cheddar cheese, small flakes of which somehow kept jumping into my lap. There was landscape, too, so easily forgotten in the rush of a 60-mph conversation, but still there when a ride abruptly ended and I emerged, as warm and confused as a newborn, from the womb of a truck’s cab.
This was perhaps most interesting of all to me, this interplay between riding and waiting, between what we might call an Automotive Awareness and a Walking Awareness. (Walking and waiting were for me the same thing; it was too cold to stand still for long.) One minute I’d be kicking pebbles down an empty road to the tune of a distant chainsaw and a pileated woodpecker’s percussive lunching. A crooked silo would rise before me, growing larger with each step, and, 15 minutes later, sink beneath the horizon at my back. Small sounds. Small shifts in perspective.
But then a car would stop — always, it seemed, when my mind had finally gotten back into my body, my senses back into the land — and off we’d zoom. I’d begin the sequence all over again five or 10 or 30 miles down the road. It felt as though I were caught in a constant tug between slow motion and fast-forward. It left me exhausted at the end of the day.
In classic winter fashion, that “end of the day” came around 3 p.m. I was riding through Poultney with Kate, a senior at nearby Green Mountain College, who dressed in a style that blended hippie, punk and goth while still managing to look cute. Kate’s back door didn’t open, so my pack was in my lap. Behind us, bedded down among clothes and books and cigarette packaging, a little mop of a dog slept the deep sleep of the camouflaged. (Note: I’d assumed that few, if any, women would pick me up, but in the course of my tour I was actually picked up by six lone women, and twice by a pair of women, so Kate was no exception.)
Kate dropped me at the Wells General Store, which had just closed. She said that if I needed a place to warm up, or a hot beverage, I could call on her friends a mile south of town in a small, teal farmhouse. After talking with a bicycling teenager for a while — he said of my project, “I’m glad you’re doing this,” and I replied, “I’m glad you’re glad” — I walked to the teal house, petted the goats outside, then went in and asked permission to camp in the hilly meadow out back. That night it snowed, and the moon was full and Canada geese rustled the quiet sky with their wings. Dinner was delicious: a ham sandwich and a smoke. The temperature dropped to about 10 degrees. The geese honked through my dreams. So concluded my first day on the road.
Which brings us to a challenging moment in this essay — challenging for you, the reader, I mean. Try and picture this happening all over again. And then again. And then again and again. But picture it much wilder than I’ve described it — not dangerous or threatening or even the slightest bit tense, just weirder, more varied, more exciting and fun.
Picture hunters moving rifles off the passenger seat to make room for me, or mothers moving children, or squinty dudes moving bags of marijuana. Picture me outside the J. Crew outlet in Manchester talking dirt bikes with Randy, or searching back roads for a fish hatchery in Pownal with a New Yorker whose glasses made him look like a fish. Picture young bearded carpenters, ski-resort snowmakers, cleaning women, a guy who’d never been to Canada because of his seven felonies, a woman from Wisconsin with a hearing-impaired son and a husband who’d been in Dubai for a year but was coming home the next day.
Picture Beth walking her dogs at sunset, telling me to wait for her beside her car — “It’s the one with the license plate that says, ‘God is my copilot,’” she told me. Picture her taking me to her house, feeding me, setting me up for the night and, in the morning, praying for me, her hand on my shoulder, the two of us standing in the middle of Route 100 down by the Mass. line, our heads bowed beneath a new, sunny day.
And, while you’re at it, picture Route 100 itself: so sinuous, so deep in the hollows, so damaged by Irene’s floods. I rode with a hydrologist named Eli through 75 miles of rubble-strewn river valleys, listening the whole time to his lectures on why this slope eroded, why an excavator shouldn’t be in that gully, what that golf course looked like before it was littered with tree trunks. And the towns: Jamaica, Ludlow, Pittsfield, Warren. And the faces: Laurie, Frank, Rudy and Julie, Brent and goo-faced toddler Cody.
I went all the way to Richmond in 13 rides and, the next day, all the way to Canada and back to Burlington in 10. I rode in the slushy bed of a pickup truck missing its tailgate. I unloaded nasty, twisted steel at the Swanton scrapyard. I helped change a tire. I walked for hours in the middle of nowhere; no cars, no luck, just me and a great blue heron tracing the rim of a great, gray lake.
Picture all of this, and whatever else you can, because whatever you imagine is probably out there, bumping along the road right now. Perhaps most challenging of all, picture yourself in a position of weakness, where you need something — a ride, some warmth or just a little help. Picture choosing this. In the picture you will see a car pulling over and a smiling face beckoning you aboard, and then you will understand what I saw and felt: the goodness of humanity flowing on down the great road-river.
My last ride dropped me off in Ferrisburgh at the exact spot where my journey had begun. Route 7 was quiet. I looked but saw no trace of the animal whose ruined body had filled me with dread five days before. I inspected the yellow line, but nothing was there, not even a faint bloodstain. To the south, the truck I’d been riding in was getting smaller, swallowed by the land around it. I stood there in the middle of the road for a while, unsure of my next move. It was a beautiful morning, warm and pinkish-gray. It was the kind of morning that tempts some of us to quit our jobs, abandon our possessions and trot out unencumbered into the world.