October 26, 2017
In the early morning, I caught the high-speed Metra commuter rail into downtown Chicago. I visited Millennial Park to see the Cloud Gate, or as I often heard it referred to “The Bean”. I strolled through the city streets. I gazed at the buildings. Chicago had me charmed.
At around 4 pm I met my friend at a Whole Foods downtown. We had agreed that he would drop me off somewhere near Historic Route 66.
We settled on a gravel lot near a train yard just outside of the city. I thanked him for all he had done for me. We hugged goodbye. And then he was gone.
I stood for a while, sign presented. People were surprised to see me. I could tell because they turned their necks in my direction to continue watching me as they passed.
A middle-aged woman pulled over. She got out of her car, handed me $27 dollars, and told me to be careful.
I ran in to the middle of stopped traffic to negotiate a ride with two men with a van full of equipment. Turned out there was no space for me anyway.
I got into a two-door with a man around my age. I was happy to be on the road, until I realized that there was a misunderstanding in where I was going. I was not heading back to the city. He let me off at the side of the road. I had to back-track a bit by foot.
Not long after resuming my position, I caught a ride with a man who was going my way. He only took me a short distance. He wanted to take me to his house, or out to dinner, or to hang out some time. I refused. He said that he would be coming back this way in a couple of hours and would pick me up If I was still there. I smiled and thanked him.
He dropped me off smack dab in the center of the freeway meridian.
Just as he pulled away, a police officer pulled up.
“Give me that!” he snarled, reaching for my sign.
He looked at it, surprised. No story of hardship. No pleas for money. Only the word “West”.
“What are you doing here!?”
“I just finished the Appalachian Trail, and I am trying to make it home to California.”
“What? Do your parents not love you or something?”
“My parents love me very much, and are concerned about me (thank-you!).”
“You know we just recovered a hitch-hikers body ’round here not long ago.”
I stared at him, blankly.
“Is that your boyfriend?” He asked, pointing to a seemingly aimless, unkempt man on the opposing end of the street.
“No, I am alone.”
“What! Are you crazy?!”
“Well you can’t do this here.”
“Can I please have my sign back?”
He passed it my way begrudgingly.
“Good luck” he managed, and off he drove.
I stood there for a moment. Such a rude encounter. What if my family had disowned me? Such statements from an officer would have certainly weighed on my heart.
I left the meridian for a piece of side-walk, and resumed my work.
I began to get worried that I would not catch a ride before nightfall, or before my previous hitch made his return trip.
Finally, just as the sun was setting, I got a ride with a man that was able to take me about 20 miles. Things were awkward at first, but then seemed to lighten up a tad. He warned me that this was dangerous for such a cute girl. That he has friends that he knows would have tried to take advantage of me.
I appreciated his concern, I suppose; but it had me wondering what he was thinking.
He told me that he was heading over to a job site in Romeoville, IL. There is a Speedway fuel station there he would drop me off at. It had decent access to Route 66/Interstate 55. He told me that he would come back this way when he was done with his work and give me another ride if I was there. I thanked him. I was dropped at the fuel station and he headed to his job site nearby.
After numerous failed attempts at catching a hitch from patrons pulling out of the station, I started to hope that the man just might come back. Most people I spoke to were heading back in to the city. I glanced at the field beside the station. I have slept in more challenging places.
The sun had now completely set. I had yet to catch a ride at night.
I decided to be more aggressive.
I moved to the section where the semi-trucks refueled. I walked in front of a truck, made eye contact with the driver, held up my sign and pointed. The man shook his head in refusal. I moved to the next truck. The man nodded his head in agreement.
He got out of his truck. I realized that he was the largest man I had ever seen. He was headed southwest along I-55 to Texas. He could drop me off in St. Louis. From there I could catch highway I-70 west.
I hopped in to the passenger side, he lifted the fuel nozzle and asked if I wanted anything from inside. “No thank you” I replied. Then, he disappeared in to the mini-mart.
He returned, closed up the fuel tanks, and climbed in to the driver’s seat. He handed me a blue Powerade.
“Thank you.” I said, before taking the obligatory courtesy sip. I do not like Powerade.
It was just after 7pm. We set off.
He offered me a cigarette. I do not smoke. I accepted. We shared silence behind puffs of smoke.
I am comfortable with silence. In a 5 hour car ride, silence should be expected. He broke the silence.
“Why you ain’t talkin’? Ya nervous? Ya think I’m gonna kill you? I got two guns.”
And suddenly. I was on-guard. I had to psychologically control the situation. I fingered the knife and pepper-spray in my pocket.
“No. Why do you have a gun? Do you ever carry things people would want to rob you for?”
This lead in to a conversation of what he was carrying now: Ice Cream. I also learned that he was a Texan native and a grandfather. He had been driving for 30 years and had recently lost his childhood sweetheart.
His life seemed a lonely one. He told me that a lady truck-driver sends him pornographic photos all the time. He showed me nude photos of women. I was unresponsive. This tactic seemed to work. The conversation slowly changed.
When we reached the Pilot Transit Center in East St. Louis, IL, he asked if I wanted to ride with him all the way to Texas.
“No. Thank you, though.”
“Did you want to take a shower? You can use my credits.”
“That’s alright. Thanks.”
“Be careful” he said.
“I will.” And I walked off.
I headed inside the truck- stop, took a look around, and was immediately drawn to the lounge. It was a dimly lit room with a large television and rows of cushioned movie-theater-like seating. There were also rounded tables and chairs along the rooms perimeter. It was certainly inviting.
I went to freshen up in the restroom, and upon my return, was addressed by a young female employee. “Are you driving?” she asked. I suppose my pack and sign gave me away.
“No.” I replied.
“You cannot stay here unless you are driving.”
“Ok. Thank you.”
I perused the snack aisles. I purchased canned corn and a banana. As my items were being rung up, the manager asked “Where are you sleeping tonight?”
“Not sure” I replied.
“Well if you cannot get a ride tonight, you are free to stay in the lounge. It is supposed to be below freezing tonight.”
“Oh. Thank you so very much!”
With a gigantic grin, I took my bag of goods next door to the 24 hour Subway/Taco Bell and positioned myself in a booth to write and eat. It was already well past midnight. I was not intending on hitching another ride tonight. I was thrilled at having a safe, semi-private place to sleep.
Two police officers entered and made conversation with me. I told them my story. They were kind and responsive. They bought me a subway salad and told me to be careful. I felt welcome.
It was not long before I returned to the lounge.
I spread out my mat and sleeping bag between two rows of seats.
Safe and warm, I fell asleep.