Many years ago, I went back to my college town on a Friday night. In the morning I waited by the railroad tracks at a spot I knew about, where the freight trains slow down momentarily. I carried a backpack with only a cell phone, a video camera, a sandwich, and a bottle of water which fell out as I ran beside the train and jumped on.
For hours I balanced above the wheel, watched the tracks beneath my feet, and rode that train to God knows where. I saw the morning light glow through the trees and fields. I saw parts of Virginia that I had never seen, and as the train continued on, I felt alive in a way I had never felt before. We are all, in a way, riding our own trains, carrying on recklessly through a countryside of years and small towns filled with people we'll meet ever so briefly, but they may change us still.
Sometime before noon, the train stopped - I can't tell you where - and I walked into one of those towns covered with soot. At a convenience store, I had to really convince the woman behind the counter to let me use the bathroom (to clean off). This - I think - is one of my favorite parts of the story, because the way she refused told me that I wasn't the anomaly I thought I was. Others had come this way before - and that's always given me some comfort in a way.
The afternoon found me at a biker rally where I fell in with a group of Christian Bikers that offered me a ride. The only problem was that they were headed back the way I came, and I was going away. I walked on, and rested, as dehydration set in, along the bank of some peaceful river. Somewhere.
I hitchhiked further, with a man who volunteered with kids. He was full of energy and I'll never forget what what he said to me. "Take a potato," he said. "We load it with bacon, sour cream, butter, chives, what have you, but have you ever just eaten a plain baked potato? It's boring at first, but then you start tasting more subtle flavors. It's delicious really."
He dropped me off on some onramp. I couldn't thumb a ride, so I just walked a few hours along the highway - right into West Virginia. At the next exit, I went into another small town, drank from the tap at a gas station, and then laid down on the grass right out front. I was tired. Hungry. And happy, staring up into the sky as the later afternoon turned to evening, realizing that this day was one of the best days of my life.
I don't recommend stepping out into the unknown, expecting the world to catch you. It's a risky proposition and certainly not for everyone. It could be dangerous. And I've certainly regretted it many times. But this whole passage is to tell you that I believe in living dangerously. I believe in loving recklessly. For me, the metaphorical act of sticking one's thumb out into the great unknown has profound spiritual implications.
There was no sunset. Dark clouds filled the horizon. I walked along the road as car after car passed me. I counted them as they went, knowing that given that there is a certain ratio of homicidal maniacs in the general population, the probability that I would bum a ride from one increased with every car that passed me by.
It started to drizzle when an old bearded man in the most ancient car I had ever seen picked me up. He explained that it was a "Model A" and that it was the second car build by the Ford Motor Company after the "Model T." He had rebuilt it from parts, which seemed fitting, because he was a professor of anatomy.
The drizzle turned into a heavy rain. Realizing that, wherever he dropped me off I would be water-logged and alone in the night, he offered to put me up. I accepted and, just like that, the sky cleared and, in my memory, I imagine I saw the last glimpses of a sunset.
He and his wife, a woman who helped provide safety for battered women, fed me sausages and when I asked about the strange and beautiful photograph that hung by their table, they explained that their last guests had been Buddhist monks. They had stayed in their house for weeks and used their waking hours to build an elaborate geometric art piece out of sand. They told me it was called a "mandala." I had never heard of such a thing, but they said it was a symbolic representation of the universe. When the mandala is complete, the monks hold a ceremony where they take their masterpiece to the river, lower it into the water, and let it wash away.
The next day the professor drove me back out to the highway where I bid him goodbye and filmed him driving away. I have it on a mini-dv tape somewhere. I wonder if that fragile digital tape could still be read if I wanted to see it again. I was picked up next by a nervous woman, who I think was scared of picking me up, but did so anyway. Then by a man who asked me if I had any money or weed. I said I didn't so he offered me some and then yelled at a small child in the back to "pass him another." The child handed him a bottle of beer from a cooler which he put between his legs to replace the empty one that was already there. This man was drunk drunk drunk, which I soon realized when we were blocked from speeding ahead by a car in each of the two lanes in front of us and I held on breathlessly as he pushed on the gas and tried to go in between.
He dropped me off at some intersection somewhere. I got the plates and called the cops - for the kids in that car whose lives, I believed, were in constant jeopardy. Towards evening, another man picked me up. He might have been the age I am now. Hitching a ride is really a lot like going on a first date. You're feeling each other out, trying to gauge intentions, maybe telling stories, and in my case, as a man, always trying to put the other at ease that I'm not a psychopath (I think this is a really unfortunate statement on society).
The man told me that he picked me up, because he had hitchhiked too, "because karma man," because he understood.
The next day I showed up at work and it was same old same old:
"How was your weekend?"
"Pretty good. You?"
"Not so bad. Managed to get out of town for a few days."