Hitchhiking. The word in itself used to terrify me. I would wonder why anyone would get into a car with a stranger, let alone give a ride to a rough and mangled person. We all know, Stranger Danger and we all know there is no free candy in that van…. unless, of course, that cardboard covered window, rusty van is parked off the PCT, then it’s totally safe…
It is nearly impossible to complete the PCT without hitchhiking a few times; and this fact was one of the hardest I had to face. I had to swallow my pride and ask for help from a stranger at random, then I had to trust them that they wouldn’t leave me for dead in some forested ravine but get me safely to my destination.
Bottom line was, I didn’t want to hitchhike. Ever.
However, in order for me to get to the trail hitchhiking was one of the first things I had to do.
I took a bus for Seattle as far East as I could to a town called Concrete, WA. There, I walked through the one block town and started down the highway. I wasn’t sure of the whole hitchhiking protocol so I did like in the movies, I stuck out my thumb and tried to hide the murderous look on my face. One car passed, then two and I wondered if people actually stopped for strangers… it was such a foreign concept to me. A few minutes passed as I continued to walk down the road when I heard a third car approach. I stuck out my thumb and the car rolled to a stop as easy as if I were flagging down a cab.
The car pulled up and the driver rolled down his window as smoke poured out of the opening, I saw the car was full to the brim of food wrappers and snack food. There was an upper middle aged man in the driver’s seat and he asked me where I was headed, when I told him he agreed to take me, since he was passing right by. When I popped open the door he handed me an empty six pack and told me to leave it in the road “for the highway department”, which I did – Hey, I don’t know Washington’s rules.
We exchanged formalities and I thanked him for picking me up but I was still apprehensive about this whole taking a ride from a stranger thing so I cupped my hidden pepper spray to calm my thoughts.
The ride was long, he was driving well under the speed limit, so we had a lot of time to talk. He was a very interesting fellow. He said his name was Alex Gabor. He told me stories of grand fortune and great loss, the problems with politics and the scandal of the banking system. I recall one story that I found entertaining, that I have retold on the trail many times, however, over the retelling of this story the details have become a little fuzzy…the story goes like this:
There is a park in downtown Portland with a police station right across the street. However, with complete disregard to the police station this park had earned its reputation as being a place of crooks, drug users and dealers. Kids would come to this park to get messed up and pass the days away. One day a man came to the park and sat on the bench and just watched the going ons. He started to come everyday and he just sat and watched. One day a junkie came over to the calm man sitting on the bench and asked him for a quarter.
The man on the bench replied “Do you have a penny”?
The junkie was surprised by the man’s response and inquired “Man, I just asked YOU for a quarter, why you asking me for money”?
The man on the bench just calmly replied “If you bring me a penny, I’ll give you a quarter.”
The junkie was confused and just walked away.
The next day the man returns and sits on the same bench, watching the scenes unfold in the park as he did days before when the junkie he talked to the day prior saw him. The junkie came running over shouting “I have your pennies, you owe me”! The junkie hands the man on the bench a handful of pennies. The man counts them and “buys” them, as agreed. The man on the bench then said to the junkie “I will buy every penny you bring me, tell your friends, I’ll buy their’s too”.
Soon all the kids in the park started bringing the pennies to the man on the bench, sometimes bags full at a time, and as agreed, the man bought ever single penny, sometimes quizzing the kids on the rate of return they were receiving. Eventually, the man on the bench began to be known as the Penny King.
The story went that the Penny King bought so many pennies that he created a penny shortage in the Portland area, in a way turning the banks upside down and shaking their foundation.
Then the man who was so kind to give me a ride and share this story turned to me and said, “let me introduce to you the Penny King of Portland” and he shook me hand.
I laughed, however, when he dropped me off at the trail head he asked me for a penny. Again, I laughed and pulled out what I had, which was somewhere in the neighborhood of three pennies and handed them over. When he quickly slipped a $20 into my hands. I protested and insisted he could just have the pennies but he said he “buys” them. I ceased arguing and prepped my pack for the trail, when he reached out the window and handed me another gift. He gave me a bright red hat because it “matched my hair” and he’d then remember me as “Reba Red”. I laughed again, thanked him and set out to the woods.
Really, my first experience hitchhikking was quite positive and quite odd but it assisted in calming all my future fears.
My second attempt at hitchhiking came near Stevens Pass. This spot was a little difficult for the speed the cars were flying by. By time they realized you were there they were already by.
It was a rainy, cold, foggy day – a good day for a warm zero in town, which I needed. All my gear was wet, I was cold and my morale was at an all time low. I set up on the side of the road and not even three minutes passed before a pickup pulled over. I walked up to the window and there was a woman in the driver seat and about 4-5 kids in the back and passenger seat, decked out in soccer uniforms. She told me there was no room in her cab but if I wanted a ride to Leavenworth I could ride in the bed.
Reluctant to pass up the ride because it was getting dark, it was rainy and I didn’t want to to stand on the side of the road in the increasing cold or spend another night in the crappy weather, I thanked her and jumped in the back.
As I laid down in the bed of the truck, soaked to the bone, freezing from the wind, being pelted by rain and aching from pounding out 26 miles in sloppy weather, I suddenly felt euphoric. Riding in the back of a pickup at excess highway speeds, watching the mountains fade into the distance and the trees flicker by made me think of all the things people in normal society close themselves off from and the experiences they will never have because they are reluctant to step outside of their comfort zone. I lifted my head and hands toward the sky with a feeling of invincibility and absolute freedom – I laughed out loud, I never felt this free. No strings here, it was the first time on the trail that I realized the infinite freedom that is felt once you remove yourself from common society, standards and all things that hold your responsibilities. The boundaries and the rules that you set are abolished, once you find your existence on the fringes. It’s phenomenal – I have no other way to describe it.