only in nightmares

I feel bad that I don’t have as much to say about hanging out with friends and family as I do about hanging out with strangers. But, what it comes down to is when I’m with people I already know, I am content to do absolutely nothing for days. Because I’m in the presence of people with whom I am already completely comfortable, and whose presence I adore. Sorry friends, it’s not that I don’t love you or am not impressed with you. Quite the contrary.

Actually though, my time in Geneva was pretty eventful. Cassiopeia took me to several of her favorite restaurants, and the girl has fine taste. We indulged in a chill pizza and cookie and movie night. We had breakfast with Todd and Hope, very dear friends from Naples. Whom I also spent my Sunday with, on my own private tour of lovely Wheaton. I got to see the Wheaton campus and their church. We went for a drive to admire the local, so charming architecture. And for lunch and a stroll around the lake. I got to see their home and hang out with their dogs. I love how many dog friends I’ve had on this trip. Also the diversity of the people I get to see. The last time I saw Todd and Hope was in Seattle a few years ago. Traveling by hitching has definitely allowed for a broader itinerary than I could have managed by plane, bus, or train.

Cassie and I also stopped in at her family’s house and biked from Batavia to Geneva. It was a really nice visit. But I miss living with all of my ex-roommates. I love that I have the opportunity to have these moments with people I care about, but it always makes me a little sad, too. 14054448_10157361749315581_6707912444237403548_oScreen Shot 2016-09-04 at 12.20.24 AMIMG_4950
It was a bit of a hassle, getting me to the interstate. Cassie lives an unfortunate distance from both the road I took to get to Geneva, and the road I needed to get out of Geneva. She had to bring her nanny kids and half her family (thanks to all!) to drop me off on I-88. It was a later start than usual, but I’m beyond getting anxious. Everything happens, and all. I got a ride with a posh guy in his thirties. He candidly informed me that he had no license, but it was okay, because he has good lawyers, and it’s not a big deal. Well, at least he wasn’t taking me very far. Interestingly he, too, had lived in Olympia for several years. He even had an Oly tattoo to prove it. I asked him to let me off at exit 136, just before our roads split. But he told me there was an exit for my turnoff. Even better. However, despite him having hitchhiked in his youth (at thirteen!), he didn’t know what he was talking about. The ‘exit’ was literally just a fork in the interstate. He dropped me off with 65mph traffic thwushing past. Lovely. I consulted google maps, and determined that the exit behind me was closer than the exit ahead of me. So I started walking, illegally, backwards. It ended up being a pretty inoptimal on-ramp. But, I didn’t really have much choice. A couple pulled over to make sure I was okay. They approached me as if I were a wild animal; I can’t shake the look of apprehension on their faces. I wonder if they thought I was on drugs, or out of my mind, or perhaps a criminal. Regardless, it made me feel disgusting. But I’m glad to have all these miles under my belt, from Washington until here. There’s some substance to your defense of hitchhiking when you’ve traversed almost the entire width of the country.

The couple left, but were replaced pretty quickly with flashing red and blue lights. I’ve had a fair amount of police pass while I’ve been hitchhiking, and it’s always a mixture of relief and satisfaction when they just keep driving. This one didn’t. I felt calm. No quickened pulse, no anxious thoughts. He rolled down his window and I approached with a smile.
 The officer was very friendly. But he told me that hitchhiking was illegal. Which, was news to me. I had researched the hitchhiking laws in each state before I embarked upon this trip. I said as much, in the least argumentative way possible. I asked him politely about the specific laws, and he said that yes, hitchhiking is illegal on all roads in Illinois and had been for some time. This didn’t sound right to me, but I wasn’t about to argue and escalate the situation. I wasn’t being treated like a criminal, and I responded in kind. A female officer had shown up in the meantime, and she more or less took over. She ended up driving me away from the highway to a nearby mall. She had to search me before I got into the car. I was curious about what passersby made of the situation, but I wasn’t bothered. This is my third time ‘hitchhiking’ with a police officer, but the first in this country. The officer, who wasn’t much older than me, was very curious about my trip and my life, and was extremely polite about the whole ordeal. She dropped me off, apologetically, and repeatedly made sure I was alrightIMG_4958I sat on the bench outside of Macy’s for quite some time, trying to determine my next move. My first thought was to try to find a rideshare on craigslist. But there was surprisingly not much happening in the Chicago area. I looked into buses to Indiana (after thoroughly re-checking the hitchhiking laws in both Indiana in Ohio). There was a $6 Greyhound bus from Chicago, IL to Gary, IN. I’ve heard only bad stories about Greyhound experiences, but, it seemed like a decent option. It was nearly noon, and I felt more than a little defeated. I was thinking of heading back to Geneva and starting again the next morning. That was my plan, until I realized that I am not so easily defeated. This is hitchhiking, this is traveling. Things happen and you figure them out and you keep going. Not that there’s anything ‘wrong’ with going backwards, in fact that was one of my favorite experiences with the Birthrighters, when we had one of two failed hitching days in Europe. We spent a bonus night with our CS host in Salzburg (whom we were all slightly in love with), and started fresh in the morning. And not that I would ever be opposed to spending more time with Cassiopeia. But I just felt like it was important, in this instance, for me to move forward. I’ve grown far too accustomed to my comfort zone in the past few years. I google maps-ed it, and found a bus headed towards Chicago leaving in less than five minutes. I took a bus and two trains to get to Gary, Indiana. It cost $11.

Gary, Indiana is probably the sketchiest place I’ve ever been. The eastbound on ramp adjacent to the metro station was closed. Of course. So, I shouldered my bags and walked a mile to the nearest entrance. The houses I passed looked abandoned, but I realized that they were not, in fact. Maybe people were just terrified of their neighbors. Yikes. The people were friendly enough. But back in Oak Brook I had considered sleeping here, and that was hopefully not going to happen. This was literally the worst hitchhiking location I’ve encountered. There were two separate on ramps and there was nowhere I could stand to catch traffic from both. Indiana actually has the most strict hitchhiking laws of any state I’ve been through, and I was not interested in being picked up by the police twice. In one day, no less. Also problematic was the depressingly infrequent traffic. Literally about two cars passed every ten minutes. But I had been through a lot today, and I refused to cave in to negativity. It was dusky, the weather was nice enough, and I was here. A car stopped, and the driver took me further than he needed to in order to leave me in a decent location (it’s really refreshing when people actually consider hitchability.) It was a truck stop that was closed except for truck parking. I considered spending the night here, and trying to get a lift in the morning. All of these trucks would be here for the duration of the night. But I decided instead to walk into town, get some tea and internet, and try my luck with the interstate entrance there. Portage was grand in comparison to Gary. I scanned the area for camping spaces as I walked. There were plenty of good options. This was going to be a fine night. Starbucks is not my favorite, but it suffices in a pinch. I was happy to spend a few hours there.

The sky was black when I finally left. I had scoped out a forested area just by the interstate, but upon exiting Starbucks, I noted a small grouping of trees to my right. I checked it out and decided it would do. After feeling the ground for dampness, and deeming it satisfactory, I curled up with my backpacks and laid there for awhile before falling asleep. The frogs, crickets, katydids, cicadas, and the like were in full swing. The noise from the interstate sounded quiet in comparison. I was pleasantly surprised to see the rhythmic glow of fireflies illuminating my personal forest ceiling. Finally assured that I wouldn’t be disturbed by local hooligans or animals, I pulled out my silk sheet, slathered on some bug balm, and got a pretty decent night of sleep, really. That said, I was awake by 4:30. So I headed to the interstate and camped out in the grass of the Holiday Inn. I’ve never been keen on hitchhiking in the dark, and I didn’t want to take any chances of someone calling the police on me. So I made a breakfast of the madras lentils I had been carrying with me since Olympia, and waited until sunrise. I had known before I started out that I would end up camping somewhere, and to be honest, I was excited about it. I could do this more often.

I had to wait an hour and a half, the longest wait of this trip. Not so much as a stop headed in the wrong direction. Was this how it was going to be, eastern US? I was offered forty bucks for a bus ticket, which I declined, obviously. Finally, I heard a shout from behind me. There was a man saying he would be headed east in a few minutes. I thanked God and grabbed my bags. Not only was he heading east, he was driving all the way to Mansfield, Ohio. Half an hour from my destination! I settled in for a five hour ride. He was pretty quiet, and conversation was sparse. Even though I consider myself a mostly quiet person, I pride myself on being able to elicit conversation from people, particularly strangers. Hitchhiking and couchsurfing will do that for you. I was bomb at getting anyone to engage when I first started at TJ’s. But this guy I could only get excited about his three cats back home. Oh well, I’ve never minded silence. He had been in the military, and now worked on railroad signals. It just so happened that the exit where his road and mine split was the exit for Strongsville, which rung a symphony of bells in my mind. He was going to drop me at a gas station, but on the way I saw a promising sight: Rockne’s. I was pretty sure my uncle owned a Rockne’s in Strongsville, and I called my mom to check. He did, and it was possible that someone in my family would be working. She immediately called my aunt who ended up coming to acquire me. It had taken a lot to get here, but Ohio, here I am.

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never squirrels

Megan, my CS host, was working until late afternoon. Given I had only an hour’s distance to cover hitchhiking from Minnesota, I made it to Eau Claire before noon. She had left a key hidden for me, and there was also potentially going to be a CSer from New Zealand there when I arrived. He was. His name is Peter, and this was his first time in the States. His first time off of his continent, in fact. He had come all this way to attend the Eaux Claires music festival (and here I thought Sunita and I had make quite the trek from Washington last year). He was a pretty interesting guy, rather chill, mostly quiet. I didn’t mind. Megan arrived home early and made tacos for us. We had a mostly uneventful evening, which is my preference on hitching days.

Peter and Megan were gone before I awoke the next morning. I was excited about my day in Eau Claire. This is probably the most random stop on my trip. But Sunita and I didn’t get to explore much when we were here for the festival, and I’ve been wanting to come back ever since. I walked downtown to the farmer’s market, and then meandered through the streets. I happened into a record store and decided to buy my first ever record – I don’t even own a record player! But I guess I like the idea of owning my favorite albums in vinyl. Only albums that are perfect. This first one was the self-titled album by The xx. But now I have a record to lug across the US with me. Great decision making, always. After strolling, I ended up back at Megan’s before taking a bike ride. I partook in something she said everyone should have upon visiting Eau Claire: a hot and hammy. Which is a delectable dive bar sandwich. When in Wisconsin(?). I biked around until late afternoon, through parks and over bridges. I quite like Eau Claire. Megan was home when I got back, and we went to the Lazy Monk brewery to enjoy their patio overlooking the Chippewa River. I like these tame destinations. I especially enjoyed people watching here. Eau Claire feels like a bit of an anachronism to me. It’s the type of place where small gangs of kids bike the streets without their parents; it feels small, it feels safe.IMG_4945Megan dropped me the next morning at what I felt was a strange location, but eventually  I understood why. It was a road filled with businesses, and I tried to walk past them to an actual highway, but the road turned from normal business lined street to fast interstate with no warning. I walked several miles to get to the nearest on ramp, in hopes of calmer traffic. There was calmer traffic yes, but also noticeably less traffic. I finally acquired the first in a long and tedious series of rides. This was my hardest day thus far. I definitely had to work for my miles to Geneva. There was a lot of walking, a lot of being dropped off at in-optimal exits, and a lot of patience. It did feature two notably great rides. The first was two best friends who offered for several minutes to take me to Milwaukee so I could catch a bus. When I finally convinced them I wasn’t interested, the conversation shifted to other things.

Dale: Do you tell your parents where you are?
Me: Yes.
Dale: Did you tell your parents you’re in a van with two black men?
Me: No.
Dale: Do you associate with black people?
Me [laughing]: Yes
David: Of course she does man, she wouldn’t have gotten in the car with us if she didn’t.

Around this time David gets a call, and tells what is presumably his female that he picked up a girl hitchhiking. She apparently didn’t believe him and he hands the phone to me, “tell her who you are.” I went through a conversation with this woman, explaining just why I am hitchhiking across the country. Satisfied (after reprimanding me), she asks for David and I handed the phone back. He said she was jealous. They gave me their number in case I needed anything, ran into any trouble, or was ever back in the area. They also insisted I text them upon reaching Geneva, so they would know I made it safely.

The second cool ride of the day was my first solo female. She was twenty-three, and said I just looked non-threatening (I get that a lot.) Her boyfriend called, and she, too, informed him that she had picked up a hitchhiker. I listened, amused, to her side of the conversation. He was clearly concerned, and she was enjoying taunting him from her entirely safe situation. My favorite part was the line “She’s traveling from Washington to Florida, and I’m party of her journey!” that’s exactly the spirit I hope for.

There was a handful of other rides, but the final one I’ll detail was the last. I was dropped at Cassie’s exit on I-90. On my map, I could see she lived just off Randall Road, but what I didn’t realize was that it was fourteen miles away. Ugh. I was ready to be done for the day. I walked a bit down Randall, looking for a place where cars could conceivably pull off, but knowing I had no chance. Already defeated, I stuck my thumb out and tried to pretend like I was happy and hopeful. This lasted for about ten minutes before I gave up and trudged to the 7-eleven nearby. I bought a tall, cold tea and was ecstatic about consuming it. As I was exiting the store, a man coming in stopped me. “I saw you on the street…do you need a ride somewhere?” Astounding. “Uh, yeah, I just need to head down Randall for like fourteen miles.” He didn’t even get anything at 7-eleven, he just cleared out his passenger seat for me and drove me all the way to my destination. People are the best, sometimes.

death of a comedian

I’ve been constantly surprised by how little traffic graces the roads after exiting Washington. As a hitchhiker, it’s not a good sign to see a rarity of cars passing by. I started my morning by a Love’s, which would normally be hopeful because truck stops tend to perpetuate heavier traffic. Not so, in this instance. But fortunately, somehow, there hasn’t seemed to be the expected correlation between lack of actual vehicles on the road, and lack of willing lifts. In fact, hitchhiking in this country has surprisingly amazed me even more than hitchhiking in Europe. Which I wouldn’t have thought possible. But it’s somehow different when it’s your own country. It’s easy to attribute outstanding occurrences to differences in culture. But I’ve found that when it is my country, my own neighbors, my fellow citizens, it is astonishing to me that there are so many humans ready and willing to pick up a stranger on the side of the road. I don’t understand where they all come from. But I am grateful. And humbled. And proud.

My first ride showed up within two minutes. A semi, in which I was surprised to find a tiny dog staring me down. Dale and Cujo travel the US together. They were headed all the way to I-35, where I would finally branch off of my previous, straight course of I-90. Today – should I reach my destination – would be my halfway point across the US: 1,700 miles. I was pretty stoked about having a literal lapdog for this part of the journey. Cujo vacillated between using me as a bed, and curling up in Dale’s laundry under the actual bed. Dale was a pretty candid dude, and I learned a lot more about him than I would care to submit about my own personal life. He also shared his excitement for the Minnesota/Wisconsin specific gas station Kwik Trip. I’m not usually a doughnut fan, but his enthusiasm for the freshly made blueberry doughnuts definitely piqued my interest. I made a mental note to visit this Kwik Trip place. cujoMy second ride was also a semi, this time with no puppy friend. However, my lift did have an extra relish covered hot dog which he insisted on sharing. I declined, but he did not accept my declination (I didn’t know declination was an actual word!) I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I exclusively eat hot dogs from Ikea. Piotr was Russian, from a family of five brothers and four sisters. Despite living in Minnesota for nineteen years, his accent was still rich. He took me as far as Lakeville, just south of Minneapolis. I almost declined the final lift. John was driving a dump truck, and he was in the middle of his work day. He still needed to pick up his load before heading north of Minneapolis, where I was trying to go. This sounded sickeningly familiar; I had vowed after the Rapid City>Sioux Falls journey to never get in a truck that needed to pick up a load. However, John assured me this would be quick. He was right. We drove to the site, and a man in a dinosaur-shaped tractor shoveled dirt into the truck quite speedily. When John got out to handle the paperwork, I overheard the dinosaur-tractor-man ask him, indicating in my direction, ‘what are you doin’ picking up hitchhikers?’ He didn’t realize I was an actual hitchhiker, and John didn’t correct him. My heavily-Minnesota-accented lift ended up driving way off course to get me to Anoka. Whereby he very politely offered to take me to dinner while I was in town. John has by far been the youngest lift I’ve had, probably somewhere in his twenties. But, dates have never been my scene, and I declined as gracefully as I could muster. Besides, I had other plans for my time here. I was back among family.

Brian has been one of my closest friends since middle school, but we haven’t had extensive contact in several years, since we were both living in Gainesville. Now he’s married, lives in Minnesota, has a fancy real person job, and who knows what else has changed. I was thrilled to have an opportunity to spend a few days with both Brian and Jenn. It’s weird, living far away from your best friends. Especially when they start getting into serious relationships. Like, all of the sudden they have these very important people in their lives that you don’t even know. It makes me extremely sad that I probably won’t ever get to know some of my friend’s spouses very well. Which is especially why I was excited to have this time with Jenn, who I already knew was fantastic from just one meeting. Despite the movie-nerdiness amongst us, we forewent film and spent the evening catching up. This was the first familiarity I had encountered since Spokane, and it felt so good.

I joined them for church the next day. They are super adorable and attend the traditional service, rather than the contemporary service. I’m pretty sure we were the only people under the age of sixty in attendance, which made me smile. Afterwards, Jenn headed to a baseball game in Minneapolis, and Brian and I went to see Suicide Squad, as you do. It more or less met our expectations of being exceptionally mediocre. I think the rest of the day was spent having more philosophical and fantastical and personal conversations. And making and consuming pizza. Duh. In a toaster oven, at that. I had planned on exploring Minneapolis the next day. But decided instead to have a day of rest. Which was probably the wiser option. I savored my final evening with these precious people. Morning came so soon, and I took the train with them towards Saint Paul where I was met by my cousin Ben, his wife Tricia, and their new, lively small human Leo. He had just gotten back into town the night before, and I had plans with a couchsurfer that evening in Wisconsin, so I didn’t get to spend much time with them. We went for breakfast and caught up as much as possible in a few short hours. And then we were all off in different directions. Tricia dropped me, with hesitation, at the interstate for they day’s [presumably short] journey.

The first lift was one of the most interesting I’ve had. Nils owns a photography and set construction business. He had actually created a set for the Eau Claire music festival I attended last year with Sunita. He regaled me with tales of his hitchhiking years, his time living in Australia, and his rather fascinating business. But he wasn’t going very far, and we parted ways too soon for my liking. The next ride also wasn’t going very far, and left me at a pretty poor location, really. But, I got a semi that would be going so close to Eau Claire. Still, he dropped me four and change miles out of town, and I did not feel like walking in the midday sun. He did leave me at a Kwik Trip. I indulged in some of the recommended blueberry doughnuts (which were pretty great), and was in fact quite impressed with the place overall. Who knew you could have a favorite gas station? Following my sugar boost, I found a place with a decent pulloff, and held out my thumb, not expecting anyone on this non-interstate to stop for me. However, in a matter of minutes, a very kind man pulled over and drove me [out of his way] to the very street I needed. Eau Claire, je t’aime.

psiouxdo patience

I was standing on the side of I-90, my faithful friend these past few weeks, by 8am. The sky was overcast, and the morning was windy. A welcome change from the eastern heat I’d been traveling into. Rapid City saw me standing there for nearly an hour, slowly losing the hitchhiking confidence I’d been building up since the commencement of this trip. In Europe it was longer, but I think in the US about half an hour is the point where your hopefulness drops from Full like a balloon with a slow leak. Or maybe an air mattress – even more depressing. Anyways, I retired my thumb and made a sign for Sioux Falls, my destination on the other side of the state. A blue semi pulled over nearing my hour mark, and my spirits returned instantaneously. “I have to pick up my load, but I’m headed for Sioux Falls,” the driver said, when I climbed up and peered into the window. I hesitated. It was only about a four-and-a-half hour journey. How long could picking up a load actually take? I figured maybe an hour. And hey, new experiences. Probably largely because I was sick of this particular section of highway (and because certainty is enticing), I grabbed my bags and hopped in. A decision I would regret for the duration of the day.

What my lift had failed to mention was that his load was back in the opposite direction, in Spearfish, SD. Which added about an extra three hours of driving to our journey. Upon arriving at the lumberyard, we found out the man who was to load our truck had just left for his lunch. He didn’t return for at least forty-five minutes. And then he had to load thousands of pounds of lumber onto the truck. And then it needed to be strapped down. And then we had to weigh it, to make sure we weren’t overweight. And then came the tarping process, for which I was recruited. All in all, it was almost three more hours. My nice, easy, four-and-change hour journey turned into a thirteen hour ordeal. I was not making it to the barbecue my CS host in Sioux Falls was hosting.lumberWe passed alternating endless fields of corn, wheat, sunflowers, soy, and something neither of us recognized. I have to say, since I was with him so long, I didn’t feel bad about taking time to read. I don’t usually get much reading time when I travel, but I’m about a fourth of the way through Cloud Atlas. It was nice, reading and not having to put effort into interacting (for twelve hours.) We didn’t stop even once after leaving Spearfish. Not for food, not for the bathroom. He booked it to Sioux Falls, and even forged his records so we could make it that night. Travis, the truck driver, dropped me at the edge of Sioux Falls, and Travis, the CS host ducked out of his barbecue to acquire me. We arrived back to a circle of people in the parking lot of his downtown apartment. There was a ton of food waiting and I partook with feeling. We had a rather late night, and I felt drowsy long before we turned in. But I was glad to have arrived.sunflowersTravis happened to have off on my full day in Sioux Falls. He’s an outdoorsy fellow, so we headed for the water. He had a kayak, to which he tied an inflatable raft. I had it pretty easy, because he did all of the paddling and I just kicked back and got a summer’s worth of sun. We were on the Missouri river, and we were positioned loosely between South Dakota and its dastardly neighbor Nebraska. The current tried its best to get us closer to the latter, but we had no intention of crossing the watery state line. For hours we had warm sun and cool water, but quite suddenly grey started overtaking the sky. Travis started the against-the-current paddle back towards shore. Not so far along, the life jacket fell off my raft and beyond my reach. I shouted a quick ‘hold up’ before sliding off to retrieve it. Travis hadn’t heard me, and was paddling further away. My first instinct was to whistle, but between giggling about being left behind, and trying to swim after my departing vessel, I couldn’t form the sound. So I switched to shouting. Alas, my voice couldn’t carry over the distance and the speakers playing the usually perfect sounds of The Tallest Man on Earth. I couldn’t stop giggling in order to swim effectively, and so I eventually donned the life jacket and hung out until he noticed I was missing. It took awhile. He was nearly back to shore when I could see the small figure of his kayak turning back. Reunited, I relayed what had happened, and he shared the utter fear he had felt at the realization that he had quite possibly just drowned his couchsurfer*. He had to rest for a bit before we could continue, and in the meantime a squall kicked up. He had his work cut out to get us back, and powerless to help on my little raft, I curled into the smallest ball against the cold and rain.

After warm showers and sushi, we strolled through downtown Sioux Falls, to its namesake. The falls were nicer than I expected. Wide, multi-leveled, sprawling waterways formed a beautiful location for sunset. But we didn’t stay long, instead we retired early for a classic film, The Thin Man, and then I slept superbly after an active day of sun and water.

In the morning Travis drove me to my hitching location, and hopefully a day of better decision making than the previous portion of my travels.

*come to find out, this wasn’t his first almost-drowning-of-a-couchsurfer. I had encountered a serial drowner, if you will. siouxfalls

this land was once a million miles

I was walking a long, unused highway for who-knows-how-long when David, my CS host in Rapid City, SD texted me to inform me that he would be picking me up. Upon retrieving me and my bags, he asked tentatively ‘are you opposed to eating at Dairy Queen?’ I wasn’t; I eat anything, on the road. It was the first fast food I’ve had in ages, but after a long day of hitchhiking, I can’t say that fish sandwich was anything but satisfying.

David’s house is an absolute work of art. He very particularly chose his neighborhood, a charming historic district in Rapid City, and built his house in a traditional style. You can tell everything about it was done intentionally, and the details are stunning. From the rockwall climbing the wall of the room where I was staying that leads to a secret play space, to the window saved from the original house that sits between the laundry room and the stairwell. It felt luxurious and homey all at once. After our fancy fast food dinner, we pulled up a few chairs on David’s porch and sat in the darkness exchanging travel tales. David is a water engineer, and has worked in Haiti and Timor. He had been part of the peace corps, as well as the Australian equivalent. He has lived an impressive life thus far, and has a unique perspective. I knew from his response to my couch request (“you have a home in Rapid City”) that this would be a welcome environment, and that was totally true. I did feel entirely comfortable both in his home and in his company. During our conversation we would have to cut our sentences short to allow for the storm blowing through, shaking the trees down to their roots and making our voices indistinguishable behind the noise. I’ve missed these storms.

I slept in and it felt marvelous. Downing a few slices of zucchini bread fresh from David’s garden (yes, he grows zucchini bread), I set off on the day’s adventure. I headed straight for the heart of the city. The day before David had told me the story of how the town square had come to be. Basically the area had been inhabited with some off-colour businesses, including a porn shop. This guy Hillenbrand bought up the businesses that he didn’t feel fit into the vision of a town square for the community, and turned the strip into something everyone could take part in. Which I think is totally awesome. I made a slight detour on the way to check out Art Alley, because street art. Duh. My favorite.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI grabbed some tea and set off for the dinosaur on the mountain. At the top, not only could you hang out with dinosaurs, but you could see all of Rapid City. Here I received a text from David saying he was leaving work early, and we were going on a tour of the surrounding area. I arrived back home just as he was pulling in.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOur destination was partially uncharted. David had heard rumor of ‘the Hippie Hole’, but had never been. It took some tricky navigation, but we arrived, and made the trek down to the pool that was deep enough for cliff jumping. There were other people there, but not many. We watched one person jump before David made the plunge. I followed, carefully choosing my landing, as we had been warned that some girl at some time had landed in the wrong place and ended up in the hospital. Lovely. But after seeing two other people go for it and survive, I felt confident. It’s exhilarating, jumping, falling, landing in water that is the absolute perfect temperature. The rope for climbing back to the top was a bit tricky, as the rock face was soaked. Scarier, in fact, than the jump itself. Still, it was worth it. We took several turns each, and helped a group of Jamaicans encourage their friend to make the jump. What we didn’t realize was that the guy didn’t know how to swim. He nearly drowned his friend and David who were trying to help him back to the edge. But, spoiler alert, everyone was okay. hippie holecliff jumpingDavid took us for a ride through the Black Hills. It’s a gorgeous area, and the time of day was just right. We decided to take a hike at The Cathedral, stopping to eat raspberries along the way. The path we took didn’t lead back to the car, so we planned on (hoped to) hitchhike back. We had to walk for a bit before anyone stopped for us. Our salvation was a family who thought something was wrong and straight up asked us if we were psychos. They made room that they didn’t have for us and we piled gratefully in. To finish our adventure, we had some ice cream sandwiches and did a drive-by of Mount Rushmore. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADinner was a handcrafted hodgepodge of dishes. We had grilled sweet potatoes, stuffed grilled peppers, and a fresh caprese salad. It tasted glorious after an active day in the sun. I had a late night and an early morning, with hitchhiking on the horizon. Sleep is valuable, but hey, you can sleep when you’re home. More experiences than daylight can hold – that’s the wandering life.

two hour sandwiches

I didn’t spend a lot of time in downtown Bozeman. Despite it easily being one of the most fondly favored cities in America. But I rather enjoyed my days nestled into a cabin in Bear Canyon. Pam works on the trails in the area, and I just happened to request her couch (presence) on her off week. This was her first couchsurfing experience, which I was excited about because I wanted to do my damnedest to make it stellar. However, in this Pam was prepared to beat me profusely (by being a more superb host than I was a guest).

Upon dropping my stuff at the house she and her friend Richard took me for another outing of pizza and beer. Immediately producing pizza for a guest is pretty much the best possible situation. We sat outside on a balcony with a beautiful view of the Bridger mountains and spent a few hours getting excited about each others respective lives. Pam was already prepared with ideas for how to spend her days off, my visit in Bozeman, and our time together. Our first stop was the S.L.A.M. festival, which was the free option of the two music festivals happening in Bozeman at the same time. There is no television in the cabin, so we spent our just-before-bed hours listening to music and enjoying the presence of the people we were with. It’s so nice to actually be entirely where you are. No distractions in time or space, just a steady here-ness.

Pam, Richard, and I went out for breakfast and a stroll through downtown the following morning. After which we took her dog, Obi-Wan, to the most beautiful dog park I’ve ever seen. We spent a lot of time discussing plans for the evening, and ultimately narrowed it down to hot springs, or the neighbor’s hot tub (if there were no airbnb guests). The latter won, and we spent the evening watching the sun set behind the mountains, the stars slowly appear, and bats fill the air around us. I had only requested to stay with Pam for two nights, but I ended up staying another, which was fine by me. We had a giant homemade breakfast and a not-especially-successful berry foraging outing (I did get my fresh Montana huckleberries). The remainder of the day was spent slowly making ceviche and chatting. Pam is one of those people that I pretty instantly wanted to be good friends with upon meeting. You know how you just get excited about some people? Pam is like that, she is one of those humans I am proud of, just for existing. Despite only knowing her for three days.IMG_4900I usually try to start hitchhiking at 8am, or 9am at the latest. Both because I think there’s better traffic earlier in the day, and because the weather is nicer. I awoke at 7:45 and had everything packed and ready to walk out the door by 8. Pam offered to make breakfast sandwiches and I agreed to yet more of her generous hospitality. Pam’s heritage is Mexican, and you can see it in the time she takes to prepare and eat meals. It is an enjoyed process, rather than an activity to be gotten through. And in the way that talking becomes more important than doing. We stopped halfway through to enjoy a coffee and a tea. I think a few years ago I would have started getting anxious about not leaving when I had planned to. But I’ve learned a decent amount of calm in the past several years, and I’ve also made people my priority. I gave my time and attention to our morning’s conversation, and it was full and rich and intimate and irreplaceable.

Pam dropped me at the edge of the interstate, closer to Bozeman. I was situated on a slight hill, and the land all around was flat. I could see for miles. It took me an hour to get a lift, which I at first felt a little rustled about, but then I realized how short of a wait that is in the vast world of hitchhiking. I’ve gotten spoiled in the past week. Finally, a bright blue car pulled up headed for Livingston. Upon settling in, I was offered a twinkie, and politely declined. My lift hailed from Pennsylvania originally, and when I asked why he had relocated to Montana his response was ‘crime.’ I thought he was trying to make a funny joke about how he came to escape or pursue a life of crime. But actually he had been a police officer. Apparently he had specialized in cross dressing to catch purse snatchers. Which I didn’t know was a thing, but I guess it is. After he dropped me in Livingston I had barely stuck my thumb out before a black truck pulled over and took me as far as Billings. The man was an electrical engineer working on a new school in North Dakota. He also had a degree in aeronautical/astronautical engineering and had done that for awhile. No big deal. My final ride of the day was my first semi of the trip. A couple. Debbie moved to the back so I could sit in the front. They were from Missouri, and their accents proved it. The ride was filled with sugar and cigarettes as we cycled through conversation and comedy sketches. We passed a university in Lame Deer called Chief Dull Knife College, which we all found amusing (and you can bet there was a volley of ‘not the sharpest tool in the shed’ jokes.) We hit a black sky and heavy wind and rain before the most vibrant, full rainbow I’ve ever witnessed appeared. Debbie and I nerded out over it and took a billion pictures. Five hours later, they let me off at my exit and I felt like I had lost a bit of short-term family. So it goes…rainbowIII

early meteors

Jed is a musician first and foremost. I could tell from his CS profile, and you can tell almost upon meeting him. He met me at his house, where I deposited my stuff in my tiny, cute, peculiar guest room. He had band practice that evening, which I was invited to, but first we were off to the Top Hat, where his [main] band plays regularly. It was one of those situations where he knew everyone we passed, and we stopped to chat with quite a few of them. The majority of our time was spent talking with Tom, a recent retiree from New York who spends his summers in Montana. We made plans to have pizza and beer with him the following day. Sitting in on band practice was a delight. They play bluegrass, I suppose. I’ve never been good at determining genres. It reminded me often of Irish music, and old English folk songs. We spent a good three hours there, and I enjoyed it immensely.IMG_4839.jpgThe first day in Missoula I spent, typically, wandering. Objective number one was breakfast. I chose a place with ‘Brazilian fast food’, which is a bowl of epic deliciousness. I got the large size and it was enough for three meals (which is pretty much a backpacking win). I walked all of the downtown area, stopping in wherever looked interesting. Despite not generally being into museums, I popped into the Missoula Art Museum, which was free. There was a fantasticly haunting photo exhibit. Definitely one of the better museum experiences. It was becoming a quite warm day, and I felt that tingling need for ice cream. So I scouted out the place with the most locals hanging around, saw the words ‘chai’ and ‘milkshake’, and my day was made. I actually got a dirty chai milkshake, at the recommendation of the cashier. And it quite officially wins Best Milkshake I’ve Ever Had award. I had one the following day as well. Should’ve had one the last day as well.

After a stroll through the University of Montana campus, I met up with Jed and Tom for the aforementioned pizza and beer, and spent a few hours talking life. Jed had music practice with a different band, but instead of joining again (I was tempted) I chose to hike to the top of the “M” for sunset and stars. Which, was a great choice. I made it just as the sun was dipping behind the mountains, and stayed until well after it became dark. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI remained in Missoula an extra day for ‘first Friday,’ which is apparently thing, though I had never heard of it. Jed’s band, Dodgy Mountain Men, was playing for a good portion of the evening. But before I settled myself in for another night of fantastic music, I followed Jed’s advice and peeped into shops, and saw a bunch of local art. It’s such an interesting event, most places serve free alcohol, and so people just wander from shop to shop with their beverages. Which, apparently doesn’t happen anytime except for first Friday. It felt like a tight community. At least on this night. I found Tom again, when I finally returned to the parking lot where music was happening. I was definitely ready for dinner, and Tom happened to mention that the venue in front of which they were playing had one of his ‘favorite menu items in the world.’ Which, pretty much sold me on it. It’s a couple of huge corn cakes, topped with fried eggs, black beans, cheese, salsa, and other delicious and flavorful sauces and such. Duh. I stayed for most of the music, but went in and out of listening carefully, because people in Montana are friendly. I was drawn into several conversations with the fun and fascinating individuals who inhabit Missoula.IMG_4888_2The following morning I was planning on catching a ride with Jed partway to Bozeman. But his plans got pushed back until late afternoon. So, at 11, he dropped me at the same interstate ramp at which I had arrived a few days before. I forewent the sign and just thumbed it. A car pulled over and offered to take me one exit, which seems funny to me. But I appreciated the gesture, of course. There wasn’t a ton of traffic, on this Saturday morning, but I got a ride within fifteen minutes. A giant blue truck stopped right in the middle of the road, and blocked all of the oncoming traffic for about thirty seconds while we talked. After determining that he was, indeed, going through Bozeman, I waved apologetically/gratefully at the line of waiting cars and hopped in. He was part of a two car caravan, and his friend was pulled off waiting for us on the on-ramp. They had just taken a mining course in Missoula, and were headed to Wyoming to lay tracks. Jack met both of the most common reasons-for-the-lift markers: used to hitchhike back in the day, has a daughter my age. We had a three hour drive together. Part of it covered diverse topics such as motorcycles, hitchhiking tales, ghost stories, surfing, Washington being the best state (he lives about an hour from Olympia)…I was surprised to hear a funny beeping sound at some point, and enlightened when he gave a long breath into it. I’ve seen breathalyzers before, but it’s still disconcerting when your ride has to use one every twenty minutes. Disconcerting perhaps, but a surefire way of knowing you’re not riding with an inebriated driver, which I have (in Ireland). About ten miles before reaching Bozeman, we were on the topic of self defense. He was explaining how he had taught all of his kids to use firearms for their protection, when his whole face lit up. “Actually, you should take this!” he said, nonchalantly, as he pulled some giant brass knuckles out of his door. I laughed, and declined under protest of unwanted weight. Oh, weaponry. As soon as my personal caravan dropped me at my exit, the sky let loose. We had seen the dark sheets of rain for miles, but finally, now, it arrived. My couchsurfing host was potentially going to pick me up from the exit, but I hadn’t heard from her in a bit. I sat under the overpass for a bit, until the rain lessened. And then started walking. I made it perhaps a mile before Pam pulled up ahead of me, apologizing profusely for making me walk in the rain. I never did mind rain, and Bear Canyon makes for a beautiful walk under a thunderous sky.