Today is Veterans Day, one of those pseudo-holidays I always had to work along with Columbus and Martin Luther King, Jr. Days. And today is the only holiday I wish I were slumped over a desk in the glow of a Dell monitor.
The office was incubator of boredom, yet an anchor to routine. Out here on my own, I’m adrift. Each day is unscripted. Some are bright and smooth while others are dark and hairy. And today I’ve got a 500-pound gorilla on my back.
I’m in Santa Rosa. I need to get to Santa Fe. I have a bicycle. I don’t want to ride it. I mean, I physically can’t. The National Weather Service warns of strengthening winds from the northwest 25 to 35 mph with hazardous gusts up to 50 mph.
I skip breakfast and check out of Rodeway Inn where $45 bought me a decent sleep. The Indian owner is wearing the same orange t-shirt she wore yesterday. That doesn’t bother me as much as the name ‘Rodeway.’ Spellcheck hates it, too.
Santa Rosa has fewer than 3,000 people, yet is home to dozens of independent and chain motels sprinkled along three access points to the adjacent interstate. The motel lady has no advice on which exit is the most popular except that “not much traffic passes through here.”
I borrow a blue marker to draw the word “West” on the back of a sheet from my Oklahoma hospitalization. She watches with idle curiosity, mostly to make sure I return her marker, which is now dry after I pen a second sign for Santa Fe. I’ll use that if I’m lucky enough to first get a ride to the intersection at Clines Corners.
That’s my plan. Hitchhike west to the truck stop at Clines Corners and then find another ride going northwest to Santa Fe where a host is ready to receive me should I make it before his bedtime at 9 PM.
Vehicle rides do not count towards my trip mileage. I’m in survival mode now, doing whatever it takes to get to the next stop where hopefully the wind and terrain tilt in my favor.
I’ve never hitchhiked and have no idea what to do. Put my thumb out? Or is that like whistling to hail a taxi in New York. Nobody does that except in the movies. I don’t think a hand gesture is going to cut it. From my tour guiding days in NYC, I learned that if you hold a sign, passersby look at it, too. Our eyes instinctively seek words and symbols to navigate our environment.
Man with thumb on side of road, invisible.
Man with thumb and bicycle, still invisible.
Man with thumb, bicycle and sign. What’s that sign he’s holding?
Yes, I’ve got a sign, and now I need a strategy. First I’ll hit the west exit because I think locals live on that side of town. Maybe they’re driving to Albuquerque for a Veterans Day sale?
I lay down my gear and stand up with the sign. To amplify my helplessness, I rest the bicycle upside-down like a bug on its back. So few cars pass that I sit on the curb. The wind blows over the bike. After an hour, I retreat.
I bike east and hardly need to pedal, the wind is so strong. Two days of this and I’ll be back in New York. The middle exit has no space for a vehicle to pull over, so I keep going to the east exit. Next to the interstate on-ramp, Phillips 66 is busy with pickups and SUVs. Volume is good, but most vehicles are already packed with possessions.
A Chevy Suburban pulling a trailer leaves the gas station. California plates. California is west. Two white women with short hair are chatting inside. The back of the SUV is empty, so there’s plenty of room for a charming stranger and his bulky bike.
Hey ladies, look at me, look at my homemade sign. Don’t you want to pick me up?
They stop to scan for cross traffic and turn without making eye contact. Bitches.
Then again, if I were passing me I wouldn’t stop either. Could be dangerous. Too much gear. Has bike, let him ride it. Although in wind strong enough to sway vehicles, I hope the bike will earn me more sympathy than say a hitchhiker with camo backpack and ratty dreads.
A Ford Explorer makes a U-turn towards me. New Hampshire tags. Back seat and trunk are empty.
Hey-yay, New Hampshire. Hey! I’m hitchhiking, but I’m not crazy or a criminal. I’m smart… graduated cum laude from Dartmouth. I spent four years in Hanover. Rice crispy treats at Lou’s Diner… soooo good, right? We have so much in common! I once had the same kind of license plate. Live Free or Die. I’m living free but also about to die! Help, New Hampshire!
I feel such a connection, but the driver doesn’t even look. Standing alone, smiling and holding a sign is not as easy as it sounds. I’m an introvert at heart. Hitchhiking is hard work, and battering winds erode my vulnerability to the bone.
Another hour passes and hope for salvation fades. I would trade being out here for the solitude and sanctuary of a prison cell. Free meals and company, too.
I’ve tried all the exits, but not all the gas stations at this exit. I pedal to a Love’s truck stop on the other side of I-40. What I need is a sympathetic trucker lonely for some company. We’ll listen to country tunes and drink Bud Lite, tossing empties out the window. How else do all those beer cans end up on the side of the road?
Near the gas station is a sign warning motorists against hitchhikers because of nearby prison facilities. I’m not wearing orange and nobody reads anymore, right?
I sit on the curb across from the pumps to evaluate my options. I munch on potato chips to ease anxiety, but sitting doesn’t draw attention. Plus, none of the truckers see me since they park and refuel around back.
I change tactics and stand outside the station. Now I’m visible to everyone on the way in and the way out. There’s no missing me. I angle my sign towards incoming vehicles. That plants a seed: some poor guy with a bike needs to go west. When they exit, I’m still there, smiling with false confidence as the hour eclipses 2 PM.
I pretend to look happy to improve my chances, but how can I smile when my destiny is up in the air at a windswept truck stop in the armpit of New Mexico?
A white pickup truck pulling a horse trailer slows down beside me. My dream comes true so suddenly that I don’t know what hits me — just like when I got punched in Oklahoma, except less painful.
The horse trailer is empty. In you go, Countri Bike! I climb in the back seat of the extended cab and off we go.
“We don’t usually stop for hitchhikers,” Linda explains as we drive into the promised land — the on-ramp of the interstate.
“Yeah, actually this is kinda my first time, too,” I admit. “Thank you SO much. I was desperate. I can’t bike in this wind. It’s insane.”
“Yup, sure blowing hard. I feel it with that empty trailer swaying in the back,” says Tom, Linda’s husband and my chauffeur.
I introduce myself while overcoming shock that my plan actually worked. I’m leaving Santa Rosa at 65 mph instead of three. The gentle rumble of the engine is doing the hard work, not my legs. Wind is pounding the truck, but I’m safe inside.
Linda and Tom are ranchers from Texas. They’re driving to California to pick up a 78-year-old friend who is lonely after a bad divorce. She has no immediate family, except a nephew, but they’re not close. They are moving her back to their horse ranch southwest of Fort Worth and building a guest house on their property.
“She’s never been to Texas,” Tom says. “She's getting worried towards the end and she doesn't want to be alone. Everybody needs hope.”
The empty horse trailer serves as the moving van and her vehicle to a better tomorrow. The trailer is my vehicle for a better today.
“This is our 'around the ranch two-horse trailer,’” Linda explains. “We used to haul a 40-foot trailer, but we don't drive around with it empty.”
Tom and Linda’s business was horse hauling and their ranch once had 30 horses. Only six are left. With age both they and the horses have moved on.
“Texas was the place to be for the horse industry,” Linda says wistfully. “But I got so crippled up from a horse injury that I can’t ride them no more.”
She now sells real estate. And Tom?
“Ah, I’m just a bum,” he laughs. “I make Christmas decorations from used horseshoes. I weld them... just tack ’em together.”
As I praise his craftsmanship, Linda interrupts.
“Oh look! Another biker… well, we’ve already fulfilled our quota,” she laughs.
“Doesn’t look like he’s in good shape,” Tom says.
No, it doesn’t. Just off the shoulder and in the dirt is a guy on the ground in child’s pose. I see the bike but no gear. We’re moving too fast for me to process the scene. This image fragment is one of the most powerful of my trip. A biker like me facing the same terrible circumstances. I’ve been saved while he surrenders to nature’s fury on the edge of the interstate.
I could make small talk all the way to Cali, but we are coming up on Clines Corners where a road goes north to Santa Fe. They’re driving west through Albuquerque, but could drop me off here or in Albuquerque for a train that goes to Santa Fe.
Clines Corners has a bigger upside and a much bigger downside: it’s faster but I’d have to hitch another ride. Linda tells me there won’t be many options without weekend travelers. That could mean a night at a truck stop with nowhere to stay.
“Whadda thinking, guy?” Linda asks.
ABQ. It will take longer, but guarantees an arrival in Santa Fe where the overnight low is 26 degrees. The only hiccup is Veterans Day and the next train isn’t for 2.5 hours. The station’s indoor waiting room is closed, making for a long and cold wait outside. A woman does pushups on the platform to keep warm. I fidget in place. At least I don’t need to hold a sign.
The approaching Roadrunner train triggers another bout of anxiety. Bikes are allowed on board, but I’m worried not having enough room for the bike and trailer with all of the passengers.
I scramble to get my equipment on and then look up. Nobody’s in the train car. The NYC subway this is not. I relax into a full row of seats with the bike safely at my side.
“Meeep meep, meep meep,” chirps an alarm as the doors close. Nice touch, Roadrunner.
The train rocks and rolls through the darkness, arriving in Santa Fe 90 minutes later. I immediately sense that I’m in the mountains. The darkness is a shade darker. The air is rigid like an ice cube, yet sweet from the burning of piñon wood. It feels like winter and smells like a ski cabin. I can’t wait to get warm and cozy.