SPECTACULAR VIDEO! New Face of American Carnivals week

Mexico Me 2

I shall be the envy of all my actor friends as I star in this video filmed on my 3,000 mile trip across Mexico, as I tracked down my fellow carnival workers in their native habitat.

A Brown University Graduate student in anthropology wrote me this week saying he is working on Mexican migration to US carnivals and wants to see what I found in Mexico and in 10 US carnivals.

So this is “New Face of American Carnivals” week on Publishers Marketplace, starting with my debut as a FILM STAR IN A SPECTACULAR VIDEO!

YouTube Link to Video
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rhe9mAFikPA

Monday is lead with “Spy in the Mexican Reefers” with probably my BEST VIDEO OF MY YEAR IN TRAVELING CARNIVALS
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k29vkCI8tJI
or
Publishers Marketplace site until it expires this summer
http://www.publishersmarketplace.com/members/MadMikePain/
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From 2013-2014, Michael Sean Comerford worked in carnivals in California, New Jersey, New York, Chicago, Alaska, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Texas, Georgia and Florida, where he worked in a freak show but didn’t get on stage because they didn’t see the inner freak in him. He rode a bus into the mountains of the Sierra Madre Oriental to a Mexican village that empties of men each year, going north to US carnivals. Living on carnival wages, he hitchhiked 15,000 miles across 36 states. His blogs appear in Huffington Post and at www.EyesLikeCarnivals.com. Agent Tim Hayes is seeking a publisher for the book.

Carnivals the Chicago Way

Boogie Man sells Dog
Chicago Southsider sells Rottweiler pups along the Midway Plaisance, Chicago, the site of the original midway.

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“Work is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.” ― Studs Terkel

Boogie ran a spinning Century, near the first Ferris Wheel at the birthplace of American traveling carnivals.

Standing high on the launching ramp, he watched neighborhood crowds lining up below. He was proud to be part of it all – Chicago, history and living in these days.

Boogie ran the Century Wheel, a premium Ferris wheel in use in the bigger traveling carnivals. A Black man in his 30s and strong-looking, Boogie wore a flashy, baggy jacket. He had a way of attracting other carnies to the wheel to talk to him. Something about Boogie, people liked talking with him.

During a rain break I took time to talk to Boogie. I mentioned that I was woken by a cow face looking at me that morning at The Dirty 30, the carny quarters along U.S. Route 30, in Chicago Heights, on Chicago’s far Southside. The owners kept 40 Black Angus cows on the same lot as the carny quarters.

Boogie laughed but he wanted me to know that cows are part of Chicago’s history.

“Remember, a cow is responsible for all the good shit we have around over there,” he said pointing to downtown Chicago, the focus of Chicago tourists and photographers.

Boogie was referring to the legend of “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow,” which was blamed for knocking over a lamp and starting the 1871 Great Chicago Fire. After the fire, Chicago rebuilt and has been reinventing itself ever since.

Boogie was hazy on the details but he knew about the Union Stockyards, which operated near our site.

Dirty 30s Cows 4
Cow herd on the “Dirty 30″ along US 30, the Lincoln Highway, through Chicago Heights, on Chicago’s far Southside.

He also knew the first Ferris Wheel, a elephantine version of his wheel, operated just a few blocks away, “a long time ago.”

However, I was up on my Chicago history because I’d recently been rereading “Devil in the White City,” which featured the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. I also spent years as a journalist in the area and drank in the Chicago history and lore. Where Boogie was hazy, I stepped in with the background. After that night, he consistently would ask, “Why you know so much about Chicago?”

I was glad he knew what he knew, it meant some inner city kids in Chicago still grow up knowing something about its past. Chicago kids like Boogie still see how it spins through their lives.

EyesLikeCarnivals traditions

The 1893 World’s Fair was called “the fair that changed America” and it still lives on in names and traditions in Chicago. The concept of a midway with games and shows down a main street of entertainment was a centerpiece of the fair. These days, Chicago has Midway Airport, Midway Airlines and the Monsters of the Midway, the Chicago Bears. Restaurants, bars and even churches have Midway in their names.

“Modern Midways” was the name of the carnival I worked for in Chicago, in some of Chicago’s toughest neighborhoods. We also played hollowed ground for carnivals, the Midway Plaisance, the exact 1 mile site of the original midway.

Midway Plaisance was the site of the original Ferris Wheel. Galesburg, Il.-born George Washington Gale Ferris Jr. built the Chicago wheel with 36 cars, holding a capacity of more than 2,000 people. It took 20 minutes to turn twice. Some cars featured waiters.

The World’s Fair played for six months and drew crowds of 27.5 million at a time when the entire country totalled just 65 million people. (btw, we now number about 312 million).The fair made such a national splash that waves of smaller traveling carnivals followed with rides, games, freak shows, burlesque, carousels and Ferris wheels.

They spread out from Illinois and, as one carnival manager recently told me, Illinois is still “a busy state for carnivals.”

Traveling shows or circuses, even smaller versions of the Ferris wheel have existed for centuries but the North American carnival traces back to that Chicago World’s Fair, with its Ferris wheel and midway.

IMG_5711
The Big Eli made in Jacksonville, Il. on the first midway along Midway Plaisance, with the University of Chicago Hospital in the background.

At that Washington Park jump, we put up a Big Eli, made by Eli Bridge Co. of Jacksonville, Il., which traces its roots back a century. Known as a “wheelman,” Boogie ran both the Century in Gage Park and the Big Eli along Midway Plaisance.

We were just blocks away from the union stockyards, at one time the largest meat producing square mile in the world. Meatpacking names from that era like Swift and Amour still thrive.

It’s squalid conditions became the subject of Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle.” Also a journalist, Sinclair worked in the stockyards before writing the book, as I’m working in traveling carnivals hoping to write a book.

Another writer Bertoldt Brecht wrote a play about downtrodden labor in “Saint Joan of the Stockyards.”

Brecht was a favorite of Chicago author Studs Terkel, who I interviewed a few times. Terkel quoted a Brecht poem in his autobiography “Touch and Go.”

“Caesar beat the Gauls. Was there not even a cook in his army?”
“Phillip of Spain wept as his fleet was sunk and destroyed. Were there no other tears?”

Studs wrote “Working” about the people not included in history’s narrative. I also wrote a five-section special edition of the Elgin Courier-News in the 1980s called “Working,” citing Terkel. It included nearly 100 profiles of Fox Valley area people from a struggling car washer to rags-to-riches entrepreneurs.

Studs called the newsroom to compliment me. I was out at the time but the compliment made it to the whole office as our loud secretary yelled his words across the newsroom to me later.

“Studs Terkel called and said he loved your series, whatever the name of it was,” she yelled.

“EyeLikeCarnivals” isn’t “The Jungle” or “Working” or “Saint Joan of the Stockyards,” yet it is in that tradition of living, working and writing about the lives inside history’s big narrative outline.

Standing outside that story timeline, on the western edge of Midway Plaisance, is Father Time watching the Fountain of Time. The 126-foot fountain shows the passage of time, with people parading past Father Time in what appears to be the sands of time. The fountain added a historic feel to our Midway Plaisance shows. The fountain is a landmark but on hot days local kids flock to the fountain, jumping and playing as if part of a living work of art.

I chose carnivals to write about because they operate in town centers across the country. The focus of the community often is an annual event and each has workers with lives as colorful as the carnivals they work.

Along the way, so many people I met related how they once worked with a carnival, loved carnivals, or always wondered what kind of life carnies live. Let them wonder away. Let them come ride and play. They are important, they are the show.

And near the Fountain of Time, Boogie shifted the lever back and forth on the spinning Century, watching today’s crowds thrill on the ‘modern’ midway.

Boogie Fish
Nemo’s kiddy ride in front of the Fountain of Time on Midway Plaisance, Chicago, site of the original carnival midway.

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From 2013-2014, Michael Sean Comerford worked in carnivals in California, New Jersey, New York, Chicago, Alaska, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Texas, Georgia and Florida, where he worked in a freak show but didn’t get on stage because they didn’t see the inner freak in him. He rode a bus into the mountains of the Sierra Madre Oriental to a Mexican village that empties of men each year, going north to US carnivals. Living on carnival wages, he hitchhiked 15,000 miles across 36 states. His blogs appear in Huffington Post and at www.EyesLikeCarnivals.com. Agent Tim Hayes is seeking a publisher for the book.

Hitchhiking to Carnivals: Video of Wind and Speed

Hitchhiking to Carnivals this Freaky Friday Video Day is about the posts I went with this week. I hitchhiked more than 15,000 miles across 36 states and Canada to get to carnivals so I could work and write. I felt like the mutt in the backpack and the old man with the hippies. I was harassed and helped by cops and I was warned about sleeping beside the road, bears might feast on my hitchhiker bones.

I included tiny videos of riding in the back of a pickup truck to Okefenokee and the Hudson River, in the hope someone might feel that get the feel of the pickup flatbed and the freedom created by the wind and the speed

IMG_3883
Kid Gypsy does Screwdriver Gaff
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u_HKnUs-fnA

Hitchhikers are Bear Food
“Happiness in a Yellow School Bus: Postmark Pink Mountain”
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vXsH1QB6IGE

Alaska Bound

Hitchhiking in back of pick-up truck to the Hudson River
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q9QrfNknHCM

IMG_4260
Hitchhiking in back of pick-up truck to Okefenokee Fair
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rUre_vM0UMo

How to Ride the Magic Ribbon

Yukon_7211

Hitchhiking in the new age of wanderlust comes with cell phones, social media and adventure blogs.

It’s different than other decades because hitchhikers and drivers are different. What hasn’t changed is that it is still the getaway for poets, artists and dreamers hungry for inspiration on the open road. Runaways and the restless go to the highways, often not knowing where they are going or what compels them. Not always lost but driven. The hitchhiking world is still a subculture onto itself and it’s time for you to join. It’s a free ride that will blow your mind.

Another side that hasn’t changed: hitchhiking is dangerous and people do pick you up. Every statistical, computer generated model says the chances of violence on the road are infinitesimal, but not impossible. Danger adds a sting to every ride. You and the driver will think about it every time. As for getting rides in the 2010s, I’m versed on the subject.

In the past I hitchhiked all the US states but Hawaii. Western and Eastern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa have all seen my thumb. In 2013, I decided to write a book about traveling carnivals and hitchhiked to ten, working games and rides from California to New Jersey, Alaska to Florida. I worked a freak show, though I didn’t get on stage because they didn’t see the inner freak in me.

I lived on carnival wages so I hitchhiked between gigs, racking up more than 15,000 miles. That many miles in North America is unusual. I checked on the internet and I believe that made me the #1 hitchhiker in America that year. Last year I hitched Washington D.C. to southwest Florida, about 1,100 miles.

I wrote a personal blog and had another on Huffington Post. My Facebook posts were fast and furious. In that way, I was a hitchhiker of the 2010s, keeping the social media up on my hitchhiking. I now read other hitchhiking blogs for fun, unsure how much more hitchhiking I’ll be doing at age 56.

Yet I didn’t take full advantage of the technology. People search for places to stay the night at Couchsurfing.com and Hostels.org. Craigslist operates a ride sharing site. Counterculture gatherings, communities and hitchhiking races are all over the Web.

Word of mouth is still the best way to find gatherings and places to party. You won’t be alone. The #1 hitchhiking site on the Web is Hitchwiki, which says it gets 3,000 visitors a day and is growing by 20 percent a year. Hitchwiki’s top users come from Germany, USA, France, Poland and the UK. So if you’re thinking about hitchhiking in Europe for your vacation, it is even more common on that continent.

Nevertheless, hitchhiking changes with the decades. In the 40s, fewer people had cars and WWII veterans needed rides too. It was a patriotic duty (in Israel, a man in uniform, armed or not, will get a ride before you still). In the 50s, beatniks and writer Jack Kerouac romanticized the experience. The anti-­war and hippie cultures of the 60s did the same. I started hitchhiking in the 70s and predicted at the time, people in the future will say it was easier back in the 70s. Except for the tech, it’s similar.

I relied on a Rand McNally atlas to show me towns and national parks. For sleeping, I reverted to my old ways, sleeping outside, shelters and hostels. I slept under bridges, in a baseball park’s scorer’s box and in an outdoor horse palladium. When evening light faded I searched the horizon for a bank of trees or bushes to call home for the night.

Hitchhiking isn’t easy. Expect long waits but have faith they will come. On my 2013 trip, I spent more than two days beside the road rideless in New Mexico, Texas and Canada. Even those days were cool. I met other hitchhikers and when a ride finally came, the clouds opened up, angels began singing and I was baptized in glory. Hallelujah.

A hitchhiker spirit inhabits American roads and it changes with the generations because the young own the road. Older people like myself are like former ­pro athletes who still play but are not at that level. Still, hitchhiking is for everybody. British comedian Tony Hawks a few years ago hitchhiked around Ireland with a refrigerator. In Canada, a driver told me about his blind cousin who hitches all around Canada with his cane. A New Mexico driver told me of picking wheelchair hitchhikers in the deserts of the Southwest. Nothing should stop you, not fear, not change, not anything.

You must get a ride to the nearest interstate and feel a truck’s tailwind blow back your hair. Be fearless. Be adventurous. Create a new life or don’t, many hitchhikers do it on vacations or work breaks. Return home with a backpack of road stories then go online. Live a bold life for a while on the open road.

When packing your backpack, light is right. Shed things as you go. A water bottle is perhaps the most important item on the trip along with a map and sleeping bag. A GPS on your phone is great for spotting the next exit but maps anticipate upcoming junctions. My cheap phone in 2013 didn’t even have GPS. I don’t leave home without a Rand McNally atlas.

Don’t be a stinker. Bring toilet paper. Yes, you might have to shit in the woods like those notorious bears people talk about. Truck stops have showers and cheap cologne or perfume is easy to find. “Hobo showers” are a good way to stay clean, washing your hair and pits in a truck stop, visitor center or fast food restaurant bathroom.

My gear was stolen in Amarillo, Texas when I went to sleep under a tree for an ­afternoon nap. The pack was too far from my sleeping spot and a car drove up and whisked it away. When I woke I cursed my stupidity and was forced to buy a red airline luggage bag at a local Target. I carried that bag in my arms from Texas to New Jersey. On my back was my laptop, which I used to blog about the carnivals and at Wifi hotspots along the way. So you don’t even need a backpack. Nevertheless, a good backpack is by far the best option because hitchhiking requires lots of walking between spots and to the edge of towns where the rides are the best.

My tent was stolen too by that Texas scoundrel so I reverted to my urban and wilderness camping skills. I looked for banks of trees and bushes away from walkers and cops. I must have been pretty good too because I often found large, flattened cardboard boxes where previous travelers had made their bed. When it was rainy or cold, I spent the night in truck stops or in diners like Denny’s with their $4 all-­you-­can-­eat pancake specials. I spent the time typing notes and stories from recent days. When that wasn’t available, I searched for dark areas with overhangs of stores or bridges. Longtime hitchhikers reduce the weight of their packs by carrying a tarp; it protects against the rain but not the bugs.

Don’t forget a marker or pen for your hitchhiking sign. A can opener and a spoon are handy for cheap eats. I still remember the hot Texas sun beating me like a stray dog one afternoon when I pulled out a can of mixed fruit in its juices. Nothing makes drink so good as thirst, or mixed fruit so good as hunger.

Still, many people pack for every circumstance and my packs were too heavy too. I carried a laptop and notebooks. An atlas, water, sleeping bag, change of clothes, poncho, cell phone and guile are the basics.

Most times, you don’t need dat. Just pack a golden thumb.

Anticipate then Participate

My first long hitchhike, similar to other early hitchhikes, came after an argument with someone close to me. I was so angry. I had to split. The best way to hitchhike is to plan and then improvise. Once, I started out for New Orleans and ended in Dallas, started for Paris and ended in Rome. Last summer, I hitched 1,100 miles and the last ride dropped me off on my door step. Hitchhiking will surprise you every time.

It’s still about walking to a good spot with a long sight line so drivers can see you. Dress so you don’t scare them. Smile like you’re a friendly chum not the Joker’s smile from Batman. A big cardboard sign should say the name of the next big city or the next junction.

Joke signs are highly effective. In Florida last summer, a transgender woman named April Summers picked me up and told me about having spent 15 years hitchhiking. She guessed she hitched more than a million miles (on the road, enjoy the story, most are as true as people can tell them). April’s favorite signs were, “Twilight Zone,” and “Normal.” When picked up and asked about her “Normal” sign, she’d say, “Do you know where normal is? Take me there.”

I saw a hitchhiker online with a sign, “Freshly Showered.” A traveler by the name of the Expert Vagabond uses, “Rabies Free (since June),” “Free Cookies,” and “I won’t kill you.”

Every hitchhiker is a bit neurotic about the way they appear beside the road. I change my stance once in a while so people see movement on the horizon. Some people move their sign a bit. I’ve seen sites suggesting bright clothes, no hats and no bizarre haircuts. That’s all bullshit to me, make eye contact and smile.

However, don’t be like me and go hitchhiking in a huff. Plan. Be what hitchhikers and hobos call a, “Summer Bunny.” Leave during good weather. Winter in Key West or play house and stay inside. Visit people you like. See places you’ve always wanted to see. Remember, hitchhiking is international and free. You can go anywhere.

The cops can be hassles or give you a ride to the next exit. You can’t walk across borders, you need a ride and border guards often make it harder on hitchhikers. And all hitchhikers know about “rocking,” which is a hobo term for kids throwing rocks. I’ve never seen rocks but I’ve had near misses with soda cans, fruit, trash and firecrackers flying out of speeding cars full of teenagers.

Lastly, your driver is the wild card. I’ve ridden with mentally unstable people and my dodge is always to listen politely and then tell them I have to go to the rest room at the next exit. Then I say I think I’ll stay a while. Another is the drunk or high driver. That car door opens up and a blast of Budweiser breath overwhelms you. Or the door opens up and pot smoke comes pouring out and surrounds you like a London fog. You have to choose. I got in every time and have never regretted it. Once I got in and the beer guzzling driver was a nuclear safety engineer. Another driver smoking pot from a deer antler talked all night about the counterculture scene. I took chances and I’m here to tell the tale.

For safety, I’ve read some people bring pepper spray and reflective gear for night hitchhiking. I never hitched at night unless at a truck stop. I brought a pocket knife with me in the 80’s but it takes too long to open, so in this decade I decided to “go naked,” without a weapon.

On that note, solo hitchhiking for women is also safe as far as I can tell. I’ve never heard of a hitchhiking woman being raped. Most women hitch with their men but I’ve seen solo female hitchhikers too. The adage on the road is that the fastest way to get a ride is to “bring your vagina.”

Alaska Bound
Best and Worst States
Rainbow Eric, right, Apocalypse Julie and the Electric Leprechaun saying goodbye to me at a McDonald’s in Butte, Montana. From Burlington, Vermont, they were sharing their expenses on their way to a Rainbow Gathering in Big Sky country. In the 1,451 miles from Chicago, we dumpster dove together, slept outside and counterculture kvetched.

I was setting up rides for a carnival in Jefferson Valley, New York on a Tuesday when I received a call from a Chicago carnival owner saying if I showed up by Friday I had a job. I’d also be in time for my 8 year ­old daughter’s birthday in Chicago. I quit that minute.

This violates a hitchhiker maxim to never hitch with a deadline, but I’ve yet to see any “hitchhiking cops”, so…

I was worried about real cops, this time rightly. The Taconic Parkway was my only option, it has the high volume of traffic hitchhikers seek but being a parkway it had no place for cars to pull over safely to pick me up. I hitched anyway.

Soon, a New York State trooper pulled up and she lit into me.

“Don’t you know hitchhiking is dangerous,” she said. “Don’t you know you could get killed. I ought to run you in.”

I could have told her I’ve been hitchhiking for three decades and thousands of miles that year but another hitchhiker rule is to be extra deferential to law enforcement. All hell can break loose. Freakonomics used their best computer hacks to calculate the risks of hitchhiking and found a .0000089 percent chance of you getting raped or killed while hitching.

As she checked out my license, she backed up traffic and a driver honked. She went back to yell at the driver, too. Another patrolman stopped to help, concerned about the 6’5″ inch vagabond. She told me to get in the back of her squad, behind the steel gate separating the officer from the passenger. She drove me to the next exit and yelled at me again.

“Stop looking out the window, I know you’re looking at another spot,” she said. “Hitchhiking is illegal in New York. If I catch you again I’m arresting you.”

I unloaded my airline luggage from the squad car, walked to the back of a local gas station, ripped a cardboard lip off a box and wrote “To I-­84.”

It was about 10 miles down the road.

Soon, a local cop came up and told me the same thing. I showed him my Hitchwiki map that claimed New York as a hitchhiker friendly state. He said he was young enough to remember the code number that outlaws hitchhiking. Then I said I would back up and hitch from the gas station private property. He said he was going to recommend the owner not allow me to loiter. He left and I walked to a side street and started hitchhiking again.

Soon, three squad cars pulled up and surrounded me, cherry lights spinning.

“What am I boys,” I said, “public enemy #1?”

I told them about Hitchwiki and said local side streets are under local ordinances so I’m okay. They said my lawyer skills were full of crap.

When I told them I couldn’t afford a train to New York or a bus to Chicago, I asked how far to the Pennsylvania border. They said 50 miles or more. I said I’ll walk. The rookie in the group drove me to the next city and I promptly put my sign on the back of my laptop backpack, picked up my luggage and started walking.

After several miles of walking, without my thumb out, just the sign on my back, a pick­up truck pulled up. A father, his son and the family dog were in the cab. To the son, I was a work of fiction, or history. He appeared more confused than the dog. Dad said I could hop back in the flatbed. They peeled away from the curb and we whorled down the road passing commuter after stunned commuter. The wind, the noise, the feeling isn’t matched by anything.

And I’ve been skydiving.

After six cops in two hours I was headed toward the America’s Rhine, the Hudson River. Here’s what I wrote for my blog.

“I wanted to scream, whoop and sing ‘Good morning America how are ya? Don’t you know me? I’m your native son.’ Light up the sky, kiss the girls, jig till I trip and laugh. It was swear­-at-­the-sky happiness.”

The cops of New York were inhospitable but not terribly abusive. I hitched 36 states in 2013 and another five last year. Long-­time hitchhikers I met in Arkansas, Bear and Ru, told me they never could get through New Jersey. The Hitchwiki map says it’s clearly outlawed in Delaware, Idaho, Nevada and Utah. I caught my best rides in the Western states and some of my craziest rides in Florida.

Road Booty

Money, meals and sex await the hitchhiker these days.

Many drivers will stop to buy themselves and you a meal. A Chinese cook in New Mexico pulled off for an all-­you-­can­eat Golden Coral dinner for me. Many will end their ride by offering you a $10 or a $20. Hitchhiker etiquette says you must take anything offered, needed or not.

I’ve had a trucker throw a one dollar bill out his window for me. People in cars filled with all their life’s possessions came up to me at gas stations and gave me as little as 50 cents.

A veteran of hitchhiking for the last eight months, Eli Steinberg, 20, of Rome, New York, said he hitchhikes with almost no money and relies on money from drivers and dumpster diving.

“I dumpster ­dived for most of my food on the road,” says Eli, claiming he’s hitched 10,000 miles.

“It is by far the easiest, cheapest method of getting a bite.”

Ways to make money are busking and odd jobs. Having no musical skills, I sought hostels to tell me where day labor work could be found. Nevertheless, Eli is right, you don’t need money to hitchhike. You need money to stay put.

When I was younger, I was hit on many times but everyone was respectful when I declined. During my ride in Florida, April Summers talked at length about her 15 years of hitchhiking sexploits.

On my trip through the Yukon Territory, a pretty, French-­speaking outpost nurse pulled over and offered me a meal at her home. I stayed the night. She gave me a lift to Destruction Bay in the morning, with a long kiss goodbye. Differently I still think of the Yukon Territory.

Before I exaggerate too much, this hetero didn’t experience much sex on the road. Just lots of fantasies. It may be different for women.

In the state where I tend to get the most exotic rides, Florida, I was picked up by a tree trimmer. All was going normally as he talked about his girlfriend, his kids, his love of tree trimming because he felt like an artist shaping trees. Then I noticed he was driving his shaking wreck at more than 80 mph and he mentioned he had a few beers after work. He looked over and blurted out, “How about if I give you a hand job?”

That moment has to rank among the top awkward moments in my life of changing topics.

Write Like the Wind

Jack Kerouac famously wrote a fictional hitchhiking account in, On the Road and so did John Steinbeck in, Grapes of Wrath. Real lives resonate deeper.

Bring a small notebook to carry in your back pocket. Write the best jokes. Use your smart phone to film their best story. Take pictures, you’ll forget the color of their eyes or their expressions.

I love asking people their best horror or ghost story. Mostly, I ask about their youth. Keep away from expressing your own religious or political beliefs. You don’t want to argue with the person giving you a free ride.

MacArthur Fellowship-­winning writer Colson Whitehead wrote a “How to Write” essay a couple years back with 11 rules, that didn’t include hitchhiking but should have.


Rule #9 ­Have adventures … Keep ahead of the curve. Get out and see the world. It’s not going to kill you to butch it up a tad. Book passage on a tramp steamer. Rustle up some dysentery; it’s worth it for the fever dreams alone. Lose a kidney in a knife fight. You’ll be glad you did.

You’re damn right hitchhiking increases the number of adventures in your life and yet you don’t have to write a book about it all. I recommend writing because it makes you aware of life. You pay attention closer if you are writing something. Who gives a damn if the writing sees the light of day, you’ll know. It will intensify your experience.

Best Time of Your Life

Elijah Wald’s book, “Riding with Strangers: A Hitchhiker’s Journey,” is full of great quotes and reminiscences of famous people who hitchhiked in their youth, from Ronald Reagan to Eminem.

Most of them neglected to mention the wind and rain, you’d think every hitchhiking day was a sunny day. Yet that is what they remember, the exceptional days on the open road.

If you want to go on a long trip, lose yourself. Find yourself. Remake yourself. Beat a path.

Hitch to Burning Man or the Grand Canyon. If time is short, hitchhike to a friend’s place on the coast and surprise her.

The prime directive is to travel and experience life, hitchhiking ups the ante fast. So get off your ass and go see the world. Conquer. Fail. Win. Lose. Live. The road is calling.

CARNIVAL GODS IN LENT

Chicago Bible
A mother and daughter at the Church of St. Gabriel in Marlboro, New Jersey, gave me a bible, prayer books and cards, three rosaries and holy water. They said they wanted me to remember the church where I spent Palm Sunday, after working their annual fundraiser for McDaniel Brothers Amusements. This picture was taken in Chicago, where I set up a prayer table in my bunkhouse, with the Chicago hitchhiking sign and a bag of oranges for my earthy sustenance.

Jesus and Lion
A lion in a circus wagon with trashcan art along the top of the wagon is situated at the back of the auxiliary church next to St. Martha Catholic Church, Sarasota, Florida. It is the traditional church of circus and carnival workers. The lion, long a symbol of Christian martyrdom, is in the back of the church but in front of the “stations of the cross” artwork, which depict the events leading up the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

Jesus and Wheel Best 2
The bright, colorful wagon wheels that bookmark the altar at St. Martha Catholic Church could be mistaken for ancient religious iconography.

Jesus and Wheel Best
Two colorful wagon wheels bookmark the altar and organ pipes of St. Martha Catholic Church. The origins of the crucifix with Jesus is uncertain but came from the artwork studios of the Ringling College of Art and Design.

Father John
Father John Vakulskas of Iowa, shown here at the national convention of traveling carnivals in Gibsonton, Florida, is taking up the role as the carny priest from the legendary “Father Mac,” Msgr. Robert McCarthy of New York. They are part of a traveling apostolate appointed by the Pope to minister to the traveling people of carnivals.

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“Carny Preacher” Bill Root gives a sermon to carnies before the opening of the Bear Paw Festival, Eagle River, Alaska. Root was also the head of games at Golden Wheel Amusements, Alaska’s only traveling carnival. Golden Wheel is owned by born-again Christians and holds prayer meetings and services on carnival grounds for carnies.

Hitchhiking 1,000 miles: A Tale for the Season of the Twelfth Night

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“Foolery, sir, does walk about the orb like the sun; it shines everywhere.”
“Twelfth Night or What You Will” by William Shakespeare.

My latest jarring dream involved mixed genders and mistaken identities.

One of my favorite plays is “Twelfth Night” which was known as one of the Bard’s transvestite plays. I thought of that Christmas play about gender bending and wondered if I was really dreaming about my July hitchhiking trip from Washington D.C. to Marco Island, Fl.

Gender confusion drives the plot as a boy actor plays a female twin who disguises herself as a boy. Cross dressing in Shakespeare’s time was common during The Twelfth Night celebrations and the parties surrounding the Lord of Misrule. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Twelfth_Night.

My 1,100 mile hitch took four days and three nights, all sleeping outside during nights of intense, colorful dreaming.

Outside of Savannah, Ga., a transgender woman picked me up in her “Soul” and told me wild stories of her traditional marriage, prison and sexcapades. At first she said her name was “John” but then said her real name is April Summers. When she performs on stage as a female impersonator, she said, the other performers call her “Satan’s Secretary” because of her promiscuity with audience members.

Hitchhiking April
April Summers drove me from Savannah, Ga. to Ocala, Fl. in her “Soul.”

Outside Tampa, Fl., a tree trimmer picked me up in his shaky compact car, drove 90-miles-per hour and then made an indecent proposal while we careened down I-75. As we were driving dangerously close to death, he said, “How about I give you a h*nd-job!”

Outside of Hilton Head, S.C., a Chilean hotel maid picked me up and, when she offered to drop me off at a truck stop, she made a comment about how the truckers probably want her to stick around for a while. They might want to pay for some female attention.

Mike of God vs. my hat

Four days is too long for a 1,000 trip. My days were marked by many hours of waiting followed by many drivers discussing their lives. Still, one standout of the trip was not a driver.

After the Chilean hotel maid dropped me off outside Hilton Head, I stood on the onramp as the sun was declining. Up the onramp toward me walked a thin man with a white Moses beard.

“Hi, I’m Mike of God,” he said. “If you get a ride out here at this time of day, I’ll take off your hat and shit in it.”

I said, “Hi Mike,” and wanted to add that I don’t want him to shit into my hat.

“Mike of God,” he corrected me. “Mike of God! I’ve got some money here (from bumming on the corner) so you can join me. We can buy some pizza and beer. I have some cardboard in the woods back there to sleep on. You won’t find a ride out here tonight.”

One of my theories about hitchhiking is that people make the riskiest decisions at the beginning and end of the day. So I wasn’t about to stop hitchhiking but I was tempted by Mike of God’s offer because I could witness his madness first hand. I imagined that he was going to tell me he was a prophet. Whatever he said would have made a great story.

“I don’t think I’ve ever had a kinder offer,” I said. “Beer. Pizza. A cardboard bed in the woods. Mike of God telling me the truth. But I’m betting on one more ride.”

In the most ragged, Dickensian clothes, he walked away talking to himself and still advising me that I didn’t know this corner of the world.

Stories about long hitchhiking trips are best told when whittled down to a few short stories. This trip had so many interesting drivers I can’t do justice to any.

A moving company dispatcher who moonlights as an amateur pool shark said he intended to win $200 that night by hustling marks at regional pool halls around Richmond, Va. Because he played defensive pool, he nicknamed himself “Kid Safety.” It’s a moniker that no doubt summons fear in opponents and admiration among the female fans.

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He’s a dispatcher by day but Kid Safety at the pool halls at night.

The first ride out of Fayetteville, North Carolina, John the electrician told me that he doesn’t fear hitchhikers because if I tried to rob him, he would drive his truck off the road and kill us both.

“I don’t care,” he said. “I’ll do it.”

Nothing he said before or after betrayed thoughts of suicide or of a life that meant so little to him.

After John the electrician said that, I remembered that other drivers have told me of similar scenarios. Another driver earlier in the trip had said he too would commit suicide if attacked by a hitchhiker.

I heard two stories of hitchhikers stealing the driver’s vehicles. Once the driver got out to fill the truck with gas but the hitchhiker drove away with an empty tank and was later caught.

In the other, two beer-guzzling sheet metal workers outside of Tampa laughed uproariously as they told how a hitchhiker stole the driver’s truck when he stopped to buy them both a beer. After a few, the driver started dancing with a beautiful woman and the hitchhiker jumped in his truck and drove away. The hitchhiker was caught but the girl got away.

Hitchhiking beer
Sheet metal workers drinking beer after a long day in Florida’s July heat.

Several drivers had life advice for me. A computer security expert driving a Saab convertible in Virginia told me how his wife left him and took their two daughters to North Carolina. He was depressed and living in a hotel when he picked himself up, married the hotel manager and moved them both to South Carolina to be nearer his daughters.

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The computer expert gave expert advice on character.

I told him I’m writing a book about my year working in 10 carnivals around America and going down to Mexico to see the “new face” of American carnies. But publishers have been unimpressed by my first draft and want a complete rewrite.

“I know you’re broke right now but this is a test of your character,” he said. “Publishers aren’t the artist. You are. Don’t compromise on your principles. Write the book you think you should write. This is a test of your character.”

What is my character?

The Walk of Life

The computer security analyst, the tree trimming pervert and April each made me think of character and identity. April lived for a couple decades as a married man and changed jobs like a chameleon changes colors. The tree trimmer had a girlfriend and kids at home. The computer analyst lost his identity as a husband and father and made his comeback in a Saab convertible.

The hitchhikers fooled the drivers out of their vehicles. Some drivers would rather give up the life they are living than be robbed of their truck.

Kid Safety is hustling people who think he’s just a dispatcher. The hotel maid has a fantasy (maybe not just a fantasy) about another sexy life at truck stops.

Mike of God isn’t mentally ill, he’s a prophet offering bummed comfort to the wayward with beer, pizza and a cardboard bed. Even if he is a danger to all hats.

In this season of the Twelfth Night, could this be what my jarring dream meant? I am not what I seem to be either. I am a fool for disguises, disguised to myself. What foolery in a journey of a 1,000 miles.