“I ofen looked up at the sky an’ assed meself the question – what is the moon, what is the stars?”
– “Juno and the Paycock” by Sean O’Casey
The Rabbit looked up from the Tornado ride we were breaking down about 4 a.m. Sunday morning in the St. Timothy’s Catholic Church parking lot in San Mateo, Ca. after the weekend’s carnival.
“I saw a meteor, Mike, like you said,” he yelled, from the last carnival ride still to be put away.
I told the other carnies to look skyward for the Lyrid meteor shower just before dawn.
We all looked up for a while in search of a heavenly show from a church parking lot. A shooting star can be a sign of good fortune at the start of a trip. But we saw dawn before we saw a shooting star.
On Tuesday about noon, I walked with an overstuffed duffle bag out of the San Mateo Fairgrounds where Butler Amusements is keeping its bunkhouse trailers and walked over to the Route 92 onramp.
If I’m going coast-to-coast working in carnivals, I want to hit both coasts early in the year so I’m headed to a promised job in a New Jersey carnival.
An abandoned TV set sat next to my hitchhiking spot and for about two hours I too felt abandoned. I wondered if the TV was a sign of misfortune. I practiced counting in Spanish, occasionally pulling out my tiny Lonely Planet Spanish phrasebook.
My first ride ended a couple miles down the road in Foster City when the driver was called back for work.
I got a spot on the Foster City onramp and waited for about an hour before a Foster City police car pulled up.
He checked my ID and asked questions to find out if I was high or a wanted man.
I’ve since thought of the perfect reply.
“Sir, I assure you, I am an unwanted man feeling low.”
He was young, a weightlifter and seemed like he was worried about me. He was shocked to hear I was headed to New York/New Jersey and he suggested Route 101, rather my interstate-based route. He was pretty sure I’d have a tough time getting someone to take me across the San Mateo Bridge.
When he drove away, within minutes I was picked up in a new Silver Jeep by inventor Dennis. We drove over the windy, white-capped San Francisco Bay on my first real lift of the cross-country trip.
Inventor Dennis is a silver-haired 53-year-old whose latest patent is for a rapid film bonding process, an adhesive process that will help his client cushion grapes and slow their ripening in the bag for longer shelf-life.
“A couple years ago this economy hit me hard,” he said as I took out my notebook. “I lost my job. Got a divorce. Lost my kids. I came out here to put my daughter in a community college. Now I’m making more than I ever made.”
A financial and personal crisis in his fifties, Inventor Dennis would be part of pattern in the next couple days as I was picked up by a 53-year-old mainframe computer expert who on his way to get government assistance forms. Then there was Bondo, 52, a laid-off pipeline worker who now works temp jobs for $8.25 an hour.
Both said they hitchhiked in the 1970s. Both said they don’t know how they are going to get out of this jam. Both loved my cross continent concept.
However, Bondo kept warning me, “The 70s are over man, don’t you get it?”
Lawyer Peter, who looked a bit like the psychologist Sidney on the old TV show “Mash,” was also in his mid-50s. He doesn’t make much money but he likes “helping people.” He too hitchhiked in Europe in the 1970s and tries to pick up hitchhikers when he sees them.
Fred was younger, in his late 30s, but he also said the economy hit him hard. He was a construction contractor who got into the real estate market before the bust.
“Now it feels like my job mostly is raising my kids,” he said on his way to pick up his teenaged daughters from dance classes.
Fred said he picked me up because he had passed me a few hours earlier and knew I needed to get away from an underpass entrance.
He clearly doesn’t like the “spending more time with the kids” lifestyle. He too is scared.
Cop & “Crazy Mexican”
My first ride the second morning was compliments of the California Highway Patrol. The night before, I’d been dropped off on the interstate and there were no onramps in site for miles so I quit and found a place to sleep.
When I woke, I had to hitchhike on Interstate 580, which is illegal. But the patrolman did an identity check, just like the Foster City patrolman, and drove me several miles down the road to an onramp.
Curiously, he let me take his picture but when I went to shake his hand he declined.
My longest ride that day was from near Hayward to suburban Los Angeles, by “crazy Mexican” driver John (his description). In his early 40s, he’s been driving his whole adult life and laments the changes to the industry. He was born in a Mexican border town but came when he was 10-years-old. He particularly dislikes the added competition from Mexican drivers.
He plays classic rock music high and when night falls he switches to CDs of Christian sermons. He’s got thinning black hair, a beer belly and strong arms and hands.
There’s a warrant for his arrest in North Dakota, he says, for letting another driver drive his truck. When the driver slipped on snow and the truck took a spill, John got ticketed for not insisting the other driver have insurance. He deliberately didn’t show up for his court date and the warrant was issued.
He’s already done time, he said, for drug possession and grievous bodily harm to a fellow driver during a bar fight. He hinted at a longer rap sheet.
He’d been driving well in excess of 900 miles hauling toilet seats, among other items. I watched him forge his log sheet before a weigh station.
As for the “crazy” part, he did have lots of violent stories which seemed to make no sense. He told one about an American couple who went to Mexico in a luxury RV and the wife was raped. He went into detail what he would have done to the husband because he was so stupid as to bring his wife and his luxury RV to such a dangerous place.
Another story was how he picked up “a hippy couple” and bought them food, then asked to “sleep” with the wife, saying he expected to be repaid.
He dropped me off late near a Catholic church in Corona, suburban Los Angeles.
Gravity of Pink Moon
On Thursday, a Chinese restaurateur swerved his new Cadillac Escalade to the side of I-15 outside Barstow, Ca. to pick this hitchhiker up on the way to Flagstaff, Az., a six-hour ride drive.
Just over the Arizona border in Kingman, Bin bought me dinner in a Golden Corral. He’s 30 years old, has a wife and 8-year-old daughter and likes to take short vacations to Las Vegas to gamble. He says he’s “a cook” at a Chinese restaurant in Flagstaff but the vanity plates on the Cadillac make me wonder about that.
On the way out of town, like The Rabbit last Sunday during slough, we too were in for a celestial sighting.
I was unaware it was a vernal equinox but saw the huge full moon early and low on the horizon as we drove into the Peacock Mountains and through the Cottonwood Cliffs.
Bin was the first to notice something new was going on.
“Look at that moon,” he said, driving. “It’s so big and so low. It looks like you could reach up and grab it.”
I immediately reached for my notebook to write down his words and took a closer look at the Peacock Mountains along I-40.
Then I started writing about a desert phenomenon. The desert scrub that dominates the Mojave moonscape defies easy description in part because it is changeable and I saw it change.
The ‘Pink Moon” or the “Sprouting Grass Moon” isn’t named for the way it looks but for the way it makes the earth look.
I saw the brown brush become tea green and mix with a darker shade of brown. I wrote in the notebook that the big rising moon seemed to sit atop some buttes, like a beaming bolder.
The bright moon was a second sunset illuminating the desert mountains in red tints in between rounded curves and folding wave patterns. Some hills looked like brutal rope twists.
Chinese music was on the stereo system played softly above the dashboard GPS. It was room temperature in the car as we sped along I-40 in our insulated world.
Interstate 40 sometimes feels like a black ribbon laid on bed of hard dust and brush. Then it crosses the Colorado River past oasis cities and the Grand Canyon looms off road and over the horizon.
Bin dropped me off at the Little America Truck Stop in Flagstaff with a handshake and a promise to check out the blog.
I still haven’t figured out what to do on cold nights while in urban areas. The first night out of San Mateo, I tented in a farmer’s field. But last night, I worked on the computer at an all-night Denny’s in Corona.
This morning, it nears 5 a.m. and the sun will be rising in about an hour. There’s a couple thousand miles ahead and colder weather up northeast. I can’t keep losing so much sleep or I’ll be in a sleepless dream world by the time I hit the coast.
Also I can’t forget that my arrangement for carnival work in Los Angeles failed, which makes me wonder what will happen when I get to New Jersey, hallow-eyed and dirty from the road.
Meanwhile, I sit alone in Little America at a marble table, in a mock bamboo chair with pink plastic cushions. I tap out my days on my laptop and glance out the window searching for a shooting star or a moonlit path.
*All names are aliases or carny names.