“Finally, from so little sleeping and so much reading, his brain dried up and he went completely out of his mind.”
― Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Don Quixote
The sun set as I hitchhiked the shoulder of I-40 across the Texas Panhandle. I already had my eye on a bank of trees I’d have to sleep under. The night was shaping up to be windy, cold and long.
Almost without hope left for a ride, a dinged-up, dusty white 1998 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter ambled by at a gas-saving pace and pulled over.
A round Sancho got out the passenger door with black jeans, black shirt and a black porkpie hat.
The darkness lifted from this hitchhiker’s heart when driver and passenger said they are headed 700 miles to Memphis, Tenn.
Instead of shivering beneath a tree beside an interstate, I was embarking on a wild ride through the Texas-Oklahoma night.
The van had a mattress on the floor, jammed storage shelves and a dashboard with heaps of pot, tobacco and a couple books from The Indian in the Cupboard series (a little boy puts a toy Indian in the cupboard and it comes to life as an 18th century Iroquois Indian).
The driver, Don, is tall, bearded and all bones, appearing to live on cigarettes, pot, alcohol, hallucinogens and Argentinian mate. His hairstyle is a mess of matted dreadlocks. He speaks earnestly and quickly.
The tall, thin leader of this duo reminded me of Don Quixote, in part, because Don appears to be living in a drug and alcohol induced dream world. Sidekick Sancho is short, stocky, earthy and along for the ride.
Don has a large head and marionette frame. Sancho loves to scratch his belly, which hangs out under his shirt and over his belt. They are both about 30 years old.
Their interest in 18th century romanticized Indians and idealized Grateful Dead adds some symmetry to the vision, given Don Quixote’s romanticized view of knighthood and the world.
But that’s my overlay on their wanderings, which for them seems to be sallying forward into a more enlightened world fueled by drugs, world peace, free food and money bummed from squares.
Both duos also are led by a person addicted to magical thinking and a world of adventure and a higher, more noble existence. At the same time, both settle for a “higher” existence.
Don’s two-year-old rescued mastiff-golden retriever mix is named Buddha and sat between my legs all night, giving me cramps and causing me to shift in my seat during deep philosophical discussions.
Still, Buddha and all the talk about world religions on the ride give the ride a Kerouac “Dharma Bums” feel.
Although, like his namesake, it isn’t clear the pug-nosed Sancho shares Don’s romantic visions.
I mention my “Eyes Like Carnivals” year (I’m working in traveling carnivals for a year and writing about it) and tell them I won’t use their real names.
Sancho, who is smoking a pot pipe shaped like a deer antler, said I can’t use his name because he has copyrighted it and he can sue me. Also, I should know that he worked for “Midway,” a Texas carnival, running a carousel for a while. The carnies gave him pot laced with crack, just to see if he was a cop, he said.
“So don’t take no dope from no carnies,” said the very drunk and high Sancho as he touched my forearm for emphasis.
Still wearing his porkpie hat, he later fell back, wordless, on to the mattress.
Almost immediately and emphatically, Don tells me how he just broke up with the love of his life.
His Dulcinea, apparently, is a whiskey-guzzling bitch who parted company with him that morning.
“You know what the difference between a bitch and a whore is?” Don asks. “A whore is a woman who’ll sleep with anybody. A bitch is someone who sleeps with anybody but you.”
She and another traveler headed west, he’s headed east to Memphis and eventually home to New Jersey to resupply. For him, that means money and polished stones he can sell on the road.
Gas stations are for bumming
Don also has Mickey’s Malt Liquor next to him and is smoking from the antler. In a convoluted story, he tells how he got into polishing precious and semi-precious stones. He also seemed to be justifying the stealing of a stone-cutting machine from another dealer (who drove away so I assumed he left it for me, he says).
Don told stories of spending years in prison for “stupidly” flooding his small New Jersey hometown with acid tablets. He alludes to other ‘stupid’ arrests, including for bongo drumming in a mall after midnight in Boulder, Colo.
Don is virtually a chemist of drugs, listing off a long line of ingredients in each hallucinogen. He makes references to serotonin levels in the brain and studies that back him up, not mainstream medical studies.
The Grateful Dead and Wu-Tang Clan play from 8 pm in Amarillo to 5 am in Arkansas/Tennessee border. He stops important points to sing and point out great lyrics.
We crossed Texas, Oklahoma and into Arkansas talking about religion, politics, drugs and Don’s lifestyle. He goes festival to festival selling and bartering, pot, acid and stones – gems, precious and semi-precious. He occasionally goes out to hunt for rocks too.
He may someday get a house to base his operations. But no other ambition is cited.
Solving the world’s religious wars, he laughs, would be as simple as having a return of the messiah and the second coming of the prophet be the same guy, only half circumcised. Ya. Ya. Ya.
Don and Sancho live by bumming money at gas stations. Sancho prides himself on this, at one gas station he approached an out-of-uniform cop and got $20 for gas. He bums from everyone in a gas station – at the pump to the store to the next urinal.
At one gas station, I bought a $1 bag of chocolate chip cookies and he got mad at me, telling me to stay away from him “while I do my thing.”
Another bumming rule learned: Not good to be seen with someone eating cookies while you are bumming.
Clearing the throat
Within minutes of his blunt advice, he began puking beside the van in the loudest “awwing” sound I have ever heard. It sounded like an ham actor overdoing a puking scene. Its was so loud and filled with gut-twisting gurgles that it seemed unreal.
Puke shot out his nose too but he nonchalantly wiped that away with his forearm.
The earthy Sancho then complained about “shittin’ like a Mexican” in the bathroom. He then spit so close to me I had to back up to be missed.
Don looked at me a bit embarrassed and said it must have been the water in one of the hotels they had stayed at (with money they had bummed at gas stations).
“Ya, the water. Because it couldn’t have been all the beer, whiskey and pot he was doing before passing out,” I thought.
We drove for about an hour after that when we heard pounding on the vehicle from the back. I turned around and Sancho had chipmunk cheeks filled with puke.
Don swerved to the shoulder of the road and Sancho exited to puke that same puke of the undead. Again, he nearly hit me. This time he noticed I still had my cookies from the gas station.
“What do you live on cookies or something, Goddamn!”
I should cut back on the sweets, I thought for a moment.
Chewin’ on a dream
After Sancho retired back to his boudoir, Don and I spend the wee hour of the morning talking about how Senora and Flagstaff are great Arizona towns for hitchhikers. “Hippy Hill” outside Murfreesboro, Tenn., is great for hanging out and playing pool in a tee-pee with a tree in the middle.
He gave me tips on how to volunteer for a festival early then walk in and out the rest of the week or weekend selling rocks or drugs.
By the time we made it to a rest stop and a McDonald’s in Van Buren, Arkansas I was sick of the Grateful Dead.
In fact, I mentioned that at 54 years old, I’m older than Jerry Garcia was when he died. The thought bummed out Don.
I got out of the van and rubbed the Buddha-cramps out of my legs.
It was 5 am, the day was beginning to lighten and the long night of pot, puking and drug-fueled conversations was ending like a strange road dream set to a Grateful Dead soundtrack and dimly lit by a low burning deer antler.
I dug deep into my jacket pocket, pulled out the last of my chocolate chip cookies and thought, “This will be a lot to chew on.”
Next: American Drifters