The Biggest Disaster Yet

Memoir/Travel, Nonfiction

I lost my sign. My beautiful sailcloth and housepaint sign. Passengers would see it and smile; kids in the opposite lane would twist around to read the lettered side. More than half my drivers mentioned it, and many said it was the reason they stopped.

But in Marquette, Michigan, I left my sign in the back seat of a car bound for Canada, and I didn’t even realize it until an hour later. But at that point, I had already joined an impromptu tour of the city, and since I was the only attendee and the guide was new, I had to bottle my frustration. Ditching a girl you had just met and just asked to show you the town isn’t good form, especially not when you’re ditching so you can sulk over a sign that’s sixty miles lost and counting.

I tried to listen to her, and I thought I was doing a good job, until she steered us into a laundromat and pointed to a wall of advertising posters. “They aren’t big, and I don’t think they’ll last, but maybe could you write on one of those?” Eleven by seventeen, flimsy as hell, and promoting some local indie band.

I stole one.

The second sign. Sharpie and paper and just about useless.
The second sign. Sharpie and paper and just about useless.

The next morning, I scrawled “Traveling on Trust” in black Sharpie on the back of the poster. If a driver ran me over, there’s a possibility he could have read it just before hitting me. But for anyone else, I might as well have written “Serial Killer.”

Hitchhiking without a good sign, I learned, is damn hard.

Smiles became rare; waves, obligatory. No one honked or threw a peace sign. Old ladies often stare at me without shame, but now it seemed like everyone else was, too. I was a panhandler, a parasite, a bum with a thumb.

Finally, a former hitchhiker stopped and drove me to the next town, a whole three miles away. There, I waited again, holding my little piece of paper and trying to look young and harmless. I succeeded at that, at least. A hatchback pulled up, driven by college student named Hannah who kept a bike and hiking boots in the back.

“My roommate’s about to do a hitchhiking trip down south,” she said, “so I figured I should help you out. What does your sign say?”

The Mackinac Bridge
The Mackinac Bridge

I rode with Hannah across the Upper Peninsula, and then across the Mackinac bridge (the world’s third-longest suspension bridge), where she introduced me to the Upper Peninsula tradition of paying for the vehicle behind you as well as your own. Those who know the system pass it back when they find their bridge toll already paid, and on good days, chains of benevolent drivers emerge.

We parted ways on the other side of the bridge, and I meandered along the lakeshore, thinking of how to replace my wayward sign. I realized my best hope lay in Rachel, a college friend who lived in central Michigan. If I could make it to her house, I could make a new one.

“You’ve got a good pack there,” said a middle-aged man who had came up behind me. “Were you a Scout?”

“I wasn’t, but my dad was an Eagle Scout.”

“Well, you’ve got everything tied up right. Where you headed?”

I told him. He introduced me to his wife, and we talked together and watched the waves.

“If you don’t mind going a little east, we can take you along Lake Huron,” the man offered. “That’ll get you closer to your friend.”

Standing on a shipwreck at 40 Mile Point
Standing on a shipwreck at 40 Mile Point

Not only did it get me closer, but it came with another tour. The couple showed me a shipwreck and a lighthouse, the world’s largest limestone quarry, and a town of just a few hundred Polish potato farmers. They even gave me place to stay the night, complete with a shower and a load of laundry–and without ever seeing my sign.

I am not the only person the couple has helped. Three years ago, they let their high school son’s girlfriend move in with them, away from her own broken home. Now, she studies in a pre-med program and uses their house as her legal permanent address.

I pulled out Sharpied poster the next morning. This time, cars roared by at forty-five miles an hour, carrying with them any chance of someone reading my sign.

Fortunately, a side road fed into the county highway, and while waiting at the stop sign, a high school science teacher and her ninth-grade son saw me. They drove me east to west across the state, and then a pair of hippies saw me outside a gas station and “got a good vibe.”

They had been hippies in the ’70s, and now they were hippies again. Although he used to make meth, he now denounces the “deep addiction” drugs and sticks with pot, peyote, mushrooms, and LSD–and the last three mainly at music festivals. The couple married on 4/20 and live in a commune, completely debt-free. He smoked a joint as he drove.

“Don’t get caught up in money,” she warned me. “I used to work in DC with a big company. Spent so much on rent and car payments and keeping up with the Joneses, and all it did was stress me out. Now my life’s simple again, and it’s great.”

The hippies dropped me off near Rachel’s house and then, for an evening, night, and morning, I relaxed without worry. I didn’t take surreptitious notes after every conversation; I didn’t keep track of roads and whereabouts; I didn’t sleep with a knife.

The second sign
The third sign

Instead, I learned how to use a sewing machine, and Rachel and I ironed, cut, and sewed a new sign for me, bigger and even more durable than the last.

* * * * *

Hitchhiking worked without my sign. I still made good time, and I still met good and generous people. But every ride came as even more of a surprise than usual, and while I waited, I felt like a pariah. Young and clean-shaved, with decent clothes and a haircut, but nevertheless an object of suspicion, disapproval, pity. The politeness I normally received vanished, for my exoticness and deliberateness was not there to inspire it.

I never blame someone for not picking me up. It is not his or her duty, nor is it “safe.” But, as a result of this trip, I now question our relationship to strangers. When I make eye contact with someone in a coffee shop, when I sit beside a person on a bus or a plane, when I walk past a mediocre busker, I usually ignore him. I blame it on being an introvert. Or on awkwardness, or not having energy or time, or simply believing that ignoring strangers is a normal, expected response.

When I lived in DC, I would pass hundreds of people in a half-hour walk, and I let them become scenery. In a city, it is simply practical–maybe necessary–to move within a bubble of self-isolation. Operating like that, you don’t waste four dollars on a stranger’s bridge fee or sacrifice an hour showing a distracted hitchhiker around town. You gain efficiency and avoid awkwardness, and you don’t force someone to interact with you when she would much prefer to stay secluded.

But when I ask people what they like about living in a small town, most refer to neighborliness. People nod or wave or smile at each other. People say “good morning” when you pass them on the sidewalk. You know everyone on your block and half the people in town, but you acknowledge new faces, too, and strike up conservations with them when you’re waiting for your dinner or your coffee. Strangers are people, not scenery, and when you’re the stranger, that difference matters.

This is not to say that towns trump cities, or the opposite. It is, however, to raise a question: Why do you–or why don’t you–wave at someone, even if he doesn’t have a sign or an out-of-the-ordinary mission? By recognizing someone as a person, what do we gain, and what do we lose?

What is our responsibility to strangers?

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