I stood on the grassy meridian bordering a Marathon gas station on the edge of Ft. Wayne Indiana, holding a small card board sign with the word “WEST” scribbled onto it. My backpack was resting on the grass next to me.
I tried to wear my best I-am-not-a-serial-killer expression, and looked pleadingly at each driver as they exited the parking lot. The sky looked as if it were about to make good on its threat of rain.
I kept repeating in my head, “If Jordan can hitchhike his way to California and live to tell about it, then so can I.” I was proud of the fact that I had, so far, thumbed my way from Toledo to Indiana. I was doing it. I had finally escaped Ohio’s mindless death-grip.
Three hours passed and I began to feel desperate. I fished a marker out of my pack and drew an imperfect yin-yang on my sign. I had no idea if this would help or hinder my chances of getting a ride.
Ten minutes later, a man with wildly puffy grey hair and a long beard pulled up next to me in an orange VW van. He leaned toward the passenger door and shouted through the window, “You seek Buddha?” I couldn’t quite place his accent. Persian? Russian?
I was elated. “Yeah!” I replied and reached down to grab my pack, but the man peeled off, driving a reckless circle around the gas station only to pull up beside me and shout again, “You seek Buddha?” He looked like a white Cornel West, his frizzy grey hair was practically an afro and he had a large gap between his two front teeth.
I didn’t know what to say. Apparently my first response wasn’t what this guy wanted to hear. The sky above us grumbled.
“No,” I replied, “not… seeking… Buddha.”
The man narrowed his eyes at me and peeled out again, making another mind-boggling loop around the gas station. What the hell was this guy’s deal? Was he on drugs?
He pulled up to me a third time, and again shouted, “You seek Buddha?” Fat drops began to plop to the earth. I looked blankly at the man and said nothing. He reached over and unlocked the passenger door. “Get in,” he commanded.
Against my better instincts I heaved my pack into the van and told myself, “If you survive this, you’ll have a great story to tell.”
Before I could fasten my seat belt, he pulled onto the by-pass, cutting off a woman in a pick-up truck who honked furiously at us until we exited onto highway 30 EAST.
“Um……you’re heading east,” I said. “I need to go west.”
He didn’t respond.
As soon as we merged onto the freeway, the sky cracked open and rain began coming down in sheets. He turned on his windshield wipers but only the passenger-side wiper worked.
“Take wheel,” he said.
“What?!? I can’t take the wheel!” With his foot still on the gas petal, white Cornel West took both hands off the wheel and turned around, fumbling for something behind my seat. We were barreling down the freeway at 60 miles per hour in a down pour while I manically tried to keep the vehicle in our lane.
“Slow down so I can pull over!”
“Why?” he turned back around in his seat facing forward and lit a joint dangling from his mouth.
“Dude, no! Stop the car. I’m not riding with someone who smokes pot while they’re driving.”
“I no drive. You drive now.”
“What?!?! ! I can’t see anything! Pull over! We’re going to die!”
“You worry too much.” He slowly blew out a stream of pot smoke and rested his head on the back of his seat. “That is whole problem with westerner. Too attached to things like heartbeat, breath, life.” He waved the joint in the air as he spoke, then took another deep hit.
A semi was now passing us and creating a gust of wind that was threatening to blow the van off the road. The rain was not letting up and I couldn’t see two feet in front of us. I gripped the wheel with both hands and exerted all my energy trying to keep us from drifting out of our lane.
“Jesus Christ!!! Oh, God help us!”
“Chess, help us, Gawd. Help us, Cheesus Christ. Help us Buddha and Karl Marx.” He gazed at the roof of the van and blew smoke rings.
“Please slow down!!!”
“Chess….….. slow down. Smell roses. Be here now.”
“I’ll give you anything you want, just please slow down so we can pull over!”
“This is your problem. Heart is confused.” He clutched his chest for effect. “Too much desire. You desire west. You desire slow down. You desire pull over.”
“Please, I’m begging you.”
“No beg……let go of desire…… have peace, man.”
This was it. This was how I was going to die. I could see the headline now, “Pot Kills Insane Man and Ohio Youth in Highway 30 Accident."
“I’m gonna let go of the wheel!” I screamed.
“Chess! Let go of wheel!” He sat up excitedly.
“I’m gonna do it!”
“Chess, DO it!”
I let go of the wheel, pulled my legs to my chest, squeezed my eyes shut and braced myself for the impact of death.
The next thing I heard was white Cornell West humming Fiddler on the Roof’s “If I Were a Rich Man.”
I opened my eyes. We hadn’t crashed. He had taken the wheel and the rain was miraculously letting up.
I was pretty sure I was dead. My hands were shaking. I looked back on the road behind us expecting to see a twisted heap of orange metal, but all appeared normal, traffic was flowing as if nothing had happened.
"You have peace now, no?"
I cupped my face in my hands and breathed deeply. How in the hell was I going to get out of this van and away from this man? I sat in stunned silence for many miles. I sighed heavily when we passed a “Welcome to Ohio” sign.
“You need rest area?” he asked.
I felt like it was a trick question. If I said yes, I was pretty sure he would keep going. If I said no, he would maybe stop? I couldn’t be sure so I stared angrily out the window and said nothing.
A few minutes later he took an exit to a road side rest area. Thank God! Now was my chance to escape.
“You pee?” he asked as he parked.
I shook my head.
“No!” I shouted.
He shrugged and wandered off toward the restrooms. I waited until he disappeared, then jumped out, lugged my pack onto my shoulders and made off as rapidly as possible. The sun was setting. I needed to cross the freeway so I could hit up the traffic heading west. I also needed to pee, but hell if I was going to do it here.
I stumbled up to the road and waited for what seemed like an eternity before there was enough of a break in traffic for me to make it safely to the other side. I kept looking back over my shoulder to see if he was following me.
When I finally got to the other side I hoofed it over to a clump of bushes to relieve myself. It was getting darker. It occurred to me that maybe I should wait a while, make sure he was gone, then cross back over to the rest area and sleep under a picnic table for the night.
I walked about a hundred yards west and tried thumbing it for a while, but gave up when the sun had gone down completely and it started sprinkling. Surely he had left the rest area by now. I felt like my best shot at finding a dry spot to sleep in was at the rest area, so I began shuffling that way.
Back at the rest stop I avoided the area where white Cornel had parked. I couldn’t tell if he was still there or not. I found a picnic table on the furthest edge of the rest area, rolled out my pad and sleeping bag and hunkered down for the night.
I slept fitfully. It rained all night.
At dawn I packed up my sleeping gear and hit up the rest rooms to take advantage of the facilities. I washed up as much as possible, filled up my water jug and headed cautiously out into the morning light.
As I walked along the outer edge of the rest area I passed a young woman with long brown braids on both sides of her head, sitting at a picnic table. She had a large pack, too.
“Good morning,” she chirped as I walked by.
“Morning,” I replied as I kept walking.
“Hey, are you thumbing it?”
I stopped and turned around. “Yeah.....you?”
“Yeah, I just found a ride out. Are you going west?” Her eyes were all doe-y and innocent.
“Yeah,” I walked back toward her. She looked like she was about eighteen years old.
“Oh! You can come with us! We’re going west.” Her eyes lit up.
“Yeah, I met this old guy with a van, he’s totally Zen and everything.”
And sure enough, white Cornel comes waltzing up behind her. “There you are!” He exclaims excitedly and tries to hug me. I stiffen. “Are you ready for road now?”
“Uh……yeah….about that, listen I need to talk to,” I turn to the girl, “What’s your name?”
“Sparrow!” she replies.
Of course it is. “Listen, Sparrow,” I lean in to whisper to her. “Don’t go with this guy. He’s a total lunatic. I rode with him yesterday and he almost got us killed! He’s not even going west!”
“Oh, don’t be silly,” Sparrow smiled. “He seems totally spontaneous and fun!”
“Let’s go!” Cornel beamed brightly.
“Yeah, come on,” Sparrow pleaded and pulled on my arm.
I knew if I didn’t go with them, it would be her in the headlines.
I grabbed Cornel by the arm, “I’m driving!” I told him. “Give me the keys.”
“Okay,” Cornell chirped back. “You drive now, anywhere you want to go.” He handed me the keys.
As we walked back to his van I noticed that he had a personalized license plate that read, “Lout Zoo.”
It all made sense now. I slid open the side door to the van. “In you go, Lout Zoo."