I slept a good part of the way, while Kim snapped pictures and Rich drove. We got to Knoxville in mid-afternoon, then found a decent truck stop where they could drop me off. We milled around a bit then began the process of saying goodbye.
I still had the Canadian Flag on the backpack, and a guy who was walking inside made a funny comment about it as he walked by. Not rude, just obnoxious. That was my first indication that the symbol of our northern neighbors may not attract the same affection as out west.
We took pictures, chatted, then when Kim & Rich finally got in the car to leave, the guy who commented on the flag, now back in his truck in the next parking place, asked me what I was up to. He had overheard the exchange and become interested in what I was doing. About the time that Kim and Rich had backed their car up, Steve had offered to take me about 60-miles up the road, to Newport. I hadn't even left the sidewalk and had a ride.
Oh, Happy Day!
I glanced at Kim’s face and saw something akin to amazement. Or, was it fear? I’m not sure, but I got a kick out of it. She had been expressing misgivings about just ‘dropping me in the middle of nowhere’, and I was glad she saw I wasn't stuck. I loaded the pack into the bed of the pickup, and waved once more to Kim as they drove off.Steve was middle aged and in the passenger seat of the truck and, judging by the equipment in the back, I used my Superpowers of Deduction to reason that they were heading home from work. His son was driving, also named Steve (Stephen). He was not there when his dad offered the ride, but seeing a stranger in the backseat did not faze him. We were quickly back on I-40 & heading east toward Newport, and ultimately for me, North Carolina.
This was the weekend of the NASCAR race in Bristol and I believe that Stephen was having visions of battling Darrel Waltrip for the checkered flag which, in his mind, seemed to be waving at the Newport exit since he drove 90mph the entire way. He was not reckless; just in a hurry. I was happy to be making good time toward Asheville.
Steve Sr. sat in the passenger seat drinking Bud Lights the entire way, with me resupplying from the cooler next to me in the back seat. He seemed to be quite interested in my travels and I tried my best to describe them but the time off the road, which by now was more than a month, had stilted the easy- conversationalism I'd tapped into out west. That was clearly apparent to me, but I doubt that he noticed anything. He went on to tell me that they were from Michigan, from the Algonac area, and that they had relocated to Tennessee after the construction industry dried up, along with everything else in Michigan. They simply could not survive up there anymore and were doing only slightly better in Tennessee.
It was a pleasant, and thanks to Jr., quick ride to the Newport exit. Steve Sr. told me that I was now in the Appalachians, and with the ‘hill folk’, which immediately conjured up images of "Deliverance."
*C’mon Squeeeeal!* eh, H. H.?
I didn’t envision a canoe trip through the mountains, so I let this little glimpse of "Rebel Hell" fade away.
The Steves dropped me at a little gas station and were quickly on their way. I went to refill the water bottle, not having any idea how long I’d be waiting, and quickly learned another difference between east and west: getting water. The entire way--California, Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado--never do I recall being charged for water. Ice? Once. Water? Never. The truck stop in Knoxville had charged something like $0.35, and this gas station had only a sink to use. The “pay or fill up in the bathroom” theme would continue throughout.
Asheville was my goal for the day and only another 40-50 miles down I-40. I had been optimistic that I would get there since everyone I had talked to, and everything I had read, indicated that Tennessee was good for hitching. North Carolina? A bit shadier on the praise, while the inhabitants of Georgia and South Carolina were supposedly a folk not yet informed that the Civil War had ended, or that the slaves had been freed. Mississippi? I already knew that to be fact!
These were the thoughts as I left the gas station for the ¼-mile walk to the on- ramp. I was in another world; one more familiar than the west coast, and not all of it triggered positive recall! I was rather anxious to see how things would go as I sat down, lit a cigarette, and tried to refocus my mind to ‘Road’.
I didn’t even get to finish the cigarette.
As I was sitting there in the muggy 90-degree sun looking for aspirin, a red pickup hauling a trailer loaded with welding equipment pulled over and asked where I was headed. I told them Asheville, using the ‘underselling’ technique, and they told me to hop in. THIS would be an interesting ride!
Titus, 22, and Stephen (yes, another one), 30, were from central Kentucky, and on their way to Winston-Salem, NC for work. They assemble water towers all over Kentucky, Tennessee, and NC, and were due in Winston that night.
Stephen: a southern caricature. Picture a well dressed, well groomed, racist, xenophobic Larry the Cable Guy. The perfect redneck (his description) stereotype, with such a thick drawl I could understand only half of what he said before I adjusted. And man! He loved to talk. Maybe that was why Titus was so quiet? Couldn't get a word in! As we passed into North Carolina, I began to discover why Stephen was so chipper. Care to guess?
At this point, he was pounding ‘em at a rate of two every five minutes. And yes, I WAS keeping track; again I was the server! Perhaps this is the key to hitching down south.
As we approached Asheville, I began to feel much more comfortable. Just some good ol’ boys…never meanin’ no harm. Had been in trouble with the law since the day they was born? I’ll never know, but they reminded me of my youth and the people from around Hilltucky. They threw around ‘nigger and fag’ like I throw around the word “I”.
“I “sat in the back, and enjoyed the stereotypes displayed before me. Stephen would shout out the window, “Take that nigger to jail!” one minute, then talk about Jesus and his Christianity the next. And no Hippie, I didn’t say anything to them about it. And no, I didn’t get out of the truck. This was priceless!
Shortly before Asheville, Titus asked me if I was riding with them all the way to Winston-Salem. The beauty of “underselling”: It gives YOU a way out if the rides are unbearable, and it does not obligate the driver to take you far if they are nervous about picking you up. It then gives you the chance to sell yourself; show them that you are not going to be asking for money, cigarettes, food...whatever.
And to let them see you don’t smell like pee. Hear that Hippie? Try NOT to smell like peeee! (Upward inflection on pee)
Now, the hippies amongst us may ask, “Todd, why didn’t you speak up, or get out of the truck when you heard the racist comments?” (Up- inflections on “up”, “truck”, and “comments". Fun, eh?) There was another reason, beyond entertainment value. They had been laying down heavy, not so subtle hints that if I were to try anything, like pulling a knife, that they could “take care of business”. I had no interest in pissing off two Kentucky rednecks while riding in their truck through the Appalachians. Dig? Besides, I enjoyed the observer role to this point, and we were getting along just fine. Why rock the boat?
Allow me to now share why you don't rock it: Just past Asheville, Titus pulled what looked like a .44 pistol from between his seat and the console.
Awwwwww… Todd’s first gun pulling!
He did not pull it out for any purpose, other than to let me know it was there, and I never saw it again after he put it back, which was immediately. Strangely enough, this did not bother me. Then again, why would it? Just reminded me of Hilltucky. I knew that these two had no problem with me, and were not going to rob me. (HA! Rob me of what? Cliff bars?) What I found comical was that these two tough guys, as it turned out, were more afraid of me than I had been of them! The thing that, apparently, gave them the courage to stop in the first place was the two redneck staples: beer and guns.
After at least ten beers, Stephen took the wheel and from there the ride was great. Everyone relaxed, discarded the fronts, and somehow I was able to coax them out of their redneck, bravado dress up. Well, almost. We began talking about things like trust, fear, and how people should treat other people; the golden rule. Amazingly, they are BOTH passionate about these things, and the Bible began to come up over and over again.
God n’ Guns.
It struck me how ironic these ‘values’ sounded coming from a guy who had been yelling “Take that nigger to jail!” shortly before.
It is really a cultural thing, isn’t it? I have said it 1000 times, and seen it first- hand: they breed it into them. Therefore, Hippie…if I may return to this for a moment...all ‘taking a stand’ may have gotten me is thrown out of the truck at best, and pistol-whipped at worst. By keeping my mouth shut, I got some insight into their world, their outlooks (right or wrong), their disconnect, and it set a nice foundation for the major theme of North Carolina. Religion and its hypocrisy.
Do I have ANY hippies left by now?
The ride ended nicely, and they were treating me like an old (white) friend by the time they dropped me at a Holiday Inn Express in Winston-Salem at about 9:15. I came away thinking that these men were indeed good people. Despite the drunk driving, the gun, innumerable racial slurs.
It was late; I was out of practice. Late at least to be hunting a nest in an unfamiliar, urban area. I called Laina then found my way to the old standby: between the exit ramp and highway. It wasn’t perfect, but it was rather isolated and it felt good to be back on the ground again. Strange.
I had realized early on that I was not feeling entirely connected to what I was doing. I missed the excitement of new experience. I laughed quietly in the first Stephen’s truck when I realized how things had changed. I was getting through this day solely on experience. In California, the first days were navigated by blind excitement. I’d rather have the excitement! I attributed this to being off the road for so long, and hoped it would return soon.
And, by the way, where the hell was I going? How far I had unexpectedly come affected that. I had hitched a new personal record 270-miles on Thursday: I'd neither expected nor planned for that. I had planned to use the time around the NC border, near Asheville, to get my bearings and plot a route. I had done very little homework on Winston-Salem, or even I-40 beyond Asheville. I did not realize, to my utter shame, that there was a mini metroplex beginning with Winston-Salem and including Greensboro and Raleigh-Durham.
That damn ‘P’ word rearing its head again. No hippie, not “Progressive”! "Plan". (Ha!)
I updated my journal then passed out, electing not to use the bivy. It was a beautifully warm, muggy night as I was dozing off so I did not even bother with the sleeping bag.
I should have bothered. I froze, and woke the next morning to the horrific realization that I had slept nearly on top of a spider den! Wouldn't be the last time that happened...
LESSON: Find the campsite BEFORE dark!
Lesson my ass. I never do that.