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But Mama aint always right…..
It’s not that easy to just pop into civilization when you’re in the midst of hiking one of the longest trails in America. Sometimes you just need to stick your thumb out at a road crossing and hope for the best. Just go into it with a little faith in humanity and the belief that the reality of hitchhiking is different than its portrayal on Netflix--chances are I’m not getting picked up by the Zodiac Killer.
My trail family, who I’d been hiking the Pacific Crest Trail with for over a month now, had no reason to come into Seiad Valley, so I was on my own for this hitch. I stood on the side of the road and waved “so long,” to my friends. I would catch up with them eventually. “Buckle down Boston,” I said under my breath. “You’re gonna be here a while.” I was in a part of Northern California that doesn’t get much traffic. (I should know better than to refer to the region in those terms. The locals aren’t a fan of being considered Californians. Up there, it’s called the state of Jefferson. It’s true! Look it up. They have their own flag and have been fighting the U.S. Senate for years trying to become an independent state.)
It was a long way between me and that box full of bacon jerky, Snickers, tortilla wraps and toilet paper that would be waiting for me at the post office. I figured I had a long wait ahead of me. I plopped my pack down, leaned against it as a backrest, and pulled out my book. I thought there was a solid chance I would get through the last 200 pages waiting for a hitch, but wait! In the distance I heard the rumbling of an engine..
….but the engine was just a farmer and his tractor. Yup, this is gonna be a good long wait. There are those special moments when no sooner than you stick your thumb out, the first car you see slowly pulls to the side and says, “thru-hiker! Get on in!” and you know the universe has your back. And then there are those days you could watch “Gone With The Wind” with the credits rolling before a car even comes your way, and it usually just speeds past you.
Hours later, just as the movie would be ending with its famous closing line, “frankly my dear I don’t give a damn,” I heard an engine in the distance. A car came chugging slowly towards me. It was barely holding itself together--its bumper was tied on, the driver’s door was a different color than the rest of the car, the back windows were busted and the front windows were tinted. Maybe Netflix speaks the truth after all...but, I was desperate so....
Up I popped, thumb out with a big old smile on my face. I managed to get the driver’s attention and he slowed down. I quickly tried to make myself presentable by brushing the weeks of dirt off myself and snuck a sniff of my pits to make sure my pheromones were acceptable. As I was fumbling around looking for my Purell, the driver pulled to a stop. I couldn’t quite make out his face through the tinted window.
He lowered his window a crack, stared straight ahead, and asked, “Who did you vote for?” Shit. I knew there was a right answer and a wrong answer, and only the right answer would get me to my Snickers bar. This could be a problem for me. I was in redneck country, after all. The wrong answer might at best lose me my ride and at worst get me shot!
As I hesitated, trying to guess his political affiliations, he demanded in a gruff voice, “Him or Her?”
“What if I abstained?” I asked, stalling. “Do I still get a ride?”
He laughed. “Boy you look nervous. I’m betting you voted for her.” He took a long pause. “Good job. Get on in.” And just like that, I had my ride.
“Grab a beer from the cooler there in the back, and one for me while you’re at it.” Julian, my hitch hiking knight in shining armor, commanded me. He was a portly man with dark skin who looked like he’d been working in a garage all day, his shirt stained with grease. He wore that gasoline scent like a badge of honor.
The conversation started off casual enough. He asked the usual questions about being a thru-hiker. “How are your feet doing?”, “What do you eat?” And, “Where do you crap?” Why does everyone always have to inquire about my bathroom protocol?
We made small talk and soon he was cracking open his 3rd beer. Then he asked me, “Do you know about the Karuk Tribe, my people from this area?” Still on my first beer, I replied, “Nope. I do not.”
“Well hiker let me tell you about this land and my people who inhabit it. Grab me another beer.” What transpired next was simply astonishing.
Julian broke into traditional Karuk song. I didn’t know the meaning behind this beautiful song harmonizing from his vocal chords, but I was entranced. As we drove through the valley of the mountains I would return to after my jaunt in town, I thought about those who roamed these same peaks and valleys long ago. This was Karuk’s land, and I felt humbled and honored to explore it.
Usually when I hike, the nature itself inspires my awe. But sometimes, my encounters with the land make me marvel at our country’s complex history. Another instance that made me experience such nostalgia was crossing the many Civil War battlefields in the South during my Appalachian Trail thru-hike. Ironic? I felt unworthy of standing in the very place others had fought to write our country’s history.
I was lost in these thoughts when Julian abruptly stopped singing and yelped, “Hiker! Grab me another beer would ya?” You bet Julian. We talked a bit about his people and how so much had changed in the area in just his life time alone. He was so proud to be of Karuk blood. He talked about his rich heritage and what his people meant to the growth of America.
Man, it’s amazing how much you don’t know until you walk into the unknown with an open mind and open heart.
Soon enough, we pulled into Seiad Valley. The town consisted of a post office, a general store with a sandwich shop, and a small campground. I climbed out of Julian’s car, grabbed my pack and slung it over my shoulders. “Thanks for the ride and beer Julian. More importantly thanks for the history lesson.”
“No problem hiker. Be safe. Ishkiit.” And off he went. I was fortunate enough to get to the sandwich shop 10 min before they closed up for the night. As I waited for my turkey sub, I kept whispering to myself, “ishkiit, ishkitt, ishkitt…..” trying to remember the word so that I could look up its meaning.
Then the woman at the counter handed me my sandwich and said to me, “Yes, good luck to you.” “What?” I replayed. She said, “Ishkitt. It means good luck.”
Hitching ain’t so bad mama…..
Grab me another beer, and Hike the Good Hike