The third in an eight-part series in which the author travels the length of Vermont, his home state, via various modes of locomotion.
It was a December morning, all blue sky, bright sun, and shining white snow—the kind of brilliant, dry-cold morning that tempts some of us to quit our jobs, abandon our possessions, and trot out unencumbered into the world beyond routine. I wasn’t completely unencumbered myself, but I was going light, and certainly feeling my freedom as I approached the mailbox at the end of my driveway and walked on past. In a small pack I carried the bare essentials for winter camping, along with five ham sandwiches and some pipe tobacco (the latter two items comprising my “recreational vagabonding survival kit”). I wore fleece mittens that I hoped would keep my thumbs warm on this, their big day.
A quarter mile brought me to the edge of that loud, rushing river known by my fellow Vermonters as Route 7. I dipped a toe in and pulled it out. Here was a road connected to other roads connected to other roads—the beginning of a new adventure. And here in this first road, mashed against the double yellow line, was a wrecked life that was not a life at all: torn black fur, red glistening guts, a hump of meat frozen to the pavement. I thought of approaching the mangled carcass, of kneeling, looking close, maybe saying a little prayer, but a truck screamed past and I stumbled back. That’s when it hit me, where I was and what I was doing.
So this is what happens when a soft-bodied, warm-blooded creature dares to engage, on foot, the violent road-river’s relentless flow.
In an instant, all that makes hitchhiking taboo—its shadow and grit—crowded my mind: psycho killers behind the wheel, tires bearing down in the darkness, loneliness, boredom, icy ditch campsites thick with trash and thorns and skeletons. I raised my thumb like a little white flag of peace, offering it to the highway. How good an idea was this good idea of mine?
It turned out to be just about the best idea I’ve ever had, though I wouldn’t begin to sense this until twenty minutes later, when my first ride pulled over. The driver’s name was Bram. He was from Burlington. His car had a bumper sticker that read, “I Love My Doula.” He was clean-shaven, and so was I, having abandoned my beard on the hunch that a fresh, friendly face with nothing to hide might increase my appeal as a traveling companion.
Generally, a driver’s first question to a hitchhiker is: “Where to?” That can be hard to answer when you’ve got no specific destination in mind. I told Bram that my goal was to tour the state, letting each ride lead me to the next in a sort of random, aimless chain reaction powered by human generosity and kindness. Bram said he was going to Cornwall, west of Middlebury, and I said that was fine by me. Other than a desire to tag the Massachusetts border, and then the Canadian border, and then circle back home, I would impose no design on my travels. Meeting neighbors, drinking coffee at general stores, mooing at cows, generally experiencing the villages and vistas and moods that our huge small state has to offer—this was my project. Bram nodded in understanding.
It turned out that he, like many of the fifty-one strangers I traveled with over the course of five days and thirty-six rides, had done some hitching himself years ago. As an eighteen year old, he thumbed with a friend from Burlington to Seattle. Crossing the Mississippi River, talking of Huck and Jim and rafts, he and his friend got the idea to paddle it the following summer. When the time came, though, the friend backed out, and Bram set off solo on the fifty-six-day voyage. More recently, with his seventy-eight-year-old mother in the bow he canoed the Connecticut River from its headwaters all the way to the Atlantic. The trip was Mom’s idea.
At a rural intersection a little north of Cornwall, Bram answered a business call on his cell: “I can’t talk right now. I’m wrapping up an interesting discussion with a hitchhiker.” Our conversation had meandered from business ethics, to 401ks, to following the heart’s path, to the complicated joy of getting caught in the rain, to living with uncertainty, and now to goodbye. I couldn’t thank him enough for the ride—not so much for the miles as for the positive tone it lent the beginning of my trip.
If everybody I meet is this cool, my head will explode!
I felt momentum and good energy on my side, and I knew right then the truth that would be proved to me again and again in the days to come: that hitching is a free ticket to vivid encounters with Vermonters from all walks of life. Each driver has a story, a personal brand of wisdom, and a unique relationship to some feature—a forest or farm or village—of our shared home. Their stories pass us by every day, in every vehicle we honk at or simply ignore. Hitching, by providing a time and space for fellow travelers to meet and talk, can slow the stories down and, on occasion, invite them to invite us inside.
Bram and I got out of the car, shook hands, and stood squinting in the sun for a minute. Then I was alone on Route 30, my thumb in the air.
There was a lot to take in that first day, and not just the staggering friendliness of the strangers I met: Michael, the guitar teacher blasting opera; DeMar, who’d lived his whole life in Idaho and Utah; Xtian, feasting on a massive block of cheddar cheese, small flakes of which somehow kept jumping into my lap. There was landscape, too, so easily forgotten in the rush of a sixty-miles-per-hour conversation, but still there when a ride abruptly ended and I emerged, as warm and confused as a newborn, from the womb of an SUV.
This was perhaps most interesting of all to me, this interplay between riding and waiting, between what we might call Automotive Awareness and Walking Awareness. (Walking and waiting were, for me, the same thing, because it was too cold to stand still for long.) One minute I’d be kicking pebbles down an empty road to the tune of a distant chainsaw and a pileated woodpecker’s percussive lunching; the next minute a crooked silo would rise before me, grow larger with each step, and, fifteen minutes later, sink beneath the horizon at my back. Small sounds. Small shifts in perspective.
But then a car would stop—always, it seemed, when my mind had finally gotten back into my body, my senses back into the land—and off we’d zoom. I’d begin the sequence all over again five or ten or thirty miles down the road. It felt as though I was caught in a constant tug between slow motion and fast-forward. It left me exhausted at the end of the day.
In classic, nearing-the-winter-solstice fashion, that “end of the day” came around three p.m. I was riding with Kate, a senior at Green Mountain College in nearby Poultney, who dressed in a style that blended elements of hippie, punk, and goth while still managing to look cohesive and cute. Kate’s back door didn’t open, so my pack was in my lap. Behind us, bedded down among clothes and books and cigarette packaging, a little mop of a dog slept the deep sleep of the camouflaged. (Note: I’d assumed that few, if any, women would pick me up, but in the course of my tour I was actually picked up by six lone women, and twice by a pair of women, so Kate was no exception.)
Kate dropped me at the Wells General Store, in the town of Wells, which had just closed. She said that if I needed a place to warm up, or a hot beverage, I could call on her friends a mile south of town in a small, teal farmhouse. After talking with a bicycling teenager for a while—he said of my project, “I’m glad you’re doing this,” and I replied, “I’m glad you’re glad”—I walked to the teal house, petted the goats outside, then went in and asked permission to camp in the hilly meadow out back. That night it snowed and the moon was full and Canada geese rustled the quiet sky with their wings. Dinner was delicious: a ham sandwich and a smoke. The temperature dropped into the single digits. The geese honked through my dreams. So concluded my first day on the road.
Picture hunters moving rifles off the passenger seat to make room for me, or mothers moving children, or squinty dudes moving bags of marijuana. Picture me outside the J. Crew outlet in Manchester talking dirt bikes with Randy, or searching back roads for a fish hatchery in Pownal with a New Yorker whose glasses made him look like a fish. Picture young, bearded carpenters, ski-resort snowmakers, cleaning women, a guy who’d never been to Canada because of his seven felonies, a woman from Wisconsin with a hearing-impaired son whose father had been in Dubai for a year working as a mega-yacht interior designer but was coming home the next day.
Picture Beth walking her dogs at sunset, telling me to wait for her beside her car—“It’s the one with the license plate that says God Is My Co-pilot,” she told me. Picture her taking me to her house, feeding me, offering me the barn out back and, in the morning, praying for me, her hand on my shoulder, the two of us standing in the middle of Route 100 down by the Massachusetts line, our heads bowed beneath a new, sunny day.
And picture Route 100 itself: so sinuous, so deep in the hollows, so damaged by floods. A hurricane came through Vermont three months prior to my hitching trip, came through unexpected, came through with fast, big, violent water. I rode with a hydrologist named Eli up seventy-five miles of rubble-strewn river valley, listening the whole time to his lectures on why this slope eroded, why an excavator shouldn’t be in that gully, what that golf course looked like before it was littered with tree trunks.
The towns: Jamaica, Ludlow, Pittsfield, Warren. The faces: Laurie, Frank, Rudy, and Julie; Brent and goo-faced toddler Cody, the lady with the dark hairs on her chin who dropped me at a McDonalds during a squall in Enosburg Falls.
I went all the way to Richmond in thirteen rides and, the next day, all the way to Canada and back to Burlington in ten. I rode in the slushy bed of a pickup truck missing its tailgate. I unloaded nasty, twisted steel at the Swanton scrap yard. I helped change a tire. I heard life dreams. I shared my own. I walked for hours in the middle of nowhere; no cars, no luck, just me and a great blue heron tracing the rim of a great, gray lake, flat as the sky.
Picture all of this, and whatever else you can, because whatever you imagine is probably out there, bumping along the road right now. Perhaps most challenging of all, picture yourself in a position of weakness, where you need something—a ride, or warmth, or just a little help. Picture choosing this—this helplessness, this vulnerability. In the picture you will see a car pulling over and a new friend beckoning you aboard, and then you will understand what I saw and felt: the goodness of humanity flowing on down the old road-river.
My last ride plucked me from noise and exhaust and stunted shrubbery and wind-borne litter, a typical American commercial strip, atypical in Vermont. The driver’s name was Jeff. He was heading south to Poultney to spend the weekend drinking whiskey and reminiscing with his cousin, a slate-mining, vineyard-owning, Vietnam veteran who, as it turned out, was the landlord of Kate, the hippie-punk-goth woman I’d rode with on day one. We agreed it was a small world, but even as the words came out of my mouth I began to doubt them. Maybe it really is a big world, I thought, a huge world, a world so vast and mysterious and interconnected and uncertain that we are terrified of its potential and must daily shy away from its open-armed invitation. Maybe it’s the biggest, wildest, weirdest world any God of any Heaven of any Time could ever dream.
Jeff dropped me off a quarter mile from my house, the exact spot where my journey had begun. The river, Route 7, was flowing quiet and serene. I looked but saw no trace of the animal whose ruined body had filled me with dread five days before. I inspected the yellow line, but there was nothing, not even a faint bloodstain. To the south, Jeff’s truck was shrinking, the land swelling around it. I stood there in the middle of the road for a while, unsure of my next move. It was a beautiful morning, all warm and melty and pinkish-gray. It was the kind of morning that tempts some of us to quit our jobs, abandon our possessions, and trot out unencumbered into the world beyond routine.
It was hard not to raise my thumb and keep going.
Leath Tonino was born and raised in Vermont. In addition to working as a writer, he’s shoveled snow in Antarctica, tracked hawks in Arizona, and planted blueberries in New Jersey. This series first appeared in the Burlington, Vermont newspaper Seven Days.
Enjoying reading this! I starting law school in VT about ten years ago, but ended up moving back west. I made several drives through the state, one up to the Canadian border, but never crossed. Pleasant memories.