Hitchhiking to Jackson, Part 1: Snowstorm between New Orleans and Vegas

The day after recovering from the Supwerbowl madness, I was ready to move on, Jackson Hole Wyoming my basic destination. The coupon website people from the bar had left town early so I was on my own. I packed up and headed for the bus that was going to Baton Rouge. I first had to find a 99 cent ATM, I had just over $21 in on my paypal card, so only a 99 cent fee ATM would do it, and I needed $5 for the bus ticket.

I managed it and rode the bus an hour or so up the road, then hoofed it to the freeway where I begain to thumb down the cars getting on the road. Behind me there was a big bridge in the background, one I'd be heading over as soon as a driver would decide I was worthy of being their passenger.

That driver would be a small motor mechanic from up the road in Opelousas; he told me about his various trials and tribulations on the path to getting his business to where it is now - doing really well without being too big to handle. He told me about their mardi gras parties in the country where they released chickens that the town would chase to put in the gumbo, riding around on horses and drinking as much beer as one could want.

We stopped at his lawnmower shop once to town, he wanted to get a joint running through my system before putting back on the road. I met a few of his employees, some young guys with black hands rushing to put mowers and equipment back inside, their work day coming to a close. A few of us went out back in the chilled shadows until the joint was burned down; the sun was going down quickly and sucking the last of the warmth from the day.

The guy dropped me off by the closest entrance to freeway 49 to wait on the next ride. I waited a while as the trickle of cars got on, but quickly decided to walk up on the freeway to try and catch some more of the traffic before the light went away completely, there wasn't enough light to last though.

I walked clear to the next exit, seeing the lights from a truck stop with a subway sandwich shop down the hill. Money was low, but a gift card for a sandwich was in my pocket, I used that to sit down and feast after some confusion at the register over the scratched up card that wasn't scanning right.

I went back into the dark, feebly standing on the on ramp for a stint of thumbing cars with the aid of only their headlights. I decided I'd walk up along the freeway to find a spot in the trees to set up camp for the night, a quarter mile in I veered towards the trees when there was a break in the traffic.

Once in the trees I walked 20 yards or so and placed my bag down at a spot that looked flat and suitable. An overwhelming eerie feeling quickly crept upon me, dogs barked in the background, faint lights in the distance, the imagined sounds of sticks cracking not too far from me. A car pulled over on the freeway and I ducked down frozen. I wondered if it was a cop or maybe someone who's land I was too close to coming to investigate. I stayed still and listened, explanations and escape plans running through my head.

Soon they were gone, perhaps someone just taking a leak or reading a map. Either way, I was done with my paranoia in this spot and decided to move on. I had to retrace my steps, as I'd somehow unknowingly slipped though the only gap in an otherwise barded wire enclosure.

I continued down the road until I saw that the freeway formed a small bridge, I slipped under it in between passing headlights. I heard what I thought was a splash under the bridge as I got under, it was too dark to see anything at all under there, left to my mind alone I imagined a Louisiana alligator who'd jumped back in the water. The same dogs howled in the distance.

It was a cold night, I stayed alert for a few minutes or more listening for more sounds. The trucks roared above with several clunks from each set of wheels coming from both directions. One of the clunks sounded a bit like the supposed splash, the alligator in my mind became dimmer. I crawled into my sleeping bag and contorted my body around the stony slope to find the most balance and comfort possible.

It was a night of quick naps separated by sounds of wind rustling or the need to readjust my body to the slope and stones. Early in the morning, long before the sun came around, my mind started twist around in the spirit of paranoia, sleep deprivation and dehydration.

A little boy started laughing and walked right by me, his father followed close behind, laughing at me with a friendly nudge as he passed by me, helpless and confused in my sleeping bag. I turned around a minute later feeling almost paralyzed, truly uncertain if it had been a dream or not. Shortly after I pictured the school next to the bridge, making sense out of the kid and the other shouts. The water from below the bridge began to rise quickly and toss around violent waves, I didn't fear them, but watched as people rolled around in them like they were body boarding.

It wasn't long until I was in the core of strange space station, the center of which was a fantastic lego display. The diabolical masked villain paced around revealing his sinister plot to conquer the universe, a familiar girl drank the liquid from a mario mushroom and her breasts pumped up a few sizes. Next, the gently reverberant voice of a woman told me that death brought no heaven, there was only happiness.

I then woke up sharply, sitting up and looking around; the light from the approaching sun gave me a view of my surroundings, I was certain I was awake now. There was no school or people, a fence stood between me and the small waveless river below, protection from the alligators I thought. The ceiling above me was far too low for anyone to have walked by me, I sorted my dreams from my thoughts and surroundings, packed up, and got on my way.

I walked along the side of the freeway eagerly awaiting the teasing sun to show it's face, it finally poked through some trees, giving me brief moments of slight warmth. A pickup truck pulled over and I hopped in, but he only went to the next exit less than a half mile up the road; I appreciated the blast of warmth, but wondered why he stopped at all.

I continued walking for a great while until another person stopped, this time I actually got a decent distance up the road. The guy dropped me off at a gas station with a five dollar bill, I started heading inside with water on my mind. I nodded to a guy in a jeep wrangler filling up his tank, he asked where I was headed, same direction as him, he agreed to give me a ride. I first went in the station and used the five bucks to get a big gatorade, then we were on the road.

He was heading to a meeting in Shreveport, dropping me off close to where I-49 meets my next road, I-20. I walked along the freeway for a bit, then down though town to get directly to the 20 rather than getting tangled in the crossing. I stopped for a quick donut once getting across town, a tasty one at that, then continued to the on ramp in search of the next ride.

A somewhat spiritual guy picked me up heading just out of town to get some reiki done in order to calm him self down. He spoke a lot about balance, the positive and negative points in life, and about the universe reflecting your thoughts back at you. 

He dropped me off and I got another quick and short ride, then waited some more until I was picked up by an air force guy on his way home, just north of Dallas. He offered me some fresh jerky and some soda as I got in and we got to talking. His pickup truck was running off vegetable oil, something he pointed out when I brought up the plans I had with friends to convert a school bus to such. We went on for quite some time about this, me with questions and him with detailed answers.

Once we were close to his home, he insisted on getting me a meal from Arby's, we went through the drive thru and he then dropped me off along the road so I could continue along, it was getting late in the day now. I munched on my food in between the big clumps of traffic that came steadily, spaced out from the traffic light down the way. I drank my ice cold drink, not the most appropriate given the ice cold weather, but tasty.

I got to walking once finished with my meal and quickly got picked up by a energetically and quirky kinda happy man who laughed at almost everything, a sincere in depth laugh with a wide smile, the first of which came when I told him I was going to Wyoming, another when he learned we were both named "Kenny", and so on. He took me just a little bit down the road, just shy of Denton.

I got picked up quickly from the spot by a backpacking enthusiast, he got me as far as Decatur, the crossroads town where I would switch roads yet again. I got picked up there just as the sun was going down by a guy called Calvin, he was with his sister and girlfriend. They weren't going way too far, Calvin started to think of different parks and whatnot I'd be able to sleep in.

They brought up the church, wondering why I hadn't asked them for help yet. He said I'd be able to go in the and probably get a bus ticket; he said he'd go in there from time to time to get help with his gas or rent money. His sister looked at me reassuringly, as if the churches did this all the time. They suggested I find a place to sleep and go to one in the morning and see what could be done, but as we pulled into town the big "mega" church was open and had some kind of service going on.

They continued convincing me, sensing I wasn't totally sold on the idea. They said some big so-and-so paid for most of the church, some local wealthy guy, and this church would for sure be able to help. They dropped me off and I figured it was worth a shot. The place was pretty massive, I walked in to see a couple kids running around and the brightly lit hallways with smiling people walking about, I was clearly the odd one out with my scruff and backpack looking awkward at the door.

A woman smiled at me and asked if she could help, I told her I was traveling and some people had suggested I talk to some preacher, priest or some such person. A guy about my age finally came over looking fairly busy, I explained that I was hitchhiking to Wyoming and people had told me they might be able to help with a bus ticket or something, it felt a bit ridiculous to ask. He told me they sometimes do that, but the powers that be weren't around, but he might be able to give me a few bucks and some food.

He took me to the cafeteria where he instructed the ladies to give me whatever I wanted and said he'd be right back. They loaded me up with bags of sandwiches, chips, cookies and bottled water. He came back, handed me $40 and apologized, the strangest thing. I thanked them and went on my way, back into the darkness towards the road.

I walked a mile or so to the edge of town, right then Calvin drove by, stopping when he saw me, "How'd it go?", he asked me. I told him what happened, he suggested using the money to stay in a motel the night and then hit up the other churches in the morning, I told him I'd consider it.

I stood in the streetlight a minute thumbing down cars, then climbed the hill the cheap looking motel. I asked how much for a room, $40 she said. I told her I might be back, she shouted, "thirty-two!" as I walked out. I went back down the hill to keep thumbing a ride. It was cold out, the idea of a warm place to sleep and shower in the morning sounded decent, but $32 can buy a good amount of beer too.

A guy picked me up who was going up the road a little ways. He was pretty much retired, but still had a job transporting auctioned off school buses to keep him busy. I picked his brain a bit about what to expect when looking to get a school bus of my own, it was an interesting ride. He dropped me off at a remote truck stop, the cold pushed me in quickly.

I made my way to the truckers lounge in the back where a woman was watching the TV. We got to talking a bit, she was heading in the opposite direction, she said she would have given me a ride otherwise. I ended up spending the whole night in sitting in the chair there, just about no one else came back to potentially get a ride form.

Just after 7am, when the sun starts to show up, I gathered myself and headed for the front. My first shot at the window revealed a whole mess of snow coming down, with a good amount already collected on the ground. I hadn't gotten much sleep, just quick nod outs in the chair while acting like I was awake to avoid being kicked out. I decided to grab some coffee at the adjacent diner to contemplate my next move, half hoping I'd get to talking to a trucker heading my direction.

I got through several cups of coffee, my only conversation was with the college girl waitress about my trip and her studies to be a teacher. She wouldn't let me pay for the coffee when I'd at last decided to go brave the storm. I went out into it, across the bridge and started down the icy ramp to the freeway. A pickup truck stopped for me, but only went a couple miles up the road to a crossing. I continued walking in the snowy shoulder of the road, thumb out to my side as I marched. I realized it would be pretty difficult for anyone to pullover, especially a truck that would without a doubt end up skidding off the road or getting stuck with any attempt.

After a good amount of walking, somebody stopped in the middle of the road and let me in. They got me just up to the next truck stop less than 5 miles up. I went into this one too for coffee, but the only people in there were local, just a couple of truckers too who were stuck and going the wrong direction anyhow. I slurped down a couple more cups, paid, and went across the street to try and thumb a ride. The cold wind and snow blew into my eyes making it difficult to even look at the oncoming cars, the ice on the road made it seem almost impossible for any of them to stop.

I went back into the diner, this time ordering some biscuits and gravy, along with more coffee. I gobbled it up and went through a few more cups, biding my time. No one was stopping into this truck stop, it seemed everyone was racing by before the roads would get even icier. All I was hearing was that this was a freak storm, and this part of Texas almost never gets snow, christmas eve and this day being about the only exceptions in a decade or more. I went out across the street again to thumb rides and waited longer until the cold and wind became enough, I headed back to the truck stop yet again.

This time I sat on the bench, I'd spent enough money on food and coffee already, no one seemed to mind. Eventually the man who owned the place came and started talking to me, loosely having heard my story that I told the waitress from before. He told me to come all the way in and that he'd get me a coffee or tea or whatever I wanted, back to the counter I went and started slurping down more coffee.

A different waitress came in to relieve the first, a loud talkative woman with obvious makeup, big black frizzy hair, she looked a bit like a gypsy. I ended up talking with her for hours, I was in that same diner long after the sun went down, all day. She played her own music from the jukebox, telling me about her Nashville days and how tough it was for her to break through being a woman. True to her gypsy appearance, she made fairly accurate assumptions about my past coupled with vague predictions about my future.

As the hours and cups of coffee went by, she started spinning ideas about where I could sleep that night. She wanted to let me stay with her, but wasn't sure how the family would react. She started making calls, first to the church, they'd apparently put people up during the big christmas eve storm. I got on the phone with the guy from the church, he said he wouldn't be able to put me up, that the last storm there'd been dozens of people stranded, but he couldn't justify just one.

He'd instead called the sheriff and arranged for him to give a ride to Wichita Falls to go to the shelter there. I agreed to that, a place to stay and a decent ride in the right direction, another 30 or 40 miles up the road. The sheriff came and scooped me up in pickup truck police cruiser. We first had to stop by a ditch where some car had skidded off the road, I waited in the car while he talked to them and the tow truck until they were pulled out and on their way.

We rode up while I questioned him about life as a cop, he told me stories of there local "SWAT" team, how they'd sometimes hike through the woods and roll up on meth houses and surround them, apparently the various drug houses were armed to the teeth with things like grenade launchers.

He dropped me off at the door to the shelter and waited until it opened up, then drove off. I'd never actually been to a shelter, this would be the first. The guy who opened the door pointed me down the hall to the window where I talked to the guy working there. I told him who I was, the sheriff had told me he called ahead and they were expecting me, they weren't and all the beds were full. He pulled out a sleeping mat and told me to set it up in a small room nearby, then come back and fill out some form.

I was somewhat happy, as it seemed I'd have my own space to myself for the night. As I began to write the info he wanted on a piece of paper back at the window, some commotion began. A drunk guy was babbling and the guy who worked there was telling him to calm down. The drunk insisted he'd settle down, but simply wanted to shake his hand, he extended his arm to him. One big bulky dude in sweats stared him down ready to restrain him it seemed. The guy who worked there threatened to call the police if he didn't leave, telling him he wasn't welcome. The drunk finally retreated, shouting obscenities as he began to cry and go for the door, what seemed like friends were consoling him and guiding him that way.

The window guy apologized saying that sort of thing doesn't usually happen, but now there was a bed open for me. I tried to say I was fine with the sleeping pad, but he insisted, showing me a locker to put my things and used his flashlight to show me the bed I would sleep on, as well as the bin of pajamas I should wear.

I crawled into bed and laid there, there was 20 to 30 others all in there on their beds too. All around me was a chorus bodily sounds - every type of snore, from wheezing to guttural, out of sync and randomly chiming in; hacking coughs that sounded like someone was throwing there back out in order to produce; peppered in were shameless farts that seemed to trigger others.

The bed, however, was comfortable and clean. I rested a while until I could drown out the sounds of all this with my thoughts, slowly fading in and out of sleep. In the middle of the night a tremendous pounding and shaking of the whole room woke me up, others too. I had not a clue what was going on, but from the few half awake angry grunts I determined it was someone at the front door trying like hell to get inside, whoever was in charge, the window man I suppose, seemed to be taking the "ignore it and it'll go away approach". So it continued quite a while, pounds, then the useless shaking and jiggling of the door knob; finally this too became white noise I managed to drown out, slipping into the recently elusive state of sleep.

I woke up later, perhaps on my own accord, it seemed like there was movement about. I was under the impression is something like morning, I wanted to get out of this place and on the road quickly. Many and most were still in bed, I got to the locker and was quickly out the door before anyone could stop me with any kind of checkout formalities that might have been required.

It was still quite dark out, between 5 and 6am I realized. I walked a bit in the direction of the road I needed to be on, a car stopped and rolled there window down, the guy asked me if I'd seen a schizophrenic guy walking around, I hadn't. He was looking to have someone buy cigarettes, I wasn't his guy, he drove on.

I stopped and pulled out one of the sandwiches from the church, munching it down as I got to the road I needed to be on, continuing to walk down it, passed the fork, and onward. It gradually got lighter, and a guy picked me up for a 10 mile ride up the road. I continued to walk, the sun peeking over the horizon now. I stopped a while along side the road at what I thought was a decent spot, but there weren't many cars on the road as of yet. I kept walking until I came upon a rest area with a few trucks parked, the sign at the front said "Don't pick up hitchhikers", I wondered who made such signs.

I walked to the exit of this rest area, threw down my bag, and started thumbing from there. A dietitian in a nice car picked me up, he was on his way to help at a hospital about an hour up the road. He dropped me off at the town up there and I got to walking again. The road went right through the small town, sidewalks instead of a shoulder, so I figured I'd have to walk clear across before finding a suitable spot to hitch my next ride.

As I passed a gas station, lost in thoughts that flow in a rhythmic walk, a guy got my attention, "Where you headed?", he asked. "Up towards Amarillo", I replied. Although this wasn't my destination, it was next major town I figured anyone would recognize, and while Jackson Hole Wyoming was my ultimate destination, I still wasn't sure on the route I'd end up on.

He thought for a second, "Well I'm going to Las Vegas just as quickly as I can, I think Amarillo is on the way". My eyes lit up, barely getting a thought out I replied, "Oh wow, hell yes, I mean to say Vegas is where I'm going, exactly where I'm going, Amarillo was just on the way, nice! Can I ride with you?"

He paid for his gas and we were on our way. The thing was, or what I'd thought at the time, was that my brother would be driving up from San Diego via I-15 to go to Jackson too, so I figured if I got to Vegas he'd be able to pick me up, so it was either get to Vegas by Saturday or somehow otherwise get to Jackson more directly. As I came to find out later, my brother had dropped his plans to go to Jackson, but this wouldn't end up mattering all that much in terms of me getting to Jackson myself.

The snowstorm that had me stuck in endless coffee mugs had now been my saving grace. This guy who'd just given me a ride was planning a a Vegas trip for his buddy's birthday, his two friends were already there and he'd flown out from Alabama, his connecting flight in Dallas had been canceled due to the storm, along with all flights. He'd ended up renting a van deciding to drive it instead. He was pretty down, it'd been hell in the airport trying to get a flight that wasn't flying, dealing with airlines and finally rental car places. The past night the GPS wasn't working due to the storm, and road signs were covered with snow with no safe places to even pull over and brush them off, stores closed which left nowhere to ask for directions. He'd ended up going deep in the wrong direction before finally getting back on track.

Once he perked up a bit about it we talked about all kinds of things. He'd just left his girlfriend of several years in Alabama, done with putting up with someone he didn't even care for, although had his fair share of good times with in the past. He wanted to move somewhere knew, ideas that stretched from Boston to San Diego.

We shot across the country, stopping minimally and efficiently fast. He wanted nothing more than to get to Vegas and start living; his friends had already gotten a night in with a limo and were going to a concert soon that he'd be missing too. We knocked out states, over the hoover dam, and finally to the lights of Vegas. I called ahead and cashed in a free room comp at the Luxor and booked the night, I had no become aware of my misunderstanding about my brother driving through town, I knew I'd have to continue hitchhiking in the morning.

The guy dropped me off at the Luxor, a few days later I'd discover I'd left my jacket, gloves and hat in his car. It was warm in Vegas, a nice change from the snowy Texas. I checked in and threw my stuff in the room, then headed down to the casino floor to pick up the promo chips that came with my stay. Along with those I had $50 in resort credit to use towards food or whatever else. I took the promo chips to the craps table, several field bets later I had real chips, I took those to the cashier and got money for them. I won a few bucks at video roulette as well, then headed for the diner.

I sipped on a beer and got a big meal, I'd ordered enough pizza to have enough left for breakfast as well. I went up to the room and passed out hard.

At 7am the phone rang and woke me up, I let it ring, not able to imagine anyone with anything good to say in this situation. Since I was up, I got up completely, taking a much needed warm shower and chowing about the rest of the pizza. I went back down to the casino to win a few more dollars at video roulette, then I wandered into one of the stores knowing I had twenty odd more dollars or credit left to burn. I picked out a bottle of Wild Turkey Bourbon, checked out, and was on my way.

Next step would be Salt Lake City, then on to Jackson.