I awoke after what was my last night in Canada, as I mentioned, I spent it with my long lost BFFL from the high school days, and we chilled out playing some street soccer in the snow, Big Lebowski and some bowls.(cereal of course)
Waking up, I immediately started to get my stuff together, and pack it all up, but packing differently, knowing there was a million% chance of Border cops ripping apart my shit. I hid all identification, papers and anything else tying me to filming or writing, including my business cards. I hid my cameras, memory cards and all other media ties under some dirty laundry, hoping it would deter even the most critical cop from rummaging through my shhtuff.(little tip when flying, hide anything you don't want to declare under the dirty dirties; most wont continue fondling your gear)
I even shaved my scruffyness clean off, (it had been over half a year since completely clean shaven) but ran out of cream and left the narstiest little goatee thing on, and I looked like an Irish sailor from the 1700s.
We got everything together, and I through it in the trunk of her 2-door VW.
We went and got some Timmy Ho's for breakfast before heading into the melting pot that is America, and my nerves on the way were a mess. I had to keep focusing on the Lady Gaga jams pumping from her iPod to keep the nerves down.
Ill explain why I was so nervous: 1. this trip is riding entirely on me entering and travelling through the US to get my boat across the pacific. 2. i was entering without a work visa. Canadians dont need one, but as a writer/filmmaker, i definitely needed one. 3 i had no plans, money or tools to prove i could sustain without resorting to negative policies, only me sharp mind you know... few more factors, maybe me being a big woose was one, but I was stressing (ask Lahey; it took several inspirational convos to diminish my fears of getting caught at the border)
So 'bad romance' by lady gaga was on repeat while we jammed approaching the border cross. After snapping my last photo of Canadian soil, we crossed the Niagara River, and approached the Border. My heart was in my stomach and my bollocks retracted well inside. I really was scarred shitless of anything.
As we pulled up, we pulled out our passports, and greeted the man in the booth. A portly, grey-haired man who's scowl was prevalent behind his burly grey moustache barked a deep 'hello' and asked for our IDs. Our story was that we were just going shopping for the afternoon in Buffalo and would be returning same day. She had done it dozens of times hassle free, and so had Lahey. It was a totally legit alibi, but we still had to convince the always suspicious guard. He asked who we were, where we were from and what we were doing.
"Anything to declare? Alcohol, tobacco, food?"
"No Sir" as we put on our best neutral faces. I think he could hear my heartbeat. Just as we had almost convinced him, the words I was dreading like a life sentence came out of his mouth like a heavy blanket.
"Can you open your trunk please?"
My heart dropped through the floor, and I had an immense rush of panic, fear, and I could see it all come crashing down. He'd see my bags, know one was not returning, and he'd pull us aside, interrogate us and that would be the end of this trip.
I muttered to them so he wouldn't hear that I was just a friend visiting from university, and I hadn't pulled out my bags yet, as we decided to go shopping right away.
"Who's bags are these?" from the rear of the car.
I poked my head out, and in my most confident, non chalant voice casually let him know they were mine, and I was just too lazy to pull them out before we decided to shop in the land of the cheap. He asked where I was from, and if I was also in school, as they had mentioned they were.
I lied and said I was a student, and was just visiting after a crappy week.
It was good enough for him, and he weeble-wobbled his way to his booth.
He punched in a few things into the computer, and handed us back our passports.
"Drive safe" was his next direction, and with that, we drove into US territory, past the lines of police cars and duty-free shops.
I don't know how on this friggen planet he did not see my sign. The trunk reeked of hitchhiker.
The buzz I was feeling was like a drug(dont do drugs children) and I couldn't believe he had bought it. Lahey turned around with that I-told-you-so look and it made me feel so happy I could have punched a baby. Lady Gaga never sounded so good.
Fist pumps and high fives, we drove through Buffalo and its grey clouds. You could immediately notice the difference to Canada; the small single houses neatly organized under massive American Flag poles, the Yankee corporate logos on all the skyscrapers, and of course the heart-attack inducing burger joints on every corner. They took me to the south side of the city, where I would be able to hitch on the I-95, the direct freeway to Florida.
It was borderline euphoric, as my trip was no longer in jeopardy, and that much closer to the million mile mark to Africa.
We passed what would be the first of many toll-booths along the way, and even the sight of another toll booth had me nervous, as it reminded me of the border, and it had just as many cops.
We pulled into the parking lot of a motel right off the I95. It had been a long time since I had seen Lahey, and now I wouldn't see him again until he probably knocked up some girl and got married(sorry for the low-blow man, I had to) as I would be on the road for a while and it was another goodbye I was dreading. I was bummed to leave him, the past 2 days were like a time warp to Gr 11 where we got up to our usual antics.
Brother from another mother.
I changed my boots and stood on American ground for the first time in a long time. I got my shit together, snapped a photo and our goodbyes. I thanked Ally for being a star and taking me across, I cant say I would have got in hitching with a stranger, or walking across the border alone.
Ally and Andrew!
After the hugs, and watching the last familiar faces I'm going to see for a very long time drive away, I made my way into the hotel lobby to re-organize my stuff for hitching.
As I walked in, a small Indian man behind the desk's mouth dropped at the sight of me.
"Addr jew heetchhhikinguh?"
'Yea man' and I told him in a nutshell the crazyness of my idea. He was just sitting behind the desk, watching Dr Phil in his slippers, and was blown away by the thought of my ambitions. While chatting with him and packing my things, he continued to ask questions, and when I told him I'm doing it without money, he didn't hesitate to pull out a 5er, and hand it to me.
I was blown away.
Seven and a half minutes and Ive already had a man give me money from his pocket, and the last time I checked, motel concierges were not on the 6figure income list. I kindly refused his generous offer, but he insisted. I couldn't believe it. He told me an Indian greeting to say while travelling through, and told me to be safe, as what I was doing was the most dangerous thing he had ever heard of. I quickly clarified walking across the street was equally as dangerous, but his rebuttal that I would be walking down the highway looking for strangers was worse. He had me beat.
I shook his hand and thanked the generous man, for he gave me his own money and we didn't even exchange formalities. I walked out of the warm motel into the cold New York air, and trudged on.....
I couldn't have been happier. It was then that it hit me I was finally in the States, southbound and down.
As I walked onto the on ramp I stuck my thumb out at the first car I saw, and it quickly swerved to the shoulder. My shit eating grin consumed my face and I think I even let out a little giggle -don't judge.
He waved me over to his window. Clay was a middle aged black man with a strong southern accent. He had gold jewelry and a cigarette in his mouth. He looked like Montel Williams.
"Sorry brother, its a company car" he declared, "but here take this." He stuck his hand into mine and handed me all the cash he pulled out of his wallet. I got that head rush sensation you get when you stand up too fast.
I told him I couldnt possibly take it, but he didnt let me say a word. He told me Jesus takes care of those in need, and he was only doing what Jesus would do. Im not a religious man, but its people like Clay, the motel man and the hundreds of others Ive met on the road who make this possible. He wished me luck, and I told him I will repay his kindness to someone else. His smile then matched mine, and he gave me his 'bro' handshake he does with his buddies. He told me to take care of myself, 'aight brodder' and sped off.
I remember standing there for a minute or two, dumbfounded as to what had just happened. It was a shock compared to what I was expecting.
I crammed the bills into a pocket, and trudged through the knee deep snow to the freeway. I think I was singing 'Poker face' as loud as I possibly could in pure adrenaline.
I climbed over the guard rail and stared at the traffic screaming past me. I had been in America all of 15 minutes, and had $15 in my pocket. With what may or may not have been a small erection, I headed down the I-95, dying to know what was coming next.
Well, lets just say the good vibes didnt last long.
I walked about 20 minutes into the winds and snow drifts without any luck, only a bunch of curious stares. I could hear their thoughts from inside the car; and they werent pleasant. It didnt matter, I just had enough spontaneous generosity to last the rest of the day.
It was then I heard a car screech behind me, and it didnt sound right.
I spun around to see the headlights of a State Trooper SUV crawl behind me, with two marine looking men glaring at me. Their piercing stares actually warmed me up, and its not because I broke into a sweat, their glares were so intense it drew heat.
As my nerves went into system overload, I quickly mustered a story in my head. As I approached their window, the story vanished as I was met by two very intimidating stares.
"What are you doing?"
The driver was the older cop; a chubby, crew-cut man with a tie and Trooper hat. The second was the young cop; equally crew cut and equally as pissed.
I told them I was just hitching, and was making sure to stay away from the white line.
"That dont matter, its illegal to be a pedestrian on state highways boy".
The young cop got out, and asked for some ID, and if I had anything on my persons(plural) to declare as a weapon. Normally, this would have been an easy no, but while hitching, I often carry a small folding pocket knife in my chest pocket for safety, and emergency situations. I told him 'no' and he smelled the lies. He asked again, and I told him in a very calm voice what I had. I told him Im going to reach for it slowly, and hand it to him. He literally put his hand on his gun, as if I was going to try to slash him to bits right then and there. I guess that's something only a hitcher would do, right?
I handed it to him and he awkwardly took it, opened it and inspected it. I almost wanted to crack a joke about me washing the blood off, but realized he probably didn't share my sense of humour.
I also handed him my passport which he passed to the older trooper.
"Niner Adam Telephone"....he called into the radio, reading my information in the cop alphabet they use.
"You ever been in trouble with the law?" he asked, staring through to the back of my head.
Knowing they dont have access to Canadian records, (even if they did only a few public intox's would have showed) I told him no, and I began to play the Mr Joe Outdoors role, and that I was beyond what they thought; a vagrant hitchhiker.
He was very attentive to my every movement, and was more nervous than a kid on the first day at a new school. He never once took his hand off the handle of his gun.
The older cop made room in the backseat, and told me to load my stuff.
Great, my first visit 'downtown' I thought.
I climbed aboard, and jumpy McJunior Cop kept his head on a swivel, anticipating my every move. There was no cage to separate us, and he had given me back my knife. There were also to massive shotguns unlocked sitting beside me, and it obviously filled his head with thoughts out of a DeNiro movie. I was also wearing a nylon shell jacket, and my every movement was amplified with that subtle scratchy noise the coats make. I think there was a Cops marathon on TV last night, because he kept looking back, like I was going to pump it and pull the trigger.
They then asked me what I was doing.
I quickly improvised a story and asked them if they had heard of couchsurfing.com. Thankfully they said no, and I embellished that it was a traveller site, which frequented meetings and I decided to hitch to this one. Satisfied with my answers, and calm, polite Canadian manner, they told me it was illegal to be doing what I was doing, and that I would have to hitch from an on ramp, the one I had just walked away from. They drove me back to the motel parking lot, and punched in all of my info. I sat in the back watching, and noticed that someone driving by had called and complained there was a hitcher on the road. That really bummed me out. I asked them a few questions to distract their somewhat intense inquiries, and it worked as they didn't really hassle me anymore. I even started to comment on how nice their truck was, and how cool it must be to be an American state trooper. I think it put their power-trip levels to an all time high, and they opened up and even cracked a few jokes about me being a crazy foreigner fearless of the cold.
They gave me back my passport, and told me they dont want to see me again. I told them the same and winked as I hopped out of the back of their car. It reeked of Old Spice and incompetency.
After hopping out, I walked across the parking lot into the motel and watched them drive away. I told my Indian friend what had happened and he smiled, but in disbelief. I shook his hand and thanked him again, and went right back out with the thumb.
The spot sucked, and people drove past me with very flabbergasted stares.
It was only about 15 minutes until a young blonde woman pulled up right in front of me, with a warm smile. She came from the opposite direction, which meant she had passed by me, and then turned around to pick me up.
She asked where I was going, and told her NYC. She said she could get me to a truck stop 30 mins down the I95, a good spot to hitch. I climbed into her small compact and off we went, my first hitch in America.
Jessica was a chef at an upscale restaurant in Buffalo, and was on her way to pick up her high-school aged son. She was extremely nice and had that subtle American drawl in her accent.
We talked the whole way, and she stopped at a house to pick up her son, Joseph. Joe was a cool kid, typical American boy and I think he was high. In fact, I know he had just finished blazing with his buddies, I have an eye for these things.
They took me to the Flying J and she gave me a big thing of Broccoli-Cheese soup from her restaurant. I thanked her, and gave her a hug, letting her know my appreciation.
Jessica and I!!
The sun was going down, and it would be hard to hitch, but I was in a busy truck port, and hoped to get a ride in a rig.
I walked into the stop, and was immediately hit with Nascar signs, jerky meat and glaring truckers. I realized I look like the backpacker I am, but it dawned on me I am now a backpacker in northern USA, where its about as common as a midget in the NBA.
I wandered through the rest stop a few times, asking every trucker if they were heading to the Big Apple. They all said no, and gave me very harsh looks when I approached. Its common practice when hitching in Canada, if you want a long haul ride, but its apparently not protocol in New York State.
I went to the truckers lounge, where there were about 7 bearded men, eyes glued to the cop drama on playing on the TV. I quietly sat in the corner, and ate the soup Jessica had given me. I noticed they would all keep peeking looks from their peripherals, possibly curious, or possibly offended I was in their turf. After about 20 mins of crappy TV acting, I piped up and asked if any of the gentleman were on their way to NYC. Not a one looked at me, and only one muttered a gravelly 'no'. Clearly these guys werent willing to help. and so I got my things together and left. Just as threw out my soup container, I noticed out of the corner of my eye they had all turned around and were staring at me. It was funnier than those old Miss Cleo commercials, as their social awkwardness was that of a truck driver. Oh wait.
I went outside and bummed a cigarette off a kid on his break, and struck up convo. I asked him if many hitchers pass through, and he told me almost never, especially in the winter. I continued asking every trucker walking by me, until one came out, and gave me a quick smile. I asked him for a lift, and he said he was going south. Even better. He was very hesitant, and it was only the fact I was Canadian, or at least not American he agreed to drive me.
Art was Canadian, from Collingwood Ont, and was just stopping to grab some snacks. I told him Ill be back with my bags, and he said to meet me at the white truck on the end.
He helped me bring my heavy bags into the cabin, and we shook hands.
Art was a portly man, with thinning hair and tiny little glasses. Despite being Canadian, every second word was 'git'(get) and 'oh yaaa' in a very southern tone. Art told me he had been trucking 9 years, and loved it, as it got him away from the wife and kids, and he needed a break from the 3 A.D.D. terrors back home. He told me a few stories about previous hitchers, almost all of them robbing him. He told me he once had a pregnant black teen girl pull a knife on him for his wallet, took it, and tucked the knife back into her purse as he kept driving.
Art was driving a load of salt from Chicago to Allentown Pennsylvania. It was about5 oclock and almost completely dark. As we motored into the first small town, I noticed the biggest building on the main strip to be nothing else but a gun shop.
Art then told me to open the fridge and grab us a pop, and he said "here boay, if yer in a truck ya need the true trucker snack" and he handed me a cold prepackaged corn dog on a stick. It was good, but an artery clogging calorie commune, dryer than a British Soap Opera.
We shot the shit about random stuff, and exchanged stories of the road. He gave me some advice on hitching the states, and told me to be careful of small towns, as theyre known for mixing booze with bullets.
Around midnight I started to doze in an out of sleep, and woke at the perfect moment to see the Scranton PA sign, and wondered if Jim Halpert, Pam Beasley, Michael Scott and the rest of the gang were nearby.
We pulled into Allentown around 2am, and I had been sleeping with my face pressed against the cold window. He told me he was going to go to the dropoff point, and said I could keep sleeping in the truck until delivery at 7am.
I was a little skeptical and the thought was kind of weird; to share the close quarters with a strange trucker. But then again, I was a strange hitcher carrying equal skeptism. I agreed, and he pulled into the loading bay. I was so exhausted, I passed out immediately in the chair.
I awoke a few times in the night, as Art lay sound asleep, snoring like a dumptruck in a tunnel. I moved to the 2 square feet of floor space and used my vest as a pillow and coat as a blanket. It was a truly awful sleep, and I awoke several times during the night. The thought of me being a good distance farther than I had anticipated for the day help me rest easier, and I needed it as the only heater was pointing down Arties nasal cavity.
My morning face after a restless night.
I beat the sunrise and woke with a few short hours of fetal position sleep. Art woke about half an hour later, and started to make us some peanut butter toast; a trucker and hitcher staple.
He then spent about 30mins unloading, and I got to catch a few minutes of precious shut-eye.
He climbed aboard, and radioed his next pickup. He also pulled out a bottle of Vodka, and took several huge gulps. His tolerance would make a German Viking blush.
"Git the heart going' ya know"
After a few minutes of TV watching while he waited to hear his next pickup. He told me he could take me to another truck stop, and radio a potential ride south.
As we drove through the snow covered Pennsylvania countryside, we pulled into a restuarant along the 95. After a few unsuccessful attempts at radioing a ride, it was time to part ways. He was heading back to Chi-town, and I thanked him for his trust, and generosity.
Art was an interesting man, he told me a few cool stories, like how he had never been in a fight, and how he recently got so drunk he flipped off his snowmobile onto his neck and blacked out. Art was more or less the man, and gave me a great start to my trip. Thanks for not killing me Arthur! Just kidding.
Art in action!
Day 1 in the states. $15 donated, a lovely hassle by the NY state Troopers, a lovely meal from the lovely Jessica, the lengthy ride into Pennsylvania with Artie, and all in just 24hrs.