“This day is suck” I texted my friend, lugging my heavy backpack back down the freeway on-ramp and eating one of a a dozen or so oranges I found on the side of the road.
I did not expect it to be very difficult to hitchhike the 6 hours from Billings, Montana to Rapid City, South Dakota. After an awesome night of West Coast Swing Dance lessons with my couchsurfing host and a breakfast of steel-cut oatmeal his mother made me for breakfast I was ready to get on the road. I started the day plucking my banjo at the gas station on the edge of town, spirits high.
It took about an hour for me to get anywhere, and I had started to lose hope. I wandered from the gas station down to the on-ramp, where I found a half dozen untouched donuts left by the side of the road (groundscore!) and was eating one of those when finally a huge semi-truck pulled to the side of the road and invited me in. New Experience #1: hitchhiking with a trucker. Bob, my driver, was a sweetheart, shy and quiet, and clearly loved his three kids. I kept him company for three hours and he told me about pulling pranks on other truck drivers, about the steep tickets you get for breaking some of the (frankly, nit-picky) rules, about his divorces. We had a great time together, and by the time he dropped me off in Buffalo, Wyoming, my spirits were high again.
Four hours later I was still on the side of the highway, in the middle of nowhere.
Watching cars drive by I started to lose it a little bit. This being my first day on the road alone, I was already anxious and lonely. I was pacing back and forth making up songs on the banjo about being stranded in Wyoming, crying a little bit when I got especially overwhelmed. I got a moment of relief when a college radio station called to interview Matthew and I about Fueling Dissent (check out Ears to the Ground tomorrow to hear the interview), but mostly I was just pacing and panicking.
After five hours waiting, I finally got picked up by C. Almost the first thing C says to me when I tell him I’m from California is that I should keep my opinions about oil, gas, and coal to myself, because there are people who will “disappear” you for speaking out against that stuff in a red state run on the fossil fuel industry.
‘What views?’ I ask. “I love fossil fuels.’ He nods, approvingly.
As we drive I see fracking wells dotting the horizon, oil and coal trains chugging along beside us, a huge open-pit coal mine (New Experience #2), and am overcome by a sense of loss. The infrastructure is hideous and the air is thick with pollution. But so many people have been drawn to Wyoming to work well-paying jobs extracting fossil fuels. Many of them have lost other jobs to recession, many of them are working to support families back home. It seems to me that capitalism drives both the poverty that leads some of these men to take tough and dangerous extraction jobs and the environmental degradation the work causes.
New Experience #3: I see wild antelope!!!
An hour down the road I was again dropped off on the side of the highway, breathing in the thick, toxic air. For the next hour I watched the sun set rapidly over the hills. Finally I gave up. I could see a church on the horizon and decided I would walk to it and try to sleep out on the porch. I pulled out my phone, ready to explain to my friend why this day was the worst hitchhiking day in memory. Mid text, S pulls over.
S is a safety instructor who teaches courses for workers in the oil, gas, and coal industry. Per C’s advice, I don’t mention my feelings about fossil fuels. As we drive I thrill him with tales of dumpster diving, hitchhiking, couchsurfing. He is really curious and enthusiastic, and can’t believe there is a whole network of people out there who just open their couches to strangers. He knows all the sights in South Dakota, and is heading to a small casino town in the Black Hills called Deadwood.
And thus, tonight, I am sleeping in a cheap hotel room in Deadwood (New Experience #4: I visit South Dakota), freshly showered, clothes freshly laundered, sipping orange juice and looking forward to crawling into bed with a book. Tomorrow Sam will pick me up from my hotel and take me on a scenic tour on his way into Rapid City.
Stay tuned for tales from South Dakota, which apparently has a huge tourism industry (go figure).