“We’ve Been Getting A Lot of Calls About You”: Mark Baumer Hitchhikes the USA
Beginning on March 26, writer Mark Baumer began his trek to hitchhike from Rhode Island to Los Angeles, California for the annual AWP Conference. He had a dream and a book to sell. Here are his experiences with highways, bugs, and America.
March 26, 2016
I left the house at 2:30 and walked to the Douglas Ave highway on ramp. It felt weird. I held out my thumb. Some people laughed. A few yelled. One guy stopped and asked if I wanted a ride to the Providence Mall. I declined. Ten minutes passed. A truck stopped. I climbed in. The driver asked if I knew where the man’s club was. I told him I didn’t know. He said he liked Thailand. I asked him what he did for work. He said, “I collect scrap metal.” A few minutes later he let me out. I walked across the street to another on ramp. People seemed confused why I was standing with my thumb out. I held a sign that said “South.” A car stopped.
The driver said he had come from the hospital. His coworker was 400 pounds overweight and probably going to die. I rode with this man to the malls in Warwick. He dropped me off on the side of the highway. I walked through the woods until I found a good place to stand. Everyone leaving the malls seemed scared of me.
Eventually a slightly drunk woman stopped and said, “I don’t pick up hitchhikers” before letting me in the car. She was on her way to a blind date in Newport. I got out where the highway split. While I was waiting at the next on ramp I saw two men in fast food restaurant uniforms walk past me on their way to work. Someone eventually stopped and let me in his automobile. He kept laughing after everything he said. I told him I was on my way to Los Angeles. He seemed confused and said, “but Los Angeles isn’t in Rhode Island.” I nodded. He asked why I was going. I tried to explain I had a small press book coming out. He didn’t grasp the concept of small press books. The on ramp he left me at was very lonely. Very few cars passed. I went in the woods and looked at some pine needles while I peed. I think this was Coventry Rhode Island. After a half hour I got tired of holding out my arm. A truck pulling a racecar approached. I noticed the license plate said “new jersey.” I waved. The truck slowed and stopped. I was on my way to New Jersey with Gary and Joe.
One was a father. The other was a son. Gary laughed when I told him I was going to Los Angeles and then he laughed again when I told him I was going because my small press book was being released. The majority of America does not understand small press books. Gary kept saying, “You’re going to be a best seller.” Someone called. Gary shouted, “I picked up a hitchhiker.” An hour later we stopped at a rest area. The fast food restaurant flags were at half mass. Gary asked if I wanted and sandwiches. I tried to think of a way to explain how i probably wouldn’t eat anything in that rest area. Instead i shook my head. When we got back in the truck Joe and Gary talked about racecars. Joe then talked about how his friend got drunk and partially cut off a finger. Not much else happened for the hour. I sat in the extended cab of the truck and didn’t say much. Sometimes Gary would tell me to quiet down and then laugh. We ended up missing a turn. Instead of driving around New York City we were going to drive though it. There was a large bridge. Gary told me to take a picture.
After I was done with the picture, we were in New Jersey. It was dark. Gary asked if I was going to hitchhike in the dark. I shrugged. He pulled off the highway. The truck slowed. I climbed out. Gary told me to send him a book. I said “okay” and got his address. He laughed and said, “It’s going to be a bestseller.” After he drove away I saw a motel across the street called “Wayne Inn.” The lady behind the desk asked if I wanted one or two beds. I said, “One is fine.”
Please preorder my bestselling book Holiday Meat.
March 27, 2016
This morning, I went down to the motel lobby to see if there was any fruit in the continental breakfast. I only found a plate with three donuts on it. I went back to my room. There was a bug on the sheets. I took a picture of it and went to the front desk to ask for a refund. The clerk said, “No refund.”
We walked back to my room. I showed him the bug. He said, “Okay refund, but you must have brought it into the room.” I left the motel.
All the sushi at the steakhouse next to the motel was 50% off. Ten minutes later I was in someone’s automobile. He did audio for the NBC news. This ride did not last very long. I began walking on Route 80. The next ridewas in a broken red automobile owned by a guy named Bill. He talked about fishing and war. A half hour, later I was at a new on ramp. Not many cars were using it. An hour passed.
Some cops showed up. They told me I wasn’t allowed to hitchhike. One of them turned off his recorder and said “I don’t care if you hitchhike, but we’ve been getting a lot of calls about you. Another cop said, “We’ll bring you to the train station.” I got put in the back of a cop car. They drove me east on Route 80. I was backtracking.
At the train station, I noticed there were no holiday trains. I walked across the street to the Quik-something. I sat outside with a sign that “Anyone Going West?” Five hours passed. No one offered me a ride. I walked to an on ramp. For an hour, nothing happened. Then a couple pulled up. They had seen me earlier at the Quik-something. One was named Bryan. The other was not named Bryan. I got in their car. An hour later, I was at a truck stop. Before I got out of the car Bryan gave me $20. I went in the truck stop and bought a cup of fruit. I was only 4 miles from the Pennsylvania border. Two hours passed. I was still at the truck stop. No one wanted to pick me up.
It got dark. There was a motel up the road. I began asking people inside the truck stop for a ride to the motel. One guy pretended he didn’t own a car. Around nine, someone finally agreed. He said, “As long as you don’t mind my dog Peanut.” Ten minutes later I was no longer in New Jersey.
March 28, 2016
I could hear the rain before I got up. The cars passing in the street sounded wet. Before I walked to the on ramp, I went to Price Rite and bought kale, floss, and dates. It was raining. I got a little wet. Some of the raindrops stopped. I danced a little. Most of the cars ignored me. The ones that didn’t seemed too busy to stop. I thought about eating everything in my bag. A truck pulled over. He was on his way home. Work had been canceled. He worked in New York City. One time he helped build the thing that replaced the other thing that had collapsed. He was a union worker.
Before he dropped me off, he told me about the time someone in his union stole 100 million dollars. I got out near a strip mall. Almost all the stores were for people who don’t pickup hitchhikers. Like every other time I’ve been on an on ramp, I was essentially alone with my thoughts. An hour passed. When I got into the next car, I found a large bearded man. He said, “I once hitchhiked to New Orleans.” A common trend is developing. The drivers who stop have usually hitchhiked themselves. Sometimes when I’m in a car, I get nervous because I’m not sure what to say to the driver. After a half hour he dropped me off at a semi-deserted on ramp. I ate two bananas. For an hour I stood on the on ramp. Four cars passed. I decided to walk down to the highway and hold out my thumb there.
After another hour with no luck. I decided I would walk back up the on ramp and go to a gas station. Instead of leaving the highway I decided to count to 100. As I neared 100 I began to walk up the on ramp. For some reason, I turned around. A car had pulled over. I ran towards it. The driver said he was driving up the road for about 200 miles. One of his hands didn’t work. He used the other hand to smoke. The driver mostly talked about his dead wife and mountain lions. A few times he had to take morphine for the dead hand.
After two hundred miles there wasn’t much to talk about. He dropped me off at a salad bar. I ate 4 plates of salad. When I tried to pay, the waitress said someone had already paid. I went outside. It was dark and windy. Two pastors picked me up. They had met at a powwow. One of the pastors didn’t believe in religion. They lived in an off grid house with solar panels. We got on the topic of heroin. The pastor who didn’t believe in religion said one of the cooks at the salad bar had recently overdosed.
March 30, 2016
7 Hours Ago
I ate nine bananas, three oranges, and an apple before leaving the motel. When I got to the highway I took out a sign. On one side it said, “Cleveland or Los Angeles.” On the other side it said, “West ☺.” I knew if I wanted to reach Los Angeles by Thursday, I probably needed to find a ride longer than any ride I’ve ever found.
The on ramp had a wide shoulder. There was plenty of space for me and the vehicles. But like any place on earth, I guess technically I could die here.
I had been waiting for less than ten minutes when a police car pulled up. The officer treated me like all the officers on the trip had so far: a white heterosexual male. As a friend said in a text the night before, “You’ve only made it to Pennsylvania but you’ve probably made it farther than you would have if you weren’t you.” My privilege has been very real.
After the officer checked my ID he told me it was illegal to hitchhike not only on the highway but anywhere in Pennsylvania, though nothing would stop me from asking people for rides outside a gas station. I imagined talking to someone so good they drove me in their car until their car drowned in the Pacific Ocean, but instead of talking good to people I ended up asking weird questions like, “Can I touch your empty seat?” Apparently people don’t like to be asked if their emptiness can be touched. Talking to strangers soon became discouraging, so I went to Wal-mart and lay down on the linoleum. Then I went to McDonald’s and lay down on a table. Lastly I walked into a Perkins restaurant and then walked out. In each of these places I imagined making a speech so good people started throwing their car keys and money at me. In my head these speeches involved me saying things like, “please take this opportunity to help me become a really good human.”
Instead of speeches I didn’t do anything. It was already noon. I began walking up the road. Hitchhiking to Los Angeles now seemed unlikely. I began to think about alternatives. Outside a grocery store I found a dead rabbit in the grass. I went inside and bought sauerkraut and mini cucumbers. I ate both as I walked back to the gas station. Before I began asking people for rides again I sat on a rock and meditated. Some of my thoughts stopped being thoughts. My desires softened. I stopped caring. The interactions I was forcing on people seemed less important. I asked one guy if he could drive me to the North Pole. He didn’t say anything and quickly walked to his car. The gas station seemed hopeless. I decided to return to the highway. Part of me wanted to remove all my clothes. Instead, I put out a thumb and held up my sign. Less than ten minutes had passed when another cop car pulled up. It was a different cop. He told me all the things the previous cop had told me and I pretended I was hearing these things for the first time.
As I walked back to the gas station I began to doubt whether I would ever make it out of Pennsylvania. Someone was changing the trash bags next to the gas pumps. Car after car pulled in and minutes later pulled out. I thought about getting a job at Arby’s across the street and never leaving. A blue Toyota pulled into the gas station. The license plate said New York. I tried not to be weird when I asked for a ride. The thirty-ish white male said, “Give me a second,” and went inside the gas station. When he came out he asked where I was going. I said Cleveland. He nodded and said “Okay.” Matt didn’t really talk much. He mostly looked at his phone as he drove and kept changing the radio station. When he found a song he liked he said, “Yeah,” and turned up the volume. The radio kept getting louder and louder. At one point I tried to ask Matt what he did and he just said, “I don’t know.” As we got near Cleveland he asked where I wanted to go. I shrugged and said the airport.
The first thing I noticed when I went inside was all the babies. Everyone had a baby. I had forgotten babies existed. Part of me wanted to run away from the airport and maybe never get to Los Angeles but I bought a ticket, got on a plane, and went to LA.