The Amateur American Hobo: Washington, DC to the NC/TN Border (Part VI)

by macksemil

Bob and I got off the Chinatown bus in the heart of DC and started walking toward the capitol mall. The weather was overcast and muggy, the people in the city all looked very important. While we were in DC, I wanted to see the Smithsonian Museums. However, once we arrived at the mesuem of Natural History we were denied entry because we had camping knives in our backpacks. We asked about using the lockers in the lobby to put our bags away. Since these lockers were past the security checkpoint we were not allowed to go there to lock up our bags. Not wanting to hide our knives in the bushes outside, we were defeated in our quest and went to meet with a friend of my younger brother’s.

We met Lily on the street by the National Archives and sat on a little wall and talked. Lily was from DC and was about to head to India for a number of months. She let us lock our bags in her car and took us to see the Magna Carta and the Declaration of Independence in the Archives. After filing through lines past the laser-protected documents we retrieved our bags from the car and set off to walk around the rest of the monuments. The giant phallus of freedom (the Washington monument), the reflecting pool, the Lincoln Monument. The Lincoln Monument was a little eerie, I almost felt as if Lincoln was going to get up from his chair and throw a tantrum about the state of the union.

Bob and I walked around aimlessly as the sun set, weaving around groups of partying frat boys from a nearby college. As we were approaching the corner of a street, we noticed a man in a small white car who was watching us intently. Once we got closer to the corner the man quickly got out of the car and approached us. He was wearing a white dress shirt, black slacks and shoes, a sidearm and a badge. He introduced himself as being part of the secret service and started questioning us about our intentions in DC.

”Where are you guys going?”

”To the subway to meet a friend.”

We actually had set up a meeting with a contact in another part of town, and were headed back to the subway to go meet him.

”What are you doing in DC?”

”Just visiting.”

After asking us where we were from, how we got here, and where we were going he relaxed a little bit. We told him that we were headed to the Appalachian Trail after sightseeing and visiting friends in DC. Suddenly the reason why we had backpacks made sense to the agent and he eased up. He asked us if we had any weapons, explosives, firearms, etc and we responded in the negative. He told us that he was not concerned about our camping knives.

”OK, you guys have to realize where you’re at, just two blocks from the white house.”

”Oh really? Yeah, we had no idea.”

Sufficiently convinced that we were not terrorists, he told us that we were free to go. He got back in his car, said something into his radio and drove off. Since we were so close, we stopped to look at the white house. Eventually we did make it to the subway and to the stop to meet with a friend of a friend who was going to show us to a place to sleep for the night.

Upon meeting with Finn, he handed us each subway cards to use while we were in DC and we walked to a nearby park to visit. Finn worked a desk job in DC and did a side job working at a food co-op in the basement of the university nearby. He told us he could introduce us to the workers at the co-op and that we could most likely do a few hours of work for store credit. After a while Finn led us down a path through the woods in the dark. We came out into a meadow and back into another stand of trees. Finally, we arrived at a little shack in the woods that Finn had lived in for a little while the year prior.

Bob and I drank whiskey and exchanged stories and ideas with Finn. When Finn said he had started to develop a form of hobo kung-fu we laughed. Momentarily he was displaying precise and functional techniques that he had come up with. Finn was a creative and capable person, he had taken to crafting his own knives out of folded steel and had a long history of making a living creatively. He offered us a place to stay in his new house but Bob was already snoring away and I was cross-eyed drunk on whiskey so I decided that we should just sleep in the shack for the night. Finn told me to meet him at the food co-op in the afternoon and started his walk back through the woods in the dark. A train whistle sounded in the distance as I finished my cigarette and struggled through my inebriation to roll out my sleeping bag in the dirt.

The morning came with a headache, then opening my eyes. I got Bob up and we had a quick breakfast of whatever was in our bags. We then set off to find our way out of the woods that Finn had led us through the night before. After a half hour of wandering aimlessly Bob started whistling the tune of the “Lost Woods” song from Zelda. Unable to find the way we had come the night before, we found the railroad tracks and walked up those to the nearest grade crossing. We found our way to the busy streets surrounding the campus of the university and enjoyed some free chicken at a fast food place, using coupons that someone had left in the shack in the woods.

The food co-op was in the basement of the Memorial Union on campus. Finn introduced us to the manager on duty who had us put on aprons, scrub our hands and grab some knives and start chopping the hell out of green peppers. Bob and I cut up green peppers for the next two hours, listening to music and chatting lightly with the other workers in the kitchen. We left with 14$ worth of food each and a complimentary cup of coffee. We thanked Finn for all his help and left for the suburb of DC that we could catch a southbound freight from. A short time later we were on an outbound transit train toward Manassas, the last stop on the line.

It was getting to be dusk when we got to Manassas and we filed out of the station with all of the commuters who were headed to their cars in the adjacent Park-And-Ride lot. We put our cards with the remaining value on a sign at the entrance to the terminal and started walking up the road next to the station. Since the train wasn’t coming for another four hours or more, we sat on the banks of  a creek by the side of the road until it got properly dark. Right at midnight, a long intermodal train pulled in to get clearance at a signal. We had each drifted off to sleep until the train pulled in. Bob and I threw the few erroneous things into our bags and I climbed the ballast to the side of the train. Bob was still at the bottom of the ballast looking for something. Bob told me that he couldn’t find his glasses. We used my light to look around on the ground around where we were sitting. Before we found them, the airbrakes on the train charged back up and it slowly started rolling away from us. Soon after it left we found the glasses in the fallen leaves. We were in for a 24 hour wait for the next day’s train.

It was a slow day sitting in the bushes by the side of the tracks but at least it didn’t rain on us. The train pulled in the same time the next night, an we hustled down the side of the train and onto seperate piggyback trailers. After a minute or two waiting for clearance to proceed past the signal, the train aired up and started silently southward. The lights of the towns that we passed through in the night were few and far between. I slept for a few hours and woke up once we were racing through a larger town. It took a minute to find a sign that would tell me where we were. Eventually I found one and realized that we were passing through Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Since we were trying to go to Asheville, which was a bit east and not much more south of Winston-Salem I decided that we should get off at the next stop.

Once our train stopped not too much further down the line along what appeared to be a wooded corridor. I found Bob’s ride a few cars down the line and we walked back up the tracks the way we had come in. Soon we realized that the mainlines we had come in on ran parallel to a gigantic trainyard, Norfolk Southern’s Linnwood Yard. Thankfully there was a stand of trees between the poweful lights of the main yard and the mainlines we were walking along. There was only a short section of fifty or sixy yards that we had to take our chances on a sprint across an open section of track. We could only hope that the tower that we likened to the Eye of Mordor had its attention focused elsewhere. This turned out to be the case as we had no problems walking out off of railroad property a half mile further up the tracks.

We walked off of the gravel access road onto a desolate country road. We had no idea where we were in relation to the highway or anything else. Bob and I made an educated guess about which was the correct way which may as well have been random choice and started walking into the early morning hours. Some time later we found a pumphouse on the side of the road and decided to sleep behind it until daybreak having not had much encouragement that we were headed toward anything in particular. It felt like no time at all before we were groggily waking up to the pale morning light and putting our sleeping bags back in our backpacks. Once again, we started walking.

Eventually we came to the intersection of the small country road and Highway 52 and made a sign with sharpie and cardboard that read ”Charlotte,” taking a cue from a sign by the highway. Since it was only an hour’s drive away we thought we would be there by noon. Bob and I resumed our normal early morning hitch hiking routine, complaining about a lack of sleep and smoking cigarettes. Eventually a flatbed work truck pulled over on the shoulder. We ran up to the cab, and finding that it was full were told that we could sit in the back of the truck.  There were makeshift walls on the sides of the flatbed but no tailgate. Bob and I sat with our bags against the cab,  a chainsaw on either side, and continued down the road toward Charlotte.

After a pit stop to have one of the tires fixed and get breakfast at a dingy roadside diner, we were dropped off at another onramp a few miles away. The tree limbers wished us luck, heading on to Danville for a job. We took up our positons on the onramp of the highway again with our ”Charlotte” sign. A small red car pulled over after a wait, Bob climbed in the front and I sat in the back seat. The driver was an energetic lady with short curly red hair who looked to be in her early 50s. She introduced herself as Marge, ”Motormouth Marge.” To say that Marge was energetic would be a vast understatement. Marge was a source of constant, unrestrained and undirected energy.

”DO YOU KNOW MY FRIEND JESUS?!?” Was the first question she asked us after the usual formalities of giving two strangers a ride. Bob dodged the question masterfully. We soon learned that this was a special day for Marge. She was taking her youngest son to meet his biological father for the first time and she was so glad we could be there to share the moment with them. We could tell that Marge was a little bit out there from the first moment but this was taking things to a whole different level. In the time it took her to explain the situation to us, she convinced herself that we were going the wrong way and took an exit off the freeway to turn around. Bob and I couldn’t get a word in edgewise and didn’t know where we were anyway, but we managed to convince her once we pointed out the onramp that she picked us up at as we sped by in the opposite direction. Marge looked directly at Bob and yelled at the top of her ability ”TIME WARP!!!!”

Marge confessed to us that she had left her family stranded at a hotel in the area when she had taken the car at 4 in the morning. She had been driving around the countryside since then smoking pot. She pulled out a hymn book with the exclamation ”LET’S SING A SONG!!” Bob deftly suggested that I pick a song and handed the book to the back seat. Marge admitted to stealing the song book from her church. I leafted through the book for long enough for Bob to change the subject. Then I slid the book into the seat back pocket, without picking a song to sing. Marge told us that she was going to get puppies and name them after us because we embodied her hope. She kept ignoring phone calls from her husband at the hotel, saying that we were her priority and that she was going to take us to Charlotte first. This was, until we passed the sign for the Great Wolf Lodge, where her family was waiting for her.

She told us that her family would love us, and that we would just stop long enough to put everyone in the car and go the rest of the way into Charlotte, about 12 miles. We had our doubts but really wanted to get to Charlotte, so we ran with it. Bob and I left our bags in the car and followed Marge to a room on the first floor. She opened the door and walked in, having us push a luggage cart behind her. She introduced us to the room of icy stares as ”her friends who were here to help them pack.” ”I can pack my own bag,” her husband replied, his words laced with a mixture of wonder and anger. We turned on our heel and went to wait in the hall, it was obvously not a good situation, and her family obviously did not love us. Soon, Marge came back out to the hall and thanked us for knowing when to leave the room. I told her we would meet her at the car.

In the parking lot, Bob and I quickly agreed on two things. Not only was it impossible to fit all of us in the car, the situation had transitioned from an amusing sort of uncomfortable to a depressing variety. Thankfully her husband came out to the locked car before Marge did. I apologized for the situation and asked to get our bags out of the car. He agreed, timidly opening the car for us to retrieve our belongings and our cardboard sign. Bob and I promptly climbed a hill on the edge of the parking lot and hid in the bushes until we saw Marge and her family drive away. We climbed through the bushes to the road that took us to the nearest onramp. We may never know if Marge was actually that crazy or if we had chanced to meet her in the middle of an emotional breakdown that day, but at least she got us closer to Charlotte.

By the time we got picked up by a very straight laced guy in a silver minivan we were almost done laughing about how crazy our last ride had been. It was just a short way to Charlotte, once we turned onto the highway we could see the buildings of downtown in the distance. The guy was eerily quiet, not appearing to want to talk at all. Thankfully it was a short ways to Charlotte and he dropped us off on the edge of downtown. We slept in some bushes by an onramp in the ghetto, drinking malt liquor and eating fried chicken from a nearby Popeye’s.

In the morning we walked into town to try to use the internet and see what our options for getting to Asheville were. Finding the library closed, I threw my umbrella down in mock anger. The handle shattered all over the sidewalk as a passerby shouted ”damn, chill out man!” Bob helped me put the pieces into the trash can and we continued down the sidewalk through a crowd of drunken idiots who had just been released from a spots match. Once it started raining hard we decided that we would see if the Greyhound ticket to Asheville was manageable. Once we found the station we each forked out twenty dollars for the ticket on the bus that would leave in four hours. We drank up the luxury of feeling entitled to be in a space with a roof, a bathroom and benches until it got dark and the bus came. All of the tired looking, grungy riders filed in a single file line onto the bus.

Bob had taken a cross country Greyhound trip a few years prior and had a favorite row of seats in the very back of the bus that he wanted to get. We were the first two in line and Bob went directly to the back row which is three seats long and directly on top of the motor, heated from below. I sleep well in transit so I was content to recline in a single seat. Soon after the but left the station I struck up a conversation with a skinny kid with a ”Food Not Bombs” patch on his shoulder bag. I asked him if there was going to be a feed in Asheville since that was where we were going. We were going to miss the day he said, but introduced himself as Mike and offered to help us find a place to stay. After failing to reach his friend at a punk house in town, he told us that he would call his girlfriend and ask if we could stay at her place once we got closer to town. Then he excused himself to the bathroom.  I fell asleep. We were in Asheville when I woke up.

Mike’s girlfriend was a student at a nearby university and agreed to let us sleep on the floor in her dorm room for the night. We each took showers and I was granted the couch for the night while Bob slept with both of the sleeping mats on the floor. We woke up early in the morning and caught the bus into Asheville. The ground was wet from rain in the night and the sky was overcast. It was getting well into October and the fall was in full swing. Asheville is a beautiful little town, we had coffee at a local coffee shop and traded some of our books in at the attached bookstore.

I had always wanted to see the leaves change in a deciduous forest, and since we were in the area Bob and I had decided to do a 5 or 6 day hike on the Appalachian Trail to watch the leaves change colors. Just west and a little north of Asheville is a little town called Hot Springs, a distinguished ”trail town” hidden in the hills. We were to start our hike there and head south through the Smoky Mountains. Bob and I got on a city bus to the end of the line, a little town at the crossroads of two highways called Weaverville. We went into the Subway to split a sandwich and asked the worker there in which direction Hot Springs was. He had never heard of it. He had also been living in Weaverville his entire life.

After eating our sandwich, Bob and I walked to the highway and made our best guess about which way was the correct one. We got some funny looks from passing cars until we interpreted a few spirited points in the opposite direction as meaning that we were on the wrong side of the highway. Once we got to the other on ramp across the street, we held out our thumbs and our cardboard sign again. After twenty or thirty minutes, a big blue pickup stopped on the shoulder. We excitedly walked up to the cab, but the driver told us that we were again on the wrong track and pointed us down the rural road that continued on past the highway.

After only a few minutes walking down the road past the highways another pickup stopped for us. This time, we were in luck. The driver, an attractive lady in her late twenties, was driving right by Hot Springs on her way home. Her husband owned a green building company that was enjoying a boom in business. The two of them lived on a farm outside of Hot Springs up in the hills. When we got close to town she offered us a place to stay for a few nights at her place, or she would drop us off at the hot springs in Hot Springs. We didn’t realize when we made our choice that the camping and soaking would be over 50 dollars at the private springs. We kicked ourselves for our decision while we were drinking malt liquor under a strung up tent on a nearby service road trying to fall asleep in the rainstorm that had started up.

We stayed mostly dry through the night and the next morning. The rain didn’t let up until around noon when we packed up and headed back into town. We got some coffee at a restaurant right on the river in town and talked with a through hiker named “Bum Fuck Matty” who was taking another “zero day” in Hot Springs. Bob and I stopped in a little trail store for overpriced food, then headed out on the trail toward our first overnight stop at a little campground called Deer Park. It was a nice afternoon for a hike. Even though the air was cool we were soon hiking comfortably in our t-shirts. We ventured through the dripping wet tunnels that wound through rhododendron bushes and up winding switchbacks along ridges. At one point we crossed paths with a party of bear hunters with a pack of anxious young dogs. The fall foliage was somewhat disturbed by the torrent of rain in the last 24 hours, the most vibrant of the leaves were lying on the forest floor.

When we arrived at the Deer Park shelter we found it full of other hikers. We chatted for a moment but took to setting up a triangle tent with Bob’s tarp before it got dark. We had just enough light to make some food and go find water to filter before it got completely dark in the thick forest. We woke up in the early morning light and packed up camp. It was still before sunrise in the misty morning when we started further up the trail. Not long after we started up the trail the rain began to fall again. First slowly, as if only a heavy morning mist, then a little more persistently throughout the morning. By the time we reached the next shelter in the afternoon we were soaked. Thankfully we were prepared enough to keep our bags dry but ourselves and some of our belongings were soaked through.

We spent the afternoon eating, trying to warm up in our sleeping bags, and trying to find dry wood to start a fire. I had only brought a small wood stove for cooking which did us no good. Even by carving away the outer layers of sticks we were unable to collect any dry shavings to start a fire. Each of us took turns for a few hours until our thumbs were sore and there was a sizable pile of wet shavings strewn across the floor of the shelter. We hung some of our clothes and tarps to dry over the entrance of the shelter. Even though it was protected from the rain, the air was so humid that none of it dried in the least over the hours that we left them hanging.

Soon a group of three very well geared men in their early thirties stopped in to cook some food on their Jet Boil. In fifteen minutes they had eaten and continued on their way. Bob and I walked down to a stream nearby to filter some more water. When we got back I tried to warm up in my sleeping bag. I had spent most of the day unable to feel my feet and had on most of the dry clothes that I owned. Bob and I passed the time by reading, writing, drawing , playing cribbage, playing the harmonica and talking. We spent a cold and boring night at the shelter.

The next morning we were waiting to the rain to hold up a little bit in order to leave for the next shelter down the trail, a full 5 or 6 hour hike. A through hiker with a dog stopped to have a snack on his way toward Deer Park. He told us that it was not supposed to stop raining and that it was going to freeze the coming night. Bob and I decided to pull the plug on the hike for the moment at least and go to the closest place that we could warm up and get some hot food. We looked on our mile marker list for a road crossing but we were in dire straits. We were way back in the hills. It seemed that our only real option was to hike to a nearby service road and hope that through the afternoon there would be at least one car passing by that could take us to a bigger road, possibly even to a town. We didn’t have any real idea how far away we were from either.

We hiked for an hour or two toward the service road, we were half soaked with fresh rainwater by the time we reached it. Bob and I strung up a tarp between two trees to stand under and rest. On the small gravel road in the forest, a green sign was visible on the opposite side. It read “Leaving Tennessee.” We decided to take turns hitch hiking on the side of the road, the other person standing under the makeshift shelter to keep out of the rain. Bob and I agreed that whichever way the first car was going we would go as well.