The Amateur American Hobo. The NC/TN Border to , Memphis, TN (Part VII)
Hoping for a ride on the gravel service road in the middle of the mountains was a bleak endeavor. Bob and I were flipping a coin on our direction, eager to get out of the rain and cold. A pickup truck passed us by, headed to North Carolina. I was forty or fifty paces from Bob, who was standing under the tarp we had strung up between two trees to keep one of us out of the rain while the other tried to thumb a ride on the road. The second car that came by was a grey SUV which slowed pensively then finally stopped. The driver rolled the window down. I explained the situation Bob and I were in. We were just two hikers unprepared to deal with the coming freeze trying to get to a town with a cheap motel that we could stay in for a night. They didn’t have a bunch of room and were headed to a funeral, but agreed to drive us to the nearest town. Bob and I sat with our packs and listened to the old man sitting in the back seat with us tell stories from a lifetime of living up in the mountains. His spirits were high despite the funeral and seemed to be happy to have someone new to talk to. Thus we descended from the mountains into Tennessee.
The first establishment was our exit from the SUV. A tiny gas station with an attached burger joint. We sat down inside and got some hot food, trying to cut conversation with the curious locals to the minimum that politeness required. After settling the bill we walked back out the front door and started walking up the road. We didn’t know the name of the town we were in, but we knew it was pretty backwoods from the state of the houses and the broken down semi trucks parked in front of them. About two miles up the road a guy in his front yard called out to us and offered us a ride. He offered to drive us to the highway on the edge of town, give us some food and let us use his phone to make any calls we needed to. We took him up on the ride, but declined the food and phone usage. The stocky thirty something benefactor put us in the back of his small blue pickup with an assortment of tools, hay bales and trash. As we cruised down the rural road he was talking with the other drivers on the CB radio mounted on his dash. When we arrived at the intersection with the highway he wished us luck and told us that his friend would be driving from the bar up the way to the interstate in an hour or two and he would pick us up we were still there. We gave him our thanks and took a few minutes to look around at the strange little hollow we had landed ourselves in before we started the routine of finding a piece of cardboard to use as a sign while thumbing our next ride.
On the intersection of the small road and the rural highway were a grouping of signs. The majority of them were for small baptist churches, but the one standout was for Hillbilly’s Music Barn. We walked to the other side of the highway, eastbound on the “Dixie Highway” toward Interstate 40. A small sedan picked us up and let us sit in the back, taking their young daughter to sit in the front. They were nice folks who had driven past us then turned around and come back to pick us up. Bob and I held a meandering polite and meaningless conversation with the family and we left the vehicle with a crayon drawing of the leaves falling by the little girl in the front seat.
Soon we had another ride in the back of an electrician’s van up toward Knoxville. He handed some plain McDonald’s hamburgers (no nothing, just meat and bread) to Bob and I, saying that he had to leave us better than he found us. I’m not sure that he accomplished the goal, but we happily ate the fast food hamburgers anyway. The electrician dropped us off at a little gas station, diner and motel combo establishment on the side of interstate 40 about 12 miles from Knoxville. Bob and I inquired in the motel and found out that a room was 35 dollars for a night, so we decided to spring for a room in order to take showers and dry our clothes out.
Soon the heater was cranked in the room with our belongings spread out on the beds, chairs and table. We each took a long hot shower and watched some hours of bad cable TV. Bob and I barely made the checkout time the next morning but left in much better spirits than we had been the day before. The day outside was gray, threatening rain. We walked to a good spot in the highway for cars to pull off at and stuck our thumbs out, hoping that our next ride would take us to Knoxville or beyond.
Soon a grey minivan pulled over and the guy driving offered us a ride to Knoxville. We had a pretty standard conversation with the extremely standard fellow on our way into the city. As it turned out we were less than twenty miles from downtown at the motel. Right before we turned into downtown the guy was offering us a place to stay at his house with concealed eagerness. On one condition, which he repeated many times in trying to convince us to come stay at his house: ”You know, if you’re cool.” Both Bob and I had a strange feeling about the guy so we took his phone number and promised to call if we got stuck in Nashville for the night. We got a quick cup of coffee at a cafe downtown, which was strangely deserted. Then we took a bus to the east edge of town and walked to the highway onramp. The fall had arrived, we each put on another layer after the first thirty minutes waiting for a ride. After an hour we had our gloves and hats on. It took nearly an hour and a half for us decide to start walking down the highway with our thumbs out.
We walked in the shoulder of the road for a mile with the cars and trucks passing us by. Up ahead the road narrowed and a sound wall rose up from the right side to shelter suburbia from the harsh drone of the interstate. The road also narrowed so that Bob and I had to walk single file down the shoulder next to a three foot barrier next to the sound wall. I opted to continue on the top of the barrier which was just wide enough to walk comfortably on. We thought that we would eventually get to where the highway widened out again. Up ahead Bob and I saw a sign that said “HIGHWAY PATROL NEXT EXIT.” Walking on the highway is illegal in most states and is usually something that highway patrol is pretty picky about. It is also a good excuse for those who protect and serve to hassle anyone that is dirty with a backpack. Sneaking past the highway patrol headquarters on the narrow stretch of road didn’t seem like a feasible idea. We were surprised that we hadn’t been stopped already. Up ahead a semi truck was pulled over with its hazard lights on. As we approached we guessed at what he was stopped for. Once we started walking past the cab on the barrier we found out, he called out as we were passing by to let us know that he had stopped for us. We got our packs into the cab, bob climbed in first and the driver put away the clipboard he was writing on. We started shuffling in and out of the first six or seven gears as we picked up speed on the shoulder, then merged with the rest of traffic and set out further west toward Nashville.
The driver was an interesting guy and a little young for a trucker. He told us that FOX news was his only source of media but that seemed to be due to a family feud as all other aspects of the guy made him seem like a hippy. He was in to music festivals and nudism, traveling with his young daughter during his time off in the summers to different events across the midwest. He was interested in our stories so we entertained him for a while. He told Bob and I stories about people he had picked up hitch hiking previously. The sun went down and we continued westward. At a small truck stop not far from Nashville we hopped out of the cab of the truck with our bags, thanking the driver. Bob and I were instantly aware of how cold it was outside with white frost covering everything and the crunching of frozen grass under our feet. We decided to get another cheap hotel room for the night near the truck stop. Each with fifteen dollars less we had a comfortable night in the hotel room drinking some cheap beer and watching bad cable television. In the morning we left early, the frost was still there from the night before but the day was clear and bright. The frost soon melted as we walked along the road up to the highway onramp. With our thumbs out and a sign that read ‘Nashville’ we set out to find another ride under the bright blue Tennessee morning sky.
Before long another traveler walked down the highway shoulder and gave us a wave. Due to waking up early, we had beaten him to the onramp and had priority for the first ride. He was an older tramp with a scraggly beard and seemed to be missing most of his teeth. He called himself Red and after chatting for a few minutes he retired to sitting in the sun about 30 yards away in a small clearing between the onramp and the highway strumming his guitar. An hour passed while Bob and I stood on the highway entrance waking up; no drivers had even looked twice at us. It was under thirty miles to Nashville but it was beginning to seem as if it may take all day to get to the city.
Soon Red came back over the grassy slope and wanted to chat. What he really wanted was some pot to smoke, but we disappointed him by confessing truthfully that we had none to offer. He persisted, believing that we were holding out on him, the whole time standing about two feet out into the lane of traffic so that the cars entering the highway had to swerve to avoid hitting the old tramp. Eventually he realized that even if we had pot we weren’t going to cough it up and sauntered back to his pack on the other side of the decline. With Red gone, the traffic was free to move normally and soon a beat up silver van pulled over to let us in. Bob made the connection that we had seen this van in the parking lot of the motel we stayed at the night before. It turned out that these folks had stayed at the same cheap motel as.
Our drivers were apparently living in the van. Bob and I sat on the end of the bed that was built in to the back and were almost immediately passed back a half-gallon of cheap vodka and told to take a pull. Up front sat a middle aged couple. The woman was driving and the man was obviously intoxicated despite the early hour. Bob and I introduced ourselves and the couple told us that they were only driving about 12 miles further up the road to a place where they could panhandle. This halved our distance to Nashville. The lady driving was more or less silent the whole time but our other host was talkative yet sullen. His father was a successful country singer but never gave him a dime or a leg up in the industry. He himself was a country songwriter with a tape of a friend of his playing a song he had written about the times when people “remembered the vows they had taken.” Slurring along with the song intermittently he told us that his career as a songwriter had been a bust. Furthermore, damn it, it’s hard for honest simple folk to make a living any more. Soon we pulled off the highway to a gas station where we were let out of the car. The man in the van was left with his bottle of vodka, thoughts and most likely a lengthy drunken nap while the small grey haired lady parked the van and walked out to the offramp with a cardboard sign to panhandle. In the time that Bob and I were waiting for a ride with our cardboard sign on the onramp just opposite of her it seemed that she made a killing with passing motorists frequently stopping to hand bills through cracked car windows.
Bob and I consumed a whole package of beef jerky waiting for the next ride. We took turns holding the sign and reading which made the wait not seem as long. Eventually a matte green jacked up jeep pulled over and a young clean cut guy waved us in. He was headed to town and didn’t have anything better to do so he thought he’d drive us into Nashville. We found out on the ride that our driver had been in active duty in the army recently but every other question about the subject was coldly deflected. Bob and I got the hint after a few tries and let that alone for the rest of the time. The driver decided to take us out to lunch when we got to town at a nice little place in a busy part of town. We each got a sandwich and a few beers and Bob and I answered a lot of questions about what life on the road was like. The guy was pretty interested in what it was like to live out of a backpack and hitch rides and said that he had been thinking of just up and leaving town lately. After lunch we got a ride from him downtown to the bus station and got on a bus to the west edge of town by the highway. Wanting to keep heading west and knowing the rural and suburban edges of cities to be much more peaceful places to sleep than urban down-towns we elected to just head out there and find some beer and a nice place to lay down for the night.
It took a little bit of walking around to find our spot for the night but eventually we chanced upon a real good one. A single tree in the middle of a large field. The cars and trucks on the interstate highway rattled past constantly about 100 yards to the north. To the south was a fairly major rural route that was after a sharp but small hill which hid us from the headlights of passing vehicles. Once we rolled out our gear and had a smoke I walked to the convenience store and bought some beer. It was a brisk, clear night and despite the street lights we could make out some patchwork constellations in the deep blue above. As soon as we got buzzed up we called a bunch of friends with our cell phones. Test driving our southern accents and phrases we did what all good tramps do once the sun goes down; drink, smoke cigarettes, bullshit and eventually fall into a slumber deep enough to allow most disturbances to pass unnoticed.
The next day as well was clear with blue skies, still brisk. We groggily woke up and got out of our sleeping bags to pack up and look for the nearest onramp to the interstate. After putting our empty cans under the bridge by a homebum camp we hiked a few miles up the road we were on in the direction which we believed to be west. On the way out we spotted a Cracker Barrel and couldn’t resist a greasy hangover breakfast. Bob and I split a huge breakfast. We marveled at a very large man a few tables over eating the same breakfast to himself just moments after we expressed our disbelief that the feat could be possible. At most restaurants they bring you some complimentary minor food item in abundance, like the bread at Olive Garden. At the Cracker Barrel they bring you complimentary biscuits and gravy. As much as you want. It ended up only being about 6 dollars each to have the best breakfast that Bob and I had since we could remember at that point.
With renewed energy we hiked further up the road and decided to stop in at a local tire shop to ask for directions. I watched Bob’s bag while he asked the guys who apparently treated him as if he had come another planet. We did find out from them that we were headed in the wrong direction yet not too far from an onramp. Once we finally found it, we were disappointed. It was a tiny little thing with no shoulder, a sharp curve and guardrails on the sides of the road. The kind of onramp that is not only difficult to hitch hike from but dangerous for drivers to stop on if they do decide to offer a ride. I wanted to try for another onramp but Bob convinced me to at least stay and give it a shot for a few hours before we abandoned the place. We found a discarded piece of cardboard in the bushes and made a laughably terrible sign for what we thought was an exit with a truckstop a ways up the highway. Being hungover, kicking rocks around and digesting our greasy spoon breakfast took some of the nervous energy out of hitch hiking. We must have looked like two guys that didn’t really care whether they got a ride or not. We did.
Bob and I weren’t disappointed. Soon a small grey and green Chevy pickup pulled over with enough room for us in the front if we put our bags in the back. He agreed to take us to the exit number on our sign. When we passed the mile marker we told him with no visible exit we had to admit that we didn’t really know where we were and were just headed west. He was a friendly guy who told us a lot about the area’s forests, hunting, urban development and the social offerings of central Tennessee. We made a pit stop for him to pick up a sheet of glass to put in the back of his truck. He was a glass cutter headed out west of Nashville on a work call. Once we asked he agreed to take us to as far west on the interstate as he was going which left us at a small truck stop next to a giant billboard for the Loretta Lynn theme park. Apparently this was near where the famous country star was born and raised and they were cashing in on her fame with a theme park. Bob and I decided without much deliberation to skip the attraction and made a new sign that read Memphis, still a considerable distance away.
In only about twenty minutes a tiny blue pickup pulled up to the curb that we were standing at outside of the exit from the truck stop. There were two women in the front of the miniscule truck but we were welcome to ride in the bed if we wanted to. In fact they were headed in to the gas station so we went with them and they bought us each a soda for the ride. The ladies said they were going all the way to Memphis. In fact, if we wanted to go all the way with them, we could have gotten a ride as far as Fort Hood Texas. One of the ladies was going there to visit her son who was in the marines about to be deployed to Iraq despite her parole which barred her from leaving the state of Tennessee. Bob and I declined the ride into Texas having mapped out what we believed to be a solid plan for catching a westbound freight train out of Memphis. Soon we were questioning our safety priorities tearing down the interstate in the pint sized pickup trick with a plastic bed lining and no tailgate. Whenever we accelerated significantly there wasn’t much friction from the plastic lining to stop one from slipping toward the pavement rushing by. Both Bob and I had one hand gripping a solid anchor the whole ride and were thus only catapulted into a life threatening situation once when our driver nearly sideswiped another vehicle. After five hours both Bob and I were very glad to see the city limits of Memphis creep toward us. Our drivers took a quick detour to drop us off somewhat close to downtown.
We hopped out of the bed in the little blue pickup after tossing our bags onto the sidewalk by the stoplight. Just like that the two women sped back to the on ramp and on their way to Texas. We were East of downtown Memphis somewhere, and decided to walk to a main street and get on a bus to downtown. We walked by projects that were fenced in like a minimum security prison and little Asian food markets where the cashiers were hidden behind tall counters and plexiglass barriers. Eventually we found the bus line that took us downtown. Excited for our next leg of train adventuring, we got some food and water and walked down to the area along the tracks just east of the rail bridge over the Mississippi river, where many trains stopped for clearance to proceed or sided for periods of time. Midnight was supposed to bring a frenzy of train activity so Bob and I found a comfy out of the way spot to wait in the bushes by the tracks and watched the evening set in. Soon night fell and the now foreign sounds of the big city echoed through the industrial zone by the railroad tracks like rocks tumbling down canyon walls.