Across the USA (part 2)

Unable to find a ride further west I spent a cold night in the nearby woodland. The numerous ‘NO TRESPASSING’ signs I encountered would throughout my journey continue to serve as a reminder of the strong sense of property rights in the United States .

In the morning after about an hour of waiting a state trooper pulled over. My first reaction was fear and annoyance; I knew hitchhiking was illegal in New Jersey. I wasn’t so much scared of legal repercussions but more so for the logistic hassle of not being allowed to hitchhike on. The cop however turned out to be very lenient and allowed me to continue hitchhiking, though he seemed very skeptical of my chances to get a ride. Not even ten minutes later Erik halted his truck next to me and invited me to join him in driving about 160 miles west.

The first ride of the day is always an important one for my mood, which picked up right away. I enjoyed Erik’s company, we talked spirituality and I had the possibility of heating up inside the comfortable truck. When he proposed I abandon my plans of hitching straight west but instead join him for a bit longer and head on the I-81 through Tennessee I didn’t need much convincing. Warm weather loomed! Just before the Maryland border I was on my own again.

Noon came and went. The weather unchanged; cold and windy. For three hours I stood at the on-ramp next to the truck stop. In that time multiple people stopped, all only going to the next town. I decided it wasn’t worth leaving my precious truck stop and kept hoping for that one long ride. A woman came up to me and gave me some change to ‘get myself a warm coffee’. I was baffled by this selfless gesture and couldn’t make sense of all the monetary help and food I’d received so far and would continue to be given during my entire hitch across, when there was such a reluctance to give me a ride. Later it dawned on me that the American culture seems to be one of fear and distrust of strangers. Giving money is a way of helping that does not require much personal risk, whereas giving a ride is. It made me admire the few free-thinking people that broke out of this paradigm and did invite me into their vehicles.

Finally a guy stopped and said he was heading to Hagarstown, Maryland, about 30 miles away. Though not ideal I was ready for a change of scenery and accepted. Kirk proceeded to initiate me in the concept of drive-through coffee at the local Dunkin’ Donuts. The 20 fl. oz. (600ml) coffee made my head feel like there were a dozen kids jumping on trampolines inside of it.

Fueled by this surge of energy I spent the next two hours enthusiastically flagging down cars. Though the spot was average I didn’t feel a care in the world and felt as free as ever, seeing possibilities not problems. The multitude of experiences this day and the day before lead to me being overcome by a total acceptance of whatever would be thrown at me. Whether through my enthusiasm or just sheer luck I don’t know, but suddenly a truck pulled over and I had gotten myself a ride to North Carolina with Johnny.

Johnny was a middle-aged trucker with eight kids. He owned his own transport company but liked driving trucks too much to give up on it. We joined ways for 270 miles. By now it was getting dark and I noticed my tiredness from a day out in the cold. Johnny offered me his bed in the back of the cabin, which I politely declined at first. He repeated his offer a few times and I felt he was genuine, so I laid myself to rest and had a few wonderful warm hours of sleep, waking up only from sudden speed changes or bumps in the road. It reminded me of the times I’d been crammed into a tiny bed of a night train joggling its way toward a faraway destination.

In the morning I had not expected at all to make it as far as the western tip of Virginia, but here I was. The only thing unchanged was the temperature; even colder than the night before. I snuck into the heated trucker lounge, best described as a mini-cinema with comfortable armchairs, bright ceiling lamps and a blaring wide-screen television that continued all throughout the night. The space was warm though, and of all things that’s what mattered most to me that night. After securing my backpack, putting a leg and an arm through the straps, it did not take me long to fall asleep.

kind regards, -Pea Patch Gun Club.
An on-ramp in Maryland.

Across the USA (part 1)

The car came to a halt. Excited I ran up to the rolled-down window where an Orthodox Jewish-looking man sat behind the wheel. In an almost wordless conversation, gesturing more by hand and phone, he made it clear to me he didn’t stop to give me a ride. He just wanted to take my picture. I guess it’s not every day you see a hitchhiker in front of the Manhattan Holland Tunnel flying a ‘San Diego’ sign, but I hadn’t anticipated attracting so much attention in this city made up of anomalies. The encounter shrunk my confidence of getting a ride, and indeed shortly after the police pulled over and told me to move because “hitchhiking is illegal in the whole city of New York.” Off to a good start!

The plan was simple enough; hitch from NYC to San Diego as fast as possible. Most important reason: I missed Devin and longed to reconnect with her. I knew she was waiting there for me in the SoCal sunshine. Next to that, escaping the cold weather I’d been traveling around in since traveling the UK in September also sounded very appealing.

I had no idea how long it would take me to hitch across, but enjoyed the thought of traversing such an enormous stretch of land while pushing my physical and mental boundaries. I anticipated lots of walking, cold nights, interesting rides and little sleep.

Being shooed from my fantastic spot in Manhattan, I cut my losses and took a train 50 miles west. One ticket away from the big city, please. At the train station in a tiny town called Annandale suddenly everything had changed. Skyscrapers, fashionable hipsters, and ditto cars had given way to white picket fences, front porches sporting rocking chairs, and pick-up trucks. One of the latter pulled over as I walked down to the Interstate. From inside an old man with an impressive gray beard shouted:

Do you need a ride? I’m heading west for 20 miles, to Allentown!”

Feeling lucky for the first time that day I got in the truck, where a sense of exhilaration came over me; on my way West at last.

Manhattan Mountains

The next day I wandered the streets of Manhattan. Dwarfed by the abundance of towering skyscrapers left and right, I felt as if I had entered an urban mountain range and was walking through its valleys, gazing up at the peaks far above me. This mountain range however was different. Its peaks were not accessible to everyone, but only to a select few who had, in one way or another, bought themselves access. An urban wilderness created for the enjoyment of an elite group, for whom restriction of access to the summits was vital to their value and status.

As I got closer to Midtown Manhattan, the peaks became taller and the valleys more crowded. I stopped to talk with one of the several homeless people taking up temporary residence on the sidewalks. The irony of the situation struck me: the inequality that is inherent to our system is mostly hidden out of sight. Though paradoxically in a place with an enormous concentration of wealth, where everything screams success and progress, inequality is exposed. The homelessness reveals a system where the success of the people high up on the peaks leaves others far behind. The least I’d expect from a place that pretends to be successful and wealthy is for every person to have their basic necessities met, and not be forced to live on the street.

Of course I’m aware that a big, anonymous city like New York will have its socioeconomic problems. The concentration of wealth also implies a concentration of chances so naturally people flock to the city looking for a better life. This in turn puts a huge strain on resources. For the case of New York even more so since it is one of the largest, most densely populated metropolitan areas on the planet. But consider this; should we accept inequality as a fact of life, or are there possibilities to create a more just world by choosing a more even distribution of wealth? I strongly believe we should not accept a system where a few own so much that it pushes the majority of people to the fringes of existence. Seen in this light it’s no coincidence the Occupy movement emerged here, amidst the skyscrapers of Manhattan.

On the Road

Leaving Boston I headed to New York City and thus stuck out my thumb in the US for the first time. Hitchhiking in a new country is always special, more so when that country is on an entirely new continent. I had done my research beforehand so I knew what was legal and what wasn’t and which spots gave me the best chances to get a ride. The advice from other hitchhikers generally came down to sticking to truck stops, using a sign and expecting drivers to be more eccentric compared to Europe. Combined with my hitchhiking experience in Europe and resolution to play it safe I felt prepared, albeit slightly nervous.

In the morning I left the house I’d been generously hosted in for almost a week and walked the twenty minutes to the on-ramp of the I-90, the Massachusetts Turnpike. Hitchhiking was illegal on the turnpike, even at the on-ramps, but I saw no better option and decided to take the risk.

I arrived at my intended spot, put down my backpack and stretched out my arm. The adventure had begun. Numerous thoughts entered my mind over the next few minutes. What if nobody stops? What if the police drive by before I get picked up? What if the driver points a gun at me?

My mindset gradually changed as I tried hard to smile and make eye contact with passing drivers. Before I knew it a young woman named Molly stopped, saying she headed about 80 miles west. We got along well and talked politics, society, traveling, and life before she dropped me off at a gas station on the I-90. I thanked her and for the first time felt the freedom of the road again. Cars zooming by on the interstate, me scanning the gas station area for people to ask and simultaneously paying attention to new people leaving the interstate for a break.

From here on it seemed easy enough to get a ride to NYC, but asking did not directly resort in a ride. I decided to stick out my thumb again at the exit of the gas station and within a minute another young woman stopped. I didn’t bother checking my map but assumed that since she was going to the state of New York it would be a helpful ride. Wrong. Upstate New York was definitely not my direction and I suddenly found myself leaving the car on the outskirts of Springfield, MA.

This was a completely different environment than the clean, orderly interstate. The road had cracks and potholes, cars weren’t as shiny and there was no sign of the Scandinavian looking pine forests and frozen lakes I’d seen along the I-90. The on-ramp had no shoulder, so I couldn’t be too picky with rides. I saw my original plan of an easy Euro-style gas station hitch between two big cities on the East Coast turning into local on-ramp hopping through an extensive, 140 mile long suburban area until I’d find a gas station or truck stop. I also had about three hours of daylight left, since I only started from Boston at noon. My spirits dropped.

Luckily, after only a few minutes Chuck stopped.

“Get in!”, he shouted.

I figured anything was better than the spot where I was so I threw my stuff and myself in the car and off we went. Chuck told me he had been a mover since many years, and I felt he was in many ways different than the people that had picked me up so far. He began a rant about the dangers of Springfield. While he rambled on he reassured me he knew a good spot to drop me. I did not doubt his good intentions, but since very few drivers have an idea what constitutes a good spot I was apprehensive of the result. Despite his rant I felt safe, so I decided to sit back, relax and listen. He told me about the substantial heroin addiction in the downtown ghettos. We exited the interstate near downtown and while passing a junction he pointed right and said:

“There’s a lot of good whores on this street, if you want.”

I replied that I was good and preferred a nice hitchhiking spot.

He continued talking while I tried to ask him more direct questions, but the answers were a repetition of the same narrative. Suddenly I began to understand the anti-establishment voters in the recent elections. For a lot of them, shitty jobs and exposure to drug addiction and violence are a part of their everyday reality. What matters here is not how bad the situation is statistically, but how bad they believe it is. Politicians do not seem to care about their problems and are more interested in maintaining the status quo. They speak beautiful words, but have no real solutions for the working class. Then one day a strong leader arises and tells the people they should not accept the status quo, they should not accept their miserable living conditions, their lack of prospects for a better life. They simply could not afford voting for the status quo. Taking a risk and voting for the one person who might worsen their conditions was still better than knowing the future would be the same as the past eight years.

I got out and for the next half hour my mind was shaken and occupied with these thoughts. I tried hitchhiking at different spots, but no one stopped by the time it was dark. I saw my chances diminish and with Chuck’s story in the back of my mind did not feel safe sleeping outside. I swallowed my pride and ended up taking a bus to NYC. Here I was warmly welcomed by Russell, a friend I’d met in Norway last summer. He had not heard from me all day and thought I’d wouldn’t show up anymore, so needless to say he was elated. Straight away we went up on the roof of the Brooklyn former doll factory where he lived. Pushing open the heavy iron fire doors the whole Manhattan skyline with its millions of lights unfolded in front of my eyes. From one city to the next, I felt at home straight away.

New York’s skyline by day.

Trump’s America

It’s been five days since I arrived at Boston Logan airport. I spent most of my time in Cambridge, in an apartment on a quiet residential street midway between the campuses of Harvard in the north and MIT in the south. It’s an environment and community I’ve not experienced this way before. My hosts are five wonderful people, each different in their own unique way, but all highly intelligent and well-opinionated. The conversations we’ve had instilled me with new knowledge and insights, besides inspiring me to be confident in my beliefs and seek for ways to soundly and effectively argument and express them. Enforcing this image is the fact that others I’ve met here were all intellectually and artistically developed young people, innately curious about the world around them and always looking for ways to deepen their knowledge and skill-set. At times a daunting environment, being surrounded by such intelligent people, but also one that immensely stimulated me.

Conversation topics ranged from evolution to anthropology to mathematical problems to philosophy, and everything in between. What struck me is that conversations never ceased to have depth, exploring questions on for example human nature, freedom or humanity as a collective. Somehow though, we’d always end up talking politics. Trump’s politics.

At this very moment, we’re witnessing an attack on the core values that bind society together. These values I consider to be trust, compassion, altruism and empathy. I dare to argue that societies expressing these values are communities in which people thrive as individuals as well as a collective. Where people understand that each and every one of them is a valuable human being, essential to the progress and well-being of the community.

This president, inaugurated nine days ago, represents the complete opposite of these values. His actions the first days were a warning sign; examples are the intention to dissolve the Affordable Care Act (also framed by the Republicans as Obamacare to diminish its credibility), choosing to continue the construction of the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines despite months of indigenous protest and on top of that mentioning waterboarding as a viable interrogation technique.

Everything culminated with the executive order to ban people from seven countries from entering the United States. A discriminatory ban based solely off the fact that these countries are predominantly Muslim. The first action that immediately affected people in a very direct way. And the people revolted. Airports across the United States were the stage of protests, law suits were filed to combat the consequences of the executive order. The people showed that they will not accept hate and fear as a legitimate argument for public policy.

Personally, through traveling last years I’ve come to understand the importance of trust, of creating a safe environment in which people are invited to try things, make mistakes and learn from them. Where cooperation rules over competition so that deep personal friendships based on equality and empathy get a chance to develop, aiding in the personal growth of all involved. That is the kind of world I want to live in. We are not all the same and we shouldn’t be. Our opinions will differ based on the experiences we have in our life. What I want is a world where those differences are recognized for what they are; chances to learn from each other and thus improve our world. Let’s celebrate diversity and be aware of the existence and power of empathy.

I got into a conversation with an older woman at the protest today. We both stood on a wooden bench overlooking Copley Square in Boston, surrounded by thousands of people chanting and holding up signs, as she told me: “You know, at least this is also a result of Trump’s election. The people are uniting against hate. They will not accept it.”

Copley Square in Boston

Let us hope the movement catches on and we all indeed unite against hate. It depends on each of us, every individual. I urge you, please, to go out and let your voice be heard, join protests, write e-mails, donate to organizations like ACLU, inform yourself and share news with your communities, engage in discussions. No matter how small your action, it matters. Every act in favor of love and unity is one against hate. If there was ever a time to become active, it’s now. Fundamental values and rights are at stake, and we can not allow anyone to take these away from us.

A change of plans

A series of events forced me to return home, where I now find myself since about three weeks. Returning prompted me to reconsider my plans.

In the previous post I wrote about heading south to Morocco, but where do I really want to go and why do I feel the need to go there? How do I feel about exploring North Africa? Do I want to go there because it’s warmer in winter or does the place itself interest me as well? What do I expect to learn? I feel incredibly lucky for having the opportunity to question myself in this way, and to change my destination as I see fit.

Though having never physically been there, Morocco and Western Sahara’s culture and landscape intrigue me. Who wouldn’t like to see the Sahara sand dunes or the medinas with their beautiful architecture and intricate network of alleyways? However, I realised my primary motivation was having a convenient winter destination. Not too far away, no difficult visa policy, cheap and a comfortable climate. In theory this sounded perfect. In practice, I do not feel a yearning passion for getting the opportunity to visit this place.

There’s a place in this world that does instill that kind of excitement in me; the United States. For years I’ve been dreaming of visiting this country. Not because of its serenity, but because of its history, size, people and nature. They captivate me and cause all sorts of questions to arise in me. As an outsider I see a schizophrenic society unsure of its direction but under the surface brimming with furious debate on its progress. Especially now.

Of course I’ve always managed to come up with arguments to postpone visiting: Too expensive to travel, a Western culture perhaps too similar to Europe and besides; flights cost too much and are polluting. The list was endless it seemed.

Until I ran out of excuses and found myself getting a plane ticket to the USA, scheduled for departure the day after tomorrow. I’m making good use of my time and staying for three months. Landing on the East coast, my plan is to hitchhike west through the cold and snow until I reach the Pacific Ocean, spending as much time as possible in the Southwest before flying back to Europe.

Making the decision a few weeks ago has left me with ample time to brush up on my knowledge of US history, politics and geography. I enjoy spending my days learning as much as I can from as many different sources as I can, before setting out and verifying this information with the real world situation.

I am excited by the idea of traveling a new country and continent. To me the US always seemed culturally close to Europe, after all colonisation of the New World started with the Spanish and English. However I am beginning to realise how different the US is in some ways. As a society multicultural by definition, built up largely in the 20th century when for example car transport emerged and with a size far bigger than any country in the European Union, there’s no question people will have grown up with a different idea of what the world is, can and should be.

Despite my preparations I know from experience that I have little idea what to expect. Observing from a distance one uses at most two senses; sight and hearing. Physically traveling to a place will immerse me and will activate all my five senses, something I’m very much looking forward to.

I’m immensely curious to explore a country with such a short but roaring history. I hope to find out to what extent the differences between races and classes, the result of the oppression that characterized the development of the USA, are being abridged near the end of the first quarter of the 21st century. A part of me is very pessimistic after the recent inauguration of the 45th President, but the events the day after in Washington and across the world gave me hope. Hope that despite the hate and fear ordinary people are managing to build bridges, not walls.

I am going to write extensively on here about my experiences and thoughts. As a journal for myself to look back upon, but also for everyone else to enjoy another perspective of the developments in our fascinating world.

Flashback

Arriving at the gas station on the German A9 yesterday, I blurted out: “Hey, I recognize this place, I think I’ve slept here before!”

Jan, my driver who brought me from Plzeň to this gas station just north of Munich, grinned. We said our goodbyes and after taking a second look I was sure.

This is where I spent the night in July, on my way from Berlin to Fideris in Switzerland.

I wandered off in my thoughts. Tomorrow is Winter Solstice, so that night was almost half a year ago. Fresh from handing in my thesis, right at the start of my traveling life. I had only met Devin two weeks before in Denmark, in the meantime we’ve traveled together extensively.

I remember detesting traveling, that night in Germany. While studying I believed that once finished, I would go off traveling and find my life to be perfect. I would do what I want, where I want, and when I want it. The reality proved to be different as I landed at the gas station in July. I longed for discovering exotic places but instead, found myself stuck at the same German highways I’d hitched in all the previous years following plans others had set up for me.

Simultaneously I wondered whether I had a good reason to travel. Could I justify it? Did I want to travel because I wanted to see the world and grow as a person, or as an escape from real life?

Waking up that morning I tried to reflect and let go of my restlessness. Scouting the bins for food, a Romanian truck driver ushered me over. Without hesitation he gave me canned ham and a chunk of bread, and would not take no for an answer.

I felt grateful for his selfless gesture, and in that moment realized the place where I am is where I am supposed to be. It is pointless to dwell on where I think I should be or what I should experience. Love, connection and adventure are everywhere, as long as I’m open for it. I pondered. How many people would want to help but are afraid to reach out, myself included?

I resolved to help others where I can, catapulting love and happiness into the world.

Flash forward to today. After spending the last few months on the road, I am much more at peace. I have fewer doubts about my reasons to travel. I make choices according to what feels right. For now, exploring the world through travel is what I want to do. Meanwhile doubts have sprung up in other aspects of my life, but I accept and even enjoy them. 

So what has resulted of my resolution to help where I can? I have to admit I did not work as hard as I would have liked toward that goal. Partially that is because of fear. What if someone doesn’t want my help? What if they disapprove of my outreach? Another reason is a lack of awareness. When traveling I tend to get overwhelmed with experiences. Processing these experiences costs energy and in a way causes me to be more selfish. The paradox in this case is failing to notice my ego-centrism, by now I should be aware that I’m selfish at times.

Even though this is the first post on this blog, as I’m writing this I feel fatigued with traveling. Don’t get me wrong; I enjoy the contact with people immensely, I value the beautiful places I visit, the landscapes I travel through. What tires me is moving around constantly, standing at the side of the road hoping for a ride.

Most of all though what fatigues me is the cold and having only a few hours of daylight. On one hand, travel at this time of year is fantastic. It’s special. It’s the most counter-intuitive time to be outside. Pushing through that counter-intuitive feeling has caused many beautiful events to occur: Getting a ride directly to our destination on a quiet, pitch black Czech road. Waking up to a misty and cold Salzburg with the castle and surrounding mountains arise from the fog. Starting a long trail run in the dark at 7am, using my headlamp to navigate the streets of Innsbruck.

-
A frosty morning in Salzburg.
img_8773
Looking out over Innsbruck.

On the other hand, short days suck. Everything inside me screams I should be inside. It’s winter, Koen. Time to hibernate!

Except I’m not going to listen to my body. Half a year after loathing my travel in the midst of summer at that German gas station, I am at last on my way to the exotic places I’ve dreamed of. The shortest day of the year is behind me and it excites me to finally move south.

I wonder if the warmth and sunlight down south can trick my body into believing it’s not tired anymore.