Posts Tagged ‘hitchhiking’

Picking up a loving pair of hitchhikers

July 24, 2017

We stopped by the side of the road

The couple was loving, it showed

The don’t need the dance

That improves hitchhiking chance.

They played, they laughed, and they glowed.

Synopsis: I’m a Family Practitioner from Sioux City, Iowa. In 2010 I danced back from the brink of burnout, and honoring a 1 year non-compete clause, traveled and worked in out-of-the-way places in Alaska, Nebraska, Iowa, and New Zealand. After three years working with a Community Health Center, I went back to traveling and adventures in temporary positions. Assignments in Alaska, rural Iowa, suburban Pennsylvania and western Nebraska have followed.  I finished my most recent assignment in Clarinda on May 18.  Right now I’m in northern British Columbia, getting a first-hand look at the Canadian system. Any identifiable patient information has been included with permission.

I never owned a car till I was 29 and just finished with med school. And, even then, I couldn’t have afforded it if my friend hadn’t sold it to me for a dollar.  I have friends like that, and, ten years later, when I’d done a bunch of body work and replaced the engine, I sold it back to him for the same price.

In those years, I, walked, bicycled, occasionally flew, and, mostly, I hitchhiked. I got good at knowing where to stand to put out my thumb, and how to dress.  I learned practical applications for game theory even before I’d heard of the concept.  I developed a 4-second dance, hilarious in its incongruity, that would bring me rides when women with small children couldn’t get picked up.

I also learned how to be a good passenger.  More than half the people who picked me up found themselves in personal crisis, and they wanted to talk.  I learned how to listen and I honed my interviewing skills to a fine edge even before I thought about medicine.

I met Bethany at the airport in Prince George, coming back from a family visit to south Texas. Starting the long road back, we picked up a couple, hitchhiking their way north to the Yukon.

The young man spoke Spanish with me; I volleyed a bit of French with the young woman but the road noise and my failing hearing made a proper conversation impossible for me. They showed themselves  good listeners, and, when we dropped them off, I pointed out where to stand to maximize the chances for a ride.

But I forgot to give them the benefit of hitchhiking lessons I’d learned: don’t wear hat or gloves, stand in front of your luggage, not behind it. I didn’t teach them my dance.  They didn’t need it.  The movement that grabs the eye, the smile that says, “I’m safe and I’m fun,” came out naturally in the way they played, lovingly, with each other.



A seven-week road trip in review

January 2, 2011

As I welcome in the New Year

Let me make this perfectly clear,

     For this I can vouch:

     I sleep well on a couch.

Watch out for eagles and deer.

I am back in Sioux City after a six-thousand mile, seven-week road trip.  I stopped to visit family in Chicago, New York, Long Island, West Virginia and Virginia.  I saw friends in Iowa City, Pittsburgh, and Columbus, Indiana.  I worked for a month in Keosauqua, in southeast Iowa.  I took the Advanced Trauma Life Support course in South Bend, Indiana.  I relived memories in Illinois and Indiana.  I feasted Thanksgiving in Virginia with Bethany’s family.

Even outside of work, I gave advice about rashes, ears, coughs, nutrition, exercise, bipolar disease, depression, sleep, smoking cessation, alcoholism, sex, and plantar fasciitis.  I helped assemble Ikea furniture and I took stitches out of a dog’s leg.

I hunted deer in Iowa and I didn’t hunt deer in Virginia.

I discovered I like sleeping on a friend’s couch more than I like sleeping in a nice hotel, and that some sofas are more comfortable than some beds.

I ate out a lot.  Portion size nowadays suffices one person for two meals.  Chinese food varies a lot from restaurant to restaurant, which adds to its charm. 

I found out I drive long distances better at night than during the day, and that I never, ever want to drive in New York City again. 

I learned to recognize signs of psychosis in Sweetheart, my GPS.

I saw lots of deer and foxes (living and dead), llamas (all alive), migrating ducks and geese, a few grazing buffalo, dozens of soaring vultures, a piliated woodpecker, and a surprising number of eagles.

I worked in Keosauqua, Iowa, for a month and had a wonderful time; few things bring me as much pleasure as curing a person before they leave.  I like living close enough to work that I can walk; I love working with good colleagues.

Revisiting the routes I travelled when I hitchhiked in the sixties and seventies showed me that the road changes slower than society.   I found more prosperity now than I did then; I saw no hitchhikers anywhere.

Some people figure out things out with time, some people don’t.  A lot of people from my past turned out to be bipolar.  Drama and irony dance with the human condition; even orderly communities wrestle with grief.

Money doesn’t buy happiness but a good night’s sleep comes close.

The number of wind turbines I saw from the highway indicates our country’s energy policy shift towards the renewable.

I get better gas mileage and I see more things to write about when I drive 55 than when I drive 75.

I had a great time everywhere I went, but I like home the best.  I missed my friends, my wife, my house, my kitchen, and my bed. 

I make friends easily but I missed the friends I’ve had the longest.

I missed my social network.

I like geology.  I enjoyed looking at the exposed history of the earth in road cuts.

I missed cooking so much that when Bethany took a weekend and visited me in Keosauqua I cooked beef bourguignon. 

I missed speaking Spanish.

They say you can’t discover new lands if you never lose sight of the shore; I don’t think you can learn how much you love home if you never leave.

Road Trip 3: Pittsburgh

November 18, 2010

The friend I’ve had longest, Burdette,

Was easy to find on the net.

     We’re not shedding tears

     After thirty-three years,

We’re living the moments we get.

I came to Pittsburgh to see the friend I’ve known the longest.

In the prefabs of post-War University of Chicago, two women sized each other up while hanging out their wash.  One, my mother, couldn’t think of anything else to-day, and said, “My husband went to Harvard.”  The other, Nancy, said, “Really?  My husband went to Yale.”  They stalked into their homes but the next day they took in their wash and became best friends.  Their two husbands moved to Pittsburgh for different reasons; the women stayed friends for years and bathed their children together.  They corresponded even after we moved to Denver.  When they got together over the years they would laugh and talk so hard their jaws ached.

When I was in my late teens and hitchhiking between Yale and Denver I stopped in Pittsburgh to visit Nancy, her husband Pierce, their daughters Burdette (with whom I bathed as a toddler) and Lisa and their son Eben.  I found everyone in the home easy to like, generous to a fault and fun; warmth and welcome filled the house.

While in med school, I stopped to visit on my way to my Yale reunion; I hadn’t been back since.  I hadn’t called for five years.

Despite a thirty-three year absence, Burdette’s unique name came easily on the Internet.

I drove into Pittsburgh at night.  I recognized bridges that I used to see on my way to kindergarten.  The steel mills are gone, the air is cleaner.

Jonas Salk worked on his vaccine here while I went to kindergarten; because my father was in his internal medicine residency then, I received the immunization before the release date.  My parents had no wish to repeat the horror of my sister’s polio.

I can’t say I blame them.

I got to meet Burdette’s daughter, Amy, and I got to see pictures of Burdette’s son’s child and hear about the joys of being a grandparent.

Burdette and I talked about the times I visited during my college years; she doesn’t remember our early childhood times together.

Neither of us have living parents; we talked about how they died.  I asked after her brother, now deceased.  We have known each other so long that the truth is all we tell each other.

Together we have come to the same conclusions by different routes. 

Time comes in moments.  You get better days if you focus on the good moments, get over the bad moments as soon as you can and don’t revisit them;  don’t think about bad moments that haven’t even happened.

Some people die of old age, some die of the effects of diseases they didn’t have a choice about.  More die of broken hearts, bitterness, amorality, and over-indulgence, no matter what the death certificate says.

I’ve changed a lot more than Interstate 80

September 27, 2010

The traffic has sped up and slowed

I’ve changed my travelling mode

    This is Nebraska,

    It’s not like Alaska.

We’ve got the I-80 road.

I travelled Interstate 80 the first time at the start of the summer of 1968, going east from Denver on my first road trip.  I drove my friend’s new Chevelle directly away from my high school graduation.  Bitter about the previous seven years at home and at school, I determined to never return. 

At age 18 I had much to learn.

At that time I-80S existed only in segments, and wouldn’t be named I-76 until the Bicentennial.  I pulled off the two-lane in Julesburg, and while the attendant pumped my gas and washed my windshield I listened to the wind in the telephone wires and thought I’d heard the loneliest sound in the world.

The speed limit signs at that time changed from 70 to 80 with the daylight.

I drove to meet up with my music buddies in Illinois, sure we’d change the world with our music.

The summer didn’t go according to plan.  We came back to Denver in the middle of July when the pianist’s mother died.  The pianist and I didn’t find day jobs and we didn’t find much in the way of music jobs, either. 

I travelled west on I-80 that winter for Xmas break; I had yet to learn to travel light, yet to learn that school books brought on vacation never add to knowledge but diminish the vacation’s quality.  Again the three musicians rode in the pianist’s Chevelle, and got stuck in a snow drift outside of Cozad.

For the next four years I-80 served as my hitchhiking corridor to and from college.  When I went to medical school I traveled the same highway, catching rides or thumbing.

Bit by bit I-76 reached completion and the four-lane finished skirting Omaha.   

We moved to Iowa in 1985.  At that time the speed limit was 55 and we had three small children.  The twelve-hour drive to visit my parents thus dilated to eighteen hours until we learned to drive at night.

In May of 1989 I received a call as the sun was going down.  My stepfather had a stroke; my mother told me not to come.  Bethany brewed me a Thermos of real coffee and I left immediately.   He died four days later, and I drove back with the radio off, alone with my thoughts.

My mother got sick in 1991 and died in 1993.  During that interval I made the trip many times by air and by car.  I learned how dead-end and bitterness define each other, and sap the joy from life.

We made the pilgrimage every summer to visit my father till the kids grew up and my father died.  I travel I-80 less often now than I used to.

I have taken to making the trip in two stages; I have stopped tonight at a motel in Big Springs, now that I have a level of affluence that I didn’t have the years that I travelled all night or camped briefly in Grand Island or slept a few hours in a rest area.  Quieter, safer cars speed back and forth.   Speed limits have gone down and then up.  Gas mileage keeps improving.   Nebraska highway maintenance remains a model of functionality. 

I am on my way to an educational conference in Denver through the American Academy of Family Practice.

In the last forty years I’ve changed more than the road has.

This trip is the first time I haven’t been in a hurry going or coming.  I’m enjoying it a lot more.

Hitchiking, mental illness, and picking up riders in bear country

September 5, 2010

I used to travel by thumb

Though now I think it was dumb.

     In the land of the bears,

     I’m a fellow who cares

I gave a few lifts, maybe some.

I used to hitchhike.  I was good at it.

In the late sixties and early seventies, back when I was still saying that I’d never be a doctor, I had no car and no money.  In the days of stagflation, even minimum wage work was hard to find. Like many in the prolonged adolescence of at the time I had wanderlust. 

I started hitchhiking in 1968.  By 1970 I learned to stand in front of my backpack, not behind it, not to wear a hat or gloves, and to stand where a car or truck could pull over safely and easily.  Good visibility and slow traffic speed were essential. Eventually I invented a four-step dance that pulled a lot of rides in.  I learned how to make a good, visible sign.

 I had a lot of adventures and a handful of times when I feared for my life.  Many times I rode with normal people who wanted conversation.  Sometimes I got a lift from hippies who wanted help with the gas money.  There were a few drivers who were running from the law.  Twice I exited a stopped vehicle without warning the driver.

But there were a lot of psychiatric patients, too.  People with severe manic-depression (now known as bipolar I) tend to delocalize geographically and talk a lot.  One fellow talked at auctioneer speeds from Kansas City to Julesburg.  I said Um-hmm every five miles or so and kept him happy but I couldn’t understand a word he said.  Eventually I gave up trying and just agreed with him. 

A few schizophrenics, having recently lost contact with reality, picked me up for reasons known only to themselves. 

Active alcoholics picked me up, and at the time I didn’t have sense enough to ask to be let out when the driver poured  whisky into his Seven-up can while he was driving  I drove for drunks and junkies who didn’t want to get picked up.

During those long rides I learned how to interview and how to be a good listener.

During my psychiatric rotation in med school I still didn’t have a car.  I bicycled 25 miles each way to the mental hospital, four days a week.  The inpatients I cared for had the same mental illnesses as the people I had been hitchhiking with.  But I had more room to move around and security to call if I things went bad (they never did).   The manic, the depressed, the psychotic, those with personality disorders and borderline personalities like to travel and want someone to listen to them.

I wasn’t in a position to pick up hitchhikers till I was twenty-nine and got my first car.  I gave rides on a regular basis, mostly to people who qualified for psychiatric care.  When I became a father, I got a lot more cautious; I  understood how being a family man meant making responsible decisions.

While we were in New Mexico, Bethany’s VW Rabbit had mysterious electrical problems, and one day just up and quit once on Interstate 40 between Grants and Acomita.   I did my four-step and  reeled in a driver with a sense of humor. 

I didn’t hitchhike or pick up riders for a long time after that, but as I edited this post for publication I remembered meeting a man in his early 20’s on the New York Throughway in 1971 in upstate New York.  He was hitchiking with his three-year-old son.  I could tell he didn’t want to say anything negative about the child’s mother in front of the child, but I could also tell that something bad had happened.  With no money and no possessions during the stagflation years, he was on his way west to try to find work and social support.  With sparse on-ramp traffic and approaching darkness, he excused himself and his boy; they were going to bed down in the adjacent cornfield for the night.  I kept my thumb out and didn’t get a ride till ten that night, but I’ve often thought of those two and wondered how the story came out.

On a usual basis I no longer pick up hitchikers, but while bear country we hesitated to leave someone in the wilderness with critters who regularly stalk and eat people.  We picked up three hitchhikers during our Alaska trip.  One, a native, had been working in Denali and was going to visit relatives for the weekend.  Another Denali Park employee had gotten homesick and left the park to go back to Florida

Back in March he took six weeks to walk from Anchorage to Denali.  We talked about literature and what does and doesn’t make a good read.  We discussed the importance of music in the world.

On the Kenai Peninsula we picked up a Polish national taking a break from work to go to church.  A biotechnology university student, he had been working 15 hours a day, 7 days a week, for the last two months and decided he needed a break. When the seasonal work is done he plans to buy a motorcycle in Seattle and ride the California coastal highway. 

In terms of risk, he’s better off hitchhiking.

I’m a family practitioner from Sioux City, Iowa.  While my one-year, thirty-mile non-compete ticks out I’m out on adventure.