Hitchhiking Through Colorado and Kansas: A Novel Excerpt from Wallop
I woke at first light. It was cold as shit, and a thick gross layer of dew had collected on everything. At some point during the night, Danny had wrapped himself up like a taquito in his half of the tarp. I started stuffing my wet things into my wet backpack. The rustling of the tarp woke Danny. We peed onto baby corn plants, then walked back toward the buzzing truck-stop lights.
Carl’s Junior, despite the godawful early hour, was packed with locals; with hotel guests checking out; with people on their way to work. I saw a cute punk girl head out the front door. I didn’t get a great look at her, but she looked all dirty and had a big backpack. I wondered if she’d slept in a cornfield, too.
We chowed down while our phones charged. Jesus, it was good to eat. There’s nothing fancy about a rubbery Carl’s Junior breakfast sandwich or the scalded cardboard-tasting coffee, but there didn’t need to be. That had always been part of the beauty of traveling, especially the kind of broke traveling we were doing. The surgical removal of every luxury and familiar comfort makes even the shittiest meal the best thing you’ve ever had in your life. I was grateful.
I turned on my phone, connected to the free Wi-Fi, and watched the notifications roll in. One text message from a coworker asking a question about how to fix something on a lawnmower, nine text messages from Lauren.
I said, “Goddamn it,” and showed Danny the notifications. He shook his head.
I tapped the screen and a wall of blue came up, about a million text messages from my girlfriend.
I miss you baby
How are you doing?
Where are you?
I’ve been having a fun night, hanging out with Chad and Emma, going to get tacos and margs.
Whoo these margs are strong. Where are you?
I miss you.
God Emma’s such a btich, she thinkg she so cool, has
to iprmess everybody, cause she’s a BIG TIME ACTRESS
and DIROECTOR. Yeah right God.
I wish you were here.
Are you okay.
I cant find my car and Emma eft with Chad to go fuck chad.
And that was the end of the messages.
I was concerned, but the feeling was interrupted by one of the unpleasantest odors I’ve ever encountered. It hit me across the head like a 2x4. I looked around in search of the source. Three guys had just walked in the door. They must’ve worked at one of the pig farms we had passed. Their overalls and boots were covered in mud and dried pig shit. Danny and I pulled our t-shirts over our faces. We had to endure. We needed more charge in our
When we could no longer stand it, we gathered our things and walked over to the onramp. Our luck had increased overnight somehow. We probably weren’t even standing there thirty minutes till we got a ride. Another pickup, this time driven by an old guy with a shaved head and a big scar over his eye. He talked nonstop about marijuana for an hour or more. Paranoid by nature, Danny and I didn’t really smoke marijuana. We had little to add to the conversation. Eventually the driver transitioned into telling stories about working on oilrigs. He said he spent a lot of time in southern Utah, near the Book Cliffs, where there were a bunch of other roughnecks who had swastika face tattoos. “They were good guys though,” he said. “Real hard workers.”
I sat there, in the passenger seat, wondering if he knew my friend in the backseat was Jewish. I wondered whether I should call him out on that shit.
It was a good thing I didn’t, because when he dropped us off at a truck stop a few miles later, in a Kansas town even smaller than Burlington, he said, “Y’all’ve been good hitchhikers. I was a little worried about ya at first. I had my .357 right here and I was ready to reach for it, but I never once had to. Thanks for not making me.”
The sun was high now. We caught another ride in about an hour. A woman in her mid-sixties, a retired Department of Fish and Wildlife employee who was on her way back from visiting her grandkids in Castle Rock. She proudly told us she was the only Democrat for five-hundred miles. She was just happy to have someone to help her stay awake, though she kept saying, “I won’t be
telling my husband that I picked up a couple of hitchhikers. No way.”
She took us as far as Hays. She bought us cheeseburgers and milkshakes. Then she was off.
The food sat heavy in our guts. It was at least ninety-five degrees and humid with no cover from the sun. We were melting. We waited and waited, thumbs extended, feeling like we were going to barf.
It got so bad that we walked to a Greyhound station to see how much bus tickets to Kansas City were. Ninety-five dollars. We couldn’t afford it. I had an abortion to pay for. Danny hadn’t worked a job in months. We refilled our water bottles and sat in the shade until the attendant came out and told us to move along.
We left the Greyhound station and trudged toward the highway onramp. There was another hitchhiker standing there, thumb out.
It was the punk girl from the Carl’s Junior in Burlington. She was acutely pretty. Her hair was half blonde and half black, chopped short and pulled back into cute little pigtails. Her backpack sat on the ground behind her. Adorning its battered canvas was a black patch that said Clean Kids Get Sick and Die. Her eyes were big and brown, and she had the faintest, finest shadow of a mustache. I was a little smitten.
“Howdy,” I said. “How’s it going?”
“It’d be going fine if you weren’t here blowing up my spot.” She spoke with a slow southern drawl, and kept her eyes on the road.
“Pretty hard town to get a ride in, isn’t it?”
“And becoming increasingly more difficult. Yes.”
“We saw you in Burlington this morning. Maybe we could combine forces.”
She turned to us and scowled. “Look, no offense, but I’m a lot cuter than either of you are. I don’t have any problems getting rides, and y’all’ll just slow me down. Now, I wish you the best of luck, but please fuck all the way off.”
We did. We walked a few hundred feet into the weeds and hunkered down, watching. Sure enough, not twenty minutes passed before the punk girl got a ride. We emerged from exile.
Now it was our turn.
Three or four more hours in the sun.
Thinking we were going to die.
Fucking Hays, Kansas.
Wallop will be available July 15, 2020 from House of Vlad.
In addition to the forthcoming novel Wallop (House of Vlad, 2020), Nathaniel Kennon Perkins is the author of the short story collection The Way Cities Feel to Us Now (Maudlin House, 2019) and the previous novel Cactus (Trident Press, 2018). His work has appeared in Triquarterly, Berfrois, Thought Catalog, the Tico Times, and Talking Book, among many others. He is a Pushcart Prize nominee and is the recipient of the High Country News’s 2014 Bell Prize. www.nathanielkennonperkins.com