Traveling Hopefully by Nikitas
Below are the opening pages of my short novel (42,650 words) called Traveling Hopefully. It is one of a trilogy of stories that I wrote between 1981 and 1996, chronicling the life of a young novelist. None of the books has been published but someday they will be, along with my other fictional endeavors, two other novels and two short-story collections.
Traveling Hopefully is told in the first person. The story is based on “my” desire to leave small-town life in Vermont behind and to hitchhike across America. My traveling companion, Gloria Petty, whom I had known only briefly in Vermont, was interested in my plan and said she wanted to come along.
“I” told her that “you’ll never make it to Ohio”. Well, you can imagine what that provoked. The story starts in Kansas and moves across the West to Oregon where we work as pear pickers, and then goes on from there.
Enjoy this opening segment:
Part 1 – Westward!
I awoke in
Turning in a complete circle, every view was the same. Fantastic… Back East they had said that Kansas was a flat bore but I found it the contrary, humbling, where land and sky met in a stable, reassuring equilibrium upset only by the sun here, a jet’s contrail there and, over yonder, the rising of a utilitarian grain elevator from the treeless prairie, a signpost along the way to an allegedly more astonishing place further on, The West, myth-maker in the pioneer effort, land of threat and promise, of “wide open spaces”. But already we’d found them for
I went to the rest area fountain and splashed my face awake then took a drink of the water which had a mineral taste. Fetching the map, I fingered the route we’d traced through places like DuBois,
Earlier we had stopped in a
As I stuffed my sleeping bag away, Glory flickered open her eyes, first unsure, then widening until she focused on me. “Where are we?” she asked, sitting abruptly upright.
“Wow…” She put her hands over eyes.
“Ring a bell?”
“I was having a wild dream.” She massaged her forehead. “I want to go home.” She lay back down, her arm over her face.
“We’re in this together.”
Without opening her eyes, she murmured: “And you said I’d never make it to
“That was us. Yesterday.” I filled our plastic jug at the fountain and we sneaked off beyond the fiberglass picnic shelters to where the wheat crept up to meet the tailored grass. We each held the jug high for one another and let the water trick cool in a thumb-thick stream, scrubbing away the previous two days’ grime and perspiration. It was refreshing to dry ourselves clean in the air that already was humider than ten minutes before. We slipped into our last fresh clothes and vowed to do laundry soon, being conscious of the need to maintain cleanliness and respectability since our progress came at the grace of others. I eyed the words I’d scribbled on my backpack flap – STAY HUNGRY, STAY FOOLISH – and thought, Forget about the past kids, you’re moving forward now…
We ate cheese, bread and a half-pack of Rolos before lashing up our stuff and walking toward the highway which was busy enough only for a pair of hitchhikers – a couple of cars every minute or two. I penned a destination on a cardboard box flap I’d scavenged from a Skelly dumpster back in
“You aren’t going to
Then man stepped out of the car exhibiting some strain for he was older, had thin white hair, a bulb nose, and wore a pressed short-sleeved shirt, stylish blue tie and tailored slacks. “Nice car,” I told him, guessing to myself right off that he was a salesman because on the back seat was a trunk that surely held the samples of the product he was hawking. I helped him urge the case aside then shoved our backpacks into the freed space. “Done,” I said.
“Let’s go to
As he gunned it onto the highway, all three of us jammed in front, we got down to the pleasantries at hand like “nice day” and “gonna be a hot one” and “we passed through
“So,” he said. “You’re going to
“The sign says
“Cah-maaahn. You’re going to
“What makes you think that?”
He looked over at me. “Do I look like I was born yesterday?” His thick hands were freckled and his finger had a wedding band. “I’ve been driving this territory for forty years. I know people. I’ve been picking up hitchhikers all my life. I like their company. I know how people act when they’re going somewhere. To get away. So tell me your story. You running from what?”
Glory nudged me secretly. I was struck by, but in a curious way admiring of the salesman’s bluntness. “What makes you say that?”
“You look like runners. I see them all the time. From coast to coast, over and back. Running, running.
“Anymore. You have a point. Us, we’re out seeing the nation. Never been west of
“Hah! I knew it. A deception…” he said calmly. “So what have you left behind. A pretty girl and a guy running the back roads, their lives in bags. How old are you?”
“Twenty-eight. Glory’s twenty-six. And I drive a truck back East for a living since you asked.”
The salesman adjusted his mirror. “If you want to get somewhere, you should ride the Interstate. Not much happens on these back roads. You can get stuck for days. Forgotten.”
I felt chilled the way he said ‘forgotten’. “We want to see the country. It’s a love story. They said
“A love story? Expound.”
“I dunno. Loving life. Loving the land. I’ve decided to love life more. It’s too short, for starters.”
“Sounds like a good idea.” And: “It’s the most beautiful place in the world,
“It’s like no other beauty I’ve ever experienced. You can be so solitary under this sky. That sense of cosmic marginalization never hit me so hard as it did this morning.”
“It can crush you, the spaces,” he replied, leaving the thought hanging. Then he perked up: “I’ll never leave
“We’re traveling. It’s a kick,” Glory interjected.
“Was something wrong?”
“We were bored. This is a lark.”
The man shook his head.
“What do you sell?” I asked.
“How do you know I sell something?”
“By the fact that you picked us up. You’re a traveling salesman. Travelers and travelers alike. And you used the word ‘territory’. That’s salesman lingo.”
“Very perceptive. Yes, I sell clothing. Shirts, slacks, ties. I’ll give you a pair of pants if you want. I have some demos in the trunk. You want a free pair?”
“You might need them. Your slacks are worn. If you need to get a job or something. It’s nice to have good clothes. They make the man.”
We spent the next few hours cruising at speeds as high as ninety. We blew off
Every once in a while, the salesman would tell a story about a town or landmark we passed, or about his life in
When we crossed into
“Patience,” he urged.
When the outline of the
Glory had dozed on the seat between us and the salesman’s elbow tip had come to rest on her knee. “They were formed thousands of years ago,” I said.
“I guess you would have to have an appreciation for time. To appreciate how old they are,” he said, speeding up to overtake an eighteen-wheeler, the Chev’s four-barrel kicking in heartily. “You’ve got time, you young people. Sometimes I wish I would have run away like you. But you’ll see…”
“Stay hungry, stay foolish,” I said.
“Your spirit will carry you. I’m just a cantankerous old man.”
“Thanks. We’ve got fate on our side.”
“You need luck too. Don’t confuse the two.” He cast a wary look my way. “I’ll get you those pants.” He rummaged in the sample trunk and produced a pair of khakis. “These will fit.” Then: “Do you know about symbols? About things that mean things?”
“Read the symbols. Please remember that a little old traveling salesman from
I waved at his mirror, then hoisted the packs and joined Gloria in the hot shade of the store’s entry portico. “What was that all about?” she wondered.
I tucked the slacks away. “He said we should be aware of symbols. He was a nice guy. Something strange about him, though. Didn’t you get that feeling?”
“Yes and no.”
“Look we shall. For the symbols.”
“Why did you tell him you were a truck driver?”
“Because people who work like people who work.”
“Should have leveled with him. You can get into a rut lying.”
“Yeah, right, I’m a blocked novelist who felt a desperate need to escape. Let’s go.”
We hitchhiked up into the Rocky Mountains and the first-time experience of it was vitalizing in that we had so anticipated things like kelly-green pines and frigid brooks splashing down their bouldered courses. But the reality was disheartening in the depressing dryness and in the drab pinon pines and scrub that dotted the stony land as we rose along Route 50. I began to feel displaced, that my expectations had been robbed. Where is the beauty?… By two, I was drained and overheated and already missed the Midwestern verdure, even missed the East and almost wanted to go home. Almost. Then we ended up waiting an hour in one spot where the cars were climbing and that caused exhaust fumes to settle on us in an acrid trace.
Petty got dizzy when it all mixed in the sun’s beat. Soon we both needed a break, so she took some shade while I hiked up onto a shaly ledge to where the traffic no longer could be heard. Away from Glory for the first time since we’d started, I found a yard of shade myself under a gangly pine, retrieved the map and located the river that ran by the road, the
We climbed past
The last stretch required more than three hours and we opted to camp overnight on the Continental Divide, the spiny backbone that separated “The West” from the rest of the nation, splitter of rivers, history’s hump. At eleven-thousand feet on
Rapid cooling had settled in by the time darkness came to fall. My breath was visible in the candle’s light but then again the calendar said August. It was obvious that summer was losing its tender edge, but that we had covered much ground in a day that started out in a warm wheat field. Glory and I congratulated ourselves on our progress and celebrated six days on the road in good spirit and frame of mind, giggled uncontrollably for whatever reason as we ate tuna from its tin using a knife blade for a fork, then finished pecan pie we’d scored at Salida. Finally we slipped into our sleeping bags, inhaled the rarefied air and, before laying back, hugged one another in the fraternal fondness that was the only love we knew. The night was as bright in starfire as we ever had seen it and, after watching shooters for a while, she asked, “What was he talking about, about symbols?”
“He was an old man. Being kind in wisdom.”
“It was a nice gesture. Yes, we are going to find an orchard in the shadow of a mountain.”
She turned silent. “You OK?” I wondered.
She sighed. “I’ve been thinking about my mom. I should have told her I was leaving. I left her hanging.”
“She didn’t want an answer.”
“She has a good heart. But she was tough on me.”
After several minutes, she blurted into laughter. “I know why they call them The Rockies. Because they’re so damned rocky.”