Arts: Traveling Hopefully

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 Kansas ringed by amber wheat sprawling to the distant rim, the sky stretching cloudless overhead from horizon to horizon to horizon in unyielding contrast to the waves of grain below. The meaning of wheat was not lost on me. Bread, bread and water, man cannot live by bread alone… I threw off my sleeping bag and stood in the morning air which already was warm but on the verge of turning vengefully hot, I guessed, based on the experience of the previous day when I and my companion Gloria Petty, who lay asleep still, had traversed Missouri in a crushing Midwestern swelter.

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 Kansas was wide and assuredly open. There was no limit to the way that phone poles trailed away into perspective, or to the flatness and straightness of its rural highways.

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, Akron, Vandalia, Saint Louis, Olathe and, lastly and late, Zenith. We got off the Interstate out of curiosity, to feel out the nation of Kansas. And on the less-known roads we’d found shining moments to ourselves away from the speeding and the noise. Near Herrington we had frolicked under a bridge in a creek that was tepid and slow-moving over a land that lacked relief. We bathed in the murky waters then consumed a frugal repast on a midstream rock, under the span to escape the midday sun.

Earlier we had stopped in a Missouri farm town just off the freeway. We exchanged views with the locals who were aroused at the sight of our backpacks. When first we entered the restaurant, all eyes had turned to us and a silent moment ensued. Then Glory broke the ice by telling our tale and that opened up the people. She was good that way. They wanted to know what it was that brought us to their town, where we were heading, and what would send us spinning out into the world the way we were doing it.

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.

Kansas.”

“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 Ohio.” Then reflecting: “In the dream, somebody was chasing me, up a mountain, down a highway.”

“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 Ohio, using a fat felt marker pen to write the words big and boldly – DODGE CITY. Never in my life had I anticipated that someday I’d be thumbing to Dodge, and as we walked across the parking lot, a mint 1963 Chevy Impala drew quietly up alongside us. “I’ll give you a lift,” said the driver.

“To Dodge City?”

“You aren’t going to Dodge City. I’ll take you to Pueblo.”

“Great!” Pueblo, Colorado was almost three-hundred miles away, and I had hoped to make it by late in the day. Now we’d be there by noon.

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 Pueblo,” he replied.

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 Saint Louis and it was hellish there.” He turned the air conditioner onto high such that the blower almost drowned out our talk.

“So,” he said. “You’re going to Pueblo. Then where?”

“The sign says Dodge City.”

“Cah-maaahn. You’re going to California, right?”

“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. Kansas… they never stop here. It’s always onto somewhere else. Nobody wants to stay in Kansas.”

“Anymore. You have a point. Us, we’re out seeing the nation. Never been west of Syracuse before. Taking a break from life. Glory came along on a whim. Her mother thinks she’s camping in New York State.”

“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 Kansas was horrible so we figured it must be beautiful. We were right.”

“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, Kansas. Isn’t it?” he said, looking over at us in a quiet glance.

“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 Kansas. Oh, over the border of course, Colorado. I’ve never left Kansas except for motor trips to Missouri or Texas, Oklahoma, or business in Nebraska. No reason to leave. Man must find where he’s happy and be… happy. Doing what he’s doing, living where he’s living. Are you happy? Doing this?”

“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?”

“Sure.”

“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 Dodge City on a loop road which was too bad because I kind of wanted to see place I’d heard so much about. There were moments when the driving frightened me, but the man appeared confident and alert and the car sure-footed. He told us he “knew” about people, that if the police stopped him he would say he was a traveling salesman and they would let him go because they knew he had to cover his “territory”. I listened to him, but primarily was consumed by the grander vistas that rolled away to a blanched infinity, the phone poles disappearing into a shimmering boil as the sun rose higher.

Every once in a while, the salesman would tell a story about a town or landmark we passed, or about his life in Kansas. He said he lived far from towns and cities and I pictured a poignant loneliness, imagined him living widowed or apart. There was an occasional coldness to the way he spoke as if something were missing from his speech, some life force that might express his insides out.

When we crossed into Colorado, it was no different than Kansas. “Where’s the Rockies?” I demanded to know.

“Patience,” he urged.

When the outline of the Rocky Mountains finally appeared as a jagged mauve mirage on the horizon line ahead, the creamy sun was chasing us through another blistering forenoon. Gloria and I were elated to see the peaks approaching for they only had been images in slide shows of well-traveled friends or grainy, gaudy backdrops for beer and cigarette ads. “They sure make a mess of the Great Plains, don’t they,” mused the salesman.

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…”

At Pueblo, we drew into the parking lot of a supermarket along the strip that paralleled the Interstate. The salesman was subdued as I yanked our packs out, as if we were longtime friends parting for good. We stood speechless for one telling pause there on the baking tarmac. “Good luck,” he said. “Be smart.”

“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?”

“I guess.”

“Read the symbols. Please remember that a little old traveling salesman from Kansas told you to read the signs. And God bless you,” he said, putting a hand on my shoulder. In a moment, he was driving away.

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.”

“Good idea.”

 

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 Arkansas. I wondered why they called it the Arkansas way up there in Colorado and put my finger on its apparent source in the mountains near Leadville, imagined it gushing out into the Great Plains at Pueblo, pursued it through Kansas then on to Tulsa, Little Rock and to the Mississippi which took it like a throat to the Gulf of Mexico. I felt a rush of connectedness to the systems of the continent the way that rivers and landforms spilled over themselves and over one another with impunity, imagined putting in a toy boat up there in the Rockies and having it end up somewhere subtropical. The water was bracing to my mind – a symbol? Over the miles, rivers grew in intensity.

We climbed past Florence and Canon City on a road that switched back through a sculpted terrain that was burst in rocks in massive exposed faces, in craggy slopes, in towering cracked bumps that were treeless and savage in their ageless presence. We got a good lift to Salida where the road was lined by river-raft outfitters, camp stores and filling stations where tourists cautiously navigated their luxuriant campers and high-country vans on sprite summer outings. We lunched on salami and hummus in plain view of goliath mountain cones thrusting up out of the plateau, coated partway up their slopes in the dreamlike pines that we had fantasized about, pushing pure stone out their tops.

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 Monarch Pass, the highest either of us ever had been, we began to feel that finally we were getting our bang out of the Rockies. We bushwacked off the highway to a level spot among the pines that were whispering in the relenting breezes of evening.

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.”

“In Oregon.”

“Not before.”

 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.”

“Things change.”

After several minutes, she blurted into laughter. “I know why they call them The Rockies. Because they’re so damned rocky.”

 

 

 
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