Monthly Archives: May 2013

War refugee & balloon animal drivers: Stories from a Gary truck stop

Bosnian refugee to American trucker, Mesud Ceura fills out his time sheet.

Gimmick the Clown, John Lee the Magician or Mr. Schneider the trucker, he makes balloon animals at truck stops across the country.

“In the real dark night of the soul it is always three o’ clock in the morning, day after day.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald

In this morning’s version of Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks,” the diner is a Gary, Indiana truck stop and the patrons are cross-country truckers.

TA and Pilot signs stand high like neon palm trees over a nighttime oasis, as I-94 trucks roll by like a never-ending, low-throated Tuvan throat song.

Cross-country truckers and night-shift workers prowl. The stadium-sized parking lots are door-to-door 18-wheel trucks. Deep pools of water sit in the lots after a day of rain.

It’s a cold, sublime 3 a.m., and I’m tired after spending the last 24 hours hitchhiking rides in trucks – 850 miles from western Pennsylvania. Earlier this month I hitched from a San Francisco carnival to a New Jersey carnival.

I’m alone in a Subway listening to the store radio play Lou Rawls singing “Late in the midnight hour, you are going to miss my lovin’”

From the gas pumps looking in, you would see me alone, my face lit by a laptop computer. I’m working all night because it is too cold to sleep outside.

When the sun comes up, I’ll get a ride to the Southside of Chicago with hopes of working a traveling carnival kiddy ride tonight – an exhausted, dirty, messy gift to my daughter.

Two good rides, two notebooks

On Tuesday morning I decided to hitchhike from my traveling carnival in Westchester County, New York to Chicago for the birthday of my eight-year-old daughter.

I need to live on the wages made during my year working in traveling carnivals and writing on A call to a carnival in Chicago and I was hired over the phone Tuesday morning.

Hitchhiking in rural New York was extremely depressing, as I was stopped by one state trooper and five local cops inside of two hours. Hitchhiking is illegal “everywhere” in New York State, they said, warning me about heavy fines and jail time.

They suggested I return to New York City or walk out of the state.

I found a way around the cops on Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday. I took a video of riding on the flat bed of a pick-up truck. I took pictures of drivers with the best yarns.

Yet each driver seemed to just be getting started on their life stories when the rides ended and I was left standing there watching book chapters drive down the road.

However, yesterday I had just two truck rides from the Scranton, PA. area to Gary, IN..

During those two long rides I learned enough about truck drivers Mesud Cevra and David Lee Schneider to fill two pocket notebooks. I stayed the night in the upper bunk of Cevra’s cab when we both became sleepy on an overnight drive through Pennsylvania.

Both drivers want to write books about their lives, of dramatic escapes, fiery accidents and wisdom gained from driving millions of miles in America.

Muslim priest, war refugee, American trucker

Mesud Cevra survived two assassination attempts; swam a river to hide from the army; survived a concentration camp and, despite being Muslim, he once posed as a Catholic priest to illegally cross an E.U. border.

Following the break-up of the former Yugoslavia, the Bosnian war from 1992 to 1996 killed an estimated 100,000 people. “Ethnic cleansing” and reports of mass rapes, NATO intervened with bombings.

Cerva came out of that hell with his family to the United States in 1997, with just $2,000 in his pockets. He now owns his own truck. In his early 60s, he’s thinking of buying two more.

He considers himself an American success story, in part, because his son and daughter are thriving. Nerina Cevra is a prominent international law attorney. His son, Omer, is a published poet and political commentator who is working on a movie deal about his days in a concentration camp with his father.

Yet talk of the war can still bring tears to Cerva as he talks about those days, so real even now.

Cevra was working on his laptop at a Pilot truck stop outside Scranton, PA., this week when I struck up a conversation with him. Dusk had just come and I was getting ready to spend the night in an all-night Subway.

When I mentioned I spent the early and mid-1990s in Budapest, Hungary a bridge opened up.

A bridge is also the most architecturally distinct feature of Cevra’s hometown, Mostar, Bosnia. The most prominent city in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Mostar’s main architectural feature was its high bridge over the Neretva River, an example of 16th Century Muslim architecture. During the war, the bridge was blown up.

Cevra and his family were among the 2.2 million people displaced during the war.

A rock-n-roll enthusiast and guitar player, Cevra began his anti-communist activism early in life with his choice of Western music. He said he went on to run for parliament and speak out for democratic reforms during a time when many such activists were killed or imprisoned.

“Everyone from Belgrade, Zagreb and Sarajevo knew I had this music,” said Cevra, who got his albums sent to him by an L.A. Disco club owner. “It was dangerous to listen to Rock n’ Roll music at that time … I got arrested for it.”

Cevra was eventually imprisoned for his political activities for 11 days during the war. But his father, mother, siblings and cousins also were imprisoned. He blames the Dretclj camp for his father’s death soon after being released.

“Many people (imprisoned),” he said. “They killed a lot of people. Eleven days seemed like 11 years. I heard a lot of screaming going on in the next room.”

After escaping to Munich, Germany, he remembers seeing a TV show of prison camps in Bosnia and Croatia. Then he noticed his mother in the crowd of people being filmed by CNN in a camp.

“It hurt so much when I saw my mother there like that and because I couldn’t help,” he said.

During the chaos of the war, he was able to spirit his son out of the country by hiding him underneath his bus chair. But after his 15-year-old daughter defected to Italy during a handball tournament tour, he lost track of her for two years.

A tall and physically strong man, with blue eyes and white-gray hair, Cevra, nonetheless gets emotional when talking about those long periods of separation from his daughter

“It was war, so I didn’t know nothing about her. I heard she could have been in Croatia,” Cevra said “It was a terrible time for me. It was a terrible time for me.”

He again wipes tears from his eyes. For several false starts, he cannot speak without tears for the tragedies of Mostar.

It’s a different place these days, he says as he lightens up. He may retire there.

“What am I?” he says. “I’m a refugee from Bosnia who has been fighting to make a living for 10 years. I didn’t know my children would turn out like this (successes). Now, they are like my right hand and my left hand.”

He estimates he has driven about 2 million miles since coming to America and he has some opinions about this land. Americans work too hard, he says. Oil companies control too much.

“I love the freedom,” he said. “Ninety percent of the Americans I meet are honest people … I think people are very happy. I see people with no money but are happy.”

Animal balloon maker, magician and trucker

John Lee Schneider opened the front, passenger-side door of his 18-wheeler and un-inflated balloons poured out on to the parking lot.

I’d just gotten off a ride from eastern Pennsylvania to Toledo, Ohio with Cevra and Schneider promised to get me to Chicago.

Balloons, however, begged for answers.

Schneider isn’t just a truck driver, he’s a magician and a clown too.

In addition to driving 100,000 miles a year or more as a long-distance truck driver, he stops at truck stops and makes balloon animals for “kids and waitresses.”

“I see a family in a truck stop and I’ll go up to the kids and ask if they can have a balloon,” says the former 101st Airborne Division, Vietnam Veteran. “A waitress might sit down next to me and I’ll make them a puppy. Then they’ll show it around … I’ve had a family buy me a meal.”

Truck stop after truck stop, Schneider makes giraffes, elephants and assorted animals for kids.

“I love entertaining people,” he said as he drove through the night. “If wasn’t for people I wouldn’t be here … Or I’d have to entertain the animals.”

Schneider already has attained a bit of notoriety as as Gimmick (a clown) and as David Lee The Magician.

In the 1970s, he was doing a fiery cage escape trick in Sheboygan, Wisc., when a NBC affiliate taped him catching fire. He made CNN news and TV Guide.

He says he became such a celebrity he moved to Hilbert, Wisc. and changed professions.

“I couldn’t go nowhere without people stopping me for autographs,” he said. “But now I’m known as the balloon man in a lot of truck stops.”

Still, like so many people, Schneider has still more sides. He calls himself a “fundamentalist” or “independent” preacher. He’s also an outdoors man who loves bow hunting and fishing.

At 57 years old, he plans on retiring in five years and going back to the garage to dig out Gimmick and David Lee.

Until then, “kids and waitresses” at truck stops across the country can count on animal balloons to lighten the load.

A dirty, smelly, messy gift for a little girl

“Of all nature’s gifts to the human race, what is sweeter to a man than his children.”

My daughter turns eight-years-old this weekend and I want to be home for the celebration so I began making plans to leave my New York carnival a couple days ago.

I’ve been gone most of this year on my year following traveling carnivals, calling her daily on my cell phone.

However, I got an e-mail from my ex-wife’s family saying my daughter tells them she deeply misses me.

I’ve been making phone calls to Chicago area carnivals listed on the state’s licensing site and this morning got hired over the phone.

My boss in New Jersey said he’ll send my cash to my sister’s house. I’m going to a carnival with bunkhouses on the Southside of Chicago but no fixed address.

No tears were shed saying goodbye this morning to a crew of about 10 people in Westchester County. I’ve been here two weeks and several people have left since I signed on.

One carny collapsed and was taken to the hospital a few days ago.

Behind the scenes – before and after show time – carnivals are harsh places. In his 60s, that collapsed carny was then fired.

Missing them madly

This morning, the crew wasn’t very surprised by my announcement.

A Newberry, New York kid, 18 years old, said I should buy the crew a round of beer. Because we don’t get this week’s pay until tomorrow, a Jamaican said I should have given him and his brother my week’s pay. They would make sure it was sent, he said, winking that they might also be tempted to keep it.

One of the brothers who own my New Jersey-based carnival said, “Say hello if you’re ever in this part of the country again.”

A woman some of the carnies call ‘mom,’ in front of the whole crew, took a smoke of her cigarette, looked into the sun and asked me, “Why.”

“My daughter’s eighth birthday is this weekend,” I said.

This crew all has families they miss. It is obvious that some miss them madly.

The majority male crew – most of them fathers themselves – all nodded their heads in approval.

Going to Chicago

It’s Tuesday and the second day of set-up for a carnival in a mall parking lot.

The crew was sweating in the heat and working on rides as they waved goodbye. I was sweating too as I went to the mall to file this blog and get water in an empty Gatorade bottle for the road.

It’s 2 p.m., I have no idea where I’ll sleep tonight. It will be tough hitchhiking to Chicago.

Walking the area this morning about 6 a.m., I saw I’m near the Taconic State Highway (not far from Franklin Roosevelt’s home). From here I can hitch to I-85 to I-80, through Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Indiana.

It’s a bit more than 800 miles. It completes a loop for me that started on the storied Zephyr from Chicago through the American West to San Francisco. From there I hitched through the Southwest and up to New Jersey, a bit more than 3,000 miles.

My year following traveling carnivals had to be coast-to-coast and I have to travel the way they travel.

This leg of the trip, I’m heading into harsh weather. And the murder arrest of Kai the “Hatchet Hitchhiker” can’t be good for hitchhikers anywhere.

I have real concerns about Northern Indiana and the Southside of Chicago. I’ve hitched it before and it was always epic.

Maybe I’ll be lucky this time.

I’ll be a dirty, smelly mess when I get there but I am the dirty, smelly, messy gift for an eight-year-old angel.

Hitchhiking the USA, 2013 Style

Hitchhiking a shadow of it’s former self.

“Somewhere along the line I knew there’d be girls, visions, everything; somewhere along the line the pearl would be handed to me.”
Jack Kerouac, “On the Road”

Hitchhiking just got worse in America.

The murder arrest of America’s most famous hitchhiker, Kai the “hatchet hitchhiker,” casts a different light on my own coast-to-coast hitchhiking trip that ended last week.

There are a number of coincidences between the drama that unfolded this week with Kai and my own 12-day thumb from San Francisco to New Jersey.

Kai became famous earlier this year for a wacky, viral TV interview he gave after using a hatchet to protect a utility worker in Fresno, Calif. from the driver he was hitchhiking with. I began my hitchhiking journey in the greater San Francisco area, near Fresno, and ended in New Jersey, where the murder occurred.

Sometime after the murder for which he is charged, he allegedly fled to Asbury Park, New Jersey. I also spent a couple days this week in Asbury Park visiting, among other people, a homicide prosecutor.

I hitchhiked from a traveling carnival in California to a New Jersey carnival as part of my year of following traveling carnivals and writing about it on

With so few hitchhikers out there these days and his proximity to my own route, Kai’s arrest prompted thoughts about risk, thrill and hitchhiking.

All along my cross-country hitchhiking trip I was being asked if I felt safe. What are other hitchhikers like? Who would ever pick up a hitchhiker?

Thumb out, red flag up

I estimate that I’ve hitched almost 50,000 miles through the United States, Canada, Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. My hitching began in the 1970s, when I had a prediction.

“The people of the future will say hitchhiking was safer back then.”

However, serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer’s first victim, Steven Hicks, was a hitchhiker in the 1970s. He eventually lived near my house in Milwaukee. Hitchhiker Colleen Stan was kidnapped south of San Francisco in 1977 and held captive for seven years. And Eastern Europe and the Middle East weren’t exactly danger-free zones when I hitched them either.

During that time of my prolific hitchhiking, I developed categories for people who pick up hitchhikers.

Drunken and high people. Born-again Christians. The mentally ill. Vietnam Veterans (in the ’70s and’80s). Gays on the make. Lastly, mainstream folks who didn’t fit into the other categories.

In those days, I was subject to numerous unwelcome homosexual advances and attempts to convert me to Jesus.

Unwelcome too were the drunken drivers and truck drivers high of speed or cocaine.

And the mentally ill often showed a distinct lack of attention to their steering wheel and brakes.

Almost needless to say, I never got picked up by a beautiful Penthouse forum gal. I told one driver this and he laughed.

“That’s just too much to ask God for.”

The adventurous aspect of the journeys has always been heightened by the drivers.

However, never once was I threatened nor I did feel in danger of losing my life.

Still, by the late 1970s, a widespread fear of hitchhiking already emptied the roads in America of other hitchhikers to the point that I rarely saw another.

I was a relatively strong young man in my 20s and I carried an open Swiss Army knife in my right pocket.

I practiced how to swing it toward a driver and I practiced not hesitating. I feared that I would hesitate and lose the advantage of being armed with a small knife.

My swing of the knife was going to the head and I figured it would cut, disfigure and delay my attacker. Just enough to get away.

My weapon was for self defense, not murder.

Hitchhiking 2.0

I’m now 54 years old and the widespread fear of hitchhiking seems greater than it was in the ’70s and ’80s.

Yet this time, less strong and able, I did not carry a weapon.

I estimate 30-to-40 drivers picked me up and they crossed demographics.

The hitchhiking categories I set up in the ’80s didn’t hold up perfectly this time.

High truck drivers, drunken drivers and born-again Christians picked me up. My Vietnam Veteran category I would now replace with an ex-hitchhiker category (I did what you’re doing when it was safer).

I rode with several mentally ill people but mostly they spent their time talking in an agitated way about their own delusions.

I was hitchhiking out of gay-friendly San Francisco but it wasn’t until Tennessee that a homosexual driver hit on me.

For three-quarters of the country, I joked with friends, I felt I had lost my youthful appeal to predatory homosexuals out for random sex with strange hitchhikers.

Nevertheless, the mainstream folks were the bulk of the drivers. Whites, Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, young and old, rich and poor picked me up.

My first ride was from an successful San Francisco-area inventor, with several patents to his name. I had three rides from grandmothers in their 70s.

A Pizza Hut driver delivered a pizza to a broken down hotel room while I waited in the car. An under-employed musician took me on a tour of Beale Street before dropping me off for an overnight stay on a floor mat at the Memphis Union Mission.

Standing with thumb out in front of US Interstate onramp signs saying “Pedestrians, Bicycles, Motor Driven Cycles Prohibited,” I was picked up by an Army combat medic, a former Army ‘intelligence officer,” a fruit tree nursery owner, a Mayflower mover, a longshoreman, an international environmentalist, a hang glider, a Scottish Highland Games wrestling coach, a Protestant pastor, a retired petroleum worker, two state troopers and a former “meth cook” who just finished his 26th year in prison.

They all took a risk on me and me on them.

My last ride – who deserves a separate essay – was a Ph.D. candidate at Princeton University’s Lepidopteran Genomics at Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Princeton University. He is studying climate change on Tiger Swallowtail butterflies.

That conversation ranged from genetics to wandering Virginia and North Carolina with a butterfly net in the Great Dismal Swamp, an experience the young scientist described as magic.

Statistics don’t tell Canterbury Tales

As a former journalist, I noticed that dangerous situations often feel like peaceful situations. The cafe is normal before the bomb blast.

Nothing bad happened to me between the Pacific and Atlantic but that isn’t an indicator that hitchhiking is safe for either driver or hitchhiker.

Freakonomics did a great piece on this, which suggests that the dangers are overblown but even their statisticians were unable to find hard data either way.

I doubt Nate Silver would be able to profile the 2013 hitchhiker or driver.

Freakonomics writers suggested that movies such as “Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” in which the hitchhiker is a gruesome murder, contributed to an unreal view of the actual danger.

Now, Kai comes along with a narrative arc that swings from hitchhike hero to accused hitchhiker murder.

Kai’s ravings to a Fox TV station went viral and got him on late night TV shows. An entire line of t-shirts with his logo carried sayings such as “Smash Smash Smaaaaaash.”

At the time, Stephen Colbert mocked the seeming lack of common sense it takes to pick up hitchhikers.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve rolled up my windows and sped past a hobo sharpening a hatchet. Not even considering picking him up. But I have come to realize the error of my ways after seeing this news story about a young man named Kai. He showed me that axe-wielding hitchhikers are people too – people who sometimes stop madmen running loose on California freeways … So nation, I encourage you to pick up axe-wielding homeless hitchhikers whenever you see them.”

As someone fresh off the nation’s interstates, I can tell you that Kai isn’t the norm any more than Dahmer was in the 70s and 80s.

I can also say I met other hitchhikers so hitchhiking isn’t dead.

I’ll even go further and recommend hitchhiking. It’s not for people who want to get where they are going on time. It’s not for the faint of heart.

I recommend it for those in dire need of a free ride and for those desperate for adventure, life experiences and to be an eyewitness to Canterbury Tales.

It’s a place where writers, dreamers and those hungry for life have gone for inspiration in hopes that, as Kerouac thought, “somewhere along the line the pearl would be handed to me.”

Unknown switchbacks and risks are the price of the open road.

American Drifters: “Halleluhjah, I’m a bum”


Bear and Ru in Van Buren, Arkansas made $170 bumming in the Walmart parking lot but were broke the next morning.

“Hallelujah, I’m a bum,
Hallelujah, bum again,
Hallelujah, give us a handout
To revive us again”

“Hallelujah, I’m a Bum” by John J. Husband, 1815

American drifters are different than other drifters because they drift in America. Places shape people and American drifters may live in many places but they carry an imbedded American chip.

The United Nations estimates 26.4 million people around the world are ‘internally displaced people.” (when I first read this term I thought it might be a psychological disorder). That’s a colossal number of people but most of them are displaced by catastrophes or violence.

On my recent coast-to-coast hitchhike following traveling carnivals I met a few drifters marching to Thoreau’s American drummer.

One told me that he and his wife “are just looking for paradise.” Just paradise? No fountain of youth or city of gold or Salt Lake City?

Another clearly felt like he was hooked up spiritually to a young, new America.

The US being a more religious country than many in the world, perhaps it isn’t strange that so many of my conversations about America with drifters turned to their thoughts about God.

I believe I know a bit more about drifters because I started drifting in my 20s and kept track of drifters and drifter issues, from history to current trends.

I estimate that I’ve hitchhiked close to 20,000 miles, rode freight trains and rode bicycles slowly across America over the span of 30 years. I’ve picked up hitchhikers, worked in shelters and read what I can on the topic.

Although no expert, on this trip from San Mateo, California to Passaic, New Jersey, I met a few American drifters.

“Why don’t you work like other folks do”

Driving all night with Don and Sancho through the Texas Panhandle and Oklahoma in an alcohol and pot infused half-dream, we talked about uniting the world religions with a second coming and a return of the prophet preaching a kind of animism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism and Confucianism.

It was an incredibly silly flight of fancy. We left out voodoo but someone should have stuck a pin in us.

When we reached Arkansas we stopped at a McDonald’s/gas station. My hosts went to the back of the van to sleep while I went to the McDonald’s for the Wifi.

Interestingly, a father traveling with his children at the McDonald’s singled me out to ask if I knew the location of the local food stamps office. I wondered if I looked like I belonged to Don and Sancho’s ragtag caravan.

Did I look like an American drifter? Am I one of them? Should I be flattered or just find a laundromat?

When Don and Sancho finished sleeping, Sancho began bumming money from people around the lot. Don took his dog Buddha for a walk in a neighbourhood to grab parcel full with treats from his list of the best dog food.

Bear, Ru and their dog were sitting at a picnic bench in the park. Bear is 41 years old, with a Grizzly Adams beard and tells me that he’s from New Jersey and it’s impossible to hitchhike in New Jersey. Ru is in her 20s, with a folk-outfit and a bright outlook, at least this morning.

Don joined them and they started talking about polished stones and festivals. Sancho followed them, telling me to wait before following because “riders and cops ask too many questions.”

Sancho was trying to bum pot off the couple but they either didn’t have any or weren’t ready to part with it.

“Oh, why don’t you save all the money you earn?
If I didn’t eat, I’d have money to burn.”

Bear and Ru are also bumming from town to town, most recently, at a local Walmart.

They made $170 in a single day sitting in the Walmart parking lot “flying a sign.” They then bought new clothes, the best wood stove for camping they could find and checked into a hotel. The morning I met them, they had $8 between them.

This reminded me of “Lone Wolf” in Moriarity, Arizona. The grandfather in his 60s had made $70 in two hours of bumming at a TA truckstop and said he was broke the next morning. He’d spent the money on a hotel, candy and beer.

It didn’t seem to Lone Wolf, Bear or Ru that they could be saving for a better life.

They were living a better life than the most work-a-day Americans.

Just enough money always seems to come along, a magically delicious sweet life to them.

Bear has been traveling for more than 20 years and mentions it several times. This cycle of bumming money, selling rocks and using drugs is the forever-young life for him.

Bear clearly feels like he is getting away with too much fun. He has a ‘can-you-believe-this’ way of talking about his life.

Bear has found paradise and its in America but it keeps alighting to another place so he follows the light.

A few days ago – at the New Jersey carnival I’m working in now – I retold the story of Bear and Ru making $170 bumming in a Walmart parking lot and having $8 in the morning.

In my mind the story is about having $8 in the morning. They were finally ahead but they blew it.

To the carnies in New Jersey, the story was about how much money people can make bumming and it made them wonder why they themselves don’t do it more.

Sitting on the back of a flatbed trailer with Yankee Tattoos, he said he has friends who would be smoking weed with him and then put down the pipe, go bumming and come back with bags of weed.

“But I don’t know, I have too much pride to just bum money off people,” said Yankee Tattoos, who two days later reported to a local police station on a drug warrant.

A jointy girl chimed in that she had friends that supported their crack habit and a nice home on their bumming bucks.

That reminded me of the story of a Butler Amusements carny who was fired at a show in Canada for bumming during his two-hour break time. He was on the road bumming while still wearing his powder blue Butler carnival hat and shirt.

“When springtime comes, oh, won’t we have fun
we’ll throw off our jobs and go on the bum”

These bumming stories remind me of the many definitions of “bum” that pop up in hobo lore. I became familiar with those bum, tramp, hobo distinctions while reporting on the Hobo Convention in Britt, Iowa for The Chicago Tribune in the 1980s.

“Hallelujah, I’m a Bum” was practically the anthem of Britt’s celebration of the American hobo past but I saw a bit of that past on American highways.

For one, Ru seemed to already be familiar with several types of bums. She even chided Bear for sometimes being too much of a home bum, sticking to a place too long. But after making that jab, she took it back quickly for fear of offending, I suppose.

Ru was in a giggly mood that Arkansas morning as she told me she’s the “only traveler” from Punxsutawney, Penn. She then gave me a cell phone number to call if I get stranded somewhere in Pennsylvania (where I’m not heading).

It seemed absurd, at first, to give me a Punxsutawny number when I’m headed to New Jersey but it made perfect sense on her type of drifter circuit.

Waking up broke and not knowing where you’ll be that night is part of the adventure. Starting out for one place and ending up in another is a minute to minute option.

Bear knows a great place to hunt for stones, meet other “traveling kids,” and score more weed. Oachita National Forest is just down Route 71, he says, and he knows a great rock hunting area by a creek.

Don and Sancho are still eventually headed to the Memphis Music Festival but more weed, rocks and fun lie ahead in Ouachita.

Bear and Ru joined Don and Sancho in their like-minded caravan.

I hitchhiked on my own toward New Jersey, knowing I’m not one of them, not their kind of drifter.

My next ride was an Arkansas preacher.

Wild Night Ride fueled by Pot, Puke and the Dead

Don Quixote
My wild night ride from the Texas Panhandle through Oklahoma to Arkansas reminded me of another two traveling dreamers.

“Finally, from so little sleeping and so much reading, his brain dried up and he went completely out of his mind.”
Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Don Quixote

The sun set as I hitchhiked the shoulder of I-40 across the Texas Panhandle. I already had my eye on a bank of trees I’d have to sleep under. The night was shaping up to be windy, cold and long.

Almost without hope left for a ride, a dinged-up, dusty white 1998 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter ambled by at a gas-saving pace and pulled over.

A round Sancho got out the passenger door with black jeans, black shirt and a black porkpie hat.

The darkness lifted from this hitchhiker’s heart when driver and passenger said they are headed 700 miles to Memphis, Tenn.

Instead of shivering beneath a tree beside an interstate, I was embarking on a wild ride through the Texas-Oklahoma night.

The van had a mattress on the floor, jammed storage shelves and a dashboard with heaps of pot, tobacco and a couple books from The Indian in the Cupboard series (a little boy puts a toy Indian in the cupboard and it comes to life as an 18th century Iroquois Indian).

The driver, Don, is tall, bearded and all bones, appearing to live on cigarettes, pot, alcohol, hallucinogens and Argentinian mate. His hairstyle is a mess of matted dreadlocks. He speaks earnestly and quickly.

The tall, thin leader of this duo reminded me of Don Quixote, in part, because Don appears to be living in a drug and alcohol induced dream world. Sidekick Sancho is short, stocky, earthy and along for the ride.

Don has a large head and marionette frame. Sancho loves to scratch his belly, which hangs out under his shirt and over his belt. They are both about 30 years old.

Their interest in 18th century romanticized Indians and idealized Grateful Dead adds some symmetry to the vision, given Don Quixote’s romanticized view of knighthood and the world.

But that’s my overlay on their wanderings, which for them seems to be sallying forward into a more enlightened world fueled by drugs, world peace, free food and money bummed from squares.

Both duos also are led by a person addicted to magical thinking and a world of adventure and a higher, more noble existence. At the same time, both settle for a “higher” existence.

Don’s two-year-old rescued mastiff-golden retriever mix is named Buddha and sat between my legs all night, giving me cramps and causing me to shift in my seat during deep philosophical discussions.

Still, Buddha and all the talk about world religions on the ride give the ride a Kerouac “Dharma Bums” feel.

Although, like his namesake, it isn’t clear the pug-nosed Sancho shares Don’s romantic visions.

I mention my “Eyes Like Carnivals” year (I’m working in traveling carnivals for a year and writing about it) and tell them I won’t use their real names.

Sancho, who is smoking a pot pipe shaped like a deer antler, said I can’t use his name because he has copyrighted it and he can sue me. Also, I should know that he worked for “Midway,” a Texas carnival, running a carousel for a while. The carnies gave him pot laced with crack, just to see if he was a cop, he said.

“So don’t take no dope from no carnies,” said the very drunk and high Sancho as he touched my forearm for emphasis.

Still wearing his porkpie hat, he later fell back, wordless, on to the mattress.

Almost immediately and emphatically, Don tells me how he just broke up with the love of his life.

His Dulcinea, apparently, is a whiskey-guzzling bitch who parted company with him that morning.

“You know what the difference between a bitch and a whore is?” Don asks. “A whore is a woman who’ll sleep with anybody. A bitch is someone who sleeps with anybody but you.”

She and another traveler headed west, he’s headed east to Memphis and eventually home to New Jersey to resupply. For him, that means money and polished stones he can sell on the road.

Gas stations are for bumming

Don also has Mickey’s Malt Liquor next to him and is smoking from the antler. In a convoluted story, he tells how he got into polishing precious and semi-precious stones. He also seemed to be justifying the stealing of a stone-cutting machine from another dealer (who drove away so I assumed he left it for me, he says).

Don told stories of spending years in prison for “stupidly” flooding his small New Jersey hometown with acid tablets. He alludes to other ‘stupid’ arrests, including for bongo drumming in a mall after midnight in Boulder, Colo.

Don is virtually a chemist of drugs, listing off a long line of ingredients in each hallucinogen. He makes references to serotonin levels in the brain and studies that back him up, not mainstream medical studies.

The Grateful Dead and Wu-Tang Clan play from 8 pm in Amarillo to 5 am in Arkansas/Tennessee border. He stops important points to sing and point out great lyrics.

We crossed Texas, Oklahoma and into Arkansas talking about religion, politics, drugs and Don’s lifestyle. He goes festival to festival selling and bartering, pot, acid and stones – gems, precious and semi-precious. He occasionally goes out to hunt for rocks too.

He may someday get a house to base his operations. But no other ambition is cited.

Solving the world’s religious wars, he laughs, would be as simple as having a return of the messiah and the second coming of the prophet be the same guy, only half circumcised. Ya. Ya. Ya.

Don and Sancho live by bumming money at gas stations. Sancho prides himself on this, at one gas station he approached an out-of-uniform cop and got $20 for gas. He bums from everyone in a gas station – at the pump to the store to the next urinal.

At one gas station, I bought a $1 bag of chocolate chip cookies and he got mad at me, telling me to stay away from him “while I do my thing.”

Another bumming rule learned: Not good to be seen with someone eating cookies while you are bumming.

Clearing the throat

Within minutes of his blunt advice, he began puking beside the van in the loudest “awwing” sound I have ever heard. It sounded like an ham actor overdoing a puking scene. Its was so loud and filled with gut-twisting gurgles that it seemed unreal.

Puke shot out his nose too but he nonchalantly wiped that away with his forearm.

The earthy Sancho then complained about “shittin’ like a Mexican” in the bathroom. He then spit so close to me I had to back up to be missed.

Don looked at me a bit embarrassed and said it must have been the water in one of the hotels they had stayed at (with money they had bummed at gas stations).

“Ya, the water. Because it couldn’t have been all the beer, whiskey and pot he was doing before passing out,” I thought.

We drove for about an hour after that when we heard pounding on the vehicle from the back. I turned around and Sancho had chipmunk cheeks filled with puke.

Round two.

Don swerved to the shoulder of the road and Sancho exited to puke that same puke of the undead. Again, he nearly hit me. This time he noticed I still had my cookies from the gas station.

“What do you live on cookies or something, Goddamn!”

I should cut back on the sweets, I thought for a moment.

Chewin’ on a dream

After Sancho retired back to his boudoir, Don and I spend the wee hour of the morning talking about how Senora and Flagstaff are great Arizona towns for hitchhikers. “Hippy Hill” outside Murfreesboro, Tenn., is great for hanging out and playing pool in a tee-pee with a tree in the middle.

He gave me tips on how to volunteer for a festival early then walk in and out the rest of the week or weekend selling rocks or drugs.

By the time we made it to a rest stop and a McDonald’s in Van Buren, Arkansas I was sick of the Grateful Dead.

In fact, I mentioned that at 54 years old, I’m older than Jerry Garcia was when he died. The thought bummed out Don.

I got out of the van and rubbed the Buddha-cramps out of my legs.

It was 5 am, the day was beginning to lighten and the long night of pot, puking and drug-fueled conversations was ending like a strange road dream set to a Grateful Dead soundtrack and dimly lit by a low burning deer antler.

I dug deep into my jacket pocket, pulled out the last of my chocolate chip cookies and thought, “This will be a lot to chew on.”

Next: American Drifters

Kid Gypsy: A Bright, Painted Trickster Rolls On

Kid Gypsy and Bo-dog hitchhiking in Virginia.


“I’m Kami (kid gypsy) a one man side show preforming the strange and unusual, you have to see it to believe it!”
Kid Gypsy’s bally, from his Facebook page

On a sunny day by the on-ramp of Route 64 near Interstate 81 in Staunton, Va., cars and trucks whiz by on their way to work, errands and normal life.

With his shepherd-collie mix – Bo-dog – guitar, backpack and cardboard “Charlottesville” sign, Kid Gypsy sits at the grassy intersection of normal and freak. You may find organic cbd oil for dogs is just what your dog needs.

I take time to walk over to his spot, from my hitchhiking position along Route 81 North. When I told him about the “Eyes Like Carnival” Web site, he decided to prove his carny credentials by doing the, “block head routine.”

Taking out a screwdriver from his vest pocket, he wet it with his lips and tongue, leaned his head back and twisted the screwdriver down through his nostril into his skull.

Kid Gypsy does the trick with nonchalance, pulls out the screwdriver, then shrugs and smiles just like a sweet-faced kid.

“My name is Mess, Kid Gypsy,” he said, adding he also goes by the names Kami and Messy Mess. “A traveling show, original freak act.”

I’m on the Virginia portion of my coast-to-coast hitchhiking trip from a San Francisco carnival to carnivals on the East Coast.

Kid Gypsy might have done his whole routine if we had time.

“I hammer six-inch nails up my nose. I put screwdrivers up my nose, scissors. I swing bar stools from my plugs. I hang weighted objects from my plugs. I hang weighted objects from my septum ring. I walk on glass, jump on glass, allow people to walk on my face and back on glass. I swallow fires and … ahh … that’s about it I think.”

Freak face

At times almost shy, his face almost screams “look at me.”

He wears conventional, thick brown glasses along with a Mohawk hair cut, white-hallow earlobe rings, a septum ring, metal piercings on his lips and chin, and tattoos on his nose and chin.

Yet his face is a work in progress.

“Omi, is a great inspiration to me” he says, of The Great Omi, a famous painted man and freak show performer who died in 1969. “I want to be totally covered head to toes in tattoos …. I want horns (on the forehead).”

Around his neck is a spiked dog collar.

At 25-years-old, he’s been a drifter for about four years. He says he has no home and travels with his sleeping bag and tarp to music concerts and small towns. When he gets to “a cool town,” he says, he calls local bars and offers his “freak show,” sometimes for beer and $50 to $100, sometimes more.

Kid Gypsie says he’s a child of the tattoo shop, having literally grown up in an extended family with a tattoo shop.

At 16-years-old, he was taking the summers off to travel and he was out of the house by 18, driving a soup kitchen bus, following Rainbow Festivals and meeting up with Muxx Blank.

He says he learned his freak show tricks at “Mr. Blank’s Weird and Wandering Sideshow” and “Carnivale of Black Hearts.”

“Before I knew it, I had 10 tricks,” he said, of the bag of tricks known as the Ten in One show. “I could snort floss condoms and jewelry up my nose and out my mouth.”

Time to roll

He grew up in Staunton and is hitchhiking to Charlottesville, where last year he took part in the “Occupy” movement and was arrested for public disobedience.

Asked what his proudest moment is in his life, he says last year’s Occupy Charlottesville protests.

He can switch topics from Freak Shows to politics fast.

Difficult to imagine him a wage slave, he says he’s concerned about minimum wage being too low. This man with no place he calls home, is worried that without “a living wage” people won’t be able to afford “their own homes.”

As I walk back to my own hitchhiking spot I look back at Kid Gypsy playing with Bo-dog beside the highway.

Kid Gypsy looks particularly vulnerable sitting there in the grassy triangle, with a bag of gross tricks, a painted face and risking his skin for a few dollars and beer. His freak life is still unfolding, he doesn’t yet have his horns.

Still, it struck me, it’s been a while since I’d seen someone so nakedly seeking to be the only one of his kind.

A bright, painted trickster and his dog rolling out.

“Flying the sign,” Confessions of a Lone Wolf


After panhandling, “Lone Wolf” seeks a place out of sight to drink a beer in Moriarity, New Mexico.

“Happiness doesn’t depend on any external conditions, it is governed by our mental attitude.”
Dale Carnegie

It’s about 4 a.m. at a Love’s truck stop in eastern Tennessee off Interstate 40.

Diners seem to whisper this time of night. Shoppers in the truck stop quietly shuffle. Love’s cartoon heart logos light up the gasoline ports.

Staying up all night saves me money and from sleeping outside in a cheap, freezing sleeping bag.

I eat too much and fall asleep while typing, waking up to gibberish on the laptop.

Still, I love writing in a truck stop in the dead of night.

Carpe diem

I’m reflecting on how hitchhikers from Arizona to Arkansas this week found their own shelter.

“Lone Wolf” wears a Vietnam Veteran hat and says he was in the Navy, or the Marines, “they were the same branch.”

In the small town of Moriarity, New Mexico, next to Interstate 20 east or Albuquerque, Lone Wolf sits by the AT Travel Center parking lot with a cardboard sign saying, “Old Homeless Veteran.”

His veteran status helps him, he thinks.

Saturday night he panhandled $40 and paid $30 for a hotel room. On Sunday, he got $70 in two hours, he said. With the cigarettes, beer, food and rooms, he’ll be broke by morning.

In three conversations, he makes it clear this is his life, he’s not saving for a future off the road. He’s not worried about being broke tomorrow. Today is the day.

When flying the sign, he depends on the sympathy of strangers but when you speak to him, he sounds proud.

“It’s the freedom. The freedom. Feeling free and no landlords breathing down your neck and turning off the heat or the lights. I’ve had that.”

A native of Lincoln, Nebraska, he has been married three times and has three kids he hasn’t seen in years. He’s not sure where they are, he says. He has one grandchild but “may have another by now.”

I asked him directly on a couple occasions what propelled him out of his home and wrenched him away from his family.

“I’m sure it was something,” he said.

At 62-years old, the sun has aged and lined his face. His clothes are tattered and dusty. He is thinking of shaving his beard for the summer, but not all of it.

Getting hotel rooms is okay but he loves waking up outside too.

“Mornings are my favorite part. You see the sun come up. The air is cleaner. You get in touch with nature.”

Lone Wolf says he has been roaming town to town, on and off for 30 years. It’s clear, too, that when he catches a ride his plans change with the driver’s plans.

His best ride, he said, was from Tipton, GA. to Albert Lea, Minnesota. He had no idea where he was going when he got on that 18-wheeler or what he would do when he got there. After the driver bought food and clothes for him during the two-day drive, he gave Lone Wolf $140 out of his pocket.

Lone Wolf says he doesn’t want to change his life. Yesterday and tomorrow, he insists, aren’t in his sights. He’s seizing the day.

“I’m happy,” he says smiling, with several teeth missing. “Of course, there are good days and bad days. But it’s all what you make it.”