Route 66, a vanishing hitchhiker & starting over

An 18-wheeler passes the TA truck stop as the Route 66 shopping center sign acts as a reminder of the “Mother Road” in Moriarity, NM.

With a pack on his back and tent/bedroll around his neck, this hitchhiker was going Alaska to Myrtle Beach, SC. round-trip.

“Our goals can only be reached through a vehicle of a plan … there is no other route to success.” Pablo Picasso

You can’t hitchhike Route 66 because the “Mother Road” is a ghost of its former self, existing in short segments but more real in people’s memories.

The L.A.-Chicago route which also was called “America’s Main Street,” is literally the main street in Moriarity, New Mexico. It runs parallel to Interstate 40, which I am hitchhiking today.

I pitched my tent at the TA Truck Stop in Moriarity last night near the junction of Route 40 and main street.

This morning I packed my gear in the dark, then walked across the street to McDonald’s for its free WiFi and Dollar Menu breakfast. Classical music with French horns played in the background as the first item on my morning sign-in was a picture of a picture of earth in space lit up by connections and the phrase:

“In the age of information, ignorance is a choice.”

Moriarity feels remote because it is surrounded by arid terrain, but this part of town is all about connections and travelers.

A giant shopping center sign next to the McDonald’s is shaped like a red, white and blue Route 66 road sign.

Across the street is the Moriarity Travel Center, more than a truck stop it is a major economic hub in this small town.

It has a Burger King, a Pizza Hut, a restaurant, a convection store, a convenience store and a truck stop all in one building.

Truckers are the main focus of this travelers’ rest.

Inside, the Country Pride Restaurant has a special section marked “Professional Drivers only,” and features a Fish Friday for $10.99. The décor is a mild peach color and waitresses wear white shirts with their black aprons, black pants and black shoes.

The décor of the rest of the stop is checkerboard red and black tile. The music is mostly 60’s rock n’ roll, Elvis’ “Blue Suede Shoes” and The Beatles’ “I Don’t Care Too Much For Money.”

The convenience store carries CB antennas and small flat screen TVs that might fit neatly in a semi-tractor trailer cab.

The TA part of the building has 10 showers, an automated laundry room and a game room with video games and crane games for MP4 players and stuffed kids animals.

The game room features a “Check Your Weight” machine, which for a quarter will also give you a “Daily Personal Message” and “Today’s Lucky Lotto Numbers.” (whoa! who knew that’s where you find them)

Behind the Shell truck stop pumps is a parking lot filled with acres of 18-wheelers, humming through the night as truckers sleep in their cabs.

Many of the truckers nod to each other in brotherhood in the early hours of the night but many of them are weary regulars wearing the current trucker uniform of the road – black Wrangler jeans, t-shirts and caps with logos or jokes.

Vanishing hitchhiker

I arrived in Moriarity late yesterday afternoon after one main ride from Flagstaff, Az.

I had spent the night in Flagstaff at the Little America Truck Stop, writing on my computer and eating in the restaurant. The truck stop has a large parking lot, showers, a gas station and a hotel.

I began the morning asking truckers in the restaurant and parking lot for lifts. Then I saw a man in his 60s or 70s with a backpack on his back and a bedroll around his neck.

He was in a hurry.

He was hitchhiking from Myrtle Beach, SC. to Alaska. A longtime truck driver, he was sidelined by a disability and now lives on social security and odd jobs somewhere in Alaska.

We didn’t talk long enough to get details.

He was in Myrtle Beach for a reunion of his old army unit, from which war or conflict he didn’t say.

He’s been hitchhiking like this for years, he said, and expects to be in his own bed by next Sunday. The previous night he had spent in his tent, “to keep the bugs and the rain off me.”

Almost immediately he turned to walk away, when I asked him if he had any tips for a fellow hitchhiker. I told him I was working the drivers in the truck stop lot.

He said he doesn’t do that. He waits on entrance ramps.

“Thank the driver for the ride,” he said. “Stay clean. Do your wash in the truck stop if you have to. But stay clean.”

With that, he didn’t exactly vanish but he quickly faded down the street and up the ramp.

I watched him go knowing I was watching a living hitchhiker of the past.

Starting over again

A couple hours later, Chris the Nurse picked me in an impeccably neat grey Eclipse. He was headed for Albuquerque too so we shook hands and got ready to get to know each other for five hours.

Chris isn’t a practicing nurse anymore. For the last three months he’s been unemployed due to his license being suspended for getting a DUI. His boss, he said, used the suspension to let him go.

He’s average height, thin, wears his grey hair thin and an earring in his left ear. He apologizes for smoking and is quick to laugh.

Unemployed for the first time since a teenager, he’s using the time to reassess his life and goals. His life partner died a couple years ago. His ex-wife died of a heroin overdose years before. His kids are grown He didn’t like his job anyway.

At 53 years old, he has nothing tying him down.

Now he finds himself asking how to plan “the rest of his life.”

“Where should I live?” Cabo San Lucas, Mexico would be fun. I know Spanish and I loved it last time I was there.

“What should I do for a living.” All I know is nursing. Maybe I could be a nurse on a movie set in Hollywood, people do that sort of thing you know.

When he dropped me off on an onramp in Albuquerque, I watched him drive away to see his daughter but with little idea of where he is headed.

I didn’t make it far after that long ride. An Army infantryman gave me a ride outside of town to an onramp with almost no cars going by.

So I walked up to the interstate and hitched on the side of the road, as cars and trucks whizzed by at 75-plus miles per hour.

Hitchhiking on the interstate is illegal and the fine is hefty so I was anxious. Some passing motorists and truckers wanted to make sure I knew they knew they knew the law, so they laid on their horns.

In a life-risking maneuver crossing two lanes to get to me, an older woman, thin with white hair and a crisp high voice, picked me up in her pick-up truck. In a way, Ida looks like she was from New Mexico – clear-eyed, vigorous and full of her own ideas.

She is retired, she said, but sometimes she cleans houses and that’s what she was doing yesterday.

She said she picks up lots of hitchhikers along Interstate 40, even handicapped hitchhikers. She does it because, “If they’re hitchhiking in the middle of nowhere they need help.”

Between the mountains and the long swathes of desert, hitchhikers do look tiny and vulnerable beside the road.

She dropped me off in Moriarity and after a few hours of no success, I found a tree behind the truck stop to hide me from drivers who might object to someone camping nearby and pitched my tent in tall grass.

As I listened to the trucks engines, I thought about the tornado I heard about in Alabama and the rock-sized hail storm in Oklahoma. I still haven’t gotten a firm job offer from a carnival in New Jersey, to fulfill the eastern portion of my coast-to-coast “Eyes Like Carnival” project year.

I’m going east but I’m not sure where I’m headed.

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