My last sight of him, as the truck pulled out of the gas station, caught him bent down urging Fray to move on, slapping his thighs and bouncing his knees up and down encouragingly. The puppy sat forlornly on the gravel, disinclined to budge. Jordan tried everything he could with a wide smile and a pleading brow. As the truck turned the curve, man and dog disappeared into the backdrop of green and brown fields that lined the black, paved road.
Nine hours and 1,030 kilometers later, a trucker dropped me off at a gas station with 800 more kilometers to go until Mar del Plata, my destination. It was just before 10 pm. The sky was an inky black that ran out as far as my eyes could see, blending with the earth, so profound that the horizon disappeared completely. I stood, paralyzed in the dingy station, trapped in my lonely stupor.
After meeting Jordan in a hostel in Bariloche, Argentina two months earlier, we’d been inseparable. I’d been traveling by myself around South America for the last four months, and Jordan was another solo traveler. His wide, green-blue eyes that color-shifted depending on his t-shirt’s hue, caught my attention the moment we were introduced at the communal dinner table at the Universal Travelers Hostel. I liked his scruffy beard and broad shoulders and the way he’d cock his left eyebrow up when he was thinking about something. He was a 22-year-old rock climber that had journeyed down from Colorado to Patagonia in hopes of climbing the majestic Fitz Roy, one of the most technically challenging mountains in the world.
Jordan and I became quick friends. We spent hours exploring around Bariloche or sitting on the saggy, faded blue couch in the hostel’s living room after cooking dinner. When you travel, especially by yourself, the continuity of change gives you a sense of invincibility. You can take more risks, you can kiss the cute stranger, you can be as weird and as honest as you please, as personal and as distant as suits you, because you can always move on. You never have to see anyone again. A secure expiration date gave us the opportunity to forget doubts or questions people face when committing to normal relationships. We could leave these insecurities behind us and fully maximize the present moment.
We both rearranged our traveling plans to extend our time together as long as we could, but we eventually parted ways, as we knew we inevitably would. That morning, before I’d left him and Fray, the puppy we’d rescued together on the side of the road earlier in the week, Jordan and I exchanged a special goodbye that said ‘I love you’ and made no promises.
There were four rusty gas pumps underneath a broad aluminum roof that extended from the small convenience store that ran the station. A small, buzzing fluorescent light dangled out in the middle of the extended roof, hosting a swarm of quarter-sized flies and golf ball-sized bugs. To the left of the station, along a gravel road leading to the highway, a dozen trucks were lined up with curtains closed across the window fronts. Other than that, there was nothing. I was in the absolute middle of Nowhere. A Nowhere I couldn’t have pointed out on the crinkled roadmap in my backpack.
A dreamlike state washed over me. I had nowhere to go and no means of doing what needed to be done, namely sleep and the lonely wait, until morning when I could start looking for another trucker to hitchhike with the remaining kilometers up north.
I took a seat on a little curb and took a deep breath. It was just me and the gas station and the inky forever beyond. I looked around the dumpy trucker stop and accepted the fact that I’d be sleeping on the side of the road tonight. This time alone, I missed Jordan with a pang in my chest that resonated so deeply it hurt. I hugged my knees and leaned against my backpack. Missing him distracted me from the worry of the danger I was in.
I didn’t want to pitch my tent and sleep in the corner of the sketchy truck stop parking lot on some unknown road. I looked down at my shoes. It had to be done. I’d planned poorly. There was nothing else I could do.
There is an art to hitchhiking. You have to plan the perfect times, and it pays well to be selective with whom you go and where they can take you. In traveling long distances, it’s often unlikely that every trucker who stops will be going to the same place, but you can piece together sections of the move and join them together fluidly with careful consideration.
I’d started hitchhiking three months before, when I’d entered Chile. The well-kept and organized Chilean roads — in comparison with the roads winding through Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia — made this not only a viable option but a necessary one. Chile also presented a financial problem for me as a long-term backpacker. The two-dollar hostel rooms and 50-cent meals in Bolivia were much missed in Chile, where I found a top bunk for $20 and spent nothing short of $5 for a meal. I inquired about a bus, and the clerk at the bus station pulled up a ticket for $80. At that point, I hadn’t spent more than $20 on a single thing the entire trip. I ate a yogurt that night for dinner and an old apple I’d found in my bag to compensate. Traveling like that wasn’t going to be sustainable. It would be impossible to stretch my money if I had to do that again.
I shouldered my bag and circled the station, walking around the backside of the convenience store to a gravely lot. There was a shrubby tree in the far right corner, dimly lit by the radiance of the station’s bulb. The rest of the lot was bare, save for three broken-down truck beds.
I set up my old tent on the other side of the shrubby tree while trying to ignore the agonizing thoughts racing through my mind. Am I safe? What have I gotten myself into? What if someone comes over here? I knew there was absolutely nothing that I could do; the situation was completely out of my control. I quickly threw my backpack inside, jumped in, and zipped the mesh flap shut. My heart pounded, and nervous sweat pooled all over my body. I could only imagine the most grotesque and unnerving situations: someone noticing my tent and coming over, someone disturbing me in the night, someone pulling me out. I stopped myself from thinking any further. There wasn’t a particle of my body that wasn’t at full attention. This was new; I hadn’t felt truly scared in months. I didn’t even want to turn my headlamp on for fear someone would notice and come over.
The best place to catch a ride is on the highway itself. This means the hardest part about starting is actually getting out to the highway ramp. The most efficient way is to find a cheap city bus and ask the driver to drop you as close as possible to the onramp. Many times I’ve just walked the miles out of the city and onto the highway when I couldn’t find any other way.
Over the course of months of hitchhiking, I narrowed the art down to a science. Placement just past the onramp is golden for many reasons. First, you eliminate cars and trucks that aren’t going far. These will never stop for a grungy-looking backpacker. Second, you open your window of opportunity to the hundreds of cars zooming along the interstates that bypass cities all together. Third, you increase the truck to car ratio. Big semis are an important key to hitching. Cargo trucks not only travel the farthest and the longest, making them the most efficient for going distances, but the solitary nature of trucking nudges them towards looking for hitchhikers for company, to keep them awake on long drives, or just to change up the pace of things. Every trucker I met voiced at least one of these as his reason for picking me up.
Whether or not you keep your backpack on whilst assuming an outstretched thumb can fall under personal discretion. Often it seemed that people would stop out of pity, as though they were rescuing me from the weight of the pack. This can help if you don’t look overtly happy or in a good mood because no one wants to stop for a scowl. Hitchhiking is exhausting, and standing for hours with fifty pounds strapped to your back will certainly debilitate you further and reduce any exuberant smile. It’s best to start with your pack on, and then, after waiting more than twenty minutes or until you can’t stand it anymore, don’t be afraid to take it off.
Jordan’s absence dwarfed me. I balled up my flannel and hugged it, squeezing my eyes shut to stop the tears. I looked up at the mesh tent walls. An eerie glow emanated from the station. I wanted a safe, quiet place to curl up and miss him properly. I unrolled my sleeping bag in the dark and curled up inside it. It was hot out; I figured I was somewhere in an arid landscape, but I felt cold. At every sound I jumped. Cars rushing. Doors opening. Shouts. Men’s voices. My heart was racing so fast. I started to sweat despite my chills and clenched my eyes shut even tighter to block out my thoughts. Seconds ticked by that felt like minutes, then hours, then forever. Time had never passed so slowly. I wanted it to be morning so badly so I could get up and get out and be on my way, safe in the sunlight.
I knew I was never going to fall asleep. My heart was beating so fast, there was no way I could slow it down to rest. I sat up and fumbled around my backpack. I held my breath as I turned my headlamp on and rolled a joint, knowing I needed a marijuana calm.
I laid back down and slipped my feet into my sleeping bag. Resting my head on my balled-up flannel, I turned the headlamp off again, afraid of being noticed.
I lit the joint, drawing my first inhale. This very well could be one of the stupidest things I’d ever done. I took another drag in the darkness, examining the beautiful orange embers on the tip of the paper. I was completely alone once again, at the mercy of the road. I closed my eyes and thought of this recurrent theme in my life: a constant pendulum swinging from intense moments of solitude to intense moments of company. I seemed to always be utterly alone or intensely in love. There was never any middle ground. Another drag, and I could already feel my nerves calming, but every sound or flutter of movement outside caused me to jump. I took my knife and mace canister and put them by my head for easy access.
Though the night was warm and I was just in my tank top, goosebumps persisted across my arms and legs. Sometimes, I thought to myself, you just have to hope for the best, because nothing is in your control. I pulled harder on the joint and closed my eyes, letting the rich smoke infiltrate my lungs, body, and mind. The glowing embers meandered down toward my fingers, dimly illuminating the smoke rising and filling my tent. This I did have control over — this simple motion, the rise and fall of my chest; each breath I pulled in and pushed out, emphasized by drifting smoke.