Why you should care

Because if you’re going on a road trip these days, you better bring more than a backpack … just in case.

Daniel Lev Shkolnik is a journalist living in New Haven, Connecticut.

When you’re hitchhiking in the USA, there’s a fear you’ll be picked up by any one in a series of nightmares — the sexual psychopath, the messianic schizophrenic, the hell-spawned trucker — all part of the zoology of human predators that supposedly stalk the concrete savannas of America.

Nate and I, straddling the line between college and the “real” world, had a much more hopeful vision of the interstate. His came from the stories his father had told about hitchhiking across the country in the 1960s. Mine came from my literary fathers: the Beats, footloose poets of post–World War II American counterculture. Looking to re-enact a pseudo-mythic past, and to save a few hundred dollars in airfare, we decided to hitch our way to New Orleans in time for St. Patrick’s Day, where we heard the float riders in the parades threw cabbages at your head.

The plan was random, the mood ridiculous, but knowing things might quickly go sour, we armed ourselves in the name of safety. Before leaving New Haven, I bought a frightening stiletto — something that looked like it might’ve flown from an assassin’s sleeve. Nate brought his hunting knife. We weren’t planning on using either, but from everything we’d been told, these weren’t our daddies’ highways. Something had changed on the American interstate, and we wanted to be ready.

“Heroin clinic?” My fingers tightened around the butt of my knife.

A few days later, we found ourselves 600 miles from home standing on the side of the highway, knives in our pockets, grins on our faces, trying our best to look like modern gentlemen. It was day two on the road, and we were stuck. We’d been standing on an anonymous stretch of North Carolina highway since 4 a.m. Noon had come and gone, and as the hours and cars dashed by, our smiles were beginning to look forced and ever more menacing.

Finally, a jalopy pulled over and a man stuck his head out the window.

“I ain’t going to ’lanta, but I can give you fellers a ride to Hickory.” He was a hick from Hickory. Irony and apprehension make a strange mix.

Nate and I bullied down our doubts and threw our stuff in his trunk. The sun was taking a dive, and after losing nearly a whole day on the side of the road, we were desperate to regain some momentum. As we rolled deeper into Appalachia, hundreds of miles below the Mason-Dixon Line, a keen anxiety was building in me. I was certain the South had its enlightened, law-abiding citizens. I was also certain it had closeted Klansmen and Confederate re-enactors waiting for the act to get real. I wasn’t sure where Mr. Hickory fell.

Our driver started telling us about himself. “Hickory is home. Born and bred. Family, friends, all that.” Then he mentioned the heroin clinic.

“Heroin clinic?” My fingers tightened around the butt of my knife.

“Ya, but I’m through with that. I’ve been trying to go straight, get my life back in order. After the clinic, things have been going better for me, ya know? I’ve been clean 13 months and working the truck routes again. I’ve got a wife and all. Got a kid back home. Daughter and everything.” He glanced nervously in the rearview. “Hey, you boys aren’t going to kill me, are ya?”

Nate and I cut each other off, racing to assure him we had no interest in his scalp or his organs. I loosened my grip on my knife. Relief and shame make a strange mix.

After a few silent minutes, he asked, “Say, you fellers don’t happen to have anything to smoke, do ya?”

Nate rolled a spliff and handed it up to him. The membrane of mistrust between the city boys and the Tar Heel disappeared, and the rest of the ride was calm and uneventful — smoke spiraling from the windows.

For the remainder of the trip to New Orleans, our knives remained virgins, drawn only to cut cardboard signs or slice cheese for our bread. As we rolled toward the Big Easy, I opened my copy of On the Road. The early chapters, in which Kerouac hitchhikes to Denver, read like a recasting of our trip. Nate and I had made many of the same mistakes, hit many of the same highs and scraped the same lows. The only thing that seemed missing from the published account was the fear.

Kerouac hitched through an America in the midst of the Red Scare, but even so, there was an atmosphere of trust on his highways. A certain fearlessness and ease on the part of both the hitchers and the drivers. Sixty years after Kerouac sat down to write his famous scroll, Nate and I had started a fearful trek across a fearful country. A place where people have grown ever more mistrustful of strangers, and ever more estranged from one another. A country that arms itself with knives and guns and nukes, becoming ever more weaponized and ever more afraid.

No, we never had to pull our blades. But neither did we forget we had them. Each night on our trip, Nate and I fell asleep to the soothing hum of our knives lying open just beneath our pillows.

OZYTrue Story

Good stories from around the globe. Essays and immersion, into the harrowing, the sweet, the surprising -- the human.