Here’s more of the true story of when I was sixteen and ran away from home and hitchhiked over a thousand miles and all sorts of things happened.
Chapter 5: The waiting is kind of the hardest part but the planning is one of the best parts so in a way the waiting isn’t that bad sometimes
Planning a trip has always been one of my favorite things. Planning to run away was over-the-top awesome. I’d made wild running-away-plans since the third-grade when I read “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs Basil E Frankweiler” and was fascinated by the elaborate plans Claudia made. I spent my childhood packing and repacking backpacks with the standard sorts of things like spare shirts and toothpaste, plus special items depending on what book I was reading. While reading “Mixed-Up Files” it was coins and laundry soap, “Search for Delicious” meant apples, and after I read “Harriet the Spy” I always included a notebook. (I know Harriet never ran away. Didn’t matter). After I read “Hatchet” I found out that it’s not really that easy for a nine-year-old girl in the suburbs to get a hold of a hatchet. “Ronia the Robber’s Daughter” convinced me to pack a loaf of bread (I just grabbed some dinner rolls). I then completely forgot about the escape kit and was pretty sad a month or so later when I opened it again.
It wasn’t just the packing part of planning that I liked; one summer at camp I would fall asleep figuring out how I might steal a horse from a nearby farm and ride it home (not something I ended up doing).
So packing and making plans was both familiar and incredibly exciting. It was like all those other plans had been practice; this time it was for real.
My sister had an old fake ID, and I found it in her room after she’d gone off to college. (Don’t worry – she’d gotten a better one.) My sister and I look nothing alike, and it said I was 20. I didn’t look 20 even when I WAS 20. At 16 I probably could have gotten away with claiming I was 12. But I convinced myself that with enough makeup on, it would work. I (adorably) thought that I’d be able to put makeup on every day while hitchhiking across the country. I also remember some sort of scarf that I wrapped around my head in a way that I thought made me look mature. I don’t know; maybe that was a style at the time?
(The reason my sister’s fake ID said 20 was because in 1985 the drinking age in DC and NYC had changed from 18 to 21. Anyone who was already 18 was grandfathered in, so my sister just needed to claim she’d been 18 two years before. It probably helped me; I’m sure if I’d been claiming to be 21 people would have been much more skeptical. Also: I once heard a guy who was trying to be cool referring to being grandfathered in as “making grandpa,” as in, “Did you make grandpa?” “She didn’t quite make grandpa,” etc., and I am still embarrassed for him.)
I had my allowance, and some birthday money I’d saved, and I think I convinced my dad I needed ten dollars for something. In the end, I had around thirty bucks for the trip (according to this inflation calculator https://westegg.com/inflation/, nearly seventy dollars today). I figured we’d be fine for the 3,000-mile trip.
I don’t remember what I packed exactly: t-shirts and underwear and socks. Shadow convinced me we should take my guitar, which I had given up on learning how to play, and which Shadow pretended he knew how to play, but which he very much did not. While it was a bulky thing to have to carry, he was absolutely correct in insisting we bring it. People are much, MUCH more likely to pick up a hitchhiker if the hitchhiker has a guitar. A guitar changes a hitchhiker from a psychopath into Bob Dylan.
Shadow told me about a girl he’d once hitchhiked with who’d brought along an actual suitcase (this was before most suitcases had wheels), and I was very proud of the way I fit everything into a backpack and a purse. I remembered it as being just the backpack, but in the back of my diary from the trip I found a piece of paper on which I’d started to write (on a typewriter!) this story. I’m pretty sure it was only a few months after I got back, so I should probably trust it over my memory. According to what I wrote there, I had a purse as well as a backpack. The story also says I had fifty dollars rather than thirty, but that’s because I was lying to make the whole thing sound less reckless.
We also had a couple of sleeping bags, one of which, I soon learned to my sorrow, had a torn seam.
Check your sleeping bags! That’s my advice to anyone about to go long-distance hitchhiking.
Also: Probably don’t go long-distance hitchhiking!
We had a map and planned out our route; Shadow knew a lot about taking medium-sized highways and skirting around towns. We didn’t really stick to the route much, from what I remember — you kind of go where drivers take you.
The hardest part of planning to run away, by far, was not telling people. I’ve always been a talker (ADHD!), and while I can keep a secret great, I tend to share everything about my life that isn’t specifically a secret. Especially things that are exciting. I REALLY wanted to tell people. Also, I thought there was a good chance I would never see my friends again, since I’d be living on the other side of the country. Certainly I wouldn’t see them until after I was eighteen, when I could safely visit.
I even called my mom and asked her to meet me for dinner one night before I left — I was as angry at her as at the rest of them, but also wanted to see her one last time. She couldn’t meet me that night, and we arranged a different night when I knew I’d be gone. It’s one of the only parts I feel really bad about; I set her up to feel like maybe she could have stopped me. She definitely couldn’t have. I wouldn’t have told her, and my mind was completely made up.
So, instead of telling most people, I hinted a lot. I called up friends and told them I loved them and that they shouldn’t worry. I did tell two or three of my closest friends. I had to share my plans with someone. I thought I was very clever when I said, “I’m not going to New York City, but I’m telling you I’m going to New York City, so when my folks ask you have something to tell them, and you won’t be lying, because I’m telling you I’m going to New York City, which I’m not.”
My folks did, it turns out, spend some time looking around New York City.
One of the people I told was Molly, who was one of my closest friends at that weird alternative high school. The night before I was going to leave, I found out that Molly had broken down and told our student advisor. Looking back now, it’s hard to blame her. It was an incredibly stupid, dangerous plan and someone probably should have stopped me.
So my dad and stepmom took me out to dinner and told me that I was absolutely not allowed to run away, which is sort of hilarious. Then, they told me they’d allow me to be legally emancipated — if I met certain conditions.
This was a thing my dad would do: Tell us we could do a thing, and then set conditions that were absurdly unrealistic. Like the time my sister was eight or nine and wanted new clothes for school; he told her they could go shopping but first she had to write down every piece of clothing she owned, both at his house and our mom’s, so they could see what she needed. Or once he told me we could get a Christmas tree even though we were going on vacation right after Christmas — as long as I could find a place that sold trees that were only a couple feet tall. Mind you, I was eleven at that point, and there was no internet. I had absolutely no idea how to find out the phone numbers of Christmas tree lots, and I was pretty sure Christmas trees that short didn’t exist anyway. So, it was my choice when we didn’t have a Christmas tree that year. I honestly don’t know if he was consciously trying to get out of letting us do things, or if he was convincing himself that he was being reasonable. I suspect the latter.
The conditions for me being legally emancipated are hazy now; I remember they involved getting at least Bs in every class and finding a job that would allow me to save up a certain amount of money a month. No memory how much money it was, but it was thousands — I would have had to work 40 hours a week earning well above minimum wage to do it.
Of course, the fact was that I was not at all ready to live on my own. I was a junior in high school. But by telling me this, they could say they were being incredibly fair and generous and if I ever complained, well, they’d given me the opportunity to be legally emancipated so actually I had nothing to complain about because I’d had the opportunity and had turned it down.
The conversation — which also involved a lot of talk about what an ungrateful little shit I was — did not convince me not to run away. I pretended it had though, and promised to stay put. I told them I’d have to go meet Shadow before school and explain that we weren’t leaving after all.
I just typed that and thought it must be wrong cause no way would anyone fall for it, but they really truly did. I might not have been ready to live on my own, but they sure as hell weren’t ready to be parents.
(As I’ve said, it kind of makes me sad to talk about what bad parents they were, even though it’s true. But they’re the best parents a grown-up adult person could have. My folks and I are super close now. We talk on the phone all the time, long fun conversations about all sorts of things. My mom and I play scrabble online, and my dad and stepmom and I sometimes play cards over Zoom. When I find something interesting while doing research, I can’t wait to tell my mom. When I’m outraged by something, my dad is the first person I want to talk to about it. I look forward to my stepmom’s funny emails, and send her funny memes. I frequently say I’m incredibly lucky to have parents I’m also friends with, and I mean it. People can change a lot in 30 years.)
The morning after the legal emancipation talk, I left the house early in the morning with my backpack and guitar. I took the bus into Georgetown and met Shadow. We walked across the Key bridge into Virginia, and down the ramp onto the highway.
Next week, the adventure starts. Really, I promise, there is lots of hitchhiking next week.