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 6: And away we go!
Okay, in my last installment we were walking down the ramp to the highway and finally on our way. I’ve told this story so many times, polished up the good parts (not lying or embellishing, just stressing the good) and avoiding the bad parts, that it’s hard not to just recite my memorized script.
I have the diary I brought on the trip — it was in a box of old notebooks and things my mom sent me a few years ago. Unfortunately, I barely wrote in it. Shadow wrote more. It’s largely his entries about our route, and lots of hangman games. There’s a LOT of sitting around in hitchhiking adventures. You’d be amazed.
We walked down onto the shoulder of the highway. I was high on the excitement and fear. Shadow showed me how to hold my arm the right way, straight with no bend at the elbow or wrist, tilted down about 45 degrees, thumb extended and pointing, just a little, in the direction cars are going. I don’t know why that’s the right way; maybe because it makes you a bigger shape than if your elbow was bent, more recognizable from a distance? I don’t know. I do know I get absurdly annoyed if someone hitchhikes in a movie and holds their arm wrong.
Our first two rides were short: a very expensive car driven by a guy from somewhere in Europe (that’s as much as I remember) who didn’t seem to think it was the slightest bit strange that we were hitchhiking, and a taxicab. That was weird, but Shadow somehow knew the driver (Shadow knew a lot of people somehow) who was going to pick up a fare a good ways away and didn’t mind driving us till he got there. It’s funny, I remember Shadow talking a lot to everyone and somehow charming them even though I also remember him being sort of… I don’t know the term I’m looking for. Kind of uneducated, I guess, unsophisticated, but not in a wholesome way. Those first two rides got us about twenty miles out of town.
Our third ride was the most bizarre vehicle of the whole trip — a school bus pulled over and picked us up. The bus driver explained that he’d just dropped off a load of kids from a high school in Front Royal (a small Virginia town an hour or so west of D.C.) for a weekend-long field trip and was heading back. He was happy to take us. It was kind of surreal, but sitting on this school bus smoking cigarettes seemed like a perfect way to show I was free at last.
It was also weird that it was Front Royal, a town I’d never heard of before my mom had bought a house there, just a couple of weeks before I was on this bus. Maybe it was still in escrow? I hadn’t seen it yet. She’d been wanting to leave Reston for ages, felt stuck there because of me, and started looking for a house as soon as I moved in with my dad. So driving to Front Royal freaked me out a little. It seemed like too huge a coincidence to be a coincidence.
That’s how it felt at the time; nowadays I know it would be weirder if coincidences never happened. For whatever reason, I haven’t discussed a pretty big part of my life at that point, which was how kind of new-age-y and witchy I was. I was very very into Wicca, and paganism in general. I read Tarot cards, and runes, and believed in magic and ghosts and fairies and thought crystals had powers and just about anything else you can think of, I believed in it. It was the one thing I could bond with my dad and stepmom over — they were also heavy into Wicca at the time. Although of course I thought they did a lot of it wrong, because of course I did.
I feel like I’m walking a thin line; I don’t want to offend my friends who are Wiccan or pagan, but I do not believe in any of that now. I knew nothing about critical thought back then, nothing about evidence-based studies or how to examine ideas and determine if believing in them makes sense. I just believed, willy-nilly.
So, I was certain the fact that our first stop would be Front Royal was some sort of amazing sign from the Goddess. I’m probably not going to talk about the new age stuff much. It’s embarrassing to me now and makes me uncomfortable to think about.
We got to Front Royal and the bus let us off at a diner on the edge of town. I ate at that diner many times in years to follow and always felt like I knew something about it that no one else did, that it was where I ate on the first day of my adventure. I think I’d try to tell people, but no one got how important it was; why would they? I have a strong urge to berate my teenage-self for thinking things important to me should be important to everyone, but I’m pretty sure that’s most teenagers.
My first sense of trepidation, first feeling that maybe this wasn’t as great an idea as I’d thought, was when we ordered lunch in that diner. Knowing our money had to last, I ordered the extremely inexpensive grilled ham and cheese sandwich. Shadow ordered the seafood platter — the most expensive item on the menu. His cheerful justification was that there was no way the thirty dollars we’d brought was going to last the whole trip anyway, so there was no reason to save. I knew this wasn’t exactly right, but his amused contempt made me unsure. That happened a lot — I’d know something, but he was incredibly confident (and I was 16) so I’d think I must be mistaken. Also, arguing with him was extremely unpleasant, and any disagreement was an argument. Rather than have him act all sulky and surly, I’d just go along with whatever.
After we ate, we headed back out. It was probably around mid-afternoon at that point. We walked onto the highway, but there was an interchange and Shadow thought the other highway might be better. So we climbed over the guardrail and walked down an embankment and through a sort of small meadow to the other road. This was the moment when I felt I’d never love anything as much as I loved hitchhiking. It felt so free, to be able to move from one road to another like this while all those other people were trapped in their cars, and to be outside breathing the air and feeling the wind. It was wonderful. And standing on the road, looking at each vehicle that approached as a possibility, a potential new friend. It didn’t take long for me to rethink hitchhiking, but this first day was perfect, and I never stopped loving the feeling of standing on the side of a highway. This is also the moment, near as I can figure, that we departed from our originally planned route. We would deeply regret doing so.
We got picked up by an eighteen-wheeler. Shadow sat in the passenger seat, and I, being small, perched on the little table between the seats (I know there’s a better way to describe this; can’t think of what it is and you know what I mean probably). The driver had candy in those plastic bags you get when you buy candy in bulk from the barrels in grocery stores. He was friendly and happy to have company. I think he was the one who asked how old we were and Shadow said “20” and I said “I’m 20 too” and he thought I meant “22” and objected to the obvious lie, and I explained that of course I wouldn’t claim to be 22! Preposterous. I clearly wasn’t as old as that. I was only 20. And then I guess it would have been awkward for him to say he also didn’t believe I was 20, so he played along. It helped that he didn’t care much.
He dropped us off at another diner (or maybe it was fancier than a diner but still, it was a place that served breakfast all day and the waitresses were folksy-friendly), in Lexinburg VA. Next to it was a Super 8 Motel. After we finished dinner (I don’t remember much except that the waitress was very nice), it was getting dark and we had to start thinking about where to sleep. The plan had been to spend the nights outside in the sleeping bags, but I think in our imaginations it would somehow be summertime, rather than mid-November. We definitely hadn’t pictured snow on the ground, which there was. Not a lot of it, just little unmelted heaps here and there, but still.
Shadow decided to go into the Super 8 (while I waited outside, for some reason we thought made sense at the time) and find out how much a room cost. I think he had an idea that it would cost eight dollars; that that’s why they were called the Super 8. I just looked it up and indeed, when the Super 8 motels first opened, they did charge $8.88 for a room. But that had been fifteen years earlier. I have no memory of what rate Shadow was given, just that it was too much for us. That same motel (which I found on the map; I’ll show you below) charges $58 for a room today, so according to the inflation calculator, it was probably around twenty-five bucks.
We trekked a little ways into the woods next to the motel, and found a space to spread out our sleeping bags. We went to zip them together into one big sleeping bag, like you do, and that was when we discovered that one of the bags (his) had a split seam next to the zipper, near the bottom of the bag.
Now, this next part is so confusing, so insane, I don’t know how to explain it. Shadow was adamant that we should be naked in the sleeping bag, to conserve body heat. While sleeping outside, illegally, in a place where we might get caught at any moment. I know what you’re thinking; but it wasn’t about sex. Of course we had sex on our first night of being on the road. I just thought we should put our clothes back on, after the sex.
I’ve looked around online and I guess there are lots of people who think it keeps you warmer to sleep naked in a sleeping bag (though most of what I found was debunking it), so he wasn’t just making it up. But here’s the thing: There’s literally no way that the amount warmer it might make us would be worth getting caught sleeping in the woods naked.
Finally, in the end, he slept naked and I did not. It makes me happy to see that in my diary I did call him a “dumbfuck” for this, and probably did out loud as well, since I knew he’d see it in the diary anyway.
It was crazy cold that night. Somehow, the hole in the bag ended up being on my side, directly over my lower legs.
Yes, I KNOW, okay?
In the morning, we discovered that the woods behind the motel was just a small clump of trees, and we were pretty much in someone’s backyard. But it was fine; we got dressed in the bag, and no one spotted us.
Here’s our route on the first day, near as I can figure. It’s possible we took a less direct route. I couldn’t find the exact spot in Front Royal; I think the diner must be gone now, but I know pretty much where it was. I found the exact right place in Lexington because the Super 8 Motel is still there. The restaurant is now a Waffle House.
That first day, we ended up just under 200 miles from where we had started (see maps at the bottom of page; click on them to make them bigger).
Here’s the diary from the first few days, complete with picture (drawn by Shadow, I’m pretty sure).
I’ll transcribe it, since my handwriting is not the best. It’s weirdly difficult and embarrassing to share my entries, even though it’s been more than thirty years.
There are points where it gets confusing because we both write parts of some of the entries, without line breaks or anything. I’ll try to figure it all out.
Day 1. Got a ride from D.C. to West Falls Church. Bill gave us a ride from W.F. Church to Fair Oaks Mall. Got a ride by a bus driver named Frank to Front Royal
Day 1. I’m so scared, but I’m excited too. 1 thing this’ll do, it’ll toughen me up some, and teach me to take care of myself better.I won’t be a little girl anymore when this is over.
Day 1. Got a ride from Front Royal by Rob H**** to Lexinberg VA [sic, actually Lexington]. Stopped at Green Valley Restaurant. Slept behind Motel 8.
Next week I’ll tell you about day two, which was a lot colder and scarier than day one, and the day I started to change my mind about how fun hitchhiking was.