Hitchhike America

Hitchhike America audio version

Hitchhike America: Chapter 1

Hitchhike America: Chapter 2

Hitchhike America: Chapter 3

Hitchhike America: Chapter 4

Hitchhike America: Chapter 5

Hitchhike America: Chapter 6

Hitchhike America: Chapter 7

Hitchhike America: Chapter 8

Hitchhike America: Chapter 9

Hitchhike America: Chapter 10

Hitchhike America: Chapter 11

Hitchhike America: Chapter 12


If I’m moving, I’m happy

Well, for a start no one does it any more, they said, and you will probably get killed, or eaten by a bear.

Look, nobody hitches any more. These are not the good old days when all was peace and love. And, just looking old and probably harmless with a British flag stuck on your pack isn’t going to do it either.

Seriously though, no one will pick you up these days. It is just too dangerous. Especially in America. And particularly in places like Wyoming and Montana where there seems to be a significantly high concentration of both guns and bears. And a fairly small distribution of the kind of woolly minded liberals you are used to mixing with.

Just remember “Easy Rider” they said. “Look what happened to them”.

Nevertheless, it seemed worth a go since the alternative appeared to be what Claire and Ursula were going to do. This was to be walking and cycling, getting fit and not eating much. These were all pastimes that came well up my list of things I didn’t want to do. Claire and Ursula had paid little attention to each other as sisters when they were young, but after a long gap had grown closer and now enjoyed each other’s company in a way that was clearly a pleasure for both of them and fun to see.

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Robin Howell Hitchhikes across America
This is the condo that Ursula rented in Dillon Colorado. It shows just how ideal it is for getting fit and keeping healthy sorts of things.

Ursula had rented it for the summer and had invited Claire to join her for part of it. To be fair, I hadn’t been invited to join in these improving activities. In fact, to be honest I hadn’t been invited at all. I sort of invited myself and insisted that I wouldn’t get in the way, which meant thinking up something to do that would make sure I wasn’t.

Going off for a sort of hitchhiking wander round the Rockies appeared to me to be rather a fun idea, and would leave Claire and her sister to get on with the serious business of being fit.

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Hitchhiking instead of renting a car was attractive partly because I have a lifelong and overwhelmingly happy experience of hitchhiking, and partly because I have a childlike faith in the idea that almost everyone is reasonably full of the milk of human kindness.

There was also another reason. I am a terrible tourist. Pretty hopeless at being taken to things I am supposed to look at. I seem to be just not very good at gawping and being impressed. And if I am expected to pay attention and read or be told stuff, I quickly become victim to an attack of OSS. This is Overload Stress Syndrome and is an affliction I invented just in case I ever found anyone I could sue for having got it. It is brought on by being given information about something that you don’t need to know, which is in danger of forcing out things you do need to know. This would include knowing on which side of the road traffic is going to run you over in America, and what your pin number is. So, if I rent a car I will be sitting in a tin box on my own looking at stuff and getting OSS. If I hitchhike I can sit in a car and chat with other people I have never met before, and look at stuff as well, which seems to me to be a whole lot more interesting.

In fact hitching rides has a perfectly decent history and has been around ever since there were people who had transport of their own or could afford a ticket, and others, who needed to travel, but had neither.

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I have hitched for various reasons throughout my life. When I was ten we were living in Umtali in Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe of course. We lived outside town and my Dad took the car to work which left us stranded if we wanted to go swimming. So, at ten and seven, provided I took my younger brother, we hitched. Nobody worried about us, since for lots of complicated reasons we were reckoned to be completely safe.

When we returned to England at the end of the fifties I hitched round Europe to see various friends I had met in England and Africa. Hitchhiking was a fairly common way for the young to get about in those days and only the French police seemed to get a bit neurotic about it. They were OK once you had persuaded them that you weren’t a vagrant, and that in the end had a home to go to. They were exactly the same twenty years later and may still be like it. We stayed in youth hostels which were cheap, cheerful, and plentiful, although they were often a bit of a walk from a main road. I think you were supposed to be walking and camping and being a healthy adventurer in the woods and countryside, so there tended to be rather a lot of bare knees and stout walking boots, but I was never bunged out for looking too urban. In those days the only girls hitching on their own were Australians. They all seemed to be at least six foot tall, very jolly, and incredibly confident and fit. They intimidated the hell out of me, and I don’t remember ever hearing of terrible things happening to any of them. Nobody would have dared!

Hitchhiking seemed often to be attended by coincidence. I had got myself into a bit of trouble while walking from France to Germany across the Rhine at Strasbourg. This was in the fifties, and the EU was still in formation. It was only about thirteen years after the end of the war, so memories in Europe were still quite raw, and borders were a bit of a touchy subject for obvious reasons. That day I was hitching from Strassebourg on the French border to cross Germany.

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My passport had been stamped out of France and I was walking across the Rhine when it occurred to me that the French side of the bridge might be a good place to hitch since everyone had to stop at the border and hadn’t really got up much speed by the time they reached me. No one did stop but then the French border guards started yelling and waving their guns at me so I came back. This made things worse and by the time I arrived back at the French side they were almost apoplectic. The problem was that I had now left France and needed to go to Germany. Stopping in between was not an option. In that case, I asked, would it be OK to come back in and hitch as people arrived at the checkpoint, because I thought that would be preferable to where I was? At this point French bureaucracy got its knickers completely in a twist. On no account could I do that. I had now officially left France because it said so in my passport, even though I hadn’t technically been let into Germany. It was therefore impossible to let me back in until I had been somewhere else to come back from. So would I just walk across the bridge and go to Germany please. So I did.

The very large couple, who picked me up in a very small Austin A35, were from Tanganyika, which was the bit of a coincidence I was coming to, since we sort of lived up the road, in Uganda.

They were on leave in Europe and on their way to Vienna which was where I was going, to see Austrian friends from Uganda who had come home to retire. These two were going to see a couple of medical students who they had picked up off the road in Tanganyika in a poor state. They had hitched their way through Africa from Vienna. The couple had fed and watered them until they recuperated, kept in touch and were now going to see them.

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I remember these two students coming through Kampala in Uganda where we lived. The Uganda Argus had written an article about them.

Because of geopolitics this is a journey that would now be impossible but even in those days was still extremely difficult because of geography, so they were generally regarded as pretty intrepid.

So we talked about them, and Africa and stuff.

I didn’t really see much of Germany because we chatted, stuck to the autobahn and were in Austria in seven hours!

I don’t know where they got the little A35 from but he drove with his foot flat on the floor all the time so it probably wasn’t his, or he just didn’t care. I think the speedometer only went up to 70mph and the little needle appeared in a window in a dial on the dashboard. For most of that drive the needle disappeared behind the cut out window. For those of you without any other serious purpose in life you will understand this if you examine the dashboard of a 1950s Austin A35.

They dropped me off in Salzburg where they were staying a couple of days. Then they were going to Vienna for a week or so and then heading off south through the Tyrol. If I happened to be on that road on that day and they saw me they would pick me up again! I was, and they did.

My most spectacular hitch was when Claire and I were hitching back from the South of France and I got to share a bed with a stranger in Paris.

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I guess it must have been 1961 which would make me twenty and Claire eighteen. We had gone with her family, towing an old caravan containing Ursula and John’s wedding presents. We were dropping the presents off in Zurich on the way to the family campsite in the South of France.

I can’t remember exactly why, but we ran out of time and I needed to get home so we left the family, and against Claire’s better judgement, hitched. Neither can I remember exactly where we were, nor how many lifts we got before Jack picked us up.

Claire tells me that our first lift was with a drunk Frenchman who insisted on stopping at every bar on the road and having a drink. And then the car broke down and I had to push it with Claire and our stuff in the car and she was convinced that he was going to drive off and leave me behind. If he had done this might have been a very different story.

In hitchhiking there is a strict relationship between who you are and how fast you travel.

Not surprisingly a single girl travels fastest, even if she is Australian and very tall and fit, or perhaps because she is. Two girls come next and then a couple. One man of any age comes next and two men slowest.

Our odds were probably shortened by the fact that Claire was very young and very pretty and probably not wearing much in the way of clothes. The clothes thing was not a deliberate ploy you understand. It was a combination of the fact that it was hot and that Claire has always reckoned that a supermarket bag should carry quite enough stuff for a trip anywhere on the planet.

By lunchtime we were at Nevers on the Loire and Jack bought us lunch at a very nice restaurant on a terrace overlooking the river.

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The car was a convertible Cadillac with electric tinted windows and a record player which played 7” 45rpms by pushing them into a slot rather like a CD player these days. The Cadillac was pretty much over the top and I had never seen electric windows or a record player in a car. Jack was inordinately proud of all three.

He was Turkish and, we gathered, was the European agent for Wynns which made engine oil additives. The traffic returning in the direction of Paris was dire, with constant traffic jams. Jack drove at a terrifying speed and jumped on the brakes at the last minute when faced with each succeeding jam as if it were a surprise on every occasion. When stuck in traffic he obviously got great pleasure from getting any children in adjacent cars to blow the windows to make them go up and down whilst we held our arms in the air to show we weren’t sneakily winding them.

Jack’s plan had been to drive straight to London which suited us fine and counted as a mega lift, but at some point the car’s generator went wrong and he decided he needed to go into Paris to fix it. This meant staying the night in Paris which we couldn’t afford, so we suggested he should drop us off and we would carry on. Jack wouldn’t hear of it, and to be honest I have no idea what we thought we were going to do about staying the night anywhere, because I don’t think we had any money.

Anyway, Jack said, he would pay for us and if we stayed at a cheap hotel it would cost no more for the three of us than if he stayed in the kind of place he usually stayed at. I have no idea if this was true but we chose to believe him.

Just remember, this was over fifty years ago and sex for the unmarried had yet to be invented in polite society. Claire got a room to herself and Jack and I shared a room which turned out to contain only one large double bed.

We modestly got sufficiently undressed, and spent the entire night trying not to bump into each other. So that’s how I got to share a bed with a stranger in Paris.

With the car fixed, Jack brought us back to London, and checked into the Dorchester where, he said, he had a permanent room.

When we got back to Claire’s, her kind and infinitely sociable father insisted that we should contact him and that we should all go out to dinner. So we did, and then Jack took us all out, and then he took us to meet a friend of his who lived in Dolphin Square and they compared Cadillacs in the underground car park, and Lenny won, and his flat was revolting and done up as Diana’s hunting lodge, he said, and he had a girlfriend who was about our age. Whereas Jack was a bit florid and sweaty, Lenny wasn’t so much fat as turgid. He wore a suit but looked as if he had been poured into it in liquid form and then set. Apparently Lenny was a politician and sort of well known so I am not going to tell you his other name in case I get sued.

In any case this didn’t alter our view that he was repulsive, and how this girl of our age could get into bed and have sex with him was utterly beyond us. Since both Jack and Lenny must have been at least forty, this was something Claire and I found completely disgusting, as you do when you are young, and regard anyone over thirty as being close to death, and certainly way past sex. We stayed vaguely in touch with Jack and particularly not in touch with Lenny, but in the end it faded away leaving just the memory of yet another kind and generous soul and a great hitch.

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As a student I hitched everywhere. Whilst my home was in London I was at University in Bristol, a hundred and twenty miles away.

Like many Londoners I was obsessed about not being in London because that was where it all happened. It might never happen, but if it did and I wasn’t there I would miss it. I hitched there and back nearly every week. It was some time before I realised I was missing quite a lot of things going on in Bristol and in London I could miss even more, so gradually the umbilical connection with the capital melted away and Bristol became home.

Getting married and having kids and a dog, and getting a mortgage and a proper job and stuff as part of what I fondly imagined was my growing up process meant the end of hitchhiking, or so I thought.

As I write, I realise that the gap was less than I had imagined.

When my first two children were twelve and ten I decided to take them hitchhiking in France because I thought it would be a lot of fun and good for them. Actually it also gave me what I felt was a legitimate excuse for hitching since I could no longer claim abject poverty as a justification and I clearly wasn’t a student.

I thought it would be good for them because they would learn what it was like to be vulnerable and dependent. It would teach them about how to be disciplined while bored and hot and tired, and that just because you were all three, Dad couldn’t necessarily do anything about it.

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We went for a month or so and we camped, which meant we had to carry everything with us. The development in camping and hiking kit was stunning. When I had hitched to Vienna in the fifties I had an ex army khaki canvass back pack with a steel frame, a scratchy army blanket held together with huge blanket pins, a ground sheet come cape that weighed a ton and reeked of vulcanised rubber, and no tent.

Less than twenty years later when I set off with Jon and Nick we had a tent, sleeping bags, airbeds, and a kettle and miniature camping gaz stove we could make coffee on or fry eggs.

France was incredibly well endowed with campsites and no doubt still is. We very often stayed at the Municipal sites because they were simple and cheap. They were, however, seldom on the main road. My recollection is that we almost never had to walk to them since our last lift of the day would usually go out of their way to take us to the gate of each one.

This was a five or ten minute diversion for them, but could mean saving up to an hour’s walk for us, so at the end of a long hot day it was a gift of infinite kindness so far as we were concerned.

Quite often, if people realised at a campsite that we had arrived unaccompanied by a car, their kids would be sent over with offerings of food which was pretty good. After a while I know mine began to enjoy the kudos of just wandering off onto the open road in the morning with airy waves and shouts of “bon chance” all round.

The almost inevitable walk back to the road was not so bad in the cool of the start of the day.

Hitching is a numbers game. More than ninety percent of people will never pick up a hitchhiker anyway, so the best you can do is to shorten the odds of getting a lift from those who might stop.

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These golden rules apply in every case where you have a choice.

All hitchhikers have been caught on the open road in the middle of the night, and I have occasionally had to wait until morning to get a ride, so you don’t hitch at night if you can help it. Apart from that, location is everything. Unless you are simply walking home after a drunken night out, you never hitch and walk. You do one or the other. This is partly because walking and hitching at the same time makes you look like a hopeful vagrant, or one with a hangover, for reasons I don’t quite understand, and partly because whoever might stop will almost certainly want to take a quick look at you before deciding, and if they can only see your back they can’t and so probably won’t.

The other reason is that you need to be somewhere where you are clearly visible sufficiently in advance, where traffic is preferably not up to full speed and with a safe place and time to pull off if they do want to stop. If you are walking you will very likely not provide any of these three vital elements.

My Mother said that you should never judge people on first impressions. You can’t judge a book by its cover she said. My Mother was quite often wrong and this was just another example.

At least, whether she was right or not, judging by first impressions is something we all do, all the time.

Almost everyone who ever picks up a hitchhiker will tell you that they look at whoever it is, make a judgement, take a risk, and stop, or don’t stop.

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It may be worth looking at just how much of a snap judgement we have to make in order to decide whether to stop.

Let us say that you are driving along at 30mph. This means that you are travelling at 15 yards a second. If you notice a hitchhiker as far away as a hundred yards you now have a grand total of seven seconds in which to make a decision, and stop not more than 25 yards past them.

You are not likely to be able to get much of a visual impression of them until you are about 50 yards away. If you think they are drunk you are not going to stop, but you have to be able to recognise those signs in a flash. We all know that there is a difference between a hitchhiker who is going somewhere with a purpose, and someone who is just hitching a ride anywhere in the hope that something might turn up. You have to make an almost instant decision that you can tell the difference, unless you don’t mind. You now have a total of just over three seconds left. However, if you are going to stop not more than 25 yards past them, thinking time and actually stopping safely will take two of those seconds. This leaves you just over a second to take a look, make a judgement, and decide to stop. If you leave it any longer it will be too late and the moment will have passed. If you can’t make a decision that fast it will be too late. If you hesitate it will be too late.

In fact many people stop before they get to me, and hardly anyone stops more than about ten yards past. The only ones that do are trucks, and people who change their minds and decide to stop after all, and they always tell you that’s what they did.

What all this shows is that most people manage this entire thinking process in a fraction of a second.

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So, although my Mother said you shouldn’t, if you didn’t, none of us would ever get a lift.

The next way to shorten the odds is to be an attractive young woman on her own. Failing that, I reckon you should stand up, look as alert and cheerful as possible, stick your thumb out confidently, and look each driver in the eye as they arrive. This may just be the old fashioned Boy Scout in me, but it works so I always do it. If I have time I will also give a cheery wave to a driver even if they pretend they haven’t seen me because it might endear me to the one following who will never know that the other one ignored me.

And, you have to be there all the time without sitting down or sneaking off into the bushes for a quick rest. This is because every single car might be the one, and you don’t want to miss it. Well, I don’t anyway.

I made the kids stand up with me the whole time and look as appealing as possible, which they did without messing about, often for up to a couple of hours if we were in the middle of nowhere.

This is all because I think that the act of hitching depends on the absolute freedom of the driver to choose. Having the kids with me instantly put me at least one notch up the speed of travel scale, and we got picked up by two kinds of driver I would not normally expect to stop. One was young women on their own who are probably naturally kind but would tend to regard me as too risky on my own, but who saw me as likely to be harmless due to the presence of the kids.

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The other category was both a surprise and quite funny. This was older couples who would probably never pick up hitchhikers at all, but she made him stop because of the kids. She fussed over them and fed them sweets and biscuits whilst they smiled sweetly and behaved impeccably, and he drove, grim faced and grumpy throughout and was obviously heartily pleased to see the back of us. And we got a lift so we didn’t care!

We were actually going down to a Dutch friend’s summer house in the South of France not far from both Nimes and the seaside. During our stay we happily hitched to both, and usually got home in time for tea.

We meandered back via Geneva where a young guy put us up and took us on sightseeing trips. We were treated to innumerable acts of kindness both large and small throughout. The French police came down to expectations in Macon. Jon and Nick had gone down the road from the camp site to the local swimming pool. After an hour or so I wandered down the main road to meet them. Whilst dressed in shorts like any other holiday maker I now no longer had a walkers’ pack or a car to protect me and was therefore obviously a suspicious itinerant. The police arrived and insisted we go back to the campsite so that I could identify myself with a passport and evidence that I had a permanent home.

And in Paris I broke my golden rule not to hustle for a lift.

We had hitched into Paris, camped in the Bois de Boulogne and spent a whole day walking the city. We had walked up to Montmartre and the Sacre Coeur, and back down to the Eiffel Tower where we had seen kids on skate boards for the first time zigzagging through lines of empty coke cans. The following morning I needed to get us out of Paris and back on the road to Le Havre.

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I leant on an English family with a camper van to get us out and on to the road, where I promised them faithfully that they could chuck us out. They were a bit po faced about it but they did it.

I can’t remember the last bit but we got home safe and sound, the whole thing having been a brilliant experience for all three of us. Flushed with the warm memory of it all I did it again with Chris and Ben, but the Dutch summer house had gone so we went to the Pyrenees and camped in the Cirque de Gavarnie where you could see the cleft in the mountains where Hannibal was supposed to have taken the elephants. It was with Chris and Ben that we got caught out too late to find a camp site somewhere in Brittany and had to set the tent up in the pitch dark.

We woke in the morning to the most terrifying rumbling sound to find that we had set up the tent on the access road to a huge road construction site.

The rumbling was an earth moving Euclid the size of a small house and wheels twelve foot high passing within feet of us. If it had driven over us I don’t expect the driver would even have noticed.

The usual people had always said that no one would pick up three people even if two of them were children, but since they did, I had became less inclined to listen to any advice, however sensible. People had also said that it would be impossible to hitch in Brittany because the Bretons didn’t like the English. Actually, they said, the Bretons didn’t like the French much either, so this would be a sticky bit. Well, we arrived and departed through Brittany and apart from the big truck incident it was fine.

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Those two trips were a great experience and fantastic fun, and I know they made an indelible impression on the boys. However, I reckoned that really was the end of my hitching days.

And until now it more or less was. Except for the Camino in 2007. This is a bit of a confession really. The Camino de Santiago de Compostella is a five hundred mile pilgrim walk across Northern Spain from St Jean Pied de Port just inside France to the Cathedral at Santiago de Compostella where the body of St James is interred, and if you make the journey your sins will be forgiven. For me walking the Camino points the difference between walking somewhere and going for a walk. I have never seen much point in gratuitous exercise but the Camino was quite different and one of the major experiences of my life.

Claire was fitter and better at walking than I, and insisted that walking was just a question of putting one foot in front of the other so what could be so difficult about that?

Nevertheless, on a couple of occasions we resorted to a short hitch to get to the next place we needed to stay. Since the Camino is a single file path whose almost unaltered route has been trodden for a thousand years, pilgrims are instantly recognisable, so looking like one is pretty much a ticket for a lift, and it was easy.

So that really was it for hitching. Until now.

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In addition to ignoring all the dire warnings from friends and family both at home and in America, I had done some basic preparation. The most important was a result of the Camino. The one element of the whole thing that I found most difficult was carrying my pack. In real terms it wasn’t heavy since I had got it down to around 11 kilos but I found that carrying it all day was sometimes achingly tiring. I got better at it after a while but it was still hard work. This time I devised a cunning plan. From a charity shop I managed to get hold of a collapsible stroller with a metal frame and decent wheels with spokes. This meant that if I was walking it was no more effort than pushing a pram with a small child in it and if I was hitching it folded very inconspicuously flat with my pack strapped firmly on to it.

If I was walking I did look like a complete twat, and suspiciously like the tramps that trudge round everywhere with all their worldly belongings, but if I was walking I wasn’t hitching so it didn’t matter.

Actually, even if I was pushing the pram, nobody seemed to ignore or avoid me, so either America is not used to itinerant tramps pushing prams, or they were universally much too polite to let it show that I was obviously completely potty.

In any case it turned out to be a Godsend. I had planned to do some walking for pleasure which was probably what prompted the feeling that I might get eaten by a bear. In the event I didn’t, but I usually had to walk at least a couple of miles each day to get back out onto the road or find a good place to hitch, so the stroller made it a pleasure.

I also glued a couple of union jacks to my pack just to show I was British and therefore probably mostly harmless. This might have been a disadvantage but on balance I reckon it was a help.

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In addition I had two more aces up my sleeve. Firstly, other than my pride being a bit dented, it didn’t really matter how far I did or didn’t get provided I finished up getting back where I started in time to go home.

Secondly, in the old days my hitchhiking was accompanied by having little or no money. This time I knew I had enough to buy my way out of trouble if I had to, and this was a huge security blanket over the whole enterprise.

So there I was. Ready to go.

Monday July 22nd 2013 Dillon, Colorado.

Dillon is about an hour West of Denver up in the Rockies at around 9000 feet. It and its surrounding villages are basically skiing.

However, it has a very attractive lake and does its creditable best to offer things to do in the summer as well. In fact the lake is a reservoir and exactly where Dillon used to be. Dillon was moved and rebuilt safely above the waterline when the dam was built in the sixties. Lots of people from Denver have weekend apartments in the area including Ursula’s son David and his wife Jill. This is mainly why Ursula has rented a flat there for the summer. So that she can see David and Jill, and she and Claire can do this keeping fit stuff at the same time.

Her condo is right on the lakeside with spectacular views of the Rockies, and almost infinite opportunities for walks, cycling, kayaking, as well as lots of eating and shopping.

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We all meet for breakfast before I am ceremoniously dumped out on the road with their promise not to come back in an hour or so just to check if I am still there, even though they are still convinced I will be. The only promise I make is that I will put on the sunscreen that Claire has got for me. I have never put on sunscreen and always got away with it but it is a promise I keep and was probably a sensible thing to do. After about half an hour Dee stops for me in a pickup truck full of pigswill. Apart from the pigs, he raises highland cattle for beef in a small way and sells everything before it is ready to go. He didn’t take me far but I never say no to a lift on principle because you never know how it will work out.

My second lift was also a farmer who worked on his family ranch and dropped me off in Kremmling. After a coke and someone telling me that a long awaited Royal baby had been born I walked out of town. This Royal baby news seems to excite America much more than seems decent to be honest, but perhaps it is the Diana Legacy. Anyway it is all over the news on TV which is more than can be said for any other National or World news.

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Steve took me to Steamboat Springs, and is a mortgage broker. It seems that America and the UK share the same affordable housing problems and for roughly the same reasons. He has to pop into the office but then drops me out on the road to Craig which is fine for me and ten minutes later I am on my way with Dean. He is a commercial plant sprayer, whose parents made him spend all his pocket money and savings when he was little on a piece of land. This made him incredibly pissed off when he was young and now eternally grateful because he has built a house on it that he would otherwise never have been able to afford. He always picks people up because it is good Karma and you never know when you may need a good turn yourself.

Tim is a black guy in construction who kindly drops me off at the Bear Inn Motel in Craig in the early evening. So here I am with a bed for the night and in good time. I have no idea how far I have travelled but to be honest I don’t care. I should go and eat but I can’t be bothered and am not that hungry.

I decide to wander over the road to the gas station to see if I can get a road map of Idaho and find out if anyone knows the rules about hitchhiking on the interstate freeways. I suspect the rules are pretty much the same as on motorways in the UK but best to check.

When I ask the girl at the till, they don’t have any maps of Idaho because this is Colorado, and she offers to get the Sheriff over to tell me about hitching on interstates.

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Robin Howell Hitchhikes across America
This is the Bear Valley Inn at Craig

A woman in the shop says not to bother because hitchhiking is illegal all over America on any road, and she should know because her sister works for the police. I say that in that case I am already in trouble and so ask the girl on the till not to get the Sheriff over thank you very much.

This is a bit of a blow on my first day. However the following morning while I am thumbing on the road out of Craig, the Sheriff’s car and a police patrol both drive past me and each gives me a wave so that was a relief.

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Tuesday July 23rd 2013 Craig, Colorado.

Today did not start out well. I had gone to bed early so I was up and out by seven and into the chill of the morning. I found a good spot on the road out of town, in the shade of a tree, and waited for the next five hours whilst nobody picked me up. The bright spots were provided by a few locals who walked past, and the waves from the police and Sheriff’s cars which meant I probably wasn’t going to get arrested for hitchhiking after all.

Part of the problem was that the road wasn’t very busy. I discovered later that this was because it didn’t go anywhere that many people wanted to go. What traffic there was consisted almost entirely of pickups with big plastic water tanks in the back, and who were clearly just taking water home.

Water is a big issue in Colorado and I learned that water rights are often historic and pretty feudal. You may have no rights at all over water running through your land, and may not even be able to buy it from the rights holder. Many farms that may be able to buy rights to water their cattle may still have to buy clean water from town for domestic use.

I very seldom turn down a lift on principle, so when Pete stopped and offered to take me as far as he was going I went. His old camper van contained a lot of stuff and a small fox terrier called Texas, who sat amiably on my knee for the next half hour or so.

Now that he was retired Pete and his wife spent the summers in a campsite up the road and went down to Florida when it got cold.

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He had started coming thirty years before to hunt with a bow and arrow. For a living he used to work in a factory that made mining and drilling machinery and his firm had pioneered the development of horizontal drilling. I asked him about how that worked if you horizontally drilled across into someone else’s patch. He said it was very complicated and another thing people didn’t realise was that they assumed that mineral rights went straight down but they shouldn’t really because the earth was round so actually your mineral rights, if you were fortunate enough to have any, were wedge shaped. By this time we had arrived at where Pete turned off on the dirt road to the campsite in the hills, and my heart sank.

We had approached the turn off over a soft brow to see the road disappear into the far distance towards what Pete told me was Bears Head Mountain because the two hillocks either side of the gently rounded peak made it look like a bear’s head. Apart from the road itself the only indication that man had ever discovered, let alone populated this bit of the planet, were half a dozen post boxes on sticks at the start of the dirt track up to Pete’s campsite. The land was scrub with patches of Russian olive trees in the gentle creases in the land that still contained what was left of the winter moisture. There was no shade and it was scorchingly hot. Even the pickups with water seemed to have reached home before they got this far. Some of the few things that passed waved but nobody stopped.

The sun bore down on me and the black tar road grinned hotly up.

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I was now about twenty miles from Craig and the same again from Baggs which was the next place marked on my map. This meant that I was now too far away from either to sensibly walk, and I had now run out of water as well. I wasn’t in the least thirsty, but I did consider pathetically waving the empty bottle and going for a sympathy lift even though that would be an almost mortal admission of defeat and loss of face.

I knew that if I started walking I would drastically reduce my chances of anyone stopping, but since the spot I was in wasn’t much good it had to be an option, and I might find a place where the traffic was moving more slowly and there was more room to pull off.

Robin Howell Hitchhikes across America
Steve’s great truck.
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I was still chucking these ideas around after a couple of hours when a truck stopped. A glorious, enormous, articulated truck, which puffed and sneezed and squeezed itself off the road and sat, patiently bubbling, whilst I panted down the road hoping that it really had stopped for me and wasn’t going to drive off again before I got there. He reached down for my pack and heaved it into the bedroom compartment of the cab, and I scrambled up after it, still not feeling totally secure until I was sitting down with the cab door shut.

Steve is large, amiable and probably fortyish. He has a kind, soft face, tight, wavy short hair and a light brown moustache and goatee.

At the time I didn’t know it, but he was going to finish up dropping me in Gillette Wyoming over three hundred miles up the road on his way to North Dakota the following day.

At this stage I would have settled for Baggs which is twenty miles up the road. When we got there it was a few houses. The next town is Rawlins which is eighty miles away. This is not the next town of any size that might have a motel. This is the next place even marked on the map. I should have done more homework. Colorado is fairly sparsely populated but the only US State with fewer people per square mile than Wyoming is Alaska.

OK, Washington DC has over 10,000 people per square mile. Massachusetts has around 850 and Wyoming has 6!

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There is then nothing much between Rawlins and Casper which is another hundred and twenty miles so you can see where this is going, especially if I tell you that it is pretty empty from Casper to Gillette which is about the same again. So this is how I stick with Steve until we get to Gillette. These numbers, and the lift from Steve will make me rethink my strategy for the rest of the trip. But for now I am passenger with one of the kings of the American Highway, and if I’m moving, I’m happy. Steve was filling in as a driver. His real job is Health and Safety Compliance for the firm he works for, but they were short of a driver and he holds a Commercial Driving License. As a salaried employee he was cheaper than a contract driver and happy to do it so that’s where we are. In fact what his company mainly does is to provide top up contract crews for the oil and gas industry, but they have a few trucks as well. Steve likes the firm so is happy to help out. The trailer he is pulling is a mobile fracking head command module. It is stuffed with high tech monitoring and control gear, and will be moved from one fracking site to another until each one is operational.

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Steve’s trailer
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If I understand how Steve explained it to me, this is roughly how fracking works. Now, before you read this next bit you should understand that I am not saying it is all true, and that the whole process is benign, incredibly safe, and entirely beneficial. I am telling you what Steve told me as best as I can recall.

You drill a hole deep down into a shale seam which may contain trapped oil as well as gas. This borehole will be very much deeper than holes drilled for water wells. Then you pump in a secret blend of special sand, water and chemicals under enormous pressure. This splits fissures in the shale seams forcing them apart. It is this process that sometimes sets off the minor tremors, which are not really earthquakes, but are what caused all the panic near Blackpool when they did some test boring there.

Then a different team of people come, and use huge quantities of water to flush all the chemicals out, leaving the special sand which has now set into a spongy porous matrix.

The gas leaches into this sponge and up the pipe to be collected.

At this point, at least in theory, the entire messy, noisy bit is over. The drilling is over; all the chemicals that have been pumped in have now been washed out again, so all you do is collect the gas from a small, unobtrusive well head. All the gubbins including the mobile control unit Steve is towing is simply picked up and moved on to the next one. And there is a massive quantity of shale oil and gas, and it is easy to get and it is cheap. So what is all the fuss, and what are the problems?

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Well, there are stories of water being contaminated by the chemicals although Steve tells me that that there is no evidence that fracking chemicals have ever been identified in previously uncontaminated water. (I have to say that the industry doesn’t do itself a lot of good on the PR front by refusing to tell us what these chemicals are.) Of course, there have always been naturally poisoned springs. But then there is the setting your water on fire stuff. This is also very common and caused by naturally rotting vegetation which produces Methane which can contaminate water and is also known as Marsh gas which can spontaneously combust and produce strange ghostly lights floating around bogland. Steve admits that the original drilling and fracking might cause minor tremors which could allow methane to get into the aquifer, but insists that absolutely none of the fracking chemicals is combustible so it can’t be them.

OK, Steve says, there is a problem with the process initially using massive quantities of water, but they are working hard on recycling it, and once they solve that everyone should stop moaning and let them get on with it.

Later on in the trip I find myself having to seriously re-examine everything I thought about renewables, and global warming and energy and stuff so be warned!

Steve was training to be a nurse but there was not enough money in it when there were children to be raised. So, despite promising himself that he would never sell out and work for capitalism, he got his Commercial Drivers licence, went to work for the oil and gas industry, and earned very good money.

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However, very good money meant very long hours and a lot of being away from the family which turned out to be too high a price to pay so he quit.

When he was younger, both Steve and his wife were crystal meth addicts. He had a $75,000 a year habit which he supported by dealing, and says he was very good at it. He managed to avoid being jailed for life because his best friend’s sister’s boyfriend worked for the police and she tipped him off that they were on to him and that he was going to be raided. He is forever grateful that he took her advice seriously, cleaned the place up, got rid of everything, and because there was no evidence, got away with it. They eventually got themselves off the drugs by helping each other, got sorted and bought a house. Then he got made redundant, lost the house, and built up huge medical bills for one of the kids who has asthma.

Since he got his present job, they are buying a house again but this time with a private mortgage because their credit score is predictably crap.

They don’t use credit cards because they had them when they were younger and both got into trouble.

My admiration for them is unbounded. It is not only that it takes a huge amount of guts and determination, but it is the attitude that it can be done! This kind of courage is not unique to the US, but I do think it is symptomatic of an American outlook. It is the idea that if you really want it you can do it. The telling of this may be a little muddled because I didn’t make notes while we were talking but the substance of it is just stuff Steve told me that I can remember.

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We discuss drugs a bit and it is ironic that they live in Colorado, where they have just made marijuana sort of legal.

They are increasingly into organic food which neither of them grew up on, but are convinced that the extra food cost will be offset by reduced medical bills. I wish I had asked him whether diet had any effect on the one with asthma but I forgot.

If and when they can afford it Steve would like to go back to school and train to become a top class chef. They have never been to Europe but in three years time they are planning to do this pilgrimage thing in Spain because they saw the film about it with Martin Sheen, and his wife has family roots in Portugal so they could catch up with them as well. They plan to take the eldest boy who is now 14 and his wife is doing a lot of homework. They have already worked out that they need to carry about 40 lbs each and that it will cost about $6000 to make the trip, bearing in mind that they have to organise childcare for the younger ones while they are away. Since Claire and I have walked the 500 mile Camino de Santiago, I am in a position to hand out almost infinite amounts of gratuitous advice. This consists mainly of saying that 40 lbs is about twice as heavy as practical, and at a break I make him lift my pack which is about half the weight and he agrees.

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I asked him about whether trucks were allowed to give lifts any more because in Europe they seemed not to these days. It wasn’t that it was illegal but that Insurance and Health and Safety and the problems of liability meant that most employers did not allow any “unauthorised” passengers on board. He said it was probably the same in the States but drivers who owned their trucks could do what they liked and since his was a small firm he wasn’t going to worry about it.

All the CB radio stories you hear about truck drivers are true. They do talk to each other all the time about trouble ahead including hidden speed cops but sometimes get caught just the same. A few weeks ago someone in a sports car was cutting up people including trucks, lane jumping and generally being an idiot. They radioed ahead and on a three lane freeway three trucks, one in front one behind and one beside “boxed” him into the inside lane for ten miles. “Sweet”, said Steve.

On the way into Casper there is a roadside sign for “Port of Entry” and if it says it is “Open” you are obliged to follow the signs and check through it. By now I have given up all pretence of getting out before I have to and Steve is happy to keep me on board. Ports of entry consist of a weighbridge office and a big yard. If you are lucky they just weigh you through, possibly axle by axle, sometimes check that your papers are all in order, and if they are doubtful about the roadworthiness of your truck they can virtually dismantle and check the entire truck in the yard. In Europe all trucks are fitted with tachographs which enable the authorities to check at any time all the details of a truck’s recent itinerary including speeds and distances and breaks etc. These are not mandatory in the USA but Steve has a iPhone app which does it for him.

He plans to take an obligatory thirty minute break at a small town between Casper and Gillette called Midwest where I might stop off if there is a motel. Midwest is just a gas station. Steve phones home to let his wife know that he is OK and that he has picked me up.

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He always lets her know if he picks someone up even though she worries a bit. In fact the hitchhiking deal is a somewhat unequal gamble. I can almost totally guarantee that anyone who picks me up is a nice kind person. Apart from a chance to take a quick look at me and then decide in a fraction of a second, whoever picks me up is taking a much bigger risk. I might be drunk. I might be drugged. I might be armed and want to steal their car. The chances of a hitchhiker having anything a driver might want to steal are pretty minimal. This makes them even nicer and therefore me even safer.

Steve chatted to another truck driver about some new regulations that are coming in restricting the number of hours they can drive and what breaks they have to take which they both regard as totally stupid but which I don’t understand.

I also ring home to say I am OK but Claire and Ursula are obviously out having a good time. UK mobile phones don’t work in the States and vice versa. I bought a phone in City Market in Dillon before I left. It cost $10.00! I then bought a card with 250 minutes on it which cost another $25.00 but that is only 10 cents a minute anyway. And it takes photographs and gets the internet for goodness sake! It costs more than that for a pound of decent cheese. While I was away I turned it on only to call in to base once a day, since I didn’t know anyone else to call, and when I got back it was still almost fully charged and I still had over a hundred minutes left!

Steve is now definitely going to get to Gillette and stop for the night.

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On the way in is another Port of Entry sign. This shows no opening times and means that whatever time of the day or night, however inconvenient, you have to go. We follow the signs for a few miles and when we arrive it is shut so we get to just drive through.

Steve is heading for the Flying J truck stop at interstate 90 junction 126 where he will park up, get something to eat and sleep in the truck cab which looks pretty good to me. Truck stops are free and provided by a gas station with a large enough parking area for trucks to easily get in and out of, on the basis that the drivers will get fuel and buy stuff in the shop.

Junction 126 is a huge complex of food, gas, and sleeping opportunities which I usually describe as neon lollipop land. Holiday Inn, Days Inn, Super 8, Best Western are all there, together with MacDonald’s, Denny’s, KFC, Taco bell, Subway, Dominos, and everyone else you can think of. It is my idea of hell, and is one of the reasons why I have embarked on a one man campaign to rescue the USA from Chain America by staying only in old crap motels because I like them and eat only in small independent cafes and diners.

However, it is now ten o’clock, and I have absolutely no intention of getting picky about motels. Steve says that Days Inn is probably the cheapest. He says it has been a really good trip and I have helped the day go by really quickly. In fact, if I want a lift back he will be coming through the other way on Thursday!

I had started at seven and by two in the afternoon had gone about twenty miles. By ten o’clock we had done another three hundred and fifty.

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I go to Days Inn, am greeted by an extremely cheerful and wildly camp reception desk, can’t be bothered to eat, and tumble into a perfectly decent bed.

Wednesday July 24th Gillette Wyoming.

I am not quite sure what happened on Wednesday. My plan had been that at end of each day, I would sit outside my motel room in the warm dying embers of the early evening and write up my diary. This had worked fine on Monday, and had already gone wrong by Tuesday. This was because we hadn’t got to Gillette until ten, by which time I was whacked and the warm dying embers were well over.

The result was that I was in Sheridan on Wednesday before I wrote up what had happened on Tuesday and that took so long that by the time I had done that, Wednesday had gone a bit fuzzy.

And, I had realised that I needed a change of strategy, since even my limited time on the smaller roads had taught me some obvious lessons. Firstly, most traffic on the country roads was local, and secondly, in this part of America there wasn’t much of it.

Thirdly, if no one was going very far, even if they were kind enough to pick me up, by the time we got a bit of a conversation going it was time for me to get out.

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If you want to get anywhere you need to be on the interstate freeways. This is because lots of people will be going further. I don’t actually need to travel far to get anywhere but I do need to be in the car longer if I am going to have the chance of a bit of a serious chat. This is what my trip with Steve had taught me the day before. And meeting and talking to people was what I wanted to do. I expected to pass through some spectacular country on the way, but that wasn’t the primary object of the exercise. In 2002 we had come over to the USA to see America, and incidentally chat to some people on the way. What I now wanted to do was almost the opposite.

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USA 2002 Mustang
In 2002 we rented a ten year old Mustang from US Rent – a – Wreck and drove it round America.

Claire and I had rented a beaten up ten year old Mustang from US Rent-A-Wreck in Boston and driven it round America. We had seen Chicago and the badlands of Dakota. We had been to the Rodeo in Cody, seen the Presidents’ heads in Mount Rushmore, done Yellowstone twice and gone up to Glacier Park Montana on the Canadian border. We had come back down through the Tetons to Denver before crossing the Rockies into Utah. We went to Arches, Bryce, and Zion before flying Grand Canyon and hitting Flagstaff Arizona before turning left and heading back East. Interstate 40 took us on bits of Route 66 through Santa Fe, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Memphis, and Nashville, past the Appalachian Mountains to Williamsburg Virginia, before crossing Chesapeake Bay in time to go to a wedding in New Jersey.

So we’ve done lots of seeing stuff. But to do it we used the interstate freeway network to get us from place to place.

It looked as if I was going to have to do the same thing again but for quite different reasons, and also without being quite so in charge of where I was going.

And this lack of control wasn’t the only difficulty this plan might present me with. The whole point of freeways is that they link big places together which is where I don’t want to be. And, even worse, freeway intersections with services are exclusively populated by the very Chain America from which I am trying to save the Nation. However it has got to be worth a go.

I didn’t wake up early at Days Inn Gillette and needed breakfast having realised I had not now eaten since Monday. I don’t appear to be very sensitive about whether I have eaten or not, so when to eat is usually a matter of deciding to, rather than feeling hungry. I have, in any case, eaten only once a day for over fifty years and find I often have to tell people that it doesn’t seem to have done me any harm despite their insistence that it is bad for me. In fact the older I get the more convincing this argument becomes as far as I am concerned.

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The Days Inn gardener, or flower waterer says Perkins is OK so I go there. They do a bargain breakfast for over fifty somethings so I get that and talk to a couple of old guys who obviously meet for breakfast regularly. We came to Gillette on July 4th 2002 in the Mustang and I got Gillette completely wrong. We had knocked out the exhaust on a dirt road and needed to get it fixed. Since nobody had seemed keen to do it on the Fourth of July we stayed the night and went to the fireworks. I had observed Gillette as a mining town which had gone out of fashion and was now just getting left behind.

It turned out that it was mining, not minerals as I had thought, but coal, and now gas and oil, and it was still busy. At one time the area round Gillette in particular, and Wyoming in general, provided the coal that produced 40% of the electricity supply for the whole of the USA. Currently, unemployment in Wyoming is less than half the national average.

Around 10% of jobs are directly in the mining, oil and gas industry, compared with a national average of 0.5%, and including the indirect employment this sector accounts for over 20% of all jobs in Wyoming. What is more wages in these industries are up to 50% higher than median wages across the USA. I have filled in some figures by checking up, but this is the gist of what the guys were telling me. So, I got Gillette pretty wrong.

I wasn’t doing too well on the master plan to save the USA from Chain America either, since I stayed the night in Days Inn and I had now had breakfast in Perkins.

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Nevertheless, the advantage of being in neonland was that I was bang on the interchange for hitching. It is here that everything gets a bit fuzzy. Mike picked me up and took me to Sheridan which is a small farming town. Mike knows it and kindly takes me into the old town and drops me off at exactly the right sort of old, independent motel. This is a trip of around a hundred miles, so it must have taken at least an hour and a half. I know that Mike is a Senior Project Engineer, and I know we would have talked about stuff and I cannot remember any of it. And I must have waited quite a long time to get a lift because I didn’t get to Sheridan ‘til after three.

So, sorry Mike, you may have to remind me!

I am not sure whether it is because they follow the freeway, or because we are in coal country, but the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railway seems to be everywhere. The trains trundle comfortingly by, at least two engines pulling, and often over a hundred trucks, at regular intervals right at the back of the motel. They announce their coming, their arrival and their passing with a retro style steam horn which sounds almost like the real thing. This is probably just as well since the track is completely unfenced and there is nothing to stop you wandering about on it if you want to. In the UK we seem to be particularly neurotic about keeping trespassers off railway property. Here nobody seems to mind a bit. On the other hand, I have never seen one of these freight trains going at more than about 20mph so it shouldn’t be too difficult to avoid being run over. During the whole trip, including the first drive round I didn’t see a single passenger train other than the one we got from Boston to New York on the East coast after we had finally had to give back the Mustang.

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I really must be careful about making ignorant judgements about places since I got Gillette so wrong but I can’t believe Sheridan is at the hub of very much these days. This may be why it has decided to make itself a performance destination by building a small stadium called a Concert Park. I have just missed a Country band called Alan Jackson, and will be gone before Clay Walker and Montgomery Gentry. I haven’t heard of any of them.

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A train at the back of the motel in Sheridan
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In fact Alan Jackson must be quite big because two enormous coaches and an articulated tractor and trailer unit are still parked at the motel. The coaches are totally black with blacked out glass, and with auxiliary power units running all the time. They look huge and crouching and slightly menacing. Actually very menacing. And if the buses were people they would be the ones with dark glasses that you would refuse to talk to until they took them off so you could see their eyes. I went out to take a couple of pictures so I could remind myself of just how evil they looked and magically someone appeared and engaged me in polite conversation, presumably checking that I wasn’t a spy or a saboteur, which was odd since by

this time I was convinced that they weren’t really a band at all but part of the CIA or NSA or something that definitely ought to be leaked.

It turned out that they had a few days off before their next performance and the following day were all going to go off to see Mount Rushmore and Yellowstone because none of them had been, but I’m still not totally convinced.

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Well, I still think it looks sinister but it does look less so in the evening sun

By the time I had caught up my diary and sorted my stuff out I needed to eat something to get back on schedule. I have not got to grips with eating out in America. This is not really a criticism, because it is probably my own fault. Except that menus are too big and complicated, there always seems to be too much, and that overall America throws 40% of its food away.

The figure in the UK is apparently 30% so we haven’t got much to crow about either. This does include the ridiculous dumping of perfectly good food which is technically past its sell by date, and is a salutary comment on our civilised profligacy, whilst trumpeting our concern for the half of the planet that goes hungry.

The other overwhelming experience I have is the extraordinarily restricted uniformity of food in diners of all kinds compared to the dizzying diversity of stuff available in supermarkets.

Cheese for example. The City Market in Dillon Colorado, which is a very small town, has a selection of world cheeses not matched by a large French supermarket. Not so if you eat out. In diners of all kinds, cheese is invariably processed, in limp, bendy slices or grated, yellow purporting to be Cheddar, or white, masquerading as Swiss, presumably because it has holes in it. Blue cheese, in an entirely liquid chemical form, is available as a salad dressing and doesn’t even bear thinking about.

I know that if you can’t eat it all, you can take it home and make it do another meal and that lots of people do. As a European I still find this a slightly unedifying process, but since I just got grumpy about how much we throw away I suppose I can’t have it both ways. I do wonder what the food hygiene implications are. I bet that the kitchen wouldn’t be allowed to let food gradually cool down at the ambient temperature, passing through the ideal salmonella growing phase, and then be allowed to heat and serve it up again the following day. Since millions of Americans do this every day by taking it home, and apparently don’t die or even get a bit ill, it does make you wonder whether all the fuss about food hygiene is slightly over the top.

Since I haven’t currently got a home to go to, I really can’t take my remainders away, which means if I can’t eat it all I have to leave it.

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This gives me a mixed feeling of guilt for wasting it and that I have insulted the restaurant by not eating it.

All of these things lead me to try Kim’s American and Korean restaurant down the road. I order Pork Teriyaki. I don’t really know what it is, but for $8.00 it doesn’t seem like a very big risk. I get a little bowl of soup with egg and noodles and a few very suspect little cubes of something that look like pencil eraser but as a whole it tastes fine. It also comes with those universally appalling wrapped saltine cracker things which presumably started out whole but seem to be ritually jumped on before they leave the factory. But I did eat them. And then there was a main course of slivers of pork and mushrooms, and lots of undercooked very fresh vegetables which suited me fine.

I presumed that the diminutive woman who scurried round the entire place in a shuffly sort of run was both Korean and Kim. Leaning slightly forward, so that keeping moving was the only thing that stopped her falling over, she seemed always to be holding one too many plates, and clutching an order pad, whilst looking permanently hassled. The people at the next table said she was always like this, and although it was particularly busy this evening, she was exactly the same when it wasn’t.

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Thursday July 25th – Broken Spur Motel – Three Forks, Montana

I have to say, this hitchhiking thing is pretty luxurious. Put it like this. Every car I go in works, and most are considerably better than my own. Each motel room is a little world of its own. I get at least one big bed with crisp clean sheets, loads of fluffy towels and a flannel, and probably a shower and a bath. I always get a television, air conditioning, a microwave and a fridge. Often I have a hair dryer and even an ironing board. There is always soap and shampoo and sometimes little bottles of things called balm or scrub that I have no idea what to do with. If there isn’t stuff for making coffee in the room, the chances are it is available in reception in the morning. And for as little as $36! It wouldn’t be much more for both of us if Claire was with me. I suppose the average for the whole trip was about $50.00 a night. In the last few days I have had more clean sheets and towels than we have at home in a month. The only thing I haven’t had yet is a decent pillow, but that may be just me!

When I went out into a bright blue morning, the APUs were still running on the big black crouching buses and yet another train full of coal trundled by. Sheridan is a long main street which runs straight off the freeway so getting back to it is simple and not much more than a short walk. I probably waited about an hour before Bob picked me up in a classic 1980s Pontiac. It is unbelievably spacious and low waisted which is very relaxing. It makes me realise that modern cars are much more wrap-around and slightly claustrophobic compared with this one. Bob says he buys new and likes to keep a car around twenty years, but since this one is running so well he keeps it. He said it was made before the American car industry started to build cars out of rubbish in the nineties. This was in the forlorn hope that they could compete with Japan, which having lost the real war was now winning the commercial one.

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Bob’s good ole Pontiac

He has been a nurse all his working life, and specialised in intensive care and ER. After he retired he still did a bit of locum work to help out, but mainly, since the housing crash he bought property. Now he had six houses, including two in Las Vegas which were really cheap. He has recently bought a big five bedroom house in Sheridan for $150,000. At around 3000 square feet you couldn’t build it for twice that. Like other people of an older generation he now has the capital to be able to buy houses cheap and take advantage of a rising rental market. This offers a better return than savings interest rates and he can afford to gamble on a capital appreciation in the longer term. It is a prudent and understandable business decision but is yet another obstacle in the way of the young trying to buy their own home.

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Bob drops me off at Billings, but kindly takes me on to the last exit so that I have the best chance of picking up traffic going west.

I got myself into a good place to hitch and there was loads of traffic so I had my arm out most of the time. After an hour and a half, it was hot and my arm and shoulder were beginning to ache. But you can’t stop. The one you don’t hitch or look at could have been the one that stopped. If it is a numbers game then if you stop after an hour and a half and go and sit in the shade, when you come back you have to start again. I know that statisticians will tell me this is bollocks and isn’t true but I don’t believe them.

The couple who stopped already had a car full but nevertheless crammed my stuff in as well.

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First thing this morning I had seen the news of the tragic train crash in Spain at Santiago. An express train had come off the track on a bend, and in a spectacularly horrific crash filmed by a fixed trackside camera at least eighty people had died almost instantly, including at least one American and a number of Pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago. As we put my stuff in the back, I point to the Camino scallop shell on my pack and tell them I will explain. It turns out that they haven’t seen the news, and nobody else has either. Apart from the birth of a Royal baby which has been all over everything, nobody seems to know about anything happening in the rest of the world. I am a fairly avid news follower and in the motels I find that having the TV on very low when I go to bed acts as the ideal sleeping pill. I found it almost impossible to find a news channel that had news on it other than what I would have expected to find in the British Tabloid press. This seemed to include CBS, CNN and when I was looking, PSB as well. Lots of weather and local stuff and tittle tattle but almost nothing National or International.

The only National news I could find seemed to be on Fox.

And the only reason they seemed to be interested in what Washington was doing was in order to criticise anything and everything Obama was doing in an overtly partisan way. As a fair minded Brit I was quite shocked and am obviously very naive. There seemed to be nothing about Syria, or Egypt or even Iraq and Afghanistan. Nothing about the Eurozone or the impending Arab Israeli peace talks, or current problems in Libya. Nothing about Africa, India, Pakistan or China, all of which are currently in the news in Europe. It may be that I didn’t know where to look. Or perhaps it is more fundamental than that. Is it that the nature of the “United States” that they are collaborating states who would prefer to get on with running their own affairs without any Federal interference at all if possible? So national news is not really of any great interest unless it affects your state.

International news seems to be of even less interest to most Americans. It is a myth that only 10% of Americans have passports.

It is actually around 30%. However, if we take into account new arrivals and new citizens, all legal, it brings it up to around 40%.

What is more relevant is what percentage of Americans actually travels aboard. The answer is less than 3.6%! This not only demonstrates a serious lack of interest in foreign travel but means that more than 96% of the population have no practical experience of ever having been anywhere else.

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It is not surprising that international News doesn’t come very high up the list.

Anyway, this little diatribe has nothing to do with the charming Sam and Ann Marie who have now crammed me into their car. Sam used to be in the tyre business with a company his Dad owned but his brother and Dad didn’t see eye to eye and he didn’t want to get caught in the middle so he left and started buying property and letting it, and rather like Bob the nurse that morning, during the crash he bought even more because they were cheap. Exactly like Bob, the income return is good because rents tend to keep up with inflation, and they can afford to sit tight and regard a capital gain in value as a bonus.

Ann Marie has been an English teacher of 12 year olds all her life.

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She enjoyed it, she said, but she is glad it is over! They are going home to Oregon having dropped her brother off at his home. They are stopping for the night at Butte. Butte looks a bit big for me so they agree to drop me off at Three Forks. I explain that the deal is that they kindly picked me up and now I would like to get out they should pull off at the intersection, bung me out and continue on their way. They won’t hear of it, and we go into Three Forks. Only when they are sure that there is a cheap old Motel for me to stay in do they leave. That’s the whole thing you see. That’s what makes it all such a great thing to do. Kind people like Sam and Anne Marie. When they drop me off they tell me that they have been very well entertained by my tales of Africa and travel and adventures, but are not sure how much they ought to believe. I feign righteous indignation, since of course every word is true and only marginally embellished for dramatic effect, but it is true that I have told them a lot more about me than I found out about them, and I feel a bit guilty. By this time it is too late to worry and they are about to disappear, but not before asking whether I had thought of dipping my toes in the Pacific. Had it not been for Ritzville, Washington State I might have done.

Three Forks is serious Lewis and Clark land and the actual head of the Missouri discovered by them when they hoped it would lead to a navigable connection with the Pacific. It is also just up the road from Custer’s Last Stand at the Little Bighorn, that as kids we had read about endlessly and had seen in comics. To be honest, I always found that a battle in which everyone on one side got killed was not entirely convincing as being heroic as opposed to being tragic, but there you go!

Right opposite where they drop me in the main street is the newspaper office, and since it is open I go in. It is a cavernous open office with a front desk and at the back I can see litho printing equipment but I don’t know if it was still in use. He tells me where the Broken Spur Motel is, and I thank him and tell him that I am very disappointed not to find him wearing a green eyeshade thing and that his shirtsleeves were not held up by those elasticated garters, both of which I thought were de rigueur in all self respecting newspaper offices. He didn’t seem particularly amused so perhaps he didn’t understand or maybe this wasn’t the first time he had heard this suggestion.

On my way down to the Broken Spur I passed a small boy sitting behind a wooden crate with an enamel jug on it and a sign saying Lemonade 50cents. If Norman Rockwell didn’t do exactly this scene for a Saturday Evening Post cover I will be very surprised.

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I had a very affable checking in with the woman owner of the Broken Spur and a large friendly dog, both of whom had initially ignored me because they were asleep. I have no idea why I say this, but she had the look about her as if she would be completely unshockable. Not that I had any intention of trying to. It was just a feeling that if some dreadful crisis was to suddenly befall Three Forks Montana she would be a good person to have around.

I had settled in nicely and was about to go out to eat. After the very nice Korean thing I had the night before I had noticed a Chinese place at the top of the town and decided to go to that.

I was just summoning the energy to go while sitting in the sun outside my room when Doug arrived in a Palomino truck camper thing. We idly passed the time of day until he realised I didn’t have a car. Had I been up to the heads of the river which was the head of the Missouri, heart of what Lewis and Clark were about, and an iconic and obligatory visit? I hadn’t since I had no way of getting there so he would take me and we should go now.

He was an archaeologist and had been given what he called “kitchen leave” by his wife to wander about and look at key archaeological sites. I can find no reference to kitchen leave anywhere but you know what he means. He had spent some time working in England with the MOD (Ministry of Defence) and had done a tour in Afghanistan as an archaeologist.

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At the site he romped through 20,000 years of the migration and development of the population of America whilst disagreeing with most of the information provided at the site itself. He talked about the significance of the survey work done by Lewis and Clark to map and survey the Louisiana Purchase, which increased the size of the United States by around 50%. The States had originally intended only to purchase New Orleans and its surroundings.

He talked about how Lewis and Clark had made dugouts for the next phase of their survey because they didn’t believe that the Indian birch canoes would be strong enough to survive the rapids Clark knew they would encounter further upstream.

Doug was revisiting the iconic joining of the three rivers regarded as the source of the Missouri because when he was about twenty he had gone for a ritual swim in them.

He dropped me off at the Chinese diner on the way back. It turned out to be a bit of a mistake. To start with it was dingy and devoid of eaters. Two bored children were sitting at a little table by the kitchen door doing something on a laptop. A very pregnant Chinese woman waddled out and was clearly struggling either to walk or be in the least pleased to see me. She pointed to a chair and I sat in one of the others not facing the till. “No, this one,” she said “What you want?”

The food was OK but a bit greasy. The whole place had the attraction and ambience of a parking lot, but you can’t win them all.

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Friday July 26th Superior – Montana – The Hill Top Motel.

The broken Spur offered a continental breakfast for anyone interested. Despite having declined it when Doug had mentioned it, I needed to know what an archaeologist was doing in Afghanistan and what he was doing with the MOD in England so I did go.

He had been offered the chance to go to Afghanistan and thought it would be a good opportunity to look for evidence of Alexander the Great’s time there. Alexander had apparently arrived in 330BC after conquering Persia during the Battle of Gaugamela. I asked him about his time in the UK. Oh, yes he said. He had worked very closely with the MOD because he was head of US intelligence in Europe and Asia at the time! Although he now taught at the University in Butte, Doug had obviously been a seriously big cheese.

A young couple at breakfast had been told that I was hitchhiking and declared it extremely dangerous. I suggested that it was probably more in the perception than the reality, but he said his wife should know because she was in insurance, and it was. It didn’t seem worth asking exactly who had bothered to study the stunningly uninteresting statistics of the relative safety of hitchhiking over the years, so I asked them what they were doing instead.

They had been trekking in the hills for a week or so with horses and mules, but their holiday had been cut short. They had to be hooked out because of one of the forest fires that were now consuming thousands of acres of woodland in the West. And they thought standing beside the road with your thumb in the air was dangerous!

The breakfast contingent reckoned that the best place to continue my journey west was at the Wheat Montana Bakery, and Doug said he would drop me out there.

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Doug was on his way to look at an old Indian buffalo leap in Madison State Park not far south of Three Forks. This was where the Indians had driven, and then stampeded herds of buffalo to their death over a cliff. Buffalo were the key to survival for the early Indians and provided them with almost everything they needed including food, shelter, clothing and tools. In a few words Doug dispelled one of the great romantic ideas I had about how these ancient and apparently uncivilised people lived in balance with nature, and had an innate and spiritual understanding of what was sustainable. Not at all, said Doug. They killed everything they could whether they needed it or not. As it happened, there were more than enough buffalo to go round at the time, so nobody worried much. Presumably, if buffalo had become more scarce then they might have begun to face the problem of sustainability. Actually, in reality, and in order to avoid confronting that problem, they would probably have started by killing each other to gain control over diminishing buffalo resources. It all sounds a bit like oil to me! As it turned out, by various means, the European settlers managed to largely wipe out both Indians and buffalo before that problem arose, so it went away, which is all a bit depressing.

The rather cuddly sounding Wheat Montana bakery turned out to be a factory the size of a nuclear power station, so it was just as well I hadn’t been looking forward to a coffee and croissant.

By now it was still only about 8.30 and Dave stopped for me in a beaten up pickup. I mention the time because as soon as I got in I realised he was drinking. First of the day he insisted as soon as he realised I had noticed the can in his lap.

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Remembering the warning from the couple just an hour or so ago,

this is a very good example of the risks attached to hitchhiking. Normally these are tipped pretty much in favour of the hitchhiker.

For example if anyone is going to set out with evil intentions it is much more likely to be the hitcher who knows he will get a lift, than a driver who may or may not even see a hitchhiker during many trips. This does not mean that there aren’t predatory drivers around looking for vulnerable people but it is less likely, and to be honest most hitchhikers don’t look particularly vulnerable.

Even sexual predators will usually look for easier ways to prey than picking someone up in broad daylight on a busy road.

If robbery is a motive, it is much more likely that a hitchhiker will rob a driver than the other way round. It is also much more likely that the hitchhiker will be drunk, on drugs, rude, smelly or generally objectionable. Drivers will only have their fraction of a second to make an extraordinarily sophisticated decision about stopping and if they get it wrong with a drunk hitchhiker, for example, who may then turn nasty if refused a lift, the gamble is even greater.

All this means that I can almost guarantee that whoever stops for me is a nice, kind, trusting person. Or possibly, as in Dave’s case, also drunk.

Whilst it clearly isn’t the first of the day, he doesn’t seem to be that bad, he isn’t going far, and we are now on the freeway, so I risk it and get away with it.

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My next lift was a first. I thought it was two women but it turned out to be Jen who was taking her daughter Logan into Butte to have her dental braces adjusted and who was not looking forward to it at all.

This was another short lift so we didn’t really have much of a chance to talk but it pointed to a pattern on the trip that was beginning to emerge. I had already realised that hitching on the small country roads wasn’t going to work at all since nearly everyone was just going a short distance into town or home again.

In theory this didn’t matter, except that very short lifts didn’t give me a chance to get to know anyone, and I wanted to know about them.

So this meant using the freeway to get longer lifts. In fact my longest lift so far had been Steve in the truck, and that had been on a country road but I regarded that as a serious bit of luck and not a pattern I could rely on. Once again, like so many other people, they went further than they needed to have done to drop me on the main exit from Butte going west.

It was a busy junction but nobody wanted to stop. After about half an hour two very dishevelled and grubby looking and unshaven guys appeared on the other side of the roundabout at what I now regarded as my junction.

There was an older and younger one with no stuff and a cardboard sign saying Idaho. There is no way I would have picked them up, and here they were invading my junction.

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There is a clear etiquette amongst hitchhikers if you turn up at a spot and someone is already there. Either you wait out of the way for them to go, or you have to go further up the road so that first there gets first chance. In fact they wandered up and we cheerfully chatted. “We won’t trouble you none” they said, and obligingly ambled off up the slope that led on to the freeway. They then sat down cross-legged with the Idaho sign in front of them on the ground whilst they drank what looked like cans of beer.

Slightly irritated that they were there at all, I stood up straight, looked cheerful, and held out a resolute thumb. I have no idea how long it was before I glanced up the road to find they had gone. So it just goes to show.

When I did get a lift, Melanie was another first if you can have a second first. She was a good looking woman in her late forties, I would guess, and the first woman on her own who I remember stopping since I either had children with me or was one. She was going to Anaconda which was fine with me and she would drop me off at a junction where there was a bar where I could get a drink. She said that the Lord had told her to stop and she said Praise the Lord and Amen quite a lot. She was a sweetie. We didn’t have much of a chance to talk but she was obviously chuffed to bits to be in charge of a life that she clearly hadn’t always been. She was chuffed that she owed nothing on the car. She was chuffed that she could listen to the Lord and choose to pick me up, Amen. She dropped me off at Warm Springs, insisted on having a hug, and went off to talk to one of the girls who were controlling the traffic at the road works. I had three glasses of 7up packed with ice, for which they would only charge me $2 before I headed out into the hot sun again. It was now about one o’clock.

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Scott’s pond from the porch at his house

Scott was on his way home for the weekend to just past Missoula which was great. What I had managed for the last few days had been to miss the cities that I really didn’t want to be in, and get to a town just big enough to have a main street, an old motel and somewhere to eat. Scott had to pop into Missoula to get some money and came out with a bagful of biscuit cookie things that the bank was giving away that day, presumably as some indication of their financial probity and general cuddliness.

As we drove, he was talking about the fires which were bad news for him because he was asthmatic, and I had suddenly realised that what I had thought was distant heat haze was smoke. Some major roads to the west of us had been closed and it wasn’t over yet.

He had worked at the paper making plant outside Missoula for thirty two years, but for what he implied were doubtful political reasons the idiots had closed it down. We drove past it, and although he said there was a possibility of starting up one boiler again, he doubted it would ever happen. He now looked after electrical control equipment which meant travelling but it was work so that was how it was. He was going to drop me off in Alberton, but he wasn’t quite sure whether the motel he remembered was still open, so he was going to take me back to his house and check on the net whether it was. However, I needed to know that his wife was eighteen years younger than he was, and quite conservative, so she might take a dim view of his picking up strange people on the road. I said that taking me home was therefore an extremely poor plan, and he said that between us he was sure we could handle it so it would be fine.

He had worked hard and built his own house on forty acres, and it was paid for and looked over what he called a pond but to me was definitely a lake. It worked out fine with his wife, of course, but the motel he thought of had burnt down and the other one was full.

The next likely town was Superior, fifty miles up the road. I made Scott drop me back at the Frenchtown intersection, and said I would be fine.

It was now early evening and this has been a strange day, what with women picking me up and stuff.

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Within twenty minutes a people carrier stops. In it is an attractive, jolly, plump woman called Denise with her young friend Amanda for company. They are taking Denise’s son Clayton exactly to Superior to take his Hunting Safety Exam now that he is twelve, and after his field day tomorrow he will be fully qualified to go and kill stuff.

I make them laugh, and they drop Clayton off for his exam. They now have to wait a couple of hours to pick him up and go home again. They drive me round and find the Hill Top Motel, and we decide to eat together. I check in to yet another friendly office, give Nancy $50 for yet another great room, chuck my stuff in and go to eat. We go round the corner to a local café run in a converted schoolroom by a very affable Mike and his bubbly wife Jacky.

This is just so utterly different from the Chinese parking lot and the seriously hassled Kim in Sheridan.

Everybody talks to everyone. We all get introduced to each other by Jacky, so within ten minutes the whole place, though sitting at different tables is part of a family occasion.

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A man and his wife come in. They want to see the menu, be informed of today’s specials, and inspect the loos before bringing in three children and somebody’s mother. Neither Jacky nor anyone else bats an eyelid, and when they do come in they are soon incorporated in the general jollity.

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Denise and Amanda outside the café in Superior

I forgot to say that when I got in the car initially, Denise had explained that she didn’t normally stop to pick up hitchhikers but the Lord had suggested she should, so she did. I must say, that as a happy heathen myself, it is gratifying but a bit confusing to have God’s endorsement on this trip. I remember not to pile straight into my food before Denise has a chance to bless it and wish me a safe journey. It is quite hard to keep my heathen resolve in the face of all this Godly kindness. The meal is fine and fresh and too much of course. The least I can do is to pay a very small bill of less than $35.00 for the three of us and they do the tip.

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We take a few pictures, bid some cheerful farewells, and I walk back to the motel.

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The Hill Top Motel, Superior

I was greeted by Nancy who kindly invited me to join her, her husband and a friend on the porch. She explained that her husband Garry had had a stroke and was doing pretty well, but in practise not that well. His friend was little better but his incoherence was related to alcohol rather than a stroke.

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Anyway, the big problem round here was wolves. And the Government and the authorities that had reintroduced them to restore the natural balance, even though people like Garry’s friend had been telling them for years that they didn’t need to reintroduce them because they had never gone away. It was just that these government idiots didn’t know where to look for them. And, even worse than that, they hadn’t even brought in the old American timber wolves like what they used to have and still had except they were too stupid to realise it. They had brought in Canadian wolves which were much bigger and were wreaking complete havoc in the Elk and deer calf population, and numbers were down drastically and whereas they were issuing three hundred elk tags for shooting ten years ago it was now down to three for the same area and so the hunting was down, employment was down, tourism was down, so it was looking to me as if Clayton wasn’t going to have anything left to kill even if he got an A plus on his exam.

It is now around 11.00 and I need to go to bed.

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Saturday July 27th – Ritzville Washington State – Top Hat Motel

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Donovan, Autumn, Austin, Sandra and Vic.

I walked out of Superior on yet another sunny morning, and I think I got a short lift to St Regis. Then, not for the first time, a car which is obviously already full stops, and insists it has room for me. There is Sandra, a pretty woman in her early forties I would think, and Vic, her nice looking husband who is a truck driver. Donovan is about 15 and very sensible and Austin at around 10 is stuffed incredibly full of obscure facts about sharks, alligators and crocodiles. Autumn, don’t forget the n, is an irresistibly chatty six year old, who pats my arm if she wants to say something, but only speaks when she has my totally undivided attention, and whilst gazing deep into my brain.

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For a few days I have been failing to get a map of Idaho. Colorado, Wyoming and Montana haven’t exactly asked why I would expect them to have a map of some other state, but that is clearly what they think. During a long and fun conversation about all sorts of things including stuff about sharks and things that I so don’t need to know, we manage to drive straight through Idaho without me noticing, so I now need a map of Washington State instead.

They drop me on the outskirts of Spokane, and it is now probably around lunchtime.

Lying in the shade of a tree in the undergrowth beside the entrance to the freeway were what looked like a small group who yelled a greeting and said it was too hot to hitch. I said I had to get on.

After not long I get a lift to Cheney not far up the road. It is a complicated and difficult junction with very little traffic and most of what there is, is going east.

After a couple of hours I give in and fairly easily get a lift back to Spokane. The ones under the bushes wander over and tell me they have been at that junction for three days which is a bit of a downer.

They turn out to be a young couple with a dog, and who look as if they have been teleported from a Glastonbury festival of the mid seventies. Their packs are old and soiled and show all the signs that they spend a lot of time on the road. Rather like a tinkers truck they are hung with useful extra bits and pieces She is a very pretty girl with long blond hair, a head band and very white teeth, dressed in not much olive green drab, and with bare feet although her sandals are dangling from her kit.

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They are going over to the services because they can usually find some free food. They mostly sleep out they say, and prefer it.

Someone offers me a lift but says it is only twenty miles and the junction is in the middle of nowhere, and so for the first time on this trip, especially having had to hitch back from Cheney, I say thanks but no.

Then a guy stops who isn’t going to give me a lift either, he says, but he is concerned about me. Because I idly tell him I am heading towards Seattle he offers to pay my bus fare. It is difficult to explain to someone very succinctly that you could easily afford your own bus fare, but chose to hang around for hours beside the road hoping someone might pick you up instead.

Did I have water, because he had lots and could give me some?

And did I need Gaiter aid, because he was worried about whether as an older person it was safe to leave me. I was genuinely touched by his concern, and had to work quite hard to thank him for being such a nice chap but convince him that I was fine. I found out afterwards that Gatorade is some kind of chemically enhanced silly drink, and very popular amongst those perpetually concerned about their electrolytic balance. This is obviously quite a lot of people because they sell shed loads of it. Nevertheless, his heart was in the right place.

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Although I hadn’t got a fold out map of Washington State I had got my old faithful Rand McNally road atlas of all America, very annoyingly state by state in alphabetical order rather than geographically adjacent. This is another example of “State Think”. If you have got a road map of your state why would you want some other state which isn’t yours, but which happens to be next door, on the next page?

I had this conveniently strapped to the underneath of my stroller contraption. From this I knew that the next likely place that would have what I needed was Ritzville. And that was exactly where Judy and Bill were going which was a bit of luck. And was also another small coincidence, apart from going just where I wanted to go, or am I just constructing things out of nothing? Look, two people who picked me up on the same day were buying up cheap properties, but nobody else who picked me up was. Then after the couple at Three Forks who said it was so dangerous, the next person who picked me up was well on his way to being drunk.

And now, after that kind stranger wanted to pay my bus fare, Judy tells me that one of the reasons they stopped was that she was worried about me because she works in a bloody care home for the elderly! I didn’t realise I looked so pathetic.

When we got into Ritzville they showed me the best place to eat and then took me up to the Top Hat Motel and insisted on waiting until they confirmed they had a room for me.

Ritzville is pretty small with a population not much more than 1500. Named after Philip Ritz, it survived its early days on water from a tanker in the rail depot next to the wheat mill. In fact the town was very nearly moved a couple of miles to the nearest natural water until it was discovered nearby.

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Judy and Bill said the place to eat was the Memories Diner. I had the special which was fish and chips because the lens had fallen out of my glasses, and the menus are too big anyway, so if there is a special I usually have it. I wandered back to the motel over the tracks of the railway depot and went to bed.

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The Top Hat Motel in Ritzville

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Sunday, July 28th – Moses Lake – Washington State.

By eight o’clock I was walking up through town and out towards the junction to the interstate freeway. Even though it is Sunday, a small store is open so since we are in Washington I pop in to get a state map. They don’t have any. This is for the standard reason that stores universally don’t have whatever it is that you want. Either everyone wants them so they have sold out, or nobody wants them so they don’t keep them.

The entrance to the freeway is at the end of the 30mph limit and is has a good pull off area. But there is no traffic. Behind the wire mesh fence beside me is a carefully manicured compound which is a State Police post with a little building which probably has an office in it. Out the back is a petrol pump, and what turns out to be an air line and a water hose. I can see these through a single row of a dozen trees full of chattering birds, and which are the only visible trees in the whole flat landscape. On the far side of the police compound is a country track and beyond that the railway. Since there is still no traffic I notice the regular, slightly mournful arrival of trains every now and then. I even have time to count three engines and one hundred and sixty wagons and another two engines on the tail, whilst nothing else happens at all. Without me noticing, a State Trooper and his unmarked car have materialised at the pump. He begins to wash it, leather it, check the tyres and do all the other things we are all supposed to do before we embark on the open road. He does, however, perform this entire process in a sort of studied slow motion so that after an hour he is still vacuuming the seats. It is now becoming hotter as the sun begins to climb.

A truck comes past me with a seriously smoking rear tyre, and the smell of burning rubber and smoke swirls around me. I wave at him at he goes by and point to his back wheel but he doesn’t notice me.

I yell to the trooper that this truck has just gone by and this tyre is about to ignite. He waves back and continues hoovering.

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About twenty minutes later he flies out of the compound as if he is on a Grand Prix starting grid, roars round to me, pauses sufficient only to check which way he went, and thunders off with god knows how many horsepower to play with in his very shiny unmarked car.

When he returns a couple of hours later I am still there. He drives straight round the back to the pump in the compound, fills up and starts the whole cleaning ritual again. I have no idea what happened to the truck because he doesn’t tell me. By now I have decided that he is either the most pedantic and boring policeman on the planet or he has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Either way I am now relieved that he ignored me. And still no traffic. Well, the odd car but nothing that even looks like it might stop. By the time I get a lift I have been there for nearly nine hours.

Apart from going over to yell at the State Trooper, I haven’t moved. I haven’t sat down, taken a break, or even nipped off for a pee.

I have had some water but the heat has obviously evaporated it to match the amount I have drunk.

I have to find some explanation for the fact that I have no recollection of having been bored. Of course I don’t usually have to wait nine hours for a lift. In fact I have never waited nine hours, but I waited five in Craig on this trip, and I often wait for two or three. I don’t go into a trance. I have no experience or knowledge of yoga or meditation. Neither do I find my own thought processes sufficiently fascinating to keep me amused for that long. I have therefore had to invent a new state of mind which I have called Dogmode. At its heart is the concept of a subconscious reset button.

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I have been told that dogs have little concept of the passing of time.

This means that whether you have been away for an hour or a day they are just as pleased to see you when you appear. Their pleasure at seeing you is unrelated to how long they have had to wait. It is simply that you are here, and the period of time for which you were absent becomes instantly irrelevant. I think the same thing happens to me.

However long I have to wait, the moment I get a lift, reset happens.

I realise after a week of this trip, because it is the first time I have kept a hitchhiking diary, that even at the end of the same day, I can seldom remember how long I waited for any particular lift. I am pretty good at remembering the personal details of the lift itself, but the chances are that I cannot recall the details of the junction I was at or even how long I stood there. On a day like the one outside Ritzville with so little traffic, each car can trigger a reset because each one might be the one that stops and it goes on being the one that might stop right up to the point at which it really has gone too far.

In fact, Moses and Spencer had got past that point when they did stop and backed up.

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By now I had very nearly decided I had to go back to the Top Hat, stay another night, and hope there would be more traffic on a Monday morning. I had also realised that weekend hitching wasn’t so good and if I wanted to have half a chance of getting back to Dillon by Friday, then dipping my toes in the Pacific in Seattle probably wasn’t possible. I didn’t really mind because it hadn’t been something I’d started out to do. And I really didn’t want to be walking round a big very strange city on my own looking like a nut case with a pram.

Moses and Spencer are contractors from Colorado. Their firm bid for a job near Ritzville putting in petrol lines and got it so here they are. They are going into Moses Lake because they haven’t been there, it is Sunday and they are bored. We drive into Moses Lake and pull into the first old Motel we see, the El Rancho. We have already agreed to go out to eat together, so as soon as they know I have a room they go off to look for somewhere to eat, while I get my stuff sorted out.

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When they come to pick me up I make them come in and see what you get for $46.00 which in this case happens to include a flat screen TV, ironing board, hair dryer and cafetiere as well as the usual stuff. Their boss is putting them up at a Best Western so they aren’t paying. They don’t know how much it is costing but reckon is probably more than double. This convinces them that if they were paying themselves the El Rancho would be fine. They pick a good restaurant overlooking the water. I am not sure whether this is the Moses Lake or a river, and forget to ask.

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Moses and Spencer at the restaurant at Moses lake

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Monday July 20th – Prosser, Washington. The Barn Motor Inn.

It was a mile or so out of Moses Lake to get back to the freeway, and I think I waited an hour or so for a lift. Cope and Terrie stop for me in what I seem to remember was a fairly battered old camper van, already full of stuff. Cope is Dr Bob Cope. They live in Salmon Idaho which Cope describes as isolated. Cope is an elected County Commissioner for Lemhi County Idaho. Three County Commissioners is a usual number and they are the politically elected executive for some Counties in some States, a form of local control which still operates in the less populated States. Bob says that although they are politically allied, Commissioners who want to be elected are likely to simply take on the colour of whichever party controls the State. He has been around for some time and reckons that by playing the country cousin has got serious good things done before they realise he’s done it. He is on umpteen committees for the environment and things and is trying to get rid of them. He is obviously a real powerhouse, and even while we are driving Terrie has to field several phone calls including one from a colleague in Washington DC. You do get to meet the top people when you do this hitchhiking stuff. Terrie has had a stroke but I would never have known. She is doing very well because I reckon I am pretty hot at spotting these things.

In fact they are going to Seattle but I have already decided to stop short and begin to head south on a wide loop home.

They are going to meet up with a girl they helped when she was only sixteen and bunged out by her family. Cope and Terrie had no children of their own and sort of adopted her. She had a baby and a rotten marriage which broke up and now she is with someone really nice and it is all working. They are going to meet up with them in Seattle the next day and take them on a cruise up the Alaska coast.

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They drop me off in Ellensburg where I can pick up the freeway south. Moses and Spencer have already told me that Moses Lake was full of Mexicans and drugs but I hadn’t really noticed. In Ellensburg, a lot of commercial signs were in Spanish first and English underneath. I was surprised to find so many Mexicans so far north but it turns out to be a big draw because of farming jobs in Washington State.

This junction is very much in town, on a major one way system, and the complete opposite of Ritzville. I am watching three or four lanes of traffic streaming past while trying to work out which ones are going to peel off up the freeway approach so I can hitch. Out of the corner of my eye I see something odd which shows the extreme tolerance of American drivers. Some idiot has managed to get himself going the wrong way round in the system on the far side of the road and is now intent on crossing all the traffic to turn left onto the freeway. He nudges forward and in the end weaves his way through until he is gets released on to the ramp and goes. I do not bother to hitch.

The extraordinary thing is that nobody hit anyone and not one person hooted. Afterwards people told me that in any major city they would have sat on their horns, just like in Europe. But in Europe they would have sat on their horns in anywhere bigger than a hamlet. Having said that, Americans are not generally brilliant drivers in my experience. They do tend to wander a bit on the freeways, not think ahead very well, and bloody cruise control makes overtaking a mind bogglingly tedious exercise.

However, not driving around as if full of hyper testosterone, and generally not going very fast probably more than compensates.

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When I hitch, people often wave. In town you get the occasional finger but it really is very rare even from the revoltingly young and arrogant. If I have time, I make a special effort to give them a very friendly wave just for fun, since they are hardly likely to come back and explain that they weren’t trying to be nice. Women generally wave in a different way. My wave and other men’s tend to be a sort of salute or just an open hand in the air. Women wave with their fingers, over their shoulders, which is rather sexy, I think.

Of course there are lots of just plain grumpy men and women who grittily pretend they haven’t seen you. I specially wave at them too since the person behind doesn’t know the difference. Whether any of this has any affect on anything I have no idea but it keeps me mildly amused when there is lots of traffic.

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Mike Pearson stopped for me and was going to Yakima on my route. Mike is obviously a gentle soul and is wearing a floppy straw hat which I find slightly disconcerting for no reason at all. Mike is seriously interested in the occult, science fiction and genealogy, none of which I know anything about. He had traced the Pearsons back to those who set up a fabric finishing mill in Massachusetts in 1642, and then subsequent Pearsons became big in biscuits. His parents were both in education, but for some reason decided that Mike should become a manual worker, or maybe Mike decided that he should become a manual worker. Anyway he said, at 57 he was now too old to be digging ditches although there was very little that he didn’t now know about doing it. I think he lived and worked on a family farm. Today he was supposed to be getting some shopping, but also taking his brother out. We would go and pick up his brother on the Ellensburg side of Yakima and then he would take me to the other side to drop me off at a good intersection. His brother Richard was in an assisted living scheme, and was on medication, but used to be a bit of a hippy himself so he would be fine with me in the car.

We picked Richard up, and Mike drove over to the other side of town to drop me off, but said the junction didn’t look very nice so we went to the next one which was worse so he brought me back to thefirst one. This was not an easy junction to hitch at and I suspect this was not a very good part of town either. There seemed to be a rather high percentage of dodgy looking young guys in low black cars with tinted windows. Nevertheless it was fine and people waved just the same but they didn’t stop. I suspect a few who might have done were too late because the pull off was too short. I was standing next to a hotel car park, and a young woman came over who I assumed was going to ask me what I was doing. In fact she was begging so I gave her all my change. Well, good luck to you, she said. I have been trying to get out of this town for a long time so I hope you make it! I know I was there for three hours because I was conscious that time was getting on and I really didn’t want to be stuck in Yakima.

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Richard and Mike in Yakima
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And then, bless him, Mike came back to see if I was OK, and since I wasn’t, insisted on taking me a few more junctions down the road before I made him drop me off and go home for Goodness Sake! No one has ever done that before.

The road from the junction before Mike dropped me off was closed because of a big forest fire. This one was pretty much in the sticks but there were services and hotels I could see in the distance so I knew that I would be OK.

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You can’t see the driver, Kattra because she is on the other side of the bus having a cigarette.

I hadn’t hitched the community bus but it stopped on the shoulder and opened the doors. It’s free she said. Get in. I need to find a Motel for the night I said. We can fix that, she said. Get in. Kattra had a paid job driving the bus and was obviously proud of the service it was providing. We aren’t supposed to pick up people between stops she said. But another rule says our job is to provide transport for those that need it, irrespective of age, colour or creed, and you looked like you needed it, so I stopped.

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The service is paid for by a combination of Federal, State and County money, and as always with these things, continuity of funding was a constant problem.

The bus was three quarters full and mainly of what I guessed were Mexicans. We came off and on the freeway dropping people off at each small township on the way. Each town seems to be basically one street with a mixture of every size and style of house with the odd garage repair place and a few small stores. They looked pretty run down. However, this was also true of parts of towns which were obviously prosperous. I think it is something to do with the lack of pressure on land. In Europe where spare land is at a premium, if a house or building becomes vacant and neglected, there will be lots of people who want to buy it and put something new on it. Perhaps if there is no real shortage of space you simply ignore a derelict site and build on a new one.

I saw cattle in big open dusty compounds eating hay through fences designed to be a feeding grill, maize, hops and vines. Kattra told me there was a lot of soft fruit as well.

Prosser was the end of the line for the bus, and so Kattra dropped me off not far past the Barn Inn Motel.

There was a bit of excitement in Prosser on my way back to the Motel. There were at least four police cars all over the side of the road and the verge, and a number of highly armed Police Officers standing around. Kneeling on the ground and stripped at least to the waist was a young man with his hands cuffed behind his back.

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Sitting close by was a large, slobbery, panting dog which probably belonged to the young man, but obviously wasn’t part of the problem, and was just enjoying the company. In America, police cars always seem to turn up as a small herd. During my hitch I saw a few incidents and there were always at least three squad cars and always badly parked and always attended by policemen most of whom didn’t seem to have anything else to do. They were still prowling around a couple of hours later when I came back from eating.

I went to eat at around eight o’clock and to my embarrassment was the only person there. Everybody else had been in around 6.30 which is apparently when people eat, especially in the country. I must try to remember to get in earlier. On the other hand, one of the great advantages of being late is that I often get the undivided attention of a pretty waitress I can talk to, and tonight is no exception. Racquel is both pretty and chatty. She really wants to go to Europe and asks me endless stuff about it. She thinks she never will, so I tell her how easy it is and that she should. They are sometimes a strange lot, the Americans. For all their “can do” and “get up and go”, their extraordinary resilience, and their familiarity with distances, they are often rubbish at going anywhere. On our last trip round we met a girl in Montana who said how lucky we were to be going to New Mexico because she had always wanted to go. If you got up early and shared the driving you could be there in time for dinner, for goodness sake.

And in Wyoming we met people who were amazed that we had driven this old Mustang from Boston as opposed to having it flown out.

And so to yet another comfortable bed, with CBS as a lullaby.

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Tuesday July 30th – La Grande, Oregon – The Royal Motel.

Uvaldo picked me up outside Prosser. He was going for a job interview and looked slightly uncomfortably tidy. He would drop me off at what he reckoned was a good junction out of Richland. At the intersection I popped into a car battery shop just to check exactly where I was. I needed to be at a different junction which was about four miles away. The guys in the battery shop printed me out some directions, and a couple of hours later I was at roughly the right road out of town. I had acquired a chunky felt pen and a good bit of cardboard on which I wrote Hermiston. I didn’t particularly want to go to Hermiston but the route was all a bit squiggly round here and Hermiston would guarantee I was on the right road.

I was standing just up from a set of traffic lights and next to the car park for a bike shop. A guy turned up in a pick up, and went into the shop with a wheel. Left in the truck was a fairly soppy looking hound dog, which intermittently bayed in a slightly desultory way, as if it felt obliged to but wasn’t convinced it would do any good, or that there was much point. However, if you were a hound dog that’s what you did. When he came out, he said he could get me to Hermiston so to get in. However, first we had to go home and wait for his wife to come home with food because he was diabetic and then he would get me to Hermiston. We went home, and chatted and had iced tea, which I have to say is pretty revolting, at least what I had at T’s house was.

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Then Shirley Ann came home and they had a sandwich, because I had insisted I didn’t want one, and Abbi the dog, who would have had one had it been offered, watched. They had acquired Abbi some years before from a neighbour who didn’t want her, on the understanding that the neighbour would pick up any vet bills and that had seemed to work pretty well.

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T and Shirley Anne and Abbi the dog

T and I were born in the same year and he had done loads of stuff including truck driving and generally fixing things but he had several accidents and was definitely not so fit these days.

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Shirley Ann was not at all surprised to see me, and said that T was always coming home with people he’d found some place or other. She was a teaching assistant and had been all her working life. She was obviously devoted and good at it, and somehow never got round to getting any more qualifications.

We put Abbi in the truck in a harness so she couldn’t fall out. It transpired that he wasn’t actually going to Hermiston at all. He was just taking me for the hell of it! We had got to Pendleton before I persuaded him to bung me out and go home.

I know I didn’t wait long before an Indian guy called Jeremiah stopped and said he could take me down to the truck stop. I said I had popped into a truck stop to see how the land lay, but I didn’t feel comfortable asking for lifts so he said he would take me to the next junction which was busier anyway, except that it wasn’t.

We were now on the Umatilla Indian Reservation and Jeremiah lived way up in the hills. He had recently given up his job on a language programme to fix up his mum’s house before she became too disabled to manage on her own without his changes.

I don’t know what the time was but I waited a pretty long time and by now was merely interested in finding something not too far off the route with a motel.

Mike turned up and was going to La Grande which he knew had motels so that was fine and I was moving, so I was happy!

My trip with Mike was almost surreal.

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Although he was in ordinary clothes he was a full time soldier in the army and had done two tours in Iraq. He was visiting a girl friend in La Grande that he wasn’t at all sure was as in love with him as she had appeared to be before. He spoke at a greater speed than I had ever heard. I gleaned everything I am telling you from a high velocity conversation he was having on a cell phone with his estranged wife, whilst driving at a fearful speed and steering with one hand. American interstate freeways are very similar to European motorways, so that although this section was through a range of hills, bends are pretty gentle. Nevertheless Mike managed to make the tyres squeal. I’ve got this old man in the car he said, who is hanging on to his seat, but you know me he said. Never come off yet he said to me. She was beginning to find excuses not to see him he explained to his wife, or ex wife, and by the way did she want him to file the papers because all he had to do was to do it but it would cost $270 so he wouldn’t if she didn’t want him to. From what I didn’t hear of her half of the conversation, whether this girlfriend was going off him or not was of profound disinterest to her, which he acknowledged but he wanted to know what she thought.

This was particularly because the girlfriend didn’t seem to have given up the old boyfriend, and that didn’t seem right to him so he couldn’t be bothered with it and was thinking of giving her up. I was quite relieved when he finally came off the phone, and we had a brief discussion in which my advice was that from what I had heard this was not likely to be the relationship of a lifetime. But at least while he was talking he mostly looked at the road, even if getting round corners was a bit dodgy single handed. Now that he was texting, even less time was devoted to the road, so it was just as well we had come down the other side of the hills and on to a straighter bit.

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Mercifully he dropped me off at a motel which turned out to be full so I had a pleasant walk through town and out the other side to the Royal. I needed to do some washing. They didn’t have a washing machine so I wandered up the road to Bubbles Launderette.

The owner was there so he told me what to do and we chatted. He had done a massive hitchhike and tour in Europe in the seventies.

He and a friend had delivered cars to get to the East coast and then worked a passage on an Italian freighter to Naples, hitched all over Europe, and had driven delivering cars and vans to Iran and Iraq.

They had been away for at least two years, had started out with five thousand dollars and he had arrived back home with two.

He had started out thinking he wanted to do forestry, but by the time he qualified he wasn’t so sure. So rather than work ‘til sixty he decided to do this trip and then work a bit longer at this end. He felt that this had worked out well and he had this great travel experience at the best time of his life.

He had to go home, but leaving me knowing what I had to do, and with a few of us tending our stuff. This included a disconcertingly pretty blonde woman who was having problems rolling and tying up sleeping bags, so I gave her a hand. They were for a family reunion she was going to. She had overheard my conversation with the owner and we chatted until all our stuff was done. She reminded me of Autumn, the little one who spoke to me only when she was sure she had my undivided attention. When Laurie and I chatted she also seemed to look right into me as if I was saying something important. Very disconcerting, and much more fun than I had expected a visit to the launderette to be.

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By this time I couldn’t be bothered to eat but thought I ought to so I wandered along the main street to find most things shut of course.

The Chinese was open, but since it was late most people had gone, but it did have the usual benefit of getting a pretty waitress all to myself, so I may not get round to eating that early after all.

I promise Jessica that I will let her know that I get back safe. However, I now find that I can’t read a bit of the email address I wrote down. I googled the restaurant in La Grande and although there are three there I have to hope I got the right one. There was no email contact so I have sent a letter to them to give Jessica a message.

I don’t think I did many miles but I had a great day.

Wednesday July 31st – Mountain Home , Oregon – Town Center Motel.

More by luck than good judgement I am at the Town Center Motel.

Last night I had run out of cards to give to people who wanted to know if I had got home safely. Even at eight o’clock in the morning there was a small print shop open who for a few dollars printed me some more while I waited. It wasn’t too far a walk out to the freeway, although it would have been shorter if I hadn’t left my glasses in the Motel, which I discovered as soon as I got the map out to check where I was.

It was a good hitching place but not a lot of traffic. A few people were walking by and most of them waved. Except the young ones.

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They looked neither to the left nor right and seemed always to be plugged into an ithing. I often watched them sloping across roads apparently unaware of the traffic which usually obligingly slows or stops for them. I am very surprised they don’t get run over all the time. Perhaps they do.

Across a scrubby patch of land next to the freeway ramp was an empty diner, and I had waved to the waitress who was cleaning the windows and idly swatting flies. After an hour she came out with a cup of coffee for me. I am surrounded by nice, kind people. Why do we allow such shits to be in charge of everything?

The car that picked me up contained a very pretty girl on her own but with a lot of shopping, which we had to shunt around to fit me in.

This was a first for me because pretty young women on their own really don’t pick up men. But JaNeice did and we didn’t discuss why. She lived in La Grande and was going to pick up her kids who were staying with her parents, and hopefully they were going camping, which was what all the shopping and stuff was for.

However, there had been a “Burn Ban” so they might not go because it would mean no camp fires or BarBQs which would take a lot of the fun out of it.

JaNeice ran her own business cleaning and gardening, and it did well enough to give her the independence she wanted, and to be able to choose her hours to fit in with the kids.

We talked about a lot of stuff while we were going through Oregon.

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She didn’t like Oregon, she said, not because it had done anything terrible to her, but just because – and they made you drive real slow and you couldn’t help yourself to gas. You had to be served and if you touched the pumps it was illegal. I said I thought this to be preposterous, and then she said it might be something to do with a work creation programme because in Oregon you can only get welfare if you worked! This put a whole new slant on things, because if you can get welfare only if you work, there must be work for you to do. Even so, she knew a girl who had kids and worked the minimum so she could get the maximum and always had her nails and hair done, so that was a bit annoying as well.

This, of course is a universal problem. Being a bit of a liberal in the countryside anywhere is a bit of a political problem. Being a bit of a liberal in the Western States of the USA is a diplomatic minefield. Even so, most people would accept that it is the mark of a civilised society that if ten percent of the population is incapable of looking after itself then it is the responsibility of the other ninety percent to look after them. The problem is the inevitable scrounging parasitic contingent, who take advantage of the system, and how you deal with indirectly punishing the children of those cheating parents. It is these problems that Oregon is trying to address with what is regarded as a groundbreaking approach. It is, however, not without its critics. In simplistic terms, if you want welfare you work, not for state created work programmes but for minimum wage for commercial companies. The companies are reimbursed these wage costs, but in exchange for free labour, provide training programmes to develop the skills of these workers, so that they can move on into higher paid, more permanent full time jobs. Critics point out that this training is often non existent or woefully inadequate. This encourages a low wage economy and continues the reality that most poverty is in low paid working families rather than those on work for welfare programmes. What they say is required is the encouragement of living wage jobs with a higher level of skills. In other words the Oregon model may satisfy those who want to end the “something for nothing” culture, but the figures show that it is not addressing the real problem of poverty in Oregon.

We also talked about how girls were generally so much better organised than the boys, and seemed to be more motivated and more determined. JaNeice didn’t realise that this seemed to be the same the world over and not just where she lived. It was the girls who got jobs and cars, and somewhere decent to live. She was exasperated with her clever and hardworking girlfriends who so often seemed to get involved with such useless men! We talked about micro loan schemes in Africa which predominantly lend money to women rather than men, to start small business enterprises, because the default rate was minimal compared with lending to men. I have to say that right from when we first went to Africa, and we lived up in the Vumba Mountains and didn’t go to school, my experience would support that likelihood. The women worked in the fields on the crops with their children on their backs. Then they pounded the maize to make flour and did the cooking.

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The men seemed to sit about all day under a tree, talking and playing board games, and then got drunk at night. We talked about the importance of women being in charge of contraception: that in India forty years ago, women had been offered a transistor radio in exchange for being sterilised. These days an infinitely more effective contraceptive was the chance of running a successful business, or improving the standard of living for yourself and your family by being able to control the number of children you have.

JaNeice dropped me off north of Boise, leaving me feeling somewhat guilty about men in general.

I was getting myself organised by the road when I realised I had left my hat in JaNeice’s car.

The pickup truck that stopped already looked pretty full, but they squidged me in anyway. These guys were steel erectors. Serious steel erectors. The ones that walk around on steel beams hundreds of feet in the air. There was Kevin Donahue and his son Ryan, and their foreman Troy.

But Kevin wasn’t only a steel erector. He was also a bullfighter. This is not a bullfighter as we would understand it in Europe. He was a rodeo bullfighter, and in Rodeos that meant he was the clown. And this is not a clown as we would understand it in Europe either. Kevin was the key person who distracted the bull and made sure that it didn’t trample the rider who had just been flung to the ground usually in somewhat less than the proprietary eight seconds.

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Kevin Donahue – Rodeo Clown

They were going into Boise (pronounced boissy) where Troy was going to pick up his truck, and would drop me out on the freeway on the way to look at a job they had out at the airport.

Kevin kindly offered to put me up at his place because the next day he was going to be going out to Arco which was a really scenic route, but it was kind of out of the way for me. Reluctantly I said no,

So the deal was that we would pick up Troy’s truck and he would drop me off after he picked up a key in Boise.

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Jobs done by Kevin Donahue’s team

Before I got out Kevin also gave me a DVD of a film he had made with his brother called Lost River which had won an award at the Sun Valley Film Festival which Claire and Ursula and I watched as soon as I got back to Dillon. And it was very good, but a bit sad.

Ursula said the DVD wouldn’t work in the UK because they never did, but this turns out to be a marketing trick by the big media companies as a way of making even more money, and it worked fine.

As we drove into Boise Troy pointed out the buildings they had done. He obviously felt exactly as I did about my jobs except that theirs were a bit bigger than mine. That’s one of ours he said, with exactly the same tone of “ownership” as I feel about my jobs when I drive past them. We put 350,000 kilos of steel into that one he said. And we built a floor a fortnight. When he dropped me off he gave me a hat!

The junction that Troy dropped me at was busy enough but quite fast, so after a bit I was beginning to worry. But, it was OK because Lionel came along in a beat up old pick up that was so old it had quarter lights in the front door windows which I haven’t seen for ages. He had been doing some casual work in Boise and was on his way back to Mountain Home which he knew had old motels and it would be about six o’clock when we got there so I would be fine.

As we came in to town there was the Thunderbird Motel so out I got and found I had left my road map in the car. I am obviously going gaga.

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What follows is a brief synopsis of my encounter with one of the only two people on the entire trip who were not the soul of helpful kindness, and even he was just daft as opposed to being malicious.

To get into the motel office I had to ring a bell and wait while an elderly Asian Indian, who was already in the office, came to undo several locks to let me in.

Had he got a room for me?

Just a minute, he said.

Why had I not got a car?

Who had dropped me off?

Had I got a passport?

Why didn’t it have my address in it?

He had travelled the world so it should have my address in it, and if it didn’t it must be a forgery.

Actually it doesn’t, since it is an identity document and nothing to do with where I live.

Would I fill in this form?

I needed to put my car registration on the form please.

But I didn’t have a car so how could I?

Well I would have to put the registration of the car that dropped me off.

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But I didn’t know it, or him or where he lived.

So what was I doing in his car?

Did I have a driving licence?

Yes, but since I didn’t have a car what was the relevance of that?

All this took three quarters of an hour during which I patiently explained that I had never had so much trouble giving somebody money before, and he laboriously wrote everything down.

In the end I asked him if there was another motel in town and if there was would he mind if I went there instead. There was, he said, and he wouldn’t mind at all, so I told him he was a daft old pillock and left.

On the way into town I worried that he might have phoned ahead and warned them that there was this very suspicious foreigner, pretending to be British with a forged passport, who might be a terrorist on the way and to have nothing to do with him.

The woman at the Town Center Motel, said that he hadn’t phoned ahead and she wouldn’t have paid any attention anyway, but she was surprised that he turned down the $40.00.

She charges me only $36.00 and I am sure the room is better because the Thunderbird did look a bit tired so that was good.

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I popped over the road to the supermarket because I needed to get some stuff for my feet and a felt pen which I had also managed to lose during the day. I also decide that I can’t face another meal I can’t finish so I buy some fruit, a healthy smoothie drink, an unhealthy large packet of crisp things and eat them outside my room in the sun while I write.

The only thing that I think has changed since I was staying in motels ten years ago, is that some people seem to be more permanent, and often as not, either drunk or on something. This may just be that on this trip I sit outside in the sun in the evening, writing, and on my own, so I tend to notice them which I probably wouldn’t have done had I been with Claire. And, of course because I am on my own they tend to come and chat.

They are mostly totally harmless, but I do have to put up with some utterly pointless conversations, and endless refusal of alcoholic drinks disguised as anything but alcohol. I assume this disguising of alcohol is because in most states it seems to be illegal to consume alcohol in public. Concealing it from the public means putting it in a paper bag. Thus anyone walking around with a bottle in a paper bag might just as well have “This is alcohol and I am a drunk, or will be shortly” written on it in large letters. Apparently, legally, if you can’t see it is alcohol, it might not be so it is OK. At the motels they don’t seem to bother with the paper bags but do use soda pop bottles in which to carry strange liquids. What you are supposed to do if you are having a picnic with wine at an event or in a public park I have no idea.

I may take a cab out to the freeway tomorrow because it will save time.

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Thursday August 1st – Knights Inn Motel – Provo, Utah.

The office will be open at 7.30 am she said, and they will call you a cab. When I arrived at 8.00 am it wasn’t, so I went over the road to the gas station to get a map, and get them to call me a cab. The owner’s brother had just arrived at work so he ran me out, which was great.

When Alison stopped, they had to repack three times to get me in.

I don’t know what sort of car it was, but just a big estate type, which already contained Alison, five children and loads of stuff. In fact there was enough room once we wiggled around a bit, but it was still incredibly good of them to stop for me.

Alison is a good looking, relaxed, and cheerful woman around fortyish, I guess. It was her birthday.

They were on their way to a new life in Ephraim, Utah, where her husband has been appointed as financial controller at the University. He is still at home in Zurich with their oldest daughter who is nineteen.

She had flown into Portland Oregon with the other five, a day or so

earlier. There was Thomas who was seventeen, Stephanie, Sara, Laura, and little Sam. This is the children’s first time in America. Well, Stephanie had been for a brief visit to grandparents, and Sam came before he was old enough to remember.

So this trip is the beginning of a whole new life for them, in a new country, and actually must be a bit scary, since Utah is not very much like Switzerland. Alison says the children speak English at home for her benefit, so I guess her husband is Swiss, although she is American. Sam has been writing jokes on an iPad which are the sort of jokes an eight year old writes but I dutifully read them all.

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He also wants to stop for a pee. Alison has promised that we will, but for the last half hour or so we have passed nothing much but a sign saying “Do not stop in dust storms”.

Eventually we do pull off at an exit in the middle of nowhere but it has a gas station. This is Sublett, Idaho and the gas station describes itself as being in the middle of nowhere. It is also a shop.

And outside are two alpacas and a donkey. And a gumball machine that for a quarter will release a small handful of alpaca food which only the donkey can be bothered to come and eat.

Inside a jovial man sells both ordinary and silly stuff at exorbitant prices since he has the only shop for an hour in any direction, and a constant stream of customers.

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Alison, Thomas, Stephanie, Sara, Laura and Sam, and the Rockies in the distance.

We stop at the Utah State border. We are not really supposed to stop on the freeway, but we do it anyway to celebrate their arrival in their new home. I make a mess of taking photos of them with their iPhone so we have to get out and do it again. As we all pile back into the car, another car has stopped on the far side and they are all being photographed under the Welcome to Idaho sign.

It is only when we get close to Salt Lake City that it becomes apparent that they are a Mormon family, which I then realise is an important part of their move to Utah and Ephraim. They are off to see family in Salt Lake City for lunch. Then they are off again but with more stuff, so they are afraid they won’t have room for me.

They drop me off in Temple Square, right outside the magnificent temple.

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The Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City, Utah

Alison says that all the Mormon churches used to be individually designed and funded by local subscription but these days there is more central funding and a community would have to choose from a few standard designs, which we all agree is a shame.

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She suggests that I should go for a tour of the Temple, and after a couple of pictures and profuse thanks for a great lift, off they go. I give them a card and ask them to please email me because whereas in most cases it is my kind benefactors who are interested in whether I get home in one piece, this time I really want to know that they arrive safely.

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Temple Square, Salt lake City

I know I should have gone for a tour, but I met a couple of the sisters outside in the very beautiful gardens, and by the time we had sat and talked for at least half an hour, I felt I had to get going since it was now early afternoon and I needed to get out of what really is a big city.

The nearest gas station had a map of Utah but they didn’t know anything about the local buses. My plan was to find a bus that would take me out of town so that I could get back on the freeway.

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Nobody seemed to know about buses, so I got the gas station to call me a cab, and met the only other person on the entire trip who was a pain. I explained that I was hitchhiking and I needed to get a bus out of town towards Provo, so did he know which bus would go or where the bus station was. No, he didn’t know what hitchhiking was either, and he needed me to tell him where I wanted to go, and an address or he couldn’t take me. OK, please take me to the bus station. There isn’t one, and there are no buses that he knew of, but he could take me to the Greyhound Station, so reluctantly I let him.

The Greyhound Bus Station office was shut between the hours of 12.00 and 5.00 pm. It was completely deserted other than about a dozen people dotted about, most of whom appeared to be asleep or drunk or both. Fortunately there was a bike shop in the Bus Station Complex, and he told me exactly how to get to the nearest freeway interchange and only about twenty minutes walk away.

I discovered afterwards that Salt Lake City has a very good light railway metro system that would have taken me straight to Provo, and which nobody had thought to mention!

Junctions in town are seldom easy places to hitch and this was no exception, but Biddy stopped. She was plump, forties, cheerful, on her own and on her way to register one of her children for school.

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Either America is more trusting than anyone thinks, or I look more pathetically needy than I dare think, since being picked up by women is becoming a bit of a habit. Biddy is either Mexican or American Indian, and I wonder if I should be able to tell the difference, and I am not going to ask her. After I got home I did some homework on exactly this. If I had been paying more attention to Doug at Three Forks I suppose I might have worked it out for myself. The wisdom is that both North and South America were populated by the same Eastern Asian migration that came across what was a land bridge between Russia and Alaska. In fact the Indians of the whole American Continent are less genetically diverse than either Europeans or Africans. So Mexicans, and Aztecs and Incas and Native Americans are genetically the same.

The problem is caused by the entirely spurious introduction of both the idea and the word “Hispanic”. The “Hispanics” of Spanish origin are a European and North African genetic recipe which is quite different. The net result is that if you can’t tell the difference between Mexicans and Indians you shouldn’t be a bit surprised.

When Biddy dropped me off I had two problems. The first was that I wasn’t exactly sure which junction I was on and my map didn’t help.

This was important because I planned to come off the freeway to pick up a route cross country to meet up with Interstate 70 heading East across the Rockies and it was important that I didn’t miss it.

The other was that the forecast had been for thunderstorms, and it obviously had been raining where I now was and looked as if it might again.

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I’ll take a reasonable bet that it has never bothered you much whether a motorway goes over or under at an intersection. If you are hitching, and out in the country, and it rains, it matters a great deal. This junction is OK and it doesn’t rain, and when John picks me up I find that we haven’t passed the freeway junction with US6 which is the one I need. John refuses to just bung me out and finds me a motel first. It is now around six o’clock and I am safe and close to the junction I need. I think the Knights Inn is part of a chain but it is still only $55.00 and you get a free breakfast.

The gas station next door had a grocery store so I bought some stuff to eat and sat outside my room in the sun and ate and wrote.

It probably costs as much to buy stuff as it does to go to a diner but I find it easier.

Friday August 2nd – Back Home in Dillon Colorado.

I was still doubtful about getting back to Dillon that day since it was at least 400 miles. I had managed 300 by early afternoon the day before but that had been a pretty lucky day.

So, I got up early and decided to take a cab out to the junction, rather than mess about possibly taking a couple of hours to get there. Once I was there, I reckoned there was a good chance I could get down on to IS70 at Green River in one go since there wasn’t a whole lot in between.

And that was how it worked. Cartillous stopped in a truck. He was going down to Green River, and then heading East on 70 for a bit before heading South. In fact he was aiming to be in Albuquerque, New Mexico that night before having to take a ten hour break.

Cartillous was Hawaiian. His dad had been in the Military, and he now lived in Atlanta, Georgia. He was married with five daughters from twelve down.

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He did sometimes stop to pick people up and was a believer in what goes around comes around. If he did good things then there would come a time when maybe he would need a favour. This was pretty good of him considering his own experience of getting a lift when he broke down. He had broken down not that far from home in Atlanta with the family. He had rung round various relations to come out and get him but they were all out or not bothering to answer the phone. He did the usual thing of putting the bonnet up and flagging but after five hours not one person had stopped. He now had a grumpy wife and a bunch of fractious kids. A car had slowed down but it turned out that it was just to make a note of his car number to let the police know. When they turned up they didn’t offer any help anyway. By this time he had managed to get one of the family to come out and rescue them. However, now the police had arrived he was worried that they would tow the car. This had happened before when he had broken down and within six hours they had towed it and he had to pay loads to get it back. This was particularly annoying since there were lots of abandoned cars round their neighbourhood that no one seemed able to get moved.

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So while the family went off he stayed with the car just to make sure, until his uncle could come back after dropping the family off.

I told Cartillous I thought that was truly awful, and that I was making a special note never to hitchhike in Georgia.

By now we were threading our way through the foothills of the Rockies and there certainly wasn’t very much in between. Cartillous had said that although he was going east along IS70 for a bit there wasn’t much of anything at the exit where he went off so he thought it would be better to drop me at the Green River junction where there was a truck stop.

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Utah and nothing much.

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Cartillous at Green River, Utah

He dropped me on the freeway ramp and disappeared towards New Mexico. There was a good pull off but it was now around one o’clock and really hot. The forecast had been for 100 plus and it must have been all of that. Even the lizards were sitting in the shade! There was a reasonable amount of traffic but nobody seemed very interested in stopping even though I was actually standing in the middle of a desert.

As usual I went into dogmode until a mud spattered sports pickup stopped. Three young lads tumbled out and started heaving stuff out of the back of the cab and putting it in the truck.

I had been showing a felt pen sign saying Denver and that was where they were going. Sorted!

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We are French, they said. I am Antoine and this is Victor and this is Louis and we are brothers and we have been off camping, and now we are on our way back to Houston, Texas.

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This should be a picture of Antoine, Victor and Louis beside Antoine’s truck, but on the very last afternoon of the trip the camera battery ran out, so when I got them to pose by it, the camera died.

Dillon is right on IS70 about an hour west of Denver so it couldn’t be better.

Antoine works for Conoco in Houston and his job is in research, looking at where the industry is going to be in fifty years time.

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Victor is studying medicine in Prague, and Louis is a student at home in Paris, studying for his equivalent of A levels before going to university. They have come over for a short holiday to celebrate Antoine’s birthday. They have been touring around and have just spent a few days round Bryce Canyon and Zion having a good time and doing a bit of offroading in the pickup which is why it is looking a bit muddy.

We talk about oil and gas and fracking, and Antoine says that Conoco doesn’t like gas because it is too cheap, so they burn theirs off because they can’t make enough money out of it. He says that now that the US has realised what enormous reserves of oil and gas they have, exploitation will be a political rather than an economic choice. In other words, now they feel that they are energy secure, the whole issue of whether they ought to be using up non renewables is no longer of any real interest. I now realise that US energy policy for some time has been driven far more strongly by the desire not to be dependent on imports than it was by any real interest in conserving energy. This is not to say that there aren’t plenty of good commercial reasons for using less, but the real reason is to be in a position where you cannot be held to ransom by regimes you can’t control. I have to say that in principle they have a pretty good point. By coincidence this week, I heard for the first time an overt admission that the only reason the US was the least interested in the Middle East was oil. Now they didn’t need it they were free to pull out. The implication of that is that they might be less inclined to bother about Israel. I have yet to work out whether this is good or bad news for the rest of us. As to the role that industrial pollution and greenhouse gasses play in climate change, they never were very interested, and now not at all.

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I must say it all rather confirms my view of the general attitude towards energy and climate change etc in the US. It is true that fuel prices are going up, and they do moan about it, but they have a long way to go before the pips begin to squeak.

Apart from chucking away 40% of all their food, in the motels I stayed in there was no evidence of any concern about energy at all.

Virtually no low energy bulbs; fridges always on and often air-conditioning as well. And this was in places where I was paying less than $50 a night so I would have thought that energy costs in terms of hot water and laundry in addition must be an issue.

The Wyoming coal industry is pissed off because no matter how much they clean up coal as a fuel, they are losing out to gas because it is cleaner and cheaper. Since they reckon they have a thousand years worth of coal they do have a point.

In fact it is something that bothers me in the UK. Since we have almost unlimited supplies of coal, I wonder whether we ought to be spending more resources on finding ways to use it cleanly, rather than becoming increasingly dependent on foreign governments and regimes we can’t rely on for our energy. Of course we should be using less and developing renewables, and all that stuff.

However, if we can be held to ransom over energy supplies, sooner or later we will be. Hopefully, this will not be another example of me getting my hindsight in early.

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I thought I would do a bit of homework on what the USA did in terms of renewables and it turns out that they are behind only China, Canada, and Brazil in hydroelectric generation and on a par with the UK in renewables generally. What is very illuminating is that over the years in the USA renewables have increased, but at a much slower rate than demand for electricity. This means that electricity produced from renewables has actually gone down from around 30% in 1949 to around 10% now.

The boys insist that they are not in a hurry and will therefore take me to the door. So they do, come in for a coffee and chat to Ursula and Claire before heading off down to Denver, having delivered me home safe and sound and in time to eat.

So here I am, back at base, not killed or eaten by a bear. I had made a round trip of over two thousand five hundred miles travelling through Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, and Washington State before coming back through Oregon, Idaho and Utah.

I had experienced more fun, entertainment and kindness than I could have hoped for, and gone much further than I had expected.

Every single person who picked me up took a risk they need not have taken. Each one did more for me than I had asked of them, by taking me further or making sure I was safe before leaving me.

For me it does raise some questions about the very odd way our human society seems to be run. I can stand on the open road and be helped unconditionally by complete strangers who expect nothing of me, and who will probably never see me again.

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One of my sons, Jon, has been helping a forest project in India. On his way to catch a plane back to the UK he went to a party, got very drunk, and woke up to find all his money stolen. A street beggar bought him a cup of tea and gave him his bus fare to the next town.

It is these small gestures which make our community work.

And yet, in general, we allow almost all aspects our world to be run and governed by the selfish, the greedy, and the power hungry.

Ironically, as the powerless, it is our kindness and compassion for each other that lets them get away with it. If we were like them we wouldn’t allow it.

I do find it disturbingly odd that the bigger, greedier, and more powerful an organisation is, the more effort it will go to in order to make sure it doesn’t have to depend on simple trust and kindness, and the more likely it is to screw the rest of us who wouldn’t dream of doing it either to them or each other!

But, I am told, the world can’t work on the kind of peace, love and trust we liberals espouse. People do rob, and steal and rape and kill. They tell me we should learn to accept that people just are greedy and selfish and power hungry.

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This may be true, but it isn’t true of most of the people I meet, and the world I inhabit would simply not work if most of us didn’t trust each other. We gamble every hour of every day that cars won’t run us over for the hell of it, shops assume that we will pay for the things we buy, and for the meals we have eaten. Most small businesses rely on personal trust, and it is a fact that over ninety percent of business transactions depend on the honour of the parties involved, rather than any legal contract that would stand up in court. The daily lives of almost all of us are dependent on personal trust, together with constant small acts of kindness and consideration.

Of course this doesn’t mean that there aren’t lunatics and extremists but they exist in every community and nation on the planet. The statistics show that most countries, including the US and Europe, have much more to fear from their own lunatics than they do from outsiders. It is interesting that the perception is the reverse. We are also prepared to live with the risk of flood, fire, living on the San Andreas Fault or on the slopes of a volcano, as well as risking death from accidents, and pathological killers. The reality is that most of us have considerably more chance of being killed by a golf ball than by a terrorist. It is because we have a natural understanding of how low these risks are that we are mostly kind to strangers and pick up hitchhikers.

However, when we visit each other’s countries we all allow ourselves to be treated as potential terrorists and in constant mortal danger because we have created a world of greed, selfishness and power in which everybody appears to be terrified of everyone else.

I don’t want to overblow this, but it does help to keep us all in line if the powers that be can make us believe that keeping us in line is to protect us rather than just making it more convenient for them.

But even this has its ridiculous elements. When we do visit each other, we are extensively searched, having to put all our belongings in a box to be x-rayed in addition to having our anatomical bits scanned separately.

During the process this time a US border security man asked me if I was over seventy five. I said that if I was, would I get something good?

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Not really, he said. It means that you don’t have to take your shoes off. I promise you this is true. Is this because it’s such a palaver for old people to get their shoes off they certainly wouldn’t be putting bombs in them? Or is that if you are over seventy five you have forgotten how to be a terrorist or what it was you were going to bomb? Or why you came at all?

You can also keep your jacket on, but you still have to take your belt off so that your trousers can fall down. What kind of wonderful logic enabled this august National Security organisation to arrive at the conclusion that those over seventy five were quite capable of concealing an explosive device in the region of their scrotum, but incapable of putting it in a shoe?

So far as I am concerned, the world is still as well endowed with human kindness as I thought it was, and this is a gratifyingly good thing.

Ursula’s son David asked me if I would do it again, and the answer is No.

Not because I didn’t have a great time, but because I had a lot of luck and got away with it. I reckon you should quit while you are ahead. In any case I am sure I will be able to think of something else silly to do in due course.

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Claire and Ursula keeping fit

© Robin Howell September 2013

Edited October 2021