I'm walking through the desert, along the train tracks, with a traveling companion who doesn't have anything that can properly be called shoes, doing something I haven't done since I was a kid, which is look for a McDonald's sign. This strikes me as amusing and gives me cognitive dissonance, because for so long I have rejected McDonald's completely and done my best to ignore their advertisements. I am not looking for a plastic burger though, I am seeking the highway on-ramp at the end of Fernley, Nevada, so that we can hitchhike east on I-80 without being harassed by police. This strategy was suggested by a local sign-flyer at the Pilot gas station, where we'd been dropped off by a poor, sweet trucker who had just been ticketed for giving us an unauthorized ride (for only a few miles before he was interrupted).
After a few miles of slow-going progress, complete with goat-heads and a cloud of dust from behind a four-wheeler on the trail, a big yellow 'M' comes into view, and soon afterwards, a Starbucks--not somewhere I usually frequent either, but a reliable source of WiFi for my iPod touch that serves as a phone.
It's crowded inside with desert-dwellers seeking air-conditioned refuge from the heat. At first there is no available plug for charging my iPod. I buy the smallest and most palatable item I can find to justify my presence there (a package of Justin's organic peanut butter cups) and ask a young man to trade seats with me so I can access an outlet while catching up on texts. I've been meowed by my cat-tribe friend in Arcata whom I was just visiting and get to gleefully announce to her that I made it over the Sierras in one morning.
The state of Nevada only has three Craigslist sites: Reno, Elko, and Las Vegas. The Reno rideshare listings are all from stuck rainbow-goers. One sounds eerily like me, asking for folks to message or come pick up at a specific on-ramp because they will have irregular access to the internet--probably through an iPod touch, I imagine. I wonder if the locals are sick of what must seem to them like a caravan of bums passing through.
Having exhausted any rideshare possibilities (and without much gas money anyway), my companion and I continue on our way to the Interstate, and lo and behold, there is a cardboard sign with 'Utah' written on it on the ground! This means someone else DID get a ride from here! Encouragement comes in small doses when hitchhiking, but is potent--a smile or wave from a packed car, a resounding honk from a trucker, a grin from a motorcyclist, all contribute to the resilience it takes to offer oneself patiently to the generosity of strangers. This sign is part of that, so I pick it up and flash it at passing cars.
A couple hundred feet up the freeway, a hitchhiker much dirtier than us is thumbing it too. He's "tourng the 48" and warns us that there's not another city for 60 miles, and nothing but desert between here and there. He clearly thinks we're crazy to continue walking away from a reliable source of water and food, if needed, but I am antsy and want to continue in the right direction. We have enough water to last us for at least a day, and I'd rather sleep in the wild sagebrush if needed than near a settlement of people averse to travelers. Soon we come to an overpass that provides much-needed shade. It also reduces visibility for cars passing through, so I have to step out into the sun when there is traffic (still on the safer side of the holy white line of the shoulder, of course).
A law enforcement truck passes us without stopping, which is a relief. Apparently Nevada has decided to stop enforcing it's anti-hitchhiking laws, at least strictly. Two different cops we talked to elsewhere have already told us they don't mind hitchhiking, even though it's technically illegal. They probably are glad to see us getting out of their jurisdiction.
One of the odd things about my choice to travel in this manner is that I am voluntarily putting myself in the position of being seen as 'lesser'. The story I tell myself about hitchhiking is that it's fun, economical, more ecological (spontaneous carpooling), an adventure, a spiritual practice of surrendering to life in the moment, a way to meet people I wouldn't talk to otherwise... but I am very aware of other stories that can be told: hitchhikers are bums, who in turn are selfish, lazy, dirty, unwanted, criminals, not real citizens, leeches on society; it goes on and on. It is painful to be seen through this lens, but transformational to love the people seeing me this way and empathize with their existence.
Another story is that, as a young woman, I must be in trouble to be in this situation, and/or I am naive to be putting myself into such dangerous situations where I could be raped. This is exactly the line that a female trucker took at Sierra Sid's casino and truck stop the night before. I definitely went into defensiveness immediately, but was also grateful to have some clarity on how I wanted to respond, a gift from other feminist thinkers and writers of our time. I challenged her assumption that it is my responsibility to prevent someone from raping me, and asked why she wasn't talking to the truckers she claimed were so dangerous, telling them to treat women with basic respect, instead of telling me to avoid them. Socialized into rape culture as she is, she countered that it would be pointless, because OF COURSE sexual assault is just inevitable.
This is easily seen for its falseness by the fact that most men do NOT sexually assault women, at least not on purpose (many assaults do happen because consent was not gained, but having not been educated in gaining verbal consent or recognizing nonverbal cues, men in this culture don't realize they violated someone). I have been on dozens of hitchhiking trips, taken probably well over a hundred rides from strangers at this point, and have never been sexually assaulted in someone's car while hitching. There have been what I thought were close calls, people I was sketched out by and wanted to reach for my knife just in case. But nothing ever happened.
I have, however, been raped and assaulted in numerous other contexts, including in places of residence, and with people I was attracted to and wanted to explore consensual touch with. This all goes to show that rape is never the victim's fault; it is unpredictable, and telling a woman not to put herself into a "dangerous situation" only perpetuates victim-blaming. This is actually a significant and meaningful part of my choice to hitchhike, oftentimes alone--it is my way of both saying, "Look, the world is a lot safer and kinder than isolation culture would have you believe!" (and plenty of my experiences attest to that) and of saying that even if I am raped while hitching, it still isn't my fault, I am not stupid for doing so, but the person who assaulted me has serious issues that stem from how our culture socializes people into horrifically tragic and unhealthy sexuality.
So despite all the warnings that people are dangerous, selfish, and won't pick up two hippies in the desert heat, there we were, on the I-80 east of Fernley, when a guy in a large truck hauling some massive trailers pulled over. He was only headed up the road though, and we needed to get past Lovelock and the hitchhiking prohibited zone (near the prison where OJ Simpson lives). Almost immediately after the truck pulled away, leaving a skid mark behind, disappointment turned to relief and excitement when another car pulled over and a guy in a tie dye shirt stepped out. Here was our ride the rest of the way to the rainbow gathering!