When the bus stopped for lunch I decided to spend money, but had a hard time deciding to buy a candy bar. At $1.99 it was too much, but…
The attendant cashed me out and by the time I was on the bus, I realized that it was $2 cheaper than everything should have been. It seemed to happen a lot when I needed it, and normally I correct people when I catch it, but this time I kind of accepted it as a gift from the universe.
So, feeling lucky, I asked the driver, “Lincoln, Nebraska is the last stop for this bus, right?” Which it was, but hopefully he would then associate Lincoln, Nebraska with my face. Which would have been great if we didn’t switch drivers in Des Moines.
Best laid plans of mice and sneaky men…
But I rode the bus to Lincoln anyway. Which meant 60 or more miles more than I’d expected, but also being in a strange city with no plans at 9pm. I finally figured out how to get on O Street, or Route 6, over the bridge and railroad tracks. Near the largest railroad switching yard in the United States, I seem to remember. I walked out of town for an hour, and broke down, giving into my soft side and paid for a hotel room. When the money is there, the easy options always seem more attractive.
Everything was going to work out, right?
Or was I being delusional?
I washed my shirt and two pairs of underwear in the sink and showered. Up early for the free breakfast, I couldn’t figure out how they intended for us to cook the eggs they had set out. The second time back I said fuck it, I’d crack two eggs into a coffee cup and microwave it.
To my surprise they were hard-boiled.
While hitchhiking I had no luck on the safe but less busy side of the on-ramp. I gave a nod to the State Troopers and cops pulling people over near the overpass, wondering if hitchhiking was legal in Nebraska. I switched to the busy side of the overpass and ten minutes later got a ride.
He wanted to see my ID.
“It’s illegal to pick up people asking for rides,” he said in a thick accent. Which is also why I missed his name. He was from Sudan and was here working at an onion plant, having worked in a meat plant before. He sends money back home for his kids, where he used to be a cowboy. $200/month for rent, $150/month for food, $50/month for schooling.
“I know cattle,” he told me. “Money, not so much.”
“Everyone tell me America is land of opportunity, land of freedom. Land of opportunity? Yes. Land of freedom? No. Africa is land of freedom. You want to do what makes you happy, you do it.”
“A co-worker was going fishing,” he continued, “I said, I’d like to fish too. But he tells me you need a permit,” he said, shaking his head at the memory. “To take a fish out of the water?”
88 miles at 80 miles an hour. He dropped me off at the travel center one exit past his despite falling asleep at the wheel. He had worked a 12-hour overnight shift and only went into Lincoln because he’d lost his keys the day before. He has to work another 12-hour shift later and needs to catch some sleep.
“But it’ll be easier for you to catch a ride from here,” he said before we shook hands and parted ways.
So I walked back out to I-80 and stood at the onramp for west-bound traffic. I held out my thumb. I smiled. And not a single person smiled back. They’re all miserable, while most look away or stare straight ahead. The ones that make eye contact look like fish in an aquarium, with a distant sort of recognition that someone is out there but no idea what that means. I stand there smiling, gesturing with my thumb, raising and lowering my eyebrows, anything to get a reaction.
One 18 wheeler loaded with live cattle takes the corner too close and I have to step back even further off the shoulder. He had parked nearby at first and had plenty of room so I suspect that he did it on purpose. Another asshole in a different vehicle started yelling out the passenger side window as his buddy sped past. I don’t know why people do that, they’re the only ones that can hear what is being said. They’re like dogs barking from a passing car. Then there are the macho guys, alone in their car or truck, who feel the need to stomp on the gas pedal the moment eye contact is made.
Little by little I start hating Nebraska. Lincoln seemed cool, enough that I’d considered swinging back through, but this? Did nobody care enough about a person on the side of the road to offer a lift? Were they all that scared of strangers? To the point that they completely disobeyed their Sunday School teachings? Do Unto Others, Love Thy Neighbor?
After five hours I was going to give up. “Ten more minutes,” I said, out loud. “If you want to throw me a ride in the last ten minutes, that’d be great. Otherwise, I’m walking.”
Sure enough, someone pulled over. An 18 wheeler of all things.
The dog’s name was Jake, I can’t remember the owner’s name. I took Jake’s seat so the compromise was that I had to keep petting him. If I stopped he’d paw at me with unclipped nails that dragged heavily across my exposed leg. Still no pants despite the cold relentless winds. He was a big dog, hairy and shedding.
I guess I wasn’t much of a conversationalist because the driver turned on the radio, then made a couple of cell phone calls. After a while, even the dog got sick of being pet and laid down in the back of the cab.
He was going to California, across Wyoming, so I had hoped for Cheyenne. But he wasn’t in a hurry. He was headed to Sydney, he hoped, but the sun was getting low and he didn’t want it in his eyes. So North Platte was it, like I said, he wasn’t in a hurry.
He was heavyset and dirty, both in hygiene and in the language he used on the CB.
“Any of you fuckers out there that can read?” He had shouted into the radio. But he was nice enough to stop and give me a ride, so I hoped his financial situation worked out. It sounded like he paid a lot of bills for a home he is never around to enjoy. Not to mention the wife and daughter getting allowances.
He dropped me off at Flying J and I had to wash my hands three times to get the grime of the dog off. 142 miles then, 88 this morning, so 230 miles for the day. Still over 400 miles to go.
And I had no idea where I’d be sleeping.
I stealth camped next to the river that night. Across the highway from Love’s and Flying J, and across the street from the hotel. I got into my spot kind of early, it was still too bright out, so it took a while before I could stretch out, unpack, and relax.
I was up before sunrise, and waiting for the sun I tried to charge my phone. Since the Google updates the phone constantly crashed and the battery didn’t hold like it used to, even in airplane mode. Which sucked, because I was super dependent on it to get me where I was going.
I spent two hours standing in the freezing wind on the on-ramp trying to get a ride.
I kept wanting to call him Victor, but the driver’s name only had four letters, so Hugo, that sounds right. He picked me up on his way to Las Vegas from Fargo, North Dakota where he lived. He was headed to Las Vegas for work, maybe, he was kind of quiet.
He had a shaved head and a scar running across his cheek.
“I’m headed south through Denver, but I can drop you off at the split,” he told me.
We rode in silence mostly, past the last exit before the split. So he just dropped me off out there, on the highway. I cut across the median and walked 80 west, you know, where pedestrians aren’t allowed. It was a mile up the highway to the first exit to nothing. Six miles to the next exit, but I didn’t dare walk it. Thus far I had an excuse. There was no traffic to hitch so I walked into Julesburg.
Only Janice, an older woman, gave me a ride the last two miles.
I grabbed a Powerade in Julesburg because I expected the sun and exposed walk through farmland was going to fry me. It was 15 miles into Chappelle and I got maybe eight miles on foot before a guy picked me up. Not that the road wasn’t busy with single guys in pickup trucks, he was just the only one to make eye contact.
His cousin travels, hitches and cycles, so he tries to pick up hitchhikers when he can. He saw too much of the sand, sun, and cold in the military, carrying a pack, so he’s all set with that.
He drove me to Chappelle, past where he was going. He’s not from Nebraska he tells me. “People around here are kind of funny,” he said. He isn’t quite sure how to put in words the type of mentality which prevents anyone from helping a stranger.
More and more on this trip, I keep wondering why I didn’t go outside the Megabus box and just get a Greyhound from Chicago to Casper like a normal person? Why the excitement about the hitchhiking adventure? Especially when it was costing me more in the long run because of the hotel splurges, and was taking way longer to get there.
Oddly enough, it didn’t feel like I was sabotaging myself. To get direct transportation worked out would have cheapened the goal.
I guess I wanted all of it to be epic.
I couldn’t even walk out of the gas station in Chappelle without being offered a ride. Too bad it was in the wrong direction. Two miles later a retired AT+T guy pulled over, he’d just finished playing golf and was on his way home. To Lodgepole, only 10 or so miles up the road, but I was glad to take it.
He dropped me off just west of the town and I walked no more than two miles before a pickup truck that had passed me came back. “Trying to get a cooler spot in hell,” he later explained. He’s going into Sydney, but he had a cold so it was hard for him to hear. “It’s taking a long time to get better,” he told me. “You know what gets harder when you get older?” He asked, then answered his own question, “EVERYTHING!”
He rolls his head with the word to make sure I understand that he means everything.
A little further down the road, he starts to tell a story, “This is from way back,” he said. “All my stories are from before my marriage. Do you know what changes when you get married? EVERYTHING! Nowadays I work, come home, have a beer and watch the tube. Have dinner and a couple more beers and some whiskey, then the next day I go back to work and do it all over again.”
“I did get one good thing out of my marriage… my car insurance went down.”
He drops me in Sydney, which is two miles from I-80. Which is no problem because I was in a pretty good mood. Not 10 minutes at the on-ramp and a truck pulled over. Not onto the shoulder, but blocking the ramp. And there’s a tractor-trailer trying to get on, so I hurry and jump in.
“I’m only going two exits,” he said as I closed the door.
“Oh… what’s that, like 30 miles?” I asked, as he pulled onto the highway.
“It’s 10 miles down the road.”
Fuck, I’m thinking, I just fucked myself. I was hoping for a straight shot into Cheyenne.
When we get to the exit there is literally nothing there. Well, places to camp, but nothing else. And no traffic. “Grab a water out of the back,” he said as I got out. I was going to need it, stuck out here, I thought, but he drove away as soon as I closed the door.
There was nothing else to do but walk the mile down to Route 30 and try to walk into Potter, or hopefully Kimball by tonight.
Richard Kimball, on the run, is what I’m thinking about for the entire walk.
I was hitchhiking but nobody stopped. Instead, a mid-20’s mom and her daughter came back to get me after passing me first.
“I asked her if we should pick up that guy walking,” the mom tells me.
“It’s always good to meet new people,” the little girl says from the back seat. Her name is Gabriella and she is 6 years old.
They’re going into Potter where they live, but instead, they drive me through DIX into Kimball and drop me off on the west side of town. I was feeling pretty good about the universe right then. Like I needed to question my idea of charity, comparing giving money to people versus actually making someone’s life better by helping them in a specific and measurable way. And also that there are whole segments of the population that don’t have a mindset that’s compatible with mine, and that’s okay.
Not a mile later I was picked up again. Another mother and daughter. In conversation I mention a potential job in Yellowstone, my cover story for heading toward the Forrest Fenn treasure, and she starts filling me in on the churchs there that will help me out. People in Cheyenne that will get me a free bus ticket to get me to that job, food banks and other stuff as well. I offer the daughter my Facebook info if she ever needs any help self-publishing her writing that she seems too shy and too scared to do, and they drop me off in Pine Bluffs.
Just over the Wyoming line and the on-ramp for I-80 west was shut down, but hey, I made it to Wyoming!
I walked out to the working I-80 on-ramp west, where I tried hitchhiking for an hour before sunset, then gave up. 39 miles into Cheyenne. Should I sleep there and try hitchhiking again the next day? Or walk the service road for 40+ miles in the dark?
Fuck it, I’ll walk.
Less than a mile down the service road and it was still light enough to see the truck pass and come back.
“How far ya going?” A redneck voice slurs. I let some traffic pass and tell him, Cheyenne. “Well hop in,” he said, in an entirely different type of voice.
What the hell.
He lived five miles down the road and I told him even that would help. He’s German and was surprised that I recognized his accent. He cruised far past five miles before handing me a soda and took me all the way into Cheyenne. But he didn’t want to drop me off just anywhere. He has to know that I’m safe and have a place to stay for the night. So he dropped me at the Motel 6, right next to the highway that I have to take up to Casper.
Sure, I could have walked in and let him drive away. It was only just after 8pm. But I didn’t know the city, and I kind of took it as a sign to have faith in the journey. Even in surrendering, I’d be taken care of. So after the room fee and taxes, my checking account was dangerously low.
But no wifi, that’s broken. No laundry either, that’s out of order. I get to my room and there are no batteries in the remote so I try to call downstairs but the phone doesn’t work. And the lights above the bed are out. I went down to the front desk and the night clerk had to lock up and go somewhere else for a different remote. The remote in my room was also the wrong brand.
But whatever, right? Not how I thought I was going to be spending the night. I pictured an all-night death march. I was committed to that. Instead, I got all this. And sure, I’m broke, but I’m almost there. I just have to have faith that it all comes together.
Faith in something so crazy that it boggles even my mind sometimes.
So much so that I find myself asking, “Is this really what I’m doing?”
How was I going to get the treasure out of Thermopolis?
Maybe I-25 from Casper, Wyoming to Sante Fe? To say thank you for the treasure. Then what? ABQ to Kingman? Or south from the Wind River Range through Rawlins, then I-80 west to SLC and then down to Las Vegas as an exit?
Or, just hire a plane to take me somewhere? How much would that be? It would be cool to fly in a small plane, but imagine how funny it would be to find the treasure and fly out of there only to be in a plane crash.
There were private flights that flew out of West Yellowstone… but that puts you too far out of the way. Unless there is some local transportation out of Thermopolis into Yellowstone and from there some kind of shuttle to the airport. But then why not just fly out of Thermopolis Airport?
These are the kinds of logistical questions I ran over and over in my head. Things like how much would the treasure weigh, would it all fit in my backpack, would I have to get rid of gear to make room for the gold?
I couldn’t really do anything else unless I could get there… except obsess over the details.
Then my phone crashed for what appeared to be the last time. No matter what I did it wouldn’t restart. So no maps or Googling places to hitch or anything like that. Worse, no access to some of my limited money because the two-factor authorization requires me to receive a text at that phone number. And the worst is that it was also my exit strategy for a successful completion of this quest.
And maybe I can do without the maps and the money for now, but the exit strategy?
I kept thinking of how if I’d skipped the hotel room I could have bought the $50 bus ticket to Casper and maybe my phone wouldn’t have crashed from being online and trying to charge it at the same time. Plus I would have had money leftover for breakfast.
In the morning the front desk was no help. I tell the lady working the front desk that I had broken my phone and needed a replacement, asking about Walmart.
“Too far to walk,” she said,” There’s a bus stop across the street.” Which was about the most useful piece of information I could get out of her. When I asked about the schedule she wrote down their phone number for me to call. Which didn’t do me any good without a phone.
Besides which it was Saturday, so buses didn’t start running until 10am, according to the sign at the bus stop, and I had no idea what time it was. The lady at the hotel was rude enough that I didn’t want to cross the street to ask. So I walk, because I know it wasn’t 10am yet. A mile in the wrong direction before I turned around to get directions from Little America. It’s only 7:30am.
Downtown the visitors center didn’t open until 9am. But when it does the lady there tells me where the bus station is, but in a way which I don’t believe her.
“Walmart is on the other side of town, on the other side of the airport,” she said. “You can drive there pretty easily, but there are no buses from here to there.”
She had to dig for a bus schedule, because I wanted some kind of confirmation before I believed her. Looking at the schedule it was clear that she was wrong.
My last phone had cost $16 and lasted two years. I’ve picked up a few for as cheap as $10 when I was doing the phone farm thing. Where you have multiple phones to make money from a variety of apps online and then funnel those rewards into one account. But there was nothing under $30 in Walmart. So I sat in the McDonald’s with no outlets and tried to activate the new phone.
Two hours later it still isn’t activated.
I had to buy a loaf of bread just to get cashback to pay for the bus ticket to Casper. I no longer had enough in my checking account to pay for the bus ticket, which was literally the same price as my hotel room the night before.
At the bus station the cops are waiting for a Navajo couple to leave town. They just got out of jail and had their things stolen, they said. So I gave them the bread, plus some snacks, the cream cheese I took from the hotel in Lincoln and a pack of MRE cheese I’ve been carrying since Georgia. I had $10 in cash, a little change, and nothing in my bank account.
And my phone still didn’t work.
You can download the entire book of Quest in the West in PDF format here!