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Today, I woke up with absolutely no idea that I would do something my parents, television, and society at large always said not to do: I picked up a group of hitchhikers.
As a veteran of a Drum Corps International World Class organization and an alum of one of the top Bands of America ensembles in the Midwest, my education in regards to the marching arts has been everything short of incredible. I’ve stepped out onto the turf of Lucas Oil Stadium a total of nine times, performed shows in 24 states between BOA and DCI, and have spent a grand total of nearly $10,000 for band-related travel and performance opportunities. But at 22, I am officially aged out and ineligible for more stupid adventures in a charter bus.
After aging out, the DCI version of retiring from competition, most people do one of three things: they can stop performing altogether, switch to the senior circuit which is Drum Corps Associates, or they can join a DCI group as an instructor. I decided to pursue the latter, applying for an open position with the visual staff at Music City in Nashville, TN. Somehow, I got the job and was asked to attend weekend rehearsals in December 2016 and April of this year. Attending the first round of auditions in December showed me just how far of a drive I would be making. But because God has an incredible sense of humor, the distance isn’t quite enough to warrant an airline ticket. Lesson learned, I knew I would have to do something in order to minimize my time on the road, especially with finals beginning on May 1. So, with the help of my trusty steed, I hit the road to Nashville with the full intention to speed as much as possible. I managed to cut about 45 minutes total from my drive but had it added back on thanks to the world-renowned cluster fuck which is Lexington, KY, at 4:30 in the afternoon.
After a migraine and two bags of M&M’s, I made my way on to The Martha Layne Collins Blue Grass Parkway. The Bluegrass Parkway, stretching for 71 miles between Versailles and Elizabethtown, Kentucky, cuts through some of the most scenic and awe-inspiring landscape the state has to offer. Little known towns of nearly no value dot the landscape and can be viewed easily from bridges spanning the Kentucky River valley. A near hour spent on this road tells you why people fall in love with the Bluegrass State.
But it was not to last, as I came off the Parkway onto I-65 south right outside of Elizabethtown. Heavy construction (the norm for a state of only 4.43 million people) created havoc and gridlock for miles. Unfortunately, God’s sense of humor again became apparent when I realized that the southbound lanes were the only ones affected. Northbound I-65 flowed at interstate speeds as though nothing were there. (As if to mock me further, I would encounter the same problem driving North on Sunday…)
Around mile marker 74, I encountered a smoked out, redneck soccer mom whose only concern seemed to be tailgating as many people as possible while attempting to avoid her turn signal like the plague. I would have been remiss if I did not toy with her a little bit and cause her to be trapped behind me and between two semi-trailers, which consequently earned me more tailgating and variations of the bird which I had no idea existed. The gap tooth inbred sped by, clearly cursing me, as I exited at mile marker 58 to gas up in Horse Cave, Kentucky. I guarantee you, dear reader, that I lack the creativity to come up with some of these town names.
Horse Cave is a small, home rule-class town surrounded by rolling hills and questionable tourist attractions. The most notable of these, in my opinion, is the curiously named "Kentucky Down Under" animal park. A roughly 15-foot tall and 30-foot wide billboard, easily seen from the interstate and immediately across from the Love’s gas station I stopped at, features a Kangaroo which is asking the question, “Have you ever pet a Kangaroo?” in capitalized, red block letters. Of course I hadn’t and I had neither the time nor money to change that. Gassed up and fed, I set out to merge back on to 65 for the last hour and a half of my drive.
That was when I saw them, three hippies with a cardboard sign which read “Nashville.”
I’ll admit, their apparel was what I noticed first. The vests, pants, and dreads all denoted stereotypical weed heads bent on making it to Woodstock without fail, which made me curious to know why they were heading towards Nashville, home of country music and groups like Lady Antebellum. And, as the adage goes, curiosity killed the cat: I stopped to talk to them.
I have to note that I did not, in fact, die. How else would I be writing this?
However, I was incredibly nervous. Yeah, the trio looked friendly and incredibly inviting, but that did not change my perception that hitchhikers are innately dangerous individuals who will steal my wallet and left shoe at the earliest opportunity. I was nervous, but this seemed like a risk worth taking. I know the moment any of my immediate family members read this, I’ll be receiving more than a couple phone calls to berate me for my life choices. What else is new?
I rolled down the passenger side window and the lone woman stood and approached me. She introduced herself as Julia and reached into the car, offering her hand. I shook it delicately, not sure how gentle I should be with her, but was met with the rough, scratchy callouses of a blue collar worker. I asked if they were heading to Nashville and, once she confirmed it, told them I had room for them to join as I was heading the same direction. She called to her friends who gathered their bags, one guitar, and a few water jugs before dashing to the vehicle.
Julia gracefully slid into the passenger seat while her traveling partners clambered into the back seat over my duffle bag and sleeping roll. A sudden stench of bad beer and weed overcame me and I scrambled to set the air conditioner so it would cycle in fresh oxygen as quickly as humanly possible.
The skinnier of the two men leaned forward and propped himself on my center console. His breath reeked of cigarettes and his hair desperately needed to be washed, yet he carried himself like a southern gentleman out on the town with his small posse of clingy women. He introduced himself as Samuel but insisted that I just call him Sam. Sam forced the other man, a little fatter and a tad shorter, to thank me for the ride. He huffed and muttered a thank you, then said something about not understanding why they had to rely on some bourgie from Illinois for a ride when they could just as easily find a fellow traveler in a van for help.
Julia snapped at the man, threatening him with a spoon she produced from her back pocket. Sam intervened, begging her to play nice then turning to me to apologize for Ethan’s behavior. With all three names down and the interstate before us, I figured it would be a good time to start asking questions. Julia agreed, but Ethan flipped her off and pulled the brim of his hat down to the bridge of his nose.
As we pulled back onto the freeway, Sam and Julia restarted a conversation from earlier. They both held very liberal political views, but they seemed to disagree on how things ought to be run at the state and federal levels. The complexity of the terms they were using went beyond anything I could ever hope to understand, which raised a few questions in my mind; the foremost being what in the name of all holiness did these two do?
Julia was the first to answer. The blonde hair, brown eye girl of 25 spoke enthusiastically, but with a defined rhythm which contradicted her happy-go-lucky appearance. At 18, she left home for the first time to attend school at Eastern Kentucky University. After two years studying international relations, she opted for the increasingly popular medical profession and transferred to the University of Tennessee Health Science Center. Throwing away two years of undergrad seemed like a waste, she admitted, but following her heart seemed to be the best way for her to maintain her sanity in the foreseeable future. I agreed, based on my own experiences and my having trumped her two wasted years with three and a half. Julia apologized and Sam lost his mind. He demanded to know why it took me so long to figure my life out. I shrugged. Julia threw a bottle at his head. Ethan scoffed.
Curious, I asked Sam what he meant. Almost as if scripted, Michael Kamen’s "2000 A.D." came on as Sam started a short monologue on the importance of finding one’s self early in life, of determining your value and purpose before even setting foot on a college campus. "You should know," he said, "how you are going to change the world by the time you’ve entered college, otherwise you’ll just be left relying on others." The irony did not hit him right away.
I gave my usual spiel: I thought I wanted to help people in the medical field, but several turning points in my life coupled with teaching opportunities I had taken on changed my plans. I knew I could never sit down in a Kindergarten classroom because of how short my patience is and, more importantly, due to the crackling noises that emanated from my knees every time I stood up. This led me to the following conclusion: I needed to teach at a university one day. If not for myself, then for the students I would hopefully impact.
Ethan scoffed again, making a sarcastic remark about how noble and altruistic my plight was. Sam, his role as peacemaker becoming obvious, asked Ethan to calm down and try being more civil. Ethan obliged, leaning forward and telling his abbreviated life’s story to no one in particular.
A quote-unquote “sad life” began in the dunes of southern Colorado. He was born in 1987 to a single mother from the small town of Alamosa, population 7,200. Struggling with weight was a life norm (he claimed to be the poster-child for the Bush-era anti-obesity campaigns) and a younger Ethan, embattled by schoolyard bullies, turned to music as an escape from his living hell.
After playing trumpet for years and dabbling in guitar, he decided to make something of it. At 22, he traveled to LA and hopped from band to band, playing gigs for as little as four dollars a night and piecing together an existence from notes on a page and the generosity of others. After nearly two years spent living on the brink of poverty, he gave up his dreams and settled for a temp job in San Diego. Ethan reflected on his five years with the company rather fondly, but said the lifestyle was not for him. About the time he was thinking of leaving the city to again try his luck as a professional musician, he met Sam at a local pub.
The pair bonded over a few drinks, shooting crap about the upcoming election, how to best prepare for life after thirty, and where they might be in ten years. Neither had an answer for the last part. But who ever does?
The car coasted down the highway with little care for potholes. 75 in a 70 seemed dangerous enough, but then again neither Kentucky nor Tennessee was well known for their heavy-handed highway patrolmen. Speeding is the least harmful offense you can commit here. Yet only thirty miles from Nashville, we found ourselves stuck in a traffic jam because a semi-trailer had been pulled over by a small fleet of cop cars. We each guessed what was going on. Julia predicted drug bust. Ethan seconded the claim. I said excessive speeding or reckless driving, though probably a combination of the two. Sam had the most outlandish guess, claiming the driver must be wrapped up in some human trafficking ring or perhaps child porn. We all stared at the bearded giant. A sheepish grin and nonchalant wave implied he didn’t really mean it, though I was far from convinced.
The sun finally dipped below the treetops and twilight shifted from a fiery orange to deep, regal purple. Julia marveled at the trivial sight. Or at least I thought it was. I’ll admit, some of the sunsets I have seen over the fields of Iowa and Kansas, plus a sunrise over the Gulf as viewed from the beaches of Pass Christian, have left me slightly jaded. Once you’ve seen one sunset, you’ve seen them all. The only thing which may come close to changing my mind on this point would be who is standing with me. I don’t know if that makes me hopeful or cynical.
Having passed the semi, Julia pointed out Sam had yet to share his story. He smiled, closed his eyes, then sighed. The man took on a Christ-like appearance; weary, enlightened, and weathered. We rode in silence for a few miles while, I assume, he collected his thoughts. Sam finally spoke a scant ten miles from Nashville.
Born in 1995 near Sudbury, Ontario, Sam came to the US at the age of four with his parents and older sister. He graduated high school at seventeen and went straight into the workforce, picking up odd jobs as they came. On his 21st birthday, he decided to leave the safety of his parents’ basement to explore the country he called home. So from Albany, he made his way south through Philadelphia before taking a right turn in Atlanta and following I-20 to I-10 to I-8 to, finally, a no-name pub near PetCo Park. That’s where he met Ethan two months ago. Together, they made their way back East searching for people to join them on an adventure to anonymity. Julia joined them in Memphis and the trio has been wandering Kentuckiana in search of fellow travelers for the better part of two weeks. Their last hitchhike left without them and they had been at the gas station for almost six hours when I picked them up. The timing was fortuitous as a rainstorm rolled through the area about an hour later.
Right as Sam ended his story, the incandescent and neon lights of Nashville’s skyline broke through the trees. The tell-tale spires of the AT&T Building marked downtown and Nissan Stadium, home of the Titans, told me where the riverbank was. I took exit 49 to drop the group off at an apartment complex off Hermitage. Ethan issued a short thank you before disappearing into the building. Sam shook my hand and bid me good luck in life. Julia smiled and hugged me across the center console, telling me that life looked good for people like me. I forced a grin and thanked her, promising I would try and keep up the optimism, whatever that meant.