The nighttime Amtrak arrival into Essex Junction was a bust — nary a taxi fare to be had. Trying to salvage what I could from the situation, I pulled to the curb at the Railroad Street bus stop, positioning myself directly in front of a young man I had seen get off the train. His clothes looked straight out of Eastern Mountain Sports, if a little road worn, and his face showed an untended, wispy black beard.
Given the fellow’s youthful looks, it could have been the first beard he’d ever attempted. On his back, he carried a stuffed, beat-up backpack. The night was frigid, which boded well for the proposition I was about to put forward.
Lowering the passenger window, I leaned toward the curb and said, “Where ya headed to, buddy?”
He smiled and replied, “I’m going to hook up with a friend at UVM, but I’m waiting for the bus.”
“Yeah, I got that, but how about five bucks?”
I have been hustling taxi fares for more than 25 years and have it down to a science. In this case, the metric factored in the subfreezing temperature and a weary traveler. Five dollars, I figured, should do the trick. From my point of view, of course, a little is better than nothing, and I would otherwise be heading back to town empty handed.
“I appreciate the offer,” he said, “but I’m really broke.”
“Five dollars?” I reiterated, just doing my thing, trying to wake up this kid to the folly of his ways. A notion popped into my head: I am not so dissimilar to the streetwalker flashing some thigh at the passing motorist stalled in traffic. This thought did not trouble me in the least, which says a lot.
“What can I say, dude? I’ve been on the road for two months and I’m, like, flat broke. I think I just have the money for the bus.”
“All right — I hear you, I hear you.” When required, I can be the very soul of patience. “Can you do three?”
With a big grin, the kid shook his head back and forth, to which I said, “Well then, how about free?”
He laughed and said, “That I can manage. Thanks a lot, sir.”
As the gratis taxi ride got under way, I turned to my seatmate and asked, “Two months on the road, huh? Where’d your journey take you?”
“I hitchhiked across the country, from L.A. all the way east. Well, I took the train up from New York City, obviously.”
“Wow, that is an undertaking — a once-in-a-lifetime trek, I’d say. I tip my hat to you, brother. What’s your name?”
“My name’s Cody.”
“I’m Jernigan. What prompted the trip, if I may ask?”
Cody leaned back in his seat, drawing his hand up to his scruffy chin. “I’ve been in school at UCLA, but I felt like I needed to break out and, like, see the world. I want to be a writer, and this English professor once told me that good writing requires having real-life experiences. So I took a leave of absence and hit the road.”
“I can dig it,” I said. “Did it work? You think you got some material?”
“Yeah, I think so. My idea, at this point, is to turn it all into an epic poem. Every day I was taking notes.”
“Sounds like a great notion,” I said. “Not a bad tradition you’re tapping into — from Homer’s Ulysses to Kerouac’s On the Road.”
What I left unsaid, not wanting to be anything but encouraging to this earnest and enterprising neophyte, was that there’s another approach to the writing life: It could be you don’t have to journey anywhere. Maybe the most amazing stories are right in front of your eyes, hidden in plain sight.
I said, “So, I’d guess your folks were just ecstatic about your decision to drop out of college and hitchhike across the country. I bet they could barely contain their glee.”
“Oh, man, you nailed that,” Cody said, laughing. “I had to call my mom, like, daily. Last week, actually, she flew out to Pennsylvania to meet up with me. ‘To give me some TLC,’ is the way she put it. So I’m not exactly Dean Moriarty, to tell you the truth.”
“Hey,” I countered, “count your lucky stars you got a mother like that. And, anyway, it doesn’t take away one iota from the accomplishment. You journeyed 3000 miles on your thumb and lived to tell about it, maybe even as an epic poem.”
We came off the interstate and reached the UVM campus. At the rear entrance to Simpson dorm, I pulled up at the door. Cody removed his backpack from the rear seat and shook my hand, saying, “Thanks for the lift. That was righteous.”
I chuckled and said, “Well, I try to be. Tell me, what was the longest ride you caught?”
“That would be from Barstow, Calif., all the way up to some godforsaken town in Utah. It was an independent trucker, straight out of Smokey and the Bandit. What a fascinating guy.”
“Well then,” I said, “I look forward to reading about him when you tell the story.”