The Last American Hitch-Hiker “Light-Headed and Loving It”

By Mark Kneeskern

The first thing I notice is the fresh mountain air. On my way to Salida again, I’ve just been dropped off at Copper Mountain by three high school friends from Iowa who are on their way to an elk hunt near Grand Junction. I’m from Iowa too, and not at all embarrassed about it … however, the air in Iowa is not as crisp and refreshing as the air here in Colorado, so I’m taking big lung-fulls of it. Mountains literally have an uplifting effect on one’s soul and it’s making me feel high. Did you know that John Denver’s most famous tune was banned in 1972 because the FCC had legal precedence at the time to censor any song that seemed to promote drug use? Now, of course, it’s one of Colorado’s two state songs, and ironically, has been used in Coors commercials, not to mention the chain of medical marijuana dispensaries called “Rocky Mountain High.”

Right now, I’m aiming my thumb at Leadville, the highest town in the Rockies, literally and maybe even figuratively. After all, Leadville is called “Cloud City” and they have a pizza place called High Mountain Pies (which comes highly recommended by yours truly). But I can’t think about pizza at a time like this, I must concentrate on getting that first ride. The road is Human Psychology 101. What’s happening in the mind of the driver? How will they view me from their perspective? Why should they pick me up? A small percentage of folks will pick any stinkin’ body off the shoulder, but I’m trying to increase my odds. There’s a long, steep grade ahead of me. If a person sees me confidently hauling my load towards high altitudes, they might be more likely to pull over. The healthy folks of Colorado respect that kind of moxie. Now, I’m not out to fool anyone. I really am ambitious enough to hike up the whole mountain … it’s just that I don’t really want to. Forgive me my sins, but I’d rather be having a beer or three at The Fritz before nightfall.

Shakespeare said “Timing is everything.” My march must match the meter of the motor. I adjust my cadence so that I am hiking upwards and away from the oncoming cars until they are close, then turning to face them, walking backwards now, looking the driver in the eyes with a robust smile on my face and a healthy flush in my cheeks. Each footstep has a number and each move requires my full attention the first few times, until it becomes a natural expression.

Bob, an HVAC duct man, takes me past Leadville to Junction 300, kindly taking me out of his way to a good spot, as he’s hitched in the past and knows that extra mile can make all the difference. I’m hangin’ my thumb out in the cool breeze, employing a new technique called The Gunky Method, developed in Wisconsin, at a time when I was not feeling very smiley. Tired and depressed, I wondered how I could hammer my face into something pleasant-looking. It was there, in the midst of darkness, that Gunky came shining through. Gunky is one of my alter egos. Not a separate personality, mind you, but an invented person whom I may channel when I see fit. Gunky is light hearted, playful, and just plain goofy, if a bit mentally challenged. All I have to do is channel Gunky and a grin cracks across my tired face … and it’s real. When a car approaches, Gunky’s smile beams out and smacks the driver right in the brain.

A truck pulls over. Javier is a young man who works in the Leadville mines and is heading to Salida to look for bikes for himself and his kids. He was born in Washington State where his folks were migrant fruit pickers. They have since moved back to Mexico. We converse in Spanish and English. His English is fine, but higher-ups at work are angered by having to explain things more carefully for him. He’s heard the phrase “When you come to America, you gotta’ speak English!” Javier is American and does speak English, but has trouble with slang, mumblers, and fast speakers. Both Javier and I have had the experience of being able to speak the other language better when drunk. We have a laugh about how maybe he should carry a flask to work to please his bosses.

Most people are able to express themselves more fluently when they get a couple in ‘em … loosens up the old larynx, not to mention the gray matter. Just one more reason to get “high” in the mountains …