Sunday, March 24, 2013

hitchin’ a ride with yoopers

Better than “A Prairie Home Companion,” the stories I heard Tuesday on an impromptu drive from Chicago to Hancock, Michigan, made me forget the weariness of my travels. I had arrived at O’Hare International Airport about 5 a.m., on the red-eye from San Francisco. The flight to Hancock, scheduled to depart at 11, was canceled just about the time we were to be boarding, due to a winter storm. As we queued up in front of United’s customer service desk to find out what would happen next, I overhead a trim, grey-haired man on a cell phone talking about a rental car. I turned to him and said, “I’ll go with you. If you rent a car, I’ll go with you.”

While in Santa Barbara, I visited the farmers market.

I’ve had some hitchhiking adventures in my time, but that was many years ago, in the late seventies. There was a trip from San Francisco to Olympia, Washington, with my friend Isobel, and my solo venture from Appleton, Wisconsin, to Chicago. Both were ill-advised and unnecessary; both were wildly fun and memorable.

The night before Isobel and I hit the road with thumbs out, we drank whiskey and made a list of all the things we would not do. As we slowly made our way through California, Oregon, and into Washington, we found ourselves crossing all those do-not-do things off the list one by one, and sometimes two by one. We got in a pick-up truck; in the back window was a gun rack and rifle. We got in a car with a bunch of guys, Isobel in front, me in back. (I shudder to think about that ride, the stupidity of it, and the luck of it. The guys were obnoxious and they stank of onions. Luckily, that’s the worst I can say of them.) We got in a semi-truck, an 18-wheeler. That turned out to be our best ride. The trucker had stories to tell, fed us at a truck stop, and took us most of the way, all the way through Washington, if I recall correctly.

When I hitched from Appleton to Chicago, leaving on a cold, January night, I was picked up by a brakeman on his way to the train yard. He snuck me onto the freight train, and I rode the rails with him and the engineer all the way to the roundhouse in Schaumburg, where I was able to catch some sleep before heading on.

So I’ve had some interesting rides with strangers.

Those were the days.

But Tuesday’s ride with a band of yoopers tops the list. As we stood in the customer service line with our various rolling bags and totes and books and jackets and purses, cell phones began to jingle; the news was that the earliest flight being booked was Thursday morning, two days away. This was the second flight to Hancock to be canceled, and my guy on the cell phone looking for a rental car had intended to be home on the previous flight. It seemed to me that despite the obvious trouble he was having with getting information on a rental—particularly information to his liking—that if anybody were going to get to Hancock before Thursday, it would this fellow and his wife. Now, I didn’t have to get home, but I really wanted to get home, so without hesitation I threw in my lot with these two, who I will now call Mr. and Mrs. M.

I waited for Mr. M to take action, and he did. Come on, let’s go. We broke free of the line, started following the airport’s “Rental Car” signs, but, oh no!, Mrs. M has stopped to talk to someone!

Let’s go!

And we’re off.

The funny thing about following the rental car signs at O’Hare is this—they lead you outside to a row of shuttle buses, one for each rental company, but unless you have a car reserved with that company, you can’t get on the bus. There is no desk at which to make a reservation; there is no person to help you with a reservation. As the shuttle bus driver for National/Alamo explained this to us, Mr. M got back on his phone, called the rental car folks up at the Hancock airport, asked them if they could get us a reservation, they could, so we were on our way. (Also, it turned out that the bus driver had been to the U.P., and he loves it up here … )

We finally arrived at the outlying hut for National Car Rental and got ourselves a four-wheel-drive Ford Flex with plenty of room. Mrs. M called N and J, whom she’d been talking to back in line at the airport, and we waited for them to join us. By noon we were pulling away from the National lot. It was sunny and cold with a stiff west wind, a wind that would be with us, buffeting the Flex, the entire trip. Mr. M got us on 294, heading north, and soon I conked out, sleeping through Milwaukee. Figuring this would happen (instead of sleeping on the red-eye flight, I’d watched a surf movie), I had opted for the rear seat. When I woke up, I heard the quiet chatter of the three women, who, it turned out, had grown up together in Hancock, two in the same neighborhood, one in another close by. It was still sunny, the road clear except for occasional patches of snow and slush. Here and there, a car in the ditch. Mr. M drove steady, as he would the whole trip.

Just south of Green Bay, we stopped at McDonald’s, and I don’t know if it was inhaling that fuel or what—maybe I just started paying attention—but soon thereafter the meat of the trip took hold. It started with J remembering how Mrs. M’s mother would give her candy every week when paying J for delivering the newspaper, and this led to Mrs. M remembering something about six-packs of beer and the garbage man, and this led to another memory, and then another, and yet another. One person would start, another would pick it up, details would emerge, memories would sketch themselves out full-bodied. There was laughter. Oi! So much laughter!

I don’t want to repeat the stories: I just want to tell you that listening to the stories was a rare and wonderful treat. I can picture now, as I pictured then, this crazy growing up in the middle of the 20th century in a northern mining town with steep hills and deep snow, where the kids of a neighborhood played together, outside, played with each other, whoever you were, sledding and skating down icy streets, slamming, on occasion, into a garage, paying the price, doing it all over again. The people described were big and small, drunk and sober, Italian and Finn, and they filled that rental car with vividness and laughter. Each was as welcome as the next. After all, what do kids know? They didn’t know. To hear these women tell it, they just had fun.

The weather didn’t turn south until we hit Michigan, somewhere near Covington, the snow falling, blowing on that western gale, but nothing much slowed us down except for the occasional pokey in front of us, and Mr. M would pass that obstacle as soon as he was able. We arrived at the Hancock airport at 7:30 p.m., the 400-some-mile trip having taken six and a half hours. Along the way, J had been on her cell phone with her husband. He had gone to the airport to make sure it was plowed and to dig out our cars. Unfortunately, there are a lot of dark blue vans out there, and one dark blue van two spots down from mine was nice and clean. Mine was not, but thanks to the wind, the west side was snow-free and I was able to get out my coat. (Since Chicago, I had been wearing five shirts to stay warm). Putting on my coat was another matter. The wind blew it this way and that, and apparently it was so funny it deserved a picture.

Me and my coat and my van at CMX.

I wrote a check to Mr. M to cover my portion of the rental and gas, and I pushed the snow away from the driver’s side of the van and got going on the final 30 miles home. It took me an hour. Darkness fell, the snow came down in blinding sheets, the road drifted over. I held a steady course, plowed up my drive, and from the carport to the door waded through knee-deep snow. The house—abandoned and unheated for the past week—was cold. But, having hitched a ride with yoopers*, I was home. I called Mrs. M to let her know I was safe.

* Technically, the term “yooper” is reserved for those born in the U.P., so, technically, not all those in the Ford Flex were yoopers. But, you could have fooled me.


Read last week’s post, or listen to it.