From the Vault: Hitchhiking with Fred
Ready for some more travel writing? Let’s go retro and rummage around the Eleven Visions Archives for a story from The Hitchhiking Movie. Enjoy.
“You move back! You’re right in my eyesight!”
He said it dry like he was pissed off. He had a snake-like look to him. In fact, this man could have been a snake in human form which is, I must add, possible. Haven’t you ever read conspiracy theorist David Icke? (Come to think of it, I think we’ll interview Icke. He apparently will interview with anybody, and if “out there” was left field, this guy clears the left field wall by 500 yards – like Waveland Avenue at Wrigley Field.)
Snake people, and Rowdy Roddy Piper’s They Live aside, Fred did not represent the conspiratorial, controlling, power-crazed Illuminatus that Icke and other conspiracy theorists imagine; he was extremely kind even if his initial behavior belied that fact.
How we met Fred
Most who have been on this site already know about The Hitchhiking Movie, in which you can see several scenes from our encounter with Fred; but, what I’d like to do now is go behind the scenes and deeper into the psyche of one of the most lovable characters in our documentary. While the movie is excellent in its gritty capture of a real life hitchhiking adventure, it does not (nor can it completely) capture the internal struggles of the characters involved.
Fred was a reptile… okay, seriously. Fred was a Native American standing at about 6’2″ (about 185 cm for all you on the outdated metric system). I walked up to him outside a truck stop in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. I had seen him descend from his 26-ton, Diesel 18-wheeler that had big, metallic letters on the grill: M A C K. Mack truck. Holy shit, I thought. I did not want to ask this guy for a ride. Somehow, I did anyway.
Once asked, he looked at me like I had just spit on him. He seemed irked and responded irked: “I’m goin’ to Kentucky.” He popped his head back, started blinking and then looked sharply down. “I’m goin’ to have to think about this,” he then said and left me flat as he went inside to pay for gas. A skinny man, he walked like a hulking mass, like he could kick your ass if he wanted to and probably could. I turned to Phillip. “I have no idea what just happened here.”
When he came out, he walked right past me towards his Diesel. Well, can’t win ’em all, I thought. “You comin’?” he asked already 10 yards ahead of me. I looked at Phillip: “Now I really have no idea what’s happening here.”
In the Cab
Fred rearranged his junk in the front seat: toilet paper, magazines, a general conglomeration of dirtiness. Not many passengers had been in the cab. I crawled in and sat in the passenger seat. Phillip remained on the ground holding the camera. “Where are you going to sit?” I turned around. “Oh there’s a bed back here.” I moved into the dark back of the cab and prayed not to be greeted by a man with an ax. Ever see that scene in Silence of the Lambs where the killer pushes the girl into the van with a couch? Yeah, that’s what was going through my mind.
started and was loud. It was hard to film. Shaky, a cursed vibration that killed all intelligibility of sound, and dark, dark, dark. Fred seemed completely unalarmed. I know we were concerned for our safety, but Fred looked more annoyed than worried we were going to rob him. We could have been carrying guns. We could have maced him, tied him up and stole his rig. Without going into that much detail, I asked him about that very fact:
“I let the Man upstairs guide me on everything I do. When you asked me for a ride, he just let me know, ‘It’s okay.'” His face was placid. He really could care less if we were dangerous or not.
The line “Move back. You’re right in my eyesight!” which was followed by, “I can’t see but through my mirrors!” was actually directed toward Phillip. In the movie it looks like it’s toward me, so we just left it that way for simplicity’s sake. Somewhere in the first awkward hour, Fred revealed that he was Native American. WTF, I thought, this guy’s white as cotton. Studying his face further you could see the stoic undertones of an Indian complexion. His cheekbones were sharp and could have very well been the cheekbones of a buffalo-hunting, high-plains arrow slinger. “I’m Cherokee Seminole by my dad, and my mother will tell you she’s a white woman, but she’s got Chickasaw blood in her.” Ah, he was half white. I imagined his mother, wanting to get away from the Indian label, happy to appear white enough to distinguish herself from the dark-skinned Indians on the reservation. In Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, one of her characters is an older half white/half black woman in an African American community. Much as many a human has done, she uses this characteristic to distinguish herself, to make herself feel better by believing she is better than everyone else. Unfortunately in the human game, it’s not enough just to say you’re better. You need reasons, fabricated or otherwise.
Well, I guess, “My skin produces less pigment than yours,” is as good a reason as any. Not enough? How about: “The fact that my skin produces less pigment means that I’m smarter and closer to God (check out Mormon doctrine on that one; to be fair they recently changed it, but this idea lingers in many protestant religions across the United States) than you.” Ohhhh, you need science to back it up? Okay, how about, “Whites are intellectually superior; I found it in my carefully-constructed testing.” Nevermind that these “tests” didn’t even take into account their subjects’ socioeconomic background. (If I’m black and I grow up in a well-to-do neighborhood with easy access to intellectual and social resources, I’m going to be “smarter.” For the life of me, I can’t see how James Watson – a brilliant scientist – could conveniently forget these factors. Intellectual rigor, unfortunately, is not necessarily a cure for racism.)
Sorry to bang on about this, but if you’re Bobby Fischer and I put you in an environment where you have to worry about getting shot every day, where you live in a rundown apartment in Chicago with no heat, where you’re friends and some of your family ridicule you if you express intelligence, and where the mass media conveys to you overtly or covertly that the best you’ll be is an entertainer or maybe a shoe-shiner; then, odds are, Bobby Fischer, you’ll be a broke-ass, dumb white kid and won’t do so well on your “scientifically sound” intelligence test. Would you even feel like taking such a test in that environment? Go live in a ghetto for six months before you form your opinion.
I could detect in Fred’s voice that his mother used her whiteness to feel better about herself; correction, to convince herself that it was her right; divine, scientific, or otherwise; to feel better about herself. “I’m better, better than these half-breeds and I don’t have no Chickasaw blood in me. Chickasaw, plah!” When will we humans stop playing these games? It was very faint, but I could detect the pain in Fred’s voice. No matter. He was very squarely proud to be Indian and made no bones telling me about it.
I confess that I am an accent slut. I will whore my accent out to whoever I am talking to. I have lived in Chicago, Nashville, Memphis, Dallas, San Antonio, Austin, Minneapolis, Mexico City (yes my Spanish is chilango), and Lyon, France (Can’t say my French is southern, but I do roll out a puteng! out once in a while when I want to make French people laugh; it’s the equivalent of hearing a foreigner say in a Texas accent “weeeelll, shiiiiiiiiiiit.”) With Fred, I was going southern. My drawl was extended. I seemed more folksy. I wanted to connect. He started talking about Billy Graham. A Christian Indian? Well he did say “Man upstairs;” this guy’s intriguing. A cross between a good-ol-boy southerner and an Indian; if I had a dollar for every time I ran across one of those I could solve the financial crisis. Phillip and I spent two whole days with Fred. We packed two weeks of experiences with a person into those two days. He talked incessantly. I don’t know if he thought about it this way consciously, but I feel that when we had the camera on him he wanted to share. He thought this was an opportunity, however small, to share his life with the world. I want to think that anyway. If you click here and scan down to Fred, you’ll see a small snippet of what he was like.
Nighttime, West Virginia
“What are you thinking about?” Fred asks me. Phillip is asleep on the bed in the back… knocked out. Come to think of it, during this trip, at least one of us was knocked out 90% of the time. I have no idea how we found time to film. Fred is eyeballing me, keeping one eye on the road. This man had an uncanny ability to spot all things natural. “See that hawk!” he’d say. “There’s some deer.” “Eagle, 12 o’clock, high.” Amazing. Likewise, he was spotting my animals, those of a demonic nature. “You’re not going to solve that problem by thinking,” he says. “You think you are but you’re not. I don’t worry about anything. Nothing. I wasn’t worried when you guys got in my cab; I wasn’t worried when you pulled out the camera. You – your wheels are turning – always – I can tell.”
“I do think all the time,” I replied.
“Let ‘er go. You think you have control but you don’t. You have no control. God controls.” He smiled, one of the few times he did.
Fred was a contradiction. At times spiritual, at times pedantic, at times crass, he was a total human being. After lecturing me on the dangers of letting your out-of-control mind run your life, he confessed that was on anxiety medication for some horrors of his past.
Fred was a military man. “Keeping our freedoms free in peace time,” was all he would give me when I asked him what he did for the military. He said he was in special ops. Black ops. “They told me if I died over there, all my mother would receive was a paper saying I was killed in a training accident.” Nobody was allowed to know what I was doing.” “What did you do?” I asked fishing. I had the camera pointed on him just under my right arm. I thought it looked more inconspicuous that way and the subject would open up more. Fred knew exactly where it was. Though he never took his eyes off the road, he saw everything. A smirk again. “Keeping our freedoms free,” he said again. He knew I was trying to get him. The wily cat wasn’t going to be trapped.
The climax of our encounter occurred in a small diner in West Virginia. The entire waitstaff was comprised of 4 overweight women under the age of 23. Fred was tired, visibly. I had no planned material for this encounter, so I asked Phil to turn the camera on and said, “How did you know I was thinking all the time?” “Give me a question that’s hard,” he said. He was smiling. He thought that was hilarious. “I have an ability. I’ve never been able to understand it. Some people call it clairvoyant. I don’t call it that. I just think the greater relationship you have with the Creator, the more you know.” Jesus was his peace. “I’m nobody special; I’m just a big, ugly sucker that does what the Man tells me to do. I’ve stopped at truck stops several times for no reason because He told me to, and I find out later why?”
“Did God tell you to stop at that rest stop so you could pick us up?”
“No. I stopped because my stomach said ‘I’m hungry; you better stop.'” He thought that too was infinitely hilarious.
The end was bittersweet. We had shared something, the three of us. We were all men, however, and didn’t really want to talk about it. Fred had looked at a map and decided that the best place to let us off was in Lexington, KY. He wanted us to smoke his prayer pipe first before we left. (The movie explains the pipe a hundred times better than I can describe it; watch it here.) He took a side road and meandered through Kentucky’s capitol. The roads however, not built for an 18-wheeler, produced an eerie scraping sound. “Fuck!” Fred said loudly. He’d gone under a bridge. The top didn’t scrape. It was high enough, but it wasn’t wide enough. “I just blew 2 tires.” He knew instantly how many. He knew by feel. We meandered the streets for a while. There was nowhere really to drop us off. I told him to just take us to wherever he was going. “No, no,” it’s gotta be a natural spot. He looked at the map. “There’s a spot on the way to Louisville. I’m not goin’ that way, but hell, let’s just do it.” Fred drove a crippled semi 5 miles out of his way so that we could get a correct experience of his prayer pipe, so that he could accommodate his new friends, so that he could say “thank you”… just for us being there. His drive from Pennsylvania to Kentucky could have been boring. He could have done it with less hassle, without two men who wanted to film him. But he had people in his car, he had someone to share his life with, and I think he was grateful. I really think he was.
Out of the Cab
I didn’t really know how to leave. I didn’t want to leave. Part of that was selfish. We’d slept in his cab, we’d had a steady form of transportation (slow and plodding, but safe and reliable). To look upon the other cars whizzing by you in your 26-ton behemoth is amazing. You feel like God, you feel invincible. Now it was time to leave. Safety, gone. Security, Fred, love, life, everything good… gone. Time to leave the womb. Onto the cold, hard concrete. Before we left, at the truck stop where he had settled on dropping us off, Fred tried to radio a ride. “How ’bout it?” he said. “I got two young men trying to get out to LA.” Nothing. “If you were female,” he said, “you’d have fuckin’ everybody goin’ ‘blblblblbbblbl!”
“Thank you Fred,” I said. He had spectacles on. He was looking at something, planning his trip in a notebook maybe, something; but, I got the impression he wasn’t really doing anything. He was fake planning. This was hard. We were saying goodbye, and his way to handle it was to put his attention on something else. Plans. Math. Miles. “I can tell you’re thinking; don’t think.” He didn’t think. “We’ll see y’all,” he said. Phillip had descended, and I was supposed to descend now. I was supposed to say goodbye. I tried to think of something else. Nothing. Fred continued staring at his notebook the same way he had stared at the road: seeing everything but looking at nothing. I wanted him to look at me, just once; but, with nothing to say I left. It was sad. I still asked Phillip to film me. “We need to get a shot.” Though emotional I still wanted to get something on film. What an emotion whore: The bane of the reality TV industry.
We had a ride in five minutes. God wanted us to move on. It was over, no looking back. Adios, Fred. I will miss you. Part of me did not want to contact him again. He’d given us good material. God, I hate thinking of people in terms of material; but, as a documentary filmmaker, that’s exactly how you think of them sometimes. People become tools, just as real emotions and memories become tools to the actor. Then the emotions lose their flavor; the people lose their flavor. I didn’t want that to happen so I tried not to think of Fred at all. “I’ve still got his number,” Phillip told me the other day. “We can interview him for the hell movie.”
“That’s an excellent idea. He’d have some shit to say!” I was thinking about him again. It was good to revisit. Floods of emotion came over me. Floods of… I don’t know what.
“Part of me doesn’t want to contact him.”
“I don’t know.”
“He’d be perfect.”
“Yeah, he would be… he really would. I just hope the same flavor is there.”
“Ryan,” Phil said, “you can’t control that. This is a new movie, a new time.”
He’s right. A rebirth must happen. Fred is different now. I am different. And if we do interview him for the new movie, I will be glad to tell him that I’m not always thinking.