“I’ve got this shit bag, mmaaan.”
He says it casually, like we’ve been friends for years. Southern drawl. Old smell.
Then he lifts up a small plastic bag (empty… thank god) from under his shirt to prove it. I ask him what happened.
“Drinkin’,” he says without shame. To emphasize his point or maybe just because he was thirsty, he took a big slug from his Busch Light can. With his other hand, he was navigating us down a windy country road towards Damascus, Virginia.
Today’s story is about a man who taught me there are many different ways to live.
We will call him Shit Bag Man (with the utmost respect of course), BUT if Jay (name changed) hadn’t hurt his knee, I may have never met him.
My first hitchhiking trip wasn’t my idea. I was just doing what I was told. Sort of.
Here’s the story…
There was no way we were going to make it.
Jay’s knee had gotten worse.
Our pace had slowed to a crawl and the kids were getting cranky. We were over halfway through our 14-day, 112-mile Appalachian Trail (AT) hike, but there was still 50 miles of Smokey Mountain wilderness in between us and our van. There was no way we would be able to hike that distance and be back to our school on time.
I was one of three leaders of our group, but I was the least experienced. Which means that when we had to decide who was going to hitchhike the 60 miles or so to our van… I was the obvious choice.
I didn’t complain either. Since I’d read Jack Kerouac’s, On The Road, I’d wanted to hitchhike. This was a good place to start too. It is common for hikers to catch rides to town for supplies.
Of course on that muggy Tennessee summer day, after I’d packed a small bag with only the bare necessities and set off on a nearby country highway… ALONE… I was shitting little kittens. Would this work? Is this really happening? I was trying not to visualize the most grotesque sexual acts imaginable being performed on me by some of the ugliest creatures alive.
It was gut-churningly horrible and deliciously exciting.
Anything could happen.
My first ride was from 3 Good Ole’ Boys in a pick up.
It was thrilling, chilling, hot, windy, and comforting to be zooming through Tennessee in the hands of 3 strangers I’d only talked to for 7 seconds. I’d thought they were going to kill me, when they turned around, but they were just checking on an antique car they wanted to inspect.
And when they dropped me off in Mountain City, Tennessee, I was adventure drunk.
The feeling you have when you think you might die (or get raped) and then you don’t… is about 100 times better than the feeling you have leaving work on Fridays.
I was ready for more, I only had 15 miles to make Damascus and I was fairly certain I would be sleeping in a bed tonight (maybe I could even get some pizza or a beer). I walked a mile or so out of town and stuck my thumb up. My good luck continued and in a short time I was running to catch up with a rickety van that had pulled over.
He said he was heading to Damascus and I eagerly hopped in.
We were off.
Meet the Shit Bag Man.
“I’m having a rough day, man.” He is skinny, dingy with working class dirt, and unshaven. In the next 20 minutes, he told me his life story as he swigs Busch Light (without offering me any) from a half empty case sitting on the floor between us.
We talk about traveling and he has done his share. He worked on a US Naval Submarine, so would go underwater for 4 weeks at a time. But he would also have 4 weeks of freedom after that. This schedule played havoc on his relationship with his now ex-wife. He calls her a “crazy bitch” and blames his drinking on her. Of course, he is still in love with her, which is why he mentions her so much in our conversation.
I’m really curious about his travels and I steer the conversation in that direction. “To party” was his reason for hiking the whole Appalachian Trail (2,179 miles long) three times. He was a wild one and I liked his stories.
They were different than almost anything I’d heard. And even though I didn’t want my life to be like Mr. Shit Bag here…
There was something about him that I admired.
I remember wanting to go “Ahhhhhhhhhhhhh (in a relaxed “I’ve made it” sort of way)” as I sat in his van.
Shit was clattering back and forth in his van. He was sorta drunk, but his driving was pretty good. And he was blabbering on and on about the sorted details of his life.
I think a lot of people would never want to be in a situation like this (maybe I’m wrong? Would you?). But I felt like this is what I’d been waiting for my whole life.
There was danger, stories, connection, windy country roads, beer, and as a kid fresh out of college who’d always tried to do the right and good thing, I was fascinated by this guy.
Drinking as he drives… throwing empty cans out the window and cracking another… This Shit Bag Man was as interesting as any character I’d read about in a Kerouac and he was sitting right in front of me.
Sure… I don’t want to be like the Shit Bag Man.
But who do I want to be?
Who am I?
And although I’d been asking myself and working through these questions more than most 23-year olds… this Shit Bag Man showed me there were a whole lot more options available than I had realized.
How did I want to live?
How about you? Does a stranger stand out in your life as someone who had an impact on how you wanted to live?
Even if it is in some weird way? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
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