Friday, July 7, 2017

Joe Omundson

Hitchhiking from Portland to Moab with heart infection symptoms and a stop at the Rainbow Gathering

My 6 week IV antibiotic treatment concluded on May 21, and other than one day with a fever, I felt well in the month that followed. It seemed like the medicine had done the job. I made plans for a month of traveling: July 1st I would hitchhike to the Rainbow Gathering near John Day, OR to meet up with 3 of my best nomad friends, then I would continue on to Moab, where I would hang out for a few weeks, pick up my car and sort out other loose ends, spend time with friends who live in the area, and head back to Portland by July 25th when my car's trip permit expires.

As the time to leave drew closer, anticipation built. I spent time working for my friend to earn money for my trip and I grew impatient to gain the freedom of the road, to see something new. Then, two or three days before I had planned to leave, I started feeling sick. For a solid two days I was measuring a fever between 100.8 - 102.8 °F and having night sweats. These were the same symptoms that got me admitted to the hospital in Minnesota. I talked to my infectious disease doctor and went in to get blood cultures drawn.

For me the timing couldn't have been worse. I was extremely disappointed at the prospect of canceling my trip, which I was so eagerly looking forward to, yet I knew that if my infection had indeed returned this would likely mean that I had failed antibiotic therapy and would need to prepare for an open heart surgery. Having had a few months to adjust to the idea of another major operation, the most upsetting part was that it would ruin my trip.

I was torn. Should I play it safe and cancel my trip, go to the hospital and get the treatment I need? Should I risk it and travel for at least a week to cover the most important parts of my trip and hope I didn't get too sick? In the past I had had symptoms for at least a week or two before getting treatment... couldn't I do that again, especially when I have something I want to do so badly first? What if this is a weird placebo / stress response or something unrelated to my heart? I know it's not worth risking my health just to have a fun time -- but isn't the whole point of good health to enable us to have good experiences and live our lives? And if I cancel my trip, am I not completely giving up on the possibility of that great experience, trading it for some semblance of security?

The night before I had planned to leave, I spent a couple hours awake in the middle of the night, feeling terrible, sweating and nearly in tears. I couldn't decide what to do so I slept until morning, had breakfast, meditated for 15 minutes, and then my body decided for me. I just started packing my bag. It was possible to pack it up, so I did, I got all ready, and my friend drove me to Troutdale for my first hitch. Apparently I'd decided to risk it. I think I couldn't handle the idea of missing my plans based on a fear for my personal health. Besides, I hadn't heard anything back from the blood cultures which were 2 days pending, so I didn't know for sure that anything was wrong.

My first ride stopped for me as soon as I stepped onto I-84 eastbound, and he drove me to Multnomah Falls. This was the first time I had been picked up by a gay man who thought I was cute and openly expressed interest. He was disappointed that I was into women but was very kind to me anyway.

Ride two was a guy who lived in Stevenson, WA. Part native, he had fishing rights on the Columbia and that's how he was making money this summer. In years past, he'd hitched the same route many times in order to go into Portland to support his heroin habit. He was very open and accepting, and I enjoyed his company. He dropped me off at the Cascade Locks exit.

Ride three was from a computer scientist, a kiteboarder headed to Hood River. I told him about my history as an engineer and he gave me some thoughts on how I could still work in that field while making it fit with my passions. We talked about artificial intelligence until he dropped me off.

The next ride took me as far as the previous 3 combined, all the way to Biggs Junction where I needed to head south away from the Columbia to get to Central Oregon. When he stopped to pick me up, he pulled over and then drove to a safe spot off the shoulder to wait for me, and got out of his car to meet me as I approached. From these actions I could tell he was a responsible and cautious person, and he turned out to be an engaging conversationalist and we compared perspectives on life topics ranging from career to family to society and religion. He was an engineer who worked for HP. I really enjoyed getting to know him.

The junction had a travel stop where I used the restroom and then headed back out to the road with my cardboard sign reading "JOHN DAY". I sat on a curb by a wide shoulder and waited. A semi truck passed me, apparently turned around somewhere down the road, then honked and gestured at me as he pulled in to the travel stop from the other direction. Clearly he was signalling me... but why? If he wanted to give me a ride, why was he parking his rig instead of turning it around to pick me up? I thought maybe his gestures were only meant to say hi, but I watched his legs walk from the cab around to the back of the truck where he could see me, and he lifted his arms in a shrugging gesture like "dude, what are you waiting for?" so I grabbed my pack and walked over to him. The first thing he asked was "hey man, you smoke weed?". After a millisecond analysis of the situation -- the guy seemed a little sketchy, but nothing sinister about him -- I replied "uh, yeah!" and he told me to hop into the cab. The passenger seat was falling apart, there was junk everywhere. He asked if I knew how to roll a blunt (I didn't) then asked if I had a pipe (I did). So we packed a bowl and started smoking. Then, a woman appeared in the passenger window of the truck next to us, grinning and holding up her own pipe. He invited her over and the three of us passed around two bowls, chatting about our travels and the truck driving life. She went back to her truck and the guy decided not to give me a ride after all, because my route was turning off in just 9 miles and for him it wasn't worth the hassle. But he did give me a good sized bud for the road, and I went back to my curb with a nice buzz and laughing to myself. "WTF just happened?!" Getting stoned with random truckers in the middle of nowhere.

Soon a nice guy from Yakima picked me up, and I actually ended up going the same route with him that I could have gone with the trucker, realizing that it was smarter to at least make progress in the general direction even if it's not on the most direct route possible. He drove me to Madras, and we mostly just listened to music and silently watched the scenery pass by, sharing another bowl.

I should have asked him if he could drive me south a few more miles to where Hwy 26 leaves Hwy 97, but I didn't think of it. I ended up walking those miles, which was challenging as I felt sick and it was quite hot outside, but I didn't despair and it was never outside of my capability. Finally, at the turnoff, a 2-car caravan pulled over for me. Lion-mane dreadlocks filled the windshield of the second vehicle and I knew I'd found my ride to the Rainbow Gathering. The guy in the passenger seat of the first car jumped out and carved out a space for me in the back seat, piling suitcases and sleeping bags on the other side. I got in and sat with my pack on my lap, the displaced luggage halfway falling back onto me, and prepared for a cramped 3 hour ride. "Dude, you're lucky you got the ride with the best music", as he proceeded to blast some harsh dubstep music. The subwoofer must have been very expensive and very close to my head, as the precision bass was painfully and unbearably loud. Fortunately I had earplugs in the top pouch of my backpack, which kept the volume below the pain threshold, but also blocked out more high frequencies than lows, so then all I could hear was the booming 20-80 Hz range. If you've ever had an MRI you might have some idea what this ride felt like. No problem, I was going straight where I needed to go. I have learned to accept many discomforts as a meditative state.

We parked after sunset and I had about another 2-mile walk into this crazy organism of a gathering. I knew my friends were camped just past the Home Shalom kitchen, and I made haste, eager to find them before setting up camp for the night. As I got closer, the directions I received got more specific and I found them without much of an issue, set up my tent, and crashed. It had been 10 hours of traveling -- about what was expected for hitching a 5 hour drive.

Dennis and Mathieu had already been there for 10 days. They helped a lot of people set up their camps and kitchens, and now the crowd was pouring in for the event. I came along the next morning as they helped a nearby kitchen prepare breakfast, which turned into a pretty hilarious ordeal as this guy had taken over the kitchen against the will of the other camp members, which we didn't know at the time, and nothing was running smoothly at all. The guy was on some crazy drugs, hadn't slept in two days, and was making no sense. In true Rainbow style, nobody wanted to confront him so everyone just suffered instead.

Tom joined us in camp that morning, and 3 of us decided to take psychedelics. I took a double dose of LSD, and the other two split some mushrooms, which didn't end up doing much for them. Due to some combination of chemical potency and the intensity of my life in recent days, it was quite a powerful experience for me. If I had been out of touch with the fact that I was de-prioritizing my heart health it might have been a "bad trip" experience thinking about that, but I wasn't hiding anything from myself and I experienced the discomfort with full awareness and acceptance of my choice. It was a little like looking death in the face. I decided to hike up the hill alone, past all the camps, up to where I could get a view from a ridge, and sat there resting as my heart pounded away. An hour later I headed back down and again had to rest my displeased heart at my camp. I took it easy the rest of the day, only venturing out for a short visit to the central meadow to watch the hippies, drum circle-ing and dancing naked around three bonfires.

It was wonderful to catch up with my friends again, and to hear about their travels since the last time I'd seen them. Dennis and Mathieu seem to have formed a very close partnership and at times it was like watching a couple banter, which was quite entertaining. I decided to leave the morning after my 2nd night, and Dennis offered to drive me to John Day to start off my hitch. As he, Mathieu, and I were walking to his van, we stopped by Tom's camp (he had stayed camped in his SUV in the parking lot). He happened to be about to leave, too, to drive to Chico, and he offered to take me with him as far as I wanted. So I left the gathering with Tom, and we drove down through southern Oregon to a campsite on the OR/CA state line near Lakeview. Tom generously paid for the campsite and made us a dinner of salmon and spinach. The campsite came with free showers so we left feeling refreshed in the morning.

Lake Abert, a large but shallow alkaline lake in Southern Oregon

Tom decided he was willing to take a detour in to Reno to drop me off and check out an AA meeting. He let me out near an onramp and we said goodbye. I didn't have much luck at that onramp, so I walked about a mile to the next one, where I got a ride 15 miles out of town with a guy who works in a big industrial complex. He had some strong political views which I didn't agree with entirely, but it was cool to hear where he was coming from. From there, a young guy gave me a ride another 15 miles east to the town of Fernley, where he had recently moved from his home town in California.

I waited at least an hour for the next ride, in 100 degree sun, the wind blowing asphalt-heated air over my body. I felt weak and not very many cars were getting on the freeway in my direction, and I struggled to stay positive. Finally, I got my lucky break: a guy stopped for me who was driving all the way to Wyoming. I rode with him to Salt Lake City. He had traveled to California to buy a truck (to be used for servicing semi trucks on the side of the highway) only to have it break down near Fernley, where he spent a night or two getting it fixed. He was a nice guy who will be turning 30 in August  -- 11 days after I do. We had several hours together. He told me about his life in Wyoming and we talked a lot about diesel engines and mechanical-related stuff, which was fun for me because my car is a diesel and it was interesting to know the similarities and differences between my engine and much bigger ones.

He dropped me off at the offramp of my choosing a bit west of Salt Lake City. My hope was that it would be an exit where my "MOAB" sign would attract someone who had gotten off for a quick stop and would then be passing all the way through SLC in my direction; I'd previously had a lot of trouble getting through SLC and was not keen to repeat that experience. It was dark, I walked down the side of the offramp and found a fairly level spot in the grass where I slept until the sun reached me in the morning.

Getting through SLC was once again a frustrating experience. My onramp was a poor choice. It was all truck drivers and local commuters who had little more to offer than a bewildered stare. One cop drove by and shouted through his loudspeaker, "Hey, get off the onramp for me." Working on it bud. After 2 1/2 hours, a nice guy picked me up and took me 10-15 miles down the freeway, leaving me at a decently busy onramp where I would ultimately not catch a ride for 5 full hours. It was 102 degrees. I got sunburned. The only good thing was that I took a break for an hour and got lunch at a pretty decent Asian buffet, so I was really only waiting for 4 hours. It started to feel like nobody in SLC knew what the thumb-out hand signal meant and that I would be stuck there for days. Finally someone pulled over, a sales manager at a solar company, and took me another 15 miles. From here it got easier, and I got 2 quick rides to get south of Provo off the freeway and onto the highway that goes through Price. An army network engineer (and ex-coal miner) gave me a ride down the highway to where his turn took him a different direction, 50 miles outside of Price, and from here I got lucky again when a high school biology teacher who was driving to Colorado picked me up. He was a really cool guy and we shared our fascination with science as we drove. He told me about the interesting dynamics of teaching science in a small town.

He dropped me off at the Moab exit on I-70. 30 miles to Moab. It was dusk, light was fading fast, and I was nervous that I wouldn't get a ride before dark, and I'd have to wait til morning to get into town (I don't hitch at night). Fortunately I got lucky again. He dropped me off, I stuck out my thumb, and the next truck stopped for me before the biology teacher had time to get back on the freeway. This guy was from Moab but hadn't lived there in over 30 years; back for a family function. He seemed like he was kind of a big shot, having been a news reporter for ABC who covered the Sydney Olympics and being personally asked by Mitt Romney to do public relations for the SLC Olympics, among other things. He was good to me, gave me a Starbucks Frappuccino drink and $20 before I got out of the truck. I was in Moab at last! 9:30 PM, and probably 98 degrees. Must have been a hot day.

I contacted the guy who had been storing my car in his backyard, walked to his house, paid him for his services, and tried to start my car -- the battery was dead. He gave me a jump and the car roared to life. I drove it for a while to charge the battery, then parked it near the courthouse and went to sleep.

At some point on this day, I received a new message from my doctor. "Blood cultures are negative. We should get CT as planned and get more blood cultures when you come back." I was stunned, and very glad that I'd chosen to leave even though I felt bad. My other option would have been to sit around in Portland waiting for a negative test result. I can't imagine how frustrated I would have been for missing out on my trip when they couldn't find anything wrong anyway.

Time to shift gears: I finished hitchhiking, and now I had my car again to make travel easy. I spent the next three days with a new friend and lover who lives in Grand Junction, but this is a topic for the next chapter.

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