Complicated tale of 2 hitchhikers stranded on I-70

DAN RODRICKS

October 13, 1992|By DAN RODRICKS

Ever wonder why guys are hitchhiking?

Sunday afternoon, I was driving east on Interstate 70, signaling to take the exit ramp to Frederick, right by the big Texaco truck plaza, when I spotted two guys hitchhiking. As always, I wondered what the heck they were doing there.

One of them carried a bed roll. He looked deathly pale and underfed, with wild and wet hair and what I call "attempted beard," which is a beard that never fills out despite a man's commitment to it. He wore baggy brown pants and sneakers, and he walked awkwardly, 30 feet behind his companion. The other man had short, reddish-blond hair and thick, metal-rimmed glasses. He was stocky and muscular, with a square jaw. He wore a blue short-sleeve jersey, jeans and sneakers.

By the time I got off the ramp and parked my car, the sun was out, cracking a long smile of white-and-silver against a purple October sky. It had rained a bit during the morning and there were scattered showers in the early afternoon. I assumed the two hitchhikers had been out in the foul weather for a while.

Next time I saw them, they were in the restaurant of the big truck plaza. The one with the scraggly beard gobbled big lumps of gravy-and-mashed potato with a spoon in his left hand. He filled his mouth with rolls-and-butter with the right hand. When the other guy finished eating, he went into the adjoining store to buy some soap.

I waited around to pop the question: What brought them to hitchhiking?

When the one with the reddish-blond hair stepped out of the restaurant, smelling of soap, I introduced myself. When we shook hands, he flinched.

"Sorry," I said. "What did you do to your hand?"

"Got in a little fight," he said with a mischievous smile. The hand was swollen and scraped.

He said his name was Wes. His buddy's name was Norman. Norman was inside the truck stop, taking a shower.

"Where are you from?" I asked.

"Baltimore," said Wes.

"Where are you headed?"

"Baltimore."

Norman stepped out of the truck stop, also smelling of soap. His long hair and his scraggly beard were wet.

"Why were you hitchhiking?" I asked, and Wes willingly explained almost everything.

The journey had started Saturday morning in Baltimore. Wes, his father and Norman had a plan to make some money: Load up Dad's van with pints of California strawberries from the Wholesale Food Market in Jessup, then head out to West Virginia.

"Why West Virginia?" I asked. "Why not sell the strawberries around Baltimore?"

"Because people around there are cheap," Wes said. And in West Virginia, people are willing to pay.

"Did you have a good day selling strawberries?" I asked.

A great day, said Wes. They sold strawberries to people walking up to the van, to carry-out shops, to small grocery stores. He and Norman each made close to $200.

Feeling tired but happy, they drove into Albright, W.Va., and had something to eat. Then the three of them stepped into a bar for some drinks and pool. Wes' daddy did some pool shooting with a local fellow. Wes and Norman sat at the bar.

Something happened. Somewhere in that Saturday night, after a hard day of selling strawberries, Wes' daddy got into an argument. The guy shooting pool with him said something real nasty.

And Wes, who is 26, wanted to stand up for his father, who is 44.

Pretty soon, Wes was outside the bar in a fist fight. "One thing led to another," is how he put it.

When the fighting ended, Wes, his father and Norman retired to the van for a night's sleep. They woke up early Sunday for the return trip to Baltimore. But, to Wes' surprise, his father exploded in anger. It turns out he didn't like Wes getting in that fight. "Didn't appreciate my standing up for him," is how Wes put it.

So Wes' daddy got into the van and took off, leaving Wes and Norman in Hancock, Md., at 5:30 in the morning. And that's how Wes and Norman ended up as hitchhikers on a Sunday afternoon in October on Interstate 70. Wes' mama picked them up at the truck stop and drove them back to Baltimore.

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