The Great Love Bug Migration
by Brad Temple
While my roommate, Gary Stansbury, slept, I packed my exterior frame backpack full of what I thought I would need on a 2,400 mile hitchhike — a map, frying pan, clothes, tent, instant grits, change, and my grandfather’s .38 Police Special. Gary was a heavy sleeper. He snored louder than anyone I had ever met. He and I roomed together once before, when we were freshmen. I had to throw shoes and pencils at him to make him turn over and quit snoring. A broken nose and bad eating habits probably contributed to his sleep apnea, but he would never let the doctor fix the problem. I wrote a note for Gary to read to my parents whenever they called. It was all I could think of to do. I didn’t want anyone at home to know what I was doing until I was out there on my own. I set out with a 60-pound backpack and my dog Cole on a leash.
I had only owned Cole for a couple of months. She was a black lab and chow mix, a common cross-breed in mutts. It was in a “Free Lab to Good Owner” ad in the paper where I found her. I’d been wanting a dog that summer and decided to go get her with Reynolds one night.
Cole was stubborn, but I knew she had some intelligence, being part retriever and all. We tried teaching her a few tricks using cheese as a reward. If you ever try to teach a dog tricks, do not use cheese. Unfortunately for Cole, cheese is all we had. Anyone who is anyone knows that cheese stops you up like a cork. And why should it be any different for dogs? That never crossed our minds until the dog tried to take a shit. I was on the porch smoking a cigarette when I heard the most blood curdling screams coming from inside the house. Reynolds bursts out of the house laughing.
“Dude, something’s wrong with your dog,” he said, trying not to smile.
I looked in to see Cole hunched under my lamp table, screaming like a banshee. Apparently, the dog was trying to take a shit but couldn’t because of the ridiculous amount of cheese we had fed her for being “such a good girl.” We called the vet, who informed us that she was indeed stopped up and that we should apply some Vaseline to the roof of her mouth. As the petroleum jelly is swallowed, it lubes the piping, as it were. She ended up being fine, but I abstain from feeding cheese to animals these days.
So I set out around 3 a.m. with my loyal, now cheese-free companion walking next to me, and we began the first leg of our journey along Mississippi Highway 6 to Batesville. It was relatively cool that night, but I knew the morning sun would bring the late August heat. We were only about three miles into the trip before Cole started bothering me. She was constantly pulling on the leash, going way out in front and side-to-side. She was really wearing me out, so I decided to let her off the leash for a while. She walked beside me for a short distance and then darted over to the median. Ahead of us was a small hill. The parking lot lights from a mobile home dealership shed just enough light on the landscape immediately around us. I could just make out Cole’s silhouette as she swerved over the grassy median with her nose close to the ground. Car headlights grew over the horizon and I could see that vehicles were coming toward us in both lanes. I yelled for Cole.
“Cole, come back over here!” I screamed. She looked up briefly and then went back to her snooping.
“Get over here!” I was getting angry. A car was in the far lane closest to the median. Cole meandered back onto the highway then stopped and looked at me. A semi was barreling down the other lane just behind the car.
“Come on girl!” I screamed, slapping my legs to get her attention. She jumped into the other lane just as the car was about to hit her, but she stopped again. She looked up at me and then turned to look down the road. I couldn’t get her to come across. The 18-wheeler slammed into her, leaving her spinning around on the asphalt. I couldn’t believe it. He didn’t even stop. I tried to get the .38 out of my backpack to shoot the son-of-a-bitch’s tires out, but he was going too fast. Cole was dead. I dragged her tattered body to the side of the road and said my goodbyes. I packed the pistol back in my bag and started walking again. I only thought about turning back for a second.
When daybreak arrived, I stopped and rested behind a brick entrance to a neighborhood. The sun was already beginning to beat down hard on the asphalt. The last remaining locusts of the season were winding up and would provide constant background music for most of the day. I was able to hitch a three-minute ride to the I-55 interchange from a young auto mechanic on his way to work. He didn’t say much but wished me luck.
I pitched my tent in a small patch of woods behind a gas station and drew some water from a nearby pond. All that I had to eat was instant grits, so I boiled some water and ate them. Much to my dismay, I had forgotten to pack salt, so the grits tasted like wet notebook paper. They were, however, filling enough to satisfy my hunger. I extinguished the fire and turned in for the night. I started to write a journal entry for my first day, but I was too tired. Resting my head on a towel, I fell asleep almost instantly, not awaking once until morning.
A truck drove right by my campsite the following morning, stirring me from my sleep. Thankful they hadn’t seen me, I quickly packed up everything and headed for the gas station. I called Reynolds to tell him where I was and to find out if he had deposited the money into my account.
“What’s up man?” I asked as he answered the phone.
“Dude, you actually did it, huh?” he asked.
I sighed. “Yeah, I did. My legs are so fucking sore. And the insides of my thighs…rubbed completely raw.”
“I bet they are.”
“Did you make that deposit?” I asked.
“Man, I’m not gonna be able to. I just can’t afford it.”
“Are you sure? I could really use it,” I said.
“I know, but I just don’t have the money to do it right now. Sorry, dude.”
“Alright, but if you do end up getting some more money, try not to forget about me,” I said.
“I won’t. Just keep in touch.”
“I’ll try,” I said. I hung up the phone and took a deep breath. More frustration in the infant stages of my trip….what next?
My plan was to catch a train, and the only train around was closer to Mississippi Highway 51 than to I-55, so I walked on into Batesville. Of course, most trains run east and west. I needed to go north, if not for faster travel then at least for cooler weather. I found some tracks running parallel to the highway and followed them for most of the day, but no trains ever came by. A dead beaver lay baking in the sun beside a trestle that ran over a creek. I couldn’t escape the stench. It stayed in my nostrils and lingered in the hairs of my goatee.
Finally out of the stink radius of that huge rotten rat, I paused in a shady spot, under an oak to rest. Butterflies flitted all around, and the smell of sweetgrass was as welcome as a tall glass of lemonade.
Feeling refreshed, I decided it best to get back on the road. I could count on my fingers and toes the number of cars and trucks that blew by me that afternoon. I definitely should have stayed on the interstate. As I was about to cross a bridge, a car stopped just past me. The driver waited till I got to the passenger window and asked, “Need a ride?”
“Yeah, thanks!” I replied, hoping that my smell would not make him cringe.
“Where ya headed?” he asked.
“Well, I’m trying to get to Wyoming. I just left Oxford yesterday.”
“Damn, quite a trip ahead of you. How many rides have you thumbed?”
“You’re the second one,” I said, jumping into his car.
“Yeah, not many people itchin’ to pick up hitchhikers these days.”
I curled my lip and nodded. “It would seem so.”
“My name’s Jim Gutherie. I’m with a small paper in Batesville,” he said, sticking out his hand.
I told him my name, and we talked a while. He was headed as far as Como and said he would drop me off at the elementary school there. I told him that was fine with me and just relaxed while the air conditioner blasted cool air onto my sweat-soaked clothes.
He pulled a pen and paper from his briefcase. “Here’s my name and address. Drop me a line along the way and let us know how you’re doing.”
Okay, I’ll do that,” I said as I exited his car, having no intentions of dropping him a line. “Thanks for the ride.”
He waved and then drove away. I ducked into a gas station and bought a Gatorade to quench my thirst. It was my first purchase since I had left, and although I was reluctant to spend my money, I needed as much nourishment as possible. It felt good going down. I walked back to the interstate from Como and began marching north again. Another day had come and gone, and it was time to pitch camp for the night. I scribbled in my journal again and went to sleep in the woods beside the highway, hungry and tired.
The next morning was just like the one before it, hot and humid. My hair was oily and it hurt. My goatee was wiry and bleached a lighter brown than the hair under my cap. My neck, legs, and arms were as dark as a roofer’s, and I smelled like a bum. But it felt good. I started up the interstate after packing up and hadn’t walked but about a mile when a red tow truck pulled to the side of the road ahead of me. It was a newer model with a flatbed on the back. The driver stuck his head out and looked back at me.
“Where you goin?” he growled, through a rag-toothed smile.
I pointed north. “Wyoming.”
“Well, I’m going to Memphis if it’s any help to you.”
“Hell yeah, that’ll help a lot!” I threw my bag onto the back of the truck and climbed in. It was your typical redneck truck on the inside. The dashboard was covered with junk. Dip cans, cheap cigarette packs, receipts and beer cans littered the cab. It actually smelled worse than me inside that truck, but I didn’t care. I was getting another ride, and this one would be the longest yet.
“…Used to hitchhike all the time. You could do it back then. Now, not so much,” he said.
“I know. Nobody seems to wanna give me a ride,” I said.
“They’re all scared these days. Too many crazies out there. Know what I mean?” he said, looking at me out of the corner of his eye.
I looked at my reflection in the side view mirror. “Yeah, but I think everybody that hitchhikes is probably a little crazy in the first place. Ya know?”
He laughed. “You’re probably right.”
“Why’d you pick me up then?”
He just looked at me and shrugged. “I don’t know. You looked halfway decent. I didn’t really think nothin’ of it. It just felt like the right thing to do.”
I gave him a nod. “Well, I sure do appreciate it.”
“Aint no problem. Hell, take a nap if you want to.”
I nodded to him again and pulled my hat down over my face. Before I could even start dreaming, we were in Memphis.
“Where you want me to drop you off at?”
“Uh, I guess the bus station. Hey! Do they x-ray your bags there?” I asked.
“I don’t know. Why? You have a gun or something?” he asked half-seriously.
“Yeah, actually I do,” I said.
His eyes grew wide, and I could tell he was taken aback by my swift answer. I shut the door and waved to him. He shook his head and said, “Good luck, man.”
I was beginning to think that there was no such thing as good luck before scoring that ride. Hell, bad luck had put me in this situation in the first place. But if there is bad luck in this world, then there absolutely must be good luck…that whole Yin and Yang thing. So whatever misfortune I may have in this life will be rewarded with good fortune, either in this life or in the afterlife. Right?