Gary Thompson, The Great American Drifter
WHEN I LEFT LAS VEGAS FOR CHICAGO, I had this incredible plan to drive for two weeks straight. Cut through the country. Find something interesting. First, San Diego, where I’d visit with old friends and their new baby. Then, L.A. for more old friends and new bars. At that point, I’d be on my own for fourteen days as I drove along Highway 1 to San Francisco, then into Oregon, swing by Crater Lake; Ketchum, Idaho where Hemmingway blew his brains out; Big Sky Country; check out the Badlands and Mount Rushmore; grab some cheese in Wisconsin; Chicago, just in time to hit Cubs game day traffic.
I made it as far as a night in San Francisco before I grew bored with my own company and anxious to get to my new home. Rather than continue north, I picked up I-80 and headed straight east.
It was just after I fueled up, not long after dawn somewhere before Lincoln, Nebraska that I met Gary Thompson. I’d been pushing through exhaustion in an effort to park the damn car in Chicago as fast as I could, and my brain had begun to play tricks on me. Hallucinations of demonic 18-wheelers and Dali-like road signs kept my boredom interesting. The fog hanging over the highway was an added perk.
I saw a hint of him on the shoulder maybe half a mile ahead. As I got closer, he seemed to materialize more and more, taking on the different shapes of men I had known — fat ones, skinny ones, tall ones, short ones, old ones, young ones; men who had held me, loved me, punished me, praised me, ignored me, thought little of me, thought he world of me — before finally settling on the one I saw clearly when he stuck his head in my passenger window after I pulled over and rolled down the glass.
He was average height. His hair was mostly gray but there were remnants of a more youthful blond. It looked like he hadn’t had a bath in three months. His face was weathered and kind. His eyes looked tired but honest. His voice sounded hoarse but genuine and calm.
“How do you know I’m not going to kill you?” he said to me.
“How do you know I’m not going to kill you?” I said back.
We looked at each other a moment before he said, “Well, hell. Birds of a feather.”
“You want a lift?”
My car was stuffed to the hilt with the necessities for my new Chicago life—books, jeans, blazers socks, shoes and contact lens solution. The hitchhiker peered in. “You sure you got room?”
“We’ll make room. How much you carrying?”
“Just this bag.” A ratty green duffle. Standard U.S. Army issue. It took some feats of engineering and all my skills developed from years of playing Tetris on Game Boy, but we made his bag fit into my crowded Volkswagen Golf.
I asked him where he was headed.
“Not sure. How far you goin’?”
“I’ll eventually end up in Chicago,” I said.
He asked me if I’d ever been to St. Louis. I had. Once. I told him the arch was nice. That must have sold him because he decided that’s where he’d go. I said I’d take him as far as Cedar Rapids. He could catch a ride south from there.
GARY THOMPSON'S HITCHHIKING JOURNEY STARTED in Great Falls, Montana where he grew up. He left home the day after he turned eighteen with thirty dollars in birthday money to his name. He used the kindness of strangers and the filth of Greyhound busses to get to Los Angeles where he was determined to become an actor. He became frustrated after a year of attaching self-taken Polaroid headshots to his acting resume, which consisted of two high school productions—Annie and Pippen—and never getting called back from a single audition. He joined the army, spent a few years in Germany before getting his discharge papers, returned to the states—New York this time—and tried his hand at being a writer. Germany, he said, provided him with a million stories to tell. But that didn’t work out either.
Broken and broke, he became the classic American drifter. “If I couldn’t make a living out of acting some great part or writing some great story, I figured I’d be best just to become the part of the story,” he said.
“What’s great about being a drifter?” I asked.
“I don’t have to pay taxes.”
We talked about Germany and he told me about a beautiful fräulein he nearly married. She worked as a waitress in a small café just off the base. However, her father was a soldier during the Second World War and still had a grudge against American military men. Gary suggested they run away, but she couldn’t bring herself to leave her mother behind. He offered to bring the mother with them. In the end, he said, it was for the best. He would have just let her down anyway.
“That’s no way to talk,” I said. “Who knows, maybe she would have been your muse. Maybe she would have inspired you to write the next—”
“What? Great American Novel?” he interrupted me. “My muse was my rent, my grumbling stomach. I’m not being pessimistic; I’m being realistic! I’ve always been better off on my own anyway.”
I felt a kinship to this guy. I, too, had always felt that without the trappings of relationships — the weight of accountability to someone else — I could do much more. Yet, there I was, afraid to be by myself for two weeks on a chicken run to the fray of a new life unknown. Riding shotgun was a guy who also preferred solitude but would still be stuck on a Great Falls road if it weren’t for other people offering up a little bit of their company.
Gary filled the time with more stories of people he’d met along the way. The truckers, the barflies, the hobos, and the cops. Years ago, in Reno, he was nearly arrested for sneaking into a Rolling Stones concert disguised as a roadie then rushing the stage and giving Jagger a hug during Beast of Burden. I didn’t believe that actually happened, but there was no way I could disprove it in the car.
He didn’t strike me as a liar. Gary Thompson struck me as a guy who was one of the Silent Generation’s forgotten children; too young to fight in Korea, too old for Vietnam. He was a victim of the 1950s Americana Marketing Machine. He believed in the American Dream and sought it out without concern for preparedness and talent. Desire was enough for Gary. And even in his failed attempts at being the next Paul Newman or Allan Ginsburg, he still had that strange hope that he’d achieve some kind of immortal legacy that would go on to shape the future of his great country simply by being alive and well, and making his way from car to car and town to town. He would, perhaps, become a living legend.
I KEPT TRYING TO GET A GOOD LOOK AT HIS FACE. But when minding the wheel of a hatchback traveling ninety on the interstate, it’s best to keep the eyes on the road. And it just so happened that every time I saw Gary turn toward me from my peripheral, he’d be back in profile the moment I turned my head. I wanted to see his eyes again. I wanted to know if he was smirking as we swapped stories back and forth.
Was he messing with me? Did he appear on the roadside for me to pick up only so he could put my life into perspective? I’d never picked up a hitchhiker before. Why then? Why that day? I, too, was chasing down the American Dream. I was moving to Chicago to advance my career, maybe get married, have a few kids to resent, and retire with money in the bank before being eaten alive by cancer just off the coast of Cuba on a simple sloop. Gary’s stories were making me regret not sticking to my original plan of road tripping home rather than just driving there. Where I thought my dream would be realized by responsibility, Gary was subtly making the case that the best-laid plans were too often stuff of dreams deferred.
Jesus, was he even real? I was tired. Maybe I was hallucinating all of it.
WE ARRIVED IN CEDAR RAPIDS and our four-hour friendship was over. I dropped him off at the Greyhound station. I gave him a few bucks so he could grab lunch. It was either that, or give him an awkward hug — I wasn’t clear on the social protocol for bidding friendly drifters farewell.
Before I got back in my car to leave, Gary turned to me and said, “You know, I have been to St. Louis before. But I didn’t get a chance to see the arch up close and personal.”
“It’ll blow your mind,” I said. I got in the car and closed the door. “Take care, Gary.”
“You, too, man. And hey, if you’re going to be a writer in Chicago, maybe you’ll write a story about me. Gary Thompson, The Great American Drifter.”
I laughed and pulled out my digital camera to take a photo of him. “We’ll see about that, Gary. Be safe out there.”
The photo didn’t turn out. His face was blurred. And now every time I’m on the road, I’m keeping an eye out for Gary Thompson, The Great American Drifter.
I plan on completing my tour of the northern states and will begin where I left off in San Francisco. But I’ll get there by retracing the road Gary and I shared. Maybe if I’m hallucinating enough or if he wants to head back to California’s warmer weather, I’ll see him on the shoulder with his old duffle and his mussed blond-to-gray hair. I hope so. Because I’d like to take another photo of him. And I’d like him to tell me that Jagger story again to see if it has any holes I can poke through.