Set Forth

By  |  June 13, 2017
The Great Lakes, Ohio, 1958 © Larry Fink, from the series The Beats The Great Lakes, Ohio, 1958 © Larry Fink, from the series The Beats

Thumbing with the founder of the Great Hitchhiking Race



A couple days after Christmas, he returned a slightly used chainsaw to Walmart, pocketed the refund, and picked up a jar of peanut butter, a loaf of bread, and a gallon of water. He also packed a pillow, extra socks, and, in case he got in a bind, his only valuable possession: a baseball autographed by Nolan Ryan. He glanced at the map and plotted a simple route: take I-20 East all the way to I-95 North, and simply turn left. Then he set out for Times Square without so much as telling his parents.

He spent the first night in a parking lot near Atlanta; it was snowing and all through the night trucks plowed around his car. The next morning, he took a shower at a truck stop, not realizing it wasn’t free; when he got out he was confronted and forced to pay. He pressed on. Late that night, he hit the D.C. Beltway. He parked at a Travelodge and stole a few hours soaking in the motel hot tub. He set up camp behind a stairwell but was discovered shortly after falling asleep. Exhausted and cold, his thoughts turned to Texas. Aaron almost always wears board shorts, even in winter, and the wind bit into his bare legs when he dropped a quarter into a payphone to call home and let his mother know that he was safe. 

 

Van was an oil boomtown in the early twentieth century and is now just a dot on the map east of Dallas, known outside of Texas, if at all, for the tornado that blew directly through the town’s center on Mother’s Day, 2015, killing two and injuring dozens. It’s also the starting point for the Great Hitchhiking Race, an eight-hundred-fifty-mile teamed interstate dash that ends at the top of a remote waterfall in North Carolina. Aaron Bell has conducted the race every summer since its founding in 2006. 

Growing up in Van in the eighties and nineties, Aaron was the middle child of a single-parent family in which everyone was expected to contribute. He and his brother and sister were raised by their mother, Vicki, but their father, a U.S. Marine who lived in a different town, maintained a disciplinary influence. Aaron was always clever and enterprising. He was a tennis player and he learned how to restring rackets. At fourteen, he set up a profitable service collecting sawdust from a cabinet shop and selling it to flea market vendors after rains to spread around their muddy stalls. Aaron never drank alcohol or experimented with drugs. But that didn’t mean he followed every rule. His long blond hair and penchant for wearing sandals flouted the dress code at his high school. He refused to obey rules he considered stupid or petty and was suspended often. By senior year, he was sick of his small town and his legs bounced with restless energy to get away. 

Today, Aaron lives on a tree-lined street in Austin with his wife, Darby. He makes a living managing properties, but his real work, his vocation, is extreme traveling. He has spent half his life going around the world in or on other people’s cars, rigs, pickups, motorcycles, limos, sailboats, and animal-driven carts, in more than fifty countries. The semiformal Great Hitchhiking Race is a natural extension of his character: each spring, Aaron puts out a call on Facebook—some years publicizing it broadly, others less so—and whoever shows up at his house in July is welcome to play. They then road trip upstate to Van for the prerace ceremonies. Teams are picked randomly and the coveted highway starting positions are decided via a field day of kickball, agility games, and a home run derby at the high school football stadium. There are few rules to the race: Teams can take any route and any number of rides. Riders are allowed to drive, but they must not pay for gas. No calling the cops on another team. The first team to take a photo of themselves at the top of Rainbow Falls on the Horsepasture River in the Pisgah National Forest near Brevard, North Carolina, wins. According to the founder, “Our mission is to teach people how to hitchhike in the most fun way possible—and then afterwards play in a wonderland of waterfalls.”

Every time Aaron goes out on an adventure Vicki will “pray over him,” she says, by reading Psalm 91:11: “For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways.” She recited the verse for me in Van before the start of the race last summer, then she paused and smiled. “And that’s exactly what happened in New York.”

 

After assuring his mom that he was okay, Aaron tried sleeping in a Waffle House booth but was kicked out. He spent the night in Washington under an electric blanket in his car, parked behind a Burger King with his extension cord plugged into an outlet below the drive-thru window. In the morning, he headed for the National Mall to view the memorials. He had never liked his high school “Vandals” letterman jacket but considered it a godsend when he discovered it stashed in his trunk that day. 

Aaron left Washington after one afternoon. He didn’t prepare for the I-95 tolls, but he had collected enough coins off the ground in D.C. to cover his way. He was down to his last few cents when the Manhattan skyline finally rose into view. Aaron had never traveled without family before, never been far from the comforts of home, and the approach into New York City was thrilling. Suddenly, Aaron heard a loud blast, then he was blinded by a cloud of white smoke. A dashboard warning light came on. He pulled over on the inside lane. 

Traffic was heavy and cars passed slowly. The Honda’s front end billowed smoke like a chimney while Aaron stood by, bewildered. Some drivers offered phones, but Aaron didn’t know anyone in New York. He had just popped the hood when a van pulled over. On the side it said: GUARDIAN ANGELS

The driver was a middle-aged man, a native New Yorker from the sound of his voice, wearing a red jacket and red beret. He could tell right away that the car’s hissing radiator was beyond repair. Realizing the boy had nowhere to go, he offered Aaron a seat in the van. It was full of volunteers from the Guardian Angels, a group of crime-fighting vigilantes founded in Hell’s Kitchen in 1979 that now has chapters around the world. The driver was Curtis Sliwa, the organization’s founder. “Don’t worry about your car, kid,” Sliwa said. “We’ll take care of it.” It was December 30 and New Year’s Eve was their busiest night of the year. They were headed to a gym near Times Square. By the time Aaron remembered his Nolan Ryan ball, it was too late.

At the gym, the Guardian Angels led Aaron through a room where they kept practice weapons like nunchucks and swords. They gave him the nickname “Tex,” along with a red jacket and beret and some floor space where he could crash. That night, Aaron was dreaming when someone yelled, “Red Alert!” Wearing his new jacket and beret with his shorts, he followed the others to a pizza restaurant, where a group of Crips had set up three-card Monte outside and were scamming tourists. The manager of the pizzeria had called the Guardian Angels instead of the NYPD. 

The lead Angel walked up and kicked the cardboard boxes being used as tables. He was ripping them up when someone pulled a knife. “Go ahead, cut my throat!” the Angel yelled, his hands behind his back. “Let me see you do it!” 

Aaron “hung back,” as he explains it now, on that first job. But he later joined the Angels on subway patrols and even made a citizen’s arrest after wrestling an abusive guy through piles of garbage. For the night of New Year’s Eve, he was assigned to a steakhouse. He patrolled the restaurant for an hour or two but decided that he hadn’t come that far to be a security guard without even a view of the festivities outside. He told the manager that he couldn’t stay.

In the streets, Aaron met other revelers. He made it to Times Square, where he watched MTV filming behind huge studio windows. He saw Mayor Giuliani walk by on the street. He stayed up until dawn. 

Meanwhile, back in Texas, Vicki had told everyone at church that Aaron was in New York fighting with a group called the “Something Angels.” The parishioners reckoned that he’d joined the Hell’s Angels and was in serious danger. Everyone pitched in to buy him a plane ticket home. Vicki picked him up in Dallas a few days later and Aaron returned to school. 

But Aaron was a legal adult and he had tasted freedom’s sweet nectar. A few months later, restless and carless, he decided to try hitchhiking. A friend in Atlanta had invited him to go hiking. Having agreed after the New York debacle to notify his parents before future adventures, he asked his mother to drop him off at the interstate rest stop. Vicki didn’t think anyone would pick him up, so she decided to humor her son. When she came back two hours later to check on him, he was gone.

  

Since the invention of the wheel, people have been hitching rides. History, however, has not always been kind to those who do. Beatniks may have romanticized the itinerant lifestyle, but drifters today are mostly demonized. Hobo, tramp, vagabond—the words we use for a person who has no car, no “ride” of their own, imply people who may be dangerous, untrustworthy, or sketchy. In fact, the earliest known use of the word “vagabond” was a warning: “[T]hey that be vagabonde, dyscourse hem nat,” cautioned a fourteenth-century monk. In many states, it’s now against the law to stand on the shoulder of the highway with a thumb held out.

The word “hitch-hike” itself appeared in the 1920s, evolving out of the older terms “hitch a ride” and “hobo-hike.” In 1922, the Baltimore Evening Sun lamented that there was “no rest for the weary lexicographer. . . . Today we learn that two young ladies set forth on a ‘hitch-hike.’ What a word, what a word!” The Los Angeles Times picked up the story from the AP wire:

The Misses Jessica and Marcia McManus reached Syracuse [New York] yesterday from California, hitch-hiking their way to college. Escorting and chaperoning each other, they have come from San Francisco in two months, walking and riding as necessity dictated and opportunity offered. 

I’ve always admired those brave enough to surf the roads of the world, and I was delighted to discover that one of the earliest documented “hitch-hikers” hailed from my corner. He appears in a 1923 edition of the News Journal of Wilmington, Delaware: Harold E. Steer, who journeyed from Pennsylvania to Georgia to attend the International Kiwanis Convention. (Headline: HITCH-HIKING KIWANIAN REPORTS ATLANTA ARRIVAL.) From the article, I learned something surprising: nearly as old as the word “hitch-hike” is the idea of doing it for fun, or at least when you don’t really have to be doing it. 

Mr. Steer stated he traveled 1,237 miles in 9 days o f which he walked 33 miles, and had 44 rides. Mr. Steer is a hitchhiker of Scranton, Pa., and was at the charter presentation meeting of Kiwanis, May 22, enrout from Scranton to Atlanta. 

I couldn’t track down any other information about Mr. Steer, whose surname happens to be the thing that hitchhikers are least known for. I’m from Lehighton, Pennsylvania, about fifty miles from Scranton, where he started out on his epic forty-four-rider. There are laws that prohibit hitchhiking there now, as there were when I was growing up. I saw maybe two hitchhikers during the eighteen years I lived there. But it may have been partly my inability to see them. My grandfather told me that he picked up hitchhikers all the time. For that Korean War generation, hitching didn’t carry the same stigma. It was just utilitarian. And my grandfather liked freaks, he suffered fools. I’d like to think that something of the same spirit was in Harold Steer.

During the First World War, picking up soldiers home on furlough was seen as a kind of civic duty. Society was open to it at the time, even if, before Steer, we lacked a unified term. When J. K. Christian, a Chicago real estate dealer, traveled 3,023 miles begging rides in 1921, the New York Times described his mode as “asking ‘lifts’ from passing autoists.” In recurring Saturday Evening Post short stories, two 1920s flappers named Zula and Elise went “hitching and hailing” across the country. In 1927, a poem appeared at the top of a column called “Along Life’s Detour” in the Cincinnati Enquirer:

We roast the kids for doing it,
But it can’t be denied.
Most of us often wish we had
The nerve to ‘thumb’ a ride.

So why, by 1938, did seventeen states have laws on the books prohibiting hitchhiking? When did our fear of wayfaring strangers replace our sense of duty to our fellow humans? When FDR announced in his inaugural address that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” he was trying to reassure a devastated nation, one in which “only a foolish optimist can deny the dark realities” of the Great Depression. Not quite the environment for putting one’s confidence in strangers. Yet that, according to Aaron, is exactly what hitching inspires. “Trusting in humanity,” he calls it. And maybe now, in such a fractured historical moment for our country, a little old-fashioned vagabonding could go some way toward much-needed interpersonal discourse. When we hitch, we make ourselves vulnerable. We get to know unfamiliar people, and it allows for a kind of unpredictable magic.  

 

The grass was up to my waist as I crouched down on the side of Interstate 20 a few miles outside of Van. Insects buzzed around my head, and I tried not to look for snakes or ticks. Instead, I alternated my gaze between the blue sky and the man and woman standing on the shoulder of the eastbound lane, my teammates. Darby held a sign that read simply, ATLANTA. Aaron’s sign was more elaborate; on the back, he pasted photographs that showed people sliding down waterfalls, which he’d use to explain the race when speaking with a driver. I was forty yards behind them, out of sight of the oncoming cars, guarding a pile of packs. It was 7:45 A.M. and traffic was sporadic. The 2016 Great Hitchhiking Race was underway, and we were hoping our first ride would take us well out of Texas.

We were one of three teams who’d been dropped off along this stretch of highway, separated from one another by a mile or so of road. As the middle group, we had an advantage, according to Aaron. “If a driver hesitates after passing the first team,” he said, “maybe even considers backtracking to help them out, they see us.” 

It was the eleventh annual race, and Aaron had built up an obscure body of knowledge on effective hitchhiking methods. “Signs are incredibly important,” he told me, “because drivers who know where you’re going have one less reason not to stop. Location is also key. A two-lane highway is better than any with three lanes or four. Each is another obstacle for a driver to cross. Drivers should be able to see you for as long as possible. Avoid congestion, even if it means taking public transportation to the outskirts of a city first before starting to hitch. Never take a ride into any downtown unless you already have a way out, and always look around inside the vehicle and spend a little time talking to the driver before committing. If there are beer bottles on the floor, or the driver’s teeth look cracked out, don’t get in. If they’re only going thirty, forty minutes, you’re better off waiting for a longer ride. If a cop comes, be respectful. Say it’s a race.”

A few people waved while speeding by, but forty-five minutes passed before a white SUV with Alabama plates pulled over. I stayed low as Aaron chatted with the driver before waving to us. The trunk opened and we stuffed in our packs. 

Our driver was Justin, a young African-American lawyer specializing in international civil rights with the Air Force. He wore dark-rimmed glasses and a long beanie-style hat, almost like a Santa Claus cap. He was on his way to Montgomery for training and became curious after first seeing Nick and Jasmine on the highway before us. “I was just getting ready to circle back,” Justin said, “when I noticed you.” 

The sky darkened up ahead, threatening rain. Aaron snapped a group selfie and sent it to the other teams. “So long, suckas!” 

We crossed into Louisiana at 9:32 A.M. Aaron checked the map on his phone, looking for a strategic drop-off point in Alabama. He liked a place called Leeds. It was about as far east as Justin could take us without losing a direct route south to his base. Justin had become excited about our race and was willing to drive an hour out of his way to help us improve our position. That was the best thing that could happen, for the driver to get invested.

 

After graduating from high school, Aaron went to North Greenville University in South Carolina on a tennis scholarship, majoring in communications, but whenever class was out he drifted back to the road. His traveling methods had grown more sophisticated, and more random: he would find the cheapest plane ticket from anywhere in the United States to anywhere in Europe, then hitch across the country to catch the flight; or scour dumpsters during a travel promotion to earn free flights; or collect the used textbooks that his school’s store didn’t want to buy back at the end of the semester and sell them at a neighboring college. He was gone so often, and he had so little money, that his friends and family were constantly worried about him. 

But, in the manner of the classic vagabonds, from Kerouac to Christopher McCandless, Aaron had found a way of life on the go. He’d unrolled his sleeping bag on the roof of a remote rest stop to avoid wolves. He’d been “adopted for the day” by older folks wishing to repay their own debts to the road. He was once picked up by the same driver twice, three months apart and in opposite directions, commuting between Kansas and Oregon. (The second time, he helped the driver, a repairman, on a job.) And when he came back with stories about the everyday kindnesses of people across the country, or in Asia, or Central America, his friends became more open-minded. A few even asked to join him, and Aaron agreed. He would start by bringing them along to his favorite place, a series of pristine waterfalls in the North Carolina mountains, sixty miles west of NGU.  

Darby met Aaron when he was an undergrad, after he transferred to Abilene Christian University, where she was an admissions counselor. “Aaron was one of the icons on campus,” she told me. “He cofounded the Night Riders, a group of students who met every Tuesday night to ride bicycles together.” The group became known for disrupting fraternity-sponsored events on bikes decorated likeparade floats. She became their staff sponsor.  

Aaron went on to graduate school in Kansas, and Darby moved to New Zealand, but they kept in touch, often comparing adventure notes. “When I moved back to Texas,” she said, “I saved up all my vacation days from my first job to compete in the race.” It later gave her the confidence to hitch alone across five states to her brother’s wedding. 

Many of the people the Great Hitchhiking Race attracts have been personally touched by Aaron Bell. Some heard his presentation about traveling cheap at REI. Others have passed through his network of properties, Fun House Austin, for people who want fully furnished, month-to-month places that also include a built-in network of friends and activities, including a sports league. 

Last summer, almost half of the participants were Aaron’s tenants, including my fellow first-timer Nick, who works in marketing for Sir Kensington’s organic condiments. Nick’s teammate was Jasmine, a National Park ranger from California and a four-time race veteran. One year, her team was first to arrive at the trailhead of Gorges State Park in North Carolina, but members of her team had been overtaken in a footrace to the top of Rainbow Falls. She considers the result to be still under dispute. 

And there was Trey, a native of Wortham, Texas, which he explained was also the home of blues legend Blind Lemon Jefferson. Trey hustles all manner of seasonal employment: peddling fireworks around the Fourth of July, pumpkins in the fall. He had the habit of making drum machine sounds spontaneously with his mouth. “I’m training to upset the Guinness Book of World Records champion,” he said. I looked it up: “Longest marathon human beat-box.” The current record holder lasted 25.5 hours. 

Our returning champion was Dan, a serial traveler known to carry a bag of gummy bears in his pack for handing out at low moments. Dan is a marketing manager for a company that helps vendors set up online stores; with the freedom to work from anywhere, he tends to move among places as varied as Berlin and Chiang Mai. He made an entrance at Aaron and Darby’s house by walking in with “Eye of the Tiger” playing from a portable speaker, his 2015 winner’s medal around his neck. The awards, a wooden circle enclosed around an outstretched thumb, were hand-carved by a driver named Dave, who picked up Aaron’s team in 2014. After dropping them off near Mobile, Alabama, Dave had immediately gone home and sketched a design. “Up until meeting Dave,” Aaron told me, “first place just meant bragging rights and the best campsite.”

 

Justin dropped us off late in the afternoon at a gas station outside of Leeds, Alabama. As soon as we got out, we began to huff it back along the shoulder to the on-ramp. Darby giggled watching me try to keep the wind from blowing my sign for SOUTH CAROLINA back in my face. A cop had pulled over a car about a mile ahead and traffic was backed up in the westbound lanes due to an accident, so there were blue lights in both directions. Aaron suggested I hide in a nearby ditch with our packs. 

Before long a small white pickup stopped. “Y’all married?” the driver asked. 

Aaron said yes and began his spiel about the race, explaining how there were actually three of us, and pointed in my direction. The guy flinched when he saw me wave hello from the trees. 

“Got any money for gas?” he asked. 

“No, I’m sorry,” Aaron said, “it’s against the rules to pay for gas.” 

“Y’all be blessed,” the man said, before driving away. 

Just after five o’clock, a full-size pickup pulled over.

“I wouldn’t have stopped if it weren’t for the sign,” the driver said as we tossed our gear in the back and climbed in. Martin was heading to South Carolina for a job in the morning. He pushed his OnStar button to find out how far our finish-line would be out of his way, but the operator’s computer couldn’t locate his signal. 

“George’s State Park?” the operator asked.

“No, Gorges,” Martin said, and they went back and forth like that a few times. 

Aaron sent Darby and me a surreptitious message: “I need all team on board. This IS our final ride. We need to stay on the game. Lots of stories, excitement. Other team is 5 min behind, etc.” 

During the prerace ceremonies in Van, Aaron had everyone download a tracking app and exchange phone numbers so we could share updates and trash talk along the way. I knew from the app that Trey and Dan were in second place, about an hour behind us, but I asked aloud how close they were, to set Aaron up. “Ten, fifteen minutes,” he said. Martin immediately moved into the passing lane. 

Martin wore a camo Atlanta Braves hat and spit tobacco into a Styrofoam cup. He sang along to the music of Type O Negative, a band that looks and sounds like vampires. (“I saw the lead singer once in Arkansas, and he was like twelve feet tall,” Martin said, before singing, “Her perfume smells like, burning leaves . . .”) Martin claimed to be the only GITMO Marine to never drink a drop of beer in his life. Back home in Arkansas, he told us, he owned eighteen hundred acres covered with catfish ponds “so full you just throw in a bucket of feed and watch the water boil.” 

A sign welcomed us to Georgia at 6:08 P.M.

“We are about to pass the hardest part of the race,” Aaron said as we approached Atlanta. He was talking about the switch from I-20 to the I-285 bypass. If Martin had been stopping in Atlanta, he noted, we would have asked him to let us out at the Alabama state line. Martin had given up on OnStar and asked Aaron to type our destination into the GPS mounted on the dashboard. We passed into South Carolina at 8:21. 

The music auto-dimmed as Martin’s phone rang through his speakers. His father was calling from Arkansas.

“Hi, Dad,” he answered. 

“How’s it going?” his father asked. “How’s your hotel?” 

“I didn’t make it there yet. I picked up some hitchhikers.” 

“What? Now why would you—” 

Martin switched off speaker and put the phone to his ear. 

“No, they’re nice people,” he said. “They’re on a race. I’m about to drop them off.” There was a pause. “Alright, Daddy, I’ll call you when I get there.” He hung up. 

“How close are Dan and Trey?” I asked, sensing the need to fill the void. 

“Gaining,” Aaron said, “but that’s only because we’re on these windy mountain roads. As long as we don’t get a flat tire or anything . . .”

“Thanks again, Martin,” Darby said. “You’re really coming through for us.”

 

Two rides. 865 miles. Fifteen hours. Martin dropped us off at the entrance of the park at 10:41. The road was dark. The gate, chained. We thanked him, and he posed for a picture with us by his truck. 

We descended a few miles down a dark trail, dropping glowsticks for the teams behind us as we went. The sound of the river amplified. When we got down to the waterfall, we were greeted by a ring of fire. A couple of Aaron and Darby’s friends had set up a camp lined with tiki torches. They had both participated in an earlier race and later married, and this year they’d come ahead of time to be there to congratulate the winners—us. 

Dan and Trey arrived about an hour later with Marissa, the woman who’d picked them up in Texas. One ride. Marissa was on her way to visit family in South Carolina, and she and Dan had discovered they had Facebook friends in common. She already had camping gear in her car, so she decided to join us. She’d heard how fun it was to slide over Turtleback Falls nearby. 

So, there are hitchhikers, and there are the people who pick up hitchhikers, and they form a community—sometimes. 

Nick and Jasmine trickled in the next morning. Their first driver had been willing to take them all the way, but when he started quaffing tequila straight from the bottle as he drove, they decided to bail. “The more he drank,” Jasmine said, “the more he talked about his three guns.”

That night at camp we sat around the fire and traded stories. The flickering tableau reminded me of Kerouac, whom I—like so many others—had discovered as a freshman in college. I was sitting in a similar circle of friends when a new guy sat down and asked what I was studying. When I said English, he asked if I’d ever read On the Road, and his mention of the title lit up the face of a girl I had been crushing on all night. . . . the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved . . . At that point in my life I had rarely been outside of Pennsylvania, but Sal and Dean inspired me to crack that shell. I got lost in Europe and Australia for a while. I wasn’t as extreme as Aaron, but I also wasn’t straightedge. Reading Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, I sought enlightenment on group mattresses guzzling skid-row wine. It wasn’t pure and the road spit me out. That was two decades ago. I’m wiser now. 

After a few days frolicking around Rainbow Falls, many of last year’s Great Hitchhiking Race participants left the same way they’d come. Nick and Trey had to get back to Austin for work, so they hitched together, all the way to Van, where their cars were waiting. Dan hiked out of the woods alone and thumbed his way to the Atlanta airport; a day later, Jasmine did the same. Aaron and Darby hung back. They wanted to spend more time in the woods. I don’t know how long they stayed. As I write this, Aaron is in the middle of the Caribbean on a sailboat with some other friends.

 

Preaching what he called the “gospel of beauty,” the poet Vachel Lindsay was known to take long walks across the country, bartering his self-published pamphlet Rhymes to Be Traded for Bread. He was suspicious of the advent of cars, but he did discover one positive about them, as he wrote in a 1914 travelogue:

When the weather is good, touring automobiles whiz past. . . . About five o’clock in the evening some man making a local trip is apt to come along alone. He it is that wants the other side of his machine weighed down. He it is that will offer me a ride and spin me along from five to twenty-five miles before supper. This delightful use that may be made of an automobile in rounding out a day’s walk has had something to do with mending my prejudice against it, despite the grand airs of the tourists that whirl by at midday. I still maintain that the auto is a carnal institution, to be shunned by the truly spiritual, but there are times when I, for one, get tired of being spiritual.

Of course, whether one is hitchhiking as a necessary means of conveyance, in a cross-country race, or simply for a thrill, a hitcher is just a person standing on the side of the road with his thumb in the air until he gets that ride. 

I remember an incident from the day before the race, when we were driving from Aaron and Darby’s house in Austin up to Van. We had passed a hitchhiker—driven by without picking him up. He was a middle-aged black guy wearing coverall jeans and a white t-shirt. We were on a country road. Trey was driving. I didn’t say anything, but Aaron did. “Why didn’t you stop, man? That’s bad race karma.” 

Aaron sent a text to the other car, behind us, and they stopped for the man. He was only going a few minutes up the road. 


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Joel Finsel is the author of two books, one of which, a bartending memoir titled Cocktails and Conversations, was recently turned into a play by Theater Now in Wilmington, North Carolina. He is writing a book about the lost pharmaceutical history of the cocktail.