Driving with Ducky

February 25, 2009

This story is excerpted from “Kenny Goes to Jail,” a story I wrote about my adventures in the beginning of February. Again, if you email me, I’ll send you the whole story. For now, here’s Driving with Ducky, a story of hitchhiking.

As it turned out, I made it only about 20 miles out of SLO before I passed a scruffy-looking man with a backpack and a sign that said “SOUTH.” I always try to help a fellow adventurer, so I pulled over and waited for him to walk up. Plus, it had only taken 20 miles for me to realize that I wasn’t ready to be alone quite yet.

A hitchhiker sounded like just what I needed. If you’ve never picked up a stranger in need of a ride, there’s a whole unwritten routine that both driver and rider go through to decide if they want to team up for a spell. It goes a bit like this: first, the driver watches in the mirror as the rider walks, not slowly but unthreateningly, up to the vehicle from behind. Once the rider is within shouting distance, the driver will lean out his window and yell back a greeting, usually “Howdy!” or something along that line. The rider will wave, smile, and shout “where you headed?” and so on. The whole idea is for both people to scout out their potential partner, and to assure the other that they aren’t some sort of psycho-rapist-serial killer. I try to add one step to this bullshit routine, because it usually breaks the ice, and honestly, it’s the only real anti-crazy test I can think of.

“Hey man, one more thing before you hop in,” I say. “You’re not one of those crazy, rapey, stabby types, are you?”

“That depends,” He smiled back, “Are you one of those kidnappy molesty types?”

“Good enough for me.” And that’s how I met Ducky.

Turns out I got lucky. Ducky (all he gave me) was one of the most fascinating people I’ve ever picked up. As we rode along, I figured out a fair few things about him. He’s an ex-heroin fiend, clean for 3 years, but still scarred on the inside. He’s 28, and has been living on the road ever since he quit the junk and had to move away from his social circle to stay clean. His parents won’t take him back, but he was on his way down to San Diego to visit his mom because she was ill. He had a cell phone, and told me that he had health insurance as well, and when I pressed him on that he told me that in certain circles, he’s well known for his ability to start grow operations. He travels up and down the west coast teaching people how to grow drugs, and setting up operations. That was worth a few hours of conversation, let me tell you. Anyhow, he was fascinating transient, full of life, none too smelly, and a great storyteller. For my state of mind, he might as well have been dropped down in my path by Zeus. (Yeah, eat it Christianity, there’s other gods out there too!)

Let me cut out here for a second, and describe Ducky, because he’s a character who deserves a bit of fleshing out. He’s about my height, 5’8” or so, thick like a lacrosse player, with mid-length red hair and week’s red beard. He didn’t stink, so I assumed he’d showered at least in the past week, and his clothes, while old, struck me more as a tapestry of his travels then as a true last resort – they were covered in patches and old shirts, and sewn up all over. He wore an old red backpacking kit, and I could tell by a brief look that he meant business. Between the repair kit, the bedroll, his water bottles, sewing kit, pipe with holster, and collection of signs (North, South, West, East, etc) he looked like a professional hitchhiker more then a true bum. His piercings and tattoos fascinated me, and when I asked the history, he told me more about them than I could hope to recount here. In brief, he had 5 facial piercings, all from different cities across the states. None of them had been done in a parlor or by a professional. One he’d done himself while on heroin, the other had been done by friends. As for his tats, he had “FUCK” across the knuckles of his right hand, and “YEAH” across the right. Classy. He also had a handlebar mustache across the inside of his right index finger, and a teardrop on the inside of the left. When I asked about these, he put his right finger across his upper lip, and curled the left under his left eye. The suddenly mustached, crying Ducky made me laugh so hard I almost swerved lanes. He’s a character in every sense of the word.

Back to the story at hand: We made it to Santa Barbara by 4:30, and Ducky and I split ways for a bit. I tried to find some friends off work, but nobody was answering, and Ducky went to buy some food. A half-hour later, we were setting off to leave again, when Ducky gave me a sly smile and asked me to guess what he had found in Trader Joe’s. I shrugged, guessed “hot chicks?” and out of nowhere he pulls a small nug of weed. It was so unexpected I just laughed. He swore he really found it in the store, and in Santa Barbara I’d just barely believe it. We hung out in the parking lot until some old lady gave us a dirty look, and then we were off again. It felt so good being a degenerate again that I almost cried. The responsible adult lifestyle fits me like a suit from the big and tall store fits those guys who played the Oompa-Loompas. Give me adventure, a dash of tragedy, a pinch of bad decisions, and pepper it all with spontaneity, and I’m in heaven.

About half-way down the 126, we decided to detour to Venice Beach. Ducky had friends there, and I had gotten hold of Chad earlier and we’d talked of doing dinner when I was driving through Orange County. Besides, I was running myself ragged after the last couple days, and the last place I wanted to be was back home. Flying down the 5, Ducky smoked cigarettes and I told him about Kenny and jail and this whole story. He sympathized, and told me about the times he had been in jail, and beaten up, and treated like shit. I felt sorry for the guy – he had, by all accounts, had a terrible life thus far, but you’d never know it by looking at him. Perhaps that was the basis of his defense: keep cheerful, and people will just assume you’re fine and leave you alone. I do much the same, and I imagine it would work even better if I looked vaguely homeless. Still, I asked Ducky if he ever thought about changing his lifestyle, and he said he might join the Navy once he got to San Diego. Still, he worried that his tattoos and past might haunt him, and truth told I don’t know if they’d let a man with “Fuck Yeah” tattooed on his knuckles in – saluting would be an issue for sure. Still, after a couple hours talking, I felt like Ducky wasn’t bullshitting me, and really wanted to join. Maybe I was just hopeful.

In Venice, Ducky and I parted ways, and I went to take a piss in an alley off the boardwalk. By the time I got back, Ducky was gone forever, and I pressed on to Garden Grove feeling suddenly alone, but exhilarated to have made a new friend in this lonely world. Sometimes we just run into the people we need most at the time, and that was one of those days. Looking back now at the camera phone picture I snapped of him, it’s all blurry and out of focus. Seems like Ducky only exists in my head, just like most of the people I meet on adventures.


2 Responses to “Driving with Ducky”

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