I can't believe I chickened out of taking a sweat with Tom Yellowtail, one of the most famous Medicine Men in the country


BRITISH COLUMBIA TO NEW ORLEANS... on FORTY DOLLARS ?



This is an extract from one of my stories. It begins with Sara and I in Kelowna,in the Lake District of British Columbia in August of 1992.

'Tinytown' the campground was called, and it was a bloody rough place. But Sara and I were both almost broke, and we couldn't really afford to consider any other form of accommodation. Unfortunately, my little tent was only built for one, so I had somehow come up with the idea to make us a tent. Well did we get some funny looks as we set to work with three nylon tarpaulins, two adjustable poles, fifty feet of nylon cord and fifty feet of silver duct tape.

After just a couple of minutes, a call came from across the potholed dirt driveway;

"We've got a spare two man tent if you want to borrow it."

"No thanks, mate. We'll be fine, but thanks anyway."

It wasn't long before I wished that my pride hadn't stopped me from accepting his offer. I think Sara felt the same way,cause she was looking pretty frustrated as I bumbled along with my tentmaking, tying myself in knots and getting the tape stuck to the hair on my legs. I guess it was almost an hour later when we could stand back and admire my creation. It was great! It had a large vestibule at one end for luggage storage. I left it open at the other end, because that end was only a couple of feet from a solid hedge which provided enough privacy. It was sturdy, secured to the ground at ten points. It was potentially waterproof, sealed with all that thick silver tape. And it was more than spacious enough for two.

"Well I ain't never seen nothin' like that!" said the huge man who had offered us his tent. "You folks want a beer?" There was only one answer to that question, and that was my first Canadian beer- Kokanee. Willy told us it was "the best f**kin' beer in the world." We agreed wholeheartedly

Tinytown lived up to its seedy reputation. There was our neighbour, a friendly but kind of ordinary looking girl who had pitched her tent a little too close to ours.

Most days, she had a few male visitors. They usually only visited for about half an hour or so, and the noises from her tent left no doubt as to the nature of the visit. Then there was the morning when I visited the toilet, instinctively walking right past the always blocked, overflowing stagnant stench of the urinal, and hoping to find one functioning toilet. Blood ...everywhere! Drying in pools on the floor, splashed up the walls on both sides, and smeared like fingerpainting on the door of one of the cubicles. If it was anywhere else but Tinytown, I would have panicked, or at least been concerned. I found a toilet which was in slightly less disgusting condition than the others, and wondered what all the blood was about.

Our 'pal' Willy told us later that 'Ghostie' or 'Moose' or someone
with a name like that, had gone crazy the night before and hacked into his mate's head with a tomahawk.

"Is he all right?" Sara asked uneasily.

"Oh, yeah. Spit took 'im ta th'ospital. 'e'll be okay."

The caretaker of Tinytown was, of all things, an Aussie. And what a fine ambassador to our great country he was. He lived in an old broken down bus near the front entrance. A handwritten sign on the door of his bus read 'Anyone who wakes me before 10:00am for any reason will be thrown out immediately' and another note below it, as if the first one had not been severe enough, added 'and will not get their deposit back.' Something about him always reminded me of Oscar the Grouch from Sesame Street. A scrawny, scruffy unwashed man who never wore a shirt, but probably should have, as it would've concealed the scabs that decorated his back, shoulders, upper arms and chest. He could always be found sitting next to a smoky little fire, with a cigarette sticking out of his hairy face. Sometimes, there would be a stream of dried blood ten centimetres long down his chest from where he'd picked one of his scabs. He was, at that time, undoubtedly the most disgusting and unpleasant man I'd ever met. In fact, I think he still is.

After twelve days in the Tinytown 'asylum', began another separation for Sara and me. She had made plans some time ago to do some travel with Jodie and Sally down through the States. A boyfriend is kind of inappropriate luggage to take on such a female bonding 'Boys On The Side' style trip, so we agreed to see each other in London in September. I planned to spend the next seven weeks hitching down to New Orleans, then along the west coast of Florida, and up the east coast to arrive in New York in time to catch my flight on September 22nd. I was expecting an $800 cheque from my bank account which was to arrive at the girls' uncle's place, but it hadn't turned up. So I left them instructions for readdressing it to General Delivery, Rapid City, South Dakota, and I hit the road with forty Canadian dollars in my pocket, no credit card and no travellers' cheques. Sara was concerned for me, and looking back, I wonder where my mind was, but at the time I didn't see it as being a problem.

The first few days, I spent almost nothing. In fact, I still had
thirty-five dollars left after five days. (I had found another ten dollars that Sara had hidden in my coffee mug.) The adventure
began with my third lift, heading south-east from Kamloops, still in the Okanagon. It was a young guy, a student on vacation, in a hand painted, multi coloured, early 70's Datsun station wagon. I laughed to myself at his rear windscreen, which was held in place by layer upon layer of silver duct tape. As we drove, I told him about the tent I had made, and we marvelled at the modern wonder that is duck tape.


Preparing for the long hike to Kokanee Glacier

He couldn't take me all that far, he said. He was actually
heading for Kokanee Glacier National Park on the border, to do some camping and hiking. If I wanted to, I could join him, and then in a couple of days, he could drop me in Couer d'Lane, Idaho. I'd tasted the beer, so I might as well climb the glacier. Besides, I wasn't in a hurry; my money wouldn't be in Rapid City for a few days yet. So we hiked and climbed and camped in the beautiful forests of Alberta for the next two days. At nine thousand feet, Kokanee Glacier was the highest I'd ever been, and the view from the ridge was endless. It was also the most dangerous climb I'd done. Tim tried to persuade me to hike with him across the glacier and down the other side. But there were warning signs everywhere, and some crevasses were visible, partly uncovered by the melting snow. Even the path we used on the descent was treacherous, with the rock crumbling underfoot.

The spectacular view from the top of Kokanee Glacier

The park ranger told us that an eight hundred pound grizzly had been sighted in a nearby section of the park, and that if it was seen any closer, the trails and the camping area would be closed. That made the whole thing feel a lot more adventurous. As Tim had promised, we arrived in his home town on Monday. He took me to his favourite 'brewpub', bought me a cheeseburger and a pitcher of his favourite beer, we exchanged addresses, and I hit the road.

I wasn't too comfortable with hitching after dark, so I found a gas station and decided to work from there, actually asking motorists for a lift while they're stopped. It wasn't long before I got a lift in the back of a truck, headed East to a town called Kellogg. I phoned the Banana Bungalow freecall number from the gas station. I was told that Cosmo is in Colorado; maybe I'll catch up with him.

I slept by the road that night, and made it to Billings the next day. I was having great luck hitching, and everyone who picked me up wanted to do something for me; buy me lunch, shout me a beer, get me stoned... well, except for the fat pig businessman who wanted me to do something for him. Then the next day somewhere between Billings and Sheridan, my day suddenly became very strange.

A couple of Indians in an old Landrover picked me up. I'd spent several hours stuck at a little nothing town called Broadus, so I was pleased to have a ride. They were friendly enough, and as it unfolded they were on their way to the Medicine Man's place to take a 'sweat'. Was I in a hurry, or would I like to join them? I had to be honest; I was in no hurry. They said it was like a sauna. 'Sounded interesting. We left the highway and travelled North into what I guess are called the 'prairies'- vast tracts of treeless, undulating grassland, not hilly, but not flat enough to be called plains. The track, at first clear and obviously well used, deteriorated until there seemed to be none, but still we drove. We had been driving directly away from the highway for most of an hour, traditional Indian music loud on the stereo and everyone silent. I began to feel uneasy. Then as we rounded a small hill, suddenly there was a cottage in front of us. Smoke drifting lazily out of the stone chimney, and an old man standing on the verandah staring at us. He had the most enthralling gaze. He was obviously the Medicine Man. He was ageless, with the bright dancing eyes of a child set in a face of creased leather. He greeted the others in their native tongue, and smiled at me as he shook my hand.

"It's going to rain." he said to all of us as he turned around into the cabin.

We followed. That was when I noticed the other Indian by the stairs. He was using a hacksaw to cut through the gory ribcage of some large animal. I began to feel uneasy again. Inside, I met another man who was busy making Indian jewellery. He said he sells it or trades it in town. I wondered what 'town' was, and I hoped they'd forgotten about the sweat, and I wanted out of there.

But the fire was already raging. Several rocks about the size of grapefruit are placed in the fire until they are red hot. They are then transferred to a shallow pit in the centre of the 'sweat lodge', a domed structure about three feet high and five feet across at the base made of branches and sealed with animal skins and old carpet . The idea, as I learn, is that we all huddle into this tiny space, sitting hunched over the pit, and the medicine man prays and chants while pouring water out of a buffalo horn onto the rocks. Sometimes, participants pass out and have to be carried out, I'm told. When it's finished- and it can last up to a couple of hours- we all jump into the icy cold dam. Well, wouldn't you be feeling uneasy now?

A car was arriving from the East, the opposite direction from which we had come. My heart leapt when I saw the occupants. Two white women, visibly surprised to see me, as I was them. They were reporters for Time Life books, come all the way from Washington DC to interview the old man. I was mostly interested in them getting me back to civilization. The interview was over in less than an hour, and I casually said "Well if you ladies are going back to the highway, I might as well get a lift with you if that's all right." They said that was fine, but the Indians seemed crestfallen.


"What about all the food?" said Francis, the driver of the Landrover, nodding towards the man with the hacksaw, now bloodied to his elbows. "And you can stay here the night. We haven't even had the sweat yet."

"Thanks, but I'd better go." I said weakly.

The old man shook my hand again with the same knowing smile.
"Were you really invited to their sweat?" the ladies asked as we waved goodbye. They didn't wait for my answer. "How could you say no? Do you know who that was?"

I answered just their last question. "No."

"Only Tom Yellowtail, the oldest living Crow Indian and the most famous Medicine Man in the world."

They were undecided about which was more unbelievable; the fact that a Westerner had been invited to participate in a sweat, or the fact that he had declined this greatest of honours. This was still the topic of conversation when we reached the highway, me retreating behind a barrage of questions from the reporters; "So you're telling us that you just met Tom Yellowtail today? And you've never heard of him before? How could you say no to their invitation? I'd give my left arm to take a sweat with Tom Yellowtail.

"

I said that's what I was afraid of. Susie and Mary took me into Sheridan and insisted on buying me dinner at a great little Mexican restaurant. They said they would charge my dinner to the company, as I was a 'material witness', and I was 'aiding them in their research'.

Now I had a real story to tell Sara if I catch up with her, and Cosmo if I find him in Colorado. I knew that Sara, Sally and Jodie would be passing through Rapid City in the next few days, so with the help of our friends on the freecall number back at Banana Bungalow, we managed to coordinate a rendezvous.

The unbelievable sight of Devils Tower, Wyoming

I arrived in Rapid City on Wednesday with $5.50 left, sure that my money would be waiting at the post office. It wasn't, and by Friday I was hungry and miserable. I had been sleeping in the forest near Mt.Rushmore and living off a bag of rolled oats, supplemented by the odd banana and some milk. I had to count out all the pennies in the bottom of my backpack that morning just to buy a small carton of milk. Sara and the girls had arranged to meet me at the YMCA, so I settled down in the waiting room Friday morning and proceeded to wait. The ladies there were friendly and very sympathetic when they discovered my plight. When Sara rang to say they wouldn't be arriving 'till the next day, the ladies wouldn't hear of me leaving. They said I could sleep there and pay in the morning. Then one very kind lady brought me a bag of groceries; biscuits, fruit, prepared sandwiches, juice and nuts. That was the most significant act of kindness that I had experienced so far, or probably since.


Sara and I at Mt Rushmore

My money was at the post office the next morning, and the girls and I set off to see the sights. Mt. Rushmore was worth a few more photos, then we also drove out to the 'Badlands', a desolate area a bit like Death Valley. You would recognize the Badlands from the movie 'Dances With Wolves'. Actually, this whole area is where the movie was filmed and in a nearby town, Deadwood, we visited a saloon that is owned by Kevin Costner, and features a display of many of his movie costumes. Crazyhorse Mountain is the site of an engineering project which is destined to at least rival the famous Presidents' Heads at Mt. Rushmore. The entire mountain is being carved into a three dimensional statue of an Indian warrior on his horse. In 1992, work had only just begun, but it will be huge. When the girls and I parted company in Casper, Wyoming on Sunday, I could have had no idea that I would be sharing a beer with Cosmo that night. I canvassed a lift at the nearest gas station; it was too cold to stay standing out on the highway. A dirty, unkempt, sickly looking guy in an old Honda Civic said he'd take me to Denver if I could give him money for fuel. I said I could only give him five bucks. He picked up a large hunting knife from the passenger seat and put it under his own seat. I climbed in. The trip was long, slow and fraught with interruptions. Larry had to stop at every gas station for coffee, and was continually popping tablets. He told me he was trying to leave his life of heroin addiction behind in Seattle, and wanted to patch things up with his girlfriend in Denver. The rain was getting heavier. The windscreen wipers were a bit slow. We seemed to be on the wrong side of the road.


"Larry!"

"Huh?" He swerved back to the other side.

"You were asleep. Maybe I'd better drive."

"Uh, okay."

So I took over. But after a few miles, Larry started to get restless.

"I want to drive again."

So he would drive and he would fall asleep. We swapped seats several times, before I realised that it was easier if I let him drive, and I would steer when he fell asleep. That's how we made it to Denver.
I phoned a few of the hostels around town, and it wasn't long before I found the one Cosmo was in.

"Don't tell him anyone called looking for him. I want to surprise him." I said. The manager, whose name was Denver-honestly!- thought this was exciting, and was chuckling to himself when I hung up. The last that Cosmo had heard from me was that I had left Maui, and no-one knew where he was so imagine his disbelief when he saw me walk through the door.

He'd been in Denver for a while and was working at the hostel. There was a bar down the street which put on a free buffet of chicken wings, corn chips and assorted nibblies in the afternoons. That night, we called Banana Bungalow and the receptionist gave us a magic number. We had the public phones at the seven-eleven tied up for two hours. After a couple of days, we got together with three other backpackers and hired a car to go and see the Rocky Mountains. We camped the night at about ten thousand feet. It was freezing. Then the next day, I attempted Long's Peak, at 14 400 feet the highest in the park. It took me all day, but I had to give up just a few hundred metres from the summit; the snow was knee deep, I couldn't feel my toes, and the icy rocks were just becoming too treacherous.


So close, and yet so far!

I wanted to make it to Florida and then to New York in the next three weeks, so I kept moving. Gila cliff dwellings in New Mexico were quite a long way from the highway, but I met some really nice people on my way there, and the dwellings themselves are fascinating, something I had always wanted to see.

The next point of interest for me was Carlsbad Caverns National Park. I was trying to canvass a lift at a gas station just out of El Paso, but as night rolled in, I had almost given up. Just then a young couple in a Subaru pulled up and yeah, he guessed he could take me north a little ways. They had just been to a Guns 'n' Roses concert in Las Cruces and had an esky full of Budweiser in the back. It was my job to keep the beers up to them, they said, and in return for my services as barman, I was welcome to help myself. I couldn't believe my luck when they offered to let me stay at their place, especially when I discovered he was a ranger at Carlsbad Caverns and lived in a cabin inside the park. My favourite part of the park was the bat cave, home to an estimated two million fruit bats. Their spectacular departure from the cave every evening has become quite a tourist attraction; the park authorities have even had to construct an stadium for the spectators.

My next stop was a small town called Stephenville, south of Dallas. I had a friend there who had been an exchange student in Australia in my final year at school. I phoned him from Aberlene, and told him I expected to be in Stephenville 'sometime the next day'.



"Well, if we're out when you get here, just let yourself in and make
yourself at home."

"Great, where do you hide the key?" I asked.

"Oh, we never lock the house."

It was a surprise to me that places like that still existed in America. It was great to see him again. I stayed with Eric and his wife for a few days, then stuck out my thumb again. By now, I was becoming somewhat blase about hitching. Everyone had been so kind and generous, buying me food, driving me out of their way; one guy even had a sixpack in the car especially for a hitchiker. Then there was the couple in Texas who took me home, cooked me a huge breakfast and then returned me to the highway. But even so, I vowed that I would give up hitching once I made it to New Orleans. By then I would have pushed my luck far enough.

Texas is a big state, and it took me two days to reach the Mississippi, then the road followed the river south to New Orleans. There were a few wierdos on that last day; fanatical bible bashers and queers and assorted oddballs; it just wasn't a typical day at all. Finally I was on the outskirts of New Orleans. One more lift was all I needed. But for some reason I had a bad feeling. I was just about to leave the highway and find a bus stop, when a beige sedan pulled up ahead of me. I put my pack in the back seat and got in. He was a plump effeminate black man with a pencil thin moustache. He was wearing make up. He raised a soft limp hand, and in the most camp voice said, "Hi, my name's Oliver. What's your name?"

I sat up straight, and assumed my gruffest Australian accent. "Steve". We were so close to the city now that I figured I could get away without any further conversation. Oliver reached across and touched my shirt.

"Mmm, that's a nice shirt."

"Yeah, I s'pose."

I stared out the window. We were in the town now, and I just wanted to get out. But Olly was leaving nothing to chance. He grabbed my penis. I lurched and knocked his hand away.


"What do you think you're doing? I'm straight!" I screamed "Stop the car!"

"Oh, you're straight. What a shame."

I slammed the door, and that was the day I gave up hitchiking in the United States.

Visit my favourite books page for some recommended reading relating to this trip from British Columbia, Canada to New Orleans, in the south east of the United States. Roll your mouse over the cover photo for a brief description. Click for more details, to purchase online at a discounted price from Amazon, or to view other titles. (if you buy a book, or any other product from Amazon, through this link on my site, I get a small commission- even more if you buy the book you clicked on. Go on, buy a book today!)

TIPS

  • 'General Delivery' is America's equivalent of Poste Restant, and is an efficient way to have mail forwarded ahead of you while you travel.
  • If you're trying to get a lift at a gas station, make sure you ask the
    drivers as they're returning to their car after they've paid. Otherwise, it's too easy for them to mention to the attendant that some bum is bothering them outside. I was kicked out of one station before I learnt that lesson.
  • If you've got friends in that country, or even friends of friends, don't hesitate to look them up. Chances are, they'll be rapt to see you. And a little bit of local knowledge and hospitality can go a long way.
  • If you're straight, don't go to New Orleans in early September.

· 'must see' places

  • : Devil's Tower, Wyoming (used in the movie "Close Encounters")
  • Mt. Rushmore
  • The Badlands
  • Crazyhorse Mountain
  • Colorado Rocky Mountain High
  • Anasazi Indian cliff dwellings, either at Gila or in the 'four corners' region, where Colorado, New mexico, Arizona and Idaho all meet
  • Carlsbad Caverns National Park

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