How Far Have We Traveled?

The man who drives me into Indiana is a construction worker in a shiny new Dodge pickup. A sling holds his right arm, so he steers and lights cigarettes with his left one. He’s heading for a car wash in Terre Haute. He lives outside of town.

“There’s my house, right up there,” he says, pointing with his good arm to a cabin on a wooded hill. “Yeah, it’s nice out here. No niggers out here. Them niggers ruin everything. Run the value of your house down, everything.”

When he drops me at the car wash, I see an African-American pulling out in a Porsche. I take a few steps before realizing he’s the first black person I’ve seen since leaving California.

I have a good friend who is black. He’s often told me that there are entire regions of the country he’d rather see from an airplane. I always thought it was hyperbole. Until now. How sad it is that you can travel through ten states and encounter only white Americans along the way.

Three-quarters of the people who give me rides say they never pick up hitchhikers. An equal number tell me I’m “clean-cut.” I knew appearances would count for a lot on this trip. But every time I shave and shower and put on a fresh shirt, I never think about the one aspect of my appearance I can’t change: the color of my skin.

If a clean-cut black man set out from San Francisco on a penniless journey and followed my exact route, how far would he get? I’d like to think he’d be standing here with me, in Terre Haute, Indiana, but I fear that may not be the right answer.

Mike McIntyre
The Kindness of Strangers: Penniless Across America

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