Joe Omundson

In March I contracted a bacterial heart infection, something I am prone to because of a prosthetic valve. I flew to Portland for treatment. Six weeks of IV antibiotic therapy concluded on May 21 and I felt healthy. I made plans: On July 1, I would hitchhike to the Rainbow Gathering to visit three of my best nomad friends, then I would continue to Moab to pick up my car and do some camping.

I started to feel sick a few days before my departure date. I measured fevers between 100 and 103 degrees Fahrenheit and had night sweats, the same symptoms that had sent me to the hospital. I talked to my doctor and had blood cultures drawn.

I was dismayed by the idea of canceling my trip, but I knew that if my infection returned I would likely need open heart surgery. Should I play it safe and stay in Portland? Could I shorten my trip? Good health is important, but isn’t its purpose to enable us to live our lives? If I canceled my trip wouldn’t I be trading a magical experience for some illusion of security?

The night of June 30, I awoke feverish, sweating, and nearly in tears, deeply conflicted. I slept until morning, had breakfast, and meditated briefly. Then I found myself packing my bag. My friend drove me to Troutdale for my first hitch; I’d decided to risk it. I couldn’t handle the idea of missing this adventure, and two days of blood culture incubation had shown nothing so far.

I traveled east on I-84 with four drivers – a guy who thought I was cute, an ex-heroin addict, a computer scientist kiteboarder, and a mechanical engineer.

At Biggs Junction a trucker passed me, then turned around and parked at the truck stop. He invited me into his cab to get high. A woman in the adjacent truck was doing the same thing, so he invited her over to smoke with us. I didn’t ride with him because our routes were not similar, but I returned to the shoulder laughing at my luck.

After a 90-minute ride to Madras, I got picked up by some people headed to the Rainbow Gathering. They carved out a space for me in the back seat and I sat with my backpack on my lap, luggage falling onto me. Dubstep blasted through some insane subwoofer next to my head. It was like getting an MRI for three hours.

We arrived after sunset and I walked 2 miles into that crazy organism of a gathering. I knew roughly where two of my friends were camped. It had been 10 hours of traveling, normal for hitching a five-hour route.

Mathieu and Dennis had been there 10 days helping people set up. In the morning we helped some people prepare breakfast, which was hilarious because this guy had apparently taken over the kitchen against the will of the other members and everything was chaos. He was on some crazy drugs and hadn’t slept in two days. Nobody wanted to confront him.

Tom joined us later that morning. It was wonderful to hear about my friends’ recent travels and their plans for the future. We all met in Moab originally, bonded by our love for the open road. I rested in camp most of the day. At night I ventured to the central meadow to watch the hippies play drums and dance naked around three bonfires.

I decided to leave the next morning, and Tom happened to be driving to Chico. We drove through southern Oregon to a campsite on the state line, had dinner, took showers, and in the morning went to Reno. It was a nice surprise to spend an extra day with him.

Thirty miles east of Reno, a diesel mechanic who was driving all the way to Wyoming saved me from the sweltering heat. We had several hours together so we talked about many topics, realizing we were both turning 30 in August, and he dropped me off near Salt Lake City. I spent the night next to the offramp.

I waited 2.5 hours for my first ride in the morning, traveling only 15 miles. After four more hours of getting sunburned in the 102-degree Fahrenheit heat, I was starting to despair when I got another short ride. I got five more rides that day, from a solar sales manager, an army network engineer and ex-coal miner, a biology teacher, and finally a Moab native who picked me up at Crescent Junction and gave me $20 before letting me out into the evening heat.

I contacted the guy who had been storing my car in his backyard and after a jump start, my 36-year-old diesel car roared to life.

My doctor sent me a message: “Blood cultures are negative. We should get CT as planned and get more blood cultures when you come back.”

I felt that my decision to travel had paid off. How frustrating it would have been to cancel my trip and sit around in Portland only to find out nothing was wrong!

Joe Omundson writes about travel, philosophy and society. Read more at