Ben Powell was smoking behind the Dumpster corral at McDonald’s a few minutes after 9 a.m. when I found him on June 17. He’d already observed me oiling my motorcycle’s drive chain in the truck parking area at the Eureka, Missouri, travel stop along I-44. It was right outside the Six Flags Over Mid-America amusement park, and that was his problem. He was hitchhiking to New Mexico after having walked the Appalachian Trail, and this touristy area with a lot of families was no place to get a ride. He’d spent last night under a cottonwood tree on the lawn of a nearby motel, being consumed by gnats and ants.
I parked in the corner of the lot, and that’s how we met: I smelled the cigarette smoke. When I said hello, Ben went into his travelin’ man routine, as if he were the guy in Johnny Cash’s song “I’ve Been Everywhere.” I asked where he lives, and he pointed to his bedroll—but he said he’s a window washer by trade. Near his bedroll, there was trash: some food wrappers and beer cans spilling out of a plastic sack.
“Got any spare change?” he asked.
I reached for the sixty-five cents in my pocket, but before I delivered it, we started talking about my mission to ride the motorcycle from Michigan to California. Hearing me say I’d be writing about the trip, he said he’s a reader of Edward Abbey, Hunter Thompson, and John Steinbeck. Among the various other things he told me was that he has a hernia. “My guts are falling out,” he said.
Then he warned about the rain ahead. I asked him to pose for a photo. The professional camera I pulled from my saddlebags caught him by surprise. He said some European tourists had photographed him near Zion National Park, in Utah, but this was different. After I showed him where to stand, he clowned for me until I had a good shot.
As I put my camera away and started to climb onto my bike, he said, “Spare change?” This time I gave him the sixty-five cents.