Had you ever hitchhiked before?
My parents expected me to hitchhike home from high school. I went to a Catholic school — all the kids hitchhiked! It wasn’t bad.
How did your friends and family react when you told them about this trip?
My friends were very against it. My employees were too. ”Couldn’t we have someone follow you?” No! We couldn’t have that. I must admit, the paranoia that my staff and everyone I knew had about me doing it made me nervous. Halfway through the trip, I would wake up in these hotels and think, ”Am I doing this? Oh my God! I have a long way to go.”
What was the worst part about the trip?
Not getting picked up is the only thing I didn’t imagine. You keep thinking, ”I don’t think I’m going to get killed, but this might take six months! Suppose someone never picks me up.” I had that fantasy, which is a different kind of terror. Death by tedium. Once you’ve been waiting for hours, you would get in a Volkswagen with Ted Bundy with a cast on his arm.
Did you ever want to just give in?
What could I give in to? The worst place was Bonner Springs [Kansas]. I remember being in hell standing there for 10 hours. I think that’s the day I said to my assistant, ”I have to drink my own urine now.” ‘Cause I had no water left and I had to trudge all the way back into that horrible town. So yeah, there was despair, but I didn’t think I was gonna die. I had to go get water and then sit in the Taco Bell and eat, praying someone would recognize me, and nobody did.
So were you recognized much or not?
In the motels nobody recognized me — well, a clerk, sometimes they did, but not in those breakfast rooms when I went down in the morning. The grimness of those breakfast rooms, with those free horrible stale doughnuts and coffee, and like every person sitting there staring straight ahead at the TV.
It couldn’t have been that bad.
The food was so terrible. New Yorkers would kill themselves if they even saw the ”white-bread frozen bagels.”
What’s the one thing you never thought about before the experience?
Elimination. I didn’t eat a lot or drink a lot because you can’t say to people, ”Pull over” if you have to pee all the time and get on the person’s nerves.
When a car stopped to pick you up, did you assess the driver and the passengers before you got in?
My exercise in writing has always been: Sit in an airport, watch a plane land, and watch the people come out of the gate. I play a game where I do an instant three-sentence biography of each person. To me, when you get in a car, you can’t help but do that a little, to think, ”What world am I getting into?” The drivers do the same. Like, most people didn’t expect to pick up a film director. They expected to pick up a homeless man.
So folks were kind?
People tried to give me money everywhere because they thought I was homeless. And these were poor people…. I say in the book, ”I believe in the basic goodness of people.” That’s about as spiritual as I can get.