"Nice Hello Kitty ornament," I said to my driver. I could see his face in the mirror, covered mostly with gang-sign and spiderweb tattoos.
"Naw, man," Raul laughed. "That's mi madre's."
He pointed to the giggling woman next to him, whose face I saw only when she passed a blunt to her sister in the back. The beat-up car was filled with smoke as we hurtled through southern New Mexico at 90 miles an hour. The Hello Kitty dangled from the rearview mirror alongside a rattlesnake tail.
Every time we hit a bump, the kitty bounced and the tail wiggled. We hit bumps a lot.
"I don't believe you," I said. "Bet half those tattoos on you are Hello Kittys."
"Be careful," said a fellow graduate. "There are bad people out there."
Raul laughed again. If he'd walked onto a Hollywood set they would've cast him as a dealer or a convict, and that's exactly what he was. Everyone in the car but my companion and me had done time — the women didn't say what for.
Kevin, my fellow traveler, was visibly tense. Unlike me, he was more afraid of people than of lightning; my mind was on the storm at our heels. We'd been running from it since that morning. The I-25 running through the Chihuahuan Desert was all roadkill and hypodermic needles, and we were lucky to have gotten a ride at all. The last guy who'd picked us up spent the whole time talking about heroin: "Once you go black you never go back," he'd said, changing gears with a punctured arm.
It was the kind of situation my mother had been afraid of. We were headed toward the Mexican border, and rumors of kidnapped hitchhikers were thicker than the smoke in that car. We had nowhere to sleep that night, and were about to be dropped outside some place called Truth or Consequences. But looking at Raul, tear tat and all, I wasn't afraid that he'd hurt me. Danger seemed as far away as the college life I'd left behind.
The hardest part about being a female hitchhiker is getting on the road at all. By the time you're there with your thumb out, so many people have told you you'll get raped to death it's a miracle if you even try. Word's been getting around that hitchhiking in America has gotten "dangerous." And when people say "danger" to women, what they really mean is "rape." Even with Kevin, my safety boy, I was getting warnings right and left.
I'd just graduated from the University of Chicago, where students don't stray beyond the Quad. Beyond campus lies the "dangerous" South Side of Chicago, a word that when applied to neighborhoods tends to mean "black."
Kevin was from that neighborhood. He was like me: a skinny, broke white kid in constant need of adventure. He was never afraid of meeting me on the South Side; he wasn't afraid of meeting me anywhere. The two years we'd known each other, we met in all the strange places: a commune in Detroit, a trailer in Belize, a cabin in Latvia. Unlike most people, he'd say yes to any adventure. And unlike anyone, he'd mean it every time.
Years of traveling had taken me beyond the barriers of common sense. The more I walked through cities at night and stayed with strangers, the more I found that advice toward women is upside down. As road junkie Gloria Steinem put it, "The most dangerous place for a woman in this country is her own home." Like Steinem and many women before me, I discovered that the road could be a freer, safer place than even my own bedroom, and strangers could be safer than friends.
So when graduation was looming, I planned a hitchhiking trip. I wanted to talk to people different from me, and explore a country I'd been flying out of for years. I wanted to prove that you could travel better without money, sleeping outside or staying with strangers from Couchsurfing.com. Kevin and I would travel until we found a new place, or until it stopped being fun.
To me, it didn't seem dangerous. But when I told my plans to other women, I wondered if I was wrong.
"Be careful," said a fellow graduate. "There are bad people out there."
She spoke from experience, but I disagreed with her conclusions. The bad people didn't lie beyond our campus, didn't lurk on roads and in alleyways. I wasn't seven years on the planet before I'd been assaulted at my summer camp, and I wasn't three months in college before I'd been raped. The guys offering to escort me home from the library at 3 am had turned out more dangerous than my "dangerous" neighborhood. Danger wasn't hiding in the bushes — it was out in plain sight.
I sold my clothes for food money and asked a friend to store my books. I said goodbye to Chicago and goodbye to common sense.
Still, at the start of the trip I'd built up my defenses, and a look at the "Women Hitchhiking" Hitchwiki page will tell you just why. Knives and pepper spray, code words and license plate numbers — hitchhiking felt like a game where you had 10 seconds to decide whether or not you were talking to your future murderer.
We began in Des Moines, Iowa, where we'd been dropped off by a friend. A man with milky blue eyes offered Kevin a dream ride: Salt Lake City, a straight 17-hour shot. For a week I'd been mentally preparing a system, the "Are You Ted Bundy" interview, based on internet advice. It was my job to determine if it was a safe ride to take. I'd look them in the eye and ask the destination, all the while sizing them up.
If they were vague about where they were going, checking me out, or too eager to get me in, I'd pass. "Thanks," I'd say. "But we're looking for a ride to ___."
The man was nervous, rabbit-like. He was already moving his stuff out of the way to make room for us as I approached.
"What's the rush?" I asked. "Why are you driving 17 hours straight?"
His eyes seemed to stare right through me, like someone from another world.
Could I really have told whether someone wanted to hurt me just by looking at them?
"Because if I don't get to the courthouse by 8 am tomorrow I'll be incarcerated," he said. "Hop in."
Looking back on it, I realize that the strange look in his eyes was that of a trucker. To quote a ride in Oregon: "Truckers are good guys. Every once in a while you'll come across one with three strippers tied up in the back, but usually they're all right, just a little out of it. In another world, you know?" I had no way of knowing that this man's gaze wasn't the look of a psychopath. I had no way of knowing anything at all.
But when he said, "Hop in," I did it.
Tim, it turned out, was a legal weed farmer who'd passed through a not-so-legal state. As we sped out of Iowa a feeling of relief washed over me, mixed with resignation. Everything, I felt, would be fine. I never ended up turning down a ride. Could I really have told whether someone wanted to hurt me just by looking at them?
Rapists, in my experience, tend to look like everyone else.
"So tell me," Raul said in a nasal Chicano accent. "When you saw us, did you want to run away? Like, ‘Aw, thanks, mister, I'll catch the next ride!'"
I laughed. "No. Any car with women I'm fine with. Anyway I'm more scared of lightning than a guy with face tattoos. I was struck once and ever since have been scared shitless."
"You were struck by lightning?" The woman next to Kevin was sitting on a child's booster seat, which was only partially responsible for her looking like a wrinkled, stretched-out baby corpse.
"I know three people who've been struck by lightning," said Raul, not to be outdone. "You were lucky we came along."
"We weren't having much luck," said Kevin. "Meant to be in El Paso tonight."
"Yeah, no, people out here are assholes. No one picks up someone who looks like me," said Raul. "I had to walk seven hours once when my car broke down."
"Maybe you should buy a wig," I suggested. "To cover the head tats."
"El Paso? Why are you going to El Paso?" said Lady Child Corpse. "I have family in Mexico but even I don't go there anymore." She pauses to takes a long hit. "You shouldn't go to El Paso. You might get kidnapped. It's too dangerous."
"Have you had any, you know, bad rides?" asked a woman in Texas, glancing at me.
"You should be careful," a trucker said to Kevin in Idaho. "Especially with such a pretty girl."
"Now, I can tell you're not stupid, because you got her in the back," said a man in Louisiana, talking to Kevin like I was a pet. "I can see her bra through her shirt. You'd better watch out in Mississippi. A girl wore a bikini, and her daddy had to chase a group of boys off. They called the cops, and the cops just said she should've covered up. Mississippi's big on the sex trade: They'd give 35K for you, 75K for her, 100K if she was a virgin."
Iowa to Oregon, Washington to Montana — we traveled to so many places, but everywhere the talk was the same. Old white guys like Louisiana Shithead soon became a running joke on the trip, always full of advice for Kevin on protecting me from the army of invisible rapists just beyond their cars. It was shocking to most that we were hitchhiking at all, let alone by choice. Many seemed to think I was a poor, innocent girl Kevin had seduced into his hobo lifestyle.
"Look, I'll buy you a hotel room," a trucker said to me in an undertone. "You shouldn't have to sleep outside; he's not a good provider."
It was hard to explain to people that it had been my idea in the first place.
"Traveling without money forces you to leave your comfort zone," I said to a woman in Montana. "When you force yourself to rely on others, you're more open. We wouldn't be having this conversation right now if I were just busing around."
Most young travelers understood it implicitly: Danger doesn't exist only in people or places you don't know. But for most people danger lay in the next town, the next city, the next state, country, or man. And though I tried to laugh off their concern, there was something insidious behind it.
Fear is incurious and uniform; the world opening up to me was colorful and complex. Dealers to meth heads, Bible thumpers to acrobats, I was meeting people whose lives I never before could have imagined. The cartoonish world of murderers and rapists was a fiction that hid a fascinating world. "I used to hitchhike too, when I was young," said a man in Georgia, looking wistful. "But that was in the '70s. It wasn't dangerous back then."
"A lone girl hitchhiker?" said one man in Washington. "Shit, girl, what're you doing out here?"
My safety boy had left for the week, and I was hitchhiking through the North Pacific countryside alone.
"Either being progressive or stupid," I said. "I suspect the latter."
"Me too," said the man. His name was Rooney, and he vibrated with a tense, friendly energy. Unlike the women who'd been picking me up that day, he didn't seem too scared on my behalf, more impressed. "Shit, I used to hitchhike in the '70s, but I knew I could take anyone. And you say you've come all the way from Chicago?"
"Hitchhiking is actually better as a woman," I said "I've had to wait 20 minutes tops for a ride. People don't suspect you of being Ted Bundy — they think they're saving you from Ted Bundy."
I felt like a magician with the power to stick out her thumb and get transported into a new world
"You're telling me you're a serial killer, aren't ya?"
"My backpack's actually full of heads," I said, and he cackled with delight.
Rooney chatted carelessly while driving 20 miles over the speed limit and blasting Frank Sinatra. It was hard to remember the terror of a few hours before, when I'd spent the night at a bus stop full of rats and meth head teens.
The fear wasn't rational, but sleeping outside alone had been a phobia ever since my trip to India, where my roommate had been assaulted in her hotel bed. It was in a fancy hotel, and afterward I'd stayed in the room alone while her would-be-rapist called our phone over and over, breathing through the line.
But during the day I felt like a magician with the power to stick out her thumb and get transported into an entirely new world. Those were some of my best conversations, that week of traveling alone.
I listened to stories about Kurds from an Iraq War veteran, and heard an actress complain about Bollywood productions during her time in LA. Being an unintimidating female meant that people would open up to me, but the advantage flipped after sunset, when the fear would return. I'd sleep that night in a fetal position, my body full of memories it couldn't forget.
In New Mexico the sun was setting, and the storm behind us was on my mind more and more. Raul's car with its trash bag windows felt increasingly homey against the oncoming night. I'd been getting nervous as we got near the ominously named Truth or Consequences.
"Do you guys know any good place we could sleep tonight?" asked Kevin. "Like a park or someplace?"
"What about the bridge, mijo?" suggested Lady Child Corpse.
"Yeah, that'll work," said Raul. "I've slept there a couple times."
"Cops won't bother you," Child Corpse said, reading my mind. "You just climb up the hill and there's a little spot; you'll see it."
Raul stopped the car beneath an underpass. The wind was picking up speed. We gave our emails to the Child Corpse, on her request.
"You're both gonna go far," she said, leaning out of the pink booster seat to address us. "I can tell."
We said feliz cumpleanos to the wordless, giggling mother — it was her birthday, Raul said. They drove away to a life that for us was unimaginable, and we climbed up to where the two slabs of concrete met in a ridge of teeth. Each groove was large enough for a sleeping person, and messages and names were scratched on the wall.
Welcome home, someone had written, a smiley face at the end.
In the distance, horizontal lightning began ripping through the sky.
Lightning always reminds me of India, because it was in India that I was struck. I'd been on a hiking trip in the foothills of Maharashtra, and we'd gotten caught in a storm. We were forced to wait at the top as one by one people climbed down a particularly difficult passage. We'd watched with terror as each bolt struck closer and closer, and finally it crashed down on us. The lightning had struck the rock we were standing on, shooting electricity through our bodies and forcing us to our knees.
It's the kind of thing your body remembers. Sexual trauma is like that too. You become paralyzed with that fear, and even learn to live in that state of paralysis. It's difficult for your body to forget that kind of pain.
As we huddled beneath the bridge outside Truth or Consequences, my muscles were seizing up. Flashes of India were coming back to me. In Goa a guy had tried to lure me down a literal dark alleyway: Your friends are there. Let me show you. It's dangerous, going alone at night.
As he'd talked, he was listening to music, an earbud dangling from his right ear. He'd looked so normal. Just like the guys pointed out to me in the dining hall, or on a phone on Facebook. They looked normal because they were normal. Danger is a very normal thing.
It wasn't dangerous being a female traveler; it was dangerous being female. That's what I decided, before going on many trips. If I didn't go out to meet danger, danger would come find me. All I could control was what kind of person I was when I met it. And, shivering under that bridge, I was terrified but still there. Still in New Mexico. Still on an adventure with my best friend.
"Do you hear that?" said Kevin, whispering as if the storm could hear us. "It's moving away."
The winds slowed. The sky cleared. Constellations I couldn't name became brighter than the occasional headlight passing by. Tomorrow's danger would be dehydration as we hitched alongside roadkill sizzling in the hot desert sun. But that night's danger didn't choose us, and we slept as though it never would.
Michaela Stone Cross is a freelance writer from Philadelphia. In 2015 she failed to drop out of the University of Chicago, graduating with a BA in creative writing and South Asian studies instead. She now lives in Hollywood, California, for reasons unknown.