East for a Cause: American Hitchhiker, American Heart, part 2

He held a sign that read, “East for a cause. Semper fi.”*

Patrick made it to from Iowa to Boston. He hitchhiked 1,300 miles last week, ate a lot of protein bars, lost 7 pounds.

Patrick Bohnenkamp, in case you missed my earlier post, is in his twenties, an Iraq war combat vet, single dad of two boys, and a former U. S. Marine. He works at the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison as a guard. He was an extraordinary writer in my college English class a few semesters back.

Graciously, Patrick answered a few questions about his journey and gave permission to use his real name (he was the “Sean” of the earlier post).

Patrick got 14 rides. The people who picked him up were “eccentric and often flamboyant.” One couple’s car was pimped-out with harps and crystals. Another man, after seeing a police car nearby, revealed there was a warrant for his arrest, and the vehicle didn’t belong to him. They weren’t stopped, fortunately, since the man explained that he would not pull over for the police.

Eight police officers picked Patrick up along his route, mostly in Ohio. Once they checked that no outstanding warrants were pending, and saw his corrections officer’s i.d., they all released him without a ticket.

He spent a fair amount of time at intersections with his “East for a Cause” sign, “smiling and making eye contact.” That part was draining, he said.

The seminal moment of his journey came in a park on the Canadian border, near Niagara Falls. Daily life, full of lists, bills, chores, phone calls, and monotony, was far away. Blue sky overhead, sun so bright it hurt his eyes, he lay in the grass and just was.

Not entirely sure why he embarked on the trip, Patrick reminded me that he’d long had a fascination with hitchhiking. He believes the fear of hitchhikers has reached an irrational level, wanted to see if some people agreed with him, if they would pick up a tall guy with a backpack and a cardboard sign.

He lost a good friend in the war in Afghanistan a few months ago. Patrick had several sets of dog tags made up with his buddy’s name, birth and death dates. Each person who gave him a lift along the way received a dog tag. His friend’s death was at least part of the “cause” that sent him out on the road East.

“I dedicated the trip to him. I guess it helped with the grieving process,” Patrick said.

The prisoners in the Penitentiary where Patrick works kept track of his cross-country progress on a map. Being around guys who are locked up for a long, long time seems to have made Patrick even more aware of freedom, more curious about what freedom means.

With a copy of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five under his arm, Patrick took a risk, opted out the mundane, “the striving for a steady level of positivity and good fortune” at least for a few days.

You’ve got to hear it in Patrick’s own words:

“…but when you get a ride and a hot meal from a husband and wife, or when someone opens their vehicle and subjects themselves to a complete stranger simply for the sake of being kind and benevolent, it hits your heart in way that can't be described. It moves you so deeply that it can change your core, fundamental outlook on humans. In a world that paints a picture of evil and cynicism and hate, it’s nice to see, firsthand, that we are wrong about ourselves. There is still plenty of kindness in the world.”

Patrick cancels out the babble of voices that say there’s no hope for our future. He, and other young men and women who are thought-filled, intentional, and action-oriented allay my worst fears about upcoming generations and the world they will make.

I’m so proud to know him.

*Semper fi (fidelis) is Latin for “always faithful”; the motto of the United States Marine Corps.

 

Melanie

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