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Life Here: A Hitchhiker’s Guide to ‘Macbeth’

  • KRT TRAVEL STORY SLUGGED: UST-DETROIT KRT PHOTOGRAPH BY ALAN SOLOMON/CHICAGO TRIBUNE (September 6) The 1952 version of the Oscar Meyer Wienermobile is just one of the artifacts of industry presented at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. (cdm) 2005



For the Valley News
Friday, August 03, 2018

Recently, I heard a college student say he was going to fly to Chicago then hitchhike from Chicago to Seattle.

I was amazed. I thought hitchikers were extinct. I haven’t seen one in decades. If you google “is hitchhiking dead?” you get several articles, one of which says it was “murdered” by law enforcement scare tactics, even though it is illegal in only six states: New York, Nevada, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Utah and Wyoming.

In a world with smart-phones that can photograph car license plates and drop them on Facebook with a click, for family to follow, hitchhiking has never been safer.

So where have all the hitchhikers gone?

I loved hitchhiking. It gave me the best lesson-plan for teaching Macbeth that a high school English teacher could ever dream of having. I used it for decades with enthusiastic student attention.

My students named it “The Orange Story.”

In August 1971, when I was 26, I hitchhiked across country from Hamden, Conn., to Eugene, Ore.

I made it in only five days, beginning on a Friday.

I had long auburn hair and a short beard, and tried to imitate a hippie by wearing a body shirt, blue-jean shorts and leather sandals.

I carried a small backpack with a tinfoil blanket and wrapped myself in it and slept on the ground under the stars, like a cowboy. (Don’t try it. Tinfoil doesn’t breathe and you wake up soaked from head to toe in sweat.)

I made it to somewhere in Wyoming without having any trouble getting a ride, although my hippie costume definitely did not attract fellow “cool” people to pick me up, except in Lander, Wyo., where I had detoured by accident and was picked up by a girl driving a pickup truck.

Her father was a big-shot in the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), which trained kids to survive for three days in the wild with nothing more than a jack-knife to build shelter, find food, water and heat. She took me to her modern cabin, fed me moose meat (it’s fibrous) and made chocolate chip cookies the size of apple pie. No romance, but a bit of adventure.

Then, by the time I got back to Route 80 which was my cross country pathway, suddenly there was no traffic at all for two whole hours on a four-lane highway.

Absolutely nothing in both directions. It was as if the world had been deserted.

I wanted to sit under a tree, get out of the sun, but there was only cactus in sight and I heard a clicking sound in the sand which I was sure was a rattlesnake.

So I waited in scorching sun with only my body shirt and cut-offs to protect me shoulders and legs turning into crispy, sunburned pieces of fried chicken. I’m Irish and have never had a tan in my life, just apple red, burned skin.

But what could I do? No trees, rattlesnakes sounding their castanets; I had no alternative but to fry on the empty lanes of concrete.

Suddenly there was the sound of a motor heading in my direction, a flimsy tin-lawnmower sound. It was a VW van painted in psychedelic graffiti chugging over the horizon toward this poor frying fake hippie, me.

People were singing and arms were waving and hair was blowing out the windows. The van was full of real hippies and I thought surely they will stop for me. I look cool enough, don’t I?

Apparently not.

They didn’t even slow down and drove right by me. But they threw me an orange as they chugged along, their psychedelic, magical bus shrinking off into the horizon.

Ordinarily I wouldn’t eat suspicious food, and anything discarded by a hippie in 1971 was definitely, at the least, a possible health hazard.

But it was hot and I was thirsty, and full of moose meat and chocolate chip cookie dough, so I took the risk.

I ate the orange.

It looked OK to me and it and tasted OK too.

But it didn’t improve my hitchhiking luck.

There was absolutely no traffic at all for another hour after the psychedelic hippie van disappeared.

What was this wasteland called Wyoming?

Maybe it had been a mirage? But, I thought, I just ate a real orange, so maybe it wasn’t a mirage.

Then out of nowhere I saw another vehicle heading my way. It didn’t clatter like the VW bus, but was silently moving along the highway toward me. It didn’t look like a car or a truck anything I’d ever seen on wheels before.

It was 20 foot mobile hot dog in a hot dog bun, driving by me on four ordinary tires like a car with two people behind a windshield.

But it was a hot dog! In a bun!

They drove right by me too. I wasn’t even hip enough to get a hot dog to pick me up.

Maybe it was an amusement park ride or something like that. What they heck had I just seen? And in the middle of nowhere? Could it be real?

Maybe there was something strange in that orange after all, something psychedelic like Aldous Huxley’s book Doors of Perception says can be found in mushrooms.

Was I tripping?

Within a minute, another vehicle on this otherwise empty four-lane highway followed the hot dog: a normal car with a trailer hitch.

But on the trailer was something I have never seen on an American highway before or since: a helicopter. I tried to explain this to myself. Maybe the helicopter was how the hot dog driver and passenger were going to get home after they dropped the hot dog off wherever they were going in the middle of this wasteland.

But then there was no traffic for another hour. Absolutely none.

I was reviewing this in my mind: I had been alone in the middle of nowhere for three hours except for three motorized vehicles: a van full of hippies, a 20-foot hot dog and a car towing a helicopter.

I guess I was having an adventure. But I wasn’t even sure it was real.

Fast-forward 20 years. I am teaching Macbeth to 11th graders in Vermont. I open the New York Times one morning in the high school cafeteria and I see a feature article on the Oscar Mayer Weiner Co., which for decades has owned a car designed like a 20-foot hot dog in a roll, which the company drives around the country as a mobile advertisement for its product.

The article had a photo of the same hot dog I had seen hitchhiking 20 years before, when I was stranded on an empty highway in Wyoming.

There it was: proof that I had not been hallucinating, a question I had been asking myself for years.

I had to teach Shakespeare’s Macbeth that day to four classes of 20 students each. Shakespeare’s language is notoriously difficult the first time you encounter it, almost turning English words into a foreign language for teenagers.

I have them read the first scene of Macbeth out loud as a class, and it is always a struggle. Macbeth and Banquo are Scottish nobleman living 500 years ago and Shakespeare puts his own crossword-puzzle-mind-blowing language in their mouths.

I suddenly realized that the New York Times article about the mobile hot dog gave me a teaching idea.

I could tell my hitchhiking story to my classes when we get to the part where Macbeth and Banquo wonder if they have actually seen three witches, or had hallucinated seeing them.

Here is the line in Macbeth and you don’t have to have read any Shakepeare at all to understand the problem.

Banquo asks Macbeth:

“Were such things here that we do speak about? Or have we eaten on the insane root that takes the reason prisoner?”

Or to put it in modern English, “Were these witches real or have we eaten wacky weed or ’shrooms?”

And then I could ask my classes, “Was this a real Weinermobile and helicopter or had I eaten an insane orange that took my reason (my mind) prisoner?”

I used this strategy for my entire teaching career, 25 years. And the kids always said, “It was the orange. You were tripping.”

Then I showed them the picture of the Weinermobile in the New York Times article. But the kids still wanted to believe I had been hallucinating.

And now they knew how Macbeth felt about the witches. They were real witches, but he wanted to believe they were only a figment of “the heat oppressed mind.”

Weinermobile or witches, Shakespeare has warned my students for decades that the mind can play tricks on you, and make you think you have eaten on the “insane root” (or fruit).

I thank hitchhiking for this lesson-plan which eased my kids into Shakespeare’s mind-bending language.

If you’ve hitched across country you soon realize no one hitchhikes on the off-ramp. It is only the on-ramp that leads you toward adventure.

It’s the same with a classroom. To find the adventure you have to be willing to start with the on-ramp. I hope my Hitchhiker’s Guide to Macbeth was not just a story for my students about a giant hot dog, a helicopter and an orange tossed out of hippie van.

I hope it was an on-ramp to the excitement of learning itself, whether in the classroom or on the highway of life.

Paul Keane lives in Hartford.