Travel

For a wheelchair-bound traveller in the US, getting around can be relatively easy. That is, until you get stuck on the side of a Texas highway. By Ken Haley.

Wheelchair hitchhiking in west Texas

Post, in Garza County, Texas.
Credit: KEN HALEY

As a wheelchair user and incurable travel addict, I’ve found the United States to be one of the easiest countries in which to get around. But there are times when there is no public transport to ensure a smooth ride from A to B – or, as I discovered in west Texas last November, from B to A. That is, from Brownfield to Abilene. In these times there is no alternative other than to improvise.

Actually, I lie: there is a bus service from Brownfield but it gets to Abilene at 2.15am – and, as any experienced traveller knows, arriving in a strange town in the early hours is a fate to be avoided.

This is all by way of explaining why, under a moderately warm Texas sun, I had sat patiently by the roadside on the eastern outskirts of Brownfield for an hour with my thumb outstretched.

Hitchhiking in a wheelchair is difficult, if only because no one knows what you’re doing. But curiosity can also work to a hitchhiker’s advantage, and eventually a driver pulled over.

Sabrina. Thirtyish, friendly faced, and not intent – when she stopped to ask if I needed help – on driving any more than a couple of blocks to her home for an hour and a half or so before picking her son up from school.

Townships in this part of west Texas are strung out like pearls on a broken necklace: in the early afternoon there’s only a trickle of traffic eastbound on US Highway 380, so I felt lucky when Sabrina said she’d take me to the next town, Tahoka, half-an-hour closer to my destination.

On approaching the one-horse settlement, the young mum calculated there would be enough time to take me as far again, to the more substantial town of Post (population 5000-something).

Sabrina dropped me on the southern edge of town, next to Holly’s Drive Inn, a good ol’ fast-food roadhouse where I decided to sate my hunger at the same time as, hopefully, meeting a southbound motorist who might take pity on a stranded Aussie.

But the only people I met there – Chet and Casey, two real live cowboys on a horse-agistment mission – were heading north to Oklahoma, so 3.30pm found me seated beside US Highway 84 with my right thumb pointing skyward and my brave face on.

US 84 is four lanes wide with generous off-road clearance, so I was in no real risk of not being seen or, worse still, of being squelched by a passing truck.

What I hadn’t counted on were the technicalities of Texas law. I was on the roadside, but in Texas that counts as part of the roadway and it is illegal to hitchhike on a Texas roadway.

I have that on good authority. The law is the law, after all, and in Post that afternoon the law was that good authority.

Deputy Sheriff Josh Eakin, a rookie recruit from the town of Lubbock, pulled over not to give me a lift but rather a lecture. When he asked me what I was doing, my initial response was: “Trying to leave town.” At that point he demanded to see my ID, and as I produced my passport I was wondering what offence he could possibly accuse me of. Whatever it was, I reassured myself, at least my nationality meant I wasn’t going to end up being deported to Mexico.

“You’re not allowed to hitchhike on the public roadway,” he said, explaining that Texas law makes no distinction between the paved roadway and the unpaved margin beside it.

As Deputy Sheriff Eakin was considering his options – and he let me know he could arrest me – I was wondering how a hitchhiker’s plea to a small-town judge in this corner of the Wild West was likely to fare, and quickly concluded it was the better part of valour to co-operate.

At the same time the deputy sheriff appeared to decide I was more of a threat to myself than public safety, and offered me a lift to the centre of town where he dropped me at the service station with the instruction: “Up here, off the road, you’re free to hitchhike.”

He then added, “If you don’t find a lift out of town, give me a call”, whereupon he gave me his business card – not something I’d seen done in any John Wayne western.

By the time I’d gone into the station convenience store, explained myself and prevailed on the counter staff to dismantle a cardboard box and write on one side in bold marker “lift wanted to abilene”, it was getting on for five o’clock. If I thought my prospects were looking up, I was wrong. Almost all the cars that stopped here for petrol were heading north, bound for an important game of college football in Lubbock.

Rendering prospects worse, rain clouds were building in the east, and early twilight was turning to dusk, making it more difficult by the minute for passing traffic to see me.

All in all, it seemed best for me to shelter under the awning in front of the convenience store, clasping the sign to my chest, and contrive to look halfway between confident and pleading.

The next hour and a half taught me a lot about the Texan character. Despite my insistence that I wasn’t begging, eight motorists coming out of the store having paid for their petrol gave me change ranging from $2 to $10 (some didn’t bother reading the card), thus garnering me $28.50 in anonymous donations, all gratefully accepted.

In that 90 minutes only three customers I spoke to were heading in my direction – and they were all large families without a spare seat to offer.

So, some time after 7pm, when it was clear I’d be spending the night in Post, I rang Deputy Sheriff Eakin, unclear if I was destined to spend the night in a police cell – certainly a travel story worth telling but not an experience I was anticipating with any relish.

The deputy sheriff had a surprise in store. “I’m classifying you as a distressed traveller,” he announced, even though I thought I’d retained my composure pretty well under trying circumstances. “The police department here has an arrangement with one of the local churches, which has agreed to pay the costs of one night’s stay in a local motel for any distressed traveller on our hands.”

He asked me to wait an hour – time I used to buy myself a decent home-cooked meal at the town’s only restaurant. When I returned to the petrol station, there was Deputy Sheriff Eakin, ready to give me my second lift in his police car – this time to the Deluxe Inn which, if it didn’t quite live up to its name, was at least preferable to the Garza County Jail just a few hundred metres away.

 

Post began life a century ago as a utopian community whose founder banned bars – a decade before Prohibition – and brothels. Human nature, predictably, wasn’t equal to such a stress test, and today the town has not just a county jail but also a “correctional facility” and a “juvenile centre” all within close proximity of one another.

But it’s the hospitality of its residents, and the hearts of gold belonging to those who are just passing through, that I remember about Post, Texas. The only thing I regret is that, on the day I needed them, so many of them were going the wrong way.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 3, 2017 as "Hitching Post". Subscribe here.

Ken Haley
is a Melbourne-based journalism tutor.