The Real King of the Road

Chris: King of the Road
Chris: King of the Road

Having situated my RV, Charlene, and PeeWee, my little Yamaha XT-250 motorcycle, in their new homes for the next few days I began an ambling walk through McClure campground to get a better feel for the place and so as to be able to write a campground report for my fellow RVers. McClure campground, by the way, is in the White River National Forest in west-central Colorado, not far from Aspen.

I already knew I liked McClure as it was very woodsy with aspens packed tightly together mixed with conifers and a good amount of space between camp sites separated by plenty of bushes and trees. It’s the kind of quiet, forested environment I prefer, in contrast to, for example, an RV park which is often a large gravel parking lot where motorhomes and trailers are lined up in cramped spaces, in orderly, treeless, shadeless rows; the sounds of arguments, radios, air-conditioners, kids and barking dogs mixing with traffic from a thoroughfare but a dozen yards away. This is not a campground report, but understanding the serene, idillic surroundings of McClure helps set the scene for what happened next.

As I meandered through the lush, green, forested silence, reveling in the fresh, crisp, moist mountain air one finds in forests at 8,000′ in elevation on a gray day after a rain, the peace and quiet of McClure was suddenly broken by a voice from nowhere as if God himself was calling down to me from the heavens. “Hellooooo” it rang out, but from where? “Umm, err… Hello?” I said back, timidly, wondering who I was talking to and where he was. Zzzzzipppp was the next sound I heard and as I spun around in the direction of the sound there he was, opening the zipper of and scrambling out from his tent, not God, at least not as far as I could tell, but rather a mere mortal. “Hi, I’m Chris”, he said. I introduced myself and we began to chat as campers often do with curiosity about each other’s origins and travels. As we talked I became more and more interested in this man’s story and with his permission I recorded our conversation and took a few photos.

Chris said he was a painter, a house painter, and in the wintertimes he spent much of his time in Florida where he owns a piece of property and a school bus in which he lives that he has parked there. The rest of the year, from about March through November he hitchhikes around the country living out of his tent and picking up a little bit of work here and there. He said he’d been living this way for “23 or 24 years”! A little quick math reveals that cumulatively Chris has spent the equivalent of about 12 years hitch hiking around the USA and Canada. Wow!

Chris has been to every state and I’m sure has come to know them far better than the average tourist. He’s been to every National Forest, except one in northern Alaska. “First it was all 50 states”, he said, “then after that it was all the provinces of Canada, and then after that I wanted to see every National Forest in the country and I’ve almost done that. I’ve still got northern Alaska to do.”

I wondered how many states he typically visited each year and to the question Chris replied “The past few years it’s just been kind of a straight line from Florida to here, I just don’t know if I’m going to go to Durango or up to Hot Sulphur Springs or Steamboat Springs area.” “What are the pros and cons on either side?”, I asked. “In Hot Sulphur the camping is right in town, I know a lot of the town and can probably pick up some work. Durango, it’s just that I haven’t been there.” I told Chris I’d recently passed through Durango, camping at Junction Creek, but there’s a fee for camping there. Without hesitation he replied that the Colorado Trail begins there and if you hike up the trail a little you can camp for free in the forest. At this it was clear that Chris knows his way around, even to places he hasn’t been. His many years of traveling the way he does, making contact with people along the way, has given him a wealth of knowledge about many things, including the ever so important wisdom of where one can camp for free, where one can hitch hike, or not, and where the fishing is good so dinner may be had without expense.

It's PeeWee!
Look everyone! It’s PeeWee in Rocky Mountain national Park. Hi Peewee!

I learned that Chris and I share the habit of talking to things. Traveling solo, one lacks companionship and discovers his desire for it. I talk to PeeWee about covering him to keep him dry, and I thank him for being such a faithful and reliable transport. Chris talks to his tent and his backpack although I’m not sure what he says to them. I told Chris about my PeeWee series of photos (look for a page of those on this blog sometime in the future), and he told me about his hat photos: he’s been taking pictures of a friend’s hat that he carries with him, against the backgrounds of various famous landmarks as he travels about. The hat belongs to a female friend that wanted to hitchhike with him but who chickened out. He’s rubbing her nose in that in a good-humored way. Does this give meaning to the phrase “Eat your hat out?” Sorry for that. I apologize.

I think it fair to say that Chris leads a vagabond lifestyle, in fact he is the personification that way of life. He isn’t like the cartoon version of the hobo that comes to my mind, that of an unshaven man in patched up clothing, carrying all his worldly goods in a handkerchief hung from a stick slung over his shoulder as he hops from freight train to freight train on his way to who knows where. No, Chris travels with a tablet, cell phone (albeit without service but it functions as a camera), an MP3 player, and until it was stolen recently, a small solar panel which he used to keep all his gadgets charged. A high-tech hobo if ever there was one. I guess hobo life has changed over the years, but Chris has hopped the occasional freight train and in that regard it remains unchanged.

When I mentioned I live in Berkeley, CA, Chris told me a story of when he was there and found himself a “camp site” on the roof of a Chinese restaurant. When the proprietor discovered his illicit presence, rather than kick him out, perhaps I should say “off” because he was on the roof, they struck a deal: if he would wash dishes 4 hours a day he could stay there and have all the leftovers he could eat. He went on to say that California just wasn’t his state, that there was too much competition: “there are always 50 other hitchhikers trying to come up with a little money too so you can’t do nothin’ there, so you’re just stuck.”

As he lit his pipe which was missing it’s stem, the result of “a liquored night in Gunnison”, Chris told me that his grandfather owned property in Marble at one time, the Crystal mine, now perhaps the most photographed mine ruins in Colorado, and he has been going to Marble since he was a young child. So, he’s well acquainted with the town, knows people there, and this explains, at least in part, his presence at McClure campground which is nearby. It was from Chris that I learned there is a marble sculpting competition every year in Marble.

Born in Chicago, Chris has family, mostly in Indiana, but he doesn’t communicate much with them and hasn’t seen them in years apart from his folks. Believing himself seen as something of a black sheep in his family because of his lifestyle he says he has relatives that his family may frown upon more because they’ve gone to prison for things such as burglary. When I asked if he’d ever been to prison he said that he had, for cultivation of marijuana. That’s hardly a crime, and shouldn’t be, if you ask me, especially today when pot is legal in some states, Colorado being one of them.

When you’re living out of a backpack your concerns are different than when you live in an apartment or a house, or in my case now, a motorhome. I know this because, like Chris, I have spent time living out of a pack. Except for the summer of ’74 when I too was a hitchhiking backpacker, most of my backpacking has been in the mountain wilderness of the high Sierras in California while on vacation. Still, one’s concerns are the same in many respects: will I stay warm, will I stay dry, do I have enough food, will I find a place to sleep before it gets dark? This is very different than simply showing up at home and flicking a switch for instant light or heat, or stepping indoors to stay dry. As we spoke about this Chris told me his biggest worry at the time was the strap on his backpack which was falling apart.

As Charlene, PeeWee and I headed out of McClure campground toward Aspen and Steamboat Springs I offered Chris a ride. He turned me down saying his foot was bothering him and he wanted to rest another day. He suffers from gout as it turns out, largely a disease of poor diet and nutrition if my understanding is correct. Chris thought this true too and explained he hasn’t much money most of the time and that his diet suffers as a result because he buys things that are filling as opposed to nutritious. While he may be financially poor, leading the life of a hitchhiking pauper, his experiences in other ways have enriched his life and he, without any doubt, justly owns the moniker Roger Miller only sang about, King of the Road. Good luck to you Chris. Take care of yourself… wherever you are.

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