1,200 Miles to a Crude Awakening
Why I hitchhiked 1,200 miles to be a part of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill
When the oil spill began hitting the news daily I started to really pay attention. Accusations against Transocean and BP executives and supervisors started to anger me. I’d had enough when I continued to see the images of huge pools of oil floating in the Gulf of Mexico’s water, the birds and other wildlife saturated in thick crude, and the testimonies of local businesspeople who’s lives were destroyed.
My disgust didn’t stop there. The stories of the Deepwater Horizon explosions that killed 11 innocent people as well as the terror of the survivors, made this into one of the most serious and devastating things I’d ever been exposed to. There was a connection I felt to this disaster on all levels. The more research I did into BP’s background, the oil industry, my own oil consumption and the oil consumption that millions of people have no choice but to engage in, I decided I had to take responsibility for my own role in this.
That’s when the planning for the mission began. I knew I had to go to the heart of this mess, however, I didn’t know for sure how to go about it. I wanted to get there without using any extra oil, for obvious reasons; help in any way I could, and document the experience to show the perspective of an average Joe and what he would have to go through to be a part of the help.
Given these elements, I saw an opportunity to spread awareness about the issues that surrounded the disaster. I decided to give the mission a simple name, Gulf Aid. I made a Facebook page, a Twitter account, a YouTube channel and a Blog. I set up a bank account and a secure PayPal donation page for those who wanted to contribute.
I could promote reducing oil consumption by ride-sharing and hitchhiking to the Gulf and sharing the story. I thought I might be able to inspire others to make sacrifices, even small, in order to be a part of the solution.
With very little money, I had another reason to hitchhike. I’d never been to Louisiana, nor did I have any connections in the state. I was going alone, brandishing only a backpack with the bare essentials. I was excited, yet nervous. There were many people who supported the mission which was very helpful to my morale. There were others who were skeptical and pessimistic pointing out that I might be too naive for my own good. As an optimist who’d traveled cross country by thumb in the past, I didn’t care about much but hitting the road and making the mission a reality.
The mission begins
I set out July 11 from Wisconsin with a guy my roommate heard was heading to St. Louis. Six hours later I was on the east side of the metropolitan suburbs. A long time friend of my father Lived in near by St. Charles, so I got in contact with him and he let me stay there for a day and got me to the south side of the city at a truck stop along Interstate 55. I sat at an on-ramp for a couple hours holding my “Help me get to the Gulf” sign high. I wasn’t having any luck so I walked to the truck stop to get a cold drink.
While inside I was confronted by an old truck driver with a long white beard and a dirty red cap. He noticed my backpack and asked where I was going. I told him about the mission and he said he was unable to offer a ride due to the space in his truck, but wished he could help. Another truck driver overheard the conversation and asked a few questions. He then said exactly what I needed to hear: “I’ll get you to Memphis.” Him, a girl who was a friend of his family and I jumped in the rig and hit I-55 south. Shortly after we started cruising toward Memphis he asked me if I was a good driver. Naturally I said yes, but was curious why he’d ask such a question. “Usually truckers don’t ask this of passengers, but I was thinking of napping under a shade tree when we picked you up. I’m a little tired and might want to take a break. Do you want to drive?” he asked. I didn’t know if he was joking or what. I said I’d think on it while we talked about the oil spill. A half an hour later we stopped, he bought me dinner and gave me ten bucks. When we got back on the road he asked again. This time I said “sure, I’ll give it a try.” I’d driven dump trucks for a construction company I worked for so it didn’t seem too crazy. I drove the 18 wheeler from there all the way to Memphis.
I sat outside a truck stop there for a couple hours asking for a ride south and finally pitched a tent along side of a Best Western motel. It was 95 degrees at 1 am, I was soaking wet with sweat. I got a few hours of sleep and went back to the truck stop at 5:30 am and had my sign sitting by me for a couple hours until the manager asked me to move off the property. I didn’t have many options where I was. The on-ramp was over a bridge that wasn’t easily or safely accessible on foot and the temperature was 105 degrees. It wasn’t looking good. I managed to get a ride into Memphis and got dropped off at an Amtrak station. I started to wander into the city trying to figure out where to go and how to get my next ride and I stopped to wipe the sweat off my brow when I felt a blast of cool air come from a building. I looked up and I saw a sign that said “Greyhound to New Orleans.” I took that as a sign to go in and ask about the bus. There was one leaving in ten minutes. Feeling guilty that I wasn’t hitching anymore I had to justify myself by remembering that the bus was going there anyways and I still wasn’t using any extra gas.
It was a 12 hour ride through Mississippi and Louisiana. I will always remember this small town the bus went through with ramshackle trailer homes scattered along side the highway and a BP gas station in the midst of them. I arrived in New Orleans around 8:30 p.m. with another guy from the bus who was going to the spill. We stayed in a hostel and tried to find a way to get the money we needed to get the hazardous waste training we needed (HAZWOPER). John had a large ring that we pawned and he paid me back what I’d spent on his behalf. I still didn’t have enough to get the training I needed to work with oil. I barely had enough to pay for a place to sleep. We went and got a beer and talked about it, and Johnny decided he was going downtown to have some fun. I stayed at the hostel and he came back hours later wanting money to take to the casino. I gave him the money he asked me to hold for him and never saw him again.
The next strange turn was when I was contacted by Jackie, a girl who a friend of mine from Wisconsin knew. She lived in Gulfport, Mississippi, which was where John and I had thought of heading to. She offered to let me stay at her house while I looked for a place I could volunteer with or work at in relation to the oil spill. There was not any substantial amount of oil there though. I stayed with her for a week and in that time interviewed some workers on the beach, took photographs and did a lot of writing and searching for material for Gulf Aid’s Facebook page. I couldn’t do much because I had to wait for contributions to Gulf Aid’s PayPal so I could afford the certification. After a week of waiting I had enough, however, Jackie’s roommate was returning that day and didn’t want a house guest so I had to come back to New Orleans.
Upon returning, I spent a few days in a guesthouse, I used CouchSurfing.org to find people willing to let travelers stay on their couch and stayed 2 days with some nice people uptown. During the days I went to the internet cafe on Toulouse st. to work on the HAZWOPER course. It was here that I met Kevin, the administrator of this blog. At night I hung out with the others staying at the places I was staying. There were crackheads, prostitutes and mentally ill people living in the hostel I spent the most days in. It made for some very interesting people watching.
I decided to take advantage of the opportunity and interview some of the guests that were from European countries.
I finally completed the HAZWOPER course almost three weeks from the time I set out on the mission. Getting around town was not that difficult using the streetcar, but when I had to walk it was. It had been going slow and I was constantly running into hurdles and running out of money. Many days I thought I was going to have to go to a homeless shelter. I feel like crap from eating off of the dollar menu’s at Burger King and McDonalds, but it’s cheap and fills me up. I became discouraged a few times when I hit the major roadblocks, but kept my head up. I am beginning to really like New Orleans, but I am glad to be able to get back to the final part of the mission: clean-up.
Tomorrow I am heading to Venice Louisiana to find some kind of place to get in on the efforts whether in marshes, on beaches, or anything. I will try to post updates as often as possible. Updates may be more frequent on the Facebook page here: www.facebook.com/gulfaidnow
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