by Cherie McKay
In November 2015, Cherie began the solo road trip of a lifetime. Her 40-day, 7500 mile campervan trip through the US was designed to meet her online friends and celebrate the bonds of womanhood. Her journey took her through cities including Los Angeles, Phoenix, Houston, Chicago and New York and became a wonderful opportunity for her to test the waters as a travel photographer and writer. In her guest blog series, Cherie will be sharing some of her favourite moment and images from the trip for which she coined #CherieDoesAmerica.
Cherie was also the guest of episode 23 of The Traveling Image Makers podcast.
Sometime during the month leading up to #CherieDoesAmerica, I had a phone conversation with a friend of mine about my bucket list. She knew of my plans for karaoke, she brainstormed other ideas with me, making suggestion after suggestion. Not because she was trying to be helpful, but because she was genuinely afraid for my safety. She knew there was something on my bucket list that terrified her and she refused to talk about it with me.
Eventually by the end of the phone call she said “I know you’re going to do it anyway, but I don’t want to hear about it until it’s done”.
It? What was it?
I wanted to pick up a hitchhiker and give them a lift.
By now I know most of you are probably screaming into the screen “Don’t do it – listen to your friend”. The very fact that I’m here today writing this story tells you one thing; I did it. I picked up a pair of hitchhikers and I survived to tell the story.
I’d been in the US for one week. I had already spent time in LA, on Manhattan Beach photographing a glorious sunset. I’d travelled up the coast passing through Santa Barbara before eventually making it to San Francisco where the Golden Gate Bridge quickly became my archnemesis.
On two separate days I tried to photograph the bridge at sunset; both times I got caught in traffic, missing the moment and angle I wanted. I managed to get some shots of the bridge, but I’m not happy with them. It’s funny how I can travel to the other side of the world and before I got to the location I already knew exactly how I wanted my image to look. I guess the Golden Gate Bridge is one of those worldwide landmarks that we’ve all seen a million times before, it’s a saturated image within our western culture. I can probably blame my failure to capture it in the way I wanted on this visual familiarity I already had with the bridge.
It was either that or my poor planning. I kept running out of sunlight. I’d traveled from Melbourne, Australia where it was summer and the sun was setting at 8:30PM, to California, USA where the sun was setting before 5:00PM. It’s a timing lesson that I struggled to adjust to within the first few weeks of my six-week trip.
When I left San Fran I spent two nights in Oakland before heading back south towards LA. After driving for a few hours I stopped at Kettleman City, deciding to get gas and some pancakes at Denny’s. As I parked the van, I spied two young people with huge hiking backpacks across the road. The homeless population of San Fran was hard to ignore, with the issue still in the forefront of my mind, I found myself wondering if the two people across the road were homeless or backpackers. I sat in the car, watching them walk down the street wondering what their story was.
Homeless or backpackers? I debated for a few minutes, starting to wonder if they could be possible hitchhiker candidates before eventually going into the restaurant and ordering.
As I ate my meal, the young couple entered Denny’s also, with the waiter placing them at a table next time mine. On closer inspection, both visually and from the offence my olfactory nerves were facing, I made a judgment call. They were homeless and probably hitchhikers. Now was the time to make my move. I decided I was going to approach them, suss out their suitability and potentially invite them back to my van. My strategy made me feel like I was a young man on the prowl at a bar, looking for someone to spend ‘quality’ time with.
Was I gunna get lucky tonight?
Am I about to tick a bucket list item I wondered?
I introduced myself, explained that I was traveling alone and asked if I could join the couple at their table. They looked at me like I was mad, crazy even. Their body posture was screaming no, but they were polite and said yes.
We ate together and soon enough they warmed up to me, more so the young man; his girlfriend, a younger woman seemed to remain reserved. He turned out to be quite charismatic and openly shared his life story that included 7 foster homes and a life of hitchhiking from the age of about 15.
I chose my moment and asked him “What’s the difference between hitchhiking and being homeless?”
“We aren’t homeless” he corrected me “We’re home free”.
Home free. I like it.
I pried pretty deep into their lives. They were self sufficient, and didn’t get any government welfare at all. The young man proudly showed me the jewelry he hand crafted. They had a simple existence. He makes jewelry, she sells it. They use the profits to buy more materials to make more jewelry and to cover their food and occasional accommodation bill.
Between them they had no debt, something most of us can’t say.
By this point in the conversation I had also worked out that the pair were ‘stoners’, as in, they smoked marijuana and I think it was this revelation that helped me pluck up the courage to finally go in for the kill… (what a bad pun).
“I’m headed to LA tonight, do you guys want a ride?”
The instant I asked, my body felt full of terror. I couldn’t see my own face, but I’m certain it was as pale as a ghost.
They happily agreed, after all they wanted to get to Bakersfield (which was on the way to LA).
The minute they said yes I felt violently ill, but had a massive rush of adrenaline at the same time. I lost my brain to mouth filter and blurted out that I was afraid. I even asked that they don’t kill me.
The girl spoke “We aren’t Bonnie and Clyde you know”. Her words were hardly comforting.
In a manner of seconds, different scenarios flashed through my mind. There was a knife attack, a robbery and a chase. I imagined myself running in a field, trying to escape these two, with their backpacks on. I decided that I could probably outrun them, and that whatever happened, it was best to allow them to smoke as much damn weed as they needed.
My next manic thought was that I needed to grab a photo of them (you know just in case they steal my van or kill me). I took out my camera and shot them (again another poor taste pun). The young man commented on my camera. “It must be worth a fortune” he noted as he got up to go clean up in the bathroom.
Oh dear god. He’s gunna steal my camera.
I quickly removed the SD card and placed it in my pocket, so that I’d have a photo of them (remember, in case they steal or kill me).
I was alone with the quiet young woman, trying to start a conversation and you know what the best thing I could come up with was? “So, what happens when you get your period?” Again, clearly my fear and adrenaline rush was impacting my brain to mouth process.
The guy returned and we made our way to the van. I secured my ThinkTank bag with my camera and laptop to the driver’s seat but wrapping the strap around the armrest and threading my seatbelt through it. They could have ANYTHING but the contents of that bag.
Sure enough they smoked in the van. There was a no smoking sign but in this case it was a matter of life or death… I figured the more stoned they were, the less of a threat they’d be.
The drive to Bakersfield was pretty calm. They were talkative at first but for the last 20 minutes the ride was silent, which was slightly unsettling., but even so – I made it alive. I survived picking up hitchhikers.
- Hitchhikers – Bucket list check.
- Golden Gate Bridge – Bucket List FAIL
My only regret about the experience is about the young girl. She was so shy and quiet. I wish that when I had a moment alone with her while he was in the bathroom that I had asked her if she’s safe and traveling at her own free will. There was something about their relationship dynamic that nags away at my mind sometimes.
About the Author
After spending over ten years in the corporate sector, Cherie McKay ventured into photography, quickly realising that the world didn’t need another backyard photographer – instead the world needed beautiful camera bags specifically designed for women. Cherie designed her own range of camera bags and founded the company SHUTTER|bag. Cherie sold SHUTTER|bag in 2013 and has been a freelance photographer/writer since.
Currently contracting to Good Talent Media as a PR & Social Media Consultant, Cherie uses her writing and communication skills to interview her clients with the goal of extracting the right angle to write a press release for her clients. Recently her press releases have been published in The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and Community Leader newspapers, as well as landing stories with major television and radio networks. She is a confident public speaker who has also appeared on several business and international photography podcasts with her writing being published on places like Mamamia and The Motherish and her travel/street photography gaining international recognition and awards, Cherie is very versatile in her skill set.