Honesty Is the Best Policy

In William Shakespeare’s famous play Hamlet​, the title character says, “To be honest, as this world goes, is to be one man picked out of ten thousand.”  No man ever understood the complexities of human nature, or wrote about them so eloquently, as Shakespeare.

I consider myself an honest man.  I wouldn’t say I’m Shakespeare’s one in ten thousand, but I try.  But I couldn’t make that claim when I was in my late teens and early twenties.  Back then I lied sometimes.  I don’t blame that on my parents; they instilled the right values in me, or I should say they tried to.  It wasn’t that I was a born liar, or anything like that.  It’s just that I was born to break rules, especially stupid rules, and do things the wrong way, as long as they didn’t harm anyone else and as long as I thought I could get away with it.  I’m still that way; it’s a lifelong hobby.  But I’m not kidding myself.  When I was a young man I did some dishonest things, petty as they were, that I would never do today.  I evolved naturally, changed my ways, and became a better man.  I’ll tell you about one little embarrassing incident, which I’ll sandwich into a bigger story about my most challenging hitchhiking adventure.

In the summer of 1974 I came up with the zany idea of hitchhiking from my home on Long Island to Alaska and back.  Not that it wasn’t doable, it’s just that as a 20-year-old with only one independent adventure under my belt, I had no idea how difficult a trip like this would be, no idea that I was getting in way over my head.  I made it to Montana in good time, and from just outside Glacier National Park, walked into Canada.  Everything was so easy at the customs posts those days.  No hassles at all in either direction.  However, no sooner was I in Canada than I ran into serious difficulties getting lifts.  When you stick your thumb out, there’s no “average” time waiting for someone to pull over.  It can be five minutes, it can be forty-five minutes, but seldom was it more than an hour.  But now more than an hour, more than even two hours, became the rule.  A real bummer.  The northbound route I had chosen skirted the line that divided Alberta and British Columbia, and carried a fair amount of traffic, but man, there were some long waits.  At one junction there were five or six other hitchhikers going the same way as me – something I’d never seen – and etiquette required that I walk to the back of the line.  I stopped to talk to one.  He told me there was a news bulletin about a convicted murderer who had escaped from a local prison and was on the loose.  That was the reason so few people were stopping to pick up a stranger.  Great.

This was going to be tough.  After an unproductive hour, I decided to walk half a mile down the road, figuring perhaps that someone might drive by this bunched-up group, have second thoughts about not stopping, and give me a lift.  Strange psychology on my part, to be sure.  While I was standing there all alone, a black bear came bouncing out of the forest fifty yards away and disappeared into the woods on the other side of the road!  Whether or not my strategy worked, and not knowing what had happened to those other hitchhikers, an older American couple, who were taking a leisurely trip around the Canadian Rockies, stopped for me.  The man asked if I wanted to join them for a half day exploring and hiking around Lake Louise.  Thanks but no thanks, I said.  This irritated him.  “I don’t understand you,” he said.  “Lake Louise is the most beautiful lake in North America.  We can take you right there and you don’t even want to see it?”  He had more to say, and by the time he dropped me off I was convinced that Lake Louise was the most gorgeous lake on the planet, if not in the entire universe.  Well, maybe I shouldn’t be so cheeky.  Maybe I turned down a great opportunity.  But I was just a young guy who had never heard of Lake Louise and wanted to keep moving.  Yeah, it would’ve been nice to see, but I survived and later got to see photos of it on the internet.

Later that afternoon I was lucky to get a lift from a hippie couple in a small camper.  The woman in the passenger seat said, “We’re going about a hundred miles but we’ll have to drop you off in the middle of nowhere.  You okay with that?”  “Sure, why not.”  “Do you like dogs?”  “As long as they don’t bite.”  She got out and opened up the back.  There was all kinds of junk and a large mixed-breed dog that seemed bored with life.  “The dog’s name is Fella.”  So Fella and I rode into the evening.  He took no interest in me.  I was glad for the ride, but it was uncomfortable, what with lying sideways on all these odds and ends stacked unevenly.  It was dusk when I felt us slowing down and coming to a stop.  The hippies were turning down a gravel side road to God knows where, and boy, she wasn’t kidding about the middle of nowhere.  I was still on the main road of course, Route 93, so I wasn’t too worried, but it would be dark soon and I saw no sense in trying to go further, especially with very little traffic at that hour, so I unrolled my sleeping bag, wondering if I was live bear bait.  Little did I know this would be the most unforgettable night of my life.

I don’t know what time it was when I opened my eyes to see these white, undulating wisps of light filling the entire sky.  I had no idea what it was.  Was the universe coming to an end?  It was majestically beautiful beyond words, but at the same time, lying there all alone, awe mingled with uncomprehending fear.  Years later, I instantly related to something I read about primitive savages becoming terrified by a solar eclipse.  And many years after that, I would make two special efforts to see this phenomenon again, but to no avail.  I doubt I’ll ever experience it again.  As a boy, I’d once read about it in an encyclopedia, but that night, by the side of the road in the vast Canadian wilderness, I had no idea that I was seeing the Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights.

With persistence I arrived in a town called Jasper, in the heart of the Canadian Rockies.  It had taken me four days after leaving Montana, while it should’ve taken me two.  I’d made it nearly three-quarters of the way to Alaska since leaving home, but I was having my doubts about getting there.  It didn’t help that I now realized I probably hadn’t brought enough money, and that even though the days were pleasantly warm, it got pretty damn cold at night in the mountains.  I had no warm clothes and only a thin sleeping bag.  On the edge of Jasper I met a guy named Kim Harrison from British Columbia, from a town with the strange name of Salmon Arm, who, like me, had also been hitching and getting frustrated fast.  I don’t recall where he was going.  Since we were near a railway yard that seemed pretty busy, we kicked around the idea of jumping a freight train, something neither of us had ever done.  It was late, after 9 PM, but at that latitude it’s still quite light out at that hour in the summer months.

We headed to the yard and walked around among the slamming sounds of freight cars being coupled.  We had no idea what trains were going where and when they would leave.  On my map there was a city called Prince George to the northwest, and I decided if our train went there I’d keep pushing for Alaska, otherwise I’d probably give up and head back home.  Prince George was still 250 miles from Dawson Creek, the beginning of the Alaska Highway, which ran almost 1200 miles to the Alaska border, and in 1974 it was all gravel.  Like I said, way over my head.

It’s prohibited, of course, to trespass on railway property, Canadian Pacific in this case, and flagrantly illegal to ride on freight trains.  The railroads have their own police who can arrest you for trespassing, and there’s a fair chance they will and you’ll spend at least one night in jail if you get caught.  That’s what makes it so much fun.  I wasn’t too worried about being spotted but Kim was paranoid about it. He wanted to climb on a rail car, any rail car, and get out of sight right away so that’s what we did.  We picked a gondola car loaded with five huge industrial spools held inside a long pallet.  An hour or so later the train pulled out.  As it got dark we rolled out our sleeping bags.  There was about three feet of space on either side of the spools.  Had the cargo shifted we would’ve been crushed against the side of the car.  But the cargo didn’t shift and that’s why I’m here to tell you about it.

In the morning we climbed on top of one of the spools to take in the stunning mountain scenery.  Man, I was in my glory – a king on his throne.  I asked Kim to take a picture of me with my camera. It was a great photo with fir trees and glistening mountains in the background, which I would’ve enlarged and framed, but damn it, I lost in one of my many moves.  The scenery everywhere was spectacular.  For many miles the tracks ran right alongside a raging river, and a few times we passed old wrecks where flatcars, now rusting, had derailed and tumbled into the rapids.  This was remote country, but now and then we rolled through a crossing, the gates down, with vehicles waiting for the train to pass.  We waved each time, and each time cars honked or truckers blasted their air horns.  Man, it was sweet.  So illegal and so much fun.

But it wasn’t all fun.  Sometimes the train pulled off on a siding to wait for another train going in the opposite direction to pass.  We seemed to be low priority.  These waits were maddeningly long – at times close to an hour.  Aside from that, I couldn’t figure out which way we were going.  Then during one of those annoying delays I happened to see a small sign that read “Clearwater.”  Checking my map I could see that we weren’t going northwest, but rather southwest towards Kamloops, a city situated about a hundred miles north of Washington state.  Well, that decided it for me: I was going to start heading home.  I said goodbye to Kim, got off the train, walked to the highway which ran parallel to the tracks, and stuck my thumb out once again.

While recounting this story at a family dinner recently, I wondered out loud how Kim was doing.  It was just one of those silly little things that pops into your head now and then.  Then I had an idea.  I don’t do social media, but I asked my niece, who’s on Facebook, to look for a Kim Harrison in Salmon Arm.  Lo and behold, she found someone with that name in that town, who graduated from high school in 1972, the year after me.  It has to be him, no doubt about it.  Kim, buddy, if by any wild chance you’re reading these lines, hey, we knew each other for less than a day, but that was a hell of an adventure, wasn’t it?  I’m sure you still remember it.

Fragments of memories, I’ve written elsewhere.  Looking back on my travels long ago, I’m amazed at how I remember certain things so clearly, down to the finest detail, yet there are also bits and pieces that are a total blank.  For instance, I remember getting off the train in Clearwater, and then hopping on another train, this time alone, in a town called Revelstoke, 200 miles to the east, but I remember nothing about getting there, though it had to be by automobile, one or more drivers giving me a ride.  Anyway, I was headed further east to Calgary, a big city which you’ve probably heard of, and this time I was in a boxcar that had only one door open, not nearly as enjoyable as the open-air ride in that gondola car, though I was still high up in the mountains.  When we rolled into the marshalling yards in Calgary, I was overwhelmed by the size of the place, and not knowing where I was, and being exasperated with the slow pace of hitchhiking, I did something funky – I walked to the nearest road, flagged down a taxi, and asked him to take me to the bus station.

When I got to the bus terminal I studied my map along with the bus schedule.  I just wanted to get on a bus and cover some serious ground for a while without dealing with the Canadian hitchhiking drought, then dip back into the States in North Dakota or Minnesota.  There was a bus leaving soon for a small city called Regina, 472 miles to the east, which stopped at a few towns along the way, the largest of which was Medicine Hat, 183 miles away.  Perfect.  I set my sights on Regina but bought a ticket for Medicine Hat, choosing a window seat near the back of the bus.

We pulled into the small station in Medicine Hat, where there was a snack break and a change of drivers.  Some people were only going this far, some got off for a bite to eat, and some new passengers were waiting to get on.  I stayed in my seat.  The new driver came down the aisle, asking passengers to show their tickets.  I told him I’d bought a ticket to Regina but had thrown it out.  He seemed puzzled, but didn’t say anything and walked away.  He stood outside by the door letting new passengers on, and checking the tickets of those who were reboarding.  The bus was nearly full and we were ready to go.  The driver stood in the front, counting heads.  Then he recounted them.  This was beginning to not look good.  Then he walked to the back and said to me,  “Are you sure you bought a ticket to Regina?”  “Yes I did.”  “I think you’re lying to me.  I think you bought a ticket to Medicine Hat and you’re trying to get a free ride to Regina.  Am I right?”    I said nothing.  He had me. 
“You know what’s going to happen if I call the police, don’t you?”  I got up and walked past the other passengers, who had been watching and listening the whole time.  I felt like whale shit on the bottom of the ocean.  The driver followed me out and opened up the luggage compartment so I could grab my pack, while people watched out the window.  God, I’d never felt so low.  He never said a word the whole time.  How professional can you get?
That’s not the only dishonest thing I did when I was young, but it’s the only time I recall getting caught and shamed.  I would never do anything like that now, which is not to say I’d never lie.  In fact I did​ lieagain in my travels, which I’ll get to.  But over the years I developed a personal code to live by, which means being honest with people as a matter of course.  It really does pay to tell the truth, even when it’s embarrassing or otherwise to your detriment.  If you’re a good person you’ll always feel better for it, and people will remember and respect you for it.  No one respects liars, except other liars.

So now I see the wisdom in the old adage that honesty is the best policy.  It really is.  When you tell the truth all the time you never have to worry about contradicting a previous lie.  But I hasten to add that the rules of life are not black and white, and in some circumstances, like dealing with someone who’s a liar himself or who’s rotten or incorrigibly stupid, I’d have no problem with lying.  And if I were caught and accused by that person of lying, I’d say, “You’re right, I lied.  You’re an asshole, so why shouldn’t I lie to you?”  If the person was bigger than me, I’d think it rather than say it.  But I wouldn’t recommend lying to government agents because they can send you to prison for it.  They can lie with impunity, but you can’t.  That’s the name of the game, unfortunately – for now.

Unusual circumstances can crop up too, and here I’ll tell you another travel story where I lied, 42 years after getting straightened out in Medicine Hat.  In October 2016 I joined a small group on an 8-day organized trip to Iran.  I was the only American in the group.  For a U.S. citizen, independent travel was not possible, and in fact was quite difficult with a group as well.  Applying for a visa involved by far the most red tape, and the longest wait for it to be approved, that I’ve ever experienced – nearly two months.  It’s usually more like two days.  But it was well worth it.  I feel lucky I was able to go because it was a great trip, and three months later, after Trump became president, and started in with all his anti-Iran bluster, I’m sure they stopped issuing visas to Americans altogether, not to mention the severe restrictions on all international travel brought on by the Covid scamdemic.

On the second half of our trip we had a tour guide who was a real character, a man after my own heart who enjoyed disobeying laws he considered stupid.  The law in Iran then was that all foreign visitors were free to wander around on their own, except British and American citizens, who had to be accompanied at all times by a local guide.  Farouk thought this was ludicrous and he wasn’t shy about saying so.  We were in the beautiful city of Isfahan, and I really felt like breaking away for a few hours and exploring the souk​, the huge covered market, on my own.  But of course I didn’t want to do anything illegal either, though I doubted I would be arrested for such a minor infraction.  Iran is not a repressive dictatorship, and Americans are warmly welcomed there, despite what you have been led to believe by the television screen.  Farouk encouraged me to do my own thing, and gave me his cell phone number in case I had a problem.  I was concerned that he might get into trouble if I did, and mentioned this.  Jokester that he was, he snapped his fingers and said, “Don’t worry about me, I’m cool.”  I said, “Maybe I’ll just say I’m Canadian if anyone asks.”  He thought that was a good idea.

Well, I went shopping in the souk to buy some gifts, stopping at three or four shops.  The friendly merchants I met all spoke some English, and all of them asked what country I was from.  I felt cheap each time I lied and said Canada.  One said, “Toronto?”  “Near Toronto,” I replied, hoping he wouldn’t ask for more details and make me come up with another lie.  Thankfully he didn’t.  So how do I feel about that now, five years later?  Well, I think I did the right thing, even though it was the wrong thing.  Not that I think any of these merchants would’ve called the police if I had told them I was an American.  My guess is that they would’ve been even more cordial.  But it didn’t hurt to play it safe.  Right and wrong isn’t always a matter of black and white.

Anyway, let me tell you what happened after I got off the bus in Medicine Hat, which is due north of Montana, cowboy country.  I walked around town a bit, and looking in the window of a men’s shop, a plaid, pocketless, short-sleeve shirt priced at $10 caught my eye.  I went inside and bought it.  I loved that shirt.  I must’ve worn it for fifteen years before it became so threadbare that my chest hairs practically stuck through it.

I got back on the road and eventually a pick-up truck driven by an older man pulled over.  “I’m drunk as a skunk,” he said through the open passenger side window.  “Do you want me to drive?” I said.  “Get in.”  I thought about it for a moment, then got in.  Alex really was drunk, the only time an intoxicated driver ever stopped for me.  He didn’t drive erratically, though, just slowly – like 30 mph in a 65 mph zone.  I was afraid we were going to get rear-ended, but fortunately there wasn’t much traffic, and I wasn’t in his truck for long.  Nevertheless, he was kind of fun to talk with.  An awful stink hit us at one point.  I asked him what it was.  Paper mill, he said, where they turned wood pulp into paper, and he slurrily explained the process.

I walked across the Friendship Bridge from Fort Frances, in Ontario province, and entered the United States at International Falls, Minnesota, one of the bleakest American towns I’ve ever seen, and as I later learned, one of the coldest in North America as well.  I’ve crossed the border back and forth at least ten times from Maine to Montana, mostly in my car, and this was also the unfriendliest.  In those happy years all one needed to show for ID on both sides was a drivers license, and that’s what I showed the unsmiling female official in the customs building who regarded me with suspicion, but did not interrogate me.

A few rides took me to the streets of Duluth, on the shore of Lake Superior, where I saw a man with a nose so big he looked like a proboscis monkey.  The only comparable schnoz I ever saw was not in Israel, as you would guess, but in Edinburgh, Scotland.  Don’t ask me why I remember such things, but while I’m at it I’ll tell you that the ghastliest face I ever saw was in El Oued, Algeria.  There I saw a man who had no nose at all, just two small holes where his nose should’ve been. 

A nice man gave me a lift on I-94 in Wisconsin and treated me to lunch at a KFC in Tomah, which was having a grand opening.  This was actually one of the healthier meals I ate on that trip.  For a few weeks I’d been drinking a lot of coffee and eating a lot of ice cream bars, and not much else.  And I paid for it.  Shortly before I made it home, I started getting serious stomach pains, and although I’m not a hypochondriac, I made an appointment with our family doctor because I really thought I’d developed an ulcer.  But the discomfort went away on its own after a few weeks.  Although I still drink coffee – I wouldn’t think of starting the day without it – and usually have a little ice cream at night, I’m much more health-conscious now, and whenever I travel domestically, most of my meals are from fresh fruits and vegetables, plus some meat of course, purchased in a supermarket.  Looking back on my youthful indiscretions, it’s hard for me to believe that I once ate so foolishly.  That’s another way I transformed myself over the years.

In Indiana a young lady in a Chevy Camaro stopped for me.  She was the pretty and sassy type, as was her friend in the passenger seat.  “We don’t usually pick up hitchhikers, but you looked so innocent,” she said.  You look innocent too, I thought.  Maybe we should all get better acquainted.  Well, you know what goes through a young man’s mind.  That wasn’t the first time I heard that, by the way, and it wouldn’t be the last.  Remember, this was the hippie era when most hitchhikers were long-haired freaks, or otherwise disheveled.  But these two gals weren’t quite that innocent.  The driver of an eighteen-wheeler did something, I forget what, that provoked both of them to stick their middle fingers out the window.  That big rig then fell in right behind us – as in less than five feet – at 70 mph.  The woman gunned it to well over 80, but he stayed right on our tail.  It was scary; I really thought he would try to bump us.  This guy was sick in the head.  She did manage to shake him off after a few minutes at a very high speed.  They were listening to a rock music station.  At one point, the disc jockey broke in with the news that fat Mama Cass, of The Mamas and The Papas, whose music I quite liked and still like despite their dissolute lifestyles, had just died in London, supposedly from choking on a ham sandwich.

For some reason, I waited for more than an hour near the toll booths of the Ohio Turnpike, I-90, on the outskirts of Toledo.  There was much more traffic on the interstate, of course, so I decided to take my chances hitching right on the highway, though as I walked down the entrance ramp I wondered about the legality of it.  I didn’t wonder long because a state trooper pulled up, got out of his cruiser, and asked me for identification.  I gave him my drivers license.  After looking it over he smiled and said, “You’re under arrest, John.  You’re going to jail.”  He opened the back door and said, “Put your pack on the seat.”  I did as I was told.  My backpack was the one I’d used on camping trips when I was in the scouts, and it still had a Boy Scouts of America logo, which the trooper noticed.  “Were you a boy scout?” he asked.  I said that I was.  “Then you oughtta know better than to break the law.”  He told me to sit in the front, though he never handcuffed me.  I turned on the Massaro charm, doing my best “I’m just a nice guy, never hurt anybody” routine.  I guess it worked because he got off at the first exit and let me out with a warning.

Actually, while I believe that hitchhiking is legal in nearly all American jurisdictions, there are gray areas, local statutes, and nasty cops which, in addition to the small chance that you’ll get picked up by a maniac of some kind, make it a true adventure.  Most cops regard hitchhikers with suspicion, probably for good reason.  Although I was never actually arrested, I did come close four times, and those are good stories, but they’ll have to wait for me to write about them, because I’ve already gotten way off topic and written too much,
In sum, travel is always educational, sometimes in ways you’d least expect it.  Here’s what I learned during my unsuccessful quest to hitchhike to Alaska in 1974.  First, do your homework in preparation for any kind of trip.  Second, eat food that’s good for you.  Don’t subsist on junk food.  Third, never escalate road rage, even if you were wronged.  And never flip off another driver.  Fourth, if you’re going to hitchhike, look presentable.  It’s much easier getting lifts that way.  Fifth, if you’re going to hitchhike, stay off toll roads.  I believe it’s illegal everywhere.  (I refused to heed this the following year, and got in trouble again just outside Toledo.)  Finally, and most importantly, unless you have a good reason to lie, or if it’s wiser to remain silent, tell the truth all the time.  It really is an excellent rule to live by.

By the way, it was Ben Franklin who said, “Honesty is the best policy.”  Then was when we had an honest government.