Until that October a few years ago, I had never hitchhiked, much less in rural Mexico. But when I found myself alone and nearly broke in the desert of Baja California - a situation I had willingly put myself into, I should point out - the desperation of the moment seemed to negate the supposed dangers of climbing into a car with a stranger.
It ended up being so easy, too. In the remote ranch town of Cataviña, I had only to wait for about 20 minutes beside Mexico Highway 1 before a husband-and-wife team pulled onto the dirt shoulder and invited me into their hatchback. From there, I became the constant passenger, bumming rides in a dozen cars and big rigs and engaging in 20 or 30 solid hours of on-the-road conversation over the course of two weeks. In my rough Spanish, I told people how I had taken time away from my paralegal job in Philly to complete an assignment for a travel publisher. How I was in the throes of a crisis about what to do with the rest of my 20s.
They probably thought I was crazy. But one man, Poncho, a field hand from San Quintín, claimed to understand perfectly what it was to take senseless risks for paltry returns. He had been successfully smuggled into California, where he had worked for wages upward of $15 an hour. But less than a year later - according to Poncho, this was the part of the story where he took a big chance - he had returned to Baja California, the place where he felt most like himself.
For me, the story was proof positive that I was meant to live out my 20s on the road. The concept of home, after all, is different to everyone. It was the idea of staying too long in a single city that felt most alien to me, especially when people like Poncho were willing to drive me anywhere in the world for free. But did I have the gall to quit my job and start pitching stories to underfunded travel publications?
I still don't know the answer to that. A short time after my return, amid rumors of a looming recession, the law firm would lay me off. I would mope for a while about losing my paid vacation and my health insurance, but in the end, I would find that I had gotten exactly what I'd been waiting for: a situation so desperate it would warrant measures as ill-advised as hitchhiking the length of Baja California or launching a career in travel writing.
To my relief, I actually finished that first travel-writing expedition without exceeding my extremely limited budget. As the sun was setting that October night, I arrived in Tijuana, the outlaw town that separated Mexico from the United States, and me from my life as a paralegal. But as I walked across the border into San Ysidro, Calif., I suppose I already knew I hadn't seen the last of Mexico.