If you’ve ever been to Las Vegas, you’re probably familiar with the feeling of desperately wanting to get out of Las Vegas. And if you left Las Vegas and drove west towards LA, you’d soon pass through the last town in Nevada, a place known to the locals as “Stateline.”
This is the small city of Primm. It rises out of the hot desert like a 6 Flags crossed with highway truck stop crossed with a casino. Actually, the city of Primm mainly consists of a few casinos, a giant gas station, and of course the skyline wouldn’t be complete without a roller coaster.
It was an October afternoon in 2016 that I found myself in Primm. And yes, like Vegas, I was desperate to get out.
I had been hitchhiking all day. That morning, I woke up in Needles, California and hitched a ride to the Mojave Desert National Park. I was dropped off at the visitor center in the town of Kelso, where the ranger informed me that the restaurant had closed 2 years earlier, there was no food available in the entire park, and Kelso is effectively a ghost town.
I had some peanut butter and no water so I walked out of the visitor center and accepted the first ride offered to me, which came from a retired couple heading to Stateline.
So then I’m hitching out of Stateline, heading back to California (Los Angeles was the hopeful destination), and finally a dark purple El Camino screeches to a stop and I hop in.
The driver is a guy in his mid-to-late 20s. I’ll call him Jake. Jake has long hair, thick rimmed glasses, and his El Camino is filled with junk. It seems he’s living out of his car, but the way he tells it, he’s living the adventure / vagabond life, alternating between Utah, Los Angeles, and Wyoming, mountain-biking and staying on friends’ couches. AND, it turns out he’s heading to LA!
Jake and I seemed to be kindred spirits. Backpackers of a feather. I was living out of my backpack, Jake out of his El Camino. I was touring the world, Jake the USA. So when Jake invited me to his brother’s house to celebrate his birthday, I accepted.
In retrospect, there were red flags during our 3 hour drive to LA. When we got to telling stories, Jake told me how he and his friends used to break into abandoned houses in LA in highschool. One house seemed to be haunted. Then they found blood and bones in a kitchen cooler, so they doused the place with gasoline and burned it down.
Well… everyone harbors some delusions, right?
Jake’s story unsettled me. But I always strive to see the good in people, especially when I’m hitchhiking and relying on the kindness of strangers. I also wanted to go to a birthday party in LA. So I went.
When we arrive at the house, things got eery.
We pull into the driveway. As we’re getting out of the car, a motorcycle roars into the driveway. The guy riding the motorcycle looks like the skinheads from American History X. Spoiler alert! This is Jake’s brother, and he is a skinhead!
Jake’s brother – I’ll call him “Brother” – has a soulpatch, tattoos, no hair, and his resting face looks very angry. “Follow me,” he instructed. He wasn’t acting like it was his birthday.
We pulled out of the driveway in the El Camino and followed Brother on his bike. He literally pulled out of the driveway into another driveway across the street. The driveway was no less than 60 yards, straight back to a classic California one-story house with a 2 car garage. This was Brother’s parents house.
Around this time, Jake tells me sheepishly that Brother is not his actual brother. Just a childhood friend who “looked after him” as they grew up. I asked Jake, as diplomatically as possible, why he needed to be looked after. Jake explained that he grew up in a mostly black and Latino neighborhood, so his school system was only 12% white. So he got picked on. So Brother protected him. From the blacks.
Brother didn’t like black people. And he didn’t like cops. As we hung out at his birthday party that night, I would hear him say things such as:
“The only good cop is a dead cop.”
“Do you associate with cops, Tom?”
“I killed my first n—– when I was 19.”
“Do you want some meth, Tom?”
“Hitchhiking, eh? That’s kinda effeminate.”
What a party! Strangely, we spent the entire night (2-3 hours before I was able to wiggle my way out of the situation safely) standing in the driveway and garage. I was never offered a beer. I assumed they were recovering alcoholics. I was offered some weed (I accepted, partly for fear of being pegged as a narc). I was offered crystal meth (I declined).
As the night went on, I had side conversations with Jake as we smoked cigarettes and Brother chatted with his parents and one skinhead friend also in attendance. Jake made half-apologies for Brother’s demeanor. He had warned me on the drive that Brother liked to push people’s buttons, but for some reason he had assumed that I would be okay with party conversation that revolved heavily around racism, threatened violence, paranoia and close encounters with the law. At one point, somebody on the sidewalk walked past the driveway (remember: literally 60 yards from the house), and Brother literally stopped talking and said “Who the fuck is that?” Things were really tense for a few moments. I figured I was about to learn where Brother and his parents kept their guns. Alas, the pedestrian was simply… walking down the sidewalk. The nerve!
Eventually, the party moved back across the street to Brother’s house. Well, his garage anyway. A female friend had arrived recently. She was young and blonde with the sad twisted face of a tweaker. Soon the meth was busted out. I had already mentioned to Jake that I was feeling tired and hoping to get a motel that night. Jake told Brother that we had to go. He made up a lie about his sister having graduation the next morning. It was October. Actually, Jake had lied a lot that night. He had lied to me in the car, he had lied to Brother and the other partygoers about why he had been arrested recently, and he had concealed the fact that he was still dating the girl who he had been arrested with (he revealed this to me in the car, but Brother and the others did not approve of the girl, so Jake lied).
I was stuck in Apple Valley swimming in Jake’s sea of lies. As we loaded into the El Camino and drove to find a motel, Jake was strangely calm. His speech was suddenly slower. He stared ahead at the road and nodded as I searched for motels. He seemed like someone who had just done battle with his two personalities, and had emerged a loser.
Jake offered to let me stay at his uncle’s house that night in central LA. “My uncle won’t be home. You can stay on the couch. Well, he might be home. But then you can sleep in the car and I’ll sleep on the couch.”
Yes, Jake, I’d love to find out how fucked up and despicable your uncle is.
Is not what I said… but I did decline as politely as possible. In the end, it was me lieing, telling Jake that I’d call him the next day, and I’d love to hang out soon.
The next day I hopped a Greyhound to San Francisco. I was strangely not calm. I had witnessed an ugly side of humanity. Even worse, I had been a bystander. I had literally smiled in the face of pure evil, rather than confront it, purely out of fear for my own safety and fear of the discomfort that comes with confrontation. I was humbled, and I was scared for America.
A week later, Donald Trump was elected president, and yes, Brother voted for him.
I am still hitchhiking regularly.