Race and the great American adventure

A family of migrant workers on their way to New Jersey, near Shawboro, North Carolina. Photo by John Delano, courtesy Library of Congress.

Jay Atlas and Shannon Sprowal were looking for a place to sleep as they shuffled down the asphalt of Highway 30 toward Everett, Pennsylvania, a town of 1,800 in the low northern Appalachians. It was the summer of 2013, and the young men were two weeks into a walk across America to raise awareness about human trafficking. The trek had begun in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and would draw them past cornfields, down main streets, through villages and metropolises, across the Mississippi River, more cornfields, more small towns and into Walmarts and Exxon stations, always talking to people about their cause, every mile another mile of America until they reached the Pacific Ocean and there were 3,400 miles behind them. They had never tried anything like it before, weren’t trained endurance athletes, and had made almost no preparations. En route to Los Angeles, they would gain national notoriety online through the stories of people who met them, but as they crossed Pennsylvania, they had only a Facebook page and a stack of fliers.

It was evening as they walked under the powerlines of Highway 30, passing gambrel-roofed barns and homestead houses, the greys of rural parking lots and the greens of front yards. Everett, hometown of horror novelist Dean Koontz, was formerly Bloody Run, Pennsylvania, named after an 18th century battle between settlers and the Native Americans who lived at the river bend.

To Atlas, the town seemed about the same as the one they’d slept in the night before, forty miles behind them, and his mood was high, his thoughts bending toward the sleeping bag. But things took a strange turn just past the cemetery where the highway becomes Main Street.

They heard him shout before they saw him: “You people need to get out of here.”

Atlas and Sprowal looked over, startled, and saw a grey-haired man descending the steps of his cluttered porch, approaching them. They kept walking, but, like a dog with a shock collar, he followed them to
edge of his property.

“You niggers got no business in this town,” he threatened.

Atlas stayed quiet. Sprowal responded. “What the fuck man,” he said. But they didn’t pursue any argument, and instead turned their backs and kept on toward the center of town. They didn’t see the man get into his car.

Atlas and Sprowal grew up together in a mixed-race neighborhood on the outskirts of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and both were from mixed-race backgrounds: Sprowal’s father was White and his mother was Black, and in Atlas’s family it was the reverse. “For us, the race thing is a weird thing to look at. Unless somebody’s blatant about it, we kind of tend to ignore it. We don’t recognize it until it’s brought up.”

The race thing got brought up pretty early on, though. Before they left on their trip, they canvassed Philadelphia, talking to people about human trafficking and how they planned to spread their message. When they spoke at a couple of Black churches in the poorer parts of town, they met with the most forthright confrontation of their identity, and whether or not that made them suitable for such an adventure. “There were strange responses,” says Atlas, “Folks would say, ‘You can’t be doing that. It’s not something Black folks do.’ I think it was just a shock.”

Tensions were high in the Black community, remembers Atlas, because of what was going on in the news at that time. The trial of George Zimmerman was on television. Zimmerman, a neighborhood watchman, had followed an unarmed Black teenager named Trayvon Martin as the young man traversed his suburban neighborhood one rainy evening in Florida. He had confronted Martin, struggled with him, and then shot and killed him. Zimmerman was acquitted of all charges on July 14, 2013. The next day, Atlas and Sprowal set out on foot from Atlantic City toward the Pacific Ocean.


Main Street in Everett, Pennsylvania.

The right to travel was inscribed into the Magna Carta in 1215 and into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, but it doesn’t appear in the U.S. Constitution. For Americans, the only legal protection of what the United Nations considers a fundamental human right was won through a series of court cases that have hitched themselves to the “privileges and immunities” clause of the Constitution. The clause reads, rather dryly: “The Citizens of each State shall be entitled to all Privileges and Immunities of Citizens in the several States.”

Like so much constitutional law, the clause is an ugly kernel that was forced open under the scrutiny of later judges. In 1823, circuit court judge Bushrod Washington established that privileges and immunities implied “the right of a citizen of one State to pass through, or to reside in any other State.”

The proper unfurling of the right to travel didn’t come until 1857, however, when Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney, in his majority opinion to Scott v. Sandford, culled from the privileges and immunities clause the poetry it deserved as the Constitution’s only defense of the freedom of movement. The clause, wrote Taney in prose seeded with alliteration, was intended to provide US citizens

the right to enter every other State whenever they pleased, singly or in companies, without pass or passport, and without obstruction, to sojourn there as long as they pleased, to go where they pleased at every hour of the day or night without molestation, unless they committed some violation of law for which a White man would be punished.

The fact that Justice Taney refers specifically to laws governing White men was not incidental. His opinion for Scott v. Sandford, also known as the Dred Scott case, was written not to define the privileges of Americans—or even White Americans—but to define the privileges that Black Americans didn’t have. The Dred Scott case stripped Black people of their right to citizenship, establishing that slaves were private property and could not earn their freedom simply by establishing residence in a free state. The above passage, which remains the most resonant legal enunciation of the right to travel, was written in the negative. If you scroll back a few sentences, here’s how it’s couched:

It cannot be believed that the large slaveholding States regarded [Black people] as included in the word citizens. ...For if they were so received, and entitled to the privileges and immunities of citizens... it would give to persons of the negro race, who were recognised as citizens in any one State of the Union, the right to enter every other State whenever they pleased...

The freedom to sojourn, day or night, without being stopped or harassed as long as one commits no crime—this language entered into US policy only to deny this right to Black people.


The United States has a tradition of traveling rough and Jack Kerouac is the patron saint of its modern period. If you’re a hitchhiker, you know the name, if only because he titled his best novel “On the Road” which is like owning a copyright on rough traveling. The French-speaking, broad-shouldered, high-school fullback joined the Merchant Marines during the second world war, then the Navy, then studied at Columbia University, then started traveling around America looking for trouble. He drove a Cadillac, a pick-up truck, sometimes called his mother to wire him money for bus fare. But what he’s most famous for is roughing it – tossing a backpack onto a freight car or into a stranger’s back seat, sleeping in the filthy new-growth of train yards or the pure air of the Sierra Nevadas. “I see a vision of a great rucksack revolution thousands or even millions of young Americans wandering around with rucksacks,” wrote Kerouac in 1958.

One of Kerouac’s role models was John Muir, the Scottish-American naturalist who, among other exploits, crossed the US north to south on foot just after the Civil War and wrote a book about it, A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf. But it’s wrong to say that Muir was Kerouac’s idol. Kerouac copied him, sure, but he didn’t want to be him, didn’t want to be a White, educated traveler. Kerouac’s “rucksack revolution” was about escaping what he called the “middle-class non-identity” and it had as much to do with class as it did with race. There’s a scene right in the middle of On the Road that cuts right to the chase, maybe caught up in willful ignorance and false, almost pernicious nostalgia – but also so strange and so sad and so sewn to the heart of what it meant to be Jack Kerouac:

At lilac evening I walked with every muscle aching among the lights of 27th and Welton in the Denver colored section, wishing I were a Negro, feeling that the best the White world had offered was not enough ecstasy for me, not enough life... I wished I were a Denver Mexican, or even a poor overworked Jap, anything but what I was so drearily, a “White man” disillusioned. ...I was only myself, Sal Paradise, sad, strolling in this violet dark, this unbearably sweet night, wishing I could exchange worlds with the happy, true-hearted, ecstatic Negroes of America.

Kerouac’s alter ego Sal continues to walk through the ghetto, catching a few minutes of a pick-up baseball game, observing people on porches talking and drinking beer. But the exchange of worlds never happens and the scene ends like this:

I walked away from there. I went to see a rich girl I knew. In the morning she pulled a hundred-dollar bill out of her silk stocking and said, ‘You’ve been talking of a trip to Frisco; that being the case, take this and go and have your fun.’ So all my problems were solved and I got a travel-bureau car for eleven dollars’ gas-fare to Frisco and zoomed over the land.


Very few people of color hitchhike across the US, or bike across, or cross by foot, or by walking on their hands (like Vietnam veteran and double-amputee Bob Wieland). This type of feat—usually inspired by a good cause, a sense of adventure, or a desire to prove something, and usually very visible—is a different thing entirely from simply hitchhiking or walking long distances, which was often the only means of travel for runaway slaves in the 19th century, for Black Southerners headed north during the Great Migration of the 20th century, or for undocumented migrants from even further south in the 21st century. Depending on the background of the traveler, one trip can be the very opposite of another: All the while people have been tramping across the land in search of security, there have been people like John Muir, Jack Kerouac, and Into the Wild’s Chris McCandless who walked the back corridors in flight from security.

It’s not that Black or brown adventurers don’t seek thrills in the alternative modes of transportation that rely on strangers’ trust to navigate the national patchwork of public and private spaces. But they are a small minority. “We looked at lists,” says Jay Atlas, “Wikipedia puts them together, of people who have cycled across the country or walked across the country, and there's not a lot of diversity in that list.” He points out that the absence of people of color is most likely exaggerated by the bias of whoever puts the information online, but his own experience didn’t refute it. “The majority of folks that we came across were that 20 year-old, college-age, White male. That seems to be the majority on the road.”

When I put out a general query to find non-White hitchhikers, the administrators of HitchWiki.org—the largest online resource for those traveling by thumb—gave my email address to Heather M, a half-Afro-Caribbean, half-Scottish-Canadian hitchhiker who has perambulated her own Canada as well as the US, Australia, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, Mongolia, and most of Europe. Heather (who prefers not to give her last name) has been living out of a backpack for the better part of 15 years and has never met another Black hitchhiker. According to her, the folks at HitchWiki put us in touch because she’s the “only colored hitching woman anyone could think of.” She also identifies as queer.

“I'd say my experiences have definitely been different than Jack Kerouac,” says Heather. She’s been pelted by spit and racist insults from passing cars. In Denmark she was offered a ride in exchange for “Black sex.” She was threatened in Australia by young White men who mistook her for aboriginal. In France, a driver told her that Black women are “slutty” and when she disagreed, he played a porn video on his mini-TV to prove it.

But things sometimes also work in her favor. “I tend to get picked up by other people of color and women. People who normally don't pick up hitchhikers.” One of her best experiences was getting a ride from a woman in France who used to hitchhike. “I had nowhere in particular to go, just enjoying the French summer. We had a great chat. She dropped me in Avignon and in the dark I found a place by the river to sleep. When I awoke I found I was in a squatted campsite with Romas, Rastas and other travelers. I stayed a few weeks. It's probably the only time I can remember being surrounded by so many travelers and nomads of color.”

One of the most recognizable faces of hitchhiking belongs to Puneet Sahani, who also happens not to be White (he’s Indian). Since 2009, he has, by his estimate, traveled over 90,000 miles through 35 countries by thumb, including the US, has written a book about it, and has appeared three times on a TED-talk stage to extol the life of adventure.

When I spoke to him on Skype, he hadn’t slept for 24 hours and his eyes were darting around as if rapid-searching through the incoherence of memories made in transit. At one point he stood up to take his shirt off for no apparent reason other than to help him focus. “Racism is everywhere when you’re on the road,” says Sahani. “It’s thrown in your face every time you hitchhike.” Besides the frustration of long waiting times, getting treated like a beggar rather than an adventurer, and facing threats from racists, there’s the whole issue of the state policing who gets to go where. “There’s definitely a correlation between skin color and the ability to travel,” says Sahani. Cops search him for drugs, bewildered when they don’t find anything. In a Europe paranoid of terrorism, he’s sat through many a background check. "But there's racism everywhere," says Sahani, "maybe even more in society."

His background, incidentally, checks out clean. He has a valid passport and he never had to sell drugs to make a living. The last regular job he quit was as a technology consultant for the government of Galicia in Spain. Before that, he had worked as a researcher in one of the most prestigious artificial intelligence workshops in the world at Johns Hopkins University.

Sahani is outspoken about his distaste for the language of “privilege” and “victimhood.” He doesn’t believe his skin color was a barrier to hitchhiking, nor does he believe his elite education transferred to prestige on the road. He still had to learn skills, he says, to diffuse the racism of police as well as to deflect sexual harassment from truck drivers. “Family history, money—It does shape you, but in the end it’s about personality, and it’s not out of your control to shape your personality.” This approach to life is hardly surprising coming from someone who spent his sedentary days building intelligences from the ground up.

Jack Kerouac as well as the adventurists and novelists Jack London and Henry Miller are somehow role models for Sahani despite his different background. Jack London, he points out, advocated for segregation of the races, but he was still a great mind, an iconoclast, and a badass. “And have you read anything by Henry Miller?” he asks. “Every page could be read as misogynistic or whatever. Now he’s considered privileged because he’s a White man, but when he was hitchhiking, he was at the bottom of the barrel. Privileges are very fleeting. You’re always working with certain handicaps and you can overcome them.”

Sahani’s warning to Black and brown people is not of racists attacking hitchhikers, but of racists—as well as anti-racists—preventing people of color from going out on the road in the first place. In this respect, he’s optimistic. “The greatest hitchhikers were from America,” he says, “but the romance is going away there. In post-colonial countries, it’s picking up. When I started hitchhiking in 2009, there were no Indians into this lifestyle, but that’s changing.”


Atlas and Sprowal finally unshouldered their packs at an Exxon gas station on the far side of Everett. The clerk inside, a White woman in her 50s (only one percent of the town’s residents are Black, according to the 2010 census), asked about their luggage and they chatted about their trip and about their cause. She comped them two hot-dogs and they went outside to eat on the curb as night fell.

A white car drove up and stopped in front of them, and when the window rolled down, they recognized the old man from before. He had followed them. And now he was exasperated, telling them he was going to “do something” if they didn’t leave town. He drove off. Then he drove back. This time Atlas responded. “I told him to leave us alone, and when he said he was calling the cops, I was pretty sure we would be defended and I welcomed the call.”

But when the police rolled up after a half an hour of harassment, the message didn’t change: They weren’t welcome in Everett. The officer wasn’t uncivil, just unconstitutional and unconcerned with the travelers’ privileges and immunities. He told them they had to leave and gave them directions to Bedford, the next stop on Highway 30. Atlas asked him for a reason and his reason was simple. They didn’t have any business in Everett.

“The officer said we could rest but that we needed to ‘git’ before it got much later,” recalls Atlas. “I remember the ‘gits’ specifically, because the guy and the officer said it the same way.”

So they set out, astonished, exhausted, hardly able to see the dark country road before them, trying to follow the cop’s best guess at how to get to Bedford by foot. Another hour into the July night and there was no sign of the next town, no streetlights, just a highway and trees and the Juniata River on their left.

Suddenly, headlights lit them from behind. A car honked, then passed them, then stopped. It was an SUV, the lights were on inside, and they recognized the driver. It was the clerk from the Exxon.

She drove them to Bedford—offered to drive them further but they refused because it “wasn’t the spirit of our efforts,” says Atlas. She had watched the scene from inside the station and had started worrying that the boys weren’t safe walking on the road at night. Before leaving, she’d prepared a plastic bag of sandwiches, chips, and Gatorades which she handed them as they got out of the car. She said goodnight and drove back to Everett.

The travelers pitched their tents outside of a mobile home sales lot and then opened the food bag. Inside they found a $10 bill folded inside a piece of paper where she’d written her phone number and a note: “Call me if you need anything.”

The whole reason Atlas walked across the US in 2013 then crossed again on a bike last year with another couple of activists is because he believes the world can be a dark place. Human trafficking can happen to anyone anywhere, he warns, there’s no one demographic. And yet he speaks reluctantly about his own vulnerabilities as a Black man living at the mercy of strangers and police for months at a time over the past two years, emphasizing instead how well things have gone. Atlas presses upon the fact that the Exxon clerk’s charity was not out of the ordinary:

There’s a story like that, honestly every day, of every tour. Someone shows up and encourages us, or does some act of kindness. And that’s what we speak to mostly. There is a lot of good in this country. And in my experience the good people outnumber the bad thousands and thousands to one.

Bisecting Middle America, he and Sprowal watched the fallout from Zimmerman’s acquittal on Burger King and McDonald’s televisions as it galvanized early protesters in what would become the Black Lives Matter movement against racist police brutality. But they remained focused on the cause that they had set out to talk to people about. “We were able to make it into the sentencing of Ariel Castro in Cleveland, Ohio,” says Atlas, referring to the notorious kidnapper and rapist who was served life in prison plus 1,000 years. “That trial had a greater impact on our journey.”

Atlas didn’t appreciate that so many conversations were diverted toward Trayvon Martin simply because he and Sprowal are Black. “Folks always wanted to know how we felt about it, and it always felt like a test. Like we were being tested to see if we were volatile, or how educated we were, or how ‘Black’ we were.”

The assumption that hitchhiking or walking across the country for a cause is not a ‘Black’ thing to do, especially if that cause is not explicitly about race – this is an assumption that goes way back to what it means to be an American and which Americans have the right to travel, to enjoy traveling, and not just on an Amtrak or a Greyhound bus but also on the road, crossing property lines, sleeping in contested lots somewhere between public and private space. For whom among us is it safe, or unsafe? To whom are people essentially good, or essentially bad? Atlas isn’t drawing on data when he claims the good outweighs the bad thousands and thousands to one, but it doesn’t mean his outlook is apolitical. If it’s naive, it’s the naiveté of the so-called 99 percent, with their penchant for finding power in highly favorable ratios.

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Amien Essif

Amien Essif is a freelance writer from Knoxville, Tennessee, but currently living abroad. His work has appeared in The Guardian, Jacobin, In These Times.