Travelin’ Man

Scott Swanson

Aubrey Alexander, who’s better known by his nickname “Corky,” wanted to see the final launch in the space shuttle program last November.

So he hitchhiked from the Northwest to Florida to … watch it get postponed indefinitely due to a hydrogen leak.

Funny thing was, when NASA decided on a new launch date, it was Alexander’s 60th birthday – Feb. 24.

“I took that as a sign I had to go again,” said Alexander in a phone interview from his sister’s home in South Dakota, where he stopped off on his way back last week. “Even though I couldn’t afford to go, I went anyways.”

He started from Ocean Shores. Wash., hitchhiking all the way. Not counting six days visiting two sisters on the way, he got to Cape Canaveral, Fla., in just under two weeks, saw the shuttle launch, and then started back.

“I left on the 25th, the day after the launch,” he said. “I got a nice tan – or sunburn.”

He also managed to hit Daytona in time for the big 500, but had to watch the stock car classic at a sports bar, he said.

“When I get back I will have almost 13,000 miles invested in watching this launch,” Alexander said.

He said he wanted to go “because I’ve been a child of the Space Age all my life and I wanted to participate in some personal and tangible way.” With the United States backing away from its space program, he knew he was running out of time.

“I wanted to get there; and to get there, I went the only way I could. I enjoyed the trip. It was a fun adventure.”

His sister, Chris Alexander of Clarkston, Wash., said her brother likes the “free life,” though he tends to stay near Aberdeen, on the Washington coast, where his son and daughter live.

Chris Alexander said their family, which included eight children, was “really poor” when they were growing up in Sweet Home and Lebanon. Their parents owned what is now Foster Tavern in the late 1950s.

“We lived there when it burned down,” she said. “It nearly killed us.”

Corky attended Oak Heights, Foster and Pleasant Valley elementary schools and Sweet Home High School as a freshman before they moved to Lebanon, where he finished high school. He studied forestry for a year at Oregon State University, then answered the call of the woods.

“I love the woods,” he said.

He continued an activity his parents had involved their children in: wildcrafting – collecting berries, seed cones, herbs, roots, mushrooms, Christmas decorations, chittum bark, pitch and more from the forests and mountains around Sweet Home.

“I started when we lived on Whiskey Butte when I was 5 years old,” Alexander said. “I used to pick leaves and seeds for an Indian supply place between Lebanon and Scio when I was a kid. There’s a market for lots of things.”

His wildcrafting career went on hold a couple of years ago when he injured his arm on Swamp Mountain.

“I hurt it real bad,” he said. “It’s not healing up real good.”

Alexander, who has never been married, though, his sister said, “he’s had his heart broken a few times and been in a few relationships over the years,” spent a couple of years staying with relatives, moving from one place to another, mostly in the Northwest.

Hitchhiking, he and his sister said, is nothing new to him. Alexander said when he was young, his family lived near Drain and he and his friend Don Nelson, who works for the city of Sweet Home now, used to collect pop bottles and hitchhike to the store in Drain to cash them in and buy candy.

As an adult, he and his son Miles, then 12, hitchhiked from Sweet Home to Boone, N.C., to visit Miles’ mother in North Carolina in 1994.

Alexander said nearly all his experiences on the road have been positive, though laws in some states are more friendly to hitchhikers than others. In Wyoming, for instance, it is illegal to hitchhike in the direction traffic is flowing. In California and Washington, hitchhikers have to stay on the on-ramp.

He said that one of the reasons he hitchhikes is because he just likes meeting people.

“I’ve had tremendously good experiences,” he said. “There are really good people in this country.”

He said he follows a few rules, such as staying as “clean and neat” as possible. “I never ask for anything except the ride,” he added.

“I think that maybe it does affect the types of ride I get, or even getting a ride,” he said of his appearance. “If you look scruffy, people won’t pull over. I’ve had people tell me that.”

He said he also never carries a weapon.

“I had one guy who told me he picked me up because I was wearing tennis shoes,” he said. “I didn’t have a boot to hide a knife.”

The only bad experience Alexander can remember is a ride he got with his son on their trip to North Carolina. He said a van with four men picked them up. Inside the van, the men were passing around a sawed-off shotgun.

“I don’t think they were really going to do me real harm,” he said. “But I got out at the earliest opportunity.”

On that trip, he and his son were offered a free motel room in Wyoming as a blizzard moved in.

The only other time he’s had that happen was his last trip to Florida, where he found himself in Lebanon, Mo., “kind of off track there a little bit,” where it was snowy, cold and wet.

He stopped by the police station to inquire about the possibility of a dry location to pitch his tent and they gave him a “Good Samaritan Program” voucher for a motel room.

“They were real nice about it,” Alexander said.

He’s encountered police in a dozen different states, but he said they’ve always treated him well.

“They check me out to see if I’m all right and if I’m in a bad spot, like a freeway interchange, they’ll give me a ride to a better spot. There’s some places you’re not supposed to be because it’s not safe.”

He’s had odd kindnesses of various types from people he’s ridden with.

On his most recent trip, Alexander got a ride from a woman who picked him up in Carbon Hill, Ala. and drove him to Tupelo, Miss., a 90-mile side trip for her, to visit Elvis Presley’s hometown and to the church he attended.

“She gave me a new coat because I was heading north without a coat and she bought me a bus ticket to Rapid City, S.D. (where his younger sister, Susie Teal, lives). “I said I didn’t need that but she just said she’d feel better if she didn’t leave me standing by the road. That probably saved me three or four days of hitchhiking.”

He said his waits for rides range anywhere from “two minutes to nine hours. That’s the longest I can remember for a long time.”

“I have a lot of people who say, ‘We never pick up hitchhikers. I don’t know why we picked you up.’ Others say they like to help people and they always pick up hitchhikers.”

A couple of Indians picked him up one time and told him they didn’t want to, but “God told us to.” They ended up driving him a couple of hundred miles, he said.

Alexander said he recommends a few rules to people who are considering picking up a hitchhiker.

“I wouldn’t be outnumbered,” he said. “If there’s one of you and two of them, don’t do it.

If you’re afraid, don’t do it. Talk to them before they get in. Get some eye contact and see if you feel safe with them.

“If it’s me, they’re perfectly safe,” he said. “Most people out there are just looking for a ride. The man and the woman out there with the hippie stuff on, that’s just a kind of lifestyle description. They’re just looking for a ride.”

One of the strangest experiences he can remember is the woman who picked up him and Miles, his son, and dropped them off at her home in Memphis, Tenn. And told them to stay until they were ready to leave.

“She checked in on us a few times, but that was it,” Alexander said. “I cleaned the house up for her.”

He said he plans to return to Sweet Home this spring and try woodcrafting again, though he said he’ll have to avoid strenuous physical labor because of his arm.

His sister Chris says she worries about him “sleeping out in the cold and rain” and made him get a cell phone, but said he seems to do all right on the road.

“He’s a fascinating person,” she said. “He’s had some extraordinary experiences. One doesn’t think of that aspect of homeless life. A lot of people are homeless by choice.”