Cult film’s John Waters gets “Carsick”

Cult film director John Waters’ new book, Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America, proves once again Waters is not afraid to go out and confront the real America and turn it into his own special blend of honesty and humor.

Waters always seems up for a challenge, whether in cinema or on the written page. Beginning with his breakthrough feature film, Pink Flamingos (1972), Waters has thrived making independent movies for a core audience. The filmmaker has observed the more outrageous and darker areas of American culture over the years and translated it into his unique visions on the big screen. Now, he does it again with Carsick.

Waters actually did thumb rides, departing on a rainy afternoon in 2012 from his native Baltimore, all the way to his apartment in San Francisco. But hold on … this is John Waters we are talking about, and the first half of his book presents various hitchhiking scenarios from his fertile imagination. These speculative adventures are divided evenly into “good rides” and “bad rides.” The liberal-minded Waters has fun sharing these imagined rides, while throwing in some humorous social commentary about the times we live in.

One story involves a woman named Kay-Kay who locks a radical pro-life driving instructor in her trunk because he continues to preach to her as she is attempting to learn to drive. Another surreal tale involves Waters becoming a circus attraction for all to marvel at, simply because he doesn’t have a tattoo nowadays! These fantasized road trips set the stage for the second half of the book, which reveals what really happened when Waters took the plunge and raised his thumb.

The real hitchhiking adventure involved nine days and 21 rides. Waters describes the people and places he encountered along the interstate highway system during his journey. The rides were at times very difficult to come by, but when vehicles did stop, they provided experiences which he colorfully describes. The drivers ranged from a minister’s wife to a coal miner to a Vietnam veteran. One memorable ride involved a rock band called Here We Go Magic that picked him up in their van on their way to a gig in Bloomington, Indiana. He spent six hours with the band, and news of his road trip went viral as band members began to tweet that John Waters had hitched a ride.

Another interesting ride came from a 20-year-old Republican town council member from Myersville, Maryland, driving a Corvette. Waters describes the friendship that formed between himself, a 66-year-old liberal gay man, and a 20-year-old conservative heterosexual. Waters and the “Corvette Kid,” as he is called in the book, agreed they would head-butt on some social issues, so they wisely avoided political chat. The young man added that potholes and how to fill them were town council subjects he had to deal with, and they were not exactly Republican or Democrat issues. The two formed an unlikely bond, and they amazingly meet up again in Denver later in the book.

Some drivers immediately recognized the flamboyant movie director, while many others had never heard of him or his cinematic achievements – a true reflection of America out on the highway. His biggest challenge was the long hours in between, waiting for someone to stop as he held up a homemade cardboard sign. He did carry credit cards and a cell phone, and also a tracking device in case of an emergency. Unfortunately, one may think of other hitchhikers on the road every day without those convenient options to rely upon.

The book reveals many pleasant, kind people along the way. Waters describes a Hispanic woman at a rest stop who insisted on giving him a $20 bill, believing him to be homeless. In a small Ohio town, a true homeless man walks by and becomes the only one there who takes the time to say hello to the hitchhiker Waters.

Carsick will keep readers entertained, presenting what it’s really like these days to hitchhike across the United States. We must give Waters credit for having the courage to do what many people would not consider doing nowadays. He trusted rides from strangers, made some new friends, and realized how open-minded and helpful Americans truly are. One element missing from this book is photographs of his adventures. Waters mentions various pictures taken along the way with drivers and passengers. Some of these would have been a nice addition to these real-life tales of the open road. Regardless, after finishing this book, I dare say many readers will have the notion to hit the road and raise a thumb … or two … for John Waters!

Book information:
Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America
2014, Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, hardcover, 336 pages, $21.59; Kindle $12.99



Anthony Mangos
Anthony Mangos

Anthony Mangos served with the United States Postal Service and is a lifelong union member. As a freelance writer he contributes regularly to various film and literary publications. He resides in Johnstown, Pa., but considers the world as his neighborhood.