(first posted 7/18/2011) Mom takes her eighteen year-old son to the mall for some new underpants and socks, toiletries and a cheap traveling bag. They stop for a bite to eat, in an atmosphere marked by the mixed emotions of an impending separation. In the already darkening light of a gray fall day, she pilots her ’65 Dodge Coronet wagon unto the Beltway in Towson, and takes the I-70 exit westbound. Heading off to drop him at college, in western Maryland, perhaps? Or the Army induction center?
After a mile or so, she suddenly eases over and stops on the shoulder. Son slips on his faded Army surplus jacket, grabs his new textured-vinyl bag, opens the door, and tries to reassure Mom, who is doing her best to suppress her instincts and emotions. ” I can take you to the Greyhound station” “No; I’ll be fine, Mom. Thanks for getting me past the Beltway. I’ll write soon”
The red taillights of the Dodge fade into the distance. I stand alone in the dark fog that is now drizzling, cars and trucks whizzing by at seventy. I stretch out my arm and thumb, trying to project as as much optimism and good vibes as I can muster. If they see me at all, it’s for a fraction of a second or so. A sudden pall of cold, loneliness and doubt overcomes me. Why didn’t I start sooner…or take the bus? What the hell am doing out here?
Off in the distance, I hear the repeated fog-muffled blast of a truck’s air horn, which I ignore at first. When it blasts a few more times, I turn around and barely make out the outline and clearance lights of a semi pulled off on the shoulder ahead, a couple hundred yards down the freeway. Initially, I ignore it; then I realize…he must be beckoning me! I’ve never had a semi do this before, stopping from full speed on a freeway, at night, no less. I run down the shoulder, reach for the grab bar, and scramble up into the warm and vibrating womb of a big Kenworth cabover. “Where ya’ going, kid?” “Iowa” “I drop off my load in Indiana; that’ll get ya’ a decent start” Yes it will.
In fact, it would be the record breaking ET of the dozen or so times I made that 915 mile-long hitchhiking pilgrimage between Iowa City and Towson: sixteen hours, to be exact; almost 60 mph average. That was thanks to two factors: that trucker wanting someone to talk with, to help him stay awake all night, as well as an unusual engine in that Kenworth: a huge Caterpillar diesel with 475 hp no less, compared to the typical 250 to 318 hp for the more common Cummins or Detroit Diesels of the time.
The big Cat growled up the Alleghenies that night, its massive torque twisting the cab with each shift. We flew by every other truck, many of them with a pointed orange cap of flame on the tips of their exhaust stacks. Time is money, and this owner-operator was willing to pay for more of that then-cheap diesel to help me set that record. I had to pay too: my voice was hoarse from yelling at him over the low thunder of the big Cat sitting between us in the giant dog-house. Beat riding a Greyhound for two days.
That’s just one of hundreds of vignettes from my peak hitchhiking years, 1970 through 1973. I say peak, because I still occasionally pull out my thumb, but let’s save that for later. In that period, I not only made those many round trips between Iowa and Baltimore for holidays and other occasions, but I also roamed the country from sea to shining sea. My longest trip was an extended ramble from Iowa retracing the old Route 66 trail to California, up the West Coast through Oregon, and a return via the northern route. That was a memorable three months on the road, whose stories could fill a book, or more chapters of my AB. So I’ll limit myself to a few others…
But first, let’s put the activity of hitchhiking in a bit of historical context, because it’s all but died in recent years, at least in the US. That reflects active propaganda campaigns to discourage it, hysteria about a statistically minute and irrelevant number of crimes, anti-hitchhiking laws, and a changing sense of interconnectedness with others. We’ll share every and any private detail with strangers on Facebook, but the idea of sharing our personal space in our cocoons-on-wheels with a stranger has become almost universal anathema. A sign of the changing times.
Obviously, it’s impossible to document the beginning of the practice, but it exploded during the Great Depression in the thirties. The US government even condoned it, creating a Federal Transient Bureau to set up camps with hot meals for the large numbers of transients at the time. It must have shut down well before my time; I could have used a hot meal and a roof over my head a few times. And PR campaigns financed by bus and train companies created backlash, as well as new laws as a result of their lobbying.
After WW2, the lure of the open road became a powerful myth with a new generation, especially after Jack Kerouac’s seminal On The Road. By the sixties, it was becoming commonplace to see kids thumbin’ their way, and there was a fairly high degree of social acceptance, despite some states having outlawed the practice across the board or just on freeways. Certain parts of the country were much more receptive to the practice than others, as I found out to my pleasure or peril.
The East Coast ranked pretty low on the scale; although not aggressively so, like Utah, which banned it legally and generated rather intense negative vibes. As car-less freshmen in high school, we used to hitch rides around Towson, but our preppy suits and ties made us pretty obvious. We usually got picked up by sympathetic juniors or seniors from our school anyway. Hardly On The Road. But that changed suddenly one day with a phone call.
A hot girl I had unsuccessfully wooed suddenly called me up one day in the summer of 1970, when I was seventeen, and proposed that we hitchhike to Ocean City, where she knew someone with an apartment. Ummm; sure! Took exactly that long to decide. She conveniently failed to disclose that “someone” was whom she would be sliding into the sack with as soon as we got there. I was just the escort to help get her there.
Live and learn, and I did learn that having a girl to hitchhike with helps substantially, especially an attractive one. It doesn’t matter that much if a guy is along; there’s something deep-rooted in picking up a girl in want of a ride, even if the most that comes out of it is to rub shoulders in a crowded front bench seat. That was the protocol: girl in the middle. Got to give the driver a little something for his effort.
Yes, a few times when I teamed up with a girl and things were slow, I’d crouch down in the ditch and magically appear when a car stopped. You do what you have to, to keep moving.
That trip, despite its initial disappointment, turned out wonderful, as I quickly left her there and thumbed to Assateague Island, where I hitched a ride in an open-top Toyota FJ-40 heading down the beach, and camped in the dunes with the wild ponies. They wouldn’t let me touch them either, though.
On the way home I caught a ride with a bunch of college kids in a ’64 Valiant convertible. When traffic came to a dead stop on the very top of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, we all jumped out and danced among the cars when Martha and the Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Street” came on the radio. I was hooked.
The following winter of discontent along with my eighteenth birthday led me to stuff some clothes into my Boy Scout pack and hit the Beltway on an unusually mild and sunny February morning in 1971 after picking up my paycheck from Towson Ford, and instead going to school. I wasn’t going to graduate anyway, something my parents didn’t know yet, so why not?
I quickly learned why in the future I would ask for a ride to I-70; the Baltimore Beltway, like all urban freeways, is a terrible place to hitch. By the time I finally got to I-70 some two hours later, I had a few doubts, especially since I had slipped off without saying goodbye. Kids!
I had no real itinerary, just to get away. I still had fond memories of my grade-school days in laid-back college town Iowa City, so that seemed like an attainable goal for now, although the ultimate pull of California was palpable. I remember every ride and car on that memorable first escape into an utterly unknown future, with exactly thirty-five bucks in my bell-bottom jeans pocket.
The very first one when I finally hit I-70 was by a mild-mannered state employee in a green 1969 Galaxie 500 who took me to Fredricksburg. He seemed a bit worried; for me, not for himself, given his role in enabling my escape to an unknown and far-distant destination. “Are you sure you know what you’re doing?” Of course not. How else to learn?
There were no less than fourteen cars and trucks on that trip. A brand-new 1971 Cadillac Coupe DeVille driven by a pair of high school sweethearts through the mountains of Pennsylvania, and how hard it was for the him to keep Dad’s new battleship in its lane, thanks to his inexperience and refusing to take his protective right hand off his girlfriend’s shoulder.
The kids that picked me up in a clapped out ’64 Bel Air in the gathering darkness somewhere in eastern Ohio, got me very stoned, and then abruptly left me at a rural exit in a quickly growing snow storm. Too much snow for them; time to head for a friend’s house in a nearby town. That’s the hardest part of hitchhiking, actually; getting dropped off just when you’re getting warm, comfortable, familiar; especially in a snow storm in Ohio. What am I doing out here, indeed?
That’s when I got my first ride in a big truck, and it was almost surreal, and not just because of that joint. Most of the traffic was abandoning the Turnpike as the snow started piling up, but he barreled right on through. The snow flakes rushing against that giant windshield in the headlights was like being on the bridge of the Enterprise at warp speed. The pounding roar of a Jimmy 318 (Detroit Diesel), the warmth and permeating dieselish smell of that cab; I felt so safe and secure way up there. And, the best thing of all, after a couple of hours he offered me his bunk. When I awoke, it was a brilliant clear and cold morning on the back side of the storm, at a truck stop in Illinois. A few more rides, and I was in Iowa City: twenty four hours; the slowest but most indelible of my many trips on that route. I know how to do this…
And I quickly learned how to improve on that; it became a challenge to whittle down my ET, and reduce dead time. On the toll-turnpikes (Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana), never to let someone drop me off at their exit, especially a small one. I learned that in a most painful way that could have been ugly: it was a bitterly cold January night, and my ride pulled off the turnpike late at night on an exit to nowhere. There was absolutely no hitching on the turnpike, so I had to wait outside the little toll booth, all night long. It was in the single digits or low teens, and my Army jacket wasn’t even insulated. I huddled, stamped my feet, cursed the toll collector for not letting me warm up in his heated bathroom, and shivered. Not one car ever came, until morning.
That was driven by the sweetest old guy in a ’68 Plymouth, who picked me up and felt so bad for me, he pulled off at the first turnpike Service Plaza and bought me a hearty hot breakfast. I will never forget his kind face, how warm the heater in his Fury was, and how good the coffee, bacon, eggs and the milk of human kindness was. Thanks!
So I always asked turnpike drivers where they were getting off, and had them drop me at the last service Service Plaza before their exit. There I would ask folks directly for rides as they were coming and going to the bathroom. When people have a better chance to check you out, person to person, odds improve. And I wasn’t out in the cold. Even though I was kid with long hair, I worked hard to turn a smile into a ride, sometimes with unlikely folks; families with kids, even.
Rode in a Ford pickup with a big slide-in camper pulling a boat being shared by two families, partway in the cab with the two men, and in the back with the rest of the horde. Thanks to you too! I learned something from all of my rides. Like how a grossly overloaded camper with four teenagers in the “penthouse” sways. Yikes!
Other families out west took me home for the night, even several days, and I joined them on all kinds of activities, from their kids’ grade-school performances, baseball games, cookouts and even side trips up into the mountains to their cabins. I stayed with a family where the father and son worked on building some of the last stretches of cross-country interstate in Eastern Oregon. They all lived in a big trailer and moved with the work, and granny got up early to make breakfast. Best grits ever.
I picked up jobs here and there as needed. I saw what really happens in a restaurant kitchen, even after a steak falls to the grimy floor. Managed to only cut through my jeans with a chain saw. I carried bricks, put in foundations, slapped “now 15% bigger” stickers on thousands of shampoo bottles, left stripes on the front lawn of a big hospital because I didn’t overlap the fertilizer spreader…let’s just say it was a liberal education, but not from books.
Of course, it wasn’t just families that offered a bed for the night. Or a sleeping bag, or the back seat, or a shared motel or dorm room, or a hollowed out trunk of a giant redwood tree, or a tube tent, or the back of a ’65 Barracuda high in the mountains of Wyoming, or an old Caddy hearse. Did I forget somebody? Undoubtedly.
Scientists have confirmed that humans can size up another human in as little as one-tenth of a second. It’s a vital evolutionary ability; do we fight, run, submit, negotiate or make love to someone we run into on the savanna, or stop or not stop to pick them up on the highway? So projecting the right vibe and body language is key. As well as sizing up one’s surroundings, changing locations, and knowing when to call it quits for the day, or to take a bus or hop a freight. There was just no getting out of Salt Lake City the one time I ended up there; the only time I ever gave up completely and bought a bus ticket to the next state.
Or even just walk, which I did through part of The Great Dismal Swamp in North Carolina, to a tiny old country store where I sat with some old-timers on the front bench sipping cold root beer. Or the very last few northern miles of CA Highway 1, just before it ends in the Redwoods. Those were some of the more scenic times. The dull and dreary slogs I’d just as soon not call up. Which brings me to an important point: Hitchhiking was far from glamorous much of the time.
Like having the sprinklers come on at 3 AM while deep asleep on the lawn of a rest stop. Bivouacing in ditches. Having a truck purposely drive unto the shoulder straight at you at seventy miles an hour. Cops chasing you off. Being hungry. Seeing a dozen other hitchhikers waiting in line for their turn at a freeway on-ramp in CA. Getting dropped off on the very top of the giant flyover of the junction of the I-10 and the 405 in West LA by a nutcase. Great view up here; my first distant glimpse of the Pacific ever! Thanks!
And thanks also to the CHP officer who quickly scooped me up from that predicament and drove me all the way to the end of the I-10 at the beach in Santa Monica. I’m obviously not in Wyoming anymore; thank you, officer. Too many thanks are due all around; maybe that’s why I’m writing this. And why I’ll still occasionally pick up a hitchhiker. I feel like I have lots of debts to repay. And I can size them up quickly.
This has gotten too long already, and I haven’t even started on my big trip out West except for that one little scene. It’s almost too full of stereotypical situations to be credible anyway; like a movie. No, not that kind. Hitchhiking has been distorted endlessly by the media, by screen writers who’d never dream of actually trying it. It does tend to distort the public’s perception of it.
Anyway, movies hardly ever do reality justice; it’s stranger than fiction. As were many of the characters I met. I do sprinkle hitchhiking stories into my Curbside Classics from time to time. In addition to an incredible array of folks from all walks of life, it exposed me to my future home, Eugene, and lots of cars. One can learn a surprising amount from just riding in them. Some folks even ask me to drive while they slept; I drove an Opel Manta five hundred miles while the owner snored away. Talk about trusting strangers. Nice ride, too.
While my high school classmates went off to college, I went on the road. I’m not going to try to compare the two in any way. It was my way, and the highway. But what I learned in terms of American History, Geography, Sociology, Economics, Psychology, Pharmacology, Law, Medicine, Engineering, Outdoor Studies, Political Science and Sex Ed was not insubstantial. I saw much of the country, before so much of it was made to look like every other place, and interacted with a huge cross-section of Americans, before folks closed themselves off to that kind of interaction. I had the opportunity to sample and appreciate their diverse realities, whether it was just riding in their cars and talking for an hour or two, or being invited into their lives for longer periods of time.
I’d like to imagine that it’s still possible to experience this again, and I have picked up a few young and optimistic kids in recent years who set out to find that out for themselves. In the right places on the West Coast, it probably is, just barely. The tradition of opening up doors for traveling strangers, house doors or car doors, is an ancient one, as well as a spiritual one. Our lessons come from the journey, not the destination (Don Williams Jr.) Hopefully, there are still some out there willing to help make this particular type of learning possible for those that want to experience it. It might be me out there, on the side of I-70 in the dark and wet.
No way, actually. More likely on the McKenzie Highway, to retrieve my car after a whitewater river rafting trip. My kids, who wait with the boat, think I’m nuts: “Why not take two cars?” Because I’m not done making new memories.
Postscript: A year ago, in March 2014, I needed to get to Boise, Idaho, to pick up our new Acura TSX. I decided to try hitchhiking, as it’s a straight shot across Oregon on Hwy 20. I drove over to Springfield, parked my car, and positioned myself at a busy intersection where the freeway ends and HW20 goes through town. I stood there with a “BOISE” sign and tried to look nonthreatening and not foolish, although the latter was harder than I thought. Folks started at me as if I had just fallen from outer space.
I saw several cars and trucks with Idaho plates, but nobody stopped. After about three hours I gave up. I ended up taking the Greyhound bus to Boise a couple days later. It was a failed experiment.
A couple of weeks later Stephanie brought home John Water’s book “Carsick”, about his hitchhike across America. It was revealing, and made me feel better. The reality was that Waters would never have made it except for being recognized repeatedly, as well as one kid who drove him early on, and then drove back out West to take him on the whole second half of his trip. In between, he suffered long periods of getting nowhere. He acknowledges that he would have given up if he had been just anybody.
I’m not John Waters, so that’s it for hitchhiking. Well, except maybe if I go down the McKenzie River again in a kayak and need to get back upriver for my car. That’s worked so far. Sticking to what works was a lesson I learned early on in my hitchhiking days. And it applies to much more than that too.