I needed to smell life again. Not the stale stench of grease, cigarettes and weak coffee at the Hamburg Inn, the musty-sour smell of my rumpled sheets, the rotting vegetables in my fridge, or the tang of the moldy shower stall. The long cold winter of 1972 in Iowa City had killed all the smells of life outside, and it was killing me on the inside. Iowa in late winter was a depressingly bleak place for an outdoor-loving, experience-craving nineteen year-old; I couldn’t take it anymore.
So I hit the road—westbound—with $125 in my pocket. In two months I crammed in enough new West Coast sights, smells and experiences to last me four years. And when the urge hit again, in 1976, I went out west for good, and over a course of seventeen years, I slowly retraced my 1972 footsteps, from Southern California to Eugene. But this time I stayed. Maybe I should have the first time?
One year earlier I had dropped out of high school in Baltimore and hitchhiked west. The plan then (such as there was one) was to heed the siren call of California’s natural and cultural attractions. But a blizzard blew me off I-80 and into the clutches of Iowa City. My family had lived there some years earlier, so it was familiar and the inhabitants were friendly. A series of warm, free basements like this one as well as a shortage of money kept me there.
That fall I had scored a job on a construction crew making a whopping $3 per hour. That ended with the arrival of another cruel winter. Before my precious savings of some $125 ($775 in today’s money) evaporated on such indoor pleasures as can be found in Iowa in winter, I decided it was now or never. With my old Boy Scout backpack and a threadbare sleeping bag on my shoulders, I set off for the promised land. Would it be a one way trip or round-trip?
I had no itinerary, no reservations, no map, no guide book, no credit card, no airplane, train or bus tickets. The internet and cell phones were the realm of science fiction. And the world was a lot larger then. Even trekking in remote Nepal or Africa today, cell phones have changed everything. It’s a small world after all…
Strictly speaking, I did not hitchhike the first leg from Iowa City to Southern California, though I did the rest of the trip. Walking through the UI student union (to warm up) I noticed a Ride Board, where students pinned up notes offering or asking to share rides, mostly to get home for a long weekend or a holiday. I quickly scanned it and found this under “Rider Wanted”: Driving to LA on 3/10, room for one rider. help with gas. That was highly compelling, even if it would cost me some scarce money for gas.
Part 1: Iowa City to Claremont, CA
A few days later a 1968 Datsun 510 four door sedan with California plates stopped in front of my current couch-surfing abode. I threw my pack in the back seat and we drove out to I-80 and headed west. And what was going through my mind, on that gray winter’s day, looking at the frozen fields and bare trees? California Dreamin’
I’d be safe and warm, if I was in LA…Warm, yes. But safe? Who knows what I would encounter there. But such is the thrill of heading off into the unknown. The blind optimism, self-confidence and…sheer stupidity of youth is a heady mix, one that had served me reasonably well so far, but this was the biggest cliff I had ever jumped off. And I had jumped off a few pretty good sized ones before.
The Datsun 510 was only four years old, but was already showing some early signs of age. Its owner was a geology grad student, and it had taken him to many remote sites all over the West as well as suffering through a winter or two in Iowa. The wheel covers were gone, and it was a bit bedraggled and dirty, as was every car in Iowa at that time of year. But it eagerly gobbled up the miles as we headed west, and then south at Des Moines, on I-35.
The drive through southern Iowa and northwest Missouri was unmemorable, being all-too familiar in terms of the geography and endless farms. But once we passed through Kansas City, heading southwest to Wichita, the lay of the land become increasingly more open, with farms further apart, fields bigger, and more open range land.
As we passed Wichita and headed into Oklahoma, the land become increasingly arid and open and hilly. The vast Osage Indian reservation lay to the east. Little did I know then of the almost surreal history of that tribe, which had once been one of the most powerful in the Midwest. They were forced to move west, first to a reservation in Kansas. Continuing incursions from settlers, political difficulties during the Civil War (the Osage were pro-union), and several waves of smallpox made life untenable there. They managed to sell their remaining land to the government for a decent price, which in turn allowed them to purchase a large tract of some 1.5 million acres in Oklahoma. Thanks to a very good attorney, the Osage successfully negotiated for the full mineral rights under it. This would lead to an unprecedented boon as well as murderous exploitation.
Since the land was barely able to support subsistence farming, life was very difficult for the Osage. But then oil was discovered, which turned into a series of gushers in the early 1920s and generated a gusher of money. By the mid-late 1920s the Osage were the wealthiest ethnic group in the world, comparable to the Saudis in later decades.
Beautiful mansions and large houses were built, staffed with white servants (this is the abandoned Tallchief mansion). Others moved to tony neighborhoods in Los Angeles and New York. Not surprisingly, this wealth attracted white swindlers, grifters and even murderers to the reservation, as the “headright” that conferred a partial ownership of the mineral rights could legally be inherited and even sold. Hundreds of white men sought to marry Osage women, often under duress. Others were swindled, tricked, robbed and even killed.
There’s a terrific book about the whole ugly story, Killers of the Flower Moon. Much of this was suppressed for decades, and the Osage Nation still suffers from the lingering effects of the brutal incidents that stripped so many members of their headright and its income. Of course, with the collapse of oil prices during the Depression, the mansions were mostly abandoned, but the Osage Nation still derives much of its income from the oil under its land, which varies depending on the price.
It was getting dark. We pulled into a big truck stop somewhere near Oklahoma City and ate our first hot meal of the day, having brought a peanut butter sandwich for lunch. Some may extol American vintage truck stop and diner food, but don’t count me in. At least the smell emanating from the cafe was better than the omnipresent smell of diesel outside.
Somewhere west of Oklahoma City, the driver pulled off at an exit for Hinton, which lay to the south a few miles. We drove through the center of town, and a mile or so south of town, and then suddenly dropped down, into a canyon. That felt odd and surprising, given the flat land we had been traversing. There was an empty campground near a small river, and we spread out our groundcloths and sleeping bags. It was surprisingly calm and mild down there, and as I lay on the fresh spring grass gazing up at the stars overhead, I realized I was smelling the outdoors once again. This was a good start.
I woke up to a dazzling bright sunny day, and found out that we were in Red Rock Canyon. This had been a traditional Native American winter camp, as the canyon was protected from the wind, and game was abundant. During the California Gold Rush it became a major landmark on the California Road, the southern route to that destination. It was a place to repair wagons, let the livestock graze, and rest for the arduous journey ahead.
We packed up and drove back out, and I looked back at the surprising terrain of the canyon. It was so green and lush and mild down there; a tiny preview of things to come.
We drove back into Hinton and stopped at the cafe. As soon as we walked in, I was greeted with a mouthwatering gust of bacon, maple syrup and fresh coffee; it was an accurate predictor that the food here was going to be better than average.
But the visual impact exceeded the olfactory one: my eyes immediately glommed onto a huge mural above the counter that covered the whole wall. It was of a grandiose Western scene: a verdant glade with a babbling brook running through its middle, flanked by a bighorn sheep and an elk on either side, posing regally. Behind them stood a row of majestic mountains, but it was painfully obvious that the painter had never seen a real mountain, as they were all depicted as perfect symmetrical pyramidal cones, each with a pointed snowy peak, in the way a child would draw a mountain. It was moving in its innocence and grand sweep, and it was hard to keep my eyes off it as I ate the hearty breakfast.
Once back on I-40, we settled in for our second day, this time heading due west, towards the Texas panhandle, New Mexico and Arizona.
I’m not going to pretend that the scenery was exactly riveting for much of that day’s trip. And just how did we spend our time? The radio was AM-only, and country/cowboy music was not our thing. We talked some, but not really all that much. We just…sat in silence, watched the world roll by, and were alone with our thoughts, or the lack of them. I had learned to meditate a few months earlier, and now discovered that it was quite possible to meditate with the eyes open too. The long vistas became a slow-moving mantra.
I still drive that way today. Sometimes on a long trip I’m forced to put on my noise cancelling headphones and listen to classic jazz, if my tinnitus is being aggravated by the grating sound of less than smooth pavement. But otherwise I just slip into the zone…drive here now.
As we rolled through New Mexico, we had to drive through several cities and towns that did not yet have a bypass on I-40, thanks to an Anti-Bypassing Law that prohibited the construction of an interstate bypass around a city or town opposed to it. That law was repealed in 1966; in 1972 one still had to drive through several small towns on the eastern section of the state, as well as the cities of Tucumcari, San Jon, Santa Rosa, Moriarty, Grants and Gallup on Route 66.
Gallup was the most memorable; we parked, stretched our legs and I had my first Navajo taco. Situated between the Navajo and Zuni reservations, there were rows of shops selling artifacts, curios, jewelry, splendid Navajo rugs, and other craft items.
The rugs really caught my attention, and almost exactly ten years later, Stephanie and I would be back to this part of the world and come home with two very fine rugs woven by one of the more highly respected weavers.
In Arizona, I-40 was also still far from complete; the last section wasn’t finished until 1984. So we got to see a lot of the local attractions along Route 66, including the Wigwam Motel. Of course back then it wasn’t staged with vintage cars, as are so many other roadside shops and former gas stations along the still-existing segments of 66.
I had no complaints; it was a chance to traverse the hallowed ground that the Corvettes of “Route 66” had made famous. That was my favorite tv show as a kid. The idea of just driving a Corvette around with your buddy, free as a bird, waiting to see what would happen around the next bend of the highway; how great was that? Undoubtedly it had left its imprint on me.
It was getting dark as we headed up into the high country, where Flagstaff was situated at an elevation of almost 7,000′. We pulled into town to get some supper, and it was suddenly winter again, with dirty snow in shady patches. Visions of skiing on real mountains popped into my head. Having grown up on skis in Austria, Iowa was such a flat-land let-down.
It was too cold for sleeping out under the bright stars in Flagstaff, so we rolled on again, and found a place to camp near Ash Fork.
The air was crisp and still quite chilly as we roused ourselves and piled into the Datsun for the home stretch. I-40’s major deviation from Route 66 starts at Seligman, as the freeway now runs on a more southerly and direct route to Kingman.
That has left this orphan section of Route 66 the longest continuous stretch of the old highway. I can reach into my files for pictures, as we traversed it just two years ago on our big loop of the Southwest in our van. It’s a fine stretch of road, following the tracks of the Santa Fe railroad.
Back then, these roadside gas stations and stores were mostly still open and fulfilling their original role, not as the tourist traps that they’ve become. This one in Hackberry now has quite the collection of vintage cars spread out on its grounds (Here’s the full tour). Who could have imagined in 1972 that this and other remaining stretches of Route 66 would become tourist meccas?
From Kingman, the route steadily loses altitude as it heads into the Colorado River valley and the low desert. The temperature rose steadily, even though it was just the beginning of March. This was unexpected, as it couldn’t have been all that hot, in the 80s or so at the most, yet the Datsun’s temperature gauge’s needle was now probing the red zone. Something was obviously amiss.
So we joined the untold thousands of other travelers that had overheated here before. Not coincidentally, the aptly-named town of Needles, on the California side of the river, was extremely well equipped to serve them. There were numerous service stations and garages, all stocked up with radiators, hoses, belts and water pumps. This little industry was a significant source of Needles’ economic base back then. No wonder the town has been dying for decades; cars just don’t overheat anymore.
We pulled into an old garage or service station. I cannot recall now just what exactly was done to cool off the hot little Datsun, but I’m sure it involved replacing something, or several somethings. The smell of anti-freeze wafted out on the shaded veranda thoughtfully provided for the customers, where we sat sipping a cold soda. This was my first taste of the low desert, and it brought home stories I’d heard from friends of crossing the desert at night in the summer, in order to keep the cars from overheating.
This picture is of Carty’s Camp in Needles, one of many such stopping places for travelers going back to the 1920s. During the Depression, Needles became clogged with Dust Bowl migrants heading for California, including the fictional Joads in “The Grapes of Wrath”.
It’s not hard to imagine all the patching and repairing that was done here on those tired old cars and trucks before the long and lonely crossing of California’s Mojave Desert. I see this old touring car has a “desert bag” of water hanging from its “landau bars”.
The cooled-off Datsun was ready to cross the Mojave, which is a medium-to-high desert with elevations ranging between 2,000 and 5,000 feet. The eastern section is in the higher areas, and is vegetated with creosote bushes, yuccas, chollas, and Joshua trees. It was already late spring in the desert, so some of the wild grasses were still green. Distant hills punctuated the wide open spaces, and visibility in the dry air was all the way to the horizon. I fell in love with the vistas, smells and textures, rolling along with my window down at 70 mph on I-40. I would have loved to pull off and explore the Mojave, but that would have to wait, like so many other things. My California To Do list was growing quickly.
But plenty of others were doing just that. As the elevation dropped steadily towards Barstow, and the desert become sparser, sandier and scruffier, I began to notice more and more little Datsun pickups with dirt bikes in their beds, heading back towards LA. Back then the Mojave was pretty much wide open, and it was possible to drive across it with whatever could get you there, and back.
Seeing these off-roaders reminded me of an article I had read in Popular Science as a kid, on Perry Mason author Erle Stanley Gardner’s many off-road vehicles he designed and had built for his explorations in the Mojave. Gardner lived in Temecula, and spent much of his time exploring the deserts of Southern California. He could afford to have a little fleet of off-road trucks with trailers to haul the various two and three-wheeled contraptions. Yes, these were the proto-ATVs.
In Barstow our route turned into I-15, and traffic steadily picked up as we headed through Victorville and towards Cajon Pass, perhaps the most legendary railroad pass, certainly in the Western US. In 1972, EMD F and E units were still heading up Union Pacific streamliners, and Santa Fe freight locomotives in war-bonnet paint came in wide variety. It was and still is a train spotter’s paradise.
My driver’s destination was Claremont, home of the renowned Claremont Colleges and his waiting girlfriend. We turned off 15 and headed directly west on 210, on the north side of the vast San Gabriel Valley, next to the brooding range of mountains with the same name. It was dark, and before us spread out an endless vista of lights, the nighttime landscape of the greater Los Angeles area so familiar to anyone who has flown in at night.
We parked in front of a classic California bungalow court, two rows of cottages facing a shared walkway and a small garden area. I had the window open that night, and relished the mild waft of a breeze scented with night blooming jasmine and other unfamiliar plants. Gray and cold Iowa seemed even more than 1800 miles away.
Part 2: Pasadena to Big Sur
I had two names written on a slip of paper in my wallet. The first one was of a former Towson high school buddy of my older brother, who was then a grad student in seismology at Cal Tech and who would become a renowned seismologist. He was also the source of the Acapulco Gold that he brought with him on a return visit to us at Christmas in Towson in 1967. I swiped some of it, smoked way too much, and had my first psychedelic experience, which involved cars: they turned into living, breathing beings. I could perceive aspects of their personalities; it seemed so profound in the moment.
All I had was his name and that he worked in the Seismology Department, the most famous in the world thanks to a certain Dr. Richter. I hitchhiked to Pasadena, found my way to Cal Tech, and walked down the main mall between the row of its early buildings. And just as I found the building and turned to head up its stairs, who comes walking out the door and down the stairs? Hi Jan! Of course he had no idea whatsoever that I was coming.
My timing was impeccable, as he was just leaving to go back to his house. We walked to a parking lot and he approached a red Corvair Lakewood wagon. Cool! Given Jan’s personality, that suddenly made sense. He was of course an uber-nerd, and expounded on the Corvair’s unique qualities. It was another rite of initiation into the cult of Corvairs, and six months later I’d be driving my own ’63 Monza.
We drove to an older neighborhood in Pasadena and pulled into the long driveway of a very large classic Craftsman-style house, perhaps even bigger than this example above. The driveway went around to the back, to a carriage house where Jan had another Corvair stashed. He and a number of other grad students were renting this beautiful property at a time when that was still very affordable.
We walked in the door and were blasted by The Staple Singers belting out “I’ll Take You There”. I’d never heard the song before, never mind any stereo remotely so capable of rendering a piece of recorded music so faithfully. No wonder; one of the residents was studying acoustic engineering. Whenever I hear that glorious song now, I’m instantly transported back to that exquisitely trimmed craftsman living room with its giant fireplace and superb staircase. I’ll take you there, right to Pasadena…
It wasn’t just students that lived in the main house and the carriage house; there was also a tall Black gay man, who was a hairdresser. He was off work for a few days, and he offered to show me around in his ’65 Malibu coupe. That meant clubbing in the evenings; let’s just say the clubs in the Hollywood, LA and Pasadena area weren’t exactly much like the dive bars in Iowa City.
It’s all a bit of a blur now, but we dropped into numerous clubs of all kinds. Most were still in the rock era, but in some of them, especially Black and gay ones, funk was predominant, the precursor to disco. It was a transitional time in pop culture and music, and that was being played out in clubs in big cities. I met plenty of interesting characters and tripped the light fantastic.
During the days I just hung out in Pasadena and walked all over town, savoring the warm weather and fresh navel oranges. The produce section at the supermarket was a revelation. The smog hadn’t set in yet for the season, so it was all so fresh and beautiful, back-dropped by the mountains where five years later I would be climbing a tv tower, adjusting its microwave dishes.
After a few days the late nights were starting to get to me, and I was eager to start my long trip up the coast via California’s legendary Hwy 1. That involved hitchhiking through the bowels of downtown LA on freeways to get there. I knew that California banned hitchhiking on the freeways, so one had to stand at the foot of an on-ramp and hope the driver was going to where you wanted to go, or at least to a suitable off-on ramp before the ride turned off on another freeway.
It seemed like I’d scored when the driver of a VW bus told me he was going all the way to Santa Monica, where the I-10 ran into the PCH (Pacific Coast Highway). We drove through downtown Los Angeles and got on the I-10. But I never really relaxed, as the driver was clearly manic.
As we approached the massive, multi-layered interchange of the 405 and 10, he suddenly veered off into the lane heading for the 405 southbound. When I reminded him that I needed to go to Santa Monica, he did something totally insane: He abruptly stopped right on the very top of the fly-over lane and told me to get out (at the red dot above, in this photo from 1966 when the I-10 was not yet finished). WTF?! There I was, standing on top of this massive interchange, cars whizzing by at 60 mph. The views were impressive, but it wasn’t exactly what I had in mind in terms of sightseeing.
I hadn’t walked more than about twenty yards when a CHP pulled over right behind me. Wow; that was quick! And how much is this ticket going to cost me? The officer had me get in, and I explained what happened. He was quite pleasant and understanding, and asked me where I was going. And then he said “I’ll take you there”.
He pulled off the next exit, turned back, got on the I-10, and dropped me right where the freeway (and former Route 66) ends at the PCH, at the Santa Monica Pier. Thank you!
The Pacific Ocean now lay in front of me and its gentle salty breeze quickly dissolved the stress. I walked down the ramp to the pier, which was dilapidated at the time. It had once been a huge weekend attraction for hot Angelinos, but now it was a shadow of its former self, mostly shuttered.
I walked out to the far end where there were a few older guys fishing off the end of the pier. Sea gulls were diving overhead and fighting over the few smelly scraps and innards. I looked out at the endless expanse of blue and felt fulfilled in having made it this far. But there was one more thing to do to memorialize the moment.
I headed down to the beach, which was deserted this weekday morning in early March, and at the edge of the water I put down my pack, took off my shoes and socks, rolled up my jeans and walked out into the cold surf. Now I was properly baptized in the Pacific.
Little did I know that I would end up living just a few blocks away from this very spot only six years later, married and starting a family. I would run or bike down to this same stretch of beach every morning before breakfast, and the kids and I would cavort in the sand, swim and body surf in the breakers. But this was just the starting point of what would turn out to be a preview of the various places we would live on the West Coast. How could I possibly have anticipated that, standing there in the surf with my jeans getting wetter with each wave?
One can only experience a new place for the first time once; it’ll never be quite as fresh and stimulating again. That first ride up Hwy 1 left an indelible impression, but it never got old, no matter how many how many times we drove it again in later years. The California coast was so stunning and utterly different than what I’d experienced on the Atlantic coast. And that was just in the first few miles to Malibu; I still had over 800 miles of California coastline ahead of me.
I had no itinerary, but back then college towns were always the obvious place for young hitchhikers to head, for their laid back and friendly atmosphere. By mid-afternoon or so, I found myself walking into Isla Vista, the little town next to UCSB that is almost totally inhabited by students. I approached a young guy and asked if he knew of some place where I could crash. Sure. You can stay out at my place…
So I spent a few very laid back days there on the beach and in town. Evenings were spent the way most students spent it back then: hanging out, listening to music, smoking pot, eating, talking politics, and having sex. What else is there?
Every day I’d walk over to the Sun and Earth for the 40¢ lunch, a big plate of brown rice and vegetables, served al fresco in the uncovered geodesic dome in the back that’s just barely visible in this picture. Too bad there’s no picture of the inside of the dome; it was a lovely place to sit and savor the flowers and cacti planted between the tables as well as the view of an unspoiled meadow in spring bloom.
The weather was absolutely perfect, as it would be on my whole trip. Turns out I picked the best time of the year for the California Coast; spring is invariably mild and sunny, unlike summer, when the fog raises its ugly cold head almost daily. This is the rude surprise millions of tourists discover every summer the hard way.
Next stop was San Luis Obispo, another college town, another mellow place to hang out for a couple of days. But that would be the end of sleeping inside for a couple of weeks, as the coast become increasingly rugged and less populated.
My first night sleeping out was somewhere on the beach at Morrow Bay. That was a mistake, as the condensation soaked my sleeping bag. I spent half the day waiting for it to dry out. From then on, I made sure to head back into the coastal woods a bit at night.
I can dig into my files for a few shots of this stretch of Hwy 1 that I wrote up here in 2014. The vistas are endlessly sublime, and standing along the edge of the highway on this trip were the most pleasant hours I’ve spent waiting for a ride. Who’s in a hurry?
The next night was spent somewhere further north, between San Simeon and Big Sur. The barking of the sea lions at night was cool for a while, but got a bit tedious eventually. Noisy neighbors!
As the coast became more rugged towards Big Sur, the road increasingly ran higher up on the cliffs, and the views more dramatic.
The draw to Big Sur for me was rather magnetic, given all of the literary references, the fame of the Esalen Institute, the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, and the 1969 Celebration at Big Sur. And of course the Nepenthe.
It was getting dark as I made it to that Big Sur landmark. Built on a rocky bluff almost a thousand feet above the ocean by the Fassett family in 1949 on the site of an old trail cabin once owned by Orson Welles, it became a magnet for the literary and beat set in the 50s, and the Esalen and hippie scene in the 60s.
On this cool evening in March of 1972 it was deserted except for a few locals. I gladly ponied up for a hot meal and ate it by the fire pit. There were a couple of other “travelers”, and after a we had exhausted our welcome, we walked down the road a bit and looked for a place to camp in the woods. Finding a flat place was impossible, as the rough terrain all sloped down to the ocean. It was not a great night, and in the morning I found my ground cloth some distance from me uphill. Won’t do that again.
I headed to Pfeiffer Bug Sur State Park where there were quite a few others young seekers camping; some legitimately; others not so. My budget didn’t allow for campsite fees, so I wandered around among the giant redwoods and stumbled into this tree, which like many others was hollowed out at its base from a fire, who knows how many eons earlier.
But this one was exceptional, as there was a circular room inside of it, fully protected from the elements and with a soft mattress of springy redwood duff, and a small opening on one side (here) as well as a “door” on the other. I had found a perfect place to call home for some days of nature-worship and merrymaking.
One night, I was hanging out with some other campers who had some very potent weed, and got mighty ripped. I found my way back to my tree and stretched out, feeling wonderful. That is, until a bit of breeze came up, and the tree started groaning and cracking, like the heavy timbers of a sailing ship at sea. One would normally have never heard it, but the sound traveled right down the trunk and was amplified by the hollow chamber as well as my enhanced aural nerves. I was stoned enough to get a bit paranoid about it. What if the tree fell over? Right; from a little breeze, after withstanding hundreds of years of winter storms.
It took some doing to find the tree again when we were there in 2014, because there was now a thicket of baby redwood trees sprouting from the mother tree’s roots. But eventually I found it, and it even happened to be a bit windy too, so I could relive that sound (along with a witness), to confirm it hadn’t been my imagination.
I spent the better part of a week living in my tree. In the days I’d hike the trails with some other campers and scrounge for food, always a bit of a challenge given my active metabolism. The evenings were devoted to the pleasures of communal camp life, not uncommonly ending up with the question: your tree or my tree?
I could have stayed there forever; I was getting attached to my adopted redwood house. But food wasn’t exactly cheap at the little store in the village of Big Sur, and my budget was getting eaten up all too quickly. Gary, another hitchhiking camper and an ex-stockbroker from New York had a friend in San Francisco where he was welcome, and invited me too. So I said goodbye to my tree and we walked out to the highway and put our thumbs out.
Almost immediately, a ’57 Chevy wagon, very much like this one I found in the Bay Area, pulled over. It was piloted by a local who was heading to Monterey to do some shopping. He was a typical representative of the type that lived there back then: a woodsy beat intellectual with a decidedly superior air, and already a bit of a relic from the time when his ’57 wagon was built.
Having Googled “Big Sur 1950s”, I found these shots from the 2011 movie “On The Road”, which might as well have been taken that morning, except in this case it’s a Plymouth wagon, not a Chevy. Close enough.
The driver was obviously very intimate with that famous stretch of Hwy 1, as it winds high on the cliffs above the coast. The road was deserted on that weekday morning, and he hustled the ’57 Chevy wagon through the curves with considerable speed; he was an excellent driver who knew exactly when to brake, shift, and how fast each curve could be taken without drama. That ride left a deep impression; he was living my dream. And now I live it out in the mountain and coastal forest roads of Oregon in my xBox. Not exactly Big Sur, but the steady parade of tourists dawdling along in Mustang convertibles has rather ruined that stretch of Hwy 1 for me anyway.
In Monterey we got picked up by a late-50s Chevy panel van, the long-body, one-ton kind. It wasn’t exactly ideal from a visibility point of view, and it was a rough-riding beast, but we did stop at a farm stand in Castroville, the artichoke capitol of the world. So that’s where they all come from!
Our ride took us over Hwy 17 from Santa Cruz to San Jose, right through the town of Los Gatos, where we would move from LA in 1987.
Part 3: San Francisco to Eugene, OR
In a series of rides, we made it to San Francisco. Although I had missed the glory days of the Height-Ashbury hippie scene, there was plenty to do and see, and a healthy dose of residual hipness. The typical tourist attractions were mostly free or dirt cheap, like a ride on the cable cars.
That was on the agenda the first morning there, and it satisfied a long-held desire, having seen them way too often on tv shows and Rice-A-Roni commercials.
There were lots PCC street cars still in use at the time. And of course SF was a car-spotting cornucopia, as old cars aged gracefully, and they were intrinsically appealing to young folks both for their cheapness and their cool-factor.
I hadn’t seen trolley buses since Innsbruck. San Francisco was a mass transit mecca.
All kinds of old cars, invariably in iffy condition, could be found parked on the streets and in the few driveways. That and the wonderful old Victorian houses made my long urban hikes endlessly fascinating.
Well, that and the people watching. That was even more compelling than the cable cars and Fisherman’s Wharf.
Once could spend all day running into spontaneous gatherings and free entertainments of all sorts.
Our host invited Gary and I to a party one night. She was well connected in the elite hip social scene at the time, and this party was in a beautiful restored Victorian. The attendees were all dressed in the hippest fashion of the time, late-hippie era chic. The women were all gorgeous, and I felt a wee bit out of my element. I’m not in Iowa anymore.
Back on those days, I was perpetually hungry. When I saw a plate stacked with luscious-looking brownies, I took two, and down the hatch they went. I went back for seconds, maybe thirds. The women started looking more knock-down stunning than ever. But I found it increasingly difficult to make a move; well, just to move at all.
It wasn’t long before I was totally overcome by this powerful need to lay down. The only open floor space was under the baby grand piano, and I curled up around its legs. I have this dim memory of people looking down at me…
The word was that Grace Slick was going to be showing up later. I’m sure I made a great impression curled up under the piano.
It was my first experience with edibles. By this time I only smoked pot occasionally, in social settings, and my tolerance was low. And undoubtedly these brownies were potent. I was totally wiped out, and have no memory of how Gary and his friend got me home. And the next morning I was still pretty blitzed. Apparently I missed quite a party.
The next day a big anti-war protest march to Golden Gate Park was scheduled. I was still zoned, although I do have foggy-clear memories of the crowds, chants, speeches and live music. If you’re going to San Francisco as a kid, this was a must-do, having missed the Summer of Love by five years.
Of course there was another big scene happening across the Bay Bridge in Berkeley. I spent a couple of days over there, on Telegraph Avenue, where I was picked up by a woman about ten years older and taken home to be her toy boy for a couple of days.
I had a painful rite of passage on Telegraph Avenue when I fell for the Three Shell game scam. I watched two people (who were confidants) quickly double their money, so I confidently plunked down a $20 bill, certain I couldn’t lose. Of course I did. Boy, did that ever sting. That was about a third or quarter of my net worth at the moment.
The last time I was in New York, in about 2005 or so, I saw an Asian tourist taken for a lot of money. The scammer kept letting him win often enough to build up his confidence, and then went in for the kill, for over a thousand bucks. And then he grabbed his kit and bolted off.
I could have stayed in San Francisco longer, but once again, the itch to hit the road needed to be scratched, and I parted company with my travel buddy and our gracious host. Crossing the Golden Gate Bridge was one of those bucket-list moments, and Hwy 1 then snaked dramatically through the Marin highlands and dropped down to Stinson Beach, a popular weekend retreat but practically dead on a spring weekday.
As much as I love the dramatic Big Sur segment of Hwy 1, the long remaining stretch north of San Francisco until it merges with 101 in Leggett is my favorite. There’s relatively fewer tourists, especially the further north one gets, and the towns are more remote and laid back. Well, that was certainly the case in 1972, when the North Coast was just a few years into being discovered by hippies and other urban escapees from San Francisco. Most of the little hamlets offered dirt-cheap housing, and they were starting to come back to life with the infusion of new inhabitants. The first stage of gentrification.
The hitchhiking up the coast was blissfully slow, with a lot of short hops thanks to locals. By mid-afternoon I had only made it some 80 miles, to where Hwy 116 heads inland to Monte Rio. I had my ride let me off there and started walking the 5 miles or so to that little hamlet situated in the redwoods on the Russian River. The other name on my slip of paper was of the sister of one of the guys on the construction crew in Iowa City. When he heard that I was going to California, he said: if you make it to Monte Rio, look her up.
I walked into the town center, which wasn’t much more than the post office and a general store. The place was totally dead. The only person I saw was a young woman walking towards the post office, and I intercepted her. “Excuse me, do you happen to know so-and-so?” She looked at me a bit suspiciously and finally said “Um, that’s me. Why do you ask?” I was batting 1000.
She and her boyfriend were—once again—most gracious hosts, putting me up in their cozy cabin that had once been a vacation retreat for city families coming to swim on the sandy banks of the Russian River. Now all the cabins had year-round residents, all young. That evening we made the rounds, socializing with other arrivals from the city. I’m going up the country, where the water tastes like wine…
It wasn’t just poor hippie kids heading for the North Coast to camp in teepees or cheap cabins. San Francisco’s affluent but hip professional class were buying ultra-modernist houses being built at Sea Ranch, spread along 16 miles of the pristine coastline. The first unit, seen here, was finished in 1965, and there’s been slow but steady development ever since, with very stringent requirements to minimize impacts on the land and views.
On the way there, I got picked up by a lovely young woman in a BMW 2002. She was headed for her family’s house at Sea Ranch, but sadly dropped me off at the store near the entrance. I was beginning to imagine an overnight in one of these modernist gems, but no such luck. I slept out in the coastal woods again.
Mendocino is the ultimate counterpart to Sea Ranch; a storybook Victorian village built on a headland overlooking the ocean and bay. It was founded in the 1850s as a lumber town by New Englanders, who were later joined by Portuguese fishermen from the Azores as well as some Chinese immigrants.
It even had a racetrack nearby, back in the twenties. If there were more than two contestants, I don’t know. I’m giving #17 the odds.
After 1940, Mendocino—like so many of the towns on the North Coast, went into decline—until an artist’s center was started there in the 1950s. That was the beginning of Mendocino’s long and steady rise to what is now a Disneyland-esque version of its former self. Well, it’s still cute and worth stopping and taking a stroll through town.
In 1972, it was still very sleepy. There was the first wave of artists, literary types, hippies and other urban escapees who had found their dream spot. Kids who were traveling up and down the coast invariably stopped, which made the little beach down in the cove across from the hotel an endless party.
I met a writer down at the cove, who lived in a cute little bungalow with his wife and kids, and they let me sleep in a little outbuilding in the back yard that was his writing refuge during the day. So I spent the day poking around town, walking the headlands, and hanging out at the beach.
One day a guy showed up by the beach in a mid-1930s vintage motorhome that induced deep lust in me. This is the closest thing I can find; it was on a 1936 Ford V8 truck chassis, and had a clerestory raised middle roof section like this one.
The interior was similar to this 1937 Packard motorhome we featured here at CC a few years back, but a bit roomier. It had a rear entry and central aisle, not unlike my Chinook and ProMaster. That’s probably where I first came to appreciate its advantages.
Its owner said it had been used by William Boyd, who played Hopalong Cassidy in so many movies and tv shows for decades, which were shot out in various desert and mountain locations in Southern California. I so coveted this guy’s rig for the rest of my trip.
Once past Fort Bragg things really get lonely on Hwy 1, especially so back then. There’s just a few tiny hamlets amid the endless headlands, vistas and beaches. The last outpost on the coast before Hwy 1 heads inland to meet 101 is Westport. In 2010, its population was 60; I’m guessing it was well less than half that in 1972. But the little store was open, so I bought something for lunch and headed down to the beach to say farewell to the California coast for the moment.
The highway then winds along some beautiful bluffs and then makes its final turn inland, through increasingly dense forests. The road was deserted, and I walked a lot that day. My legs were getting a bit sore when I got to Leggett, and was happy to get picked as soon as I put my thumb out on 101, by some kids in a Datsun pickup. There was obviously no room in the tiny cab, so I hopped in the open bed. The scenery was fab, but the constant buffeting left some serious tangles in my long hair.
Hwy 101 winds through the heart of redwood country. Back then old growth trees were still being logged voraciously, and trucks with giant logs winding up the steep grades made for a slow but scenic ride.
Richardson Grove is the most dramatic spot on this stretch of the 101 as the narrow highway winds between the ancient giants. CALDOT has been trying to widen this stretch of the highway for decades, to make it easier for the largest new trucks, but there is strong resistance, as this protest from 2010 lays bare. It gives added meaning to the term “tree hugger”.
Not surprisingly, the guys in the Datsun pickup were heading to Arcata, the next college town heading north. Situated between Humboldt Bay and the redwoods, it’s an idyllic place, and once again, I managed to find some friendly students that took me in for a few days. The highlight was a May Day festival at Redwood Park; all the hippies living in the woods in buses and teepees showed up. Quite the gathering.
Stephanie and her family lived in Arcata at the time, where her dad was an English Lit professor. I’d like to think that I was looking for her, but it was in vain, as her whole family was in Fiuggi, Italy at the time, with Maharishi on a TM course.
In later years when we lived in LA and the bay Area, Arcata and nearby Trinidad became our regular get-away spot, and we often mused on the idea of moving up here. It never quite happened.
Part 4: Eugene to Iowa City
The next major college town was Eugene, Oregon. I’m a bit fuzzy on the details of getting there from Arcata, but it is a spectacular drive on Hwy 199 along the Smith River and then up to Eugene on I-5. I found free digs in the basement of a former fraternity house on the millrace that had been converted into a rather shambolic rooming house for students. That was quite common then, as the early 70s were the low ebb in Greek life on most campuses.
The highs and lows of 1960s Greek life would soon be celebrated in Eugene on film, in the classic Animal House (1977). The Delta House was a half-way house at the time, situated between two frats. I certainly would have seen it, but not many years later, it was torn down. It should have been preserved and turned into an Animal House shrine or museum.
I have clear memories of eating in the cafeteria at the Erb Memorial Union where the food fight was staged; the “fishbowl” hasn’t changed much, except for the types of food on offer. And yes, having the name Niedermeyer in Eugene does inevitably provoke questions. No; that was my older brother Doug.
Thanks to my high metabolism and the loss of $20 to that swindler, my funds were getting precariously low. A kid I met told me that they were hiring for choker setters at a logging operation somewhere out in the woods nearby. Did I want to go with him and see about getting a job? I liked Eugene, but hadn’t really thought of staying and living there.
I was a bit unsure of that specific job idea, but decided to tag along. When we got there and I saw how the giant logs were being pulled and swung around by the choker cables, and that the job involved being the one to set those cables, climbing up on piles of logs as well on freshly felled trees up on the steep slopes, I decided (wisely) to pass. It looked every bit as dangerous as it was, especially back then.
I decided to head back to Iowa City. I had mixed feelings, as I loved the West Coast. But I had a lot of friends back in Iowa, and the traveling was getting a bit tiring, especially from too many late nights partying, which seemed to be the default mode for kids on the road. I missed having a more balanced life rhythm, as well as the cultural events where I typically spent my evenings.
It was time to leave Eugene, for now anyway.
I hitched up I-5 to Portland, and then east on I-80N (now I-84), up the spectacular Columbia Gorge. My ride was going to Multnomah Falls, so I checked that out before heading on. I hiked up to the bridge and started to have some second thoughts about leaving Oregon so soon. It was so spectacular, and I hadn’t really hardly seen any of its natural wonders. I made a mental note to come back.
What came next were the worst and one of the best experiences of the whole trip, back to back. It was legal to hitchhike on the freeway in Oregon, so I stood out on the shoulder with my thumb out. A semi was heading my way, and as it approached me, it started to move off the lane and into the shoulder, heading directly for me. At full speed. It took me a split second to realize what was really happening, and to grab my back pack and jump out of the way as it screamed by in the shoulder at 65 mph.
Would he have hit me if I hadn’t moved? Probably not; but it would have been mighty close. He was clearly making a point, punctuated by the look on his face, and it had the intended effect: making me even more wary about crossing some 1500 miles of “cowboy country” at a time when the social tensions between anyone lumped into the convenient categories of “hippie” and “redneck” were very real. I’d heard some ugly stories, true or not, from other hitchhikers. Now I had one of my own.
It took me a bit to relax and move back closer to the freeway and put on my positive vibe face. Yes, it’s been proven that humans can make quite accurate assessments of others in a split second or two. I often got picked up by older, more conventional folks who made a point of saying: I normally don’t pick up hitchhikers, but you look like a nice person, perhaps to reinforce what they hoped was the case.
Within a few minutes an older pickup driven by a kid pulled over. He was right about my age, but his short hair, clothes and other cues made it clear that he was not in the tribe I was invariably associated with. He told me he was driving back to his family’s trailer, which was parked a short way off the freeway not far from Pendleton. He and his dad worked on the ongoing construction of I-80N, which would not be completed in Eastern Oregon until 1975. He grew up with his family moving around various parts of the West, following interstate construction jobs, hauling the trailer to nearby sites.
It was getting to be late afternoon going on early evening, and as we approached his exit, he turned to me and said: “You can come stay with us. It’s getting late and dark, and you don’t want to be out here on the road”. Thank you!
We drove down a dusty dirt road a ways, and parked in front of an early ’60s or so trailer. I felt a bit out of place, but I got such a warm welcome from everyone. His grandma lived with them too, and there were a couple of younger siblings. They probably didn’t get visitors often, especially like me. It was cozy but tidy, and it smelled like…supper time.
After we ate a hearty home-cooked meal, my first in quite a while, we all piled into a station wagon and drove to the little elementary school in the nearest hamlet. It was the annual end-of-the-year talent showcase, where each class performed a skit, a musical number, or some other performance. It was all so sweet. I felt totally embraced by these folks and their little community out on the high desert. It was such a contrast to how I had spent way too many evenings so far on this trip. And it validated my desire to be back with close friends and my adopted family in Iowa City.
I woke before dawn on the living room couch to the sound of activity and the smell of bacon. Grandma was busy whipping up a hot breakfast. The mom was packing lunches for the men, including one for me. The men were getting dressed for another day on the job, extending the freeway on its last leg to Baker City. We ate, said our goodbyes, and I rode with the men as far as their construction site. And then I was on my own again, hitching towards Salt Lake City, feeling suddenly a bit lonely after that deep immersion in human warmth. I would soon be missing that even more.
I arrived in Salt Lake City after dark, dropped off in an older section of downtown. I could not see myself getting a ride out again that night so I walked around a bit and found an old run-down hotel, The New Boston. I went inside, where there was an elderly Chinese man hunched over a desk behind a glass partition, which had a hand written sign taped to it that read “Do Not Create Disturbance – Manager Knows Karate“. I guess I’ll be safe here anyway.
The room cost me all of $2.60. I paid, signed the register, took my key and climbed the stairs to the fourth floor. The place was a living history museum. It had never been remodeled or updated in the slightest. The beds were what we used to call “deep valley beds”, the old springs sagging under the weight guests for so many decades. The mattress was ancient and thin. The sheets were so threadbare one could almost see through them. There was a rust-stained sink in one corner, and a dresser; nothing else. The bathroom was down at the end of the long dark hall. But it was clean, warm and quiet; absolutely no disturbances.
The other occupants were all old men, living there permanently on their Social Security or pensions. Simple hotels like this had once been the cheapest place for working men (and women, in their own hotels) to live in a city. And now the old hotel was aging along with them. I’m sure it got torn down before long, for an urban redevelopment.
The next morning I walked to the nearest freeway ramp and…waited…and…waited…and… The clean cut Mormons that dominated SLC were not going to fall for my friendly smile; all they could see was long hair, jeans, an Army surplus jacket and a backpack. Nothing doing. I was trapped in Emerald City. Where’s the wizard and his balloon? The ruby slippers?
By midday, I was utterly discouraged. I reluctantly gave up and walked to the Greyhound bus station and bought a ticket to Cheyenne, Wyoming. That was the next biggest town on the way, and it’s all I could afford.
The bus pulled into Cheyenne in early evening. Back then, I-80 did not yet bypass Cheyenne, as like in so many cities, the downtown merchants feared the loss of traffic to their hotels, restaurants, gas stations and shops. I started walking east, towards the transition to I-80, and put out my thumb. Pretty soon a ’65 Barracuda pulled over. There were three kids in it; two girls and one guy, all about my age. One of the girls was driving. The other girl hopped in the back, and I sat in the front. They were just going back to their place, but offered to take me out a couple of miles to where the interstate started. When we got there she turned to me and said: “hey, it’s getting late and cold. Why don’t you spend the night with us, and we’ll bring you back out here tomorrow?” Twist my arm.
They were students at Laramie County Community College, and all shared an apartment. We had a most pleasant evening, and I ended up in the bedroom of that sweet driver that night. It was the weekend, and the next morning she suggested we drive up in the high country, to show me some Wyoming scenery and a good camping spot. Just the two of us.
I’ve told that story in more detail here before, so I’ll keep it brief. We drove somewhere up in the rugged high country on gravel and dirt roads to some beautiful rock formations which we climbed around on. Supper was canned food cooked over a fire. A bottle of cheap red wine. It was getting mighty cold, so we snuggled into the long flat cargo area of the Barracuda, which really was a Valiant station wagon with a slanted roof (and a slant six). We savored the view of the stars and other delights.
There was no view in the morning, the fishbowl was white, from a layer of fresh snow, in the second week of May. Welcome to Wyoming.
She drove me back, and out past to the east end of town, and dropped me off where she had almost done so two days earlier. I stuck out my thumb. Not long after, a police car pulled over and rolled up next to me, the window opened, and a mean-looking cop behind the wheel barked at me that I couldn’t hitchhike here. And I would go straight to jail if I did. I told him it wasn’t the freeway yet. He said there was a temporary statewide ban on hitchhiking because someone had been killed by a hitchhiker. That sounded more than a bit fishy, but what was I going to do? I’m not in California anymore.
He told me to walk back into town, and then he spent the next twenty minutes circling back repeatedly to make sure that’s what I was doing.
I did feel adequately intimidated to not stick out my thumb again. So I stood at one of the many intersections of the main street, where all the traffic on I-80 was forced to pass through. And whenever the light was red, I would try to make eye contact with drivers and sort of shake my head towards the direction of travel. Some looked at me as though I had some strange tic. But then the solo driver of a very new-looking Opel Manta caught my gaze and got my drift, and waved me over.
I threw my bag in the back seat and hopped in. Where you going? To Iowa City. Well, I’m going to the East Coast; I can drop you there. Great!
It was my first time in a Manta, but a car I was quite familiar with from my inveterate magazine reading and as such, was at or near the top of my list of desirable (and relatively affordable) new cars at the time. It felt good just riding in it. Then somewhere in western Nebraska, the driver pulled over a rest area and asked if I would drive while he took a nap. Sure! Arrow-straight I-80 didn’t give me much of a chance to probe the Manta’s acclaimed handling, but it certainly felt highly confident rolling along at eighty. Or a bit more.
At that speed and with almost no stops, the 750 miles to Iowa City went by fast, and by early evening, the Manta delivered me at my destination in Iowa City. It was my longest single hitchhiking ride, ever.
I was broke but glad to be home. It was now mid May, and Iowa was in the full glory of late spring. The air was fragrant, and I felt very much alive. But I was now spoiled for the West Coast, and within a few years I would make the trip again, driving a one-way rental moving truck.