Auto-Biography: A Two-Month $125 Hitchhiking Tour of the West in 1972 – A Preview Of Coming Attractions

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, 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.


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