When I was nineteen my parents dropped me off on US Highway 2. I had a pack, tent and sleeping bag, a couple hundred dollars in one pocket, a polished agate for a lucky charm in another, and a cardboard sign that said “Seattle.” I’d soon learn it’s better to have a sign that says “west” than the name of a specific city almost two-thousand miles away.
The first person I met was another hitchhiker, a distinguished fellow, grey at the temples, traveling the country playing piano in nursing homes for his meals. Though he carried a miniature book of musical scores to lighten his pack, the odd thing was, as he stood along the road waiting for rides, he lifted weights. About fifty pounds worth. He couldn’t see leaving them at home. Maybe it was a ploy to weed out the wrong drivers, some sort of immediate ultimatum: love me, love my barbells. Those fearful of excess baggage need not engage.
A local woman had us throw our gear into the back of her truck and got us out of town. Then, straight out of my youthful road-trip dreams, I was picked up by a semi and rode high in the cab all the way to North Dakota. I spent the night in the open on a bit of scruffy highway median, sleeping in the dew.
Yes, I’d been reading Kerouac, and had San Francisco in mind as a pivot point, though it was a decade after the Summer of Love, and hippies had gone to ground elsewhere. Yes, I had a beard and bandana, though in reality it was the disco age. Maybe I felt a twinge of that Whitey-ever-westward impulse we supposedly possess, while riding a tailwind of naiveté, into the Great Unknown.
Montana had only instituted speed limits three years earlier. This was done as a fuel-saving measure, not because running into anything was much of a problem in a sparsely populated state slightly bigger than Japan. I stood in the glinting of the heat-waves and broken glass, the air wired with crickets and whining with tires, and alone with my scant belongings beneath that proverbial sky I measured the land like an inchworm.
I teamed up for a while with a guy from Saint Paul. One driver told us of a hitchhiker who went missing in those parts, and all they found later were the bones of his fingers. Another warned us of countless rattlesnakes, promising a ride to safety in exchange for sex, so we wound up stranded, sleeping in a farmer’s field.
Sometimes I’d juggle stones while killing time. At least it demonstrated my sobriety. The weather was fair, the drivers were harmless and straight from central casting. There was a traveling salesman who picked up a Jesus look-alike and me, making business stops as we waited in the car. A retired couple was pulling a camper and pitching the Lord. A rancher’s son who drove a jeep with a keg of beer in the back said it just rained “like a cow pissing on a flat rock.”
I got to the mountains, and at dusk I walked down a random dirt road to set up camp as wolves howled in the gloaming. Why this would spook me more than getting in a stranger’s car in the middle of nowhere I do not know. I detoured north to Glacier Park, terrified of bears. The best-seller Grizzly sat on a shelf in the campground store. Rattlesnakes were one thing, but how would brown bears sway my decisions while begging my way out of there?
I made it through Idaho and the high desert of eastern Washington, across the Cascades and into Seattle. I ferried out of Bremerton and hitchhiked into Oregon, where I saw the ocean for the first time, having traveled a great distance to look across an even greater one.
I got a ride with three Jewish guys from New York who were driving a van and reading The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Born too late, lads, born too late. They picked up a kid from Texas with a raw tattoo across his back. “HD-FTW,” it read, for “Harley Davidson, Fuck The World.” He was traveling with the guy who carved it, and “sort of trusted him.” We got to the state line so the driver pulled over next to the sign saying “Welcome to California,” and we slept right there on the shoulder of the road. Every passing semi filled my sleeping bag with the cold air of the promised land.
It was Highway 1 from there toward San Francisco, riding in the back of a pickup with a couple other travelers. The driver worked the graveyard shift, so he dropped us at his house to spend the night, and went to work. Not having much to steal seemed the key to his kindness. I rode into town with a couple Canadians, and we split a hotel room. Near the waterfront I bought some bogus hash from a gaunt and greasy stranger, the only betrayal in all those miles. It was time to turn around.
On the return trip I ran low on funds in Montana, got a hitchhiking ticket in Minneapolis, and took a ride on a Harley going north, where my glasses blew off as I turned my head crossways to the wind. So I came into Duluth wearing my junior-high horn-rims, and as broke as the Ten Commandments. I made it to a West End bar, and I don’t remember, but I might have had to bum the change for a phone call to my Dad, who came across the bridge to retrieve me. My money was gone, but his lucky stone was still in my pocket, and with it I had traveled, trafficking in the currency of human kindness, and paid my way home.
I can’t say I’d recommend it nowadays. I tried again, two years later, going east, but wound up riding buses after being told, once too often, to “get a job.” The decade of the Seventies was winding down, taking populism with it. Greed was now good, and devil take the hindmost — though the heart, vast as the western sky, can still conjure storms that topple tyrants. I owe the universe a thousand rides, but I rarely pick up hitchhikers anymore. I’m a bad judge of character standing still, much less at sixty miles per hour. The last guy I stopped for had a sign that said “unarmed.” That was brilliant. What the hell? Hop in.
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