In 1971 I hitchhiked from Northern California to Sarasota, Florida and then home to Evanston, Illinois. I had just turned 19. The odd thing was that I had never hitchhiked in my entire life before then, not once. I had never even considered it. But at that moment faced with the choice of either flying back home after a month long break visiting my friend, Bill Coleman, in Pacific Grove, California or doing something else it seemed like a good idea; a challenge and somewhat of an adventure. At that time and at that in-between age, unless you were willing to enlist for Viet Nam, there were not a lot of readily available scary things to throw yourself into. More importantly it was also a way to extend the suspended nature of things, delaying the return to a new crappy job for purposes of saving money for college. So something else meant go visit my older sister, Mary, who was attending New College in Sarasota, Florida before going home. I had a big backpack, a sleeping bag, a leather fringe jacket and boots, some money, a map, and no clue.
My exact first ride of an eventual 4,500 miles and fifteen days of travel was with a very old guy driving a Grapes of Wrath pickup truck in Monterey. This is not a careless description — about twenty minutes into the ride, through my nervous questioning, he told me that his next door neighbor for years and years had been author John Steinbeck. I expressed amazement at that fact and rattled off Grapes of Wrath, Cannery Row, Tortilla Flats, titles of books that I has read and liked a lot. Maybe it was my long hair but he seemed very surprised that I knew who John Steinbeck was. I was surprised that my very first ride was this interesting. John Steinbeck, for God’s sake. The ride was pretty short but he made a big deal out of turning off the truck, getting out and going into the bed of the pick-up and as a parting gift, produced a banana and very solemnly handed it to me.
It was mid-February so my plan was to get south and try to stay warm. I dropped through California on Highway 5 that gets you to San Diego and then east on Highway 10 through New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, and then down to Florida. At the end of that same long first day I was outside San Diego and it was very late. A car of three pretty drunk guys picked me up from an excellent place to get a ride. They were OK, just tipsy and loud when after about 20 minutes they turned off on some minor exit and that was it, that was as far as the ride was going. I was totally screwed. They were oblivious to the fact that this was no favor. As you know, you cannot hitchhike on an interstate but it was after midnight and I was in the middle of nowhere. I walked back down the exit ramp and onto the expressway and put my thumb out.
A lot of trucks were blasting by and you had to be visible so you were close enough to be almost knocked down by their drafts. After about 30 minutes I saw one of the smallest cars ever, the original – original Honda whiz by and then kind of back up on the shoulder towards me. I grabbed my pack and ran for that little Smart Car prequel as fast as I could.
I immediately got a mini lecture on hitching on the highway but then we were moving and the driver seemed like a very nice guy. We talked – I was Mr. Conversation as my contribution – and after some nice back and forth he said, “John, it’s after one in the morning, you can crash at my house if you want or I can drop you off at the next exit which is where I turn off and there is a big truck stop where you can get a ride.”
I had three or four concerns about hitching across country. Even though 1971 was post-Charlie Manson and any idyllic concept of “Peace and Love” was long gone it was still early enough that not everyone had long hair. It was that in-between time when long hair still badged as having a specific political and social point of view, it was not yet de rigeur, not yet standard issue as it would be by 1974 or so, (check high school yearbooks in ’74 if you are in doubt.) America as violent place and backdrop for your pending mutilation paranoia flowing from either the hitchhikers’ or the drivers’ point of view was not yet front and center. You were likely to be befriended by kindred spirits because you were visible to them, the era’s charm had not yet worn completely off by 1971 (that would be 1973). But topping my concerns were not being able to take regular hot showers and someone jacking with me.
So, hearing the slightest possible trace of a molestation–invitation I replied, ‘Thanks, I really appreciate it but I think I need to keep going…the truck stop will be fine.”
He smiled at how ridiculous the “keep going” part sounded at one in the morning and how obviously I was thinking he was a probable sodomite.
“OK, but my wife should have dinner ready. She always does when I am on the late shift.”
I glance over to see if this is believable. It was and I did. “Well, if that is not a problem or a hassle for you guys that would be great.”
We got to his house, modest but pleasant, his wife was friendly, sexy-plump and could not have been nicer. We ate a casserole of chicken and mushrooms and I tried to repay by being as interesting a dinner guest as I could possibly be. After dinner we were still sitting at the table and he asked if I smoked.
“I do not.”
It is 1971, we are in southern California and I have shoulder length hair. I am at a strange house with two very nice people that I have known for about three hours. What the hell…
About thirty minutes later he was playing some album that somehow seemed like the greatest music that I had ever heard in my entire life. It turned out to be “Ball” the second album by Iron Butterfly. You might know them by Inna Gadda Da Vida. That appraisal of greatness should also provide some clue to my perspective at that point in time. Moments later “goodnight and thanks again” and I am on the couch listening to the two of them laugh a lot and then have happy sounding sex through some fairly thin walls. It was actually pretty nice to hear the giggling and the affection.
Nice southern weather, the miles were flowing and there was (and is) comfort in movement. My hitchhiking skills were improving; not just where to stand on the road with your thumb out, that was the easy part. The real education was how to behave once inside the vehicle. For you, the transaction had a very simple goal: be driven as far as possible. But what in return? The answer was as quickly as you could, figure out why they stopped their car and interrupted their travel to offer you the ride. There were four and only four reasons:
• The person was just really nice and was paying it forward. Your required response was to be appreciative as hell and be an interesting companion and conversationalist.
• They were nice and doing you a favor but through subtle signs you realized that conversation is not needed or wanted. You were the recipient of good will and that’s it.
• They were bored shitless with driving and your role was to entertain them with topics that, through initial questioning, you had determined they would be interested in. You needed to be chameleon like but authentic in finding common ground. You were the entertainment.
• They actually wanted to bring a second driver on board. This was much likelier late at night (more on that later). They wanted you to drive and they needed to sleep. Easy-peasy, you were now driving.
Again, the equation is who did they want or need you to be? X equals what? What role needed to be fulfilled? If you were perceptive enough to quickly figure that out you would be rewarded with longer rides and considerations like going slightly farther than they needed simply to get you – now a comrade – to a better spot for your next ride. By the way, if there is a better ad-hoc sales training out there than this I have never seen it.
Arizona and the Orange Grove
As I mentioned, I was worried big time about two things: getting hot showers and Pervs… pretty standard stuff. Everything was going well until I was roughly three days in and I found myself again very late at night in the middle of nowhere. I was near Interstate 10 but I occasionally shadowed it on different parallel routes. I wandered off into what seemed in the dark like a wooded area and crawled into my sleeping bag. I woke up the next morning and was jolted by a big posted sign: “Orange Grove – Trespassing a $10,000 Fine” that I was literally sleeping under. Yes, I was in an orange grove. Apparently no one in Arizona has a sense of humor about Orange Groves and I needed to walk out of it tout de suite. Who knew?
Once out, I sat on that roadside for freaking forever. This was the first lengthy dry spell with hours going by and no ride. In addition to being increasingly pissed at myself for being in the middle of nowhere, I started to fixate on a hot shower, I really wanted to wash my hair. Finally a big, tan Bonneville slowed and stopped. I jumped to it – the driver a pudgy, middle-aged Republicany white guy in golf casual– not the standard driver – motioned me in. We rode for no more than 20 minutes and he pulled into a motel.
I almost burst out laughing because what the hell – I knew I could kick his ass, that was not the problem – but the lack of subtlety was actually funny. He turned to me and said “I am staying here and I thought you might want to take a shower.”
That stopped me short. The truth was that just minutes ago I was absolutely begging the Universe to get me a hot shower. Not a prayer or a chant, exactly, but I was putting it out there. Then almost immediately, a guy in a big car picks me up and offers me exactly what I had been asking for. But what about the Perv factor? That cannot be ignored, either. Who picks up a hitchhiker and within five miles pulls into a motel and offers a hot shower? Plus, it wasn’t like I reeked or anything, I knew that. My hair was dirty and I hated that but it was not that obvious that I needed a shower.
We sat there a minute and I looked at him trying to assess motive and then at the motel sign, back to him, and finally said “Okaaay…I would like to take a shower” with enough hesitation to indicate my skepticism. We got out and he opened the door. It was one of those 1960 motels with the door right in front of the parked car. We went in, I had my pack and was on high alert. The very first thing I saw was that on one of the two single made beds, was a very graphic porn magazine opened to an extreme, almost gynecological close-up of a woman’s vagina, or what was known in the industry at that time as a beaver shot. So, was this good news or bad? Pervy, yes but seemingly heterosexual perv… He seemed non-plussed that I noticed the magazine – not that I could have missed it – and indicated the bathroom door.
We have all seen “Psycho.” That scene was not lost on me. I risk stating the obvious when I say there is something very scary about being in a shower in a motel room with a guy who just picked you up hitchhiking outside of an orange grove who was (and hopefully remaining) on the other side of a thin motel bathroom door. But I did want that shower and for all I knew this guy, admittedly presenting as a perv, was a shower angel manifested just for me in response to my shower plea. In Arizona…outside of an orange grove…it could happen.
I took my pack into the bathroom and also grabbed a bunch of wire hangers from his closet. These would be my early warning defense system. I hung them all over the back of the bathroom door. The door kind of locked but it was hard to tell if it was really trustworthy. I trusted my hangers more.
I took my shower. The water pressure, the temperature and steam were perfect resulting in one of the greatest and most appreciated showers of my life. Too delightful to rush, I took my time. I actually started to feel more nervous when I was drying and changing clothes so I did that as quickly as possible. We have all seen too many movies.
I bounced out and he was sitting on a bed thumbing through his magazine. I was effusive in my thanks and also very happy that he was not in his underwear and black dress socks or anything creepus maximus. Praise Allah for that. So we talked and the absolutely hysterical thing was that as we talked about politics – somehow in that day and frame you got there quickly with Viet Nam, Nixon, Kent State, Kissinger, fill in the blank – we kind of agreed about stuff. Even though he was a very conservative Republican, a Tea Party guy forty years ahead of that descriptor, and I was left of left, we pretty quickly got to the common ground of everything is totally and probably irrevocably fucked up.
As unlikely as that sounds we were so diametrically opposed that face to face we would agree about nothing but were both so completely disgusted and fed up about America, Nixon, the war, that if we stood back to back instead of facing each other in our perspectives we agreed on everything; meaning that absolutely nothing was right and America’s future was looking very dicey to say the least.
We were two living, breathing Algebra problems coming to the exact same answer from two unrecognizable equations. For completely different reasons, armed with shatteringly different beliefs, we absolutely agreed that our country was at the end of greatness, that we were going down the shitter, that Nixon had to go, the War was criminal (my criminal was that we were there vs. his criminal that we were pulling our punches not even trying to win), that if our Founding Fathers somehow could see this current episode they would have regretted ever starting the damn series, on and on. There was a lot of on and on.
He never stood up from that bed. We did not get back in his car. I shook his hand, thanked him profusely, thanked him sincerely, grabbed my pack and closed the door. Nice guy.
“You going through Texas? Better get yourself a cowboy hat.”
I heard that a lot from other hitchhikers sporting long hair. It was a warning and a mantra. But I never considered it, not for a second. Not that I was above improving my odds for not getting jacked with somewhere on the Texas Plains. We’ve all seen those menacing scenes with the hero/victim bloodied beyond recognition that all start with some denim clan of miscreants in full drawl, “You ain’t from around here are you, boy?”
And no, I was certainly not. But I just could not bring myself to get a cowboy hat. Forget for a minute how inauthentic it would be, I am just not a hat guy. Plus, I hate country music. So Texas loomed and I knew it would be tough. Hell, fellow travelers were warning me about it from hundreds of miles away. Don’t forget, this is before Willie and Austin as “Hipster Oasis.”
El Paso is the one city Texans don’t brag about for very good reasons. It’s their Mordor. Coming into it, I got a long ride with a Mexican businessman, extremely formal, looked like an engineer- spoke very little English but what English he did speak was delivered very precisely. He took unaccountable pleasure in my high school Spanish which at that time was better than you would guess. Now of course, I am reduced to dazzling taxi drivers in Playa del Carmen with “Pero, no me gusto albondigas!” delivered quite emphatically and with a surprisingly good accent (But I don’t like meatballs!), but then my Spanish was more serviceable. He was worried about me when we actually got into El Paso; it was late so he first drove to the truck stop where he wanted me to go the next day for a decent shot at a ride and then drove a few more blocks from there to drop me off at what can only be described as a flophouse.
He kept pointing at the “hotel” saying “limpio y asequible…limpio y asequible” which means clean and cheap. I looked at the sign and back at him and believed the cheap part but was definitely hesitating on the clean. He wanted to give me five bucks which I refused and I had to show him I had money before he relented and then he made me take some licorice. I thanked him and reluctantly left the safety of his very pleasant car.
It was a very old daily hotel catering to the semi-indigent on the bad side of El Paso (which is saying a lot) so I knew if I went in I was not coming out until the light of day. I could have afforded better accommodations but I was tired, it was late, I was there and I did not exactly know the location of said better accommodations, nor a way to get there had I known. The funny thing, as low clientele based as it was, it was freaking immaculate. Mr. Clean was in the air and the guy at the front desk (think the hotel in Gunsmoke) was very nice. I trundled my pack and the huge iron key up three flights of stairs into my surprisingly large room. The bed and sheets were starched and pristine, the bathroom beyond ancient but spotless. I ate my licorice, took a bath in one of those huge claw leg tubs and got into bed.
Sometime during the night, two or three o’clock (I was too freaked out to get out of bed to check my watch) I heard an old male voice whimpering and crying out after what sounded like whipping noises. Someone was getting whipped with a belt. I was unnerved to say the least. I was frozen in that bed thinking WTF…the whip noises were very far apart and I started to suspect that the whimperer might actually be enjoying the spaced lashing. I had to think that was better but not by much. Occasionally I would hear a different low voice, not mad, not reprimanding or punitive, just layered in there. I was very asleep when this woke me up so I don’t know if it stopped or I just got used to it and fell back asleep. That moment kind of summed up El Paso for me. Hard to believe, I know, but I did not mind leaving.
So picture this: El Paso is basically the biggest city in the western part of Texas and Houston is about as far east as you can go. Through dumb luck with the nicest truck driver ever born, I got my first long distance semi ride that basically in one lift of the thumb took me almost 1,000 miles across the entire state: El Paso to Houston.
We would go through town after town that on the map looked like reasonably sized burgs, places where you would logically assume that you could get any number of rides. We would drive into and through the single stop light in seconds and I would realize with post event fear that I could have died there for days…there was nothing map worthy about it. Time and time again.
So only when traversing Texas did I realize how stupid it was to do what I was doing… here comes the denim-clad drawl…and as mentioned, I have seen this movie. So, ironically, the only time I was ever really frightened was when I was safely bopping down the highway with the nicest trucker ever born, staring out of the window at the relentlessly beautiful and empty countryside and occasionally watching him take salted Planters Peanuts out of those twenty-five cent bags and patiently drop them one by one into his six-ounce bottles of Coca-Cola that he balanced on his lap.
He could not believe that people back East did not put salted peanuts in their Coke. I could not believe how completely f’d I would have been, could have been, should have been trying to cross Texas without him. When I first got into his truck and told him where I was heading he laughed and said, “You are in luck.” I had no idea.
At one point, God knows where, he pulled into a classic looking truck stop for dinner. To show you how naïve I was I did not want to go in because I thought he would want to see some of his good old boy trucking buddies and hang out with them. He looked at me like I was crazy and just laughed and we went in. What was I thinking? That the trucking fraternity was so strong that no matter where you were or what time you dragged yourself into some basic issue truck stop in BFE that trucker friends would be there waiting for you, ready to yell, “Hey, good buddy! Bobby! Where you been?” No wonder he laughed.
After crossing pretty much the entire state, as we got to the outskirts of Houston he told me to get down in my seat because the trucking company had spotters and you weren’t supposed to have riders for insurance reasons. Hearing that I thought he was kidding and didn’t move a muscle until slightly annoyed he repeated himself – why I didn’t believe him I am not sure; I had no problem imagining an ever present magical truck fraternity but somehow insurance regulations seemed…unlikely?
When he dropped me off at his last stop, as well I should, I thanked him to the point of embarrassment but I meant every word.
Alabama and the Jesus Freaks
From Houston the next big stop was New Orleans. Sounds good on paper but it was a snooze. Literally, as all I remember is that in return for helping someone unload part of a moving van they let me sleep in the truck overnight. I made a ridiculously comfortable bed out of those heavy protective moving van quilts and had the trailer to myself. As you might guess, I was nowhere near the French Quarter.
Once you have been hitchhiking a week or so it becomes a game or a point of pride or something not to spend money on a hotel. A test of resourcefulness. There were also far fewer budget hotel chains back then so you also worried about doing serious damage to your funds just for one night. But conversely you did not accept someone buying meals for you – that was too much. Sometimes you had to argue to pay because they assumed you were cash free.
Somewhere in Alabama, kind of in the country, I was on a nice bucolic stretch needing a ride. It was a good road, not a lot of cars, not busy, not deserted. The hour passed. I saw the absolute perfect ride approach; a yellow VW bug with two fairly attractive girls. I knew I was going to get a ride, it was done.
When they passed and did not even slow to even consider picking me up I was stunned. Then in the reverse image of their rear view mirror they must have seen me jump up and down, throwing my arms around in what can only be described as a temper tantrum. For some reason that image, childish as it was, made them stop the car, put it into reverse, back up a quarter of a mile and pick me up.
I was kind of embarrassed so I did not ask what made them rethink me, I wasn’t intending on them witnessing my little spaz attack. But they were cheerful and announced that they were taking me to the “Center.”
By the way they were talking, plus the scenery, I somehow knew that this “Center” was not an urban outreach program. It was way too country-suburban for that. We drove, I tried to make them laugh with some degree of success, and then we were there – at the “Center.” It was really just a house on some grounds with a questionable up-tempo paint job, something that a low budget set designer might cough up when challenged to convey “Today’s Kids – hip but not hippiesh-hang out here.” Church hip.
They now seemed unreasonably pleased that I was there and that they were bringing me in to meet “Steve.” It was about 8:00, still light out, a very pleasant Alabama evening. Plus, I was going to get to meet “Steve.”
Steve bounded out and shook the heck out of my hand. He hugged the two girls and we went inside. He was gracious, he was in charge and immediately invited me to “crash” showing me where that would be. I stowed my pack and went out to join them. I think we ate something, some sort of snack and then we got to it. I was kind of looking forward to it.
The term ‘Jesus Freak’ had just started to get into the language in the early seventies, it was not pejorative. And these young Americans were Jesus Freaks. Soon we were in a group of about five or six and the questions started in that IQ reducing Southern drawl:
“John, it’s John, right? John, do you ever think about what happens when you die? Have you thought about what eternal life might be like not in Heaven but in Hell? Do you want to hear what Revelations says about it?” A few passages later…
“Sure, I can understand that you might have doubts about Jesus but why take that chance? Here is what Mathew says about what Hell is like” and a few more passages were read. For the finale and to lighten the mood, the coda and his pre-close were all about the Rapture.
Now I like Christian Theology. I like it a lot, it is very interesting to me. I enjoy discussing the merits of acts versus just faith, was Christ raised or he was able to raise himself, whether or not Paul totally hijacked Christ’s message, on and on. So we talked and started to banter, Steve and I.
But the discussion he wanted and moved into quickly and purposefully was none of that. It was not about what Christ most likely said or was metaphor allowed meaning did everything in the Bible have to be read as literal or anything interesting, it was all about…insurance.
“John, accept Jesus Christ as your savior and you will have eternal life. Accepting Jesus Christ as your savior is the only way to avoid eternal Hellfire.” John, don’t you understand, what have you got to lose? Even if you are not sure why risk it? Open your heart to Jesus, accept Jesus tonight as your personal Savior. If I am wrong maybe there is no afterlife. If you are wrong you burn in hell for all eternity. Why take that chance?”
I looked around at the room, at the two girls and everyone was beaming and they were looking blissed out. I looked back at Steve who was staring at me with that focused love-smile, not a lot of blinking. I knew that look, he was closing. I respected that.
“So Steve, are you saying that unless you accept Jesus Christ as your Savior you will burn in Hell for all time?”
Steve, looking very pleased, gently said in his Southern drawl, “John, that is exactly what I am saying.”
“So Steve, do you think that Mahatma Ghandi is burning in Hell right now?”
“Ahm sorry John, I don’t know who that is.”
I think I actually flinched. I abruptly said my thanks and goodnights. As I crawled into my sleeping bag I tipped my hat to the idea if not the execution of Missionary Zeal.
On one of my final long rides bringing me to my destination of New College in Sarasota, Florida I actually got a ride that central casting could have approved; a van with about five or six young “Freaks” (the self –referential term popular back then was also non-pejorative.) Long hair, late teens going God knows where on pocket change. They stopped for me and as I was a year or two older than the others I somehow became the brains of the operation. There was not a lot of competition for the job I can tell you that.
The first full day we stopped at some beach and there was a rag-tag band playing or kind of playing, more like rehearsing. They were black and some soul song without vocals was being euthanized. I walked up to the beat to shit, two–thirds of a drum set and after I told them I played I was immediately grilled on whether I knew the exact drum beat to James Brown’s “Cold Sweat” I did not, non-audition over.
That night we slept on the beach. We all put some money in and the van driver left for a Quick Mart to procure some semblance of a dinner. That dinner turned out to be two quarts of ice cream that everyone but me thought an excellent choice. I knew I would have to quickly abandon my tribe.
Days later when hanging with my sister Mary at New College a friend of hers told me that a bunch of kids were looking for me on campus. I immediately flashed on Lord of the Flies and also wondered how long Natural Selection took in a group setting.
My sister and I had a great time, her friends were smart, funny and fun. 1971 Sarasota, Florida in February with its soft air and its trees was delightful and something to see. I stayed for about a week, hated leaving but it was time. I did have a beautiful girlfriend back in Evanston, Becky Thompson, who at eighteen was almost being dared by my absence of two months to find someone else. Looking back, that might have been truer than my conscious brain realized. If she left I could win her back and that had been a very fun part of our history. If that was what my inner director had been thinking the joke would prove to be on him, poor bastard.
Where are we? North Carolina?
I am not going to make excuses. If I was I would go with fatigue, cold weather, a new accelerated desire to get home once I started my trek, something compelling. But the truth is that, excuses notwithstanding, I did exhibit some bad behavior on my trip from Sarasota back to Evanston; I kind of hijacked someone.
I was as far as Memphis or so. It had been uneventful but was no longer recreational/adventure tinged, it was pure utilitarian movement, reduced to the physics of just getting my increasingly frozen ass home. No longer able to duck and weave on the highways of the very southern states, I had to set a course due north and it was getting colder every mile.
Early evening I got a ride by a nice but very fatigued black guy in his thirties, who picked me up and immediately got onto the back seat and prepared to sleep. Surprisingly there was almost zero discussion about our destinations, he asked me and I told him Chicago and he told me he was going to Washington DC. No discussion of routes (that’s right, your Honor, no discussion of routes) so after checking my map I started driving. It is not an exaggeration to say he was asleep before I had the car in gear. All I knew was he had apparently been driving for a long, long time and the gas tank was full.
I drove for hours through the dark and as it got later and later I mostly just saw trucks well behaved in their right lane. (What happened to that?) I had decided after thinking about it awhile driving his warm, new car that we both had to go north and he had to go east so what would be the harm if we went north first? We could through the rest of Tennessee and Kentucky and when we hit Indiana he could go due east on I70 to Washington. It was not as the crow would fly and diagonally would certainly be faster for him but on the other hand then I couldn’t drive him because that was out of my way and driving him was providing a very valuable service as he was dead to the world.
So I drove and he slept. I could not believe how long he slept. I kept waiting for him to wake up so I could “brief” him on our route and the logic. I had filled the gas tank somewhere in Kentucky with my own money and even then he did not stir. But when I saw us crossing into Indiana I knew I probably needed to advise and wake him so I pulled into a dinky little highway rest stop.
“Man I was sleeping…whoa…how long we been? Are we in South Carolina?”
“Where are we?”
“We just crossed into Indiana”
“Indiana! Why the hell are we –“
“Hey, it’s not that bad, you had to go north and east now you just have to go-“
“Get the hell out of my car, boy – get the hell out of my car”
Knowing how crabby one can be when they first wake up I did just that. I got my pack just in time as he roared off. I was guilty of bad behavior and the Highway gods apparently do like payback.
Indiana and the Highway Patrol
It was still dark and it was freaking freezing. I got one ride and once again was in the middle of nowhere staring at pretty empty highway. I went off into the woods and unfurled my sleeping bag and tried to sleep but it was too cold so I just rested. The sun finally was coaxed up and I soon gave up on the idea of trying to get warm before I got out of my sleeping bag. I walked out of the woods by the highway and stuck my thumb out.
Trucks were the only vehicles and once again in order to be seen you had to be right out there. With my forty pound pack on my back I was literally blown over and down the embankment by a semi who might or might not have enjoyed that rear view mirror tumble by a longhair as the truck was awfully close to the shoulder.
With my pack now resting on the road and my thumb back at work, I saw a car looking like it was stopping and had maybe one second of relief before I realized it was the Indiana Highway Patrol.
I thought it was a good sign that he had me sit in the front seat as opposed to the “perp” back seat as we started with basic questions. Did I know it was illegal to hitchhike on a State Highway, where was I coming from, going to, name, identification…he was professional–pleasant-crisp as he looked at my drivers license.
“Trimble…I knew a Jack Trimble when I was at the National Safety Council in Chicago.”
“Really? That would be my dad. He still works there.”
“You are Jack Trimble’s son?”
The next thing I knew is that we were driving to his favorite breakfast place where he insisted on both loading me up with a ridiculous amount of farmer breakfast and paying. We were still marveling at United States as small world. Before dropping me off at a truck stop he repeated, in a much friendlier tone, the lecture on where it is legal to hitchhike and general things to watch out for. He could not have been nicer and wrote his name down so I could give it to my dad with his regards. Yes, it is a small world.
But all still was not forgiven. I had the absolute worst time getting north through Indiana. I spent a ridiculous amount of time trying to get out of freaking Terra Haute, Indiana and to this day that place still pisses me off. Alabama had been easier than this for God’s sake and a hell of a lot warmer. I would stare at the map and there was no denying that the closer I was getting the more excruciating it was becoming.
An entire day later, I was finally on the south side of Chicago and abandoning the thumb, I started in on the maze of the Elevated trains and subways. Changing trains in downtown Chicago at Adams Street, I got on the Evanston Express with my pack and boots in the afternoon rush hour, unintentionally jostling everyone. “Noyes Street next stop” and I was home.
I was delighted to be home and saw two of my best friends, Cal McKean and Anne Stout, who would both be leaving the planet within three years, their exits unconnected but within months of each other. I saw my friend, Peter Low, and just laughed and laughed at the news and the non-news and all that I had missed. I finally heard the first Emerson Lake and Palmer record.
The first night back I saw Becky who happily was very glad to see me. I realized completely how much I had missed her. We had been together for over two years which at that age was a very long time. I had started my campaign to be with her a full year before that so we are talking basically forever.
This was the longest time we had ever been apart. And like any good Woody Allen movie, just as I was appreciating all over again how smart and beautiful she was I was struck by my own carelessness, vandalism even, to have created a space, an absence big enough that a rival could squeeze into. But despite some hints and subtle warnings when I was away I was still so dialed into our old world order that, at least that night, I felt I could overcome it.
After we had caught up and had dinner, Becky said, “there is something I need to tell you about.”
I replied “It’s OK, I am not going to be upset.”
“OK, well then just tell me when you want to get not upset,” she said and laughed.
My inner director got off his chair and waved me off. Not today. Not just yet.