The Hitchhiking Years: How We Were

The big roads were safe then, or we thought they were. Many of us, the more adventurous, poured onto the highways, just going, moving, looking. We were devotees of the long-haul thumb, crossing and recrossing the continent, dropping into Mexico, whatever.

A camaraderie held. There were rules. On an onramp it was first come first served, no butting in line and anybody with his thumb out was taken as a friend, or at least friendly. “Hey, man, got any shit?” was a common question. This meant grass, pot, ganja, herb, and good manners was to share.

A theme of the age was that “Dope will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no dope.” This makes more sense than might seem today.

It was wild to be alone in the sun and clarity of the southwestern deserts, trucks howling by, a blast of wind and shining of tires, and it was just you and the whole desert stretching in sand and cactus to the horizon. You might end up sleeping in an arroyo and if there was a gas station in sight there might be a bottle of Triple Jack.

The song that caught the era was Born to be Wild, Steppenwolf, and at my local biker bar in Mexico it still produces an electric shiver and a sadness for things gone. Someone once said, “The symphony ain’t been wrote that matches the lope of a Harley, potatopotatopotato.” Could be.

There were black holes that you could hitch into but not out of, where despite traffic or the lack of it you could spend days without getting a ride. One was in Canada–I swear it was called Wa Wa or something like that–that had a buddy of mine and I contemplating homesteading. On an obscure onramp in California someone had carved into the post of a stop sign, “Day 13. We killed John yesterday and ate him.”

Once in Berkeley, on Telegraph Road, Hill, Avenue, or whatever it is, a friend, a depressive Irishman, was in a phone booth calling back East. The connection was bad. “Plattsburgh. No, Platts–no, P as in psilocybin….” She understood him. Such were the times.

One afternoon after crossing the continent from DC my ride dropped me on on the Riverside exit in California. I was looking for my friend Jimmy Auld, who later killed himself by swimming out into the Rappahannock River at two a.m. in mid-January. But that’s another story. The day was sunny and I felt good after a long haul and in the distance I heard Carmina Burana.

That would be Jimmy. He was a music freak and had a Fisher tube-amp that he managed to carry with him everywhere.

So I reached the house on the main vein through town and there in the living room was Jimmy sitting on one of maybe five pink porcelain toilets, connected to nothing. Just there, in a sort of ring. I asked him why toilets.

“I stole them,” he said, clearly thinking this a reasonable explanation. It seemed he had worked in a hardware store.

“Oh,” I said. “But why toilets?”

“They watched everything else.”

It made as much sense as anything else in those years. It was an age of hunting and gathering.

One thing we all noticed on the road: The less a car cost, the more likely it was to pick you up. Caddies? Forget it. Thing was, people in old cars had probably been down on their luck. They knew what it was. So they pulled over. A crumbling ten-year-old pickup covered in Bondo and pop-rivets would usually stop.

Another thing we noticed was that in the South people were friendlier and more charitable. As you went from DC south, there was a sort of social thermocline at Fredericksburg, a sharp increase in warmth and courtesy. . You could feel that you somehow belonged in Fredericksburg. In the north, you were always just passing through, and usually under suspicion.

I once got dropped off in Boone, North Carolina, almost dead broke. Mountains loomed green and gorgeous and the towns thereabouts had the feel on having been there since at least the Civil War. I went into a local eatery, Dixie Lee’s of something with Dixie in its name I think, to spend my last buck on a coke. The owner could sort of see what was going on and she gave me a burger on the house and offered to let me wash dishes until I found something better. A construction worker, hearing this, put me up on his floor if I needed it. I did.

A lot of kids, late teens, early twenties, were in Brownian motions then, drifting from coast to coast, city to city. Since we seldom had anywhere to stay while in transit, we learned to forage for accomodation. One insight was that if you go ten feet off the sidewalks even in a crowded city, and lie down in tall grass, you no longer exist. In Waverly, New Jersey, hoping for a train south, I spend several nights in a clump of bushes not a yard from a sidewalk and maybe fifty feet from a Puerto Rican bar. Nobody Noticed.

One summer night in one year or another a friend and I–it was Jimmy Auld–had climbed into the Pot Yards–the Potomac Yards in Virginia just outside of DC–planning to hop a freight to New York. I say climbed: The yards were protected by one of those nine-feet-high chain-link fences with the Y-l’shaped out-leading barbed wire.

Why these are thought to provide security, I don’t know. A wiry stripling jumps as high as he can and grables the fence. The gaps provide a toe-hold. He then tests the outleaning Y-piece to be sure it will hold his weight, very carefully throws a leg over, and the other, leaving him inside the Y, and reverses the process down the other side. This might take thirty seconds.

The only sounds were the diesel yowl and the shuddering clangsbangbang of couples hitting each other.

Anyway, we hid under some bushies at the edge of the yards and watched the yard mules making a train to head North, where we wanted to go. The yard crews didn’t really care if you hopped trains, but it was better not to make them decide.

We heard but couldn’t see someone approaching. It was an old black guy–both “old” and “black” were obvious from his voice–with a couple of gallon jugs of water. We said hey, what’s up, nice night. Once it is clear that no one is threatening anyone, people in such circumstance feel pretty much at home with each other, or close enough.

It turned out that he had nowhere to live and was staying in a shelter of some sort that he had put together out of sight and had to go for drinking water. A hell of a way to end your life. Then as now America was killing large numbers of people in foreign countries and then, as now, I wondered why they couldn’t give this old fellow a few C-rations. He gave us some hints as to which trains stopped where. We said goodbye and he walked slowly away with his water. I don’t think his joints worked too welol. The diesels were still howling as mournfully as ever.

There was then in Austin a sort of outdoor beenhall called the Armadillo World Headquarters where various bands played, such as the Greezy Wheels. Austin was where corn-fed blond guys and gals met Haight Ashbury and engaged in joyous syncretism. The presence of the University of Texas did nothing to inhibit this. The result was a rich country-music scene fueled by forbidden substances. At places with names like the Soap Creek Saloon, with girls danced on the tables for the sheer fun of it while a beer-drinking contest raged about them A deeply conservative Texas was properly horrified.

At the Dillo, as it was called, as in Alice’s Restaurant, you could get anything you wanted. The freaks would holler, “Waiter, LSD,” and it would come in mugs.

Lone Star Draft

Today the roads are empty. I’m glad they weren’t when they weren’t.

Any column on this site can be reposted or otherwise shared without further permission.
Share this

Comments 1

  • I may need your help. I tried many ways but couldn’t solve it, but after reading your article, I think you have a way to help me. I’m looking forward for your reply. Thanks.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *