Best of 2019: The West, USA
Back in the day, hitchhiking was my steadiest form of transport. It took me across dozens of countries over the years, but this jaunt from March 1970 has always stuck with me. It was a mid-winter hitch of epic distance that was nearly my last.
What kicked it off was Spring Break — and a burning desire for the comparative warmth and freak frenzy of San Francisco. I was a nineteen-year-old college sophomore who had just spent a near eternity — or at least four months — suffering under the icy lash of a Minnesota winter. The fact that I was 2000 miles away from the West Coast and had only $30 to my name was no deterrent.
In fact, things started off quite well. Heading west with my travel partner Randall went so smoothly that we outpaced the Greyhound, the Union Pacific, and even the standard optimal driving time. A mere fifty hours after setting out we were walking up to our buddies Hal and Walt’s place in Berkeley. In eastern Nebraska we had picked up my longest ride ever — 1600 miles — with a guy who drove his Charger so long and so fast that even car troubles in Salt Lake City didn’t hold us up unduly.
We spent four warp-speed days in the West, with the lines of sleeping bags on Hal and Walt’s floor ebbing and flowing as chance, circumstance, and the vagaries of love dictated sleeping arrangements. If our hike up Mt. Tamalpais was an obvious high, the run-in with two flashback-addled Vietnam vets in the Haight was a sobering reminder that not all casualties are declared on the battlefield. Still, between the fast break hitch west and our goofball pick-up basketball games enlivened by plates of special brownies, I had this trip nailed and pegged as a roaring success.
Coming back was something else altogether. Six of us set off in a “driveaway” — a car being transferred from one city to another, with us volunteering as drivers — the morning after an all-night acid test. As the only non-participant in the hallucinogenic melee, it fell to me to organize the departure. This won me no friends and a long, headachy morning at the wheel scooting through Bay Area rush hour traffic.
The six of us had arrived out West almost simultaneously, as part of a grand neo-Prankster scheme. We’d hitched out in three duos. One set had ridden freight trains most of the way, freezing over the Rockies in unheated cars. The second set had been hampered by one member’s uncertainty — Big Dave (it sometimes seemed that half my friends were named Dave and, indeed, three of the six in our car were) had been scheduled to be inducted into the Army and his road west led him ever further away, and ever closer to a possible jail term for dodging the draft. Between rides he would occasionally jump back onto the other side of the road and frantically begin hitching back towards Minneapolis and his waiting draft board.
Now, on our return journey, he’d already missed his induction date and found himself in the somewhat contrary position of returning to the scene of the crime. Had he known he would end up doing six months in a St. Louis prison he might never have come along.
The first day out wasn’t too bad, despite the lack of legroom and food money. But as we cruised up into the high plateau of southern Wyoming, rumbling through the Rockies, we hit a snowstorm. A bad one. Bad enough to drive most all other traffic off the road. We had no such margin for delay. The driveaway was due in Chicago and I needed to be showing my face on the first day of spring quarter classes at the University of Minnesota. Failure to appear when attendance was taken on opening day meant one forfeited the spot in the class and I certainly couldn’t risk blowing an entire term’s work, especially since tuition would not be refunded.
We rode the lonesome highways through Wyoming cowboy country all through the night, staying on the blacktop by sticking to 25-30 mph. When nobody else could see to drive, Big Dave offered. I was in the front seat, riding shotgun. “No faster than 30,” I said. “It’s way too slick.”
“What do you think I am?” he said, but I let the opportunity pass.
Everybody but he and I went to sleep, so that I was the only one who saw him edge the car up to 35 and before I could even attempt to issue a caution, there was a soft little nudge from somewhere and we were sliding sideways down the interstate, across our two lanes, over the bare median, across the far two lanes with a semi blaring its horn as it bore down upon us, and then we were over the roadside edge into pitch darkness, hurtling down a thirty foot embankment with the rest of the guys coming awake in fits and starts.
Straight down the snow-glittering embankment (oh shit, what happened to the sky?), out across the fields (thump, bump, which ones are rocks? What if — thump) to smack to a stop (huh — wham — what?) on a ridge of snow. Above us in the dark the semi had shuddered to a halt. A figure emerged, running, with a beam of light. Behind him, more semis began to stop.
We ran the gamut of terror, relief, confusion . . . and settled on disgust at Big Dave for trying to hurry us into our graves.
An hour later we’d pushed the car through the snow to a more level section of verge where we could fire it up — amazingly, it still ran — and blitz our way back onto the interstate. Big Dave was strapped into the back seat and told to stay quiet. I grabbed the wheel and marched us east towards dawn. In the early morning the snow lightened and we pulled into the last rest stop in Wyoming for gas and as much food as we could muster between us. The cowboys in the cafe looked none too pleased to see us (Couldn’t have been the War Moratorium arm bands, could it?), but the two frantic hitchhikers huddled outside wrapped in their sleeping bags went down on their knees to plead for a ride. With six of us already aboard, we had absolutely nowhere to put them. “We don’t dare even wait inside,” they said; that, we could understand.
We packed them in, with one lying across the feet of the guys in back and the other squeezed like a soft banana into the well of the rear window. Now we were eight, with almost no visibility, and still a need to keep moving east.
Big Dave pleaded to be allowed another chance. It was daylight, and the storm had stopped. Surely the worst was over. Like a parent giving in to a whiny child, we let him . . .
Less than an hour later, with the border practically in sight, we came over a bridge, again going just a bit too fast (though my protests had been shouted down by the others as “fascist”), hit a patch of ice on the downward side and shot like lightning off the road. This time we weren’t so lucky as to hit a snow drift. It was straight into a tree.
Bam! My nose hit the windshield, shattering my glass sunglasses and leaving a quick, severe headache in its wake. The front of the car was caved in like a vee, and water was shooting from the radiator. Around me, bodies were piling out of the car — “Look out! It might explode!” — and we tumbled into the snow yet again.
My nose and a spot above my eye were bleeding onto my coat and Tom, who’d been squeezed next to a window in the back, was swinging his right arm and swearing like a sailor. Randall kept saying, “Do you hear that ringing? What’s that ringing?” — but I spun him towards the trunk and we started passing out our gear.
Once we’d grabbed our packs, we all turned to berate Big Dave. But he’d taken off running the minute the car hit and was even now flagging down a semi, pointing to us and climbing aboard. Gone for help? Or just disappearing? No telling, but all the rest of us knew we had better do something similar. This driveaway had been put in the care of just two guys; all the rest of us were extra baggage that could mean some severe penalties if found. We divvied up hitching spots and took off in several directions. My odds on making those first day classes were not looking good.
Randall and I eventually flagged a ride of our own and no sooner had we started telling our woeful story to the two college-age guys who’d stopped than we came around a bend in the Nebraska interstate to see two sleeping bags standing upright on the roadside with thumbs waggling out the tops.
It was against road etiquette, but I had to do it: “Please,” I said to the driver. “Stop for these guys. They were with us.”
He did, and now once again there were six of us barreling down the highway jabbering about the day’s events. Eventually the adrenaline rush wore off and we napped in contorted positions. I woke as the car pulled off the road (any sudden change in direction had me spooked by now) and into a gas station. After we’d filled, the driver asked me “How much is it?” — which seemed odd as the pump showing the price was right next to his window. Then when we needed to pull back onto the road, it took his pal in the shotgun seat to show him where the on-ramp was.
We found out the score later, when the first driver finally traded seats and napped. His buddy told us, “He’s legally blind. Can’t hardly see a thing. No problem as long as the road is straight . . .”
I was the only one heading north, so they dropped me outside of Des Moines in the gathering dusk and the car rolled further east. I tramped a couple of cloverleafs that seemed to go nowhere useful and finally found my way north to Minnesota. I hadn’t realized how I looked until I got picked up by a kindly gent heading home to his farm in southern Minnie and he gaped as I got in. I spun my tale and then, when I should have been perky and companionable, felt my head drop onto my shoulders. He’d told me he was going just over the border and three different times he woke me, saying his turn-off was coming up. Each time I fell back asleep before he could get there and the good-hearted fellow kept on driving north. He finally dropped me at an empty Greyhound station and promised that a bus would be coming on through. It was 9 a.m. when I hit town, blood splattered down my shirt and jacket, glass from my sunglasses embedded on my collar, starving, wild-eyed and tired beyond all imagining.
But I made my classes.
Six weeks later Tricky-Dick Nixon announced the expansion of the Indochina War into Cambodia, and a nationwide student strike shut campuses down across the country. Spring term was over.
BIO: Daniel Gabriel is the author of four books, and a lifelong vagabond traveler who has taken camelbacks, tramp freighters, and third-class trains through over 100 countries.
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