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[This is the last  installment of a hitchhiking trip I took in my twenties; see the first  post to read from the beginning]

Tail Ends

I was finally in Minneapolis. I put my pack back together.  The bright sunlight, the proximity of houses and trees whose shadows they cast, cheered me up. It seemed like home—like Michigan where I grew up—after living in California and this ride through the desert, over the mountains, and across the Great Plains.

I hadn’t had much sleep, but I wasn’t tired, just sore from sitting on the Celica’s console for 1500 miles.  I was excited about seeing my friends.  It felt good to be able to stretch, relax and put my stuff back together.  Stuff I thought I’d never see again, like my red pack and down sleeping bag.

It felt good to stretch my personality a little too and not worry about Charlie and Ken disapproving of it.  I had had to be careful.  They were not open to much of what I had to say or feel.  Now I was able to feel anyway I wanted to. Catching a bus for downtown with Kelley’s address and phone number in my pocket, I wanted to surprise my friends by showing up at the door, unannounced.  I only told them that I would try to come.  They weren’t exactly expecting me all the way from California.

I loved these people.  They literally meant “the life” to me.  When I was in school, two of them saved me, and I would never forget it.  Also they appreciated who I was and what I was capable of with my heart and mind.

“Where you going camping?”  An older, rumpled man addressed me.  His jacket and pants were stained.  He was missing some teeth and had a straggly beard.  This was before people who lived on the streets were called “homeless”.

“I’m here visiting friends,” I replied.

The gentleman started to sing, “With a backpack on my back…”

Everyone else on the bus ignored him, but I, as usual, didn’t want to offend.

“You know how to protect yourself from a pack of wolves?”  Not waiting for a response, he continued, “I learned this when I was in Alaska.  You take a knife and you cut yourself with it so’s you get blood all over the blade.  Then you stick the handle in the snow.  The wolves’ll come up to the knife, bite it and cut themselves; the blood’ll drive them crazy.  They’ll attack each other till there’s none left…” he started singing again.

I got up, pulled the cord to get off downtown, at the terminal.

“You remember what I told you, young feller.”  The doors unfolded on his last words.  I was glad to be off the bus.  It seemed I was always trying to escape one uncomfortable situation or another.  I longed to feel at rest, to put away the anxiety that fermented in my chest. I was sure that it was all caused by things outside of me.

I took a bus to the University and got off in an area that looked artsy. Maybe this is where they live.

I called Kelly.

“Hello?”

“Hi, you doing anything?”

“Larry?”

“Yeah, I thought I’d give you a call.  Is the wedding still on?”

“Yeah, sure.  Are you coming?”

“Yeah, could you pick me up?” I continued speaking very casually.

“In California?”

“No, I’m in Minneapolis.  I’m outside the Riverside Café in an artsy fartsy section somewhere near the University.”

“You’re here?” Kelley registered an appropriate amount of surprise. “The Riverside Café’s on the West Bank, stay there.  I’ll come and pick you up.”  The West Bank wasn’t all that artsy as it turned out.  Fartsy was appropriate, later that year I would have some vegetarian chili at that café.  You paid a donation and you got the meal of the day.

“Here you go, Brother,” the hippie behind the counter said.  It wasn’t very good, a lot of beans and tomato sauce—no seasoning.  It was worth what I paid for it, though.

Across the street was another café. It had the best ice cream sundaes.  They would serve you a bowl heaped with vanilla ice cream and a gravy boat filled with your choice of toppings.

Hot fudge was my favorite, and I would get them on a regular basis in spite of my lactose intolerance.

I hummed with energy.  I was eager to see my old friends, happy to have accomplished my destination, and excited to tell the hysterical story of my trip.

I’ve made it!  No more danger or uncertainty.  Not at least until I had to leave for Michigan.  Next stop was Grand Rapids, a town 30 miles from where I grew up, and where my older sister Cathy lived with her husband and son.

For now, my friends would provide me a place to stay and entertainment.

A beige sedan pulled up near me, “Boy, they’ll let anybody into this town.”

“I know,” I said seemingly astonished. “They let anybody drive too?”

“Fortunately for me.  Put you’re pack in the back.  How you doing?”  He was grinning from ear to ear.

“Well, pretty good, now that I’m here.”

“Tell me about your trip.”  Kelly was a very clever fellow with tight kinkified, red hair and a quick wit. He was at the University working on his Masters. At Notre Dame he had been a good friend and, at times, a mentor. A few years later when I was back in California and he was in New York, he gave my future wife, my address. She wrote to me. We’ve been married over 30 years.

I’d envisioned telling the story of my trip with all my friends in a circle around me, surprised, entertained, and impressed.  If I told it here in the car it would lose some of its impact.  Each telling would steal some of its thunder until it was just a light shower, a passing mist amongst my friends.

“Well, I got this ride across the desert in the back of a pickup truck with a guy who had just spent two years in jail for stealing a Pantera.  He was going to…” I told Kelly the whole story, about the cowboy, the cattle lullaby and the trip from Cedar City to Minneapolis—“I got picked up by a couple of guys who wanted to kill me on their way to joining the two million-man-strong New Zion Army in the Colorado Rockies…”

“Well,” said Kelly, when I finished the blow by blow, “That was a good story.”  He paused and arched his eyebrows, “So, you gonna join up?”

“Join up what?”

“The New Zion Army.”

I thought for a minute and then, with a half smile, said, “I guess I probably should after all that.  What do you think?”

Kelly glanced my way as he drove, “Sounds good to me, but why don’t you wait till after the wedding.”

The End

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[This is the 5th  installment of a hitchhiking trip I took in my twenties; see the first  post to read from the beginning]

Road to Minneapolis

 I awoke. Grey light filtered through the blinds throwing a pattern of slits on the bed beside me where Ken slept. A line of white light shown under the door.   Sounds of a car door shutting, muffled voices, and the jingling of keys made me aware of life beyond our motel room.

I was still alive.  I lay there breathing slowly and deeply.  The frightening thunderheads of black thought that had engulfed me the night before, concerning my imminent demise, were gone.  I laughed.

“What’s so funny,” said Charlie, apparently lying awake.

“Just glad to be alive,” I responded.

“Yeah, well, we’re burning daylight.  Let’s get going.”

We slowly got up and packed.

“Get your ass out of bed, Ken.”  Charlie threw his pillow and hit Ken in the head.

“Hey, watch it,” Ken flung it back at him.  Then he got up and went into the bathroom.

“Hurry up, I gotta take a piss too.”

The drive to Provo was cordial.  Charlie joked and bragged to, through, and past breakfast at Denny’s.  I didn’t want to spend anymore money than I had to.  Yet I wanted to be sociable after being allowed to live and all.  So instead of eating the salami and cheese in my pack, I ate with them at Denny’s.

We drove together past Provo and joined I-80 for the trip over the Rockies.  It was getting cold.  Once we got in the foothills it started to snow.  Ken drove.  He was scared.  “They taught us to turn into the skids when we were on the ice.”

“When?” I asked.

“When I was training to be a State Cop.  They had us drive on ice at an ice rink in San Bernardino.”

“Why?  There’s never any ice in L.A.”.

“Yeah but we were training for high speed chases and U turns.”

Both hands gripped the wheel, he had his driving gloves on so I couldn’t see whether his knuckles were white or not.  His steely jaw did not tremble, but I sensed his tension.

“I’m thinking we should just drive straight through to Minneapolis,” said Charlie, “I don’t feel like camping in this shit.”

No longer excited about camping with my two “buddies”, I was glad when I saw the snow and heard Charlie’s reaction to it.  I didn’t think they still wanted to kill me, but I wasn’t sure and didn’t want to see any prairie dogs bite the dust either.

The car wasn’t running as well at the higher altitude.  Sometimes it would slow way down and creep up hill.  Sometimes it would cough and sputter , threatening to die.

Finally it did die.  We had driven through the night.  My tailbone was starting to get sore from the hard console that, in spite of the padding, I could not avoid.  I slept in small stretches as Ken and Charlie took turns driving.  I contributed towards the gas but was not asked to drive.

Finally the car sputtered to a stop just as it came up over a rise.

“Well, shit.  This piece of crap.”

“Hey, that’s my car you’re talking about,” said Charlie.

“Now what?”

“Well, one of us has to get a ride into town to get help.”

“I’ll go,” I said.  “I’ll hitch in.”

There was no disagreement about that.  They were glad to have me do something for a change.  Maybe get rid of me; my money was almost gone.  If I had known I’d be paying for a ride, I would’ve taken a bus.  The only thing is, I would have lost all my earthly possessions.

It was morning; the snow was blowing over the pass, down the interstate.  There were not a lot of cars but I felt confident I would get a ride due to our broken-down vehicle.

I walked and hitched.  The next town was a good 10 miles, and I was trying to stay warm.

A Volkswagen Rabbit with skis strapped to the roof pulled over.  There was a young guy driving, his girlfriend was sleeping on top of all their luggage and coats in the back.

“Hey, how ya doing.”  I recognized the couple.  They went to Notre Dame.  Younger than me, they were still in school, living the dream.  I was hitching across the country, nearly broke, at loose ends.  They clearly could afford a car and a ski trip and school too!

“Hi,” said the driver.

“Hi,” said the girl.

“Could you give me a ride to the next town?  The people I’m riding with’s car broke down.  I need to get some help.”

“Sure, climb in.” said the driver.

“Fancy meeting you out here.  Where you going?” I asked.

“Back to school.”  They looked tired and were not very talkative.  They couldn’t care less about me but they were surprised to see me out of context.  They knew me as a graduating theatre person.  I couldn’t be doing that well if I’m hitchhiking out in the middle of nowhere.  I was forced to compare myself to these people.  The plan, when you graduate from college is, you get a good job, you start a career, you continue climbing up that success ladder.  Everyone expected it of you, everyone is impressed.  I had already gotten off the ladder.

I’m not impressing anybody here, I thought.  I asked them about people they knew and then got real quiet, trying to appear mysterious.  Perhaps they’ll figure there is more to my life than meets the eye.

They didn’t know what to make of me, but they were too tired to wonder why they, of all people, would be helping me, of all persons.

The mechanic from the gas station drove out with me in the tow truck.  “This ain’t nothing.  It sometimes goes down to 40 below with the wind blowing the snow clean through you.”

I thought how there were so many people in the world tougher than I was.  That somehow I was allowed to squeak by unharmed with so many dangers all around me.  Perhaps it was my ability to appear invisible.

“Where are they, son?”

The section of interstate was clear of all cars, not even a moving car in sight.

“I don’t know.  They’re gone.  I’m sorry to drag you out here for nothing.”  I’m never going to see them again.  I started planning on how I would get to Minneapolis without any clothes, food or sleeping bag.  I would hitch as soon as I got back to the rest stop.  Maybe get a bite to eat, but I had to watch my money, I didn’t have much left.

“It’s all right, things are slow at the station now anyway.”

I went into the diner, calculating how much money I could spend.  I was starving.

“Well, look who’s here,” Charlie said.

“How did you get here?  I went back with a tow truck and there was nobody there.”

“The car just started going again, “said Ken, the state cop aspirant, who looked surprised and embarrassed.

“Might as well get something to eat.”  Charlie sipped on a beer.

Cedar City all over again.  I sat on a bar stool and ordered two eggs over easy with home fries and rye toast, $1.75.

“Yep, just started running again.  We kept trying it.  It was getting cold out there.”

“I got picked up by two people I knew.  They’re from Notre Dame.”

“Fancy that,” said Charlie out of the corner of his mouth.

Resigned to finish the journey together, we got back into the car and headed east.  The rest of the way to Minneapolis was uneventful; just a long slow drive at 55 mph.  This was just after 55 mph had been implemented nationally because of the supposed fuel shortage.

The oil companies staged a fake fuel shortage all across the country.  Cars were lined up at the pumps for blocks.  All the while, oil tankers had to sit offshore and wait because fuel storage tanks were filled to capacity.  That was before oil companies became selfless champions of the greater good.

Talk decreased to a bare minimum as the tired cold miles were slowly digested.

It was warm and sunny when we finally hit Minneapolis.  Charlie started making jokes.  “Look at that asshole,” he said, pointing to a bearded, long-haired student standing at a bus stop.  “With all that hair you can’t tell if he’s got shit for brains or brains full of shit.”

Charlie started planning his and Ken’s future.  “We’ll live with my Mom for awhile, get jobs and save a little money.  We could buy a couple motorcycles and ride around together.”

Ken smiled, “Sounds good.”

“Well it’s time to get rid of this asshole,” Charlie laughed.  “I’m just kidding, it’s been nice knowing you,” he winked at Ken while he said this.  “You can catch a bus downtown over at that corner.  Minneapolis has a good bus system; they come every half hour.”

They pulled over and began yanking my stuff out of all the places it had been secreted around the little car.  They put it all in a pile on the sidewalk.

“Take care of yourself.  And listen.”  Charlie’s eyes narrowed, his voice, became serious.  “You watch the news this spring, the Red Chinese are coming, I shit you not.”  He reached his hand out the window and shook my hand.  “Nice knowing you.”

“Yeah, it was a good trip,” said Ken reaching across Charlie to shake my hand too.

“See ya,” Charlie abruptly started the car and gave a slight wave. I waved back, but they didn’t turn to see it. Ken and Charlie were laughing about something as they drove off. It looked as if they’d already forgotten the whole thing.

 

Next Week:

Tail Ends

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[This is the 4th  installment of a hitchhiking trip I took in my twenties; see the first  post to read from the beginning]

After the Prairie Dogs

 Not only were my hosts on their way to join the New Zion Army, they were also stopping in Charlie’s hometown, Minneapolis, so they could live with his mom, get jobs, and save some money.

“Hey,” Charlie said, “When we go up to South Dakota to do some camping, we can do some shooting too. They have those prairie dog towns. You just sit there for a while and wait for them to pop their little heads up.”

“Sounds like fun,” said Ken.

“Yeah, it’s a ball. It’ll help you relax, get your mind off your troubles.” Charlie laughed; they both laughed. “We could use a little fun after Las Vegas.”

I wasn’t sure I still wanted to go camping with these guys. I wasn’t sure I wanted to see prairie dogs splattered all over their mounds. It wasn’t how I liked to experience nature.

The sun set orange over the mountains in the west.

“You wanna drive straight through?” said Charlie to Ken. “We’ll stop when we hit South Dakota.”

“All right,” said Ken.

Ken always went along with Charlie. He looked up to him. Charlie was a very self assured person. He always knew what to do.

The lengthening evening gradually shrank the vistas outside the car windows. There were few lights beyond the head beams of the little Celica and few cars on the interstate.

“I can kill a man with my bare hands,” said Charlie to no one in particular. You just have to grab ‘em by the throat and twist. I did some in Nam…It was fucked up there.” His voice got very dark, like the night outside the windows of the car. “The bastards killed my buddies right beside me. I killed as many as I could. After I finished my tour I signed up for another.”

I was very quiet. I felt sorry for Charlie and all the “Charlies” Charlie had killed. I could understand an anger that can’t be quenched; however, I never killed anyone. As a matter of fact, I’d only been in two fights my whole life. The thought of being in a fight scared me; I didn’t want to get on the wrong side of Charlie.

I could feel some kind of plan that was shared by my two Samaritan friends, but that I was not party to. They had gotten quiet, aside from the occasional curse or bitter remark. Charlie gripped the wheel his eyes knifing into the road ahead. Ken sat at attention, both hands in fists, one arm across his lap, the other under his nose supporting his head, his brow aiding his intensity by pressing down like a collapsed accordion.

“I hope I’m not too much of a bother,” I said.

“No bother,” said Ken.

“Hmmph,” said Charlie, “What?”

“I hope I’m not too much trouble.”

Charlie turned his head, “Nah,” he half smiled then looked forward down the road.

The little car ate up the interstate like a Chihuahua nibbling a midnight snack.

Why did they pick me up? I thought. The glow I’d felt from having my problems solved with a ride clear to my destination, had worn off. I was tired like my traveling companions. I hadn’t had much sleep and we’d been driving for hours. The grim reality of my situation began to dawn on me. They had gone to a lot of trouble to fit me in. There was no good reason for them to pick me up. They were best friends, I was a stranger. They had a cramped vehicle even before I got in. They had guns and other weapons. The driver was nuts and a trained killer.

The blood drained from my face. My heart pounded. I felt they must hear it above the sound of the engine and tires on the road.

They would take me up to South Dakota, way out in the country. They would camp, kill a few prairie dogs, then kill me. They wanted my money.

Many thoughts, like visions of poisoned sugarplums, danced through my head. Maybe they would make me get down on my knees and blow my head off. Maybe they would beat me to death.

I knew I didn’t stand a chance against these two. And, since I wasn’t sure they were going to kill me, that maybe it was just my overactive imagination, I couldn’t try to escape or tell someone. Doing that, would cause a lot of trouble, and that would really piss Charlie and Ken off. In addition, I’d lose all my belongings since they were secreted throughout their car. Besides, I’d be too embarrassed. I would look like a fool if it wasn’t true.

“I’m getting pretty tired,” said Charlie. “I wanted to drive straight through, but maybe we should stop.”

Ken agreed, “Maybe we could all share a room.”

A glimmer of hope lit my manacled brain. Maybe this nightmare would clear up with a good night’s rest and maybe, when they saw I had only traveler’s checks, they’d reconsider murdering me.

We pulled into a Howard Johnson’s. Just as I thought, when I paid my share of the room with a traveler’s check, Charlie let out an annoyed hiss.

I was glad if it ruined their plans. I didn’t want them to benefit from my demise.

We got a room with three single beds. I was given the middle one. When Ken opened his suitcase, he showed me the throwing knives. “I can stop a man at 30 feet with one of these.”

“Yeah, and do you see the blades on those?” added Charlie, “They’re tapered so the wound won’t close. Anybody who gets one of those in him will bleed to death.”

It seemed that Charlie and Ken wanted to be sure that I didn’t try anything in the middle of the night.

I lay in the bed, lights off, peering at the faint ceiling above me. Part of my thought was terrified, panicking, Maybe I should make a run for it, tell the manager, something, another was so tired that it said, Wait till morning, this will probably all clear up in the morning after everybody’s had some sleep.

I was so exhausted I felt I would take the chance they’d at least wait till tomorrow. So I closed my eyes.

 

Next Week:

 Road to Minneapolis

 

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[This is the 3rd installment of a hitchhiking trip I took in my twenties; see the first  post to read from the beginning]

Volunteers for the New Zion Army

 A man going to work took me to Cedar City, a town in southern Utah. I could see I was going to spend a lot of time trying to hitch out of there. A car would go by no more than once every five minutes traveling north on the near empty interstate which lead to Salt Lake City. Since it’s illegal to stand on the interstate, police will give you a ticket and remove you, I had to stay on the on ramp. There, a car would only pass every half hour.

I decided that, since it was warm and I’d be there for a while, it would be a good time to sno-seal my leather hiking boots. I’d been planning to do this for a while but never found the time. I took everything out of my pack—the boots were on the bottom. With my belongings spread out on the grass, I opened up my can of sno-seal, a very slimy substance, and smeared it all over the leather, working it into all the pores and seams. After that I set the slimy, glistening boots in the warm sun so the leather could soak up as much as possible. I intended to repeat this process until the boots could take no more.

After I’d applied the second coat, I sat on my sleeping bag and thought about cracking open a book. It looked like I was having a yard sale. I wasn’t afraid it would hurt my chances to get a ride since there were so few cars anyway. Oddly enough, the very next car pulled over, a Toyota Celica.

“Where ya going?” said the smiling passenger on the driver’s right, a handsome man about 25.

Minneapolis, Minnesota.”

“Really, that’s where we’re going. You want a ride?”

I was thrilled, how lucky could I get. I thought it would be all day before I got a ride even as far as Salt Lake, “Yeah, that’s great!”

It was then I noticed their car was packed to the ceiling with clothes, boxes, shoes, stereo equipment and other flotsam of the human condition—there was no room.

“Where we gonna put my stuff?” The back seat was jammed to the ceiling. Where will I even sit, I thought? I felt my enthusiasm waning. These guys, who were both big to begin with, sure were generous to make this offer, but there just wasn’t room.

“Don’t worry,” the driver said, we’ll fit you in.” He was a stocky ruddy guy with scars on his face left over from adolescence, yet he had an attractive air about him due to his enormous self-confidence. “We can put some in the trunk and some in the back seat.”

They took individual pieces of my gear and clothes and stowed them in nooks and crannies between all their belongings. There were a few pieces that wouldn’t fit so they opened up the trunk. That’s when I saw the rifles.

“We’re hunters, you don’t have to worry, we’ll protect your stuff,” said the driver with a dry laugh.

I took my foam sleeping pad and folded it up to make a seat for myself on the console, the only place left to jam myself between these two six footers. If I was big like they were, I would never have fit.

“Boy, thanks a lot, you guys. This is really great of you to go to all this trouble. My name’s Larry, by the way.” I reached my hand towards the driver.

“Charlie,” he shook my hand.

“”I’m Ken,” said the handsome passenger, he shook my hand too.

We chitchatted a half an hour in the afterglow of finding a joint purpose. More than just a coincidence, I thought, this all came together too perfectly to be just a coincidence—all of us going to Minneapolis. Must be part of some higher plan.

“Where’d you stay last night,” I asked.

Charlie stopped smiling, “Vegas, the fucking assholes, I’d like to go back and blow up the whole damn town.”

He turned and looked at me for a moment to emphasize the weight of what he was saying, “We were trying to get up some money. We quit our jobs and are starting over in Minneapolis. My mom lives there.”

“We shoulda stopped when we were ahead,” said Ken. They both looked at me at the same time.

“Sure is beautiful out here,” I said trying to change the subject, “Ever do any camping?”

“Did all the camping I wanted to in Nam. But, what the hell,” Charlie’s eyes narrowed and his mouth contorted from a grimace into a half-smile, “You want to do some camping along the way? We could stop when we’re up in the mountains for a day or two.”

“That’d be great,” I said, not getting the picture.

We had left Cedar City on I-15 heading up toward Salt Lake City. We stopped in a bar a couple towns up for a beer; there were lots of jackalopes on the wall. The jackalope is a jack rabbit with antelope antlers. I wasn’t sure it was a real animal. I asked the bartender and he said, “Yeah, but they’re pretty rare, aren’t they, Dale?” winking at one of the patrons.

Charlie turned around on his stool and addressed the two ranchers behind him, “I thought you Mormons didn’t drink.”

“Well, if you’re a Jack Mormon, you can drink,” he laughed.

The countryside we were driving through was broad and flat with mountains on the eastern and western horizon. The monotony of the unchanging landscape hour after hour gave me plenty of time to worry. Little things started to occur to me like why were they so eager to share their tiny car, especially since they had to move all their stuff around? Also, when we got to talking about the Vietnam War, which hadn’t been over that long, the driver said something noteworthy in relation to Nixon, “Yeah, I’d like to kill him.”

I had brought the subject up and enjoyed how they immediately got onboard about what a jerk he was, but became concerned with the vehemence Charlie lent to the subject, “I’d like to kill the fucking bastard. And I wouldn’t kill him fast; I’d kill him slow, by the death of a 1,000 cuts like the Vietnamese do.”

He’d been to “Nam” for two hitches—four years. “Yeah, I went over there and so many of my buddies got killed, I was pissed, real pissed, so I signed up to go back and kill some more.”

I got real quiet. Up to that point, Charlie had been confident, funny, and friendly. He was still confident, but confident like a crocodile sizing up his prey. He’d done a lot of killing in Vietnam.

The further we drove, the angrier they got about things. I was very careful to be nice. They told me about losing $300 in Las Vegas, about Vietnam, about being best friends, about their jobs delivering Silver Springs water in Watts, about how Ken was running away from his wife, “Maybe I should call her.”

“Naw, don’t do that. Don’t give the bitch the satisfaction.”

“She might be worried,” Ken was worried. He wasn’t sure he was doing the right thing. His wife didn’t know he was leaving.

The more tired all of us got, the darker their moods became and the more paranoid I became. They obsessed about the money they’d lost in Vegas while trying to develop some cash for their new life. Their eyes were narrow black apertures peering down the road in the twilight. They both looked at me squeezed between them in the middle, sitting on the console, as if I were part of the solution to their problems.

“You hear about the war that’s comin’?”

“What war?” I asked.

“We heard all about it in Watts. We know all about it. The word on the street is the Red Chinese are going to attack in the spring. They’re going to pour over the border from Canada,” said Charlie.

“Yeah,” agreed Ken, “We’re going to go and join the New Zion Army up in the Colorado Rockies.”

“We’ll be a million men strong and we’ll fight the Red Chinese. You want to join us?”

“I don’t think so,” I said, “I’m going to a friend’s wedding and then to Michigan to see my family.”

“Well, then you could come after that.”

“Maybe.”

Next Week:

After the Prairie Dogs

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[This is the 2nd installment of a hitchhiking trip I took in my twenties; see the last post to read from the beginning]

Las Vegas Welcome Wagon and a Ride from a Cowboy

The pickup truck, that had whisked me across the California desert, dropped me off on the strip in Las Vegas. In those days the casinos were smaller, many open to the street. I walked along, somewhat apprehensive, with my pack on my back, looking at all the blinking and flashing lights and signs, listening to the sounds of the sirens going off every time someone got a few quarters back from one of the slot machines.

“Hey, you just get here? You come a long way?” A thin unshaven man in his forties in a rumpled green shirt and brown pants stepped in stride with me.

“Well, let me tell you, this is a great place. There’s cheap food and always something going on. Especially if you like to gamble. You come here to gamble?”

I told him I was just passing through. While I didn’t know what to make of him, I was glad for his input.

“The floor managers sometimes give me coupons to get breakfast. Mr. Clyde here at the Three Note, he’s a good friend of mine. He always slips me a few coupons to get food.” This guy should’ve gotten a job with the Welcome Wagon people. “Come on. I know where we can go. We can get a free meal at the kitchen. You can meet some of the guys.”

This sounded good to me. I wouldn’t have to spend any more of my money. I wanted it to last as long as possible.

“Are you sure it’s okay? I’m not destitute, you know.”

“Oh, sure. They’ll be glad to have you. That’s what this is for, people hitchhiking around, camping, needing a meal. It’s a place to meet people too, you’ll like it.”

I started to see the possibilities. Maybe I’d stay in Las Vegas for a while, go hiking in the mountains, see the Grand Canyon. Looked like an easy way to get by.

We went down the strip a few blocks, and then turned right. It was starting to get dark. Maybe I could stay with these guys tonight, get breakfast and head out in the morning.  I didn’t know yet where I’d sleep. I was a little concerned about it. When I had started up that morning, My brother, Bern, and his friend, John, had dropped me off at an onramp to the interstate in Orange County. I found there was already someone there trying to hitch a ride. The kid had a pack and a sign. He was going up north.

“You hitch much?” I said to the kid.

“Yeah, I’ve been across the country twice.”

“Where do you sleep if you don’t get a ride?” This was one of my main concerns. I knew how to stand and hold my thumb, and now decided to make myself a sign, but I didn’t know what to do once it got too dark.

“I just sleep right along the highway. I find a spot in the bushes.”

“And nobody ever bothers you?”

“Naw.” He looked at me with that confidence that comes from experience. “Nobody cares and nobody knows you’re there in the first place.”

“Oh.” I was relieved. I looked around and picked out an unobtrusive spot to sleep just in case I never got a ride out of there that day. Though I felt tempted to, I just couldn’t call Bern and John to come back and pick me up, I’d have felt foolish.

“Here we are.” The Welcome Wagon guy pointed to some steps that lead down to a double door into an old cafeteria. Inside there were rows of tables at which were sitting men in various states of decay. Their defeated eyes stared at me in my nice clothes and backpack as I got in line for food. When I finally got to the head of the line, the person serving, who was used to not judging people but knew I didn’t belong there, said there was only black coffee left.

My new “friend” and I sat down at one of the tables. I felt out of place. I hadn’t realized from the description that it would be a mission. I kept my pack right next to me.

All these guys probably came to Vegas to gamble, I thought, lost all their money and now just hang on, like moss, living off the moisture. I sipped my bitter coffee. Not being able to just down it, and, in spite of the fact that it was getting dark and I needed to go, I felt I needed to put in a little time. It would be rude to just up and leave.

After a bit, I returned my cup and slipped out the door. It was dark. I had just wasted the last valuable hours of daylight sipping bad coffee without cream and feeling uncomfortable. It’s next to impossible to get a ride in the dark. People can’t see you well enough to make a judgment and are afraid to stop. I remembered one time in Oklahoma near Ponca City, I got so desperate I tried to flag cars down. People just swerved to go around me. Finally, some Indians picked me up. They were swerving too; they offered me a drink from the bottle of whiskey they were passing around. “Now you tell people, Indians aren’t all bad,” they said as they dropped me off at a bus stop in the next town. I’d never thought they were bad, I just had heard that alcohol was sometimes a problem for them.

I walked to the main road out of Las Vegas and stood under a light so people could see me. A lot of cars went by; some sped up but none stopped.

I picked out a place to sleep. I still had never camped-out beside a road. It made me nervous, but I tried not to think on it and all the other things beneath that and beneath that, cooking under pressure in those mysterious caverns, seeking for a place to seep out. I tried to keep myself calm enough so that the top of the mountain didn’t get blown off.

A dark sedan, a little beaten up, pulled over. The passenger door swung open, “Where you going young fella?”

“Minneapolis.”

“Well, I’m going all the way up to Meadow Valley, that’ll get you part of the way.”

I didn’t know where that was, but it sounded good. I put my pack on the backseat and climbed into the front.

“Been out here long?” said the driver, a wiry man in his fifties, wearing an aging cowboy hat.

“A while. Thanks a lot…My name’s Larry.” I offered my hand.

“Edward Johnson, but people call me Pete.” He shook my hand. “Folks don’t usually pick up people after dark.”

“Yeah. I appreciate it. Where you coming from?”

“Baker. Had a job.”

“What do you do?”

“Just about every damn thing you can think of.”

“Sort of a jack of all trades.”

“You could say that. I’ve done a thing or two in my time. What you gonna do in Minneapolis?”

“A friend is getting married.”

“I’ve been married a few times, didn’t care for it.”

There was silence then. From the pale glow of the dash I could see the driver set his jaw. I tried to think of something to talk about.

“Do any camping?” I had several favorite places I would camp in the mountains around LA. I lived for it. There was something I got there—a oneness with nature, or maybe silence, or perhaps it was the only environment I felt capable in, not lost like I was in the workaday world of the city.

“Shit, Boy, I’ve been camping all my life. Why I was working construction in Baker for a week and slept a few nights under the stars. You can’t beat it. You do any huntin’?”

“No, a little backpacking and climbing.”

“Let me tell you about the time we were up Dawes Creek. We were hauling equipment up there for a mining company, that was about 15 years ago. One of the trucks got a flat. There was no road, just a dry creek bed. Well, there we were fixing that flat when we hear this rumbling in the distance. It had been raining in the mountains. It was a flash flood coming our way. It hit us like a ton of bricks. The three of us grabbed hold of the truck while it bashed us into every damn thing. Shorty couldn’t hang on and was sucked away like a bug in a fan. Didn’t think we’d see him again. Damn near drowned myself.”

“Did he drown?”

“Well now, I’m getting to that part. See, this wall of water swings the truck around and pushes us up sidewards on this big ass rock. I get a good bash on the head, but I managed to pull me and Reid up out of there on top of the boulder. I start hollering for Shorty but you can’t hear nothin’ above the roar of the water. Suddenly, it dies down, just as fast as it started. And I hear this ‘Help, get me out of here!’ A tiny voice off in the distance. I figured it must be Shorty, so I make sure Reid’s all right, then I find some rope that’s under the seat. I shook the mud off it and put it over my shoulder. Rope’s pretty damn heavy when it’s wet. Then I climb up the bank about 50 feet to see if I can see Shorty. Well, I can’t see nothin’ so I climb back down and start walking down the muddy creek bed toward the sound of his voice. I must’ve walked a mile before I came upon him. I was about 50 yards away and he sees me and starts a hollering, “Get back, Pete, don’t fall in the quicksand too.”

“He was up to his neck in soft mud. The flood had pushed Shorty and a lot of mud into a bend of the creek. There was so much of it every little move sank him deeper and deeper.”

“ ‘Don’t come too close, Pete, it’ll get you too.’ ”

“Well, I wasn’t afraid o’ that, but I didn’t see how getting both of us stuck would do either of us any good. So I climbed up on the canyon wall, it was pretty steep, and I inched along above the mud tryin’ not to step on something that was gonna give way and send me into the same perdicament as Shorty. Finally I got right above Shorty. The problem was there weren’t no good place to perch; all the rock was pretty loose. So I threw Shorty one end of the rope, but I told him not to pull on it because I had to climb to the top so’s I could get a foothold. Well Shorty was so scared, he started pullin’ on it right away, pretty near pulled me in. So I threw him a bunch more rope and said I’d leave him there if he didn’t stop pullin’.

“Please don’t leave me,” he yelled, then he started bawlin’ like a baby. I could barely stand it, but I felt sorry for him so I told him to hold still and I scrambled to the top as fast as I could. Once I had my feet firmly on level ground, I started to pull him out. Man, was he covered in muck. He looked like the creature from the black lagoon. I laughed and laughed. Of course he didn’t think it was too funny, but he didn’t say nothin’ seein’ as how I saved his life.”

“Wow, that’s quite a story.” I was thrilled to be sharing a ride with someone right out of an adventure novel.

“That ain’t nothin’. There was a time we was drilling for oil….” Pete regaled me with about four more stories before we got to the truck stop where the cowboy stopped for some coffee and pie.

“The coffee here’s not too good, but they make the best damn pie around.”

We sat at the counter. I decided to have some pie too and some hot chocolate. The hot chocolate was a mistake because it didn’t go that well with the pie, the pie was sweet enough. I’m always trying to get the most out of an eating opportunity but it usually doesn’t work out.

“I was over in the Panamints rounding up some strays that got loose and wandered up in the canyons. I worked for Tom Pinter at the Red Flats Ranch at the time, and this steer got hisself caught in the branches of a dead tree of all the damned things. I got off my horse and was trying to free his horns without getting’ gored when I saw the snake.”

“Was it a rattler?” I was hanging on every word that came out of the mouth of this rugged man, when the chubby smiling waitress came over to warm up his coffee, “You fillin’ him full of your bullshit, Pete?”

“Well now, Honey, I’m just givin’ him the benefit of my experience.”

She laughed and said sarcastically, “Lucky him.”

“Ah, she’s just jealous.”

“What? Cuz I ain’t as good a liar as you?” She moved down to the other end of the counter with her coffee pot.

We finished our pie without a lot more talk, paid our tabs, and left. Pete drove about a mile more, pulled over, and said, “Well this is it.” Dropped me off and turned down a dirt road. We had come about 50 miles. I was disappointed. I thought from the way Pete was talking we were going ten times that far.

There were no lights to stand under now and few cars. I was out in the country. East of me was open land that ended in the dark outline of a mountain range providing a jagged earthly frame to a sky full of stars. It was my first night hitchhiking. I new I had to find a place to sleep now. On my side of the road there were some trees and a fence with a few strands of barbed wire along it. I could hear the lowing of cattle in the distance. Carefully, I lifted my pack over the fence, then spread the barbed wire and climbed through. There were no cows in sight, no way to know whether I was in their field or not. I worried they might walk on me as I slept. I climbed into my sleeping bag and listened—how could I sleep and watch out for cows at the same time? Exhausted, I dozed off anyway.

I dreamt that I was lying in the middle of a herd. I tried not to move for fear they would step on me. Sometimes the sound of a car going by woke me, but mostly there was silence, distant peaks, and a long empty road on the other side of the fence.

I awoke in the gray light before dawn intent on getting back on the road before someone spotted me trespassing. Still there were no cows in sight, just the distant lowing. I fell back to sleep.

All of a sudden it seemed like my head was filled with loud moos. I opened my eyes, clear bright light poured in. I was surrounded by cows. The mooing, which all night had served as a lullaby now was strident and alarming.

I quickly pried myself out of my bag and stuffed everything in my pack. Grateful I wasn’t lying in manure; I climbed back through the fence.

Snow-laced peaks sat coolly under the morning sun on the eastern horizon. I had missed the colors of sunrise but felt refreshed and happy that I’d crossed a hurdle.

Next week:

Volunteers for the New Zion Army

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[This is the First Installment of a memorable hitchhiking trip I took in my twenties]

The Hitchhiker

I sat in the back of the speeding pickup surveying the desert in the direction the other hitchhiker was pointing. “There’s water in those mountains,” he said.

I wasn’t so sure. There wasn’t anything green as far as I could see. The truck was approaching a gas station where the guy wanted to be left off.

“You see this green part on the map? That means there’s water out there.”

I looked at the green areas that said National Forest on them and thought the guy would be lucky to find even a single plant in those mountains, let alone water. Those green spaces only meant it was national land.

“Are you sure?” I said.

“Yeah. I’ll be all right.” He waved to the driver to pull over.

I’d been weighing whether I should go with him. I had always wanted to learn to live off the land. That’s what the guy planned to do. He said he’d learned how to do it from a book by Chief Eagle Feather or somebody. I had read several of those types of books, but never expected the advice to actually work.

This was my first long trip where I was completely on my own. I’d done a lot of hitchhiking, like the summer I sold dictionaries in Oklahoma, but those were all short trips, I never had to sleep en route.

For those reasons this felt like a lot bigger adventure than when I left home in Michigan.

I’d traveled to California the fall after graduating from Notre Dame. I’d worked a few summer jobs, cracked up my dad’s car, then made the trip with my brother, Bern, and a couple of his friends.

My dad had a long talk with me while we were driving down to Lansing to get the substitute car the insurance company had found to replace the one that I’d smashed.

“I know you want to go to California, but I’d rather you stayed here. There’s nothing special about California.”

I disagreed. There’s the mountains and the ocean, but he said I’d rarely see them since I had to make a living and the mountains were at least four hours away from the city, I didn’t have a car, and besides, Michigan had plenty of nice places to go.

I was unconvinced and undaunted until—”Larry, couldn’t you just stay for a while longer, just a year or two. Your mother and I need your help to support the family right now. I hate to ask you, but it won’t be for long.”

I felt my heart sink; I couldn’t say no if they needed me.

“All right.”

I said goodbye to my father, who was continuing on to Ohio for work. I returned to Spring Lake. I was the oldest son of 11 children, with five brothers and five sisters. I had an older sister, who was long gone from home. I was tired of the responsibility and weight of so many expectations. I wanted to be free, on my own.

The next day while speaking to my mother—a kind, round, long-enduring woman—I was depressed and angry that I was not going.

“How much of your stuff are you going to take? I’m not sure you’ll have room in John’s car.”

“I’m not going. I have to stay.”

“You’re not going? Why not, you’ve been planning this all year?”

“Dad said you need my help. I need to stay and help make money to support the family.”

“He said that?” she asked incredulously.

“He said he needs me to help make money for a while, that I can go later.” I had a tone of angry, yet hopeless, resignation in my voice as if I were used to having my dreams  grounded right before they were about to take off.

“You go,” she said. “He shouldn’t have asked you to stay. We’ll make it somehow. He had no business doing that. You go, Larry. We’ll be all right.”

“Really, you mean it?” I was so happy I could’ve kissed her, should have. I couldn’t believe my mother would take my side against my father. I couldn’t believe she would put my concerns above her own.

The pickup pulled to a stop next to the gas station. In the still, silent air I felt the hundred degree heat baking me and everything else. The scrawny hitchhiker got out and said goodbye. I waved to him as he fixed his pack. I looked in the direction he said he was going to go, across the flat, light-drenched sand towards the gray mountains at least five miles distant, carrying neither a water bottle, nor a sleeping bag.

Earlier, I had pulled out my salami, cheese, and bread. He looked starved.

“Want some?”

“No thanks, you go ahead.”

I cut a slice of salami with my army surplus jackknife and stuck it in my mouth even though I wasn’t hungry, “Are you sure?”

“I don’t want to eat up all your food.”

“I have plenty.”

“Well, maybe just a little bit.” He reached out and took the salami and the knife; he tentatively cut a slice and bit a dainty bite out of its circumference. Then as if something was awakened in his stomach, he popped the whole piece in his mouth, cut a larger piece and quickly devoured that. Then he took some cheese, then some French bread, a swig of water, more cheese, some salami, back to the bread, then a little more water at which time he looked up from this very focused meal.

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah, I’ve got a lot more in my pack. Why don’t you finish it, there’s too little to put back.”

He finished off the sausage, cheese, half the loaf and some more water. Then he handed back the knife, “Thanks,” and the bread, “I was pretty hungry. Haven’t eaten since yesterday.”

Earlier yet, that same day, when I had been dropped off in Baker, I found myself a good spot part way up the on ramp to the interstate.

I had a red pack with all my stuff—sleeping bag, jacket, clothes, food, map, a couple books, everything I thought I needed and could fit. I wore hiking boots and should’ve been wearing a hat. The sun was unavoidably bright and everywhere, but I was used to this searing California sun.

When I looked up from fixing my pack I realized I’d made a mistake. I should’ve stayed down near the entrance to the ramp, because now there was someone else standing there. This short skinny fellow in dirty, dark blue, work pants, no shirt, with a small, green, beaten up, army surplus pack at his feet—couldn’t have had much in it.

I was angry. I’d gotten there first! Now the scrawny bum was going to get the first ride. I felt superior and self-righteous about it. Here I was, all equipped and fully dressed, and this miscreant was going to get the ride. Way out here, I thought, it will take forever to wait for one ride, let alone two.

The scrawny guy waved, “Hey, you take the first ride, okay?”

“Okay.”

Not long after that the pickup stopped and told us both to hop in the back.

“Where you going?” I asked my fellow traveler.

That’s when he told me where he planned to live.

“In the desert? Why?”

“When I get so I can’t take living in the city anymore, I go to a place like this. One time it got so bad, I had to get out quick and decided to steal a car. And as long as I was gonna steal a car, it might as well be the best, so I stole a Pantera.”

“What happened?”

“I got caught and spent two years in prison.”

“Oh.”

“It was a big mistake.” He fell silent. I told him a little of my own story, but it paled in comparison. I was going to a friend’s wedding in Minneapolis. I was tired of my old routines, my job, a place that I shared with Bern and John. I needed an adventure; I needed to find out something.

That’s why the idea occurred to me that maybe I should see if I could tag along with him. Maybe this was the person who could help me find that something out.

However, I wasn’t ready to take the chance that this fellow really knew what he was doing. It was too big a leap and besides that, I would miss seeing my friends, my old college friends.

After fixing his pack, the hitchhiker went into the gas station. It was one of those little huts with oil cans, maps, and bathrooms. As the pickup took off under the blazing sun, I watched to see the hitchhiker start across the expanse of sand and rock towards the mountains in the haze on the horizon. But by the time I lost sight of the gas station, the hitchhiker had not yet emerged.

He’s still a question mark to me. Sometimes I picture him at that rundown gas station, sometimes, haggard and dirty, scraping by in those desolate mountains.

My mind shifted to my own trip—to see my old college friends, good friends who had once save me when I was in crisis. Rick was getting married. Both he and Kelly had gone to grad school at the University of Minnesota. It had a good drama school. Kelly was studying history of the drama and Rick was focusing on directing.

There were a few other friends from Notre Dame there too. I wished I could’ve somehow gotten back in school. I had applied to the University of California at Irvine for admittance into the writing program, but had not heard back. I felt like my life was in Limbo. Kelly had written about the wedding, asking if I could come; Theo was going to be there too—the biggest hearted person I had ever met. Perhaps this was the opportunity that would make the difference.

Despite these warm thoughts, there was a certain despair looking out on the desert from the back of the speeding pickup. The barrenness sweeping to the horizon matched the barrenness of my prospects, but I hid that from myself beneath the excitement of the adventure of going somewhere new, on my own, moving at great speed through the middle of nowhere.

NEXT WEEK:

Las Vegas Welcome Wagon and a Ride from a Cowboy

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