Innocence Abroad: Chapter 3



California Vagabonding

Seattle, Washington: midsummer, 1990...



eattle is really my second home. I came here from Berkeley in the summer of 1985 - in September, as a matter of fact, almost five years to the very date before my scheduled flight to London. Just as February is my opening moment, September has often been the time of passage, of starting fresh in terms of new settlement. Or of closure, for the two are often the same event.

It had been that way when I came north. I hardly realized a major closure was taking place, but friendships were fractured and many aspects of my world up to then faded back from immediate concern. In California, my life revolved around a small alternative newsletter, published sporadically in the wax and wane of incentive. But life in the northwest braced me with different demands and a shift of focus was inevitable.

This September of 1990, too, was shaping-up as a watershed. I couldn't know the extent of it but I was radically expanding the size of my world, at the very least, and that was sure to bring change in its wake. Summer took on the feeling of a moment between worlds. It seemed a proper time to take stock of where I had been, and reconnect on that basis with all who had been important to me, everywhere. They numbered in the hundreds, after years of newslettering.

Most of June went into the effort - a 12-page opus recounting my five years since leaving California - desktopped at home and multiplied at a local print shop. Reflecting on the uncertain course of those years, and of my life in general, I called it Derelict Days in the Northwest. In space to spare, I invited all to a farewell party on the day before my departure. The quarter page that yet remained blank prompted a last-minute note that the newsletter and its mailing would set me back about $250, and I added that I was open to donations to offset the cost and help me on my way.

The August workshop commitment, summer's final hurdle, had at first seemed only a troublesome complication to what had become the year's main thrust. But it eventually turned out to have a perfect place in the scheme of things, providing an opportunity to pull myself into shape for the sort of adventure I was heading into. I had not tasted the rugged life of the open road since coming to Seattle. I mean "open road" in the most literal sense - as a hitch-hiker, my cross-country travel style whenever time and the season have permitted it. Five years rusty, now, and critically older, I wanted to make sure I could still handle it . . . just in case I should encounter the challenge abroad.

Long distance hitch-hiking is a late-life passion of mine. I did a bit of it in my youth, when it was quite acceptable for off-duty soldiery to travel that way - even though I was not in uniform myself. And then thirty years later, when I gave up my own automobile, hitch-hiking became an occasional necessity. It wasn't easy to do at 45, even though it had come into vogue again with the youngsters. I had to deal with the fact that my self-image had changed considerably. But within another year or two I was comfortable with it again - even beginning to enjoy it as a down-to-earth way of experiencing both countryside and people.

Maybe it's the maverick in me that likes it, for it certainly isn't an easy way to travel. Even though I enjoy it, it begins always with discomfort - the sheer shock of standing out on the road, a public spectacle, absorbing the puzzled or judgemental gaze of every passing motorist. An exercise in humility, confronting my pretensions . . . as well as the parade of them coming by. And then there is impatience to deal with, the vexatiously recurrent fear that no one will ever stop. It vanishes in an instant, of course, when someone does . . . and someone always does.

So I knew what to expect, as I positioned myself at a southbound freeway access on a mid-July morning, in Seattle's University District. I propped my pack in a clearly visible spot and held up a "Portland" sign, taking center-stage in a drama about to open, playing a role that was only momentarily uncomfortable. The day was as bright as July can be; and the excitement, the pregnant tension of the open road, provided the adrenalin to pull me quickly into the spirit of adventure.

Hitching out of a large city means putting up with with a thundering parade of mainly local traffic. Many hitch-hikers will sit tight, waiting for the long one even if it takes all morning. But riding is better than waiting, and I tend to trust the rightness of whatever comes along. It took about forty-five minutes for my ride to arrive, a mobile plumbing-repair shop that was hardly going anywhere near Portland, but the driver flashed a broad grin and just said, "Hop in!"

We were barely underway, moving into the stream of traffic, when my sign caught his eye again. "Oh, Oregon!" he exclaimed, "...Damn, what was I thinking of?"

He never quite explained that, but I gathered that he meant to go some other direction. Instead, he continued on down the freeway, telling me that he'd get me to another good hitching spot even though it took him far out of his way - like ten miles! It was a strange but seemingly auspicious start.

Where he let me off, another car pulled over so quickly that I had to grab my gear and run for it. This was a young fellow on his way to work, who took me another ten miles down the freeway. I was actually making progress - fitfully, like a sputtering engine that hadn't been run in a long while.

It was a lightly used access road I had to settle for, this time, and a much longer wait. It took about an hour before a classy Buick pulled over, driven by a tawny young airline stewardess. It's a bit unusual for me to be picked up by a good-looking woman driving alone, though it happens now and then. But climbing in, I spotted a substantial trickle of water running out from under the front of the car, which suggested a radiator problem.

Sure enough, it was boiling over, and we carefully released the pressure. But it was only a temporary fix, and there were no service facilities at hand. We limped into the freeway flow, rolling slowly along to the next exit, where we came directly upon a radiator repair shop as if it had been part of a planned scenario.

The thermostat had gone out, so it hadn't triggered either the cooling fan or the dashboard signal - that was the entire problem. A hurried patch was made to keep the fan going and let my anxious driver finish her trip; she could take care of it properly later on. In much easier spirits, now, she talked about her job and her hopes of going back to school, and I learned a bit about what the world of an airline stewardess is like. She dropped me off at a small town near Olympia, where the traffic was slow but sufficient, and the surroundings decidedly more peaceful than where my day began.

I reflected on the satisfying ride as I waited there for another. Hitch-hiking makes instant friendships - Christina was her name, a full-blooded Skykomish Indian - but it ends them just as quickly. Still, it left me with a warm glow, for had I not alerted Chris to her problem, she might have had a far more serious one on the freeway. It was her decision to stop and pick me up that protected her from it. Yet, there was something more to it. I wouldn't have been there had not the previous events on my journey been just as they were: the happenings we call 'pure chance' taking me precisely to where she would find me!

I've watched that sort of thing so many times on the road: chance events linking in an undeniably fruitful way. Maybe it is happening all the time, but hitch-hiking highlights it, for it is one of the few activities - indeed, they are rare today - that deliberately court the world of chance in daily life. To let go of control is not an easy thing to do, but it seems the most effective way for bringing Providence into view.

By four in the afternoon, two further rides had taken me into Portland and it seemed enough distance for a day's travel: 175 miles in six hours. I had friends in this city and could be sure of a night's shelter somewhere. First, however, I had to find someplace to freshen-up and get my bearings. Portland is the west coast city I am least familiar with.

The journey thus far had given me little reason to doubt my readiness for it. I was tired, yes, but the day had turned hot and I had a larger pack than I was used to. Not at all large by back-packing standards, only about thirty pounds, but my highway travel was once done with little more than a daypack and sleeping bag.

I was also wearing heavier shoes than I liked - a pair of Rockports I was still breaking in. Pack and shoes suddenly teamed-up to topple me as I trudged wearily through Portland's riverfront section. My foot caught the edge of a curb, and down I went, the momentum of the pack pitching me into a full sprawl. It was more embarrassing than damaging, but I had a gash in my pants leg and a bad bruise under it. I wondered, as I band-aided the knee, if I was too far past my prime for this sort of thing. But a cup of tea lifted my spirits while I sorted over the prospects for Portland hospitality.

It was perhaps ten years since I had last seen Joan Lorenz - when I lived briefly near Monterey, where she and husband Roger partnered at a local alternative paper unforgettably called The Nose. She greeted me now with enthusiasm, and not the least surprise at my road-weary condition, for Joan knew the ways of my life. A hot shower was offered for my aches and exhaustion, and for my hunger a cold summer meal; and then we had lots of catching-up to do - as much as could be done in one evening, for I wanted to be on my way again, next morning, to maintain the pace.

THE SECOND DAY was a punishing one. It got hot early, and I was stuck at an inner-city freeway access until just before noon. The ride that finally came took me barely out beyond the city limit. I was grateful. But this spot proved even worse! After two more useless hours, I started walking up the freeway - partly in disgusted need for a change of scenery, and partly to reach a more promising location. The walk was a mixed experience: sweaty in the blazing afternoon sun, but peaceful in the surround of Chopin and Vivaldi coming in on my radio, all else shut out by ear plugs. Three long miles I walked up the highway, ignoring the mad traffic alongside of me.

Walking into the sun, I switched from my usual narrow-brim hat to a visored one, which just happened to have military-style camouflage coloring, and I suspect it may have flagged my next ride. The fellow who pulled over for me as I was nearing the crest of a hill was a gung-ho patriot sort, a rancher from Idaho in a big whining pickup with a rifle slung against its back window. He said he was headed for Eugene, a good hundred miles down the state, and it looked like the fates had finally clicked-in for me. As we hummed along the highway, he told me how he had started his ranch from scratch and made it on his own, in the best American tradition. He began it as a personal tale, but I had the distinct impression it turned into a sermon. He all but spelled the message out, "Lift yourself up, man, set your sights as I did..."

About twenty miles along our way, he turned to me with a 'good buddy' look and suggested we stop for a drink; and that was my undoing. Without thinking of the implications, I innocently allowed as how I could certainly go for a cold Coke in this heat. He looked at me rather oddly, at that, and when we pulled into the next town he suddenly remembered some business he had there. He left me at a refreshment stand . . . after first buying me a Coke, and nothing at all for himself.

So there I was, well into a scorching afternoon, five hours on the road and not yet forty miles out of Portland. It was shaping up as a true test of my taste for this sort of adventure. Yet, there was nothing for me to do but go on with it.

It was a rather sad looking rural access road, this time - I wondered if it had any traffic at all, or if I'd only be walking in the hot sun again. But just as I started into it a freeway-bound pickup came flying by, and I barely had time to fling my thumb up, to make my needs known. A cloud of dust practically hid its sudden stop. But there was no room for me. Three Spanish-speaking crop hands filled every inch of cab space; all I could understand was their waving motion toward the open truck. They barely gave me time to clamber in, and lurched away at the same breakneck speed.

Except for the circumstance that I found myself nestled among big duffel bags, which proved to be comfortable riding cushions, I had every reason to suppose it was another short ride that would turn off at some local farm road. But it didn't. On they went . . . and on, and on. It was a wonderful ride, the finest sort that a hitch-hiker can get: I was stretched full length, feet forward, my head against those duffels, the wind rushing my hair and offsetting the sun's heat, and miles were going by as swiftly as the trees at roadside that rose sheer into the blue, from my truckbed perspective. We went past Eugene, past Cottage Grove, past Roseburg, on into the mountains hardly pausing to shift gears. I began to wonder if they were going clear to Mexico!

Deep in the mountains somewhere between Roseburg and Grants Pass, they turned off on a barren minor road, making some wild motions at me through the cab's rear window. Since they hardly slowed for it, I had no choice but to go along. We soon reached a tiny store and gas pump, where I could see they had arrived among friends. It was like a way-station on some covert underground railway; or more to the point, a pit-stop in a high-rolling trucker's derby. They gassed-up, sat down to talk and eat awhile with other swarthy bracero-types, and I found a moment to get in some largely finger-pointing map talk with one of them - to discover that they were headed for Redding, halfway into northern California!

Well, an open pickup and the wind in your hair can be great sport in the sunshine, but it's miserable at night. And right now, the sun was about to be nibbled by the crest of the surrounding high line of hills. I had friends on either side of the state line, and I figured I'd just see how far daylight would take me.

They slowed a bit when the journey resumed. But evening came on rapidly and I was beginning to wonder if I'd be able to see where to hop off; and whether they'd stop the truck within walking distance, for me to do it. We came to the little town of Phoenix, where my Oregon friends lived, but it was behind us before I could even decide if I wanted to get off there. Hornbrook was now the place to look for, just across the state line; but my only memory of the place was a barren crossroad - long before the time of freeways. And it would soon be too dark to make out anything at all.

While I was turning these imponderables over, huddled against the now chill headwind, we suddenly slowed. I looked ahead to see the bright and blinking lights of California's agricultural inspection station, an enforced brief halt that I had forgotten all about. I realized instantly that it was exactly what I wanted.

"Adios amigos! Muchas gracias," I tossed off my entire grasp of the vernacular, waving them on their way as I let out a deep sigh of satisfaction . . . with the ride, with myself, with the whole day's irregular course of events. California, here I was! - in the sort of turnaround finale that's only possible in hitch-hiking, where chance lurks with every next car coming down the pike, and things somehow always work out.

Louis Durham, in his country seclusion at Hornbrook, was only a phonecall away - and quite surprised that I was at the other end of it and close enough to be picked up. Once more I was closing a gap of many years. Lou had been an administrative minister at San Francisco's Glide Memorial Church during their wild and wooly '60s, and the prime organizing energy behind a pioneering middle-age, middle-class shared living situation, as well as other alternative developments of those years.

Again, it was only a one-night stay. I was feeling stronger, thanks no doubt to the day's fast finish, and wanted to get right on with it. I had no way of knowing it yet, but my instincts were right on target . . . I was tracking a piece of good fortune that had yet to show itself and I couldn't afford to be late.

I KNEW EXACTLY where I was going the next day: to Red Bluff, 170 miles downstate. It called for just one good ride, and I got it quite easily at the border inspection station, where all southbound cars have to stop. I even scored an air-conditioned vehicle, a stroke of first-rate luck since we were headed into California's hot Central Valley, where the day's temperature was going to crest above 100°.

My driver, this time, was a real estate appraiser from the Seattle area going to Sacramento for a family funeral. We had some stimulating conversation on a variety of topics for most of the two and a half hours that it took to reach Red Bluff, and he stopped there for a bite of lunch with me before resuming the journey alone. But I almost had second thoughts about letting him go on without me, when we stepped out of the car into a virtual furnace. I have friends with well-cooled homes in Sacramento. But I knew I had to reconnect, here in Red Bluff, with Hal Howard. We had been housemates for three years in Berkeley, and had known and worked with each other since the early 1970s. I hadn't seen Hal since I settled in Seattle, and it was too long overdue.

This time, I would have stayed longer than one night . . . but here, it turned out, was the one place that I couldn't. Hal happened to be the only one along the route who knew I was coming, though he didn't know exactly when I'd show up. The day before I got there, he received a call from a mutual Berkeley friend, Yana Parker, who asked if he'd care to house-sit for a couple weeks. He didn't want to, himself, but he was quite sure that I would! I phoned Yana at once to confirm the arrangement, and it was so close to her departure time that I couldn't even hitch the rest of the way, but had to grab a bus into the city the next morning.

Yana's two weeks away were perfect for my own purposes. I hadn't made any prior plans for where I'd stay, in that period, simply because there are so many Bay Area friends to see when I am there, that I just assume I'll find a new host every few days. But this was perfection, for it gave me a central `home' while I was there. The gift also included use of Yana's small Honda, providing all the mobility I might want. Even more, it gave me a telephone-response machine, a Macintosh with laser printer on which to finish the prep for my workshop, and a shy little cat to look after me when the day's activity was done.

Sometimes, in those twilight moments before drifting off to sleep, I find myself counting not sheep, nor blessings, but the amazing string of 'if's that have to fall into proper place for such impossible instances of Providence to materialize. If, in that last moment of my last ride, I had decided to go on to Sacramento... If I hadn't soured that Idaho rancher exactly in time to catch those three California-bound braceros... If I had neglected to let Hal know I was coming, or if he just hadn't thought of me when Yana called... It is truly mind-boggling.

Yana Parker, in the days when we saw more of each other, used to put out a lively little communal newsletter that circulated like a grapevine - which is what it was called - among a good many of the collective-living houses in the Bay Area. The timing of her two weeks away meshed so perfectly with my own that on the very day she returned I was off and away to the south, toward Monterey and the Unitarian retreat at Asilomar.

There's really not much to say about the workshop that belongs in this book. The subject of it was a fascination of mine that has deepened over the years: the seasonal cycle and its influence on consciousness and our reality. It was well-received, and shortly afterward I made my swift way back to Seattle by an inexpensive overnight bus called the Green Tortoise. I could not afford to dally, for only two weeks remained in which to finalize every last detail before taking off on the greatest adventure of my not-exactly-humdrum life.

On the whole, I was quite satisfied with the roadtrip. People who should know had told me that hitch-hiking is no longer as easy as it used to be, but the magic of my own had been quite as good as ever. I was gratified that I still had the energy for that sort of travel, and my stamina seemed remarkable for 63 years of a non-athletic life. If I pay attention to where I plant my big feet, I should have no future trouble at all.

The journey had a fringe-benefit that I only realized as I was packing my recent world into cartons and crates: it softened the edge of the separation blues that always accompany the closing-down of a residence - for this departure was a future move, as well as the start of a present adventure. My several weeks away, together with a sense of settlement at Yana's, had already made the break. Packing and storing my belongings seemed now only a formality, not the saddening experience it so often can be.

It somehow all got done by the night before the farewell party. The upper-floor room that had been mine, in this Ravenna group house, for two fun and busy student years, was now bare but for the backpack and two small satchels I'd be taking with me, each stuffed to its limit. My world, by this time, was very spacy, for I had devised a routine to neutralize jet-lag. Every third day, since my return from California, I had been turning-in an hour earlier, edging myself at the same time into an earlier wake-up. On this night before party-day I was in bed by six, and up at two a.m. - the longer to prepare my potato salad contribution for the afternoon potluck.

The first party guests to arrive were a couple from California's north coast whom I never expected to see in Seattle. I had hardly absorbed this surprise, before there were others: correspondents from Illinois and from Florida whom I had never even met before! I couldn't believe it. It made no difference that they "just happened to be in the area," these were testimonials to friendship that would many times warm me during the cold winter that lay ahead.

For all the competition that a mid-September Saturday afternoon presents, some forty people came that day, including several of my recent professors at the university. And folks brought more than potluck contributions: they swelled the pot of funding donations that had already reached $750, pushing it up past the next hundred-mark.

Altogether, it was the sweetest tribute that an old derelict, just five years in town, could hope to have. I was still dizzy with it twenty-four hours later when I boarded the Pan Am flight that would take me direct to London. The lingering spell of it remained as I gazed down at the sunset-glowing rooftops of a fast-fading Seattle, with the roaring thrum of jets providing background music for an adventure at last underway.


"grab a bus..." There are, of course, economic reasons for hitch-hiking, too. The bus ride for that mere 185 miles from Red Bluff into the Bay Area cost more than my entire three days on the road, up to that point. I had come some 700 miles, for which all expenses came to about $13. The bus ride cost me $21.

"open to donations..." Black Bart had been a donation-funded effort, so I could be fairly sure that the prompt for donations would neither surprise nor give offense to anyone who knew me.

"alternative newsletter..." refers to Black Bart, which will be documented elsewhere on this site, as soon as I can get around to it.



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