I'VE MANY TIMES taken the hitch-hiking breadth of this USA along its western edge, and even once through the so-called midwestern states that fringe the Mississippi -- but never, before, that barren stretch of highway that flanks the Rockies, from alongside the Rio Grande all the way up into Montana.
Nor had I ever really supposed I'd venture such an undertaking in my seventies! And many there were, who warned me that hitch-hiking is no longer to be trifled with. But the world once again proved full of wonders if only humbly approached. The journey was a pure recap of outrageous displays of the Providence that typifies the open road . . . wait until I tell you!
But first, and appropriate to the occasion, I've turned up another hearty/hardy soul, no longer with us, who qualifies for that rarified company of inspired rebels I've begun to think of as 'family.' You'll recall that I detailed several such in Ripening Seasons #21: "David Grayson" (Ray Stannard Baker), Josiah Flynt and Jim Tully, each of whom marched to that 'different drummer' whose tempo sets the pace for my own wandering spirit. Three writers of wide diversity who nevertheless shared a common recognition that Real Life lies somewhere outside the confinement of our social norms -- and each, in some personally inspired way, allowed that realization to shape his life (as I have certainly echoed with my own).
The 'new kid in the Pantheon' is Vachel Lindsay, a poet in the early decades of our century, of whom many will surely have heard. He was known for the drumbeat style of his verse, particularly evident in "The Congo," a standard in college courses of my day. But you may not be so familiar with the adventurous forays of his younger years, capped by a footloose walk through the midwest, in his early thirties -- from his Illinois hometown, Springfield, through Missouri and Kansas, ending finally in New Mexico -- and done with a total disregard for funds. He 'earned' his food and lodging at farmsteads along the way with readings of his poetry. A truly remarkable accomplishment, for these were not a culturally hungry class of people, and more often than not had hardly the provender for a sharing with this ragged wayfarer.
It was more than just an idle walk. He was motivated by a Gospel of Beauty that his poetry preached, trying to prime-pump a groundspring of vision for the better sort of life that he, himself, imagined could yet arise in semi-rural America. He was a Luddite at heart, opposed to the clank and roar of machinery and the mindless mechanized lives it generated in those who made it all run. He could clearly see, as all do who subjectively think about it, which is the master and which the slave.
But the slave in rebellion is ever defeated by what he, too, stands to gain from the slavery . . . which is why the spirit has to keep fighting against it. I want to quote for you a really charming entry from Lindsay's on-the-road journal of that adventure, which kind of says it all. His journal was written as intermittent letters mailed to someone back home, and this one was sent from . . .EMPORIA, KANSAS, JUNE 19,1912. On inquiring at the Emporia General Delivery for mail, I found your letter telling me to call upon your friend Professor Kerr. He took my sudden appearance most kindly, and pardoned my battered attire and the mud to the knees. After a day in his house I am ready to go on, dry and feasted and warm and clean. The professor's help seemed to come in just in time. I was a most weary creature.
Thinking it over this morning, the bathtub appears to be the first outstanding advantage the cultured man has over the half-civilized. Quite often the folk with swept houses and decent cooking who have given my poems discriminating attention, who have given me good things to eat, forget, even when they entertain him overnight, that the stranger would like to soak himself thoroughly. Many of the working people seem to keep fairly clean with the washpan as their principal ally. But the tub is indispensable to the mendicant in the end, unless he is walking through a land of crystal waterfalls, like North Georgia.
I am an artificial creature at last, dependent, after all, upon modern plumbing. 'Tis, perhaps, not a dignified theme, but I retired to the professor's bathroom and washed off the entire State of Missouri and the eastern counties of Kansas, and did a deal of laundry work on the sly. This last was not openly confessed to the professor, but he might have guessed, I was so cold on the front porch that night.
I shall not soon lose the memory of this the first day of emergence from the strait paths of St. Francis, this first meeting, since I left Springfield, with a person on whom I had a conventional social claim. I had forgotten what the delicacy of a cultured welcome would be like. The professor's table was a marvel to me. I was astonished to discover there were such fine distinctions in food and linen. And for all my troubadour profession, I had almost forgotten there were such distinctions in books. I have hardly seen one magazine since I left you. The world where I have been moving reads nothing but newspapers. It is confusing to bob from one world to the other, to zig-zag across the social dead-line. I sat in the professor's library a very mixed-up person, feeling I could hardly stay a minute, yet too heavy-footed to stir an inch, and immensely grateful and relaxed.
Sooner or later I am going to step up into the rarefied civilized air once too often and stay there in spite of myself. I shall get a little too fond of the china and old silver, and forget the fields. Books and teacups and high-brow conversations are awfully insinuating things, if you give them time to be. One gets along somehow, and pleasure alternates with pain, and the sum is the joy of life, while one is below. But to quit is like coming up to earth after deep-sea diving in a heavy suit. One scarcely realizes he has been under heavier-than-air pressure, and has been fighting off great forces, till he has taken off his diving helmet, as it were. And yet there is a baffling sense futility in the restful upper air. I remember it once, long ago, in emerging in Warren, Ohio, and once in emerging in Macon, Georgia: -- the feeling that the upper world is all tissue paper, that the only choice a real man can make is to stay below with the great forces of life forever, even though he be a tramp -- the feeling that, to be a little civilized, we sacrifice enormous powers and joys. For all I was so tired and so very grateful to the professor, I felt like a bull in a china shop. I should have been out in the fields, eating grass.
Vachel's Gospel of Beauty never took hold. It died with him in Springfield in 1931, his 52nd year, some say the victim of a suicide -- Vachel, by that time, a bitter and paranoid caricature of his former self, persuaded that a conspiracy of ignorance and stupidity had done him in.
Actually, he was not far off, for the temper of the country had grown weary of innocence. The truer fact, however, is that Beauty never stood a chance, up against Fear and Greed, the two mainsprings of America's Twentieth Century Madness. Neither of those has really run its course, but Fear is marginally ahead as we close toward the Millennium.
DOES IT SURPRISE YOU that I rank fear, today, ahead of greed? It's only by an edge, as I say, and certainly disputable, but my cue has been the concerns that have been registered about my taking to the road for a hitch-hiking holiday. People who are not normally swayed by the media illusion of reality seem to have bought this one, hook, line and sinker. Too much insanity in today's news, they said, for such an unnecessary and maybe foolish risk as hitch-hiking. It isn't like it used to be, I was uniformly told, as evidenced by the very few out there doing it -- and truthfully, I saw very few others taking their chances on the road. For all appearances, it has just about died out.
Which presents us with a novel irony or two. It was that boomer generation now sitting smugly (and fearfully) behind the steering wheel, in most of those hot cars that zip along the Interstate, that comprised the last great flowering of the roadside spirit in this country. They hitched and they picked each other up, in those exciting days, creating a sharing culture the likes of which would have gladdened old Vachel's heart, had he lived into his eighties. But here they are, too much into the fear/greed syndrome of their own late middle age to consider all of that . . . or even likely to wonder what ever became of it.
And what about this fear that grips them? The generation seems obsessed with risk-free living, as if it were ever possible: buckle up the safety belt, put the biking helmet on, stay behind guard rails and never leave a door unlocked. Hide a handgun or two in the home, just to be on the safe side, and don't -- for God's sake, don't -- take your eyes off the kid, when out and about. And hitch-hiking? Today? .....ABSOLUTELY UNTHINKABLE!
Well, my good news is that I had a fine and wonderful time of it. I would do it again on the drop of a hat -- if only I were a few years younger. In about five full days on the road, I gleaned fourteen rides, for a grand total distance of about 950 miles, with not a single untoward instance of any sort.
Oh ... correction: I happened (unknowingly) to hit the Interstate out of Tucson some five hours after a deranged woman had shot several people along that same stretch of roadway. I read about it in next day's paper.
Okay, so "shit happens," as they say -- but no more likely on the open road than anywhere at all (she began her rampage in a post office). And no more likely in 1998 than ever before. Check the actual crime stats, not your evening video fix. Violent crime has been shrinking, on a national basis, for six years running, now -- honest!
It was Roosevelt who said, sixty years ago, that "all we have to fear is fear, itself." And it's as true today as ever.
Interestingly, Vachel Lindsay might well have been the first hitch-hiker to take advantage of a motorized vehicle -- or at least, the first to have written of it, for it was before the term had even come into use. Here's the rele-vant passage, from his journal letter, June 22, 1912:"When the weather is good, touring automobiles whiz past. They have pennants showing they are from Kansas City, Emporia, New York or Chicago. They have camping canvas and bedding on the back seats of the car, or strapped in the rear. They are on camping tours to Colorado Springs and the like pleasure places. Some few avow they are going to the coast.
"About five o'clock in the evening some man making a local trip is apt to come along alone. He it is that wants the other side of the machine weighed down. He it is that will offer me a ride and spin me along from five to twenty-five miles before supper. This delightful use that may be made of an automobile in rounding out a day's walk has had something to do with mending my prejudice against it, despite the grand airs of the tourists that whirl by at midday. I still maintain that the auto is a carnal institution, to be shunned by the truly spiritual, but there are times when I, for one, get tired of being spiritual."
I JUST MIGHT BE the only hitch-hiker who has ever flown somewhere so that he could thumb his way homeward. I didn't want to waste my energy on the long trip south from Seattle, so I flew into Phoenix and bussed from the airport to Tucson to escape the confusions of a major city. I was recalling a smaller Tucson, of course, but it is still not so hard to hitch out of. A local bus put me right out at the Interstate, where I got my first ride in an open pickup -- a superb way to begin such an adventure, for the sheer defiant quality of the experience . . . the slipstream of wind threatening to dislodge me at every bump in the road, as we sped past signboards with that ubiquitous slogan of modern-day, risk-free America: "Buckle-up, Arizona, it's the Law!"
I rode about forty miles that way, to the little town of Benson, from where I called my too-long-out-of-touch friend, Erika, who drove fifteen miles to pick me up. She'd have come for me in Tucson, but I needed that ice-breaker, after six years off the road, before I could feel comfortable with what I was up to.
Then it was four days of laid-back relaxation, divided between Erika and Ken, who live apart from one another and split the parenting of little Casey, whom I was meeting for the first time. I had unwittingly begun my journey just before a holiday weekend and preferred to wait it out before going back on the road. Among other diversions, we spent an afternoon in Tombstone, which just happened to fall on their annual Wyatt Earp Days observance, and there was every sort of Old West sartorial finery to be seen, his and hers. I swear, there must have been fifty versions of Doc Holliday around town, each looking fancier and more dangerous than the last! It was fun.
Early Tuesday morning I was back out on the road, at a freeway access outside the little town of Willcox. Before the day's heat got underway, but not too early for the headtrips that plague a hitcher at a lonely outpost -- especially one who has no idea, yet, what the nature of this highway, and these times, is really like. Sure, I'd gotten a ride out of Tucson, but Willcox is a much more remote spot; and the pickup ride, for that matter, could easily have been a fluke. These are the kinds of thoughts that stake out a territory as one dips into the hitch-hiking stream.
It got worse after an hour had passed, and worse yet after two, before that ultimate calm point arrived, at which the two parts of the horizon merge and the road, with its trickling pace of traffic, simply turns into the path of life, no longer obstructed with judgements and what-ifs. Que sera, sera. And then, a half-hour beyond, a big white truck and trailer rig paused, after turning onto the ramp slope.
This is one of the best hitches to be had -- roomy and comfortable, always a long ride, and infused with an indescribable feeling of quiet power which -- forgive me, Vachel! -- represents the apotheosis of that carnal institution called the automobile. There is a certain regal quality to riding in a big rig as a passenger.
They are likely breaking rules by picking anyone up. My host, in this instance, was an Hispanic, a people whose charitable instincts are closer to the surface, as I've many times found, than in most of us gringos.
He was headed for El Paso, so I had a ride all the way to Las Cruces -- 200 miles. But I may have made a tactical error in going that far, ignoring Ken's advice to take the shortcut at Deming. One thing about hitch-hiking, all too easy to overlook, is that it puts one into a different reality stream, in which randomness no longer applies and everything has to be considered for its possible meaning. Advice is not idle conversation, but often a meaningful message from the gods, or however you wish to define its source.
AT ANY RATE, I did not get another ride that day. I spent most of the afternoon finding my way around Las Cruces, a much more sprawling place than I recall from twenty years ago, or however long its been, the situation hardly helped by my unaccountable and greenhorn failure to do the prime first thing in such circumstances: get a map of the territory! I can only attribute this lapse to what happens when an aging person fails to stay in touch with the faculties and skills he or she does not want to lose. "Use it or lose it" is a very real consideration for anyone over sixty, whether the "it" be a physical or mental capacity.
Local maps are ridiculously easy to obtain, these days in any phone booth with a directory, and it will normally provide transit information as well. But it was not until the next day that I finally got around to it, in Las Cruces. The problem there, however, was more complex than a map could easily have resolved. I never did find a primary or best freeway entry point. I spent two late-afternoon hours at one that provided almost no shoulder space for cars to pull over, until fortune favored me with another hitch-hiker walking in off the Interstate. I thought, at first, it was a burly, baggage-laden fellow, but it turned out to be a woman -- one of those rare Ladies of the Road, tanned by it and obviously an old hand at this way of travel.
She nodded at me in an easy way, and I asked if she knew of any better on-ramp than this one. She came back with the advice that I should just get out on the Interstate, itself. I worried the hazard of being stopped by police, and she assured me that they ignore freeway hitch-hikers, here in New Mexico, despite the fact that the posted signs prohibit it.
"I do it all the time," she said. "They won't bother ya." And then she was gone, before I could even work up to a decent conversation and maybe get a little of her story, which must certainly have been interesting.
I took a break, then, got a bite to eat, and went out on the highway for the remaining hour of daylight. But all the value I got out of it was another hitcher walking up the freeway, who paused for a brief exchange, telling me where I could find a 'mission' in Las Cruces if I needed a night's free lodging.
It is really amazing, how the road-reality works to take care of me, whatever the situation -- and I have never seen it fail! But this night was warm enough, and I was in sight of what seemed a good, removed spot to lay out my sleeping bag, that I opted against doing the long walk in search of the mission shelter. I bedded down under a desert willow in fragrant bloom, and was rewarded at dusk with a whole swarm of hock moths coming for their evening meal. If you've never seen these fanciful little creatures, they are like miniature hummingbirds, doing exactly the same thing -- nosing into the honey-pods with a siphoning beak that is almost as long as their 1"-2" bodies. They neither bothered me nor bothered with me, but went about their own nourishment, though only inches away from where I lay. A pure twilight treat.
The night was not, however, as restful as I'd have liked, because of all-night high intensity lighting not far enough away from me. And worse, I awakened at 2 a.m. to the realization that I was not handling a hard-ground bed as well as I used to -- another instance of the 'use it or lose it' imperative. I had suddenly become a very old man with aching joints, and worse yet, terrible cramping in my legs when I tried to turn over. But I got back to sleep, and was up at the count of six (hours), ready for another crack at getting out of Las Cruces.
This time, considering that I could get full freeway exposure, and now in possession of the necessary map and transit info, I made my way to the very last access ramp out of town, which required almost a mile of walking beyond the bus stop, just to get there. I should note that I was carrying only 20 pounds of baggage, but there were times when it felt like forty.
Once again, I found myself in a two-hour holding pattern, with the creeping suspicion that anything I might have gained by exposure to the full traffic flow was probably cancelled by the loss of what the good access road so beautifully provides: a moment of slowdown, and eye-to-eye contact with drivers in a position to be responsive. But it is ever the nature of hitch-hiking to entertain these misgivings, which have little or nothing to do with that flash of a moment when the ride -- the right ride, the only possible ride -- comes along.
My driver, this time, was a young fellow, about 40, on his return commute from the State College in Las Cruces, to Truth-or-Consequences, about 75 miles up the road. (Yes, there really is a town named Truth-or-Consequences -- or T-or-C, as its residents refer to it.) We launched into immediate conversation, which quickly opened Mark up to me as a fellow in almost desperate need of someone he could really relate to. He was basically a rover, trying to settle down in a narrow-consciousness part of the country where few could identify with him. Circumstances had led him here, but it was more a case of bearing up with it than really getting into it. I took his address, because I wanted to send him some material that might help. Which was a very good thing, because . . .
He drove me to the end-of-town freeway ramp, in T-or-C, and in barely 45 minutes I had my next ride, a fellow of such high-riding consciousness that I knew almost at once it was the perfect connection for Mark. Not only did both of them live in T-or-C, but Jack (this next driver) was actively engaged in supportive work with people, in various contexts. He called himself a "light worker," in the metaphysical sense, and had no hesitation about picking up on my suggestion that he make the contact with Mark.
The hitch-hiking had suddenly seemed to fall into place, as though I had found the old groove, and I was feeling the exhilaration that comes with synchronicities like this -- the sense of being in touch with a deeper flow of meaning, and actually an integral part of the lives I interact with on the road. This is hitch-hiking at its very best, and most exquisitely so when one can be conscious of it while it's happening. But the biggest 'hit' with Jack was yet to come.
He drove me directly to the address of my next destination, in Albuquerque -- 150 miles onward from T-or-C -- and when we got there, he did a kind of slow draw double-take . . . "What did you say their name was?"
When I repeated it for him, he told me he knew them. Which hardly says it -- he was the one, I eventually discovered, who first introduced this couple, John and Patricia, to each other! And they know him as someone who seems always to turn up on some kind of unusual cue.
Jack had told me that he picked me up on the road, back there, because of some recalled friend who'd spoken of having had to hitch-hike when a truck broke down, and having seen some roadside graffiti that said "been here three and a half days, waiting for a ride" -- all of which may have been true, but I suspect our interaction had more profound roots, from all of what ensued. He was even familiar with Vocations for Social Change, the old Canyon Collective that gave me the start with Black Bart. Jack was like a voice out of the past, suddenly there in the New Mexico desert, lifting the level of everything that took place.
I knew Patricia mainly from the Internet, as a participant in a synchronicity newsgroup, which further heightened all of what had just happened. Additionally present for this grand rendezvous were Patricia's Mom, Audrie, also an Internet link, and her Aunt Linda (I hope this isn't beginning to read like a Christmas letter), so it was something like Vachel Lindsay's coming up from the deep, in his diver's suit -- almost too heady to handle.
But wonderfully recuperative, as I stayed through that night and the next. And then, on Friday morning, I was handed a 400-mile ride to Denver, a gift of the gods, in the persona of a nephew of John's, who just happened to be going my way at the perfect moment. Do you doubt, at all, that I was now "in the flow" of things?
James (the nephew) drove me right to the doorstep of my next host, Rosie, a Black Bart reader of many years' standing, who hosted me for two nights of good, stimulating conversation, after which I moved on to Boulder by local bus, where I touched bases with a few more early Black Bart people -- Toni (for the third time we've seen each other in 25 years), and Arden & Betsy (for the second time) who put me up for that last night in Boulder.
OKAY, NOW THE TRIP begins to get spacy, for the Denver/Boulder area is like civilization's last outpost along Interstate-25. Forgive me, Cheyenne, but that's a hitch-hiker's experience of it. The game tightens up, and I could only hope that I'd become ready for it.
The outermost local bus took me into Longmont, and a half-mile walk took me out to where the road becomes highway. This was an oldtime sort, like highways were in the 1940s when they simply eased out of town, with plenty of space for pulling over and no encouragement to floorboard the gas pedal, and I was not long in snagging my ride, just a six miler out to I-25, with an ordinary guy who wanted to talk about how his wife had recently stunned him by running off with a fellow ten years her junior. He was hurting, and I gave what support I could, in a ten-minute session.
He left me at a windy, dusty, 'detour' access, where a lot of roadwork was being done -- a decent flow of traffic, but not the setting to entice a pull-over. I waited almost an hour for a computer consultant (who didn't look like one), who took me 25 miles to the Ft. Collins exit. I got there just ten minutes before another hitch-hiker, a late-morning riser who sauntered up from a patch of shrubbery where he had spent the night. Demonstrating a well-honed grasp of the ways of the road, he was decent enough to settle down almost out of sight with a book, and leave me my territorial privilege.
Within a half-hour, my third ride in this series came along, a woman with her youngster in a pickup, in some vast hurry, the reason for which I never did understand, as the roaring wind and motor combination made it impossible to hear, and pretty-well dampened any conversation for the fifteen miles that we rode.
The exit she dropped me at was just about in the middle of nowhere. But the bleakness had hardly begun to trouble me when the odd sight of a car backing all the way up the on-ramp puzzled me for a moment, until I realized he was doing it for me. It's not unusual to get one of these 'second thought' lifts, but watching one happening like this can be considered a rare form of entertainment . . . as well as hospitality.
This guy was a real gem. He not only took me the remaining forty miles to Cheyenne, but he drove me out to the fringe of town for a particular mail-order clothing house I wanted to check out (after advising me that it was impossible to get there by public transit), waited for me while I bought several pair of hard-to-find liner socks that I could not have ordered without eyeballing them, took me all the way back to the other edge of town (at the highway we'd come in on), where he tried unsuccessfully to flag another ride for me with his CB radio, and then took me back into town, to let me off at the address of a hostel that I had prior information about.
I didn't have the nerve, sadly, to have him wait while I checked it out, for it turned out to be a dud. It was listed on the Web as a $14 hostel, but it was only a seedy hotel, rooms at $16 plus tax. Granted, there wasn't much difference, but just enough to raise my hackles -- that, and the incredible attitude of the woman at the desk, who was offended to the point of outrage that I should even broach the matter of what was on the Web. So I walked.
Out the door, I wasn't quite sure of what next. The potential of a dorm bed for the night had softened my willingness to go immediately onward; besides which, those were Wyoming-size distances that my recent gem of a driver had been showing me, out to the Interstate from the center of town.
I wandered up the street with no particular direction in mind, passed a radio station and thought it might be a good place to look for transit info. No one at the desk, so I busied myself with the phonebook on it, until a young fellow emerged who seemed a worthwhile source of info about Cheyenne. Before I knew it, we were off to a late lunch together -- I being at pains to reject his offer to pay for mine. After all, I have to maintain some level of dignity!
The upshot was that I had my orientation to this rather amazingly hospitable outpost, even the address of a possible shelter for strays like myself, nicely located on the road out of town. Covering all possible exigencies, I also learned there was only one bus a day from Cheyenne to Billings, my next intended destination, and it left at 12 noon. There was this nagging fear of getting utterly stranded in mid-Wyoming, nowhere near anyplace that a bus might stop. This is the sort of torment at which the left-brain absolutely excels.
BY THE TIME I finally walked out toward the Interstate, there was not much left of the day. The shelter proved a good lead and I might have taken it, but just before I got out there I happened across a wonderfully adequate outdoor spot -- a clean and fairly roomy piece of level ground alongside a motel, but completely surrounded by shielding shrubbery.
What had been a balmy evening turned cold after dark. My lightweight bag wouldn't have made it, but I had long underwear with me and managed to hold my own. Except for that edge of discomfort and a few mosquitoes before I got my netting up, I got a decent night's sleep, my body having toughened considerably since that occasion in Las Cruces.
Morningtime, and I was out on the road again by 9 a.m. -- right out on the Interstate this time -- after a pancake breakfast, aware that in two hours I'd have to deal with that question about the day's Greyhound. My resolve, at this point, was to accept only the long ride, and I hoped my sign, "Billings, Montana," had big enough lettering for an onrushing freeway driver to see. Anything less than all the way would risk a stranding.
Now, the worst thing one can do, on the open road, is challenge the Universe -- which is done with signs and time-limits. I knew this, but . . . That old left brain is a mischievous and demanding devil.
Two hours went by and I was on the very edge of throwing in the towel, when along came a rather battered old car driven by a cheerful, downhome sort of guy with a receding chin and a moustache that made him look like Ben Turpin (known to all you old old movie buffs). He had been driving all night, from Nevada, on his way to visit a girlfriend in Dakota, had just let off an earlier hitcher before he spotted me, and told me flat out that he'd be heading off east in another 70 miles, after Wheatland.
Well, my basic inclination to ride with whatever comes took over, and I just got in. So much for signs and resolves. When we reached his exit there were a few service facilities on hand, but little else could be said for it. The Interstate traffic, by this distance, was down to a trickle, and my spirits dropped to about that level, too. The little nag inside of me was saying that I'd blown it for sure.
Amazingly, however, I had my next ride in half an hour, as unlikely a ride as I could have imagined. A spiffed-up rancher with a Western drawl and a ten-gallon hat, and a pair of prize horses in tow, was heading 80 miles up the line to Glenrock. And he filled me with all the lore about Wyoming I'll ever want to know -- the wheat economy, the marble industry (counter-tops from silicon-bonded marble dust!), the great coal fiasco . . . if it happened in Wyoming, I got an earful of it, even a belabored history of Chugwater, with which I have a family connection of sorts. All the while, I was gloating that I'd gotten onward from Wheatland, and never mind that the ride would fall twenty miles short of Casper, the only sizable town in mid-state Wyoming.
But I didn't yet know that Glenrock was a couple miles off the highway, and that the junction he'd leave me at had absolutely nothing that would facilitate any slowdown of traffic or pacify my anxieties thereat. Not a thing -- zilch, null, zero, nada, it was as barren as Patrick Stewart's polished pate! I was too dazed at the sight of it to fully realize the deadfall I had walked into, and didn't even see, as I shouldered my pack to cross the road, exactly where the next mirage appeared from, but very suddenly in front of me was a clunker of a car with a rather wild-eyed young woman leaning out and asking if I needed a ride into Casper!
As I've said before, sometimes I can't even believe my own reality. I was inside the car before she could change her mind, and trying to explain to the couple in the front seat -- a kind of modern-day, generation-X version of Bonnie & Clyde, judging from the attire and their world-be-damned attitude -- that I hadn't had a vehicle breakdown somewhere, but was actually hitch-hiking, yes, at 71! The guy was totally amazed, he'd thought I was about 50. You have to give these kids credit for seeing below the surface of things.
Actually, they landed me two miles short of Casper, at a place called Evanston. They figured it was the best place for me to hitch onward from, a first-rate truck stop. I took time out for a late lunch, there, and discovered there were telephones at each table, so I used my Working Assets card to make a couple calls -- one home to Joy, and another to Greyhound, to check on the local status. The Billings bus ran from Casper at 4:30 -- I was still an hour and a half ahead of it! But I got another piece of vital information: for only twice the fare to Billings, I could have my passage all the way home, with as many stopovers along the way as I cared to take.
What really turned the tide, however, was a weather report that came in on the radio channel that entertained the diners. A cold spell heading into the area, with a 40% chance of precipitation, which might even include a touch of snow! So I was once again caught between the bus option and the sketchy possibilities of open-road Wyoming, with the ante getting steeper than I wanted to bet.
By the time I made up my mind, after a useless twenty minutes on the road, it was 3:30. The bus terminal was at least two miles away, and I was not willing to pay the $7--8.00 taxi fare I was quoted over the phone, so I set out on a forced march along the freeway. I made it with fifteen minutes to spare, got my Seattle ticket for $98, and it was all over except for the applause.
WELL, NOT QUITE. There was a hitch-hiking coda up the line. I spent two recuperative days in Roundup, MT with friends Wilbur and Elizabeth, whom I hadn't seen in some twenty years, and who, along with their college-age daughter, Rhiannon, met me that night in Billings. It did get down to 38° and we hit rain squalls before getting there, vindicating the decision -- though I'm sure the road gods would have somehow seen me safe, had I chosen to do otherwise.
There was one more pair of friends I wanted to see in Montana, at Kalispell, which called for a 115-mile sidetrip at Missoula from the busride homeward. And that's where I hitched again, rather than pay the $16.75 fare each way. It was a great little finale to the larger journey, almost a reprise of it and a tale worth telling in its own right.
There were two rides getting up to Kalispell and one for the return. As earlier on the journey, I felt I was fulfilling a supportive role with the first of these drivers, making the continuance of a counter-cultural consciousness real for him, and the sense of a grand, if often hidden, network of earth-concerned people a positive reality, as we discussed the book, Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn (get it, if you haven't already), and some of the insights I had been given on the road.
He took me just fifteen miles, from which point another of those instant rides came along (like "Bonnie and Clyde") -- I was merely walking toward a good positioning point, when a Native American named Billy pulled up ahead to wait for me. I'd had my thumb out, but he only had a view of me from the back.
A lot of interesting conversation with Billy, but the main thing I'll remember was the bowl of chili. He stopped for gas, and offered to buy me a meal if I was hungry, but I politely declined. Next thing I know, he is thrusting this giant cardboard bowl of chili at me, in the car! Well, I am not a chili man. I hadn't had a taste of chili since 1948, and I'm sure I'd have turned down a bowl if it was the last morsel of food I'd see for a week (or the first after it) . . . I'm not into the meat, I'm not into the heat (spices) and I'm not into the beans. But this big Indian was not going to take no for an answer . . . pure, simple generosity, and I couldn't get out of it.
So I ate it. Every blessed spoonful of it. And before done with it, I was eating with gusto, for -- I hate to admit this, but ... I found I liked it!
Lois and Matt are old California friends who moved here from Arcata a couple years ago, and I spent the full weekend with them, catching up, letting down, and generally enjoying myself. When the Monday morning time came to resume my journey home, I had every intention of doing it in a civilized fashion -- on the bus. But I couldn't resist giving one final hour to the road, a healthy try at least, before buying my bus ticket. I was on the highway near the bus station at 9 a.m.
As earlier, I was dead set on a ride going all the way, as the Missoula bus to Seattle would be leaving at 1:40 pm and there was little leeway for dalliance. I waved off one driver offering a ride to "the junction," wherever that was. But when this young fellow in a pickup pulled up, and said he was in a hurry, hop in, I just barely got the nod that he was going to Missoula and made my commitment.
As we got to talking, I discovered that he wasn't actually going to Missoula, but around it, heading on to Helena, where a grandfather was dying and he had to get there before it was too late. He had been too late for another grandfather, and an uncle, under similar circumstances, so his concern was justified. He paused to take me aboard only because he wanted the leveling influence of some company until he could pick up his Mom and Pop, a few miles this side of Missoula.
From his motorized standpoint, he was going to Missoula, but the highway actually bypasses the town, and it put me suddenly at risk again, of getting stranded. He simply didn't have the time to detour into town for me, but had it in mind to let me off at a juncture highway about five miles out. He figured I could get another easy lift from that distance, but nothing is so nerve-jangling and feckless as trying to get a ride -- of any distance -- under extreme time pressure.
So here it was: Cheyenne and Casper all over again. But I had a job to do on this ride, and kept him talking about his Grandpop, his family, and sundry other things. Along about the time we stopped for his folks -- at which point I had to get in the back of the pickup -- we re-strategized and he agreed to put me off at a closer-to-town exit, just two miles from the bus depot. From there, I could walk it.
So I ended my hitching just as I had started it: in the back of a pickup truck, and something short of where I was headed. I got to the station just as the bus from Kalispell was pulling in, and twenty minutes before my Seattle departure time.
I'm not overly fond of these photo-finishes, but they do make the journey more memorable. And somehow, they always seem to happen.
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