5.) The Hitchhiking Years: Stuck Inside Nebraska with the Denver Blues Again
It sometimes feels like the spirit of the 60s - the good part of it - went by just as fast as those motorcycles I saw that day in Illinois. Oh, there were definitely some positive changes that lasted, but it's understandable when you hear young people make fun of hippies. The actual trappings of the counter culture - the endless "far-outs" and other hippie phrases did become tedious quite quickly.
Frankly, I was sort of glad to be an outsider even back then - a guest from a faraway kingdom. I never felt like a hippie, although I did have long hair. Let's be fair: The philosophy had its moments, but the notion of world peace? Well, you saw what happened to that. You're living through it. And that "brother, let's share everything" sentiment? It was a nice thought, but every ne'er-do-well in the land, glommed onto it and rode it into the ground in around 10 minutes. Every scoundrel with the slightest bit of street hustler in him was taking advantage of the situation, rendering it useless. So, don't think for a second, that I was in some idealistic cloud during all this. Okay, maybe I was a little, but when you hitchhike, you're on high alert and this extended to my fellow brothers of the road.
See, the problem was that hitchhiking was not allowed on the freeway itself. The best you could do was move so far down an entrance ramp that they could see you from the main road and perhaps, stop anyway. Thus there were some premium stops - I guess they'd call them primo back then - and it was a definite bummer, dude, if you were hitching away and some new brethren came and took a spot right before you, where they could ensnare the first ride.
This happened to me in the vast hitchhiking tract of the Mid-West. See, back in 1972, I'm sure there were occasional individuals who were going to Iowa or Nebraska, but for the most part, the children of the rainbow gods were heading out to California. They weren't writing songs like, "If you're going to Omaha, Nebraska, be sure to wear flowers in your hair." So the result was the authorities in those areas, knew they had a group of people passing through - hippie stoners of every description - and it sort of ticked them off. At least that's how it felt to me.
So I was waiting on the side of the road on a ramp when these two hippie-types sort of cut in and established a spot around 10 yards nearer to the action. I'm sure this happens to fishermen, when someone crowds them along the bank. Naturally, my new buddies got a ride first and I could see them give a little wave and a grin as the car passed by me: "Later, dude." That was a prime example of what happened to the, "Brother, let's share" tenet of the hippie philosophy. It was a fine line between, "Sure, man, welcome to my stretch of the highway" to "Gee, I've been stuck here for hours and those two rascals just bogarted in and snared the ride."
But then, as with most things in those days, the situation just turned funny and ultimately pretty cool. How would they say it, "We were like bumming, man, but then everything became groovy once again." See, what happened, was that I eventually got a ride and after an hour or two I saw these guys by the side of the road, so I waved to them as I passed and they chuckled. Then it happened the other way and I started laughing as they went by. There was a bunch of us out there that day, and we were all leap-frogging each other across Iowa.
By now, I was much better at my decision making. I had plenty of time by the side of the road to ponder how to do this, and like most things - there's actually quite an art to it. I began to critique my fellow travelers: Deciding if they had a good approach or were making mistakes - not maximizing their chances. Maybe they wouldn't have a sign in an area where there was a couple of options, or they would be in a place where a driver would feel unsafe about stopping. A lot of time was spent hiking to the right spot. I walked a long way some days, and it was like a fisherman making the effort to go to the right hole on the river where the big fish were biting.
It was getting late as I approached Omaha and though I had a ride across the last part of Iowa, I asked to be let off when I got to a nice place to camp. Why deal with a city after nightfall and then the hassle of getting out of the city in the morning? Better to camp in Iowa and get started to Nebraska again really early, which is what I did. I remember the sunset. It gave me confidence because I was snuggled in safe for the night in a nice spot. When that happened, after a long day that included a lot of hiking, I'd take the boots off and get some of the best sleep I've ever gotten.
When the morning light started breaking, you'd be up and pulling on your pants and boots as fast as possible - it was often cold when you got out of the sleeping bag. You'd shake the dew off your ground tarp, and Space Blanket - a fancy high tech NASA product for keeping hot or cold - roll up your bag, and hurry in the coolness of the morning, to get back out there. I'd usually wait till I got stuck later to have breakfast, or dine with the ride, but this was a time not to be wasted. You could get away with things at that hour that would not work later in the day. A cop might just drive past when later he would stop. It was the hour of innocence, renewed hope, and trust.
By afternoon of that particular day, things would be much different. Things became tense and scary. I was trapped in Nebraska and nothing was happening. I was stuck dead in my tracks. I didn't see anybody else out there, and I wondered what had happened to my two hippie buddies - not to mention all the other hitchhikers in the state.
I realized I had to take a chance and get out on the freeway. There was no choice. I was in some kind of four-leaf freeway formation with ramps curving around over and around each other, but I was out on the main road, a sitting duck for the law, especially since they knew I was just passing through and had no actual interest in coming to Nebraska. I mean it's a nice enough state, but back then it had sort of an establishment vibe. At least it did that day.
I didn't put every little thing on the drawing of my travels that I made for my Mom, but this situation was different. It made the cut because it was unusally dramatic. Of my many encounters with the law during all this, this one stood out, which is why it's shown above. And I'm sure Mom was so proud.
What happened was a squad car came around, and I could tell I had been spotted, and that I was probably going to be arrested. Maybe I would just be warned, but who wanted to stick around and find out? I can't describe the exact move I made, but it involved running across one freeway and then ducking down between the two lanes and half-rolling down a hill, ending up on a road the officer had just left. Something like that. He could have stopped his car and chased me on foot, but I sensed that wasn't going to happen. It was like a chess move - he would have had to go down to the next exit, turn around, etc...He wasn't going to bother, especially since he'd still have to find me hiding in some bushes when he got back.
I proceeded to start hitchhiking again, but I was shaken. I mean, I wasn't in it to break the law, but sometimes situations occurred where you had to, or I'd still be stuck somewhere.
Here's where the situation turned fun again, and this - I must say - was a positive example of the 60s vibe that had lingered on into 1972. This classic old school bus came along, painted all weird, and psychedelic, and it pulled over. The driver of the bus was an earth mama-type, and in the back were not only my two buddies that I had been leapfrogging with down the freeway for two states, but a bunch of other hitchhikers I had seen along the way. Yes, folks, we had us a rolling little commune there, complete with wine, weed and song. There were a couple of acoustic guitars - I was a bass player back then so I didn't play - but after getting a good buzz on, a couple of the others were strumming guitars, and we were all singing and having a great time. Incidentally, this did not make the drawing for my mother.
Now, this sort of behavior may or may not sound like fun to you, but if you had been running from squad cars and feeling like you were moments from being arrested, it was a tremendous turn of events. What a relief. We also had a huge discussion where I picked these guys' brains for hitchhiking tips. I distinctly remember them warning me about the cops in Denver, which was where we were heading. File that comment away for the next post.
For now, we were happy, and having fun. Most importantly we were not standing on the side of the road, stuck in Nebraska. You can laugh all you want about the spirit of the 60s and hippies and all that, but on this particular day, it was really working for me.