Monday, February 12, 2007

6.) The Hitchhiking Years: A Look at the Ugliness and a Nice Break

I went through Denver 4 times during the hitchhiking years. I-70 and I-80 flow into the city from the east and 1-25 runs north and south. That's the freeway system: Odd numbers mean north and south, even means east and west.

I can patch together almost every time I went through, some clearer than others. Later in the fall of 1972 there would be 3 members of my rock band from Arabia enrolled at the University of Denver, and that was quite a party when I came through town. Several years after that, my brother would be enrolled at the University of Colorado at Boulder, but that wasn't going to help me in April of 1972.

Actually, heading into Denver on that first trip is a faded memory. Maybe it was the smoke-out on the hippie bus. Who knows? Obviously, I don't recall every last ride or even every place I camped during the first big solo trip. I was out there over a month, so what can I expect? I might have 10 different rides in a day.

Listen, I know it sounds corny to tell young people to keep a journal, but I sure wish I had kept one. Even a basic outline would be nice.

Oh well, my memory is surprisingly good, especially for the events I do remember. Sadly, a lot of the more routine stuff has faded away making it harder to place the important events in context. Of course, when you're young, you can't imagine the day when you won't recall the names of your classmates, but that's how it is.

I do remember a nasty incident on the way into Denver one night, that has to be recorded. I was at this huge mall-plaza arrangement near the freeway and there were lots of bikers there. If I said several hundred you might not believe me, but I recall it as that many, and the atmosphere was tense.

I walked into a restroom and inside was a young black man extremely upset. He had tears running down his face and he was frightened for his life, having been threatened by the bikers. It was racial. He was hiding in one of the stalls, till he saw I wasn't with the group outside, and he came forward and said, "Don't go out there. They'll kill you."

You know, back then, whenever I encountered a racially driven incident in America, it would always make me think of Life Magazine. That's where I saw the pictures growing up - the riots, the anguished faces, Selma. In fact, that was where it existed in my mind. I was stunned to come upon an actual racial incident in real life in this beautiful country, but we all know that's a part of the story. A major part of the story. The man said they had threatened him. The way he looked - the fear - was horrible. It was much easier to take in Life Magazine than in real life - that's for sure. He thought they might hurt me just for being there. These bikers were drunk and crazy and wound up. The inspirational moment with the bikers in Illinois was so different from this, that I didn't even put them in the same universe. Eventually, I told the frightened man that I was going back out and he said he would take his chances hiding in the mall.

I thanked the guy for the warning and wished him the best of luck. It was dangerous out in the parking lot, but by now I had a Ph.D. in vanishing. I could fade into the scenery no matter where I was, and I believe this is the time I escaped into a large drainage pipe and camped there.

There's two parts to camping out. First, you got away from humanity, and prepared to sleep. That part was great. It was people treating other people poorly that you had to worry about - as I had just avoided in the parking lot.

Of course, there was a second part to it. This happened near grassy fields in the occasional drainage pipe, and one notable time in these hills overlooking the ocean near Laguna Beach. You'd get all settled in and you would start hearing a mouse, or one of our other friends from the animal kingdom. That could be fairly discouraging, but if the rustling wasn't too loud, and whatever was making it didn't seem too large, you'd drift off. The important thing was to get away from people at night. The animals were never as dangerous as the humans - except for the dog in Buffalo in the first post and that had been trained by humans.

One part I do remember quite clearly was the anxiety of hitching through Denver, Colorado after I had just been warned by the freaks on the bus about how bad the situation was. Of course, I was loving the environmental aspects of Colorado, but I was anxious. In the vernacular of the day, I was uptight.

At first, I had been surprised that Eastern Colorado was so different from the image. I sort of remember some time in a little tavern talking with some cowboy types and we might as well have been in Texas. Eastern Colorado was very flat and rural - not what I had anticipated. But then you saw those mountains up ahead, like a huge wave rolling across the plains at you and you knew you were in Colorado. That was dazzling, though I admit, back then, I was easily dazzled. What am I saying? The Rockies will always be amazing, but in those days it was even better. I was looking at the world with fresh eyes, and it was awesome.

There was something else going on. See, back then, I felt I was blessed. Maybe not in a religious way, but if there was some force of goodness in the universe, I knew I was tapped into it. I would hear these stories of horrible events on the road - getting robbed and beaten up. I don't know if it was immaturity or just being stupid, but I always assumed I would luck out. That's what I miss the most from those times: The unbridled optimism. How could I not feel that way?

I had been born an American in Arabia, so my entire upbringing was one huge adventure. Indiana Jones never had it so good. Yes, there was one uncle who tried to impress on me that I was a spoiled rich punk, but I didn't feel that way. It wasn't my fault I was living like that. For example, the kids in my town had to go away to prep school. Our school in Dhahran didn't go past the 9th grade.

Still, I did detect some teasing for the upscale nature of my existence. In fact, part of this trip was to separate myself from the jet set, and do something anybody could do. Of course, I had the AmEx card in my boot if things got too tough, but there was something genuine and pure to my approach - at least that's what I told myself.

Okay, I suppose I was sort of a rich punk, but it was the real me, and that's worth something. There was nothing phony about it - that much I know. Plus, it did take a certain amount of skill and nerve to pull it off.

So I lived like I was in a movie. The reason that so much of what was happening had a flair to it, was that I sought it out. I felt it was my duty to carry on with what had been given to me at birth. I had been born into a big adventure, and it was my job to make it continue.

What happened in Denver was a great example of the protective cloud of good vibes that seemed to surround me back then. I had to finish up with I-80 and make the turn north on I-25. I wanted to see the Wild West and that meant one giant sweep through the entire thing. I was heading up through Wyoming to Montana, but first I had to make it through Denver, Colorado.

That's when this serious looking guy pulled over and gave me a ride - not too far but at least I was out of downtown to the northern outskirts. We chatted amicably, then towards the end he pulled over to let me out, and said, "What have you heard about hitchhiking in Denver?" I said, "I heard it's really tough. The police will arrest anyone they see hitchhiking in the city." He reached into his jacket and pulled out his wallet. He flipped it open and there was a badge. He was a Denver police officer. Of course, by then I was thinking, "Uh oh", but he just said, "Don't believe everything you hear."

That was more of what I was looking for. All these hitchhikers getting stopped by the Denver police, and I actually get a hitchhiking ride with the Denver police? That's what I mean when I say I was blessed.

Next, I veered off I-25 and stopped in Boulder that afternoon. What a cool little town it was back then. I hung around for hours, and at night, I just walked into a dorm at the University, and crashed right in a hall in the basement. You have to understand it was 1972, and things were looser. Actually, there was an indented part of this hallway with an ironing board built into it and I slept under that. During the night I woke up and one of the students was really drunk, ironing a shirt right over me. But he was friendly enough so after he left, I went back to sleep.

In 1972, I thought there was a protective cloud of good luck around a lot of us young people. I truly believed that problems like racism would fade away once my generation took over. The black man in the restroom was quite a shock. I guess I realized what was going on in an abstract way, but that was right there in front of me. I had seen it in Life Magazine, but that world seemed like someplace else. I didn't really understand that it was the world I was living in, too.

These were the best years because I was innocent at heart, and I really miss the feeling. If I saw a troubling incident, it would bother me, but I kept my basic joy. One year later, that would all change, but back then, I was living the adventure movie, and I truly felt like I was both lucky and blessed.

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