8.) The Hitchhiking Years: The 3 Tough Guys From Montana
When I got to Western Montana, it was still cold. There was snow in the mountains and some on the ground pretty close to where I was hitchhiking. I had been traveling down from I-90 just before Bozeman on a little road called 89, that led to Yellowstone in the Northwest corner of Wyoming. It was definitely freezing and what really hurt me was the wind. I mean, I was leaning to the point where if the wind stopped suddenly, I would have fallen over. The situation was a concern and it was quickly becoming a little scary. Of course, I could have gotten into the sleeping bag, and quit, but I couldn't just stand out there forever in conditions like that.
The road was elevated maybe 15 feet off the floor of the wilderness, and when this one car pulled over, it damn near went right off the side. It was before noon and these 3 guys were already drunk. I could tell before they even lurched to a stop, and under normal circumstances, I would have turned down the ride flat. Oh sure, I would have talked to them, but no matter if I was going to Argentina and they were going to within 10 miles of it, I would have politely said, "Thanks, but I think I'll just wait for a through ride."
Looking in the car, I could see these 3 guys were unsavory characters - in fact they looked downright viscious. So under normal conditions, this was a guaranteed automatic pass. This was a, "Thanks for stopping, and say hello to your parole officer for me."
Unfortunately these were not normal conditions. I was shivering in the cold, and I'd been leaning into the wind just to stand up. I couldn't take it much longer, or I would have had icicles forming off my scrotum sack. It was cold. I mean it was really, really cold. So I got in.
I always hated getting into the back seat of a two-door car. You were instantly trapped, but that's what they had, and so there I was. We started up and the guy in the front seat - who was carrying one of those big glass jugs of cheap Californian wine - looked back at me, and gave me this really mean look. He said, "You know we don't like longhairs around here." Looking back on it, this was one of my prouder moments because I bet if I had shown even the slightest fear right then, things would have gotten ugly really fast. They were getting up the nerve to kick my ass.
I'm not sure why - maybe it was just being in from the cold - but I was completely un-phased by the comment. I leaned a little toward him, like I was leaning into the wind outside. Then I said, "Is that a fact? Hey, could I have some of your wine?" Now, suddenly this guy was on the defensive because he had a decision to make. It was like calling his hand in poker. He looked quickly at the others, and I could see he was a little confused. He got sort of nervous and handed the wine to me, and I wiped off the bottle rim with my shirt sleeve, and took a big swig. If I was going to die, I wanted to be drunk for it.
I could see the other two looking at the ringleader like he had screwed up, but now they didn't know where to take it. I could see them thinking, "Wow, we tried to scare him but he wouldn't scare." At this point I went into my presentation - if you will. Remember, I had been out there talking with dozens of people, and I was razor sharp. I only became a professional comedy writer late in life when my brain was damn near shot anyway, but back then, when I was 18, my mind was really together. Throw in some genuine survival instincts and I could really sling it. The entire situation turned around in seconds. We went from 3 guys about to beat up a 4th guy, to 4 drinking buddies going down the highway of life together. These challenges happen in taverns somewhere every night, but I was trapped so I had one shot to come up with the right response.
Now, if you stick with this, I will get to an incident where it really did lead to some serious, dramatic action, but I've always felt this was a major close call. If you saw these guys you'd know I was right. Sometimes a show of fear at the wrong time can get you hurt, but for some reason on that particular day, at that moment, I was absolutely fearless. As far as I was concerned, they were trapped in the car with me, and I turned that situation completely around. I'll always be proud of the way it turned out.
That night was too cold to camp outside, so I got a motel room in Gardiner, Montana. This was the first night where I sort of felt lonely on the road. It was strange. When I was camping, I didn't feel lonely at all, but somehow the 4 walls in that room made me see myself differently. Doing this - hitchhiking around America - only made sense if you had the right frame of mind. I guess in that motel, I slipped into the wrong mood, and for a short time there, I saw my plan as pointless and pathetic. What kind of person would do this? Maybe it was those clowns in the car. They might have gotten to me a little. Whatever it was, I felt depressed, like I was doing something terribly wrong.
If only I could have seen the obvious back then: The Internet had been invented by the defense industry 3 years earlier, and in another 30 years or so, lots of us would have blogs. This hitchhiking trip would give me an excellent topic to blog about. Of course! It's so clear now, as I look back, but remember, I was young then, and didn't know a lot.