(1) The Hitchhiking Years: My 18th Birthday
I graduated from boarding school a semester early, which is like early parole. This presented a logistics problem for my parents as the school was in Exeter, New Hampshire, and they lived in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. My Mom was in the States for family reasons so it was decided she would stay on and I would live with her on our farm in Massachusetts till the future became clearer.
Looking back it was a great time - I always enjoyed hanging out with my Mom, and found her fascinating. However, I was 17 and I wanted to get back to the adventure. In short, I was stir crazy.
A plan was launched. There was another kid from Arabia who had graduated early as well, but who had stuck around the school in a post-grad capacity. We got permission to hitchhike to Florida for Spring Break. That was quite a chapter, and many wild things occurred. They have a runaway problem there, so we had to talk our way out of a lot of encounters with the law. Sometimes it became more efficient just to run. We even had one classic situation where we were placed in the back of a squad car, driven to the edge of town by the sheriff, and told not to return.
One funny thing was that the school had graduated my traveling buddy already, so they had zero leverage against him. We ended up running a little late down in the Sunshine State and I heard they had a big meeting at the school to amend the rules for the post-grad program.
I actually hitchhiked alone the last bit back in Massachusetts even finishing at night. It was a little sad. We had the brotherhood of the road going, having just gone through incredible adventures in Florida, so it felt odd after all those miles when we got back up the East Coast to one final stop on the highway. We said goodbye and good luck and he hitched back to prep school and I hitched back to the farm. Incidentally, the time scale is distorted when you're hitchhiking so being away a couple of weeks felt like months. I think it's because nothing is planned. I'd remember where we camped that morning and it would seem like last week.
By now, I was on adventure-overload, and though there was never a cross moment at the farm with my Mom during this time, I was crazy to get back out there. I wrote my father a letter asking permission to go hitchhiking alone, and I kept asking my Mom what she thought he'd say. What was in my favor was that my Dad believed in travel and adventure. His whole life was built around it, which was how he ended up in Arabia in the first place. I admit, at the time, I didn't get this next angle because many young people just sort of assume their parents are here to take care of them, but years later it dawned on me that letting me go, would also result in him getting his wife back.
The problem was the mail service to Arabia could be so slow back then. It might take 20 days to get a response. My Mom pointed this out and also added that the response could be "No." I was going nuts. I had an 18th birthday coming up and it looked like it was going to be a fairly quiet occasion: Dinner with my Mom and Uncle Ted who lived in the next town over.
The night before my 18th birthday everything changed. I can remember what I'm about to write as clearly as this morning. I can see the lighting in the kitchen at the farm when the phone rang, and I can still hear the voice on the phone, even though it was a complete stranger: "Is this William McDonald? I have a cable from your father. He says Happy Birthday and you have his permission to hitchhike alone."
I put the phone down and I just stood there in shock. I went out to the living room and told my Mom, and then things just started to explode. Suddenly I was up in my room, sliding my backpack out from under the bed. I was rolling up my clothes tight and cramming them in the pack. I called Uncle Ted and told him what happened and that the birthday party was canceled.
The next morning - on the day of my 18th birthday - my Mom drove me to Route 2 heading west outside of Greenfield, Massachusetts. She took the picture that you see above, and I was gone. Here's what she wrote on the back. (Another thing young people sometimes don't think enough about - how what they do affects their parents.) I believe the sign says "Ohio." At any rate I was down the road, heading west.