Saturday, March 31, 2007

24.) The Hitchhiking Years: The Storm

By the time I got to Ohio again, the freshness of Spring had given way to the first signs of Summer. There was no question I was also not the same. The person who had slept in a farmer's field the night after my 18th birthday was significantly less idealistic than before. Do you remember that? I had been attacked by a dog in Buffalo and the next night in Ohio was when I really dealt with the paranoid aftereffects, especially when I heard a pack of dogs barking in the distance.

This time it was around 5 weeks later and I was in southern Ohio heading East. Yes, I was much more used to being out there. My first major hitchhiking trip had been from Massachusetts to Florida and back on Spring Break earlier in the year when I was still 17, but that was with another guy from my hometown of Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. It's much different when you're out there on your own, and I had gone through quite a bit. Of course, this account is skewed because I mostly just mention the dramatic stuff, whereas much of it was just rides, conversations, and hitchhiking strategy: Lots of decisions on what to do, and lots of Americans to meet.

Here, I should say that the American People came off great. Sure, there were individuals who were a threat, especially the guy who tried to kill me in Arizona, but for the most part the citizens of the United States were terrific, and they really impressed me a lot with their warmth and humor.

I go through different levels of disgust with the government but I'll always love the American People. It's a hip room. I should add that you can also get a negative opinion of a country like England based on the pompous Royals, etc, but when you go there and meet the People they're great. It's the governments that are causing the problems. I always get a kick out of it when someone visits the Middle East and realizes how wonderful those people are too, despite what we've been told to believe.

I had some great conversations out there. You know a hitchhiker like me is a perfect confidant because I'm just passing through. I was told things that nobody in the driver's immediate life knew about. Plus, as opposed to taking a bus, these drivers would point out the really cool details: How a bomber had crashed on that hill over there, or how Timothy Leary had been arrested at that last intersection.

The other part that exceeded my expectations was the actual countryside. I love Arabia and I'm a big fan of the desert, but seeing the Rockies and the Wild West? What a stunning piece of land we have here. Mt Shasta, the Grand Canyon, the Colorado River, the Pacific Northwest. Every state had amazing parts. It's a gigantic, beautiful place.

Of course, there was no way the reality of the United States could match the mythical version formed in my brain overseas. At best, there were moments when it was close, such as the time I saw a young Jerry Garcia in the parking lot of a Holiday Inn in downtown Philadelphia. Or from this trip, the time I saw Willie Mays play baseball. But being here tore the mythical nature of the place apart.

By the time I hit southern Ohio on the way home, I had seen the heavy political wounds that were also everywhere in 1972. We were heading into Richard Nixon's reelection, Watergate was just ahead, and Vietnam hung over everything.

This led to an incredible lack of understanding between the generations, that manifested itself in millions of painful family scenarios. I also was aware of the racial problems but I didn't realize they were such a factor in society. I guess social issues in general seemed much more daunting than I had imagined as a kid.

When you heard the music of Chuck Berry or the Beach Boys you formed one opinion, but don't look too closely at Chuck Berry's real life - including prison time - and don't look too closely at the relationship Brian Wilson had with his father. If you do, the music might not sound the same.

1972 was the year I began to see these truths, although I didn't let my idealistic version of America go. I still kept it in my heart and visited there sometimes like a childhood memory. You know, I really enjoyed seeing certain places I had heard so much about, but I also appreciate the legendary cities where I didn't go. It's nice having those, too. For me, Detroit is still Motown because I've never been there.

So it was a weary and a somewhat more cynical hitchhiker who hit a roadside cafe before retiring into the woods to sleep that night in Ohio. I do remember sensing some really ominous energy in the air. The sky, and the way the humidity felt, seemed a little scary.

Sure enough, during the night, these thunder storms rolled through that shook the earth. I broke camp and jogged for cover under a freeway bridge amid intense flashes of lighting and giant Booms! Mother Nature was putting on an amazing display of fireworks. It was so violent that just being under the bridge wasn't good enough. It was raining sideways and I had to scramble up the hill and hide at the very top, right under the roadway of the overpass. Interestingly some other hitchhikers were pinned down all the way across the freeway and their voices traveled on the beams so they only sounded 30 feet away. At first they were whooping and hollering almost like at a rock concert, but with each devastating explosion of thunder they became more and more quiet. We were getting knocked loopy out there, and there was nowhere to go.

I realized I would have to stay the night on the concrete incline so I took my belt and some rope and tied myself to the beams. I got in the bag and eventually fell asleep, but it was one of those nights when you wake up three times as tired as you started. I was almost back to New England but I needed to hurry. America had been great, but I was fading fast.


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