Tuesday, February 06, 2007

(2) The Hitchhiking Years: Things to Avoid in Buffalo

Before 1972 was over I would make three major hitchhiking trips. The first was from Massachusetts to Florida and back with a kid I knew from Arabia. The second was the trip I started on my 18th birthday, that I'm going to try and reconstruct for you over the next few weeks. The 3rd was a thirteen-day journey from Massachusetts, to California to start college.

It's funny because I made a big map for my Mom as a present with all my travels on it. That's the heading above. I drew it to look old-style with sea creatures in the ocean, and lines that were obviously a little off. I used Rapidograph pens for most of it, but I wanted the actual journeys to stand out, so I used a red felt pen. I still have it, but while the black geographic lines are still strong, I can barely see the important lines of where the hell I went. That should still be no problem. I have a tremendous memory for stuff like this. The only minor problem is that I wrote a screenplay recently combining real events from 4 or 5 different trips into one and that tangled them up a little in my mind. That will take some sorting out, but I'll do my best. It's all real though.

I sure remember that first morning after my Mom dropped me by the side of the road on Route 2 out of Greenfield, Massachusetts, also called the Mohawk Trail. In a movie you would hop right into your first ride, but I just stood there for quite a while waiting for it to begin. All I had accomplished was being dropped off and having my picture taken by my Mom, so Jack Kerouac had nothing to worry about just yet. Then it happened. A car pulled over, I grabbed the pack and ran towards it. They were only going a few towns up the road, but I was on my way.

That first day, I made it to Buffalo, New York. There I proceeded to make a rookie mistake that caused me a lot of pain. I knew something about hitchhiking - I knew enough to have a sign and the cardboard and magic marker to make another sign on the spot. I knew something about camping out, but I guess I was still trying to be a part of society.

See, when you become a hitchhiker, you step outside normal life. You are an outcast in a sense, and it pays to think like one, even though I had an American Express card in my boot if things got too weird. That's one thing my Dad wanted us kids to have upon graduation. He'd always say, "You know if you have a credit card you can't be charged with vagrancy in California?" It was an obscure fact he enjoyed - he thought of the cards as ways for us to buy airline tickets home to Arabia, and maybe to take the roommates out on a special occasion. Little did he know what I'd end up doing, and that being stranded in California was a real possibility.

The name on the card was mine but the bills went to him, so I'm not trying to depict myself as a struggling vagrant from "The Grapes of Wrath." People look at transients in a cold way, and technically I was a transient. Something inside me still wanted to assure them. I wanted to say, "No, it's okay. I'm actually from a well-off, jet-set sort of life. Let's do lunch." Soon, I would understand that when you're out there with a pack on, they look at you in a different way. I'm not saying I know what it's like to be homeless, but I've seen the stares. All I can say is, I hadn't learned my place outside of society yet, and it would cost me dearly.

It was time to camp out in Buffalo. In a few days I would know exactly what to do: Find a good spot even in a city, case the situation, make sure no one sees you, and then disappear into the scenery. Make your camp, get some sleep, and then get going in the first light of dawn before anyone finds you. But I was a rookie and I guess I was still sort of sucking up to society. I thought I'd ask at a gas station where a good spot was to camp. Even now, all these years later, the stupidity of that still makes me cringe.

I walked into the gas station office, with my pack on, and the first thing I saw was a large black German Shepherd-like dog sprinting through the door at me from where the mechanic worked. The dog was growling but not like a normal dog. He was growling like a trained attack dog and he was attacking me. The first few bites were so quick that I barely had time to yell. The mechanic screamed at the dog and began running towards the office, but by the time he got there I was standing on his desk, with the dog still pulling on the leg of my jeans.

The guy got the snarling dog off me and took it back in the garage slamming the door. I got down and began looking at my wounds. You know it wasn't too bad. The back pocket was ripped where it had bit me on the ass but the material of the jeans where it had bitten my thigh, hadn't been broken. Nothing was bleeding that badly, so I began to think of just getting the hell out of there.

The mechanic apologized profusely and said it was a trained watchdog but it just had a blind spot about people carrying packs. Apparently, the mailman found out the hard way as well. I actually went into a deeply dysfunctional deal about how everything was cool and left. That was part of my mental approach. I was a guest in the country and I wasn't here to cause trouble.

I did have a few hundred bucks cash on me, plus the card, but I wasn't going to get far staying in motels, especially on the first night out. However, I had soured on the idea of camping in Buffalo and I got a motel room. I figured the dog had its shots, etc...but I wanted to look at my wounds.

I got in the bathroom of the motel and I gasped when I got my jeans off. There were a series of puncture wounds on my thigh that weren't bleeding, but I could see little fibers twitching in them. The jeans might not have shown it, but the dog had hurt me pretty bad.

I cleaned up and watched TV. It was the Academy Awards and you want me to sound old? Guess who they were honoring with a lifetime achievement award? A very ancient Charlie Chaplin. No kidding. See, I do have a memory for details.

One of the arrangements I made with my Mom was that I would call every night and tell her where I was, and where I was heading the next day. It was only fair in case they had to start a search party. After she went back to Arabia, I would call an uncle, always collect, and that's how we kept track.

So I phoned that night from the motel, but I decided I just wouldn't tell her about the dog. Of course, halfway into the call I told her the whole story. I felt sorry for myself - I admit it. It was my own private version of Charlie Chaplin's "The Little Tramp".

By now everything was really starting to hurt, but as usual talking to her made me stronger immediately. My Mom was in the Red Cross in France during World War 2, so she could dispense courage with the best of them. Still, I was hurt. One day on the road and I was wounded pretty bad.

It was the night of my 18th birthday and being an adult was going to be a lot tougher than I thought.


At 7:39 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Bill....another great post...will be looking forward to the rest of the trip.
You are such a good writer, how I envy people that have that talent.
Eugene, Oregon

At 7:52 PM, Blogger Bill McDonald said...

Thanks for the kind words, Mam. This is the real me from back then, and it's a lot easier to write about politics, etc... than to go there.

At 8:16 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Compelling story. Thanks for taking the time to share it with us.


At 10:28 AM, Blogger Brandon said...

I'm also enjoying the series. I read On the Road back in high school but I was born a generation too late for hitch hiking. Do people still do that anymore? I can't remember the last time I saw anyone on the side of a highway with their thumb held out.

At 5:05 AM, Blogger Bijoy said...

Nice post, its a really cool blog that you have here, keep up the good work, will be back.

Warm Regards

Biby Cletus - Blog


Post a Comment

<< Home