Tuesday, April 03, 2007

25.) The Hitchhiking Years: The Last Legs

It was now on to the finish line of my first big solo hitchhiking trip around America. I was weary. In fact, the neighbor down the street from my parents' place in Massachusetts, would later tell my Mom that I looked horribly worn down when I arrived to get the key. That is very possible. I had been out there on the road for 5 weeks, eating poorly, and camping out many of the nights. It was exhausting, and it would take a month to recover. Of course, by the Fall of 1972 when I went off to college, I would once again hitchhike across America in a 13-day trip designed to arrive on a date certain.

There, my new roommate who had arrived with his parents, his own Volvo, some massive stereo equipment, and lots of other possessions - all to make that first big break from home easier - would be sort of startled and disturbed when I showed up with just a backpack. This would be later after Summer vacation, and there was still some highway to go down before my first solo cross-country hitchhiking trip was in the books.

I was surprised when I found myself in West Virginia. I was on Interstate 70 going East and I was unaware of that little sliver of land that extends north. Then somewhere perhaps near Pittsburgh, there was a hitchhiking graduate school moment. It's funny the stuff you remember.

I always believed in holding a sign unless it was obvious where you were going. I saw many cases where my fellow hitchhikers were hurting themselves by not giving that little bit of information that would help a driver decide to stop. Sometimes a driver would actually say, "I wasn't going to stop but I saw your sign and I figured, heck, I'm going right there, and I used to hitchhike as a serviceman back in World War 2. So I said why not?"

It wasn't good enough to make a sign before you hit the road - you had to have the ability to make one while you were out there. Your list of equipment had to include ways to keep from freezing to death, such as a space blanket, but you also had to have a big magic marker that worked, and a couple of pieces of cardboard slid inside the frame of your pack.

The reason I make so much of this is that right at this point in the trip I found myself in an elaborate freeway toll-gate-entrance-number with like 10 lanes of traffic heading toward it and then splitting East and West afterwards. I'm not positive where this was or what it really looked like, but I do remember sitting down on the side of the road and taking 20 minutes to draw a very specific destination with road numbers.

Okay, this wasn't a recognized art form or anything but you'd be surprised how few hitchhikers did these things correctly. The worst was some hippie holding a little screwed-up sign that a driver couldn't read as the car approached. Either that or the first few letters were really big and the last 7 were all small and crunched together. I don't know about anyone else but to me these things were serious business, and I could draw a quick big-letter sign with the best of them.

So it was getting towards the end. In fact, I just looked up the date. This was the only specific date that I can recover from this trip. It was May 15th, 1972 when I arrived at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, where my sister was going to school. I know because the radios in the cars were all discussing the shooting of Governor George Wallace of Alabama - an assassination attempt that left him paralyzed. I had headed out on my 18th birthday on April 10th so it was basically 5 weeks on the road.

The final trip to Bernardston, Massachusetts should have been a snap, although I believe this was the time it took forever and I wound up getting stuck at nightfall in Greenfield around 10 miles from home. The drive from Hartford up in a car is like 90 minutes so I had spent all day mucking about New England just to go that far. It was as if the trip wouldn't end without a struggle. I would learn later that it's always tough to get that last ride home.

In fact, I pressed my luck being so close and tried hitchhiking at night, even though the chances of getting a ride were way down. Of course, by then, my senses were finely tuned from a million encounters on the road, so when a car of teenagers drove by, I took note. When they cruised by a few minutes later, I sensed a problem. By the time they came back really slowly looking for me again, I was in some woods nearby, peaking at them from behind a tree. I wasn't going to go thousands and thousands of miles around America only to have my ass kicked ten miles from home. I camped out and finished up in the morning.

Walking in the door of the farm was the moment I reentered society. Sure, I had made quite a few stops at homes along the way, but when the journey started I had checked out of normal society on some level. It's the feeling you get from the looks on people as they size you up on their way to the office to be lawyers, doctors, etc...You'll feel like an outsider doing something like this - trust me.

If you're walking through with a backpack on, you'll get quite a few serious looks of scorn. At first you'll want to say, "But I'm one of you." Soon, however, you step outside and you'll want to say, "No, you were right. I'm not one of you." It's not as drastic as being homeless, but it's a break in the emotional connection to normal living.

So it was a little jarring: Not only was I back in polite society, but I was back in the jet set. It was time to fly home to Arabia. As I made my way through several cities of Europe, partying, and generally living it up, I would get a momentary start wondering where my backpack was. Then I remembered: That journey had ended - it was time to go home to be a kid again in Arabia.

I was out of the woods, and off the streets, back in a nice hotel again. Life was amazing in those days, and the kids from my town in Arabia knew it. Meanwhile, at the farm in Massachusetts, my backpack awaited. I was 18 and there would be thousands of hitchhiking miles ahead.


At 3:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you!!!
Have really enjoyed each and everyone of your stories of your hitchhiking across America. Am really sorry to see it end. But, at the same time, am so happy you made it home safe.
Now, can we expect some more amazing stories of your trips in Europe and Arabia??? I sure hope so.
If you ever write a book, please let us know...I'll be the first in line to buy it.

At 4:47 PM, Blogger Bill McDonald said...

Wow. Thanks, Mam. That comment made my day.

At 7:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have to agree with mam! You have a way with words that allows one to visually perceive your journey.

Being of the same age bracket, your stories make me remember some of my own journeys.

I think one of the things that fascinates me so much is that back in the day my ideas and thoughts tended to run hand in hand with those that you shared, and now we are on total opposite poles. Very interesting!


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