The several-day drive to Mesa for the winter seemed to take forever, which got me to thinking of how my younger self had much greater fortitude. It was in 1973 after being discharged from the Army that I set off for California with my hitchhiking route taking me further into Mexico, across Texas, up though Arizona and Colorado and back to Iowa.
It was a nightmarish trip of rides with criminals on the run, drivers with drug-induced psychotic disorders, unfriendly law enforcement officers and waking up hanging half naked from a billboard on the outskirts of Pecos, Texas. But as Hunter S. Thompson said, “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.”
I also discovered August was not the best month to thumb through the Southwest with temperatures reaching 117 degrees.
Of course when older I did thumb to San Francisco, as well as taking hitchhiking excursions more than a dozen years ago while managing editor at the Daily Iowegian – one to Colorado Springs and another through nine southern states. The last one came about after regaling the then sports editor with some of my hitchhiking and freight train hopping stories. A native of the deep South, he asked if I’d ever thumbed my way through his neck of the woods. No, I answered, but had always wanted to. He opined it was a good thing I hadn’t because he feared my welcome as a long-haired, Hawaiian-shirt-clad Yankee would have been less than warm. That was all the prodding I needed and soon took to the road, with me reporting back every morning and a front-page map showing my progress across Dixie.
But back to the Mexico excursion. Warned not to drink the water while in Mexico, I stuck to beer, which could account for my rather hazy memory of travel down western coastline. I do vaguely recall getting a ride back with a fellow veteran who scored some cheap marijuana and when stopping at the boarder crossing, the guards were almost overcome by the cloud of smoke that escaped when we rolled down the windows.
It was while crossing Texas that the billboard incident occurred. I was picked up by a young guy who said he was fleeing California law officials and headed to Louisiana in his girlfriend’s pickup. He had been picking up hitchhikers so they could contribute money for the fuel. He had already sold the jack and spare tire for gas money.
Hitchhikers are not usually flush with cash and we stopped in El Paso so he and some of the other riders could sell their blood at a blood bank. Later that evening while stopping in Pecos, the driver observed a Winnebago parked partially hidden by shrubs and trees behind a garage. He said come nightfall, we could furtively siphon gasoline from the RV. Not wanting to spend the rest of my vacation in some West Texas jail, we parted ways.
I was relaxing with a beer soon afterwards in a tavern when greeted by a rather short looking cowboy with a pregnant girl friend. He said he’d seen me earlier walking along the highway. He seemed overly impressed that I was a journalist and proceeded to buy tequila shots and avidly regaled me with twisted stories of his occupation – a second story man (burglar) in Dallas. He offered to let me unroll my sleeping bag on his motel floor and I followed him back to their room.
He was in a manic phase after the voluminous amount of alcohol and his eyes kept darting to my camera. He finally said he wanted me to take naked photos of his pregnant girlfriend. A look of pure misery came over the face of the young woman and I lied, saying I was out of film. I added that I thought I’d still try to get just a bit further on down the road that day.
It was almost midnight by the time I stumbled to the edge of town. Knowing that getting a ride after dark is almost impossible, I decided to unfurl my sleeping bag beneath a thick clump of stunted trees – until by a billboard light I saw a horde of insect denizens scuttling about like toy windup tanks. I thought back to the warnings about rattlesnakes and scorpions when sleeping outside. Dead tired, I was considering going back to the diminutive sociopath’s motel room when the billboard light flashed off. There, a dozen feet above my head, was a haven from the desert creepy crawlers – the platform used by billboard workers when they paste up advertisements.
It was still fiendishly hot so I kicked off my boots and bellbottom jeans before collapsing on my sleeping bag. Within seconds I was dead to the world.
Morning light and the sounds of nearby traffic seeped into my sodden dreams. Groaning from a throbbing headache, I forced myself to roll out of the sleeping bag and was rudely shocked into full wakefulness by finding myself falling. I frantically grabbed the edge of my makeshift bed, there to look up dazed and confused and without my glasses into the blurry face of a giant woman blowing a cloud of smoke at me. Passing drivers responded to the sight of someone hanging from a billboard in their underwear with a clamor of horns.
I managed to pull myself back up and dress before the police arrived.
This summer I did a few brief hitchhiking jaunts about Iowa. Half the fun is meeting new people (95 percent of people who pick up hitchhikers are Democrats). Still, the golden age of long-distance hitchhiking is over. The growth of cities and the resulting congested interstate interchanges and overpasses are impossible bottlenecks on any cross-country trip. Still, there are the smaller highways. Just maybe . . .