I had no planned route, no itinerary, no estimated date of arrival or return. I had little more than a backpack, a change of clothes, some raingear, an old tent, sleeping bag, less than $100 and a harmonica in the key of A. Shouldering my backpack, I headed out to the main highway and stuck out my thumb, heading in the general westerly direction of California.
In those days it was fairly easy to get around by hitchhiking. Hippies were a community unto themselves, traveling freely about the country in Volkswagen vans, like vast herds of buffalo. Part of the code of the road was to always pick up other hitchhikers: they were our brothers and sisters, they had stories to tell, experiences to share… and maybe, probably, some pot to smoke. At least that’s what Angus and Earl hoped when they pulled over and picked me up somewhere in central Minnesota.
Angus and Earl could easily have been extras from a Cheech and Chong movie. Their sole and solitary goal was to get and stay as stoned as humanly possible, for as long as possible. Then they would stop to eat, crash, and start over again. I fit right in. By the time we reached the Flaming Gorge, we had consumed every flake of pot that we owned between us, and were brainstorming how best to restock our stash.
Angus and Earl came up with this bright idea. They figured we should take a side trip into Salt Lake City, split up, fan out and see if we could buy from the locals. From what I’d heard about Salt Lake City, this didn’t seem to be a particularly good idea but Angus and Earl were positive that we’d succeed. They were driving and I needed the ride, so into Salt Lake City we went.
We eased into town, drove past the enormous Mormon temple and parked the car alongside a large park. As I started to reach for my backpack, Earl said “Man, just leave it. We’ll be back in an hour.” But one of my own personal rules of the road is: Never become separated from your stuff. “Thanks just the same,” I said, “but it’s no hassle, I may need something.”
Our plan was to fan out in different directions, try to find a likely source and meet back at the car at 2:30 p.m.
We went our separate ways.
I set off in search of the stoniest-looking hippie I could find, the kind that sit glassy-eyed under just about every tree in northern Michigan. But I quickly learned that there probably are no hippies in Salt Lake City, never were, never will be. Thinking better of the whole situation, I elected to settle down under a tree and play my harmonica for an hour or so, and then return to the car to see how the other warriors had fared.
At around 2:00 p.m., I picked up my pack and headed slowly down toward the park, taking my time so as to appear to have been busy. As I rounded the corner near where the car was parked, I was greeted by the sight of four or five Salt Lake City Police cars parked helter-skelter in the middle of the street with lights flashing. And there were Angus and Earl, up against a park fence, being grilled by the cops.
Backpedaling quickly to the shadows of an alley, I shouldered my bag and moved quickly towards the west, away from the park and out of Salt Lake City.
A couple of quick, short rides took me to a truck stop on the salt flats west of town. Here, truckers gear up for, or gear down from, the searing hot, dry trip across the flats to Nevada, a long, hot journey with few waysides along the way. I filled my water jug, bought some cheese and a loaf of bread and settled down in the spare shade of an “Eat” sign to have a snack. Before I could open my loaf of bread, a big semi-truck pulled up and the door swung open.
“How far ‘ya goin’?” the voice boomed down from the cab.
“California.” I replied.
“Hop in.” he chuckled.
The air-conditioned cool of the cab was delightful. The trucker offered me a cold beer and I gladly accepted. “Now we’re traveling!” I thought to myself, as the blinding white salt flats zipped by outside the tinted windows of the well-appointed cab. He had Hank Williams on the 8-track and he was full of stories of life on the road. Somewhere around Winnamucca however, his tales became mean, explicit and sexual and he began to tell me a series of creepy stories of homosexual liaisons he’d had with young men he’d met along the road. As it became dark, I began to feel very uncomfortable and as we pulled into the outskirts of Reno, Nevada he pulled the truck off to the side of the road and said: “You know some of those things I’ve been tellin’ ya… how’s bout I do that to you?”
Well now, no queer truck driver was going to get a piece of my twenty-four year-old ass, and I must have said so because he became infuriated. It may have been the “road aspirins” that he’d been popping, or the shots of whiskey that he’d been throwing down since Salt Lake City, but he hauled off and hit me with a big hand, threw open the door and hollered: “I just wasted a whole fucking day on you ya’ little shit, get the hell out of my truck!”
And the hell out of his truck I got.
The truck pulled away quickly, leaving me shaken and unnerved in the quiet of the Nevada night. It was about 12:30 a.m. Feeling vulnerable, unsafe and unlucky, I hopped the fence and walked through the dark towards what seemed to be a park in the distance. Reaching the park, it seemed abandoned so I found a place to squirrel away, pulled out my sleeping bag, took off my boots and tried to catch a little sleep, planning to rise with the earliest light. I was exhausted.
I had just fallen asleep, or so it seemed, when I awoke with a start to a bright light shining in my face and a voice saying: “I found another one over here!”. It was the cops and apparently they had a big problem with vagrants sleeping in the park. They rounded up me and two other guys, put us into the back of a squad car and took us down to the station in Reno.
I sat with my pack in a bright lobby for what seemed to be hours while they checked my I.D. Fortunately, because of my liaison with Angus and Earl, I had no pot in my possession. Finally, about 3:30 a.m., the cop assigned to overnight desk duty came to me and said: “Kid, we have no reason to keep you, but if we find you out there again we will… understand? The road out of town is right outside that door, take it and keep going.” And with that, I found myself heading west, again on foot, out of Reno.
After walking aimlessly for about 20 minutes, a young couple driving a dirty Volkswagen pulled over and the woman asked me if I had any money. They had just lost all their money gambling and had barely enough gas to get home.
“No”, I said, “if I had money I wouldn’t be walking at 4:00 in the morning.”
“Where you headed?” they said.
“Oakland,” I replied.
“Shit, hop in.”
And so in I hopped, and off we drove in a cloud of blue, gas-oily smoke.
The road west out of Reno passes up a very steep grade as it climbs the last few thousand feet of the rugged east side of the Sierra Nevada before cresting at Donner Pass. The first pioneers had to haul their wagons up over the last few hundred yards with ropes and pulleys, but now a modern highway snakes over the pass. As we chugged up the highway, the car began to fill with smoke as the engine lugged, chugged and sputtered.
Just east of the summit, the car shuddered and convulsed and then died completely in a symphony of thrown rods and hissing motor oil. As the man cussed and the woman cried, I stood helplessly along side the road not knowing what to do.
“Well,” I finally offered unconvincingly, “thanks for the ride...”
Shouldering my bag yet again and sticking out my thumb, I took the first ride up over the pass and down into the foothills of California. But again, I didn’t make it far. My ride pulled off at the gold country town of Auburn and left me stranded on an on-ramp directly beneath the sign that said, very plainly, amongst other things: “no hitchhiking.”
And sure enough, who should pull up next but the Auburn police. And again, I was put in the back of the squad car while my I.D. was checked. This time I was issued a ticket for “hitchhiking on an expressway” and told in no uncertain terms to find another way to travel. When I asked how I was to do that, he suggested that Auburn was about a mile and a half down the road… I could walk. He then set me back out on the road and left. As soon as he was out of sight, I stuck my thumb back out and hoped that someone would pick me up before the next cop came along.
Someone did. It was a pickup truck full of carpet scraps.
“Where you headed?” the driver asked.
“Oakland”, I said.
“Sure, I can take you there, but you’ll have to ride in the back.”
Exhausted, I burrowed down into the carpet scraps and quickly fell asleep.
Now seriously, I ask you, does “Oakland” sound at all like “Davis”? No, of course not, but when the truck pulled to a stop and the man jumped out he said: “Here we are - Davis, California”. “DAVIS?”, I cried, “I SAID I WAS GOING TO OAKLAND!” “Oh, sorry,” he offered, “I thought you said Davis.” And with that he disappeared into the carpet store to begin his day’s work.
I’ve searched my memory many times, but I don’t remember how I got from Davis to Oakland. But somehow I did. Upon reaching my brother’s house in Oakland, I collapsed on a bed and slept for 24 hours.
I often wonder what ever happened to Angus and Earl, whether the trucker managed to get laid, how the rest of the day went for the poor couple in the Volkswagen, and exactly what the carpet guy was thinking.
I got citations from the City of Auburn in the mail for years. I never paid the ticket. To this day, I remain a fugitive from justice.