In September of 1976 I was scheduled to begin my sophomore year at Swarthmore College. Instead, I decided to take the semester off and travel aimlessly, mostly by thumb, around North America.
By mid December I was lounging on Playa Langosta, a lovely beach a couple of kilometers north of the center of Acapulco.
Two months before arriving in Acapulco I was sleeping, with hobos, in a compartmentalized cargo box, perched on top of a stack of loading pallets in New Orleans’ freight rail yard.
When you sleep in a cargo box the one thing you miss above all else is a shower. In 1976 a shower could be had for fifty cents in the New Orleans Amtrak station. Also in the station were two overstuffed black chairs placed, I have no idea why, on the main concourse.
So, every few days, I would get a shower and then sit in one of the chairs. Road life has few creature comforts, so sitting freshly bathed, in a comfortable chair and with a front-row seat to the comings and goings of a major train station, felt luxurious.
One day, while sitting and watching the crowds wax and wane as trains arrived and departed, a very pretty woman, about my age and carrying a knapsack, walked across the concourse, maybe 25 yards from me. I got-up, walked to her, and began a conversation.
She had, a few days before in Michigan, purchased a 30-day train ticket and had just arrived on an overnight train. She was headed to a youth hostel in the French Quarter. I told her that I’d stop-in that evening to say hello and see how she was doing.
About 7:00 I found Judy, I remember her name, in the hostel. She had on a tank top and her upper arm had three or four deep red scratches that ran from just below her shoulder to her elbow.
“Judy, what the hell happened?”
“Some guy tried to drag me into an ally. I got away.”
It was mid November and I had been “on the road” for nearly three months. I offered to hang-out with her and show her how not to attract trouble. She accepted my offer and I moved from the railyard to the youth hostel.
Judy was exceptionally beautiful. She had a lovely shape, moved gracefully, had long flowing honey brown hair, an open pretty face and a tendency to smile. And somehow, although I was far from a virgin and we zipped our sleeping bags together at night, I didn’t have the impulse to have sex with her. She seemed–how to put this?–innocent and lost and not yet ready for sex.
We became inseparable and spent three or four days together. We listened to jazz, we took walks, we talked. And then, on the fourth day, she announced that that afternoon she would take a train to Tucson, about 1,400 miles west.
I walked Judy to the train station and hugged her goodbye. Then I went and sat on one of the big black overstuffed chairs. And I began to think. And as I sat there I could not believe that Judy and I had not had sex. I decided to catch-up to her in Tucson and, at dusk, walked to Interstate 10 and stuck-out my thumb.
I had an excellent hitchhiking kit: a tent and a sleeping bag, an air mattress, a collapsible bow saw, flashlight and extra bulbs and batteries, rope, ground cloth, canteen, a cheap plastic raincoat coat that stuffed into a pouch just a little larger than my fist and an aluminum tube holding fishing rods tied to my pack’s frame. Passersby joked that my knapsack had a smokestack.
I also carried a cafeteria tray that I had stolen from Swarthmore’s cafeteria as well as a roll of black tape. I used the tape and tray as my hitchhiking sign. I also used the tray as my table when I made one of my staples: open face peanut butter sandwiches.
My tray read WEST, ARIZONA and when I held it at a certain angle I could hear, reflected off of the sign, the echo of the trucks that had past me.
Two hours later I was standing on the shoulder of Interstate 10 about 50 miles west of New Orleans. The temperature had dropped and a hard rain had begun. My raincoat was in poor shape. The seam that held the right sleeve to the shoulder was splitting apart further each time I raised my arm to show my sign to an approaching car or truck.
It was cold, I’m guessing around 40 degrees. The rain was driving and the wind was howling and there was no shelter in sight. I was in a miserable spot.
Then, as if to punctuate my situation, the right sleeve of my plastic raincoat caught the wind and blew off of my arm. I watched it blow west down the interstate until I lost sight of it in the dark. It almost felt as if that tumbling end-over-end piece of plastic, vanishing into the dark, was an omen.
A few minutes later a large white van flashed its lights and honked its horn as it passed eastbound on the other side of the Interstate.
If you have never hitchhiked maybe you cannot imagine how scary a moment like this is. The van’s driver, who is driving in the opposite direction, is letting you know that he or she sees you and is thinking about you. Any you, cold and alone on the side of the road in the dark driving rain are utterly exposed and helpless. There is nothing to do but try to stay vigilant.
A few minutes later the van was stopping for me.
The sliding door opened and a guy with rotten teeth said: “We couldn’t leave you here in the rain. We’ll take you to Houston and let you out under a bridge.”
I was on guard but, for some reason, not afraid. I got in the van.
The same guy continued. “I’m Mark. This is my partner Pete. We’ve been on the road together for 11 years. We just couldn’t leave you there.”
Houston was one hundred miles west. I had no idea what to make of this generosity and I was grateful, incredulous and apprehensive.
Conversation came easily. We talked about the road. About itinerant work. About which state has the nastiest police.
After about an hour I looked up and, to my surprise and concern, saw that we were no longer on Interstate 10 but on US 90, the highway that Interstate 10 parallels and replaced as the main east-west artery across the deep south. I asked what was up and one of my hosts said: “We need gas.”
We stopped in a gas station. Pete got out, walked to the back of the van, opened the rear door, and took-out an armload of miscellaneous things. I had no idea what was happening.
Pete returned, put gas in the van, and we headed west again.
“What was that about? Why did you grab that stuff?”
Pete answered as if nothing out of the ordinary had just happened: “We sold some stuff to buy gas.”
“Wait, what? You sold stuff to buy gas to take me one hundred miles west? I can chip-in.”
“No ya can’t. You are our guest. Just help someone else out when you can. Road people gotta stick together.”
Two hours after Pete and Mark picked me up they did exactly what they said they were going to do: they dropped me off under a bridge just outside of Houston.
The next day, a few hours after dawn and somewhere in central Texas, I got picked-up by a couple of poets. We got off the road, went to the driver’s house, and read each other our poems. I felt compelled to keep moving and asked for a lift back to the highway. We got back in the car. As one of the two lifted my knapsack out of his trunk my copy of Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling fell out.
“Jesus Christ” he said. “You pick-up a hitchhiker in the middle of nowhere Texas and he’s reading fucking Kierkegaard.” We shook hands and I made my way up the ramp to the highway.
A few hours later I had made it almost to the New Mexico border, 950 miles west of Louisiana. It was raining hard and my ride, I no longer remember the particulars, had left me off under a bridge.
I didn’t wait long before a guy, he must have been in his mid 70s, stopped to give me a lift. He had a brand new pick-up truck and said, in a heavy Texas drawl, “Careful with the upholstery with that bag ya got there.” I immediately noticed his face. He had deep crow’s feet at the corners of his eyes, deep creases in his grey cheeks, and he was smoking a non-filter cigarette.
As he pulled the truck into the right lane he said: “I don’t norm’ly pick-up hitch-hikers, but you look like a drowned rat. What the hell you doin’ under a bridge in a west Texas rain sturm fer?”
I started to tell him about Judy. That she had a train ticket. That I couldn’t afford one…
He held up his hand to stop me. Then he let-out a huge puff of smoke, crushed his cigarette and said: “Son, never do something like this for a pussy. Every gal’s got one.”
That evening I got picked-up by a guy doing 90 MPH. In Deming, New Mexico he got too tired to drive and got a hotel room. He invited me into his room to get a few hours of sleep. At dawn we were off.
Around 2:00 that afternoon I walked down an exit ramp from Interstate 10 into Tucson. At the bottom of the ramp, to my disbelief, was the youth hostel to which Judy had been headed.
I stopped walking and looked at the hostel, 30 yards away and across a street. As I stood there I realized that my time with Judy was over. I turned and walked to the University of Arizona campus, found the student center, and ordered a quesadilla.
Six months later I was back at Swarthmore College. One Saturday I picked-up my phone, called directory assistance and asked for the numbers of all the Andersons in the little town in Michigan that I knew Judy was from. In under a half hour I was talking to Judy’s mother. She told me that Judy was in San Francisco and was working at a bakery. I told her to tell Judy that Phil had called, was delighted that she was fine and wished her well.
Note: I’ve changed the names of the people in this story.