I have never believed in God. But in March of 1978 God saved my life. Twice.
Somehow, a day or two before spring break of my junior year at Swarthmore College, the subject of Dungeness crabs came-up in conversation. I noted that I had not eaten one since my family had moved away from California in 1967, and that I had loved them.
At the end of the conversation I said: “Tomorrow is the last day of classes before break. I’m going to hitchhike to California and eat a crab.”
The next day I packed my bag and asked a friend to drive me from campus to the Interstate highway a few miles away. He noted that he thought me under-dressed for the cold weather I was sure to encounter.
I decided to take the Northeast Extension of the Pennsylvania Turnpike to Interstate 80 and go west on I-80 across the country to San Francisco. I figured 3 days out, 2 days in California and 3 days back.
I was behind schedule almost immediately. Snow on I-80 in central and western Pennsylvania slowed traffic to 20 or 30 miles an hour. I got a series of short rides, which is the worst thing for a hitchhiker. Better to wait at a major exchange for a long ride than take a ride for 50 miles and get left off in a backwater. I knew this from months spent hitchhiking on a semester off, but took rides to get out of the snow. I told myself that getting a long ride in that weather was not likely anyway, but I suspected I was making a strategic error.
Pennsylvania is only 400 miles wide, or about a 7-hour drive. But I did not get to Ohio until past daybreak, about 20 hours after leaving Swarthmore. I was frustrated, only a few years earlier had I hitchhiked from Swarthmore to Ann Arbor Michigan in 17 hours.
I considered turning back, but my luck improved. I got a ride with a trucker all the way through Ohio and into Indiana. Rides with truckers are not like rides in private cars. When a trucker stops to pick-up a hitchhiker he is taking a big risk. A fleet driver can get fired for picking-up a hitchhiker. A private trucker’s insurance might not cover him in an accident if a hitchhiker is in the cab. So when a trucker picks-up a hitchhiker, he usually has a reason besides good will.
Most long-haul truckers go days and days, even weeks, without a real conversation. They buy diesel fuel. They buy meals. But between stopping for fuel and food, they drive for hours and hours alone. Most sleep in their cabs. Theirs is a crushingly lonely existence. And so when a trucker picks up a hitchhiker it is usually because they crave company and crave conversation.
The trucker who took me through Ohio and Indiana needed to talk. He talked about his truck. He talked about hunting, mostly deer hunting. He talked about his kids, three daughters. He talked about the road. By the time he dropped me off in Gary, Indiana in the late afternoon I had gone about 36 hours without sleep, but I was now making time.
Interstate 80 in Gary, Indiana was a tough place to wait for a ride. In 1978 it was the center of the industrial north–now the rust belt–and the sheer number of long-haul trucks on the highway was staggering. The highway had four lanes in each direction. Trucks, separated by only a few car lengths, filled the three right lanes. The sound of all of those trucks was deafening, and in 1978 the air was so dirty my throat burned and my eyes watered. I thought I was in hell.
But I was not in hell for long. I caught a ride out in less than ten minutes, this time in a passenger car with a man maybe 35 years old. He was going across Indiana and Illinois, almost to Iowa. I told him that I had not slept since leaving south east Pennsylvania. He told me not to worry about being social and to sleep. I slept most of the 175 miles, about 3 hours.
He woke me up in the early evening and told me we were getting close to his exit. I knew he was getting off the road just before the Iowa border. I wanted to get off at a major exchange, the better to catch a ride. He noted that it was getting cold, and I opened the window and realized he was right.
I pulled my map out of the outer pocket of my knapsack and asked him his exit number. I started to pay close attention to the signs. One sign indicated a truck stop in 15 miles. His exit appeared to me to be 15 miles away. I figured he was getting off at the exit with the truck stop. He said he wasn’t, and that I should get out an exit or two before his exit because they would have more traffic and because of the cold. I was quite sure I had read the signs correctly, and told him I’d stay with him until he got off the road.
When he pulled over to drop me off it was at an exit in the middle of a cornfield. There was not a building in sight. I got out, he pulled away, and I discovered immediately that it was very, very cold. I had made a terrible mistake. I was underdressed. There was no available shelter. My situation could get critical fast.
Not more than three or four minutes after my last ride had pulled away, a state police trooper stopped his car next to me. He rolled his window down about four inches and asked why I was there. I told him I was hitchhiking to California. “Why?” he asked. “Because I grew-up there. I have not been there in 10 years. I want to eat a crab. I can’t afford bus fare.”
“It’s five degrees now,” he said. “It’s dropping to minus 10.” With that he pulled away.
In a few minutes my fingers and toes started to become numb. I dug in my knapsack for my hand-warmer and special fuel sticks and matches. The hand-warmer was a cigarette-pack size metal box that hinged open like a book. Inside was some non-flammable spun glass. The hand-warmer worked by holding a smoldering fuel stick in spun glass. The spun glass allowed air to get to the stick but held it away from the metal sides of the hand warmer. Once lit, the hand warmer fit in a plush drawstring bag. I unwrapped a fuel stick and got a wooden match. I could not light the stick. It was not the wind; the problem was my fingers. They were too stiff with cold to manipulate a match. I realized then that the trooper had told me that I was going to die.
I was loosing feeling in my feet. I started shivering and realized that my core temperature was dropping. I knew that if I just waited for a car to stop, and no car stopped, I would die.
Had this been a road through woods, I would have dragged tree limbs into the road to stop traffic. I considered standing in the roadway and waving my arms to get a car to stop, but realized that I’d be a spectral and frightening figure to most drivers and would probably just get run-over, the more so since the traffic was doing 70 miles per hour plus.
It became clear that I could not wait; to survive I would have to do something. I started walking.
I walked up the exit ramp to the unlighted farm road that crossed the interstate at a right angle: north to the left, south to the right. When I got to the top of the exit ramp I saw a faint light in the distance, maybe a farmhouse, maybe a light on the side of a barn. I could not be sure. In the dark in the open plains your eyes play tricks. One moment you think you see the outline of a house around the light, the next moment the light seems to flicker in a field of black.
I started walking north along the road. The light was to the northwest, across fields. I realize now, after spending time fishing on boats in the ocean, and in the plains hunting pheasants, that that light was several miles away. Had I turned across the field I would have never made it to that light; not just because of the distance, but because pushing through corn fields, even in daylight, is hard.
I had walked less than fifty yards, and had not yet turned into the field, when a truck came up the exit ramp, crossed the farm road, continued onto the entrance ramp and stopped.
As fast as I could I ran up to the truck, to the driver’s side.
“May I have a ride, please?”
“I’m only going 2 exits up the road. I’m waiting here for another truck.”
“Please. I’m very cold. Please.”
“I suppose so,” he said. And I walked around to the passenger side of the truck and climbed in.
When I sat down the driver could see I was in trouble and he turned-up the heat. “How the hell you get stuck here?” he asked. I told him about my miscalculation with the location of the truck stop.
I asked him why he had stopped in this God forsaken place, and he said:
“I left New York yesterday morning together with another truck from this same company. We stayed within eyesight of each other the whole way, even in the traffic around New York City. Somehow I got ahead of him here, 20 miles from the end of our trip. I can’t figure out how this happened, there is no traffic on this road. Anyway, I called him on the CB radio, and told him I’d wait for him here.”
I am not a man who looks for supernatural explanations. But when this driver told me that he had no idea how he got separated from the other truck after a thousand miles of driving together, I was dumb stuck. All of a sudden it seemed to me that there was only one explanation: God had separated the trucks so that one would have to stop where I was stranded. God had intervened so that I would not freeze to death.
In a few minutes the other truck pulled up behind us. The driver turned to me and said: “I’m only going two exits down the road. At the first one there is a gas station. The second exit is just like this one. Where do you want to get off?”
It turned out that the gas station was the evening hangout for the local farm boys. They asked me about my trip. I told them that I had started in Philadelphia. That I just had a close call with the cold. That I was headed to California. One kid, about my age, looked out vaguely into the distance and said: “I’ve never been outside of Illinois or Iowa.” That was 34 years before this writing and I can almost see that kid’s face. I can certainly still hear his words.
Around midnight two cars pulled-in to the gas station to fill up. Both cars had skis on the roof. College kids got out of the cars. I tuned to the farm boys with whom I had been chatting for a couple of hours and said: “That looks like college kids going to Colorado. I think this is my ride.”
It was my ride. And it was college kids going to Colorado. They were planning to drive straight through. I got in one of the cars and continued west.
I pulled out my map. They would be on I-80 all the way across Iowa and more than three quarters of the way across Nebraska. Just west of Big Springs they would turn southwest on I-76 into Colorado. I was traveling with kids my age, in a warm car with conversation and snacks, and I was set for 650 miles.
I was exhausted and would have slept for most of it but in western Iowa we hit an ice storm. There were spinouts every mile or so. There were trucks on their sides next to the road. The kid driving the car I was in was driving too fast. I was scared, and afraid to sleep.
I asked him to slow-down, but he only humored me. “As long as I stay on the crown of the road we’ll be OK” he said. I wasn’t so sure. I could feel the wheels slip and grab, slip and grab as we headed west at fifty miles an hour or faster. I was terrified, but eventually I fell asleep.
The morning broke sunny and clear. The road conditions improved. By mid morning we were doing at least 80 miles an hour.
As we got near the split with I-76 I was determined to dress more warmly. I was not afraid to stand on the side of the road because I would be hitchhiking at midday, in the sun, in 20-degree weather. I put on all the clothing I had: long johns, two pairs of pants, two pairs of socks, and several layers under my coat.
As I dressed I realized that what I should have done the night before was walk to the overpass at the exit, climb up the bank and into the crawl space just under the roadway to get out of the wind, and put on all the clothing I was now putting on. I realized that in my fear the night before I was afraid to undress and dress.
I thought I had been stupid to miss-read the signs. Stupid not to listen to the man who knew the road. But I realized now that when I was most alone and most in need of my wits, I had been too afraid to stop and put on the clothing I had in my knapsack. These thoughts were hard to digest, and I did not linger on them. But in the years since I have suffered with the memory of how inept I was in that critical condition. And I have learned that the most dangerous paralysis is the kind that hides in movement.
The junction of I-80 and I-76 is in the middle of a cornfield. I-80, the road between New York City and San Francisco, runs dead east west here. I-76 begins at I-80 and runs south and west into Colorado.
The cars stopped. I got out. I was rested, fed, warm, and dressed for the cold. I was not afraid.
Sometimes when you are hitchhiking the road can be magic. You put out your thumb; the first or second or third car stops. You and the driver have a touching conversation and share a cup of coffee at a truck stop. You ride together for hundreds of miles and get out of the car feeling light and fresh and in love with living moment-to-moment.
But sometimes hitchhiking can be spooky. This was a spooky moment. I was not waiting long when a truck swerved at me. Had I not jumped back just when I did I would have been clipped and killed.
I had been standing near the edge of the road, but now I moved closer to the guardrail so that I could jump over it if I needed to dodge another maniac.
I remember what happened next very clearly, as if it happened in slow motion. Another truck approached. Sometimes you can feel malicious intent, and I felt it in this approaching truck. I got right up against the guardrail, ready to jump. The truck came by, too close but not close enough to make me jump. I saw the driver clearly. He had on no shirt. He was looking at me, not the road.
When you hitchhike a lot you learn that most drivers look at the road and see hitchhikers only in a glance. When a driver stares at you it is very disconcerting. You feel very vulnerable and alone on the side of the road.
As the truck past the driver raised one hand and showed me his middle finger.
This was not magic. This was spooky.
I continued to wait, and wait. Then things got spookier.
A pick-up truck traveling north and east on I-76 merged onto the eastbound lanes of I-80, then pulled over, maybe 75 yards away. I could see that the driver was starring at me, and I could feel his malevolence. I could also see gun racks in the back window of the pick-up truck. It was clear to me that the driver was toying with the idea of shooting me.
If you hitchhike a lot you learn many things. One thing you learn is that drivers of Cadillacs do not pick-up hitchhikers. I’ve hitchhiked in or through about 40 states, and I have ridden in a Cadillac twice.
The situation was desperate. I was not making-up what I was feeling. I needed a ride.
I kept one eye on the pickup truck, watching for a barrel to emerge from a window, and one eye on the approaching traffic. There was a lull in the traffic. My heart started to beat faster.
A Cadillac approached. I prayed. I really, really prayed. I whispered my prayer out loud: “please stop, please, please stop…”
The Cadillac stopped. Another Cadillac pulled over in front of it. A Lincoln stopped behind it.
I ran to the Lincoln and tried to open the back door to toss in my bag. The door was locked. I tried the front door; also locked. I looked to the driver. He was slumped down in his seat and had a short-brimmed cap pulled down all the way to the top of his sunglasses. With a slightly aggressive gesture he waived me to the Cadillac in front of him.
I glanced at the pick-up truck as I ran to the Cadillac but I could not get a read. I was really afraid I might get shot so I ran fast.
I kept my head down as I opened the back door to the Cadillac. The driver said: “Put your bag in. Don’t scratch the leather with your knapsack.” I loaded my bag and got in the front seat.
“Thanks” I said. “My name’s Phil,” and I offered him my hand. Over the years I had developed this introduction to break-though a driver’s natural—and sometimes palpable—apprehension in the first moments of a new ride. Usually my friendly politeness and extended hand did just that. But this drill I had developed had another purpose as well. If the driver did not respond with his hand and a friendly “hello,” I was put on guard and I would be especially attentive. Drivers fear wacko hitchhikers; and hitchhikers fear wacko drivers. Since most people with malicious intent do not have an organic impulse for friendly greetings, this was my first way of getting a sense of who had just picked me up.
The driver grunted a “hi,” put his foot to the floor and pulled into the left lane. In a few seconds we were going 80 miles per hour. He looked up into his rearview mirror and said: “Where’s my niggers?”
Now, instead of being alone on the side of a road, and maybe in the crosshairs of a scope, I was in a very new top-of-the-line Cadillac. The seat was soft and comfortable, the air was warm, the ride smooth. I had no idea what was going on.
It turned out my driver was a used car dealer from Portland, Oregon. He had purchased 10 luxury cars at auction in Chicago and was caravanning them back to Portland with hired drivers. He was lonely and bored and wanted conversation.
It all seemed surreal. My fear ebbed. I relaxed. I was in the fanciest car I had ever been in. I was headed west at 80 miles an hour. And I was very, very grateful.
Later, as I thought about it, it became clearer and clearer to me just how close I had come to dying, twice. Maybe the truck driver who rescued me in Illinois was just a man who got separated from his partner. Maybe the used car dealer who rescued me—and I’m quite sure he rescued me—in Nebraska was just a tired and bored used car dealer looking for conversation. But maybe not: maybe these two men were angels sent by God to save my life.
Or maybe it was not God at all. Maybe human beings are connected in ways we do not understand, and mostly never suspect. Maybe that’s how I knew the approaching truck driver was malicious. Maybe when we emit something—an energy, a vibration—that others receive, and respond to. Maybe the truck driver in Illinois somehow stopped his truck 50 yards from me because he heard my distress call. Maybe the used car dealer heard my distress call.
But as I settled into the ride my mind was not on supernatural intervention. I was not pondering the possibility that human beings can be influenced and motivated by strangers at distance. My mind was on the conversation that had begun. This man lit Pall Malls one from the butt of the other. His lips bled onto his cigarettes. He confessed to me how he over-charged buyers, and he told me that now, in his second marriage entered into in his sixties, he had for the first time tasted the wonder of erotic love.
I told him of my adventures on the road and my time in college. Again and I told him how beautiful I thought the scenery was. Again and again he responded that he had never really paid much attention to it before. We were an old man and a young man from different worlds, informed by different symbols, speaking freely and never at a loss for conversation. We somehow heard each other.
As it got dark he told me that he was planning to drive straight through to Portland. I asked how he could do that, given that the trip still had about thirteen hundred miles to go.
“Open the glove box” he said. I opened it. “See that aspirin bottle?” he asked. “It’s Benzedrine. We’ll make it. No problem. I do it twice a year.”
I looked at the bottle, then back to the old guy, then back to the bottle. I thought to myself: “Jesus, this guy could fall asleep and crash at 80 miles and hour.” That thought changed my plans, I’d go to San Francisco via Portland. If this guy falls asleep, I thought to myself, I’ll grab the wheel.
The caravan of used luxury cars pulled into the used car lot in Portland 80 hours after I had left Swarthmore.
I walked to Reid College, went to the student union, and fell asleep on a couch.
The next day, around noon, I cashed a traveler’s check at the college bursar’s office. I asked the clerk the day’s date. “March 6,” she said.
“March 6,” I replied back to her, that’s my birthday. The student waiting in line behind me said, “Oh happy birthday. How old are you?”
“Twenty-one” I answered. “Oh bull shit,” she said. No one forgets their twenty-first birthday.”