Looking Back: A California Boy’s Search for America (Part 1)

Image: Ralph puts on some travelling gear prior to his trip. Photo by Joyce Pearce
Image: Ralph tries on some traveling gear prior to his trip. Photo by Joyce Pearce


After graduating from high school in 1977, my plan was to continue on to City College and then transfer over to San Jose State. Before I got to that though, I had a yearning for adventure. I'd grown up with tv shows like Route 66, Then Came Bronson, and Kung Fu, which featured guys having adventures as they wandered across America by car, motorcycle, or on foot. That same year I'd read a National Geographic article about a man who journeyed through the South on foot (Peter Jenkins in A Walk Across America). I was filled with an inspiration to seek out adventure in the name of personal growth and widening my world view. My parents were understandably concerned and against the idea, however it was something that I just had to do. My dad loaned me $65 dollars and my grandfather gave me an old army bayonet. So, I strapped a tent and sleeping bag to a military surplus backpack and hid my reserve funds in various places. My plan was to take a bus to Reno, Nevada and then start heading east.

Day 1: The Strip

On Monday April 10, 1978, I walked along a sunny afternoon, my backpack, overalls and long hair, until I reached the bus stop at Lincoln and Curtner Avenues. A while later I found myself boarding a Greyhound bus downtown and taking up a seat next to an old man. I told him my plan, and as the sun began its slow descent, he shared stories of his life with me, and everything felt right.

When we arrived in Reno that evening, I phoned my eighty-one-year-old great Uncle Gene to let him know I was there. Uncle Gene was a tall, handsome, rather wealthy fellow who lived along "the strip" (N. Virginia Street). Taking the elevator up to his apartment, he let me get settled then explained that a friend was going to be visiting for a while. He asked if I wouldn't mind going out for a bite to eat while they were there. A short while later he received a call on the intercom and that was my cue. As I approached the elevator, the door suddenly opened and there stood a tall, gorgeous blonde. She smiled warmly at me as she sauntered over to my uncle's door...

Day 2: "Keep your hands where I can see them!"

On Tuesday morning, I bid farewell to Uncle Gene and walked a short distance to Interstate 80 where I stuck out my thumb. Soon afterwards a small car pulled over and a friendly young fellow offered me a ride. We spent most of the day driving through Nevada with a short break in Winnemucca. I'd only once been outside California, and it was a relief to see the huge open spaces. By late afternoon we sailed through Wendover, the port of entry into Utah. I say "sailed through", because we'd picked up speed and were travelling rather fast. As we sped along the Salt Flats, the driver began flashing his lights and speeding around other cars. At one point he asked, "Am I making you nervous?" I replied, "No, not at all," as I felt sweat forming in the palms of my hands. I decided that as soon as he stopped for gas I was going to hop out.

Well, I didn't have to wait for the gas stop, as we were pulled over by police just outside of Salt Lake City. We were ordered out of the car and placed against it with our arms and legs apart. I explained my situation to one of the cops and told him I had no idea why he was speeding. They found marijuana in his glove compartment, so I'm not sure how things went for him from there.  I wound up having dinner at a cafe with one of the cops who tried to talk me into catching a bus home. He picked up the tab and then I found a nice motel and rolled out my sleeping bag outside in some bushes.

Day 3: Frost on My Pillow

I awoke early Wednesday morning with frost on the rolled jacket that I'd used as a pillow. I collected my gear and started walking. After some time, I came to a small diner along the road and went in for some breakfast. After ordering, I went to the restroom and gratefully sat down on the floor and held my frozen feet up to the dryer. I hit the start button several more times with my foot as my feet gradually warmed up. Later that day I caught a couple of short rides, and then finally a ride in a small car with two guys who were traveling from California back to their home state of Vermont. One of our rest stops was in Cheyenne, Wyoming where I mailed a postcard to my parents. We drove a bit further into Nebraska where we spent the night in the car.

Day 4: Fields of Gold

On Thursday we just drove all day. We were in a pretty small car, but I had the back seat to myself. My amiable companions chatted away while I gazed out the window, amazed at all the fields and occasional old schoolhouses. I purposely did not bring a camera with me, but now I kind of wish that I had. By the end of the fourth day, we'd made it to Des Moines, Iowa. My companions had told me that I was free to ride with them all the way to Vermont, though I wanted to explore a bit more along the way. So, when we pulled over to a rest stop for the night, I thanked them and headed out, spending the night off the road in bushes.

Day 5: Beer!

On Friday morning I began walking with my thumb out and by noon I'd made my way to Grinnell, Iowa. My companions had told me that it was a college town, so I found my way to the campus and parked my backpack on a corner with lots of foot traffic. It wasn't long before a tall, bearded fellow walked up and asked me where I was from. His name was Jim Gates and the next thing I knew I was in an auditorium watching a film about Tex-Mex music. That night we went with his friend to a bar, and I had my first legal beer. I spent a comfortable night in his second-story Victorian flat.

Image: Map shows Ralph's route from San Jose to Gettysburg marking the end of each day's journey.
Image: Map shows Ralph's route from San Jose to Gettysburg marking the end of each day's journey.

Day 6: A Girl and Her Dog

The next day was Saturday. I made my way back to I-80 and at some point caught a ride with a trucker. We drove along for several hours, and I remember him sipping from a can of beer as we crossed the Mississippi River. My ride ended a short distance away from a truck stop. I had to be careful not to be seen getting out of the truck, as he wasn't allowed to give rides. I caught another ride a bit further down the road, and after a short distance I decided to wander into the village of Minooka, Illinois.

As I walked across a narrow bridge, I saw a girl about my age walking her dog. As I approached, she said hi and asked me where I was from. After some chat, she asked if I'd like to go back to her house for coffee. Back at the house I was greeted by her parents and a younger sister. I had a seat on the couch, and they all gathered around wanting to hear my story. The dad said that I would normally be welcome to stay over, but that he and his wife had to go out, and of course couldn't leave me there with the girls. He therefore insisted on putting me up in a motel, encouraging me to take a nice hot shower and get a good night's rest.

Day 7: Lost in Fort Wayne

On Sunday, the dad picked me up at the motel and took me back to the house for breakfast. I'd been thinking about making Washington D.C. my East Coast destination, but the family dissuaded me, and I settled on Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. They dropped me off at a safe place to resume my journey. I stayed in touch with the Minooka family for years but can no longer remember their names. The girl with the dog eventually became a nurse.

From Minooka, my path diverted from I-80 and I found myself in Fort Wayne, Indiana. In Fort Wayne I decided that I'd had enough of hitchhiking. I can't remember where I slept that night, but I'd determined to take the Greyhound the rest of the way to Gettysburg.

Day 8: Thirteen Hours in a Pittsburgh Bus Station

Monday morning found me on a bus. I enjoyed spending time in Van Wert, Ohio's unusual and historic Brumback Library during a layover. When I arrived in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania late at night, I discovered that I had a thirteen hour wait for my connecting bus. This was not a pleasant experience, though it was interesting to observe the various characters who came and went during the night. There was the sad sight of a homeless lady who came in with her feet bound with thick pads of newspaper. At one point I heard a woman cry out and later discovered that an older gentleman had exposed himself. And then in the morning I had a guy walk towards me muttering to himself. He then sat down near me and started complaining that he'd lost his keys on the bus and couldn't find them anywhere. He'd checked everywhere, but they were nowhere to be found. I suggested checking with the Lost and Found. He just sat there shaking his head. I finally convinced him to go over and check. He returned holding his keys very grateful and happy. Then he began insisting on taking me out to breakfast. At this point I became suspicious and politely declined.

Day 9: The Scene of the Battle

Well, later that Tuesday morning I finally got on that bus to the historic Civil War battle site of Gettysburg. The journey took several hours through some beautiful Pennsylvania countryside. It was raining when we arrived in the little town of Gettysburg, so I checked into a motel, took a hot shower and got some much-needed sleep.

Day 10: With the Rebel Army

Wednesday morning was clear, so I spent the day wandering around the various sites. One of my first stops was the Chamber of Commerce. A lady there gave me a map and a whispered suggestion. Circling a wooded area that had been a Confederate encampment, she said that it wasn't really allowed, but that I could probably get away with camping there for a bit. So that afternoon I went out to the Rebel woods and found a good spot, hidden yet close to civilization. I recalled the story of my great-grandfather who was but a teenager with the Confederate Army at Vicksburg. He told my grandfather about propping a Rebel uniform with sticks and holding it up from the trenches for the Yankees to shoot at. Luckily, he was eventually captured and released to go home. I wasn't troubled by any spirits that night, though one could almost make out the scent of campfires and Dixie whispering in the wind.

And so ends part one of my journey across America. Join me for part two as I continue my adventure south to Texas.

Image: Ralph in a Pittsburgh bus station photo booth in the middle of the night. Photo by Ralph Pearce
Image: Ralph in a Pittsburgh bus station photo booth in the middle of the night. Photo by Ralph Pearce

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