A Ton of Bricks
It was late afternoon on a warm June day that I departed my cousin's house on Crestmont Drive in El Paso, Texas. I strapped on my backpack, picked up a cardboard tube of artwork and a box for cousins in Tucson, and headed off down the street. I wound up catching a ride on the back of a brick truck headed for Las Cruces, New Mexico. As I threw my backpack up onto the truck, I winced as I suddenly remembered that I'd packed two of my cousin Sandi's ceramic bowls inside. I then climbed up on top of the bricks (with the art tube and package), then held on tight to a rope as we began driving down the highway, the wind in my hair and the desert sun low on the horizon. Goodbye cousins. Goodbye Lisa. Goodbye job at the pizza parlor...
Well, this rather romantic departure didn't last long, as the truck suddenly fell to one side and I was watching sparks fly from a rear tire as I held tight to the rope. We pulled over and the guys climbed out of the cab shaking their heads. The truck had two tires on each side, however only one on each side held air and now one of those had just blown out. The guys said that they were out of spares, so it was time to put my thumb out again. I made it to Tucson, Arizona, by around 9 PM that night and slept off the side of the road not far from a gas station.
In the morning, I called my cousin Joe from the gas station. He came out and we visited for a bit and then I left him with the package from cousin Sandi (his sister). From there I caught a ride to Phoenix where I was cited by a cop for trying to hitchhike from a freeway. He was friendly though, and gave me a ride to where I could legally put out my thumb. That worked out well, as my next ride was with a guy in an early 1960s Corvair. This was pretty cool, as the car resembled the Corvette in the tv show Route 66 and we were actually only about 100 miles south of the old route.
A Cold Shower
I rode with the guy in the Corvair to Los Angeles, and then caught a ride with some guys in a station wagon going from Louisiana to Santa Barbara. They had the rear seat down, so we were stretched out in back. Because of this, I lost track of the art tube and forgot to get it when I got out of the car. Oh well, goodbye large watercolor and art from my cousins. It was getting dark by this time, so I staked out some hedges against a school building not far from the highway. Not long after getting comfortably settled in, I was suddenly dislodged by an automatic sprinkler system. I trudged over to a rather grungy gas station restroom and changed out of my soaked shirt and pants. Still in my somewhat damp underwear, I decided to go ahead and see if I could hitch another ride.
Born to be Mild
I was soon offered a ride and as I got in I saw that the driver was a plump, middle-aged man with an open shirt and gold necklace. He pulled onto the freeway, then soon asked if I was interested in buying drugs. Why on Earth did I get into that car in the first place, but then why on Earth did I do a lot things? Anyway, I declined the offer of drugs and he let me out at the next exit. I spotted a coffee shop and decided to hang out there for a while. I eventually headed back out into the night and stuck my thumb out once again.
I was soon offered a ride by kind of a young hippie couple. They said that they couldn't take me very far, but that I was welcome to spend the night at their place. They shared a house with others and once inside they encouraged me to get out of my wet clothes. They proceeded to undress themselves and said that they were cool with being nude and continued to encourage me to disrobe. While I would have been more comfortable being dry, I was just too shy and so I slept on the couch in my semi-damp underwear.
The morning of the third day found me still in the area of Santa Barbara. My next ride would be another odd one. This friendly young fellow picked me up and then offered to get me back to San Jose if I gave him whatever money I had on me. As I recall, I gave him all the money I had except for the $65 in emergency money that my dad had loaned me. As we travelled up the coast, he began going into churches while I waited in the car, presumably to ask for gas money. We made it to Salinas by early evening, and then he told me that was as far as he could take me. Though he was going back on his word, I'd already come to realize that he was a scammer, and I was just as happy to part ways.
An Evening with Tom Lehrer
Standing on the side of the road as the sun was setting over Salinas, I was offered a ride by an older fellow. He said that he lived nearby and that I could stay the night if I wanted. He said that he knew that there was some risk in picking up random strangers, but that he didn't have long to live and just wanted some company. He cooked us a steak dinner and we spent an enjoyable evening listening to Tom Lehrer records.
No Place Like Home
On the fourth day of my journey from El Paso to San Jose, I got a ride from Salinas to Highway 101 and Tully Road. Heading west on Tully Road, my final ride said that since I was so close to home, he'd just give me a ride to my doorstep. I can't remember what day I returned, but it was early June, approximately two months after beginning my cross-country excursion. Arriving home I felt a weight off my shoulders, and it wasn't just the weight of my backpack. It was very good to be home.
Forty-Four Years Later
Looking back at my trip all these years later, it's sometimes hard to believe that was me. But I can still remember the feeling of the open road, the kindnesses of those that I met along the way, and joy of returning home. I realize now that there are smarter ways of accomplishing the same goals (that don't involve hitchhiking!), however I'm grateful for the experience and having emerged from it safely.
In Gratitude: I began writing about my 1978 trip in the last email conversation that I had with my cousin Billy before he passed away in 2010. I dedicate these posts to those who offered rides and hospitality. I give my heartfelt thanks to my cousins the Casillas family, Jim Gates in Grinnell, Iowa, and the Maxwell family Don, Gloria, Pam, and Anita in Minooka, Illinois who I have just recently reconnected with.