Memories of a Retired Hitchhiker

Susie and I are at Kafé Kerouac, a coffee house/bar named for the patron saint of hitchhiking, Jack Kerouac, at the moment.  (Kerouac’s 90th birthday would have been on the 12th of this month, but, unfortunately, he drank himself to death in 1969, aged 47.)  She and I are in the front room, and pages from the first several chapters of Kerouac’s opus, On the Road, adorn the north wall.

The north wall at Kafé Kerouac, decorated with pages from On the Road.

Something that brought the long-moribund subject of hitchhiking to my mind was seeing that one of my Facebook friends was listening to Vanity Fare’s “Hitchin’ a Ride” on Spotify.  I’ve been in an advanced and rapidly progressing state of ennui lately, which is one of the reasons for the paucity of blog entries.  (I deleted two previous entries after only writing a sentence or two, so I’m hoping to get myself back on track by writing in here tonight.)

I should preface what follows by saying that my hitchhiking days are far behind me.  I haven’t done it since the summer of 1989, and I am sure that it’s more dangerous now than when I was a teenager and a young adult.  (It’s never been 100% safe.  When my thumb was my primary mode of transportation, it horrified some of my high school friends.  I still remember one of my classmates looking at me, slack-jawed, and saying, “Paul!  You’re going to get your head blown off!” when I casually mentioned I would be thumbing to Athens–a distance of about 48 miles.)

The first time I hitchhiked, it was not my idea, and I was far from enthusiastic about doing it.  It was in August 1979, and it was a relatively short trip.  I was 16 years ago, and I was traveling to OPIK ’79, a regional Liberal Religious Youth conference.  (OPIK–rhymes with topic–was an acronym for Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Kentucky.  In 1979, it took place in Michigan, for reasons too complex to explain here.)  I had been on the bus from Columbus since noon on Saturday, August 18 (the conference began the next day) with a young woman from Columbus named Suzanne, who was also headed to OPIK.  We arrived in Kalamazoo around midnight, and no one at the conference site was answering.  (OPIK ’79 took place at Circle Pines Center in Delton, which was about 25 miles away in Barry County.)  So, since we were marooned at the closed Greyhound station for the night, we sat on our suitcases most of the night, talked, ate date bars, and I read, wrote in my diary, and tried in vain to sleep, using my windbreaker as a blanket and my typewriter case as a pillow.

Morning came, and we splurged on a big breakfast in the Time Table Inn, the bus station’s restaurant, tried Circle Pines Center again, and finally Suzanne heaved a sigh and said, “Well, let’s hitch.”  This was long before the days of Google Earth and GPS systems, so we roamed around a bit before we found M-89 West, the road that led from Kalamazoo to Delton.  Once we found that, a friendly guy in his 20s named Stephen gave us a ride straight to Circle Pines’ parking lot.  I was happy to add a new experience to my résumé–hitchhiking–but my first order of business was to find a cot.  When I found one, I immediately collapsed fully clothed, shoes and all.

This experience emboldened me, and when I got back to Marietta, I talked the ears off anyone who asked me how I spent my summer.  I managed to resist the temptation to embellish the trip beyond the 25 miles from Kalamazoo to Delton, yet the account caused many to further question my sanity.

For the remaining three years I lived in Marietta, I overcompensated for my earlier reluctance to hitchhike. It was analogous to someone overcoming a lifelong fear of water and the next day deciding to swim the English Channel.  (The concept of the golden mean remains totally foreign to me to this day.)  The following summer, I stuck my thumb out on State Route 550, destination Athens.  I had not thought to let my dad know where I was going when I left the house that Saturday morning.

I did not make it to Athens, but the reason for aborting the mission were truly in character.  On the way up 550, I encountered Carpenter’s Books, one of the most unusual bookstores I have encountered.  It was in a man’s garage, and the place was wall to wall, floor to ceiling loaded with books.  Carpenter also raised chickens and sold eggs–quite a juxtaposition.  I spent maybe $2 to $3, and came home with a large box full of paperbacks and hardcovers.  As usual, my choices ran the gamut from Gold Medal originals by writers like Peter Rabe and Richard S. Prather to odd volumes of Harvard Classics and Black’s Readers Service classics (The Works of Tolstoi and The Works of Doyle).

After some test runs to Athens, I made my first “big” trip in May of 1981, a month before I graduated from high school.  I was en route to Washington, D.C. for the biggest protest since the Vietnam era, protesting the military presence in El Salvador and the military buildup overall.  I took the bus as far as Cambridge, Ohio, and then set out on I-70.  I was dressed in jeans, a work shirt, and hiking boots, and I carried a small backpack–only enough room for a change of clothes, my diary, and a book or two.

I was buoyed by my success.  I made it to D.C. in three rides.  The longest was a driver who picked me up around Quaker City and took me as far as Hagerstown.  A second ride (by a contractor who was at Catholic U. the same time my dad was) got me to Gaithersburg, and a third ride dropped me off on M St. in Georgetown.  I had turned 18 earlier that week, which meant I was finally legal to drink beer.  And I marked the event in style.  I had my first legal beer at Clyde’s of Georgetown, which was the prototype for the gathering place in St. Elmo’s Fire.  Its lunchtime menu inspired Starland Vocal Band’s “Afternoon Delight.”  (Since I had just read William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist, I had searched in vain to find The Tombs, the bar where whiskey priest Damien Karras cries into his suds to a fellow priest about his lack of faith.)  I remember the polyglot conversations at the tables around me, and the pay phones in the rest room.  I spent the remainder of the night wandering around Washington, and buying The Washington Post as soon as it rolled off the presses.

Getting home was no fun.  I had a ride to the infamous Breezewood, Pa. from Silver Spring.  Breezewood is the “Town of Motels” just off the Pennsylvania Turnpike, eloquently described by Business Week in 1991 as “a polyp on the nation’s interstate highway system.”  I was stuck there for hours, so much so that if Breezewood is the first thing I see when I die, I will know beyond a doubt where I’ve gone.

I won’t list every journey I made by thumb, but the memorable one came in the spring of 1982, when my LRY friend John (whom I met at the aforementioned OPIK ’79) came to visit me in Marietta.  Going to all of Marietta’s points of interest does not take long, even with a trip across the river to the Fenton Art Glass plant in Williamstown.  Bored, John and I were doing the “What do you wanna do?”  “I dunno–what do you wanna do?” thing, when I said, in jest, “Let’s hitch to D.C.”  The next several hours consisted my burning up the phone lines to find friends of friends (multiplied ad infinitum in the D.C. area where we could sleep.  The calls started at the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Washington office, and became quite hydra-headed.)  Both of us owned Paul Dimaggio’s The Hitchhiker’s Field Manual, and we had both read our copies to tatters, since it had become a weird kind of Bible for both of us.  During the journey, whenever we argued over where to stand on the road, Dimaggio’s word was law.

Our name for the trip was the “Nobody Said It Was Easy” tour.  Nobody said hitchhiking was easy, this is true, but the song “Nobody Said It Was Easy (Lookin’ for the Lights)”, by the Louisiana band Le Roux, seemed to be on the radio or tape deck of every car picking us up.  In Bethesda, we hopped a Metro bus that put us in Dupont Circle.  John and I were both tired and cross from the long journey and inadequate nutrition, and John was skeptical of my claims that we had made it.  I was vindicated when the escalator in the Dupont Circle Metro station brought us to street level.  I nudged John.  “What?” he said testily.  Without a word, I pointed at the lighted dome of the Capitol.

My final hitchhike was from Cincinnati to Columbus in 1989, illegally, since I used Interstate 71 the entire way.  Not a memorable trip.  In my journal, I wrote about it in two sentences, and devoted pages more to the subsequent visit with Adam Bradley.
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