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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Meandered to St. Louis and Back

The last time I was in St. Louis was in June 1993.  I went with a Cincinnati friend who had an interview at St. Louis University Law School, so I came along to see my old friend John Bilgere.  We saw firsthand the Great Mississippi and Missouri Rivers Flood of 1993 during the trip, watching the Mississippi River running wild and viewing a completely flooded Laclede’s Landing from the observation deck in the Gateway Arch.

The most recent journey to St. Louis just ended.  Due to modem issues, I was unable to post contemporaneous entries, so now that I’m back at home, I can recount the highlights of the trip.  I took pictures (officially christening my new Kodak EasyShare C143), wrote diary entries, and jotted down notes throughout the entire time I was on the road.

I’ve logged literally tens of thousands of miles on Greyhound since I was a teenager, but this was my first trip anywhere on Megabus.  I have seen their brightly painted blue and yellow double-decker buses downtown and around the Ohio State campus, so I finally decided to try them for this long overdue trip–the first time I have seen John since 2001.

Megabus is not for the impatient traveler.  Besides the reduced price, I thought it would be fun to take a circuitous route to St. Louis.  I have hitchhiked there (from Marietta, in the summer of 1981), and once did a ride-share with someone going from Cincinnati to Kansas City, but otherwise have gone by Greyhound.  All involved straight shots down Interstate 70.

Not this time.  When Megabus emailed me my confirmation and my schedule, I saw that I would be going to St. Louis by way of Cincinnati, Indianapolis, and Chicago.  Never take a child who says “Are we there yet?” on a Megabus.

I enjoyed the trip thoroughly.  This was the first time I had ever ridden in the upper deck of a double-decker, and I was amused that I, at 5’8¾”, was almost too tall to stand up straight in the aisle.  I felt like I was being carried in a sedan chair as the bus climbed north up High St. through the Short North and the Ohio State area, just as the bars and nightclubs were starting to get busy.

Megabus passengers, at least from what I’ve seen on this little safari, are much more polite than the ones I’ve experienced in my many trips on Greyhound.  If someone had an MP3 player, the volume was low.  Cell phone conversations were in stage whispers.  I was able to doze, write, and read without interruption.  This was a far cry from my 1987 bus trip to California, when four or five guys (whom I knew by sight from O.U.) weren’t happy that the bus was quiet, and decided to serenade everyone by loudly playing the theme from The Andy Griffith Show on their kazoos.

One way Megabus keeps their prices so low is that they have no physical ticket counter and no bus stations.  I picked up the bus Saturday night at the corner of N. High St. and Nationwide Blvd., and, as dawn was breaking, our bus came to a stop on S. Canal St. in downtown Chicago, near Union Station.  It was a warm morning, but I would have had to take shelter in Union Station itself had it been cold or rainy.

There was a billboard on the garage across the street.  Advertising deals on a new condominium  in downtown Chicago, it said, It would suck to miss this!  The same could be said for Megabus, especially if you’re between buses.

The layover was not a boring one.  As I stepped off the bus, I saw a police officer putting two sawhorses across Canal St. where it intersects Jackson Blvd., and saw people standing around on the sidewalk.  I explored the inside of Union Station for awhile, which didn’t take too long, since many areas were restricted to Amtrak ticket-holders only.

Once back outside, I saw that the street was blocked because of the third annual XSport Fitness Rock-N-Roll Mini-Marathon.  After hearing for years about the health-restoring power of running, whether jogging or all-out marathon racing, I become more and more committed to walking.  I took some pictures (both still and video) during the race, and I guess running is the origin of the expression “No pain, no gain.”  I watched the videos after I downloaded them onto the laptop, and almost everyone looks like they’re in agony.


Many people seem to be westbound this weekend.  When it was time to continue the trip, Megabus had two buses at the ready.  The Megabus coach was going straight to Kansas City, without taking on or dropping off any passengers anywhere else.  They called in a charter (not a Megabus) to take passengers who were going to St. Louis, and it was a direct trip south on Interstate 55, except for a lunch break in McLean, a village just outside the Bloomington-Normal city limits

Mike Nevins met me at Union Station on Market St. in St. Louis, when my bus arrived–on time.  He spoke about the condo where he will be living this fall.  (His wife died this spring, and he is moving from their house into a condominium that would accommodate a childless widower much more practically.)  Mike also presented me with a signed copy of Night and Fear, another posthumous collection of Cornell Woolrich’s short stories, which he edited and for which he wrote the introduction.  He gave me a brief tour of the Delmar Loop, which is “One of the 10 Great Streets in America,” according to a 2007 report by the American Planning Association.  I hadn’t been to the Delmar Loop since 1993, so it looked completely different than I remembered it.  (I was relieved to see that Vintage Vinyl, where I spent plenty of money on my 1993 trip–on everything from Dave Brubeck to Pink Floyd to Bach’s Mass in B Minor–is still alive and well.)

My friend John has changed significantly since I last saw him in 2001.  We met at a Unitarian youth conference, OPIK ’79, in August 1979 in Delton, Mich.  (OPIK–rhymes with topic–was an acronym for Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Kentucky, the states where most of the attendees lived.  The reason the 1979 conference took place in Michigan is a long story I will not go into here.)  I was 16 years old and full of piss and vinegar, and grateful to be away from my father, stepmother, and stepsisters, and meeting entirely new (to me) people.  John and I picked each other, almost by default, in a workshop where you were supposed to pair off with someone you didn’t know previously.  And we’ve been friends since.

John developed multiple sclerosis last year, and initially it was the relapsing and remitting variety, but now it seems to be more degenerative.  He is in a wheelchair, and is living in a skilled care facility a few blocks south of the Delmar Loop.  We caught up on our lives in the last decade, although we have filled the gaps by phone calls and correspondence–both by U.S. Mail and email–throughout.  I knew about his deteriorating physical condition, and he knew about the end of my marriage and my new life as a single father.  The place where he lives is more hospital than apartment, and he is grateful for chances to go out to physical therapy, doctor appointments, and visits with his family.  It was a far cry from the spring of 1982, when he came to visit me in Marietta and spoke of wanting to see Martha, the last Passenger Pigeon, who died at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914.  He had learned in school that Martha, thanks to the art of taxidermy, was at the Smithsonian Institution.

“Why don’t we go see her?” I asked.  I made a blizzard of phone calls, beginning with  friends at the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Washington Office, and found some generous friends of friends² who let us sleep in the living room of their D St. NE rowhouse.  The next morning, we marched out to U.S. 50 on the outskirts of Parkersburg and put out our thumbs.  That night, John saw the Capitol dome for the first time.

Our last road trip was the last time I saw him, in November 2001.  He, Rich, and I went down to Hodgenville, Kentucky and saw the site where Abraham Lincoln was born at Sinking Spring Farm.  (John is like me: Both of us have been to where Lincoln was born, and where he was assassinated and the room where he died–he for the first time on our 1982 hitchhiking trip–but not to Springfield, where Lincoln is buried.)

I restrained myself and did not buy anything at Vintage Vinyl, mainly because I wasn’t sure how I’d transport LPs.  As much as I love them, they are clumsy and would not fit in my backpack.  I filled a few pages in my notebook with titles of albums that struck my fancy, and explored the Loop until I walked down to Skinker Blvd. and walked to the MetroLink stop there.  (The MetroLink, St. Louis’ light-rail system, was not there during my previous visit.)  I rode the train to Union Station, and found I had several hours to kill before the 1:15 a.m. departure of my Megabus to Columbus (again via Chicago).  I decided to walk toward the Gateway Arch.

Even as I walked easterly toward the Arch, I was wondering how foolhardy this was.  I was worried that downtown St. Louis would be deserted on a Sunday night, even a warm summer Sunday night, and walking alone with a knapsack would broadcast “out of towner” to any potential thief.  For a block or so down Market St., I felt like a big red neon arrow was following me, but it turned out downtown was anything but deserted.  I knew the Arch would not be open, and I have made two or three trips inside on its tram to the observation deck, but I wanted to see it at night and get a few pictures.

The second of Taylor Swift’s two Scottrade Center concerts was last night, and I had to thread my way through the blocks-long crowd of concertgoers who were leaving.  Most of them were teenage girls, and younger, accompanied by their parents or other adults.  I felt a lot better than I did during my 1992 trip, when I ran into the crowds leaving a Danzig concert at the American Theater.  I saw quite a few kids ask their friends or parents to photograph them by Taylor Swift’s trucks, which were all decorated with the artwork from her current album, Speak Now.

A very small portion of the post-Taylor Swift crowd as they left the Scottrade Center.  Many were behind me when I took this picture, and the crowd (and the cars) stretched far beyond my range of vision.

The Taylor Swift crowd was much better behaved than the crowd leaving Busch Stadium, where the St. Louis Cardinals defeated the Colorado Rockies.  I’m glad there was enough down time between the two that the groups did not cross paths.

I slept most of the way northward on I-55 on the return trip.  I had seen the terrain during the trip the day before, and it was dark out, so there wasn’t much to see.  During my Chicago layover, I was amused by the juxtaposition between all the white- and blue-collar people pouring out of buses and Union Station to head to their jobs, and the excruciating, though comparatively carefree, hurrying and rushing of the runners on Sunday morning.

Once the bus was southbound on Interstate 65 toward Indianapolis, the driver got on the speaker and told us that we’d be heading straight to Columbus after Indianapolis, which meant a straight shot east on I-70.  I was pleased, because I knew that meant we’d pass through Henry County, where my stepmother’s parents lived after their retirement.  (During our visit in 1978, I decided to hike from their house in Spiceland to New Castle, nearly eight miles north on Indiana State Road 3.  I wasn’t feeling particularly energetic; I just wanted to get the hell away from everyone.)

The only diversion in the small town was watching teenage boys trying to puncture Spiceland’s water tower with their BB guns.  I guess we all need a Sisyphean task to make life truly worthwhile.  One time I actually heard a BB make contact with the water tower, and we all waited to hear the sound of water trickling.  (The BB bounced against the metal and flew off, of course, but what did we know of ballistics?)

I told John this story at another Unitarian youth conference, this one in Western Pennsylvania.  Years later, when he came to visit me in Columbus, he said he had a surprise for me.  It was a picture of the Spiceland water tower that he had taken on a previous journey on I-70!

Our Revels Are Ended…

When I was in elementary school, I knew a girl whose favorite car-trip activity was to hold a pad of paper in her lap and loosely clutch a pen in her hand, its point barely touching the paper.  She loved to make her own little seismograph chart as the car moved (rumble strips were loads of fun, I’m sure).

I played that game without meaning to while writing my “blog in the field” in the pocket diary that I packed at the last minute.  Here is my last entry, written when our bus crossed back to the Buckeye State from Wheeling.