ONE MORNING in September 1973 -- when I was 21 years old and in the middle of a months-long hitchhiking adventure -- I was dropped at a deserted spot in an unfamiliar wooded countryside somewhere between the Pacific Ocean and Corvallis, Oregon.
This was my first visit to Oregon, and I had been hoping for a late summer nude-beaches-and-wild-berries kind of experience, perhaps an uncrowded version of California, where I had just spent several glorious but buzzy weeks. Instead, from the moment I'd crossed over the Oregon border the skies had been gray and hovering. After a few days I had come to feel like I was trapped in a room with an abnormally low ceiling and bad lighting; I suspected that this room was beautifully painted, but I sure couldn't see much of it. I had managed to avoid getting caught out in any of the abundant showers, but I was cold all the time nonetheless.
Now, after a half-hour at the side of this untrafficked road somewhere vaguely near Corvallis, drops of rain began to peck at my cheeks and to leave dark damp splat marks on the backpack at my feet. Sensing in the air the momentary calm that precedes a cloudburst, I bent down, grabbed my pack and began scanning for cover -- but where? -- when the skies unleashed a barrage of what seemed like water balloons that smashed down onto the pavement and the grass all around me...
And then suddenly -- What's this! -- an enormous flatbed truck appeared out of the downpour and rumbled to a stop two feet from my elbow. Somehow I hadn't registered its approach -- it had sneaked up over a nearby rise, and the noise of the downpour had drowned out the noise of the truck's engine. I did, however, register the beautiful young hippie woman wedged between the two less-notable, less-young hippie guys inside the cab. A ponytailed fellow cranked down the near window and called out the magic words:
"Hey, brother! You can ride in back. Just throw aside that tarp and climb on in!"
A monstrous tarp was rigged over a large wooden framework that had been built above the truck's bed, forming a kind of...yurt? I hustled to the rear, lifted the tarp's flap, and hoisted my pack...
I hadn't expected help, but now several sets of hands shot out of the yurt's interior darkness and snatched my pack from me... Other hands latched onto my forearms and shoulders... and suddenly I was up, airborne... and then in!
"Welcome home, brother!" a male voice said from the darkness inside the yurt, no more than a foot from my ear. The truck lurched, roared, and then we were moving...
My eyes adjusted and I saw a rough circle of some fifteen people splayed out on dozens of cushions and pillows. I heard Spanish being spoken. The guy next to me -- the brother who had welcomed me home -- was black and wore a red bandana over his head. Rucksacks were piled everywhere. Off to one side of the circle a man and a woman were entwined under blankets, moaning gently. A woman across the circle from me smiled and said, "Where you headed, traveler?"
"Portland," I said, with no conviction, and with no expectation that my answer actually mattered. Part of the beauty of the age was the common understanding that none of us had a clue where we were really headed. Sixty seconds earlier I had been bending down to grab my pack, scanning for shelter in a countryside I'd never seen before... Now rain blasted the tarp overhead, but I was warm and dry, and that was all that really mattered. I noticed the amber glow of a joint being passed my way.
A guy leaned over from his spot nearby and handed me a tambourine. "Hey, man," he said. "I'm headed to Portland -- far out!"
The man in the red bandana grasped my free hand and wrapped my fingers around the neck of a gallon jug: "Ever taste homemade dandelion wine, bro?"
It was not yet 11 a.m.
I thought: "So this is Oregon!"
A guitar was strummed, a conga drum was thumped upon, and suddenly I was wiggling the tambourine and all of us were singing Neil Young: "Old man, take a look at my life..."
For the next hour or two or three we rode and sang and talked (somewhere in there I had a nap, too). The driver, I was told, was a disabled Vietnam vet who'd had a leg and several fingers blown off during the war; he now received an $800 government check each month (which, combined with his freedom, made him the richest person I'd ever met), and he chose to spend it while driving around the country, picking up hitchhikers and going wherever the road and the wind and the music and the pot and the homemade dandelion wine took him. Oh, those were the days, my friend. We thought they'd never end...
DURING THE NEXT FEW YEARS I saw my fair share of places -- I repeatedly thumbed my way across America, and I also circled the globe three times (hitchhiking only occasionally). But in the late 1970s Ted Bundy serial-killer/slasher stories swept the highways and byways, and the hordes of comrades with whom I had so recently clogged every freeway onramp disappeared almost overnight. Ronald Reagan brought a new mood to America, and now it always came as something of a jolt, a flashback, to see even one hitchhiker -- and he (solo women hitchhikers, never numerous, were now emphatically extinct) always looked like some poor guy on a thirty-year bummer.
By January 1988 I was living in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, a wannabe writer, but in fact an unemployed cab driver. Friends up in Seattle had a new baby I'd not seen, and I decided to pay them a visit. I could easily have flown -- I had a little money saved -- but instead I decided to hitchhike. I'd been Off the Road for several years now and recently I'd grown wistful about the 60s and 70s, the golden age of hitchhiking in the USA -- and I was beginning to wonder what it was like out there nowadays. Did anyone still pick up hitchhikers?
ON A THURSDAY MORNING in late January I phoned a friend in Mt. Shasta City in far northern California and got the o.k. to spend that night on the floor in front of her wood stove. Next I phoned my Seattle friends with the new baby and told them to expect me the following evening, Friday.
It was two-thirty -- a crisp but sunny winter afternoon -- and I had $205 cash in my pocket when yet another friend did me the favor of driving me one hour north of San Francisco to drop me near Vacaville. I felt fairly presentable as I took up my spot on the shoulder; a decade earlier I had lopped off my own mid-back ponytail, and now wore shortish hair, a trim beard, clean corduroy jeans, and a new LL Bean sweater. Nonetheless, vehicles clipped right on by at the rate of about fifteen per minute (I counted). Hondas, Fords, eighteen-wheelers -- many of them with Oregon, Washington, and even Alaska plates -- blew past me and my magic-marker-on-cardboard sign --"SHASTA" -- as though I were invisible.
The hippie vans stuffed with freaks had disappeared, and even the possibility of a flatbed truck with a yurtful of hippies on its back had gone with them. The vans of the 1980s -- flashy combinations of chrome and dark-tinted portholes -- were steered by retirees with eyes locked on the centerline.
An hour and ten minutes (and more than a thousand vehicles) passed before a blue Chevy hatchback pulled over. Back in the 'good old days' maybe one ride in fifty came from a woman traveling alone. And those women were rarely as lovely as this one.
Carol was blond and slim and had big brown eyes that asked, "You Won't Hurt Me, Will You?" Ten miles down the road I asked why she had picked me up. "You were dressed neat. And you've got a backpack and a sign -- like you're actually going somewhere."
"So the sign helped?" It was always a point of debate among hitchhikers: Some felt that a sign legitimized you, others thought it scared off the long rides, those on-the-fence drivers who might be going to Seattle but didn't want to host a hitchhiker the entire way.
"Yeah," she said. "The sign helped."
Carol was 29 years old, grew up in Indiana the fourth of six kids, lived now in Palo Alto, and was on her way to visit her 22-year old boyfriend in Chico. We had in common that we had both spent the month of May 1984 wandering around Japan (that had been my most recent hitching experience), and by the time she let me out at Orland, 100 miles down the freeway, we'd become fond of each other. I like to think.
THERE WAS BARELY any traffic on the Orland onramp, so, in veteran hitchhiker fashion, I ignored the PEDESTRIANS PROHIBITED sign, walked down to the freeway, and stood flashing my sign and watching the setting sun lob glittery, crimson- and tangerine-colored streamers across the backs of the Coast Range mountains. An hour's worth of Suzuki Samurais and Winnebagos swished past. A fingernail clipping of new moon popped out. I pulled on a second sweater and thought of Carol. A pickup truck stopped. I ran after it, tossed my pack in the bed, opened the cab door. The driver was a happy looking farm boy, burly, wearing a Caterpillar baseball cap and a red 49ers windbreaker.
"Hey pal, I'm going to Shasta," he said in a voice brimming with cheer. "Want to make twenty bucks on the way?"
I imagined myself navigating, shelling a sack of local Orland almonds, or maybe licking a batch of envelopes. "How would I do that?"
He proposed an entirely different sort of licking.
I snatched my pack from the bed of the pickup. "See 'ya." He drove off looking happily undaunted.
Before I'd had even two minutes to process that bit of weirdness (what if I'd been a twelve-year old? or a woman? or less than six feet tall?) a car swung quickly from the fast lane over to the shoulder with its brakes screaming. It kicked up gravel and a storm of dust and came to a halt about thirty feet short of me. Even in the darkness I noticed the rack of lights on top.
"Step over here. I need to see some I.D."
During the good old days I had received a handful of warnings, never a ticket, but Robert L. Cook of the California Highway Patrol just started writing me up.
"Are you sure you don't want to just give me a warning?" I asked.
"Here's your warning: If you're not off the freeway when I pass back by here in five minutes you'll be on your way to the Glenn County jail. Sign here." It was a full-fledged ticket with a hefty fine (which was waived months later, after I spent a day in traffic school).
The Orland exit had two motels, two gas stations, a bar with yet another black-and-white highway patrol car parked out front, and almost no traffic. A cold wind had kicked up. I stood for another hour, watching the steady river of traffic surge past on the freeway 100 yards distant, and lecturing myself: "The sixties are over. You're no kid any more. You're 36 years old. You should know better. Forget this. Get a motel room, watch TV. In the morning catch the bus back to San Francisco and find yourself a job..."
A motor home pulled over and stopped ten feet away. I've hitched with big rigs before, I've hitched with pickup and flatbed and bread delivery trucks before, and even with motorcycles, but no motor home had ever opened its door to me before. Yet here was a pleasant gray-haired gentleman named Jack Thompson, smiling and nodding at me from behind the wheel.
"I hardly ever pick up hitchhikers, maybe one a year, but you looked awfully cold."
I quickly pled guilty to that one.
"My friends all call me 'Smorgy Jack'," he told me as we got to know each other. "That's the name of the restaurant I ran in Chico for fifteen years -- Smorgy Jack's." For the next two and a half hours Jack told stories: at 14 he had lied his way into the Army; in World War II he had been General MacArthur's personal mess sergeant; later he had made and lost a million dollars in real estate. By nine-thirty I was in Mt. Shasta City, sitting in front of my friend's wood stove, feet up, telling stories of my own.
THE NEXT MORNING, with a new sign - "SEATTLE" -- I stood on the freeway for half an hour, poised to duck behind an abutment if I spotted another cop. But I quickly caught a ride with 21-year old Brian, who was driving an orange 1973 VW bug from Modesto to his parents' home in Roseburg, Oregon. During his senior year Brian had gained 850 yards rushing for his high school football team, and he had spent the year after that traveling in Australia and New Zealand; I countered with college basketball, and India and Nepal.
By the time Brian let me out in Roseburg I had covered 500 miles in three rides and felt a new confidence. It was legal to hitchhike in Oregon -- "We call it the Right-to-Get-Around State," Brian said.
THE FELLOW WHO picked me up in Roseburg and took me to Eugene had just completed his weekly visit to the veterans' hospital in Roseburg. One side of his head was shaved (punk styling? electroshock?) and he said he had been involved in "that helicopter thing in Iran."
"Where were the helicopters stationed?"
"On a big ship."
"Where was the ship stationed?"
"Out in one of them damned oceans."
He drove 80 miles an hour and wondered aloud "whether I should put my new air scoop under the hood or up top with an extension. What would you say?"
From Eugene to Albany (near Albany I noted the turnoff west toward Corvallis and the coast and the spot where the Vietnam vet and his traveling circus had rescued me a decade and a half earlier) I rode with a man who was writing a screenplay about beings from a superior civilization coming to Earth and inhabiting the bodies of whales in an attempt to save mankind. He played a tape of the singing group "The Bobs" and we both guffawed at this lyric: "First I was a hippie, then I was a stockbroker, now I am a hippie again..."
From Albany I caught rides with a welder with three bags of shotgun shells lying on the seat between us; a carpenter popping the top on a "just-got-off-work, hope-you-don't-mind" Friday afternoon Budweiser; and finally a ride to Portland from a friendly productivity consultant who drove a new yellow Mercedes and whose wife had done Lifespring and had studied Advanced Neurolinguistic Programming.
It was six o'clock and the sun had set when I reached Portland. From a pay phone I called the friends in Seattle. "I'll be admiring your baby in three hours," I told them, in a voice brimming with swagger. "I'm going to walk down to the freeway and catch one ride right to your front door."
It was drizzling in Portland. Traffic was heavy, and the noise at the side of the wet road was the noise of a waterfall in springtime. Several cars honked at me (I never have figured out what that means: We're moving too fast to stop? Hey, wasn't that Brad? Get a job?), but no one stopped.
I thought about the eight rides I'd had since San Francisco, and how the country had changed in the past few years. It certainly seemed more sober. None of my eight benefactors had offered me a joint, and only the carpenter had been drinking, and he'd had just the one beer (as far as I knew). Three of them had been divorced, two had never been married, one was still in love with his first wife even after thirty-five years with his second. Most had been friendly and had interesting, even believable, stories to tell. There had been the random pervert near Orland, and the quick-draw police officer, but they were behind me now and no longer seemed so dramatic. I felt that the past two days had answered and satisfied my original curiosity: Stand by the road prepared to take what you get, and you'll probably be pleasantly surprised. People driving cars still get bored with themselves, still can't resist the urge to hear a good story or try their best to tell their own. From now until forever there will probably be someone to pick you up. The country is mostly full of decent people, whose greatest common denominator is that they're all worried sick about the economy.
All I needed now was one great last ride to bring me in... Who would it be...? You in the Volkswagen bus...? No! How about you in the Volkswagen bug...? No! How about...you in the Winnebago -- I was in one yesterday, you know! No! Well, how about you over there...? Or you...?
I'd been standing there for two hours -- moisture starting to wick all the way through to my skin -- when I saw the toplight on an approaching taxicab and my arm automatically shot up. (I'm long been convinced that every good story must have a taxicab in it.) The driver saw me and managed to pull off the road 100 yards past me...
As I climbed in, I said the words that are sweet music to any cabdriver's ear: "Airport, please."
You can still hitchhike these days, but it doesn't hurt to have a couple of tricks tucked into your wallet. With my American Express card I charged a seat on the evening's last flight to Seattle. By midnight I had seen my friends' darling new, soundly-sleeping baby, and was sitting, feet up, next to another wood stove, and feeling pretty proud of myself.
(I began writing this story in January 1988, just a month before I got a call from New York one euphoric morning, informing me that my first book "All the Right Places" would soon be published.)