You don’t see that many people hitch hiking these days. Certainly not like in the late ‘50s and ‘60s when I was doing it as a matter of necessity. Where we lived up in Whistler, BC you see quite a bit because we have many young people from all over the world who come to work in the resort. Many do not have cars and hitch back and forth to work. Of course, it’s a closed community with only one road in and out so it’s pretty safe. I will pick up these kids unless they are wearing their trousers at half-mast, have their baseball cap on sideways or are carrying a skateboard. I know. So shoot me.
Back in 1959 when I went off to Cornell I frequently hitch hiked back and forth to my home in Buffalo. Generally it wasn’t much of a problem to get a ride, but that was before well-publicized abductions and car-jackings came into vogue. And, before 24-hour news channels came into being. In 1960-61 I put my thumb to the test in what turned out to be about 10,000 miles of hitch hiking around the US. I had good luck and bad on the road and certainly some bizarre experiences. Before getting into all that, maybe a little background.
I went off to college at 17 and was quite naive. Public high school had been great fun and not too difficult but, Cornell was another matter. I figured everyone there was smarter and better prepared than me. I had to work my ass off to catch up and survive academically. It was also necessary to work for my food since it became clear early on that this college thing would be a self-financed deal. On top of all that I had no idea what I really wanted to do with my life. In short, I was a confused young man. I quit my job two weeks before the end of the term to study for my finals. My roommate had flunked out already and I knew he was a Hell of a lot smarter than me. (You know it’s true Laddie). Of course, that cut off my meals and being broke I subsisted on wheat germ mixed with sugar that I stole from the cafeteria… and lots of coffee.
Returning to Bay View I found out that my Mother had run off with the guy who would become husband #3 of an eventual four. My stepfather had become bitter and more ornery than usual over this turn of events and I found it impossible to live with him. So I spent the summer with my good friend Bill living in his family’s cottage on Lake Erie. We both worked at a nearby beach as lifeguards and spent the summer in a blissful bachelor existence. During the long evenings in the beach house I discovered that Bill, who was in his second year at Kent State, felt as disillusioned with college and vague about his future as me. Over the course of the summer we agreed that we should both take a leave of absence from college and hitch hike around the country. Our goal was (at least mine) to “grow up” and see what the world had to offer. The universal opinion on this plan seemed to be that we were “ruining our lives.” We went anyway.
When the beach closed for the summer we each shouldered a Navy sea bag and headed south. To make good our escape and get clear of Buffalo, we took a bus to Pittsburgh. From there we hitched in the rain to Washington, DC.
After a night in a cheap motel we spent 15 hours the next day going 300 miles. Following a pleasant night in Lucy Nathan’s Tourist Home in Raleigh, ten minutes of hitching got us a 700 mile ride to Leesburg, FL where things once again went dead. It was the middle of the night with no one on the road. When the cops came by the third time, they invited us to sleep in their brand new jail. We accepted. I must say I was a little nervous when they took our ID and locked us in, and I was relieved when they let us out in the morning. Not as nice as Lucy’s but, certainly better than sleeping in the ditch with the snakes. The next day several rides took us to Miami.
In hitch hiking you never know what the day will bring. Often you can stand on a likely spot for hours with no luck. Or, you will get rides of short distances and get dropped off in the middle of nowhere. And then suddenly you will catch a ride of hundreds of miles with someone who is going exactly where you want to go. It’s totally random.
In Miami Bill and I set up housekeeping in a one room apartment near the Orange Bowl and started looking for work and sailboats to sign on as crew. At a local shipyard we found that we could sign on as crew and do the dirty work that the union guys did not want to do anyway. We spent our days sweating in the sun chipping and painting anchor chain and doing other grunt work. It paid the rent and kept us in beer. We found an opportunity to get on the yacht “Holiday” owned by the Squirt Company. That chance kept moving around and getting delayed so, (impatient me) signed on with the “Brigantine Yankee”. Bill waited it out for months but finally got to make some great trips on the “Holiday” that took him all through the Caribbean, up the coast to Acapulco and on to California. We both got what we were looking for, I guess.
I made two hitching expeditions to Rollins College in Orlando where my good friend Pete was a student. On my second visit we drove back to Buffalo together for Christmas. The Yankee was undergoing renovations below decks at the time.
Returning to Miami I rejoined the Yankee and stayed until early April. I knew it was time to try to earn some money if I wanted to go back to school, so the brilliant plan was to hitch hike to Alaska where, I had read, opportunities to make big bucks abounded. I had joined up on this leg of the adventure with a fellow named, Rip Bliss who had been a fellow deck hand on the Yankee. The trip would be complicated by the fact that Rip had no money. Thus, our sleeping arrangements on the long jaunt from Miami to Chicago and LA were on various occasions: An orange grove; a tomato hot house; a railway car and the odd field. We also relied on the kindness of strangers.
We often got picked up by religious types and were invited to their services. We always accepted for the pitch usually included a meal. I attended in my year of travels; Lutheran, Methodist, Catholic, Mormon and even Jewish services. I regarded it as a broadening of my understanding of my fellow man.
Our goal was to hitch hike the length of Route 66 which stretched from Chicago to Los Angeles. As usual we had good and bad luck and we met some interesting characters along the way. One day after spending all night trying to get out of Springfield, MO (and searched by cops three different times) we got a ride from a guy who owned a cave…. as in tourist attraction cavern. He gave us a free tour of the caverns lunch and a ride back to Rt. 66. We struggled to get to Tulsa and then got a long ride to Ft. Sumner, NM where we slept in a railroad car.
The next day we got picked up immediately by a WAC (as in female Army) who took us all the way to Rip’s home in Carpinteria, CA. – 1000 miles or so. Now every guy who’s ever stood by the side of the road with his thumb out has fantasized about being picked up by a sexy female. Our female did not inspire lustful thoughts. She did, however, stop every 100 miles or so and buy another six-pack.
After a couple of days of food and rest at Rip’s home we continued our journey up to Seattle and arrived (both of us at this point) pretty much broke. The Alaska thing would have to wait. Funny thing… I never have made it up there. We needed jobs quickly and after getting turned down by the smoke jumpers, hooked on with the Forest Service with their Pine Shoot Moth Survey. The purpose: To discover the extent of infestation of the pine shoot moth in the ornamental shrubs in various communities in Western Washington. They were worried that these critters would get into the commercial timber and raise Hell.
This job had one advantage and one major drawback, the latter being, we would not get our first paycheck for a month. The advantage was we would be paid per diem while we traveled around the state. At least we would eat and have a place to sleep. This worked fine for a couple of weeks until they discovered I had one semester of Entomology and other science courses. I got yanked off the road and brought in to run the lab and manage the office. I also got to live in the office located in an abandoned lumber warehouse. I slept on a half-couch with my feet propped up on a folding chair. I kept milk cold by plugging the bathroom sink and running the water slowly. I salvaged a hot plate and a couple of pans and for amusement trapped mice.
I was desperately low on cash when I got a well-traveled letter from Jack Alexander, a guy who had come aboard the Yankee as a guest. He wanted me to call him about a job. When I called, he offered to send me a round trip plane ticket to Minnesota to look it over. I was suspicious. It sounded too good to be true. On the other hand, what did I have to lose? Besides, I had never been on a commercial flight and, I was extremely tired of my own meager meal plan. I had never experienced luxury like that jet flight to Minneapolis and back! The job involved ostensibly working for the family owned Cold Spring Granite Company, then the largest in the World. But, the real job was playing big brother to his young sons, aged 13 and 9. His wife was a wheelchair bound MS patient and he traveled all the time. He wanted me to spend the summer with the boys at their lake cottage and teach them swimming, sailing, gymnastics and anything else constructive I could think of. The money, with food and lodging included, would be generous enough to enable me to go back to Cornell. It was a summer job that I would do for the next three summers and always included an extensive canoe trip into the border wilderness between Manitoba and Ontario at the beginning of each summer.
That first year as the summer wound down Bill hitch-hiked up from Southern California and we spent a few days at the lake before hitching together back to Buffalo. Thus we finished the trip as we had begun a year before…. Standing together at the side of the road with our thumbs out.