Not quite 17 in the spring of 1965, foolish enough to believe I could do what every adult knew wasn’t possible, I fearlessly stuck my right thumb out to traffic all the way across America — well, not quite all the way — before the cops stopped me. Was I crazy or had guardian angels whispered that they’d come along and look out for me?
Crazy or Escorted by Angels?
Impulsive, willful, determined, I’d already run away — an act of rebellion that’s lost its meaning — more than once and quit high school, but looking back, my decision to hitchhike to California, hitting the road with less than $15 in my old blue jeans, seems as nuts as jumping in a vat of melted chocolate and expecting only the flavor.
The farthest I’d ever been from our home tucked under the Adirondack foothils in Upstate New York was on the twenty mile drive into Pennsylvania when, packed in Dad’s car with my brothers and sister, we piled out at the family farm where Dad grew up and where Grandma lived her entire adult life.
We were not, as a family, infected with white line fever. We stayed home.
Except, now, for me and as it had been for Mom (my destination) who I hadn’t set eyes in ten years, so long and under such distress I could no longer put her picture together reliably in my mind.
The dramas that led to our father’s becoming the world’s first Single Dad, at least as far as we knew, aren’t important here, other than that the calamity left my four siblings and me in a universe awash with strangeness and supressed sorrow.
A mamma’s boy at heart, an alien at school, isolated at home, I didn’t need much inspiraton to set out across the 3,000 mile gap between me and Mom in California.
I didn’t belong anywhere; so, wherever I landed was likely to be better.
Emboldened with the magnificent sum of $15 Mom sent in installments, lugging a rarely used suitcase I dug out from under abandoned debris in our attic, off I went on a bright and sunny spring day.
First, there was Joyce.
Joyce, the Girl I Pursuaded To Be My Left Behind
You may already ready concluded that Mom had spectacularly bad judgment, encouraging a sixteen year old to hitchhike from New York to California alone.
That’s what made her fun, but even in the less orderly America of 1965, it was a major gamble.
With very little cash, to be consistent in a familial way, I jumped off, inflated with a generous dose of foolishness all my own.
This had to do with Joyce, a girl a year older than me who had what we then callled a “bad reputation.”
I liked that about her.
After she repeatedly entered and exited my liife over the next year, I wondered if Joyce was a disguised guardian angel or just planted as an anchor linking me to stability and recklessness in a single package.
Under such deliberations are grand philosophies birthed… but not yet.
In May, 1965, Joyce was, in fact, the only girl with a bad reputation I knew well enough to hang around with. Even so, for the life of me, I still don’t know why, as my final act in Binghamton, I arranged for her to meet me before I hit the road.
I even persuaded her to skip school to do it, although there was no chance I’d be alone with her for a second.
What we did was foolish, anyway, innocently. There must’ve been something there, some buzz between us that my radar was too immature to detect.
Joyce and I had breakfast together, which I paid for out my $15 stash, and then, standing outside the Queen Elizabeth Diner, we shared a sidewalk kiss before I walked across downtown to start hitching out Route 17, the Vestal Parkway.
On to Chicago. Almost
Had I thought much about what I was doing, I probably wouldn’t have done it.
I believe the reason I didn’t “think too much” was my unwavering confidence, absent proof, that I could get to California by thumb, starting out almost broke.
And, of course, I did.
I left home without any expectation of help from anyone, except the $15 I got from Mom and the generosity of strangers willing to respond positively to my extended thumb.
I didn’t know a single soul, relative or friend, between Binghamton, New York, and San Pedro, California.
Joyce’s warm hug and her puzzled look after pulling back from our kiss lingering in my thoughts, with closer to $12 lining my pockets, I parked my tattered suitcase on the shoulder of the Vestal Parkway and started thumbing.
It was midday, now.
Although illegal, hitchhiking was not unfamiliar in those days. I caught my first ride within 10 minutes.
I couldn’t believe my luck when the young guy who picked me up said he was going to “Chicago.”
Even though my calculations were way off, Chicago, I believed, was halfway to California. With this kind of luck, I might get there in just a couple of days.
Before my money ran out.
Only after an hour or so of blissful riding through the small towns and leafy countryside along Route 17 did I discover that the guy had said, “Chautauqua,” the little village near Jamestown where Lucille Ball grew up.
Really, I didn’t care where I Love Lucy took root, but I was resilient.
It was till rush hour when I caught a rides that took me from Chautauqua to a truck stop outside Erie, Pennsylvania.
Erie might as well have been Istanbul, I was so far beyond anywhere I’d ever been.
First Brush with Luck
Standing under the cone of a tall street lamp along the road opposite that truck stop, I probably should have been alarmed or, at least, a little frightened. It was 10:00 o’clock. Big rigs were hurling gusts of wind in my face as they raced by.
Guardian angels were whispering in my ear probably. I wasn’t shaken at all.
Actually, I was sort of up. My family must’ve noticed me missing by now, an exhilarating thought.
I’d stumped them again.
Of course, I caught a ride. And it was a good one. A guy in a pickup truck drove me all the way across Ohio to Fort Wayne, Indiana.
All that night, my first ever completely on my own, I dozed off and on as one of those pioneering rock stations kept coming in clearer as we drew closer to Fort Wayne.
We talked a little.
I told the driver what I was doing and was pleased to see he was impressed. He was also happy to have a companion to help him stay awake during the long hours of darkness.
On my first morning of liberation, he dropped me off at a roadside diner where I bought breakfast and consulted my map. Route 6 was the one I’d chosen, for no other reason than its running straight as an imperfect arrow from Pennsylvania to California.
It was then that I heard storm warnings announced on the radio.
Tornadoes, they said, were likely that afternoon all over the Midwest. I was more excited than scared. I’d never seen a tornado, except for that gut-wrencher in The Wizard of Oz.
Making an Unforgettable Friend
I didn’t see any tornadoes that day, not even a thunderstorm, but I did hitch my way into one of the most interesting, unexpected adventures of my life.
Thank you, Guardian Angels, for sending Edward and the others that followed.
Hitching through the patchwork of congested suburbs south of Chicago, I got picked up by an elderly man navigating his way out of town in a Buick, if I remember the model correctly.
Although I was delighted to be picked up by anyone, that ride with Edward was the first on which I remember being embarrassed as we made our hesitant way across Middle America.
The trouble was that the traffic in the town where he picked me up overwhelmed Edward’s sparse driving skills.
He hunkered down a defensive crouch, almost nose to his steering wheel – which looked too big for him – and further reinforced his security by driving as slowly as possible without standing still, hovering over the white line painted there to separate lanes.
Kids of my age as well adults honked furiously as they maneuvered around us.
I tried to look innocent, but they probably thought I was Edward’s idiot grandson or teenage buddy. I don’t know, but while I appreciated the ride, I was eager for it to end. It ate up a lot of time for the short distance we chugged along.
After a few miserable blocks, Edward asked, “Do you know how to drive?”
Thinking he sought confirmation of his expertise under these conditions, I said, “Yes.”
“Do you have a license?”
Here’s where, for conscious no reason whatsoever, I lied.
“Yes,” I said.
When I ask myself, today, what I expected to gain by saying that, I find no honest answer. I really don’t know. It was an impulse, one of those “out of nowhere” things.
Nor does any insight fill my vision when I wonder why I next accepted his proposal that drive him south toward his destination in Arkansas.
The fact is, I’d driven precisely once in my life under the guidance of my brother, Ted, after getting my learner’s permit.
Which had now expired.
I’d never driven on anything but a city street while Ted instructed me about courtesy and how to make turns without crashing Dad’s car into a variety of available animate and inanimate objects.
And I had no illusions about my skills at driving on a highway. None. How would I have gotten any?
Even so, I was shortly behind the wheel of Edward’s Ford, flying along at 60, south through Illinois on Route 66.
How I Survived Without Knowing What the Hell I Was Doing
Edward, I learned as we sped south through Illinois, was going to summer in Hot Springs, Arkansas, at a spa. A recent widower, he was going for a restorative summer after having his cancerous lung removed.
Edward wasn’t the last person recovering from cancer surgery I’d know who retained their commitment to cigarette smoking, but he was the only one who expressed no regrets. Big Tobacco’s arguments that the connections hadn’t been proven were not wasted on him.
And that, readers, is the only bad thing I can say about Edward.
Like Joyce, the girl I left behind, more or less, he seemed to show up along my road with a purpose. And he showed up precisely when I needed him, just as he needed me.
Sharing packs of cigarettes and a pair of bar stools when an amused bartender agreed to serve us coffee, Edward and I spent the afternoon together, talking nonstop about our lives and the world passing by us.
Every once in a while, he had to caution me not to wander too close to passing vehicles as automobile-tropism seemed to draw me out of my lane. But nothing else required his guidance until we crossed the Mississippi River bridge into St. Louis where, hypnotized by hours of highway driving, I ran straight through the first red light that tried to get in my way.
It was dark, now, and Edward cautioned me to be more careful as we rolled through Saint Louis, looking for a place to stop for the night.
He arranged for me to share a room with him in a roadside cottage where we both slept like logs. In the morning, he also bought me breakfast and did something I never expected.
He gave me $15 for driving as far as Saint Louis.
Before we parted, he wrote down the phone number where I could contact him in Hot Springs, in case I was coming back this way around the time he needed to return. I knew I wasn’t and would never see him again, but I took the paper anyway.
I was too young to understand how extraordinary Edward’s coming into my life, just then, was. Without him, I’d be broke, tired and hungry, hitching somewhere in Iowa, nog on a full stomach, 15 fresh dollars in my pocket, appreciating a Sunday morning on a corner in Kirkwood, Missouri.
And Edward, he’d either be inching his way along Route 66, irritating driver after driver, or arranging for his car to be pried off some lamp post he hit.
Maybe there aen’t any guardian angels, but the fates had certainly coalesced in both our favors.
In the Meantime
Sundays are lousy days for hitchhiking, wisdom you will be happy never to have to put to use. Drivers are fewer and not paying attention to vagrants on Sundays. That’s life as we once knew it.
I spent all day getting across the rest of Kansas, an astonishingly flat and repetitive place where the sort of optical illusions that get people lost in the Sahari were introduced to me.
I got to smell the stockyards in Wichita (not an illusion), set foot on Wyatt Earp Boulevard and lose my sweater by leaving it in the backseat of a station wagon in Kansas City.
And I got thoroughly felt up by a cranky guy, after dark, who claimed he wanted to be sure I wasn’t carrying a weapon. Believe me, he made sure.
Night is the worst time to be out on the road, and it wasn’t lost on me that, that night, I wasn’t within a thousand miles of anyone I knew, except Edward.
But again, I wasn’t worried.
I was a little cold, though, as I faced my first night without my powder blue sweater. My discomfort didn’t last long, however, as – once again – I was unpredictably rescued.
More Kindness of Strangers
Outside Salina, after being dropped off by the feely fella, I was picked up by a guy who gave me a place to stay for the night and, blessings from above, a chance to rinse the dirt gathered from numerous states off myself in his bathtub.
Bob was a fighter pilot, one of the few remaining at Schilling Air Force Base as it was being shut down. Two pilot roommates had already been assigned to a base in Germany.
He was concerned, he confided, that he’d soon be shifted to the brewing trouble spot in Southeast Asia.
But that was far from my mind as I cleaned up and called Mom from the road for the first time, collect – of course, and let her know about my progress.
She was thrilled I’d gotten so far in only a couple of days.
“We were looking at a map and wondering, just a little while ago.”
The other part of the “we” was Judy. No fool, Mom had taken the trouble to fix me up with a potential girlfriend I could take a chance with in California.
Refreshed from a good night’s sleep and a breakfast at Bob’s table, I set out across the flatlands toward Colorado.
When the Cops Made Me Put My Thumb Away
Only two things stick with me from that day, up to the time when I was apprehended by the Colorado Highway Patrol.
The first was when I saw The Rocky Mountains lifting up from the flat plains. The guy I was riding with had to point them out. They looked like thunderheads on the horizon.
The other thing I remember was how very dark and quiet it was on the corner where he dropped me off on a road curving around the base of Pike’s Peak.
Veteran hitchhiker that I was, I knew I’d eventually get a ride farther into the pass. I just didn’t know when or what waited as I rode deeper into the Rockies and on into the desert spaces of Utah and Nevada.
My next ride, though, was not exactly what I expected.
After about 45 minutes in the gathering cold, sitting on my suitcase under the only streetlight since Pueblo, I managed to snag a ride, but not with my thumb.
When the flashing lights ignited the car’s top, I realized I’d attracted the Colorado Highway Patrol.
After a brief conversation in which I was asked, not just about my destination, but also whether I “always wear blue socks,” I was escorted into the back seat of the patrol car.
“We can’t let you hitchhike in Colorado, and it’s a long walk from here to Utah.” one of the officers explained.
My map told me that was true.
Oh, the blue socks thing? After explained that “My father gave me six pairs for Christmas,” I realized they were looking for AWOL Air Force recruits. Apparently, blue socks were part of the uniform.
The cops took me to the city lock up in Canon City, where I got to tell my story in detail.
The sergeant in charge could – and probably should – have shipped me back to Dad, my legal guardian. Instead, he got Mom on the phone in California.
The sergeant repeated the news that it was “a long walk to Utah” and made a deal with Mom to get bus fare wired to Western Union the next morning.
So, three big things happened fast.
I got to ride in a very cool, well-outfitted Highway Patrol car, experience Western Union for the first time and spent my first (and only, so far) night in a cell.
Not locked up, since I was underage, I slept soundly on a cot behind an open door with bars and a lock like I’d seen in western movies. I can still remember waking up to the sweetest, cool mountain air I’ve ever inhaled.
The morning shift sergeant gave me a cup of fresh coffee and directions to the Western Union.
I spent that day waiting for my bus, wandering around this beautiful little town on a slope, the majestic Rockies rising in every direction.
Do you get the idea that this wasn’t just dumb luck?
I did, but that was years later when I saw all this connected with other patterns in my life. What are called miracles have happened to me with so little fanfare I didn’t notice until I looked back and knew I’d followed no reliabe map.
California, At Last
For the next 24 hours, I rode in the back seat of Trailways bus, making friends with an older man who rode almost all the way with me, swapping stories, of which he had many more than I.
The mountains, salt flats and endless deserts convinced me I’d been rescued from a harrowing experience.
But who knows? With guardians like mine along for the ride, it might not have been too bad.
Uncertain of when I’d arrive, Mom had driven down down to the terminal in Oakland for every arriving bus until mine finally left me, tired, dirty and on Cloud Nine in her arns.
There she was. In a motorcycle jacket. Taking a second look to be sure it was me she was about to smother in her arms, and me only sure it was her when broke into a smile, the warmth of which swelled, then melted the space between us.
If you’ve never been a kid who missed his mother for ten years, you will never know what it was like. Landing on the moon, winning the lottery and falling in love all at once might be close to what it was like to hug my Mom again.
Just One More Thing
I attribute some of what happened to my own youthful gullibility.
I hadnt yet been told all those things that are’t possible. This left the doors wide open.
I just wasn’t well-educated enough to understand my limits, and so, I ignored them.
A couple of months later – another long story – I came back hoe to Binghamton, this time all the way by bus.
Among the great experiences I brought back were the ones that showed me that I had companions, probably what most call guardian angels, tagging along.
It seemed natural to me then. Coincidence was the rule, not the exception.
I knew what happened. And nobody convincedd me I was wrong to trust in the unbelievable.
So, I wasn’t all that surprised when, after two months away, I walked out of the Binghamton Greyhound Terminal on a warm summer afternoon and almost immediately ran into, guess who?
Joyce, the girl with the reputation who’d seen me off. That coincidence began another story altogether.
And so on and on.