On or about the 11th of May, depending on the weather and my general state of health, I will step out of my old grey house on the Limestone Creek, built, we have learned, as a cobbler shop for Yankees heading south to fight in the Civil War, and I will make a right turn on Watervale Road.
At that point, three miles north of the old Cherry Valley Turnpike, I will turn my backpack toward the south, stick out my thumb, and begin what I expect will be a 10,000 mile journey across the American land. This will be in fulfillment of a plan that came to me some time back, a notion to retrace the steps of a youthful journey exactly forty summers ago.
In that year, 1978, my childhood friend Joe, a Staten Island boy long since transplanted to Boston, accompanied me as we successfully, eventfully, and sometimes hilariously made our way across the United States, crossing into Canada at least once, camped in the Rocky Mountains which our eastern eyes had only seen in pictures, and without relying on a single paid fare and only a couple of nights paid lodging, arrived at the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco unharmed.
We made our way through California to the Grand Canyon, which we climbed into and ascended from on the same day (not advised), hitched through the desert southwest, found friends in Oklahoma and rides through Arkansas that left us on the side of the road in Memphis on the first anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley, which coincided with a strike by the Memphis police force. Anarchy reigned.
When that party climaxed we pointed our thumbs south and just around the time the August humidity threatened to drown us, we arrived in the French Quarter of New Orleans. All this thanks to the kindness of multiple strangers, and my Uncle Ritchie, who had a place in the Quarter and entrée to clubs that these grubby college boys could not have afforded without him.
In time we turned north, and in Meridian, Mississippi hitched a ride with a family in their camper van all the way to Ohio, and a few short hitches later we were back in New York.
It’s been forty years, and that trip still sticks with me as one of the finest educational and recreational experiences of what has turned out to be a pretty far ranging life.
So I’m going to do it again.
This time around it will be just me. Joe is in the throes of late middle age, balancing retirement planning with college tuition for his two kids, not to mention diabetes and a new titanium hip. When I told him that I was going back out on the road, he shook his head and spent the better part of an evening trying to convince me not to do it.
Joe speaks for a lot of my friends and a significant minority in my family (my wife, suspiciously, wholeheartedly endorses the plan).
Here’s what they say.
- Nobody hitchhikes any more.
- It’s not safe.
- Things have changed too much.
- Some combination of 1-3.
So here’s my reply. I’m hitting the road. I’m not sure how this will turn out, but then again hitching is the ultimate embrace of uncertainty. I’m not worried, but that’s most likely because I have never learned how to worry much. At this point I’ve got nothing to prove in life.
I’ve been nearly killed by a drunk driving an airborne Grand Prix that landed on the driver’s side of my 1972 Ford Pinto. I’ve had a home burn down, stared down an armed Arkansas tomato farmer who didn’t like my poking into his slaving operations, and been kidnapped by a Nicaraguan contra with lifeless eyes. In the past decade I’ve said goodbye to the curly hair that topped my head when I first hitched cross country, buried two parents and, in the ultimate sadness, kissed a stillborn grandchild goodbye.
And you think I should worry about someone I don’t know – just because he wants to give me a ride?
What is there to worry about on this trek?
Here is my hypothesis. People are still good. People still want to help other people. I’ll make it.
In the past 40 years, people think that things have gotten scarier, but in fact they have gotten safer. Violent crime is down. Drunk driving is down. Seatbelts didn’t exist when Joe and I took our trek; today we have enough airbags in a car to land a spaceship safely in the Pacific Ocean.
Not to mention communication. When my parents dropped me and Joe at the Airmont Road entrance ramp to the New York State Thruway on July 2 of 1978, the only way they could expect to hear from us was via a letter in the mailbox or a collect call. This summer I’ll have a computer in my pocket more powerful than NASA possessed in the summer of ‘78, and my friends at Google will be telling the world exactly where I am at every moment of the trip.
Of course, I might get killed. Maybe some beady-eyed lunatic will decide to track me down using that little Google device, and do his very best to do me in (for the record, I will go unarmed – believe me that’s best for everyone involved.) If Delbert should succeed in tracking me down and putting an end to me, it will be sad. I will be really pissed off to have to concede, in my final breath, that my hypothesis was fatally flawed.
But I don’t think that is likely to be the case. I think it’s going to be a blast, and boring, hypnotizing, fascinating, and rainy with bursts of sunshine.