On Mother’s Day, I think back about how bold my mother must have been to drive me and Joe a ways up the Thruway and drop us off to begin our cross-country journey in 1978. And how much worry she had to put aside to support us in this adventure. I imagine that my father had a lot of tears to dry once they got back to Staten Island that day.
Given the state of communication in the late 70’s, we spoke only two or three times all summer, and except for those few times we stayed with family, she had no way to know where I was.
At the end of the summer, my last ride took me back to Albany. Dropped off on Western Avenue, I started to walk toward campus. At a red light I saw a green Ford Torino station wagon. My father was in the driver’s seat, my mother in the passenger seat, and my sister Kathy, about to start her freshman year of college, sat in the back. I ran to them with my backpack, banged on the rear window of the station wagon, and gave her the biggest surprise ever. 10,000 miles after she dropped me off, with no idea where on earth I was, we met by complete coincidence at a stoplight in Albany. My Mom was my first and my last ride on that trip. And though she left this Earth three years ago, I feel, just like the rest of our clan, that she has never left my side.
She once told me that she used to see young men at entrance ramps and think to herself, “What bums!”
Then she realized that those bums could be her own son. She wasn’t driving around picking up hitchhikers, but she did see us differently. She had a heart of gold, and she stayed young by learning from her children, and later her grandchildren.
Hitchhikers were not always seen as bums; in fact, picking up random travelers became something of a patriotic duty during World War II. With gasoline rationed, people with cars felt obliged to fill their empty seats and assist their neighbors in getting from home to work.
And when the soldiers and sailors found their way back to our shores, the grateful public picked them up and took them all the way home. It was everyone’s job to transport our fighting men back to see their families.
It was during the war in Indochina that putting your thumb out became a countercultural statement, and a thriving hitchhiking culture among young, mostly entitled white kids, began to flourish.
Like most things the hippies touched, it ended up giving idealism a bad name. It wasn’t just the long hair and the drugs, it was the lack of seriousness, the surplus of disdain, that turned straight white middle-class Americans against the shiftless hippies, and left black Americans seeking a first taste of prosperity shaking their heads at the folly of youngsters turning their backs on comfort and privilege they had never imagined.
By the late 70’s, when my friend Joe and I hitched cross country, it was not just the only way we could afford to travel, it was the ultimate energy saving way to get around. Many people say that those days are gone, that life on the road as we knew it has vanished, for any number or reasons. Well, I’m about to find out.