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Friday, 12 September 2014

Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Past

By Dan Gogerty who blogs at Cast

Maybe it’s time to take up hitchhiking again. I haven’t stuck out my thumb for decades but apparently a robot is making its way across Canada by “relying on the kindness of strangers,” so why not?

Gogertyhitchbot, www.cbc.caHitchbot’s creators set the robot on the side of the road in Halifax and I hope by now it has crossed the country and reached Victoria — its destination.

My hitching wasn’t a social science experiment — it was mainly out of necessity or laziness. At age 15, three friends and I were camping at Pine Lake and we hitched the five miles into Eldora to avoid the walk.

A ’57 Chevy pulled up, we hopped in and a 30-year-old with James Dean hair and fuzzy dice hanging from his rearview mirror popped the clutch and spun out. By the time we made it to the Iowa River Bridge, he was clocking 90 mph.

He slowed some for the town limits and we convinced him the Dairy Queen was our destination. “Nice wheels, man. Thanks a lot,” we said as we rolled out.

During college, I occasionally hitched the 150 miles home on weekends and as an 18-year-old, I looked young. When my Chicago friend Murph joined me to see the home farm, it’s not surprising we were stopped by the police in Waterloo.

Murph looked even younger and they thought we were runaways. We showed them our college IDs and were relieved when they didn’t search Murph’s duffel bag — it contained a pint of cherry vodka.

In 1972 hitchhiking was still popular and it was hard to find a “road less traveled.” I turned 22 that summer and needed to make a trek from New York City to the farm in Iowa. Money was still an issue but I was not confident about hitching from New York City, so I made it to the bus station — a dubious refuge indeed back then.

My plan was to bus to Cleveland and hitch from there. Don’t ask why. My only thought is that the Cleveland Indians were my favorite baseball team as a kid and I’d always wanted to go there.

The overnight express left me at the Cleveland Bus Station and in the early morning light, I found a four-lane street with a sign that indicated it led to Interstate 80. Two young men in an extermination truck picked me up.

With a weird bug symbol painted on the doors, they drove along, singing Frank Sinatra’s That’s Life and having way too much fun for bug busters at 7:00AM.

Interstate 80 was one long ribbon west and I eventually caught a lift from a truck driver as far as the Illinois border. By this era, hitching was starting to get a negative connotation — too many kids in early grunge apparel; too many rumors of crime and drug use.

I was using a flimsy cardboard sign that said “Iowa, Please,” and I tried to keep a smile pasted on my face as the dust and exhaust fumes formed a hazy canopy in the afternoon heat.

Eventually, another trucker gave me a lift to the Mississippi River. He turned south and I was on the east side of the river with the Quad Cities a glow in the distance.

Cars screamed by in the dark so I rolled out my sleeping bag on the edge of a field as river fog crept up from below. I fell asleep to the sound of bullfrogs that must have been the size of small hippos.

A roaring semi woke me and before the morning light could dry off the dew, a car pulled over. If these two guys weren’t heading to a Grateful Dead concert, they should have been. They were friendly and upbeat. When they offered to share, I was hoping it was a breakfast roll or banana but instead I had to mumble something about not smoking on an empty stomach.

“That’s cool, man. Where ya headin’?” one asked.

We talked music, travel and farming until the Highway 65 interchange, and a businessman heading north dropped me a mile and a half from home. I can still see the cornfields radiating heat and the small creek meandering through the pasture as I hiked toward the house.

Dad’s humor hadn’t changed during the summer. “Yep,” he said as I entered the house. “The prodigal son’s arriving just in time to join us for the noon meal.” Mom set another plate at the table.

Hitchhiking has had some PR problems since that era and my key jaunts since then have been overseas. From Luxembourg to England and on to Wales. The motorways, the diesel lorries, the friendly folks with Monty Python accents.

In south Wales, I ran out of light some miles outside a village so I slept on a large flat rock up an incline. Somewhere along the trip, I learned about cricket, British ale and how to pronounce “Gloucester.”

A few years later, my wife and I hitched from Dublin to Cork and we made it in one ride. The young man who stopped for us in the suburbs of Dublin wore a sweat-stained jersey and sported some bleeding knuckles.

“Travelin’ west,” he said. “Don’t mind me appearance. Just finished a hurling match and I’m feelin’ a bit knackered.”

The way he explained it, hurling must be a combination of field hockey, lacrosse and warfare. The man bought us a pub lunch and then drove several miles out of his way to get us to the right place in Cork. He was still wearing his “kit” when we parted ways.

The next day we finished a short jaunt to Shannon by riding with an older couple out buying groceries. We sat among bags of produce and watched the hedges go by on our way to the airport.

If I’m really going to take up hitchhiking again, I need a good sign. “Old Fart Headed to Omaha” probably won’t work. Maybe something like “Need Ride to Denver to See Grandkids” or “My Mercedes is in the shop.”

Gogertyhitchhike sign, commons.wikimedia.orgRecently I read about film director John Waters’ book, Carsick. He hitched from Baltimore to the Bay Area and I think at one stage he used a sign that said, “I am not a Psycho.”

I assume he wasn’t carrying a chainsaw and a 12-pack of Bud Light.

If all the good sign ideas are taken, maybe I’ll just dress up as a robot and see what happens. My wife can drive out and rescue me if I’m at the same spot along Highway 30 when the sun goes down.

Looking back through 40 years of fog, the romance of the road seems appealing at times, but I’m probably too old to write “the hitchhiker’s guide to finding your lost youth.”

[INVITATION: All elders, 50 and older, are welcome to submit stories for this blog. They can be fiction, non-fiction, poetry, memoir, etc. Please read instructions for submitting.]

Posted by Ronni Bennett at 05:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post


Great stoiry, Dan. I did a lot of hitchhiking back in college, but even if I could re-inhabit my 20-year-old body, I think I'd take a pass today - too many strange folks on the road.

I'm afraid the art of hitchhiking has joined letter writing, in the attics of our minds.

Great story! I could picture each scene as it was told.

My sisters and I were discussing HItchbot earlier this year, and agreed that he would never survive the vandalism if he hitchhiked through rural Nebraska. Sad, but true. . .

If Hitchbot makes it to Detroit and there's even a hint of copper in him, he'll be dismantled pronto.

Loved you story, think people of a certain age in many parts of the world can identify with it.... and we didn't have mobile phones!

Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful! How do you remember it all?

Reminds me of 1968-69 boyfriend was medievaced from Vietnam Nam, stationed in Parris Island...he would "swoop" up to Jersey to see me! Most of the people he met were really good people. Loved your story!

Very colorful stories. Thanks for sharing.

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