Next note in my story. This one asked about my first big trip alone.
It was not a good idea, but did it anyway. I had planned to hitchhike to Arizona over spring break with a couple of young women I knew. I don’t remember both, but I do recall that one was called Sandy, a beautiful blond-haired girl. I had a crush on her and thought the trip would be a good opportunity to get to know her better. Turned out they got a better deal, i.e. a guy who had a car, so I was left forlorn with no place to go for spring break, but an intense desire to go somewhere warm, to escape what passes for spring in northern Wisconsin, winter most other places. I decided to hitchhike to Florida.
You cannot memorize all the details of the map
Lack of planning is a general affliction of 18-year-old boys.I like to think I was just more adventurous, but more likely just less circumspect. I didn’t have much money, only $15 cash, which I did not want to waste on a map, so I went to the library, memorized the road map of the Eastern USA (more on that later) and headed south on US 51 out of Stevens Point with what I thought would be supplies enough for the sojourn.
Planning was not one of my skills at that time, but I had already developed the insouciance that would later characterize me.
You meet a lot of interesting people hitchhiking. They tend not to be average people. Almost always male, usually generous but iconoclastic. I wanted to avoid Chicago, so I went toward Urbana and then east, ending up the first day in Louisville, KY. Well … not really in the city. It got dark, so I passed the night under a juniper bush near the highway. At first light, I hit the road again.
I was lucky to get a very long ride. They were going someplace in Alabama. My first mistake with my memory map was to confuse I-65 (Alabama) for I-75 (Florida). When I discovered the mistake, I thought I would go east on I-10, as I recalled went to Panama City, Florida. They let me off on Hwy 10, but it was State 10 in Alabama, for reasons never clear to me called the Pineapple Highway. Maybe it is a busy road today, but back in 1974 it was rural and secluded.
I stood out for a while until a guy in a pickup truck stopped. I could not understand much of what he said. The accent was impenetrable, but he seemed harmless and seemed to be going my way, so I hopped in. He went only a few miles. I worried. I could not understand the accent. Alabama was a foreign country. A farmer was working the field where I got off. He came by to talk. He had a “Gone with the Wind” accent, but I understood him well and said so. He seemed a little taken-aback. I explained that I had understood nothing from the guy in the truck. He just laughed and said.
“You talked to old James. He’s the town drunk. Ain’t nobody understands old James.”
He told me that the next town was Luverne and from there I should turn south toward Opp. A name like Opp, I could remember. Florida was more of less that way. I got a ride all the way to Brantley when it got dark. I was talking to some old boys at a gas station. They could tell I was not from around there and they were having some fun telling me about the prevalence of rattle snakes in the tall grass. I left town at dark looking for a place to sleep. It was all tall grass, no doubt full of snakes, until I saw some short grass and neat trees. A roadside park, so I slept there.
Sleeping in the graveyard
When the sun came up the next day, I could see I was not IN the graveyard but next to it. Had I known, I believe I would have had some trouble sleeping. As it was, it was nice and quiet. No snakes and no spectral visitors. But I figured I had adventure enough. I was running out of food and I wanted to go home, so I backtracked.
In the words of the old country song
I easily got back to I-65 and then got a ride with a guy on his way from Panama City to Nashville, he said to kill his wife and her no good boyfriend, an erstwhile best friend of his. Evidently, they ran off together. He was not so much concerned about the running off as that they took some cash he kept in an old coffee jar. He did not have a plan on how to do the deed. What he did have was a bottle of bourbon between his legs and he gulped it down the way I drink Coke Zero. His story sounded a little too much like a Hank Williams, Jr song. I also recalled the words of the old Roy Acuff song, “Whiskey and Blood on the Highway” (There was whiskey and blood all together; mixed with glass where they lay; I heard the moans of the dyin’; but I didn’t hear nobody pray). I tried to pay attention to the news the next day and didn’t hear about any spectacular murders, so I figure he was just talking … and drinking.
People who picked up hitchhikers sometimes were just looking for someone to talk at and they often are not serious. But guns, booze, anger and cars are not things you should mix or mess with if you can avoid it. Not wanting to be there if he encountered the pair and considering that it is not great to drive with an angry drunk, I told him I needed to meet someone and bailed in Decatur.
My next ride was good. Got all the way to Nashville. I figured I would deploy some of my $15 to take the Greyhound Bus as far as I could get, hoping to sleep during the night trip. It was getting cold. I did not know where the bus station was, and neither did the driver, but trusting luck and the benevolence of the good Lord, who protects drunks, children the United States of America and fools like me, I guessed the correct downtown exit. I was in no rush to leave the bus station, where it was warm and reasonably comfortable, so I got a ticket for a late bus. $7, about half my fortune, got me to Evansville. $15 was more in those days than it is today, but it was not that much. From Evansville I thought I could get to Hwy 41, which I recalled went thorough Milwaukee as 27th Street.
Clear & bright and icy cold
Got off the bus just as the sun was coming up. It was a bright and clear day but otherwise not a good day to be out. A winter storm has passed through the night before, leaving that wonderful clear sky, an early morning temperature of -5, ice on the roads and not much traffic. Nevertheless, I got picked up quickly by a nice old guy. He told me that he usually did not pick up hitchhikers but that he thought I looked pathetic in the cold. He drove me to Terra Haute and bought me breakfast. I was hungry, and hunger is the best cook, so I still remember fondly the ham and eggs I had at Waffle House.
My next ride seemed a nice guy but was a four-lane a-hole. He drove me not far and then told me to get out in the middle of nowhere. He laughed as he drove off. I looked up to see a sign saving, “Rockville Prison. Do not pick up hitchhikers.” I later found out that it was a woman’s prison, but the sign didn’t specify. I walked back until the sign was no longer casting its dark shadow and got picked up by a couple of young women (maybe from the prison 😊). This is uncommon. They were very nice. I do not recall where they dropped me. Somewhere in the Chicago area, but still Indiana. It was near enough that I saw the signs to I 94 and so I knew which way to go. I didn’t need my memorized map to tell me that I-94 went right past my father’s house in Milwaukee. I got a few short rides though Chicago.Chicago scared me. It was the big and dangerous city.
My father told me that Chicago was the friendliest place in the world, an insight as based on his experience after WWII. My old man was among the first GIs to be discharged back to America after the war. They dropped him in Chicago still wearing his Army-Air-Corps uniform. So soon after victory in Europe, his uniform may have influenced people’s generosity and account for the drinks and meals they bought for him. I could not count on that. It was getting dark and it never stopped being cold. I was not optimistic.
My special providence stepped in again. Some guy picked me up headed for Kenosha. I had been to Kenosha once for a swim meet. I didn’t know exactly where it was, but I knew that you could get there from Milwaukee in about an hour, and it was Wisconsin, so I was content. It got better. They guy asked where he should let me off. I told him any ramp would do since I was just going north. He told me that it was very cold, as I was aware, and asked me if I had any money. I told him that I had around $7. And he told me that he could not drop me off into that dark emptiness. He drove me instead all the way home to my father’s house.
It is probably not a good idea to depend on the kindness of strangers, but I was glad that I ran into good people. Besides the Rockville Prison guy and the homicidal boozer, everybody I met was okay, some were very friendly and shared lunches with me. I would have been a lot hungrier if not for that.
The whole adventure lasted only four days, but it made a deep impression, so much that a half a lifetime later I can still recall details. This was the first time I was really alone and unconnected. I realized that a guy could just disappear. The most disturbing part about wandering is looking around for a place to bed down at dusk, hoping that it doesn’t rain, or you don’t get rolled. It is nice to be able to come & go when you want, but in the words of that great country philosopher Kris Kristopherson, “freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.”
The old man was surprised to see me when I showed up home. He was unaware that we were on spring break. When I told him, he asked me where I’d been. When I told him Alabama, he said that I was stupid. Hard to disagree. But he allowed that he had hopped trains when he was a young man and once ended up in Montana. Young men are stupid. He told me that I should have stayed in Chicago overnight, since people there were so friendly that they would probably buy me drinks and give me a free meal, although he imagined things might have changed since 1945.
There is a coda. I went down to the Air War College in Montgomery in 2009 to do some talks about U.S. foreign policy. I took an extra day to drive around. This time I had my own rental car and a hotel for the night. It was better. I wrote a note re at the time.