I'm not sure how the conversation turned to hitchhiking, but today I started telling my coworker Laura about my youthful adventures thumbing rides across the country back in the early 70's.
Hmm...I shouldn't say "my" adventures. They were "shared" adventures, with my friends Groovy Hoovy and Jan G.
I was 18 years old, just out of high school, working weekends at the VA hospital and paying $65 a month for a tiny red house with an outhouse and no bathtub on the north side of Des Moines near the Firestone plant. Showers were taken with the garden hose in the back yard. There was a wooded area behind the house that made a nice privacy screen, but we only had one neighbor so it didn't really matter.
It was a popular little house. Allan W lived there for a while, and Groovy Hoovy, and a hitchhiker named Dave who would move in occasionally and get a job, earn some cash and then disappear. A few months later he'd show up again and get another job and then disappear again, and so on.
Jan was just 17 when he moved in. He was taking an extended holiday from high school, living a carefree hippie life. Sometimes in the evenings, he'd take his guitar to the grassy area between the lanes of 2nd Ave. and sit crosslegged on the ground and serenade the passing cars.
Late one night, about 11:00 o'clock, we were playing chess and Jan said, "Hey, do you wanna go hitchhiking and see how far we get?" I said, "Sure."
By 8:00 o'clock in the morning we were standing inside a gas station on the eastern plains of Colorado. An old rancher saw us there and asked if we wanted to help him bale hay, but we were just too exhausted from our long night of thumbing rides. I've always wished I'd just toughed it out and taken him up on his offer. I'm sure it would've been an amazing adventure.
Jan knew a family of ranchers somewhere out on the plains, so we thumbed a ride and spent the night there. We sat around that evening and discussed philosophy with the patriarch of the family.
I had to get back home for my weekend shift at the hospital, so I left the next morning. Jan stayed in Colorado, enrolled himself in the local high school, and met a young woman named Phyllis. Later, after being introduced to Jesus, Jan became an Assembly of God minister and worship leader. Jan and Phyllis have been married for 45 years now.
Not long afterwards, Groovy Hoovy and I hit the road. Our destination was the Jesus Festival being held at the Los Angeles Coliseum. And, there just happened to be a young woman in LA named LeeAnn that Hoovy had met in Des Moines while she was there visiting relatives. I'm pretty sure the Jesus Festival was a distant "second priority" for Hoovy.
We had good luck getting rides all the way to Salt Lake City, and then suddenly the rides dried up. Nothing. Apparently, Mormons didn't like hitchhikers. We stood on the entrance ramp with our thumbs out for what seemed like hours, until a highway patrolman chased us off. We waited a while after he left, and then sneaked back up the ramp. When the trooper showed up again and threatened to throw us in jail, we slouched away in defeat and sat in a Denny's Restaurant and cried in our coffee. Some friendly patrons warned us that we had a zero chance of ever getting a lift, so we counted our cash and went to the Greyhound bus station and bought tickets for LA.
As we neared LA, a young guy got on the bus. He saw our backpacks and sleeping bags, and he struck up a conversation. He'd just gotten out of prison. He was sort of homeless at that point, but he knew a good spot on the beach where we could all crash for the night. And he admired our new backpacks. He said, "I think I'll get me one of those backpacks."
We got to the beach and rolled out our sleeping bags. Our friend laid down on the sand, and we talked for a while as we gazed at the stars. I closed my eyes and was just starting to drift off when I heard a dog barking somewhere down the beach. I opened my eyes, and saw our friend staring right at me. That should have been an indication that maybe we should be more discerning about our new traveling companion, but fatigue won out and I fell fast asleep.
I woke up the next morning with the sunlight reflecting off the ocean and the warm sand under my back. I looked around and saw a set of footprints leading away from us. Our friend was gone, and so was my backpack and my shoes, and of course everything but the blue jeans and t-shirt I'd slept in. Bummer, man.
We went to the Jesus Festival at the Coliseum, and when I told a random stranger about the backpack incident people began giving me their extra shirts and things. Someone gave me a pair of leather sandals that I treasured for years afterwards until they finally fell apart. I was a brand-new Christian, and that incident was a revelation to me of the grace of God. I still get teared up when I remember the unselfish kindness shown to me that day.
A neat story about the festival: the Coliseum was sold out the first day, as people traveled in from all over to listen to a new genre of music: Christian Rock. The next day, the emcee told us that after everyone had left, the janitors found a piece of paper on the floor. It was the only trash left behind in the entire stadium.
Well, Hoovy stayed in LA for a few more days to visit with LeeAnn's family, but I headed out to Colorado to visit our friends Larry and Joe who lived in a cabin high up in the Rocky Mountains. They were part of a construction crew that was building water diversion conduits to help carry away the springtime snowmelt. When Hoovy showed up a couple of days later, Larry drove us through the canyons in his open-top CJ-5 Jeep. I was overwhelmed by the snowcapped mountains covered in wildflowers and aspen groves. (Just a few years later I moved to Utah so I could visit the mountains any time I felt the call of the wild).
After a few glorious days of campfires and crisp mountain air, we reluctantly began our journey back home to Iowa. We hitched a ride to the Kansas border, then another ride in a semi going to Missouri. It was late at night, about 10:00 PM, when a sleek, jacked-up GTO pulled over to offer us a lift. We threw our stuff in back, and piled into the front.
The driver seemed friendly enough. He'd just gotten out of prison (yes, prison, just like our LA friend). He picked up his car at the storage lot and was takin' her for a ride! He chatted away, one hand on the steering wheel, the other hand holding a bottle of beer. We were on a narrow, winding, two-lane blacktop surrounded by woods in complete darkness. I glanced over at the speedometer. He was driving 120 mph.
He elbowed me in the ribs and said, "I saw ya lookin' at the speedometer. Heh heh heh." If I hadn't already had a 'Come to Jesus' moment in my life, I think I certainly would have had one then.
We survived, and he dropped us off somewhere in rural Missouri. We spent a sweltering night in the ditch alongside the road wrapped up head-to-toe in our sleeping bags to escape the hundreds of man-eating mosquitoes that were bent on devouring us.
The next morning, after hours of nearly fruitless hitchhiking, we called our friend Jimi in Des Moines and sort of begged him to come pick us up. He didn't hesitate to offer his services, and he arrived a few hours later with his Dad. Jimi had had his wisdom teeth removed the day before, and was too sore and swollen to drive himself. Thank you, Jimi!
Hoovy and LeeAnn were married shortly afterwards, and they've been happily married for 39 years now.
So I guess the moral of the story is: if you're single and you want to get married, just go hitchhiking with simplybill.