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Won't Ya Give a Poor Boy a Ride

The Lost Art of Hitchhiking

by RON JACOBS

Hitchhiking used to be my carrier of choice. It was cheap and no more dangerous than any other form of transport. Then something changed. Americans grew more isolated from each other and hitchhikers became synonymous with criminals, even though they were more likely to become the victim of a crime. Tom Robbins’ big-thumbed heroine Sissy Hankshaw not withstanding, in middle America’s mind giving someone a ride became tantamount to committing suicide. Nowadays, it’s a rare sight to see a thumb of any size asking for a ride on America’s highway.

So, how can I bring it alive for someone who has never been out there along the side of the road thumb up and hoping? You feel like Jack Kerouac. Living that line from the Woody Guthrie song that goes "As I walked down that ribbon of highway, I saw below me that endless valley…."

You notice the desolation of the prairie road which just goes on and on into the horizon. You head toward the mountains that look so close but take a good day’s ride to reach. At dusk, you hear sound of the lonesome whippoorwill. In midday, the relentless heat of the southwestern desert beats on your shoulders and on the eastern highways; the suffocating humidity of the east coast’s summer sends beads of sweat down the bridge of your nose.

The big eighteen-wheelers that zoom by nearly pulling you into their wake. A rainstorm that comes out of nowhere when there’s no shelter in sight and proceeds to split the sky in a light show from the gods that takes your breath away just before you reach the overpass.

Getting picked up by a biker driving a van with his disassembled Harley in the back. He took me home and then out drinking in a bar outside Toledo, Ohio where I scored umpteen million points on the pinball machine while his buddies drove their Harleys through the place. The farmer who didn’t pick me up and looked straight ahead as if I wasn’t there. Then there was the uptight family man with the "I Love Jesus" bumperstickers who gave me the finger as I stood on a ramp near Chicago’s stockyards. Or the teenage boys driving daddy’s car that drove by once and threw a full can of beer at my head. Then, on their second time around, they stopped and urged me to climb in.

A nurse who took me home and slept with me that night and the guy with the poodle who tried to. Once, sleeping by the side of the road near Oklahoma City I awoke in the morning to find an Apache girl at my side. Only trying to keep warm, she said, and keep the snakes away.

Two junkies who picked me up near Pueblo, Colorado and were heading to Midland, Texas, man, to score a quarter ounce of Mexican mud heroin. Two pretty teenage girls on their way to Milwaukee from Chicago who wanted me to buy beer for them. We drank until all three of us were so drunk we couldn’t drive.

The car of Jesus freaks in Tennessee who slowed down like they were going to give me a ride then, after running a quarter mile to their car, they gave me some tracts and pulled away.

* * *

One June day in the late 1970s Doreen, Bonita, and I headed up to Eugene, Oregon from Berkeley with our sleeping bags, 75 dollars, a good-sized stash, and our backpacks for a rock festival. We arrived at the end of University Avenue in Berkeley right before the I-80 bridge at 8:30 in the morning and claimed our spot amongst the dozen or so hitchhikers already there. We didn’t get on the road until noon. But then we rolled straight on through to just south of Sacramento. The exit ramp we stood on there was one of those that seemed to be built for the private use of some rancher. No town could be seen in any direction on a horizon flatter than a tabletop and no cars traveled on the one road headed off to the east.

The three of us had pretty much given up hope on getting any further that day and looked around half-assed for a suitable spot to sleep. The closest trees were a couple miles away. It was a pretty hot day so we decided to stay near the road at least until the day cooled. Then, if we were still there, head over to the trees. Not more than twenty minutes after that decision, an RV pulled over and the driver told us to hop in back. After getting back on the road we headed towards the coast. The driver didn’t like taking his vehicle on the desert–like path I-5 carved like a ditch through central California. When we turned north onto Highway 1, I fired up a joint and settled back for a long, winding journey. Bonita and Doreen did likewise.

The combination of the weed and the road soon put me to sleep. The next thing I remember was crossing into Oregon with two more passengers in the truck. Bonita and Doreen were now up front in the cab while I shared the back with a big red-haired guy who said he was AWOL from the Navy and his buddy, a thin bearded guy I recognized from the streets of Santa Cruz.

The first thing I was asked once the two realized I was awake was which one of the two babes was my old lady. I began to say that neither one was old anything, but all those two heard was the neither of them part. I sensed there was going to be a problem. Bonita and Doreen, meanwhile, had discovered that the driver was a jewel thief who traveled around the country burglarizing, recutting, and fencing jewels. However, other than his choice of professions, he was very careful to stay within the law. After all, if he was stopped by the cops for anything he was as good as gone, being wanted in several states.

About an hour south of Eugene, my fellow RV occupants broke out a gallon of port wine and began drinking. I noticed the driver looking nervously at them in his rearview mirror. He opened the little window between the cab and the passenger part of the vehicle just to assert his presence, I think. He didn’t say anything, though, until they started talking trash to the two women. After five or so minutes of listening to their remarks, the driver stopped his truck on the shoulder and asked Red and Santa Cruz to get out. They told him to fuck off and pulled long from their bottle. The driver got out, grabbed Red’s pack and tossed it on the ground. I knew that was a bad move and prepared myself for the worst. Santa Cruz reached into his boot and pulled out a knife. Red was out of the RV and going to retrieve his pack. I picked up the empty wine bottle he’d left behind, ready to use it as a weapon if necessary. Santa Cruz hopped out of the truck and threatened the driver with his knife. I threw Santa Cruz’s pack out the rear and, in the confusion, Red and his buddy got left behind and the rest of us finished the ride to Eugene.

RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s new collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. He can be reached at: rjacobs@zoo.uvm.edu