Heading Towards the Setting Sun

Sunset over west Texas. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

The first time I headed west with California as my goal was in December 1977.  Summer that year began when I returned from Munich, Germany in May.  With a pocketful of money I had earned working at a cafeteria on a US Army base, I landed in Baltimore and headed for a liquor store.  Within a week, I had a couple ounces of Colombian marijuana, a sheet of blotter acid with R. Crumb’s Mr. Natural printed on every four perforated squares, and tickets to see the Grateful Dead and Little Feat in successive weeks at the Baltimore Civic Center.

That beginning set the tone for the season.  I was invited to a shindig at a farm outside of Charleston, West Virginia.  Rock bands, Rebel Yell whiskey, a few hundred folks and two barbecued pigs in a pit.  There was coleslaw and potato salad too.  And baked beans.  A guy who called himself Mad Dog befriended me for the weekend and we had a hollering time.  The farm was owned by a guy who was part of a group that smuggled weed into Key West and up the coast.  He was making a lot of money moving a few hundred pounds a week.  Later that summer when weed was hard to find he helped us all out with a pound he had stashed just for such a time.

The first Saturday in December a friend and I hopped on a bus to Mobile, Alabama.  Snow was beginning to fall. Back then Greyhound had a deal that let you ride as far as you could in twenty-four hours for twenty-five bucks. Our trip took us from Maryland to Mobile.  It was early evening when we arrived in Mobile and we were hungry.  My friend, whom I’ll call Dorey until I ask her permission to use her real name, grew up in Macon, Georgia.  She knew the south; its pleasures and its ways, its racism and its rationales.  We gritted down on some fried chicken and greens, bought a six pack of Dixie beer, found a cheap motel where we stole a couple tokes each of a joint in the bathroom of our room careful to blow the smoke up into the ceiling fan and away into the night, turned on the television and made love.  Southern nights.

The bathroom window was open.  The salty smell of the Gulf of Mexico informed my dreams.  Oil tankers emitted their own odor occasionally overriding the natural smell of saltwater and ocean decay.  Seaweed, fish and diesel fuel had me thinking I was adrift on a shrimp boat or some other craft designed to stay afloat on mother ocean.  The next morning came early with Dorey in my arms.  After showering we headed out.  Breakfast was a couple eggs over easy, coffee and a pork product.  Ninety-nine cents each plus tip.  The waitress—a thirty-something brunette with blue eyes and legs that never seemed to end—told us how to get to the closest exit to Interstate 10.  She told Dorey to be safe and we headed down the road.  Time to try our luck at hitchhiking.

Our first ride came quickly.  Two white guys going back to a shipyard in Pascagoula, Mississippi.  Their weekend was winding down.  Dorey and I hadn’t been in the car ten minutes when the guy riding shotgun fired up a joint.  The miles flew past like the smoke from our lungs.  Both the driver and his buddy were Alabama boys who knew each other from childhood.   Joined the Army together, went to Vietnam and came back at the same time.  Both had been mechanics at an Army motor pool in Saigon and neither saw any real combat.  When they got back to the States, neither thought they would end up back in their Alabama hometown.  But, like the driver said, shit happens.  You try and make it in California and you don’t.  You go to another city like Chicago and you fuck that up to, so you go home.  Robert Frost said that home is a place where when you go there they have to take you.  Then you run into an old girlfriend from high school, fuck around and get her pregnant.  That ends up defining at least the next fifteen or twenty years.  He continued his story.  It was half lament and half celebration.  His buddy took a pint of Southern Comfort out of the glove box and passed it around.  The landscape flashed by.  The impression I am left with was a lot of small pine, green vegetation and wetlands.  Occasionally a heron looked up from its fishing task and flew off.  The sky was as blue as a sky can be.  Or at least as blue as I’ve ever seen one.  Our conversation was mostly about music.  When we discovered the two men were fans of Little Feat—something that didn’t happen that often, we began discussing their most recent release and what seemed like Lowell George’s growing distance from the band.  When we arrived in Pascagoula, they showed us downtown.  A small fountain was somewhere near the middle of it.  A couple alligators lay still in the water, their snouts in the air.  We said thanks and goodbye.  Our goal was to make it to New Orleans by nightfall.

We stood on the side of the entrance ramp on to I-10.  Cars went by.  So did a convoy of Army trucks.  GIs sitting in the pack of the ¾ ton vehicles flashed us peace signs.  Eventually they all drove on to whatever exercise they were going to play out in the bayous and woods of Mississippi.  Just as a light rain began to fall, a small two-door hatchback pulled over.  We ran to the vehicle and jumped in.  The driver was a woman around our age.  Dorey jumped into the front passenger seat and I jumped into the back.  Dorey and the driver began to talk and I fell asleep.  The driver was a salesperson that sold stuff to hotels and motels.  She was around our age and was listening to an Allman Brothers cassette when we hopped in the car.  When I woke up we were in New Orleans parked in front of a Holiday Inn. After a quick conversation and a good bye to the driver, Dorey and I decided to spend the night at the hotel.  We got a few stares when we walked in with our backpacks and sleeping bags, but it was New Orleans and nobody asked us to leave.  They took our money and gave us a key to our room.  After dropping everything in the room, I went outside to find food and beer.  Dorey stayed behind.

What I remember was drinking a few beers, eating some kind of fish sandwich with fries, and falling asleep while watching the television.  The next state we would be traversing would be Texas.  I was about to discover what Bob Wills meant when he sang about miles and miles of Texas.  At the time, it wasn’t considered to be the bulwark of the Confederacy on the other side of the Mississippi.  In fact, thanks to musicians like Willie Nelson, Townes Van Zandt, Jerry Jeff Walker and the rest, Texas had a certain hippie outlaw reputation.  Add to that the dope smuggling subculture, one of the best underground newspapers known as The Rag and the city of Austin’s Guadalupe Street and Texas had as much cred in the dying counterculture of 1977 as Cambridge or Venice Beach did at the time.  After all, the creeping consumerism of the mainstream had neutralized a fair number of freak and hippie communities, turning them into gentrified ghettos.  It wasn’t like the counterculture had gone mainstream, but that enough of its adherents got snookered into buying shit instead of changing it.

The next morning we got some breakfast, turned in our key and walked to an exit onto Interstate 10.  The weather was reasonably warm.  We got a ride as we got near the entrance ramp.  If I recall correctly, it was a tractor-trailer and he was going to Houston.  It was our first ride with a trucker and only the second or third one I had ever received in five years of hitchhiking.  Up until sometime in the 1980s, many if not most truckers were independent operators.  Nowadays, most are hired by a company or corporation that either leases out their trucks to individual drivers or the drivers are regular employees of the corporation whose goods they are moving.  The biggest difference in terms of hitchhiking (not that anyone hitches in the United States anymore) is that many of the drivers before the contractual situation changed had insurance which didn’t make picking up hitchhikers a violation of the policy.  Now, even independents have clauses written into their policies that forbid the practice.

The driver this time was a talkative guy around forty years old.  He liked Dorey a lot, but was gentlemanly to her.  He shared a box of donuts with us, gave us each a couple white crosses (black market Dexedrine) and talked a lot.  His trailer was empty and he was driving it to Houston where he would trade it for a full trailer.  Then, he said, he would drive that trailer to Tampa where he would pick up another full trailer and drive it to Houston.  His eight track collection was pretty eclectic: everything from George Jones to Al Green to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon.  As we traveled, he told stories about the country we were passing through.  Some were tales about his personal experience in such and such a town while others were history lessons.  Andrew Jackson, killing indigenous people and the like. When we got to Houston, he pulled into a parking lot near the depot where he was scheduled to trade his empty trailer for a full one.  We got out and headed to a diner for a meal.  He joined us after taking care of his business.  It began to lightly rain. Then, he offered us the use of his cab if we wanted to sleep.  Before I could think of a polite way to say no, Dorey took him up on the offer.  We spent three or four hours in the cab.  Debra slept and I read one of the books I brought along.  I think it was Desolation Angels by Kerouac.  The driver was doing his own thing.  The rain stopped and Dorey woke up.  We ate some tacos and waited for the driver to return.  When he did, we bid our goodbyes, took our gear and headed to another entrance ramp about a quarter mile from where the truck was parked.  We didn’t get a ride until an hour or so after dark.

While we waited for a ride, the Houston police paid us a visit.  Although they came off rather menacingly at first, they calmed down after running our identification through their system and finding no warrants.  Dorey conversed with one cop while the other told me about a better ramp a couple miles away.  It was in a better part of town is what he said.  I told him thanks, they got back into their cruiser and within five minutes a car pulled over and told us to hop in.  We did.

It took us all the way to Austin.  On the way we smoked a few joints and drank a six pack of Lone Star.  When we ran out of beer we were in the middle of nowhere about tow hours from Austin and just getting into what passes for hills in Texas.  The driver pulled into a Circle K convenience store so we could pee and get more beer.  When I brought the beer to the counter to pay, the clerk—a nice looking Mexican woman—told me she couldn’t sell beer after 1 AM.  On the way to return the beer to the refrigerator I dropped the six-pack and broke a bottle.  She went ahead and let me buy the beer.  By the time we had finished the beer we were on the outskirts of Austin.  Crystal Gayle was singing Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue? On the Top 40 radio station. The driver dropped us off on Guadalupe Street and drove off.  Dorey and I went looking for a cheap hotel.  We were all fairly drunk despite the handful of white crosses he shared with us in the Circle K parking lot.

The hotel we found was on a street right off Guadalupe.  Most of the tenants were single folks of all ages.  My guess was that it was a place where the manager rented out rooms for months at a time, took his tenants’ rents off the top of their disability and welfare checks and ignored most of what they did.  We took off our clothes and fell asleep immediately.  The sun was rising as were settling.  We slept like logs until evening.  The shower gave us enough hot water to take a quick shower together.  It was cold in the room and outside.  Getting dressed, we talked about getting some real Mexican food and some more Lone Star.  Heading out the door of the hotel, the manager told us about a bar two blocks away that had good Mexican food, Lone Star beer and his friend’s country rock band on the bill.  It was a great evening.  The next morning we were going back on the road.

We were halfway through Texas and it seemed like we had just begun.  As we stood with our thumbs out and our bedrolls by our feet all we could see was land and sky.  Fortunately, before the feeling got too desolate we got a ride with a guy driving a beat up pickup truck.  He fired up a joint of some okay weed as soon as we got in the cab.  The weather was cold, not more than twenty degrees.  The sun was hidden by clouds and it smelled like snow.  We were probably on the interstate for two hours when the driver, who called himself Red, said he needed to stop by his place.  I looked at Dorey, shrugged and said alright.  I had no idea where the hell he was taking us because there was nothing but range surrounded by barbed wire all around us.  No buildings, no towns, no trees not even any steers, sheep or other livestock.  Hopefully, the hitchhiking gods were smiling on us.

About five minutes after I gave my assent, he took a sharp left onto a single lane road that went slowly up a slight hill.  About five miles in I saw a single wide trailer in the distance.  A motorcycle was next to it and a dog came running down the road when we were a quarter mile or so away.  It was a big old hound dog, ears flapping as it ran and barked.  Red parked his truck, said hello to his dog and invited us in.  The temperature had dropped and the wind was whipping up a bit.  We went inside, he started a fire in his stove and set some tamales wrapped in foil on the top.  While the tamales heated up, he told us he was a caretaker for some rancher who owned the land and all the land for miles around.  Got a trailer and three hundred fifty bucks a month to ride around and make sure the barbed wire wasn’t cut and in the summer when the cattle were around, he had to keep them inside the fences.  Said he’d been doing it since he left the Army in 1971.  There’d been a couple women in his life, but mostly it was him, his dogs, his pot plants and the comfort women of Austin, as he put it.  He continued, telling us that he usually grew about six pounds of weed every season; kept a couple pounds for himself and sold the rest to a guy who worked at Armadillo World Headquarters, a famous bar in Austin.  He brewed some strong hobo coffee, gave us a dozen tamales and took us back to the highway. We said our goodbyes.  He went back up his road and we stuck out our thumbs again.

It was a desolate stretch of road.  In two hours not more than ten vehicles went by.  A couple stopped but were only going a couple miles up the road so we begged off.  It was still early afternoon.  The view was stunning and the temperature was around freezing.  When the sun broke through, it felt warm.  The Texas shadows turned the chaparral purple, brown and red.  The sun turned it gold for an instant here and there.  The tamales were delicious and the thermos of coffee kept us warm.  Still, I didn’t really want to sleep out in the open in that particular spot on that particular night.  The afternoon slipped away.  We were gathering some wood for a small fire when a big old Ford four-door screeched to a stop, a tall fellow with short hair combed back like Johnny Cash got out and yelled hey.  I walked slowly over.  He offered a ride and a place to stay for the night.  The next town, he said, was about thirty miles away.  We could stop, get some beer, he could call his wife from the general store to let her know we were coming and we could settle in.  By this time Dorey was standing next to me.  I looked at her and we said yeah, sure, thanks.

He picked up a couple cases of Lone Star, some tortillas, milk and whiskey at the store in town.  Then we headed out to his place.  It was a rambler type house with a few rooms added on.  I understood why when we went inside.  There were six kids, a couple dogs, his wife and her sister living there.  It was loud and friendly.  Like one of those television shows where everyone’s friendly and unassuming, only it was real.  And it stayed that way all evening while we ate enchiladas, drank beer and whiskey, watched television and played cards.  When I started falling asleep, his wife offered Dorey and I their bed.  We said no but they insisted.  As my mind wandered off to dreamland I thought about Lyndon Baines Johnson.  I was deep in the heart of Texas, after all.

Since we started our journey, Dorey and I had been part of too many conversations to count.  We talked about music and we talked about films.  We discussed the ocean and how shrimping worked.  We listened while shipyard workers told us about building boats and we wondered aloud about the meaning of a coyote’s howl.  We hooped and hollered when the liquor cheered us up.  One thing that had never come up was politics. Jimmy Carter was in the White House and Richard Nixon was drinking scotch in California plotting his revenge.  The rest  of the country seemed to be taking a break.

From the revolution or reality, it didn’t matter.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com