Wednesday, March 01, 2006
The Golden Age of Hitchhiking
My dad, in his youth, spent a year or so of his life riding the rails. It was the tail-end of the Great Depression, and many men wandered the country looking for greener pastures. Some were looking for adventure. Unfortunately, he never got around to telling me the details of the places he'd been and the things he'd done, so the episode will remain lost.
Later, as I edged into manhood, I had my own needs for adventure and experience. My childhood friends and I did a great number of things that I look back fondly upon. Many of these were things that would make today's overprotective parents blanch into a permanent verklemptitude, and probably wouldn't please my own more realistic parents very much, but they seemed to me like the thing to do at the time.
Having observed the soldiers and other migratory individuals thumbing their way through town to places that just had to be more interesting and more fun that Grand Forks, North Dakota, their mode of travel piqued my interest.
I tried my thumb going back and forth across town several times. Just about everyone who gave me a ride knew me or knew my dad. "Do your folks know you're dong this?" I thumbed my way to Crookston a couple of times and to Fargo.
I didn't do a lot of hitchhiking while in high school, because I had a car, a job and a girlfriend. Most of my time was accounted for.
While I was in the Navy, things were different. I couldn't afford a car, and had no place to keep it. I had a lot of free weekends. I was stationed, initially, at the training center in Waukegan, Illinois. I came up with the crazy idea to hitchhike from Waukegan to Grand Forks on the occasional weekend. It worked well. I'd get off base at about three pm and get to Grand Forks early Saturday morning. Sleep a little, run around with the guys, have a date, sleep in Sunday, start back by early afternoon, be back on base in time to catch three to six hours of shut-eye before Monday reveille.
I did that several times during the year-and-a-half I was there. I usually outran the buses.
I was transferred, after my engineman training, to an aircraft carrier in Mayport, near Jacksonville, Florida. During my time there (when we weren't at sea) I hitchhiked to New Orleans several times (a girl), to Miami several times (another girl) to Grand Forks three times, and from New York City to Grand Forks once.
I rode with many cross-country independent truck drivers, vacationing couples (usually the guy had been in the Navy himself), travelling businessmen, and the occasional drunk.
I got picked up by a lonely girl in Iowa once. I stopped to visit every time I went through there, after that. I rode with a drunk guy who crashed his car into big rig. He was killed in the crash; I suffered a broken ankle.
I ate in truckstops and diners all over the East, in a wood-burning Ozark diner, cafes in the bayoux of Louisiana, Mom & Pop diners, and many, many Denny's-style places. The ex-military guys would often pick up the tab, which was really cool.
I saw the southern cities and towns with the white side and the "colored" side. I saw the gas stations and restaurants that had "white only" bathrooms and drinking fountains. I was never turned out of a black-owned business (I was too naive to know that I wasn't supposed to be there) although most white-owned businesses either didn't serve blacks or had a special entrance in the back. I'd never seen anything like it.
I was rained on, snowed on and once spent a couple of hours on the highway in Bemidji, Minnesota when the temperature was 56 below zero. A Canadian trucker picked me upon his way to Winnipeg.
I wouldn't trade these experiences for the world. I met and talked to hundreds of very interesting, generous individuals. I spent time in towns and cities I'd only fly over today. America was a much freer, and less homogenous society (or assemblage of societies) back then. Things could be found in one part of the country that were really not found elsewhere. Sometimes, the local dialect was very hard to understand. Sometimes, local customs were very different from those to which I was accustomed.
Those days are gone, never to return. Nor should they, I guess. We were freer then, and able to do many things that are no longer possible.
You can't hitchhike anymore.
They've killed Freedom! Those bastards!