I recently heard a radio interview with author Jack Reid, who has written a new book entitled Roadside Americans: The Rise and Fall of Hitchhiking in a Changing Nation. He was saying how, with particular respect to the Covid-19 pandemic, hitchhiking is decidedly out of fashion.
But I was reminded of two significant hitchhiking experiences from my twenties (read: that was a long, long time ago. You can still remember this stuff, Jack?). Here’s the first.
I’d met a girl and fallen in love with her. She was for me the embodiment of Neil Young’s “Cinnamon Girl.” We’d been together for a while and were traveling from South [sic] California to South [no-sic] Dakota so I could introduce her to my mother. (Funny to think back about how we were real counter-culture hippies, from our pony tails right down to Hanes pocketed Ts, psychedelically patched jeans and huarache sandals with tire-tread soles, but still of a mind to make proper introductions of one’s intended to one’s parents.)
So on with the story. We were in my Volkswagen bug (blue, I think), rattling and putt-putting eastward on the old two-lane highways of America. I reached out, put my hand on my girl’s thigh, gave it a squeeze and a pawstroke, and smiled as we looked into each other’s eyes. We were happy. We were having fun. Then I turned my gaze back to look out the windshield and watched us smash into a steel guardrail protecting a little stream. Thank goodness for the VDub’s putt-putting, for we were uninjured but now bereft of transportation.
A little shaken but still believing in the Cosmic Giggle, we pulled our rucksacks (today we call them backpacks) out of the backseat and stood on the road waiting for a car to beckon with our outstretched thumbs. Visions of Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady flitted through my stoner brain. Just when we were about to relinquish all hope, a pickup came churning out of the wobbly mid-afternoon heat waves rising from the asphalt. And stopped. A cowboy said, quite unnecessarily, “You kids need a ride?”
We tossed our rucksacks in the back and piled in. Our savior drove us on down the road, expressing his sympathies for our dead bug. To our amazement, he offered to put us up for the night and give us a ride “into town” the next morning. As he drove, we told him about our journey, which had now become an adventure. Eventually he turned off into a sprawling ranch yard. A few cowboys glanced at us, kicking up dust with their pointed-toe boots as they shuffled between outbuildings. My girlfriend and I exchanged looks and smiles, not believing our good fortune. Then our cowboy savior dropped the hammer: could I help him with a little chore?
Why of course, I said, my girlfriend nodding and smiling. I soon found myself on a flatbed truck, backed up to an immense barn and fully loaded with hay bales. My newfound cowboy buddy gave me a pitchfork with instructions for how to fork the bales and pitch them through the hayrack, that small hatch-door opening above the big barn door. Nothing to it: fork the bale, turn and pitch it sideways through the hayrack. So not forkpitch, but pitchfork. My cowboy buddy, up above in the hayloft, would move and stack them.
I was strong back then, so lifting and pushing these 50-pound bales up to should height wasn’t too tough. At least not at first. But all too soon I began to heat up, so off came my Mexican poncho vest. I tossed it to my girlfriend standing below, who was nodding and smiling her encouragement. I wiped my brow, blew her a kiss, and forked another haybale.
Each bale grew a little heavier and my arms grew a little more tired as I worked my way closer to the truck cab, but with my girlfriend standing there, so proud of me, nodding and smiling her encouragement, I grinned, sweated, and soldiered on. Once I’d cleared the top layer of bales, I realized I’d dropped about two feet to the second layer and would have to give the bales additional lift. I looked over the edge of the flatbed: six more layers of bales. I looked up at the cowboy, who was grinning up a storm. I looked at my girlfriend, still nodding and smiling her encouragement.
I forked haybales. I pitched haybales. Bits of hay and thick dust trailed from them and settled on me. The cowboy, up in the hayloft, seemed to be spending more and more time waiting for the next bale. My girlfriend was joined by a few other cowpokes, who murmured and chuckled with one another as they watched.
My arms were about to fall off but somehow I got through it, although I can’t recall if I cleared the truck of its entire complement of hay bales that day. A cowbell rang and my savior called down to announce supper. Cowboys came from every direction, flocking toward the ranch house dining room. The meal was well worth the work I’d exchanged for it: huge slabs of grilled steaks, buckets of mashed potatoes, fresh salad, and lots of beer. I soon observed that the cowboys seated at the long table were more interested in my girlfriend than me. Around eight, she and I were shown to a handsomely furnished guest room with a great big four-poster bed, upon which I immediately crashed without even taking the time to brush my teeth.
Morning came early on this Western ranch, but so did breakfast, another meal fit for hard-working cowboys and a still ravenous hay-baler. Soon we were saddling up, so to speak, and the cowboys came up, slapped my back, shook my hand, and grinned like loons (at my girlfriend) as they praised my hard work of the previous day. I was grateful they chose not to try for hugs or kisses with my sweet, still smiling, girlfriend. The implicit assumption that hippies didn’t know how to work hard was now corrected and updated. Then it was off in the pickup to the next little Utah town, where we would continue our hitchhiking for several hundreds of more miles until reaching Cheyenne, Wyoming, where we caught a Greyhound bus to my family home, nestled at the edge of the Black Hills.
My mom liked my girlfriend, a lot, and so did my brothers. I still have some pictures to prove it. But the proof positive was when my mom bought us our return bus tickets. Or was that to make sure we didn’t decide to stay?
Happy Mother’s Day 2020 to the mother of my son.
Featured image: Uma Thurman as Sissy Hankshaw from the Tom Robbins novel-cum-movie, “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues,” photo credit New Line Cinema.