I had stars in my eyes.
I was learning to fly,
and I didn't know why
I was always on the run."
I was doing pretty well, sticking fairly close to home, at least close for me, and feeling no desire to go anywhere else when I saw a young man on the side of the road with a sign on his large backpack that read, “Broke and Traveling.” I slowed down to scope him out, decided he looked pretty harmless, turned around and picked him up. He was pleasant and entertaining but was also too full of himself and determined to show me how cool he was because of this lifestyle he had chosen. He spent the first 10 minutes of the ride regaling me with all of his amazing adventures when I’d finally had enough. I turned and told him that, because he was so busy being cool and trying to impress me with his stories, he was missing out on a big opportunity. I said that the whole point of traveling was to meet people along the way and learn what they have to teach us. I asked his age, which was 23. I explained that I had done what he did when I was around his age but, back then, I mostly shut up and listened. Sheepishly, he said that he’d been told that before. Maybe it’s time to learn that lesson, I replied. He agreed, and now that I had his attention, I told him about my favorite ride.
I was hitchhiking across the country with Paul, my former husband, in the winter of 1975. We had been stuck for over 24 hours at a truck stop in Big Springs, Nebraska during a blizzard that had, unbeknownst to us, closed all the main roads going into Wyoming. We were headed for the West Coast and didn’t want to hitchhike through Colorado because of the unforgiving law enforcement there. No one bothered to tell us about the road closures, and the truck stop café had stopped letting us go inside to get warm unless we bought a meal every time. Going in for coffee wasn’t good enough. Our money dwindling fast, we spent a lot of time huddled under our “space blanket.” It was a lightweight tarp made out of Mylar that kept in our body heat and kept out the cold wind. That might have been the best going away gift we had gotten for our journey, that and the down jacket from my parents. Sometime into the second day of that extreme weather, a young woman finally told us that we couldn’t get through Wyoming until after the storm passed and offered us a ride to the Denver bus station. She made and sold decorated riding crops and was on her way to Denver for a horse show. We gratefully took the ride, and took turns sitting in the back of the car, riding on top of the boxes of crops while the other of us sat in the front seat. We actually ran into her months later in San Francisco, with fewer boxes of crops. We were determined not to hitchhike out of Denver and risk jail time, so after busking in the bus station, to raise a little more cash, where an older couple was convinced that Paul was John Denver and insisted on getting an autograph (which he happily gave), we took a Greyhound through the Rocky Mountains to Salt Lake City. What a gorgeous ride!
The year before, while I was still holding down a job, I had joined a book club and got a book entitled “The Great Escape.” It was a kind of hippie’s guide to everything, similar to the “Whole Earth Catalog” but funkier, and I still own it, though it's pages are well-worn and threatening to disintegrate. It was in the travel section of this book that I had learned about air hitchhiking. You go to an airport, find the charter planes and start asking for rides. I’d even met someone who had done this successfully, so when we got off the bus in Salt Lake we decided to try it out and starting hitching a ride to the airport. Before long, an older man picked us up and told us that he would take us all the way to Sacramento, feed us and put us up overnight in a motel room. We were pretty suspicious at first and repeatedly asked what our part of the bargain was going to be. Ray told us that he was traveling alone, trying to connect with his kids and had just finished working a few years on the Alaskan pipeline. He was lonely and wanted to tell his stories. He seemed like a very cool guy, so off we went.
I’m so sorry I didn’t keep a journal back then. I would love to read it now. I don’t remember any details of his stories, only vague bits and pieces. I do remember that he was a welder for the Navy and had gone all over the world working on ships. He’d done underwater welding in three different oceans, the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian and the Caribbean and Mediterranean Seas and had finally ended up in Alaska welding on the pipeline. He wasn’t a drinker or gambler and had saved all of his money over the years. Now he was ready to retire. He’d been estranged from his wife and kept from his children and was now seeking them out hoping to have some kind of relationship with them as adults. He got us our own motel room, bought all of our meals and even gave us money to gamble with in Reno, NV. He was also very generous with his advice, which we listened to eagerly. One of the most important things he told us was to learn what the people we met had to teach us. He explained that every city, every state, every country has its own unique culture that’s only accessible through people. He reminded us that everyone has a story to tell, and that every story is different. He also applauded our initiative and instincts, dropped us off in Sacramento with a little extra cash and wished us well. I often think of him and can still see his face in my mind’s eye. He took us many miles over two days and had a profound effect on me.
I finished my story and glanced over at my passenger. “Wow,” he said, “my wife is never going to believe this. She is going to be so jealous.” I said, “Just try to remember that it’s not your turn to be the guide yet. You’ll have your turn and this adventure will change who you are and how you look at things. It will be your job to pass that on. But for now, it’s your job to listen.” Driving further than I had planned, I took him as far as I could, almost to the Vermont border. He didn’t have far to go to his destination. We both got out. He thanked me for the ride, hugged me and thanked me again, then hugged me again. I remembered doing the same when we left Ray’s company. I waved goodbye and smiled a satisfied smile. And although I know it’s my time to be the guide and tell my stories, I’m not ready to stop collecting them yet.