We soon got tired of the first apartment we were in. It was certainly nicer than anything we’d lived in together before that, but we didn’t like being in a complex. We had some new friends who asked us if we’d like to rent a house together, so we moved a little further from downtown into a small house. While living in that small house with our friends, we found an abandoned puppy walking in a busy street. He was too tiny to even hop up the curb onto the sidewalk but kept trying, tumbling backwards and crying. He followed us down the street until Paul finally picked him up and placed him on the sidewalk directing him to go home. He decided that we were his family and kept following us. He was so small that when we crossed the street, he tumbled off the curb, rolling a bit before setting himself upright again. We kept trying to chase him away. Paul even kicked at him a few times to no avail. We really didn’t want a dog. We were already having a baby and didn’t think we could handle another responsibility, plus we didn’t know how long we would stay in one place, so we went door to door looking for the owners of this adorable creature. No one claimed him, and we eventually brought him home and named him Topaz.
Our friends decided to move elsewhere, and the rent was too much for us to keep up with alone, so we went looking for another place to live. This was one of the perils of hanging out with so many transient people. The landlord of the apartment we eventually moved into told us that we could have a small dog. He was certainly small, and in our immediate love for him, we didn’t notice the size of his feet. He turned out to be a Great Dane/Malamute mix and started to grow. He also chewed on everything in sight including our laundry, the redwood porch and most of my houseplants. I had to watch him constantly. He somehow sensed that I was pregnant and would often lay next to me on the couch or the bed resting his head on my growing stomach.
Once we settled into this new place, it was time to make plans for the impending birth of our first child. I spent most of my free time reading about pregnancy and babies and becoming a “Susie Homemaker.” Paul soon found a job as a cook in a local restaurant, but I had no luck, so I stayed at home preparing to become a mom. I started collecting baby items and reading everything I could get my hands on about pregnancy and babies. We were getting food stamps at the time, but it wasn’t ever enough to provide for us. I was determined to eat well, paying very close attention to what nutrients my baby needed to grow healthy and strong, so I started visiting the dumpsters in back of the grocery stores and picking out the still perfectly good food that had gotten thrown out that day. I wasn’t the only one doing that but, because I was pregnant, the other dumpster divers gave me preference. I actually enjoyed not being the main bread winner for a change. It enabled me to focus on becoming a mother. I already had experience with babies since my mother had an unexpected child when I was 16 and was unwell for a while, so I’d had to learn quickly how to care for an infant.
We lived only a few blocks from the beach with its boardwalk and amusement park. I walked there every day to ride the wooden roller coaster, which was only a dollar at the time. After a while, and as I started to show more, the attendants wouldn’t even charge me for my daily ride. During my 8th month, we decided to take a trip to Disneyland, a place I’d always wanted to visit, having grown up on The Mickey Mouse Club. When I got up to the head of the line for the Matterhorn, a roller coaster, they said I couldn’t go on because of liability issues. Roller Coasters were my all-time favorite thing, and I was determined to go on this one, so I fought them until they finally let me sign a waiver and get on board. After all the drama of getting on, the actual ride was very anticlimactic but fun, nonetheless.
Being the true hippies that we were at that time, we had smoked up before arriving, being careful to not smoke too much because we had to pass the grooming inspectors and the all-important attitude inspectors. The Disneyland officials didn’t really like hippies, but at least we weren’t Yippies and, even though we were “highly inspired,” we passed through without incident. One of the first places we visited was Tom Sawyer’s island because we knew the Yippies had invaded it on August 6th, 1970, just a mere 5 years earlier. Here is a link for an article about the incident. http://nightflight.com/august-6-1970-the-day-the-yippies-invaded-disneyland/ Although the attraction was boring and not much of an attraction at all, it was a landmark for us.
After the Matterhorn ride, the next stop was the Disneyland Railroad. As we rode around the park, we passed the kennels where we were absolutely sure we could hear our puppy howling. We knew we wanted to go to the Haunted House next and, as our inspiration was waning, we picked up the dog and went out to the parking lot to get re-inspired and give our sweet Topaz a respite from his cage. We looked around, didn’t see anyone nearby and lit up a joint. We each got one hit when we suddenly saw two three-wheeled vehicles coming our way … fast! Uh-oh! Paul quickly threw the joint away. The cops walked up to us and said, “Okay, where is it?” Of course, Paul replied, “Where’s what, officer?” We heard a voice from the radio say, “It’s under the blue impala.” What?! How did they know that? We soon found out. They retrieved it, gave a sniff and said, “It’s still burning, too.”
We weren’t cooperative at first. We were under the impression that the law had recently changed, making possession a misdemeanor. The security guards, smiling slightly, informed us that, yes, the laws had changed but didn’t go into effect until January 1st. Not only that, Disneyland security didn’t have to answer to Anaheim police and even had their own underground jail, which they would be happy to let us check it out. Obviously, our attitudes changed quickly. We found out that they have cameras everywhere, even on all of the light poles in the parking lots, and a whole team watching them. They asked if we had any more inspiration. Paul, always a very quick thinker, handed over four more rolled joints, being very respectful and looking very cowed. We were all hoping that they wouldn’t decide to search the car, which would have landed us in a lot more trouble. They asked if he had purchased it in the park. He answered no that he had bought them in “Golden Gate Park from a guy named Stoney,” and they actually believed him. I guess we looked like tourists in our car with Connecticut plates and our little dog. Plus, I was 8 months pregnant.
We didn’t end up in jail. We got thrown out and told, “Don’t come back for the rest of the day!” We left and went to Knotts Berry Farm instead, coming back to Disneyland the following day, completely inspired and headed directly to The Haunted House before that newly acquired inspiration wore off. After they told us to leave, Paul turned to them and asked, “How did you know we were out here getting inspired?” They looked him dead in the eye and said, “The Mouse is everywhere.” That later became a song that we titled “875” or “The Mouse is Everywhere.” It was a very popular song locally, complete with the story and its psychedelic soundtrack.
As my due date got closer, I had to have a plan to get to the hospital. We had no car, so I decided that I would hitchhike. After all, we had just hitched all the way from the East Coast. What could go wrong? I figured I would hold up a sign that said, “Having a baby.” I knew first time labors were supposed to be long anyway, so I’d have plenty of time. And, who wouldn’t pick up a pregnant woman in labor? I’d have Paul with me, so I didn’t worry about safety. Another friend, Nancy, who had followed us out from Connecticut, wouldn’t hear of it and insisted on driving us. After being badgered for days by both Nancy and Paul, I finally relented. "Fine," I replied reluctantly. I still didn’t see a problem with my original plan. When Jessica was born, Nancy visited every day, washing dishes, cooking meals, cleaning, holding and cooing to Jessie while I napped. It was amazing. I was so thankful to have a friend to help out.
My labor and delivery were a nightmare. My water broke early, so they decided to induce me with Pitocin. I went from very mild contractions to full out labor in minutes. The labor was 19 hours, which seemed long at the time but turned out to be the shortest one of my three births. My regular doctor was on vacation, so I ended up with his replacement who was rude, yelling at me and saying that I wasn’t trying hard enough to push my baby out. He also smoked a big stinky cigar. That experience made me decide that I would never again have a hospital birth, not that I planned to have any more children anyway after this. But, when she finally came out, I fell instantly in love with my beautiful baby girl. She was bright eyed and alert. She didn’t cry when she came out but just gave a little sigh and settled into my arms while her dad and I gazed at her. She nursed easily, and I took to it easily. We were perfect together.
Because I was a stay-at-home mom, I started making my own baby food, freezing it in ice cube trays to be heated up later. I baked bread and cooked amazing meals. I read to her constantly because I had read about the importance of reading aloud to your children. If I was reading a book of my own, and she was in my arms, I just read my book aloud. I figured it would expand her potential vocabulary. I opened spice bottles for her to smell and gave her different textures to feel. I sang constantly and recited nursery rhymes. I also made lots of noise around her while she slept. I knew that her dad and I were going to be playing music and having people over in the evenings and needed her to sleep through anything. It worked. She, and later on her two brothers, ended up being great sleepers. I was determined to do everything right and kept looking for more and more information about child-rearing.
The sad ending to this story was that when our daughter was born, our dog Topaz laid under her crib and followed her everywhere. She would be in her little baby recliner, and he would lay there with his head on her body. Understandably, it was hard for me to care for a newborn and take Topaz out for his much-needed walks multiple times a day. Paul was working long hours and was too tired to go on walks with the dog when he came home. It was becoming increasingly difficult to deal with both needy living beings. Then, he became overprotective of Jessie Lea. If she was crying, he wouldn’t let me near her, growling and baring his teeth. We had to find another home for him, and fast. In addition to his over-protective nature, he had destroyed our redwood back porch and ate all of our plants down to nubs. We tried very hard but couldn’t find anyone who would take him. Finally, tearfully, we brought him to the shelter. The man working at the shelter instantly fell in love with him and took him to his farm. We were very sad to lose our companion but happy for him that he was in a place where he could run around and have the life he deserved.
Next up, meeting other eccentrics.
After camping out at Big Sur and a couple of other places along the coast, our friends decided to move on. Paul had just gotten a small inheritance from his grandmother who had recently died, so we had enough for a security deposit and rent on our own place. The first place we rented was a rather large one-bedroom apartment in an apartment complex. There was a pool table in the rec room, which was cool, but we had no furniture at all. We bought a mattress, and my parents bought us a television – a recurring theme later on. Then, we went dumpster diving and shopping at thrift stores to find some other items to get us by. Now that we were settled, or so we thought, it was time to plan our wedding. We asked the friends we’d camped with from back home to be our witnesses since they were still on the west coast, and they happily agreed. We found a ring at a pawn shop and a tails coat at a St. Vincent DePaul thrift shop. Paul insisted on buying me a new dress to get married in, so we went to a hippie clothing store for that. We found a non-denominational minister through Social Services. He’d been the prison preacher, was retiring soon and, at 85, was thrilled to be performing his first wedding ever. I’m not sure he realized at the time just what he was getting himself into. Because we had been living together for over a year, the state of California, under a special provision, waived the blood test and just issued the license immediately.
We planned to get married April 5th, 1975 on the beach in Santa Cruz, California. Paul picked the spot because it was where the San Lorenzo River met the Monterey Bay and the Monterey Bay met the Pacific Ocean. He was all about symbolism and finding meaning in everything. Also, because of symbolism, he wanted a sunrise wedding but realized that we couldn’t actually see the sunrise on the ocean at the west coast, and sunset had the wrong symbolism. He quickly decided that morning was still a good time, though not too early, because it would give us the whole rest of the day to celebrate. The reception was planned for our favorite nude beach, Bonnie Dune. Now that we’d both gotten over our modesty, we went to these nude beaches often. I decided to change my name and take Paul’s last name because of all the trauma I’d experienced when I lived at home. I had made the decision early on to someday change my name, and his was a good opportunity and a good name. Paul was pleased. Cavanaugh has now been my name much longer than my original one.
It was pouring rain when we woke up the morning of the wedding. Our commune friends, including Paul’s sister Sage, had arrived the night before and crashed in the living room. Needless to say, we’d all stayed up way too late partying and prepping food for the reception. We also had to regroup a bit since our original witnesses had traveled on to parts unknown and weren’t going to show up. So, we asked Sage and another friend to stand in for them. Paul wasn’t thrown by any of it, and certainly not by the rain. “Just have faith,” he said as he sat on the living room floor patching his wedding blue jeans. He also told that to the minister when he called to ask if we were cancelling or moving the ceremony.
We all piled into the cars in the rain, everyone shaking their heads with worry, but the rain stopped the minute we pulled up to the site. Reverend Whalen was amazed at Paul’s faith and kept mentioning it throughout the ceremony, though he was kind of incredulous when he realized that we had to get to our perfect wedding spot by walking through the amusement park. He made jokes about marrying us on the roller coaster, which I would have liked but, when we got to the gates, they were locked. The only other way to get to the site was to walk down the railroad tracks then slide down the wet sand dune. We had a person on each side of Reverend Whalen and his wife, holding on to their upper arms and sliding them right down. They both must have thought we were crazy but seemed to enjoy it thoroughly.
I remember very little about the actual wedding ceremony itself, just little bits and pieces. We had a friend playing Bach on her flute as the minister kind of droned on and on about God and family. I barely even heard him with the sound of my own thoughts so loud in my head. What was I thinking? I didn’t even believe in marriage and wasn’t religious. I was almost anti-religion. Why was I even here doing this? Once again, I was trying to please everyone else. I was 21 years old, five months pregnant and wondering who the hell I was and what was in store for me up ahead. My family had been horrified not only by the fact that I was pregnant, but that I didn’t plan to get married. My attitude at the time was, “Oh, well. Too bad.” They had threatened to disown me, which was fine with me. Paul however decided that our child needed grandparents and insisted on marrying me. So now what? I wish we had known enough to write our own vows. At least I insisted on taking out the obey part in the traditional vows. I wasn’t interested in obeying anyone anymore. Soon I would be a married woman with a new name. The new name at least was a plus. I sure wish I could have just taken the name without getting married, though. This was supposed to be the happiest day of my life, wasn’t it? That’s what I was raised to believe. And, I did love Paul, but I also knew how hard he was to live with. We argued all the time. But my parents argued all the time and so did his. I remember thinking that probably every couple did that. I guess I thought I could change him, help him get over all of that early stuff that ripped him apart. Maybe he could help me get over my early stuff, too. We’d be raising a family together. Maybe we could be happy, if we didn’t kill each other first. As Reverend Whalen was wrapping it up and pronouncing us man and wife, I remember thinking, “Oh my God, what have I done?” The minister had consistently mispronounced Paul’s last name throughout all of the preparations. As he pronounced us married, he mispronounced it again despite all of our coaching. As soon as the ceremony ended, the clouds opened up and we drove back to our apartment in the pouring rain to have our reception at home. Some new friends lent us their stereo for the night for our “honeymoon.”
The next day, life went back to normal with Paul and I looking for work. We had the biggest fight of our lives that day as the reality of what we’d done finally hit us both. As we argued, a woman came up and asked if we would join their protest demanding better treatment of homecare workers. It not only brought us out of our distress but started us on the road to activism as we both joined the march, hand-in-hand with each other and shoulder-to-shoulder with the workers. We managed to stay together for a total of 20 years.
While living at Project One, we met some of the most interesting and eccentric people I had ever known. First, there were the folks living in the mini-commune known as “The Estates” where we stayed. Fred was a metal worker/engineer and was currently building an airplane from found parts in his large basement space. Diana was an artist who dreamed of going to an art school in Boston but had no money, so she decided to become a high-paid call girl. She actually did make enough money to move to Boston and pursue her dream a few years later. And there were others, Gwen, Michael, Ford, Sage … There was a garden on the roof and unusual places such as a secret recording studio/practice space for The Phantom Band, located behind hidden doors because it was against code. There were too many unusual people and things to name here. It was an amazing education socially, politically, dietarily, medicinally and more.
Soon after arriving at Project One, we got a tour of the building and met Baron. Baron was on public assistance for mental illness, but he bragged about purposely getting his diagnosis so that he could follow his chosen vocation of dumpster diving. At that time, he was the only person in the city of San Francisco to be issued a license to legally go through people’s garbage. He was a collector and had every kind of collection imaginable. He asked me and Paul what we had collected as kids. As we named various things, he opened cabinets, chests, free standing closets, drawers, etc. to reveal their hidden treasures, matchbox covers, buttons, stamps and coins, everything you could imagine. We never stumped him, though we tried hard. Paul even asked if he had LSD, and he reluctantly showed us a vial of liquid acid made by Stanley Owsley, the psychedelic chemist of the stars. Although Paul asked for a taste, he was refused because it was the only thing that cured Baron’s frequent headaches. One pin drop was all he needed, and he wanted it to last his lifetime.
After we played his game for a while, he looked me up and down and asked if he could buy my baby when he or she was born. Good thing I was standing in front of a chair. As I plopped down, and firmly said no, I told him about the negative test result I’d gotten in Pittsburgh. He pleaded with me explaining that he had plenty of money and would take care of me throughout my pregnancy in addition to paying me whatever price I asked. He had always wanted a child but wasn’t interested in the whole relationship mess. He’d always hoped to find a live baby in a dumpster but so far had only found dead ones. He strongly suggested I have another test done and asked me again to reconsider his offer. If I ended up with twins, he would gladly take one of them for me.
Needless to say, I went to the free clinic the next day for another test and was shocked to find out that I was indeed pregnant. My head was reeling. I’d been almost religious about using birth control. I was also a little worried about all of the LSD I had done in the past year or so. I was looking for a new start, but this was not what I thought it would be. We were homeless on the opposite coast from our family and friends and had no desire to go back home. We started to come up with a plan. The first thing that happened was that Paul asked me to marry him. I emphatically said, NO!” I didn’t believe in marriage and saw it as a trap for women. I was learning about so many alternative lifestyles and was trying to turn away from the norms not buy into them. I sent my parents a postcard telling them about my pregnancy, a ridiculous move, I know. I obviously wasn’t thinking clearly at the time. But my parents were not going to be understanding and, knowing how it would go, I didn’t want to talk with them on the phone.
My mom and dad were very loving and involved parents, but my mother was too involved, running every aspect of my life until I moved away. I’m sure this is why I am still so fiercely independent today, not wanting anyone to tell me what to do. Mom even came into my bedroom (in my own apartment) one day, where I was living with Paul, to wake me in time for work. She said she just happened to be passing by and didn’t want me to be late. My mom also had mental health issues making life at home chaotic and sometimes dangerous. She would go from lively, playful and engaged to angry and violent within minutes with no warning. She also invented or greatly exaggerated events that happened while my dad was at work. Dad was the enforcer, so there were frequent beatings in the evenings with a leather belt. There was no question that I was not going back home. I was finally free. However, Paul finally convinced me to call them. You can imagine how that went. After threatening to disown me unless I got married and hanging up numerous times, they finally calmed down a bit. They offered to pay for us to return to Connecticut, pay for a wedding and set us up in an apartment. I refused. I felt as though this might be my only chance to escape, and I was taking it. We would figure it out. Paul insisted on getting married, saying that he didn’t want my family to turn away from us and our child. There was also still a stigma in some places at that time about couples living together outside of marriage, and we weren’t sure where we would end up living. In Connecticut, we’d had to get a ring for me and pretend to be married to get our apartment. So, I reluctantly and unhappily agreed.
Paul immediately got a job as cook in a sleazy café on Market Street that had just become vacant when the last cook had been shot. We also played music on the streets. We learned a lot from busking in San Francisco. It was important to play upbeat and loud music to catch the attention of the passersby. One rainy morning, Paul and I stood in an alcove and played “Wild Thing” with Paul jumping out at folks, long hair flying as he screamed out “wild thing.” We made more money from that one song than the rest of the day. Totally shaken up, everyone reached into their pockets and purses pulling out dollar bills and tossing them on the ground as they quickly rushed away. We also got unusual tips in the guitar case – food, food stamps, jewelry, even a joint from a boy who looked like he was maybe 9 or 10. It was pretty cutthroat though with other musicians resenting our success and trying to undermine it by setting up right next to us causing us to move to a less populated street corner. Although we were barely getting by, we knew that this would never be enough to live on, though. We also knew that we couldn’t stay in San Francisco. Although there were other children living in Project One, and we finally felt at home here, we soon realized that this commune was not a good place to raise a child. There were three-year old children smoking pot and lots of kids mostly left to their own devices. That was not the environment we wanted for our child.
While we were busking one day, up walked our friends from Connecticut who had given us the ride from Stamford to New York City at the start of our grand adventure. We were all shocked to see each other! They had driven across the country and wanted to experience San Francisco and the whole Grateful Dead phenomena. We were all Deadheads, having gone to numerous shows together on the east coast, too many to even count. Paul and I had just randomly found the Mars Hotel a few days before and were anxious to show our Deadhead friends. It looked just like it did on the album cover without the psychedelic outer space background, unless you were tripping, I suppose. They were excited to see this landmark, but we were all saddened and surprised to find just a pile of rubble. Much to our chagrin, it had been demolished the day after we saw it. They didn’t believe us at first until we found a newspaper with an article about all the deadheads who showed up to watch its demise.
Our friends told us that would be moving on soon and invited us to join them. We were looking for another place to settle, so we went with them heading south down the coast. We went to Big Sur and camped along the northern coast. Finally, we ended up settling in Santa Cruz, California where we got married and had our daughter. But more on that in the next installment.
After having hitchhiked across the northern part of the United States, we were so relieved when we finally made it to California. For one thing, we were no longer standing outside in the bitter cold wind and snowstorms. As soon as we got out of the car in Sacramento, Paul took his heavy coat off then, 5 minutes later put it back on again. We hadn’t anticipated that the Northern California winter would be damp and dismal. But that was still okay with us, we felt as though we were finally home. Now we just had to make our way south to San Francisco where we could land for a little while until we figured out what to do next. It was early in the morning, and unbelievably, it took us all day to make it down the coast to the city. We waited for 5 hours in Oakland for a ride across the bay and finally arrived in the late afternoon.
Paul’s sister lived in an intentional community located on Howard Street in the warehouse district of San Francisco. We rang the doorbell and waited. We got a very gruff greeting and were left waiting on the street until his sister could be found. She finally came down and assured the door keeper that we were cool and could be let in. The security was very tight there because the police and FBI were always trying to gain access illicitly. When we walked in, our minds were blown and continued to be blown for days afterwards.
Project One was a six-story candy factory/warehouse that had been abandoned and taken over by a bunch of hippies. When they first acquired the building, there were no interior walls. The tenants rented square footage and built their own “space” within the larger building. There were communes within the commune, and we stayed in “The Estates” which was one of those. We were so thankful to be taken in by these eccentric people. A requirement for living there was that you had to be in the arts or technology in some way. This was where I first learned about alternative education at Symbas Alternative High School. Little did I know that this form of education would later on become an important facet of my life and work. There was also a very cool preschool run by Ray Patch, who was a large hairy hippie. I loved seeing him with his little charges.
The place was filled with radicals, and this was when my real education about alternative politics really began. We were there during the time that Patty Hearst was wanted. There were people in Project One who knew where she was hiding, which was very close to the police station. I guess it’s true that if you want to stay hidden, hide in plain sight. There were members of various radical groups trying to keep a low profile, which is why the security was so high. We were told, as soon as we arrived, that we were welcome to stay the night as visitors, but any longer-term stay had to be subject to a vote. There would be a voluntary meeting at which people would vote on whether to allow us to stay or not. We had already been accepted into The Estates for a short-term but indefinite stay, so they spoke up for us. The way the votes worked was anyone could vote no, and we would be out. Luckily, we were accepted by the larger group as well.
There were also drugs everywhere. I was disturbed by seeing three-year olds smoking pot. I found out many years later that there was sexual abuse happening among some of the older children towards the younger ones. Most of the parents there were responsible, but like anything, there were a lot of mistakes made. The whole project was a vast experiment started in 1970 that inspired two other projects, Project Two and Project Artaud. I visited a friend from Connecticut who was living in Project Artaud at the time and wasn’t impressed. There were pets there, and people let their dogs run free in the building but were not cleaning up after them. I was relieved to be staying where I was.
We were staying on the third floor, sleeping on the couches in the communal living room. In the middle of the third-floor hallway was a huge igloo looking structure. This was the bathhouse. When you first walked in, there was a big curved dressing room with benches built into the walls. Across from that were three sinks with mirrors and beautiful mosaic work. Walking further in, I saw the shower room with three shower heads and no curtains or walls. At the very end was a very large bathtub with a sign that read, “minimum of 6 people for a bath.” After being on the road for weeks, I was dying for a shower, but I had never been naked in front of strangers before and really only in front of my lovers. I was also very uncomfortable with my body. I had severe scoliosis, a curvature of the spine that caused my body to be twisted making me a hunchback with one breast very noticeably smaller than the other. During high school, I wore a steel and leather brace that ran from just under my chin, stretching my neck, to just below my hips. I had been bullied and ridiculed all four years and was still affected by that treatment. The last thing I wanted to do was expose myself both physically and emotionally.
Finally, I waited until 3 am the next day, hoping that no one else would be there at that hour. I undressed and started my shower. Aaah, the warm water felt so good. Then, in walked Michael, a man from The Estates. He nonchalantly undressed and stood under the shower head next to me. I was mortified, but he just started having a conversation with me as if nothing unusual was happening. Eventually, I relaxed and enjoyed both my shower and the conversation. As we were getting dressed together in the dressing room, I realized that I wasn't rushing to cover up. I didn't care anymore. We both brushed our teeth and walked back to The Estates to turn in for the night. That experience certainly cured me of any modesty I had. It took Paul quite a bit longer to get accustomed to the idea but, after making me stand guard outside the entrance the first time, he finally accepted it, too. What an education we both were getting, and that was just the beginning.
On New Year’s Day, after a wild night of reveling and saying goodbye to our friends and enemies, my boyfriend at the time, Paul Cavanaugh and I left for our hitchhiking adventure. After a series of adventures along the way, we found ourselves standing outside of a truck stop in Big Springs, Nebraska trying to get a ride through Wyoming. I was 21 years old. To catch up with this story, read parts 1 – 3 first.
As we stood outside with our thumbs out and holding up our sign, it started to snow. We didn’t think much of it at the time. It was winter after all. Pretty soon the wind picked up, and it was snowing quite hard. In spite of the snow, we just couldn’t understand why no one even hesitated cruising by. After a few hours, we went inside to warm up. We were informed that we could only stay inside if we ordered food, so we both had breakfast. We lingered as long as we could because we could see that the storm had really picked up by then. The waitress finally came over and threw us out. We trudged back outside with our bags and guitar only to find that the snowstorm had now turned into an all-out blizzard. We stayed out in the cold for a while then wandered back in for coffee. Once again, we were told that we had to take our coffee outside unless we bought a meal. We didn’t have enough money to keep buying full meals every time we wanted to go in to warm up, so we decided to ask each trucker personally, if they would give us a ride to Wyoming. Every one of them turned us down. Some of them offered to take us to Colorado, but because hitchhiking was illegal there, we declined. A few cars offered to take us to Colorado, too. In fact, it seemed as though everyone was going that way. Not a single car was heading in the direction we wanted.
Eventually, the cold got to us, and I remembered that my brother had given me a space blanket. It was a very thin sheet made of Mylar that was silver on one side and black on the other and was used by NASA to fight extremes in weather. That gift kept us alive as we huddled underneath with occasional breaks to use the bathroom or buy coffee, trying to stay warm and still holding out our sign and at least one thumb. We even bought a couple more meals, but hitchhikers weren’t welcome, and they started even hurrying us through those meals, threatening to call the State Troopers. It wasn’t illegal to hitchhike in Nebraska, and we were very careful to stay off the highway itself, but we also knew that we didn’t want any trouble and hippies were considered trouble in general. We stayed at that truck stop for 46 hours until one kind woman, Diana, told us that the reason we couldn’t get a ride was because all of the roads to Wyoming were closed due to the storm. She offered us a ride to the Denver bus station, which we gladly accepted. She made and sold riding crops at horse shows and was on the way to one in Colorado. Her car was packed full of them, so Paul and I took turns perching precariously on top of them in the back seat while the other one rode in the front. It was not the most comfortable ride, but it was warm, and she was very friendly. A few months later, we met her again in California. I’ve always been amazed by the number of people I’ve run into in unexpected places other than where I first knew them. You’ll hear a little more about that as I go along with these stories.
Diana dropped us off at the Greyhound bus station where we bought two tickets for Salt Lake City. We had a long wait for the bus, so Paul pulled out the guitar and started to play. I sang along, and soon we had collected quite a crowd. People were dancing and clapping hands. We didn’t know what the policy was for busking in the station, so we didn’t take the chances and kept the guitar case closed. However, a few people came by and dropped money on top of the case or handed it to me. I certainly wasn’t going to refuse, and our money was running pretty low by now especially with the added cost of the bus tickets. A few official looking people came by but didn’t stop us, so we kept it up. It was the perfect way to pass the time. And, we were finally warm! One older woman came over and said, “Look, it’s Johnny Denver!” Now, Paul looked nothing like John Denver. He was tall and thin with long brown hair and beard and no glasses. We kept denying it, but she insisted on getting his autograph. He couldn’t refuse. We always joked that somewhere out in Colorado is a bogus autograph of John Denver signed by Paul Cavanaugh.
The bus ride to Salt Lake was spectacular! Although, initially we were upset by having to spend the extra money, we were so awed by the scenery, it made it all okay. Once we got to Salt Lake City, we decided to skip the usual highway hitchhiking and try our hand at “air hitchhiking.” I had belonged to a book club before I met Paul, and one of the books I bought was called “The Great Escape.” It was a hippie guide to practically everything. I still own it, but it is very worn with the pages all falling out, so it’s currently held together in a folder. I would love to find another copy somewhere. In it was a section on travel that had an article on how to hitch a ride at an airport. We were eager to try it out, so off we went to the airport. We never made it that far, though. Before too long, a man stopped his car and offered us a ride all the way to Sacramento. He told us he would pay for everything along the way including a room for the night, all of our meals and money to gamble with in Nevada. We were pretty suspicious at first but he soon convinced us that he was an okay guy. He had been working on the Alaskan Pipeline for three years and wasn’t a drinker or gambler, so he had saved all of his money. This guy was loaded. All he wanted in return was someone to listen to his stories. That was so easy! For starters, he had been a welder for the Navy in his younger days, working underwater in every ocean and sea. His adventures grew from there. Although Paul and I had agreed to take turns staying awake, it was hard for either of us to sleep because we didn’t want to miss anything. We both slept well at the Motel in Nevada after an amazing meal and an evening of gambling. Then Will took us the rest of the way to Sacramento. He had been estranged from his children and was going to try to find them and start over.
A few years ago, I picked up a young man hitchhiking, because I always remember where I’ve been and what I’ve done. He hopped in the car and started to tell me his stories, which were few and (to me) a little boring. After listening for a little while, I pulled my car over to the side of the road, looked him in the eye and said, “Man, you have no idea who just picked you up or what I might have to share with you.” I told him about my Salt Lake City ride and what I’d learned from that. I told him that his turn would come but that his job right now was to listen to the people who picked him up, not to entertain them with his adventures. He said that I wasn’t the first person to tell him that and thanked me. He asked lots of questions, suddenly being very sincerely interested in my experiences. I ended up driving him all the way from Albany, NY to Vermont that day and heard from him months later via email. He thanked me again and told me that he was listening well and collecting his own stories to tell when he was finished with his adventure. I assured him that his adventures were probably just beginning. I know that mine have never ended. The next installment will be our arrival in San Francisco in 1975.