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.