There you are, standing by the side of I-70. Everything is simple. All you have is the pack on your back. Everything is mystery. You can’t count on anything except that sooner or later someone will give you a ride (although you may even doubt that, waiting for six hours in the desert trying to stay in the shade of a lightpole and worrying about the water level in your canteen).
You’re like some zen hobo begging at the side of the road to Tokyo. You could be anyone, anywhere. No matter what your name is or where you’re from, right now you’re just a rolling stone. You’ve cast your fate to the wind, relying upon the goodness and generosity of your fellow man.
You realize the importance of Mind. You’ve come to believe in karma and the importance of maintaining a positive attitude. Don’t get mad at the hundreds of drivers that pass by. None of them owes you anything. It’s just a game of percentages, a waiting game. And I don’t know anyone who would stop for a scowling face. As you wait your mind keeps making images. You’re reminiscing about good times with old friends and all of a sudden a car pulls up. Just when you’d totally forgotten about getting a ride or how your feet hurt. And once again you’re moving through space, a guest in someone’s vehicle.
Inside every car is a unique world. A van full of partying hippies going to a concert. A truck cab with a suicidal driver barreling through an Iowa thunderstorm with ten tons of dynamite. Three dogs in the back of a pick-up truck. A Cadillac with a corporate vice-president. A midnight ride with an ex-Marine oil rigger, a doberman and a shotgun. Or a conversation in a VW that takes, it seems, five minutes yet you’ve gone 300 miles.
A ride may take you to the next exit or across three states, to some unknown but fantastic folk festival or on a scenic drive through grape orchards or a national park, or to a nice restaurant or a beautiful home where you get a comfortable night’s sleep. Anything can happen. Some of the drivers are like old friends, some preach, some argue, and some just listen and leave you to do the entertaining. Bless them all. It’s hard to fault anyone who’s been kind enough to give you free transportation.
Dropped off late at night in a desolate mountain pass, I nearly went crazy alternately searching for a place to sleep among the lifeless stones and standing at the side of the deserted road in the blast of the wind. “Wendover, Nevada” it said on the green sign. I noticed that the wind had died down and the sky was beginning to lighten. Joyous, I walked towards the dawn past a sign saying “Welcome to Utah.” Looking around at the barren, biblical mountains and watching the sun rise over the salt flats, I composed this haiku:
In the first light of dawn, a spider crawls along the concrete. Birds sing.
I incubated and hatched them, adore them and am adored by them, and feed them on choice corn. Together we learned to fly. Now they are strong. When the waning half moon rises, I fasten harnesses to a dozen pair of webbed feet, climb into the hammock net wearing cape and beret, give the signal, and a dozen pairs of wings beat. We soar over the communes, the towns and the tiny mountain shacks of odd hermits. I sprinkle cayenne and spores of joy over the world below. We all cackle wildly.
Smart as dolphin, strong as moose, I revere the glittering goose. Leda’s love with gray-eyed Zeus Equals the love of man and goose. The half moon sees me on the loose, Roaming the sky by the power of goose.
Twin Oaks Commune
In May, 1981, the I-40 bypass outside of Tucumcari, New Mexico, was connected to the rest of the interstate system. What was formerly a part of Route 66 is now merely Tucumcari Boulevard. No one driving across the country need ever pass through Tucumcari now.
Just before dusk I drove into Tucumcari and stopped at the first motel I saw, the Pony Soldier Motel. In the office I paid for my room and brought a picture postcard of Tucumcari Mountain from the manager, an Indian woman. She spoke only to tell me the price of the room, and I interpreted her reticence not as unfriendliness, but as a silence that seemed to go with the mysterious, parched landscape. At that time I did not realize that I had experienced my first encounter with the great Indian silence. I like this silence because in it the eyes are free to talk without being contradicted by words. When I went to my room I found a scorpion waiting, motionless, in front of the door, and as I approached it scuttled away with its abdomen curled suicidally above its body.
I was exhausted from driving, and fell asleep right away. Several hours later I woke up, took a shower and wandered outside. In the moonlight I could see, a short distance to the south, Tucumcari Mountain, a lonely, low table of rock silhouetted above the dark, flat land. I had read a short account of the legend of Tucumcari Mountain, printed on the back of the postcard I had bought. An Indian chief, Wautonomah, had a beautiful daughter named Kari whom he planned to give in marriage to the young man who would become his successor. There were two competitors for her hand. One of them, Tocom, loved Kari and was loved by her. There was a fight between the young warriors and Tocom was slain. Kari, who had watched from a hiding place, ran out and killed the victor with her own knife. Then, kneeling over Tocom, she took her own life. In horror, Wautonomah cried out, “Tocom! Kari!” and slew himself in despair. The episode occurred on a mountain which became named for the two lovers — Tucumcari.
As I stood on the veranda I felt something I’ve never forgotten. It could be called an experience of the spirit-of-place and also, an experience of time in which the past and the present co-exist. Later, I would read the “being-time” teaching of the Thirteenth Century Japanese Zen Master, Dogen Kigen, who wrote: “Time moves from present to past.” That night in Tucumcari I felt a poignant sense of my own life moving, ineluctably, yet with everything stopped and collaborating for an eternity.
Inside my room once again, I took out my road map and looked at the red line I had drawn from Birmingham, Alabama (where I had served as a VISTA volunteer) to San Francisco and at the little dot marked “Tucumcari.” I was alone, on a journey to a city where I knew not a single soul. Although I had no way of knowing what would happen in the coming years, I knew I was doing what I had to do, and this knowledge filled me with exhilaration.
Later that night, I watched a movie on television about one of the Indian wars. Indians kept charging across a river to get at the American soldiers they had pinned down on the other side, and the troopers mowed down hundreds of the them. I sat there in the motel room with its Pueblo motif decor, mesmerized by the images.
Next morning I got started before breakfast. I left the motel and drove to a nearby gas station where a young Indian man filled the tank and cleaned the windshield. He noticed my belongings piled-up in the back and front seats, smiled and asked where I was going. I told him, San Francisco. “Good luck,” he said. I turned on to Route 66, past the motels, the gas stations, the truck stops and diners, and headed West.
San Francisco, California
The economy and romance of hitchhiking had always attracted me, but, afraid to surrender to the whims of the road, I remained behind the wheel.
Until July, 1976. I was in Washington, D.C. with three friends for the People’s Bicentennial Rally and it was time to begin the 600-mile drive back to Athens, Georgia. But I didn’t want to leave without visiting the museums, so I decided to stay and hitchhike home.
I had a fine adventure exploring museums by day and hiding in the bushes to sleep at night. Twice each day I ate for free on leftovers from un-bussed tables in museum cafeterias. Each morning I bathed in the magnolia-shrouded fountain outside the National Museum of Art.
After four days of this, I was ready to go back. On my last night in town, I was approached by a Hare Krishna devotee, who sold me a flower and invited me to a feast. After the meal, I caught a ride back downtown with another devotee, who was also visiting Washington.
In the morning, I bravely walked to the Interstate. With nervous anticipation, I stuck out my thumb. Nothing happened. I decided to try my luck at the next entrance ramp. The easiest way to get there was to walk down the median strip and then cross back over. But the cement median narrowed unexpectedly, forcing me to walk crab-style between the constricting guard rails. That’s how I got my first ride.
A Chevrolet Impala screeched to a halt in the fast lane. The driver frantically motioned me inside. He was angry. “You could have been killed walking down the middle of the road like that!” he said. From his manner and dress — and the large Bible on the seat between us — I assumed he was a preacher. We spoke little, but he pointed out the Arlington National Cemetery as we passed.
He dropped me off where D.C.’s perimeter highway feeds into I-95 and assured me that I wouldn’t have any trouble catching a ride. Indeed, traffic was heavy, but none of it stopped for me. Hundreds of cars passed by while I tried different stances. I also tried mentally willing particular cars to stop. I didn’t think I looked dangerous or weird, so why wouldn’t anybody stop? My frustration turned to anger. I cursed aloud and occasionally switched from thumb to middle finger. I stood in that spot for nearly three hours.
Then I noticed a red van far off on the loop coming my way. I knew it would stop. Climbing in, I discovered that the driver was the same Hare Krishna fellow who had brought me back from the ashram the night before! I told him how long I’d been standing there and about my resentment and anger. He said, “I used to do a lot of hitching, but I would chant Hare Krishna and I never had any trouble getting rides.” Chanting sounded like a good idea. Even if it didn’t get rides, it was sure to make the time pass easier than cursing.
Two hours later, I parted company with the Hare Krishna driver. Before putting my thumb out again I walked a few minutes chanting Hare Krishna/Hare Rama, experiencing how good it felt. Then I noticed a silver Cadillac pull up beside me. I was greeted by a blast of air-conditioned air.
The rest of my journey home was much the same. I never had to wait more than a few minutes for any of the remaining five rides. The last one dropped me off just three blocks from my house. Also, I realized that the value of each ride is greater than the distance traveled, but that’s another story.
I spent five years hitchhiking, traveling long distances and just getting around in cities and towns where I lived. I traveled alone much of the time, though I was constantly warned that this was dangerous for a woman in the United States. Real danger only loomed twice, and one of these times I was hitching with a man. I was warned or ticketed by a number of policemen who told me hitchhiking was illegal. None ever gave me a ride. I often felt that I was socializing everyone who picked me up, showing them that whether they were women, hot-rodders, old black farmers, or traveling salesmen they could talk to me and trust me, even if I was young and unconventionally dressed.
My most frightening tale: on a trip with a man friend in 1970, from Louisiana to North Carolina, we chose to go up Highway 61 through Mississippi. We were let out in the middle of nowhere, south of Magnolia, Mississippi. Empty fields and fences lined the highway. I was about 20 feet ahead of my friend, and both of us were sticking out our thumbs. A pickup truck drove by and I suddenly heard a loud bang. I thought it was a backfire, but my friend looked pale. “They almost shot me,” he said. “I could feel the bullet whiz past my head. Let’s get out of here.” Fortunately we caught an all-night trucker after one ride and rode with him all the way to Gastonia. Bob Dylan was definitely on to something about Highway 61.
Two years later, in Europe, hitching from Basel to Munich, I was picked up by a well-dressed, grey-haired man in a Mercedes. He said something to me in German about going to Zurich. I said I was an American and told him where I was going. Zurich seemed to be out of my way, but I couldn’t tell him this. We could barely keep up a conversation. I began to mistrust this man because I couldn’t understand his words or figure out his intentions. Finally we arrived in Zurich and he drove into the center of the city. He invited me to get out at an old cloister, then led me down dark stone passages opening on to a lovely courtyard. I thought this was our ultimate destination. But he led me further into a high vaulted chapel. The room was filled with bright blue and yellow light streaming through a huge stained glass window signed by Marc Chagall. Angels floated and peace branches were strewn with all kinds of objects in a watercolor chaos. I cried. We stood for a long while in the silence, then he bought me lunch from a butcher’s shop and new wine pale and sweet, from a booth on the street before he took me back to the highway.
I have funny stories to tell — about hiding my husband in the bushes in Italy so some man would stop for a lone girl. Or the time a guy and I got bogged down in Hoboken on our way to Boston and were picked up by a hash-smoking construction worker who took us home for supper in Queens and put us on the shuttle flight to Boston that night. Or the way 90 percent of the males who pick me up in North Carolina ask me if I am married. (Would they rape a married woman? Respect a married woman? Lecture a married woman?)
I’m sorry to see the demise of hitchhiking, in the U.S. at least. It shows increasing fear and mistrust between motorists and hitchers at a time when carpools and energy-saving ideas are catching on. How about a bumper sticker: POOL OUR RESOURCES. PICK UP A HITCHHIKER.
I feel like I’ve been on the road since I left home, even though I’ve lived places for decent lengths of time and made the little rooms and old houses I’ve occupied feel like my nest.
Today I was up on the roof, scooping leaves out of the gutters. It’s not my house, it’s the house I live in. I’ve been here for six months but this was my first time on the roof. An unexpected gift, a new perspective! When I moved here from an apartment in the city, I was thrilled to have space again — the pleasures of greenery and freedom to walk without stepping on a neighbor’s back stoop. How I’ve loved the hickory trees: the straightness and strength of their trunks, branchless to half their height and, so, allowing me a view beyond!
On the roof, I was reminded of where I live and where I am. I’m blessed by this roof over my head. I have indoor space: a place to sleep, to read, to feel stationary, or at least less nomadic. It’s not my roof; I didn’t hammer it together with my hands or conceive it in my mind’s eye. The thought makes me uncomfortable because sometimes I want to get off the road and really “settle down.”
Sometimes I like being on the road. I don’t have many possessions, or responsibilities. It means I’m changing and bound for more. But I remember, while I’m up here, that I too can feel bound and burdened by fears and imaginary possessions. I’m free to let go, aren’t I? I felt sorry for the grasshopper I found up here clinging to a hickory nut husk. The hard pale seed of a tulip poplar had fallen on its back and pierced its apparently frail shell. Yellow ooze from the grasshopper’s own body glued the seed to its back and it now bowed its head and feebly strained its autumn-weary legs to bear the load.
It’s wonderful to lie back after flinging handfuls of leaves into the wind and open my eyes to a flock of starlings cackling, flapping, darting its way beneath the blue to roost in those trees; not my trees — our trees, the ones we share while we’re on the road.
Chapel Hill, N.C.