For the next few weeks I plan to ruminate on a hitchhiking trip I made in the fall of 1969 from San Diego, California, to Iowa City, Iowa, then back to San Diego. Lately, images from that trip slap down inside my recollection.
My buddy Wayne was a Marine like me. I think it was the audacity of his ideas that moved me to like him. The vast scale of his schemes—to buy a teak Chinese junk in L A and sail it to Honolulu; to rent a house in Pacific Beach, California, among the richer folks, even though we didn’t have any money; to purchase and keep a white-throated Capuchin monkey that gnawed the baseboards and door frames inside that house in Pacific Beach. And then to convince the landlord to give us all our damage deposit back.
When he proposed the hitching adventure, I slumped, envisioning psychopath murderers loose in red Cadillacs. He spun visions of adventure and the exotic . . . somehow Branson, Missouri, would be exotic (that was the original destination, long before Branson became famous). The road, the realm of lusty young men, returned warriors, turned loose to discover what America really meant. He talked of women picking us up on the road and asking for sex in payment. I particularly liked that. I dreamt of blonde women loose in red Cadillacs, looking for me. Yahoo! Nothing would be better.
We assessed funds (we were short of those), routes, stops, havens where we could meet if we got split up. Originally, Wayne had assumed I’d be going to Branson to his paternal grandparents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary. But I harbored other notions. There was a girl I’d met in San Diego, a friend of Wayne’s, who’d visited California but lived in Iowa City. I hankered after her. I announced, “I’m going on to see her.”
He asked me, “Did you call her and ask her, or at least tell her your plans?” I shook my head. “Are you planning to call her?” I shook my head.
We left on a mid-September morning each with a five-buck bill, a pup tent shelter half, a wool blanket, some clothes, a toothbrush, some toothpaste. No razor. We rolled everything and threw it over our shoulders like Civil War knapsacks.
The early part of the trip proved uneventful. We caught rides up 395 to San Bernardino, then to Cajon Pass on Interstate 15. We stood at the on-ramp and hung thumbs out as traffic bored past. Late afternoon came on. We felt cool. Wayne said, “We might get cold. We need to get better visuality. Get out on the side of the freeway .” I said, “The signs say, ‘No hitch hikers.’”
He sneered. I walked out to the freeway and stuck up my thumb. Cars whizzed by. Comets, Mustangs, Falcons, GTOs—no red Cadillacs. People waved, shot me the finger, spit at me, yelled things I could not understand and then suddenly a California Highway Patrol Officer pulled over and wrote me a ticket for hitchhiking on the freeway. The he loaded us up and hauled us down the freeway to a warmer on/off ramp. He said, “I don’t want you to freeze.”
He dropped us off at a Texaco service station. A cool wind blew out of the west as we stood there on the edge of the parking lot. My spirits slid around the tops of my Dingo boots. People glared, ignored us, frowned. Dusk was only an hour away. I was hungry, my throat was dry. I thought, “Let’s catch a bus back to San Diego.” But I didn’t say it.
A dark blue ’62 Chevy Impala cruised by us. The way the engine idled reminded me of Soviet tanks rumbling out of the jungle. The windows wore a dark tint, so it was hard to see inside. The Impala pulled up to a gas pump.
Wayne bantered and crowed like a rooster. How fun this was, how exhilarating, how mind-expanding. I sniggered, “Mind expanding.”
The Impala crept away from the pumps, rumbled around and stopped in front of us. A window rolled down. A Chicano stuck his head out. “Wanna ride?” I saw Wayne hesitate, but I said, “Sure,” and the back door opened and a lanky Chicano climbed out and thumbed at the seat. Another Chicano sat on the other side. Something was stacked on the back seat floorboard. But I wanted to get on with the adventure, to get my mind expanded. I slid in and glanced at Wayne who shrugged. I said, “Come on, let’s go.” He climbed in. When the tall Chicano coiled in behind I noticed the fake pearl-handled butt of a thirty-eight revolver sticking out of his left front trouser pocket. I didn’t tell Wayne. He declaimed any use of guns. Funny for a Marine to say, but he tended towards peace, love, dove.
Whatever was on the floorboard forced our knees beneath our chins. The driver smiled at me in the rear view mirror as he pulled onto a side road and drove slowly north. Gold caps rimmed his canines. The Chicanos talked Spanish too fast. I couldn’t understand. My knees ached and my thighs burned from the awkward position. The late sun lay on the land like sea spray. Joshua trees jumped out of sandy spots between the fields as we rumbled by.
I leaned over after a while and looked at what was on the floor. Wrapped in blue paper and the shapes of bricks. I leaned closer and smelled pot. I sat up and glanced at the Chicanos on my left and my right. My heart hammered. Both the Chicanos in the back and the one riding shotgun stared at the alfalfa fields we passed. I looked in the rear view mirror. The driver kept shooting his eyes at me. I stared into the mirror like nothing was the matter. I glanced at Wayne, who dozed. I sniggered again. “Talk about mind-expanding.”
They pulled in at a farmhouse and the driver got out and talked to the man who lived there. A nod, some cash. I noticed a bulge in the back of the driver’s tan trousers. Another gun. Two of the blue packages were handed out the window. My knees rested better without those kilos down there. From farm to farm we went. At every farm a short conversation in Spanish, or English. Sometimes what looked like a farmer, or a farmer’s hippy kid. Or a farm hand. Or his wife. At each stop a different Chicano got out of the car and talked, then took cash and stuffed it into his front pockets. They all packed weapons. The late daylight draped into dusk and the sweet peace of autumn on the Mojave Desert.
I kept my eyes on the driver, who seemed to be the boss. I wondered what kind of piece was stuffed in the back of his trousers. Nine millimeter, .357 Magnum. .45? Sometimes the late rays of the sun caught the gold caps on his teeth and the glint lit up the desert air. Wayne snoozed through it all. The emptying of the floorboard and all the kilos stuffed in the trunk of the dark blue ’62 Impala.
Impalas are known to leap and run up to fifty-five miles an hour. But this Impala rumbled and chugged and stopped a lot, into the wheeze of the cooling evening when the Joshua trees popped out of the dark on the side of the road. Like ghosts.
Commerce in 1969 in South central California. Eventually, in the cool dark, they dropped us off in Barstow. Mind expanding? I don’t know. I started looking again for red Cadillacs.