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An Old Hitch-Hiking Advneture–and Misjudging Motives

June 22, 2013

Late November 1970. I was standing with my thumb out alongside a highway in Santa Cruz, just 100 miles from my San Francisco home. It was the last leg of a hitchhiking journey that had taken me almost 3,000 miles from S.F. to Tucson, Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Taos, Las Vegas (New Mexico), Trinidad, Denver, Boulder, and then returning via Glenwood Springs, Cisco, Moab, St. George, Las Vegas (Nevada), Los Angeles and now Santa Cruz. The trip had been exciting but also exhausting.

Heading west, I should’ve held out for a ride over I-80 through Reno then down to the Bay Area. but I didn’t have a map and having to leave I-70 at Green River, Utah, and switching to Hwy 6, then 191,then 6/89 at Helper,, to get over Soldier Summit, and then getting up to I-15 at Spanish Fork, then taking that up to Salt Lake City where I could pick up I-80 coming down from Wyoming going west all the way through Winnemucca and Sacramento to the Bay Area, was…well, complicated.

Anyway, I’d been hassled by police on an on-ramp in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, after being left off there after dark. That threw a monkey wrench into my plans. The cops told me hitchhiking was a crime and there was a Greyhound station two blocks away. They advised me I’d better take a bus over the state line into Utah or spend a few nights in jail if I was still here on the on-ramp when they returned. I made a show of walking away towards the bus station, and then twice circled back– only to find they were circling back themselves. After three such attempts, I gave up, went to The Dog and asked the young woman behind the counter what the first stop across the Utah border was and how much it cost.

“That would be Cisco. The fare is $2.40 each way. The bus leaves here in about 45 minutes and arrives in Cisco at 1:15 in the morning.”I had a little less than $20 to my name.

“OK, then I’ll take a one- way ticket to Cisco.”

“Uh, um, well, I don’t think there’s much in Cisco at that time of night…”

“I don’t care; I just need to get across the state line.” I explained about the cops.

“Oh, they’re pretty strict about that,” she said.

“Not much in Cisco” was the understatement of the year. Once a watering station for steam locomotives, Cisco was almost a ghost town then. (Not it officially is a ghost town). Interstate 70, the main east-west thoroughfare, was under a lot of construction and I’d failed to realize that Cisco was several miles south of I-70, off the main drag. I was the only person getting off in Cisco, population perhaps 200, which had exactly one yard light on in the entire town—if it was large enough to be called a town. Otherwise it was totally dark. There was no traffic. It was eerily silent and dark. The bus sped off and I felt pretty alone in the flat, expansive, windswept Utah desert. Now what? It was a very dark, moonless night but on the side of the road across from town was an open area covered in tall weeds. I walked about 30 feet off the road, knelt and felt the ground to determine if it was smooth and dry enough to sleep on. I opened my backpack, unrolled my sleeping bag and crawled in. At least it was a quiet place where I wouldn’t be disturbed. The tall weeds would hide my presence.

I was sound asleep when I was suddenly jolted awake and bolt upright by the earth shaking beneath me, like a major California earthquake, and an ungodly shrill roar that turned into a scream piercing my ears and a bright searchlight intermittently flashing in my yes. I was frightened, momentarily disoriented, confused, and waking up in an unfamiliar place. Where the hell am I? What is going on? The shaking and noise got louder and more overwhelming. Wind was blowing. My hair stood on end. I suddenly realized I was sleeping about 15 feet from some train tracks and the flashing light was the rotating headlight of a freight train roaring down upon me, then narrowly missing me and speeding off into the night. I took a deep breath and flopped back down to sleep. Two more trains roared noisily through that night, waking me up, but this time I knew immediately what they were and so I wasn’t frightened or confused the second and third time.

As dawn broke I rolled up my sleeping bag and stood out on the two-lane blacktop and was dismayed to hear utter silence and no auto traffic at all. How am I going to get a ride if no cars come? (Experience had taught me that an averge of about 70 to 100 cars passed before one stopped). I decided to walk out of sight of town to avoid attracting (possibly hostile) attention. Not one car came by in either direction. I walked a little; waited, wondered how I was every going to get out of this isolated, desolate place. It was late November. There was a chill in the air. It could snow at any time.

Finally I heard a car’s engine. Heard it long before I could see it. I stuck my thumb out and was about to flip off the driver for roaring past me, going at least seventy miles an hour. I was glad I didn’t when he braked, stopped, turned around and picked me up. He was going all the way to Las Vegas. That meant entering California not through Donner Pass and Reno as I had wished but at this point I took what I could get.

From Vegas, after dark, I got another ride (the 114th car that passed, I rode through the night to

somewhere in Los Angeles, where a series of well-intentioned people picked me up only to say, “I’m not really going anywhere but let me take you to an on-ramp I know where you’ll have better luck getting a ride north. Make sure you ask people if they are taking the Oxnard/Ventura Freeway. You need that to go north.” When after five (5) such well-meaning but frustrating helpers, I ended up at the original on-ramp I started from, I had to laugh. What else could I do but laugh?

It was after midnight and raining lightly when I got a ride from an unlikely driver: a middle-aged Filipino man in a sport coat and porkpie hat.I asked him if he were taking the Oxnard/Ventura Freeway.“Sure, buddy. Sure,” he said. He drove erratically down the freeway, sideswiping the median divider, took the wrong fork, and I belatedly realized he was drunk as a skunk. Because of fatigue, rain, and desperation, I hadn’t checked him out as thoroughly as I should have before I got in his car. He missed the Oxnard/Ventura turnoff and I objected. He acted like it was no big deal. When I demanded he stop and let me out, he stopped the car in the middle of the fast lane and I got out. With my backpack on I had to run across four lanes of freeway and a wide shoulder, a distance that seemed the length of a football field. Fortunately traffic was light that time of might. Then I had to scramble up a slope covered in ice plant, and then scale a six foot chain link fence, hoping not to be noticed or mistaken for a burglar and having no idea where in the sprawling Greater Los Angeles area I now was. I was somewhere in a 50-mile radius but I had no idea where and I had no idea how to get back to the turnoff for the Oxnard/Ventura Freeway.

I don’t remember the details but somehow I got on the right freeway north and after dawn I got picked up by Donna, a friendly hippie-ish woman in her 40s with two teenage sons in a VW bus, a blessed oasis. She took me to the house of her friends in Santa Cruz where I got the luxury of a much-needed & much-appreciated, full-blown bath. Late that afternoon she told me she that while she could not offer me her friends’ hospitality, I could sleep in her VW bus. By this time I was eager to complete that final 100-mile lap home to San Francisco, so I said I thought I’d push on and try to get home tonight. Only one hundred miles more and I’d be home! She dropped me off along a highway, not a freeway.

Cars were zipping by at 45 or 55 MPH. Across the street was a wood-plank tavern. Suddenly a burly, muscular man with rolled-up sleeves, wearing a white half-apron below his waist appeared in the doorway shouting to me and gesticulating. He looked like the actor Lee J. Cobb in his appearance of aggression, bulk, and gritty determination.

Oh shit, I thought. Fucker’s going to hassle me about hitch-hiking. Telling me it’s illegal and who am I to go around breaking the law. Lee J. Cobb was going to fulminate about dirty hippies like me with our long hair, full beards, John Lennon glasses and backpacks. Who the hell do you punks think you are?And I would assure him I have no intention of annoying or imposing on him or his community.”I am trying to leave your town as soon as I possibly can. Just let me go my way and you will never see me again….”I ignored him. He kept gesturing and shouting but the traffic noise between use downed out his words. Aw, fuck him!

Then he waited for a break in the traffic and ran across the highway towards me. I went into defensive mode. Lee J. Cob was striding towards me, coming to give me shit. He was headed towards me for a face-to-face confrontation. I tried to prepare myself not for a physical fight but an unpleasant verbal confrontation. Oh shit! Between being frisked outside of Barstow, hassled by cops in Glenwood Springs, misled in Los Angeles, I am in no mood for any more hassles. I’m tired and I’ve been through enough shit! Just let me get home! But here comes Lee J. Cobb, all bulk and grit and attitude. I rehearsed what I was going to say, then I prepared to stand my ground against this asshole come to hassle me when I’ve done nothing to him. Fucking bastard! What’s wrong with these people?

Lee J. Cobb strode up to me and said, “We’re serving Thanksgiving dinner right now, free to everyone who comes. You are welcome to join us. I’m happy to invite you. We’d be very pleased if you would join us.” Oh.My.God. What more disarming thing could he have said? I suddenly felt overwhelmed not only with relief but with guilt. I had misjudged this man and his intentions. Lee J. Cobb wasn’t coming over to give me grief. He was coming over to invite me, a total stranger, to Thanksgiving dinner. I’d lost track of the days and didn’t know it was Thanksgiving Day. My anger and defensiveness dissolved suddenly.I thought it over quickly and made a decision. “Thank you so much! That is so kind of you! But if I stop for a meal now it will be dark when I finish and I know from experience you can’t get rides after dark. So I think I better keep on my way and get home to San Francisco tonight. I really do appreciate the invitation.”“OK, suit yourself,” he said. “We’re right across the street if you change your mind.”

He hustled through a break in the traffic to the other side of ht road.The next thing I knew, his wife is running across the road with a Styrofoam to-go box! “Since you can’t stay and eat with us, here’s a Thanksgiving meal for the road,” she said. I hung my head and almost wept as I thanked her for her generosity. She ran back across the highway, dodging cars and I opened the box to examine the contents. Turkey, dressing, cranberry sauce, green beans, mashed potatoes. The works.

I was stills staring into the box in disbelief when a car pulled over and screeched to as stop.

“Hey, you want a ride? Going to The City?”“Oh yeah, I am!”

“Hop in. You didn’t ‘have your thumb out but I figured the guy’s standing by the road, so he must want a ride. I live on Potrero Hill. Where you going?”

“I live in the Mission District. Near 26th and Bryant,”

“Great. I can drop you right there. No problem, man.”

I have a million memories of that trip—the Christian missionary who prayed for me, the guy whose car blew up 15 miles inot the desert after he picked me up, Crazy Craig and the Red Rooster, the guys who warned me against Drop City in Trinidad, Colorado, the Hispanic guys who picked me up around Santa Fe and Taos Pueblo, and the old Native American resident of Taos Pueblo, wo invited into his house. I had thought the pueblo was an abandoned ruin. The guys in the CU Boulder dorm that I gave my knife to, to prove my innocent intentions, The cops. Donna in Southern California.But my most vivid memory is of Lee J. Cobb, his wife, and my misjudging of their motives….

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