The few who knew of my scheme advised against it.
“Violates common sense” was their consensus. Hitchhiking coast to coast under pressure of deadline is daft. Will take far longer than you think plus too many pervs on the road. “You’ll be AWOL,” they warned.
I don’t dispute their point about common sense. But their other items are arguable because not one had ever driven cross country, much less hitched 3,000 miles. In fact, none had hitched at all.
“Only hobos do that,” they said.
Like them, I hadn’t yet hitched cross country. But two years prior I drove NJ to CA and know it can be done in five days.
I had told them of my plan to see if they could spot flaws I’d overlooked. They hadn’t so I ceased consulting.
That was a month prior, in Memphis. I’m glad they’re not with me now.
Told you so, those classmates would say if they could see me here in the middle of nowhere. Waiting beside an empty highway. Making zero progress as clock ticks.
The road west is straight as a diving board to the horizon. Gray-black asphalt edged white and center-striped yellow, bordered with sagebrush. Few vehicles either way. More than once I’ve stood astride center yellow looking down diving board stretching miles west; about-face, then east toward home.
The terrain is flat save for me standing. All else is horizontal and belongs here whereas I’m perpendicular and passing through. If I lie down I’ll blend in and slowly vanish.
Who in right mind would stop for a hitcher in a place like this? How’d he get here, they’d wonder, as their vehicle approached at 60 mph. At least they’d see there’s nothing near behind me where an accomplice could hide, as if we aim to rob.
“Whose idea was this?” I say, smiling.
No reply. Just insect buzz and gecko chirps from sage that grow louder as tire whine from a west-bound tanker truck fades behind me.
Earth and sky here dazzle. A horizon-to-horizon view of battleship-size cotton clouds sailing north across profound blue reminds of why I nixed common sense.
To be here. To do . . . exactly this.
Summer is an ally. Sleep outdoors or in moving vehicles. Meet kind people who I’ll never see again and whose name I may not learn while riding a few miles with them. Truth be told—samaritans plus chirps, bug buzz, and even tire whine are why I didn’t go Greyhound.
The isolation is a lure, indivisible from my chosen mode of travel. My logic’s hard to explain, so when benefactors ask why I’m hitching I just say, “To see the land.”
Have allowed eleven days for this journey even though I know coast to coast can be driven in five. Extra days to savor come what may. Such as mornings like this when rising sun warms geckos, crickets and me, all of us awed from above by white ships sailing across Mayan blue.
I face east toward a distant curve from which my next samaritan will emerge. Standing a foot outside the road edge white line, right thumb out but elbow bent while waiting, left hand holding the bottom of a flat board. Tacked to its top is thick rectangular poster board turned narrow side up. On it I’ve bold-faced my fate:
Tall thick all-cap black letters spaced wide on gray background for weary eyes approaching at high speed. Max legible so drivers will mull my plight here in middle of nowhere, bound for a worse place.
Standing too soon after a curve means vehicles exiting it won’t have time to mull. Better to be on the far end of a long straightaway. So I jogged here from a turnoff on the other side of the curve where my last ride had dropped me.
They come round the bend and see way-way up the road on the right a stick figure holding something. Plenty of seconds for drivers to approach and mutter “No way” on seeing my now outstretched right arm, thumb held eyes-high. I hope one will relent as they draw near and read.
Motionless I look through their windshield as they approach, which seems to irk some. More than once a driver has pulled down his sun visor so our eyes won’t meet on passing. Even when the sun is in my eyes and behind his.
I don’t smile, wave thumb or beg. Just deadpan. As though we both know he should stop. Mom would show me that look when asking if I’d lugged the garbage can out to curb, knowing I hadn’t yet. Border collies use that look on sheep.
Rejection doesn’t matter. I’ve been on the road long enough to know some will stop, mostly out of pity. Whitewall haircut verifies my pitch, adding to their guilt.
I know I have a nibble when driver eases off the gas while reading my typography. But such doesn’t assure they’ll stop. When readers speed up and pass, is it because they don’t want to aid and abet fodder on way to cannon?
I wonder but haven’t changed my sign.
War veterans stop. They know better than me how it’ll be when I get to where I’m ordered. Their words as we drive are earnest, more so than any clergy I’ve known. Like they’re speaking to a younger version of themselves, telling me what they wish they’d known before going to their wars.
The way they look at me as I respond to their questions . . . it’s piercing yet very caring. Like they wanna help me survive what they dare not detail. Often our talk gets so lucid that, without either of us realizing it, war vet has driven me farther than offered when he stopped.
I’m unused to military veterans, much less war vets. Dad was a draft-dodger during his generation’s war. Rather than be ashamed he’d boast, “Only dummies get drafted. And the dumbest of all enlist.”
I enlisted, in part to atone for him.
Not that he knows or cares. He deserted us when I was eleven after years of trial desertions, as though rehearsing his final exit. He never explained his absences, returning solely to replenish stay-away money. He gambled his pay and whatever he could pawn on horse races. Not to spend winnings on family but rather to achieve escape velocity from us.
I got good at changing the topic of chats with pals whenever they’d mention their parents, especially fathers. A wise-ass comment about another topic led talk from a sensitive zone.
Inquisitors I couldn’t dodge were not pals but rather their mothers who, unlike my working mom, wore pearls, didn’t sweat and were always home. They lived in large houses with lawns on four sides, separate bedrooms for all, and suited dads carrying brief cases. The Nickersons rented a roach-infested flat atop a luncheonette, seeing the meter reader more often than my binge-prone father.
When I’d stop by a pal’s house after school, his mom would grill me. My replies spawned more lies for Saturday confession.
“How’s your mother, Joe?” she’d ask as I sat and she stood in their living room.
Her arms were folded as she looked down at me, awaiting her son to come down from his very own bedroom. He was changing from school clothes so we could go play basketball at an outdoor court two blocks over.
“Fine,” I’d reply, hoping pal would hurry the hell up.
“And your father. How is he doing?”
She’d not met either of my parents but had heard buzz and sought more. She likely knew the facts but kept probing, worried I suppose that as lying trash from a broken home I’d corrupt her son.
It was tough keeping track of my fibs. One month I’d say “He died” when asked about Dad, hoping to end the interrogations; the next, “He’s away on a sales trip.”
All because Dad is most at home in dingy bars. Bitter places brought from Ireland for the low end of working class. Where barflies gather to boast of how they’ve scammed wives, employers and other oppressors. He excels at mocking others, a tavern-learned skill he brings home with the stink of beer, ashtrays and urinals. Dad speaks to wife and kids from one side of his mouth, with face at an oblique angle as though we’re sitting on barstools beside him.
He’d been raised Catholic but I can’t recall Dad ever attending Sunday mass, much less Saturday confession. Yet in bed he’d remind Mom that Catholicism forbids birth control. “Come on, Kid,” he’d tell her, “loosen up.” His elder brother has nine kids so Dad felt paltry with only three.
I know more about my parents’ bedroom doings than I care to. Our flat-above-eatery didn’t allow the luxury of me having a room of my own. My cot was flush against the foot of their bed. Close enough to smell the sour on Dad’s unwashed feet, and hear things I wish I hadn’t.
Hitching through a city requires that I focus on waves of vehicles coming at me after red light turns green. But there’s scant traffic and no stoplights here in middle of nowhere. Nor curbs or sidewalks or storm drains or manhole covers or parking meters or cross streets or signs or shops or power lines or inquisitors.
Just asphalt, sagebrush, and me waiting. If the road and I weren’t here, you wouldn’t know what century you’re in.
The tanker truck is a mile gone yet I haven’t lowered sign or thumb, charmed by the distant approach of my next potential samaritan.
The bronze beast coming at me through heat shimmer runs as though furious. Long ears are pressed back, their hairy tips thrashing side to side with each stride, claws gleaming. Teeth in its wide mouth are gapped midway.
Now a football field from me doing 70 mph yet it hasn’t slowed even a bit.
Bushy coon tails thrash from raked aerials on both tail fins. Morning sun glints from chrome baby moons centered on black rims. I can tell its front coil springs are stiffened with hard-rubber spacers, jacking nose higher than tail. Jacked to make it look fast even when parked.
Draft from the passing GTO spins my sign like a propeller.
Its driver could’ve moved left to avoid coming that close. I could’ve backed away from road shoulder’s white stripe. Neither did.
She wants me to turn and admire her machismo.
I stay looking due east, my back to the eyes in her rear-view mirror. Right thumb still out to an empty highway, suggesting her heap has passed unnoticed.
“Foam dice hanging on that mirror,” I ask aloud, “or were those pompoms?”
NJ’s diversity prepped me for the military better than were recruits from rural states used to only white or black. That plus a dozen years with hard-knuckle nuns made the transition to boot camp easier for me than recruits new to tyrants.
On the night we arrived my training platoon’s three drill instructors boarded our bus bellowing obscenities. Their intro triggered a stealth mode I’d honed since day one of first grade, when Mother Saint Elias face-whacked me for an unauthorized smile.
I hadn’t yet set foot on Parris Island’s yellow footprints, painted on asphalt beside the bus, yet already PI seemed mighty goddamn familiar. Like I’ve been bused from one gulag to another.
Standing on those yellow soles at frigid midnight, DIs shrieking, I’m thinking Catholic schools must be farm teams feeding the big-league military. Dogma, corporal punishment and required honorifics instill obedience as muscle memory. Twelve years obeying orcas with “Yes, Sister” have readied me to obey smokey bears with “Yes, Sir.”
I should be stunned like others shoved, kicked and shouted off the bus. I’m not because fear of the unknown ain’t as bad when you’ve already done a dozen years there. It’s obvious that DIs and nuns share the same modus operandi. Different garb and gender but same MO. Day one at PI is a replay of day one at St. Pete’s Grammar School.
That revelation eased my worry about how I’d cope with boot camp. Stealth, deadpan and ventriloquism had become second nature since age seven. My MO evolved in response to theirs: Eyes and ears open—Wear a poker face—Avoid spotlights—Use stealth—Smile inwardly.
I’m ready for Gulag II.
As I’m downshifting to max low-profile mode, other arrivals are getting what they should most avoid—personal attention from our captors. Their sheer fury leaves target recruits stunned like lake fish bombed with dynamite. One poor soul has a DI on either side, shouting expletives an inch from ears that likely have never heard even mild profanity, much less the bile that DIs have mastered.
Such is how it works—stun a group via a few violent object lessons so nuns need not waste time thumping all individually. Fish + dynamite = submission. The sooner young minds are made malleable the sooner they can be regimented. Overt resistance does naught but mark you for more personal attention.
You could say I owe nuns for having well prepared me for Parris Island. But you’d be wrong ’cause nuns teach rules, not how to break ’em without getting caught. That I figured out on my own, starting from day two at St. Pete’s.
The Rose Bowl was my undoing.
Each January I’d watch the game and its parade. Who played, won or lost didn’t matter. Seeing palm trees and short-sleeve shirts in the depth of NJ’s barfly winters gave hope of a place where summer doesn’t die.
The crunch of bone-dry sycamore leaves. Hawk wind that waters eyes, hunches shoulders, shortens necks. Birds gone south. Clanks from iron radiators in our cockroach flat above luncheonette. Heavy drapes sealing Victorian rooms from pale sunshine, trapping the scent of ham boiled with cabbage. People hibernate. At sunset they reel in sidewalks and yank welcome mats.
Fall is when I most wanna be long gone from NJ.
Nuns taught that aliens want nothing more than to live where we do. No need to roam. Better can’t be found. By graduation I had no proof to the contrary. Yet palm trees and short-sleeve shirts in January gave hope.
Summer ended, college-bound peers left, younger pals went back to high school. Indian summer reminded that cold was coming.
Guys like me—manual labor, no college, no future—wind up in bars. As my father before me and his before him. How else to weather dreary winters? Date a Catholic girl, wed, procreate, get a mortgage. Be normal.
A neighborhood pal who shared my bleak future felt likewise, so we drove my Chevy to California via Route 66. Till then I’d not been north of Hartford, south of Baltimore, or west of Philly.
Four and a half days to reach the CA border, sleeping in the Chevy, eyes peeled for all-you-can-eat joints. Awake at dawn to peer out at empty cornfields amid which we’d parked after midnight.
We felt like moon-bound astronauts, going where none we knew had yet been.
No vehicles either way since the Goat spun my sign. I hear its tire whine fading behind me.
Then it ceases . . . too abruptly.
I hear what sounds like a far-off grind. Then nothing.
Then something, like tomcats growling on an alley fence. Still facing east, I don’t turn but do listen.
Can’t hear tire whine. Just the growling but far off. I realize it’s getting closer the same instant I recognize it.
The Goat is heading my way. In reverse.
Gear whine’s getting louder. She’s backing fast, not easy when wheels being steered are behind driver’s eyes. An errant wrist flick and she’ll semicircle into sagebrush.
Her speed speaks intent. Did my sign irk her? Or maybe my appearance.
I’m dressed to ease drivers’ fear of hitchhikers. Short hair parted left and combed flat with white sidewalls. Belted dark chinos, spit-shined black GI boots. Button-down yellow oxford shirt tucked in. Thin black necktie. My ditty bag is military green, ‘USMC’ embroidered with shiny gold thread in large letters on both sides. Clean-cut to the max.
Perhaps she’d aimed to come closer than the three feet that separated the Goat’s passenger side from my right thumb. It’s still extended, me facing east to an empty highway. If I turn west will she stop, give me the finger then roar away?
I lower my thumb and turn.
Those coon tails are thrashing backward. Right arm flung over seat back, her left hand is noon-high on steering wheel. Doing 30 mph, the GTO’s right side is parallel with the road edge’s white line, showing her skill.
At a football field’s distance I hear her radio.
You’re gonna cry, ninety-six tears
You’re gonna cry, cry, cry, cry, now
You’re gonna cry, cry, cry, cry
Ninety-six tears . . .
Thirty yards before reaching me she moves Goat toward the asphalt’s yellow center stripe. A friendly gesture.
“Howdy,” she says, leaning right to look up at my mug through door’s open window.
I don’t move to enter the Pontiac. Perhaps she means to ask directions.
“Sorry I passed you by. I was havin’ a crying jag. . . . Your sign made it worse.”
How does one reply to that?
Talks with samaritans go where they choose to take it. Some ask my thoughts on going to war; others about my parents’ reaction. Some tell me of their day with nary a word of war, which is fine. The farmer before Rita spoke for most of the 20 minutes I was with him about his crop. They’re all kind souls doing me a favor so I adjust to them.
“I can take you as far as Thiel. That’s 60 miles west.”
“That’d be great,” I say, reaching for the door handle after fetching my ditty bag. It fits on lap with sign top-down next to right leg, standard pose on entering a samaritan’s vehicle.
Foam dice hang from the rearview mirror. She lowers the volume on Question Mark and the Mysterians.
“Your sign’s a killer. No one sane would pass you by.”
She continues before I can reply.
“That proves I’m outta my mind.”
“No, ma’m,” I say, not wanting to ail her further. “I wouldn’t want my sisters picking up strangers in the middle of nowhere.”
“I wanna give you a lift ’cause you’re going to war. I passed you by ’cause my husband came home from that same damn war in May. Minus a foot.”
I know when to be silent. Especially with females.
Up at 6, Mary Nickerson had roused, fed, brushed, combed, brown-bagged and launched three kids to school by 7:30.
After doing dishes and vacuuming, she’ll walk to Acme Market, buy groceries, return pulling wire-cage cart to pot a supper. Then bathe, don waitress uniform, bus to downtown Camden for work. Noon to 8 p.m., Monday through Saturday. Home by 9, abed by midnight.
She’d welcome us home from Sunday mass with a grand breakfast of scrapple, fried eggs, home fries, toast and tea. Then do laundry, nap after doing a crossword or read Georges Simenon, arise to cook a hefty supper.
Mary never misses work, putting three kids through parochial schools despite a thieving husband and merciless clergy. Before welfare. Before women’s lib. But for her my sisters and I would’ve been orphans and likely split up.
Age twenty and off to war, I’d yet to meet a man the equal of Mom.
Rita talks more than me on the road to Thiel. She speaks of hubby Paul’s wounds and rehab. I listen staring ahead rather than left at Rita, lest she be distracted from driving 70 mph on a road signed for 55.
She’s returning from her latest visit to Paul’s VA hospital. I wonder if she drives as fast to the hospital as from it.
He’s Army. She’d moved to Thiel when he went to war. Rita owns a tree nursery, wears work jeans, faded flannel shirt, and hike boots. Thick straight hair tied back.
“I’d rather go to war myself than be stuck in a GI trailer park,” she says, “surrounded by wailing wives.”
She won’t drop me off till I’ve eaten proper. At an orange roof Howard Johnson. Our meal stretches to two hours of talk like we’ve known one another for years.
“Damn helicopters . . . marines are ground-pounders, right?”
“Right,” I say. She continues before I can split hairs.
“Paul was all gung-ho for choppers. Said it was coming technology. He wanted to be in on it from the get-go.”
I don’t know where in war zone I’ll be going. I enlisted for aviation and Marines have choppers, but I’ve been schooled as a jet mech so probably not.
“Ferrying grunts as a crew chief, his foot gets shredded by shrapnel when a grunt off ahead of him steps on a mine. He’d assured me that flying was safer than grunt work.”
I have no soothing words. She seems keen to vent. I listen.
We click when I learn Rita’s maiden name: Grady. Raven hair yet skin pale like a redhead’s sans freckles. Cheek bloom from working outdoors rather than rouge.
She raves about folk music, assuming I share her knowledge.
“You mean,” I ask, “like Beer Barrel Polka?”
“Oh, jeez no!” she says, raven brows arched, gray eyes rolling. “Woody Guthrie . . . Seeger . . . Baez . . . Dylan.”
She squints, uncertain whether I’m joking. I’m not.
“Are you Black Irish, Rita?”
Such is how Mom described coal-haired Father Gogarty, an odd priest in our NJ parish from Ireland. Unlike two fellow priests and the parish monsignor, all of whom were U.S.-born micks.
“Could be,” she says. “What I’m not is long-suffering in the Irish way. You’ll not find me by the fire wringing hands for a man out boozing.”
“Mom neither,” I reply. “Dad would come home after eleven. Happy, red-faced, watery eyed. Smelling of ciggies, beer, urinals.”
“How’d she handle that?”
“Fireworks. Every night. . . . Nothing I dread more than anger at bed time.”
Rita looks at me as only females can.
“Overcoat still on, Dad tried to leave but Mom would block the door. He’d quell her by sitting on the edge of my cot, rubbing my back. When he’d stop I’d whine, ‘Rub, rub, rub!’ like a dog nuzzles when you stop scratching.
“ ‘Rub, rub, rubbish!’ he’d say. ‘From now on, your name is Rubbish.’
“Then Mom lost her yell.”
Rita smokes Camels. But not around Paul, for whom she wears a brave face.
“So, Rubbish, why in hell are you hitching cross-country?”
“Ah . . . probably for the same reason you want to live in France, as you said. What was the name of that city?”
“Provence. In southeast France. It’s a region not a city.”
“Like this here Midwest?”
“Yeah but better. Light years. With monthly swoops to Paris.”
“You’ve been there?”
“Yep. One summer. Took that long for culture shock to ease. It got good after I stayed in one place. Instead of mad traveling like a tourist.”
Rita had me at a disadvantage.
“Where’ve you been?”
“Only to California. Two years ago.”
“You went back to Jersey?” she asks, her chagrin visible.
“Yep. After my stepfather died in a midnight auto accident, coming home.”
She doesn’t reply, knowing I’ll continue.
“Eleven weeks after their wedding. He owned a bar in Trenton. After closing it one night, dozed at the wheel and his convertible went under the rear of a stopped 18-wheeler. Mom reopened the bar after burying him. She and I ran it although I was too young to work behind the counter. She hoped to sell it as an active business rather than a shuttered one. I aimed to go back to California . . .”
“Let me guess,” she interrupts. “Before you could escape, Uncle Sam called.”
“Now I know why you’re hitching.”
“Yep. I wanna see the land.”
“You stop at motels along the way, right?”
“Nope,” I say, pointing to a flyover road across from HoJo’s.
“Up there on a ledge below the road. Keeps me dry and if I’m lucky a prior hitcher has left cardboard as mattress. Gets me an early start each morning.”
“Damn. See the land, indeed,” she says. “You know folk music more than you realize,” she adds although I don’t catch her meaning.
“When we drove coast to coast two years ago in my Chevy, we gave rides to a few solo hitchers. I asked one young guy the same question you asked me, about where he stayed at night. He pointed to those concrete ledges under flyovers.
“I remember thinking as he explained—Of course. He’s young healthy and fit. Skip the Greyhound. Explore.”
In my case, orders to war are compass enough.
“When we picked him up he admired my Chevy as he got in. But as we drove and talked, I . . . I began to envy him.
“Sounds weird, I know. We’re both going in the same direction along the same road. I’m doing him a favor by giving him a lift in a car I own. I’ll drive it to where I’m going without need of begging others for rides as he stands in the open air getting rejected by most. . . . So why do I envy him? Shouldn’t it be the other way around?”
Rita is elbows on table, chin on fists looking me square in the eyes, a half-smile on her black-Irish face. Like she knows something I haven’t yet fathomed but is pleased that I’m getting there.
“Anyway,” I add, “I ain’t on a Greyhound and have money enough for motels but I’d rather hitch. . . . To meet kind folks like reverse Rita.”
“Bingo, Rubbish,” is her short smiling reply to my long spiel. Like she’s further along a path I’m on and has glanced back to aid me. As war vets do ’cause they’ve done and survived what I’m being sent to do.
“All through three months of jet-mech training at Memphis, I schemed on this trip. Right down to the size of my sign and the words on it. Other marines warned against it. Said it’d take weeks to hitch. But I know better.”
“So you’ve been hitching from Memphis?”
“No. After finishing jet school there I went back to Jersey. For a last look and to say goodbyes. I wanna hitch coast to coast. To see all of it.”
“You drove all of it two years ago, right?” she asks, but it feels more like nudge than question.
“Right,” I say, trying to understand my own words. “I know from riding a bicycle for years around my hometown that driving the same streets in a car isn’t the same. You hear, see, smell, and feel more on a bike, in the open air. That’s one difference.”
“And?” Rita says, still ahead of me.
“There’s something about the people who give me rides. People who are kind enough to give me rides, I should say. I can’t explain it even to myself.”
Rita is still elbows on table, chin on fists. I’ve eased away from table a bit, back into our booth’s orange leatherette bench seat as I think aloud.
“It doesn’t make sense ’cause most samaritans I don’t even learn their names and am only with ’em for a few miles. They’re not like friends I’ve known for years. Yet, somehow . . .”
She sees I can’t get much farther than there. Not yet anyway.
“I’ve got a long ways to travel . . . Before I ever get home,” she says although it’s like she’s half-singing. I’m unsure if she’s referring to me or herself. Or maybe Paul. Her grey eyes smile from beneath arched raven brows.
Rita drops me beneath a cloverleaf, near a ramp up to the road west.
She’d teased during the drive from HoJo’s.
“Ain’t never seen a hitcher wearing a necktie, dude. Whitewalls, button-down collar, gung-ho bag, and that sign. Jeez.”
“It’s the altar boy in me.”
She hugs me goodbye like sister fearing for brother.
“Get back to France,” I say, bending to look into gray eyes through window of door I’d just exited.
Rita nails the Goat, coon tails thrashing.
At eighty yards its brake lights flame and coon tails drop. Gear change, then back comes reverse Rita. I glance rearward for oncoming traffic. None near.
She stops exactly where she’d just been.
“This is you, Rubbish!” Rita says, reaching for radio’s volume knob.
She cranks up a song I’ve not yet heard. Not Motown or Philly. Definitely a white guy. Not quite country. Voice sounds flat, nasal but not southern.
. . . ah how does it feel?
To be on your own
with no direction home,
Like a complete unknown,
like a rolling stone . . .
She lets me hear a bit more, then nails the Goat again. Coon tails wave goodbye, as does Rita’s left arm thrust high out window.
Standing along a ramp up to the road west. Sign up, thumb out, seeking another ride toward war. Summer sun is higher, draft from passing vehicles hot and dry.
Three hours with reverse Rita yet I’m only 60 miles further along. Smiling in her wake but keen to regain deadpan lest samaritans think me too goofy to aid.
My sign turns heads. Many gawk, some slow, most pass, but all read.
Goodwill on approaching faces morphs to pity as they recognize: meat on way to grinder. Most look away before passing.
For more on Francis Duffy, please see our Authors page.