Let me tell this story, okay, this story about a couple of guys that I picked up hitch-hiking out on the 1960s highway. I’ll get to what highway it was later because it could have been any highway, any American or European, or maybe even African or Asian highway, if those locales had such highways, at least highways for cars back in those days. Anyway it’s their story, these two guys, really, and maybe around the edges my story, and if you are of a certain age, your story, just a little anyway.
Some of it though just doesn’t sound right now, or read right, at least the way they told it to me but we will let that pass because it has been a while and memories, mine in this case, sometimes seize up even among the best of us. Ya, but this part I do remember so let’s just subtitle this one a segment on that search for the blue-pink great American West night and that makes this thing a lot of people’s story. Let’s get to it right now by picking up where they and I intersect on the great American 1960s road:
Two young men were standing pretty close together, talking, up ahead at the side of a brisk, chilly, early spring morning 1969 road, a highway really, a white-lined, four-laned, high-speed highway if you want to know, thumbs out, as I came driving down the line alone in my Volkswagen Beetle (or bug, hey, that’s what they were called in those days, you still see some old restored or well-preserved ones around, especially out on the left coast, California), see them, and begin to slow down to pick them up. I would no more think not to pick them up than not to breathe. A few years earlier and I would have perhaps been afraid to pick up such an unlikely pair, a few years later and they would not have been on that road. But the thumbs out linked them, and not them alone on this day or in this time, with the old time hitchhike road, the vagabond road that your mother, if she was wise or nervous, told you never ever, ever to take (and it was always Ma who told you this, your father was either held in reserve for the big want-to-do battles, or else was bemused by sonny boy wanting to spread his wings, or better yet, was secretly passing along his own long ago laid aside blue-pink highway dreams).
This pair in any case, as you shall see, were clearly brothers, no, not brothers in the biological sense, although that sometimes was the case on the old hitchhike road, but brothers on that restless, tireless, endless, road. My hitchhike road yesterday, and maybe tomorrow, but today I have wheels and they don’t and that was that. No further explanation needed. I stopped. From the first close-up look at them these guys were young, although not too young, not high school or college young but more mid-twenties maybe graduate student young. I’ll describe in more detail how they looked in a minute but for those who desperately need to know where I picked them up, the exact locale that is, let me put your anxieties to rest and tell you that it was heading south on the Connecticut side of the Massachusetts-Connecticut border of U.S. Interstate 84 (near Union Ct. and Holland Ma.), one of the main roads to New York City from Boston. Are you happy now? Not as sexy as some of those old-time Kerouac-Cassady late 1940s “beat” roads, but I believe their ghosts were nevertheless hovering in the environs. Hell, now that I think about it, would it have mattered if I said it was Route 6, or Route 66, or Route 666 where I picked them up. I picked them up, that was the way it was done in those halcyon days, and that’s the facts, man, nothing but the facts.
Hey, by the way, while we are talking about facts, just the hard-headed fact of this pair standing on the side of a highway road should have been enough to alert the reader that this is no current episode but rather a tale out of the mist of another American time. Who in their right mind today would be standing on such a road, thumb out, or not, expecting some faded Dennis Hopper-like flower child, or Ken Kesey-like Merry Prankster hold-out to stop. No this was the time of their time, the 1960s (or at the latest, the very latest, about 1973). You have all seen the bell-bottomed jeans, the fringed-deerskin jackets, the long hair and beards and all other manner of baubles in those exotic pre-digital photos so that one really need not bother to describe their appearances. But I will, if only to tempt the fates, or the imaginations of the young.
One, the slightly older one, wispy-bearded, like this was maybe his first attempt at growing the then< em>de rigueur</em> youth nation-demanded male beard to set one apart from the them (and from the eternal Gillette, Bic, Shick razor cuts, rubbing alcohol at the ready, splash of English Leather, spanking clean date night routine, ah, ah, farewell to all that). Attired: <em>Levi</em> blue-jean’d with flared-out bottoms, not exactly bell-bottoms but denims that not self-respecting cowboy, or cowboy wanna-be would, or could, wear out in the grey-black , star-studded great plains night; plaid flannel shirt that one would find out there in that bronco-busting night (or in backwoodsman-heavy Maine and Oregon in the time of the old Wobblies or Ken Kesey’s <em>Sometimes a Great Notion</em>); skimpily-sneakered, Chuck Taylor blacks, from the look of them, hardly the wear for tackling the great American foot-sore hitchhike road which makes me think that these are guys have started on something like their maiden voyage on that old road; and over one shoulder the ubiquitous string-tied bedroll that speaks already of ravine sleep, apartment floor pick your space sleep, and other such vagabond sleep certainly not of Holiday Inn or even flea-bag motel sleeps; and over the other shoulder the also ubiquitous life’s gatherings in a knapsack (socks, a few utensils, maybe underwear, and the again maybe not, change of shirt, a few toilet articles, not much more but more than the kings (and queens) of the roads, 1930s ancestor forbears carried, for sure , ask any old Wobblie, or bum-hobo-tramp hierarch- take your pick-who took that hard-scrabble, living out of your emptied pocket road).
And the other young man, a vision of heaven’s own high 1960s counter-cultural style: long-haired, not quite a pony tail if tied back and maybe not <em>Easy Rider</em> long but surely no advertisement for <em>Gentleman’s Quarterly</em> even in their earnest days of keeping up with the new tastes to corner the more couth segments of the hippie market; cowboy-hatted, no, not a Stetson, howdy, Tex, kind of thing but some Army-Navy store-bought broad brimmed, sun-bashing, working cowboy hat that spoke of hard-riding, branding, cattle night lowing, whiskey and women Saturday town bust-ups, just right for a soft-handed, soft-skinned city boy fearful of unlit places, or places that are not lit up like a Christmas tree; caped, long swirling cape, like someone’s idea of old-time film Zorro stepping out with the senoritas; guitar, an old Martin from the look of it, slung over one shoulder, not protective cased against the winds, rains, snows, or just the bang-ups of living, but protective in other ways when night falls and down in the hills and hollows, or maybe by a creek, heaven’s own strum comes forth. Woody Guthrie’s own child, or stepchild, or some damn relative. I swear.
Welcome brothers, as I open up the passenger side door. “Where are you guys heading?” This line is more meaningful than you might think for those who know, as I know, and as these lads will know, as well, if they spent any time on the hitchhike road. Sometimes it was better, even on a high-speed highway, to not take any old ride that came along if, say, some kind–hearted local spirit was only going a few miles, or the place where a driver would let you out on the highway was a tough stop. Not to worry though these guys, Jack and Mattie, were hitchhiking to California. California really, I swear, although they are stopping off at a crisscross of places on their way. A pretty familiar routine by then, playing hopscotch, thumbs out, across the continent.
These guys were, moreover, indeed brothers, because you see once we started comparing biographical notes, although they never put it that way, or really never could just because of the way they thought about things as I got to know them better on the ride, were out there searching, and searching hard, for my blue-pink night. Christ, there were heaven’s own blessed armies, brigades anyway, of us doing it, although like I said about Jack and Mattie most of the brothers and sisters did not get caught up in the colors of that night, like I did, and just “dug” the search. Jack and Mattie are in luck, in any case, because on this day I’m heading to Washington, D.C. and they have friends near there in Silver Springs, Maryland. The tides of the times are riding with us.
And why, by the way, although it is not germane to the story or at least this part of it, am I heading to D.C.? Well, the cover story is to do some anti-war organizing but, for your eyes only, I had just broken up, for the umpteenth time, with a women who drove me to distraction, sometimes pleasantly but on that occasion fitfully, who I could not, and did not, so I thought, want to get out of my system, but had to put a little distance away from. You know that story, boys and girls, in your own lives so I do not have to spend much time on the details here, although that theme might turn up again. Besides, if you really want to read that kind of story the romance novels section of any library or the DVD film section, for that matter, can tell the story with more heart-throbbing panache that you will find here.
I’ve got a kind of weird story to tell you about why Jack and Mattie were on this desolate border stretch of the highway in a minute but let me tell a little about what they were trying to do out on that road, that west road. First, I was right, mostly, about their ages, but Jack and Mattie were no graduate students on a spring lark before grinding away at some master’s thesis on the meaning of meaning deconstuct’d (although this reference is really an anachronism since such literary theories were not then fashionably on display on the world’s campuses, but you get the drift) or some such worthy subject in desperate need of research in a time when this old world was falling apart and the bombs were (are) raining (literally) on many parts of the world.
In one sense they were graduates though, graduates of the university of hard knocks, hard life, and hard war. They had just a few months before been discharged, a little early as the war, or the American ground troops part of it, was winding down, from the U.S. Army after a couple of tours of duty in ‘Nam (their usage, another of their privileged usages was “in-country”). I swear I didn’t believe them at first, no way, they looked like the poster boys for the San Francisco Summer of Love in 1967. Something, something big was going on here and my mind was trying to digest the sight of these two guys, “good, solid citizens” before the “man” turned them around in that overseas Vietnam quagmire who looked in attire, demeanor, and style just like the guy (me) who picked them up.
Ya, but that is only part of it and not even the most important part, really, because this California thing was also no lark. This is their break-out, bust-out moment and they are going for it. As we rode along that old super highway they related stories about how they came back from “in-county”, were going to settle down, maybe get married (or move in with a girlfriend or seven), and look forward to social security when that distant time came. But something snapped inside of them, and this is where every old Jack London hobo, every old Wobblie, every old bummer on the 1930s rail highway, hell even every old beat denizen of some Greenwich Village walk-up was a kindred spirit. Like I said, and I am sitting right in the car listening to them with a little smirk on my face, the boys are searching that same search that I am searching for and that probably old Walt Whitman really should take the blame for, okay. I’ll tell you more, or rather; I’ll let them tell you more some other time but let me finish up here with that weird little story about why they were at that god forsaken point on the highway.
Look, everybody knows, or should know, or at least knew back then that hitchhiking, especially hitchhiking on the big roads was illegal, and probably always was even when every tramp and tramp-ette in America had his or her thumb out in the 1930s. But usually the cops or upstanding citizenry either ignored it or, especially in small towns, got you on some vagrancy rap. Hey, if you had spent any time on the hitchhike road you had to have been stopped at least once if for no other reason than to harass you. Still some places were more notorious than others in hitchhike grapevine lore in those days, particularly noteworthy were Connecticut and Arizona (both places where I had more than my own fair share of “vagrancy” problems).
So I was not too far off when I figured out that Jack and Mattie were on their maiden voyage. Thumbs out and talking, the pair missed the then ever-present Connecticut state police cruiser coming from nowhere, or it seemed like nowhere, as it came to a stop sharply about five feet away from them. The pair gulped and prepared for the worst; being taken to some state police barracks and harassed and then let go at some backwater locale as the road lore had it. Or getting “vagged”. Or worst, a nice little nasty trick in those days, have “illegal” drugs conveniently, very conveniently, found on their person.