Why is it that when I finally reach the very brief part of my one hour morning yoga routine that involves trying to quietly meditate, I almost always get interrupted? Why is this the exact moment when the dog starts barking hysterically at the mailman or the neighbor coming to return a wrench he borrowed last summer? Is it a bizarre sign from the universe that I’m not supposed to meditate? Or is it because I am trying to open an empty space that the universe immediately feels the need to fill it with some task or problem? Nature abhors a vacuum and seems intent on diverting a sudden backwash into the clear channel my mind uses to empty itself.
In the same way, if there happens to be a cancellation in my daily schedule and I think, “ah, the perfect time to take a nap,” the last email I try to send will crash my computer and when I try to restart it the screen will go blank requiring me to call tech support and spend my free hour on hold waiting to talk to an expert in India who will fail to help me with my problem but will recommend a great hotel to stay at in Mumbai if I ever happen to be in the area.
Now that the pandemic is waning, and friends finally feel safe riding together in cars I am becoming nostalgic for my life as a hitchhiker. For young people today hitchhiking has never been an option. It is seen as something that only psychopaths and escaped convicts might resort to. But when I was in high school and college hitchhiking was the Uber of our day: You could get a ride to anywhere on the map simply by using your thumbs to signal to willing drivers that you needed a lift.
Of course, similar to Uber, you never knew how long it might take for a willing driver to actually show up and offer you a ride. And unlike Uber, you were never sure where they might eventually drop you off, but the hope was always that it would be nearer to your intended destination, or perhaps to an even better place than you had imagined. My guy friends always fantasized that we’d get picked up in sports cars by beautiful, lonely actresses or fashion models, who would take us to their stylish apartments to have their way with us. This despite the fact that we often had been sleeping in parks or beneath bridges and hadn’t showered in days.
The reality was that we would usually get picked up by other hippies driving rustbuckets that barely ran who needed gas money to make it to a Grateful Dead concert. But the sense of possibility and adventure was always present when you stuck out your thumb. Although most of the time it meant that you would wind up standing on the god-forsaken on-ramp of some highway while a parade of cars and trucks either ignored you, or gave you the finger, it only took one hip person to turn the day into one you might never forget.
Once when my friend Allen and I were hitchhiking through Montana we got a ride from a cowboy in a pick-up. We threw our backpacks into the truck bed and sat with him in the cab, where he proceeded to break out a joint and brag about how he had just scored a bunch of weed. If we liked the stuff, he could sell us some. After we were all very high, he tossed the roach out the window and kept motoring down the sparsely trafficked highway until one of us smelled smoke. The cowboy looked in his rear view mirror and saw a cloud of dark plumes coming from right behind us, in the truck bed! He veered off to the side of the road and we all jumped out to see that the gear in the bed was in flames. The discarded roach had landed on a pile of oily rags and ignited an inferno. “Oh shit!” he yelled, “I’ve got a pound of pot back there and a five gallon can of gas!” Despite the danger of an explosion, he jumped up into the bed and started flinging burning objects onto the shoulder of the road and into the ditch, including our packs. Though we did our best to snuff out the fires his pot was toast and our packs permanently singed, though still usable. When it was over we were all grumpy but thankful that we hadn’t gotten blown up, and we were still very stoned and hungry. We decided to drive to the cowboy’s trailer where he proceeded to make us a lunch of venison steaks and beer, and then drove us back to the highway to continue our journey.
Another time I was on a cross-country trip with my college roommate Marc, driving in his VW camper van. We were headed from our college in Florida all the way to his home in Los Angeles, by way of Portland. When we arrived, we found out that there was a comic book convention downtown, and Marc was an avid collector, so he wanted to check it out. I wasn’t really into comic books then (go figure) but I had a friend who I wanted to visit, so Marc dropped me off for a couple of hours while he explored comic bookville. But when he returned that evening he didn’t want to leave town. He had met a beautiful girl at the convention who wanted to take him to a lecture that night. He insisted that I come along. It turned out to be a Scientology indoctrination session, and sure enough Marc, in the thrall of the beautiful girl, was willing to do whatever his new friend suggested, which was to attend more indoctrination sessions. I stayed with my friend Jeremy for a couple of nights, hoping Marc would come to his senses, but when it became clear he’d become Scientologized, I got all my gear and tools from his van, left them with Jeremy, and continued hitchhiking down the coast. The purpose of our cross-country trip had been to find the best place to live after graduating college and I hadn’t found it yet.
I got down to Eureka, California, and was standing on the road trying to thumb a ride out of town when a huge man named Pat Deo pulled up to the curb in a Cadillac. “Say, you look thirsty,” he said, as we waddled out of his car. “Help me unload my trunk and I’ll buy you a drink.” It turned out that Pat had converted the upstairs of a warehouse into an apartment, along with an enormous storeroom of supplies that he kept for when the shit would inevitably hit the fan. He had thousands of pounds of beans, rice, flour, canned goods, etc. When he found out that I didn’t really have any firm plans he asked if I might be willing to do a week of work for him.
Since I was hungry and almost broke, and he was also offering to let me stay in his guestroom, I readily agreed. I spent the week running errands for him, hauling stuff around and cracking jokes with Pat, who knew more punchlines than anyone I’d ever met. Soon he offered me a job being the bookkeeper for a couple of his businesses. I told him I’d do it, but first I needed to hitchhike back up to Portland to get the rest of my stuff.
“You don’t need to hitchhike,” he said. “Take my car! I’ve got another one parked in a garage down the street.”
So that is how I arrived back in Portland, literally one week after hitchhiking out of town with a backpack and very thin bankroll, driving a Cadillac.