The Weirdness Of It All

Tales from The American Road

Times were strange in 1969. Dan and I had just hitchhiked from Thunder Bay in Canada into the main vein of Berkeley. The early afternoon sun was hot and heat shimmered off parked cars in little squiggles. He had a backpack and I had a duffel bag, containing our lives. We had no idea where we were going. In those days it didn't seem to matter.

Dan was a morose Celt who had graduated from college and the Air Force about the time I had finished the Marines. We weren't hippies exactly, but the brooding dissatisfaction of the age lay heavily on us. We'd talked semi-seriously in dorm rooms of paddling into the Okeefenokee Swamp to build a cabin on a hummock and live on tomatoes and watermelons. Trouble was, girls weren't nearly crazy enough to live on tomatoes in a swamp. Anyway the mosquitoes were known to carry off dogs.

The reef life of the Sixties pattered barefoot through the streets of Berkeley. There were student Marxists who had confused their parents with capitalism and were enraged to the gills, and sunburned patriarchs of twenty just in from desert communes, and mind-burnt acid freaks packaging brain damage as mystical insight. Some Hare Krishnas pranced with tambourines in orange sheets and shower shoes from Dart Drug. Peace, brother, jingle-bang. Oh, and your spare change. Never forget your spare change.

Dan was in a phone booth calling someone in Plattsburg. The connection was bad. I heard him say to the operator, "Platts…no, Platts…no, "p" as in psilocybin…."

She understood. Times were strange in 1969.

Odd things stick in your mind on the road. The high point of the trip had come for me when some librarian-looking lady in a drugstore in Hannibal, Missouri had watched Dan leafing through Playboy. "I think you need a sexual outlet," she sniffed. It was a racy remark for Hannibal. "I've got an outlet," said Dan. "I need a receptacle." Never cross swords with a depressive Irishman.

The roads were strange too. There were places you could hitchhike into but not out of, like black holes. Nobody understood them. One was a place in Canada, called something like Wa Wa, where fifty freaks stayed beside the road for days and couldn't get a ride. The rumor was that some of them had started families.

That night Dan and I found ourselves at a lonely freeway exit curving into nothing a few miles from some Spanish-sounding town--Los Frenes, El Volante, whatever. Traffic died. Nothing moved. The freeway stretched into the night and the quiet was deathly except for the keening of bugs.

We knew we were doomed. In two hours, no car passed. The exit was set between high grassy banks speckled with dispirited trees. Light came from one of those mercury-vapor lamps that made flesh look green and a week dead. High school students used to avoid them because they made acne turn purple.

It was boring. We read the back of the stop sign, where other practitioners of the long-haul thumb had scrawled their sorrows. Little tick marks counted the rideless hours. Five, seven, thirteen. Somebody had written, "Bob died. We buried him under the lindens." I think it was lindens. Anyway, one of those vegetable-sounding words that mean trees. Somebody had written below, "We killed Chris, and ate him." They probably didn't really.

The hours crawled on like picnic ants. The night grew cooler. We weren't worried. All we had to do was lie down out of sight and go to sleep. A lasting insight of the Sixties was that if you get twenty feet off the nearest sidewalk and lie down out of sight, nobody will know you exist. Little specks of mica glinted from the concrete. I started thinking they might be lost cities in a science fiction novel, beaming lights upward to signal for rescue. I probably needed my head examined. You can get stir crazy in a black hole.

Dan reached into a cranny in his pack I didn't know was there and pulled out a pint of Jim Beam. "The bar is open," he said. Some men rise to greatness in time of need. We retired to some high grass for the rest of the night. Today we'd be too dignified. I knew we'd never get off that ramp. Ever. Dan wanted to get up the next morning and move in, build a cabin of clay and wattles made. Trouble was, we didn't know what a wattle was.

I don't know how long we lay there, telling tales. The Sixties were an age for tales. I remember telling Dan about the time I thumbed into Riverside to see our friend Jimmy, a musically gifted oddball I used to hop freight trains with along the eastern seaboard. Jimmy was nuts.

Anyway, I'd walked up whatever the main street was. Riverside was a generic pseudo-Spanish Levitown like every freeway stop in California. I was carrying a duffel bag, and began to hear crazy Wehrmacht music from a frame house a block ahead. It was Carmina Burana, and loud. You probably could have heard it on the Mexican border.

In the living room Jimmy was sitting on a section of tree stump. He looked exactly like Rasputin. The walls were plastered with detergent boxes in garish colors. ("Tide! Bold! Dash!" What it said about advertising's conception of the housewifely libido, I wasn't sure.) Gilded coil springs dangled from the ceiling. There were six pink porcelain toilets, attached to nothing, in a ring in the middle of the floor.

I asked, "What the hell are these?"

"Toilets."

"I got that far. Why toilets?"

"I stole'em from a hardware store I work at. "

"Ah. But why toilets?"

"They watch everything else."

Somehow it seemed to make sense. Times were strange in 1969.

Anyway, Dan and I actually got out the next morning. An orange pickup with an ardent Marxist stopped and we agreed for a couple of hundred miles that that the dictatorship of the proletariat was at hand, as I've since decided it actually was. Watch any daytime talk show. But we didn't die there on the sidewalk.