Lessons Learned as a Young Hitchhiker

Before the “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe”, even before Jack Kerouac published his novel about life on the road with Neal Cassidy, I was introduced to the world of the hitchhiker. Well, it was not hitchhiking across America, it was hitchhiking a stretch of country road between where I lived in Brighton Township, and  Beaver, Pennsylvania where I went to school from seventh to twelfth grades.

Today you do not see many hitchhikers. My guess is that this reflects the proliferation of the automobile as much as the dangers of life on the road. For myself, growing up in the 1950’s, I enjoyed my father’s adventure stories of crossing America. As a young man Cecil Warren Gray traveled on the cheap from Pennsylvania to California during the Great Depression. He rode in a bus until he ran out of money near Chicago, then he hopped freight trains and hitchhiked the rest of
the way. I particularly remember his story of being picked up hitchhiking just west of Chicago. The man was driving a shiny, black Cadillac.  My father swore the man had a tommy-gun in the back seat. He was sure it was Al Capone or one of his men. Later on the trip he was sleeping under bridge one night in Colorado. A thunderstorm came up, the stream over-flowed its banks, and Cecil’s shoes were washed away. How he replaced his shoes was never part of the story as I chose to remember it. I was not interested in the negative.

I grew up with a romantic view of life on the road. And by the age of twelve, I was ready for an adventure of my own; even if it was only hitchhiking a four mile stretch of road between my home and the town where I went to school. My mother was not in favor of her son hitchhiking into town. She thought it was dangerous. My father disagreed with her. The truth was that, at that time, we had only one car in the family. There was no public transportation: and father worked at Crucible Steel Company in Midland, six miles in the opposite directions from Beaver. He often worked different shifts. I could hitchhike or stay at home.

My first nighttime, hitchhiking adventure to Beaver came when I was in seventh grade. A girl, who lived in Beaver, invited me to a party at her church. I do not remember who picked me up that night going and coming from town, but I remember my anxiety about walking alone into the party. The church was set on a park in the center of town. I circled the park at least ten times before I screwed up my courage to go into the party. I do not remember anything about the party or the girl who invited me, I only remember the experience of walking around the park. Circling a task that is difficult has become a metaphor for my way of dealing with life. I have often thought of that night when I have something difficult to do in my life. I say to myself: all right, you have walked around the park long enough, it is time to act.

My hitchhiking stories to and from Beaver are not all so full of moral rectitude. Sometime about the age of fourteen I was hitchhiking into town on a summer evening. It was still daylight. A car full of teenagers passed by me as I  stood with my thumb extended. Suddenly the car stopped and backed up to me. One of them, a boy who was probably four or five years older than me, got out of the car and approached me. I knew I was in trouble. I turned and started to walk away from him. The driveway to my house was not far away. He followed after me cursing and calling me names. Finally, at the entrance to the driveway, I stopped and turned toward him. As I did he slammed his fist into my jaw and I fell to the ground. I curled up on the ground and protected my face. He laughed, spit on me, and went back to the car. For a long time after that incident, I did not hitchhike to town. When I finally had the courage to hitchhike again, I did it with a new awareness that every ride had the potential to bring good or bad into my life.

It was about that same age that I landed a most fortuitous ride. There were school buses that transported township kids to and from school in Beaver. These buses ran  before and after school. If you stayed after school for activities, then you had to find your own ride home. One spring afternoon I was hitchhiking home from track practice. The best place to thumb a ride home was on the corner of Fourth and Buffalo Streets on the edge of Beaver. It was there, by the Beaver Cemetery, that both streets fed traffic on to Tuscarawas Road, the road I lived on four miles out in the countryside. It was a warm, spring day. I was hot and sweaty from practice, and carrying my shorts and t-shirt wrapped in a wet towel.

I looked up Fourth Street and saw a new Ford Fairlane 500 coming toward me. This car was what we called a, “hardtop convertible”. It was two-toned in color, fire engine red and white. The car passed through the light and pulled over. I recognized the driver, he was a senior at the high school. In the passenger’s seat was a girl I did not recognize. She slide closer to the driver to make room for me in the front seat.

As we started down the road, the driver leaned forward and asked:  how far are you going?

I guess when I got into the car I slid further on the white leather, bench seat than I meant to; when I turned to answer his question, I was closer to the girl than I expected to be. Her blond hair was touching my shoulder. I could smell her perfume. I could have leaned another three inches and kissed her on the cheek. Instead, I turned my head to look out the windshield and mumbled: four miles.

The driver responded: we’re not going that far, but we will make an exception for the track team. I figured he was happy to extend his drive in the country. I know I was
happy to be riding next to his girlfriend.

Hitchhiking was part of my coming of age. The four miles of Tuscarawas Road between my family home and Beaver provided a reasonably safe environment for my first taste of independence. I never did hitchhike across America like Jack Kerouac and my father, but I did develop a taste for adventure and telling a good story. And I have pursued these tastes with a modest amount of success. I still spend a lot of my life circling around the park before I can muster the courage for the adventure; but that is fine, it makes for a better story in the end.

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