Wednesday, May 30, 2012
  Tom Conroy #6: Road memories

by Tom Conroy

I was still 18, and this was on one of my early trips across the country. I was on my way to California to visit Roger Brand. I'm on Highway 40 somewhere in Ohio or Indiana when a trucker picks me up. He was driving an old beat-up truck with the Mack Bulldog on the hood.

The floor of the cab on the passenger side was filled with hay. The hay was about five inches thick. He told me that's where he sleeps. "I can't afford motels, so when I get tired I just curl up on the floor. That's my bed." Now this guy was a 100% ridge-running hillbilly. He tells me, "I'm smoking a lot because I'm burning kerosene. I'm low on money, and kerosene is five cents a gallon cheaper than diesel." This was back when gas was 30 cents a gallon. So we're checking gas stations for someplace that sells kerosene. We find one, and he fills her up.

As we're cruising along, he's smoking a pipe and keeps tapping it into his dashboard ashtray to empty it. We're yakking away, and he's puffing on the pipe. We're going slow through this medium-size farm town when all of a sudden poof! The hay on the floor is on fire. The flames are about six or seven inches high, and he yells at me, "Hey... kick that shit out of here." I open the door, and with my left foot I'm bailing out the burning hay into the street. He stops at a red light. There's a couple of people sitting on a bench waiting for a bus. People are strolling down the street and also walking in the crosswalk. As I'm kicking the burning inferno out into the street, he starts laughing. I'm stomping out the last bit of burning hay on the floor of the truck. He says, "Green light. Close the door." As we pull away, I look back and see a burning bonfire in the street. He's still laughing away. "Oh, man. Did you see the look on those people's faces? That was fun. Let's go back and do it again." He took me through St. Louis and dropped me somewhere in Missouri. It was a good ride.

I'm in Utah hitchhiking on a two-lane blacktop snaking its way through a canyon. I'm hoping for a ride into Ogden, so I could get down to Salt Lake City and catch highway 30 (now 1-80) which would take me into Frisco. This was a bad road for thumbing since a car only came by about every five minutes. Now this is back in 1961 when America was like driving through a giant garbage dump. Cans, bottles and trash all along the highways. I had a bunch of firecrackers with me I bought in Missouri. To pass the time I was putting them into beer bottles and throwing them off the cliff into the gully below. Bang. Pow. Boom. 

I see a car coming, and I jump across the road and stick up my thumb. The guy stops, and as soon as I got in I could smell the booze. The driver's side of the car was all smashed in, and the windows were busted. The guy tells me how a truck driver had sideswiped him the night before. "This trucker sideswiped me last night, and he told me it was my fault because I was drunk. I was not drunk. It was him that crossed over the line. It was not me... blah... blah... blah." He told me he was going to Salt Lake City, and the good thing is he wasn't driving fast. Goodbye beer bottle canyon.

About ten miles after we get out of the canyon, he sees a bar and pulls over to get another drink. We both get out on the passenger side. He goes in, and I stick up my thumb hoping for a better ride. After awhile he comes back out and gets in the car. I got my thumb up, and he stops. I was desperate to get to Salt Lake City. I get back in the car. He tells me the whole damn story again about getting sideswiped. "Blah, blah, blah."  The angels were watching over me, and I survived the drive though Ogden. We are now on a major four-lane highway headed south, and he pulls over at another bar. He goes in, and I am now hitching under a shade tree. Again he comes out of the bar, and I just go, "Oh, no, not again." He pulls over, and again I get back in the car. Talk about being desperate. The first thing he says to me is, "Hey... there sure are a lot of guys hitchhiking today. You're the third guy I gave a ride to."  So again he tells me the story about the truck driver hitting him.

I was looking out the window on my side of the car when all of a sudden he swerved to the left across two lanes of traffic. My brain instantly went into the "Oh shit" mode as I watched him smash out about ten reflector posts embedded in the median. When we came to a stop we were in the middle of four lanes of late rush-hour traffic stuck on some reflector post. The engine is still running, and we are teeter-tottering up and down. Every time the back tire on my side hit the pavement there was a screeching sound with clouds of smoke as he burned off the rubber. Then the car would pitch forward a little and then back again on the back tire with more smoke. The car does this about three or four times, and he looks over at me and says, "I think my transmission ain't working." My brain now goes from the "Oh shit" mode into the "What the fuck" mode. I can't remember if I turned off the engine, but I did get out as soon as I could. I went to the side of the highway and stuck up my thumb. The whole sky was filled with huge puffs of smoke and the smell of burned rubber. The rising clouds of smoke looked just like Indian smoke signals from a John Ford Western. Truly an amazing sight. The traffic was slowing down a little with all the people rubber-necking.

Very quickly I got another ride. It was three kids coming from work, and the main reason they gave me a ride was they wanted to know what the hell had happened. After I told them the story, they asked  me where I was going. When I told them they couldn't believe it. "California." They acted like California was on another planet. When I told them I started from New York City they really flipped. They gave me a ride to Salt Lake and put me on Highway 30. I was only 18 then, and I thought these guys were younger than me. They were all a couple years older. This was my fourth trip across country.  Knowing that I was from California they all asked me a very important question. They wanted to know if the Beach Boys song was true. Was there was really a place called Surf City, USA? And was it true there were three girls for every guy? I really didn't know if it was true or not. I lied to them. I told them it was true and that there were four girls for every guy.

It's 1965, and I am hitching with my friend Victor Clark from New York City to Bucks County, Pennsylvania. We are going there with plans of buying a car. I had long hair and beard. Victor looked like a sea pirate with a big red beard and also long hair. This was when the hippie thing had just started. We're walking and thumbing on the outside of a town in New Jersey. On one side of the highway is a miniature golf course, and on the other side is a small mom and pop burger joint. We cross the highway to get something to eat. We're sitting there scarfing down some cheeseburgers, and a bunch of ten-year-old kids swarm around us. They have a couple ballpoint pens, and they want our autographs. We are both dumbfounded. We start signing napkins and torn off pieces of hamburger bags. As we start to leave, a couple more kids run up. We sign more napkins. As we're leaving, we go by a mother sitting in a station wagon. Her window is open, and I hear her say, "They must be famous. They have long hair."

When we're back across the road Victor asked me what did I sign. I told him I signed my name. When I asked him what he signed he said, "The Hitchhikers." We started laughing. The kids are standing across the highway staring at us. I guess Dylan was right. "The times they are a-changing." If this had been a year earlier, those little buggers would have been throwing rocks at us.

It's late winter, and I'm hitching on old Route 66 going to California. It had just gotten dark, and I'm stuck out in the middle of the desert in New Mexico. There is a big moon out, and all around me are bunches of snowdrifts. On this trip I brought along a hand warmer. It was about the size of a whiskey flask, and it ran on lighter fluid. It had a hole in the middle that was for lighting cigarettes. I would stick it in my pants or under my armpits or any part of me that needed warming up.

All was fine but I had one major problem. I was out of cigarettes and had not had a smoke for a couple hours. I was a wreck. Really craving a smoke and ain't nowhere to get one. I stuck my hands in my pockets and looked up at the stars in the sky and yelled out, "God, I wish I had a cigarette." At that moment a car went zooming by me in the East bound lane. As I watched it go by I saw the driver flip a cigarette out the window. It had a nice red glow as it shot up in the air like a rocket and sparks flew off it when it landed on the side of the road. I yelled out "Holy shit" as I ran down the road to pick it up. It was a Pall Mall, and only an inch had been smoked. Oh, man, did it taste good. I took only a few puffs and held the smoke in my lungs as long possible. I then put it out. I was going to make it last as long as possible. Each time I would light it up and take a few hits and then put it out again. When I took my last hit it was so small I almost burned my fingers.

A little while after the last puff I got a ride. It was a young kid my age who was in the Air Force and going to the base in Albuquerque. As soon as we took off the first thing he said was, "Hey... you want a cigarette?" He handed me a Camel. Wow. Makes my night. The song "Traveling Man" by Ricky Nelson came on the radio. I'm sitting in a nice warm car smoking my brand of cigarettes and cruising into the night, and all I'm thinking is, "Life don't get no better than this."

On my second hitchhike trip across country, I left New York just before spring to go visit Roger Brand in California. I am on highway 40 just outside of Wheeling, West Virginia. I am about a half mile from the Ohio River just inside the Ohio border. It's night time, and it's cold. Across the road is a huge billboard that reads THE BANK OF WHEELING WELCOMES YOU TO VIRGINIA. On the billboard are two electronic number signs. One giving the time and the other giving the temperature. The river was nothing but a fog bank, and it's about nine o'clock and about 38 degrees. No luck getting rides, and the longer I'm there, the colder it gets. About midnight the temperature is about 20, and I am starting to get a little worried. A little off the road are some cabins. Not a motel. Just about five or six cabins. I go searching for shelter. I see a laundry room and go inside. In the corner is a big sink next to an old ringer washing machine. I turn the faucet handle and to my surprise hot water comes flowing out. I fill up the sink and stick my hands and face into the steam. Holy shit. I'm starting to thaw out. I put my sleeping bag under the sink and go to sleep. I'm wedged under the tub, and I feel nice and warm. I wake up later with my teeth chattering. I get up. The whole damn sink is nothing but a big block of ice.

I go back outside to the road, and the billboard tells me it is two o'clock and 12 or 13 degrees. I see a cardboard box in the ditch and flatten it out. I use it to stand on to keep my feet off the frozen ground. All I could do was jump from one foot to the other. After nearly an hour of this shit a semi-truck stops to give me a ride. I run down the road and get in. The first thing the guy says to me is, "Hi... I'm your angel that's here to stop you from freezing to death. The reason it's warm in here is because I like driving in my shirt sleeves." He tells me not to take off my coat for a while until I get adjusted to the temperature change. Five minutes later he says it's okay to take off the coat. "I can't give you a long ride, but I'll take you 40 miles down the road to the next truck stop. I'll get you a motel room for the night, and the company will be paying for it."

When we get there he leaves me in the truck and goes in and rents a room. He brings me the key and tells me don't go in the front lobby. Only use the back door over by the side. I'm standing by the side door watching him as he pulls away. There were dozens of trucks all over the place. Because of the shitty weather all those trucks were covered with crud. Sleet and slop from the highway. They were all dirty except his truck. His truck was spotless. Not one speck of dirt. It looked like it just came from the factory. I am not kidding. The whole trailer was painted bright turquoise blue and in the middle was a loaf of bread. Behind the bread was a white cloud, and behind the cloud was a sunbeam. Beneath the loaf of bread were the words Heavenly Baking Company. I stood there staring at that truck until all I could see were his tail lights fading into the night.

--Tom Conroy

Tom with Milt Stoval. Tom writes, "We were trying to hitch out of Sacramento. We slept two nights under the overpass on the left side of photo. We finally bought a bus ticket to a town 30 miles away." Photos in the center of the article are atop a moving train: "We jumped the train in Gallop, New Mexico and took it all the way into Barstow, California. This was in 1981 or 1982, maybe 1983. I spent two months on the road that summer, and we both had cameras."

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Great stuff--more, more!

Hitchhiking stories are a genre all their own, like cop stories or war stories. I love them.
I love this. I did similar in Europe in the early 1970's. The adventures verged on surrealism.
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