Everyone knows hitchhiking is dangerous, but in times past it was a fairly safe, cheap and easy way to get around. In 1949, though, it meant adventure for my friend, Chuck, and me when we set out with two suitcases and $40 between us to find work in California.
With no thruways yet, we thumbed rides on narrow roads and walked through the heart of most towns. Trudging across Cleveland our first day out was torturous, especially in the hot, sheepskin jacket on my back. With no road traffic that night, we found a 24-hour diner in Ft. Wayne, Ind., and stayed awake till morning with coffee and NoDoz tablets.
One rainy evening in the Midwest, a car dumped us on a flat, deserted stretch of road and vanished behind a fenced compound. Sloshing along in blinding downpours, we spotted a boxcar shimmering like a shrouded apparition. Chuck investigated while I waited roadside, praying for a ride. When he returned, saying it looked empty, we slogged across a muddy field, jacked open the door and climbed inside where we found a silt-covered floor under a leaky roof. Dank, but at least it was shelter. I curled up in a dry spot to sleep, grateful now for my sheepskin jacket. The next day my cardboard suitcase disintegrated on the road.
In Nebraska, a trooper pulled our truck over, waved his pearl-handled pistol in our faces and ordered us out. Apparently, a couple of escaped convicts were on the run and we were snared in a police dragnet. Satisfied with our identities and story, he turned us loose.
One night, guided only by starlight, we tramped through the countryside, howling with barking dogs and triggering a concatenating din for miles around. We were hoping to find a gas station with an unlocked restroom to sleep in, when we spotted a fuzzy, green light ahead. Unbelievably, in the gloom of nowhere loomed a police station. We went inside, told our story to the officer and showed our money to prove we weren’t vagrants. Sympathetic, he gave us cells to sleep in and a coffee-and-doughnuts send-off in the morning.
Dead sheep frozen in a recent storm littered the snowy foothills of the Rockies, where a trucker picked us up. As we chugged against the grade, the driver jumped out for exercise and jogged beside us while I steered. Night fell before we crested the Great Divide, where gravity unlocked our wheels and we began rolling fast and hard. Tires screaming, the swaying 32-ton truck hurtled down a serpentine road with no guard rails between us and a bottomless abyss. As we approached a blind curve, with the speedometer twitching to 80 mph, our high beams suddenly died, blacking out the world. We were dead!
Suddenly again, the beams flicked on. The driver explained that he had killed his lights to detect any glare ahead. Seeing none, he could safely take the inside lane and maintain momentum. At that moment life never seemed sweeter.
When we reached Boise, Idaho, people warned that if we continued on we could die stranded in the desert. Finding no freight train to hop, we decided we didn’t really care to work in California, anyway.
Hitchhiking under big skies across this vast and beautiful land of plains, rivers and mountains, breathing fresh country air, soaking up sunlight and meeting interesting people was exhilarating. Hiking home rounded out a three-week adventure, and worth all 4,500 miles of it. But I wouldn’t advise anyone to try it today.
James Costa, a retired teacher who lives in Elma, recalls a time when hitchhiking was a safe and easy way to travel.