HITCHHIKING

(or seeing the U.S.A. in someone else's Chevrolet)

1997 Mick Cusimano

Recently an article I found on the Internet claimed that half of all hitchhikers on America's highways are convicts on the run. How true that is I don't know, but things were very different in the early 70's. After Woodstock thousands of young people took to the road with their thumbs as their main means of transportation. The Woodstock Nation was not just a concept but real sense of solidarity among kids who were into rock music, long hair, and the other aspects of the Sixties counterculture. The spirit of Woodstock didn't end with 3 days of music and mud. It continued on for 3-4 years on the open road. If you were young and had long hair you could get rides in short time locally or for long distances. Thousands of kids were hitchhiking to get to rock concerts or to just to get around. Complete strangers would pick you up and offer you pot, dinner, and even offer to put you up at their house if they thought you were a member of the counterculture. You would meet people hitchhiking and become inst ant comrades. Half an hour later you would be camping out on a beach with people playing guitar with other brothers and sisters of the road. Myself, I joined this world in 1970 when I sold my car to afford to go to college.

My first experience hitchhiking was when my brother and myself hitched 150 miles to the Strawberry Fields Rock festival with 100,000 other kids at a speedway north of Toronto. Now if you read your rock history books they will tell you that the idealism of the counterculture began with Woodstock and ended a few months later with the disaster at Altamont. That myth is a crock of shit invented by journalists who watch t oo many 30 minute television programs trying to fit reality into a tidy little myth with a clear beginning and end. The truth is that Altamont was an unfortunate fluke. There were many later festivals: Strawberry fields, Goose Lake, and The Isle of Wight where friendliness, co-operation, and good vibes created 3 day temporary utopian communities. Strawberry Fields was one of them. The rides up to the festival were uneventful. For three days we camped out listening to Jethro Tull, Alice Cooper, Grand Funk Railroad, and Sly and the Family Stone among others. People were pretty mellow for the most part. During Ten Years After one guy who looked like a football player took off all his clothes ran along the ground howling at the moon and scaled the light tower hanging precariously like a monkey. On the third night Sly and the Family Stone came on about 5:00AM and played to dawn.

It was a great weekend but competing with thousands of other hitchhikers was a bit of a while before we got a ride. One hippie from West Virginia gave us a ride to Toronto. He said he had come to the festival to discover the true meaning of his life and the universe. He wanted to explore different cities to find his answer. Strawberry Fields had been a city and now Toronto was another one. It took us 2 hours to get rides to the other side of Toronto. Finally a car stopped to pick us up. It was the same hippie. he said that Toronto was just another city. I would debate that. Toronto is one of the most beautiful and exciting cities in North America. He said that the acid he did at the festival had given a sudden understanding of the whole universe and now he could head home satisfied with his newfound enlightenment. He pulled out a pipe from under his dashboard to smoke some more enlightenment. That wouldn't be so bad except we were ap proaching Niagara Falls customs station at the bridge that crossed into America. Sure enough all the cars with long haired kids were pulled over for customs inspection. We waited ne rvously inside for quite a while they searched the car. One agent walked in and said, "Look what I found!" He held two marijuana pipes in his hand. Our hearts sank. Instead of getting across the river we would be up the river. Then he pointed to the kids n ext to us. The pipes belonged to their car. They let us move on. We pulled into a gas station where the hippie got into an argument with the attendant accusing him of being a greedy capitalist for charging 35 cents for a gallon of gas.

Several weeks later my barber, cut all my hair off. Cutting the hair of a young guy in 1970 was every bit as traumatic as it was to Samson, even if Samson didn't rock and roll. Distraught and angry I took off hitchhiking at the Main and Kensington ramp out of Buffalo, maybe the busiest hitchhiking ramp on the East Coast. ( I once counted 26 people standing in line hitching). Two guys from California were standing there. They had just been interviewed by a Buffalo newspaper about their traveling exploits. One Mexican hippie who dropped out of eighth grade bragged about blowing up a series of police cars in San Diego. I had'nt yet read On The Road by Jack Kerouac. I just was angry and was ready to go anywhere. I didn't care where. I got a ride to Binghamton, N.Y. and slept in a park. Next morning I hitched to Philadelphia. A dirty bustling city with subways that were horrors compared the glistening carriages of Toronto's conduit of underground motation. Some Jesus freaks at a drop in coffee center took me in and put me up over night. They made me go to their revival meeting Sunday morning with people wailing and carrying on unlike the churches I had been to. That morning at breakfast one guy prayed for God to send him a wife. Another girl fell down on the floor and had an epileptic seizure. Instead of calling a doctor they all knelt over her and prayed for her recovery. She finally calmed down but the people from the center sent me back on the open road again.

The next day a guy and his wife gave me a ride to Atlantic City. Young people would give you rides the most. Older people would pick you up to help you out. But also because they admired and sort of envied adventurous youth living a life that they would surely never try themselves, not even when they were young. I arrived in Atlantic City years before the glitz of the casinos. In 1970 Atlantic City was a dreary depressing city long past it's heyday as the America's favorite summer playground. The horse that jumped off the Silver Pier was an old nag by then. It was summer and the first thing I did was jump into the ocean. After that with less than $15 I had to find a place to sleep. I met a hippie who said that his crash pad was full of junkies for the night. He suggested that I sleep in this one tree in the park. Thinking of what would happen if I rolled over 30 feet off the ground nixed that idea so I found some bushes and curled up there for the night. About an hour later I felt a jab in my ribs. It was a bill y club belonging to Atlantic City's finest telling me that it was checkout time. Late at night I got a ride by some rock band about 50 miles down the road. They let me off at a ramp at dawn. My first instinct was to drop into the weeds and sleep for about 10 hours, which is what I decided to do if I couldn't catch a ride in the next 5 minutes.

The moment I stuck out my thumb a blue Volkswagen came to a halt. This scrawny little guy about 50 picked me up. He looked harmless enough. he said as I was half dozing that he was the first person to smoke marijuana in America when he was a kid and other tall tales. We drove about an hour traveling about 65-70 mph. Suddenly he pulled up to the car speeding along next to us and pounded it with his fist. He pulled up to another car at the same speed reached out and punched that one too. He looked over to me and said, "Some people think I'm crazy!" Then he added, "You know what? I think I'm crazy too!" "What do you know? That's my exit right ahead I told him." It was no doubt a good move to get away from this guy. It was mid summer and I was tired and hot standing at this busy Maryland exit for two hours. Finally a professor from John Hopkins University picked me up. He took me on a bizarre tour of Baltimore's transsexual community, probably some of the same people that John Waters made movies about. He asked me if I was interested in this stuff and I told him no. He let me crash at his apartment and got me a ride with his friend to a better on ramp in Baltimore. Although at first I had no destination in mind. Bruce, an old mutual friend of mine from people I knew in Buffalo, lived in Virginia. Several of us Buffalo people had driven down there the previous summer for a week of carousing, drinking, and other adolescent mischief in the Nation's capital. While walking down the roadside it suddenly struck me. Here I was at 19 having hitchhiked 400 miles. Was I nuts? What the hell was I doing? Walking up to Bruce's house I told him my story. He let me stay there at his parent's house for a week. We visited his friend and while listening to Jimi Hendrix he told us that this stewardess had invited him to come by and visit her some night. We walked over to her apartment building but saw 2 guys walk into her apartment. We figured she had company and decided to forget about it. The next morning Bruce woke me up sticking the headlines of The Alexandria Daily news in my face. The stewardess we went to see had been stabbed to death with a knife 22 times. Yow! Hitchhiking back to Buffalo I got a ride from 2 bikers going to a rumble in Buffalo. They had tons of oil cans and prescription drug containers in their back seat where I had to sit. Since the car had a top speed of 35 miles an hour we were pulled over by cops several times for speeding too slow. Finally I made it home after 10 days on the road.

Hanging out with Bruce and his friends was quite a lot of fun. They gave me a confederate flag as souvenir of the still proud South. One day having sewn it on the back of my jacket as a joke I hitchhiked over the Peace Bridge from Buffalo over to Canada. The Canadian customs agent saw the flag and sent me back to the American side. I walked in to the office of the American customs agent's office ready for the third degree. The officer there was my former high school English teacher. He laughed and told me to j ust roll up my jacket and walk over the bridge and hitchhike on the Canadian side which I did.

In 1971 my friend Ziddle talked me into hitchiking to Philadelphia for a Buffalo Bills game the first game played in Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium. We got hitchhiking tickets from police in Syracuse and got chased off the road by a cop with drawn gun in Pennsylvania. The Philly fans came to see O.J. Simpson, then a star running back with stickum not blood on his hands. On the way back we saw The Doors and Doctor John on the Boston Common.

In 1973 I went on one of my last hitchhiking excursions going 400 miles south to Washington with my friend John to protest Richard Nixon's inauguration. We left on a Friday night and got dropped off at a hotel in Southern New York. The woman singer for the lounge band came over and asked us what we were doing. When she found out she was really excited and wanted to know if we were going to get involved in anti-Vietnam riots. We assured her that we would never do such a thing. A businessman from I.B.M. offered us a ride to Washington if we could wait until 3:00 AM. We drove into Pennsylvania. Near Lenox we hit an ice slick at 80 mph and spun around. That scared me. What really scared me was when the driver let go of the steering wheel and ducked down on the floor of the car. We were really spinning. We were going to die in a few seconds and there was nothing we could do about it. Suddenly we hit something. BAM! I hit the door and bounced back into the seat. The door popped open revealing a 200 foot deep drop behind the guard rail we just hit. We got out of the car shaking, not believing that we were still alive. There was a small fire in the engine and the driver put it out with a cup of coffee. He offered me cigarettes and I smoked up his whole pack. Arriving in D.C. we met some hippies from Georgia who were smoking marijuana at the foot of the Washington Monument. We stayed at a church that was putting people up for the weekend. The next day we joined 100,000 protesters at the Lincoln Memorial and marched to the Washington Monument where Bella Abzug and others spoke up against the Vietnam War. Hundreds of people left the rally seeing this as a diversion and walked down the side streets to find Inauguration route itself. We followed the crowd and ended up in the middle of it. When the crowd began pelting the parade with rocks and dirt we suddenly discovered that we were amongst the Marxists , S.D.S., the Yippies and other radicals. We didn't have much time to explain anything to the cops on horseback charging through the crowd. We ran away from that scene. Later we were hitching down one street when a Limousine drove by. We could see Vice president Spiro T. Agnew in the back seat and yelled out his name. He stopped and told us he would love to traded places with us and how he really liked that Byrd's song Eight Miles High. We traded him our knapsacks for his bottle of champagne and headed for the Inaugural ball. Not really..... Spiro just drove on past us without giving us a ride, something I can never forgive him for.

Sunday we hitchhiked out of Washington on the Beltway. We were with 6 other people and a van gave us all a ride 300 miles north to Rochester, New York. We all exchanged stories on the ride up. One guy was with a band of Yippies carrying a 30 foot rat with Nixon's head on it. The police took it away from them. I wonder where it is now. Did they destroy it or put it in storage with the Ark of the Covenant (from end of Raiders Of The Lost Ark). Another guy was really proud of himself. He had been arrested for running up to Nixon in the motorcade and giving him the finger. He was arrested and let go after paying a $25 fine. Finally we got back to my college after midnight. I was just about asleep when I heard a rapping on my window. It was Spiro T. Agn ew eight feet tall floating through the air singing Eight Miles High. Soon afterwards I graduated from college and bought a Volkswagen. But must confess I've never been tempted to punch other cars on the highway at 70 mph. Hitchhikers are a pretty rare sight these days. It was fun back then. The afterwards of Woodstock made hitchhiking often a fun adventure. There is no such universal spirit these days. Years of hitchhiking gives you a really unique view of the world. First of all you have to get over your fear of strangers. There are people who go through 70 -80 years of life petrified by every stranger they ever meet. Most, but not all, people you meet are just regular people probably more afraid of you than vice versa. Both hitchhikers and the people who pick them up have to be able to size a person up in a split second. Drivers have to decide whether to pick up a hitchhiker in a flash and will drive by most people if they look threatening. Having your thumb out you have to watch for perverts and unstable characters. On occasion I would turn down rides of people I didn't want be in the same vehicle with on a quick hunch. The other thing you learn is that people like to be vicariously entertained. They love meeting daring people who would do things they would never dream of. Yes it was quite an experience seeing the U.S.A. in someone else's Chevrolet.

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