WHEN FACED problems of professional uncertainty, money, women, perceived personal incompetence or sinfulness, hopelessness, burnout or the general Decline and Fall, I hitchhike 1,000 miles or so. I do this without money. I become the American road-floating Buddha with begging bowl. Mao-like, I exile the intellectual to the countryside for rectification.
My five major hitches in the past 30 years have ushered new and long-term eras into my life. At 17, a thumb voyage from Dallas to New Orleans -- which featured being sandwiched in the front seat of a car between two huge and predatory gays (resulting in a wreck); being offered sex books by a dirty old man; being delivered to the door of a bayou bordello -- introduced me to adulthood.
At 22, a hitching/walking trip through Mexico and Central America taught me that I not only could survive in an alien landscape, if I bothered to learn some of the language and attitudes, but would receive a great show of humanity and hospitality as well.
At 38, I abandoned a huge number of trobles on the steps of the Massachusetts Institute of technology, where I had been an editor/writer and associate director of public relations, and hitched off to San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco and finally to Chicago -- where I began 10 years of full-time professional writing by selling an article to the Chicago Tribune Magazine on "The New Hitchhiking."
At 44, I passed the supreme test of manhood by hitchhiking without harm out of Manhattan Island.
These were not Rides, but Passages.
At freeway-side, the white collar thumb is no better than that of the vagrant, the doper or the runaway con. The hours of exposure, standing, lifting, running to cars and merely holding out the arm gives you about as much exercise as jogging and is twice as morally instructive -- in humility, gratefulness for small favors, stripping away of crap from the brain and in renewed appreciation for the American character and landscape. You become anxious for the unexpected and open to new futures.
My most recent Passage, which ended in mid-April at a Dallas truck stop, began five days before on Washington's 14th Street Bridge. Looking over my thumb, I could see the White House, the Pentagon and a dozen other federal agencies, the Capitol, the offices of the lords of the press and the plotting chambers of the lobbyists. In the shadows behind were the top managements of the energy companies, the megabanks, the Fortune 500, the multinational "conspiracies," universites, unions and other large institutions which do not fit these categories. I wished they all had to thumb like me. It would be novel for the runners-of-things to be rained on, interrogated by state troopers, to hallucinate after sitting up all night waiting for a ride and to endure the thousand insults of Fortunato in a gas-guzzler. Would they become more humble and aware?
The first day out -- strikingly attired in an ice-cream suit over a navy blue turtleneck, carrying a briefcase and business cards along with a backpack and sleeping bag -- I was detained three times by Virginia policemen. Twice for merely standing by the roadside, looking eccentric. Once for trying to spread my sleeping bag on a hidden and innocuous sliver of land near the freeway. Such an experience might yield useful date input to officials of the Justice Department.
The bald fact of a trip of almost 2,000 miles, which I began with 2 cents in my pocket and ended with 2 cents -- which included unsolicited donations of $12.50, corn chips, one Col. Sanders chicken breast, five beers, two packs of Camel filters and two snorts of bourbon -- might interest our energy conservationists and inflation fighters.
The Connecticut driver who repeatedly described President Carter as a Communist, and the ex-Navy patriot and bedrock American from the Blue Ridge Mountains who feared that Ronald Reagan would bring war, might alter attitudes of the candidates' advisors.
A ride with the 20-year-old employe of a coal company in Lebanon, Va. -- who not only read my magazines but also Kurt Vonnegut, Hunter Thompson, Tom Wolfe (and Thomas Wolfe) and 100 other American and European authors from whom he sought vicarious guidance for his own manuscripts -- might convince the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Arts that culture indeed lurks in the company towns.
The Big Boy independent (non-Teamster) truckers, who carry any cargo from coast to coast and who provide markets for squads of amphetamine salesmen at the truck stops, might spur the National Institutes of Health to search for less damaging ways to keep from falling asleep at the wheel. Oh, yes, the Department of Transportation might enlist high technology, that old American staple, to make truckers' cargoes less vulnerable to theft. The current favorite means of truck-trailer breaking and entry is to burn off the lock with acid.
And the media phrase-makers might broadcast to their sheep that the good old CB phrase, "Good Buddy," has now been appropriated by a splinter group of leatherclad gay truckers.
As Tex Mao, dispatching Yankee mandarins to the roadside, my disorientation lecture would describe the Mandell serotonin-blocking result of long-distance hitchhiking pain. Arnold Mandell, psychiatrist at the University of California/San Diego, has theorized that any sort of continuous mortification of the flesh -- jogging, praying on the knees in a monastery, fasting -- would shut off the orderly, regulation-and-habit-loving serotonin chemical system of the brain and let the right hemisphere of the brain -- weird, musical, creative, out of time and space, eternally fresh -- run wild. Some call this a "religious experience."
Being ejected from a Tennessee Visitor's Welcoming Center near Bristol, Va., by a surly, illiterate mountain man who happened to be in charge -- ejected into the rain for almost four hours, being ignored by autos and cheerfully splashed by trucks -- suppressed by own serotonin to a dangerous and free-form degree. After that, I charmed and bulled my way into long-distance rides toward the Texas bluebonnets. New brain at work.
But I would also tell the Executive Suite exiles of the unsolicited kindness you may find on the road.
Roy Withers of the Blue Ridge town of Flint Hill, where the Massachusetts Saltonstalls maintain horsy estates, slipped me first $10, then another $2, because he had once been a hitcher himself and because he liked my goddam face.
Bob De Gelatin, most recently of New Hampshire and genetically from Belgium, gave me 24 hours of conversation about ancient astronaut theories, evolution, certain equations of nuclear physics, what it is like to scuba dive for the body of a 3-year-old-girl and how to be a jack of all trades.
A retarded woman from Montana, out on parole for a $13,000 liquor store holdup, told me how to get rich quick. Jorge Barrerra, a Mexico City truck driver, once introduced me to three Mexican maidens looking for a gringo husband. In Ruidoso, N.M., several years ago, Zoe Sheckman, an heiress to the Schenley Distillery fortune who loves "artists," put me up for 10 days in her house-sized sauna building.
And so on through dozens of acts of unexpected generosity. Their only motivation was that I was a nondangerous and sometimes interesting human who listened to what they said.
Undergoing this, my proposed power-elite exiles would probably see the future differently, as I do now.