In the summer of 1965, for reasons that are no longer plausible. Jim Auld and I hitchhiked from Blacksburg to Los Angeles with 381 sodden, secondhand golf balls in a duffel bag. We were rising sophomores. The year was the opening of what would later be called "the Sixties." The golf balls, which we had fished from a water obstacle by night and meant to sell on the way, were no sillier than the coming decade. For the next 10 years, until roughly the fall of Saigon, my friends and I were intermittently on the road.
Some of us finally came to think it a waste of time. Later, when a generation appeared who didn't know life on the big roads, we realized how much we had learned. We saw humanity in its odder aspects in those years, met the great silent mass of the nation, hobnobbed with mechanics in Tennessee's gas stations, drank with Puerto Ricans in shabby bars in Hoboken, learned to shake the scorpions from our shoes after sleeping in Texas cotton fields. We found keen, untutored intelligence in West Virginia hollows, which surprised some of us. The Sixties don't get credit for being what they were: a floating continent-wide school.
Disreputable but instructive experience came easily. I saw a disheveled, red-eyed hitchhiker of 30 dash into traffic at Berkeley, waving a sign that said "Anywhere." I think he understood the times. I once found myself jailed for vagrancy in Myrtle Beach with an enormous suspected rapist. From my present position of unnerving respectability, the episode is an embarrassment. Yet the fellow had a lot to say, all of it worth hearing. Today one so seldom talks with a rapist.
On another occassion I was thumbing on a deserted highway in New Mexico when a glittering grey Buick stopped sideways across two lanes. A motor whined and the trunk gaped open like a reptilian jaw. There was something spooky about it. I put my bag in, jumped in the front seat, and discovered a little grey paranoid lady in front. She had a cruise alarm, the kind that buzzes when you go over 50 mph. It was a radar detector, she said. The communists were in the hills, watching her on radar. Later she put me out in front of a graveyard.
It was easy to like humanity in the Sixties. There wasa ready camaraderie among participants, an automatic friendliness. On the freeway exits guys lined up, devotees of the long-distance thumb, with signs saying Twin Cities, NYC, Orleans, Chicago, DC. (For a while I used "Wash.," but motorists apparently thought I was urging cleanliness and didn't stop.) We'd chat, learn of conditions farther down the road. Somebody had always come from where we were going.
The people who picked us up were decent and colorful -- Chicanos, hillbillies, salesmen, hippies, laborers. They were an education in themselves. The likelihood of getting a ride varied inversely with the price of the car. Charity comes easiest to those who have done without. In the North Carolina hills a construction worker was likely to put a wanderer up for the night. If the day was long and hot, the prospects of an unsolicited sandwich were fair.
We saw the restlessness that gnawed at so many. Sometimes middle-class people picked us up. "Where you headed?" they asked. Mexico, we'd say, or California. The usual response was a distant look, a silence, and "Yeah, I wanted to do that once, but I got married, and the car payments and . . ." Freedom had its value as well as its price.
Life was occasionally glorious. Once at dusk I stood with four chance acquaintances by a small store in the desert outside San Antonio, watching the headlights flick on. Cars whispered by in the warm air. Rides seemed unlikely. We went to the store for bottles of wine, walked 50 yards from the highway, and scrambled into an arroyo. A piece of information, perhaps useful in times of war or depression, is that you can disappear completely in 18 inches of brush. Arroyos are better. There we lay in the summer eveing, dressed like Genghis Khan's camp followers, tired but content, drinking our wine with the elan of Hemingway expatriates. That was living.
Today's kids seem almost a foreign species, earnestly studying business administration. It's hard to fault them for wanting to get ahead. They have the discipline and realism we lacked. Yet they've missed something. It bothers me that they will one day be in charge of the country without, I suspect, really having seen it.