In 1979 I hitch-hiked for seven weeks around the United States. What became of the carefree, relaxed young 21 year-old of these pages? Can I rediscover those qualities? And what about America itself? Was it better then, or worse?
You can read more about this journey on my page, The Americans.
This is what happened on the night of 27 July. To TC and Miguel: if you’re out there, get in touch.
Valley of the Rogue
TC was too young. Miguel was older, but didn’t like being asked to show his ID. So when their ancient Chevy had wheezed into the gas station in Crescent City, we pooled six grimy dollars and I went to buy the beer.
California coast near Monterey, 1979 – photo Robert Pimm
In California at 20 you can have sex, smoke dope, and die for your country, or someone else’s; but you can’t get a drink without a friend. The two Mexicans and me, Oregon-bound, were old friends for the night.
So how did I end up with TC and Miguel in Crescent City?
In summer 1979 even the most laidback, doped-out, rock-lobotomised New Yorkers said hitch-hiking around the US was too dangerous to contemplate. When I told them I planned to set off from the Major Deagan Expressway for a seven-week trip, heading south past the Bronx towards the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, they predicted my rape, castration and sale for medical research before I’d crossed the mouth of New York Harbour.
If I made it beyond New Jersey, they said, it would be a miracle.
I tried to explain the intoxicating intimacy and knife-edge mutual trust of hitch-hiking. I said Jack Kerouac’s Sal Paradise was inspiring. They said he was history, and a sad sexist creep.
Maybe they were right.
But I set off anyhow.
By the time four weeks later I’d reached Sebastopol, California, and Miguel and TC slowed the creaking, rusted Chevy, I was used to taking risks. Dusk was falling, shadows growing. You had a few seconds to check out a car as it slowed and stopped.
Miguel, in the driver’s seat, looked around forty, with weathered, acne-scarred cheeks, a gold tooth, and the tranquil calm of a peon. TC was younger than me, eighteen maybe, with a sense of urgency, a wisp of a moustache and a huge, charming grin I wasn’t quite sure about.
But I figured they looked safe enough.
Hell, they were driving all night to Oregon.
So I climbed into the car and settled thankfully amidst the litter of beer-cans that was the back seat.
Had ice needed breaking, the lukewarm Yukon Jack Canadian whiskey (was it really orange-flavoured?) would have done the job. That and the close, warm darkness as we headed slowly north through Elk, Russian Gulch and the Grizzly Creek Redwoods.
TC turned out to be eighteen, a US citizen, Texan-born, and steel-hard. Miguel was born south of the border and spread his hands helplessly as he wrestled with his English. But he knew his White Album. Riding north at a steady forty miles per hour, the three of us chorused verses of Rocky Racoon, The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill and Happiness is a Warm Gun. At misty mid-night pit-stops we watered redwoods, shouting our songs into the forest.
In Crescent City at 2 a.m. we stopped at the gas station.
‘Can you get us a couple more six-packs?’ TC said. ‘You’re 21, you’re white, all good.’
‘Yeah,’ said Miguel. ‘They mostly don’t like my face.’
When I came back to the car with the beer, TC said maybe he’d had enough and should stop driving. Could I take over? I had no driving licence, I said, and anyhow had enjoyed the beer and Yukon Jack. TC and Miguel shook their heads. Driving a car was easy, right? You put your foot down and turned the steering wheel. I, boringly, declined.
So maybe I was responsible for their first bust in Oregon.
TC and Miguel told me they had committed a string of driving offences in California and had to get out of the state. So I shared a sense of relief as we passed into Oregon on Route 199, heading for Cave Junction and Interstate 5.
We didn’t get far. At 4.30 a.m. in O’Brien, five miles past the border, a cop pulled out behind and flagged us down on account of a broken tail-light. He stood at the window, conspicuously friendly, his hand on his hip, and asked whether TC, who was driving, had perhaps been drinking?
TC was deliriously intoxicated. He admitted to the distant memory of a beer and was invited to step out of the car. I witnessed a night ritual, lit by the lights of the police cruiser: an officer watching a man on one leg, eyes closed, arms outstretched, touching his nose with one forefinger, then the other. All this TC did faultlessly.
But this was 1979, and although the police didn’t seem to have breath tests, they had a computer, somewhere at the end of a radio connection. The friendly policeman discovered that TC was wanted in four states (not yet including Oregon, in which he had only been for fifteen minutes) for felonious and criminal offences; and that the car’s licence, issued in Albuquerque New Mexico, had expired four years before. So he issued a ticket to appear in the settlement of Grant’s Pass – on our route, as it happened – on Monday. TC and Miguel looked at each other and ground the wreck northwards.
In Wilderville, on the Redwood Highway, we stopped for food. We were hungry: the guys ordered burgers and fries thrice. After we had eaten our fill, TC ordered cherry pie. Miguel’s eye caught mine.
Suddenly as TC munched his cherry pie, his face contorted in a rictus of agony. I didn’t hear any crack. But he was hurt, bad. He let out a long, low moan and a string of oaths.
Only one young waitress was on duty, on the night shift. She heard the commotion and came running.
TC nursed his jaw in his hand. A shard of cherry stone left in the pie had fractured his tooth, he said.
The waitress shook her head. At a loss what to do, she called the manager, fast asleep in bed. He provided the name of a local dentist who’d be open in the morning. TC shook his head bitterly, and cursed again, and ran a finger round the inside of his mouth. Miguel, stony-faced, pushed his fingers through his black hair. I gazed, and wondered, and put my wallet back in my pocket.
The meal was on the house.
In Canyonville, miles north of Grants Pass, dawn broke. TC and Miguel said they were turning east towards Tiller, to look for work. Someone’s sister had a place. I should come and stay awhile.
I’d like to say I thought about it. But I thought I was in a hurry, aiming for some friends in Vancouver Island, tied to different rhythms. So I said I’d head on north.
As I lifted my rucksack from the back of the car, my knife – a black Kitchen Devils product made in Sheffield – fell to the tarmac. TC picked it up, tried it, improbably, on his open palm and drew blood with a squeak of delight. He weighed the knife in his hand.
‘Hey, man,’ he said. ‘Can you turn me on to this knife?’
Miguel was already in the car. I looked at TC holding the knife, blade towards me. He looked back, and smiled warmly.
‘Sure,’ I said. ‘It’s already yours.’
Author’s note: Rogue River, and the Redwood Highway, pass through the Valley of the Rogue just west of Grants Pass, Oregon.
Robert Pimm 1979/2018
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P.P.S. You may also enjoy my piece The Russians: Vladivostok.