The text below is the prologue to an account of my 1979 solo hitch-hiking trip around the United States, covering 27 states in seven weeks. My working title is The Americans.
From Sea to Shining Sea – and Back Again: Prologue
The first thing I saw were his big butcher’s arms: broad and sheened with sweat. Next I saw tattoos; a square jaw, thick with stubble, set in a sullen half-smile, half-sneer; and a six-pack of Schlitz, wedged between his thighs on the driver’s seat.
Schlitz – the beer that made Milwaukee famous. What made Milwaukee famous made a loser out of me.
My 1979 diary and Rand McNally Interstate Road Atlas.
Was it dangerous to enter the cab of the old Ford pick-up? Standing by the roadside outside Durango in the evening heat, I had the usual split second to decide. I sensed contradictory feelings: fear; an urge to keep moving; and thirst.
‘Where are you heading?’ I asked.
The next town.
‘OK.’ I got in. The cab smelled of camphor.
It was July ’79. Jimmy Carter was President. Donald Trump was a 33-year-old real estate developer in Manhattan. I was 21, fresh out of college, soaking up America on a seven-week road trip before starting work at the Department of Transport in London.
The Department of Transport, right. Maybe a road trip made some kind of sense.
When I arrived in New York City at the start of the journey, even the coolest kids told me it was a suicide mission.
‘Hitch-hiking?’ they said. ‘No-one does that any more. Too many crazies. If you make it beyond New Jersey it will be a miracle of survival.’
With what seems with hindsight astonishing nonchalance, I set off anyhow. When did I lose my what-the-hell DNA? Was it when I had my first child? When I took out my first mortgage? Or was it when I started work?
Maybe the Department of Transport has a lot to answer for.
I made it beyond New Jersey. By the time I reached Colorado, open-hearted Americans had driven me through 13 US states in 14 days of hitch-hiking, without a single night’s paid accommodation. I had experienced gas shortages and generosity; Jayne Layno, Johnson Fortenbaugh Jr. and Candy McCarthy; Washington DC, Emerald Isle, Nashville, Amarillo and Los Alamos.
I had met many extraordinary US citizens: diverse by accent, history and geography. Many seemed languidly confident, calm beyond reason. Some hid insecurity behind grandiose braggadocio. All were individualistic, in love with their dreams. Always, in love with their dreams.
I ask myself what their dreams are these days. Maybe I should go and find out.
I, too, was calm, then – about people, time and possessions. Maybe I was living in the moment and didn’t realise it. Hell, living in the moment hadn’t even been invented yet. ‘Not long now before I have to be back in New York City,’ I would note later, in John Yetman’s lean-to by the rail tracks half-way up Mount Baldy on Vancouver Island. Having made this observation, I would then spend several days partying on Mount Baldy, in Victoria and in Vancouver, my non-refundable, non-amendable, air ticket in a pouch around my neck, moving not an inch closer to my destination on the other side of the continent.
Maybe my relaxation gene went the same way as my what-the-hell DNA.
Now, in 2017, I wonder whether exploring my US road trip can help me rediscover both. Could my mojo of calm be hidden somewhere in the tightly packed pages of my road-trip diary?
‘Here you go.’ The driver nudged me with a beer. ‘The name’s Ray. The seat-belt’s broken.’
‘Thanks.’ I wound down my window and took a sip. ‘Long trip?’
‘No.’ He tossed an empty bottle on the floor. I heard a clinking sound. ‘Just out of prison. On parole.’
‘What were you in for?’ It seemed polite to ask.
‘Killed a man with a pool cue. Judge said it wasn’t premeditated. Sure wasn’t. Just kinda happened.’
I gazed ahead, took another sip of my beer, and appraised the situation.
Ray seemed steady but his back story wasn’t reassuring. So far as I could tell, he liked having me in the cab. The likeliest way to piss him off would be to ask to get out. What would I say if he asked why? What would I do then anyhow, on a deserted roadside next to the Ute Indian reservation?
I decided to make conversation.
‘How long have you been out of prison?’ I asked.
‘Today. I’m out today.’ He gestured around the car. I wondered how many of the bottles littering the floor were fresh. ‘It don’t look like much, sure. But I’m OK. I own silver mines. In the hills, right here.’ He waved his bottle. ‘I got prospecting rights. And a woman. She’s crazy about me. She thinks I’m a stallion. We’re going to see her now.’
Ahead of us, in the dusk, the Mesa Verde loomed.
‘If you like, she’ll do you, too,’ he said. ‘She’s beautiful. She’ll do us both. She’ll do anything I say.’
‘No, thanks,’ I said.
‘She digs orgies. The more the better.’
‘Not my scene. Really.’
‘She works in a bar. We’ll go there.’
‘She’s in love with me.’
I peered at his face. The dashboard lights were dim. He had his beer in his right hand, and every time he gestured he knocked against me, sitting alongside. His flesh was softer than I’d expected.
Usually I didn’t hitch away from a town at night. Towns are the place to be when you need a place to sleep. But I’d fled Durango late in the evening to escape an invitation to share a motel suite with a Vietnam vet who sold power tools (‘We’ll have two double beds,’ he’d told me, ‘there’ll be no problem’). So maybe I was feeling less secure, or more judgemental, than usual. In the gloom of the Durango night I saw a swarthy, shambling bear of a man, grizzled, seedy and unpredictable.
Maybe Ray’s girlfriend did love him. Did I believe it? I wasn’t sure. Maybe he hadn’t a clue about women. Who understands relationships, anyhow?
Maybe that explains why what happened next was like Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. On steroids.
I didn’t try and discuss with Ray whether his girlfriend really thought he was a stallion, or was in love with him. As we rode through the night towards Cortez, the time never seemed right. Nor did I try to discourage him from having more beer, or from rolling a joint for himself. I listened, and tried to get him talking about the silver mines, and wrestling. He said he was the light-heavyweight wrestling champion of New Mexico.
Ray was a fantasist and a raconteur. To hear him tell his story, in a pathos-heavy drawl, you might almost have believed he was one of life’s winners. Sure, he was down on his luck right now. But he told me he had the prospects of limitless wealth from his silver mines. He said he had a girlfriend who adored him. He was no longer in prison. He had wheels, some beer, and someone to talk to.
He would not have been top of my list of ideal candidates as the only other inhabitant of a desert island on which I’d been stranded. He was a great gobbet of brittle boastfulness, brimming over with larger-than-life tales of achievement and bad luck, blaming his misfortunes on moments of madness, tragedy and happenstance.
But alone, in the night, I had to rub along with him.
He wasn’t the first out-sized, haywire personality I’d meet in the United States, or the last. Maybe these days he would be in politics.
At the time, I thought: how do women deal with men like this?
I was about to find out.
By the time we reached Cortez, nestled close to New Mexico, Arizona and Utah in the south-west corner of Colorado, night had fallen. We rolled into town on Route 160 and drew up in the dusty parking lot of a brightly-lit, nondescript bar.
‘She’s here,’ Ray said. He killed the engine and sat there for a moment, looking straight ahead. ‘She’s here.’
When he stepped out of the car he was shorter than I’d expected: less man-mountain, more mere man. He looked in the wing mirror and slicked back his hair. He opened a suitcase and took out a clean shirt. I saw more tattoos. More flesh.
I was beginning to relax. We were about to visit a bar. Being in a town, I could find someplace to stay. I was no longer in Ray’s car on a dark desert highway.
But Ray looked more nervous than he should have been, if everything he had told me had been true.
We walked across the lot and entered the saloon.
I followed him in. A woman stood behind the bar, polishing a glass. She was slight, with a sallow face, sad eyes, thin, shoulder-length black hair, a white blouse and black jeans. When the door slammed, she looked up and saw us.
Ray marched up to the bar. ‘I’m back,’ he said.
‘So?’ She picked up a greasy cloth and began wiping the bar-top. I saw her nostrils flare.
‘I figured you’d be pleased to see me.’
For a moment, she stopped her wiping and looked Ray in the eye. ‘I’ve decided to rewrite that chapter of my life,’ she said, ‘and now it says, The End.’
She lit a cigarette.
Even as a 21-year-old unskilled in matters of the heart, I could see that Ray’s romantic reunion was not going well. He tried to introduce me to her, but she wouldn’t even look in my direction. She kept glancing at him, almost shyly, as if she was waiting for something to happen.
Then I realised. Ray hadn’t been lying. She really had loved him, once. Not now. Maybe he had cared about her too, in a monothematic, below-the-belt kind of way. But as far as she was concerned, their two kinds of longing didn’t fit together any more. If they ever had.
I went to check out the jukebox. It featured a couple of Tammy Wynette songs, but I figured that would be a bit heavy-handed, so I put on “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”, which I’d heard five times in a single night driving through the Appalachians towards Nashville a few days before. When I looked round, Ray was gone.
The time was 10 p.m. I needed a place to sleep. I was determined not to hassle what I couldn’t help thinking of as Ray’s woman, who was standing behind the bar staring at the exit. What was the real story between them?
When she saw me coming, she sighed and picked up her wiping cloth. But she served me a beer. I wondered how to ask about Ray. I felt a bit shy.
But in 1979, barmaids in the US seemed happy to open conversations with out-of-place foreigners, even if they had arrived with out-of-favour boyfriends.
‘It’s true he killed a man, and was in jail. We were lovers,’ she said. ‘While he was inside, I waited for him. I last saw him six months ago. He told me he was through with prison. He came to my house. I thought everything was good, it felt like a new start. In the morning, he said: ‘I have to go and change a tyre.’ He went out the door. That was the last I ever saw of him, until today.’
‘Was he back in jail?’
‘No idea. He told me something about a parole violation. But I knew he’d been living with another woman. I guess she threw him out.’
‘Do you think he’ll come back?’ I said.
‘I hope not.’
I didn’t have an answer to that. She didn’t have much she wanted to say to me, either, once she had finished talking about Ray. So I picked up my red rucksack from its place by the door, and went out into the night.
In the parking lot, I saw no sign of him. I felt relieved. I turned left and starting walking along the sidewalk into town. The evening had further surprises in store.
Robert Pimm 1979/2017
You can read a later episode, about a night in California and Oregon, on this blog at Valley of the Rogue.
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P.P.S. My thanks to the ever-perceptive Nora Fitzgerald for her editorial advice on this piece. A goddess of prose.