world of wiffledust

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The first time I traveled Interstate 80 eastbound was soon after I got out of high school. A friend of mine was going to Minneapolis, and I rode along with him. I don't remember Lincoln from that trip, honestly, nor Omaha. But Des Moines left an impression, because there were hookers on the corners. I don't know why, but that took me by surprise. I just hadn't expected street walkers blatantly doing business right out in the open in Iowa. It's funny how the world is not at all as you'd imagine it.

After I had ridden to Minneapolis, I hitchhiked north to Duluth. For no particular reason. Camped in the woods, stayed a day or two at some communal house. Saw Lake Superior, and the huge rusty ships, and the giant cranes in the port. Then I headed down through Wisconsin toward Chicago, to a small town in Illinois where one of my sister's college friends lived with her grandfather. Kind of a cool old coot with a Model T in the garage who wore suspenders and a gray Fedora and liked to watch the Cubs games on television. But he didn't trust me... he was pretty sure I was there to rob the place.

After I'd worn out my welcome there, I wandered on into the city of Chicago. Hung out for a week or so with some ne'er do wells who gave me a ride who lived on the South Side and had a basement apartment. They used to play "Belly Button Window" by Jimi Hendrix all the time. I think they actually were thieves. They were certainly con artists. But they were good to me. The apartment was in a real urban neighborhood, where I don't think some of the residents had traveled more than twelve blocks in their whole lives.

Eventually I drifted east, getting a ride with a car full of college girls who were going to Washington, D.C. to some kind of academic contest. I was their stowaway. Their room was paid for, and they let me stay there. Mostly they were off doing their academic thing, whatever that might have been. I walked around, saw a few monuments and such.

After that, I headed north. Through Baltimore, which much to my surprise, was in the South. Who knew. On up to New Jersey, where some gay guy gave me a ride at sundown. He told me I could sleep at his place. Of course, once we got there and had some dinner, he told me I could share the bed. I declined. I slept on the floor in my sleeping bag, and was awakened in the middle of the night to find him kind of hovering over me, staring. Of course, I always kept a Buck knife within reach when traveling. I just made sure he knew it. He went back to bed.

He was nice enough the next morning. Kind of embarrassed, really. Dropped me on the road into New York City, and said be careful. New York is crazy.

It's 1971.

I got a ride into the city, and was dropped off right by the United Nations building. I started to walk in with my backpack. The security guard, a big Irish lookin' fellow, said you can't go in there with that. So I left it with him at his little guard house, and walked in. Through some hallway, up to some kind of meeting room. And then somebody yells hey, you can't be in here. There's all kinds of people from different countries in suits. And they escort me out. Things were a little looser in those days. The guard gave me back my backpack and kind of smiled. I think he admired my pluck.

Got a ride with some Puerto Ricans in a Pontiac GTO. Climb on in, they said. They're all high, passin' joints around. Where you goin', they ask. I tell 'em Vermont. Because I'm pretty much flat broke, and honestly, New York is makin' me nervous. I'd never been some place where the bums were yelling inanities at the top of their lungs as people stepped over 'em pretending they weren't even there. Everybody looked scared and in a hurry. Nobody was connecting with anybody. Hell, I'd seen Midnight Cowboy. Vermont sounded like a good destination.

"Vermont?" the Puerto Rican cat says. "Where's that?"

I tell him it's a different state, north of New York City. It's by New Hampshire. Nobody in the car has ever heard of either. They're laughing.

"I know where the Bronx is," one of 'em says, trying to be helpful.

I liked these guys. I didn't care where I was going, honestly. I'd just pick random destinations. I just wanted to keep moving.

Eventually I get to a highway north. And I stick out my thumb. And get rides. To Vermont. On up into the mountains, though they look like hills to me. And this little road winds around. And there's a beautiful little New England town down below, by the river. At some point I go hiking along a trail through the woods. And at some point it gets dark, and I realize I don't know anybody in Vermont. And it's cold at night in Vermont, even in the summer. Hell, I don't even know where I am, really. So I start heading back the other way.

I get a ride from a salesman in a Buick. And we get to talking. All the way to Pennsylvania we get to talking. And we stop at a coffee shop. And honestly, we become best friends during this time. I never even know his name. Nor him mine. But I'd trust him with my life. Eventually, he drops me somewhere in Pennsylvania. It's raining.

I get a ride in a semi-truck. It takes the driver forever to pull over. I'm exhausted. I sleep. Eventually he drops me off. I get other rides. I sleep by the side of the road. Finally, in Missouri I get a ride with a sign painter, who has a keg of beer in the back of his step van he keeps pouring from. And he's pointing out all the water towers he painted as he ambles on. And he drops me near Independence.

My oldest sister lived in Independence at the time. She was a Marine Corps recruiter, and her husband was in the Army. So I find a pay phone and call her. She's happy to hear my voice. They come and pick me up, and tell me I'm welcome to sleep on the sofa as long as I want.

So I get a job with their next door neighbor, working in the woods felling trees and splitting logs. And on weekends, I work at a horse stable. I'm good with horses, because I grew up around 'em. I used to run the barrel races in some of the small town rodeos when I was a kid in southern Colorado. And did a lot of trail riding. And even herded cattle. So guiding some folks around a little bit of rural Missouri and then brushing the horses down afterward was no big deal.

My first niece, Cheri Lynn Ingram, is born in Independence, Missouri. I see her at the hospital on her very first day.

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