Twenty miles outside of Eugene, I saw a hitchhiker standing on the side of the McKenzie Highway. He was wearing a faded army field jacket, and he had a small red daypack slung over one shoulder. He looked about as okay as someone can when you're going sixty-miles-an-hour. I could see he had a beard and hair pulled back in a ponytail. A second later, I let off the gas, started breaking, and pulled over.
He opened the rear passenger side door of my red and black '69 Dodge Dart and threw his pack on the seat. After he got in the front and closed the door, I pulled back onto the highway and started the conversation with the standard, "Where ya headin?"
"Who me? Oh hell, I'm goin' all the way to the Midwest."
"Hey, me too," I said. "Whereabouts in the Midwest?"
"Milwaukee," he said. "How 'bout you?"
I didn't bother saying Detroit. I didn't need to. Instead I said, "John?"
He looked over at me and said, "Tim?"
I had found his name and number on the ride board down at the Grower's Market building a couple weeks before, back in Eugene. He'd left a little note that said, simply, "Looking for a ride to Milwaukee. Will help with driving and gas." It was 1975. Ride boards and the connections they helped make were commonplace, especially around college campuses. I was twenty-one years old and not a college student. As it turned out, neither was John.
A few days before the planned departure I gave him a call to make sure he was still interested and to remind him of the details, especially the detail about splitting the cost of gas. You took a chance when putting your trust in a stranger, someone who, as my sister Marianne had warned me, could be trouble, you never know. He said everything was cool, he was looking forward to the trip, except that there was, maybe, one small problem: "I really don't have money for gas. I lost most of it last night in a poker game. I can still help with the driving, though." I told him I'd think about it and call him back.
When I told Marianne about the call, her reaction was unequivocal: "Don't do it," she said. "He can't be trusted. You're better off driving alone." Thinking she was probably right, I called John back and told him that something had come up and that I was canceling my trip, which, technically, was true: the trip I had planned with him was cancelled. He wanted to know if it was because of the money problem. I assured him it wasn't. And it wasn't the money problem. It was the trust problem. Before I hung up the phone, I said, "Good luck, man. I'm sure you'll find a ride."
The next day I said goodbye to Marianne, who was relieved that I'd managed to weasel out of going with John. And while lying to him had pained me a little, it also left me feeling liberated, like I'd narrowly escaped something weird or dangerous.
In the time it took for him to say my name, I imagined having John in my car for the next thirty hours and spontaneously launched into an explanation that I hoped would make that easier: "Hey, man, I'll admit it: you had me worried, my sister, too. She pretty much begged me to not ride with you. She even kicked in a few bucks to help me with the gas."
He seemed sympathetic: "No, no, I get it, man. I'm hip. You had to do what you had to do. I understand. I might've done the same thing. But, hey, let's just forget about that. It's cool, no hard feelings. I'm here now, and I can help with the driving. You wanna smoke some weed?"
I was relieved that the subject had changed and that he seemed okay and not someone to worry about. I put an Albert King tape into the cassette player. John reached into his pack, pulled out a harmonica, and said, "Mind if I play along?" I didn't feel like I had a choice, and even though I was worried that this could be the start of something extremely annoying, I said, "Go for it." At this point in my life, I'd seen several masters of the blues harmonica, people like James Cotton, Paul Butterfield, and Sonny Terry. So, trust me when I tell you that John--whose last name I never did learn--was among the best of them. A few times during the trip, he played solo, sans cassette player, and I was astounded. I asked him if he'd ever played in a band, and he said he had, "before I went to 'Nam."
I guessed John was in his late 20s, maybe early thirties. His jacket might have been one that he had worn in Vietnam, though I didn't see a name on it--nor did I ask him about his time there. That topic would have been uncomfortable for both of us. My draft number had been sufficiently high, and the war had wound down such that I had managed to miss being sucked into that vortex of horror. Many Vietnam vets were trying to blend back into a country that, rather than embrace or try to understand them, more often stereotyped them as "troubled." I won't lie: that negative image did enter my mind when John stared out the window for long periods without saying a word, or, later, when he acted in ways that seemed strange or reckless.
I'd been driving for about ten hours. Most of that time John and I were just listening to music and watching the country roll by: the high, dry middle and eastern region of Oregon, marked by pine forests, seemed a stark contrast from Eugene, with it’s towering Douglas firs, hemlocks, and frequent rain. I had decided that letting John drive would have been, literally, putting my life in his hands--way too risky. Did he even have a license? With my adrenalin cranked, regular stops for coffee, and a few hits of pot, I was determined to go the whole way without giving up the wheel.
It was well after dark. We had just gassed up, about an hour south of Boise. Back at the gas station I had chugged a cup of coffee, while noting several pickup trucks, rodeo posters, and references to a nearby Air Force base. We were two longhaired guys in a dirty old car with Michigan plates, and we definitely stood out. I don't know what John was thinking, but I was nervous and then relieved when the lights of the city began to fade in my rearview mirror. That was also when my headlights began to fade.
John immediately perked up. "Looks like your alternator's going. It's probably a loose fan belt. You got any wrenches?" I had no tools and wouldn't have known what to do with them if I did. We were in a rural residential area, with houses, garages, and a few small barns spread out along a rapidly darkening highway. John said, "You need to pull into the next place that's got a light on." A minute later, we were in the driveway of a little white pre-fab with a garage next to it. Had I been alone, I'm not sure what I would've done, but John seemed to have no uncertainty. He walked right up to the door and knocked. I stood by the car, waiting, my mind on high alert.
A heavy-set man opened the door, stepped out into the yard, pulled the door shut behind him. He was chewing food and wiping his hands on a napkin. Behind him, in the window, two little kids poked their heads up and stared out at the longhaired strangers and their dad, who asked, "What can I do for you?" I felt a wave of relief. Despite the fact that we'd obviously interrupted his dinner, he didn't seem angry, and he wasn't carrying a rifle, which we'd seen on racks in some of the pickups back in Mountain Home.
John said, "We're really sorry to bother you, but we were hoping you could lend us a wrench so we could tighten our fan belt. Our battery's dying."
"Just a minute," said the guy. He went over to his garage, went inside, and flicked on a spotlight that flooded the area around my car. He came out with a toolbox and said, "Let's get that hood open and take a look." A few minutes later, problem fixed, we were on the road again. Night had settled in, and I was back behind the wheel of the Dart, thankful for John's assertiveness--and our luck finding a friendly local--but still leery of what lay ahead.
A few hours later, we stopped at an all-night cafe in Ogden, Utah, and, for three bucks, we got the cheapest meal on the menu: two eggs, hash browns, toast, and coffee with free refills. We gassed up and got back on Route 80 and headed east into Wyoming. John said, "If I fall asleep, make sure you wake me up when we get to Laramie. We gotta stop there and go to the Buckhorn Bar. I wanna show you the bullet hole and the two-headed calf. And don't forget: I'm happy to drive. Just say the word." But I still had no intention of letting him drive. Anyway, a few minutes after he said that, he was sound asleep.
I tuned in an AM station on the radio for some company, but, being in the middle of nowhere, Wyoming, the reception was weak and sometimes the station would abruptly jump from country to Christian. In the middle of a song about a barroom romance, a preacher, mid-sentence, would shout, "Blood of the lamb!" or "Halleluiah!" or "Praise Jesus!" Meanwhile, I kept my eyes locked on the lit strip of highway in front of me. When a semi-truck or the occasional state police car went by on my left, I'd grip the wheel tighter, lean forward just a bit more, and peer harder into the night. Once they were well past, I could relax again and watch their taillights get smaller and smaller, until they faded on the horizon into nothing.
As promised, I woke John when we got to Laramie. It was early enough that I figured the Buckhorn Bar would be closed, and we could just get back on the interstate and keep going. But despite the hour, it was open for business, and we went inside. John suggested we get a beer, probably the last thing I wanted after driving all night. But before I could decline, he said to the bartender, "Could we get a couple of drafts?"
John seemed to be in a genuinely good mood, like he was proud of me for getting him to this place and thrilled that he was introducing me to it. I would not normally have had a beer this early in the day, but also, I wasn't thinking too clearly. Give or take a few stops for food and gas, I'd been driving for sixteen hours, which gave this little excursion into a bar in Laramie a dream-like aura. Intense morning sun poured through a bank of windows onto walls covered with a surreal menagerie of stuffed animal heads: deer, antelope, elk, moose, and bear. Rifles hung from the ceiling. Besides the bartender, we were the only people there. John directed my attention to the bullet hole in the mirror behind the bar, and said, "There it is, just like I told you." Pointing to a bizarre-looking creature on a shelf above the bar, he said, "And there's that two-headed calf. Can you believe it?"
After the beer, we took a walk around the downtown. Even though it was just one glass, the beer had gone straight to my head, and I was happy to stretch my legs and get some fresh air. We came to a drugstore that was open, and John said, "Hey, I need some sunglasses. Let's see what they have here." I followed him in and went over to the magazine section, while he went over to a rack of sunglasses. When I looked up from the magazine I was reading, I saw John try on a pair and then push them up off his face and onto his head. Then he walked over and picked out a pack of gum from a display near the cash register and rang the bell on the counter. A cashier came out from a back room and started walking toward the register. I could see the pharmacist, dressed in a white lab coat, moving around behind a glassed-in area in the back of the store. I didn't know what either of them had seen, or if John intended to pay for the sunglasses, but I wasn't going to wait around to find out. Flush with heart-stopping panic, but trying to look casual, I put the magazine back and started for the door, my pulse pounding and my brain shouting leave now, leave now. As I got to the door, I heard the cashier ask, "Just the gum?" and then John: "Yep."
I was a half-block away and already working on my speech to the police--I don't even know that guy! I just picked him up hitchhiking! --before I stopped and looked back. There he was, strolling down the sidewalk toward me, wearing a new pair of aviator style sunglasses and opening a pack of gum. I turned the corner, pretending I didn't recognize him. My head was spinning: did I want to chance another sixteen hours with this guy? I half expected to see my car surrounded by police when I got to it. It wasn't. I got in, shut the door, and waited. People were pulling into parking spots and opening shops and rolling out window awnings and taking deliveries--all the normal stuff that goes on in a little city in the morning. Nobody seemed to notice the longhaired guy when he got into the red and black Dodge Dart in front of the Buckhorn Bar. Or, when he showed up a couple minutes later, the other longhaired guy, wearing an army jacket and aviator sunglasses and carrying two cups of coffee and a bag of donuts. "Hey, look what I got us," said the army jacket guy.
It wasn't until we'd gassed up and were fully ten miles east of Laramie that my heart rate finally got back to normal. The subject of his smooth little caper back at the drugstore never came up. I wasn't in jail, so what was the point? I could easily have left him in Laramie. He must have known that. I wanted to leave him. Did he know that, too?
Six hours later, we were somewhere in the middle of Nebraska. While John napped peacefully against his balled-up army jacket, I fought to stay awake. Every element of the environment conspired to take advantage of my sleep-deprived state: hundreds of miles of straight flat interstate, bordered by vast monochromatic fields of corn or wheat; the steady rhythmic thump of freeze cracks that bisected the roadway; a relentless sun that filled the car with an irresistible, lethargy-inducing heat. I'd been driving for almost twenty-four hours, and, for the last few, I'd made a super-human effort to stay awake. I'd doze for a millisecond, the wheel loosening in my hands and the car veering slightly, and then wake in terror, clutching the wheel like a madman. I'd shake it off by shifting around a bit, slapping myself in the face, playing with the tape deck, or--a trick I learned from a truck driver--swiping a drop of saliva over my eyelids. I'd make odd faces and noises--anything to immediately and physically change the static little world I was stuck in. Each time, I'd briefly feel refreshed and ready to not do that again.
But I did. This time the Dart veered sharply, careening onto the shoulder, before I woke from my micro-nap and steered back onto the highway. John, jolted from his own nap, sat up straight and said, "How 'bout if I drive now?" Utterly overcome by fatigue--and fear of dying--I said, "Good idea." A couple miles later, I pulled off the road at a truck stop and filled the tank. Then I climbed into the back and stretched out on the seat. My last thought was I don't really care what happens now; I just want some sleep.
If I hadn't had to pee really bad, I might have slept longer, but about four hours into my coma, I woke up. It was dark and we were still on Interstate 80, somewhere in western Iowa. Good news: I wasn't dead, and we were still headed in the right direction. I climbed over and into the passenger side of the front seat. From this angle, I noticed John's distinctive way of driving: arms locked, both hands centered on the wheel, back ramrod straight. He was glad I had woken up because he needed a pit stop, too, and had been watching for a turnout for the last several miles.
The sign said, simply, "Rest Stop 1 Mile." At the end of the exit ramp, we came to another sign that pointed down an unlit dirt road. That sign said, "Rest Stop." A hundred yards down that road we came to an unlit gravel parking lot and an unlit outhouse. Of course, we were the only ones there. A wall of late summer corn surrounded us like a fort, and the whole place glowed in the light of a nearly full moon. Instead of using the outhouse, I walked to the edge of the parking lot and found a spot in the shadow of the corn. When I turned back around, I was alone. I walked over to the car, leaned against it, and waited. A few long minutes ticked by. No John. Did he fall asleep in the outhouse? Was he even in the outhouse? I walked over and stood next to it, listened hard, heard nothing. I knocked on the door and said, "John?"
The faint drone of highway noise drifted on dead-still air. I leaned against the side of the car and tried again, a little louder: "Hey, John, you alright?" Finally, from somewhere in the darkness behind the outhouse, he emerged, walking slowly toward me. He spread his arms, leaned forward, and carefully placed both hands on the hood of the car, steadying himself against whatever it was that had overtaken him during the time he'd gone missing. I turned and looked directly at his moonlit face and said, "What's up, John?" Staring straight ahead, his eyes wide open, he said slowly, "I am so spaced out."
"How 'bout we get going," I said. "I'll drive."
And I did, while John slept on the backseat. Except for one stop for gas and coffee, I drove through the night, trying not to replay the Iowa rest stop scene in my head. Instead, I distracted my sleep-deprived mind with blues tapes and the radio. I'd managed, once again, to avoid a possible calamity. There was no point in trying to imagine what that calamity might have been. For now, anyway, I was hell bent on getting this trip over with.
About a half hour before I dropped him off, John woke and climbed into the front seat. As if it were nothing out of the ordinary--which may well have been true for him--no mention was made of the night before. When we saw the sign that said Interstate 94 North: Milwaukee, he said, "That's me. You can let me out at the next exit."
When I stopped, we shook hands. He said, "Thanks, man." I said, "Good luck, John."
I pulled away, glanced in the rear-view mirror, and saw him standing on the side of the freeway, his thumb already out, his daypack slung over one shoulder. He was wearing that faded army field jacket and a pair of aviator sunglasses.
Tim Clancy lives in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Among other publications, his essays have appeared in Catamaran, Wilderness House, and Paul Auster's "I thought My Father was God."