Just because I got away with it doesn't mean it's a good idea
When I was 18, and immortal, I used to hitchhike by myself all over the county and beyond.
I started hitchhiking earlier when I was around 16, maybe 17, to visit this guy I’d become penpals with. He was finishing up a short bit in a minimum-security prison farm about 30 miles from where I lived. After months of insanely long letters that all finished with the plea that I come to visit I took to the road.
It was weeks before I finally summoned the nerve to just turn around and put my thumb out; I felt ridiculous and horribly vulnerable. Walking seemed safer but I’d always end up getting a ride anyway.
In time, I got more comfortable putting my thumb out but that wasn’t going to guarantee a ride.
After several months of visiting my “friend”, I began realizing that if I just walked and didn’t put my thumb out on the way home one of the guards who was driving from the prison farm back down to the Ohio State Reformatory in Mansfield (made famous in the movie “Shawshank Redemption”) would give me a ride. It was on his way and he didn’t like me being out there hitching on my own. What a relief.
One day I got back upstairs to my bedroom before he pulled away and was horrified to see his unmarked car had the words Ohio State Reformatory in huge letters on the roof of the vehicle. Oops!
In those couple of years, I did have a couple of close calls where guys tried to pin me against the door and feel me up. Adrenalin turns out to be pretty powerful stuff; that and surprise. None of them expected to get scratched up and screeched at by what seemed like such a small, easily overpowered person. I was always able to get out of the car and go on my way. Thinking back now, it’s incredible to me that once the loser was out of sight I’d get that thumb back out and start hitching again.
Then the day came when Mom read my journal and you can guess how that went over.
I left my parents’ home the day after that little incident and moved in with a young divorced woman for whom I’d been babysitting.
That didn’t work out very well and by the time I’d managed to graduate from high school (hitchhiking to school nearly every day) I moved out of there and into the only house left standing in the vanished town of Friendsville, Ohio. The old place was a three-bedroom house with a vacant corner store attached and was now inhabited by a bunch of pot-smoking musicians and hangers-on. It was the party house of the county.
What had been the corner store was now filled with sagging couches, guitars, mics and mic stands, a drum kit, and various other musical instruments. The two brothers who were the actual lease-holders on the house were also the founding members of the band, Amplified Feelings. Many, many hours were whiled away smoking pot and listening to people play music.
My first summer out of high school and I was free!
That Fourth of July was the stuff of ten thousand adolescent dreams. I got up early and was high before I walked out the door. The house sat at the crossroads and I stood there for a moment to choose a direction. It was going to be a really hot day but at that moment the cool country air smelled good and no one could tell me where to go or what to do. I saw a car coming and put out my thumb.
It turned out to be the younger brother of a guy I had been crushing on hard in the Commercial Art course I’d just graduated from. That was Tom, this was John, and John and I had a great day of it. We tooled all around the county, getting higher, catching a couple of small-town parades and winding up in a field somewhere watching fireworks.
We parted ways and I kept hitchhiking and getting high with whoever I wound up with. Horrified? I am now but at the time I was in some kind of “I have arrived” heaven.
I always wanted to be a bad girl, living on the edge, and now I was
I got home safely that night and lots of other nights. There were many other young women like me then who saw hitchhiking as a valid means of transportation in a car culture that was never going to provide cars for everyone.
The last time I ever put my thumb out for a ride was shortly after I’d moved to Cleveland. The guy I was with got impatient because I was taking too long to get ready to go out drinking and left without me. I raced out to the street just in time to see the bus pull away. Cleveland still has pretty dismal public transportation but back in the late 1970’s, with the city in default, there wasn’t going to be another bus going down West 130th Street for an hour or longer.
I put out my thumb.
Two guys pulled over and I piled in, pushing all kinds of dirty clothes and magazines out of the way. Yes, all my inner alarms were going off but I had to get to that bar, dammit, I had to. Instead of just going straight down 130th to Lorain Avenue like they’d said they were going, the driver turned off the main drag and the two of them started saying they were undercover cops and that they were going to book me for hitchhiking but they didn’t head towards the First District police station which was also right on West 130th. Instead, they kept driving around aimlessly and telling me about all the things they’d seen happen to foolish young women who hitchhiked by themselves.
Eventually, they dropped me off at the bar and drove off, laughing. Were they really cops? I have no idea. If they were aiming to scare me into never hitchhiking again, yeah, they aced that one.
How I survived being so reckless is a mystery. Hitchhiking was far from the only self-endangering activity I jumped into with gusto and a complete disregard for my own personal safety. I had unprotected sex. A lot. I lived with a junkie and went with him when he’d go out to cop. A lot.
Just about every summer since I moved to New York City there’s at least one story, usually in the summertime, about a young woman who’s out drinking on her own and her dead body is found in a dumpster or behind some truck somewhere in the city. I get it. I understand the wild need to do whatever the fuck I feel like doing when I feel like doing it. Why shouldn’t I be able to take insane risks and live dangerously, dammit? Just because I was born without a cock? Right.
But then I think of what I’d tell myself if I could have sat me down for a little talk when I was 18 and immortal. Yeah, I probably wouldn’t have listened, but (and this is not in any way victim-blaming) every time I was out there drinking and getting blasted with people I didn’t know well or at all, I was putting myself in danger. Yes, in a perfect world, all of us wild children would be able to do anything we wanted with anyone we wanted any time we wanted and live our crazy lives to the fullest.
It’s far from a perfect world.
And there’s nothing that says we have to drink and drug to excess to live our lives to the fullest. I don’t hitchhike or drink or drug or run off in the middle of the night with people I don’t know. And for over 27 years now I really have been living my life to the fullest.
But that kind of behavior makes for great stories, doesn’t it? Lucky me that I lived to tell them.
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