Girls Hitchhike Across America In Memory of Kathleen Stein, 1944-2011
There we were, really doing it, dark shades, pigtailed hair, self-conscious thumbs stuck out, me and my best friend, Kathy, slinging Army knapsacks jammed with sleeping bags, ponchos, a just-in-case dress, hitchhiking to California at last. Shedding the sticky drudgeries of Bard College, (black arm bands at graduation for the Vietnam War), desolate sex, the jobs we would soon have to get, lives guaranteed to march us into cheap Lower East Side apartments, hot flashes, and death, we swung up into tractor trailers that braked to loud, gasping halts (“Where You Girls Goin’?”), and made it to western Pennsylvania the first June night. That summer car radios blared a Motown hit, “Cool Jerk,” and we boogied to its urgent piano downbeat on the highway shoulders of the great wide world:
Cool Jerk, Cool Jerk, Cool Jerk, Cool Jerk….
Come on, Baby…
Hitching across America was my idea. I don’t know where or how I got it. I was reading The Confessions of St. Augustine, my hair falling out in clumps, not On the Road by Jack Kerouac. I’d been a sedentary virgin, more or less, until the previous spring when I’d slept with a poet who tilted his Bultaco 200 into the wind. He soon claimed he never loved me as we spun into Hudson Valley apple petals drifting toward the corrosive leaves of fall. So I grew thin, began nurturing an unrequited passion for an L.A. harmonica player. Kathy’s bf had run off with a small-breasted frosh, so she was screwing a townie river rat, earning a D in “l9th Century Literature: A Marxist Approach.” We’d just been caught stuffing our purses with sugared almonds in a Red Hook supermarket, nice college girls, middle class, stealing, alas. Sprawled disconsolately on my dormitory bed, downing an amphetamine, an historic muse gripped me: Go West! “Let’s hitchhike to California after graduation,” I proposed, and Kathy, peering like Thisbe from her wall of black hair, bravely said, “Sure!”
This was a bad idea in l966, a dangerous, screwball, pre-Hippie notion. We dared not tell her parents; mine were aghast. We would be Raped! Murdered! Shot! Killed! Knifed! Whyyyyyy not buy a little Volkswagen? Or take a Greyhound! Distracted by the rapturous high of busting out of safety’s strait jacket, I recall nothing of my parents’ pleading harangues. For once it seemed possible to be ecstatically fearless. In the end, my father, wryly disclaiming our anarchic plan, drove us to the edge of our first highway: New Jersey’s Route 46. I did promise to call home every night, collect.
For long distance phone calls I could spare no coins. We had, I remember, three hundred dollars apiece to last three months. We had to wend cheaply. In Carlisle, Pennsylvania we wangled a room in a Dickinson College dormitory. After that, we thumbed to towns where we could freeload off relatives.
In Illinois was Kathy’s second cousin, who twenty years before had shot her lover’s boyfriend and gotten off because her father was a judge. We holed up in the murderess’s gingerbread mansion, hulking in its enchanted forest of diseased elms.
In St. Louis we sponged off my mother’s half-sister, married six times, once to a bigamist, now to a muttering curmudgeon, who scrawled dirty pictures and showed them to us.
We dropped in on my favorite aunt, white hair pleated with turquoise combs, screaming at her nasty pet raccoon in the Arizona desert, and her husband, a first mate she’d met on the ship sailing her home from a bad marriage in Italy, where she’d sung opera in her sweet coloratura for the last time. Undoing his pipe from his arthritic claws, Uncle Jim expectorated his vivid sailor’s curses, inspired by the mad giggles of Kathy, loathed on sight by my cousin and especially the jealous girlfriend she’d brought home from the WACS.
In Dallas, an aunt we’d targeted for free hospitality, a salesperson at Neiman Marcus, saw our oil-stained ankles and filthy packs sullying her fur department and declined to harbor us.
Between dwellings tied to our blood, we bunked with old boyfriends, friends of friends, The Salvation Army, and in a five dollar Flagstaff flophouse, neon flashing on the soggy doughnut bed.
When there were no cheap or free digs we camped, shivering through lightning storms in the outhouse, or under picnic tables, rain-proofed with plastic. Strangers invited us to leave the ground beneath the thundering sky and shelter in their cozy tents. They wanted to be us, we bet. We flung our packs down into these occupied territories, shouldered them back up and floated out, leaving miscellaneous lives stuck in their secrets.
We reached Colorado in a speedy three weeks. In Silverton, the police arrested us for hitchhiking and put us on a train. From Boulder, we walked into Rocky Mountain National Park, where the astonished ranger at the toll booth let us in gratis. After that we thumbed South, and with most of the summer quivering before us, hopped a third class bus to Mexico City (three days passed out in the back), got shit-faced on Reforma margaritas, picked up a couple of suave dudes in Taxco, were pursued by mad dogs on Calle de Los Muertos, by mota, mosquitoes in San Blas, trained up to Guaymus, then to the California border. In L.A., Mecca!, waited the harmonica player, blond forelock floating onto flat cheeks as he sifted blues through his silver harp. We arrived at his tiny apartment with bad cases of diarrhea and stayed for five weeks, but he never loved me.
Give me a little bit of bass with those eighty-eights
Mmmmmmm Aahhhhhh Cookin’…..Smokin!
That Cool Jerk summer we led charmed lives. We were never raped and we didn’t die. In retrospect, I’m not sure why: Our new self-images, carefully contrived, might have protected us like ju-ju pouches. We were girls on the lam, Peter Pans flying on a wire, propelled by invincible naiveté, and androgynous joy. We were not quite flesh and blood versions of ourselves, performing in our real lives’ proscenium.
At the time, we believed ourselves in control of our liberated destinies and attributed our survival to the ingenious safety system we had devised. We never got in a car that had more than one man in it. When a rusted Fury braked to a fuming hiatus and the driver inquired, “Where you girls going?” we stuck out our chins and asked, “Where are you going?” We got in, provided he had a quick answer and was headed in our direction. If he hesitated, or was careening around the bend, we let him pass by. We never hitched at night. One of us sat in the front, the other in back, prepared to choke the chauffeur if he tried anything funny. We prided ourselves on being able to discern the moral character of any individual. We both carried whistles and four-inch sheathed knives. (When we revealed these weapons to the driver of the red Thunderbird that whizzed us all the way from Kansas City to Denver, he guffawed. “What would you do,” he asked me, squashed in the boot, “if I held a gun to her head and drove off the highway?”).
Small town America enabled our coo-coo sojourn by rescuing endangered female vagabonds from vicious criminals. Families, on their way to church, would drive miles out of their way to drop us at an on-ramp, lecturing us about foolhardiness, recounting the deaths of locals who’d been murdered, robbed, molested while hitchhiking. After we snapped their sedan doors shut we laughed.
The danger we did encounter passed through our consciousness like a late night movie on a flickering screen: The drunk lurching his Buick into reverse on a Texas highway; the mute black man who drove us to the wrong side of a river in Louisiana; the courteous truck driver, drawling that he had a motel room, three pairs of pajamas at the ready. Hot rods dragging mufflers passed us on Main Street, turned, smoked by again. We cherished the tension, which felt like great sex that hasn’t happened yet, but might have been death, violation, a maniac’s forbidden pleasure suppressed.
And we kept testing our ability to pass through Inferno’s circles unharmed. In Los Angeles, not in bed with the harmonica player, we ran out of money. Kathy got a job with a detective that specialized in busting employees who stole from See’s Candy cash registers. I signed on with a temporary agency and trudged off to type in a square and windowless fortress. Trapped in this metaphor for what I feared was my future, I felt unfairly stifled. So I quit, answered a suspicious ad in the Los Angeles Times: “Wanted: a secretary with a sense of honor to type, run errands for an elderly man suffering from a lengthy illness.”
Ready for anything that wasn’t boring, I took the bus to a West Hollywood apartment. The ad’s author was Kali, a young, blond prostitute, known as “The Barefoot Contessa,” until she did mucho jail time for selling kilos of grass. She was hooking to get her man, Lou, a fortyish jazz singer, off uppers —his “lengthy illness.” Lou wasn’t cooperating, gulped handfuls of “medicine” as I transported him to his very private doctor, lurching through red lights in a stick shift car I hadn’t the slightest idea how to operate. When the Johns rang the buzzer, Kali hid her lover in the closet and turned up the music. I stayed busy at the Remington as Lou’s recorded drone, “I’m in the moooood for love,” cushioned the grunts and heavy breathing. In the ten days I worked for Kali, I typed up a suitcase full of cute aphorisms that the couple, inspired by Methedrine, had scribbled on scraps. (“What’s so common about sense? Ain’t much of it around town.”) Then, stuffing them in envelopes, I submitted them to The Reader’s Digest, a dozen at a time.
One afternoon when Kali was “peddling her ass,” that is, riding her bicycle around Hollywood, drumming up customers, a John called for an appointment. I told him she was out with my usual line, “I- know- this- is- hard- to- believe- but- I- am- her- secretary, no- not- another- hooker.” He sucked in his breath. “Hey, you’re the kind of gal I want to be with!” he exclaimed and offered me a thousand dollars. For the first time in weeks, I saw myself as I really was– skinny, pimply, wearing a brown dress my mother had made, wild, frizzy hair pinned into a demure French twist– and saw fit to decline. My harmonica player was amazed: “A thousand a throw? Sight unseen?” Shit, he’d have done it for five hundred, maybe fifty! It was time to get back on Route 66, the unreal road.
At the on-ramp in Southern California, drivers bypassed male hitchhikers, waiting for days for a ride, to pick up us girls, as we headed for Texas, Louisiana, then home. In Florida we thumbed to the Greyhound station, so Kathy’s parents could fantasize we’d arrived by bus. Our final driver, amazed to hear that we’d hitched about six thousand miles, let us out of his steaming truck at the door of my parent’s suburban house, my childhood abode, to my altered consciousness no longer the place I had started out.
In l966 I was not a writer. These sketchy scenes are all I remember about my hitchhiking trip. I did keep a journal the first few days, then stopped, as it wasn’t easy to fish the rain-soaked notebook out of my knapsack, or write on jolting trucks in the dark. For those ephemeral three months, the best of my life, I was after pure experience, not a literary distillation of it. The memorabilia that survive consist of fifteen wallet-sized, black and white Instamatic photographs, some shadowed by a poisonous orange stain. These photos do little to fill memory’s gaps; most seem to have been shot with a smirk, as if the photographer knew that the subject was a joke.
Here are two out-of-focus back views of Kathy, trundling her pack across a wooden bridge, and a blurry image of a winged monument, chopped off at the top; another shows her, face buried in her knees, warming her butt over a camp fire grate. The most revealing is a head and shoulders shot of me, with dark glasses and bandanna-bound head, assuming an irate expression I must have thought tough beneath a black and white sign: Pedestrians-Bicycles-Motor Scooters-Motorized Bicycles-Animals Led- Ridden- or-Driven–PROHIBITED!” I stuck my thumb out defiantly as the shutter clicked:
…them guys looking at me like I’m a fool
Deep Down Inside They Know I’m Cool…
I’m the King of the Cool Jerks.
And that is the spirit most worth remembering a few months before my seventieth birthday: Defying what girls were supposed to do, switching caution and common sense for androgynous, tough anger, and I’ll- stick- out- my -thumb -if -I -feel- like –it- Fuck You, the have- to-dance rhythm instead of strings-attached sex. In the hot dust of an unknown town, barely seen but passed through, a woman friend becomes an extension of self, and a leg up on the fender floats us into the world’s largest truck. We needed only our bodies to fly West, as should-do’s fell out of our brains like cat hair while plastic whistles protected us from death.
This was a beginning—after that I never did what girls raised in the fifties were supposed to do—and also an end. By late fall, Kathy and I were residents of Loisada Manhattan apartments, with DC current and bathtubs in the kitchen, making ninety a week as editorial assistants for sleazy mags, True Confessions and Modern Romance. I had a Vidal Sassoon haircut, false lashes, and a heart wound in anxious coils over a married actor. Kathy talked a guy with a knife out of raping her on the stairs of her Eleventh Street tenement. Still, we planned to hitchhike wherever we went until death did us part.
On our final journey, a year later, we got a ride upstate with a weirdo who stopped at every small town pharmacy to fill his prescription for codeine cough syrup, chugged the bottles and shattered them out the window, SMASH, his eyes whirling pinwheel circles as he stomped the gas pedal to the floor so we couldn’t jump out.
It was l967, we were tax-paying women, and the Cool Jerk summer was part of the past.
“Girls Hitchhike” first appeared in Grand Tour: The Journal of Travel Literature, edited by Jason Wilson.
After hitchhiking around the country in 1966, Vicki Lindner traveled to 39 countries in Latin America, Europe, India, Asia and Africa, often alone. These trips inspired many essays, memoirs, and short fiction which were published in magazines and journals ranging from Cosmopolitan to Ploughshares. As she finishes up a ‘sixties memoir, Baby, It’s You, she teaches at Lighthouse Writers Workshop, and divides her time between Denver and Leadville, Colorado. She has been an adviser to Writing for Peace since its inception. A recent short story appeared in The Bryant Literary Review.
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