I’m going to tell you about the time I was seventeen, ran away from home, and went hitchhiking through the South. And how I ended up in jail for vagrancy in Myrtle Beach with a beefy feeble-minded suspected rapist. Really, though, this is about how a kid found himself loose in the world for the first time and learned about independence. And, even more really, it’s about how countless kids took to the road in the freak years.
In case you were wondering. I mean, you might be. How would I know?
During high school I lived aboard Dahlgren Naval Proving Ground, on the Potomac River in what was then rural King George County, Virginia, where my father was a mathematician. Dahlgren existed to fire enormous guns downriver, including sixteen-inchers that rattled our windows most wonderful. The county was Huck Finn territory. People farmed and crabbed in the Potomac for a living. The country boys spent their time driving disintegrating wrecks at unwise velocity, lying about how much poontang they hadn’t come close to getting, wandering through the woods with rifles and shotguns, and swimming in Machodoc Creek. It was what boys were supposed to do. We did it.
I wanted to go on the road, a drive that I’ve never shaken. I had a literary bent as well as a rifle and a decent jump shot, and had read Kerouac. A sense of urgency was upon me. I was getting old. Running away at seventeen was almost reasonable; at thirty-five, I sensed, it would be ridiculous. After my junior year at King George High I began surreptitiously packing a duffle bag with what I thought people needed in the wilds of Ámerica: Canned food, a jungle hammock, my prize Panasonic multi-band radio, a razor I only barely needed.
I wasn’t running away from anything, but toward something. I just didn’t know what. Nor was I sure where I was going. South. That was easy because Route 301, then the major north-south artery, was maybe three miles from my front door.
Various subterfuges served to keep my parents from suspecting. Fortunately, like all teenagers I knew far more of life and the world than did my parents, which made it easy to fool them. For at least three years I believed that my preparations weren’t plain as warts on a prom queen.
I’d never hitchhiked at all. Starting on a June night from the crossroads of 301 and Route 206, I hung my thumb out. My first ride was a black guy, queer as a three-dollar bill, who kept going down back roads and showing me a notebook of photos of a fag party. I understood at last and said no thanks. A nice enough guy, he said okay and took me to Fredericksburg. Then the drunk in the ’61 Fury who between Warrenton and Roanoke nearly drove head-on into a gasoline tanker. Then….
I thought these were adventures. Actually they were the everyday coin of the roads, known to all long-haul thumbs. I didn’t know that yet.
But that’s not what this is about.
A few days out, on a rainy night somewhere in the coastal flatlands, I found myself beside a deserted rural highway. At this point I’m not even sure what state it was. The region had been cleared a couple of years back and was growing over in pines not much taller than I was. They glistened with recent drizzle that threatened to start again. The only thing of human provenance was an Esso (I think) station glowing a hundred yards away in an otherwise empty night. I had the world pretty much to myself, which I would learn to like. I think a lot of us did.
I was lonely, but not unhappy. A couple of years later I would find that solo on the big roads worked for me. I wasn’t antisocial but…self-contained. I went far enough into the pines not to be seen and, with a little fumbling in wet needles, the jungle hammock was up. I walked over to the Esso station to get a couple of cokes.
I don’t remember anyone working there, though someone must have. The blue-white glow of the pump island bathed everything, and the bottles clunk-lunked out of the drink machine. There was no traffic, just dark woods and Standard Oil.
It was…my world. I was accustomed to the woods, had lived for a summer in a jungle hammock at a camp in Maryland, and had spent high-school vacations working at Kriegstedt’s Esso on Route 301. It fit me somehow.
Back in the pine flats I climbed into the hammock after stuffing supplies for the night inside. A jungle hammock has mosquito-net sides that droop so that you can keep light objects in them, as well as a rain tarp and a double bottom so that the rain doesn’t soak through. I was just in time. The drizzle picked up, not a rain but a pitpitpit on the tarp. The night was chilly but I had a sleeping bag.
I lay there with an open can of tuna fish on my chest, an orange soda gripped between my legs, and a roll of crackers in the mosquito netting. It was mighty satisfying. Cold rain an inch away engenders appreciation of a dry sleeping bag. It gave me a feeling that I was getting away with something. Having eaten, I plugged the earphone into the radio. Even then I knew it wasn’t wise to call attention to myself at night.
For I don’t know how long I tuned into the web of stations that covered Dixie, the late-night country stations listened to by a thousand truckers on the empty highways beyond midnight. Night on the radio is a curious world of affable DJs talking to people they understand and almost know. The cab of an eighteen-wheeler becomes almost a living room. So does a hammock.
What sticks in my mind was a delight in self-sufficiency, in being warm and dry on a wretched night out in the great sprawling expanse of America, making it on my own. Soon it would be commonplace. I and thousands like me would stand by the highways, rocking in the windblast and whine of the big trucks, living out of backpacks, dropping into an arroyo with a bottle of Triple Jack when we got tired of waiting. Not yet. It was a stripling’ s first time out. And it was great.
I guess we didn’t get to Myrtle Beach. Another time.
Fred Reed [send him mail] is author of Nekkid in Austin: Drop Your Inner Child Down a Well.