This is the story of a different kind of road trip; the type of road trip that doesn’t exist in 2023. But fifty years ago in the summer of 1973, it was just another way to travel. The world was a far different place. The journey and this story end on the north Oregon coast.
In 1973, America’s long military involvement in the Vietnam War was ending and the congressional Watergate hearings were just beginning, with the resignation of President Richard Nixon still a year away. This was a time before personal computers, smart phones or the internet. No cable TV and no CNN or Fox News.
We all heard the same news from the same people like Chet Huntley, David Brinkley or Walter Cronkite (the most trusted man in America). Americans had a choice of about five different TV stations, which they watched from televisions with “rabbit ear” antennas and no remote controls.
Everyone who owned a phone had a landline or you could make calls from a public phone booth that took coins. Oregon had become the first state to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana. The population of Oregon and the population of the world were half of what they are now, and the population of the U.S. has grown more than 50% since 1973.
A Motel 6 cost $6, gas was 39 cents a gallon and inflation was over 6%. The middle class was thriving and America was a more egalitarian society with less disparity of wealth.
The world’s oceans and beaches were free of plastic debris and microplastics. No warming or acidification of the world’s oceans, and no massive wildfires or endless days of thick wildfire smoke. A few scientists were warning about the possibility of future “global warming”.
Americans owned guns, but they were handguns, shotguns and hunting rifles. Far fewer people owned semiautomatic firearms and mass shootings were rare. The NRA was a mainstream lobbying organization focused on sportsmanship, safe gun handling and common sense gun regulations.
The Supreme Court had ruled in favor of abortion rights in Roe v. Wade and the recently completed twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York were the tallest buildings in the world. Americans were more trusting of each other and their government. Congress was passing bipartisan landmark legislation.
But 1973 was not an entirely idyllic time; the U.S. was still locked in a cold war with the Soviet Union, and the country had just emerged from the tumultuous 1960’s scarred by the assassination of political leaders, racial tensions boiling over into violence and mass protests against the Vietnam War dividing the country. There was lead in our drinking water, our paint and our gasoline. Gas guzzling trucks and cars spewed pollution into the air. Women and people of color were finally beginning to feel empowered, but our political, judicial, business and professional worlds were still dominated by white males.
This was the world I graduated into from high school at the age of 17 in the early summer of 1973; feeling truly free for the first time in my life. I climbed to the summit of Mt. Hood a week after graduating.
My older brother and sister were both married within a few weeks of each other early that summer, and I planned to hit the road and explore the country using my thumb. Hitchhiking was a common way of getting around all the way through the 70’s into the 80’s, and relying on the generosity of strangers was a much different way to travel. The interstate highway system was new, with parts of it still under construction, and the open road called.
A friend dropped me off at an I-5 freeway entrance ramp south of Portland. I quickly caught a ride and the adventure began. I headed south that first day, all the way through Oregon into California; leaving I-5 and heading east towards Lassen National Park in the Cascade Range, where I was told by a not-so-friendly park ranger that hitchhiking was not allowed in the park.
After spending my first night camped in the forest around Lassen Peak, I headed for Reno. I was quickly learning the best ways to catch a ride, about hitchhiker etiquette and the unspoken code of honor among fellow hitchhikers. East of Reno on I-80, I caught a ride with some guys my age heading home to the east coast after spending their vacation in the mythical golden land of California.
A thousand-mile ride was the holy grail of long-distance hitchhiking and we cruised east through the vastness of Nevada and Utah and Wyoming all the way to Nebraska over the next few days. Stopping at a small cafe in Nebraska, all conversation stopped as everyone in the place stared at us as we entered and sat down; this group of young shaggy-haired strangers. It was an omen of what was to come. I parted company with my long-distance friends the next day and once again put my thumb out on the shoulder of the interstate, slowly realizing that it wasn’t as easy to catch a ride in Nebraska.
Cars swerved at me as they approached, bikers gave me the finger and empty beer bottles and obscenities flew my way as drivers passed me by. But I made it out of that state in one piece and into Iowa on a Sunday morning, after sleeping in a cornfield that night. Cornfields are not hard to find in that part of the country and waking up in a cornfield smells like waking up inside a bowl of cornflakes.
Though I had feared for my life in Nebraska, the good folks of Iowa could not have been nicer. I was picked up by a preacher headed for his Sunday church service that morning, and the good luck continued as I headed east. I had vague plans to visit a woman my age who lived in Indiana, but fate intervened.
By this time I was in Illinois as I-80 passed through the southern suburbs of Chicago. I’d been dropped off in the middle of a freeway interchange where I wasn’t supposed to be. A state cop pulled up and asked what I was doing there. I explained that I was just trying to get out of there as fast as I could. He said I couldn’t be there as he kicked my pack with the toe of his boot before ordering me into the back of his patrol car.
He drove me off the freeway and told me to get out. As I walked away and looked around, I quickly realized I was the only white person. I had been dropped off in the city of Markham, south of Chicago. People looked at me with a curious “WHAT are you doing HERE?” I ducked into a fast food restaurant and ordered lunch, trying to figure out what to do next. But there was only one thing to do, and that was to go back out onto the road and stick my thumb out.
I was quickly offered a ride by a couple driving a van full of furniture. The man apologized for not having any money to give me, saying he was so short of money he had to sell some of his furniture. I told him it was OK; I just appreciated the ride. Some of the nicest people I’d ever met.
I’d had enough of the Midwest. The allure of the Rockies and the vast open spaces were pulling me west, back through the gauntlet of hostility in Nebraska and into Wyoming. I remember meeting some interesting characters along the way; people you wouldn’t normally tend to cross paths with.
Some were lonely, driving for hours on the interstate; just wanting to talk to someone to help pass the endless miles. A few told me their darkest secrets; the kind of secrets they never would tell their spouse or closest friends. People would offer a sandwich or a beer or share a joint.
A young mother with an infant offered me a ride. Some drivers were laconic and others loquacious as they regaled me with their stories. I was eating only once or twice a day, but I was young and didn’t care, as I was having the best adventure of my life.
Making my way into Yellowstone National Park, I spent the night in the forest on the edge of Norris Geyser Basin; listening to the geysers erupt on a moonlit night while hoping that one of the local grizzlies didn’t discover me or the food in my pack. Through Yellowstone and into the Tetons. The area around Jenny lake was incredibly quiet with very few people around.
I decided to hike up to Amphitheater Lake at the base of the Tetons and spent a miserable night under a plastic tarp as a cold front moved through. Back through Yellowstone and into Montana. Cruising along I-90, the person who had given me a ride was extolling the beauty of Glacier National Park, so I impulsively headed north off the freeway. I remember being in awe of the spectacular mountains on Going-to-the-Sun Road on the way to Logan Pass.
Heading east off the continental divide towards the Blackfeet Reservation, a grizzled old rancher driving a beat-up pickup offered me some chew, telling me “whatever you do, don’t swallow any of it”, which was exactly what I did. Waves of nausea hit and it was all I could do not to puke in his truck.
Across the Idaho panhandle and into Spokane, where I couch-surfed for a few nights on my newly-married sister’s couch. She and her husband had just moved to Spokane so he could attend law school, and it felt good to be with family for a few days. Back on the road and into the hellish late-July heat of eastern Washington, heading west across the spectacular North Cascades highway to the Olympic peninsula.
I remember riding in a red corvette around the peninsula through the beauty of the rainforest, and log truck drivers laughing at me as they passed the long-haired kid trying to hitch a ride out of Forks, but it was nothing compared to the hostility that had been hurled at me in Nebraska.
Crossing the newly constructed bridge over the Columbia River into Astoria, I felt like I was home for the first time in weeks. Some people from the Midwest exploring the Pacific Northwest in a motorhome offered me a ride. I guided them to Ecola State Park and we pulled into the viewpoint.
This was their first view of the Pacific Ocean, or any ocean. Overwhelmed by the view and taking it all in, they didn’t say much for a few minutes. After being dropped off at the Neakahnie Mountain trailhead, I spent the night near the summit, looking out over the Pacific and reflecting on the journey. I wasn’t the same 17 year-old that started out that first day on I-5 south of Portland. I was just a few weeks older but maybe a few years wiser.
A few epiphanies popped into my young head along the way that have stayed with me over the years. The incredible generosity and kindness of complete strangers and the fact that there are far more good people than bad in the world. How the climate and landscape shape the culture of an area and the diversity of cultures within the vastness of our country. That if you stepped outside your comfort zone with an open mind and a sense of adventure, you just might have a life-changing experience.
I took other hitchhiking trips in the 70’s to British Columbia, Yukon and Alaska; catching rides with altruistic strangers on trips covering thousands of miles. But looking back half a century later with the perspective of an old guy, this was one of the transformative journeys that shaped my view of the world during a restless and rebellious youth.