On the road

“In the summer of 1980, in the grip of some Kerouac-ish fantasy, I opted to hitch-hike from Laredo to New York”

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“Rider in the rain”—the author in Mexico, summer 1980 (© PATRICK HEREN)

I contracted polio around my third birthday and have walked with the aid of crutches ever since. My parents sensibly decided that I should approach life as if I were entirely able-bodied, sending me to school with able-bodied children and generally expecting me to be self-reliant. There was a certain doublethink involved, of course: I regarded myself as a tough guy who could take care of himself and join in the sorts of activities my friends enjoyed, despite the fact that my participation was necessarily restricted: when playing soldiers I could be a sniper, or man a machine-gun nest, while in football I would play in goal.

Psychologically this was reasonably effective, and at university I was flattered when friends—especially girls—said they did not think of me as disabled. It also led to a certain lack of realism on my part, culminating in a frankly insane US road trip in the summer of 1980.

Having taken a year off work to write a book, I had spent a tax rebate on a trip to Mexico, where my friend Ed was working. The cheapest way at the time was to fly Laker to New York, and then take a Greyhound 2,000 miles to the Mexican border. Mexico itself was cheap, and £300 supported me for six weeks as far as the Yucatan. I headed back north in early July, travelling on Mexican buses and trains with Ed, who was flying back to the UK from Houston.

‘The immigration officer was clearly near the end of his tether but he cheered up at the sight of our British passports. I wished him happy Independence Day. “You want this country back? You take it!”’

Texas and the central plains were suffering a murderous heat wave, with noon temperatures exceeding 100°F (38°C) every day from late June to early August. In the first couple of weeks of July, the temperature sometimes reached as high as 119°F (48° C). Some 1,700 people died of heat stroke that summer.

We arrived at the US customs post at Laredo early on the sweltering morning of the Fourth of July, joining the back of an immigration queue with several thousand Mexicans. Ed went up to point out that I was disabled, and (to my surprise) we were invited to jump the queue. The immigration officer was clearly near the end of his tether, but he cheered up at the sight of our British passports. I wished him happy Independence Day.

“Independence Day? You want this country back? You take it!”

Once across the border, I had to decide how to get back to New York. I had $36 in my pocket, a third of the Greyhound fare. Ed offered to lend me the money, but, in the grip of some Kerouac-ish fantasy, I opted to hitch-hike instead. Ed bade me farewell, I stuck out a thumb and about 10 am got my first lift, also to Houston.

Laredo in the 1970s: Travellers crossing into the US, are instructed to leave contraband (Photo by William Albert Allard/National Geographic/Getty Images)

This ride was with five cheerful Mexicans in a battered old Buick whose air-conditioning unit had given up the ghost. Because two of them were illegal, they were avoiding the Interstate Highway, which would have brought us to Houston in four or five hours. Our route lay cross-country on the single carriageway Highway 59, with the windows open to the hot dust of the south Texas plains. It took us nine desperate hours to reach the outskirts of Houston, at which point the Mexicans decided to risk the elevated freeways across the city.

None of us knew where we were going, but my compadres were eager to help me. I had planned to take Interstate 10 out of Houston along the Gulf Coast, and when the driver saw the exit sign for I-10 East he screeched to a halt in the right hand lane. “Adiós hermano! Vaya con Dios!” they chorused as I clambered out with my satchel. As the Buick grumbled off, I realised I was standing on the edge of a six-lane elevated road. There was no pavement, and I perched on the crash barrier, with a 30-foot drop behind me. Cars and trucks roared past my knees, and, though traffic was not heavy at that time of the evening, it was clear no one was going to stop. I waited for a lull and began to leg it down the off ramp. Each time I heard a vehicle behind me I hopped back on to the crash barrier. In this way I made it down in three or four goes.

I was thirsty, tired and rattled. It was early twilight. The area below the freeway was a poor black neighbourhood of low wooden buildings. I needed a cold drink. I walked along a street away from the freeway. Old black men sat silently on their porches. I must have cut an odd figure—a sweaty young white man on sticks—but I was past caring. Two or three blocks along I came to a bar and went in and bought a Coke. I felt reasonably welcome: no one stared at me, or challenged me. While I drank my Coke, I examined the jukebox. To my delight it contained a great deal of blues: I had thought it unlikely that black Americans still listened to the blues in 1980. I put a dime in and played a Buddy Guy number. As I walked back towards the freeway, several of the previously silent old men greeted me courteously.

Several short lifts took me across east Houston. Night fell, but it remained very warm. One young man detoured to show me Baytown, the huge Exxon refinery, lit up for five miles of crackers and reformers and distillation columns. He seemed lonely. At one stage he showed me the pistol he kept in the glove compartment, but there was no harm in him.

The next lift, around midnight, came from a couple of skinny old guys who wanted me to know exactly where to place them: “We’s good ole boys!” One was from Oklahoma and the other from the Texas Panhandle, but they both worked as deckhands on merchant ships out of Corpus Christi, or “Co’pus”. They were on their way to enjoy a private all-night barbeque at some picnic site off the Interstate. They urged me to join in, assuring me that they had food for all. Or, as they kept repeating, “a whole gang of meat comin’ outta our assholes”. I was tired and hungry, but tempted as I was by hot food and cold beer, it dawned on me that these were two elderly redneck gays. It seemed unwise to accept their hospitality in some dark roadside halt, and I got them to drop me—a little unwillingly on their part—at an open gas station.

I stood for the rest of the night without any luck. The gas station’s diner opened at 7 am, and I ate a good breakfast for a dollar. Another short hop took me to a classic truck stop where none of the truck drivers even acknowledged my existence when I asked them for a lift. As I stood by the Interstate with my thumb out—illegally, of course—two Texas state troopers glided alongside.

“Where you goin’ boy?” drawled one.

“New York City, sir,” I replied.

“New York City?” he spat incredulously. “Well good luck boy!” And they drove off. They were not wishing me luck so much as showing contempt for anyone so stupid as to drag his sorry hide from the great state of Texas to the Yankee Gomorrah of New York.

I had had no sleep for more than 24 hours and the sun was already unbearably hot. The day passed painfully, and I can recall only one lift, around the Texas-Louisiana border in the late afternoon. This was from a very drunk man named Calvin Pugh, sipping from a bottle of cheap pink wine called Cold Duck. He talked incessantly and weaved slowly along the Interstate. I was too exhausted to ask him to let me off. After an hour or so he was pulled over by the police. As we waited for the policeman to walk over, he asked me urgently whether I had a raw potato, which he believed would disguise alcohol on the breath. I did not have a potato, but I offered him my toothpaste instead, which he rubbed desperately on his teeth. The policeman ordered us to follow him to a police station just off the Interstate. This all seemed very odd, as it must have been clear to the cop that Mr Pugh was unfit to drive. At the station he told me to wait while he went in. He returned after 10 minutes and we set off. I asked what had happened.

“I paid the county and I paid the damn officer too,” he explained.

At about 7 pm he dropped me at a large Days Inn near Baton Rouge. As I walked into the cool motel lobby I caught sight of myself in a mirror. I was wearing a black collarless shirt that was now caked grey with salt. My hair was matted, my eyes hollow and my skin peeling. The price of an average room was $25 a night, a big piece of my remaining change.

“Have you got anything cheaper?”

“Well, we have a trucker’s rate at $17 with breakfast,” replied the matronly lady at the desk.

“Ma’am, I have been trucking for two days,” I said, and she took pity on me.

In the room I showered three times before sleeping for 12 hours.

The next day is again hazy in my memory. Various lifts took me along the Gulf Coast until I turned north into Mississippi on I-59. I had run out of rolling tobacco, and one of my rides took me to a country store where I bought a pouch of Bull Durham, which was too dry for my taste. The driver seemed concerned for my safety, so I decided to show him the vicious switchblade I had bought in Mexico. He immediately turned off the road and ordered me sternly to throw the knife into the bushes.

“But I’ll bet you’re carrying a gun,” I said.

“Damn right I am, and the police wouldn’t care if you had one too. But the moment they find you with that knife, they will lock you up and throw away the key.”

He was right: it was a stupid and childish thing for me to possess, and in any case I could hardly have used it to defend myself.

At some point I fell in with a 17-year-old boy trying to get home to northern Alabama. In the early evening we approached Birmingham just as the heat was broken by a colossal thunderstorm. Our driver, a nice schoolteacher who had explained that he was unlikely ever to visit another country because the US had more than enough for him to see, dropped us at an interchange on the northern side of the city. For two or three hours the kid and I were forced to shelter from the storm under a freeway bridge. We emerged about 10 pm to find that the storm had knocked out the power in Birmingham, and we were hitching in pitch dark up I-59 on a hillside just out of the city. The boy was exhausted, so I let him take a nap by the roadside while I stuck out my thumb.

‘He held up the largest revolver I had ever seen in my life. “This was pointing at your chest, and I was going to blow you away if he had tried anything,” my driver explained.’

Around midnight a black Camino pickup slowed down to look at me, and stopped 50 yards further on. I walked up the road, and, while talking to the driver, became aware that the boy had woken up and was running up from behind. A rather tense conversation ensued: the Camino was essentially a two-seater and the driver wanted to take only me, but I persuaded him to let the kid lie in the back under a tarpaulin, as he was only 50 miles from home. The driver himself was heading for Front Royal in the Shenandoah Valley of northern Virginia, 700 miles to the north-east, and only 250 miles from New York.

As we set off, the driver remarked that I should be more careful in future.

“When I was talking to you through the window, I thought you were alone. Then I saw that guy running up out of the dark and I thought you might be the decoy in an ambush. That’s why I had you covered with this.”

He held up the largest revolver I have ever seen in my life, a long-barrelled 357 Magnum—a Dirty Harry weapon.

“This was pointing at your chest, and I was going to blow you away if he had tried anything,” my driver explained. “You really ought to be more careful.”

Phil turned out to be a decent sort, despite the artillery. He even relented so far as to drive the exhausted boy to the door of his parents’ house.

Phil was an engineer from Front Royal who had been working on a project in Louisiana and wanted to get home by the following afternoon. He needed me to talk to him, and I tried to oblige until sleep overcame me somewhere near Chattanooga. Phil then turned on his CB radio, and I awoke occasionally to enjoy some extraordinary exchanges between third parties on the road.

The best was between a woman in a car (a “beaver in a four-wheeler”) and a truck driver. They had been flirting for some time when the driver began to sing a song about truck-driving to the tune of “The Wabash Cannonball”. He had a fine baritone voice. The only lines I can remember were the end of a verse:

“. . . but I’ll be feeling all right again when I take that little white pill . . .”

“Driver, you’re headed the wrong way,” said the woman, “you ought to be going towards Nashville!”

“Why, thank you ma’am!”

After 700 miles, Phil dropped me around lunchtime at the top of an Interstate ramp outside Front Royal. This part of the country was familiar, and within striking distance of New York. I was cheerful as I took my hitching position half way down the long ramp. But no one stopped, except for a Virginia state trooper. The electric windows came down, and he looked at me through mirror shades.

“You can’t stand there.”

I explained to him that I had no money, that I had to catch a flight from New York, and that it would be next to impossible to get there on back roads.

“It is illegal to hitch-hike on the Interstate highway. Go back up the ramp and choose another route.”

The trooper waited in his car while I retreated. As soon as he had driven off, I walked back down. I was well aware that hitching on the Interstates was illegal, but other people did it, and no one had bothered me until now. Even the terrifying Texas troopers who had talked to me outside Houston were merely curious.

Again, no one picked me up, and once an hour the same state trooper returned and laconically ordered me off the ramp. At about 4 pm he pulled up again. Again the window came down.

“Y’all get into the vehicle.”

I did as I was told. He began cruising slowly northwards up I-81. He was a man of few words, and I had no idea what to say to him. His hat and his shades were firmly in place.

“I am going to take you to a place where you can use the Interstate system to your advantage.”

“Thank you sir.” I had no idea what this might mean. We continued in silence for a while, but I had the impression he was pondering a weighty matter.

“Hitch-hiking on the Interstate is extremely dangerous as well as illegal.”

“Yes sir.”

“Last year, there was a boy, just like you, 20 or 21. I told him he should not be hitch-hiking, but he did not listen to me.”

“Sir?”

“Next morning they found him in a ditch in Tennessee, two bullets in his head.”

There was no adequate response to this information, and I stifled the inclination to say “golly”.

“That’s terrible,” I replied. We resumed our silent journey, until, after perhaps 25 miles he pulled his car up the off ramp and halted at the top.

“Y’all can get out here.”

I got out and thanked him. He pointed across the intersection to the top of the down ramp.

“And y’all stand over there.” He drove off without another word. I was mystified until I saw the sign on the other side of the road: Welcome to West Virginia. That was what the Virginia trooper had meant by a place where I could use the Interstate system to my advantage: it was out of his jurisdiction. He had bent the rules and done me an act of great kindness.

An eccentric-looking Rambler station-wagon appeared from a westerly direction. All the windows were open, and inside were two men, two women and a mass of baggage and camping equipment. “Where you headed?” they shouted.

“New York City.”

“Well, you better climb in.” My four companions were all New York City high-school teachers. The grey-bearded driver was in his fifties, but the others were all close to my age. They were on their way home from the annual gathering, in a West Virginia forest, of the Rainbow Family. They explained this to me as a kind of white Indian tribe that met for a week a year. Later the driver, Tom, said that the origins lay in a 1968 happening in San Francisco, and that it was dedicated to non-violence, non-commercialism and all forms of spirituality. Recreational drugs were welcome, but not alcohol. In other words, the Rainbow Family was a kind of semi-organised hippiedom.

I myself had drifted away from that sort of outlook, which had been important to me in my teens. But I was charmed by my new friends. They were the most cosmopolitan types I had encountered since Mexico, and asked me many questions about Britain, and especially the punk movement. As we drove in golden afternoon light through the rolling green country of southern Pennsylvania, they began to think about beer, which had been banned from the Rainbow Gathering. We pulled up at a bar near Gettysburg. I was feeling light-headed, and wasn’t sure I needed anything to drink. But then I noticed bottles of Rolling Rock, a brew that my friends and I used to drink when we were teenagers, regarding it as a kind of virtuous boutique ale (from these very Pennsylvania hills). I drank a couple and fell asleep on the bar.

The Rainbow people poured me back into the Rambler, and I dozed all the way to the entrance to the Holland Tunnel. It was now nearly midnight, and one of the girls, Rebecca, offered me the spare bed in her Brooklyn apartment. Journey’s end, and 14 hours’ sleep. Two days later I was back in London.

I never hitched again. In retrospect it was an insane adventure. But it made sense at the time. And despite the difficulty and danger and strangeness, I encountered many good people who took trouble to help me—people who in their different ways represented the heart of America. 

“The Jack Kerouac of the Vale of Health” (a putdown by a later girlfriend’s former boyfriend), safely back on Hampstead Heath, 1980 (© PATRICK HEREN)