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  • Writer's pictureGary Gruber

Hitchin’ a Ride

I was a semi-professional hitchhiker for many years, and I guess the only thing that stopped me from going full on pro was Charlie Manson. Knowing he was haunting the same roads as me put the kibosh on any thoughts I had of pushing the envelope any further.

During the 60’s and 70’s, standing on the side of the road with your thumb swaying in the breeze like an errant bean sprout was no more radical than trying to get to second base with a Jewish girl on the first date. On the other side of the coin, I lost track of the people I offered rides to when I finally had a car to drive. I had my share of semi-wackos, but only once did I actually put someone out that I had picked up, a young introverted hippie that smelled like he had used his pants as a non-flushable toilet got my attention and barely made it 100 yards with me before I persuaded him to get-the-fuck-out-of-my-car.

In 1967, my friend Ron thumbed the 300 miles from Wilkes-Barre to Pittsburgh to spend a weekend with me at Duquesne University. That got me to thinking about this mode of travel, and the endless possibilities of adventure.

“Now I'm a-standin' on the corner in Winslow, Arizona With such a fine sight to see It's a girl, my Lord, in a flatbed Ford Slowin' down to have a look at me.”

While that never happened to me, I did drive through Winslow with a hitchhiker I picked up in St. Louis on my way to California back in ’74.

Getting mobile started in 1968 during my year of purgatory at Wilkes College. My mother pulled me out of Duquesne University as she watched my GPA plummet from a 3.6 my first semester to a 2.9 the second. I had discovered girls and photography. I actually had an orphan living at the YWCA pick me up in a drugstore and convince me to come swimming with her and five of her very young friends one afternoon – but that’s a story for another day.

My mother was dating the Dean of Admissions and wrangled me an $800 scholarship to be a pre-med student. When I sat down and talked to this guy and made it abundantly clear that my chemistry and biology days were behind me (even though I was second in my class in chemistry at Duquesne), he got twisted up, cancelled my scholarship, and then my mother cancelled him.

A lovely and very young 17 year old from Scranton attracted my attention one day sitting on the dike on South River St. She admitted to me I was the first boy to ever kiss her, and that cemented my interest in her for quite some time. She lived in Scranton, so I’d hitch a ride to see her on weekends. The short distance made it easy for me to get my feet wet in hitchhiking. I mean, I really got my feet wet. One weekend me and Ron thumbed our way through a massive thunderstorm and showed up at her house drenched from head to toe.

Those short stints helped me get my confidence on. Released from Dante’s Third Ring of Hell that spring, I made my way up to Syracuse University where my focus turned to photography -- where it should have been all along. Even though I had my momma’s ’63 Dodge Polara, I would venture forth into the lakes and forests surrounding the university on foot, just for the sake of adventure. Me, my cameras, and every once in a while a tab of acid accompanied me out to the great unknown.

My mentor, Professor Richards lived in Tully, so I’d head there to scout for pictures for a class assignment, figuring I could drop his name if I got into any trouble. I got into plenty of trouble.

Our assignment that week was a picture story. I found an abandoned home in Tully with an unlocked side door, so I ambled in and had a look see. The home was still full of belongings, as if life unceremoniously had its plug pulled one day. While rummaging through the this-and-that scattered throughout, I found a diary that told a tale of woe that shattered the quiet mind of this 20-year-old. It was written by the father. The writing was blunt and tearful. His wife and children had left him, and he could no longer bear the anguish of the silence and emptiness of the house that used to be a home.

I would have gotten further into the story but a very large man with a Smith & Wesson .38 was standing behind me, and impolitely ushered us out of the home. I had gotten all of my photos by then, and they made one hell of a picture story.

Ever so often we were on the other end of the hitchhiking spectrum, picking up a stranger and helping him down the road a ways. One Saturday me and Jeff and Steve and Jim decided we needed a little release. Jim would stay straight and be our driver and guide. The plan was simple and executed with precision. Me, Jeff, and Steve crushed a barrel of Orange Sunshine by our bedsides. We set our alarms for an hour early. When it rang in the morning, we each moistened our fingers, picked up the powdered acid and placed it on our tongues – and went back to sleep. We woke up full bore tripping an hour later.

After a big breakfast of dozens of eggs and hundreds of potatoes, Jim took us out into the countryside to blow of some steam for the next 6-8 hours. Naturally, I had my camera. At one point we got a bit hungry and found a donut shop. We walked out with three dozen donuts and ate all of them in the parking lot.

On the way home I was laser focused on the radio which was playing Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl” This was my anthem. I only fell in love with brown eyed women, their unmistakable allure was something I was helpless to resist. But I was so focused on the song that I failed to notice we stopped and picked up a hitchhiker. As the song ended I sat up an casually glanced into the rear view mirror. “Jim, is there someone else in the car?” The acid was still full tilt boogie at this point, and the guys decided to goof on me.

“No, we are alone.” Jim replied. I watched as the kid sitting between Jeff and Steve began to squirm a bit. They also insisted that no one else was in the car. “Are you sure?” I asked. At this point our passenger decided a hasty exit short of his destination was in order, so Jim pulled the car over and he scooted out so quickly you couldn’t even make out the blur as he moved. I sure hope he’s ok. Now we really were alone and made it back to campus with the same number of arms and legs we started with.

The next winter I was with Phyllis, and it must have been November or December when we decided to hitch from Syracuse to Buffalo to see Jeff and Dee. The weather was brutal, cold and snowing. My friend Carl gave us a ride to the interstate, where Phyllis and I stood for 3 ½ hours trying to get a ride north. We were too numb to be cold any longer and were grateful when a car finally pulled over to offer us a lift. As we got into the car we noticed right away that we were very not alone. Three black guys in the front and two in back. All of a sudden the ice and snow didn’t seem like such an inconvenience. When they headed south on the freeway, we politely informed them we were going north. We bolted and did not look back.

Trudging against the wind we walked back to the diner near the freeway entrance and phoned Carl, who came back for us in his unheated Karman Ghia. It was a quiet ride back to the dorms.

I worked in Yonkers NY after graduation and would routinely hitch a ride up the freeway to Syracuse to see my friend Michael, who was one year behind me at the university. It was about a five hour ride, but as luck would have it, someone would stop who was going precisely to Syracuse, making my travels that much easier. One hot summer trip I was wearing shoes with soles that had an affinity for road tar. As I turned to trot on up to the vehicle that stopped for me, I noticed real quick that my feet weren’t going with me. My shoes had fused to the roadway. With a herculean effort I managed to free them, but by the time I made it to the car some 60 feet up the road, I was about two inches taller.

I apologized to the driver (a priest, so I guess it was my first real Confession) and started picking the road off my shoes and chucking it out the window. I don’t think I ever had more than 10 dollars in my pocket any time I hung my thumb out. I used to go back to my dorm for meals and tell them I was a transfer student and my papers hadn’t arrived yet. That got me food and medical care when I needed it. Ah, the benefits of a higher education.

I dodged a bullet that trip on the way back. Michael dropped a nickel of weed on me for the journey home. The guy that picked me up for the last leg of my jaunt told me he had just passed a state trooper who was tagging every hitchhiker he passed. It was a quiet ride. I had a two mile walk from the freeway exit to Phyllis’ home, and did every step with my head on a swivel. Lesson learned.

I headed west in 1974 driving Phyllis’ Camaro, with my Honda shackled to the back bumper, Its rear wheel running freely on the ground behind me. With everything I owned on the back seat and $500 in my pocket, I set out for California. I was just passing St. Louis in a torrential rain when I saw a guy huddled by the side of the road. I stopped and offered him a ride. He was going to California, so was quite fortunate that I had stopped for him. It was a simpler day back then, and I thought nothing of letting him sleep on the floor of my motel room.

We unceremoniously parted ways in Santa Monica. Jeff and Dee were there and found me a place to stay with a friend of theirs – too much drama going on their apartment at the time. I called Phyllis’ brother in Encino to see when I could drop of her car, and quickly found my way back to Santa Monica with a few rides, which were exceedingly easy to come by.

When we moved to the desert in ’75, I had the opportunity to make two trips into Los Angeles by way of the thumb. The first one was to pick up Buddy’s (Phyllis’ brother) Honda 450. He wanted me to ride it for a while, to see if I wanted to buy it. The bike was eventually sold to Bill Payne, the keyboard player for Little Feat. Buddy managed them at the time. He proceeded to take the bike out and hit a dog, getting thrown off and breaking his leg, ending his motorcycle riding days.

The three hour journey to Encino passed quickly. I hopped on his bike, fired it up and headed back to the desert. What a joy it was to be 24 and still have all of my original body parts I was issued at birth! I stopped along the freeway to help a biker who had put a hole in one of the pistons of his Harley. There wasn’t much to do since his bike wasn’t going anywhere soon, but I did make the effort to search for a joint I had in the bottom of my backpack for him.

Small consolation.

The second trip was far more memorable. Buddy was learning to fly and intent on getting his multi-engine rating. He needed to log some hours, so he had Phyllis and her mom take a bus into L.A. When they invited me along, I headed out to the freeway and hung my thumb out again. A day later we drove down to Santa Monica airport and piled into the 6-seater Cessna waiting for us. It was a beautiful spring day and we were all mesmerized by the sights from the air. All the women on the Ruffalo side of the family have queasy stomachs, a result of an inner ear problem passed down from one generation to the next. The Banning Pass, about a half hour out from the Palm Springs airport is notorious for a rough flight. The turbulence is legendary in that area, and we got the ‘E’ ticket ride that day.

I was sitting opposite Phyllis and her mom, and once the rock and rolling started, Christine emptied a shopping bag she had in front of her and began to hurl. When she was done, she passed the bag to Phyllis who continued to fill it with the burger and fries she had for lunch. I’m sitting there turning green from the sight of the bag going back and forth and back forth between them. The odor was nasty too.

I clenched my jaws and began to mouth breathe, turning my head to the window and doing my best to keep everything in my stomach. We made it to the airport just as the bag was nearly full to the brim. Chivalry be damned, I jumped out for some fresh air.

I got my first car a couple of months later, which pretty much capped my days on the open road -- but I did still continued to pick up hitchhikers until Richard Ramirez, the “Night Stalker”, made his debut in Los Angeles. As young as I was, I had a wee bit of common sense, so when I picked up a young lady in San Bernardino who was on her way to Los Angeles for a day of shopping and seeing the sights, I urged her to reconsider and let me drive her back to her apartment. She was wearing no shoes. I eventually dropped her off in Hollywood.

The only out and out dangerous moment I had as a rider occurred some years earlier on a trip up the 87 to Syracuse. There were three of us with our thumbs out, and the driver motioned to all of us to hop in. We thought that fortune had smiled on us, and me and my new buds were yucking it up. That is, until the driver fell asleep at the wheel at about 65 mph. This was way before the dawn of the era of the seat belt. The guy in the front seat grabbed the steering wheel, kicked his foot off the gas pedal and steered the car to the side of the road.

We all got out quietly and left the driver sawing wood. Not another word was spoken among us.

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