Fifty years ago, my college friend Dan Dana and I were standing, with our suitcases, beside a road on the outskirts of Kansas City. We were trying to hitch a ride, the beginning of a summer trip to California and back.
No, we weren’t crazy, or at least we didn’t think so at the time. Of course, our parents thought we were. Mine weren’t thrilled about two college kids deciding on a lark to spend the summer hitching out West after our freshman year at the University of Missouri.
I had tempered some of their objections by saying we could house-sit the home of an aunt and uncle in Vallejo, a suburb of San Francisco, while they made a trip back to visit relatives in the Midwest.
We might have been a little naïve about the dangers of such a trip. (Recently, I was reading a Lee Child novel and got the shivers when his hitchhiking hero, Jack Reacher, got into a car with three homicidal maniacs.) But it was 1964 and the dangers of the open road weren’t so well-chronicled. I can’t imagine attempting it today, but back then we were a couple of nerdy guys anxious to see some of the world beyond our Midwestern neighborhoods.
The trip was a distant – and almost forgotten – memory until last week, when I got an e-mail from Dan. Although we had been out of touch since college, he had tracked me down on the internet. He had found some photographs taken during the trip and wanted to know if I would like to have them.
Wow, the memories! It was drizzling the day we started out, and we stood under an overpass to stay dry. But motorists took pity on us, and by the end of the day we had gotten 300 miles into Kansas. After spending the night napping in the cab of a truck owned by a fellow working at an all-night gas station, we headed out again.
The first driver took us only a few miles, but then our luck changed. A man driving a station wagon picked us up and said he was headed to Los Angeles. He had flown to the Midwest for his father’s funeral and was now driving his father’s car back to California to sell. He was happy to have company on the long drive, and we could not have gotten to the West Coast any faster if we had driven ourselves.
We eventually made our way up the coast to Vallejo, did our house-sitting stint, and then hitchhiked to Portland before starting back. The only real scare we got was late one night, when we were stranded in the dark on a deserted highway somewhere in Nebraska. After sitting there quite a while, a car finally came along. It stopped and the county sheriff got out.
Uh oh, I thought, we’re in trouble now. After questioning us, he took us to jail. He didn’t have any real customers and volunteered to let us sleep in the cells. The next morning, he took us back to the highway. A day later, we were home in Kansas City.
Dan went on to get a Ph.D. in psychology and become an international consultant in mediation and conflict resolution. He recently retired in Sarasota, Fla.
Looking back, Dan and I both have traveled far from our Midwest roots. What if we hadn’t gone? What if we had been too scared? It’s hard to say if our lives would have been different, but I like to think they might have been safer … and a little smaller.