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HITCHING THE HIGHWAY
By TED BAILEY
Trafford PublishingCopyright © 2012 Ted Bailey
All right reserved.
Ed wakes with a start. It is dawn on a July Saturday in 1975. After a restless night twisting and turning, he finally dozed off just in time to wake up. It is already hot and typically close. The promised heat wave has finally arrived . 'Nice weather, yes' he thinks, 'but where I'm going this won't even register'.
He has arranged a special summer trip. Tonight he will be sleeping in Canada. He's never been out of Europe before, no further than Rome. Soon after, he will be hitchhiking across America, along the Mother Road from east to west: the famous 'Route 66'.
Having made himself jobless and about to make himself homeless when he leaves the rented house he is both apprehensive and excited about the nature of the upcoming journey. Everyone think he's nuts.
'It's a mid-life crisis' they say. 'Yeah, well maybe' he thinks 'I'm in the middle of something but so what? After what I've been through I'm going to enjoy it big time and after that, who knows?'
Someone has said it's like a second adolescence. He did not really have a full adolescent 'blow-out' first time around so reckons he's better equipped now to play it to the full.
He sees this whole escapade as a perfectly natural reaction to the recent changes in his life. Marriage over, he wants, craves a release from the suburban grind. Apart from his son there are no ties. He wants none, at least for the time being. It may only be a temporary aberration but it's needed for his sanity. He is a free agent for the first time in ages. He wants an adventure before he's too old, to travel the road unfettered.
'Who was it who said "Do it and forget it, don't do it and regret it"?' Whoever, this is his driving motivation now. He anticipates the trip of a lifetime.
He stretches, gets up, makes tea and takes it to Natalie. They've been living together for six months. She is younger than him, long hair with a smiley face and slim physique who favours hippy skirts and sandals. As a relationship it is a bit more than casual but not destined to last. 'Transitional' a friend calls it. The sunrise begins to filter through the curtains. After tea in bed he tries to doze off again but it's all in vain. He is fidgety, very 'wired-up', as they say these days. Relaxation is out. No surprise there then because he is off travelling afar. He always got like this before a big journey, a combination of nervousness and anticipation. It is now 6.30 so he gets up again and is bouncing around like a rubber toy on speed.
'I can't wait to get going' he mouths impatiently, 'my flight is not for hours yet! I wish I could get an earlier one.'
None was available. To kill this seemingly endless time he wanders about the house pointlessly tidying up various things in an attempt to distract his mind from this frustrating wait.
'Have I done everything? Is everything ready? Everything packed? Yes. It has been for days now! Why worry?' Quite, but he does.
An image trips into his head. It's his grandmother. There she is, sitting in a chair ready with her hat, coat and gloves on, holding a handbag an hour before being picked up to go out. He giggles inwardly. Growing up, this used to amuse him greatly. In contrast, he would wait until the last minute to be ready which surely irritated her. 'Good God, now I'm doing it!'
He hasn't got his hat on, he never wears one as it happens, but it amounts to the same thing. On the other hand, his 'handbag' is a large Adidas holdall, a relic from his sporting days, leaning against the wall in the hall. This alone will be his home on the journey.
Now up and about, Nat says: 'Why don't you go to the corner shop and get a paper or something' hoping it will be a calming diversion. A quick look at the paper and the headlines quickly fade into oblivion as he daydreams about the days ahead.
Why America? Good question, easy answer. It's the pull of the 'Wild West'. As a kid he'd always been fascinated by the whole idea of America. Like many British kids growing up in grey post-war England he was bewitched by watching 'Technicolor' Hollywood movies on wide screens at the local Odeon. For a couple of hours in a comforting darkness you were spellbound in a bright fantasy world of cowboys and 'Injuns' in the vast sun baked rugged landscapes of Arizona or Colorado or cops and robbers in the bustling city of New York with its imposing skyscrapers. When the lights came up you were jolted into reality and reluctantly went back outside into bleak mundane suburbia. It was a startling contrast: dream world and reality. Afterwards you reran the movie in your mind with yourself as hero, naturally, and re-enacted the action with your friends. Cowboys and Indians, cops and robbers, all small boys played them, didn't they?
By contrast early television was in black and white and very few owned the very small sets available. There was no TV in Ed's home. The cinema however was a separate world and these films had a massive impact on his young mind. Not only that there was the illicit thrill of glossy American comics which were forbidden because they were regarded as trashy by his dad. Maybe they were but he never got to see many except illicitly. And then, to top it all, there was Elvis and Rock 'n' Roll, a thundering sound that shook suburban life to its roots when it hit England. All these permeated into Ed's consciousness as with most of his friends.
Age brings change. Of course it does, it's obvious. With the coming of age the Wild West of childish imagination was exploded as a myth. Well, mostly. In every myth there is, however small, a grain of truth. Yes, the stagecoaches, cowboys, pioneers and the rest did exist but not in the way shown in the movies. The Old West wasn't won by them fighting each other or scary painted 'Redskins'. It was more prosaic than that. It was the ranchers, the settlers, their barbed wire and new laws enforced by Federal Marshals that ultimately colonised it. We all love a good story but the real world has a nasty habit of diminishing dreams. So, there it was. The filmic heroics were now nothing more than a fiction. 'What a damn shame! It was such an exciting spectacle, something to inspire belief'.
That cinematic western America now faded into the fog of memory. Despite the disappointment of it being shot in the back, as it were, it was replaced by a very different set of images. Coming through the media, America had become the Vietnam War, US race riots, Civil Rights and youthful demos. The war and the riots presented an ugly and disturbing vision of the dream country. The anti-war and other demos though were exciting in their future possibility. Something was really happening. The world was changing. For Ed, the student demonstrations in Berkeley struck a particular chord.
How to reconcile the previous fantasy with the present upheaval? Easy! America conveniently becomes California. Notwithstanding bête noir Governor Reagan that is. The exotic Hippy explosion of music and freewheeling lifestyles at the epicentre of the San Francisco 'Summer of Love' chimed with all of a certain age. Ed was no exception. The revolution of attitudes was an oasis away from the harshness elsewhere. It revived his fascination with the big country. He really ought to be part of it but that was not possible. There was a tangible barrier to being a full blown hippy though. He had commitments. He was a married man with a family and a secure job. Obviously he could not get up and go on a whim to chase a dream, however inviting.
Nevertheless, as each increasingly outrageous media story from California hit the airwaves the pull of the 'live for the moment' culture grew stronger. He began to daydream of ways to taste this 'go get' alternative world first hand. A family holiday perhaps? Not enough money though. Maybe he could get a temporary job over there? No, that wouldn't work. His wife had a good job and wouldn't give it up, why should she? Anyway, that would be the same old routine but with added sunshine. Then the reverie would end in the local supermarket or some other shop in the High Street. 'Oh well ...'
Back to now. His life has changed way beyond recognition. He is now free to take this dream trip. The airfare is paid and he has a load of back pay. The summer beckons. So does the open road of America. It is 'Route 66' that he'll hitch, alone and free from restrictions. 'Get your kicks on Route 66', says the song and he intends to. First though: essential sustenance. A traditional bacon and egg breakfast 'to keep the wolf from the door', as his granny used to say. It will likely be the last for three months and probably the last decent meal for the rest of the day. In the last few days his friends ask: 'Why hitching? What's so special about that? Why not hire a car and drive? How to answer? Most Americans, especially adults, would abhor any travel on foot especially hitching. After all it's the land of the automobile par excellence. Hitching is a bigger challenge, the challenge of the unknown, the liquorice all-sorts of travel, involving loads of choices and decisions. Unlike driving you're 'in it', right there, on the road exposed to whatever experiences present themselves. For Ed, this journey by right thumb is a romantic quest in search of much needed escape and excitement. It is the surest way to live the alternative America, in contrast to the consumer mainstream. This way it will be a real education: learning by wanderlust. It's pure American.
Mobility is deep-seated in the American psyche and intrinsic to the founding of the nation. It is the underlying metaphor of their life, a constant journey to satisfy an ever present hunger. In the early 19th century explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were the first to cross the Mississippi River into uncharted territory. This was followed by the westward expansion of the daredevil cowboy drives, the panhandlers, the ranchers and finally the settlers. This drive west had many motives but common to all was a deep-seated need to seek adventure and change their lives for the better, as illustrated by the California Gold Rush and the flight from the Oklahoma dustbowl in the 1930s.
Jack Kerouac, John Steinbeck and Ken Kesey all wrote depicting the existential nature of life on the road. Ed read these and is inspired. He has an itch to hitch. His journey along Route 66 is a personal version of their escapades. He wants a slice of their exploratory thrill crossing that vast terrain. He's going to do it his way, uniquely putting himself on the inside of the loose fraternity of the road that exists below the popular radar. It is pure escapism: the road to anywhere analogy, except it isn't anywhere but San Francisco. Apart from four addresses, one in Oklahoma, two in California and another in Washington State, he needs some big lifts.
After a good while lost in these thoughts, he again snaps back into the present. It is a knock at the door. It is his lift to the airport, a long-haired bearded weekend hippy science schoolteacher called Chas, in grandad shirt and faded jeans, who drives a onetime Post Office Morris Minor van. His girlfriend is an old school friend of Nat. They and Ed's landlord all go to the local pub for a couple of final beers to mark the occasion. The temperature is shooting up rapidly. 'Good preparation for where I'm going' he muses.
As they drive through the Sussex countryside Ed notes how green and leafy everything is. He has taken it for granted before but now really appreciates it. 'When I get back it will be all Autumnal reddish browns.' They try to get an "Old English Tea" but no luck. Chas is quite put out. He put a lot of stock in it but Ed doesn't care.
Arriving at Gatwick Airport: 'It'll be alright when it is finished', a corny old joke he picked up years ago from a friend. Now it's goodbye to Nat time. He is sad about that but simultaneously elated with the buzz of the airport, people coming and going. They hug and say their farewells and she starts crying. He is surprised. She has never done anything like that before and has always come across as a bit distant. This shows you never really know anyone or how they feel until they tell you. 'I'll be back late September,' he says reassuringly but knowing that they may not last long after that. 'Yeah, I'm alright really' she replies putting on a weak smile. Then it is wave goodbye and through the barrier. Ed doesn't look back.
Once through, to his extreme annoyance, he finds it is a two hour wait. 'Why do they always do this? Why keep people hanging around for ages? It can't be that complicated'. Damn it, he could have stayed with her a bit longer. Sitting there contradictory emotions flood in: excitement at finally turning dream into reality but a little sad at leaving Nat and friends behind, impatience to get going yet last minute apprehension at the task set.
An announcement over the PA system: the flight is now delayed. 'How fucking typical! You're stuck in departures and then they keep you waiting endlessly without any escape. The Passport piglets won't let me out to the shops again. What's wrong with letting us back there instead of trapping people in an area with fuck all to do but sit around?'
Fortunately in this case, Ed currently has a time consuming hobby, reading Tolkien's 'Lord of the Rings' in its entirety. Eventually, after time that is seemingly endless, they are under way. The DC10 roars into the sky at 6.30pm, exactly twelve adrenalin driven hours since getting up, its suddenly steep angle jerking all back in their seats. The adventure has begun. Ed has only ever flown once before and that was in a prop DC3 plane to the Channel Islands years ago when going to school Scouts' summer camp. This is very different.
In a little rough book he has brought along for the trip, he scribbles a few notes:
'The meal is plastic definitely not health food. The in-flight film ... something about Dolphins ... pretty uninspiring, not even an adventure film. I listen fitfully to in-flight music but it's mostly only MOR, not my scene. Flying into time is completely new to me ... the day just goes on and on. I have been up for hours, since 6.30am, but am eager at this prospect and somehow it drives me on without tiredness. The sun is still shining through the airplane window 12 hours later, the longest day I've known. Toronto's close. At last: I've escaped!'
Chapter TwoHELLO TORONTO
Over Ontario it is still sunlit. The plane touches down at Toronto International, soon to be heard by local pronunciation as 'Toron'o', at 9.15pm Eastern Time. Ed has been up for 18 hours! No matter, although grounded he is still flying, on adrenalin. The airport is so vast, crowded and well organized for the public. The temperature outside is shown as being in the 80s Fahrenheit by one of the many display signs. Inside the concourse it is air-cooled something which is to be familiar to him in the coming months.
Clearing customs, he leaves the terminal through sliding doors to get his first taste of North America. As he steps outside he's hit in the face by a huge blast of hot swirling air which tears at his throat literally causing him to gasp. In the fading light, he is greeted by much noise, bustle, humidity and dust. He is filled with excitement at this experience.
First an important job though: contact Roy, an ex-English patriot who moved here years ago from Southampton. He goes back inside. 'Damn, no small change in Canadian dollars, what an idiot! Be prepared, eh? Hell!' With a sheer cheek born of desperation he sells his plight to an air hostess just coming off their plane and 'borrows' 20 cents for the call. He will pay it back in a bit but she says forget it. 'Not only good looking but kind as well, now, how to work these phones ... they're different! Obviously dip head ... so just calm down and read the instructions.'
With mounting excitement he manages to place the call. There is no answer! 'Ring, ring, ring' it continues and still no answer. They were definitely expecting him. 'What now? What to do? Keep hanging on, they must answer. He has that sinking feeling when you're lost in the middle of nowhere. Finally, after the forever ringing tone, a voice answers. It isn't Roy though. He's not there, they say. 'What! But he's expecting me. I'm Ed and ...' A long pause but it's a big joke though. 'Very funny, I'm sure.' Roy comes to the phone who tells him he wasn't expected until the next day. Another mix-up now as Ed is also at the wrong terminal! He is in Terminal 1 and is expected to meet Roy at Terminal 2 a two mile ride away. 'Why can't he come here? He's got the car.'
He manages to change some money at the Exchange Bureau just in the nick time before it closes and repeats this timely feat by grabbing a bus about to pull away to Terminal 2. It's only 10cents: a bargain. Arriving there and after what seems an age Roy is nowhere to be seen. Anxiety levels rise. That sinking feeling again! He is in a strange city airport with nowhere to go. 'Where the fuck is he? Have I missed him?' he fumes in a cold sweat.
Excerpted from HITCHING THE HIGHWAY by TED BAILEY Copyright © 2012 by Ted Bailey. Excerpted by permission of Trafford Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
2 Hello Toronto....................9
3 Yonge St....................15
4 Day Trip....................21
5 The King's Highway....................27
6 Hi There America!....................37
7 Route 66....................49
9 Going To California....................67
10 The Angels And The Olives....................87
11 El Camino Real....................93
12 San Francisco, Finally!....................101
13 Hippy Bus....................111