At fourteen I hitchhiked in big circles. When I put my thumb out, I wasn’t going anywhere but around, just finding the boundary of the day. It was a youthful compulsion: some stage beyond kicking the can or filling my pockets with acorns. No telling where the idea came from, but I might have been reading Tom Robbins. In any case, my own average-sized thumb became symbol and index of freedom; and though sometimes I would think along the way of somewhere to get to, mainly I hitchhiked with no goal but to return.
My domain was the area around the military post and town, downtown and sometimes out toward the countryside, but only furtively on the post itself, buzzing with MP’s who might snag and drop me home with a DR (delinquent report) for my stepfather, CAPT James E. Lewis. That would have been the death of me, and yet it was a perverse source of power.
That sort of travel, walking-standing-hitchhiking, was an organic measure of time-space, the factoring of chance as a reduction or growth of the world, a darkening or brightening. I returned as the combination of rides allowed. I knew I might not return. It was a hobby, a substitute sport for a ball-challenged boy. And it was the habit of staying in motion. Mostly it was a manner I could call my own: a mission for someone lacking a mission.
It also strikes me now as exhibitionistic and sexual. But I’ve grown too keen to projections, correspondences; thumb, thick and thunder share an ancient root meaning “swollen,” and the thumb is a brazen fellow. At fourteen I was jailbait: my hair was long, my ass tight, my thumb erect.
It mattered that I couldn’t drive on my own just yet. A few times I’d gotten so angry at Lewis I actually considered stealing away in his new Karmann Ghia, and even pocketed the keys a few times. Somewhere in my brain I knew it mattered that I’d never learned how to drive, and would not get far. The idea of stealing the car was freedom and also suicide, which have a passing acquaintance with each other. There would have been no coming back, so I hitchhiked around the county going nowhere.
Often I went downtown, out the long wooded road that separated Fort Benning from Columbus, Georgia, down the boulevard toward the dying center, with its cobbled half-tarred-over streets and disused trolley tracks. Or out the other side toward Alabama and country, a state park where kids hung out and hunted psychedelic mushrooms. Near town I bloodied the other thumb, once, when a sliding door on a bread truck slammed shut, and the lady and gent of the next ride offered to buy me Band Aids at K Mart. Instead, the lady sat in the middle and massaged my thumb, and tried to draw it down under her outlandish miniskirt, outlandish to me because she must have been fortyish to my fourteen.
But the gall of it made no difference, and I came on contact. The anticlimax was to leap from the car when they hung a slow right near the post office. Horn-rimmed voyeur husband with the face of James Earl Ray and his big-haired, lonely honey: still circling somewhere, and looking for me. It’s no fun to be miles from home, on foot and glued to your underwear. Of the ride I found home I have no memory: a low-flying angel, I think.
One early evening I got picked up by two eighteen-year-old working girls in a baby-blue VW. A tire went flat and I changed it while they hovered and made commentary, because they knew I was busting my tire-changing cherry, and respect for the moment was called for.
There was a chatty gun salesman who had me drag the gun valise out of the back seat and hold the merchandise while he recited their specs; the young soldier home from the war but not quite home, eyes straight ahead, never uttering a word.
Travel should be a piece of you, and make you a part of something, a measure of its wear, the worry on its back. Walking in a freeway city: you and the bums and the whores and the newly-arrived without wheels, or the people who don’t like to trouble their friends when their car’s broken down; or people without friends. And the bus to me feels like a trap, slower even than walking sometimes, and God knows where it’s really going. I have gone miles out of my way because I was too stubborn to get off the wrong bus and go back. Why go back when you know the world is round? Or no sidewalks, roadside weeds that bite, and you feel like a sinner just for being on foot; or a saint, if your mood’s right.
The world under foot is large and slow; you take note of the grass blades and gravel at the same rate as trees or utility poles when you’re traveling by car. They’re two different worlds, fast and slow; walking through a neighborhood you usually drive, you can let yourself get pulled into windows and the houses talk to you. If you stop walking, the world keeps traveling, and you can feel it; and you start to sink a little, and then you know that the world and its choices are infinite, even if bounded.
So I went missing every day for a while, but returned before anyone could notice.
The last I recall was a ride out to the state park. I’d scored my first hit of LSD, taking on faith that’s what I’d paid five dollars for. The dealer was a guy two years ahead of me in school who worked afternoons at the PX record store. He always wore big cowboy boots and bragged about how many times he’d slipped 8-tracks and cassettes down their sides: Deep Purple, Derek and the Dominoes, the latest posthumous Hendrix. I’d ridden shotgun with him a few time times, and trusted him.
It was a concert day at the park and kids were everywhere. I swallowed the tab and waited. Nothing happened until after I’d forgotten that something was supposed to happen. I expected it to be like stepping into a Peter Max painting or an old Fillmore poster. It was a hot day; the music stuck to the skin. A Coke tasted ambrosial and froze in my throat. Wandering dogs held forth on various themes. A guy with red hair and beard intoned Longfellow and was Longfellow. Longfellow, Longfellow! I called to him, and his beard got redder.
Hitching out to an armory dance in Phoenix City (just across the state line, in Alabama) the night before, I’d met a girl named Reba. At the dance the LSD tab was in my jeans, but I held off. She offered to meet up with me at the park the next day, and I thought of her face in black-light hues as I wandered the outskirts of the concert crowd. She’d taken me for the friendly stranger, and she was right. By the time I found her she was famous: everyone knew her. Her face was still purple, but it was traces of makeup mixed with acne cream. She was beautiful and led me away, and I was wavy like eighth notes on a cellophane streamer.
She sat me down on a slope away from the crowd, but the music was still curling around the trees. She was talking about something, nothing, sitting next to me, and her name was this strange country wildflower growing between my feet.
I picked one of her sisters out of the ground and with botanical precision pulled it apart. Meanwhile Reba cooed the latest news in my ear, and her own love for me was playing out like a stock ticker, though I noticed nothing. Piles of love-tickertape were gathering on the hill. Pretty purple-skinned Reba, all Dixie in flower-patched Levis, hungering for me, I was certain, later, when my head came back; wanting to sing to the friendly stranger her Deep South Lay. I should have opened to it, return trip from my LSD: Reba, singing her news to me, and I was lost to a weed.