It all started with my externship at the
University of California in Berkeley in the Summer of 1976. On arrival in the USA, I first spend a week in New York, where I was hosted by Stephen Winters, see some pictures here.
During the months in Berkeley, I discovered the adventure of hitchhiking during the weekends. As a student I had no car, and public transport in the US is limited. It also was 1976, still in the decennium of the hippie period (even no Lonely Planet books yet). I also had long hair, and I was inundated in a free-spirit student society which I loved.
PS: I wrote this story in 2022, 46 years later. I made numerous adventurous travels in my life, but the first ones are always special. 'I did it'.
I had a wonderful student house with 6 house-mates, and many colleague students at UCB. At parties marihuana was common, even my professor joined us in this. I had a secondhand bike to explore Berkeley, but for the further surroundings I hitchhiked. These weekend trips were all different, and a great learning experience.
I found rides from Berkeley to Point Lobos, which was
impressive. The moss on the trees gave it a magical feeling and beauty.
On one weekend trip from Berkeley, to Big Sur, I made it to Monterey. I was standing at the roadside, with a big carton board ‘Big Sur’, when an African American guy picked me up in an old Volkwagen Beatle. He was going to Big Sur, he was housekeeper of one of these great mansions. He was a very nice guy, and we started talking and talking. Then, suddenly, a police car passed us and indicated us to stop. We had to get out and were ordered to stand in ‘spread eagle’ position with our hands on the hood. My driver was searched on his body with some tough language, I was not investigated. Nothing was wrong, and we could continue our journey. It was an intimidating experience, giving me a striking example of existing racism in the US. This experience together gave us some bond. He invited me to his cottage, a few hundred meters from the main house. A small and very charming wooden cottage, with a direct view on the ocean, in the lush green. He invited me for dinner, and I could even stay at his place overnight, and return the next day to Berkeley. This was amazing. He turned out to be an excellent jazz flute player, and with a joint, a whiskey, his soft music at that location, and a wonderful exchange of our stories: a very memorable trip.
Given these wonderful experiences (as well as my four weeks of hitchhiking through Israel and the Sinai in 1975) I then decided to go hitchiking to New York. I could sell my ticket to NY, and had 2.5 weeks. I managed to get to New Orleans, where time ran out and from where I flew to NY.
Just North of Los Angeles, in Mojavi, on my way to Death Valley, I was standing on the roadside next to a large gravel field, when a man came out on from his house on the other side of the field, some 50 meters away, shouting that I should get out of there, ‘fuck off’! With my long hair, backpack and busy hitchhiking I was a hippie and clearly not his type. ‘Get off my property, immediately’! I was standing on the road, which I considered a public place, but he went into his house and came back with a double barrel rifle and began to shoot at me. With real bullets! I saw the gravel splatting up when they hit the ground. I have never run so fast in my life (with backpack) to get away from there.
It was July, and really hot. And I was heading for the hottest place of the US, Death Valley! So, it was a pleasant surprise that I was picked up by an old Mexican pickup truck with pebbles, and I could sit on the pebbles with my backpack. In the cabin a family, with 2 kids.
Sitting in the sun, in the open air, out of the wind behind the cabin, viewing the great landscape pass by was just marvelous. It became even better when mom handed me a cold bottle of beer from her window! Wow!
As I love deserts (I feel in love with deserts in Israel in 1975, hitchhiking through the Negev and Sinai deserts), I wanted to see my share of it, and decided to hitchhike right across Death Valley, and end up in Las Vegas. Hitchhiking Death Valley however was not trivial. Although I started early, 06:30 in Olancha, I had to wait for more than 3 hours to get the first ride. Maybe 3-4 cars had passed me in that time, without picking me up: it was definitely not a busy road… I had two cans of coca cola and two oranges, and I began of course to realize how stupid I was, and if I should return.
"Taking a little more risk makes life a lot more interesting"
Then an old and dusty jeep stopped, with a sun-tanned middle-aged guy with a stubble beard and a big leather hat. I could see the black burn pitches from extinguished cigarettes on the brim of his hat. He looked at me, inspecting me, if it was safe to take this hippie. I looked at him, wondering if it was safe to get on board with this rough guy. This took about half a minute, and then we both smiled simultaneously: yes, we do it. It was a nice guy, telling me everything about mining. He liked my adventurous way of traveling, and I was impressed by the hard mining work he was telling me about. He brought me to his mine (I think it was the Darwin mine), where he showed me around. Fascinating! He offered me a nice lunch, and gave me plenty of water, and I continued on route 190, prepared for another 3 hours wait …
But I was lucky. I had a sign ‘Las Vegas’, and pretty soon I was picked up by a fast dark blue car (I can still remember the color!) with a French-speaking gay couple, end twenties. They had rented the car at LA airport and were heading for Las Vegas. I was lucky that I speak fluently French (due to my many years of Latin at high school), because they did not speak English. After a while we found out that we were a perfect match: they wanted to see on the way some of the spectacular scenery of Death Valley but didn’t know exactly where to find it. They (stupid!) had no travel guidebook… I had the same wish, and I had prepared my trip the days before, hoping to see something, you never know. So I had brochures and maps, so knew about sights as the Mesquite flat sand dunes, the Badwater basin and the Artist’s Drive and Artist’s Palette. We visited them all! They were very happy, that they found me, and I was glad with them.
When we arrived at Las Vegas, they wanted to thank me, and offered me a free night in their hotel, the Stardust. A huge hotel, right on the Strip, with lots of casinos. The French gays were obviously very rich and were craving for the casinos. It was early evening when we arrived, and after check in they wanted to head for the casinos immediately. As I could help them with French, they asked for my assistance to get them started. As a gift, they handed me a stack of plastic fiches worth US$ 100 to play too. What a fun. There was free food, and so much to see at all these crazy saloons with one-armed bandits. I couldn’t believe it, so many middle-aged women completely addicted. When these machines pay, the coins are dispensed loudly, falling over a bell, so it seems that there is always a payout, somewhere. And then the big-money players on the Blackjack tables, those faces … After loosing all my fiches, I said goodbye to my French friends, and went to sleep, after again an amazing day!
In Tuba City I was picked up by a nice young couple in a small van. The driver, a long-haired hippie-like type, told me that he was a just finished lawyer, and doing a project to help the Hopi Indians in Oraibi Village. They were extremely peaceful, and sometimes had to be assisted in the struggle with the neighboring Navaho Indian tribes, who were much more assertive, especially when it came to the distribution of water and federal funding. He asked if I would like to join them for a meeting with the tribe’s chief, who he could ask if I was permitted to visit the village. I surely liked that, and I was permitted to join the meeting.
It was a very interesting happening, being so close to American’s native culture. Luck striked again. Normally, it is not possible to visit these villages, other than as a tourist buying dolls in the designated shop area. The village was extremely poor, but the hospitality was amazing, primarily because I was a guest of the lawyer that was so immensely valuable for them.
Later that afternoon the chief showed us
the Hopi Prophecy rock nearby. It is a story to think about: two lifelines run in
parallel, but when you choose not the right way of living, you end in nowhere.
Read the full story here
I was even invited to stay overnight in Old Oraibi on a floor mattrass in a small barrack. Later that afternoon I saw the preparations for a wedding later that week. They slaughtered sheep and emptied the intestines between their fingers. I could not stay long enough to see the wedding too. The next morning, I was brought to the road again by my fellow companions, and I hitchhiked to Painted Desert.
Later, when I got my ‘kicks on Route 66’
(now Interstate 40) I was sitting next to a young guy who was obviously sleepy and we would have slipped off
the road if I had not corrected the steering wheel!
I was upset and asked me to keep talking to him. But again, we almost drove off the road, and I had to correct again. So, I said that I either wanted to get off here right now, and find a new ride, or drive myself. That last proposal sounded fine for him, and he went sleeping on the back seat, and I had the car for myself. Slow blues on the radio, splendid landscape: great touring like this as a young guy through the States! In Oklahoma I woke him up, he was grateful. We said goodbye and and I continued to Houston.
John Mayall - Mists of time
In Texas, I got several rides of these really BIG USA trucks. The best way to find them is at gas stations and ask the drivers for a ride. I had several of these rides. It was an amazing experience, sitting high in these huge cabins. Twice the driver asked over his CB radio (Citizens Band): ‘hey fellows, I have a boy here from Amsterdam heading east, and will stop at <a specific> gas station in 15 minutes. Does someone give him a ride?’. And amazingly, both time I got a ride, these guys trust each other.
Once, as a price to pay, I had to fill up the tanks while the driver had his hamburger in the restaurant. It took about 10 minutes, they have huge tanks, on both sides! And once I was offered to take a nap in the big two-person bed behind the driver’s seat, which was much appreciated. But I also encountered a ‘red neck’ Texan truckdriver who sneered at me ‘I don’t take no tramps!
With hitchhiking you meet random people, which is nice, refreshing and sometimes amazing. Most drives were very relaxed, and the people really friendly. It is the variety that makes it so nice.
Such as the two times in Arizona that I was on board of an old Volkswagen van with a hippie couple, some marihuana standard on top of the windshield, blasting Jimi Hendrix or Janis Joplin while traversing the desert: pure magic!
A girl, that was delivering electricity wire sets to different works, liked me a lot and each time it was: ‘one more customer and then I bring you to the road …’
Or with a fellow that tried to convert me to become a Jehova witness, with endless arguments. When I left the car, I found some small pieces of paper with prayers in the door handle, meant for passengers like me …
Rolling Stones: Route 66
In Houston I visited Hans Hermans, my
dear friend from my student house (‘de Vlouw’) in Delft. He was doing his externship
in Houston, and it was super to see him there and exchange stories.
After that Lafayette, Baton Rouge and my trip ended in the blues halls of New Orleans. From there I flew to New York.
And talking about ‘amazing’: when I finally arrived in New York, at Kennedy Airport, I ran into Ingrid, Hans’ girlfriend (and a dear friend of mine) who was going to visit him in Houston. Among these thousands of people there, she incoming, I outgoing, and then run into each other: isn’t that amazing?