My first guitar hero.. Woody Guthrie
I still can’t believe my mom did it. She gave me my first ride from my home in the small town of Bellefonte, Pennsylvania to the nearby Exit on Interstate 80. I had $1.86 in my pocket and was headed for Colorado with nothing but a backpack and unquenchable youthful enthusiasm. Ever since I had read Woody Guthrie’s autobiography, Bound for Glory at the suggestion of my first guitar teacher, Bill Joyce, all I wanted to do was hitchhike and hop freight trains.
The romantic lure of the road had captured my soul and imagination and I reveled in the stories of many of the old blues and folk players who traveled the country and the world. That wasn’t all though. In addition to Woody’s influence was a tv show that I used to watch religiously called “Then Came Bronson”. The show chronicled the life of a lone, mysterious, biker who seemed to have no roots and lived on the road, free as the wind. He had the coolest Harley in the world and the images of Bronson plying the Pacific Coast Highway burned into my brain.
That was also around the time that Simon and Garfunkel sang, ” We’ve all gone to look for America”, and the movie “Easy Rider” was a hit on the big screen. I yearned to see the Golden Gate Bridge, Big Sur, the Grand Canyon and the Tetons. (I later rode a motorcycle across country and back passing through the Painted Desert, Monument Valley in Arizona and the Rockies of Colorado, hiked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon alone twice and stood atop the Grand Teton).
My uncle Buck used to tell me stories about the number of states he had seen… 23 in all, he said. I was determined to beat that record and soon did. With my inherent restless nature, boundless curiosity and search for meaning in life, to quote Robert Johnson, I had “Ramblin’ on my Mind”. The urge has never left me. Hitchhiking and hopping freight trains was my destiny. My mother’s question to me, still the same to this day, upon receiving one of my calls home is always, “Where are ya, honey?”
But back to the story. After graduating from Penn State, I was in my first year of teaching 5th Grade in an isolated village in the mountainous coal mining region of central PA. I had the summers off and couldn’t wait to get out on the road. I had heard about a rock climbing school in Colorado called the LEAD Outdoor Academy that was just forming and I wanted to get in on the ground floor as an instructor. I heard that the original staff was getting together for a training session and I was invited to come out for what became a week-long job interview in the wilderness. I was thrilled to have the opportunity but had no way to get to Colorado and no money. I had a theory which I tested many times over the years and found to be true. I figured that even in a worst case scenario, one could hitch across the country in three days. A person could easily go for 3 days without food so in my mind even if something bad happened, I would be alright. Call me foolish but with this in mind, I decided to make the trip.
There I was, all alone looking west with $1.86 in my pocket and wild with excitement about the adventures that awaited me. I was desperate to find meaning in life and the road was my laboratory. I had recently become interested in spiritual matters and was eager to test my new convictions. I believed in my heart that God would take care of me and with that, the journey began.
Mom knew she couldn’t stop me so she became an accomplice. As mentioned, she gave me my first ride to the Bellefonte exit of Interstate 80, waved goodbye and all of a sudden, there I was, all alone looking down the road with my thumb out singing to myself the words to the theme song from “Then Came Bronson”.
“Goin’ down that long lonesome highway, bound for the mountains and the plains
There ain't nothin’ here gonna tie me, and I got some friends I’d like to see again
One of these days I’m gonna settle down, but ’till that day I won’t be hangin’ round
Goin’ down that long lonesome highway, Gonna live life my way.”
Standing on the side of the road, I looked up to the sky, said a short prayer and within minutes, I got my first ride. After only two exits, we stopped to get gas and I leaned against the car as the driver went inside to pay. I remember looking down with a very narrow focus of attention. I was thinking about the long journey ahead and with tunnel-like vision, I stared at my shoes. At that moment as I looked down, a twenty dollar bill blew across my foot! I bent down, picked it up, looked to the sky, and in my mind repeated what I heard my Uncle Buck say many times at family gatherings when he was asked to say grace at the table. “Thanks Ace!”
My ride took me all the way to the Pennsylvania - Ohio border. As I got out of the car, it was obvious that a very bad thunderstorm was quickly approaching. The sky was an ominous looking gray with big black thunderclouds just waiting to explode. I again said a prayer and believed as much as I could that God would take care of me. Within minutes, someone pulled over and I quickly gathered my things and began to run to where the car was waiting just ahead. I jumped in and moments later the thunderstorm erupted with violent fury and there was a downpour harder than any I had ever seen. In the comfort of a Mercedes, I got to know my benefactor and we pressed ahead, safe and dry despite the tempest that raged outside.
You meet some remarkable characters on the road and my new friend was no exception, very dapper with bright red hair and a very well groomed mustache. He told me he was the inventor of the Pro Max Hair dryer which, at the time, was a new commodity. He regaled me with stories of his adventures and invited me to sail around the world with him...a tempting thought, but I had plans. We drove for hours and as we were approaching Toledo, I remembered that I had a friend there who I had met while working at Yellowstone National Park the summer after I had gotten out of College. I called her and remarkably, we were able to connect. He dropped me off at her house where I spent a wonderful evening reminiscing about another great adventure a couple years prior. He went to a motel and picked me up the next day, taking me to Chicago.
From Chicago, I got two long rides to Colorado and was dropped off on Interstate 25 just north of Denver. I had planned to connect with an old friend’s brother named Thomas. He lived on a street named Hooker Avenue.
It's ironic that when hitching across country, you can often easily pick up rides that will take you long distances, sometimes traversing many states. It is much harder, however, to navigate a city where you have to make a number of turns. You may wait hours for a ride that will take you a short distance to your next turn thus taking all day to cover a distance of 20 miles or less. Add to that, when I was dropped off, there was another hitcher on the ramp ahead of me. I went over to talk to him and he lamented that he had been standing there for over 8 hours with no luck. Undaunted, I told him that if he got picked up, to tell the driver to pick me up too. Following the etiquette of the road, I took a spot down the road from him. Once more, I looked to the sky and prayed for a ride in this seemingly impossible situation.
As I waited, I reviewed the directions to Thomas’ house. Take I-25 south to I-70 west. Take the second exit to Liberty Ave… go 1/2 mile and it's near there. Within minutes, I saw a car pull over and pick up my friend down the road and, as I had hoped, the driver stopped and picked me up too! We drove several miles up the road to the intersection with I-70 and the driver unexpectedly took the exit as he said he needed to get gas. After passing several exits where he could have pulled off, he took the Liberty Street exit. He then drove a ways up the Street before he found a place to stop. At the gas station I asked for directions to the address I had for Thomas on Hooker street. The house was two blocks away and within fifteen minutes, I was waving to Thomas who was sitting on his front porch.
After a day or so in Denver, I got back on the road for a fairly quick trip to Gunnison, Colorado. Near there, in the beautiful Colorado Rockies, I spent a week with the first staff of the newly formed LEAD Outdoor Academy. Nearly six years later, I realized the dream that I had envisioned on that momentous trip across country and became a mountaineering and rock climbing instructor with LEAD which by then had moved to New Mexico at the edge of the Capitan Mountains Wilderness Area.
When not in the woods where we lived for ten day sessions in tents, winter and summer, we spent our time at a beautiful isolated “lodge”. Located three miles down a nearly impassable dirt road to the mailbox, 25 miles to the small village of Tinnie, New Mexico where there was a gas station and 75 miles to the nearest town where we could buy groceries. We lived a life of wilderness guides and fancied ourselves to be cowboys. Our only contact with the outside world other than mail was a “radio telephone” somewhat akin to a CB Radio. I once broke my leg in a climbing accident and had to be carried out of the woods and was taken to the hospital, 75 miles in the other direction. I spent three very happy years at LEAD, hiking, climbing and cohabiting with eagles, mountain lions and rattlesnakes. It was a great life and subject of many stories to come.
I ended up hitching across the country several times, East and West, North and South, and hopping a freight train from Amarillo, Texas to Flagstaff, Arizona. Powerful memories which were to affect my life in many ways. All of it started on that day where I stood with $1.86 in my pocket and looking west.