Hitchhiking and our vast American roadscapes were made for each other. Possibly the concept of mindfulness was actually invented by a hitchhiker, because the living moment out there was as expansive as the 360 degree sky — and yet it all focused down into you at the lonely middle. There were long times between cars and even longer between rides. Wyoming was one State I thumbed across a lot, because at age 19, I was working with an oil exploration crew, and drawing “hotshot” pay.
This seismograph-exploration crew, out of Oklahoma City, drilled holes for dynamite from a rig on the back of a truck. The surveyors laid out the pattern of dynamite holes so that geologists could later “read” the underlying rock formations. These depth lines formed geologic patterns, with suspended ink pens jiggling across large scrolling white paper in a trailer. These signals issued from the shock-reading “jugs,” devices which I had stretched in the manner of Christmas lights across miles of ridges and dry gulches. I planted all the devices on a grid, and picked them up, and moved them to another location – all day long. I ran the lines of jugs exactly and directly to the surveyors call, whether straight up a mountainside cliff or across a rattlesnake lair with them snapping at my high boots. I was a “jug hustler,” and a damned good one.
We were a “hotshot” crew, which meant we worked 16hrs for 4 paid days “on” with a hotel room, and had 3 days “off” on our own, a practice which we knew saved the company a lot of money. Not many people know that because that oil exploration needed miniaturization of electronics, General Instruments eventually became Texas Instruments, which first mass produced semiconductors and helped create the digital electronics revolution that then made small computers possible. A long sentence, and I didn’t even know any of that back in Wyoming.
So for those 3 unpaid “hotshot” days, I was on my own. It didn’t take me long to find out that Yellowstone Park was on the other side of the State. During the Summer college kids –boys but most especially girls – worked as guides and waiters and hotel maids. This smelled like good times, a siren smell, coming clear from across the alkaline plains where we looked all day for oil . So the minute my hotshot pay stopped, my thumb was out. We had a drink at night in one of the 7 bars, but I rarely met any of the normal townspeople except when I got a ride, because my goal was always – Yellowstone!
It was a time past when college men and drifters stood as equals beside those long open spaces, little more than a small pack and a bundle of aspirations in hand. There was a strong kinship, as well, with some drivers. Those drivers who had hitchhiked before, or who had sons or husbands who had hitchhiked seemed to have inherited an obligation. They tended, at least, to give my thumb a lookover, and on some occasions to stop. Sometimes you just had to be polite company. Numerous times, though, the hitchhikers struck up conversations with lonely drivers, and they became temporary friends. Occasionally you’d both would go to a bar at the driver’s destination, and you’d hear the local opinions about the state of the world. Occasionally a farmer would have a couple of days work and a tack room to sleep in, that is if you weren’t headed to Yellowstone. Of course, if you had that cross-state smell of youth in your nostrils and two days at most to find a place to crash and seek out the parties, you moved right along.
Of course, a significant number of the drivers who roared past a hitchhiker never felt that need, nor experienced that kinship. As I say, it was a time past, and now, in our next Century, we have all become very cautious…and for good reason. In the early 1960s, however, there seemed to be a Samaritan quality afoot, especially in those plains, which were so often stark and harsh.
Hitchhiking had its opportunities, but if you had to be somewhere for a job, you left early. You may have had good luck with long rides for a couple of weeks – and most rides in Wyoming are long ones – but you could never count on steady good fortune. Sometimes you got off at the turnoff to a ranch and then waited an hour just to see another car or truck. Sometimes it got dark on you and sometimes it rained. Sometimes the dust blew. And sometimes you had to string together many rides just to make it back.
All of which is to justify why early one Sunday morning I lifted myself from my comfortable pad on the floor of a hotel’s laundry room. On the road with no time to waste because I had to be 300 miles across the state by tonight, through the city of Casper and up to Edgerton where our trucks were and where my hotel room was. So I was out there outside the edge of Yellowstone Park, thumbing away at 8 that morning. A grand total of 3 cars passed me and then I had a ride…and what a ride. It was a 1962 Pontiac Bonneville convertible with a 450 horse 8 cylinder engine. The driver had slick-greased side burns coming out from his Stetson, and dark glasses so that I never saw if he actually had eyes. He clearly wanted someone to appreciate his wheels. He laid a forty foot strip of rubber and smoke as my bottom hit the seat and the door slammed shut. I knew the right thing to say: “Wow!”
“My Johnnie Ponnie. Some engine, huh?”
“Yeah, it is.”
“Far ya goin’?”
“Pretty far. I’m going to Thermopolis.”
Thermopolis. Shoshoni was halfway to Edgerton. Aha, but only about 50 miles from Casper. Hmmm….
Johnnie Ponnie at full roar covered the 200 miles to Shoshoni in about 2 ½ hours. The long, square Bonneville had to fill up its tank before heading north to Thermopolis. At 21 cents a gallon, I had an idea.
“Bet if got this tank of gas, I could talk you into dropping me in Casper.”
Greaseburns thought about it for a minute. “On one condition.”
“You wait for me to get a case a beer for the seat.” Behind those dark glasses I know there was a crude twinkle.
“K.” (I have always been considered fairly easy in these matters.)
In those past days, before air-conditioned cars, the police in places like Texas and Wyoming considered it inhumane to make a person drive between towns without a cold beer in hand. The police smiled and waved as we entered their town at 100 miles an hour, respectfully slowing down – and stopping dead – for their one stoplight, only to lay rubber out the other end. Finally, Jonnie Ponnie let me off in the center of downtown Casper.
This Sunday afternoon in Casper, Wyoming was over 100 degrees, which I had not noticed in the wind of the convertible. And not only that, the whole city was motionless. The Woolworths with their soda counter was closed. The few department stores were closed. Everything was still and very few cars even came through that intersection in the middle of town. I had no notion what to do next, until I saw the Orpheum Theater. The air-conditioned Orpheum Theatre. It was playing “The Guns of Navarone.” I had never seen the Guns of Navarone. There was no one in line at the box office, but the Orpheum Theater seemed to be open. I could feel its air conditioning gushing out to greet my 100 degree armpits. I bought a ticket and went it. The noon show was just beginning, and I could hear the stereophonic music booming as I opened the door. The theater had about 1000 seats, and every seat was empty.
Then, with the voice of James Robertson Justice relating how the Guns of Navarone guarded the shipping channels near Greece, I counted down the exact number of rows and counted to the exact middle, and took a seat absorbed by the huge screen and blaring music. This was a good way to spend an afternoon, I thought, my senses soaking up this almighty symphony. Alone. And then the lobby door opened and a slit of light came through. What follows is the truth.
One of the local cowgirls came in with a large bag of popcorn in one hand. By the door’s glint of light I could see thigh-tight jeans and a cowgirl hat and a short sleeved plaid shirt. I had never seen her before, not hitching through Casper or anywhere else. As her eyes adjusted to the dark, she counted down the rows, as I had, and then, as I had, counted seats right into the middle of the theater. My eyes, of course, had been following her since she entered. She sat right down beside me, and held out her popcorn.
“For a minute there,” she said, “I didn’t think I’d find a seat.”
Okay, I know you don’t think this is true. But it is. And just to show you, I’ll let you figure out your own ending. I’ll keep my ending to myself, but I will say it was pretty special and it gave me a great impression of Wyoming on the whole.