Sunday, September 1, 2013

HITCHHIKING PROHIBITED by Peter Nolan Smith

The weather along Montana's Continental Divide shifted from summer to fall to winter in late-August of 1972. My friend Ptrov and I were Boston-bound and we crashed a night with a band of carpenter gypsies constructing a rest stop on the new interstate. Bulldozers had churned the dirt highway into a muddy bog for the passing trucks. At night few drivers dared the danger of the four-lane quagmire and we watched the stars wheel across the heaven without any threat from the headlights of long-distance truckers.

In the morning the foreman gave us a ride to Missoula. His crew needed provisions. Jackson offered us jobs. This time of year was getting cold in the mountains.

"Why don't you stay here?"

"I'd loved to stay here, but my draft number is 193." The SSS was taking nineteen year-olds as deep at 251. Nixon was into the fourth year of his Viet-Nam War.

"And I'm in love." Ptrov had a girl in Milwaukee. The three of us went to the same college. Her name was Sue.

"Both are good excuses." He wished us good-luck and we got a quick ride from a broken-knuckled miner driving his Ford 150 to work.

"Evel Knievel came from here. He got fired from the copper mine for doing a wheelie with an earthmover." Locals liked that their hometown was special, but miner admitted, "Lots of wild men come Butte too. Good bars too."

Out of the mountains the day was bright and sunny in the open valley. The miner left us at the entrance to the Anaconda Copper Mine. A slender chimney rose from the smelter into the virgin blue sky. The brick tower was probably the tallest structure between Seattle's Space Needle and a skyscraper over a thousand miles to the East in Minneapolis.

The next ride took its time in coming. We were between shifts at the mine, but an hour later a trucker hauling potatoes drove us to Logan. This section of I90 was under construction, so he left us on the Montana Route 2 just outside of town. It was real small Train tracks separated the road from a river. We got out of the truck.

"I'm going a little farther down the road to the prison. Maybe another twenty miles. I'm not allowed to drop off riders on that stretch of the highway. You should get a long ride from here."

The long-hailer dieseled south. There wasn't much traffic in the afternoon, but after a half-hour Ptrov asked, "You think that sign has anything with our not getting a ride?"

"Might." A hundred feet from where we were standing rose a yellow sign stating HITCHHIKER MAY BE ESCAPED INMATES. The road had a wide shoulder. Cars drove slower this close to town. If it wasn't for that sign, this was a good place to hitchhike. "Maybe people will think that anyone before the sign isn't a convict, since what fugitive hitchhikes back to where he escaped?"

"A very smart one." Ptrov was a math major like me. "This place sucks."

It wasn't that bad. A steep bluff rose from the other side of the river. The long trains traveled slow and leaving the marshaling yard the Northern Pacific engineers waved from diesel locomotives moving at a walk pace.

We took turns sticking out our thumbs. Ptrov stood in the same spot, figuring that the tactic of getting a ride was better than my strategy of moving from place to place. There were no numbers involved in either equation, because the result was zero. The sun was getting low in the West.

"We could always jump on a train. They're headed in the right direction." A freight train was hauling empty box cars. Their doors were open to air out the interiors.

"But where? North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming?"

"It's just a thought." Walking was not an option.

Evening came fast and we lucked out with two brothers driving a Ford Falcon all the way to Cape Cod. Neither of us were hitchhiking at the time. The older brother had just gotten out of the Navy and they were going home. They had nothing against hippies. It was good to get out of Lodge. We were no convicts and

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