Sunday, August 28, 2016

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 college friend Ptrov and I were bound for Boston to start our second year of university and we crashed a night with a trio 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 to brave the four-lane quagmire and six of us watched the stars wheel across the heaven without the glare from the headlights of long-distance truckers.

In the morning Jackson offered us jobs.

"Why don't you stay here?"

The mountains stretched to a big blue sky.

"I'd loved to, but my draft number is 193, so I'm staying in school."

"I was in Vietnam. 1967 to 1969." He had the number of days memorized. "Hard times and I thought anyone who didn't go was a commie. The Tet Offensive changed my mind."

"It did that for a lot of people."

The forces of the Viet Cong had been decimated, but the Pentagon had lost the hearts and minds of America. Now Nixon was into the fourth year of his Viet-Nam War and the draft board was inducting nineteen year-olds as deep at 251.

"Better you stay in school for the duration."

"And I'm in love." Ptrov had a girlfriend in Milwaukee. Sue attended the same university three of us went to the same college.

"Both are good excuses." He wished us good-luck and we went out to the highway. Three minutes later a broken-knuckled miner driving his Ford 150 stopped on his way to work.

"I'm going to Butte."

"Evel Knievel came from here."

"That he did and he got fired from the Anaconda copper mine for doing a wheelie with an earthmover. Lots of wild men come Butte too. For a small city is has a lot of good bars."

"I'd like to check them out, but we're heading east."

Out of the pine-lined mountains the day turned 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. 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 I-90 was also under construction, so he stopped on the Montana Route 2. Train tracks separated the road from a river. We got out of the truck and he said, "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, but you should get a long ride from here."

The long-hauler dieseled south.

While the traffic was light, the road had a wide shoulder and cars drove slower this close to town but after a half-hour Ptrov pointed to a road sign.

"You think that sign has anything with our not getting a ride?"

"Might."

A hundred feet from us stood rose a yellow sign stating HITCHHIKER MAY BE ESCAPED INMATES.

"Maybe people will think that anyone before the sign isn't a convict, since what fugitive hitchhikes back to where he escaped?"

"Probably because he couldn't get a ride. This place sucks."

"Only if you're in a hurry."

A steep bluff rose from the other side of the river. The long trains lurched across the web of tracks and, as the trains departed the marshaling yard, Northern Pacific engineers waved from diesel locomotives moving at a walking pace.

We took turns sticking out our thumbs. Ptrov stood in the same spot, figuring that that 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 end result was zero. No one was stopping for us and the sun was getting low in the West.

What if we get stuck here forever."

"We could always jump on a train. They're headed in the right direction." A freight train was hauling empty box cars with their doors 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.

"Been there long?"

"Long enough."

"Where you headed?"

"Boston.

"We're going to Maine."

Then let's get going."

It was good to get out of Lodge.

We were no convicts and home was on the other side of America.

Only two days away.

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