I hit the road walking north from Princeton, New Jersey, in the early spring of 1969. I didn’t think much about carrying a heavy, WWII surplus, cotton-stuffed sleeping bag my aunt and uncle Celesta and Paul Huff had given me. A long coat of heavy wool was just a coat. And I didn’t hesitate to tote along a seven-pound wooden box of artist’s paints.
But I was concerned about weight so decided not to burden myself with a toothbrush.
It turns out fingers make bad toothbrushes, no matter how vigorously one squeaks them across one’s enamel. Although I was avoiding major highways and cities, I did regularly pass through small communities. The first one I passed through on my second day on the road is where I spent a bit of my limited financial situation on a delightful device to brush my teeth. No toothpaste—too expensive and too heavy. But the brush? You bet.
One thing I did not lack for cleaning my teeth was water.
It was springtime in the hills of northern New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania. Snow was melting so any brook was a stream and the streams were small rivers. But these waterways were difficult to get to, often running with steep banks covered with wet grass—a trap just waiting for a hapless hippie, heavy with packs, to slide into. The easily accessible, gentle slopes and sandy beaches on these high-water streams were all tucked well behind the Private Property — No Trespassing signs that were posted on every other tree.
Compared to the snarling dogs of the snow-fed streams, I found water that was as pleasant as a flicking finch. It gently rushed in small rivulets, usually through grass but sometimes gravel. It was clean as polished crystal in sunshine, cool and fresh, and available within a few feet from everywhere my feet fell.
This water had just fallen in the misty rain that filled the days and nights. It was often an inch deep, a few inches wide, and always running swiftly. It was the water beside the road, running between the roadbed and the cuts that had been graded through the hills.
I had always lived in deserts. My mountain hiking had been where rushing streams were few and far between, and then possibly polluted. These roadside rivulets of rain-fresh water were new to me.
I may have been damp and cold, sleeping in this springtime weather without a tent. But to this day I remember how lucky I was to enjoy those fresh, abundant, and pleasant sources of beautiful water.