Category Archives: Hitchhiking

On The Road #24 – Sweet Talking Man

With clean clothes and fond memories of a fun evening in Indiana, I headed west to Illinois. Staying south enough to avoid the congestion of Chicago’s traffic I was on a surface highway, perhaps Old US 30, and was looking forward to getting some miles behind me before winter set in. An older model sedan pulled over and I jumped in beside a gent of some 50 years sporting a comfortable old business suit and eager for someone to chat with.

It turned out this gent spent his time on the road selling wholesale plants to local nurseries. He was off to a major buyer and suggested I come along and he’d get me lunch. I was enjoying his company and it felt good to be having a ride so I forgot about making miles and stayed on for an adventure on local roads. Several miles later he said he had always wanted to “check this place out” and swung into a potholed parking lot in front of a rather dilapidated hometown bar advertising food. Always up for lunch, I followed him in.

Anyone who knows rural bars would have been instantly at home. There were dart boards and a pool table. Along the left wall worn out bar stools stood before a bar top who’s surface had areas of underlying wood exposed by forty years of wiping off the original finish.  Some tables with kitchen chairs were scattered about a small dance floor tucked in the far corner. Five or six early afternoon customers were entertaining one another with familiar yarns just as neighborhood bars have had similar stories spun since civilization began.

The woman behind the bar was absolutely at home.  Perhaps fifty-five, she had the salesman and I sized up before the door closed behind us.  She was a smart, no-nonsense lady thanks to years of making people feel welcome, putting up with their antics, and telling them to behave when emotions began to run away with themselves. She had no need for makeup and was too busy taking care of business and probably kids and grandkids to worry about whether or not her waist size equaled all her other measurements. 

One look and my companion was vibrating with lust. By the time we were sitting down he was telling me she was just the kind of woman who knew how to treat a man. How skinny broads only think of themselves but ladies like her appreciate how well you treat them. Once the spigot of appreciation opened there was no stopping him. His focus was singular and set.  

Before I knew it he was at the bar telling her how beautiful she was and how he appreciates women who are overweight and not all that good looking and she and her kind are the best and he’d sure like to get to know her better and he’d treat her right. She gave him a most uncomfortable look to say the least but his manner was not rude or mean and before long she was listening. Our food came. He’d grab a bite and run right back to her, making it obvious he was just as sincere as an infatuated (no pun intended) fella can be. Before long I caught her eyes give him a deliberate once-over and her face reflect an assessment of, “Well. He’s not such a bad looking fella.” 

He explained he had to make a call on a nursery five miles away and he’d be back. She looked like she’d believe it when she saw it—but it would be just fine with her if he did.

We went off on a winding side road to an out-of-the-way nursery and he seemed pleased with the sale but it did not distract him from his obsession with the barkeep. Before I knew it we were back at the potholed parking lot. To my surprise he was eager for me to come in and have a beer. 

The beer would have gone down just fine but I had doubts about being the third wheel. I grabbed my pack, walked across the potholes, and stuck out my thumb. I hope those two had a great evening.

Heck. I hope they are enjoying a happily-ever-after. 

On The Road #23 – Juicy Stories

Having made it across endless Pennsylvania I found myself headed into the heavy traffic feeding Akron, Ohio. Despite my rush to beat winter weather my higher priority was to not get left beside the freeway in a major city where I did not know the neighborhoods. So I left the freeway, swung south of town, and started walking a surface street crowded with traffic, traffic signals, telephone poles and entrances to strip malls.

The travel gods were smiling on me. Within minutes I noticed a guy slowing down and checking me out. Laden with backpack and strolling along, it seems this lanky stranger was worth going around the block for another look. I smiled and waved a bit. He pulled over. 

Within a minute he was taking me home, a shiny new trinket to share with his partner. 

It was a delightful evening. The conversation sparkled. The meal they whipped up was hearty and luscious. My clothes got passed from washer to dryer (an absolute delight when you are on the road!) And the games on the bed were jumped into, spirited, respectful and evenly shared. 

After a warm night’s sleep on a comfortable bed I packed up my fresh clothes, enjoyed a hearty breakfast, and the guy who had picked me up delivered me to a handy spot to catch the freeway on the far side of town. 

There was never a doubt in any of our minds what our roles were. Those good looking guys were gracious hosts while keeping their relationship peppy. I was the exciting stranger thankful for a meal. I took off refreshed in the morning. They got with their friends on Saturday night with juicy stories to contribute to the card party. 

I hope their friends showed a wee bit of jealousy. It would have been a shame to not get the most out of those juicy stories.

On The Road #22 – A Long State West

My timing sucked when it came to hitchhiking. The middle of December is not considered the best time to hitchhike from Southern California to Idaho and then to New Jersey, traveling the northern United States. It’s icy. Early March from New Jersey headed toward Maine was cold and wet and I did not have a tent. And when it came time to leave the Catskill Mountains of New York to head west across the Upper Midwest, Plains States and Rocky Mountains, wouldn’t it make sense to choose a warm summer month? 

Well, folks, when it is time to go it is time to go and the time to leave the Catskills for Idaho and California was November of 1970. 

November hitchhiking forced me to abandon my usual search for tiny roads through the backwoods. Beating the weather absolutely trumped the romance of meandering for miles on empty one lane roads. I was off to find an Interstate and, apparently, to immerse myself into watching a pot boil.

There are a few stories to tell about that 3,500 miles back to Hollywood and we’ll get to those. For now, what amazes me is how little I remember of the first 370 miles — 370 miles I call, “getting across Pennsylvania.” 

Heading toward an Interstate I must have gotten short rides over the narrow, winding roads through the hilly country on both sides of the Delaware River, but I don’t remember one wit of it. Once on the Interstate, probably I84 / I80 in Pennsylvania, I do remember a snippet of the newly constructed freeway taking dramatic swoops around forested hillsides while I enjoying a ride with a chatty young gal, probably a college student.  

There is one impression of this leg of my journey that is permanently burned into my brain and that is just how long Pennsylvania is. And I am not talking about how many letters are in the name.

The rides went on forever. Officially it’s 283 miles from east to west, about the same as crossing Southern Idaho. But Southern Idaho is the flat Snake River plane. Pennsylvania cuts across several Appalachian mountain ranges, through some of which I was traveling on country roads. Then miles of rolling hillsides where the freeway is adding miles as it weaves its way through. 

That’s some 300 miles of thinking the Ohio boarder must be within the next fifty of those miles. 300 miles of not knowing where the ride of the moment is going, since I knew none of the towns folks said they were headed to. And finally some 100 miles of pleading with the travel gods to let this ride take me past the other side of Pennsylvania! 

That was the end of my experience getting across one state. I’ve since learned Pennsylvania is far shorter than originally intended. When King George granted William Penn the original Charter in 1681, the Province of Pennsylvania was “all lands” west of New Jersey, north of Maryland and south of New York. I would have been in Pennsylvania all the way to the Oregon coast if it weren’t for Thomas Jefferson’s deciding enough was enough. His vision was for western lands to be divided into roughly equal sized States  and that is how Ohio put a western border on the great Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

What does this have to do with watching a pot boil? Hitchhiking north from New Jersey it took me more than a month make some 160 miles to the heart of the Catskill Mountains in New York State. Some days there were no rides and that was fine. I was on the road for the sake of being on the road and the distances mattered not. But headed across Pennsylvania I was racing winter and wanted miles behind me. Having a goal sure puts time in the way.

Buck Brook #23 – Gassed

Once a week at Buck Brook Farm we gathered together and committed GI. Don’t ask me what the term “GI” had to do with scrubbing the kitchen, but gather and scrub we did.

On one such gathering several students and I were assigned to the walk-in cooler and it came time to mop the concrete floor. 

I’ve always been dedicated to doing a good job while using as little time and effort as possible. I had also learned ammonia is great for cutting grease and bleach can’t be beat for sanitizing surfaces. Bleach also has the advantage of turning things white, a selling point when getting concrete to look clean. So, several good of glugs of both ammonia and bleach went splashing into the mop water.

I was rewarded with a medium boil immediately activating the mix and a noticeable mist rising from the bucket. 

Just then the the kitchen manager happened to need some help at the stove so I left my station and went to lend a hand. I was so proud of my cleaning concoction that I immediately told the manager about it, flourishing the story with how active the mop bucket was with the bubbles and mists.

And my reward for solving the war on grim and germ? — A kitchen manager dropping parts of the stove as she went screaming toward the walk-in. “Get out! Get out now,” she repeated as she ripped open the door and grabbed the mop bucket and scurried to the kitchen door. She dashed to the middle of the school’s driveway and threw the solution on the ground, all the while yelling, “stay away — stay away.”

Who would think my two favorite cleaning products would combine to produce chlorine gas? And that chlorine gas quickly damages lungs and can soon lead to death? 

Perhaps I should have paid more attention in eighth grade chemistry. 

In case you, dear reader, were distracted during those tender years, here’s a web site with helpful hints on what common products to avoid mixing. 

Personally the whole experience has me reluctant to mix chemicals the pharmaceutical industry tells me to toss down my gullet.

Buck Brook #18 – Caldron of Paradise

The entire process of gathering maple sap and boiling it to syrup was an education to me. And it was fun. But the moments that hold my soul so dearly are but a brief time in the days of reducing maple sap. They include one of students at Buck Brook, a very mellow guy named Billy Garvin.

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I had gone to the boiling shed in the evening to see what was up. It was dark by then and Billy was there by himself. We chatted a bit and added sap and threw on logs. Then we fell silent. 

The fire was glowing under the pan, flicking yellow light around the rustic walls and filling the shed with crackles and pops and smoke that was quickly dissipated. The steam rose in thick rolling clouds and passed through the shifting yellow light on its rushed journey through the open slots in the ceiling. 

Billy expertly tossed logs into the fire, keeping the flames contentedly busy. His curly hair and glowing face added the perfect humanity to the warmth of the flicking light and the rustic shed and the heat of the fire and the cold damp of a light snow that fell on the open roof, melting on the exposed boards and dripping  around us. 

All so active with dancing light and so noisy with active fire and so stirring with damp and heat and cold. And all so absolutely at peace.

How long did I sit there in the presence of this glorious life? I’m pretty sure my body sat there a good long time. I know my soul still celebrates being there.

Buck Brook #17 – Boiling Shed

One of the places my soul rests to this day is Buck Brook’s boiling shed, where some hundred and forty gallons of maple sap was reduced to three gallons of thick, satisfying syrup. 

By the way — if you have never splurged for some real, reduced-sap maple syrup, go get some now. Use a quarter as much real maple syrup as you would pour from a bottle of corn syrup with “maple flavoring.” Your taste buds and your body will be more content than any amount of artificial syrup can provide. 

But on with my story —

The spring snows of 1970 were wet and turning to cold rains when we fired up the boiling shed, and a good lot of that snow and rain had soaked up the shed, inside as well as out. After all, the object of boiling maple sap is to get rid of water and leave the maple sugars and flavors. The process releases copious quantities of steam and the shed must let that steam out. Imagine a simple shed with every fourth board of the walls taken out. And every third board of the roof. 

Yep. It was wet and cold. But the breezes were kept at bay well enough to let the fire rage and we got real good at establishing sit-spots close enough to toss on more wood while staying far enough back so the fire on our front sides balanced the cold on the rest of us. 

The floor of the shed was dirt and the logs, fire and ashes were on top of that, creating a fire pit that I remember as being some six by four feet. Cinder blocks were stacked three high around the fire pit, with some stacked in the middle to support the pan. The stacks of cinder blocks around the edges of the the fire were spaced some two feet apart to allow tossing on more wood and allowing plenty of air to the inferno we kept raging. 

Held above the fire by the cinder blocks was a metal sheet, large enough to cover the entire large fire pit and the cinderblocks around it. The metal sheet had a sealed metal wall around it, rising only some eight inches in depth. There was a lot of surface area exposed to the fire under the boiling sap and to the air above it.

I was not there for the lighting of that fire, but I often stopped by and helped. Well. At least I chatted — it did not take any effort at all to get all the students eager to play at feeding the fire.

And the fire needed constant playing. More wood. More distributing the hot coals. The buckets of sap needed to be regularly and carefully added to the steaming caldron, letting the sap loose its water but keeping it thin enough to boil, not burn. 

Night and day for more than a week the steam rolled out of the boiling shed, until the trees had returned their stored sap into their branches. The little stream of sap filling our buckets slowed to drips and the drips slowed to occasional drops. 

We started letting the fire settle and cool, gently boiling off the last of the water, boiling more gently and stirring the thickening liquid until, at last, the liquid was just the texture we claimed to be syrup! 

Just as I missed the lighting of the fire, I missed the moment of claiming syrup. Since it would have been difficult to completely extinguish that much hot ash and burning wood I’m thinking there must have been a concerted effort to get the hot liquid scooped out of that shallow pan and funneled into the glass jugs that were waiting.

We had saved one-gallon glass vinegar jugs for the occasion. We filled three of them and ate pancakes with gusto.

Buck Brook #14 – Purified Water

Come February a health inspector stopped by Buck Brook Farm to check on the sanitary conditions of this hippy public housing. While most of our operation was up to snuff he did have trouble with our water supply.

We were using water from a spring that we piped through a pump for pressure. The water was crystal clear, cold and delicious. But we were running a commercial kitchen and public housing and the rules are the rules and we needed a chlorinator to be safe.

We looked into chlorination systems and found a unit that fit our needs. We bought a large holding tank to store enough water to guarantee an even supply through the chlorinator, a good sized barrel to hold the liquid chlorine and a special pump that squeezes tubing so precise amounts of chemical can be measured into however much water we used. And we ordered the chlorine.

The chlorine hadn’t arrived by the time we were ready to test the system so we put water in the chlorine barrel to lubricate the tubing, fired the system up, and it worked like a charm. We put the lid on the barrel and forgot about it.

A few weeks later the inspector returned, checked our equipment and the ratings for the pump and congratulated us on an excellent system. As he was leaving he remembered something and lifted up the lid on the chlorine barrel. After a quick glance he let go of the lid, nodded his approval, and informed us, “You’d be surprised how many folks forget to put in the chlorine.”

From then on the campus enjoyed 100% natural spring water purified with 100% natural spring water.

Buck Brook #13 – Warm in January

I was raised in Boise, Idaho, which has four distinct seasons. So I was raised knowing about the frozen tundras of January. Heck, it sometimes even gets below zero for two or three nights! Sometimes. But usually the middle teens is about as cold as we have to survive.

In the mountain country of upstate New York I learned that what we consider winter in Boise is a far cry from what much of our country considers a normal winter.

In the Catskill Mountains during the January of 1970 we spent several weeks with the daytime temperature never getting warmer than 20 degrees BELOW ZERO!

I know. That’s crazy talk. But it’s true!

And we got used to it. We still took our early morning walks. We still worked outside on the buildings, even getting a foundation under the library. And those of us who smoked still went outside to do it.

We smokers did find a little nook at the front of the men’s dorm that was blocked from the wind on two sides. It faced the south, so if the sun were getting through the clouds at all there was some radiant heat. We’d bundle up and run to the nook and get some good puffs in, maybe even almost finish half a cigarette, before being driven back in to the warmth of the buildings.

By late January it was starting to warm up. One day the sun was all but shining through a light haze and the bare trees of the forest. The light and warming air found us in our t-shirts lighting up in the light of the sun. We weren’t exactly lingering between puffs but each of us did finish our entire cigarette before heading in. It was warm and we talked about it!

On the way back to the heat of the dorm I gave in to my curiosity and walked over to the barn with the fire engine, where a long metal advertising thermometer hung. I wanted to confirm my suspicion that it was about 32. Freezing! And here we had been out in undershirts smoking an entire cigarette!

Imagine my surprise to find the temperature had not gotten to 32. It was, instead, all the way up to zero.

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ZERO!

You spend a month colder that 20 degrees below zero, folks, and you’ll be surprised how much heat there is at zero!

Joining everyone in the dorm I told them I would be telling stories of being warm at zero. I assure you, dear reader, you are not the first to hear about it.

Buck Brook #12 – Early Morning Pond

Our Florida retreat wrapped up and students would soon be returning to Buck Brook. By New Years, 1970, we were back in the Catskill Mountains dealing with the cold and snow.

The entire campus began every morning with Paul, the Headmaster, ringing the fire engine bell at 6am. We pulled on whatever pants and parkas we could find, and headed out for a brisk walk.

Yes — every morning. Even when the Catskill temperatures were well below MINUS twenty degrees!

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One of Paul’s favorite walks was up the little creek that ran between the girl’s dorm and the rest of the buildings. I don’t remember it being a terribly long walk but I do remember the winter cold and tramping down the ever increasing snow.

Our destination was a flat spot in the snow surrounded by trees. It was quite serine in a Robert Frost way, even with the noise of some fifteen students and staff shuffling about. As the seasons changed we came to enjoy this flat spot as the small mountain lake it was.

One cold January afternoon some of us actually returned to the pond voluntarily. One of the staff had an ice auger, hooks, and line and was determined to let us in on the fun of ice fishing. I have never had the patience to catch fish in a crowded barrel and I found waiting for a nibble through the ice did nothing to calm my impatience.

Buck Brook #10: Catamaran

The Saint Johns River runs to Jacksonville, on the very north east corner of Florida. It starts more than half way down the Florida peninsula. It is one of the few rivers that run north in the United States.

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On the freeway the distance is 212 miles, yet the river is 310 miles long. The entire drop in elevation of the river is 30 feet — running downhill the height of a three story building in 310 miles! The drop is about one inch per mile, compared to one foot per mile that keeps our irrigation canals moving. The result is a full third of its length is made up of meandering.

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The flow in the river is so lackadaisical the entire river is basically a long lake. Perfect for a lazy floating along on one of Green Valley School’s catamarans.

The breeze was warm and just enough to cause movement on that very responsive craft. The moonlight was twinkling on the still water.

A slice of Florida paradise, mid-winter, 1969.

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