This story from my days hitch hiking I have already told when telling about my encounters with police on the road. See Cops while hitchhiking #3.
This is the third of four stories about my dealing with police while hitchhiking from 1968 to 1971. For the story of my second encounter with the police, which happened in Las Vegas, see Cops while hitchhiking #2
One hundred miles north of New York City, State Highway 52 spent twenty-five miles winding its way from the Delaware River to the town of Liberty, New York. They were beautiful miles, neat farms tucked into hardwood forests on a casual, small, two-lane country road. Just what my hitchhiking soul was looking to travel.
Even though avoiding freeways was an aim of my travels, on this particular day I was trying to make it to Liberty just because it had a freeway passing by. Freeways mean substantial bridges. It was early spring and we can thank rain for the lush green of eastern forests. I was looking forward to a dry spot to sleep.
I walked beside the narrow road without sticking out my thumb, thankful if rides were offered but not soliciting the attention of authorities. Besides, were I was going was exactly where I already was—hitchhiking America’s byways. One is not in a rush when one is already there.
The countryside passed at the pace of a mosey.
A couple of miles before Liberty there was a bluff I’d have to climb. The road bent to the left and became a steep grade, cresting the bluff with a sharp right turn some hundred feet above the valley I was walking. My fear was the grade was probably cut as shallow into the hill as possible to save costs, and my fear was right. As I approached I saw the road narrowed even more.
The steep grade had no room on either side of the road. I could balance on top of the guardrail to the left, stumble over the steep loose dirt on the right, or walk on the road.
A dangerous situation, indeed. The road up the grade was narrow enough so cars had barely enough room to pass one another even without a pedestrian to get around. The grade was long enough so no one would want to stay behind me for the length of it. The grade was short enough so oncoming traffic could appear at the top of the hill with precious little time to stop for a car passing me. And, most dangerous of all, if there was anywhere a cop would stop me for walking on the road, this would be it!
But there was nothing to do. I quickened my pace, stepped into the road, and started scooting to the top.
I hadn’t seen a car in miles and I hadn’t seen a patrol car in three days. So, of course, when I was half way up the hill and in the narrowest part of the road, what should appear at the top of the hill?
You, dear reader, are an excellent guesser.
The officer was alone, rather young, and began slowing as soon as he saw me. He stopped next to me, no room to pull over, set his brake, and started to get out. Even while he was opening the door he began expressing his concern about my walking on the road and especially in this very dangerous spot. I told him I agreed completely, was doing my best to get to past this very dangerous spot, but I had no choice since there were no rides. Along with my words of agreement there was a sincere laugh of admitting he and I could not agree more.
As I remember he asked what I was up to, to which I replied I was out adventuring and a little road through the Catskills was the perfect place to be. By his fourth sentence he asked a question I remember well: “What’s in the box?”
It was a wooden box, exactly the kind painters carry their paints in, and that’s exactly what I told him was in there.
“Oh. Those are my paints.”
He jumped in, “Do you work in oils or acrylics?”
He gushed, “How do you get the paints thinned? I’ve just started painting and the paints are too thick when they come out of the tube!”
(This hippie instantly stopped worrying about a big, bad cop hassling hitch hikers!)
I told him about linseed oil and volunteered to show him, waving my box around looking for a place to set it. He motioned to the trunk of his car and I said I didn’t want to scratch it but he indicated that was the last of his worries. So I gently put the box on his car, popped open the lid, and showed him what to look for.
We both knew we were blocking the road, so he soon thanked me and told me he was sorry—he wished he could give me a ride to Liberty but unfortunately he was heading the other way and had somewhere to get to.
I scooted to the top of the grade, the curious cop being the only vehicle I encountered on the climb.
This is the second of four stories about my dealing with police while hitchhiking from 1968 to 1971.
Oddly enough, it was not until I wrote these first two stories that I realized the two very first encounters I had on the road were with lawmen.
For the story of my first encounter with a policeman, which happened earlier the same day as this story, see Cops while hitchhiking #1
Advice was abundant when I was about to start hitchhiking—mostly about how bad all cops are to vagrants. But one town’s cops were pointed out to be the worst of the worst. The pit of repression. The hell hole of cops having no place for street people.
This town’s name was Vegas.
Now, perhaps my friends had special warnings about Las Vegas just because they knew my maiden journey was bound to pass through it as I made my way from Twentynine Palms, California, to Boise, Idaho. But their reasoning was persuasive enough—Vegas was about money and spending it. Someone without money was useless. It was the cop’s job to make sure the penniless did not feel welcome.
I had hoped to get a ride through Las Vegas but my ride from the south needed to report to an office near the Strip. I decided it was best to avoid the crowds and cops of that particular slice of humanity so I got out as he turned off U. S. Highway 95.
Highway 95 passed east and north of the Las Vegas Strip on that December afternoon in 1968. At the time it was on the edge of town but still developed enough for sidewalks. I dutifully kept to the walkways, watching the impressive Sands Hotel slowly passing in the distance to the west.
It took a couple of hours, walking past Las Vegas. My WWII-issue cotton sleeping bag was heavy on the rope over my shoulder. My wooden box of paints was heavy in my hand. A bag with food and a toothbrush flopped around my waist. I wasn’t a snappy hitch hiker but but all was well.
Finally I was rounding the long curve Highway 95 took around the north of the Strip. Another mile or so and I’d be far enough on the edge of town to stick out my thumb.
I was half way through the curve, approaching an intersection, when a Las Vegas Police cruiser slowed to take a look. It turned at the intersection and I watched as it made a U-turn and parked on the side road.
So much for avoiding the Las Vegas cops.
I was just entering the intersection as they stopped, so started walking toward the cruiser. I checked to be sure my Boise for Xmas sign was visible.
Two officers got out. The driver did the talking. “Heading to Boise, huh? Don’t you have enough money to get a bus?” I replied I might have enough to make it from Las Vegas but I’d like to save it for Christmas.
A few other questions and the officers seemed content I was not a threat to the community. They wished me the best and agreed that before long I’d be far enough out of town so the traffic would thin enough for hitch hiking. I thanked them and turned to walk the few steps back to the highway.
Then I heard the driver yell out, “Hey, buddy …” My stomach sank.
Both cops were standing behind the open doors of their cruiser. The driver was swinging his arm as he yelled out, “You can probably use this more than I can.”
It was tumbling in a high arc and I instinctively caught the gigantic Hershey bar. No almonds.
Advice was freely given long before I set a date to begin hitch hiking. The words of discouragement ramped up as the date came due.
You might think the advice was centered on the dangers of unscrupulous motorists, but this was 1968. More than half the advice I heard was to watch out for cops. Cops don’t like hitch hikers. Hitch hikers have no money and nothing to offer and it is the cop’s job to be mean so they keep moving on. Being young and not in the military I’d be a hippie for sure and the cops would just as soon beat up a hippie as go to their kid’s little league game.
With such concerns I set off from Twentynine Palms, California, where I’d fallen in with a military widow. Barbara insisted on driving me to U S Highway 95 and I was glad for the ride over long, straight, and mostly deserted Amboy Road and then old Highway 66. In those 101 miles we may have passed five cars.
Today Highway 66 is Interstate 40 and I’m thinking the sound of tires on pavement is pretty prevalent where U S 95 takes off to the north. But a few days before Christmas in 1968 it was a sandy spot in the desert with two small paved roads, one running east and west and the other taking off to the north. And that was it. Barbara’s Cadillac grew smaller on the horizon. The wind blew.
Barbara’s car had been out of sight for some ten minutes before an older gray sedan approached from the east. Low and behold, it slowed and turned north. My Boise for Xmas sign was in the air. I got my very first ride.
Within five minutes the rather rumpled driver had told me he was a cop.
A Federal agent, actually. Out on a reconnaissance mission. “Did you notice one of this car’s windshield wipers is missing?” he asked. (Actually, the only thing I had notice was I had a ride!) “It also has no front license plate. And my side mirror is busted. In fact, there are lots of things wrong with this car. I’m out here to see if any of the state or local police find any of these problems. That is, if they even stop me for no front plate or the busted tail light.”
It was the only time I’ve been in a car while looking forward to being pulled over, but I didn’t get a chance to watch this guy in action. We pulling into the south side of Las Vegas with nary a slow-down. As we approached the city he said he had to stop at the local office and report. He apologized, “there are rules about not picking up hitch hikers on duty, so I have to let you out.” I thanked him for the ride and the great chat.
And that, my friends, was my first run in with a big bad cop. It got me 95 miles and some stories about how easy it is to overlook absent windshield wipers.
The day would not end before my second run in, this time with two big bad coppers.