Tag Archives: Pennsylvania

On The Road #5, postmaster

I found myself in eastern Pennsylvania that spring of 1969, cresting a rolling hill, and facing a straight stretch of road cut through the encroaching forest. There was a light mist of rain. The cresting road rolled into a gentle downward slope, bottoming out some quarter-mile distant before beginning an easy climb. At the bottom of the slope it looked like there was a wide spot cut into the woods.

I had written a letter home every week since running off to Hollywood five years earlier. It never crossed my mind that living on my feet, walking backroads, and having all of six cents in my pocket might add up to an excuse to break the letter habit. In fact, I had a letter to send and had spent the day looking for a post office. It was getting late, just losing light. I had to find a spot to roll out my sleeping bag.

As I reached the bottom of the hill the wide spot in the woods expanded to include a building. That one building was marked, U S Post Office, Greentown, Pennsylvania.

It was at least five o’clock. Even so there was a lone person in the building, behind the counter and putting on his coat. Expecting a locked door, I was surprised when it gave way.

Yes, he was closing up.

But, sure, he’d weigh my letter and make sure the single stamp was adequate.

It turns out the letter was overweight. The rural postmaster looked me over, pulled out his keys, and unlocked his drawer to sell me a second ounce stamp. Fortunately my six cents were adequate, even leaving change.

I thanked him profusely, affixed the stamp, delivered the letter to the slot across the lobby, and began to leave. One final turn to say thanks. We acknowledged one another and hesitated.

“Did you just mail a letter to your folks?”

“Yea.”

“Are you just passing through?”

“Yes.”

“Would you like a place to spend the night?”

I beamed.

His home could not have been more cozy. His beautiful wife stretched dinner to include an extra place at the table. The conversation was lively, with questions about Boise and Idaho, which he had notice on my letter. We spoke of hitch hiking and adventuring and the lovely forests of the eastern United States, something his two daughters had not considered.

After dinner I insisted on washing the dishes to say thanks, despite the postmaster’s insistence that his daughter’s chores covered that. While mom and dad rested in the living room their junior high-aged daughters could not get enough, more than happy to help this tall stranger from the mystery of the road who had taken over their nightly chore.

After dishes I joined the conversation in the living room where we became more intimate. The daughters, it turned out, had an older brother—a brother who was fighting in Vietnam. The fight that was tearing the United States apart. The fight I was not participated in.

“We worry about him, of course,” the postmaster said. “We hope if he needs help someone takes care of him. So I couldn’t leave you outside tonight.”

That night I lay, warm and dry in their son’s bed. A photograph of him in his dress uniform was on the corner nook, watching over me.

For one night this empty room in a loving family’s home had the sound of breath. I hope their son slept as soundly as I did.

On The Road #4, sunlight

I don’t remember. This day might have been in northern New Jersey, but I’m pretty sure it was eastern Pennsylvania.

I do remember I had 6¢ in my pocket, which had been a carefully considered decision. In those days, to pick up a pay phone and talk with an operator to make a long distance call you had to insert a dime. After you’ve found someone to ask what a “pay phone” or a “long distance call” is, I’ll continue my story —

After buying a much-needed toothbrush and feeding myself for several days, I found myself with a few coins in my pocket. To even buy a can of kidney beans I had to break my last dime. I had the choice between something to eat and a last chance to call home asking for help to get off the road.

I left the little country store with 6¢ and a can of beans.

Those six cents were on my mind that afternoon, as I passed through lush woods and farms, but there was not much time for obsessing. The air was so fresh. The winding country road was so inviting. And the springtime mist was often sprinkled with moments of glorious sunshine. The gray of the sky would part into brilliant blue and billowing white. The wet greens of springtime earth would sing in vibrant, crystalline light.

About two in the afternoon a bit of straight road was wet and sparkling in the sunshine. An old wood fence on my right offered a place to sit and ease the cotton sleeping bag off my shoulder. Across the road another wood fence separated the grass next to the road from the grass in a pasture—all glowing in the light and just hinting of the color of budding flowers. Rolling hills gave a weaving distant edge to the pasture, covered in gray trunks of trees, topped with yellow and ruby red branches just filling with life.

A few seconds? Ten minutes? Thirty?

Even now the sunshine and the air and the color and the being of it breath through me. So beautiful.

And, like now, the time came for a different slant.

I was past hungry, having tried to save the beans for when they were really needed. Leaning against the fence I opened the can and found my spoon and savored nourishment that was as preserved as the air and the light were spontaneous. (Although I didn’t think of that until now. At the time I only thought how luscious those beans were.)

Half way through the beans I decided to save the rest for dinner. There was no putting the lid back on those sticky beans so I stuffed the open can in the top of the roll of my sleeping bag where it would be held upright.

I licked the spoon clean, put it in my pocket, and kissed that lovely moment and that beautiful, sun-lit space, Thanks.

On The Road #3, water

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. 

Opps.

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.