Adobe Stock / E_Sere Bryakova
Writer Phil Reisman looks back on a notable summer spent hitchhiking around the United States — and the adventures he had along the way.
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I was between college semesters and restless as hell. Jack Kerouac’s On the Road was a novel I had not yet read, but I had caught the spirit, epitomized by an exchange between its main characters.
“Sal, we gotta go and never stop going ’till we get there.”
“Where we going, man?”
“I don’t know but we gotta go.”
I had previously worked summer jobs, but the summer of 1975 was going to be different. I was determined to go somewhere, anywhere, and never stop until I got there — and so I decided to bust out of Westchester and head west.
My plan was to use a $200 unlimited Greyhound Bus pass that was part of a See America promotion offered in advance of the coming bicentennial. With the aid of a pocket atlas, the idea was to take buses at night and hitchhike during the day. I had no itinerary, making it up as I went along. I asked some friends if they wanted to come along, but they said I was crazy. Looking back, I guess they were right.
I went alone.
I asked some friends if they wanted to come along, but they said I was crazy. Looking back, I guess they were right.
My equipment was spare and substandard, all of it stuffed into a cheap aluminum-framed backpack I bought at E.J. Korvettes in Port Chester. I wore a pair of beat-up hiking boots and carried an Army-surplus canteen that leaked. Never having thumbed a ride before, I’d have been well served to read The Hitchhiker’s Field Manual, which was published in 1973 and offered a lot of practical advice, including a warning that anyone caught hitchhiking in Wyoming “can expect to be arrested immediately.” I knew nothing about the law.
However, I knew enough to cut my hair short.
The bus rides are a blur of bad food and faceless pilgrims, but I clearly remember the hitchhiking and the kind strangers who took their chances: a mother with a station wagon filled with kids; taciturn Mexican farmers who let me ride in the back of their pickup; a man who was wandering the country in an old delivery truck and was writing a book about his travels (I wonder if he ever published it); an aged grandmother and her hippie grandson who were birdwatching in the Texas desert; a traveling salesman who gunned his car to 120 mph on an open stretch of highway; and a pair of Oklahoma newlyweds, who passed a joint as we approached the snowcapped Grand Tetons which, in its grandeur, provided an epiphany for a young Easterner raised at sea level.
As it happened, the hitchhiking manual was correct. I did have a minor run-in earlier, in Wyoming, in a tough, old mining settlement called Rock Springs, where the cops slowly followed me out of town for several miles before I could begin hitchhiking again. I also dodged trouble in Montana, where I caught a ride with some Cheyenne tribe members who told me I was lucky they picked me up because hitchhiking was not tolerated by the reservation police. They thought it endlessly funny that I was heading for the Little Big Horn Battlefield. (“So, you want to see where we kicked Custer’s ass?”)
The leaky canteen became an issue in the dry heat of southwest Texas, where I stood to die from dehydration and stupidity. Salvation came in the form of a roadside diner that rose from the hot pavement like a mirage. Inside, I chugged three bottles of Coke and almost puked.
All told, I hitched in a vertical line of well over 1,100 miles from Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, north to Crow Agency, Montana. I was gone six weeks and lost about 15 pounds — though I had little weight to spare from the start. I weathered mosquitos, rain, and a mostly sleepless night under a makeshift tent in the Tetons, where coyotes howled, and bears shuffled and snorted in the shadow of Slide Lake. In mid-July, I awoke with frost in my hair.
As the nation approached its 200th birthday, I suppose I went looking for America, but what I really found were Americans, imbued with trust, charity, and comity.
In 2026, the country will reach a new milestone, the semiquincentennial (a word destined to be a Jeopardy! answer), and we will take stock again, questioning who we are as a people. Given the rank toxicity that has eaten the country from the inside out, I shudder at the thought of it.
Meanwhile, I take solace from an immortal wanderer who personified American freedom.
“There was nothing to talk about anymore,” Kerouac wrote. “The only thing to do was go.”