Hitchhiking to South America: Our Run-ins with a Lizard, a Coon-Ass and Rod Sterling

Our destination that day was La Porte, Texas, going to visit my sister. The plan was to see her for a day or two before we headed down to the border and crossed the river to Piedras Negras, into Mexico starting our long journey to the bottom of South America…but right now what we needed was someone to stop and pick us up!.

We were somewhere in eastern Louisiana, standing in a construction zone hitchhiking at what looked like an on-ramp. We didn’t wait for long, a white Camaro stopped and we grabbed our backpacks and ran up, asking the driver where he was headed and, hearing that it was clear across the state, we threw out monster backpacks in the trunk and jumped in.

The guy driving looked like he was in his mid 20’s, and seemed genuinely happy to have company. We were relieved to get out of the sun and hopeful to make it to my sisters place before dark.

Mark, my friend took a seat in the back and I sat up in front. Usually the main reason a person picks up hitchhikers (besides to rape and murder them) is to have company, someone to talk to. So it’s always smart to be friendly, be good at listening and keep the conversation going. The deal was that the person who sat in the front seat was the chatterer, and the person in back could just rest.

Our current trip had started in December, 10 months ago. Hitchhiking from Wrightstown, Pennsylvania to Quebec City, Canada (in the dead of winter), then south to Ft Lauderdale, Florida (where we worked for 9 months, saving for the trip to South America), then back to PA (to visit Mark’s folks), then on to Georgia (to visit mine), and now to Mexico (via a quick Hello to my sister)

We were 20 at the time, and had been friends since junior high school.

Andy and Mark in Ft Lauderdale beofre trip to SA, 1978Andy and Mark in Ft Lauderdale – 1978

Mark was one of the smartest and easiest to get a long with people I had ever met. Which was a good thing because I didn’t score very high on either one of those two tests…

Anyway, the ride started off as usual, we swapped names and short stories and drove on for a bit. Jimmy (the dude driving) decided he wanted some beer and we hopped off the interstate to refuel and he got himself a six pack. My “this might get weird meter’ edged up a tiny bit, but, when one is hitchhiking no ones gonna complain about a little drinkin’ and drivin’.

As soon as our driver popped a can of beer he started in to explain to us that in Louisiana beer had exactly half the alcohol content of the other 49 states. (Something we did not know). He painted a rich picture of Saturday nights filled with raucous drinking and lots of fighting…The point was that halving the alcohol content of beer would hopefully lessen the mayhem.

I was interested to hear about Jimmy’s life and he explained more thoroughly what things were like. He told us about the railroad tracks and which side was the right one, the point being the white and black folks got along just fine down here, both sides clearly knowing their proper place.

As Jimmy told us these stories he was quite cheerful. There were stories of huntin’ gators, and skinnin’ ‘em, a few tall tales of fishing and shrimpin’, lots of stories about boats, swamps and more about fighting…

As he progressed on to the second beer he mentioned quite a few times that he considered himself to be a Coon Ass. This was another new idea to us northern white boys. Although Jimmy talked for a while about the Coon Ass persona, we never did get a complete understanding of what, exactly, a coon ass was, other than he was one and was mighty proud of it.

By the time he was into the third or fourth beer the conversation veered into his personal life, he described some recent upsets with his sister and Mom. I don’t recall the specifics, something about the sheriff and being thrown out of the house, and as he got more and more into this area of his life he became more and more emotional, then louder and angrier. At one point the anger turned into tears of rage and he started to drive erratically. He reached into his boot and pulled out a pistol, which he waved around while crying and swearing about his good for nuthin sister.

The meter for weird shit had broken the 5 mark at this point (It’s a 0 to 10 scale) and both Mark and I were very vocal in calmly acknowledging Jimmy and getting him to see that swerving around the interstate while drinking beer and waving a gun was most likely not a real good idea.

Things calmed down and we all got silent as we hurtled west on the interstate. Along I-10 there abouts the interstate was a divided highway, two lanes each direction. The terrain was all very flat, grasses and shrubs along the road side, which was elevated up on a mound about 10 feet above the surrounds. It was late September and the area along the road was not too wet, but it looked like in the rainy season the place would be filled with water. We could not see the other two lanes of freeway headed back east, we were separated by a wide swath of woods and swamp.

Mark was now snoozing in the back seat and soon the heat of mid-day got to me as well and I started to nod off.

I woke up when my head sharply thumped the roof of the Camaro.

Jimmy had driven right off the interstate!

We were doing about 60 or 70 when, apparently, he dozed off and we took off, airborne, and headed right into the brush.

We were, all three of us, totally shocked and stunned. The car windows were all down and now it seemed that we were sitting in a jungle, there were green branches sticking in all 4 windows…First, we took an inventory to see if we were hurt (all okay!) and then as Mark and I started to ask Jimmy what was going on, he suddenly started the engine, put the car in reverse and floored it. We had come to rest about 100 feet from the highway, and he steered us back following the swath we had just cut, faster and faster. By the time we neared the highway we were doing about 50 (in reverse), the car hit the sloped embankment, flew in the air and just like a scene from “Dukes of Hazard” bottomed out on the interstate, sparks a flyin.

We sat there stunned at the sheer stupidity of what he had just done and grateful that there didn’t happen to be any trucks hurtling down on us. Jimmy adroitly shifted into drive and we were off, headed back west again!

This entire sequence, driving off and then back on the freeway had taken only a few moments during which time the weird meter had just gone off the dial to “how do we get the fuck out of here”.

So, Jimmy is back driving now, being very apologetic. We are telling him, man, that is some fucked up shit, dude, you just drove off the fucking highway, and then back on like that, what the fuck is wrong with you, were all incredibly fucking lucky to be alive…”. He was very sorry, a little teary eyed, like he was upset that he had let us down, and also worried that we wouldn’t like him anymore…then we recalled the gun in his boot, and so we changed our tune and told him, “Oh man, no problem, coulda happened to anyone, don’t worry, yeah , were fine…”

Drove a few more miles like that, trying to calm ourselves, smoking cigarettes, being cool about everything, when I looked down and saw a small lizard sitting right there in the ashtray, between me and Jimmy, and I say, “Hey, look, a lizard!”.

Not a good idea…Jimmy took one look at the lizard and started screaming. He started swatting the ashtray with his hat while spewing curses about lizards and such, then he suddenly let go of the steering wheel and started to climb out the drivers window. (We were going 80 at the time). As we started to head off the road (again), I grabbed the wheel with one hand, and Jimmy with the other and some how kept us on the road and our driver in the car.

Jimmy settled down a tiny bit and reluctantly took the wheel back, still agitated about the lizard and wanting us to make certain that he was gone. Mark and I explained that we were SURE that the lizard had jumped out of the car (if he valued his life), and made like we were searching, both reporting every second or two that there was definitely NO lizard to be seen anywhere.

It was one of the funniest things I had ever experienced before in my entire life, and it was all I could do to not laugh out loud…but I got the idea that our pal Jimmy might not find it so funny.

Well at this point we were in virgin territory as it were, regarding the weird meter. We were so far off the fucking dial, we might as well have been in a different dimension…all we needed next was Rod Serling from Twilight Zone to appear next to Mark in the back seat…
My main worry was that the lizard was still IN the car and would show himself again, setting off a new opportunity to crash and die…

So, Mark and I are sitting there, exchanging glances with each other of “What do we do now, how do we get out of this mess alive?”, etc. but of course not saying anything for fear that we would further upset our host.

I all of a sudden got a brilliant idea and say, “Hey, Mark what time is it?” Mark says the time and I say, “Wow! Man, we need to stop somewhere soon and call my sister, let her know where we are and when we’ll get there…”

At this point on the highway there are few exits, its all green and flat and its miles before the next stop…I say, “Hey Jimmy, like, maybe we can stop at the next exit, we’ll get out, you know, you can just leave us, and we’ll call my sister, you don’t have to wait, just drop us off, and we’ll call her and the keep hitchhiking”…

But Jimmy didn’t like this idea, he said, I’ll stop, and just wait for you, you can call her and then I’ll keep driving y’all. The idea that we would leave him, abandon him as it were, made him visibly upset, and he was adamant that he would keep driving us until he needed to get off the interstate.

You guys aren’t mad at me, for driving off the highway and all are ya? No, way! We just need to call my sister, she’s probably real worried and (all made up bullshit) .

Anyway, this went on for a while, Jimmy not wanting to stop (we even passed two exits while having this discussion), us explaining that it had nothing to do with his driving…or him.

I gotta admit those next few miles were a little worrisome, wondering if he would stop, pondering the idea of us simultaneously jumping from a car doing 70 on the freeway, wondering how we would make it to South America without our backpacks…

But we did finally see signs for an exit, only it wasn’t a real exit, it was just a rest area. Fuck fuck fuck, what to do, so we just insisted that he stop so we could call my sister, Laurie. The whole time he is pulling off he is telling us that he’ll wait for us, that we doesn’t want to just drop us off….

We pull into the rest area, which is busy with lots of people and drive towards the building with the rest rooms, and there are parking slots, lined up diagonal in front…we pull into the slot next to the wheel chair ramp, and somehow he gets the front right wheel of the car onto the ramp, then turns left…the result is that the front right wheel is up (the sidewalk is 2 feet high) on the sidewalk, and the front left wheel is somehow dangling in air…he panics a little, saying, wtf, how did I do that? And tries to back up, but the back left bumper of the car gets firmly wedged against the asphalt, and the car won’t budge…we try rocking it, nothing, then he floors it and there is smoke but no movement…thinking fast, we say, let us get our backpacks out of the trunk.

He is leery, and we say that my sister’s phone number is in an address book in the backpack…and we add that taking all the weight of our backpacks out of the trunk may help get the car unstuck. We agree that we’ll take the packs out, make the call and then we will help him get the car unstuck and we’ll continue…

So, we get our packs, shoulder them and make a b-line for the end of the ramp, heading back onto the freeway, Jimmy is standing there, with the car, stuck as stuck can be, calling after us. He can see that we are not headed to the pay phone. We don’t look back but boogie down the ramp back to the interstate, going as fast as we can…we get to the place where the ramp merges on the highway and start hitchhiking…praying to anyone or anything in the entire universe who could possibly help that we get a ride right NOW…

It seemed that the ramp endlessly long, more than a quarter mile long actually. From where we were standing to hitchhike we couldn’t see Jimmy or the white Camaro.

We were laughing and nervously joking about what had happened, just relieved to be away from Jimmy and the white car of death…we stuck out our thumbs with real intention, but no cars stopped…I started to get pictures of Jimmy pulling up to us and insisting that he give us a ride the rest of the way to where ever he was going to get off the interstate… After what seemed like an eternity, but was only a minute or two, we started trying to flag cars down, jumping up and down and waving our arms…still no one stopped.

We were more serious and intent to get the fuck out of there, when mercifully, a car stopped. We sprinted (with our 75 pound backpacks) up to the car; they were headed to back home, to New Mexico, and would drop us off at the junction with the highway that headed south from the interstate to La Porte.

We got in, quiet for a few minutes, both of us nervously looking back for signs of Jimmy in the white car of death zooming to catch up to us, ready to make amends and complete our journey, but there was no sign of him.

As it dawned on us that we were free at last we started to loosen up and laugh. We relayed the highlights of the ride and our run-in with a real live coon ass to the people now transporting us, but like you, they didn’t believe a word we said…

Running Away

Second in a series of stories of being 16…

It’s mid-afternoon in early September. The weather here in Augusta Georgia is not too hot, about 85 or so. I am out here on interstate 20 hitchhiking west… I’ve got about 100 pounds of stuff, every piece of personal shit I could cram into the bags. Definitely not planning on coming back. A song is rattling around in my head: “I’ll never go back to Georgia, I’ll never go back no more”. Amen to that, I can’t wait to get the fuck out of here…

A rush of thoughts and emotions…considering why I’m leaving, justifying my decision, doubts and some guilt edge their way to the periphery of my mind, quickly snubbed…Now I’m thinking how cool it is to be running away. “Dude, I ran the fuck away…” Yes…I’ll have something to talk about with my friends.

Thinking about shit don’t help too much, better to just DO.

California is where I’m headed, and I picture myself, vaguely, there in San Francisco, on some mountain and at the beach, all in one mish-mashed picture. No slight concept of the realities of living, just the grand majesty of being there…Mainly my attention is on getting a ride before my resolve dissolves or the cops get me.

Thinking about hitchhiking across the country is one thing, but there is something final about having someone drop you off at the interstate. I made the decision to go last night. There was no way I could see myself living in Augusta, going to high school…just can’t do it…I went to one day of school with my sister, the orientation day. We were both supposed to be seniors…but I didn’t like the look, the feel, the accents, the music, no, not for me, I’m outta here…

My first idea was to make my way to Marin County and hang with my friend, Dan and his brothers.

Dan was a close friend from my home town in Pennsylvania. We had hung out a lot during the last summer, being a 16 year old was glorious fun in many ways…and then he’d moved out west. Soon several of my friends were living out there in San Rafael.

The stories I kept hearing from them were all greatness and glory, the sun and brown hills, the music and drugs, yeah, that sounded like the place to be. I called and told him that I was thinking about coming, is it alright? Dan’s older brother wasn’t so enthusiastic about having another young kid to take care of, and certainly didn’t want trouble with a runaway…so I called my older brother, asked him. He was living down in San Diego, can I come? “Does Dad know you’re leaving?”. “NO, he’s on the honeymoon still…” “What will you do if you come out?”, “Not sure, just need to get away from here…”

The undercurrent to all of this was the blanket of sadness from our mom dying. She had passed away 8 months ago and things had become…unraveled.

So, we make the calls and it’s decided, head to San Diego. My sister, Laurie, is there with me. She understands why I need to go, though she sees that in the end they’ll blame her for my leaving, she helps me, insists that I call our brother, and agrees to give me a ride to the Washington Street on-ramp the next day…

Packing is not easy, too much stuff…I have an Alpenlite external-frame backpack filled with the basics of wilderness travel, tent, stove, sleeping bag, clothes and food. (I just returned from a month in the wilderness of Idaho on an Outward Bound expedition.) I raid the pantry taking cans of soup, tuna, peanut butter, jelly and bread…

When you’re running away you figure you wont come back, don’t want to come back, and probably wont be welcomed back, (the whole “burning bridges” lecture comes to mind here) and so if there is some stuff you think you’re gonna want, better take it with you! So, I had 25 of my favorite record albums with me (alas, no i-pods back then…), mementos of childhood, some books, lots of clothes…and any items left to me by Mom.

I think I had about 13 dollars…figured that was plenty, didn’t really need money, had enough food for the 3 to 5 days it would take me to get out there…

We loaded the car and headed to the freeway. My younger brother was there, 8 years old, asking where I was going? Out to visit Randy, out to California. The significance of all this was not there, he seemed happy and wished me a safe trip.

I had my sister drop me off at the bottom of the on-ramp walked up to the highway. The first few moments I’m concerned with getting myself located in just the right spot, just about where the ramp merges onto the freeway, out there enough so the cars already on the interstate can see me and close enough to the ramp that I can tell the cops (if they stop me) that I’ really on the ramp. Getting my shit hauled and placed, while I’m doing this a few cars whiz past me, I hold out my arm while getting set.

A lot of changes in the last few years, not too many good ones…Mom found out she had breast cancer and started treatments, surgeries, chemo, none of it working, all of it horrible… visits to the hospital, helping at home, my Mom taught me how to cook, laying on the couch in the living room, she instructed me in how to make beef stew and orange chicken.

High school, girl friends, parties, camp-outs and drugs interspersed here and there…and then just before Christmas my Mom passed away, upstairs at our house. My dad took it the worst, he couldn’t stay there, had to leave, found a new gal, moved to Augusta, got married, starting a new life.

I guess I just needed to do the same.

There on the ramp for almost an hour now, small kinks in the armor opening, maybe walk down to the gas station and call Laurie, have her come get me? Quickly filled in with the pictures of going back to that school, living in Georgia…no, nothing for me here, need to go…

Then… a blue Chevy Impala comes barreling along, two people in the front seat, a guy and a gal, we make eye contact at the last moment, they were going so fast on the interstate that by the time they saw me and pulled over their car is about 100 yards down the highway.

It’s the last call for me: Stay or go?

I grab my shit and run down the freeway and open the back door, “Where you headin’?”, she asks. “California” I say, “San Diego”. “We’re only goin’ out past Atlanta, but get in”

I wrestle my stuff in the back and then pause for one last look at Augusta…smiling I close the door, “Let’s go!