STORMS OF PASSAGE: INDEPENDENCE DAY
Dawn approached at last with its welcomed glow behind the horizon. Nearly a full day had passed since I began my journey along the Chenango to the Susquehanna, and then on down to Pennsylvania. I had hoped that the holiday traffic would continue to increase as, further south, I would head out west through Pittsburgh and then on to Ohio, Indiana and the Missouri and Mississippi rivers and beyond. But all allusions of steady progress soon dissolved into the dull reality of being left stranded for nearly twenty hours outside of Harrisburg.
The competition for rides there had been fierce, with several dozen would-be hitchhikers standing along the ramp and literally begging for rides. I waited in my small mountain tent nearby until after midnight when most of the others had given up for the evening. I finally got past the on-ramp to the Interstate, keeping a watchful eye for the Highway Patrol that had repeatedly set me back throughout the day.
My ride caught me squarely in its headlights, and I was on my way and once again encouraged, as the morning traffic was expected to swell for the holiday weekend. I had spent the remainder of the night trying to make up for lost time, and another ride brought me across state lines and on to central Ohio, just west of Columbus.
Despite the hint of dawn, the opposing horizon displayed several of its brightest stars above the patches of low-lying fog. Although the sun had yet to work its way from behind a distant farmhouse, the surrounding cornfields glistened with dew as I sat on a guardrail beside the road and played my guitar and a rooster’s crow cut through the mist and still morning air.
A car pulled off beside me, and it’s driver gestured through the rear view window for me to come along. Upon reaching the car, I was pleasantly surprised to find that my latest “Good Samaritan” was a woman. “Good morning!” she said, as I piled my things onto the back seat and then climbed into the front. “What kind of guitar you playin’” she asked. I noticed that she had her own guitar encased in the back and imagined why she may have chosen this chance stop for a stranger on the highway.
“Oh, just an old beat-up acoustic,” I replied. “It sure helps pass the time when you’re sittin’ out there all alone.”
“I can give you a ride about eighty miles or so to just north of Cincinnati,” she said, “and then I have to turn off the Interstate." As we proceeded, she explained that she was on our way to visit her girlfriends. "They go to Miami University," she said, "and they live just outside of Oxford.”
“Oxford!” I repeated. “Isn’t that the town that Dylan wrote a song about?” I vaguely remembered a ditty that came out a decade before about a black man that was hung in the center of their town by some racist vigilantes.
“You’re way off,” she said with a laugh. “That’s down south somewhere, in Mississippi, I guess.”
She did get across, however, that the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee had in fact met in Oxford, Ohio in June, 1964 to plan their southern strategies and that, shortly thereafter, three voter registration organizers from the north disappeared in Mississippi, later to be found murdered in Mississippi. But then she quickly added, “Bob Dylan, huh? He’s one of my favorites.”
“Mine too,” I replied. “I’ve got one of his songbooks right there in my guitar case.” And then I added, “My name’s Tom, by the way. I’m headin’ out to Denver. I have some friends out there that I can stay with, and they say there’s plenty of work to be had for the takin’.”
“I’m Joan," she said. "I used to live in Denver a few years back myself" and for the next hour or so, Joan talked about Denver, and how she had enjoyed the high mountain air and the pioneer spirit. First, we laughed about the cowboy culture with its swagger and all, but then, as her voice quivered, the festive mood changed considerably and she began to cry.
Her late husband had left her there, she explained, and then committed suicide through the barrel of a shotgun. She talked with loathing about being raped by an acquaintance while she was still grieving over the loss of her husband.
While at first I was surprised at the turn of our conversation, I soon found myself relaying how my own marriage had failed and ultimately sent me on my way as well, with jobs being scarce and making it hard just to stay in one place, and with Denver being the place to be for anyone willing to work.
Surprisingly, our conversation soon returned to lighter subjects for a while until we finally pulled off to the side of the road just before Joan's exit off of the Interstate. We exchanged addresses and phone numbers so we could keep in touch and, as I handed her my contacts in Denver, we shared a brief kiss as well when we said goodbye.
Arriving behind us, just in time to observe our moment of intimacy, a lone Highway Patrol officer pulled up in his car with its lights flashing. As he climbed out of the vehicle, he barked at me, “You better get right back into that car, buddy, “or I’m gonna bust you for trespassin’ on the freeway.”
“But she’s turning off, here,” I replied. “I’m just on my way past the state line, heading that way, west!”
“Boy, if I so much as see you any where near this highway today,” he asserted, “I’m gonna run you in for sure. Now git!”
During this exchange, Joan had been urging me to get back in and she would at least get me off of the Interstate. With the Highway Patrolman remaining steadfast with his hands on his waist belt, one side of which carried a holstered gun, I was more than willing to oblige both parties.
Joan assured me that the road on which we would be traveling northward connected to another Interstate, but that it would be about fifty miles overall. A fog sat along the low-lying areas as we stopped once to relieve ourselves alongside the road. The fog was so thick, in fact, that Joan was nearly out of sight as she squatted beside the front fender of her car, with its headlights creating an awkward silhouette. The sun soon baked its way through the mist, and the underlying steam foretold of a warm and muggy Fourth of July.
We traveled for nearly thirty miles from the Interstate to the farmhouse where Joan’s girlfriends lived. It was a welcomed respite as they let me wash up and offered me tea and toast with honey. Although I was more exhausted than hungry, the hot liquid and snack kept me alert as it served to settle my appetite as well.
When they asked why I would be hitchhiking cross-country, I avoided the fact that my wife and I were splitting up, and Joan sat in silence as I skirted around my personal concerns. I did, however, mention that work was scarce back east, and that in Denver I had friends who would put me up until I could get settled on my own.
As tired as I was from being up since the previous day, I declined their offer to rest and then join them for the local fireworks display that evening. The holiday rush was my best chance to move on, I explained, and I still had to find my way back to the next Interstate, hopefully before high noon. I thanked them, said my goodbyes and sounded my regrets for having to leave so soon.
After Joan and her friends waved good-bye, I stood on the route that would lead me further north. With the sun fast approaching its zenith, I hardened my resolve and turned away towards the center of Oxford that loomed several miles further on.
I was overlooking a dried streambed that passed underneath the road through a storm drain where, before my feet, I discovered a skull with its jawbone that had fallen off nearby. They were perhaps the remnants of a large dog whose hapless final moments were spent staring at the dried weeds beside the road.
Intrigued as I was by the solid construction of the teeth, without much thought otherwise I grasped the skull and labored at removing the upper upper left fang from its socket beneath the snout. I then exchanged my wedding band among those remains as a final gift to a forgotten life and, after placing the fang in my back hip pocket, I put my thumb to the wind.
My first ride out of there was in a pick-up truck loaded with marijuana plants in plain view. The driver was a longhaired young man, not much older than me, on his way to transplant them somewhere in a field outside of town. He seemed oblivious to the passing traffic as he continued to relay to me how he nurtured his plants from seed over the past several months, and that it was fitting that Independence Day was when he would be putting them into the ground. "You know what the farmers say,” he chanted gleefully, “'Knee high by Fourth of July!'"
He turned off to the side near a muddied tractor road that led to a wooded area across a field. As I got out, he laughed again and said, “When you get there to Oxford, do what you have to do and just keep goin’. They’re all rednecks in that town, but they won’t bother you so long as you give them no reason to,” at which he sped away into the farm field along with his prized flora waving and rocking under the late morning sun.
My next ride was by a middle-aged man who barely spoke just enough to inform me that he was only going into town no more than a half-mile up ahead. He sat and drove stone-faced, and his eyes never left the road. There was an eerie strangeness to his silence, but as long as we moved forward, I followed the passing fields and trees the best that I could in order to pass the time. He nodded in silence as I thanked him and I got out beside a small park with a gazebo in Oxford, Ohio.
Perhaps it was the hot steam rising off the ground, or my doped-up state of sleep deprivation, but the weeping willows in that town's park seemed strangely like moss-covered giants looming menacingly overhead. I couldn't help but imagine the legs of a dead southern black man dangling in the breeze.
While I tried to fit in by wearing a new pair of straight legged blue jeans and leather boots, I had “Dude!” written all over me. No matter how at ease I tried to be, even “all hat and no horse” didn’t apply to me as my long hair, beard, guitar and backpack announced to everyone that I was a stranger in town.
On the outskirts, after having nervously passed through the scrutiny of the townspeople, there was an ice cream and soda stand with a large bus parked on the opposite side of the small white building. Although I would have liked to quench my thirst, I continued on by, not wanting to run into any rowdies that may have been hanging there. That was, however, until someone yelled out, “Hey, cowboy!”
Given my prominent gear and awkward appearance, I was fully aware that this might be the typical remark of the day. I showed no offence and merely acknowledged the speaker’s presence with a neutral, somewhat mechanical smile and a tilt of the head. He was sitting out in front of the building on a bench with a boy about the age of ten. They were protected from the mid-day sun by an overhanging canopy. The elder gestured for me to join them there in the shade. Since he appeared to be non-threatening and genuinely hospitable, I obliged.
He asked me all sorts of things about my guitar and my music, but I was a bit dismayed when he showed scant interest when I talked of Dylan's songs. He was a country singer, he explained, and he was just glad that he could have his son along with him while he traveled on the road with his band. Since no one else was nearby, I assumed that his entourage had already boarded the bus.
He and I both acknowledged with cordial regrets that they were not headed my way, so I finished my Dr. Pepper and bid them a parting farewell. I turned to wave one last time as I walked away towards the highway, and I noticed the name on the side of the bus that seemed vaguely familiar, and yet awkwardly out of time and mind like the streamlined appearance of the bus.
The haze of the mid day heat and humidity seemed to surround me in a strange world of uncertainty as I left the town for the countryside. That was when, with the bare forewarning of a distant rumble, a gang of nearly two dozen black motorcycle riders, some with their women riding along in back or in side-cars, came thundering past me like planes descending on Pearl Harbor.
A backup of one pink and several white Cadillac convertibles followed closely behind like royal guardians. I didn’t have a clue as to what they were up to, except for the fact that they were heading for the same town that I had just left, and my gut persuaded me to keep on moving away from there as quickly as possible.
Barely after had I turned to face the traffic when an elderly driver stopped suddenly to pick me up. He explained that he was returning to the Interstate after losing his way and finally going into town for gas and directions. He didn’t know what to make of the ruckus either. “I ain’t never could un’erstan’ them damn niggras anyhow, an’ now they got them motorized cycles an’ all as if they own the highway, ” he told me, grimacing and shaking his head in an outlandish manner that put me on edge.
I had no comeback to his perception of the event, and so I simply took the ride. At least I knew it would be a short one, since he had indicated that he was heading east once we arrived at the Interstate further north, just a short hop from the Indiana state line.
Soon after I was let off at the end of the exit ramp, a car stopped beside me before I even turned and put my thumb out. I tried to ignore the vehicle, being a stranger and ever suspicious of any unsolicited attempts to get my attention, but it was difficult to ignore the official-like emblem on the side passenger door, and I felt a stone in my gut as I prepared to be thrown off this highway like earlier in the day, or worse, arrested and thrown in jail for the remainder of the holiday weekend.
Upon further review of the emblem that read, “U.S. National Guard,” and in seeing that the driver was inviting me to get in, I wondered whether I might be catching a free ride after all. Although he was in his olive-green fatigues and looked the official part for all it was worth, his demeanor was non-threatening, even friendly. Still, there was a sense of urgency in his voice as he reached over, opened the door beside me and said, “Come on, get in,” and quickly explained, "I’ve got to get everyone off of the Interstate in the next fifteen minutes. There’s a tornado heading this way.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, as I gestured towards the sun that diffusely lit the hazy sky.
“Look over there,” he said, pointing towards the western horizon. “See those clouds? They’ll be on top of us in no time, and you shouldn’t be standing out there in the open just to wait and see.”
Sure enough, the clouds seemed to be rolling and boiling toward us as I got on board and we headed oddly in the direction toward the downpour of the monster storm. The onslaught splashed against the windshield like ocean waves, blinding our field of vision to within the contents of the vehicle. It came so hard that we had to pull over to the side of the road. The windshield wipers were useless against the torrents. Apparently no one else could drive either, as no one passed us as we sat it out.
When it dissipated somewhat, the soldier hurried on down the highway, still heading west, telling me that the worst was yet to come. That lull in the storm, he explained, was his chance to get me to an overpass where I might be safe so he could then head back the other way. “Now’s the most dangerous part,” he said. “This is when the twisters come.”
He introduced himself, but for the life of me, just like the country crooner back on the outskirts of Oxford, I would never recall his name. He said he was from California, moved recently to Ohio so his wife and kids could be closer to his in-laws and, without my asking, he tried to distance himself from the Kent State killings that took place several years before. He was from California, he reminded me, and claimed that the incident was a shock to him and his colleagues as well.
Although I kept my thoughts to myself, I recalled that, as a junior in high school, I had walked out with a score of others when the administrators refused to join a national moratorium in protest against the massacre, effectively disrupting school activities throughout the day, and I was hastily expelled soon after for being a part of it all.
The Guardsman dropped me off under the first overpass we came to, just over the Indiana state line. As I gathered my things to get out, he offered me a couple of sandwiches that his wife had made. They were extras, he told me, besides the ones he had for himself, in case he ran into any one in need.
Although I was grateful for the ride, I simply thanked him over his repeated urgings and declined his offer. Even though I was famished, I was uncomfortable in accepting any more favors. When he insisted once more, I suggested that he give them to someone who might need them more than me.
Since the urgency of the moment precluded any further discourse on the matter, we shook hands and bid farewell. He pulled away, crossed over the meridian and headed back toward the Ohio state line. I then quickly climbed the embankment as the winds picked up in intensity. I crawled up under the bridge onto the concrete support and huddled between the steel girders.
A motorcycle was parked between the pillars below that I hadn’t noticed on my way up. Once I became more oriented, I finally acknowledged the presence of the rider of the bike with whom I shared my emergency shelter and we watched the sky boil and roll ahead of its thundering roar.
We greeted one another quickly as we watched the winds and the rain pelt the pillars and asphalt below and beyond our feet. The only traffic rushing under the bridge was the horizontal stream of water that blew in from the force of the storm. For several minutes, we were unable to speak over the howl of the wind.
When there was a brief lull, the bike rider told me how he had ridden coast-to-coast and border-to-border over the past several years. He said he learned to follow the tractor-trailers as their rush created a vortex of wind behind them and would pull his bike along. The older highways were ideal, he recounted, as they had subtle grooves from the tire tracks that held his front wheel in-place. The only thing you had to be ready for, he said, was for any sudden braking or some unforeseen obstacles in the road. "Otherwise," he said with a laugh, "it's a long and steady cruise in the groove!" He talked as if he couldn't wait to get back on his way, but there was no moving on for the moment.
The winds gathered and began to whoosh in an eerie intensity. We could peek out to the west and see the funnel touch down just south of the highway. It danced like a magical finger upon the planet, kicking and sweeping out debris from its path like a whirling dervish. On several occasions, it lifted up and away from the earth and then returned, teasing and tormenting like a schoolyard bully.
It then skipped over and settled on the northern edge of the highway and continued east, directly toward our hideaway. We could no longer bear to watch against the force of the wind as it nearly sucked our breaths away. We huddled back inside adjacent concrete cubbyholes embracing the steal girders as the boom-boom-boom of nature’s drum pounded above our shoulders.
The water stung my shins and forearms that barely shielded my face and torso as I pressed my back against my pack and straddled my guitar case with my legs. There was a whoosh from one direction, and then the next, with one brief moment in between when the directions changed and the water dropped with a splash on the pavement below.
The twister continued down the eastern embankment and soon vanished among the clouds that thundered down the highway. Once it was safe and the storm began to settle down around us, the bike rider slid down the embankment where his bike had survived behind one of the massive concrete pillars.
Although he shouted, "Later, man!" and he waved his fist in solidarity as he sped away, I knew that it would be the last that I'd ever see of him.
The sound of traffic returning to the highway and passing below was simply a rock-a-bye baby kind of lilt, with little left that could disturb me. The hard surface of the concrete was no match against my body’s need to rest. I feared that I might awaken to my tent back in Harrisburg along the dreaded on-ramp, and I held on to consciousness for as long as I could before the weight of exhaustion overcame me.
When I finally awoke it was after midnight. The sky was cloudless and clear with the stars shining more brightly than the night before. I was feeling refreshed and ready to continue my journey. I was fully aware that I had barely traveled eighty miles in a westerly direction since my wait by the cornfields the morning before outside of Columbus, and yet I was truly thankful to be that much further away from Harrisburg and out of Ohio.
I used my light to wave to the passing traffic. The tractor-trailers would spin me clear around as I avoided their stone-filled wakes. Finally, a salesman responded to my flashing signals, pulled over and asked if I would be willing to drive through the night to St. Louis. That way, he explained, he could get some long-needed sleep.
Passing through Indianapolis and onward to the Mississippi River, I would gain nearly three hundred miles in just one ride. I would finally be on my way out west in true rider fashion, and driving, no less!
I paused for a moment before placing the gears to shift us forward, and I thought of Joan and her friends and how I had insisted that I had to move on. The day's events seemed like a whirlwind of dreams, just like the storm that swept the noonday heat away.Upon realizing that my left ring finger remained bare, I reached back into my hip pocket and found, along with the canine fang that I had deposited there as well, the piece of paper with Joan’s mailing address and phone number. I hadn’t gotten very far, I mused, but at least for me the Fourth of July had ended with a big bang after all.
* * *
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