Spring Break 1969
Crazy Glen wanted to me to hitchhike to California with him. We were eighteen and it was spring 1969, so it seemed like the thing to do.
Glen wasn’t really my friend, but he was my roommate, and we did hang out together some. We lived in Taub Hall, one of the old dorms at the University of Houston. I’m not sure why most people called Glen crazy. He wasn’t obviously nuts. There was no overtly irrational behavior, no wild-eyed rantings or brooding mutterings. He didn’t even do drugs, which was pretty rare for a young long-hair in early 1969. That and the fact that he was somewhat of a loner made some of my friends suspect him of being an undercover narcotics agent. I don’t think that was the case. I got to know him probably as well as anyone, and he seemed too screwed up and self-involved to be a government plant. Besides, illegal substances flowed freely right under his nose, and no one was ever busted.
Glen did drink beer, and he insisted on doing it almost nightly in our dorm room, which often got him in trouble with the dorm authorities. Maybe that’s partly why we thought he was off, but looking back, our actions couldn’t have been any more rational since we were smoking pot and dropping acid in our rooms all the time. I don’t know what dorm life is like these days, but a lot of things we were involved in were probably more dangerous in spring 1969 than they are now, especially in Texas, where it wasn’t unheard of for a black political activist—namely Lee Otis Johnson—to be sentenced to twenty years in prison for possession of a two joints handed to him by an undercover agent.
Glen had a way of flouting authority, and it went way back. He was from some state in the Central U.S., where his father had the unusual dual role of prominent minister and member of the state legislature. With that kind of paternity, Glen had a lot to rebel against, and apparently, he spent a lot of wild nights sneaking out at night and getting drunk—the usual teenage preoccupation before more interesting drugs became popular. One night, so he said, he passed out in a cold rain and wound up with a case of pneumonia from which he almost died. He told me he never fully recovered and had a hole the size of a quarter in one of his lungs. He claimed his lung had a plastic sack inside to cover the hole, and the sack would sometimes fill with fluids that he’d have to have drained.
I don’t know if it was true. I did come back to the room one night to find Glen stretched out on the floor, unconscious. At first I thought he was feigning, because that wouldn’t have been out of character, but there was a slackness to his face and dead weight to his body that said he was really out and not just miming. I called the campus cops, but before they arrived, I managed to rouse Glen out of his stupor. He was still half groggy when he learned I’d called the cops, and he staggered out the door and vanished into the night, leaving me with a seemingly crazy story to explain to the officers.
But there was something different about Glen that went beyond his flouting of authority. Maybe he did live near death and that gave his actions a certain edge that the rest of us didn’t have. Like I said, it didn’t manifest in overt craziness, but fairly frequently he’d do something pretty off the wall, like arguing with a street gang that stuck him up while he was on his way back from the convenience store with a six-pack. They had fun roughing him up, and then one of them slashed him down the breastbone with a switchblade. He came back with his eyes glazed and blood all over his shirt, and the rest of the year he proudly bared his chest to display the two-and-a-half-inch red weal.
Maybe I wasn’t much better off, though the scars were inside. I barely had any personality when I arrived at the University of Houston as a new freshman six months before, and I’d spent a good portion of that time zonked on pot and acid, habituating rock clubs, and generally destroying my academic prospects. But I was learning, or at least it seemed that way, even if the lessons had nothing to do with academics or degrees. So when Glen suggested we hitchhike to Los Angeles over spring break, I agreed. It would be an adventure.
To prepare, we went out and each bought a small gym bag to carry our stuff. I’m talking about those half-moon-shaped vinyl bags with a zipper and handles on top. You don’t see them anymore—backpacks and gym duffels have replaced them, but those didn't exist then except in Army surplus versions. But at the time, the gym bags were ideal—cheap and easy to carry—and we were poor and traveling light. We also bought a black magic marker to letter signs. We figured we could find scrap cardboard along the way
That was the extent of our preparation. When we left Houston, I had about forty dollars, a light jacket, a change of clothes, and my toiletries.
A friend drove us out I-10, just west of Houston’s city limits, and let us off. There we stood for a couple of hours with our thumbs stuck out and brandishing a cardboard sign with the words “San Antonio” scrawled on it in black magic marker. We weren’t ambitious enough to write “Los Angeles,” and anyway we figured that people who might give us a ride at least to San Antonio might not bother if we were advertising for a much longer journey. We’d settle for stages.
At last a car stopped, and we ran up. A young woman was behind the wheel. I reached the car first, hopped in the back seat, and shut the door, figuring Glen would sit in the front. Instead, he opened the door again and got in the back seat beside me. I couldn’t believe he did that, but like I said, he was prone to unpredictable behavior.
The young woman asked us where in San Antonio we were going, and we told her we were actually going to Los Angeles. She said she’d get us as far as San Antonio, we said that was fine, and that was that—all our conversation was used up during the first minute of a nearly four-hour ride. I felt sorry for her, driving all that way with two possibly dangerous, but actually numbskull, freaks in the back seat. For my part, I wasn’t a particularly good conversationalist, especially around women, so embarrassment kept my mouth shut. Maybe Glen felt the same, though he used to talk about having sex with his girlfriend back home. Or maybe I’d just been taken in by his brash front, which probably masked a deep insecurity.
After the young woman let us out in San Antonio, we stood for another few hours until just about sunset, when a clean-cut guy in his mid thirties picked us up. He was driving a brand-new and very expensive Pontiac Grand Prix with dealer plates, and he was headed to Midland. That was off the I-10 path, but it was a hell of a long way across a hell of a wide state, so we got in. This time, anticipating Glen, I went ahead and sat in the front seat.
The driver was a salesman for a car dealership in Midland, and the Grand Prix had been ordered by a rich oil man who lived in that West Texas pump-jack paradise. Our driver had gone to San Antonio to pick up the car and deliver it to the dealership. It was a fancy ride—plush and comfortable and fitted with all the amenities of its day. Since it wasn’t the driver’s car, he didn’t care if he stressed it. “Fuck him,” he said of the oil man. “If it breaks, he can buy another.” To prove his point, the driver drove at a pretty good pace. Not that the car was ever in danger of breaking, at least from speed. It was a powerful machine, and the highways of West Texas, including the state highways, are just made for eighty-five miles an hour, even at night.
Around midnight, we finally came to a town named Eden, which was little more than a bump in the road. The the driver pulled into a gas station, and while the attendant pumped the gas, we all got out to stretch, take a leak, and get a soda. Almost immediately, an older man hurried out of the office and over to our driver.
“Get those boys back in the car!” he said, voice not especially loud but full of urgency. “Get them back in the car!” he repeated when we just stood there like idiots, wondering what he meant. Then we looked around and saw.
Across the highway was the local cowboy bar. Parked out front in the dusty lot were a dozen pickup trucks around which lounged fifteen or twenty cowboys. Or rather, they had been lounging until they spotted us. Now they were clustering near the highway shoulder, looking us over as we stood spotlit in the glow of the gas station lights. And they were muttering among themselves.
I couldn't hear what they were saying, but they didn’t look real friendly.
These days, even cowboys and rednecks have long hair, but in 1969, you might as well have been waving the Russian flag, shouting anti-American slogans, and assaulting upstanding womenfolk in the street. Easy Rider, which had just come out, amply demonstrated how those good old boys of the south and west felt about folks who dared to be different. When I tell people about the “days that used to be,” as Neil Young puts it, I call them the hippie days, but actually we didn’t call ourselves hippies. Hippies were slightly older than we were. We called ourselves freaks. But. conservative America did not recognize such fine distinctions. Hippies or freaks, we were social anathemas, and most of us knew from personal experience that the antagonisms depicted in Easy Rider were all too real.
Actually, though, until that moment, Glen and I hadn’t thought too much about our long hair and hippie clothes. I guess we were just young, idealistic, and inexperienced in the ways of the real world. Most of our friends were like us, and no one at the university seemed to care, at least not enough to express their displeasure in gratuitous violence. Even the Midland car salesman hadn’t mentioned our hair or attire. But then we’d never been to West Texas, and the rapidly brewing belligerence of those redneck cowboys across the road was plain to see. By now, some were gesticulating, and their voices grew in pitch.
We got back in the car.
The attendant finished pumping the gas, our driver paid, and we pulled back out on the highway.
Six pickups pulled out of the kicker bar parking lot and began trailing us.
For the next mile or so, while we were still in town, we made a nice little parade—six “floats” depicting an extreme West Texas theme—including fully laden gun racks—led by the grand marshal’s car carrying the grand marshal—that was our driver—and the two special guests of honor—those were Glen and me.
It was all rather nice and peaceful until we hit the city limits. Then the six floats roared into life—or was it death?—behind us, and the grand marshal stomped on the gas. In about ten seconds, we were all traveling at eighty miles per hour down the two-lane blacktop. Ahead was only pitch-black desert night.
“What are we going to do if they catch us?” Glen asked after several tense minutes during which the only sounds were the roar of the Grand Prix's engine and the rush of wind. What a stupid question, I thought. They’re going to catch us and beat us until we die—or wish we had. That's what was going to happen. Maybe we’d be lucky, and they’d shoot us right off the bat.
But the grand marshal just uttered an easy laugh. He knew something we didn’t. He was driving one of the most powerful and well-made American cars on the market, and not only was it brand new and built for speed and handling, it was full of gas and it wasn’t his. He was in command of this parade, and he knew it.
“I’m only playing with them,” he said. “Watch this.”
Two seconds later, we were going 110.
The cowboys chasing us valiantly tried to keep up. Their pickups were powerful work machines, and they could travel at a good clip, but they weren’t built for sustained high speed, and they certainly couldn’t take the curves like the Pontiac. Plus, the cowboys didn’t plan on driving two or three hundred miles more to Midland like our driver did. Gradually the pursuing headlights began to drift back in the darkness. At last, pair by pair, they were swallowed by the night until all were gone. It had been twenty minutes since we left town.
The grand marshal eased up on the gas, and the Pontiac slowed to eighty. He’d used American know-how and panache to whup American ignorance and backassward thinking, and in the process, he’d saved a couple of innocent college kids from brutality and mayhem. He was a pretty damn good driver, too.
He turned to us, grinning.
“Nice car, huh?”
We grinned back. If I’d had the cash, I’d have bought a Pontiac from him on the spot.
The rest of the ride passed in quiet darkness, the road hissing beneath the tires, the tiny towns and distant ranch house lights drifting by us like shadows of a dream.
“Look at that,” the grand marshal said at last, pointing.
Up ahead we could see a large area of sky glowing in the profound West Texas night, though we couldn’t see what caused the phenomenon. It was too early for Close Encounters of the Third Kind to have hit movie screens, or I might have suspected that the Mother Ship had arrived. But no, it wasn’t the Mother Ship, though it was probably just as alien.
“That’s Midland,” the grand marshal said, then he pointed to another, fainter, more distant glow. “And that’s Odessa.”
The air was so clear and dark that the cities’ auras hovered in the dry atmosphere above them and could be seen thirty or more miles away, even though the towns themselves were still well below the horizon.
At about 3 am, on the near side of Midland, the grand marshal pulled over. It had been a good, long ride, and we were reluctant to leave the safe haven of the vehicle in which we had passed unscathed through certain travail. Who knew what rednecks waited for us on Midland’s nighttime highways?
But it was the end of the ride. We got out and waved good-bye as the grand marshal exited into Midland’s radiance.
We may have entered the periphery of Midland’s glow, but there wasn’t much to see except a dead-empty freeway interchange and the lights of a distant neighborhood. After about an hour, a curious state trooper slowed, gave us the once-over, and drove on. Maybe he didn’t harass us since he knew that oil-patch roughnecks would take care of us as soon as the refinery shifts changed.
Another hour passed, and an old Chevy pickup slowed and stopped long enough to let us in. A middle-aged Mexican man who spoke good English was driving, and maybe he saw us as potential fellow victims. We didn’t care what his reasons for stopping were, just that he made the effort. Luckily for us, he was going all the way to El Paso.
We were in the truck for only a short time when a terrible stench began to permeate the air. To me it was suffocating, but the driver seemed not to notice.
“What the heck is that smell?” I asked.
“Oh, that. That’s the oil refinery,” he replied, gesturing off to the side. Sure enough, there it was, replete with aerial plumbing, huge tanks, and even a couple of pump jacks.
I’ve lived near the Houston Ship Channel for twenty years, now, and have become familiar with such odors, but back then, I had no idea that oil could be so smelly. Not that proximity and long association have made it any less pungent.
At last we left the odor behind, and by dawn, we were entering El Paso. The red morning sunlight on the rugged, barren hills and mountains was absolutely gorgeous, making it seem as if the earth itself was aglow. Our driver got us back on I-10 and dropped us off at his exit. The air was dry and dusty though not yet hot. Where we stood, the interstate cut through the foot of a low hill, and right beside us was a steep cement embankment about fifty feet high. Over the top of the embankment sat a low-rent motel, its back to the highway.
We hadn’t been there more than half an hour when we heard a voice calling.
We looked around. A ride we’d missed?
At the top of the embankment was a young blonde woman, about twenty. We could tell she wasn’t a natural blonde because all she wore was a half-buttoned man’s shirt and a smile.
“We’ve got a room,” she called. “Come on up.”
I was callow enough to be intimidated by a mostly naked strange woman beckoning me to a strange motel atop a cement embankment in a strange city, but Glen got one look at the dark patch of hair showing beneath the shirt tails and started scrambling up the slope. I guess he had been having sex with his girlfriend. He didn’t even look back to see if I was following.
What else could I do?
I’m sure Glen thought he was going to get laid, but when we got to the room, we found it was occupied by another mostly naked young woman and a scruffy half-naked man in his mid twenties. All three affected hippie-type attire, but I could tell immediately that they were vagabonds and maybe criminal, not flower children, freaks, or students.
We passed a few amenities back and forth, then the motel trio got down to business. They’d been in the motel for three days and didn’t have any money. So they said. Did we have any? If we did, they’d let us travel with them.
We’d be on a bus and not hitchhiking if we had any money, we told them. By now, Glen was beginning to realize that he wasn’t going to get laid, though he might get screwed, and that we didn’t need to be here. After about half an hour, we extricated ourselves, left the motel room, and slid back down the embankment.
Our next ride, which came along about an hour later, was in a beat-up, several-year-old Cadillac Eldorado driven by a man of indeterminate middle age looking about as dilapidated as his car. He wore a faded plaid sports coat and equally faded slacks whose color might be defined as dingy, day-old Dijon mustard. He needed a shave and a toothbrush, but he gave a genuine-seeming smile when we got in the car. Next to him on the front seat was a tallish young woman in her early twenties who looked like she might be Indian mixed with Anglo. She wasn’t pretty, but she was attractive and built like a brick house, nipples showing beneath her plain white T-shirt. She had long, straight, glossy-black hair and was missing one of her upper front teeth. That didn’t stop her from smiling, and her smile, too, seemed to be the real thing.
Glen and I had to crowd into the front seat with the driver and the young woman because the back of the Caddy was completely filled with clothes and other stuff and looked well lived in. This pair had been on the road a long time and was probably going to be on it a lot longer. They were friendly, though, and as we talked, it became apparent that they’d picked us up not from pity or to take advantage of us or out of the need for company but because it was the right thing to do for other people living on the road.
The ride was short, only to Las Cruces, New Mexico, but it got us out of Texas in time for our best ride yet. This was with a hippie couple in their late twenties. They were driving a ten-year-old Ford pickup and were going all the way to San Diego.
“Hop in the back,” the guy said, and we did. About fifty miles later, they stopped again for two more young freaks, and there were four of us in the back. The cowboys back in West Texas would have had a field day with that truck.
We spent all day in the back of the pickup, traveling across America's great southwestern deserts. Memory has compressed the transit to a few images and vignettes, but at the time, it was one great blur of sun-blasted sand and rock that seemed to go on and on forever. I’d never seen the West except in movies, and in one day I saw the whole thing in cross section with nothing between me and it but wind shear. We couldn’t talk because the wind blew away our words. All we could do was sit and watch the desert change from morning to afternoon to evening.
A highlight was passing through Phoenix, which we did toward the late afternoon. The experience was surreal. One minute we were driving across harsh brown desert, and the next we were in the middle of green lawns and trees. Because the terrain was so flat, we couldn’t see the greenery except when the truck went up the overpasses over the city streets. Every time we ascended, for a few seconds, we could see the suburbs, with their boxy houses, verdant lawns, and backyard pools, spread like a green toy city across the otherwise barren landscape, and then we’d come down to ground level and it would all disappear behind a facade of houses, buildings, and fences. Then, just as suddenly as it had all appeared, it was gone, and we were outside the city, where the desert remorselessly wiped away any hint that a green, leafy plant might reside within a thousand miles or a thousand lifetimes.
At last the sun went down, just about the time we approached the California border. The second pair of freaks had sleeping bags, and they crawled into them and went to sleep, but Glen and I, with our meager kits, could only sit in the cold desert night wind and shiver. And then the truck started to climb into the tail end of the Sierra Nevadas—between the Little San Bernardino and Orocopia Mountains—and the air turned bitterly cold.
Thank goodness the hippies in the cab took pity on us, stopped, and let Glen and me climb into the cab with them. The heater blew toasty air on our feet, and the couple’s friendliness warmed us in other ways. In two hours or so, we were in San Diego. The hippie couple dropped all four of us hitchers at a restaurant on the coastal highway—I don’t know if it was I-5 or not, but I don’t remember it being an interstate—and drove out of our lives.
The restaurant, part of a modest chain, was called Sambo’s, and it specialized, of course, in pancakes. I couldn’t believe that there was a restaurant called Sambo’s. This was a time when the Step-n-Fetchit and Mammy stereotypes were beginning to fall, black power and the natural look of the Afro were in, and even Aunt Jemima was on her way to a face lift. And here was Sambo’s, playing off a derogatory stereotype. Okay, yeah, Sambo was a smart young fellow who triumphed in the face of outrageous odds, but to name a breakfast restaurant after him? What a slap in the face to black people everywhere.
But it was late, we were hungry, and Sambo’s was just what we needed after a long ride across the desert. The four of us went in and ate. Once inside, I had to revise my idea that Sambo’s was a slap in the face to African Americans—it was a double slap because Sambo, as depicted in the menu, was white. I guess the owners of the chain figured that no black man could be as clever as Sambo, so Sambo had to have been white. Or maybe, to give them the benefit of the doubt, they were trying to be politically correct twenty years ahead of the trend. Whatever the case, the plan, and the chain, utterly failed within a couple of years. Recently, I saw an old Sambo’s that had turned into an independent restaurant. Apparently, the new owners were on a shoestring budget when they started, because they kept the original sign and replaced only a single letter. Now, it’s Simbo’s.