Cruising through my archives, I return to a youthful road and thumb:
I hitchhiked. Once. I was in the seventh grade -- far too young to be exposing myself to the perilous adventures of road-and-thumb. And yet, young enough to believe that the open road could be thrilling, mind expanding, educational -- the way of, as Jack Kerouac said, the “crazy, illuminated hipsters suddenly rising and roaming America, serious, bumming and hitchhiking everywhere, ragged, beatific, beautiful in an ugly graceful new way."
I wasn't as sophisticated as Kerouac. I hadn’t read On the Road yet. But I would have glamorized it as such. There had to be a little glamour. I felt the raw and the real and the dark, sometimes with excitement (sometimes with dread) so it was imperative to sprinkle fairy dust in there, somewhere -- even filthy fairy dust. There were too many dingy light bulbs in the world. One had to compensate.
Staring at a long road, cocking your head just the right way, the dirty and the shiny can attain a certain glow. You’ll run into all kinds of broken, gorgeously cinematic sights -- like glimmering colors of shattered glass, curious looking rocks, abandoned cars, abandoned stuffed animals, or most recently for me, abandoned fun parks. My Torino overheating in the hot desert, I pulled my car next to a mysterious building. Spying a fence with a hole big enough to squeeze through I discovered a derelict go-cart/mini-put put golf course complete with a standing lighthouse, its roof perilously close to sliding off, piles of neglected go-carts, and tiny little houses with broken windmills.
Alas, I never saw such a thing when I hitchhiked as a kid. Just candy, creeps and critical elderly folks -- shaking their heads -- bad, stupid girls. I was camping with a friend’s family -- stuck somewhere in nowhere-land, Eastern Oregon. We were sick of roughing it. Her parents had us under tent, roasted hot dog, keep-the-watermelon-in-the-stream lockdown. We were itching for action -- innocent action. When we heard about a mini-mart five miles away, we hatched a plan. Not a terribly detailed plan, but a plan. We would walk.
Walking the distance for two 12- year-olds seemed like a breeze. Licorice, candy bars and ice cold Coca Colas awaited. And more importantly, we could ditch her annoying parents. But how to get back? And at night? “Let’s thumb it,” we said.
I knew it was a tricky predicament. I’d heard a few stories and rented a lot of movies. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hitcher were key don’t-pick-up-the-drifter pictures. My older brother had regaled me with tales from the TV movie Diary of a Teenage Hitchhiker the famed (in his eyes) warning of what happens when halter topped, Bundy bait extend their thumb. Through cinema, I understood the dangers of creepy “salesmen” driving from important “conferences,” or thrill kill couples yearning for children, or men fond of goat cheese and slaughterhouses and setting instant photos on fire. They walked among us.
I discussed these various scenarios with my friend, and agreeing we didn’t want to find ourselves next on the Green River Killer’s roster of victims, we came up with some ground rules: No single men (I hadn’t seen Two-Lane Blacktop so...), no young couples, and no groups of guys. We thought (I extended my hands in a cinematic gesture) two words: “Old people.” And then, four words: "Old people in trucks." The safest scenario. We’d recline in the vehicle's bed, and if Ma Pa Kettle got any ideas, we’d jump out and head for the woods. But what I pictured looked like something Hank Snow would sing: "I was totin' my pack along the long dusty Winnemucca road, When along came a semi with a high an' canvas-covered load. 'If you're goin' to Winnemucca, Mack, with me you can ride.'"
So, after many suspicious pull-overs, all of which we had foreseen (the creepily nice solo guy, the hootin’ and hollerin’ group of men looking for a party, the couples, who probably weren’t all that bad…but I’d heard of Ian Brady and Myra Hindley…), we did indeed score a truck. A truck with not the quaint elderly couple, but an elderly man. A grumpy old man angered that we were hitchhiking in the first place. We sat in the back, munched our Hershey bars and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and let the wind blow through our hair. And laughed. It was all so hilarious. It was great fun. It was great dumb. We were probably lucky. For dramatic purposes, I'm sorry to say nothing bad happened save for the old guy's condemnation. But we felt like we were in a movie. The good hitchhiking movie. The positive hitchhiking picture.
And one of those good movies was a film I had seen and joked about on our road adventure. Frank Capra’s 1934 screwball It Happened One Night, wherein the sexy hitchhiking tradition of showing a little leg originated with the sassy Claudette Colbert and an amusingly frustrated Clark Gable. I so wanted to show a little leg but a 12-year-old shouldn’t be doing such things. And most certainly when Clark Gable isn’t by your side. Humbert Humbert should not be an option. And Humbert wouldn’t have allowed it either.
But Capra's joyful, sexually charged, donut dunking road-trip was on my mind as I stared down the pine-tree lined highway (it should have been Five Easy Pieces). A road movie that’s pure Americana, from the wealthy heiress fleeing her father only to end up on a bus with wise-acre newspaperman Gable, to all the adventures they do and see on the road (charming camping areas, waving to hobos on trains, sleeping on bales of hay and again, hitchhiking) -- this was so beautiful to me. I wanted to crawl into those moments. And I wanted that hitchhiking scene.
I loved it. Gable attempts to teach Colbert the rules of the thumb, while she turns down eating a carrot. Sitting on a split rail fence on the side of a rural road, the classy Colbert allows Gable to pick a piece of hay out of her teeth with a penknife (the raw carrot and hay to penknife always feels so sexy to me), and while he chomps on his carrot, they swap hitchhiking techniques. Gable is full of hitcher braggadocio, even suggesting he intends to write a book entitled: “The Hitchhiker's Hail.” To him there are three ways to hail a car: “It's all in that ol' thumb, see... that ol' thumb never fails. It's all a matter of how you do it, though.” He attempts the varied techniques, but to no success. No one pulls over. “When you get to 100, wake me up,” Colbert quips. After countless cars pass them, she takes charge: “I'll stop a car and I won't use my thumb.”
Out come the gams. Hopping off the fence, she casually walks to the side of the road and oh-so-sexily pulls up her skirt, exposing that famous shapely leg (with garter). Of course, the first approaching car screeches to a halt. While enjoying their ride, away from the dirt and dust, she gloats: “I proved once and for all that the limb is mightier than the thumb.” To which he answers, “Why didn't you take off all your clothes? You could have stopped forty cars.”
My friend and I didn’t stop forty cars. But we stopped more than we should have. And though this wasn’t depression-era Capra land, we loved the short adventure – an adventure that by then had already died out with rotary phones, communes, LSD movies and Charlene Tilton.
Hitchhiking -- I still yearn to try it again – though I’m sure I never will. But all those cars, all those personalities, all that candy, all those…Tom Neals. At 12, I hadn’t yet seen the Edgar G. Ulmer noir masterpiece Detour, (starring that handsome, real-life mess of danger and destruction Neal, and the tough, brilliant Ann Savage), but it would cut a deep impression on me later. Perhaps one of the most fatalist hitchhiking movies ever made, had I viewed it that young, I would have pondered such an experience. Tom Neal, a cheap hotel room, and a deadly phone cord. A ride.
And I probably would have hitched with him. But I might not be here to talk about it. After all, as Neal wryly asks: “What kind of dames thumb rides? Sunday school teachers?” I did. I won't ever again. Only if Clark Gable’s my Sal Paradise...