© 2022 Robert Sickles
Charles Dickens was also describing the 1960's.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”
Many of our country's young people, I for one, were questioning the actions and values of the previous generations. You may thank us for the term "generation gap." There was a lot to discuss: Abuse of earth's resources, nuclear proliferation, and a dragging war in Vietnam were the big ones. Also very important: enslavement or eradication of non-white cultures, unchecked industrial pollution, political corruption, military superiority gone amuck, rigid social conformity, blind obedience to religious doctrine—all on the table.
There were extreme views on both side of every issue and frustrations boiled over. Peaceful protests led to violent confrontations. Political opposition led to spying, infiltration and scandals. "America, Love It or Leave It" was countered with "Don't trust anyone over 30." Thousands of kids were terrified of getting called up for military duty, and protested by burning their draft cards. In succession, Women, Native Americans, Migrant Farm Workers, African Americans, Gay Americans, and countless other groups realized they had been neglected or abused long enough. They turned out in great numbers for equality and justice. To this day, the same struggles persist, and new ones have emerged.
There had to be a better way. Even on our battlefields, Peaceful Warriors also moved among us: Flower Children, Peaceniks, The Love Generation. Philosophies from India and China were augmenting Western religion and medicine. Wisdom from Native Americans showed us to see ourselves in nature, not opposed to it. Among the chaos and discord, pearls of enlightenment were to be found everywhere.
- From the Desiderata: "Go placidly amid the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence." Some of us were inspired by that!
- St. Francis: "For it is in giving that we receive." Thanks, Frank, really enjoyed you at Assisi!
- Thoreau: "March to a different drummer." Indeed, we did that!
- "Love is all you need." We love you too, John Lennon!
- "From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever." Chief Joseph, teacher!
- "Pursue the stuff that also enriches the soul, not just the wallet." I made that one up!
Thanks for letting me dissertate—I just needed to set the context for the next story.
[Disclaimer: Peace and love was (is) a work in progress. "Having all the answers" is the stance of a wise fool. Therefore, opinions expressed in the following paragraphs consist of recollection of my youthful perspective, which was based chiefly on a rebellious and strongly judgmental idealism.]
[I just used a lot of syllables to say I was a young jerk.]
••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••PART 1. DEPARTING••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••
In July before my freshman year at University of Washington, I drove west by myself from New Jersey to Los Angeles, described in my 4th post, “Travels with Steinbeck.” The next leg of my trip, my own Tale of Two Cities, takes me from Los Angeles to Seattle.
I'll borrow Paul Harvey’s famous line, “And now, the rest of the story.”
When I arrived in LA to meet up with my parents, everything there seemed so blatantly paved-over, synthetic and garish, an unhealthy and soulless city. I mean, the big natural history museum down the street was built near an ancient tar pit full of dead animals! How appropriate for a city that could be named Asphyxia, where big dreams come to die.
I was dismayed to see my parents' new home on the 7th floor of a modern aluminum-glass-and-plastic condo tower. My values and esthetics had shifted toward natural and handmade, and my parents' home was the example of so many things I found unappealing. But after all, I was in LA, the capital of Artificiality & Glitz, so what else would I expect?
The condo. Once in while, there was a smoggy sunset view from their sofa. If I went out on the lanai, the area below was very distracting: a harshly lit 24-hour grocery store, its clattering roof ventilation system and busy parking lot. Also, a suffocating smell of deep fried whatever wafted up from an all-you-can-eat place. A bright billboard on Wilshire showed a nearly pornographic image of a young woman washing her Ford.
Chatting with Mom and Dad in the living room, a big booming crash catapulted me out of my chair. “What was that? Did a plane smack the building, or what?”
Mom reassured me, “Oh, that’s nothing, just somebody’s trash bouncing off the side of the chute as it falls. The chute is right outside our door, very convenient, and we don’t have to worry about any next door neighbor on that side!” In my short stay I never got used to that. Day and night… thump, bang, boom!
“The plan” was to spend my summers with the folks, flying back and forth to Seattle for college. I could transfer to a southern California school and become a true Angeleno. I needed to be frank, I had no intention of doing any of that.
The Sirens’ Song of the open road lilted in my head. “Come away with us, come play with us…”
“I have to tell you something.” I timed it during their first martinis. “I really want to get going to Seattle—not wait and fly up in a few weeks. If I leave now and hitchhike the coast route, I can be in Seattle by early-September, easily.”
Dad scowled. “That’s so risky, Bob. You know, people get hurt, robbed. And what if you don’t make it to that pre-college test you have to take on the 10th? And don’t you need to take care of registration and orientation, and get settled in your dorm?”
Mom was silent, keeping a kleenex handy.
I had planned the answers for them. “I will be there in time for all that. Classes don’t start until the end of September. It’ll be fine.”
I nudged Dad back to my main point. “You remember those two college boys we picked up in Indiana last year? The Hoosiers? They were thumbing halfway across the West and you thought they were smart kids. When I drove out here from New Jersey, I picked up hitchhikers a few times and we really enjoyed the ride together.”
“But why don’t you take Mom’s car. Couldn’t you just pick up hitchhikers instead of being one?”
“Dad, I don’t need the car. I’m ready to experience the serendipity of travel again.”
“I don’t know what serendipity is, Bob… dippity I know…”
“Come on, Dad, it means going with the flow instead of fighting the waves. You know, the way jellyfish don’t really ‘go’ anywhere? They mostly let the current take them along.”
Dad rolled his eyes, “Honey, our son wants to be a jellyfish!”
He stopped for a minute, reset and leaned forward. “Bob, your mother and I will worry day and night. We have such high hopes for you.”
Dad surrendered first, “You can always get on a Greyhound bus and be there in a day or two. Just so this is not some flakey-flighty idea you haven’t thought through.”
Mom finally spoke, “You’ll keep in touch along the way, Bobby? And I want you to hide some emergency money in your shoe or something, and always keep a few dimes handy for a phone call!” I could see they were considering constructive strategies for my safety, so I left them to their martinis and started packing for departure the next day.
••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••PART 2. ARRIVING••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••
There were tears and sniffles all around as I cinched up my rucksack and sleeping bag, and stood at their front door for my farewell. One last thump-bump-bang in the trash chute before I reached the elevator, and I knew I was doing the right thing.
Starting near the Santa Monica Pier on The Pacific Coast Highway, I quickly got a short ride to Malibu. A little later I got another lift, but only to Ventura, only 60 miles from where I started and it was already time to find a place for the night. I intended to sleep on beaches or find friendly places to crash along the way, but actually had no creative alternative that night but to roll out my sleeping bag under an old flatbed trailer in a gravel lot and sleep on the ground. Off to a dismal start. Not my best time.
Next day things were better. My first ride was heading to Morro Bay. He was an interesting young guy on his way to visit family. A recent grad in oceanography, he was hoping to get into research at Scripps. I had some interest in ocean science and had considered it for college major once, so we gabbed all 140 miles along the coast.
My next ride took me to Carmel in a genuine flower-power psychedelic VW bus. The driver resembled Joni Mitchell with a French accent. Groovy! I was welcomed to hang out, partake of her stash and stay for dinner. Afterwards I enjoyed the overnight comforts of her guest cottage. Vive la sérendipité, mes amis!
Next afternoon she dropped me off by the highway, and almost before I even stuck out my thumb a guy stopped and asked if I wanted to come to Sausalito to see his friend's new houseboat. I didn’t know where that was or if I wanted to go there, but said ”OK, sure, cool!” and got in for a three-hour drive.
Sausalito in ’68 was a funky town of under-funded artists, under-appreciated musicians and under-the-influence everybody. One end of the bay was filled with a mass of improvised squatters’ houseboats. And that’s where my ride was taking me, to see his buddy’s handcrafted boat. A haze hung over the water, my driver friend said it was probably a combination of woodstove and marijuana smoke and fog.
We walked out a long dock and scaled a gangway to board a half-sunk old ferry boat. Across the ferry deck there was another gangway down to a wobbly floating dock, and after that a 2x10 plank to cross to another floating dock. All along the way I could see a mess of electric wires and hoses that supplied the floating community. Over a barge and around a buoy he led me, until we finally reached his friend's boat.
“Welcome aboard!” hailed a chipper, elfin man with shaggy graying hair and beard. We entered a cute and comfy cedar-shingled Hobbit-dwelling built atop a boat hull, a salvaged lifeboat, about 30 feet long. It had little leaded glass windows, intricate carved and painted wood shelves and railings, a galley with a tiny wood stove, and an oil lamp hanging from the center support post. Persian rugs and lots of big pillows and blankets were his only furnishing.
Two others, a young man and his girlfriend, were already aboard, and I was welcomed as though everyone knew me. We four guests spent the evening listening to our host’s guitar playing and getting acquainted, while sharing a large pan of paella and a gallon jug of awfully cheap red wine. I fell asleep while the party continued. In the morning, I tapped the barely-awake Hobbit on the knee, thanked him for everything, and made my way back to land, deciding to backtrack a little and take the bus over to San Francisco.
I spent part of the day exploring Haight-Ashbury and Golden Gate Park. The cosmic center of the Summer of Love only one year earlier, the area looked like it was now becoming the domain of human sharks—gaunt individuals looking out for a buck, a high, a steal, a deal, a piece o’ something. The love-beaded flower children were going out to find their utopian country life, and leaving the city to the less-evolved of our species.
I was advised not to hitchhike any further north along the coast on US 101. From the Bay Area into redwood country of Oregon, the small towns and rural stretches were known to be very unfriendly toward “long-hairs.” You could be denied service at restaurants and stores, and even harassed—or worse—by locals; better to make the rest of the trip north on I-5.
Hitchhiking was surprisingly good out of Stockton. The Latino farmer and his jaunty tomato truck made for a fun 20 miles, with his loud musica mexicana on the radio!
Long haul Interstate drivers just want to talk with someone to pass the time. In just a few more rides, it was a cinch to make it all the way to Grants Pass, Oregon for the night. In the drizzly morning, there was a dry place in the underpass to continue hitchhiking. That was when the fun times ended.
The Oregon drivers sped up past me, as though making a panicky getaway from the Ogre of the Underpass. Some hurled middle finger insults, garbage and beer bottles. Mothers shielded their children’s eyes from the evils they thought I represented. It was very clear there’d be no hitchhiking that day. I shrugged it off and walked back to town, found the bus station and bought a Greyhound ticket to Seattle. I'd had a good run, but didn't want to die for it!
Oh, to remember that late night moment when the bus rounded the I-5 bend, where I got a glimpse of the bright Seattle skyline, large and close. I knew this was the Emerald City long before it was adopted as the official nickname. A light rain was falling. A mixture of emotions welled up in me as I felt that this was the end of my vagabond adventure, and the beginning of my new life as a university student; it was the end of foolishness, the beginning of responsibility; the end of the road, the beginning of the climb; the end of Sun, the beginning of Rain; the end of Bobby, the beginning of Robert. What a mood I was in! Hadn't I just escaped the asphalt labyrinth of South California? I sighed and teared up with all of it: sadness, relief, regret and joy.
[Well, not so fast, Roberto Eeyore! It hardly needs saying, but if I’ve read any of my own stories of young adulthood, it's already known that my arriving in Seattle was definitely not the end of adventurous, foolish, Bobby!]