Saturday, February 27, 2021



May 1974

When he told me how to get to I-80 from his home, Phil, the motorcyclist godsend, had drawn a map.  I’d been turned around, the way he explained it.  I was now closer to the highway than I’d been when I was floundering near the Truckstop.  Once I found my way to the interstate it would be a straight shot out of Utah, across the state of Nevada, and into California.  It looked like I was going to make it across the country in four days.

It is early Sunday morning in Salt Lake City.  I begin to follow the map, walking toward the interstate. I have my thumb out.  Initially the only reactions to my thumb are unfriendly stares from those driving by in their Sunday duds en route, it seems, to church.   My hair is long; my clothes suggest college student leaning to the left and my thumb is out. I must be a heathen.

Eventually, a middle-aged fellow stops and tells me he will take me to the best entrance to 80 West.  Very good. However, it turns out that he is not quite sure about where to go. He is lost, he says eventually. He has taken me to a place that is nowhere. He apologizes, tells me he can try to find the way to the highway and, with his nose wrinkled up, points in the direction where he now thinks I-80 is. I decide to get out and find my own way.

Again, I stick my thumb out, now disoriented.  It’s been an hour at least since I left Phil’s and I’m not sure if I am closer to the Interstate than I’d been when I left his house.  I can’t follow his map anymore since I got the ride to the wrong place. A police officer stops.  He wants to know where I am going. I tell him California and I hope he will give me a lift to the Interstate. Not a chance.  He is not interested in me much and tells me to get the hell out of town.  No hitchhiking is permitted in this municipality he said. Am I no longer in Salt Lake City? 

“What municipality?” I ask.  He does not respond.  He snorts, and shakes his head either to mean there is no answer forthcoming or I am subhuman. There is no offer to drive me to the interstate ramp. No offer to drive me anywhere.  It is before 9 a.m. and I am unnerved.

I think I see a way to get to the interstate without walking on the roads where, apparently, in this municipality--wherever the hell I am--I’m forbidden to be. If I have my bearings right I can walk through a long field, probably 300 yards, and over a fence I see way in the distance, and then that would get me to the I-80 ramp.  

I trek through the high grass and eventually get to the fence.  There is barbed wire at the top of the fence, but I do see a ramp on the other side.  I have hopped over barbed wire since I was 8. A Brooklyn boy and then a suburban New Yorker, hopping over fences to retrieve baseballs that went off course was a regular occurrence. When I worked in the Catskills I hopped over a barbed wire fence every day for two months.  

When you confront a fence with barbed wire, you get to the top, put your foot on the top rung of the barbed wire, make sure it is on there securely and vault over.  Not hard. Hardest part is landing on the other side without spraining an ankle or splitting your head open.

I can see the ramp, so the barbed wire fence is almost welcome.  I want to hop that fence and get to that ramp as fast as I can and then flee from what seems like the most unfriendly place on planet Earth.  I toss my bag over the fence and begin to climb. I get to the top rung of the iron and then put my left hand on an un-barbed part of the barbed wire.  I’d then swing my right leg to the top of the three strings of barbed wire. Once I have that foothold, I’d launch myself over the fence, grab my bag, scram to the ramp, and get out of Dodge.  But I don’t do that. I don’t do that because as soon as I place my left hand on the un-barbed part of the wire I am flung backwards onto the tall grass and weeds of the field from whence I came.

The damn wire is charged.  Not charged enough to electrocute anyone, but charged to discourage people like me, I am thinking, from coming or going. Maybe to discourage animals, but I do not see any strolling livestock.  I am flustered and frazzled.  It doesn’t matter if the barbed wire is charged for animals, humans, or sub-humans.  I have to get over this fence. All my stuff is on the other side—my wallet, map, change of clothes, everything. Who knows if I could figure out how to get to my bag by going around the field.  And even if I could find the spot after circling around, who knows if the knapsack would still be there by the time I got all the way around.  I am panicky.

I have sneakers on.  I figure if I can get to the top of the iron portion of the fence, and then carefully not touch the barbed wire with anything other than my insulated foot, I will be able to vault upward and over the barrier. So, I try that-- but I am trembling.  I get to the top of the fence, see my bag on the other side, put my sneakered right foot on the barbed wire and, bracing myself for the charge that might come through even my sneakered foot, vault up in the air, clear the wire with the rest of my body, and fall clumsily to the ground.  I am unhurt and safe, but am  buzzing internally like I have had a dozen cups of coffee. I don’t stay on the ground long.  I grab my bag and start to run, just run away from this scary place.

I arrive at the ramp and then, to my horror, see that this is not the ramp to I-80 but to a secondary road.  This morning is like one of those bad dreams where you cannot get to your destination because something or someone keeps getting in the way.  I grab my Rand-McNally and see that this road will connect me to I-80 but not for a while.  I have no choice but to stick my thumb out. Almost instantly, a car stops.  It is a long hair and that is comforting until he starts to speak.  The guy has no teeth.

He says “howdy’” and looks like maybe he was an extra in "Deliverance.”  Another bizarro character in this bizarro morning. I tell the toothless guy that I’m frazzled. He laughs and mumbles something like I bet you are, being down here in redneck country. Then, he half chuckles while he drives me the few miles to the ramp for I-80.  I am still shaking a half hour later as I stand on that ramp trying to get a lift through Utah to the desert in Nevada en route to California.  Before I get out, no teeth gives me his card.  He is a rock band promoter, and he knows a band that will be bigger than the Beatles.  He’s always looking for new talent, he said to me.

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