On the Road

(or, the Road’s On Me)

I’ve had a three-wheeled shopping cart’s full of mind-blowing experiences, which is why my mind is essentially an aggregate of colorful chips and moldy leaves. But for a sustained period of mind-blowing (besides the whole of the years from ‘68–‘76), the 6-week period when I was 17 and hitchhiked from Vancouver to a small town in Ontario and back was an On the Road of fun, madness and peril.

Drivers driving stolen cars, drivers who tell you that they are JUST coming on to their first hits of acid (and smiling at you in that special way as they accelerate to lunatic speed), drivers pulling out guns “just to show you that there won’t be any problems,” a van full of people ALL on acid, playing Blue Oyster Cult at ear-bleeding volume, and insisting, and I mean insisting, that you ride with them for HOURS, drivers who wept, cursed and wanted so much to share their tiny chewed rag of experience that they could so succinctly express … in seventeen chapters, blow-by-blow as you weakly nod.

Best of all were the Suckahead Brothers (so dubbed because every sentence began with the epithet “Suckahead! Did you see that chick in the Pontiac!”), who were driving what had to be a stolen truck, picking up people left and right because they had no money at all (or professed such), cadging it from riders for gas and food. We rode over 1,000 miles with them back west to Vancouver, grouped with an ever-replenished truckbed of fellow hitchhikers, never less than 10 at a time, often 15 or more, so that people periodically would stand up screeching “Cramp! Cramp!” because there was no place to stretch your legs.

The brothers would NOT stop for anything except their own needs; one of their favorite tricks was to get a desperate rider (spell one “Tom Bentley”) to have to pee out the side of the truck, and then to vary their lurching speeds so that it was like peeing in a fan back at you. Oh, they did make an exception to stop when they picked up a waitress from a cafe and on the spot convinced her to ride with us, so she rode up front, and because one of them was desperate to win her favor, let her drive a manual-tranny truck outside of Banff on the Trans-Canada Hwy. at high speed with 16 people in the truck, and she’d never driven a stick before.

And they were urging her to pass cars on the whippy blind-corner roads at speed, which she did. They did stop for a couple of hours to have the enamored brother have sex with her in the cab of the truck while we waited. However, they were polite enough to warn us: another couple, two absolute strangers who had been picked up separately, had sex IN the truck while the Suckaheads drove. There were at least 10 other people riding along (though most were sleeping; I wasn’t). The coupling couple had only known each other for a couple of hours.

I was able to perfect some of my shoplifting techniques on that trip, because we were starving, so my friend and I would go into grocery stores, buy a tiny package of cheese and crackers, while we had stuffed the backpacks we wore in with cooked chickens from those heated barbecue areas and zillions of candy bars. Satan whispered in my ear a lot those days.

Anyway, it was one of those condensed periods during which I was exposed to people the likes of which I’d never met; I could tell a thousand stories from that trip (and I did—I wrote a bad novel based on that experience). One consequence of riding in the back of a pickup for several days was that when I got back to Vancouver, when I released my hair (which at that time was a combination of Jimi Hendrix by way of Albert Einstein, but longer), it stayed in its beaver-tail like ponytail. It had become a thing unto itself on the road, a wide, flat integrated object, not a mane of individual hairs. My friend’s mom had to chop the whole thing off, because no conditioner could untangle it. I’m sure the Department of Defense could have used it for weapons research.

You can find more reflections on writing and the road (and scads of “how to find your writer’s voice” writing tips) in my book, Think Like a Writer: How to Write the Stories You See, available on Amazon.