Here’s a postcard dated October 5th, 1959 that I sent to my mother from the road. On the front is a picture of the Pennsylvania Toll Road. On the back it says, Dear Mom, Just a line to let you know traveling is the best thing in life. Your loving son, Andy.
I sent that postcard from a rest stop near Mechanicsburg, PA. I was headed east to New York but this was as far as I got, and shortly afterwards I turned around and hitchhiked back to Chicago. I was seventeen and it was my first time on the road.
I was hanging around the corner one night bored and restless, lounging on the fender of Billy’s car parked in front of Alba Bowl. I was talking about hitchhiking to New York. On The Road was in my blood that summer. Kerouac’s wild storytelling moved me and excited me like no other and the road seemed filled with possibility. Billy said “How you gonna do it,” so I spun out my idea of how you could go the whole way on the toll road, never leave it and be in NY in a couple of days. I had no real plan, no clothes except what was on my back and only a few bucks in my pocket, but the moment beckoned when he offered a ride out to the highway, so why not? We piled into Billy’s car and headed down Lake Shore Drive to the Chicago Skyway, that giant bridge that leads out of town and then onto the toll road headed east. The Skyway zoomed us up above the buildings, flew us through the air sailing over the wastescape of East Gary, then landed us on the Indiana Turnpike where Billy drove me to the first rest stop. Pulling into the parking lot he dropped me off, said goodbye and headed back to town. I stood there on the apron taking it all in. What hit me right away were the signs that warned against hitchhiking. They stood right there at the ramps that led out onto the highway and they promised trouble for a guy with his thumb out.
I walked back to the restaurant and hit the counter for some coffee. Families wandered amongst the postcards eating candy bars, truck drivers sat down at the back end of the counter, drinking coffee and having their conversations of the road before heading out. I knew I would have to approach them but not out in the open like that. I finished my coffee and walked back outside into the chilly evening. The trucks were parked around back, motors idling, smelling of diesel and rubber and chrome.
Pretty soon a driver came around back, headed for his truck. “Hey” I said, “I’m trying to get to New York, you headed that way?”
“Can’t take no hitchhikers” he said and climbed up into his cab. Two, three more, and then a guy said “Not here, I’ll pick you up down there” pointing to a place by the edge of the lot. I walked over there and watched while he made his rounds, thumping the tires and inspecting the lights. Finally he climbed up and settled into the cab. He swung around slow and idled up to where I was waiting. I jumped up on the step, swung the door open and slid onto the seat. I was on the road!
The cab was enormous, the seat big as a sofa. The driver shifted gears over and over winding the motor up, than clutching to the next gear, the blower whistling the changes as we made our way out onto the slab. Looking out the plate glass windshields, I saw a kings eye view of the road ahead. We rolled along for hours telling our stories and talking about life, the night surrounding the cab and making it my whole universe for a while. He dropped me off at a rest stop in Ohio sometime near daybreak and I repeated my plea to outbound truckers until I found another one, and so sailed on until I was dropped off at the Cumberland Valley Service Plaza outside of Harrisburg PA.
I thumbed there for hours while the sun baked me, broke now, and hungry and growing scared that someone at the plaza would report me for hitchhiking and vagrancy. But before then I wrote that postcard and mailed it back to Chicago. At that moment I was happy and free.
In the late afternoon I lost my nerve. The toll road is a closed system. There’s no way to walk to town to beg a meal, or up the road a few miles to a crossroads where your luck might be better. Once you’re out on that road there are only two choices: ahead or behind. I decided I had better head back before I got busted.
Switching to the other side brought immediate results. It wasn’t ten minutes before a guy in a Peterbilt picked me up and carried me most of the way back. Taking pity on my story he bought me a generous meal and when he dropped me off he gave me a few bucks to get a bus back home through the Chicago streets. So I went home.
I walked into a shitstorm of anger and recrimination. I hadn’t bothered to call my mother to tell her of my leaving. Left to imagine the worst she had done exactly that. After a while though, she settled down, she always did. So then she fed me and let me lay down in clean sheets and let me sleep for a day and a night and she forgave me. Some years later, she sent that road postcard back to me along with a letter that told about what it was like to be my long-suffering mother. Here’s a piece of it.
“You just left home one day & were away about 4 or 5 days — do you remember it? I was frantic — called Albany Pk police station, Harry R,. your friends — our relatives — I lived through a nightmare until you appeared again unconcerned, not realizing what you had done”.
Doesn’t sound like fun, even to me.
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