Hitchhiking Into The Unknown

I was watching the TV series “Call The Midwife” tonight with my gorgeous ex-fiancée. It takes place back in 1964. Two of the characters were old gay men, very much in love in a society where it was still “the love that can’t be named”, the love that at the time was still very illegal both in the UK and the US. And it reminded me of a trip that I took around that time.

Back in 1966, at the age of 19, I hitchhiked from San Francisco to Coconut Grove in Florida. Why? Of course, to see my girlfriend. And after watching the TV show, I got to thinking about that trip tonight—it was the first time I’d ever actually talked to men that I knew were gay.

I have to assume that there were gay men around when I was a kid and a young man, but if so they were firmly in the closet. And although by that time I’d worked as a cowboy, and starved in Alaska, and played guitar and sung in nightclubs in Greenwich Village in New York, the truth is that I was a total naif regarding gay men …

The first gay guy I met on that trip picked me up outside of Needles. Don’t know if you’ve ever been there, it’s a small town right on the border between California and Arizona, but it’s … well … bleak. Oh, not the city itself, it’s on the Colorado River. But the surrounding turf looks like this:

outside needles.png

After waiting a while for a ride in Needles, a guy picked me up. After driving maybe ten miles or so, he pulled some pictures out of his glove box, unzipped his pants, and began to engage in what in my youth we called “spanking the monkey”, or perhaps “hitchhiking to Chicago” complete with the appropriate hand gestures.

Now, that didn’t bother me … well, at least not too much. After all, I was a man on a mission, and any ride was a good ride … but when he asked if I’d like to take over the task “at hand” from him, I politely declined.

He was not at all happy with my answer. He pulled the car over, and told me, rather brusquely I thought, to “get out my damn car”.

So I did.

He hooked a U-turn and headed back to Needles. I looked around. The place where he left me looked like this in both directions:

straight road arizona.png

Now, I’ve hitchhiked thousands of miles in my life. Heck, by the time I was a junior in high school (11th grade), I’d already hitchhiked over a thousand miles. So even back then I was relatively expert on what makes a good spot to hitch. And I’ve got to say, this was one of the worst spots I’d ever hitchhiked. The problem was the speed. Every car was doing 70 mph (110 km/hr) or more, and when you’re going that fast, you don’t want to slow down for anyone.

Plus it was hotter than the proverbial place of eternal marshmallow-roasts, and I hadn’t expected to be needing water …

Eventually, of course, someone picked me up, parched and parboiled, and the trip continued. I got to Houston and was hitchhiking at night. It was kind of a skeevy part of the outskirts of town. I was exhausted. There was nobody on the road, and after a car went by I’d lie down to wait for the next car.

Well, I was so tired that I failed to notice that a car actually stopped. I laid down again and was nodding off. The car backed up right next to me and honked his horn. I jumped up, with my heart racing, and opened the car door and looked inside. The driver was a huge black guy. I hadn’t lived amidst people of color at that time, just the melanin-deficient variety, and I had lots of racial stereotypes in my head. I got in the car with the man-mountain, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t scared.

The human bear reached over and shook my hand, his hand totally engulfing mine. He introduced himself. As we drove, he said was the pastor of a medium-sized black church, and he invited me to come to their Sunday service. I apologized and said I was moving down the road so I couldn’t make it … while apologizing inside for the injustice that my childish prejudice had done to a good man.

So we talked about his life, and my life, until he dropped me off on the other side of town. From there, I hitched on down through New Orleans and into Mississippi.

It was nighttime again, a hot muggy Southern night with not many cars, so I was happy when an older guy picked me up. But after a bit, he asked me, rather politely I thought, if I liked men.

I thought “uh-oh … gonna get left on the roadside again”. But that wasn’t the case. He took my rejection quite calmly. He said he hadn’t planned to drive that far, but he’d take me to the next town. So we drove, and he talked about his world.

It turned out that he’d lived his whole life in northern Mississippi as a totally closeted gay man. He had a long-time partner, and he never cruised around propositioning young men. The two of them were happy, he said, even though they could never be honest in public about their lives or their love for each other.

But then, about six months before, his partner had died. And to me, the really moving part of his story was when he said that he’d been unable to mourn him properly. He said he’d seen people whose husband or wife had died. They could dress in black, and weep without any reason, and talk openly about what they had lost.

But all of that was denied to him. He had to pretend that it was just a friend who had died, and that it didn’t tear his heart apart to talk about it.

And so, in his all-too-human need for compassion and companionship, he’d taken to driving to the southern part of Mississippi, far from the little town he lived in, and picking up young men on the highway …

Until that point in my life, I’d never really thought about gay men and women as being just like you and me. Somehow they were strange alien creatures of the night who didn’t have the same emotions that I had.

But as I was riding through the warm, almost tropical night, listening to that poor tortured man pouring out his heart, speaking of the lost love of his life that he was unable to mourn, I saw past my fears and my lifelong prejudices. I saw that under the skin, we’re all the same—we all love, we all fear, we all laugh, and we all mourn those we’ve lost, whether we can show it or not.

True to his word, he drove me to the next town and dropped me off at a good spot to hitchhike.

Before getting out, I wished him well from the bottom of my heart, thanked him for his kindness, and I said I hoped he found another true love. He smiled sadly, and said in his courtly southern manner that it had been his pleasure to meet me.

And with that, I parted company with him, knowing full well that I’d just had a stroke of immense good fortune, and aware that I’d never look at being gay in the same way again.

So in that spirit, on this lovely spring-like evening, I offer my very best wishes to everyone, no matter who you might like to sleep with,


12 thoughts on “Hitchhiking Into The Unknown

  1. I do not know what the acronym naif stands for, but I imagine it pertains to naive.

    On that subject, when I was in the military during the ’60’s there was a rather effeminate sailor who took a liking to me, maybe because I treated him respectfully, at least that is what I’d like to think. Anyway, after he was discharged early, a matter of which I was not aware of until three weeks later, I expressed puzzlement about his premature departure. Others informed he was discharged because he was a homosexual. I asked what is a homosexual, and I thought they were joking after hearing the explanation – I had no idea of that fact of life.

    Anyway, God loves all his children regardless of skin color, gender, and sexual preference.


  2. The long road ahead photo reminds me of Route 66 through New Mexico but especially Arizona a number of years ago, well, really, many decades ago. It is hard in my mind to go back to way back then and think of the choices I made and how I turned out today. Well, to be blogging now means I have survived, most likely by luck than my own intent.


  3. Willis for many years I served as a trustee of a trust holding title to land on the Colorado River opposite Needles. I made the drive from Needles back to Las Vegas on several occasions and the road photo looks quite familiar. For someone who grew up and lived most of my life in the east it didn’t take long to figure out why people drive with their lights on during daylight in that environment. Speed limits do not seem to be an issue there.


  4. A lovely story, well-told.. It’s a strange tragedy that modern men are stripped of brother-love, and cannot mourn their Enkidu.

    Dragging sodomy into only turns tragedy to farce. And those men need to keep the their sodding mitts off vulnerable young teenage boys. Getting stuck with an inability to form a sexual pair bond with a member of your own species is an awful fate.

    One ought not encourage its propagation.


  5. This certainly brings back memories. I had an encounter almost exactly like your first one, except instead of a blazing desert it was a near blizzard, somewhere south of Chicago, not sure of the year, maybe 1970. Took shelter from the wind under an overpass, but it was hard for the rare passing car to see me there. I can remember to this day thinking ‘Wow, I might actually die here.’ A truck driver eventually picked me up. He said he didn’t usually pick up hitchhikers but he knew I was in trouble. It was hours before I was warm again.


You are invited to add your comments. Please QUOTE THE EXACT WORDS YOU ARE DISCUSSING so we can all be clear on your subject.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s