By Robert Wolf
Decorah, IA, USA
(Background: For twenty years—from 1962 to 1982—I periodically hitchhiked and rode freights across country. The people I met and the experiences I had gave me a measure of the people's—and the country's—character.)
In the years when I first roamed America, I had no fears for myself. I was young. For the first fifteen years of wandering, I never encountered antagonisms, or threats, or danger. The people who helped me, and they were many, were genuinely solicitous for my well-being—even the bums on the Phoenix Skid Row.
But I was far from the only young male wandering the country. Many others were hitchhiking across America. For each of us this was an exploration, a discovery of others and of ourselves, an unknowing test of our abilities and limits.
There existed in America in the early Sixties a wonderful energy. John Kennedy, a young man coming to office after the elderly Eisenhower, exuded optimism. His assassination checked it, but Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty and Civil Rights legislation gave us new hope. In a 1964 commencement address at Howard University, Johnson said, "Freedom is the right to share, share fully and equally in American society—to vote, to hold a job, to enter a public place, to go to school."
In the early Sixties I wrote a long paragraph meant to be the introduction to a book on America. The paragraph consisted of a string of iconic American images—places and things I had seen. It ended by calling America "a giant of the morning."
So I believed it to be.
I believed then, as possibly others believed, that America was just coming into power, that it was like a young man stretching and readying himself for another day. The land was hopeful.
I was sure that the people of New Canaan were an aberration, that most Americans—tradesmen, and farmers, and ranchers, the working people of America—were good-natured. The broad smile and strong handclasp were for me a symbol of the comradeship I felt existed in small towns, on farms and ranches, characteristic of the essential American character. I had not read Whitman, but I too envisioned a land of comrades.
I was young.
When one friend read what I wrote about hitchhiking and riding freights in the early sixties, he said, "You had a lot of guts."
No, I did not. Not fearing is not the same as having courage. One has courage when one experiences fear but perseveres on a course despite it. I was impelled and excited to see Americans and the American landscape.
Another friend wrote that I was trusting. Yes, I was. I had no reason not to be. I had lived my life in safe communities, never confronted by aggressive or threatening adults. Besides, the news in those years did not focus on murders, fraud, kidnappings, bombings and mass killings. We white, middle-class Americans had not yet learned to fear our neighbors.
* * *
Even into the early 1980s life on the road was relatively safe. With one exception I was treated with the same kindness and generosity that I experienced in the early Sixties. The exception came in 1982, hitchhiking from Vaughan, New Mexico to nearby Duran. Before leaving Santa Fe for Vaughan, I heard from friends that bodies had been discovered alongside New Mexico highways. I called the state police to verify the story. They verified it, but still I took off. Outside Vaughan I was picked up by two men who, I was soon to discover, wanted to kill me. When they pulled off the road into a wooded area I managed to escape and from the top of a hill watched their truck traveling slowly along the highway as they looked for me.
Freight Train in America
Nineteen eighty-two was the last year I went on the road. Since then I have watched America from car and airplane windows, and twice while stranded on the side of highways. I learned much about the state of the American mind while stranded.
Driving out of Omaha one summer evening about nine years ago, I crossed the Missouri River and raced north in western Iowa, searching for an east-west highway that would lead me home. My radiator had a slow leak, and I stopped periodically to fill it with coolant. A hundred miles north of Omaha the needle on the hot/cold indicator went up all the way on hot. Steam flew from under the hood.
I got out, raised the hood, and began waving an arm to flag down a driver. For nearly an hour I stood and waved. Daylight became dusk that grew into night. Car after car rushed past. Finally one man, surely a knight, stopped and drove me to the police station in a nearby, mid-sized city.
Less than a decade later I was driving through Wisconsin in mid-winter when a tire blew out. I pulled over. My trunk was filled with boxes of books that I transferred to the back seat to get to the jack and spare tire. I am asthmatic and the cold air stimulates asthmatic reaction. I did not have my inhaler and moving the boxes was causing me to breathe heavily. I took out the jack and spare tire, but before jacking up the car, I needed to place rocks in front of the tires to keep the car from rolling.
I was parked on the side of a hill. There were no rocks close by, but I saw many at the bottom of the snow-covered slope. I made my way down, across clumps of grass, and found two rocks that weighed about twenty pounds each. I put one under each arm and began trudging back uphill. Halfway up the steep slope I had to drop one of the rocks and pause to get my breath. I was trying to breathe deeply, to suck in enough air to stop the attack. I could not. I was frightened, yet I had to continue to try and put on the spare tire. I brought the rock to the car and, still struggling for breath, dumped it on the ground.
I needed help. I could not stand upright. I began waving at motorists as car after car whizzed by. Why did they not stop? What could they be afraid of? How frightening could an old man with white hair be, especially one who could not stand up straight from trying to suck in air? As in western Iowa ten years earlier, I waited a long time before a man pulled over to help.
Clearly Americans have changed in the last few decades. I could have died of an asthmatic attack, fallen alongside my car, and still I am sure that few would have stopped. Perhaps drivers would think the prostrate man was merely feigning, hoping to trick a passing motorist into stopping and, when he did stop, clobber him with a tire iron.
I do not see how we can ever regain the trust we once had.