Rev. Steve Chambers spent the summer of 1973 hitchhiking from Lancaster, Pennsylvania to Alaska and back with his friend Stacy Stegemerton. This is an excerpt from the travelogue of that summer.
While there was a culture of comraderie in 1973 among the many hitchhikers on the road, there was the occasional edgy character as well. Early on in our trip, darkness fell on the Pennsylvania Turnpike and we found ourselves sharing an entrance ramp with a rather strange individual.
We were dropped during rush hour, just before a busy tollbooth polluted with other hitchhikers. We'd barely arrived when we were approached by a stocky, muscular man, reminiscent of Meat Loaf's character in the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Running a comb through a greasy head of hair and chewing a wad of gum, he strutted up to us and declared, "Ya know you can hide anything with a mirror". It made sense to us. In fact, we thought it was quite profound. We started to get the feeling that maybe we had stumbled onto some sort of a roadside philosopher.
He didn’t elaborate on much, but the definitive statements popped out of him like a Whack-a-Mole on speed. "The trucking industry runs this country, you know". He used the phrase "you know" often, as if to say, "You better believe this pal and if you don’t, l got a problem with you". So we agreed with everything he said.
But his demeanor slowly grew intimidating. "Wait a minute", he barked. "Are you a bird?" he poked his finger at me."Stick out your tongue!" l wasn’t sure if it would be better to be a bird or not, but l braced myself and stuck out my tongue. "You're a bird!”
“Stick out your tongue" he pointed at Stacy. Luckily, we both passed the bird test as our interrogator pointed into his own mouth and said, "See, l'm a bird too".
We heaved a sigh of relief.
Other hitchhikers wandered up and left as they heard the conversation.
Our friend spit on the ground and glared at us. "Ya gotta watch out for the slurps and serpents in this world. Then you have your giants and miniatures, your days and your nights, your shotguns and revolvers."
We had no idea which of these were good and which were evil, but we nodded along in agreement.
"I've reached the ultimate in knowledge”, he informed us. “I've been forward in time to 2015 and l'm an alien from a distant planet, walking among the humans on earth. I can be three places at once, ya know," He spoke in tangents, jumping from lucidity to insanity in the space of a sentence.
It was interesting talk, but we were wary of our bird friend's menacing manner and given the encroaching darkness and the lack of rides, Stacy and l wandered up the hill to find a place to sleep, somewhere far from our new friend, the man from another planet. He persisted in his attempt to flag a ride. We spread a plastic sheet upon the ground, threw out our sleeping bags and lay there, the well lit, bluish hue of the toll booth in the distance and the drone of tractor trailers endlessly braking and accelerating, washing over us, an invasive white noise. It wasn't a particularly restful place to sleep.
Shortly thereafter, l awoke to a loud, violent smacking upon our plastic tarp. Whack! Whack! It was our alien birdman creating room for himself next to us. “If he's reached the ultimate in knowledge, why didn’t he think to bring a tarp along”, l wondered. Here l am lying along the road beside a possible wandering psychopathic killer. It was the ultimate intimidation. We felt vulnerable inside sleeping bags?
We woke the next morning to find our friend gone. We packed quickly and hurried down to the ramp. We immediately scored a ride with a straight-laced businessman heading to Cleveland. The perfect lift! We threw our backpacks into the trunk and just as we were getting into his car, our alien birdman came running down the hill, requesting a ride as well. My heart sank. " Sure", said the driver and we soon found ourselves riding to Cleveland with a New Jersey insurance salesman and an alien from outer space.
After 15 minutes of silence, the birdman chirped, "Ya know, you can hide anything with a mirror". And he and the salesman were engaged in a discussion that was disturbingly familiar. Oddly, the salesman told us later that he thought the guy made pretty good sense. Maybe New Jersey insurance salesmen and aliens from outer space have more in common than we think. Around Pittsburgh, birdman began to get restless, maybe even nervous, fidgeting with his small pack. Somehow he didn't seem so intimidating in the back seat of a Monte Carlo, but his uneasiness made me uneasy. Was this where the gun would come out of his backpack?
"l'm goin' to the Indy 500, so you can drop me in Pittsburgh", he said. As enlightened as he claimed to be, his knowledge of geography was clearly limited. Without a goodbye or a word of thanks he jumped out of the car and strutted up the road. We never saw him again. He was Pittsburgh’s and soon to be Indianapolis's problem now, an alien off to observe the phenomena of automobiles racing in circles.
And l was as far west as l had ever been. Stacy and l were beyond the point of no return on our trip to Alaska.