"Go West Young Man"-
When I was in school, during study halls and time in the library, I could usually be found checking out the Atlases in the Reference Section. Those maps were where I wanted to be. After graduating college in 1971 with a Degree in Hotel/Restaurant Management, it seemed like the most natural thing in the world to hit the road and head to the West Coast. It was not that I was destined to be a Hotel or Restaurant Manager, although my fling with that career proved both creative, exciting, and often disastrous. The main point for me is that I was certain that profession would allow me to travel.
So when the time was right, I got a backpack, a jean jacket, and a borrowed sleeping bag, and stuck out my thumb. I remember it being such an exciting time. I had no idea what to expect. But I had a strong sense of adventure and the feeling that if I acted appropriately and moderately, and kept my wits about me, that everything would turn out fine.
Normally, it was fairly difficult to hitchhike around New Jersey, but my experience of traveling back and forth between between my home town of Westfield and my campus at Paul Smith's College at Saranac Lake near Lake Placid in far Upstate New York in all kinds of weather conditions gave me the confidence to go forward.
Once I was really ready to go, I had my mother drop me off near the side of Route 22 in Mountainside, NJ. She fought back the tears as I told her I would make sure to be safe and keep in touch. I waved goodbye and headed out to the highway ramp. It was just before sunset, and after a while, a guy with out of state plates pulled over and offered me a ride. Not expecting too much, I asked how far he was going. He said "St. Louis, MO" I couldn't believe my ears! It was thinking it might take me a couple of days just to get out of NJ, and now I was on my way!
As I threw my gear in the back of his Mustang, it started to rain. And it rained all night long. To this point, I had never been West of the Poconos in Pennsylvania. As we rode through the night in a soft steady downpour, the sounds of "Riders on the Storm" by The Doors with that long, low, slow driving beat, the twangy guitar, and the haunting baritone of Jim Morrison, seemed to play on and on and on all night long.
The next morning turned clear as as the Sun rose behind us and after several more hours my chauffer dropped me off in St Louis at around noon the next day. I thanked him for a lovely evening, and headed to the next Westbound Highway entrance. By late afternoon, I found myself passing through Missouri and halfway across the state, a man pulled over in an old station wagon and asked where I was headed. I said "California" and he said "Jump in" He hit the accelerator and took off down the highway like my life depended on it.
Now, I don't mind people who drink, and I don't mind people who put their faith in God, but what I try to avoid are drunken, raving maniacs screaming down the highway swerving side to side at 95 miles an hour in a car with one good tire and no front end alignment. By the time we got to the next exit, I calmly stated, "you can drop me off at the next exit. He slowed to a stop, almost, and as I got out of the car, he said, "I thought you were going to California" I said, "Not with you!"
I got myself together and took out a notebook and marker and wrote a sign that said "California or Bust!" After a short wait, a light green 62 Chevy pulled over. I decided I would be much more selective in taking rides from now on, but when I walked up and looked in the window, the guy in the driver's seat said, "Hey Bruce, Where ya headed?" I couldn't believe it! It turned out to be a guy I used to hang out with in a record shop when I was 15. And his brother was sleeping in the back seat. His name was Frank, but we all called him Fran. And Fran and his brother were headed directly to California!
Because there were three of us, it made it relatively easy for us to drive in shifts until we could drive no more. And that happened when we got to the middle of the desert in Utah in the middle of the night. We knew we were getting low on gas, and since the gas gauge didn't work, we started chugging slower and slower until we just dead stopped. It felt like Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate just a mile or so before he got to the church too late. I screamed, "ELAINE!" But there was no need, because we timed it just right to pull up to an all night gas station that was of course closed up tight.
We slept in the car till morning, and got gas and headed on our way, with me behind the wheel. Well, we got no more than a mile past the station when the Sheriff who had been sitting behind the gas station watching us for hours turned on his lights and siren and pulled us over for speeding. He said, "Kid, don't get out of the car, just follow me." We were really way way out in the boonies and the ride to where he wanted us to go was even farther off the beaten path. He pulled into the front of a dark dusty old saloon, and motioned us inside. We were quite a bit travel worn at this point, and when we walked in through the swinging door, it was just like the bar in "Shane". It turned out that the saloon owner was also the Justice of the Peace. And all the good ol boys down the bar were soon to be sworn in as the jury. The judge asked the Sheriff what the charge was. The Sheriff replied, "Speeding!" Then the Judge looked at all the guys down the bar and said. "What's your Verdict?" And surprise, surprise, it was a unanimous verdict; "Guilty!" they all said as they raised their shot glasses and beer bottles. And they laughed and laughed! And we wanted to laugh, too, but we figured better, since our hair was down to our shoulders and we were a looong way from home. The judge said, "Who was driving?" I said I was, and he said, "How much money you got, boy?" In reality I had about $350 on me, but most of it was tucked into my sock. I knew I had 2 $20-dollar bills in my front pocket, and I pulled them right out and said "$40 Dollars" He said, "The fine is 20 Dollars or 20 Days!" I gave him the $20. Signed a piece of paper that he promptly crumpled up and threw at the cat in the corner. He smiled a big toothless grin, and they all laughed again and he said, "GIT!" And we Got!
But before we left I bought a postcard to send to my mother. It was a famous old time postcard of a cowboy face down in the desert with a Vulture sitting on his back. It seemed so apropos! And I told her I would keep in touch! We drove off laughing, but knowing we were really lucky to have gotten out of there lightly, perhaps because it was only about 9 AM! We cruised across Utah, Nevada, and stopped in Susanville, California, because Fran knew some people there. We cleaned up and had a good meal and a good nights sleep. The next morning, Fran said that they were staying there in Susanville, and asked if I had any money I could lend him. I really didn't know when I would next be running into cash, but he offered me his old portable radio that fit well into my backpack. I gave him the other $20 in my pocket, and we said our goodbyes and I never saw him again.
I hitchhiked to Redding and then up I-5 to Eugene, Ore, stopping to check out Crater Lake on the way. By the time I got to Eugene, it was about 2 AM, and I later caught the only bus going North to Corvallis. I got to Corvallis at about 5 AM, and headed West. I got to Philomath, because that's the only lead I had as to where my brother Paul might be. Now if you can imagine a fresh out of Jersey boy walking into a Post Office and saying "Is this Fill-O-Math Ahr-A-Gahn?' You can probably also imagine being told, "Boy, You're in the wrooong place!" I asked the Postmaster if he knew where a Paul Tapley might live. He said no, but just then a guy pulled up in a hot red souped up Dodge Charger, and heard me, and said, "I know where he lives. I'll take you there"
We drove for miles twisting and turning on dirt roads until we came to this old farm house in the woods. A bunch of barking dogs came greeting us we drove up the driveway. the guy said, "That's it. Paul's house."
I got out, walked up to the door, and knocked, and my brother Paul, who I hadn't seen in 3 1/2 years came to the door, sleepy eyed, but with a giant grin on his face. It was SO GOOD to see him, I couldn't believe it!
We hugged and laughed, and hugged some more. As it turned out, there were two other people from my home town living in the same house. They were living there, making jewelry out of bronze, and selling it at the Saturday Market in Eugene. This trip and being there with these people started a whole new life for me.
3 1/2 days hitchhiking from Coast to Coast. What Fun!
The Road Not Taken
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, and just as fair
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
- Robert Frost
Copyright: 1979, The Tapley Collection
Copyright: 2005, www.TapleyCollection.com