A Thousand Miles
It’s so simple. I walk to the highway, hefting my small duffle. I turn south and see the road swallowed by the horizon. I turn north and see on-coming traffic about to pass me. I step onto the edge of the pavement and point my thumb in that wordless and iconic question: going my way?
I’m traveling from Northern Illinois University to New Orleans, Louisiana, about one thousand miles south. It’s Easter break, 1961.
Imagine the moment, standing on one spot on the map of this country and choosing another spot, far, far away, and thinking, I will go there now. I’ll begin. All I have is a map, some clothes for bad weather and food for the first eight hours.
I am a young man from Round Lake, Illinois, a quiet boy who has grown in a small town in the 1950s in a functional lower middle class family, and I am not especially courageous and not at all worldly, but I am game.
After my early short rides, a semi-trailer truck passes me and pulls off the highway. I jog ahead, but when I reach the cab of the truck, the driver is beginning to move into the small compartment behind him, and we stare.
“Tired,” he says. “I was gonna sleep.” Then he sighs and says, “Well, you keep me awake talkin’, and I’ll make some more miles.” He gets behind the wheel again. I climb up and sit beside him, and he drives me all the way to a truck stop in Tennesee. He drives barefoot, chewing tobacco and spitting the juice into an old coffee can. I can smell the tobacco and, unfortunately, the feet, but he teaches me all the gears and talks of a week home with his family after just a few more thousand miles.
It’s night when we say goodbye, and I’m turned loose in a wide area of parked trucks with a shop and café nearby. I talk to people about getting rides and find that I’ve entered another country. I don’t speak Tennesseean. It’s part southern, but spoken more quickly, and it’s part country twang, and I just can’t capture it, so I say “Pardon?” again and again and strain to follow.
None of the truckers say yes to a ride so after a hot sandwich I move back onto the highway and use my thumb, and in a few hours of waiting and riding, I enter the Deep South.
This is Mississippi in the early sixties, and people are nervous. Several of the white drivers feel they need to explain the situation to the Yankee college boy.
“It’s really outside agitators that are stirring up the Coloreds. Probably Communists, ‘cause we get along down here. People know their place and everybody gets along.” “You’all up North think we hate the Coloreds, but it’s not true. It’s separate but it’s equal. Hey, we got a town just East of here, all Colored. Even got their own colored sheriff. Separate, but…”
One black man picks me up and smiles kindly and says nothing, answer’s only a word or two to my questions. I doze, and he let’s me off at an all-night gas station where he’s turning off the highway. I thank him. He nods and says, “Be careful,” and he drives away leaving me wondering, and very weary.
I ask the gas station workers if I can sleep inside the garage portion of the station and one of them shrugs, and I use the oil-stained floor and my duffle for a pillow and drop into the sleep of exhaustion.
Only a few hours later I wake up and wonder why. It’s still dark. I can hear only the occasional roar of a truck on the highway, and some sort of undercurrent: the voices of the two station workers who sit on chairs in a corner of the garage, and now and then I make out a phrase and think, Jesus, this is what awakened me, what they’re saying.
“…gonna kill some of these uppity fuckers. You watch. …asshole college guys, girls, too…. Think they’re so fuckin’ smart…. You watch… …go huntin’ (laughter) Yeah, go coon huntin’. (laughter) …get me a college coon…. Or one of these Jew girls comin’ down here lookin’ for trouble…”
One of the men moves outside to gas-up a car. I wait a minute, stand and stretch, thank the other man with a nod, walk out into the chill. The stopped car is headed the wrong way. I decide to stand on the roadside in the light of the station and try and get the hell out of there. I want to be in the French Quarter of New Orleans with two friends who are meeting me in two days. I want the jazz that’s there and the history and the adventure. I’m way too young to die.
The night isn’t quite over, though, and the danger seems to hang heavy as the humidity in the Southern air. Man in a sporty car picks me up, doesn’t talk politics, points at his glove compartment. “There’s a flask in there. Help yourself and pass it to me.” I open the compartment and see a flask and a revolver. Makes me hesitate, but I bring out the flask, close the compartment and take a sip of whiskey, pass it on, my throat burning with a cough I will not allow.
He sips and talks about cars and women, and when his flask is empty pulls into an all-night bar. A black man stands outside, giving us a very bad eye, but the man says “S’all right. No trouble.” We walk in, and the place is crowded and everybody is black. It goes a little quiet. I swallow, and my mouth is dry. A woman bartender is staring at us.
“Just want to buy a bottle. We won’t be drinkin’ in here,” the man tells her. “Sell us a bottle?”
She doesn’t sell us a bottle. What she does is spread her arms on the bar and lay her head on her arms like she’s sleeping. What she does is ‘go away.’ There is no yes or no. She just disappears. I wonder, in those lengthy seconds, what will happen, and I’m remembering the revolver in the car and also the Black man who gave me a lift and said to me, “Be careful.”
The bar owner comes over. I think he’s the owner. He wears a suit. My ride makes the same request to him. The owner stares, then nods, looks at the woman. She gets a bottle. Somebody puts it in a bag. The man pays and we leave. He sips and talks and drives as if nothing happened, and…nothing did, except for the tension and the humidity.
He lets me out in a pretty little town as the morning is rising, and he drives on. I walk around the sunwashed village, just to move and feel the warmth on me. People smile, nod. I feel all right. I am just a couple of hours from the French Quarter of the Big Easy, standing in the sunshine with enough money to buy myself coffee and some of that home-made bread I can smell.
I find the bakery with my nose, and it has a few tables inside. I eat my bread with a lot of butter and cheer myself with my coffee cup– a small move only I see. Well, Jer. You actually hitch-hiked, didn’t you, and you’re just about there. I sip the hot, sweet coffee and lose my smile and stare at nothing – at thoughts. You’ve come a long way, haven’t you, Jer. A long way.