“Coast to Coast”: New York to Chicago and Des Moines. Summer 1980.

ii. Counting the Cars on the New Jersey Turnpike

Thumbs out and let’s go… We took a bus to Newark, New Jersey, and started to count the cars… We chose Highway 80, our plan being to head to Chicago, then across to San Francisco, LA, San Diego…

Newark is really an industrial extension of New York: petrochemical works and factories; Bruce Springsteen-land, where Patti Smith grew up.

Standing by the side of the road in 102F heat; nothing stops. Then – something to put us 80 itself, a pick up. Dumps us in a bad spot ten miles on. Shit. Another, and another. I had an amazing view of the New York skyline as we went up a hill – I really regret not taking a picture. Still no lift of any length; then we start getting fifty miles rides: medium distance. Long waits between rides – but then who is going to pick up two blokes on the road?

We had one really fucked up loony, a total screwball who quickly said he was bi-sexual and how great it was to be at peace and totally honest; except that he was really fucked up. He was a psychologist, going to see an ex-boyfriend in Philadelphia. We got out pretty quickly.

But hey! Could this be true? yes – we had crossed the state line, into Pennsylvania. We were at a fork in the road, on 80; all the traffic was going the other way. We waited an hour maybe more, and then we were picked by someone who “hated niggers”, hated New York… a real redneck. Another lift; all the faces melt into one, all the names are completely forgotten.

Pennsylvania, along 80 at least, is forest. Totally green, rolling forest, a bit like a swelling sea. Badlands. And us, stuck once more in the middle of nowhere. It was latish – six or seven, before eight – but we hadn’t started until midday, and hadn’t had any good lifts until about two. The US has this very annoying 55mph speed limit, and most people stick to it. We were picked up by a pick up, and slept till 10 or 11pm. Fifty miles from the Ohio border – we’d covered maybe 300 miles in one day – half a day, really. We had coffee in a petrol station on a side road, trying to see if anyone was going our way – “where you headed? California? Gee…” Nothing, just local traffic. So at midnight we crash out in our bivvy bags behind the petrol station.

Morning, let’s get an early start. Look around the corner – shit, a police car. They’re onto us already, and we hadn’t even started hitching – it’s illegal on the freeway… Quietly, we got up, dried our sleeping bags in the sun, and hide. Eventually they go, and we follow them out onto the freeway. Thumbs out; sign out; flag – a union jack (hoping to appeal to the anglophiles…) out. The hitching is bad. After two hours, this guy picks us up in a jeep, playing Neil Young on his tape deck. A jeep, a friendly guy, and – he’s not queer!

Over the Ohio border. He cuts off so we get out. Past midday and we are starving. Another pick-up stops, a man and his wife, they’re really friendly; only going a bit, but they’ll put us down at a snack bar. They use their CB radio to try to get us a truck headed for California – a dream ride! Trucks are hard to get, but they pass you from truck to truck, using their CBs. We didn’t get any, though.

But we did get food. And a better place to hitch. Picked up by a loony; then a nice guy, who gave us his address in Newark in case we go back that way (a possible route out), his sister’s address in Laguna Beach, LA – a nice guy. But just short lifts. He puts us out on an entrance to the Ohio turnpike.

iii. Ohio: Finally On Our Own

Ten miles from Kent State. It’s about 2pm. Then it is about 4pm. All the cars have Ohio plates, driven by people over thirty years old. Shit. One lift, one entrance: four miles. Only local traffic, middle age conservatives (this is Nixon and Reagan country: Republican stronghold). No one under twenty five. Great. We hang around at this entrance – the one from Cleveland, Ohio (Pere Ubu come from there) and Akron (that’s Devo). Ages – and then a lift! Which takes us one exit. Gee, ten miles in five hours. Having no food, hassled by a turnpike official (he wanted us to hitch on a slip road to the slip road – we weren’t even breaking the law!). They don’t seem to like young people in Ohio, and these young people don’t like them. The Kent State massacre could only have happened here; it’s a way to get rid of the kids… They succeeded, ‘cos there aren’t any here now.

Except us. At 9pm, hungry, this 28 year old girl offers to take us back an exit. There is a truck stop halfway along, so we take it as it’s the only way we’ll get any food. We think we pass the truck stop on the westbound carriageway (she was heading east), she stops, we get out. She was 28 and had never left Ohio; this year she’s going to Florida to see her sister.

We were wrong: it wasn’t the service station. We now have to walk along the side of the highway; we clamber over fence, over ditches, across private property, hurry along the sides of the freeway; we are picked out in the lights of trucks as they speed past. It is a pure nightmare. We walk in silence. G drops his sweater, and goes back to look for it. I sit alone, huddled to avoid the lights as the shoot by. Time is lengthened; it is dark; then I see G coming back. He couldn’t find his sweater. We sink into despair: this could be as bad as it gets, but we’ve got to get out of this place tomorrow, and there’s only one way… picture us starving to death after fifteen days trying to hitch out of a Howard Johnson’s!

We seem to walk for ages, miles, when this cop drives along, and stops; we are so glad. We explain what we’re doing, and he’s really nice about it. he chats to us and takes us to the service area, tells us the best place to sleep out… Typical: Ohio producing such bastards that the cops are great by comparison.

Food. Howard Johnson’s food, but food nonetheless. We eat a lot, if not well. We wash – we felt incredibly dirty and grimy. The people in the restaurant all seem over forty, and conservative; G summed it up when he said they were simply ignorant, and don’t want to change – they’re happy to be ignorant, repelled by change or anything new.

We crash out where the cop had shown us, in depression.

We were woken by dogs barking at us, behind a fence. They carry on for ten minutes, then I go back to sleep. They wake us again later, and this time we get up. By the time we’ve had breakfast, it is 10.30.

Thumbs out. One guy, about 18, stops; he tells us what a dump it is, but he’s only going one exit. We let him go. Everybody we met on the road said the same thing about Ohio: it is a dump. The only good thing we heard was from a guy who was in love with a girl from Ohio; but she’d moved to Colorado.

Pissed off, we sing to keep our spirits up. I’m so bored with the USA… Yanky detectives always on tv cos killers in America work seven days a week… Let’s forget the stars and strips, let’s play the Watergate tapes

G went off to check for truckers, to see if they could give us a lift, but they all gave insurance as an excuse. As he was doing the rounds, I hailed a car, and I drew to a stop for me. He was going to Madison, Wisconsin. We had it made.

Apart from the fact that we would have taken any to get us out of there, this was a really good lift. The only drawback was, you guessed it, the driver was queer. He was also a very nice, kind hearted bloke, and he didn’t change his attitude when we said we’d rather get out at Chicago than stay the night in Wisconsin. He had a rather odd set up in his flat, from what we could gather, and we didn’t want our stuff ripped off. He bought us food and soft drinks on his expense account, and both G and I had the impression he was trying to impress us. He tried to make Madison sound like a Utopia – very young, liberal, students, and so on.

iv. Chicago, Chicago.

The road to Chicago seemed barren. Downtown – our destination – was surrounded on three sides by industrial wasteland stretching for twenty or thirty miles in each direction. The fourth side is taken up by Lake Michigan – which used to be the most polluted stretch of water in the world. The desolation of the conurbation – vast areas of piping and tubes, steam valves, an industrial nightmare – was horrific. technology gone wild. The heart of an industrial darkness, laid ruin to an area so vast to be almost incomprehensible. Mayor Daley, he dead.

We reached downtown – after travelling through this urban hell of factories and production plants and freeways – a real concrete jungle – in a state of angst and paranoia. The roads were almost impossible to navigate – the driver had to follow the Sears Tower. We said goodbye to the driver and left him to drive on to Madison. It was 8.30pm, dusk, so we set about finding a hotel. We dumped our bags in a left luggage locker at the station – if we hadn’t found somewhere to stay by 11pm, we could take a night train west, and start hitching the next day. We phoned around a list of hotels, all of which had no rooms. We looked for some places in our guide; one address was a hole in the ground – but the guidebook said it should be demolished. Another was full. We saw a place across the road – $25 for the two of us, not too bad, so we took it.

Chicago felt oppressive and violent, but once we’d got our stuff into a room and could relax, it was a lot better. They even had Python on tv (and we didn’t expect the Spanish inquisition). We went out to find some real food, and entered a dubious cafe around the corner: it was full of nipples and tramps and policemen. We reckoned the police would know cheap places to eat, and at least there wouldn’t be any trouble with the police there, so we went in. The people behind the counter seemed mentally slow. It seemed like an odd place. After that, we wandered.

I ended up liking Chicago a lot. We had an amazing hamburger (our best hamburgers were all from takeaway joints – though the food wasn’t precooked. We thought it would be plastic, just like the omnipresent Mac’s, but it was as good as any) and a fun walk. Chicago, along with a lot of other places, had a 21 year old age limit on drinking, and ID was checked, so we couldn’t drink. So nightlife was limited; and after seeing the sights, we left. After Chicago, I faked my ID – crudely altering my age – but it seemed to keep everyone happy. G couldn’t change his, and got a lot of hassle.

 Chicago, August 1980 Chicago, August 1980  Chicago, August 1980

To get out of the sprawling urban horror show, we took a train to Joliet, on the edge of the mess at Highway 80. It cost too much to go to Omaha or Kansas – and we reckoned we have just the same trouble hitching there.

After waiting two hours in the sun, getting pissed off – we were on the verge of going back to the train station, and flying to San Francisco from Chicago – a car stopped; we got in. In fact, we’d misunderstood – he only took us about five miles; but it meant we had to go on, because the only way back was to cross the road and try our luck hitching!

We then got a guitarist going to a gig in Des Moines, a cool Mexican guy. He’d left home at 14, hitched about… a very nice bloke. At Des Moines, we were picked up by a girl driver who took us to the other side of the ring road. We’d done pretty well – another three hundred miles or so – and then this van stopped. At first, they only seemed interested to know if we had any dope, but we talked them into giving us a lift. This was lucky: it was a good ride – Omaha that night, and then onto Denver the next day, about 700 miles in all. On top of that, they were interesting too: two guys, one another hitcher – a Vietnam veteran – the other this type of hippy, who was moving to California. The vet talked about Vietnam – we asked naive questions. He was also an ex-heroin addict – he said that most of his platoon were on heroin, amongst anything else they could get their hands on. It felt like a very cool ride: drinking Budweiser and Coors out of the can, sharing food – real trucking across the States bohemian stuff.

Wow, man…

 Midwest, August 1980  Reflection in the mirror, August 1980

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