By Kevin S. Giles
Oranges rolling down the aisle. That’s what I remember about that bus. Bright oranges as big as softballs tumbling from a yawning-open drawer in a rattling dresser.
Roy and I gripped an array of battered furniture as the old school bus shook and swerved. The hippie chick stayed with her man up front as he drove toward Los Angeles. They were nice enough folks, completely trusting, as they welcomed two hitchhikers aboard. “Hey man,” the driver greeted us. We were young. He looked hardly older. As the man grinded the bus into gear, the girl guided us through a doorway of dangling beads into their apparent living quarters. Tapestries ballooned from the ceiling and music posters blocked light from the windows.
“Welcome to our home on wheels. Got any bread for gas?” She looked at me. I handed her a buck. Enough for more than three gallons at any Esso station. She smiled and slid the bill under a braless shirt and disappeared through the beads. The old bus jerked its way back onto the highway. Everything was in motion. Grace Slick, featured on a Jefferson Airplane concert billing from Fillmore East, danced for us.Take me to Kevin's books: One Woman Against War, Summer of the Black Chevy, Jerry's Riot
I propped my backpack against an apple crate with a melted candle on top. I was just eighteen and hardly knowing of the world. I had read about California. Beach Boys. Hollywood and movie stars. Malibu. Big Sur. Jefferson Airplane. Haight-Asbury.
“What the hell are we doing?” asked Roy, the straight sort.
“This is it, Roy, this is what we came for. Surprises all along the road, right? Finding America on the California coast? Stick out our thumbs to see what happens.”
You see, it was Roy’s idea to hitchhike on our spring break from the University of Montana. Back in my hometown of Deer Lodge, my mother didn’t think much of a teenager hitting the road in California where, in her estimation, drugs flowed like water and radicals ruled the streets. Five of us rode in a car from Missoula to Santa Maria, showered at the driver’s mother’s house, and split up. Roy and I bunked one night in an abandoned barracks at Vandenburg Air Force Base. He was in Air Force ROTC. We awoke and showered in ice-cold water. He shaved. I was starting a ten-day beard. We hiked to Highway 1.
After catching several short rides, including with a balding man in a small red sports car who tried to tell us how to pick up California girls, we saw the hippie bus approaching. Back in Missoula, everybody said hippies would stop for hitchhikers. It was an old school bus, painted green, tilting to the right and blowing blue smoke.
And the oranges rolled and rolled. It was 1971 and we rode on.
We watched clothes swaying on pegs and a kitten nibbling at something beneath a mattress perched on boxes.
“Just think, Roy. Think what’s happening here. California is the heart of the hippie revolution. We’re seeing it. Right here, right now, right on this bus.”
I hadn’t yet read Kesey or Kerouac but even then, I found romance in the nomad life in California. It was one thing to read about it, another to see it. Roy found it insulting.
“Hell, Kevin, get me off this psychedelic trip onto solid ground. Dream all you want. I’m no hippie.”
An hour later, he got his wish. Our friends rumbled to a stop in Malibu. They were headed into Los Angeles and invited us to join them. We were going south to San Diego to see my high school buddy at the Marine Corps Recruiting Depot. I was tempted to join the hippies. Maybe Roy, too, but he wouldn’t admit it.
As the sun fell over the ocean, Roy and I bought a few groceries at a corner market and hiked to a bluff above a canyon of houses back in the trees. We built a campfire and ate. We slept on rocks in our thin sleeping bags. When morning broke we walked back to the highway and stuck our thumbs into traffic along the freeway. At least a thousand vehicles passed before a Dodge Charger slammed to a stop, kicked into reverse, and squealed backwards to us.
“Jump the hell in!” the driver commanded. He lifted the trunk lid. We stowed our packs and climbed into the back seat. Neither the driver nor his male passenger had luggage but they had that desperate look. Being from Montana, I thought nothing of it, even when the speedometer needle hit 110.
“Stole this car up north of San Francisco,” the driver shouted over the tornado of wind rushing through the open windows. “Didn’t have a damn thing to eat besides peanut butter we stole and we finished it off. Got to keep moving.”
An empty peanut butter can banged at my feet. We streaked along the freeway. I glanced out the back window to see if the cops were chasing us. Roy didn’t seem concerned. We rolled along like madmen until our driver announced we were low on gas.
He pulled off into a grocery store parking lot. His passenger, a young man with a sideways baseball cap, jumped out and unscrewed the gas cap on the car next to us. He shoved a short length of garden hose into the tank, sucked on one end of it while balancing a lighted cigarette in his fingers, and quickly stuck the other end into our own tank. The gas flowed. A few gallons into the transfusion, the passenger saw somebody watching. He jerked out the hose while our driver revved the motor. We raced onto the freeway, riding in silence as the car charged ahead.
“You boys going anywhere in particular?” the driver finally asked us.
“San Diego,” I offered. “Not sure where.”
“Good enough for me,” he said, hunching over the steering wheel as the car gained speed. “Tell all your friends you rode in a stolen car clear down the California coast.”
Roy spoke up, talking to these boys like old buddies. I admit they were likeable. Thieves, yes, but I was learning that life on the road coughed up all kinds of characters.
“We rode with some damn hippies back there,” Roy offered. “Long hair and a creaky old bus and oranges rolling down the aisle and smelling like they were smoking those funny cigarettes. I thought we were going to Woodstock. What the hell.”
The passenger turned to us as the driver buried the needle. “How fast did that bus go?”
We raced into San Diego at dusk. Downtown streets looked mostly deserted. The driver skidded into an intersection and stopped. I figured he would drive away before we extracted our packs from the trunk, but he didn’t, and we said goodbye and wondered where to go next. We were tired and hungry and everyone had left their downtown offices to go home.
Standing alone in an empty city wasn’t as awe-inspiring as camping above Malibu, listening to the surf. Hitchhiking was a series of encounters, each different from the other, with each stop and go.
A man in a suit lingered on the street corner, smoking and watching us. Roy suggested we ask him where to find a place to stay. The man pointed down the street. “Walk five blocks thatta way, turn right and walk eight more.” He gave us an address and a name. “Tell him you met Al. Don’t give him no trouble.”
We started walking under flickering streetlights. A skinny black man sitting in the driver’s seat in a parked car called to us. “Hey, whiteys, come on over here for a minute.” He threw some cuss words our way for enticement. Being the hot-headed type, Roy took offense to his insults and wanted to go beat him up. I sensed he wasn’t alone in the car. “Keep walking, Roy.”
Half a block later we realized two men followed us. One was tall and rangy and swung his arms like he was looking for a fight. The other, short and built like a fireplug, stared at us like we were vermin. They stayed ten or twelve paces behind us. When we crossed the street, they did too. When we stopped, so did they. Finally, at the last corner before our destination, they turned and walked away. I’ll never know what almost happened to us.
The man at the house spoke through a barred window. He took ten bucks before showing us to a room with a wide bed. A single light bulb dangled over it. Sirens blared on the street. We wedged a chair under the door knob.
The next morning, we walked to a telephone booth. I called my high school friend, Rick, at the Marine Corps base. He warned us to stay inside. When Rick arrived in a taxi an hour later with his Marine buddy Red, they looked around at the battered neighborhood where we had survived the night.
Rick shook his head, offering, “I wouldn’t have stayed here with a platoon of Marines.”
We spent the next two nights in Rick’s billet on base. One Marine threatened another with a long knife. Two of them cried in the dark for their mothers after returning drunk from the strip clubs during the night. Roy, shaved and militaristic, fit in. My beard and long hair made me better suited for the hippie bus. The Marines gave me a pass and Rick stayed close to make sure they did.
He got us off base before his sergeant arrived Monday morning. Back to Highway 1 we went, sometimes standing among dozens of other hitchhikers, flagging cars for a ride. We worked our way up Ventura Highway, up north to where our ride to Missoula waited in Santa Maria.
The only mishap came when, in the middle of the night in a March snowstorm somewhere in Idaho, Roy fell asleep while he was driving. The car careened onto the shoulder, bouncing over rocks and potholes, before he got it under control. We all lived.
Still, it scared me. You can’t trust just anybody at the wheel.
Kevin S. Giles is an American journalist and author whose books have roots in his native western Montana. He published One Woman Against War in October 2016. Two other books take place in his hometown of Deer Lodge: a novel, “Summer of the Black Chevy” (2015) and the nonfiction work, “Jerry’s Riot: The True Story of Montana’s 1959 Prison Disturbance.” (2005)