The details that Mama remembers from our hitchhike over 44 years ago is remarkable. I could read this story over and over and over. I long for more experiences like it. That adventure has to be the reason that deep in my bones I need to travel… and specifically, to go on a backpacking trip. It was a time when I felt safe in Mama’s and Nature’s arms.
Then society took me away (she cried when school took me away from her) and promised pretty shiny things, if I sold my soul. And I did it thinking that it’s what I wanted, that it was the only way to survive. But there was a seed that was planted deep within me when I learned at such an early age that life is beautiful on the road and in nature. That seed went into hibernation until decades later my soul cried ENOUGH! Mama had long ago moved to Arkansas permanently while she could only watch me from afar, still in Texas since 16. But now the seed is screaming for me to fight my way back to my roots. To freedom and joy and wholesome people.
What follows is my edited version of what Mama typed up for me. Most of it is her words. I only filled out her shorthand, corrected grammatical errors and punctuation and changed it to first person.
Hitchin’ with Hippies
Mama left Daddy on a bicycle, taking almost 4 year-old me, along with a change or two of clothes and my favorite doll. She pedaled us to her friends where we slept in her son’s room. They gave her dibs on cases of pop bottles to sell for cleaning out the garage. She’d take what we could carry each day or so, buying a treat for her friend’s son and me and pocketing the rest. We walked a different route each time, going out of our way to pick up other discarded bottles (a nickel each). We enjoyed the outing and new scenery. It was good to get out of the house.
When Mama’s friends were moving to an apartment in Sherman we moved our stuff right along with theirs. But then the manager told us that two families could not live in one apartment.
The last night in the house, Mama left me with them to take a walk to decide what to do about our situation. This was a time when leaving your husband was very frowned upon. She wandered all around the neighborhood thinking how we’d spent many nights earlier that Spring outdoors… at the Catholic cemetery… or in the alley under a big bush where all the dogs knew and protected us. Or when it was too cold, we stayed at the hippie-house where my Aunt’s friends lived.
So she decided not to go back to Daddy. Mama pumped gas, washed windshields and checked oil, usually with me on her back, at a then new self-pump gas station. She made good tips and people wanted to feed me. The station sold milk and juice and ice-cream and honey-buns so we’d have those if we needed a meal.
As Mama walked and pondered these things, she figured she could save enough by cold weather to rent a place for the winter. She noticed someone crossing the street and looked up to see a big blond, frizzy-curly-haired-bearded man with kind smiling eyes. She didn’t even notice one eye was glass.
Gene said he paid the rent and bills at the house on Baker street to which he pointed. Anyone who needs a place to stay was welcome to. He’d watched Mama roam the neighborhood with something obviously weighing on her mind. He’d seen her walking with me and on her bicycle with me in the seat (often napping) behind her. “I have a bicycle too,” he said, “no car.”
We went to check out the house where Gene paid the rent and bills. We sat on the porch for a bit with Gene and PanDukey, his friend’s dog. We walked back to Mama’s friend’s house. They had bought pizza for supper. We watched their son while the adults moved a load… bedstead on top of mattress on top of car. They were spending the night at the apartment and said we could stay the day or two that the rent was paid up at the house. Water and gas were on although they had sold the kitchen appliances. Mama was so grateful for their hospitalities, so she waited until after they left to load our few belongings into her backpack and bike basket and put me in my seat on the back. We rode around until about 11pm then we went back to the house where Gene paid the rent and bills.
They offered food, but we weren’t hungry. Gene said we could have the couch. Mama had told him the truth of her situation. He was a gentleman from the beginning. She slept on the couch with me protectively cuddled in the crook of her arm. In those days, Mama was eternally alert and slept with one eye open, literally [just a crack]. Some people came in, looked at her and said, “who is she?” And, “what a pretty baby!”
Gene gladly bought groceries and fed whoever drifted in and out. One friend came often, baking yeast bread or cornbread and stew or beans, macaroni and cheese, goulash, something. Mama often cooked cereal or bacon or sausage and eggs for breakfast before Gene went to work, making extra if anyone spent the night. And she often made her Oatmeal Carrot Health Cookies, that only me, her and one other roommate liked.
Mama arranged to get her sewing machine to the house where Gene paid the rent and bills and began patching jeans for many of the people who lived there. She replaced back pockets and worn out knees with psychedelic prints. She split seams to add material for bell bottoms. She began cutting squares from unwanted jeans for quilts and saved their seams for making rugs after she read an article in Mother Earth News (an underground magazine when it began.) She made me shorts sets from scraps and patched Gene’s clothes. She made me a red, white and blue shorts set with pockets from a bag of scraps that my great Aunt’s had given her from working at Levi’s the year they were doing patriotic prints in preparation for the 1976 bicentennial celebration. This is what I’m wearing in the picture below with “Papa Bear.” Mama doesn’t remember when or why I gave him that nickname. I was at ease with him… like with my Uncle or my Great-Grandad.
Papa Bear, me, and PanDukey, 1972
Even though Papa Bear rode his bicycle to his construction job, we sometimes rode for the heck of it. For miles and miles. We’d pack a lunch and not spend a cent. Was an enjoyable time of our lives. Papa Bear brought home bits of bright colored paint that had been thrown away and painted his bedroom a gorgeous royal blue and the window sashes a bright yellow, red or green.
Papa Bear came in from work one day with a banged-up elbow. He’d wrecked peddling his 3-speed so he took a couple of weeks off to heal. So we slept in. Mama and PapaBear had a leisurely breakfast while I snoozed in and out with the kitten I’d talked him into letting me bring into the house. My reply to his why… “it’s lonely.”
Papa Bear asked Mama what she planned to do that day. Laundry. Instead of going to Grandma’s as usual, we went to the laundromat. School had been out only a few days. It was hot so we walked around back to climb onto the roof where it was shady.
“Why don’t we take a trip while I’m on the mend,” Papa Bear said.
“On bikes,” Mama asked.
“No. Hitch’n,” Papa Bear said. “To Arkansas.”
It was a glorious day. Sunlight danced around me as I flitted from Mama to Papa Bear. I climbed onto his shoulders for a ride into the laundromat to gather the clean wet clothes. Mama liked this idea of his. Seemed good. She hung the clothes on the backyard clothesline while Papa Bear and I checked on the few garden plants.
Then we rode to Gibson’s where Papa Bear purchased soda and graham crackers, dried beef, peanut butter, Vienna sausages, sardines, raisins, prunes. We got chopped dates from the baking section and chocolate chips to add to our jar of trail mix.
Someone had given me a square psychedelic zippered suitcase for Christmas. We packed the food in it and had room for a loaf of whole wheat bread. I carried it the entire trip. As we used up something from it, I’d have a flower, rock, or something to put in its place.
Papa Bear had one of those big serious backpacks with an aluminum frame and room for a bedroll on the bottom. We had two blankets, one pillow. Mama and Papa Bear had one change of clothes and one long sleeved shirt each. They had two changes for me and my doll, I didn’t need more because I never wet the bed when we were with Papa Bear.
Mama carried a roomy cloth shoulder bag with personal hygiene items… a toothbrush and deodorant were all Mama required – and our vitamins – I was taking 2 chewables with iron a day… Mama took brewer’s yeast, A, C, and a multiple, and perhaps some alfalfa leaf.
While we were packing, a girl who’d been busted and her parents kicked her out came by to see if she could stay at Papa Bear’s. I asked her to feed my kitten and “don’t forget to pet her,” I added. She drove us out of the city limits so we wouldn’t have to walk.
“What’s hitch hikin’, Mama,” I asked.
“Well, you stand by the side of the road, stick out your thumb to let people know you’d like a ride and see who stops. If it’s a nice person and they’re going your way, you get in,” Mama said.
“How can you tell if they’re nice,” I asked.
“You look ’em in the eye,” Mama said.
We didn’t even get a chance to thumb it. As I prepared the stance, a white 4-door sedan with a man driving stopped to pick up us while our previous ride was still at the turn-around. Papa Bear sat in front.
He took us to Durant. I held my suitcase in one hand and stuck out my thumb just like Papa Bear showed me. It was a young family this time. A girl older than me and a boy younger. We piled in the back. The girl and I changed our doll’s clothes and played with whatever toys they had all the way to the south side of McAlister.
Two men in an old pickup containing masonry tools gave us a lift through town. We rode in the back and loved the wind in our hair.
This is where we walked for awhile because there wasn’t much traffic. Papa Bear had a goatskin Canteen for water. Or was it made of goat’s stomach? In any case, it held quite a lot, expanded. I liked to drink from it.
We took the opportunity for a lunch and potty break in the woods. Then we walked some more cause hitch’n was illegal on that stretch of road. A Highway Patrol stopped to chat with us. Papa Bear did the talking.
“Just walking,” Gene said, “’til just before nightfall when we’ll stop for the night wherever we find a good spot.”
Mr. Highway Patrolman thought I was precious. He told us to be careful.
It was hot. We may have walked 20 minutes when we got a ride to I-40. As they let us out, two vehicles pulled over to get us. The first was another family. We piled in back. When they let us out, the second car picked us up saying he’d tried to give us a ride before. He gave me a dollar.
It was getting dark as we walked to the rest area. There were hippies around a picnic table. Scrumptious smells wafted on the air. One of the girls beckoned to us. She wanted to know if we were hungry. I nodded my head. They were cooking wheat which would take a while. We waited maybe 20 minutes but it needed a little more cooking time. Mama was so hungry she ate it anyway, but I didn’t like it so I took some of their offered cheese and made a sandwich.
We had an enjoyable visit with the Hippies. They were good wholesome people. Mama mostly listened to the interchange between me and the two girls. They made me think, so I enjoyed myself in my quiet and studiously amused way. Mama loved watching me, learning me. The way I responded to new situations… serious and wary to begin with and remaining so if I wasn’t at ease but loosening up when there was peace. The more at ease I felt, the more I opened up, sometimes in quiet conversation or showing off, according to the vibes I picked up. [I’m still this way.]
Papa Bear spread a blanket on the ground, we covered with the other, all sharing one pillow.
The nice Hippies offered Breakfast. They were headed west and we were headed north to Beebe, so Papa Bear and Mama and I walked to the Highway where I stuck out my little thumb while wearing my best grin.
A man let us out at the Texaco on 65 at Conway. Papa Bear called his parents and I bought something with my dollar.
Me on the stairs wanting to go back upstairs to the Blacklight Room of the Fayetteville Head Shop was Mama’s last memory until a spot near Mountainburg. There, Papa Bear left us for a while by a wide shallow creek about 15’ across and a little way up. We sat in a 1-foot or so waterfall, then explored for plants, bugs, interesting rocks, water-worn glass, etc.
Shortly after Papa Bear returned, some boy came and took us to another creek. There was a faint path up a rather steep wooded hillside. We walked up to what we called a “cave” that was just an overhang of rock, but it was shelter from sun, wind or rain. Papa Bear checked a spot where he found a pot, pan, spoons, bowls, a bag of potatoes and onions – which we used and left dried pintos for the next hitchhikers.
Papa Bear did the cooking. Mama and I were satisfied with very little but he was always hungry.
Mama enjoyed the night on the ground on Papa Bear’s spread out sleeping bag. We used our dirty clothes for pillows and the extra blanket for cover. She felt safe there in the wilderness and put me between her and Papa Bear, cradled in her arm. We could see the moon and stars through the trees.
We had fried taters and onions for breakfast and left a pot of beans cooking in a small depression in the ground with a wire rack over it. It was out of the wind and next to the rock wall to reflect heat.
Next morning, four or five of his young friends came to take us to the closest swimming spot. Mama didn’t like his friends. They were empty. She and I were in the middle of the back seat. She took our vitamins out of her bag, gave me mine and put hers in my hand – as I aimed them toward my mouth the kid on her left dropped something into her hand just as momentum landed them into her mouth. She quickly washed them down with whatever she had (probably beer.) She’s sure I had Dr. Pepper [and I’m sure too because Dr. Pepper was one of my first words.] There was no bottled water in those days. As soon as she swallowed she realized it was a hit of acid Papa Bear had gotten at Ft. Smith.
But nothing seemed out of the ordinary within her as we parked and walked to the swimming hole. She and I went into the water. Papa Bear was examining a leaf and called her over. She got all caught up in the veins of that leaf while the color’s danced. Rainbow colored good natured vibes surrounded her. All was fantastic and well with the world. She heard, as if it was from a TV playing in another room, “Mama.” Then another, “Mama.” The third time obviously expressed a need for help and she realized it was me calling her. I was covered with biting ants and was prepared to jump into the deep water. She immediately came back down to earth.
There was a snake on the path back to the cave. Next day, Mama wouldn’t go with the friends so she and I stayed around camp. The creek wasn’t too far and we got chiggers but it was better than being with them.
All the food was gone. My square psychedelic zippered suitcase was now the carrier of odds and ends of souvenirs. Then it was time to go back to Texas, and Mama was ready. She didn’t enjoy the time at Mountainburg. She wanted to put me on the old blue bicycle and just ride.
She doesn’t remember the trip home. Regretfully, I don’t remember anything of the whole adventure except one snippet of a memory of a mobile phone in the front floorboard of a car driven by a man whom I vaguely remember. Mama said he let me call Grandma.
The last nice man to give us a ride let us out at a stoplight by the RR tracks on Armstrong. We walked home to the house where Gene paid the rent and bills. PanDukey had had pups.