The deputy sheriff of Vega, Texas, chewed heartily on a toothpick, his feet up on his desk as he perused a paperback copy of Perry Mason’s The Case of the Rolling Bones. I guess it was a slow day in the justice business. I sat in a chair across from him, fresh from a night in the local jail. Somehow a pleasant jaunt across the American southwest had turned into a Coen Brothers film.
It all started innocently enough when my pal Don and I decided to see America by hitchhiking from my parents’ home in New Jersey to California. We were hoping to get our kicks on Route 66. I had no idea what we would actually do in California, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. We were a pair of scruffy looking young hippies and it was 1969, a month after the four days of peace, love, music and rain at Woodstock, which I missed unfortunately. We had little trouble getting rides and had a lot of laughs and good experiences, including with some sweet southern gals who gave us a lift and invited us onto their veranda for a cup of mint julip. I’ve never quite figured out why a female southern accent sounds as smooth as a glass of good Kentucky bourbon, while the male version conjures up a crude yahoo out of Deliverance.
A little later Don and I hit pay-dirt on Route 66, arriving at Amarillo, on the Texas panhandle. We were a little unenthusiastic about Texas so we quickly stuck out our thumbs and some local youths in a car stopped a few minutes later. “We can’t give you a ride, man, but we can turn you on to this,” said one, handing me a chunk of hash wrapped in tin foil. I hesitated for a moment because I had no shirt-front pocket to put the hash in, but Don quickly volunteered to put it in his shirt pocket instead. Bad move Don.
A few minutes later another car full of friendly young hipsters pulled over and we were on our way west again on Route 66. They lit up a pipe full of hash and we all puffed away until they dropped us off about 25 miles from the New Mexico border. Who knew there were so many dopers in the Texas panhandle?
Don and I were feeling pretty good and started hitching again, waiting for what we hoped would be our last ride in Texas. A few minutes later an Oldham County police car from Vega, a nearby small town of just over 800 people right out of The Last Picture Show, pulled over and one of the cops explained politely to us that hitchhiking in Texas was illegal. We could walk on the grass beside the pavement, as long as we didn’t stick out our thumbs, he explained, and if a car stopped we could get in. If we were on the pavement or facing the oncoming cars, however, we would be violating the law. Now that we had been warned, if he caught us again we would be charged. Fair enough. He and his partner got back in their patrol car and headed west. They were responsible for policing the entire county, meaning they would surely be coming back our way and we would see them again if we didn’t get a ride.
We followed orders initially, but realized fairly quickly that we didn’t have a hope in hell of getting a lift that way and 25 miles was a long way to walk. So, we took a chance and started hitching again. We should have kept walking until they passed us on the way back, but didn’t think of it. After a few minutes of illicit hitchhiking we saw the same police car heading east and realized glumly the cops were going to turn around and arrest us, which they did. We had a good minute to take action though. “Don, get rid of the hash,” I said emphatically. “Just throw it away.” He didn’t. I pleaded with him again and again, but he remained motionless and silent, apparently too stoned to move or think straight. The cops pulled up, explaining fairly enough that they told us what would happen if we broke the rules. They had no idea one of us was carrying hash, of course, but even in my hazy state I knew they would search us before putting us in a cell and that could not end well.
I was nervous when we arrived at the Sheriff’s office and county jail, but Don seemed cool, and causally mentioned he was thirsty, asking if there was a water fountain nearby. One of the cops pointed down the hallway and I came along for a drink, assuming Don would stop at the fountain. Instead he walked briskly past it and turned into the washroom with me following blindly. I quickly realized my mistake, however, and opened the door to leave just as a young cop burst past me heading inside. I heard the loud sounds of a scuffle and Don mumbling pathetically “honest, it’s the only one.” My heart sank. I was still a little stoned but I knew we were toast. Well, actually, I knew that Don was toast because they had nothing on me but the hitchhiking charge. I felt kind of guilty, but there was nothing I could do but be grateful I didn’t have a shirt-front pocket.
They booked us and put us in adjoining cells. I lay on my mattress quietly pondering the days ahead and what would happen to Don, while he struck up a friendly conversation with the drunk in the next cell. Later I asked him why he didn’t throw the hash away when I begged him too, but he never really answered. The next morning we were led down to the basement to appear before a morbidly obese lady magistrate, who looked and sounded as if she had just walked in off the set of Fargo or The Big Lebowski. The Very Big Lebowski. She told Don that he would be remanded in custody and could expect to be there for quite a while. He took it stoically. Then she turned to me and explained that I was clearly guilty of hitchhiking, which I acknowledged, and she said the penalty was two days or $20. I was well aware of Texas’s reputation for incredibly harsh sentences for even minor drug possession and told her that since my friend was going to be there for a long time I would serve the two days in jail to keep him company. She looked at me in disbelief. I suspect that no one who had enough money to pay the fine had ever chosen to spend two more delightful nights in the Vega jail. After a moment’s hesitation she replied crisply. “Y’all were here yesterday and y’all here today. That’s two days. Now get out of town!”
So much for that sweet southern drawl. A few seconds later she added. “And don’t hitchhike.” There was a bus station just down the street where I could buy a ticket to New Mexico, she added, saying I could wait in the sheriff’s office until the bus came a few hours later. I was secretly relieved that I didn’t have to spend two more days in the local jail and saved $20 as well, but at least I tried. I said goodbye to Don, wished him luck, scooped up my bus ticket and waited in the sheriff’s office.
The magistrate later entered the office and beckoned to me to walk down the hallway with her so she could give me some friendly advice. “I STRONGLY suggest that y’all tell your friend to get a haircut fo’ his trial,’’ she said in a slow but emphatic drawl. “He’ll want to look as much like a MAN as possible.” I swallowed hard and then pointed to a framed painting of Thomas Jefferson on the wall, noting that his hair was as long as Don’s. “Doesn’t he look like a man”? I asked. She didn’t even flinch. Instead, she calmly pointed at a photo of a nearly bald President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on the opposite wall, saying “Now, THAT is MY ideeyah of a MAN.” Clearly, I also fell well short of her “ideeyah” of a MAN, so there was nothing left to say.
An hour later I took the bus to New Mexico and never looked back. Or came back. Twenty-four hours in Texas was enough for a lifetime, although folks say Austin is a very cool place. I’ll take their word for it. I hitched on to California but quickly moved on towards my home in Edmonton. Along the way I got dropped off one night in Kalispell, Montana, met some great people and ended up staying there for a month, but that’s another story entirely. As for Don, I am happy to report that he isn’t still in a cell in Vega waiting for parole. He spent a couple of months there, but his parents paid for a good lawyer and got him out on bail to stay with relatives in Idaho. After a few more months the prosecutor dropped the charges on technical grounds and Don was a free man again. Beyond that I have no idea what became of him.