Hitchhikers meet some of the most interesting people. Or at least they did when I was thumbing rides between 1968 and 1972, mostly in the US and Canada, but also in Europe and Africa. I even got picked up by some very nice moms whose own kids were hitchhiking. They felt an obligation to offer lifts to young people since other drivers were picking up their children. I told the moms that it was kind of them to stop for me up but advised them not to do it again. I knew there were some rough guys out there. Not many, but it only takes one.
One of my most memorable series of rides took place one night while heading east on the New York Thruway on the way from Edmonton to my parents’ New Jersey home. The thruway was a great place to catch a ride because you could hitch in the service centres, which were about 20 miles apart, by standing near the entrance back on to the thruway with your thumb out. It was usually very easy for people to stop if they wanted to because they were going slow and there was usually no one behind them. Every experienced hitchhiker knows that picking an easy and safe place for drivers to pull over and stop greatly improved their chances of getting a ride. Sometimes I just got tired of waiting and would approach people as they emerged from the restaurant and asked for lifts. I hated doing it, but the success rate was very high.
I was a pretty good reader of who would say yes (or no) and on this night I spotted an odd pairing of women who looked like a great bet and asked for a lift. They agreed immediately and I happily hopped in their car. They were two of the nicest people I ever got a ride with and I think one of the reasons we hit it off so well was that we were all outsiders. Especially them. One of the women was a very attractive, if gaudily dressed, professional stripper and the other was her gay lover, who was dressed more like a man and had a very short haircut. They made quite a couple. I was a ragged looking hippie with hair down to my shoulders and not too much cash. We drove off and were all having a great time swapping stories when a problem developed with their car and we exited onto a slip road off the thruway.
We got out of the car and tried to figure out what the problem was, but none of us really had any idea – especially me. I didn’t know and still don’t know anything about cars, even though I have been driving them for decades. The couple were wondering what to do next when another car turned down the slip road and pulled up behind us. Two very big and burly men wearing Hells Angels colours got out and approached us. This was turning into an Outsiders convention. We all walked on the fringe of society for one reason or another – and I was the closest thing to a conventional person.
The Angels were also friendly but took a quick look at the women and sussed things out. One approached me and asked if I had any dope. I said ‘no,’ which was true. “Hey man, those women are dykes,” he told me. “I saw one of them had a gun in her purse too. What are you doing with them?” I explained that I was a hitchhiker and told him the women were good people who had been kind to me. I assumed the gun was for protection.
It was dark and we suddenly saw some headlights as another vehicle turned down the slip road. As it drew closer we realized it was a New York State Highway Patrol car. The cops took one look at the five of us and their eyes bugged out. None of us were breaking the law as far as they could tell, so after giving us and the car the once over they told the women they would have to call for a tow truck, which they did. Then one of the Angels came over to me to say they were going and asked if I wanted a lift. They seemed friendly enough and, besides, I didn’t have much choice. So I thanked the ladies and wished them luck.
The two big bikers looked pretty scary but they treated me like gold. They drove down the thruway for quite a long while as we engaged in friendly conversation before we reached a rest stop and they insisted on buying me a meal. Halfway through it I was thinking that maybe the Hells Angels weren’t as bad as everyone thought. I knew they were into drugs and that bumping into one of their bikes was a good way to get your head kicked in, but they couldn’t have treated me better. Once again I think we hit it off because we were all on the margins of society. Then completely out of the blue, one of them turned to a woman at the next table and made the vilest sexual suggestion you can imagine of what he’d like to do to her. I will spare you his exact words, but his remark would have made Donald Trump blush. I think it made me blush to. My food caught in my throat, but the women simply stood up and moved tables. And the Hells Angels let it go at that, thank goodness. I was speechless.
We left and a little farther down the road they dropped me at my turnoff and both got out of their car and gave me a warm handshake and wished me well. I got a couple of good rides and made it to my parents’ home that night.
I have thought of that night many times. It’s been about 50 years but I still remember well the two women who stopped for me. They were clearly living in a rough environment on the edge of society, but they treated me with kindness and hospitality that has stayed with me. I hope that they were able to get by in life and find some happiness together. I still can’t figure out exactly what to make of the bikers, who were also very nice to me. Should I have spoken up when one said that horrible thing to the woman at the next table? Frankly I was too shocked to say anything. I suppose I should have, but it’s a lot easier said than done. Here I was, eating the food they bought for me and enjoying a long ride from them. I know that’s a weak excuse, but I was flat out scared of those guys from the moment it happened. I realized how dangerous they could be.
Maybe if the women hadn’t gotten up and moved immediately and the abuse continued I would have spoken out. I hope so, but I’ll never know.
Photo of Hells Angels from Life Magazine 1965