|The Hitchhikers guide
to the revolution
By Ellen O'Shea
Summer of 2003
I was traveling 1-5 through Oregon when I picked up the girl with the dreadlocks. My usual questions are where are you going? And, then after a while I ask, "Where are you coming from?" She said she had come from West Virginia and had been to an adventure in Utah. I asked, "Were you at the Rainbow Gathering?"
"Yeah", she said, then she looked at me like how would I know that. I am middle aged and dress in Good Will store clothes that aren't too flashy. They get me by. I drive a pickup truck and sometimes when the energy feels right I pick up hitchhikers.
"Hey", I said. "So I heard that there was some trouble at the gathering this year. I saw some story on Indymedia about it."
She tells me about the Federal forest rangers showing up and trying to tow cars away that were parked along a road, and about two feet of snow that made everyone's life miserable. "It was really cold and you could not get warm," she said. She also told about the sense of community she felt. "I liked it that we all just worked and played together to take care of each other. There were people there from all over the world. A lot of them have been coming to the family gathering for years", she said.
I asked her about hitchhiking. She told me she started hitchhiking this time about two months ago. She was ready to go back to West Virginia, but first she wanted to see Montana and go to some more hot springs. She had visited many hot springs in her travels. She told about having to walk many miles into hot springs because in some places no cars passed by for days. She said she did not like visiting cities, just wild areas of the nation. I let her off just outside of Portland. She was trying to catch 1-90 by nightfall.
People tell me it is really dangerous picking up hitchhikers. But I find it is a way I keep my instincts alive. I train myself to know what is dangerous and what is not. I used to be really good at knowing. I got caught up in the corporate world and lost much of my instincts. That happens when you are told everyday that you know nothing and you should not speak, and they work you so hard you can't feel anything anymore. A couple of years ago the whole thing came apart. I lost my job, my house, my family and my community. I was really disoriented. I lost my place in the world. I lived in my truck. I had to travel a lot to have work and so I started picking up hitchhikers again. At first it was just women. Because I am a woman and I wanted to be safe. But later I got better at reading people. Also "magical" things begin happening.
Last month I was on my way back from Northern California for a job interview and I saw two people standing on the shoulder of the freeway just inside the city limits of Medford. What a dreadful place to hitchhike. I have talked to forest activists who have tried to catch rides near Medford. Some spent a whole day or two along the side of the freeway.
Anyway, these two people were really dirty looking. I mean their clothes were black with dirt. "Oh, boy", I thought. These two have two strikes against them. Medford and dirt!" Actually they had three strikes against them. It was almost 100 degrees out. Anyone outside for very long would be roasted alive. I did not have enough time to slow down to pick them up. The traffic all around me was going too fast. I became fearful that they might not be safe to pickup.
Fear is an interesting thing. Sometimes it is right on. Sometimes it is a symptom of cultural indoctrination. Many times if cultural fear becomes great it will block intuition. True fearlessness is not the reduction of fear; but going beyond fear. I try to use an intuitive process that comes out of my own inquiry and self-honesty, natural freedom is a way of "feeling into" my heart to uncover the truth in my daily life - a truth that will empower me to live with courage, compassion, and radical self-responsibility. Sometimes the still strong voice of intuition trumps fear. In this case, the voice just kept saying, "You need to go back and get them. They are in danger."
So, I went up the road a ways until there was an overpass where I could turn back to pick them up. As I got closer to the two dirty boys I noticed a state police cruiser parked next to the lanes of traffic. As I came along side to pick them up, I noticed that right next them, on the other side of a fence along the shoulder of the road, was another state police vehicle that had crept up beside them. This second vehicle had actually driven down a bike path to get close to them. The two hitchhikers had seen the second vehicle too and were now sitting with their heads down looking at the ground. I drove up and shouted for them to get in. They did and we sped off.
"Whew, that was close", one young man said. "We had been there for six hours and we were probably about to get a ticket for vagrancy. And, we were out of water and burning up", he went on to say.
Joey and Vince had been riding the rails. They were covered with the black gooey residue of creosote found in railway boxcars. They told me a wonderful story about having graduated from high school the year before and how they were on a rail trip around the U.S. In high school they had read about the American Hobo culture and had planned to travel around America looking for certain hobo's who had a great deal of history about the Hobo culture. The kids had been living life to the fullest for the last year. They jumped trains and lived in hobo camps. They dumpster dived for their food. Everything they owned was on their backs. They told me about an old hobo that they found who had taken them to a camp that was written about by Woody Guthrie. Vince said he lost his wallet and ID in a camp in Georgia. They had all sorts of tales of riding boxcars across America. As I listened to their stories I found myself feeling at ease with these youth and I became aware that I have a cultural bias against dirty people having worth.
"Once, it was at night and the moon was out and we were riding along," began Vince. " It was in the South. Anyway, I thought it was so beautiful and then I look down toward the ground and I see that all the ditches along the tracks are full of alligators. I can see them moving around in the water. That was kind of creepy but totally amazing at the same time." In my mind I can see what Vince was describing. We exchanged traveling stories and laughed about the narrow escape from the State troopers.
Vince and Joey were on the last leg of their trip. They only had about 60 miles to go and they could not wait to get home and jump in the local river and scrub off the black scum that covered their clothes, arms, faces and hair. They had a wonderful little dog with them that was happy as a lark to be with them. I drove them to Grants Pass and then got off my own path to take them closer to a highway that would take them home. I did not want them to have to get stuck in Grants Pass.
These kids were not the first I picked up this summer to get surrounded by cops. I talked to forest activists who had tried to hitchhike from Northern California to Eugene and were stopped and searched a couple of times along I-5. Many activists have been noticing the stepped up surveillance of hitchhikers.
I know about hitchhiking, because I used to hitchhike. I spent three years on the road when I was young. I started hitchhiking in 1969. I was 20. Before that time I was working as nurses aide in a small Oregon town. I had graduated from high school and was making 80 cents an hour. I had to live at home because I did not make enough to have my own place. My father married again and there were lots of kids at home still so I decided it was time to go.
Leaving that small town was the best thing I ever did. I felt as if I was escaping from a well-defined box. The walls of the box were closing in on me. I did not want to be defined by others. Everyone was pressured to stay in his or her own defined space. Anyone who dared to express himself or herself in a unique way was ostracized.
At first I looked at maps to study where I wanted to go. I found out how much it would cost to ride the greyhound or take a train. I had one big problem. I had a dog. And, I was not going to leave my Old English Sheep dog at home. Some people in my life told me that I was too poor to travel and I should just find some nice guy to get married to and accept my life as a nurses aide. I wanted to know about life. I wanted opportunity. I wanted to know more about the country I lived in. One way to keep people from knowing the truth about our culture is to make traveling really expensive. That way only the rich can travel between places. Or, if you are working class you don't spend much time in any one place. You visit a place as a tourist. However, you never really know the people or touch the land.
I loved to read and had read about all sorts of interesting places in the world. What was more important I had read about women who lived independent lives. They earned their own money and they went wherever they wanted to go in the world. They did not accept the limited thinking of the fearful and neither would I. Through books I heard the roar of the outside world -- a world where anything was possible.
There was something else. The anti-war movement was growing by the day. The working class was beginning to pick itself up and speak out against the war. More than 40,000 mostly young men, mostly working class youth, had been killed in Vietnam in just a few short years. Young men who I had grown up with were dying in Vietnam or coming back with horrendous stories of abuse, death and the corruption of the U.S. government. There was growing awareness that these young men were being used as mercenaries for corporate interests. Woodstock was happening in Upstate New York and someone told me about the "summer of love" happening in San Francisco that summer. I wanted to go into the world. I wanted to help make the world "right". I did not have a car. So I packed up all my stuff and hid it away in the farthest corner of my father's attic. One morning I got up and packed a backpack and put my dog on a leash and just started hitchhiking. I went to San Francisco first.
It was easy to get a ride. The hitchhiking culture had matured. There were lots of VW vans and old station wagons on the road full of flower power hippies. Big smiles, long hair, floppy hats - they would stop for every person they could cram in their vehicles. The vans were so loaded down the carriage of the vehicle almost scraped the ground. It was slow going through mountain passes. There was lots of weed passed around. I did not like the drug scene so I just smiled and made peanut butter, banana and jelly sandwiches for everyone. My dog Belle enjoyed every minute of it. She loved people and sandwiches.
There were so many people hitchhiking that a whole sub-culture evolved around the practice. At major freeway entrances in LA, San Fran, Portland and Seattle there were sign posts that were an amazing host for information sharing. You could find messages from friends telling each other which direction they were hitcing, or you could find information about where the Rainbow family was camping that year, or where there was too much police harassment. There were even listings for housing available in rural and urban communes. Sometimes people who needed day labor would go out to these hitchhiking hubs and hire people to work for the day. People in the cities would bring food and water to these hubs and drop it off for the traveling people. It was kind of a "food not bombs" effort. It all worked.
What was important about this network of hitchhiking support was that it allowed thousands of people to move from city to city, protest to protest, with very little money. The mobilization effort to stop the war including having very flexible humans willing to dedicate themselves to the effort for long periods of time with little or no money. In the cities there were community bulletin boards listing "crash pads" and rooms for rent. The capitalists were frozen in fear…they had not yet learned how to co-opt the movement.
I made contact with organizers in Berkeley and decided to help organize the mass marches to be held in the spring of 1971 in San Francisco. After the San Francisco march of over one million antiwar protestors, I set off for the next mass march in Washington D.C. Hitching up and down the West Coast was one thing, traveling across middle America was another.
The worst place to get caught without a ride was Winnemucca, Nevada. It was so bad that someone had moved some old chicken coops next to the road so that traveling people could have a place to get out of the sun and sleep at night. Local Native Americans and Hispanic workers brought out food, water and maybe even some toilet paper for the outhouse. The local white Anglo population would come by in their pickups and throw garbage at us or try to run us over. All us travelers tried to make the best of it. We played our guitars and harmonicas or made drums out of whatever we could find and made music all day.
I got lots of rides with long-haul truck drivers. This was before insurance and trucking companies forbade truckers from picking up hitchhikers. Truck drivers have lots of stories to tell. Truckers know that although the corporate media portrays the United States as one culture, it is really many different cultures.
"There are parts of America you just don't want to try to hitch through," one trucker said to me. "It even scares me a 'big white guy', in a big truck to go into those places. They have their own laws and means of punishment. They'd skin you alive if you tried to hitchhike through their territory, with all that long hair and hippie beads."
I carried two books with me to read during the long continuous miles across the nation. Often these books were the points of entry into some very interesting conversations with the truckers. The books I carried with me were about the war in Vietnam.
The last class I took before I went out on the road was "The History of Southeast Asia". The books were required reading. They were so dense with information that I wanted to read them again. I do not remember the titles or authors of the books. I just remember that my mind was blown wide open to the world of corporate dominance and man's war on nature and indigenous people. The professor who taught the class was considered "radical" at the public university I attended. He was fired two terms after he began to teach the class. However, the classes were so popular people would crowd into the lecture hall even sitting on the floor in order to hear. Many people were not enrolled in the class, they wanted to learn about what was happening in Southeast Asia. The books sold out before the class started. The class caused the small conservative college town to be turned upside down. Out of the pockets of middle America fell the roots of revolution. A chapter of Students for A Democratic Society (SDS) was started, an underground newspaper became available, radical rock music and news was played on the local student radio station. Working class youth refused to register for the draft and some burned their draft cards. Someone started the ROTC training hall on fire. The campus erupted into sit-ins, teach-ins and lock-downs. Knowledge and rage spread like wild fire.
I read these books while waiting for rides or during the long hours riding across America. I learned a very important lesson about listening, talking and peacemaking. If I were reading something I thought was true and shared it with the trucker and he thought it was untrue, I never challenged him. I asked him to tell me, in the form of a story if possible, what was not true about the reading. In this way I learned to listen to a much more expanded version of reality.
One trucker told me a story of being a soldier in the Korean War. He told me that he was not allowed to discuss the atrocities he saw when he came back to America after the war.
"I was told that I should be a man", he said. "I was told that war was hell and a real man will just take it all deep inside and not bring it home with him."
But, he said that he came back very afraid of other humans and finding his only hope in believing America was the greatest country in the world. He said he did not know what they were fighting for in Korea and that the leaders of this country were much more aware of how dangerous North Korea was. His job was to fight the best war he could.
I asked him many questions as we crossed the Midwest unloading jellies and jams at Stuckey's restaurants. I asked him about the fear he had of other humans. He said that up until the Korean War he was not aware of how evil men could be. He said that war brought out the darkest part of human beings. He told a story about coming upon a massacre where Americans had tortured, mutilated and cannibalized other humans. He said it was in the middle of winter and many of the troops had experienced months of non-stop fighting. The military leaders had abandoned many troops and they were freezing and hungry. He said lots of guys lost feet and hands due to frostbite. There was not a sense that anyone at home cared about what happened to them. The troops were being sacrificed. So they went wild and dark.
He said that what he had seen changed his life forever. He fought to survive the rest of his time in Korea and then came back to drive long-haul truck. He thought that others coming back might want to talk about it, to figure things out. But that did not happen. Men were told to keep it to themselves. "Get over it, that's what they said. I could not get over it", he said. "I just learned to be quiet. But I think about it all the time. I am changed".
He told me he liked the quiet and emptiness of the night driving and not having to get to close to other humans. He said there were other long-haul truck drivers who had been in the wars, sometime they acknowledged they were there. It was a silent brotherhood though. You just did not talk about war.
We talked about what life would be like if he had never seen that war. We talked about what other methods that might have been used to stop the killing. We talked for two or three days about this subject. Then he said he wanted to be quiet.
A day went by. Then he said, "war is no good. I won't try to stop you from going to DC to stop this Vietnam War. I don't want the world to be filled with people like me. Living half-alive. Afraid all the time. Hoping the world of war doesn't come to America. Hoping you don't go crazy someday because you can't keep it all inside anymore."
He took me to the outskirts of Washington, D.C. and dropped me off. That was in the spring of 1971. The next week a million people were in the streets in DC and a million in San Francisco. The war did not end until 1973.
This was the way that America talked to each other until the war ended. We were diverse people talking one on one in a non-adversarial way for the most part. We listened to each other. People who had been in World War I and WWII talked about their experiences for the first time. The media will say that the war ended because a couple of young radicals wrapped themselves in flags and led college students into the streets. But that is not the truth. The truth is that people from all walks of life, some who had lost sons, or brothers or lovers, neighbors, those who remembered "the great war" and many more …began to talk to each other about the greed, loss and inhumanity of war. There was a new understanding of how political warmongers can lead a whole nation to war on another nation with the use of rhetoric of patriotism and nationalism. There was a new understanding that each war is about one nation stealing the resources of another. There reached such a critical mass of Americans against the war, that President Nixon was ousted from power, along with his war-mongering cabinet. And, you must know that this critical mass included people from all paths of American Society.
I will keep picking up hitchhikers, especially now that I heard that last week a young woman hitchhiking from the Redwoods was murdered near Brookings, Oregon. I will develop my knowing of when I am safe and keep picking up people on the roadside. And, I will find something I have in common with every person I meet. I will start from that point. And finally, I will talk about the war on Iraq and nature and I will listen. I don't have the answer for the way out of this war on the world, we all have it. And, we need to start listening to each other.
Ellen O'Shea is a social worker living and working in Portland, Oregon