travelers-tales

By Heather Williams

Seventeenth Annual Solas Award Silver Winner in the Bad Trip category

 

It was 1972 and I was hitchhiking with my friend Wendy in Northern California. It’s hard to believe now. Women eagerly climbed into cars with strange men back then, especially in California where everything, anything, was possible.

I was an adventuresome 22-year-old. I had dropped out of Oberlin College and traveled west on my own.  Wendy was eighteen, from New York.  She and I became friends in Los Angeles where we were volunteer community organizers for Cesar Chavez’s lettuce boycott. Now, having moved to Berkeley, we were headed far north for our next adventure: visiting her brother at a rustic summer camp high in the Trinity Alps. The campers hadn’t arrived yet. We would be hanging out with counselors as they prepared.

It would be a long trip.  Five hours by car, if you lucked out on a through-ride. We had two shorts, a twenty-minute wait on the hot side of the road, and then, phew, an old green chevy slowed, pulled over, stopped. We ran, our loaded packs jiggling against sweaty backs. Once we had climbed into the back seat our ride had a lot to say. He was a strikingly handsome black man.  Next to him sat a silent white woman with cropped, dirty blonde hair. He anchored one long arm across the top of the front seats, frequently turning his head our way. Making contact. The woman never once looked at us.

After initial pleasantries and assurances that he could take us the distance, he worried aloud on our behalf. Did we realize what could happen to us? How risky hitching is? Anything could happen. Young women need to be protected. How old are you two, anyway?

“We’re fine,” I said, scoffing inwardly at his patronizing tone and ignoring the last question.

I was nothing if not a Second Wave Feminist, eager to do anything a man could do. Determined to establish my independence, my autonomy. After all, as the Women’s Liberation Movement so eloquently put it, a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle. Precisely not at all.

We drove on quietly for a while.  Outside my window towering cedars and firs whisked by promising wilderness, pure air, release from urban noise and clutter.  Berkeley was fun, but I was eager to “rough it” again, the way I had as a child in the Green Mountains of Vermont. There was nothing freer than being in nature, equipped only with the minimal tools needed to thrive:  hiking boots, pack, sleeping bag, matches, mess kit, flashlight, dried food, gorp.  In California, where summer meant no rain and no bugs, you didn’t even need a tent. It was going to be just right.

“You know,” our ride suddenly said, breaking the silence and turning his head toward the back seat. “I would love to offer something to you girls, something really cool.  And very safe. You’d love it.  I’ve got a place up here not too far. It’s great for girls like you.”

I tensed. This couldn’t be going anywhere good.

“It’s a commune,” he continued.  “A true commune, out in the country.  Beautiful place.  Total quiet, total freedom.  No one to bother you.  The girls and I love it.  They’re protected.  You’d be protected.  You should check it out.  I keep everyone in line, of course, so there’s never any trouble.  It’s pretty simple, really.  I just cut off a finger if they don’t listen. But you girls would mind, wouldn’t you?”

He looked up at us through the mirror, waiting.

I looked at Wendy. She stared back at me. Did he really just say that?  I grabbed her leg. It was shaking. We were in deep trouble. This man was crazy and we were in his car.

“Um,” I said, after a fraught moment. “Could we maybe stop at the next gas station?  I really need to use the bathroom. Sorry about that, but it’s kind of urgent. It’s that time of month, you know? Your commune sounds interesting, really does. Thanks for telling us about it. How do you get by?  Do you grow your own food?”

I kept up friendly questions, mindless banter until our only hope finally appeared. Wendy sat wide-eyed and silent next to me.

The man actually, incredibly, slowed. He actually pulled into the station and – could it be? Yes, he stopped the car! I yanked my door open. We pushed out, pulling our backpacks along with us. “Thank you for the ride,” I said, looking back at him. “We’ve decided not to continue our trip.”

Then together Wendy and I hurried to the restroom, closed and locked the door behind us and hugged, amazed by our delivery.

There is danger in life, and it had stared us in the rear-view mirror. It was a surprisingly handsome light-skinned black danger with a smooth, courteous tone of voice. I had no doubt what the woman next to him did for him and why she never looked at us. Which of her fingers was missing?

Incredibly, he had accepted our swift departure. I heard him drive off even before we made it to the restroom. We walked away from sudden evil with all of our fingers intact, still free, still fish without bicycles.

After some noisy exclaiming, the two of us picked up our heavy packs and walked to the highway again, our thankfully intact thumbs at the ready. We still had many miles to go. Three hours’ worth, with luck. Perhaps several more rides with strangers.  It had to be done. And what had just happened surely would not, could not, happen again.

The camp, when we finally arrived near dinner time after one safe and friendly through-ride, was truly rustic. Lean-tos, tents, fire pits. Split logs for seating. A soaring canopy of aromatic cedar and pine. Looking around, I saw my kind of interesting, hardy people. Playing guitars and harmonicas, passing a joint, untying rugged hiking boots, splitting firewood, stirring supper in a swinging, blackened pot. I was eager to join in and see what might develop. The scary ride slipped away, not even worth talking about.

That night, bedded down in my warm bag under a bright yellow moon, I thought proudly about my achievement in getting there. And tomorrow night I would be hiking at midnight under a full moon, something I had immediately, eagerly, signed up for.  It was bound to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

I knew none of the other participants: three guys; one other woman. When we congregated and I introduced myself, I was warmed by friendly good cheer and awed by the bold moon greeting us overhead.  How romantic, I thought.  We would be bathed the entire way in a mystical light.

It was quiet; luminous; mysterious. The other woman and I quickly bonded, as girls do, while the guys walked ahead. For three miles we followed a brightly lit, winding ridge trail, talking and listening to one other. Sharing our stories. Then the men slowed down so we could catch up. One of them asked us casually if we’d heard about a recent tragedy in the local mountains. A family dead. Five hacked to death. Did we know the axe murderer is still out there? Still roaming these hills?

She and I looked at each other. Ok, our eyes said, the boys are going to try and freak us out. Boys do that. They are so obvious when they do it. They’re making it up, of course. Sure enough, the guys quickly moved off, leaving us to prepare for the inevitable. “You know what they’re going to do, right?” I asked. “Yup,” she answered. “Get ready!”

And yet, the high scream I emitted came unbidden. Coiled at the ready, it sprung straight out of my hitchhiking experience. This lovely wild world around me had too recently burdened me with unexpected, unwanted dread. Human predators, men who take and destroy, really do exist. I had only just escaped one. I could not pretend otherwise.

It didn’t help when the boys laughingly confessed that they had made it all up, delighted with their results , so that I had to be a good egg and laugh, too. Inside I was still shaken, and angry. Innocent joking was too late for me. Did they have to remind me of what I had just endured and truths that I would rather not know?  Truths that they, as boys, would probably never have to deal with?

There would be more unwanted  and threatening experiences with predatory men to come in a life thoroughly mixed with the good and the difficult.  Even though I stopped hitchhiking. Even though I conducted a relatively risk-free life. Experiences that found me simply because I was female. I would cope, heal as best I could, and carry on. That’s what women do.  But that hitchhiking experience, back in the seventies, awakened me to life’s hard truths.

No, I don’t have to have a man to thrive. And yes, men and women are very different—fish/bicycle. But I sure wouldn’t mind finding a good one. It’s not so easy. Men can’t comprehend the hurtful, sometimes traumatic run-ins and experiences women have with other men .

One day, perhaps I will meet one who tries to understand what it might be like to have to be cautious and wary.  Men are, as a rule, much stronger than women, can be charming while dangerous, often want physical contact too soon and as much as possible, and sometimes become enraged if rejected. Climbing on board with one, in any context – car, relationship – is risky for a woman.

Back in 1972, I didn’t want to imagine those truths. Like men my age, I wanted to stay carefree; to keep on believing that anything and everything could happen. Good, exciting, enriching any things. No limits.

But I’m not male. I’m female. And the anything that did happen, so unwanted, so unexpectedly dark, was tailor-made for my gender only.

~~~

Heather Williams is a psychotherapist and writer living in Washington, DC.  Her life experiences are rich fodder for both professions.