Posted by: M. J. Arcangelini | September 27, 2009


John R. and I were hitchhiking through Wisconsin heading for upper peninsula Michigan just to see what was up there.  We’d been standing on the side of the road for a couple of hours and the hot afternoon was wearing on us.

John trying to flag us down a ride on the June, 1973 hitchhiking trip through Wisconsin and Michigan.

John trying to flag us down a ride on the June, 1973 hitchhiking trip through Wisconsin and Michigan.

Finally a car pulled over, neither particularly new nor an old beater, and a friendly enough guy who was probably in his thirties picked us up.  He said he was only going to the next town up the road but would be glad to take us that far.  We got in the car, John taking the front and me the backseat with the packs.

Like I said, it was a pretty hot day so all the windows in the car were rolled down and the wind was loudly shooting in from all directions.  John and the driver were up front talking away while I, in the back and unable to hear what they were saying, stuck my head out the window, eyes closed, to get the full force of our movement, to feel the rushing wind tearing through my hair.  Not sure if it made me any cooler, but it sure felt good.

After a while I pulled my head back in, opened my eyes and looked up front.  The driver had a gun in his hand and it was pointed at John.  I froze.  Instantly terrified and certain that this, finally, was that ride we had always been warned about; the one that would rob us and kill us and leave us lying in the woods somewhere to rot.  I was trying to think of what I should do.  They did not really seem to be aware of me.  They were talking.  I thought that maybe I should quickly reach forward and grab the gun – try to get it out of his hand.  I didn’t know what would happen if I did that.  Maybe it would cause him to wreck the car and kill all of us.  Maybe it would cause him to fire.  Maybe I wouldn’t be able to get the gun out of his hand and he would fire it and kill John.  Maybe he would remember I was in the back before I could do anything and kill me first.

I sat there, frozen in the heat of the summer day, running all of these options through my head and listening to the roar of the welcome wind racing into the car.  Then John happened to turn his head toward the back and saw me.

The look on my face must have told him exactly what was going through my mind.  He immediately started laughing, said something to the driver and pointed at me.  The driver turned quickly to get a look at me, then he started laughing too.

John leaned over the seat toward me and motioned with his hand for me to come closer so I could hear what he was saying.  I did, shaking and now completely uncertain of what was happening.

“Don’t worry – everything’s OK.”  He said to me.

As John recalls it, “the guy was drunk. I remember him saying ‘I’m heel.’ That’s code for ‘I’m packing heat.’ As he raised the gun up, he said ‘You guys appreciate the ride, fine—if you don’t, I’ll blow yer fuckin’ head off.’ I do remember trying to play it all down – as if it was all just a prank- to get us through it.“

Then the driver, who had now stashed the gun someplace unseen, motioned to me to lean over toward him.  I did.  He apologized and explained to me that a friend of his had called that afternoon to tell him that his wife was in a bar in this next town with another man and they were fooling around.  He was driving up there to find them and kill them both.  He only got the gun out to prove to John that he was serious.

I realized that this explanation was intended to make me feel better; to make me feel safe.  I’m not sure it worked.  While I understood that our lives were not apparently in immediate danger, the guy still sounded like a nut case and you can never know what a nut case is going to do next.

I withdrew to the relative safety of the backseat and watched the two of them talking. Waiting for the gun to come back out. I was contemplating our predicament, how far we were from home with no car and probably not enough money between us for bus tickets The idea of getting back out there, should we survive this ride, and flagging down another potential madman was not something I was looking forward to, but it would seem that we did not have any other choice.

The gun did not make another appearance and over the 15 minutes or so that we remained in the car I managed to relax a little bit.

The guy drove us into the next town, as promised, where he pulled off to the side of the road and stopped.  He turned around so he could see us both. “That bar where my wife and her boyfriend are is around the corner and five or six blocks away.  I figure I should let you guys off here so nobody sees you gettin’ out of my car close to where I’m gonna shoot those two.  You should be able to get another ride from here and be out of town before anything happens.”

John and I gathered up our stuff and got out of the car as quickly as we could.  It must’ve been a one-way street because I remember him pulling up to the sidewalk on the driver’s side.  He got out of the car with us but left the motor running.

The three of us were standing there saying our goodbyes, John and I leaning on our packs.  Then the driver took out his wallet, removed a five dollar bill and handed it toward me. “Here, you guys go get a couple hamburgers on me.” Maybe he was trying to make up for scaring the shit out of me with the gun. I don’t know.

I thanked him but immediately waved his hand and the money away and began explaining that we had money of our own and would be able to eat OK.  But as soon as he saw that I was turning down the money John jumped in, cut me off, accepted the money from the guy and thanked him profusely for the ride and the burgers.

The driver then mumbled something about “guess I better get on with this thing” and got back in his car.  He waved to us as he pulled away.  As soon as he was out of sight John fixed me with his sternest look and said, “when a man with a gun wants to give you money, just shut up and take it!”

We both let out large sighs of relief that we had narrowly escaped getting killed.  We knew that we had better get out of that town as soon as possible before the guy realized that he had just dropped off two witnesses who might not testify in his favor.

Hamburgers could wait. We crossed the street right away and put our thumbs out before we could give it much thought. The driver was right, within 10 minutes we had a ride out of that town.  During the rest of the trip we kept checking newspapers to see if there was anything about a double homicide in a bar, but we found nothing.  I hope that either the driver’s wife wasn’t there or that he had a change of heart – in either case, I sure hope he didn’t kill anyone.

Maybe the gun wasn’t loaded.  Maybe he was just pulling our leg, trying to scare us or impress us- I suppose that’s possible, perhaps even likely.  If so, he achieved his goal; over three decades years later both John and I still remember him.

06/29//08 – 09/09/27
Sebastopol, CA
Thanks to John R. for adding
his memory to this story.


  1. I agree with John, usually best to go along with a person with a weapon. During my road days I always assumed that threats of violence were serious (whether from outlaws or The Law) which maybe spared me from every having to personally participate in any. Excell and I had another near miss like that one in ’72. A Green Beret home on leave from ‘Nam picked us up in Mobile. He had apparently decided to use all of his leave drinking. To make sure he didn’t pass out (and waste some of his time off) he apparently used the government issue dexedrine (the kind they used to say “here, take 2 of these and go clean out that village …”). Excell was fascinated by his knowledge of and display of various weapons and explosives, and his plans to have us participate in using them. For a few minutes he held his Rambo size blade to my throat just to demonstrate his superior training. Although Excell usually dominated any proceedings in which he was a participant, when I saw Pascagoula Community College in Mississippi, I spoke up and said “oh, here’s where our friend lives. This is where we need to get out”. I convinced Excell that we should bed down out of sight for the night in the pine trees on campus. Sure enough, he came back looking for us but apparently his x-ray vision wasn’t working, ’cause he eventually drove off and we successfully made it to New Orleans the next day. Making it the rest of the way on the first trip to Oregon for any of us was quite another story, to be taken up some other time.

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