Posted by: M. J. Arcangelini | November 8, 2010

HITCHHIKING THROUGH ARCATA

From 1973 to 1978 I lived, off and on, in Brookings, Oregon, a couple of hours north of Arcata, California. I say “off and on” because Brookings had become my designated home base for this period of wandering. I would go there to rest up, visit with close friends and work for awhile before striking out for other places. Then, when I got tired, or ran out of money, I’d go back. I never actually planned it that way, the pattern simply evolved out of the direction my life had taken. I was single, had no specific goal in life beyond the Nobel prize in literature, and had managed to learn how much easier it could be to move on when situations got heavy, rather than sticking around to deal with them. Besides, there were way too many things to do and places to go to spend too much time hanging around any particular one.

Since I didn’t own a vehicle for most of that time, or at least a vehicle that could reliably carry me out of the immediate area, my main mode of long distance transportation was hitchhiking. I had close friends and, therefor places to stay, in both San Francisco and Brookings, so I did a lot of truckin’ back and forth betwixt the two. In time I learned the best and worst places to hitch rides and learned, too, that the same spot did not always work for both directions, north and south.

For instance, heading north Sausalito was a terrible place to be let off, and getting out of Santa Rosa could take a depression-inducing length of time. On the other hand Novato was great because all the traffic slowed down as 101 switched from freeway to surface street to skitter through town from traffic light to traffic light. But further up the road Willits was a bad spot, even though the highway did the same thing it did in Novato.

Back then the air in Eureka stunk pretty awful from the pulp mills and I’m sure that has colored my generally unpleasant impressions of hitching through there. However it does seem that I usually found myself dropped off on the south end of town and had to walk all the way through to the north end. Once there it inevitably seemed to be a long wait for a short ride. But if I was lucky, that short ride would take me to Arcata, because Arcata was one of the best spots on 101 for picking up rides, and one of the few that worked in either direction.

This is 1973 I’m talking about, before the freeway bypass sliced Arcata in half, setting the disconnected University to float off by itself, bobbing against the foothills like a log in the surf. Back then all the traffic came into town rather than through it, and that traffic light at 17th street was the place to be.

There were always crowds of folks gathered heading off in both directions, I doubt if there was ever a time when that intersection was completely empty. We were a mix of college students (identifiable by their small packs or book bags), local kids, and long distance travelers, like myself, passing through Arcata on our way elsewhere.

Each member of the long distance tribe carried their version of the necessities of life on the road, whether balancing a full pack or lugging a worn suitcase and including the occasional guitar or typewriter, depending on the chosen mode of self-expression.

I once met a woman traveler who carried a complete complement of herbs and spices in her pack, with which to make more palatable the often borderline victuals offered up by roadside eateries and markets. One warm evening we dined together in a supermarket parking lot outside of Santa Rosa where, with a forest fire crawling across a distant mountainside to light up the sky, she shared with me secrets of gypsy culinary craft. I myself had been know to carry on my back such essentials of the road as a volume of the complete poems of William Blake.

The appearance of most of the hitchers gave more than a passing nod to late hippie fashion – long hair, lots of color, tie-die, wide belts, acres of denim, exotic scarfs and accessories. Well, I guess it’s nice to know that some things about Arcata haven’t changed much.

On the whole the folks one met at the Arcata traffic light were a pretty friendly lot, after all it was well know that there were plenty of rides available making competition for precious seat space less of a concern. Small groups and duos would form off to the shoulder of the road, sharing food, drink and smoke, and swapping stories of their best rides, scariest rides, longest rides and horniest rides. Rumors would circulate that Ken Kesey’s FURTHER bus, with Neal Cassidy himself at the wheel, had been spotted down the road picking up every hitcher in sight and showing them one hell of a major mobile good time. Never mind that Neal had died in 1968 and FURTHER seldom, if ever, ventured off Kesey’s Oregon ranch, in the context of those times and those people and that place on the side of the road, such an occurrence seemed wholly plausible.

Forever floating around these conversations, like a Flying Dutchman on wheels, were stories of the mythical “van full of hippies.”  This vehicle appeared to endlessly drive the nation’s highways looking to rescue hitchhikers teetering on the brink of despair. This van was always driven by someone who looked absolutely like Roger Daltry, or maybe it was Jerry Garcia, with someone bearing more than a passing resemblance to Jimi Hendrix riding shotgun. In the back, behind a lush black velvet curtain, there would be a refrigerator stocked with the most exotic foods and imported beers. There would be gallons of Greek Retsina, the best Thai stick and, beneath a canopy of diaphanous scarfs rustling gently in the incense infused breeze, a beautiful woman stretched out on a mattress waiting for the next lucky hitchhiker to climb aboard.

As absurd as such fantasies seem now, they could go a long way toward sustaining a man who found himself stuck on some post-apocalyptic two-lane macadam spur in the middle of nowhere. Thus such stories would be passed from hitcher to hitcher, embellished a bit with each retelling to reflect the teller’s personal taste in heavens.

Around the corner on “G” St. there was then, much as there is now, a small shopping area with a market to help sate the road munchies.  There may too have been a head shop type boutique of some kind, but most important for me was the presence of The Record Works, the closest record store to Brookings. I once hitched down from Brookings to Arcata and back for the sole purpose of purchasing a copy of Van Morrison’s new album, HARD NOSE THE HIGHWAY.

For many years I didn’t know much more about Arcata than what could be gleaned from my time spent hanging around that intersection and the shops that bordered it. There was no need to know any more.

All this was before the various freeway bypasses were built: Novato, Cloverdale, Garberville, Rio Dell and Arcata. All were once good, or at least passable hitchhiking spots because at some point all through traffic had to slow down and stop and that made it easier for someone to pick up a traveling man.

I haven’t hitchhiked in years, maybe decades, and being predominantly a driver now I really appreciate those bypasses, but that’s not sufficient to suppress a twinge of regret when I find myself gliding around a town where I’d spent so many hours standing, socializing, blowing my harmonica, and waiting for a ride.

03/14-30/98, Fields Landing, CA
original version published in The Arcata Eye, 1998
Revisions 10/04/09-11/08/2010, Sebastopol, CA

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Responses

  1. Nice job. At my age I guess it doesn’t hurt to confess having run into the “woman in the van” (or car or pickup) several times but being so naive I didn’t recognize her, and what should have been happening. They were probably disappointed and wondered if I didn’t like them, didn’t think they were hot, or what the hell is he thinking anyway.

  2. It amazes me, reading your stories, how much our lives paralled each other. I think it’s because we’re about the same age and headed out into the same counter culture about the same time- early 1970s. I didn’t hang out on the Oregon coast much but I did thumb through Brookings a couple times. I found a fabled van more than once. I wasn’t looking at the beautiful woman in the back but hoping one of the long-haired lads in the front would swing my way…


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