Hitchhiking across America: Stage One: Tryon to East St. Louis, Il.

Published 4:27 pm Thursday, February 11, 2010

Editors Note: Jim Jackson, a Tryon native, had been invited to serve as the supply pastor at the Congregational Church in Tryon for the month of May 1981. When it was time for him to return home, he decided to follow a life-long dream: to hitch-hike across the country. He kept a journal of the trip which took him six days and forty-four rides. This series covers only a few of the more memorable rides. This is the second in the series of four articles about the hitch-hiking experiences of Jim Jackson. (With Gloria Underwood as Jacksons Editor)

In May 1981, I had been invited to pastor the Congregational Church in Tryon for a month; the minister there, Dick Jackson (no relation), who had been a missionary in China, was returning there to spend a month. With my job in Portland, Oregon in transition, and a friend willing to stay with the kids, I decided to accept the offer, so off we went.

My last Sunday at the church in Tryon arrived. I very much wanted to get back to Oregon to see my family, but I was determined I was not going to fly. I resented these plane trips the nature of flying is you get up in the air at midnight or afterwards; when you get to your destination, its daylight and everybodys going and you havent had any sleep. Plus, you get none of the feel of the country at all.

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When it was time to go, I said, Im going to go back to Oregon, one of two ways: Im either going to take the bus or Im going to hitchhike!

I wouldnt have minded the bus at all; you meet a lot of people on the bus and you see a lot of the country. I argued with myself about this for several days.

Jim, go for it, said one voice within me.

But, Jim, you are fifty-six years old. Hitchhiking from coast to coast is a young mans game. Forget it, said the other voice.

But this is something you have always wanted to do, and you will never get another chance. Go for it!

That voice won. And that is exactly what I did.

I informed my ninety year old mother that I was catching a 5:30 a.m. Trailways bus to Oregon. It ran daily, just a three minute walk from my family home. After all, I didnt want someone from Tryon to give me my first ride.

The bus let me out on the Interstate near Biltmore Square Mall, the outskirts of Asheville. My first hitchhiking ride was the shortest of my whole trip, yet it was one of the most memorable.

Did your car break down? It was a question I was often asked when drivers saw my age.


Well, where you going? he asked as he looked at my small suitcase which could easily have been mistaken for a briefcase.


Youre going where?


Well, hop in.

After only 300 yards, he was turning into Asheville, and I was hitting Interstate 40. As he drove away I could see his head shaking from side to side.

My second ride was with a young black man on his way to work. We connected immediately. We had read the same books and were into the same movements. After twenty miles he was turning off. I was about to stick out my hand to thank him, when he said, You know, youve made my day.

His statement froze me; I was totally paralyzed. I got out of his car without saying one word, immediately embarrassed that I had not even thanked my friend for the second ride.

I knew that this was going to be one heck of a great trip. I decided at this point to keep a log. The final summation would be forty-four rides.

A small college administrator provided the next ride. To protect the good reputation of this college, its name will remain anonymous. We stopped for breakfast in Newport, Tennessee. Continuing to share our backgrounds, he suddenly said, You know, we have the perfect spot for you on our college staff.

In shock and about choking on my grits, I broke out in hilarious laughter.

Whats so funny? Im offering you a job.

I apologized, but then explained, I can see you telling the rest of the staff You would never dream where I picked up our newest faculty member.

My friend let me out on the East Side of Knoxville. I needed to get to West Knoxville. The city of Knoxville was in a major overhaul in preparation for the 1982 Worlds Fair. I found myself climbing over barriers, ducking through tunnels, and dodging caterpillars as I made my way through the city.

A pick-up truck loaded with empty cages was my next ride. The driver turned out to be a breeder and trainer of fine hunting dogs.

Youre going to Oregon! he shouted. Oh, wow. The finest stud in all America is in Salem, Oregon, and we have a female dog that needs to go there.

Ill take her with me.

You mean it?

Of course I mean it.

But then his excitement began to die down as he said, The owner of the dog is out of town; there is no way to reach him. I just cant tell him that I have sent his prize bitch to Oregon with a hitchhiker.

A hitchhikers nightmare is to be caught on the wrong side of a city during the afternoon rush hour. The traffic is going the other way. There was little choice in Nashville but to walk, walk, walk. As I was approaching the other side of the city, a Volkswagen Bug stopped. A guy opened the door whoosh a heavy dose of alcohol puffed right in my face. I knew better than to get in that car, but my tired feet were not reasoning very well. The two drunks told me they were headed for West Virginia.

Thank God, that was not my direction.

After a short distance, they stopped for another hitchhiker, a young man with a huge back pack. He seemed to have had the same doubts as I as whoosh the alcohol blew into his face. But the next thing I knew, the back pack was in my lap.

After a short scary distance down the Interstate, we came to an intersection, one direction toward West Virginia, the other toward St. Louis my direction.

As I walked toward my new post, I couldnt help but look back across the road and watch developing events. All three had gotten out of the car and seemed to be having a heated discussion. The net result was that the new passenger became the driver of the car, the driver became a passenger, and the other passenger became a hitchhiker.

The driver for the next ride was one of these persons who had been everywhere and had done everything; in fact, he claimed to have been in every country in the world except one. I decided to not honor his claim by asking, Which was the one country you missed? It would have taken many lifetimes to have done all the things this man claimed to have done.

The one claim that stuck in my mind was that he had built car washes in the Aleutian Islands.

What in the world, I wondered, did they need with car washes in the Aleutian Islands, off the Coast of Alaska?

While this was not the type of person I would want as my best buddy, I still cant knock him. He taught me an innovative way of hitchhiking.

You shouldnt have hitched a ride with me, he said. Im only going thirty miles. Thats the ride you need, he said as he pointed to the car in front of us with an Illinois license.

With that, he put on the speed; soon he started blowing his horn and waving for the car to pull over. He went to the drivers window ordering, Take this man to Illinois.

It took the nineteen year old soldier a few moments to recover from the shock, but he was willing enough, so I had a new ride. He had received a call that morning in Alabama that his wife had just given birth to a baby, their first. He made it clear that he was driving to East St. Louis just as fast as he could. He planned to storm the hospital about midnight, demanding to see his baby.

But along came a patrolman, his siren blaring. I couldnt help but admire the cool way this soldier talked the trooper out of giving him a ticket.

While my new friend was doing me a big favor, I think my presence was helping to calm him. He was receptive to my suggestion that he visit the hospital the next morning instead of coming in at midnight. When we got to East St. Louis, Illinois, Yogi Berras home town he insisted on showing me what had been his wifes home, where they had gone to school together, their movie house, all their favorite spots. All I could think was, Please get me to a motel.

It had been a full day. The next day would begin in Missouri and lead me westward.