The reason I was in Colorado in the summer after sophomore year was that Itchy van Dornick and I had this plan to hiltchike around the country. To get started, we had gotten a ride with a friend of his named Frank, who had just finisehd his fianal year at Princeton and was ;driving out to San Antonio to make good on his ROTC commitment to the Air Force. Frank represented the worst of many worlds. He had grown up in the town of Princeton with Itchy before he was in the university, where he joined Tiger Inn, which was one of the five most exclusive eating clubs, this one mainly for ignorant athletes, the kind who abused all non-athletes in their path on their way through Princeton as if they were still high riding bullies in high school or prep school.
The background noise to this leg of our trip was Frank shouting fuck or piss or shit at other drivers or to punctuate his vocalized memories of dealing with weak people. Scoffing at beauty, chortling at perceived weakness until we got to New Orleans, and for one evening went our separate ways, which led us each separately to a spic and span whorehouse where a lovely girl who called me “Sugar” gave me a blow job before I could tell her I really wanted, well, you know, couldn’t she do it the regular way? The blow job took a nanosecond. I was 19, an age at which it was not unusual to be a virgin in America in 1954.
Frank left us in San Antonio before driving off to his base. I had only been the driver for an hour before Frank deemed me too unskilled to trust at the wheel. At one point in Louisiana an incredible girl in the shortest of shorts and skimpiest of tee shirts, sweating prettily, had been the gas station attendant who filled up Frank’s car. I said something I thought either my brother or someone at college might say about having seen an Erskine Caldwell girl, referring to a Southern author who had initiated much of our generation into masturbation. It led to Frank talking on and on about helpless little intellectuals who avoided real life.
Itchy and I walked through the picturesque waterway part of San Antonio, then headed north. Our first ride was with a Mexican man in a broken down car who announced he was just out of prison and was drunk. This seemed like adventure far superior to traveling with the foul Princeton athlete.
We went first to Denver where Itchy had an uncle, a mining engineer whom Itchy warned me was a born again Christian. Denver was mostly ugly rows of little one-story houses with little suburban lawns that needed constant watering since this was not a place where grass would grow naturally. This area of sad lawns was surrounded by high and wild mountains. The uncle drove us out to the edge of town to see the mountains better. He wanted us to see them because of the minerals they contained. He kept cataloging minerals that he knew were up there. No sign he saw beauty or majesty or anything like it. And he rambled on about his religion. He was a student of religion, he said. He did not take anything at face value, he said, such as that the Catholic church was evil. He had gone through a Knights of Columbus correspondence course which had had the unintentional effect of showing him the reasons why Catholics were not Christians.
Our next destination was a place we had heard of called Boulder. It was late at night when we were left at the start of a mountain pass that was suppodedly not far from Boulder. We unrolled our sleeping bags by the side of the road. In the morning two heavily bearded men came barreling out of the pass in a rusty pickup packed with large wooly dogs. They were shouting words like “hey-haw” and “whoo-pee” that I knew only from Western movies. One of them said it was their first time out of the mountains since the late spring thaw. Where were we going? they asked.
Our next ride was with a man so non-descript he could have been a Rotarian from central casting or from one of those dull businesses in the real America that were in an out of novels I read. Maybe a branch bank manager. Maybe a bookkeeper. Maybe a seed salesman, I thought, with no idea why I thought it. Anyway, certainly a fussy little man who was losing his hair. But when we got into the car his demeanor changed. He reached down and picked up a, heavy monkey wrench, raised it as if to strike something, said, “Look at this, boys, remember this if you’re thinking of trying anything.” Then he put it down and was just a fussy little man again, actually a pleasant little man who asked us about ourselves as if he were really interested, and gave no indication he thought either that we would kill him or that he would have to kill us.
In one town that was only a gas station we got a ride in the evening with a man who said he had to turn off to another town in 40 miles but we were welcome to come with him. We decided to leave him at the turnoff and stay on the main highway. Which seemed not so good when we had been walking for more than an hour and no vehicles had appeared going either way. We kept on walking, and after hour or two with still no vehicles we decided we better stop for the night. We hadn’t slept much for days and now it was nearly midnight and we were out of the desert and into the middle of some sort of endless flat farm country. I hadn’t realized Colorado had farms. Everything was extremely interesting.
We stepped off the side of the road, which meant going down a short but steep bank, and we rolled out our sleeping bags right where we were. The next thing I knew I heard men talking. Happens this way too much, way too much, one man was saying. Another said you can tell what happened by the way these boys are lying. They wouldn’t have seen it coming. Probably felt almost nothing. Struck from behind by a truck or something, and down the bank and that was all. I opened my eyes. Daylight! I sat up. Oh, a man said, we were sure you were dead. And I could see how it would have looked like two people had been propelled like rag dolls off the highway.
It wasn’t just a couple of men talking. When I stood up I saw a caravan. I didn’t know what the huge machine with the horizontal blades was, but I quickly learned it was something called a combine that was used to cut great quantities of wheat, and separate the grains from the stalks, creating great mounds of grain that rode up a sort of climbing treadmill into some wagon or truck. In addition to wagons and trucks for the wheat, there were trucks and trailers for all the people it took to man the combine and keep track of, and shovel, the wheat. And there were trailers for them to sleep in as the caravan made it way tacross America, harvesting wheat that really was out there as far as the eye could see – just like in books and movies. They said they needed a couple more hands for a big job they were starting. They could give us work for a few days if that’s what we wanted.
This was amazing for we had no money at all. Itchy kept pushing to take our last dollar and get a place to sleep. I argued that we use it for any food it would buy us. I had won the last round, picking up multiple candy bars at the last gas station, which was why we slept down there in that wheat field looking like corpses, and why we had run into this amazing opportunity.
It was a full world, this caravan. The man who led it was a vigorous, loud high school principal in the winter, something new to my experience since I had gone to a New England boarding school where instead of a principal we had a headmaster, and ours was a kindly absent minded clergyman. This principal was clearly an efficient man of action, running this operation with all this equipment and all these people crossing what I guessed must be the elusive real America. The athletic looking young men along were as full of energy as their boss, and like their boss tall and hearty. Neither Itchy nor I had the athletic look, which didn’t seem to bother anyone. Unlike Itchy, who stopped frequently, I had endurance. Itchy had to rest a lot but I kept going shoveling as long as they wanted me to do it. Shoveling grain from one truck to another. From a wagon behind the combine into a truck. From a truck into a basket on another truck. I had no idea of why the wheat was being moved around.
But I felt things I had never felt before, here using muscles or at least growing them, here under the hot sun in these never ending wheat fields. We ate big hearty meals at a long table in one of the trailers. Always thick steaks. We were joined there by a tall and fit pretty girl who was along as a sort of secretary to the high school principal, helping keep records on the wheat. And she let it be known that she was spending the trip in a trailer sleeping with her boyfriend, who was one of the athletic looking members of the crew. This wheat caravan, seen from my corner of 1954, was far wilder than that place in New Orleans.