40 Years Ago
I was living in Denver, Colorado in 1979 with my friend Scott. I had just finished working at a summer camp for teens in the Rockies. (You know, the kind of “adventure” camp where you can spend $3,000 to get rid of your kid for the summer.) It was a horseback camp where, for 30 days, the owner of the camp and I would take 12 young teenagers on horseback into the mountains. It was a fun summer job, but after that job, I was aching for something new.
In late July, I had taken a short week-long job transferring data in documents by hand for a small company. (think:1979.) Every day I would hitch-hike from my apartment to downtown Denver to work. I had decided to leave the following Monday and “drop-in” on my Mom for her birthday in San Diego. The trip would take me down from Denver south through New Mexico and into San Diego, about 1,000 miles. One of the mornings while hitch-hiking to work, a girl my age gave me a ride. Her name was Lori, and we hit it off quite well! I decided that night that if she gave me a ride the next day, I would ask her out for dinner. As fate would have it, she did. Over dinner, I told her of my plans for leaving on Monday on my trip. Lori told me she had never done anything besides being a student at Colorado State University and thought it would be a fantastic adventure. By the end of the evening, we had decided to “partner-up” for the journey!
That summer there was a heat wave in the southwest that often exceeded 118 degrees (48 celcius.) At times, even though we were thirsty, our water bottles were so hot we had the hardest time trying to stay hydrated. Back in 1979, there was not nearly as much traffic as there is now, especially on smaller state highways. We often waited for hours just standing on the shoulder of a simmering hot highway waiting for that occasional car or truck to blast by us at 80mph. I had found from my years of hitching, that I had to be more than just be some guy standing on the road with my thumb out to catch a ride. People generally are cautious. I figured out that by juggling while hitch-hiking, people would not only notice me easier but also feel more comfortable offering a ride. (How many documented serial murderers have been known to lure their victims to their death by juggling on the side of a road?)
One sweltering night, Lori and I found a small truck stop just off some remote highway in New Mexico. We climbed down from an overpass, across two sets of railroad tracks that ran underneath and then up to the front door of the small truck stop diner. As always, the sign on the door said: “No Shoes, No Shirt, No Service.” I was relieved because during the 1970’s there would often be signs on truck stop diners that also said: “NO hitch-hikers!”
Next to that sign, there was also a handwritten sign on the door that read: “Door is jammed- use your shoulder!” On the third attempt, I had to really slam the door with my shoulder to open it. The bell at the top of the door clanged loudly as we stepped through. It was a small diner with about eight tables. Only two were occupied. At the table closest to the door sat a huge, bearded truck driver covered in sweat and grit. He didn’t look up to see us. He was busy shoveling a plate full of chipped-beef-on-toast into his mouth and taking deep swigs from his coffee cup.
We quickly worked our way to the far side of the diner and grabbed a table near the bathrooms. Lori and I were very hungry, hot, and tired and did not want to be kicked out. So as soon as the waitress came over with the menus, we told her we didn’t need menus we just wanted burgers, fries, and cokes. While we were eating, the huge truck driver stood up and walked towards us. I was bracing for the worst when he continued past our table and went into the bathroom behind me. We finished the burgers and added a slice of apple pie to the bill. Feeling much better after a couple burgers and some air conditioning, we were ready to leave. I told Lori I needed to use the bathroom and I’d be back in a sec.
The bathroom door was an old beige-painted wooden door with years of dirt and grime surrounding the worn doorknob. I pushed on the door, but it wouldn’t open. I then remembered the front door sign: “Door is jammed-use your shoulder!” I also remember it took me three tries to get the front door open. Not wanting to have anyone stare at me while I made several attempts to open the door, I leaned back and hit the door with my shoulder, full-force.
Suddenly a loud cracking sound erupted as the door flung opened and the splintered wood surrounding the bolt lock on the inside of the door shattered. Sitting on the toilet, right in front of me, sat the slightly terrified and confused over-weight truck driver trying to cover himself with a newspaper he had been reading. An endless moment of silence passed while we stared at each other. I then merely pointed my finger at him and just said…”OK, ….I see you!” Which I think confused him even more. I then turned quickly around, walked back to our table, tossed $15 on the table for our meal, grabbed my pack and Lori, and headed out into the unforgiving heat of the night. Disappearing into the shadows as quickly as possible, we found a bridge underpass where we camped for the night, sleeping fitfully… with one eye open.
While there were several other great stories from this one trip, it was only when I found this picture that I remembered the face of that poor truck-driver, who to this day, if he is still alive, has probably shared an entirely different perspective of what happened that night with his friends and family.