Hurtling Along the Pacific Coast Highway

It was 1974. I was newly divorced and about to turn 25. I had also recently purchased my first car—a 1963, factory-equipped camper VW bus.

Owning a car was a big deal for me. My parents were terrified of my owning a car. I still don’t know why, but it had something to do with me being a woman alone in the world, though I had been the “bread-winner” in the marriage I had recently extricated myself from.

The women’s movement was nascent, but loud. Mostly we blamed men. I was as confused as anyone else. So in an act of independence, I decided I would celebrate my birthday by driving up the Pacific Coast Highway, from San Francisco to Washington—alone in my newly acquired VW bus. Well, I had my dog Rita Louise with me.

The first night out, I stopped at a campground somewhere along the northern coast of California. I have no recollection of where. I opened my can of tuna fish, dumped it in a bowl, added mayonnaise, and made myself a sandwich.

And then, darkness descended on me along with a blanket of aloneness. No one to talk to. No one to share the tuna fish with. Now what do I do?

So I made my bed, tried to read, but drifted off to sleep with Rita Louise curled up next to me.

I decided I needed company.

And there, not far down the road the next morning, was a young man, longish blond hair, wearing an army jacket, backpack beside him, his thumb stuck out—the international sign for a hitchhiker.

I had hitchhiked through New England three years earlier with my husband and his two friends (that was my honeymoon, which probably explains a lot about why the marriage didn’t last). So, of course it was fine to stop and pick up a hitchhiker. To hell with that woman-alone-in-the-world-without-a-man-to-guide-her bullshit.

“Where are you headed?” he asked.

“Washington state but I’m not in a hurry,” I said.

He climbed in. I don’t remember where he was going, but as soon as I aimed my VW bus onto the highway, the voices started in my head: “He knows no one is expecting me. There’s no on else on the highway. What if he’s a crazed murdering hitchhiker?”

“This is my dog, Rita Louise,” I said pointing to her lying on the pulled-out bed behind us. One should not name a dog Rita Louise if one wants to present her as a fierce, defend-you-to-the-death attack dog. She looked like a Disney dog. Cute and scruffy.

My terror and uncertainty filled the car. Which brought out his terror and uncertainty.

We hurtled down the winding highway making small talk—uncertainty so dense that not even subtext broke through the unspoken questions. Me, “Why did I pick up a hitchhiker?” and my hitchhiker “Why did I get in her car?”

We hurtled, that is, as much as a 1963 VW bus could hurtle, until I felt the right back wheel start to drag.

“I think I have a flat tire,” I said, though I had no idea what a flat tire actually felt like. We pulled over. Apparently I did know what a flat tire felt like.

My hitchhiker gallantly offered to change the tire. Which he did as I stood by and watched my VW bus sway and shudder as cars sped by on the narrow, winding highway that is the Pacific Coast Highway. Traffic had chosen this moment to pick up.

“Let’s go,” he said as he climbed back in the car, his face ashen. It was entirely possible that this was the first tire he had ever changed—and he had risked life and limb to do it.

And yet, still in the back of my mind, I worried that he might be out to murder me.

I decided I didn’t want to camp out that night, so as darkness descended, I pulled into a motel. He asked if he could sleep in the back of the van. I said yes, and then spent the night peeking out the window to make sure he hadn’t driven off with it.

He didn’t.

We reached his destination a couple of hours into the next morning. I think that by that time we each had developed enough trust to figure out that this was not a scene in a horror movie. It was just a ride.

I don’t remember his name.

Two days later I ended up in Sequim, Washington, where my Uncle Ray and Aunt Mary lived. Their daughter Sue, her husband, and son lived in the trailer parked on their property. Ray was my mother’s oldest brother.

“Weren’t you scared driving up here alone?“ Sue asked me as we sat together on the couch that first evening. “Whatever you do, don’t pick up a hitchhiker. Girls have been murdered and they think it’s by a hitchhiker they picked up.”

I decided not to tell her about my hitchhiker.

So now it’s forty years later. My Aunt Mary died in 1984. My cousin Sue, who was never in very good health, died sometime in the 90s. My uncle outlived my mother. She died in 2006; he died in 2010, eight months after his 100th birthday.

I visited Sequim for the second time for his memorial. That was when I decided I wanted to live here—in Sequim. And so now I do. Been here a little more than a year.

A lot has changed in forty years. That assertion of independence for my 25th birthday, as tame as it seems now (think Cheryl Strayed’s Wild), was the starting point for the path that led to where I am today on the verge of turning 65. With that act, I began to break free of the expectations and confinement that seemed almost Biblical-pronouncements of what the world was supposed to be for me.

The road has not been straightforward—more like the winding Pacific Coast Highway I drove to reach the Pacific Northwest where I celebrated my 25th birthday.

I got a wolf tattoo on my right forearm to celebrate my 55th birthday. Two weeks later, in the shower I looked at it and thought, “Wow! This isn’t washing off.”

It gave me a new understanding of permanent. It took another couple of years to understand what that meant to me: no turning back.

I have come to understand that the obstacle to freedom that the women’s movement was birthing back then really had very little to do with men. I have come to learn that often the biggest obstacles to a woman defining her own being, her own liberation, are not men, but other women. Women who fear their own liberation.

But that might mostly be women my age. I suspect it might be different for younger women—women who were born about the time I was hurtling up the Pacific Coast Highway with my hitchhiker.

I wonder where my hitchhiker is. I wonder if he was as scared of me as I of him. I wonder if he became a corporate executive or became a maverick who defined his own way in the world. I had forgotten all about him until I did a writing exercise that asked me to describe a scene in a car.

Several years ago, while conducting research for a story that included the Vietnamese orphans who perished when a plane that was trying to save them from the fall of Saigon crashed shortly after takeoff, I discovered that there indeed had been a murdering hitchhiker who was terrorizing the Northwest about the time I had picked up my non-murdering hitchhiker. He was famous—the murdering hitchhiker.

It was Ted Bundy.

Things could have turned out very different had he been my hitchhiker.

6 thoughts on “Hurtling Along the Pacific Coast Highway

  1. Happy birthday! Hope your budding theatre group is doing fine. We (includes me, Gil, Connie, the Streeters and an actor named Patrick Moore, husband of St. Bart’s rector, are also starting a theatre group of golden oldies. First effort, if all goes well will be “Love Letters.” Hello to Tom

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    • Joan, Good to hear from you. I just saw Love Letters in New York (last week) with Brian Dennehey and Mia Farrow. It was spectacular. I know you folks will be as well.
      I directed a little known Neil Simon play called Rose’s Dilemma. It’s the last thing he’s written (still alive, so who knows?). The characters of Rose Steiner and Walsh McLaren are based on Lillian Hellmann and Dashiel Hammett. Could be an interesting one for you to tackle. It also has two thirtyish characters.

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  2. Another good one about your life and insights. Ted Bundy, huh? Instead of the Bundys of the world we now have to worry about terrorists striking our shopping malls at any moment or U.S. drones hitting our homes in the middle of the night or anyone from Texas who might be carrying today’s new Black Plague — Ebola. Fun times we live in, eh? I always wondered about what would do us in, Nukes, Aliens, meteors, a major change in planetary forces and now we know. An unstoppable virus. During the Black Plague times doctors advised people not to bath as a means of warding off the dreaded killer. Do you think doctors today might advise people to stay away from the Internet so as not to catch something over the Web?

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    • Hey, Bram!
      I was going to email you to see how you were doing. Yeah, there are so many, many ways to die!. So Sherwood Anderson died of peritonitis. He got it when he swallowed part of a toothpick from an appetizer that was served at his farewell voyage party. He was on his way to Europe to accept a prize, I believe. Which just goes to show ya’, don’t go acceptin’ no prizes!

      How are you doing? I was in New York last week for three days. What a contrast from the rural life.

      See you on the Internet!

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