Jay Meehan: An ill-spent youth made possible by the power of the thumb
“I was surprised, as always, by how easy the act of leaving was, and how good it felt. The world was suddenly rich with possibility.”
~ Jack Kerouac
As it turns out, you can get here from there. In the beginning, you could roll off the Heights via the dirt road past the smelter and on down to the river valley of the South Fork, which we called “Lead Creek.”
Long avenues and shorter streets would then hook you up with U.S. Route 10, which connected your east-west world from Missoula to Spokane. Other options like the “Empire Builder” flagship of the Great Northern Railroad would expand your horizons from Shelby westward through the northern hill country of the Panhandle.
But back to Route 10, which ran through the northern and newer neighborhoods of the old mining camp. That’s where the explorations began. And it would be via the thumb-generated forays of an ill-spent youth that the hemisphere would methodically open up.
Once, upon missing the eighth-grade basketball bus to Sandpoint, the first long-range asphalt adventure began. Thumb-gotten rides caught and passed the team bus once before Coeur d’Alene and twice more on Route 95 North thereafter.
From there it became winter Sunday jaunts, again by thumb, up to Lookout Pass on the Montana border to ski. Access to the Saturday slopes was largely taken care of by free bus trips, another perk of the Company town. Following a transfer to a Spokane High School, homesickness being what it is, the asphalt artery got put to even more use.
Then there was L.A. and trips around the southland. Hitchhiking remained part of the natural order. The country kept building highways and byways, but for the most part, two-lane tramping provided the action. The ’60s continued and even embellished the road romance instigated during the previous decade.
Military stints on both the Georgia-South Carolina and Georgia-Alabama lines opened up the South and East Coast. Hitchhiking evolved with GIs forming teams and racing from Fort Benning to, say, a watering hole in Savannah Beach.
Not that those trips always had a pre-designated endgame. Often, it was just about the journey. You gobbled up miles and made it up as the white lines went by.
The southern route connecting the Pacific and Atlantic proved highly interesting. Previously unexplored cultures and accents joined the changes in flora and fauna. The era of roadhouses and diners flourished with jukeboxes and menus following suit. From Spanish moss to “grits,” all was in flux.
This was a timeframe that coincided with vast constructions of the more-often-than-not ignored, hitchhiking-wise, Interstate Highway System. The interstates took you “by” that which was cool. The two-lanes took you “to” it. To this day, the two-lane has yet to lose its “beat.”
The South gave you everything from the French Quarter to Thunder Road while the East Coast hooked you up from the Great Smokey Mountains to Greenwich Village — all with plenty of visual condiments to spare. And since the vehicles that decided to pull over and give you a ride contained riders usually as eclectic as yourself, conversation seldom lagged.
Then there was the west coast of Mexico. You’d have a “serape” and a “bolsa” containing books of poetry, maps that included the states of Sonora, Sinaloa, Nayarit, Jalisco and Colima, a bit of “gorp” mixed with esoteric cacti buttons, and possibly a novel or two. You tried to keep your “papers,” not to mention stray capsules and herb stashed elsewhere.
Back then, the only thing this hitchhiker really knew about Utah was the all-night radio show of Herb Jebko on 50,000-watt clear channel KSL-AM. After dark, you could pick it up on the fillings in your teeth as far south as Guadalajara.
Some of our fellow travelers, however, were beginning to make a habit of a small mountain mining town turned ski resort called Park City. And, no doubt about it, as it turned out, you could easily access that place via thumb and two-lane.
One of my favorite hitchhiking memories during this era is of my friend Henry and I splitting up at the intersection of Haight and Stanyon, following a brief stay in Summer of Love San Francisco. Henry was heading east to Park City and I north to the commune of Morningstar Ranch — each by thumb, of course, on two-lane.
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and has been an observer, participant, and chronicler of the Park City and Wasatch County social and political scenes for more than 40 years.
“Even the dogs were celebrating the reemergence of the sun.”