The Keystone (or Hitchhiking To Garcia)
After hitchhiking from Washington, D.C. to Bakersfield, California in only two and a half days, I was feeling pretty proud of myself. Trying to get a ride from there north toward Berkeley was another story. The exit ramp was not a particularly difficult place for cars to stop; it afforded distance for cars both on the ramp and the highway lanes to see us before stopping to safely pick us up. As the cool fog lifted in the brightness of the morning and the slow stream of the highway became a river in its rush hour, I remarked to Raymond that this was one of the best spots we’d been in since leaving the God-awful Aspen, Colorado city limits. We couldn’t get a ride from those people for nearly six hours until the local cops gave us a lift to Highway 70 outside of town, making us agree to never come back to their resort village full of privileged spring skiers working hard to keep their Colorado bronze skin and the $300 sunglasses that matched. Raymond said he was on a personal journey to see the world beyond Hawarden, Iowa, population 2332, where he had lived his entire 19 years in farm-boy heaven. His father couldn’t understand, beyond a two-year degree in agriculture and a taste of city girls at the community college in Des Moines, why a young man, given the opportunity of his father’s 2000-acre farm business, would want the wanderlust of fools.
Finally, after a long silence and another string of whooshing cars passed, I said, “I can’t understand these people, you know what I’m sayin’ Raymond? The Greyhound is callin’ my name every time one goes by.” I was so naïve, I had thought that once we entered the Golden State we’d have to fight off the rides from “the nicest people in the world.” The stark reality of exhaust fumes in my face and the cold unrecognizable stares at 80 miles an hour left me more than disillusioned. Discontented, looking down at the discharged oil on the ground, unable to escape the thick putrid air, I felt like I was that famous lone Indian from the 1970’s with his single tear silently protesting pollution. My sadness loomed over the valley behind me. The sun was a very nice friend though – so warm, it was a welcoming I clung to as the day wore on and the bloom of my unrealistic California dream with its love and peaceful togetherness came slowly off the bud.“A Greyhound bus? That’s what I said two hours ago,” Raymond said, annoyed. Then, after some time, squatting on his haunches and staring into the gravel on the side of the road and letting his voice fall almost below the noise of the traffic, he continued:
“Oh, maybe you weren’t paying attention — too busy asking that pretty clerk at the convenience store where you could buy a big bag of California oranges — the ones that you said were the best in the world? Before you tell me again that I should eat some of these oranges, that they’ll keep me alive and cure me of all diseases — before you even mention another goddamn orange, I’d like you to know that growing up on a farm, I know food; and not only are the oranges in Florida superior, my family’s been growing our own fruit straight out of the good Iowa earth for as long as I can remember. I don’t want an orange now or even later on when you forget that I’ve told you this. I know you explained to me in detail that drugs were mind-expanding and would — how did you say it? ‘illuminate the darkness and mediocrity of my pedestrian life’ — but I gotta say, in the most country bumpkin I can muster, don’t you think you should consider laying off the LSD for at least a day or two? I mean, I’m not a doctor or anything, but you seem to be forgetting what you’ve said ten minutes ago, and yesterday you didn’t know what state we were in! All I want is to get to my uncle’s house in San Francisco where I can eat some real food.”
We decided to walk the three miles or so into beautiful downtown Bakersfield, consisting of a sea of warehouses, cheap motels, and greasy spoons. Amidst the smell of diesel that bounced off the 95 degree cement like a mirage, zombie-like fast food workers, and dirty palm trees there was a landmark full of interesting and dangerous characters: the Greyhound bus station. Now, after a few days on the road, no sleep and drugs (I don’t think farmer boy fully appreciated the psychotropic gifts I had talked him into taking) that were rapidly wearing off, we fit right in and secured two tickets to Berkeley.
Settling down on the bus station’s hard wooden benches with the high backs, Raymond pulled me away from a senseless discussion with a fellow traveler whose opinion was that the government was controlling our thoughts. He thought I should be wearing a homemade foil cap like his in order to keep my conductors clear of the microwave messages sent out from the FBI. I happily agreed to listen, while I pestered “foil-head” to accept one of my miracle-cure oranges. “Dude, maybe you should lay off the Reynolds Wrap for a minute and try some of these oranges. They’ll soak up some of those waves, man, I’m sure of it!” Raymond, who thought that I was just trying to be nice to the guy had kept silent at first, but soon had had enough. He simply and firmly stated a loud “NO” to the both of us, like we were a couple of bus terminal junkies, stray dogs snuck in from the alley mooching for food. “You guys are both crazy!”
Arriving in the Berkeley station was literally a breath of fresh air. The breeze coming off the San Francisco Bay was definitely what I had expected and it held some semblance of hope against the reality check that the last 24 hours had bestowed upon me. Raymond and I had decided to part ways, but I hung around the station long enough to see that he found the right bus to San Francisco.
I left the station and walking up the sidewalk, I was in heaven. The same gleam of adventure in my eye that I had left the East Coast with returned and I was glad to have my spirit free and be on my own again. Beautiful palms divided by a huge median full of plants with big shiny green and red and yellow leaves lined the street. Surrounding them everywhere were California poppies and other wildflowers of every variety and color imaginable. The beginning of my experience here may have given me pause, but now my eyes, in an unending kaleidoscope of color, again saw only the Garden of Eden I had described to my friends back home. Seemingly very happy people were going about their daily business. Everywhere I looked, there were hip people doing hip things even if they were just strolling into the community bank, or out of the Laundromat – and so many young girls, just walking around without a care in the world or a prejudice to me looking at them. California Girls. They just looked me straight in the eye and smiled right back.
I walked across the street to a coffee house for a rare treat: good coffee — that is, you didn’t need three packets of Cremora and four sugars to make it taste right. Back East, coffee was usually brown water – thin, tasteless, and scalding hot. In 1981, Peet’s Coffee had made its appearance in Berkeley and Mill Valley, California, but its corporate morphing child, Starbuck’s Roasting Co., was some years from reaching the rest of the country.
I strolled further up the sidewalk, with my coffee, toward the top of the hill where all roads ended at the University of California Berkeley campus. I approached a small gathering outside a storefront that seemed to be a bar or small club, with posters taped in the window of various bands performing in the coming weeks. After deciding which pretty hippie-chick I was going to approach to ask what band was playing, how far was the campus from here, or where was the closest grocery store — anything that would start a conversation — suddenly I had the inclination to look up at the small marquee above the entrance of the bar.
JERRY GARCIA BAND TONITE!
I must admit that my first reasoning for coming 3000 miles to “Berserkley,” as the hipsters of the late ‘60’s affectionately dubbed it, was to see and hear a group of musicians who completely changed the way I looked at life and significantly influenced my struggle — the ball of frustration and rebelliousness within me — that blinding cacophony of youth that plagued me at 21 years old and long after those early spring days in 1981.