The Hitchhikers

One had dark hair and the other one red. Both were thin. I was with a friend, safety in numbers. I knew they were all right because the dark-haired one had film-student glasses, same as mine. Hipsters were a lot of things, or weren’t anything, but in all the years of hipsterism the New York Post has never once featured a clever pun about a psychokiller hipster.

We drove up Highway 1 to a berry farm and jam store. Did murderous psychos wear skinny jeans? Nah. We stopped at a beach and watched a spectacular sunset, took pictures. Did murderous psychos have expensive digital cameras and excitedly photograph seaweed? Unlikely.

Their names were Brian and Curtis. Curtis may have looked Brooklyn, but he talked California. Brian was more hippie than hipster, even skinnier, red hair, big red beard, giant feather tattooed behind his left ear. He had gone to Humboldt State up in Arcata, knew some of the people I knew there. Were murderous psychos friends of my friends? Did murderous psychos attend Humboldt State? Very, very rarely. We continued up Highway 1 toward San Francisco, sang along to James Taylor songs, Neil Diamond songs. Did people rape and murder people with whom they had sung along to James Taylor songs and Neil Diamond songs? Never before in history.

I dropped my friend off at her house. I could have left the hitchhikers there in San Francisco to fend for themselves, but I wanted to care for them, as I have always been so well cared for in my travels. I had nothing to offer them but a ride across the Golden Gate Bridge, to the national parkland where I keep a writing studio and there is a campground. You are supposed to get a permit but I had camped there other times and heard people come in after dark, sleep in the middle between the campsites, and then leave early in the morning, evading the park police.

We stopped at the food co-op to get beer and walked into the Mission to eat pizza on the street. I hadn’t eaten pizza on the street since leaving New York. The hitchhikers had never been to New York and asked a lot of questions about it. This made me feel I was visiting New York, though we were really visiting San Francisco. I had become unstuck between coasts, was still seeing Brooklyn on Highway 1. We were still hungry after the pizza so we went down Valencia to get tacos, and it felt as if we had everything just because we had both pizza and tacos, New York and California.

We drove across the Golden Gate Bridge to the campground. As we were unloading the car I planned to hide elsewhere, the park ranger drove up. “Do you have a permit?” she asked, the dreaded question. I always feel such rage when I am asked this. What about you? Where’s your permit? Who gave you the right? Who put you in charge? But I try to see the other side. If this land were not regulated, maybe it would be overrun with people, and they would leave garbage, or destroy it, or sleep or excrete everywhere. The land must be cared for, stewardship, preservation, permission.

I played dumb. “I didn’t know about the permit. We just read about this campground and came in late.” But the park ranger was nice. “I’m on my way home,” she sighed. “Just move your car out of the fire lane and go register at the visitor’s center in the morning, so we know how many people are using this campground.” “Sure thing!” I replied, relieved. Now I didn’t even have to hide the car. We had her blessing.

I led the hithchhikers through the campground to the scrubby hills beyond, from which you can see the Golden Gate Bridge and all of San Francisco. I knew the way in the dark. I had been led so many places in the dark by people who knew things about California, but as the months went by I was learning my own way.

There was a good flat spot to camp on. We sat on the hill and looked at the city for hours, drinking and smoking and shooting the shit. I had a tangerine in my pocket that kept falling out and rolling down the hill. Finally I got tired of losing it, retrieved it, and ate it.

Contemplating San Francisco, I came to the conclusion that it might take a long time for me to be able to look at another city and not see New York, that I had come here not for the city of San Francisco but rather the state of California, the state-of-mind of California, the highways and byways and forests and parks and mountains and rivers and oceans and farms and redwoods and madrones and backroads and weirdos thereof. I am perfectly happy to visit the city, to fondle expensive clothes I cannot afford, drink in cleverly-designed bars I can still appreciate, enjoy varied ethnic foods, hear music, browse in bookstores, but I am happier still to view it all from outside, from my hill, watching the ships enter the harbor with their containers full of Chinese goods, watching the ocean waves crashing in between me and the city.

Brian and Curtis kept asking about New York, what was it like to drive there and how did the skyline compare? There is no way to compare, I told them. You’d be insane to drive there. I couldn’t explain how much the New York skyline kicked the ass of this skyline. We were much further from San Francisco on our high bluff than you could ever be from New York. When you see New York across the water you are only a river’s width away. New York appears to be one plane, all the shapes packed tight. From across its wider bays, San Francisco registers more as geography than architecture. Nothing built here ever trumps the nature, the land, the hills.

While we were sitting up there I made some remark about trying to figure out life and Brian said, “I don’t think that the point is ever to figure it out, because you never will, but to appreciate everything as much as you can.” Curtis announced that he was going to keep on traveling and not go home for a while. We all agreed that we didn’t want to be needlessly overworked, and I felt that I understood all things.

I was cold and Brian loaned me a sweater, a fuzzy orange one, like Muppet fur, the same color as my tangerine. I lay down in my sleeping bag, orange on the outside and the inside. I knew that in the morning the sun would rise right behind the Golden Gate Bridge. This was the final surprise I had in store for my hitchhikers. I woke up at 7:01 exactly and sat up to watch it.

Brian woke up, too. We didn’t speak, watched the sunrise, went back to sleep. He gave me the orange sweater to keep, and his copy of the Howard Zinn book.

I opened it to these words, at the end of a chapter about social movements in the late sixties and early seventies:

“Never in American history had more movements for change been concentrated in so short a span of years. But the system in the course of two centuries had learned a good deal about the control of people. In the mid-seventies, it went to work.”

It seemed very significant. Brian mused that his sister had bought the orange sweater in Peru, where I had visited many times in a previous arc of my traveling life, and this also seemed very significant. I was so happy that there was a book that flat-out said that there was a system that sought to control people. It made me so angry when this fact was not acknowledged, and so much happier when it was at least acknowledged.

I dropped Brian and Curtis by the bus stop where they could catch the bus to San Francisco. I had a strange feeling they’d come back that night, and they did. They called to ask if they could come and use the bathroom at the studio. I said sure, but they never appeared. I meant to go look for them at the campground but I got to writing and figured they knew where to find me. I hoped nothing bad had happened to them, but in the morning I got an email from Brian. “We got rolled by the park rangers,” it said. “I had to ditch my weed. It would be well worth your time to go get it if you want it. It is in a vitamin bottle in the bushes at the base of the hill we sat on about 15 feet from were we slept on the trail. There is quite a bit and it’s all yours if you find it.”

I can never get over the fact that our government employs people whose job it is to find people who are smoking joints or merely sleeping in beautiful quiet spots and catch them. I can’t think of anything more harmless than a person smoking a joint or sleeping in a beautiful quiet spot, or anything more mean-spirited than stopping them from this small pleasure. It is also very strange to me that our government employs other people whose job it is to go to foreign lands and kill people they don’t know. It is stranger still that people willingly do this just because someone tells them to and pays them for it.

While we were sitting up on the hill Brian told me about a cop he knew who said that the cops in his police department would take all the drugs they had confiscated from the evidence room and then go out and arrest hookers and threaten them with jail unless they attended their party, did the confiscated drugs, performed sexual favors. I had no doubt this happened all the time, that all of the confiscated drugs went right up the noses and down the throats of the very people who confiscated them. The problem with the confiscation of drugs was that it did not prevent drug possession, it just changed who was in possession of the so-called drugs.

If I didn’t find the weed the park police would, and they would smoke it themselves. I almost wished they would, almost wanted to go retrieve it and then leave it for them as a gift in the campground-permit box, but thought better of that and decided to find it and keep it for myself and my friends after all.

What a fun mission! What purpose! Scavenging for weed in the weeds. I felt bad that my new friends would not have any weed for the rest of their trip, but they probably would soon enough. They were hitching north on the 101, after all. I went to the campground and started poking around in the bushes. I imagined that the park police were running a sting operation, had captured my hitchhiking friends and made them send me that email in order to trap me. But wasn’t that entrapment and wasn’t that not allowed in the bullshit game of our demented legal system? I didn’t know my rights. And I was just being paranoid. When I feel paranoid I often hear the opening riffs of the Black Sabbath song, “Paranoid,” in my head, and this reminds me to consider the distinct possibility that it’s all in my mind.

While I was scavenging, some teenagers came down the path, climbed up the hill, lit up a joint. Great, now I would have witnesses. But I was their witness, too. We were all witness to each other’s semi-decriminalized crimes.

I was about to give up when I saw it. It was a rather large vitamin bottle. I pocketed it and started back down the trail. Once I was alone, I unscrewed the lid. There were at least a dozen fat, pre-rolled joints in there. What riches! I was nearly broke and without a home to call my own, but now I had this going for me.

The kindness with which people could care for one another amazed me. These traveling boys who had so little had given me so much, and we had shared so much together. A beautiful sunset, a beautiful sunrise, the night in between. Only the best things, the highway and the high hill with a view and the pizza and the tacos.

It seemed that first night that all that mattered was to see the view and not get caught. But then they did get caught. Why were the park police trying to stop the all the hitchhikers and the teenagers from smoking joints up on the hill? Was it because when we went up there we felt so free and powerful, and that all the world was ours, and that we had everything and could go on forever, whether or not this was true? Was it because the view and the herb caused revelations about not being needlessly overworked, simple revelations about appreciating everything, and the system just could not abide this? Was it that the system in two centuries had learned a good deal about the control of people?

There was a revolution afoot in Egypt. There were more formidable enemies to human freedom than the park police. For some, the stakes were higher than the continued availability of free rides and free weed, but here on the federal lands of this great golden state this was still a small battle (and vitamin bottle) we’d both lost and won.

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