The onset of fall reminds me of many things.
There's the usual, of course - back to school, football games, cider, flaming and falling leaves, and the knowledge that winter lies ahead.
There's one other thing, though, that's always in the back of my mind but I can't place, exactly, till I focus on it. And that is hitchhiking.
Where does the hitchhiking come from?
Well, in the fall of 1965, I took off and hitchhiked around half the U.S.
It wasn't something I'd planned on, but after I flunked out of college, it seemed like a good idea - especially compared to hiding in my mother's attic, coming out only at night so no one would see me, the Ultimate Town Failure. Plus, on the positive side, I always wanted to see the country and thought hitchhiking would be the way to do it - a splendid adventure for a dreamy, starry-eyed kid.
A Dope in Dixie
I hit the road, literally, in Charlotte, North Carolina. I'd just spent a bunch of days at a friend's college - his entire homecoming weekend, in fact - and early Monday morning, he dropped me off at the interstate and I pointed my thumb south.
I hitched all day and into the night, ending on a secondary road since the interstate wasn't complete, in a small town outside of Atlanta called Palmetto. At that point it was getting late, and there wasn't a ride in sight. What was in sight, however, was a policeman.
"Oh no," I thought, as he approached me. "Here it goes, the classic bigoted, vicious Southern cop. Prepare for the chain gang, poor little Dope."
I said hello (actually, "Hello, officer"), and he said hello back. We chatted a bit, and in a very short time I realized he was as surprised to see me as I was to see him: Obviously, they didn't get a whole lot of Yankees standing in the middle of their little town late at night.
He asked me where I was going, and I told him I'd figured Mississippi next, then Louisiana, then Texas ... and after that, up north, somewhere.
"I really don't know where I'm going," I said. "I'm just kinda going. I've got a bunch of months to travel, so I can take it as it comes."
"Yeah," he said. "Sowing your wild oats."
It was the first time I heard that expression, but far from the last, as almost every man I met when I hitchhiked said the same thing.
"I did that when I was a kid," he said.
"Really?" I said
"Uh-huh. I left home and hitchhiked to Mobile."
Then he looked off in the middle distance and stroked his chin, obviously lost in reminiscence. I waited for him to talk again.
"Now that I think of it," he said, shaking his head, "I don't even know why I did it. It just seemed important at the time ... if that makes any sense."
"Well, it does to me," I said. "But I don't know if what I'm doing makes sense to anyone but me."
He nodded, then said, "So where up north you come from?"
"New York," I said.
"Big city, huh?"
And then I had the conversation I would have - and still have - wherever I travel.
"Yeah, sure," I said, quickly, trying to get in my country creds as soon as I could. "But I don't live in the city."
"Thought you said you live in New York," he said.
Immediately, I launched into what became my standard spiel about New York being a city but it also being a state, and I live at the very northern tip of it, right near Canada in a town of 5,000 people, in the mountains, surrounded by woods and ... well, I'm sure you can guess the rest.
In all modesty, this description of My Home Town was so vivid, if not downright brilliant, that had Joe Drutz heard it, he would've made me an honorary member of the Chamber of Commerce on the spot.
Palmetto's finest ... and finest accommodations
Anyhow, the cop and I chatted some more, and finally I asked him if there was a hotel in town.
A tourist home?
"Darn," I said. "I know I won't get any more rides tonight, but I don't quite know what to do."
"Tell you what," he said. "I'll make you an official guest of the town."
"If you want, you can stay in the jail."
By then it was pitch-black and getting cold, and I was falling asleep on my feet. And since his offer of a place to stay was the ONLY one, it was the best one as well.
The jail was not what I expected. It was a cinderblock building, all by its lonesome, behind a grocery store parking lot. There was nothing (or thank God no one) in it but a three beds with blankets, and a gas stove which he kindly lit for me. At that point I thought I needed nothing more.
As it turned out, I was wrong. I needed one more thing - to be locked in.
"This isn't to keep you in," he said. "It's to keep out the crazies."
That was immensely reassuring. First, it meant I was safe for the night, and second, it meant he didn't consider me one of the crazies.
He turned the key and left, I hit the sack and immediately fell asleep.
The next morning I woke up to the door being unlocked, this time by another cop.
"Good morning," he said. "And how did you like the finest accommodations Palmetta has to offer?"
"Well," I said, "if this is the famous Southern hospitality I've heard about all my life, you've still got a ways to go."
He laughed, then asked where I was headed next. When I told him, he drove me to a diner on the southern outskirts of town.
I had a big breakfast, complete with grits - which I had to order because they were so Southern, but for which I had not yet acquired a taste. After I licked my platter clean and drank my fourth cup of coffee, I threw my duffel bag on my shoulder and went out to the road.
Once there, I stuck out my thumb, puffed out my chest, and smiled to myself.
At that moment I felt more awake, alive and a-quiver than I'd ever felt before. And it wasn't due to the caffeine, either.