Memorable Rides and Visits
Since it is 45 years after our travels, we cannot reconstruct all of the details of our trip, but we certainly have some vivid memories of portions of the journey. So here we recount some of the memorable rides, interesting characters and odd happenings on our way to Aspen and back.
Ken’s dad Abe took us to US 6 south of New Paris, Indiana and our first ride took us only to Nappanee where the fellow was going to work. The rest of the day, the rides were fairly short and not memorable. Our first night was at Joliet, IL, near the junction of US 30 and I 80, and in the dark, we walked off the road a bit, rolled out the bags and hit the hay. In the morning we found that we were in a ditch, there was some water at our feet and we were near a big excavation, probably for a shopping center. We then realized that we should have packed a flashlight for our trip. Also, after one day we knew that we had to work on our hitchhiking “style” with variations on the thumb theme – synchronous moves, over under, swings, smiles vs. scowls, standing backwards – so that if we didn’t get a ride, we at least would get a laugh.
Our first overnight that wasn’t along the road in a cornfield was in Milford, Nebraska with Johnny and Dora Willems, Ken’s uncle and aunt. We had not contacted anyone beforehand to say that we were on our way, and not remembering exactly where they lived, we walked into town, asked around a bit, found their house and knocked on their door. They were a bit shocked, but welcomed us in to their home for the night, and for some good home-cooked meals.
Somewhere west of Milford, we got picked up by three twenty-something guys. They were a jovial crew, and were headed “west.” They all sat in the front seat, and we squeezed into the back seat that contained a lot of boxes. In western Iowa and Nebraska, the interstate was complete between all of the towns along the way, but the interchanges were not finished. So, at each place an interchange was being built, traffic had to exit the interstate, pass through the town, and then return to the interstate. Pretty soon, we began to figure out that our ride was not simply with three dudes heading west. As we approached each town, one of the fellows would get on their CB radio and call to see if there were any pawn shops in town. We also noted that the trunk was loaded with boxes that looked to be electronics and other miscellaneous stuff. We surmised that they were thieves and were financing their trip with stolen goods. At a gas stop, one fellow filled up, another distracted the attendant, and the third stole a bunch of tools. They laughed as they roared west, and we decided that we had some friends that we needed to stop and see in the next town.
It turned out that we did have a friend in a nearby town – Steve Oswald in Chappell, Nebraska. Not having a clue where Steve lived, we stuck out our thumbs to see if we could get some local information. We got picked up by two girls who knew Steve and where he lived. We went to his house, and no one was home. We cruised around town for a while and went back to Oswald’s place. He still was not home, but we noted that their garage was not locked, so we stayed there overnight.
After we left Aspen, we spent one night in the high country. It was quite cold, and Doug was certain that there were timber rattlers in the area and that we would find them in our sleeping bags. After a restless night, we awoke to find no rattlesnakes. As we headed back toward Denver, one of our rides was in a pickup with a cowboy of few words. He did not say anything for miles, but as we passed Gypsum, Colorado, he simply stated “Gypsum - Center of the goddamned universe.” We didn’t press for an explanation.
When we got to Denver, our plan was to look up Bob Roth, a good friend that we knew from our high school days in Indiana. Since we had not contacted anyone beforehand, we should not have been surprised that he was not home. So, we scouted out his apartment building and noted that it had a very nice mailroom, with a door that locked. So we camped out there overnight, and every once in a while, an irate tenant would pound on the door and demand entrance. We ignored all requests for entry, and sneaked out the next morning.
When we headed east out of Denver, we decided that we should head south and then east in to Kansas because Ken had relatives in Kansas that would be good for a meal and a place to sleep. In southeast Colorado, we were stuck for quite a while at the junction of US 385 and US 50, near Granada. There’s not too much traffic there, so each time a car went by, we gave our most enthusiastic and inventive hitching routines. After at least two hours, a huge white car pulled up. It was a Hispanic couple, and with the beer cases stacked in the back seat and open bottles in the front, it quickly became apparent that the male driver was three sheets to the wind. As he sped east at maybe 85 mph, his wife would constantly badger him in Spanish. After quite a few miles, he slammed on the brakes and pulled to the side of the road. We were a bit relieved that they switched places, but not for long – she had been drinking as well and drove quite a bit faster – up to 100 mph as we recollect. However, she maintained control without as much weaving as her husband. But, this was not the most memorable part – after they switched places, he offered us another beer and said “You guys are the Beatles, aren’t ya?” When we assured him that we were not the Beatles, he didn’t buy it. He must have made his claim a half a dozen times – “I know you guys are the Beatles, aren’t ya?” Young white dudes with a bit of hair and carrying a guitar – we supposed it made sense!
We’re not sure how far into Kansas the couple took us, but it wasn’t too long until we arrived in Greensburg where Ken’s Grandpa Abe and Grandma Lydia Willems lived. Again, we got a nice bath, good beds, and some great meals made by Lydia, particularly the soups and pflaume mousse, German for plum mousse. One distinct memory was Lydia not saying much, but just listening and giggling as Ken, Doug and Abe talked and told stories. Lydia also had a “wandering eye” so we never knew exactly where she was looking. Probably because Abe thought we were a bit crazy, he drove us up to Hesston where Ken had some more relatives.
In Hesston, we stayed with Milf & Rosie Willems Roupp. We thought we were pretty clever because we showed up at the restaurant that they ran at about meal time. Well, we did get to eat at The Wagon Wheel, but when it came time to settle up the bill, they comped Ken’s meal but not Doug’s. Ken felt bad enough that afterwards, he paid for half of Doug’s dinner. Ken also had a college “friend” in Hesston, Sue Yost, and one evening we went to the Yost’s for dinner - shrimp.
Our last memorable ride came in Saint Louis. It was getting dark and we were on the east edge of the city. We very much wanted to make it out of the city and set up our camp in the countryside. At dusk, a single guy, about 40, picked up us up and said he was heading out east. Ken sat up front and Doug sat in the back with the suitcase and sleeping bags. However, the driver soon told us that the cops were looking for two hitchhikers and that we should spend the night at his place. Clueless, we declined and said we just wanted to get east of town. He kept repeating how the cops were looking for two hitchhikers heading east, and we kept declining his suggestion. Then, out of the blue, he reached over and reached for Ken’s groin and asked him “how’s your old dick?” Ken caught his hand and called him a son of a bitch, and called for him to let us out. Ken was furious and yelling, and Doug still didn’t catch on to what was going on in the front seat. However, Ken yelled “Get the axe” and Doug clicked the suitcase open and got it out, and the dude stopped and let us out. He made an immediate u-turn back into town, and we walked far into a cornfield to spend the night.