This particular day had started in Cheyenne and my thumbing had begun in Little America, the biggest truck stop in the country after she’d dropped me off to head further north.
And this particular leg of the journey had begun on the dirty, slushy streets in the south side of Salt Lake City.
The pickup stopped and the driver said he was headed south on Rt. 15. My four or five previous rides, dragged out over a four-hour period, couldn’t have taken me fifty miles all told. At last I had a ride that was going somewhere.
The first thing I observed getting into the truck was the case of oil on the floor. The second thing was a bottle of whiskey on the seat.
If you want to make a living driving the interstates you have to have a routine. If you just eat when you’re hungry and sleep when you’re tired you’ll never survive the long haul. This man had a routine.
About every thirty miles he would pull over, throw the hood up and pour a quart of oil into the smoking engine. Then he would get back in and throw a swig of whiskey down his throat and we’d be back on the road again.
In between fill-ups, I learned that he worked for the power company and was heading back to his home in Arizona. At least that’s what he said. I never knew the real story about the drivers who picked me up just like the drivers never knew the true story about me. Hitch hiking is a good time to try out lies to see which ones fly.
He said he worked for the power company and that was fine with me. All I cared about was that Rt. 15 would take me right into LA and had already decided to leave him whenever he left Rt. 15.
But there was a problem. All those rides in the morning that didn’t go anywhere had used up a lot of time and it was now getting late, and worse, it was getting dark; and I hadn’t really seen a city since we left Salt Lake. I really didn’t have a plan other then jumping from the car if he ever got so drunk that he drove off the road and flipped over.
That’s when he told me his plan—or part of his plan. As he pulled off of Rt. 15 onto a smaller road and I was just to ask him to let me out, he spoke up.
“I don’t think you’re going to have much luck getting a ride on Rt. 15 tonight,” he said. “Not from here but I have a better idea for you.”
He told me he was going to get me to a place where I would have no trouble getting a ride. The only problem I had with that plan was that the road he turned onto seemed to be going deeper into the mountains. It was beginning to get dark and it seemed that our’s was the only car on the highway. In the distance I could see the lights of a house or two scattered here or there but they were few and far between. If this weren’t enough to cause me to worry the engine was smoking more and he was getting on a pretty good buzz.
I thought I was in for trouble but I didn’t know what kind of trouble and how much trouble. It was around this time, as my worries were mounting, that he began talking about politics and education and Russia and Russian education. I didn’t know whom I was dealing with and was barely paying attention to him as I tried to pick out anything in the passing landscape that might come in handy down the road.
We were definitely in the middle of nowhere, and by nowhere I mean total and absolute blackness—with just a truly breathtaking number of stars shining down from above and the light from his headlights that seemed to reach out all of twenty feet ahead of us. This is when the thought occurred to me that except for his truck and the dinky light illuminating from it, this is the sight I would have seen a hundred million years ago, traveling along the same landscape.
I was trying to plan ahead on how I would grab the whiskey bottle if I had to and whether I would be able to hit him hard enough to knock him out—and could I get control of the wheel when he informed me that actually the best thing to do would be to stay with him in his trailer overnight and get a early start the next morning. This trailer, he explained, was about half way between his home in Arizona and Salt Lake City.
Now I was really kicking myself for not getting out when I had the chance but kicking myself was pretty much all I could.
We drove for a couple more hours leaving one road after another for smaller, bumpier, more isolated ones until finally at last we arrived at his trailer and I could breathe a sigh of relief.
We were in Salina, a small town on the edge of Fishlake National Forest. He pulled his truck next to a trailer parked in a small court just off the road. He put some stuff in the trailer and then we walked to a little bar down the road that could have come right out of “Gunsmoke.”
There were no chairs or stools at the bar, yet that is where he chose to eat. We ordered up some chow, ate it standing up, had a few drinks and talked to the locals who all seemed to know him. He really was a lineman for the county and I was beginning to feel better about the whole situation.
It was here that he reintroduced the subject of Russian education—particularly math. It seems their way of adding and multiplying was better than our way but he could only vaguely remember how their way went. We worked on it at the bar and then went back to his trailer to work on it some more. Through a process of trial and error we finally figured out how they did it.
Seems instead of going from right to left and carrying a lot of numbers back and forth, they start at the left and just kind of kept a running number in their head.
I’ve read several articles explaining the system since then but this was the first time I had ever heard of it. By the time we went to sleep that night we were both pretty drunk and doing any math by any system would have been hard. Still, considering what I thought I was getting into just a few hours earlier, everything worked out pretty well.
He had a bed over his that had a clearance all of a foot and a half but I had no trouble falling asleep. He told me not to wake him up in the morning. He said all I had to do was get on the road outside the trailer and I would have no trouble getting a ride.
He was right. The first car arrived about five minutes after I did and the driver said he was going to LA. We made one stop in Las Vegas so he could place one bet and by nightfall, I was back in LA.