sharing the extraordinary in ordinary lives
The Old Spiral Highway
by Liz Olds
t 15 I read On the Road and wanted to be Jack Kerouac. I wanted to live big and travel far. I wanted to hop on a freight train and go to the edge, to get picked up hitching by road-crazed hippies in beater cars going nowhere. I often put on my orange aluminum-frame backpack and, with nothing in it, walked to the edge of my suburban Maryland subdivision and imagined I would stick out my thumb and hitch to San Francisco, land of Ginsberg and Kesey. I had read Howl; I had read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I was well-educated in the ways of the literary travelers, although I never walked that extra mile to the highway. But I dreamed, despite the lightness of the empty pack on my shoulders.
At 18, finally free of the constraints of family and subdivision, I chose Idaho for college. Idaho represented the frontier and freedom to me. More practically, I picked Idaho because a high school friend also went there, although I chose Moscow, up in the northern panhandle, and she chose Pocatello in the south. I had the idea that we would see each other on the weekends, not realizing that we were actually 700 road miles apart. On my map Idaho looked like Maryland sitting on its edge. I had no idea how vast it was.
I had only hitched once, during my freshman year, down the Old Spiral Highway from Moscow into Lewiston, to scrounge in the Goodwill for the men’s shirts and pants I felt most comfortable in. But I had dreamed many times of a longer trip and looked forward to the time when an opportunity would present itself. How hard could it be? I would just stick my thumb out and magically a real Kerouac would appear to whisk me back up the Old Spiral Highway home.
hanksgiving weekend of my sophomore year, 1976, I decided to go to Corvallis, Oregon to visit an old flame I’d met at Girl Scout camp and hadn’t seen or spoken to in three years. I didn’t call ahead because it would rob the trip of its Kerouac-ness if I did.
On Wednesday I took the Greyhound to Corvallis. Dusti, the object of my affection, wasn’t home. Her confused mother stood with the door slightly open and advised me to come back Saturday. I took the ‘Hound back to Moscow on Wednesday night, and on Friday night, with only the price of a one-way ticket left, took the red-eye bus back once again to Corvallis. My desire for a dramatic reunion replaced whatever common sense my 18-year old self may have possessed. I would trust to the gods of the road to get me home somehow.
The romance part was a bust. In the end, Dusti and her mother did put me up for the night, and Dusti agreed, rather too hastily I thought, to drive me the ten miles from Corvallis to Interstate 5, the inland highway that followed the line of the Oregon Coast. There I could catch a ride to Portland and then on east to Idaho. Early on the Sunday morning after Thanksgiving, wisps of fog curled around the pine trees and swaddled the foothills. I caught a ride after just a few minutes and was in Portland by 9 AM.
I bought a pack of strong, foul-smelling Egyptian cigarettes in Portland to pass the boring wait between rides.
Still lucky, I was picked up by a travelling salesman in a Datsun 240Z and we cruised down Interstate 84 past the series of Corps of Engineers Dams on the north and the little streaming waterfalls coming down the high hills on the south. We topped the speedometer at 90 MPH which made me nervous, but the little sports car was built for speed and so was the highway.
The salesman was a chatty guy. He talked about his own life on the road, which was pretty straight and not what I was dreaming of with my romantic notions. He said he had thought I was a 14 year old boy standing by the side of the road when he picked me up. He bought me a hamburger and fries and I thought that was nice. Closing in on Walla Walla he suggested that I spend the night with him in his motel and I wasn’t sure if that was nice or not but since he didn’t push I didn’t need to know.
We reached Walla Walla, just 2 hours from Moscow, at 3:00. With plenty of daylight left and a stream of students heading back to school at the end of the long holiday weekend, I thought for sure I would get an easy ride and be home by dinner. The salesman dropped me off at a small strip mall on the outskirts of town. All the stores were closed. There was a bank with a time/temperature sign in front of it at my end of the mall. When I got out of the 240Z the sign read 3:00 PM/20 degrees.
I stood under the sign, smoking with one hand and hanging my thumb out with the other. For warmth I had on an old green parka with a fake fur hood and an orange lining I had bought at that Goodwill in Lewiston. It looked warmer than it was.
I measured the wait in cigarette puffs, drawing the smoke in deep while watching the number in the pack dwindle. I noticed the temperature numbers gradually going down as well. Apparently a cold front was coming in. But, not to worry. A ride would surely be along soon.
As time passed, so did the cars. No one stopped. No one would even meet my eyes as they sped by.
I could hear the buzz of the sign and watched the numbers on the temperature side falling. At first I didn’t feel it getting colder, but numbers never lie. Then the wind picked up.
My feet numbed. I wore high-top Chuck Taylors and some wool socks I had stolen from a friend. I hopped from foot to foot to keep the circulation going. No gloves, I didn’t like gloves. Can’t hold a damn cigarette with gloves on. The numbers on that temperature sign were rolling like a pinball score going the wrong way.
So was the sun. I would like to say at least it was a beautiful sunset, but the outskirts of Walla Walla are flat and that stretch of road with the little shoe repair shop and H&R Block office in the strip mall was pretty ugly. The sun just went down.
And the cars kept going by.
By 5:00 it was dark and 6 degrees. I had to admit to myself I was getting a little afraid. I didn’t really think I would die out there, but I would be in for a miserable night. I lit my last cigarette.
I jumped up and down, waving wildly as the cars passed. I could see into the warm interior of the cars, surprised at how clear the faces of mostly young students appeared as they averted their eyes when I tried to implore them with my own.
Now it was dark, a couple of hours into my wait by the side of U.S. 12 in Walla Walla, Washington. Time slowed, my blood was slowing, and the only thing going fast was that damn temperature sign, now at minus 2.
I’ve experienced colder temperatures, but never for so long and never so exposed. Every breath I took hurt my lungs and froze my boogers solid. My eyeballs felt like they were freezing. Shutting them didn’t help, they hurt closed and they hurt open. And I was getting pissed. There were plenty of cars on that road, occupants ignoring me as they drove in heated comfort home. Home. Why the hell wouldn’t someone pick me up and drive me home?
I stood by the side of that road for 6 hours.
Then, over a little rise came an old white Chevy panel van. I nearly cried when the yellow blinker came on and the van slowed. The driver reached across the passenger seat and opened the door.
“I’m just going ten miles up the road but at least you can get in and get warm for a while.”
The man seemed old to me but he couldn’t have been more than 35. He had a long, slightly disheveled and thinning blonde ponytail and a big full-faced beard. He asked was I going up to Moscow and I said yeah and that was the sum total of our conversation. The weak little heat fan blew on me from the dash and everything tingled.
After 15 minutes he pulled into a gas station, filled up the tank, went in to pay and came back with two Styrofoam cups of hot coffee.
“I believe I’ll drive just a little further up the road.”
We drank the coffee in silence. I knew I was taking a risk as he drove “a little further up the road.” It occurred to me that he might be a serial killer. In my young teenage dream I had not imagined this freezing, lonely trip, nor possible outcomes other than absolute safety. It was too late for second thoughts now; I was committed to this ride. But after a moment of doubt I opted for trust. Even though he didn’t say anything there was no menace in his demeanor. All I knew for sure was that the coffee was warm and so was I and the miles were rolling by under my butt. There didn’t seem to be much to say. We didn’t exchange names.
ixty miles later we reached the bottom of the Old Spiral Highway, the pass from Lewiston that rose 2000 feet in 9 miles of switchbacks, a two-lane monster road with 7% grades and no-shoulder drop-offs into thin air. This wasn’t all the way home, and I had a nasty stretch of road ahead, but it was a major crossroads with two 24-hour truck stops and plenty of cars and semis, a place to get more coffee and be inside, warm and safe until I could snag a ride up the pass into Moscow.
As I was getting out of the van I calculated the miles and realized his generosity added up to hours rather than minutes. He still had the ride back. I hoped he had music to keep him company. I didn’t really know what to think. Both the tough Kerouac part of me and the little kid who bravely carried an empty backpack to the end of the subdivision were astounded by his generosity. I didn’t know how to simply be present with his kindness. For the first time in an hour I felt compelled to say something.
“Thanks, uh, give me your address; I’ll send you some money.”
“No need. I’ve been where you are and I know how it feels. Just pass it on, man, pass it on.”
It seems important to me now that he did not take me all the way home. I noticed it then, but didn’t think about it much. Who in the world would want to drive up and down that Old Spiral Highway in the middle of the night? One moment of inattention could send a car over the side into oblivion.
Now I think that it was more than self-preservation. He did not patronize me by assuming I couldn’t take care of myself. I felt welcomed into the brotherhood of the road, the home I wanted at the time. A home I knew more about when I asked a young couple going up the hill for my last ride of the night than I had at the beginning of my long, cold day. Whether he realized it or not, he was treating me not as the fourteen year old boy I appeared to be, but as a fellow-traveler, and as someone who really would remember when I got the chance later on in life to “pass it on”.