Last week, in my post about the Volkswagen ID.Buzz, the 2023 electric incarnation of the Volkswagen Microbus, I wrote about all the VW vans that picked me up when I hitchhiked cross-country with my girlfriend in the summer of 1974. One of the rides I referenced took us more than 500 miles, from Milton, Pennsylvania, to Schoolcraft, Michigan. Below is a short excerpt from an as-yet-untitled book about the 1970s that I'm currently working on. It's from a chapter called "In the Name of Kerouac," and it goes into detail about that ride—an iconic moment in an iconic van at a time when the very notion of hitchhiking cross-country would soon pass into the realm of things sane people no longer did.
To set the scene: My girlfriend, whom I call "Naomi," and I had been on the road for three-and-a-half hours, and we'd come 160 miles. We were hitching on Interstate 80, when a VW van with Michigan plates stopped. The driver, David Legalli ("Accent on the gal. So please don't call me legally."), was heading for Grand Rapids. As we cruised along at 70—15 miles per hour above the new gas-shortage-mandated national speed limit—Legalli told us that he'd just turned 27, he was a wounded Vietnam vet, and he'd eaten speed for breakfast so he could drive all day without stopping.
In the late afternoon as we sped through the Ohio cornfields on U.S. 30, a straight line of geometric perfection, Legalli asked, "Anybody play guitar?"
"She does," I said, pointing over my shoulder to Naomi.
"Well then why don't you grab my guitar and play something, sweetheart."
She seemed hesitant. Though I thought she was a talented singer, she was a rudimentary guitarist, shy about performing in front of strangers. But she picked up the guitar in the back of the van and began tuning it.
"Do you know 'Country Roads'?" Legalli asked.
"That's one of my favorites."
She strummed the guitar, began singing softly, and on a country road taking David Legalli home, we all joined in on the chorus, attempting what a generous person might call harmony. And I think Naomi understood that this was why I loved hitchhiking, that this was the kind of thing I'd hoped would happen, and it was happening on day one. Her voice growing stronger and her guitar playing more confident with each song, we sang everything she knew by heart, including "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" (we did well on the "na, na, na"s), "City of New Orleans," and "America"—a paean to the road, a song that was one with the moment. Paul Simon sang that it took him four days to hitchhike 370 miles, from Saginaw, Michigan, to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. We'd be in Michigan by the end of the day.
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