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Hitchhiking to Los Angeles

A nightmare ride.

Some years ago, I was hitchhiking south on I-5 outside of Ashland, Oregon when I was picked up by a woman in her late 20s and her four-year-old daughter. They were driving a beat-up Falcon sedan that was smoking as I opened the door. Before I’d even gotten in the back seat the woman began rapidly talking about how she had to leave Oregon and get to LA to get away from a bad relationship. She was quite worked up, stabbing at the car’s ashtray with her stubby cigarette and gesturing with both hands while driving.

Immediately after we got on the road, she suggested that we go back to a park in Ashland for a rest. I thought that was pretty weird, since it was taking us back north, but I’d been waiting for a ride for two hours, and she said she was going to LA, my home, so I agreed. We went to a big park in the town and she sat on a bench chain-smoking while her daughter played nearby, and I wondered around.

When I returned from walking around the park, the woman announced that her daughter had lost the car keys she’d been given to play with. And the woman had befriended a very fat, ragged-looking man, whom she declared would also be going to LA with us. While we were all searching for the keys, the man declared that he’d steal whatever food we needed from supermarkets, saying, “I’m a real pro”I’m in, I’m out and we’re down the road.”

It took us over an hour to find the keys, but we finally hit the road, me and Five Fingers Fatty in the back, Wacko Woman and her daughter in front. Not long after we made the highway, the car began struggling. It’s pretty mountainous on Hwy. 5 there, and the Falcon didn’t have a lot of ambition. It stalled out and we had to pull over on the shoulder, with a lot of traffic going by. The big guy decided that he could fix the car.

Our expert mechanic declared that he could get it going by priming the carburetor. He had siphoned a bunch of gas from the tank into what looked like a quart mayonnaise jar he got out of the trunk, and he told the woman to crank the engine while he poured some gas in the carburetor. She turned the engine over a couple of times and then all hell broke loose.

A spark or some engine heat caused the spilling gas to ignite, lighting the engine on fire, and our mechanical genius threw the lit jar onto the middle of Highway 5, in the midst of three lanes of moving traffic. That was a sight”the gas threw up a two-foot line of flame, and though it only lasted for a few seconds, several cars drove through the burn zone, the driver’s faces petrified with fear. I guess they didn’t want to stop and take their chances with us. The engine had flared up, but quickly went out as well.

We were all standing in front of the smoldering engine, when I said, with what I thought was sympathy and practicality, “Well, I don’t think this car’s going anywhere soon.” I figured I’d just hit the road: I had no money to help, no mechanical skills, and I thought they were all crazed, so I figured to exit gracefully. Wrong.

The car’s owner looked up at me with Lucifer in her eyes. “What!” she screamed. “This is a great car! I paid $150 dollars for this car only a month ago, and it’s going to get us to LA, you bastard!” She continued on in this vein, quite colorfully. I said nothing while I got my stuff out of the car, and moved down the highway, so that I could start hitchhiking a distance away from them. She continued to yell.

I unsuccessfully worked on getting a ride for a while, and then she and her daughter moved to the other side of the highway, hitchhiking north back to Ashland. She was quite a ways away from me, but I could still hear her yelling and gesturing at me. The big guy stayed in the back seat of the Falcon, probably imagining the next chicken-salad sandwich he’d steal from Safeway.

After about a half an hour, a trucker stopped to pick her and her daughter up. While he helped her into the truck, she was pointing at me and screaming. I was very happy when they drove away. I was picked up by a guy in a Chevy a few minutes later, and when we pulled onto the highway, I looked back to see old Jabba the Gasoline Jar puttering around the engine of the Falcon again. I didn’t have the energy to explain anything to the guy driving the Chevy; he probably wouldn’t have believed it anyhow.

Tom Bentley