Weekly newspaper of Three Rivers, California, and Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Parks

Reflections on the SUMMER OF LOVE: Part Two

John Elliott


This is the second installment in an ongoing memoir in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love in San Francisco.
We left off last week climbing into a 1960s era Rambler station wagon with a perfect stranger.  Hitchhiking in those days was really no big deal especially if you had a traveling companion or two. 
Imagine seeing three teenage boys by the side of the road coaxing you for a ride today. Would you even entertain the idea to stop? I doubt it and who could blame you after all the murder and mayhem on the interstates that has been reported in the national media.
Today, every rest stop has a bulletin board with flyers of all the missing… many who disappeared while on the road. Remember the notorious William Bonin, the Freeway Killer who was convicted of the rape and torture of 21 boys. Those bodies were dumped along Southern California freeways during the early 1970s.
The ghastly publicity in that case practically ended hitchhiking, at least the 1960s version that I remember. 
On this day in 1967, it seemed as if the good fates had brought us all together. When we first climbed into the Rambler there was lots of room in the backseat for my two friends. I chose to ride in the front because the driver was already asking me lots of questions. 
Questions like: Where are you going? Do your parents know where you are going? You know, the usual questions someone might ask as he was about transport three minors across state lines. 
I assured him that our parents were totally cool with the idea and we’ve done this sort of thing before — maybe just not all the way to California. I’m sure he didn’t believe me but there was something he liked about me and that I liked about him – a connection of sorts.
I’ll try to describe him the best I can recall but keep in mind this was 50 years ago and I was a 16-year-old, naïve Ohio kid making his first trip west. I’ve been wracking my memory for years trying to remember his name but I can’t seem to come up with more than a few details.
The stranger was distinguished looking with glasses, and his hair and trimmed beard were a bit unkempt, most likely due to the fact he was on the road. He was wearing khaki pants, a print shirt, and leather sandals.   He told us he had left Boston, Mass., early Saturday, and he was already west of Cleveland by 2 p.m. Sunday, a distance of 650 miles. 
Here’s where the story takes a turn for the incredible. He told me he was a cardiac specialist from Boston and he was relocating to Berkeley, Calif., to become part of a team to perform the first heart transplants. 
I had no idea at the time that he might be talking about the very first human heart transplant in the U.S.! I would need some historical context to fully understand what he was telling me. For now I will call my driver and new friend “Doc” for lack of his real name.
It’s uncanny, but I clearly recall him saying something like: “…let’s not make any promises on how far I take you fellas but we’ll just see how we all get along.”  
Fair enough. When he said that, we were already crossing into Indiana and seeing signs on Highway U.S. 80/90 for Gary, Ind., a distance of 315 miles from Cleveland, Ohio. It was during the Kennedy Administration (1962) that Congress had embarked on the greatest infrastructure undertaking in this nation’s history: the building of the interstate highway system. 
There was at least $900 million appropriated annually for decades. In fact, Interstate 80 was the very road we were taking and became the first transcontinental interstate completed in 1986. 
I-80 was barely started during the Summer of Love in 1967. There were so many traffic lights, and many stretches with only a single lane west and eastbound. There was right-of-way-to be acquired, bridges and culverts to be built; the project was so fraught with graft and corruption it looked for a time that some states would never have completed interstate highways. 
Though the completion of the interstate highways cost many small towns to lost their roadside businesses as they found themselves suddenly off the beaten path, it made it possible to drive coast to coast in a couple days not five, six, or even seven days. The impetus behind allocating all this road building was, of course, national defense. 
If the mainland of the U.S. was ever attacked, goods, weapons, and personnel would have to be transported and moved quickly.   Imagine trying to build this infrastructure coast to coast with today’s Congress?            
It was now past dinner time on our road trip, and I couldn’t help wondering how we were going to handle feeding three hungry teens for three or four days on the money we had in our pockets. As if on cue, Doc pulled off the highway at an Indiana rest stop. 
It wasn’t much more than picnic tables with restrooms but the setting sun in the west made it look picturesque. 
Doc told us to pick up all the trash scattered about the rest area so we might earn our supper. He started making sandwiches. We picked up every speck of litter.
My peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich on Wonder Bread with Kool-Aid hit the spot.  
After Doc took a few long sips of cold coffee from a banged-up Thermos, we piled back into the Rambler. He was good to drive until he became sleepy, he told me, and that wasn’t likely as I long as I could stay awake and keep up the conversation.  
We talked a blue streak about everything that came to mind. My friends in the back seat fell fast asleep. I don’t recall being in Illinois that night but U.S. 80 skirts south of Chicago and then it’s nearly 200 more miles until the Mississippi River is crossed west of Moline, Ill.
I wanted to get a glimpse of the mighty Mississippi but in the dark all that was visible were the lights of tankers, container ships, and tugboats. At this point on the Mississippi River there is a bend, over a mile wide in some places, and it is the only part of the river that flows east to west instead of north to south.    
The next thing I remember it was daybreak, and we were approaching Des Moines, Iowa, and surrounded by endless rows of just-picked sweet corn. I had never seen so much corn, unbroken for miles except for a dilapidated scarecrow here and there. 
Cornfields were all I could see in every direction. 
To be continued.