Hitchhiking In Harlan County

Typical modern day hitchhiker

What happened to hitchhikers?  You don’t see them anymore.  They used to be quite common.  I grew up in a town called Loyall in Harlan County, Kentucky.   Loyall was, and is, the proverbial town with one red light.  When I was growing up, there was a store/soda fountain on the corner at the red light.  It was named, fittingly enough, The Corner Store.  John and Goldie Roaden owned it.  You could get two hot dogs and small Coke for 60 cents.  Hitchhikers would often work the road just up from The Corner Store.  Thumbs out, they waited for a ride.  If you knew the guy, you’d pick him up.  Even if you didn’t know him, you might pick him up anyway.  By the way, we called it “thumbing,” which sounds vaguely obscene, but that’s what it was.

Now, in my family, hitchhiking was unheard of.  It was one of the many activities reserved solely for the “lowest of trash.”  My mother relegated many things to the lowest of trash–smoking, cursing, drawing on yourself, fighting and associating with trash, to name just a very few.  My father would gladly pick up hitchhikers.  In fact, even late in his life, he would occasionally pick up someone.  This would invariably be a notoriously dangerous person.  He would say something like:  “I gave [FILL IN NAME OF DANGEROUS PERSON] a ride yesterday.  You know, he’s an outlaw, but he thinks a lot of you.  I was telling him all about you.”  I would just think:  “Geez, Dad, don’t tell that dude anything about me!  He might come and kill me.”  Oddly enough, I had a brief foray into hitchhiking myself.

I had a friend who liked to hitchhike. He’ll rename nameless for this story.   He was a funny, funny kid.  Now, he was not the lowest of trash, but he was the kind of kid  who wouldn’t hesitate to engage in any number of prohibited activities.  He would steal his mother’s cigarettes and light one up to show how cool he was.  A 5 foot tall middle schooler smoking his mom’s Virginia Slims may not sound cool, but he pulled it off.  I, on the other hand, was a good kid.  I did well in school and never got in trouble, but I always had a friend or two who lived on the edge.  For a long time, this guy was that friend.

When we were in the 8th grade, we decided that we were too old to ride bikes and should start hitchhiking.  My initial reaction was about how I would have reacted to the suggestion of human sacrifices.  No way, no how would I do this.  I would get caught, because I ALWAYS got caught.  No way.  So, of course, I headed down to The Corner Store with my buddy to thumb to Harlan.  My pal played baseball and was wearing his uniform.  I figured that was pretty safe.  We had our thumbs out for about 5 minutes when Mrs. Thornton, my 6th grade teacher, gave us a ride.  She lectured me the entire way to Harlan about the dangers of hitchhiking.  I figured she’d call my parents, but she didn’t.  We even hitchhiked home after the game.  Some old guy gave us a ride.  No sweat.

We continued our thumbing lifestyle for weeks.  Usually, someone we knew picked us up.  Even strangers were nice to us.  Then, things got weird.  One night, we got my parents to drive us out to the carnival which was set up in the parking lot at James A. Cawood High School.  We told them we’d get a ride back.  My parents weren’t concerned about me–they assumed I had good sense.  When we left the carnival, it was dark, and of course we didn’t have a ride.  We were about 5 miles from home, and old friend wanted to hitchhike.  At this point, you should know that I was far from being a  rough, tough Harlan Countian.  The thought of hitchhiking in the dark terrified me almost as much as the thought of walking home 5 miles in the dark.  We decided to start walking–with our thumbs extended.  We reasoned–quite logically–that we were kids and someone would pick us up.  I can still hear cohort say:  “Man, we’re little kids.  Someone will pick us up because they’ll be worried about us.”  That made some sense to me, proving that my parents’ faith in my judgment was sorely misplaced.

We had walked about a mile when the brake lights on a car popped on.  I knew this car.  It listed to one side like a ship about to capsize, but I knew why the car leaned to one side.  I said:  “Hey, that Jimmy Meeks.”  My friend said:  “So what?  He’ll be going to Loyall.”  Jimmy Meeks was a giant.  Anyone reading this who knew Jimmy would agree.  A giant of the Andre the Giant variety.  I don’t know how tall he was, but he had to be 6′ 5″ but looked a foot taller.  Jimmy told me one time that he weighed 430 pounds.  I’m guessing he fudged a little on that. He had to weight 500 pounds.  He looked like Bluto from Popeye.  He was one of these tall guys with a long torso shaped like a barrel.  Jimmy’s hands were huge.  I saw him take a swig out of a fifth of whiskey once, and I swear his hand went all the way around the bottle.

I want to make one thing clear:  I’m not making fun of Jimmy.  Jimmy had developmental problems of some kind.  He was probably 10-12 years older than I was. Had he been born later, I expect he could have had  the kind of attention that folks get today, and his life would have been easier.  As it was, he struggled.  I got to know him growing up.  He mowed our grass, and we would sometimes give him rides to church.  Many people were terrified of Jimmy.  He was physically imposing but had the demeanor of a child.  Sadly, he frightened people.  Even though I liked him, he kind of scared me, too.  I had heard many stories (most of which were probably untrue) of him losing his temper with people.  I really didn’t want to get in that car, but of course I did.

Jimmy said:  “Where you boys going?”  “Loyall” we both said.  Then Jimmy lit into us about the dangers of hitchhiking and how he should turn us in to the cops.  I said:  “Jimmy, you know me.”  He looked at me in the mirror said “Johnny, I know you.  I’m going to tell your daddy.”  It went downhill from there.  Jimmy then told my buddy that Jimmy had seen him drinking whiskey and would tell his mother.  My little pal was not known for his diplomacy and responds with “Well, I saw you smoking and drinking, and I’m tellin’  YOUR mommy!!”  Okay, you might have guessed, but this was a mistake.  Jimmy exploded, yelling, cussing, beating his basketball-sized fist on the dash.  I’m saying useless stuff like:  “Jimmy, Jimmy, calm down, man.  No one is telling your mom and dad anything.   Ignore him.  He’s an idiot.”  Jimmy now says he’s going to throw us in the river when we get to Loyall.  I’m in the backseat trying to plot my escape. I figure I’ll jump out at some point.  I hate to leave a friend in the lurch, but–hey–no need for two of us to end up in the river.

Now, we’re in Loyall.  Jimmy is still irate.  He had this loud, booming voice that made your head hurt.  He’s still yelling about the river.   Finally, my friend says:  “Hey, you gotta let us out.”  Jimmy just stops the car, and we get out.  Crisis over.  I lean in and say:  “Thanks for the ride.”  Jimmy says:  “Tell your daddy I said hello.  I like him.”  That was it.  Maybe that was a close call.  Maybe not.  But I was sure I was done with night-time hitchhiking.

A couple of days later, we’re back on the road.  Same routine.  Thumb to the ball park and start thumbing home.  No sweat.  We get to the park with no problem.  We then head home, walking and thumbing.  A pick up truck pulls over.  It’s an old truck, maybe 15 years old or so.  California plates.  I got a bad feeling about this.  The guy throws open the passenger door and says “Get in!”  This dude is rough-looking, even by Harlan County standards.  He’s filthy, just dirty.  Greasy, slicked back hair and ratty t-shirt that covers about half his beer belly.  The worst thing is that he looks crazy.  So, of course, we just hop right in.  I’m sitting right beside this filthy, crazy guy, and my friend is beside the door.  Now that I’m right beside the driver, I learn that he also stinks like severe body odor, whiskey and cigarettes.  He puts the old truck in gear.  That’s when I notice the fifth of whiskey between his legs.   My stomach drops.

Filthy Guy:  Where the hell are you going??

Me: Loyall

Filthy Guy:  Where the hell is Loyall?

Me:  Three miles the other side of Harlan.

Filthy Guy: Where the hell is Harlan?

Friend:  Well, where the hell are you going?

Filthy Guy:  I got no idea.

At this point our conversation was interrupted when Filthy Guy spied someone with long, flowing hair walking down the road.  He yells out the window a stream of obscenities intended to express his desire for the person whom he believes to be a young woman.  Naturally, it’s really a man, causing my buddy to burst out laughing and say: “Dumbass, that’s a dude!”  That’s when I saw the gun.  He had it under his leg, and just pulls it out and points it toward us.  It’s a revolver (a .38), and it’s loaded.  That shut us both up.  Now, Filthy Guy has become Dangerous Guy.  He says he ought to just shoot both of us, because he’s just driving through. He could shoot us both, throw us on the river bank and be long gone.  Or he could do a bunch of horrible things to us, then shoot us.  Now what?

Here’s what.  My friend was a quick thinker.  In those days, you had to drive right through the town of Harlan.  There was no by-pass road.  When Filthy Guy slows down at the railroad tracks in Harlan, my friend throws open his door and says “We’re getting out!”  The guy just stops the truck–he’s still pointing that gun at us, and we jump out, running when we hit the road.  Filthy Guy is yelling at us and laughing like a maniac. We walked the three miles home.

That was it for me and hitchhiking.  I didn’t have the stomach for it.  My buddy kept doing it, as did a bunch of other folks.  When I was in my 30’s, I told my Mom that we used to hitchhike.  Her response:  “Oh, Lord.  I had no idea.  Only trash does that.”  True enough, I suppose.

Hitchhiking has changed.  I see the occasional hitchhiker, usually on the on-ramp to the Interstate.  They’re always scary, and I avoid even making eye contact with them.  Even when I go back to Harlan County, I never see any.  I guess it’s a lost art.  It’s probably a valid assumption that hitchhikers and those that pick up hitchhikers are a bit unbalanced.  At least that’s what I think.  That, or they’re just the lowest of trash.

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