Simon Calder: On the road with an instruction manual for the Sixties

The man who pays his way

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The Independent Travel

As September slides into October, the traveller turns away from European beaches towards the next city break – whether the culinary delights of Lyon (see 48 Hours on pages 10-11) or somewhere closer, such as the fine city of Bath. Accordingly, First Great Western has produced a poster showing a couple in the rooftop pool of Thermae Bath Spa, soaking up the sights as the slowly sinking sun highlights the city skyline.

"The road is life," claimed Kerouac. But, as Steve Turner relates on the following pages, the writer's burning desire for elsewhere was extinguished in a rainstorm a short way outside New York City. He gave up thumbing and hopped aboard a Greyhound bus to Chicago and the West.

Perhaps his bus crossed paths with Paul Simon's, travelling eastbound. In his eulogy to the US, "America", the creative half of Simon and Garfunkel speaks of "counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike". But he is doing so not as the vehicles roar past his optimistically outstretched thumb, but from the comfort of a Greyhound bus – the one he boarded in Pittsburgh, where he admitted to his companion, "It took me four days to hitch-hike from Saginaw."

Even allowing for the meandering nature of hitching, that journey is a paltry 400 miles – with most of the ground covered by the Ohio Turnpike. Homeward bound at a snail's pace.

Beetling to Colorado

Despite Kerouac's and Simon's tendency to leap aboard a bus at the slightest excuse, they inspired my good friend Chris and me to go looking for America in the Eighties. We wanted to follow Kerouac's course across the US from New York City to San Francisco. We would shun the Greyhound and the railroad, and stay true to the hitching dream. As impecunious Brits, we had an added incentive to stay on the road: so long as the cost of transport was zero, and we camped in fields along the way, we would arrive in California with enough cash for a weekend of Beat-like bliss.

Interstate 80 runs all the way from George Washington Bridge in New York to the Oakland Bay Bridge in San Francisco. This freeway has a big advantage for transcontinental hitchers: it avoids big cities and the associated problems of finding a place to stay and a suitable "on-ramp". The only major metropolis is Salt Lake City.

The first state was easy: New Jersey disappeared in the rear-view mirror of a Volkswagen Beetle after a couple of hours. But once deep into Pennsylvania, the scale of the task dawned.

By the time Chris and I had hit the road, Jack Kerouac had been dead for over a decade – taking with him the free and easy version of America that had so appealed. Hitching had slipped so far from mainstream life that the prevailing belief seemed to be that either the hitch-hiker or the driver was the axe murderer. So the lifts were mainly from people outside the mainstream: religious fanatics, convicted felons and ageing hippies who wanted someone to steer while they concentrated on rolling joints.

Day four dawned with Chris and me packing up the tent in a field beside I-80 outside Lincoln, Nebraska – right on the fold in the decade-old Rand McNally map that was guiding our stuttering journey across America. Halfway there, and looking progressively less savoury with every mile. And that was just the map. A couple of tolerant students took pity on us, and drove us 400 miles deep into Colorado. By the time we crossed the state line, the conversation had dried like the parched prairie that unrolled to the horizon. But when the Rocky Mountains rose to block the view, our spirits soared: the road movie we yearned for.

Another way to SFO

"Sacramento," slurred the driver of a battered Ford Pinto. He picked us up in the Rockies at sunset, with the promise of a ride to California's state capital. An hour later, after he had twice swerved off the highway, we implored him to let us out. What now? Then a former Greyhound bus emerged from the gloom. It had been converted from 50 seats to 25 beds, and its name changed to Green Tortoise: America's answer to the Magic Bus, complete with around 20 hippies. "You can ride with us to Grand Junction for free, or if you pay us $100 you can come all the way to San Francisco," the driver offered. We counted out the cash. The Greyhound always wins in the end.