Travel: Close shaves and sweet encounters: More than 40 years ago, Peter Rich hitchhiked across the US and back. It was - and is - a memorable trip

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The Independent Travel
It is 1951 and I am 21. I decide to walk from New York to California, my first steps outside austerity Britain. Everything is still rationed, and the foreign currency allowance of pounds 10 will buy me dollars 28. It takes the KLM student flight 22 hours to arrive in New York via Prestwick, Iceland and Newfoundland. With dollars 15 as start-up capital, I begin walking north towards Albany, NY, where I plan to pick up the transcontinental Route 20 to the Pacific coast. 'Out on 20, back on 66,' has been the advice of the 'roadies' in the New York YMCA. They have also advised hitchhiking through the hundreds of miles of monotonous country and walking only through the towns and scenic National Parks: that way, they reckon, I should have to walk only about 600 of the 6,000-mile return journey. I will need some 'gimmick' for long-distance rides.

The good sense of this dawns as I experience the heat and begin to get a feel for the enormous distances involved. In Albany, I buy a square of white linen, black ink and a brush, and make a large banner. 'British Student Touring America' it screams, in big clear letters, for I am in competition with 'Eats', 'Burgers', 'Diner' and 'Clean Rest Rooms'. My banner is an immediate success and I soon arrive in Buffalo, NY.

With only a few dollars left, I look for work. Tired, hungry and desperate, after two days of tramping the streets with not even a promise of employment, I lie my way into the job of hospital orderly (for which I feel qualified, having once been in hospital).

Lunchtime on the first day, and four pretty trainee nurses offer to take me down to the staff canteen. They just 'lurv' my British accent. Thus do I experience gastronomic heaven, my first American help-yourself food counter. I pile on meat, potatoes, greens, bread, juice, stewed apples, coffee and napkins. I talk, they listen, enraptured. Did I enjoy the food, they ask. 'Yes, oh, yes, especially the stewed apples, my favourite afters.' 'Good, oh, good,' they giggle, 'but tomorrow please don't take the large bowl of apple sauce for the meat, it's meant to last the two lunch sittings]' I want to crawl under the table.

My third day at the hospital. I am instructed to 'prepare' for surgery a man with a burst stomach ulcer. In fear, I confide to a nurse that I do not know what to do. 'Just shave him. I'll do the rest. The razor is in the cabinet,' she says. I draw the curtains around the bed and, remembering how I was shaved from belly button to knees for the removal of my appendix, I begin.

I lather the whole middle section of the pain-racked man. (This, I later learn, is a complete waste of time and effort, as pubic hair can be shaved dry.) Shaving belly and thighs is easy, but penis and testicles are a nightmare. Sweat rolls off me as I gingerly lift another man's penis and shave carefully around its root. I cannot afterwards remember how I manipulated the safety razor around the testicles, only that it seemed to take hours.

However, I do have a clear memory of a 'temptation': I could simply put the razor down, walk out of the hospital, pick up my rucksack and be back on the open road. I decide to stick it out.

On my last day at the hospital, making up a bed with My Favourite Nurse, we chat, our heads come close. 'I could listen to you all night,' she whispers. I hesitate, puzzled. 'But what would your boyfriend think?' I stammer, having noted the ring on her third finger. She throws me a look I cannot interpret. Something happens in the ward and we have to part, leaving so many things unsaid.

Six weeks later, I am 3,000 miles away in Santa Barbara, one of a small fraternity of romantics (Jack Kerouac is somewhere on the road at this time), students and servicemen hitching lifts along the highways. Occasionally we meet up with another, far more ragged, group that uses the railroads. As we leapfrog immense distances, we start to recognise each other.

The better the 'gimmick', the faster one travels. An English public schoolboy is doing well. He sports bowler hat, dark pinstripe suit, school tie, rolled umbrella, and carries his travelling kit in a leather briefcase. (When I first saw him in Ohio, the whole ensemble was covered with a film of road dust.) A Scotsman in a kilt, tweed jacket and rucksack is making slower progress because he stops to earn his meals by playing his bagpipes. But perhaps the most ingenious traveller is a New York poet.

It is at a crossroads outside Fort Dodge, Iowa, that I first see the large double-bass case propped against a boulder. Beside it sits a small, respectable, pipe-smoking man in his mid-forties. Some days later, in Cody, Wyoming, I catch up with him. 'You would be amazed the trouble people take to get this thing inside or even strapped outside their cars. It's so big and awkward, the image of a struggling musician seems to arouse immediate sympathy. I never walk,' he adds, looking down at my battered boots. 'Wanna peek inside?' Up comes the lid, and with it a couple of dirty socks. I whistle in admiration, for the contents are practically identical to those in my rucksack: shirts, underwear, books and toiletries. It has taken him only five days to get from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

Hitchhiking in the Fifties is not entirely risk-free. More than once, alarmed by dangerous driving, or questioning the driver's sanity, I have to make an excuse to leave a ride. I am leaving Yellowstone Park when a car stops, a man says 'Jump in', and that, unnervingly, is all he says for 300 miles. Finally, somewhere around Pocatello, Idaho, he turns to me and says, 'What does the drinking water taste like in England?' I plead car sickness and flee.

Arriving in San Francisco with dollars 1.20, I book into the downtown 'Y' and start looking for work. First day - nothing. Second day - more nothing. With hunger and desperation setting in, I think of my two planned safety-nets: an appeal first to a Jewish charity, then, failing that, to the British Consulate. The telephone book lists 'Jewish Personal Services'. I walk five miles to its office above a shop in a residential district. In reception I find half-a-dozen Jewish men. All of them seem to know each other. They are strangely dressed, and none is like the bookish, violin-playing Jews of my childhood. (Some years will pass before I see Nathan Detroit, Nicely Nicely and Harry the Horse in Guys and Dolls and recognise the sub-culture.) We await our turn to enter the cubicle marked 'Counsellor'.

My turn comes. I face a nice lady of the Voluntary Good Works persuasion. I explain I need a job urgently. She starts to complete a form, 'When did you arrive? Where from? When were you released?' Now I realise where I am and what I am supposed to be. I explain I am not a Jewish ex-convict, just Jewish and broke. She explains that, by its covenant, her organisation cannot assist me. But she invites me home for dinner.

At midnight I am driven back to the 'Y'. I have 75 cents left but I am cheerful - she has heard that temporary workers are being taken on for the annual Spanish Fiesta 370 miles down the coast at Santa Barbara. I risk being stranded far from Her Majesty's representatives and, after a magnificent scenic ride down the Californian coast, I arrive in a small town that proves to be the most beautiful of any I saw in the United States. And that is how I become the only genuine English waiter in the fake English Muffin Parlour of Santa Barbara.

After three weeks of regular meals and with crisp dollar notes in my pocket, I am ready for Los Angeles, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico. In a daze brought on by heat, dehydration and sheer wonder, I tramp and hitch up and down the canyons, valleys and deserts of the south-western states.

Eventually I had to face the long trek back through the southern states to Washington and New York. Joining Route 66 at Flagstaff, Arizona, I begin to head east. Crossing the Texas Panhandle I am again running out of money so I try all-night hitching to save on accommodation. Late in the afternoon, a gigantic transcontinental trailered diesel stops. The driver, a huge Texan, explains that his co-driver had gone sick two days before and he has been falling asleep at the wheel. 'Your job,' he says, 'is to punch me very hard, just here' - he points to his well-covered ribs - 'each time I wander across the highway.' We thunder through the night, headlights ablaze. Three times I am forced to punch hard, the rig swerves, the trailer follows but jumps wildly behind us. With relief we arrive safely in Little Rock, Arkansas. He buys me breakfast and we part. This has been the most stupid escapade of the trip.

Outside Nashville, Tennessee, my luck and my money have run out. I spend five hours in the heat and dust before a car stops about 30 feet past me. A uniformed figure gets out and shouts, 'Can you prove you're British?'

'Do you want to see my passport' I shout back.

'Paarsport? Paarsport? Only a bloody Englishman can say paarsport like that. Jump in.' Hot and dirty, I explain my puzzlement at my long wait. 'Yer knows why?' He reaches across and fiddles with the radio: country and western music. 'Wait awhiles,' he drawls. The music stops. 'This is a repeat police warning. Travellers on Route 66 are warned not to pick up hitchhikers until we have apprehended the hiker who this morning robbed and murdered the family of tourists east of Nashville.'

'Then why did you give me a ride?' I ask.

'I have reasons,' he says. It turns out he is an absconding sheriff. He has 'crossed' a cartel of Mafia gaming-machine operators and is fleeing for his life - together with his savings from years of taking 'backhanders'. 'Would you be willing to do a deal?'

'What's the deal?' I ask, trying to sound worldly.

'For dollars 20 and the biggest steak you can eat, will you take a letter back with you to London and post it to a certain person in Reno, Nevada?'

'Can I read the letter?'

'Sure.'

At a roadside diner, with the steak in my stomach, the dollars in my pocket, I watch him write the letter. 'Dear Curtis, you know why I had to leave. I will start a new life here in England. Tell the others. Hank.' Of course, I will keep my part of the 'contract'.

Waiting for my return flight, I complete my American journal. In 16 weeks I have crossed 25 states and lost 10lb. I have seen the sights of childhood daydreams inspired by my treasured Children's Illustrated Wonderland of Knowledge. New York, Niagara Falls, Chicago, the beef-and-wheat country of the plains, the oil fields of Wyoming and the Rocky Mountains. I have walked through Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Bryce Canyon, Zion, Grand Canyon and Yosemite National Parks; crossed the Mojave Desert to look at Death Valley; slept in the petrified forest and under the beautiful palm trees on the beach at Santa Barbara. I have crossed the San Francisco Bay Bridge to walk on a road that runs through the middle of a giant sequoia tree at Muir Woods National Monument. In Hollywood I have been given a Cadillac tour of the film lots and houses of the stars by a Welsh millionaire.

At the south rim of the Grand Canyon I have been allowed to spend three nights in the local lock-up for drunks. I have won dollars 4 in Reno and lost dollars 6 in Las Vegas. Just outside Carson City, Nevada, I have clapped hands, sung for Jesus, been 'redeemed' and rewarded with a free supper and bed in a Salvation Army hostel for tramps. I have witnessed urban degradation, racial segregation and unimaginable poverty and wealth. I have experienced the kindness and generosity of ordinary Americans and been amazed by the open and egalitarian nature of their society compared with the rigid class divisions of post-war Britain.

And, cleaning tables in a Santa Barbara restaurant, I learnt from My Favourite Waitress something that made my heart sink. 'What would your boyfriend say?' I asked, in response to something she said. 'I have no boyfriend,' she replied. 'But you wear a ring on your third finger,' I stammered. 'That,' she said, 'is my college graduation ring.' I saw, then, a bed, white sheets, the beautiful brown eyes of My Favourite Nurse, and a look I could at last comprehend: 'You twit.'

(Photographs omitted)

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