In the late 1970s and early 1980s, a well-publicized series of murders shocked Southern California. Most of the victims were adolescent males, whose sodomized and mutilated bodies were discovered along various Southland highways. In those unpleasant days, hitchhiking was considered daring or foolish. But for two teenagers raised in impoverished homes, hitchhiking was a necessary mode of transport and an integral part of life.
My good friend Jimmy Howard and I spent our teenage years skating together in San Diego. In the winter of 1980, Jimmy moved from San Diego to Huntington Beach. We didn’t see much of each other until one April afternoon, when I answered a knock on the door to find Jimmy standing on my doorstep. He had a smile on his face and a skateboard in his hand, and he told me he had hitchhiked all the way from Huntington to rattle my stinking cage.
I commented on the risks involved, but Jimmy just laughed, thrust his hand into his pocket, and extracted a large clasp knife. With a flick of his wrist, a razor-sharp, six-inch blade appeared.
“I had this in my hand the whole time,” he said.
I tested the blade on a nearby tree branch. The bark peeled off like a potato skin.
I listened attentively as Jimmy recounted the latest developments on the northern front. His mom had met and married an ex-Green Beret, and the entire family was living in a house near the beach. The pier was happening, Newport was only minutes away, and the lean times of the past seemed to be coming to an end. When Jimmy suggested we hitchhike to Huntington so he could show me his new surroundings, I agreed without hesitation. I threw some clothes into a backpack, grabbed my skate, and hit the road with my friend, just like old times.
We skated down to the Coronado bridge, where we stuck out our thumbs and waited for a ride. Within minutes, a woman pulled up in an old thrasher and offered us a lift to the Mission Bay area. We clambered into the front seat and sped away with a roar, dust and exhaust smoke in our wake. Our driver smiled grimly as she jockeyed for a lead position in the death lane. My kind of car, and my kind of woman.
Maneuvering through rush-hour traffic onto northbound I-5, our driver kept up a running commentary on her employers (complete wankers), her boyfriend (the Stud from Hell), modern drivers (expletives deleted), and life in general (“It’s a bitch, but ride it for what it’s worth...”). Before we knew it, Jimmy and I were standing on a ramp overlooking Sea World, feeling as if we had just received the most important lesson of our lives to date.
Our second lift, five minutes later, proved to be uneventful and, indeed, anticlimactic. I was still reeling from the encounter with the woman of my dreams. Our driver exited on Del Mar Heights Road, and Jimmy and I took our stations on the shoulder of the northbound on-ramp. So far, so good.
A third lift, equally boring as the second, took us to Mission Avenue in Oceanside. Here we became stranded. Night fell, hours passed, and still we stood on the ramp shoulder, unable to secure a fourth ride.
We tried everything. I had a big black marking pen and notebook paper in my bag, and we used these to make signs proclaiming our destination. “Huntington Beach” elicited absolutely no response. Thinking my sign was too geographically selective, Jimmy tried “L.A.,” which was equally unsuccessful. “Anywhere but here” and “Harmless” were good for a few laughs, while “Fuck this place” evoked only derisive remarks.
By 0200 we’d grown weary of the miserable Mission Avenue on-ramp. We decided to pick up our belongings and head north along the shoulder of the freeway. Just as we were reaching for our boards, a battered VW bug pulled up, enveloping us in dust.
“I don’t believe it.”
“Get in,” Jimmy said, “before he changes his mind.”
I looked through the passenger window at the driver, a balding, bespectacled man in his early to middle 50s. Anatomically speaking, he didn’t seem to be any great threat.
“Are you going to L.A.?” I asked.
“San Clemente,” he replied.
I rode shotgun and Jimmy sat in the back seat. Our driver checked his rear view mirror and eased the car into the roadway. Soon we were plodding northward at 55 miles an hour.
“How long were you guys standing at that corner?” the driver asked.
“Oh, six or seven hours,” I said nonchalantly.
“Six or seven hours! Did you have food and water?”
“We had a bottle of water, but no food. We weren’t really hungry. But I could use a cold beer.”
“I have beer in the trunk,” the driver said. “There’s a rest stop not far from here, and I was thinking of pulling over and taking a breather.” Jimmy and I exchanged glances, and then Jimmy said, “Yeah, that sounds like the call.” The circumstances seemed strange, but we both thirsted for cold beer after our ordeal.
We pulled into the Aliso Creek rest stop. Whoever named the place a rest stop must have had a sense of humor. At that early hour, the lot was crawling with drug dealers and prostitutes. We retrieved the beer from the trunk and retired to the cabin of the VW.
Oddly enough, our driver had exactly three six-packs under the hood. Jimmy and I proceeded to pound these down while swapping lies with our new acquaintance. The old man was hard-pressed to keep up with us. Soon the last beer was drained, and we didn’t even feel buzzed.
The driver told us he had a bottle of vodka and some OJ stashed in the trunk. While he rummaged around for the booze, Jimmy and I slipped behind some nearby bushes to urinate.
“Hey, Jimbo, this guy’s obviously a fucking pack rat looking for some action. You may have to use that knife of yours if things get ugly.”