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.”
The thought of our middle-aged driver pitting his sagging anatomy against Jimmy’s six-foot frame was ridiculous, and we both roared with laughter.
“Neither of us lets the other fall asleep. The guy in back holds the knife. We’ll ride this guy for all he’s worth, and then we’ll see what happens.”
“No worries. The knife was under my leg the whole time. I was waiting for him to try something, just so I’d have an excuse,” Jimmy replied.
Back at the car, we found our driver fimbling with a package of plastic cups. After a brief struggle, he extracted three of them, cracked the seal on the vodka, and poured several ounces into each glass. Mixer followed, and the drinks were ready. We had not detected the addition of any undesirable ingredients, so we confidently began to drink. Naturally, we forced our acquaintance to do the same.
We could read him like a book. He had obviously seen us on the Mission Avenue on-ramp and had purchased the beer and vodka before picking us up. He probably reckoned we would be fair game after we drank the booze and passed out. The moron couldn’t know that Jimmy and I were already hardened alcoholics with years of heavy partying behind us. True hooligans, we set out to see just how much liquor this idiot could hold before he revealed his real nature. We pressured him to drink and mix refills, and the vodka gradually disappeared.
Soon our acquaintance was ripped; Jimmy and I both had a decent buzz. When the conversation turned to the subject of Mexico, the old man confessed he had never been there. We construed this as a blatant falsehood and proceeded to bombard him with outrageous lies about our travels in the exotic paradise to the south. We told of unspoiled beaches crowded with gorgeous, naked women, all lolling about in crystal-clear 90-degree water. We told of mountain lakes where tourists could sip chilled margaritas while enjoying some of the finest scenery in Baja. Legendary whorehouses where harems of young Mexican princesses would fulfill every sexual desire. Cocaine deals consummated in border bars. Countless debaucheries, all available to gringo tourists for nominal amounts of hard cash. We told every lie we could possibly imagine, and in his inebriation, our acquaintance swallowed them all.
“Boy, would I ever like to go down there,” he said, as if in a trance.
“Yeah, it’s something else,” I mumbled.
“What do you guys say? Would you like to drive down to Mexico? Maybe the two of you can show me some of those places.”
I turned to Jimmy in the back seat.
“What do you think? Do you feel like going to Mexico?”
“Sure, why not? I don’t have any plans for the day. Let’s party.”
“But we don’t have much spending money,” I said, “and a good time down there requires cash flow.”
“That’s all right,” said our acquaintance. “I’ll buy everything we need.”
“Fuck it, then. Let’s go.”
We pulled out of the rest stop, drove north to the nearest overpass, executed a one-eighty, and headed for Mexico. We ran out of vodka shortly after we hit the southbound lanes.
Traffic grew heavier as we approached the border, and we decided to pull over, pick up some grinds, and avoid the morning rush. At McDonald’s we ordered enough to feed a regiment. After the last greasy morsels were vacuumed from our plates, our acquaintance calmly paid the bill. We crossed the border without incident.
Soon we were roaming the streets of Tijuana in search of an open liquor store. We eventually found one, and I bought a huge bottle of white tequila, perhaps two liters in volume. That special kind with the handle glassed onto the neck. After some reflection, I added two bottles of mixer to my purchase.
The streets were fairly quiet at that early hour, and we sat outside the shop for a moment to discuss the entertainment scene. Jimmy and I suggested a run to Ensenada, and within minutes the battered VW was lurching over potholes and swaying around curves as we headed up the long incline leading to the coast. We put a serious dent in the tequila before we experienced our first crisis.
Faced with the choice of paying the toll on the coast road or driving through the mountains at no cost, our driver chose the free road. We tried to explain the advantages of the toll road, but no amount of persuasion could change the fool’s mind. He obstinately viewed the entire Mexican toll system as legalized robbery. We resigned ourselves to a long journey over narrow, winding mountain roads. What the hell, at least we had plenty of alcohol.
As the day wore on, the liquor produced a baneful effect on the old man’s driving. He began to drift into the opposing lane while rounding blind curves, and each successive recovery was worse. The sun often shone directly into his eyes, and of course he had no sunglasses. Many of the curves lacked guardrails, even though impressive vertical drops and horrible deaths awaited those who failed to negotiate them. I was forced to grab the steering wheel several times to prevent catastrophe. To combat his growing fatigue, our driver began to pump the miserable accelerator. The pedal’s incessant squeaking added to the tension in the car.
At last we descended from the mountains and drove into Ensenada. The roughly paved roads and byways of the town were a welcome relief. Jimmy and I immediately poured a round of drinks, which we consumed in long, relieved draughts. Our new lease on life brought inevitable hunger, followed by a prolonged discussion of suitable restaurants.
Wits dulled by alcohol, our driver refused to patronize any of the traditional eateries. Eventually he pulled up in front of some dive in a filthy corner of town. Grimy walls and tasteless decor characterized the sordid establishment. No difficulty securing a table; no other diners were present. A waitress finally appeared and took our order.
In an alcoholic haze, I read off several items from the bill of fare. I don’t remember what I ordered, only that, upon its arrival, the food positively sucked. I ate every unidentifiable morsel on each of my numerous plates. Shoveling huge spoonfuls into his mouth, Jimmy did the same. Our acquaintance couldn’t handle the gourmet fare and soon dropped out of the race. The wanker paid the bill, and with stinking breath and queasy stomachs, we left the squalid joint.
The harsh glare of sunlight hurt our eyes, and burning rays beat down on our unprotected heads. Our acquaintance was on the verge of heat exhaustion. He returned my scrutiny with a feeble smile.
“Do you guys feel like renting a hotel room?” he asked.
Jimmy and I looked at each other. The last thing we wanted was to share a room with this pack rat.
“No, we want to go to the beach.”
“Yeah, take us to the beach,” I echoed.
The old man persisted. He wanted to check into a hotel and “take a nap,” but we didn’t see any future in that. Our polite requests soon became thinly veiled threats. He finally acquiesced, and we loaded into the vehicle and headed for the beach.
We pulled onto a nearly deserted stretch of rocky coastline one or two miles south of Ensenada’s harbor. A Mexican family was barely visible half a mile away, but otherwise we were alone. So much for our claims of beaches thronged with naked women. We told our driver to park the VW right by the water’s edge so we could keep an eye on it while sitting on the beach, pounding another round of drinks. Jimmy and I disembarked with the party materials, but this time, our acquaintance was too tired to join us. He remained slumped in the driver’s seat. His head lolled back, his mouth opened, and presently he was snoring loudly.
I walked back to the car to check his condition. After a cursory examination, I proceeded to ransack the vehicle. I rifled the dash, cabin, and trunk, but found absolutely nothing of value. The only likely object in the entire stinking VW was the guy’s fat wallet, which was buried under his weight in his right hip pocket. I shook my head in disgust and returned to where Jimmy sat on the beach.
“I say we roll this geriatric jerk and head back to San Diego. We can leave him here, drive to Tijuana, ditch the car, and cross the border on foot. We can use the money to buy bus tickets and go to Huntington in style.”
“Sounds good to me,” Jimmy said. “I’m getting tired of his sorry ass anyway.”
“We’ll have to knock him out first, so he doesn’t call the federales before we reach Tijuana.” We approached the VW. Stooping down beside it, I picked up a rock the size of a baseball and clambered into the back seat. Jimmy sat shotgun, knife in hand, and together we surveyed the sonorous wreck slumped behind the wheel. His snoring was more obnoxious than ever. A rivulet of drool ran down his chin and fell onto his shirt. In a lull between snores, a low rumbling deep in his bowels signaled some intestinal disturbance.
The afternoon sun blazed, and even with the doors and windows open, the interior of the vehicle felt like a blast furnace. I held the rock beside the old man’s temple and swung it vigorously back and forth. I was trying to determine the best way to knock him out for several hours without actually bashing in his skull or killing him. After four or five trial runs, the rock was poised for the decisive blow. Visions of life in a Mexican prison hovered in the back of my mind. The decision lay somewhere between freedom and murder, and I was unwilling to cross the threshold. I slowly lowered my hand.
“I don’t want to kill him,” I whispered lamely. “I just want to knock him out for a while.”
“Give me the rock and I’ll do it,” Jimmy said in a forceful tone.
I gave the rock to him and he too swung it in trial arcs against the sleeping wanker’s temple. As I watched, Jimmy tensed for the final stroke, held the rock poised for what seemed an eternity, and finally lowered his hand an expression of contempt.
“I can't do it," he .”I’m afraid I’ll kill him" Jimmy hurled the stone away with an oath. Oblivious, the old man snored away in the blistering heat of theVW.
"Let’s have another drink," I suited.
“Yeah, I could use one."
We spent the next few hours on the beach, sipping our drinks and talking desultorily as the afternoon waned.
“I think we'd better wake him up and start heading back” said.“I don’t want to spend the night with him in some shitty hotel.”
We gathered our gear and returned to the VW, where Jimmy roused the sleeping man by poking him in the ribs.
“Come on, dude! Wake up! It’s time to go back to San Diego.”
Slowly rising to consciousness, the miserable bastard was in a pitiable state. “What time is it?” he asked.
“Time to go,” Jimmy repeated, with a gesture toward the fiery sun that was gradually sinking past the horizon. “It’s getting late, and we want to go back.”
It took ages to retrace our route through the mountains. The headlights of the VW were hardly sufficient to illuminate the endless curves. Perhaps this was a blessing, since we could no longer see the frightful chasms. At least our driver seemed more alert, for he spent the entire time leaning forward and peering over the wheel, though his annoying habit of pumping the accelerator returned to plague us throughout the journey.
Two hours later, we began our descent into Tijuana. By this time, only two or three fingers of our vile liquor remained. Grabbing the bottle by the neck, I hurled it out the window and it crashed on the pavement. Our driver continued to pump the pedal and didn’t say a word.
The border was a clusterfuck, and we waited more than an hour to cross the line. Jimmy and I were still riding out the effects of the tequila, and the concentrated exhaust fumes only added to our torment. When our turn to pass finally arrived, we had nothing to declare except headaches and kidney trouble. Soon we were plodding northward on I-5.
We were approaching Carlsbad when our driver wanked again. “I know this girl named Mary,” he said. “She lives in Vista, and she really likes young guys like you.”
We told him we weren’t interested but he kept talking anyway, telling us every base detail of Mary’s expertise. Suddenly he veered from the freeway onto some connecting road and began to drive inland. The atmosphere in the vehicle became tense.
“What are you doing? We don’t want to go to your friend’s house!” Jimmy practically shouted.
When the old man didn’t answer, I said, “Let us out at the next light,” which was visible in the distance. But the light turned green, and our driver never slowed down as he executed a wide left turn.
Talk was useless. I extracted Jimmy’s knife from my pocket and snapped open the blade. Flashing it in front of the wanker’s face, I grabbed his head with one hand and placed the blade against his jugular. Prodding him slightly to emphasize my point, I issued my final directive.
“Pull over, asshole, unless you want this in your fucking neck.”
He pulled onto the shoulder and brought the vehicle to a stop.
“Out of the car, Jimmy,” I said, still holding the blade against the man’s neck. Jimmy opened the door, stepped out of the car, pushed the shotgun seat forward, and grabbed our boards out of the back. I withdrew from the vehicle and joined him on firm ground.
“Later, faggot!” I screamed, and I slammed the door shut as hard as I could. The car and its driver vanished forever from our lives.
But now Jimmy and I realized we had absolutely no idea where we were. We had no map, so street names meant nothing to us. Seeing a restaurant in the distance, we decided to skate over and ask for directions.
“I-5? Just follow that road for two, maybe two and a half miles and you can’t miss it,” an employee said, pointing to a broad thoroughfare. Slapping our boards on the pavement, we skated away.
After dodging cars for half an hour, we came to the freeway, the same miserable stretch of asphalt from which we were picked up by the old man nearly 24 hours earlier. Like some nightmare in an episode of The Twilight Zone, we were back on Mission Avenue in Oceanside.
My frustration ended when some guy pulled up in a choice Blazer equipped with every available option. Loud progressive rock music blasted from the stereo, so we figured he was probably normal. We threw our boards in the back and climbed into the front seat. The driver stepped on the gas pedal, and the truck shot forward with a squeal of tires.
The side windows of the Blazer were tinted, and our driver insisted that they stay rolled down. For whatever reason, he was paranoid about being pulled over and cited by a policeman for cruising with limited side mirror visibility. It grew damned cold in the front seat of that truck. I was actually glad when traffic slowed to pass a bloody wreck. But he took us all the way to Westminster, three or four miles from Jimmy’s house.
We entered Jimmy’s front door at 0400, 36 hours after leaving my house. Too tired even to eat or shower, we immediately crashed. I slept the sleep of the dead for half a day. When I finally woke, I crawled into the shower to wash the nasty funk from my body. After Jimmy did the same, we stormed the kitchen in a comprehensive quest for food.
We consumed every edible substance in sight. Heaps of wrappers and boxes littered the kitchen table.
Between mouthfuls, we told Jimmy’s mom about our adventure in Mexico. She listened and occasionally laughed as we related details. When I told her how I had held the knife against the old man’s neck, she nodded her head in approval.
“The next time you guys hitchhike, you’d better take my husband’s gun,” she said. Her husband was a Torrance policeman. “Tell him about your trip when he gets home,” Carol added. “He’ll get a good laugh out of it.”
Many years have passed since that particular adventure. Jimmy’s married now and has two or three kids. He and his family live in northern Idaho, far from the beach where we grew up. I talk to him regularly on the phone, and every once in a while we discuss our hitchhiking experience. The ties that bind, and all that bullshit. And I’ve never been so close to murder as I was on that sweltering afternoon, when the life of that wretched old man hung precariously in the balance.