Hitchhiking home for the holidaysNov 23, 2020 01:39PM ● By Steve Nelson
A miraculous Christmas deliverance
Willie Vance and I were drafted into the Army in 1966. We became friends in basic training and, by chance, were both sent to Fort Ord, California, for advanced infantry training. Our eight-week training was divided by a holiday break. Willie and I decided to hitchhike home to Cleveland for Christmas. Neither of us could afford the airfare. We left Fort Ord on a military shuttle bus that dropped us in San Francisco.
I don’t remember the extent of our route planning, but it was not much more sophisticated than “head east.” I do recall a discussion about whether to go north or south and making a clear choice for north. The notion of a black man and white man together in some parts of America was not a great idea in general, but significantly less great in southern states.
We wore our dress uniforms, black Army-issued shoes, thin socks and skimpy overcoats. We hadn’t considered that December in Colorado wasn’t likely to be balmy, but the uniforms enhanced the chance of a ride. We sang a lot.
We quickly hitched several rides out of the San Francisco area, finding ourselves in Reno, Nevada, in the middle of the night. Two soldiers could get a sumptuous meal for a few dollars in a cheap casino in Reno. Fully stuffed, we walked to the edge of town and lifted our thumbs to a stunning desert sunrise.
A ride came along soon and we crossed Nevada and through to Vernal, Utah. There we waited fitfully for hours, finally catching a ride about midnight. We dozed in the back seat, awakened by the driver saying, “End of the road for me. Good luck!”
We were in Craig, Colorado, at 2 a.m., temperatures diving into single digits. An all-night diner/laundromat drew us to its neon flame and we huddled inside the door, taking turns at the curb, hoping for a ride from a car or truck that never came.
I haven’t been to Craig since then, but it seemed a very small town, and traffic on Route 40 dried up at night. Finally, after an hour or two, an old sedan pulled up to the curb as I pulled thumb duty. The rear window rolled down and the smell of beer and cigarette smoke rolled out.
Willie rushed from the diner, enthused by our apparent good fortune. Not so fast. A voice came from the back seat, slightly slurred and not particularly cheery.
“Where ya goin’?”
“Cleveland,” I said. “We’re hoping to make it home for Christmas.”
I had a bad feeling about the junker/beer/Deliverance voice encountering the black guy suddenly appearing over my shoulder. My bad feeling deepened when the voice said, somewhat ominously, “You’ll never make it.”
“Never make it” has pretty dark implications in the rural west when offered up in Deliverance tones and a steam cloud of beer.
Then he said, “Wanna beer? Get in.”
Life offers these odd choices now and again: Get in and die while having a beer in the warm car or die stone sober on the frigid sidewalk? Willie and I looked at each other and got in the car. At least they wouldn’t kill us for being elitist.
Beer cans popped, we took a swig and the now-embodied voice said, “You’ll never make it because no one comes through here at night.”
The driver introduced himself as Joey Garcia. He was home on leave from the Navy and he and his brothers had been cruising in a town and time when cruising was about the only option.
Still wary, slightly buzzed on the empty-stomach beer, we sat silently until Joey said, “You’ll be here all night. C’mon home with us instead.”
Odd choice again: Home with them or stabbed for being ungracious. I know now that part of our wariness was racist as Joey and his crew were Mexican and poor, thereby suspect.
Joey woke up Momma Garcia, who in turn woke up several younger children who were sleeping in a tiny bedroom in the very small, cluttered house. They were, we learned, a coal mining family.
Momma made us a magnificent breakfast at 3 a.m. and they all insisted that we sleep in the younger kids’ beds while they camped out on the threadbare couch. They woke us at 7 a.m. for another breakfast and announced, “We want to buy you plane tickets to Denver, where you can more easily get home for Christmas.”
We refused, as they seemed to be living in near poverty and we, despite our hitchhiking choice, had some money in our pockets.
They insisted, we refused, they insisted, we refused. We finally accepted a ride in their rusty pickup truck—accompanied by Momma in the front seat and all the kids in the truck bed—to the Craig airport, where they contributed partially to our tickets on a small shuttle plane to Denver. Every Garcia hugged us tight and cried.