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Life Arts    H4'ed 5/13/21

Ghosts of Highway 20 Revisited: How Being a Self-Educated Street Intellectual May Have Saved My Life

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Highway 20
Highway 20
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Lenin once said, "there are decades where nothing happens and weeks when decades happen."

I was 20 years old in 1968, a good year to be 20 years old. Between the spring of 1970 and the spring of 1972 there were weeks when decades happened for me. In the space of one year:

  • I moved out of my parents' house in Jamaica, Queens, to Brooklyn with three other guys who I worked with in a music store me in Times Square.
  • I became a socialist after being given a book from my friend, Bob Bady, one of my music store co-workers, titled Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy.
  • I met Stephanie from Berkeley, California, on a train on my way to work and spent two days with her where I grilled her about whether or not it was possible to be a political radical and spiritual at the same time.
  • I was accepted into VISTA and went to a training program in Atlanta, GA. I lasted one week before being convinced by a communist who worked as a trainer with them that VISTA was "all bullshit".
  • On Stephanie's open invitation to visit her on her commune, I hitchhiked from Atlanta all the way to Berkeley and stayed in her commune for three weeks. I fell in love with Berkeley, Moe's books and San Francisco.
  • I discovered anarchism, specifically Kropotkin's Revolutionary Pamphlets and the history of socialism.
  • I attended every leftist meeting open to the public, everything from Progressive Labor, to the Socialist Workers Party, the Communist Party and the Situationists, trying to figure out which group was right and where I could fit in.
  • I hitchhiked back from Berkeley to New York. On the way I was busted in Topeka, KS, for hitchhiking. My books on Lenin and Che were confiscated by a cop who resembled Barney in Andy Griffith. I didn't get them back.
  • I asked my parents if I could live with them for nine months while I lived off my wages working night shifts at UPS unloading trucks. My purpose was to set up a reading program for myself in radical history, sociology, anthropology, comparative mythology and psychology. I was reading six hours a day for nine months.
  • During that time, I sought out the well-known anarchist Murray Bookchin, who connected me with the New York radical scene.
  • I volunteered for War Resisters League and became involved with a woman in an open relationship who already had a boyfriend. As Grace Slick says, "why can't we go on as three?"
  • I left New York in the Spring of 1971 and headed out hitchhiking to the West Coast.
  • Somewhere around Boulder Colorado, I was picked up by 3 freaks in a VW van. After talking with them for about 30 minutes and feeling each other out, one of the guys with long curly hair whirled around and said "You've got to come to Seattle, the revolution is going to break out there first. We have the whole place organized." I listened to him, but continued on to the SF Bay Area, stayed another week with Stephanie and then headed up to Seattle.

This is where the heart of my story begins.


One of the things I tried to do in hitchhiking was stay off the interstate highways because they bypass the towns where people live. Riding on them gives you no sense of local life. So, in heading up to Seattle I didn't go on Interstate 5 or even US 101. I stayed on the slower roads. On these roads, if I got stuck I could either find a motel, a park or even the outskirts of a farm to spread out my sleeping bag and conk out.

In those days, there were a lot of freaks on the road, coming and going without any thought-out plans. People would hitchhike together for 50 to 100 miles and then part ways. I was with two other guys on U.S. 20 heading west for the coast. They were headed south for the SF Bay Area and I was headed north for Seattle. During these times, hitchhikers have a sense of which cars are likely to pick you up and which aren't. VW bugs and VW vans were the most likely to stop. Pickup trucks were often driven by right-wingers, so we had to be prepared to have beer cans or other trash thrown at us as they passed. It was rare that women gave any of us a ride.

To my amazement, a pickup truck slowed down, pulled over and we saw it was a woman driver. The f*ck!?! She said she was going to Corvallis, Oregon, and she could drive us to town. She invited us to stay on a farm she lived on with her parents. We wound up staying there a week as she showed us around town. I'm sure her father was thrilled. After close to a week the two other guys were itching to get going and leave. Now it was just Holly and me. She said she wanted to leave the farm and wanted to go to Boulder. She said she had some hippie friends there and there were also lots of alternative organizations in the area. She convinced me to go with her. We started out driving in her pickup truck, but it broke down before we ever got out of Corvallis. So, we left the truck behind and began our adventure heading east on highway 20. It never dawned on me that Holly seemed pretty desperate to get out of there. I figured at the time it was because Corvallis was a small town and she wanted to move on and see the world. She used me to help support her leaving. That was fine with me.


Our hitchhiking luck on the first day was very bad. We barely got out of the Corvallis city limits, and not till about 7:30 in the evening. It wasn't until later that I found out that Eastern Oregon is redneck country and it would be difficult to hitch a ride. In retrospect, I am surprised Holly didn't say anything to me because after all, she lived in the state. Finally, two guys in a pickup truck stopped for us. They looked like some kind of cowhands. As I remember it, we both hesitated to get in the back of the truck because they looked like rednecks. We got in out of desperation since we had no luck hitchhiking all day. The landscape was not the lush forests that are the stereotypes of Oregon, but semi-desert with scrub brush. After driving only two miles, the truck made a left off Highway 20 into some wooded area. Not good.

The two guys went to a cleared area and began building a fire. Holly and I laid our sleeping bags down about 100 yards away, making believe we were turning in early. The voices of the two men got louder and louder as they began drinking. I said to Holly that I would go join them in the hopes of calming things down. I looked all around me, sitting by a raging fire, in the sand, with old, gnarled, leafless trees casting long shadows around us. This was about the scariest setting I had ever been in.

Not soon after I arrived, one of the men passed out dead drunk. Now I was alone with the person whose name I later discovered was John. I don't know how this began, but we started to talk about books. John must have been about twenty-seven and I was twenty-two. He took it upon himself to tell me about the books he had read. He confided in me how lonely it was to live where he did and not have anyone to talk to about books. I tried to be very careful about telling him what I had read. Then I threw caution to the wind and mentioned Marx, which looking back was incredibly stupid, given the polarization of the country at the time between freaks and hardhats.

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Barbara MacLean and Bruce Lerro are co-founders and organizers for Socialist Planning Beyond Capitalism. Follow them on Facebook and Twitter. http://planningbeyondcapitalism.org/

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