This July 4th will be the 41st anniversary of my journey to see the Willie Nelson 4th of July picnic in Gonzales, Texas, 1976. I’ve always appreciated the fact I was “on the road,” like Jack Kerouac, on the nation’s bicentennial, the birthday of the Declaration of Independence, and the day began for me at the site of the birth of Texas Independence. My buddy Rodney and I took the trip together and we accidentally found ourselves hitchhiking there and back to Amarillo. It’s quite a story and I’m going to tell it in parts. I’ve written about it before in a novel called Bicentennial Revised, in which I took quite a few liberties and threw in a lot of other stuff because it was a novel, and it was about revision, but I’m going to be truthful in this telling. In saying that, I need to warn you that this was way, way back in 1976. The times were different and I was much younger and much riskier in my behavior. I don’t wish to glamorize the behavior and Rodney and I both have cleaned up our acts considerably. He did long before I did. We’re not the same kids, but I don’t believe in cleaning up the past or even denying it just because you clean up as a person. Also, remember. This is from my point of view. Not his. Although I have received his permission to tell it.
In the summer of 1976 Rodney and I had just finished the Broadcasting program at Amarillo College. Throughout the previous year we’d talked about going to Europe and backpacking around after graduation but as things turned out we didn’t have the money or even the passports. We wanted to do something special to celebrate our freedom and it seemed perfect to go to the Willie Nelson picnic that year on Independence Day.
There had been about three picnics before ’76, I think, but the previous two had certainly caused a cultural phenomenon. “Rocket Rod“ and I had both been radio jocks at FM 90 when the station was founded. I actually seem to remember we’d call it the 89-point-9 and Joyce Herring would correct us, saying FM 90. So we wouldn’t say it that way just to mess with her. In those days there was a lot of country mixed in with rock. Groups like the Pure Prairie League and Poco were around, Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris, and of course, southern rock from the likes of The Marshall Tucker Band and Lynyrd Skynyrd had country mixed with blues. Country, like the stuff our parents liked, George Jones, Tammy Wynette and the like, generally came out of Nashville. Willie, and what would become the “outlaw” group of country performers, set up shop in Austin and took advantage of the hippie scene there that had been imported from San Francisco. “Long-haired, dope-smoking hippies,” is what the old folks called them, except they also might wear cowboy hats and boots. There were a lot of Vietnam vets, back then too, still dealing with the war. A lot of them rode bikes.
Like most kids of our day Rod and I liked to party. We had a bunch of broadcasting friends and we’d hang out at Memorial Park. Only the gazebo and tennis courts were around back then and the lingering scent of illegality. We’d had a few adventures before graduation but on graduation night we’d bought a case of Lone Star and took it out to Medipark. I was nineteen at the time. Rod was a little older. The drinking age in those days was eighteen. There were three of us in our black graduation caps and gowns. The police showed up after midnight and Rodney’s car was alone in the parking lot. We’d pretty much finished the case so when the police shone the spotlight on the hill, looking for us, we’d run, avoiding the light, and fell to the ground in our black gowns, as the spotlight passed over us. We were invisible to authority. They never found us but later Rodney said they’d called his mother to tell her his car was abandoned at Medipark. She apparently told him, “Oh no. If the car’s there Rodney must be nearby.” It was her view that Rodney would never walk away from his car.
That year the Willie Nelson picnic would be on private land near Gonzales, which of course, was the site of The Battle of Gonzales in 1835, which was the first military engagement of the Texas War of Independence. There had been local reaction against earlier picnics so at first the thing was canceled and then it was on again. Seems there was a movement to keep the hippies, drugs and nudity out of Gonzales. On graduation night, after avoiding the police spotlights, we resolved to take the trip to the concert to go someplace where we could party in peace. Austin was party central. We really wanted to check it out. We would drive down there and buy tickets at Oat Willie’s, a famous head shop just west of the campus of the University of Texas. The original plan was to take my car. I had a yellow Volkswagen Beetle with a ’48 Ford hood. It was a repo and my first car. I thought it was in pretty decent shape but about a week before the trip I got anxiety. I was convinced we would have car trouble. Looking back, maybe it was a premonition, but I expressed my worries to Rod, who probably thought I was trying to weasel out, but he said his car would be out of the shop and the mechanic said it would be fine to make the trip. He had a TR- 7, that looked like a doorstop.
July 4th that year was on a Sunday. At the time I worked at Channel 4 when it was up on Polk by Wonderland Park. I was an announcer and audio man. I was to do the early newscast on the Friday before but I was free after 6:30 that evening. I had taken off the following Monday figuring we’d be driving back that day. So we figured we’d drive overnight and be in Austin by the next morning to pick up the tickets and head out to the concert. Keep in mind, the speed limit in those days was 55, an aggravating limitation. We reasoned by driving overnight we’d be able to go faster since there wasn’t as much law on the roads at that time.
We headed down the highway with a huge anticipation. I had seen the movie, Woodstock, but neither of us had any idea what a big outdoor concert would look like or what we’d need. There was no internet back then! We were quite unprepared. At least for my part it didn’t matter because this was the reward we were getting for achieving our Associates in Applied Science in Broadcasting at Amarillo Junior College…Willie Nelson.
We shared the driving but at some point I was pretty wiped out. Rodney took over and I just remember putting my head against the window and when I awoke we were stopped on the side of the road as dawn was breaking. It was a familiar situation for me as my father would take us on long road trips and I’d sometimes wake up and he’d say we were out of gas and he’d have to catch a ride to get gas while we stayed with the car. That was my first thought as I looked at Rodney but he looked troubled and said the car was having engine problems. We were only a few miles outside of Austin in the hill country and the air smelled like cedar. Rodney figured the best thing to do was to limp our way into the city and hope to find a foreign car garage. There were no cell phones back then! We knew nothing about the city. In fact, the last time I’d been in Austin my family had car troubles. I remember dad driving into the city at night to Ravel’s Bolero on the FM radio. We stayed at the Holiday Inn at I-35 and Town Lake. The next day, as the car was being worked on we took a taxi down to the University of Texas and my mother said, “Who knows, maybe you’ll come to school here one day.” As it turns out I did, but that was after Rodney and I slowly crept the TR-7 into the north side of the city. It smelled hot. Rod didn’t dare drive faster than 40. We pulled into Highland Mall early on a Saturday morning and as luck would have it there was a foreign car garage there and there was a mechanic there. The mechanic said it wasn’t promising. It appeared he’d need to order a part and in any event he probably couldn’t get to it that day and of course, they were closed the following day. We began to consider our options.
There are certain moments in life, those, “you’ll always regret it if you don’t do it,” kinds of things you know what must be done but your head is trying to dissuade you. We had enough money to take a bus back to Amarillo. Or we could save what money we had, walk across town, get the tickets and find a way to the concert. To our credit, looking back, we didn’t think too long about it. It’s probably because we were young and looking for adventure and there were two of us and, “are you kidding me? Let’s do it!” I still remember that smile and the excitement in Rocket Rod’s eyes when he realized we were going to just hit the road and find our way to Gonzales. We didn’t have a map. I was exhilarated. He gave instructions to the mechanic, who gave us instructions to Oat Willie’s, and we hit the pavement. It was Saturday morning, July 3rd. We walked west to Lamar and then headed south to buy our ticket to a strange adventure.
On July 3rd, 1976 about 8 in the morning Rodney and I were hoofing it in Austin, heading south on Lamar. The mechanic had told us the street would eventually branch and we were to take the Guadalupe side all the way to 29th and turn right. Oat Willie’s was there and they were selling tickets to the Willie Nelson 4th of July picnic in Gonzales.
Rod had taken his Canon EF SLR with him, which he carried in a camera bag. Rod was a great photographer and he was equally impressive in a darkroom. They didn’t have Photoshop back then. I watched him a couple times as he manipulated images. I thought that was the coolest thing. That was probably the first time I realized what you see isn’t necessarily real. I also carried a backpack with a little bit of food and a hunting knife. It was already beginning to heat up and get humid but I was comfortably dressed in my favorite blue and white long-sleeved cotton shirt I wore untucked over my bellbottom jeans. I always rolled the sleeves up to my elbows and unbuttoned it low enough to show off the pewter cross necklace a girlfriend had given me. Luckily my sneakers were new and had lots of bounce. Back then I had long straight hair down to my shoulders. Rodney’s hair was curly and long so he looked like he had a big Brillo pad on his head. If I remember correctly he wore jeans, a western shirt and cowboy boots. I remember what I wore because later, we each took each other’s photo on the highway with our thumbs out. I had that photo for years but then I lost it. It’s probably in my ex-wife’s garage. The point being we didn’t stand out much in those days in Austin, but we probably looked like a couple of thugs on the road, which is why, on down the road, many folks didn’t give us a ride. It didn’t occur to me until later when we actually had our thumbs out that we probably looked like stray dogs. And who’s going to help a stray dog? Much less two of them? Well, that’s a bit later in the story.
As we trudged along the streets and sidewalks of the city a part of me wanted it to be more than what I saw. I had built up an image of Austin in my imagination in anticipation and now, as we passed ordinary businesses and ordinary people and ordinary cars in ordinary heat, I began to sweat and realized we had nothing but ourselves in a strange city. The lack of a car adds a significant level of vulnerability. But the excitement hadn’t waned. I took it all in with a good if not thirsty spirit. Bottled water was not a thing. Of course we could buy cokes at gas stations and partake of water fountains. Rod and I were essentially tourists in the city so we were pointing out oddities to each other. It wasn’t Amarillo so at the very least it was somewhat exotic. It struck me how lush and green it was, and sticky. Austin back then was not the huge city it is today. There wasn’t the impersonal atmosphere then. Folks were by and large friendly and open, cowboys, hippies and all those between and beyond.
After a very long thirty blocks or so we found ourselves at Oat Willie’s. There must have been a swamp cooler inside pumping out a cool patchouli breeze that hit us as we entered. There were head shops in Amarillo in those days, but Oat Willie’s in Austin was the iconic Texas destination. The building had once been owned by the guys who created The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers underground comics. Those were on display as we entered, as well as posters for concerts at the Armadillo World Headquarters and bongs, papers, clips, anything a “long-haired, dope-smoking hippie” needed. I was expecting to hear Kinky Friedman playing on the stereo but instead I remember hearing the Alan Parsons Project. Through a beaded door there was a backroom of black light posters, featuring R. Crumb’s Keep On Truckin’, and more. After walking as far as we did, being in the cool shop was a relief. And buying the tickets committed us to finishing the journey. There was no going back. We saw the poster for the concert and chatted with the guy who sold us the tickets. We told him our car had broken down and we needed directions to Gonzales. He said we needed to cross the University and hit 19th, which became MLK Boulevard that year, and cross I-35 and head down to Airport Boulevard, head south on that and that will turn to 183 and that’s the road to Gonzales. We asked if he thought we’d have trouble catching rides and he said not at all. He said the concert had already started and there was a lot of traffic headed that way. We thanked him and took off across the University, passing under the ominous tower where only a decade before Charles Whitman had killed so many people, past the football stadium, past the freeway and into East Austin, which in those days appeared to us to be the poorer side of town.
After awhile you understand if you just “keep on truckin’” you’re going to get someplace eventually. If you have a destination, just keep walking. You can make better time than you expect. We walked quite a long time before we came up on a small store and Rod had in mind a celebration. He said since we’d gotten this far and were on our way, we should reward ourselves with a six-pack of Lone Star. The sun had been beating down pretty hard on us and I thought that was the most wonderful idea Rod had ever had. We bought the beer and continued our march, drinking and carrying the six-pack. We got half a mile down the road when a battered old pickup pulled up beside us. An old black man without any teeth asked us where we were going. We told him. He said he’d give us a ride to just on the other side of the bridge that crossed the Colorado River for a beer. We obliged. We hopped into the bed of the pickup, gave him a beer, and he took us about a mile up the road onto the south side of the bridge and let us off. We had gotten our first ride without even trying. It was a good omen.
In fact, now that we were on 183, traffic was definitely thicker and younger. It was obvious where everyone was going. I remember sticking out my thumb for the first time, thinking it was kind of a rite of passage. Rod and I smiled at each other, knowing we were doing this for real now. A few folks passed us by, a couple yelled obscenities, but probably no more than ten minutes passed before a white van pulled up in front of us. We ran up to it and the guy asked if we were going to the concert. We said, “yeah!” And he said, “hop in!”
The air conditioner seemed to be be blowing air from Heaven. Instant relief. Blue Oyster Cult blasted from his 8-track. I rode shotgun and Rod sat in back. Space and comfort. The guy looked to be our age, maybe a little older. He had a dark tan, long black hair, big sunglasses, and a great big smile. He told us to dig into the cooler next to Rod. Rod removed three very cold Pearls. He had a CB radio and was talking to a good buddy who knew where the bears were. They were apparently clustered around Lockhart. He told me to open the glove box. I did. It was stuffed with weed. He told me to open the console. I did. It had more weed. “Maui Wowee,” he yelled over the Cult. He was clearly excited. “This is going to be a gosh darn, freakin’ awesome concert,” he yelled, although not in those exact words. He punched his cigarette lighter, produced a joint, lit it, and we cruised down 183 at 55 miles per hour.
I don’t think I need to tell you my paranoia set in when I realized we were headed to the concert with a very friendly but also very ambitious drug dealer. All the way through Lockhart I was on edge, trying to find any trace of law enforcement, but we saw nothing. The guy drove conservatively. He clearly came to do business. We talked music and he’d eject one tape after another, from Nugent to Zeppelin, digging on the floor to find something else. It was about three in the afternoon and I was thinking we were pretty lucky we’d gotten a ride all the way to the concert, even if he was a drug dealer, even if I was terrified of getting busted. He was certainly a nice guy and very generous with his product.
We passed more hitchhikers, some holding signs, many with chairs and camping equipment and they got picked up, and it was clear there was one primary purpose behind the human chain leading into Gonzales. It was time to party. As we got into town the traffic was more congested and between Gonzales and the concert site it was nearly bumper to bumper. That’s when the bikers showed up. They weaved around the van, swarming it like bees. We pulled off to the side of the road and the bikers followed. I thought our driver was in trouble. I didn’t know what was happening but I could see a lot of them wore colors indicating they were Vietnam Vets. Our guy reached into the console, removed the contents and nonchalantly walked over to one of the bikers, who greeted him like a friend. They made an exchange right there, out in the open, no attempt to hide it. They chatted for a while and then our driver returned. Everybody got back into the traffic, we and the swarm of bees, and inched our way into the concert. Once inside he gave us each a beer and said “Vaya Con Dios!” We thanked him and stepped out into the Willie Nelson 4th of July Picnic.
The day had begun at dawn. For Rodney, earlier than that. We had hiked all the way across Austin and out of it in a sizzling sun. We’d been picked up only twice to get to the concert at roughly four in the afternoon. I marveled at the excellent time we’d made despite the fact we didn’t have a car, but now the sun beat down on us again. There was no shade. It was a large patch of scrubland in the middle of nowhere. We stood, awestruck, looking at the stage and all the people who were setting up campsites around it. We were absolutely baked.
The band was funky. Funky country. A bit like Little Feat. In later years I thought maybe it was Delbert McClinton, but I never found evidence he was there that day. Rodney and I found a small depression of dirt not far from the stage and staked our claim. It was hot and there wasn’t any shade so we burned and sweated in the afternoon sun. Whatever pleasure we’d received from the drive to the concert was slowly ebbing. People kept arriving and setting up camps around us and I realized then how unprepared we were for the long haul. Some had umbrellas, some tents, some American flags draped over polls that would protect them from the sun. My face felt seared like a sirloin tossed on the grill. I was hungry. We hadn’t eaten. I dug into the backpack and found some jerky. We each slowly chewed a piece.
Rod admired the fact we had made it. We’d come a long way on our feet and now, sitting in our little dusty space, relief was turning to exhaustion. We had long ago downed the Pearl and I really wanted water. I noticed just a few feet to our left a red ant bed. I made a mental note not to forget it. I pointed it out to Rod who said, “Even ants like Willie.” I tried to see where the food booths were set up and they appeared to be about fifty yards to our right. There was a swelling sea of people moving about in various states of dress and mental states. I told Rod I’d go in search of water and bring him back some if he’d guard our space. He agreed, saying the day had caught up to him. He stretched out on the ground and closed his eyes.
The journey to the booths involved stepping around people and avoiding others. It appeared everyone was having a good time despite the discomfort. People were openly smoking joints and a couple had taken off their clothes. Some looked like outdoor concert vets, lawn chairs set up under a big umbrella, two coolers and a dog. There were vendors moving through the crowds, selling blankets and drugs. A commotion to my right got everyone’s attention. About 75 yards away I saw the police arresting a couple of the bikers we’d come across on the way in. When I turned back I was met by the image of a naked, long-haired, bearded, skinny man wearing only boots and a straw cowboy hat with dark brown stains around the brim. I briefly considered why anyone would do that around so many people, but then, there were a lot of drugs and everyone, it seemed, was ignoring him.
There was a long line for all the booths and I didn’t really know what was being sold. I decided to find the toilets first of all and was pleasantly surprised to see there wasn’t too long of a line on the men’s side, considering there weren’t many portable toilets. Most guys were probably just sweating out the beer. Throughout human history there has always been a longer line for women, and it was long on this day. When I returned to the booths I saw one was selling beans and rice. Another was a kind of medical set-up and a guy was being treated for something on his leg. The big problem was finding water. All these people out in the heat and no water? Where are the water stations? I asked someone who pointed me in a general direction so I went that way. The music was playing, but there was also a roar of voices and already there was a lot of trash on the ground. I found a table set up in front of a pickup, apparently with containers of water. There were plastic cups on a table and a long line of people. The water was free. I took two and headed back to Rod.
It was dusk. The sun had fallen behind the horizon, which definitely cooled things off. There was a bluish light settling on everything. Among all the voices I heard the words “He was cut, man,” which meant nothing to me at the time. Today I wouldn’t think of putting myself through the experience. When I was nineteen it was incredible. I may have felt discomfort, but my spirit was soaring, which is why I remember it now so fondly. Austin360 has an interesting set of facts about the Gonzales picnic.
“Reports wavered between expected crowds of 100,000 and 200,000 but attendance only reached "more than 80,000" (still the largest Picnic). Early arrivals found the site to be perilously short on water outlets and bathroom facilities and the concert ended when a downpour on the morning of July 5 shorted out the PA system – before Waylon or Willie had performed their shows. In between, one person drowned and injuries ranged from stabbings to snake bites. More than 140 were arrested – four for kidnapping – and at least three rapes were reported. Willie would later be sued by two injured picnickers, the owner of the ambulance service and the owner of the ranch.”
Years later in Lubbock Rod and I would talk to Willie on his tour bus and when we told him we were at the ’76 picnic he talked about the rain. All that rain.
There was no hint of rain by the time I found Rodney again at our spot. I told him about my adventures. He figured the organizers should have been more prepared. We decided we’d abandon our spot and take a look around the party. Doug Sahm took the stage, one of the headliners, and we made our way through the sea of people as night descended. As much as it seemed magical at night, I do remember it seeming a bit menacing also. The truth is after a very hot day out in the open a lot of alcohol was consumed and the mood was just shy of angry at times. No doubt all the weed modified that, but there was acid and peyote, as well, at least that’s what the dealers were advertising. There would come to be quite a few overdoses. In all probability everything that could be ingested was there, as lights and shadows danced on both ecstatic and numb faces.
I remember before we’d left on the trip Joyce Herring had told us about the organization that had tried to keep the concert out of Gonzales. They were called Citizens for Law, Order and Decency, or CLOD. She got a big kick out of that, a bunch of clods. Looking at this crowd, though, I could see what they were frightened of. This was a time, not long after the late-sixties, when a culture clash was ongoing between the World War 2 generation and their kids, between the “We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee” crowd and the “Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother” crowd. Willie sort of brought the rednecks and hippies together to help create a unique Texas culture, a hybrid, to the point, in fact, when even Merle Haggard was accepted and his iconic song became an ironic song.
I remember hearing Sahm’s signature number, “Is Anybody Going to San Antone,” thinking it didn’t sound like Charlie Pride, when I began to wonder how we were going to get home. Rodney agreed. We didn’t have a car there. Logistics began to occupy us. Somehow we were going to need to get back to Amarillo by Tuesday when I would need to be back at work. I hadn’t had the job long and certainly didn’t want to lose it. It only took us a couple rides to get down to the concert, but traffic was moving that way. Going back was a great unknown, back all the way to Amarillo. How long would it take us? We were talking to some guys who were complaining they hadn’t brought enough beer when one of them pointed out Willie Nelson had joined Doug Sahm onstage. That was way cool. We watched Willie Nelson. We were part of this great big Texas music scene.
That pretty much decided it for us. We’d come to see Willie. We saw Willie, even if it wasn’t his set. We weren’t prepared for the long haul at the concert, didn’t have a car, and had limited cash. So we decided we needed to find a way out to be able to be on the road first thing in the morning for God knows how long on our way back to Amarillo. We started asking folks if they knew of anyone who was leaving and we finally found some guys who were going back to Gonzales to get more beer. We hopped into the bed of their pickup and they drove back up the road we’d traveled only a few hours before. Traffic moved faster heading out, although there were still a lot of cars heading into the concert.
We were dropped off in town by a beer joint. We went inside and sat at the bar. To our pleasant surprise they sold what we called “bolas” back then, or spicy pickled sausages in big jars. We ordered two of those and a couple rounds of Shiners. We hung out in the bar where they had a phone and I contemplated calling my folks but Rodney and I both had committed to finding a way back. It became a challenge at that point and we were determined to meet it. When we left the bar, somewhere around midnight, satisfied with beer and sausages, we wandered in the dark until we found a park. We sat under a tree and waited for dawn.
On Independence Day, 1976, I woke up to the smell of piss under a sprawling oak. I was in a city park in Gonzales, where the first shots were fired in 1836 in the Texas Revolution. A rock dug into my shoulder and a root poked into my back. I wondered how I’d slept at all but it had been a long day the day before. The sky was overcast. It was early and quiet, except for the neighborhood of birds conversing above us. Rodney woke up about the same time. I said, “Happy Fourth of July!” He said it smelled like there had been a dog party at our tree.
To our pleasant surprise we happened to be just off 183 so we got our stuff together and hit the road, determined to get home. It was about six in the morning so there wasn’t much activity. But not for long! Only a half mile up the road luck showed up in the form of a rusted, brown pickup. We stuck out our thumbs. Two hippies who looked like brothers, with identical shoulder-length brown hair and thick beards pulled up and idled beside us. The dude riding shotgun asked us where we were going. We said we’d been at the concert and now were headed to Austin. He said they’d also been at the concert and were going to Austin. He told us to hop on. We climbed into the bed of the old pickup and they took off. What luck! We’d only walked a few steps and already got picked up at 6 in the morning on the 4th of July and we were going all the way to Austin!
The wind whipped our hair and slapped our faces as we relaxed in the bed of the rusted pickup. The air felt much more humid. The white sky was a bit more oppressive than the bright sunshine that greeted us the day before as we arrived at the concert. Yet it was more comfortable following the heat we had endured. We were conflicted about leaving the concert as early as we did, but not having the resources to stick it out. I thought having a car to sleep in would have made a lot of difference. We’d done it, though, and we could always say we did. We rode along in silence for miles, gazing at the south Texas landscape, fields of mesquite and angus, the occasional deer, and armadillo road kill.
Suddenly the pickup edged over the yellow line and the driver overcompensated. We both fell hard onto the loose tools scattered across the bed. There was a brief moment of profanities and then we crawled our way back up to peek through the window into the cab and observed the bearded boys engaging in a huffing party. The hippie riding shotgun had a brown paper bag and was spraying a can of what looked like cooking grease into it. He shoved his face into the bag, and sucked it hard. He repeated the process and then gave the bag to the driver, who attempted to steer with one hand and hold the bag with the other, as the pickup careened into the left lane. It became a classic dilemma. Do we bang on the window and ask them to let us out, or do we risk riding with them to Austin, knowing they might run the truck into the bar ditch, hurling us into the cactus and barbed wire lining the highway?
As it happened, we didn’t have to make a decision as the truck screeched to a stop at the intersection of 183 and 90. The driver yelled out the window, “Hey, we made a mistake. We’re not going to Austin. We’re going to Houston. Want to go to Houston?” We immediately answered “no thanks!” We quickly hopped out of the pickup and the bearded boys slung gravel as they spun out onto 90. Fortunately, we were only about three miles south of Luling.
There was more traffic on the road but no one considered picking us up at that point. We’d stick out our thumbs and watch the expressions on the driver’s faces as they whizzed past us. Some seemed downright angry. That’s when I realized we must look like “long-haired, dope-smoking hippies” to some of the folks who didn’t want Willie playing in Gonzales, those CLOD people. That’s when we took each other’s photograph, sticking our thumbs out, begging for rides on the road on Independence Day. I wore tennis shoes and walked in the grass. Rod warned me there might be chiggers but I didn’t heed his advice.
Rod and I were both quite political in those days and that’s what occupied us as we hiked to Luling. We argued politics. We were rarely on the same page in that regard, but we could remain good friends. We respected each other’s opinion. Rod was ahead of his time as a Libertarian. In fact, later, he would run for Congress on the Libertarian ticket, long before that idea was even fashionable for many. For my part I was angry Ford had pardoned Nixon, angry that Vietnam had turned into such a mess, and was hoping Jimmy Carter would defeat Ford in the election later that year. I hadn’t even heard of Carter until the Democratic Convention! I wanted California Governor Jerry Brown or Texas Senator Lloyd Bentsen. Rodney argued Government needed to get out of the way of business. I argued business would run all over us if it wasn’t regulated. It could have been 2012 but it was 1976.
We arrived in Luling on foot as the occasional raindrop tagged us and we silently marched through town as everyone began to awake. Flags flew from porches and dogs barked as we passed. At the center of town, a fruit vendor was selling cantaloupes and peaches out of the back of a pickup. We decided it was probably a good time to have breakfast, since the opportunity presented itself, so we bought a cantaloupe. We talked to the vendor for a while and told him our story. He said we were probably going to get rained on but needed to get out of town as quickly as possible because it was against the law to hitchhike inside the city limits. We took him at his word and hightailed it to the other side of town to eat our melon. The sky was growing darker and I suspected we were about to get drenched. I wondered if we might not just go back into town and try to find a dry place to wait it out.
We found the city limits sign and saw a good spot on the side of the road, as it happened just inside the limits, to sit and eat and contemplate what we should do about the weather. I got the hunting knife from the backpack and began to cut up the cantaloupe. We’d only had a couple bites when a Ford Pinto pulled up on the highway. For a moment we just stared at it. A woman rolled down the window and asked us if we wanted a ride. So here we are, two shaggy young men, dirty from the road, carving into a cantaloupe with a big hunting knife, and a woman, alone, offers us a ride. Then, as I’m considering the absurdity of the situation, a Highway Patrol car pulls up behind her. Rodney’s holding the knife. We’re just inside the limits. A woman pulls over. Great, I thought! We’re about to be arrested on the 4th of July for hitchhiking inside the city limits with a dangerous weapon and we aren’t even sticking out our thumbs!
I experienced a brief moment of terror as I suspected Rodney and I were going to be arrested for hitchhiking inside the Luling city limits. The Highway Patrol had pulled up behind the Ford Pinto driven by a woman who had asked us if we needed a ride as we sat with a large hunting knife we were using to carve our cantaloupe. The trooper rolled down his window and yelled, “If you’re going to pick them up you need to pull off the highway!” The woman pulled the car over and the trooper drove off. Rod and I sprinted to the car, thanked her profusely, and jumped in. I got in the back seat and Rod sat up front. No sooner did the Pinto return to the highway, the rain came crashing.
It wasn’t a soft rain. It was a south Texas flooding rain. There are a lot of colorful Texas euphemisms I will forego at this time. More importantly, at a moment like that it becomes awfully easy to believe in angels. It wouldn’t be the last time something like that would happen to me, but I certainly got a healthy respect for the Divine that day. The rain splashed hard on the windshield. Little bits of hail bounced off the hood. It was tough to see through the drops and the wipers barely helped. The woman took it slow, not appearing nervous, and struck up a conversation. We introduced ourselves and told her our story. We asked her if she could take us to Austin where we left the car at the mall and she agreed. We also asked her why she decided to pick us up, not wanting to get too specific about details for fear she’d change her mind about us. She just said it looked like we needed a ride and she could use the conversation and it was the 4th of July. She also said we should be thankful we left the concert considering they were getting rained on at that moment.
I don’t remember her name but I do remember her demeanor. She was serious, no nonsense. She was thin and had short hair. Even though she didn’t smile much she was clearly doing us a huge favor, without our asking for it. It crossed my mind she wasn’t taking as much of a risk as it appeared. After all, the Highway Patrol was aware she’d picked us up. Maybe she was from Luling and knew the trooper. Maybe we’d been watched as we passed through town. She didn’t talk much about herself. She wanted to know about us. It also crossed my mind to watch the back window. Pintos were famous for catching fire if they got rear-ended.
The truth is the rain made me drowsy. This was the first moment since I had awakened at dawn the previous day that I actually felt peaceful and comfortable. She really seemed to be hitting it off with Rod. She asked him to find a station on the radio about the weather. I fell asleep.
When I woke up we were on 35, driving over Town Lake. The rain was lighter but still substantial. Rod was telling her where the car was. He asked me if I’d had a good nap. I told him it had taken me by surprise. He said they’d had a great time talking while I was out. When we pulled up to the wedge that was Rod’s TR-7, it was still raining. She asked us what our plans were. We said when it stopped raining we’d probably head back the way we came up 183 and then over to Abilene and on to Lubbock. She suggested it might be easier for us to catch rides up 35 to Dallas, even though that was a longer way. We hadn’t thought of that. Then she offered to take us to Waco if Rod would drive for awhile. Well yeah! Why not? Rod got out into the rain and opened the trunk of his car, removing a few things, and then got back into the Pinto’s driver’s side as she scooted over. Our luck was holding out.
We had a good time chatting about the state of the country and the state of music on the way to Waco. She let us off on the side of the highway just as the sun burst through the clouds. She thanked us for helping her drive and we thanked her profusely for picking us up and she drove off. Rod smirked. “Well, that’s not what I expected when I cut into the cantaloupe.” We stuck out our thumbs and headed north. Remember, if you “keep on truckin’,” you’ll get there eventually. Lots of cars passed us by on the interstate. No one was interested in picking us up. We probably looked road worn, but not wet. In fact, the sun was heating up again and so was the pavement. Just as I was feeling a bit discouraged a white van pulled up ahead of us. For a fleeting moment I thought it was our old friend the drug dealer, but it turned out to be a guy who said he was going to Dallas. I am telling the absolute truth that no more than fifteen minutes in the comfort of the van it began to rain hard again. Our luck was holding out.
The guy said he was in the Air Force and had been in jail in Mexico. He said it was no big deal but he’d gotten drunk and got in a fight and they’d locked him up overnight but he’d been released and was going home. I just said we were thankful the Mexicans let him out in time for him to pick us up. He seemed like a cool guy. He just wanted to talk. It struck me how a few folks didn’t have a problem picking up two kids on the road. As bad as we must have looked to some folks, we didn’t look bad at all for others.
He let us off somewhere in the south Dallas suburbs in a Denny’s parking lot. I asked Rod if he wanted to get something to eat before we hit the road again. He suggested we might have enough money between us for bus tickets to Amarillo now we were closer. We needed to find the bus station. We went inside the Denny’s and asked the girl at the register if she knew where the station was and she was about as unfriendly as she could be. She wanted us out of the restaurant so she told us it was a few blocks north to get rid of us. On the way out I saw a Dallas newspaper. A headline celebrated America’s 200th birthday and another indicated Israeli Commandos had rescued more than a hundred hostages in Uganda. There was a lot of terrorism in the seventies. It was great to hear the good guys had won for a change.
We walked a long way on the hot pavement and the searing sun baked our faces. I was beginning to feel the chiggers although I wasn’t quite sure what it was at the time. Unlike the earlier walks where we sensed we had a destination, we had no idea where the bus station was so we just kept walking through endless suburban streets. It was the hardest trek of the journey up to that time. Everything, the heat, exhaustion, chiggers, the road dust all worked to dampen my spirit. I wasn’t really noticing the environment anymore. Although I was still thankful we’d never gotten wet. Not once. We walked for maybe an hour, not looking for a ride, just soldiering on. Then a baby blue Cadillac inched up beside us. A well-dressed black man drove it and a woman wearing what looked like “hot pants” sat beside him. He asked us where we were going. We told him we were looking for the bus station. We were trying to get to Amarillo. He said there wasn’t a bus station anywhere near where we were and the two of us really shouldn’t be walking on the streets in that neighborhood. He told us to hop in and he’d take us to a bus station. I hadn’t noticed we were in a dangerous neighborhood, but there was something in the guy’s voice that rang true. Here was another angel, saving us from God knows what. He was friendly, wanting to know all about Amarillo and the concert and our time on the road. He took us quite a few blocks to a Greyhound bus station. We thanked him and he drove away. I’m not sure Rodney and I truly understood how things were happening for us. Unfortunately, the station was closed. However, we read a sign indicating a bus to Amarillo, of all the luck, was due to arrive in an hour, but because it was the 4th of July and because the station was closed, we didn’t know if the bus would be there. Even if it did arrive, we didn’t know if we could get on it without a ticket. We decided to wait for it, hoping for a chance.
By this time both Rod and I were exhausted and beat down by the sun. I was itching in places I couldn’t easily scratch. We were a bit testy with each other. I had lost my comb somewhere so my long hair was tangled, sticky and dirty. I saw a drug store across the street and told Rod I thought I’d go over there to buy a comb. He asked if I was really going to spend money that could get us home on my hair. I said his hair never needed combing anyway so what did he know? We were both right, of course, but I came to my senses.
Finally, the bus, if it was coming at all, wasn’t there at its appointed time. We began to consider finding a place to crash for the night, maybe a grassy knoll. We were in Dallas, after all. Then, like a cool, clear vision, the bus came rumbling up the street. It stopped in front of us and a couple people got out. We asked the driver if he could sell us tickets to Amarillo, if in fact, we had enough money for the tickets. He told us the station was closed so there was no way to get tickets. We told him our situation. He asked us how much money we had. We showed him. He said it wasn’t enough for tickets to Amarillo. We asked if he could take us as far as the money would allow. He looked us over and considered for a moment. He said, “I’ll take you to Amarillo.”
Looking back, I don’t think the Greyhound driver was an angel. I think he was a good man doing a good thing for two kids who found themselves on the road. He didn’t have to do it, but he chose to do it, and we were profoundly grateful. I remember the joy I felt as we kicked back on the almost empty and air-conditioned bus. The journey was almost over and I closed my eyes. We drove all night, sleeping through most of it, and by dawn we’d arrived home.