Hitching to Zion #2: Las Vegas Welcome Wagon and a Ride from a Cowboy

The pickup truck, that had whisked me across the California desert, dropped me off on the strip in Las Vegas. In those days the casinos were smaller, many open to the street. I walked along, somewhat apprehensive, with my pack on my back, looking at all the blinking and flashing lights and signs, listening to the sounds of the sirens going off every time someone got a few quarters back from one of the slot machines.

“Hey, you just get here? You come a long way?” A thin unshaven man in his forties in a rumpled green shirt and brown pants stepped in stride with me.

“Well, let me tell you, this is a great place. There’s cheap food and always something going on. Especially if you like to gamble. You come here to gamble?”

I told him I was just passing through. While I didn’t know what to make of him, I was glad for his input.

“The floor managers sometimes give me coupons to get breakfast. Mr. Clyde here at the Three Note, he’s a good friend of mine. He always slips me a few coupons to get food.” This guy should’ve gotten a job with the Welcome Wagon people. “Come on. I know where we can go. We can get a free meal at the kitchen. You can meet some of the guys.”

This sounded good to me. I wouldn’t have to spend any more of my money. I wanted it to last as long as possible.

“Are you sure it’s okay? I’m not destitute, you know.”

“Oh, sure. They’ll be glad to have you. That’s what this is for, people hitchhiking around, camping, needing a meal. It’s a place to meet people too, you’ll like it.”

I started to see the possibilities. Maybe I’d stay in Las Vegas for a while, go hiking in the mountains, see the Grand Canyon. Looked like an easy way to get by.

We went down the strip a few blocks, and then turned right. It was starting to get dark. Maybe I could stay with these guys tonight, get breakfast and head out in the morning. I didn’t know yet where I’d sleep. I was a little concerned about it. When I had started up that morning, My brother, Bern, and his friend, John, had dropped me off at an onramp to the interstate in Orange County. I found there was already someone there trying to hitch a ride. The kid had a pack and a sign. He was going up north.

“You hitch much?” I said to the kid.

“Yeah, I’ve been across the country twice.”

“Where do you sleep if you don’t get a ride?” This was one of my main concerns. I knew how to stand and hold my thumb, and now decided to make myself a sign, but I didn’t know what to do once it got too dark.

“I just sleep right along the highway. I find a spot in the bushes.”

“And nobody ever bothers you?”

“Naw.” He looked at me with that confidence that comes from experience. “Nobody cares and nobody knows you’re there in the first place.”

“Oh.” I was relieved. I looked around and picked out an unobtrusive spot to sleep just in case I never got a ride out of there that day. Though I felt tempted to, I just couldn’t call Bern and John to come back and pick me up, I’d have felt foolish.

“Here we are.” The Welcome Wagon guy pointed to some steps that lead down to a double door into an old cafeteria. Inside there were rows of tables at which were sitting men in various states of decay. Their defeated eyes stared at me in my nice clothes and backpack as I got in line for food. When I finally got to the head of the line, the person serving, who was used to not judging people but knew I didn’t belong there, said there was only black coffee left.

My new “friend” and I sat down at one of the tables. I felt out of place. I hadn’t realized from the description that it would be a mission. I kept my pack right next to me.

All these guys probably came to Vegas to gamble, I thought, lost all their money and now just hang on, like moss, living off the moisture. I sipped my bitter coffee. Not being able to just down it, and, in spite of the fact that it was getting dark and I needed to go, I felt I needed to put in a little time. It would be rude to just up and leave.

After a bit, I returned my cup and slipped out the door. It was dark. I had just wasted the last valuable hours of daylight sipping bad coffee without cream and feeling uncomfortable. It’s next to impossible to get a ride in the dark. People can’t see you well enough to make a judgment and are afraid to stop. I remembered one time in Oklahoma near Ponca City, I got so desperate I tried to flag cars down. People just swerved to go around me. Finally, some Indians picked me up. They were swerving too; they offered me a drink from the bottle of whiskey they were passing around. “Now you tell people, Indians aren’t all bad,” they said as they dropped me off at a bus stop in the next town. I’d never thought they were bad, I just had heard that alcohol was sometimes a problem for them.

I walked to the main road out of Las Vegas and stood under a light so people could see me. A lot of cars went by; some sped up but none stopped.

I picked out a place to sleep. I still had never camped-out beside a road. It made me nervous, but I tried not to think on it and all the other things beneath that and beneath that, cooking under pressure in those mysterious caverns, seeking for a place to seep out. I tried to keep myself calm enough so that the top of the mountain didn’t get blown off.

A dark sedan, a little beaten up, pulled over. The passenger door swung open, “Where you going young fella?”

“Minneapolis.”

“Well, I’m going all the way up to Meadow Valley, that’ll get you part of the way.”

I didn’t know where that was, but it sounded good. I put my pack on the backseat and climbed into the front.

“Been out here long?” said the driver, a wiry man in his fifties, wearing an aging cowboy hat.

“A while. Thanks a lot…My name’s Larry.” I offered my hand.

“Edward Johnson, but people call me Pete.” He shook my hand. “Folks don’t usually pick up people after dark.”

“Yeah. I appreciate it. Where you coming from?”

“Baker. Had a job.”

“What do you do?”

“Just about every damn thing you can think of.”

“Sort of a jack of all trades.”

“You could say that. I’ve done a thing or two in my time. What you gonna do in Minneapolis?”

“A friend is getting married.”

“I’ve been married a few times, didn’t care for it.”

There was silence then. From the pale glow of the dash I could see the driver set his jaw. I tried to think of something to talk about.

“Do any camping?” I had several favorite places I would camp in the mountains around LA. I lived for it. There was something I got there—a oneness with nature, or maybe silence, or perhaps it was the only environment I felt capable in, not lost like I was in the workaday world of the city.

“Shit, Boy, I’ve been camping all my life. Why I was working construction in Baker for a week and slept a few nights under the stars. You can’t beat it. You do any huntin’?”

“No, a little backpacking and climbing.”

“Let me tell you about the time we were up Dawes Creek. We were hauling equipment up there for a mining company, that was about 15 years ago. One of the trucks got a flat. There was no road, just a dry creek bed. Well, there we were fixing that flat when we hear this rumbling in the distance. It had been raining in the mountains. It was a flash flood coming our way. It hit us like a ton of bricks. The three of us grabbed hold of the truck while it bashed us into every damn thing. Shorty couldn’t hang on and was sucked away like a bug in a fan. Didn’t think we’d see him again. Damn near drowned myself.”

“Did he drown?”

“Well now, I’m getting to that part. See, this wall of water swings the truck around and pushes us up sidewards on this big ass rock. I get a good bash on the head, but I managed to pull me and Reid up out of there on top of the boulder. I start hollering for Shorty but you can’t hear nothin’ above the roar of the water. Suddenly, it dies down, just as fast as it started. And I hear this ‘Help, get me out of here!’ A tiny voice off in the distance. I figured it must be Shorty, so I make sure Reid’s all right, then I find some rope that’s under the seat. I shook the mud off it and put it over my shoulder. Rope’s pretty damn heavy when it’s wet. Then I climb up the bank about 50 feet to see if I can see Shorty. Well, I can’t see nothin’ so I climb back down and start walking down the muddy creek bed toward the sound of his voice. I must’ve walked a mile before I came upon him. I was about 50 yards away and he sees me and starts a hollering, “Get back, Pete, don’t fall in the quicksand too.”

“He was up to his neck in soft mud. The flood had pushed Shorty and a lot of mud into a bend of the creek. There was so much of it every little move sank him deeper and deeper.”

“ ‘Don’t come too close, Pete, it’ll get you too.’ ”

“Well, I wasn’t afraid o’ that, but I didn’t see how getting both of us stuck would do either of us any good. So I climbed up on the canyon wall, it was pretty steep, and I inched along above the mud tryin’ not to step on something that was gonna give way and send me into the same perdicament as Shorty. Finally I got right above Shorty. The problem was there weren’t no good place to perch; all the rock was pretty loose. So I threw Shorty one end of the rope, but I told him not to pull on it because I had to climb to the top so’s I could get a foothold. Well Shorty was so scared, he started pullin’ on it right away, pretty near pulled me in. So I threw him a bunch more rope and said I’d leave him there if he didn’t stop pullin’.

“Please don’t leave me,” he yelled, then he started bawlin’ like a baby. I could barely stand it, but I felt sorry for him so I told him to hold still and I scrambled to the top as fast as I could. Once I had my feet firmly on level ground, I started to pull him out. Man, was he covered in muck. He looked like the creature from the black lagoon. I laughed and laughed. Of course he didn’t think it was too funny, but he didn’t say nothin’ seein’ as how I saved his life.”

“Wow, that’s quite a story.” I was thrilled to be sharing a ride with someone right out of an adventure novel.

“That ain’t nothin’. There was a time we was drilling for oil….” Pete regaled me with about four more stories before we got to the truck stop where the cowboy stopped for some coffee and pie.

“The coffee here’s not too good, but they make the best damn pie around.”

We sat at the counter. I decided to have some pie too and some hot chocolate. The hot chocolate was a mistake because it didn’t go that well with the pie, the pie was sweet enough. I’m always trying to get the most out of an eating opportunity but it usually doesn’t work out.

“I was over in the Panamints rounding up some strays that got loose and wandered up in the canyons. I worked for Tom Pinter at the Red Flats Ranch at the time, and this steer got hisself caught in the branches of a dead tree of all the damned things. I got off my horse and was trying to free his horns without getting’ gored when I saw the snake.”

“Was it a rattler?” I was hanging on every word that came out of the mouth of this rugged man, when the chubby smiling waitress came over to warm up his coffee, “You fillin’ him full of your bullshit, Pete?”

“Well now, Honey, I’m just givin’ him the benefit of my experience.”

She laughed and said sarcastically, “Lucky him.”

“Ah, she’s just jealous.”

“What? Cuz I ain’t as good a liar as you?” She moved down to the other end of the counter with her coffee pot.

We finished our pie without a lot more talk, paid our tabs, and left. Pete drove about a mile more, pulled over, and said, “Well this is it.” Dropped me off and turned down a dirt road. We had come about 50 miles. I was disappointed. I thought from the way Pete was talking we were going ten times that far.

There were no lights to stand under now and few cars. I was out in the country. East of me was open land that ended in the dark outline of a mountain range providing a jagged earthly frame to a sky full of stars. It was my first night hitchhiking. I new I had to find a place to sleep now. On my side of the road there were some trees and a fence with a few strands of barbed wire along it. I could hear the lowing of cattle in the distance. Carefully, I lifted my pack over the fence, then spread the barbed wire and climbed through. There were no cows in sight, no way to know whether I was in their field or not. I worried they might walk on me as I slept. I climbed into my sleeping bag and listened—how could I sleep and watch out for cows at the same time? Exhausted, I dozed off anyway.

I dreamt that I was lying in the middle of a herd. I tried not to move for fear they would step on me. Sometimes the sound of a car going by woke me, but mostly there was silence, distant peaks, and a long empty road on the other side of the fence.

I awoke in the gray light before dawn intent on getting back on the road before someone spotted me trespassing. Still there were no cows in sight, just the distant lowing. I fell back to sleep.

All of a sudden it seemed like my head was filled with loud moos. I opened my eyes, clear bright light poured in. I was surrounded by cows. The mooing, which all night had served as a lullaby now was strident and alarming.

I quickly pried myself out of my bag and stuffed everything in my pack. Grateful I wasn’t lying in manure; I climbed back through the fence.

Snow-laced peaks sat coolly under the morning sun on the eastern horizon. I had missed the colors of sunrise but felt refreshed and happy that I’d crossed a hurdle.

To continue see Hitching to Zion #3: Volunteers for the New Zion Army

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