A hitchhiker remembers: No ‘black dog’ but a ‘woman in white’

April 9, 2020

John Bendel

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I would hitchhike to California and ride with truckers, I thought. Truckers picked up hitchhikers, right? I was 18 and just out of high school. What did I know?

In late June 1961, I packed the small suitcase I found in my father’s closet and with a piece of cardboard made a sign that said “California.” I had a friend drop me off on U.S. Route. 22 in Union, N.J., where I thumbed with my right hand and held the sign with my left. As it turned out, only two of the rides that took me across the country were in trucks. But one of those rides I remember more clearly than any other even 60 years later. We’ll come back to that.

A hitchhiker remembers: No ‘black dog’ but a ‘woman in white’
This is the suitcase John Bendel took with him on his hitchhiking sojourn in the 1960s. His wife made him throw it out in the 1980s. (Photo by John Bendel)

For a kid who grew up with a view of the Empire State Building between the two-family houses across our street, the highways west of the Mississippi River were a revelation.

East of the big river I was used to now-bygone nameplates like Brockway, Autocar, White, Diamond T, Reo, and Federal as well as survivors like Mack and International (it was International Harvester then). The major car makers – GMC, Chevrolet, Ford, Dodge – were in the heavy truck business.

But the mix changed moving west. On the west side of the Mississippi, on U.S. Route 66, some of those eastern names faded while new names began to appear – Freightliner, Peterbilt and Kenworth for example. They were probably on eastern and central highways too, but in smaller proportions so they were new to a kid from North Jersey. Western tractors seemed bigger and longer – probably because they were – and more of them had sleepers, which were not common in the East.

From 1969, a White and an International in Manhatan
Two trucks, a White and an International, were backed into a grocery warehouse on Hester St. in Manhattan. The area was commercial and grim then. Today it’s residential and you can’t afford to live there.

There were more cabovers, too, maybe the most memorable being the Kenworth Half Cabs. Half Cab shapes varied, but my favorite along Route 66 looked like someone had taken a chain saw to a standard COE and simply sawed off the shotgun rider’s side of the cab. Kenworth did it to save weight. Trailers were a surprise, too. I had never seen doubles, never mind triples.

Another transition heading west was from diners, restaurants, and coffee shops in the east to the cafes of the west.

Before that hitchhiking sojourn, I thought cafes were eateries in France. Turned out they were the western equivalent of diners. Virtually all accommodated trucks. Most had large dirt parking areas in the back. You might drive hours through nowhere, but when you finally got to somewhere you could park.

There were virtually no franchises. In the East you might see a Howard Johnson’s once in a while. HJ ran the rest-stop restaurants on the New Jersey Turnpike, for example. At peak times you had to wait in line for bad food and worse service. If there were any along Route 66, I don’t remember them. The first chain restaurant I saw on that trip was a Bob’s Big Boy on Route 66 in downtown Albuquerque, but nothing else from there to California. There, I remember the IHOP and boysenberry syrup. You couldn’t find either in the east.

Oh yeah, back to my most memorable truck ride.

Unfortunately, there’s a lot about it I don’t remember – the make of the truck, the name of the carrier or driver. I don’t remember what we were hauling, only that it was in a dry van that is longer in my memory than it could possibly have been in reality. The trailer tandems were all the way back.

The driver stopped for me as he was pulling out of a cafe in Needles, Calif. I had been dropped there and went in for a snack. I only had about $20 in cash, so I ate cheap. We happened to leave at the same time but didn’t speak. By the time he pulled around from the back, I was waving my thumb on 66 out front. I had pitched the California sign long ago. It lost its drama west of Illinois. Now I was just an 18-year-old kid with a battered suitcase. The trucker stopped and gestured for me to get in.

Just across the Arizona state line and on the west rim of the Mojave Desert, Needles seemed like the end of the world. I don’t know what’s there now. Then, I think that cafe was just about all. Otherwise it was khaki colored sand and some scrubby looking plants here and there. The late sun was on the horizon, but the heat of the day hadn’t broken. It was brutally hot.

It wasn’t a COE, but I had to climb into the truck. It was a long-nosed something or other without air conditioning. Did any trucks have air conditioning then? With the windows open, it was loud – so loud we could barely hear each other. So, we didn’t talk. I always thought the desert got cold at night, that I would need my jacket. Not this night. The desert air blew hot through the open windows. It might have been better to have them closed, but it wasn’t my decision.

Not long into the Mojave, we were alone on 66 westbound with no one behind us, no one ahead of us, and long intervals between eastbound cars or trucks. After dark, there were stars in the sky but no moon. On the ground, we could only see what was in our headlights. An hour or so in, with no other vehicles in sight, the headlights illuminated something on the side of the road, a white shape that became brighter as we approached. It was a formally dressed woman, a well-to-do lady in a flowing white gown. Maybe it was the sequins on the gown or the jewelry she wore, but she glittered in the desert night. I could swear she wore a tiara, but I’m sure that’s my memory messing with me.

At my young age, I thought she looked old, but she could not have been more than 40. She was attractive even though she was obviously terrified of us. In a halting voice and clutching an elegant white handbag, the lady in white told us she and her husband were heading for Los Angeles when they argued in the car. Things got so hot, she said, she finally demanded he stop the car and let her out. And so, he did. That had been almost an hour ago, she said in a trembling voice. The car was a Cadillac, she added, though I’m not sure why.

The driver offered her a ride. She declined.

“He’ll be back,” she said feigning confidence, less for our benefit than to bolster her own courage.

I leaned forward to see her in the mirror as we pulled away. The glitter was gone without headlights and she was swallowed in darkness almost immediately. The driver and I both watched the eastbound side of the road, looking for the husband’s return, but it was almost two full minutes before we saw another vehicle at all. It wasn’t a Cadillac. For the next couple of hours, we passed just a few cars. None of them were Cadillacs.

Where were she and her husband coming from that she would be so splendidly dressed? Had there been a formal event in Needles, of all places? Was there an opera house across the border in Kingman, Ariz.? Route 66 was not the road to Los Angeles from Las Vegas. Where could they have been?

I reached Los Angeles the following day. Since I had no plan, less than $20, and no idea what else to do, I turned around and hitchhiked back to New Jersey. I hitched across the country twice more before 1965, when it stopped being fun. I’ve forgotten much of the three trips.

Still, that first hitchhiking trip reverberates in my memory, and I’ve always wondered whatever became of the woman in white.

For another walk down Memory Lane from John Bendel, check out this story.

Pilot Flying J
John Bendel

John Bendel is Land Line’s contributing editor-at-large. A former trucker, former editor at National Lampoon, and longtime truck writer, John is an author, photographer, and freelancer for New York Times. There’s more, but in short, his insight and matchless style of writing makes “Gizmos and Gears” a runaway reader favorite.