The woman in white

June 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.

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 diners to cafes

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.

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. 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.

Back to the 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.

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 had only 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. 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.

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, 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. LL

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.