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Hitchhiking to Big Bend

Pickwick Challenge

So, it was the winter of 1973 and I was still wearing a back brace from an accident I had suffered that summer. We were sitting at Pickwick, a local coffee shop in Bellaire, Texas. Bill Barvin, Rick Morris, Glenn Smith and I were drinking what used to be called coffee and listening to the same old tunes on the juke box.

It was a time of challenges. One of the standards was the "Pickwick Challenge". It was as follows: smoke a whole pack of cigarettes in one sitting at Pickwick, and drink a cup of coffee between each cigarette. For your efforts you would be rewarded with a six pack of beer.

Somewhere between the 5th or 6th round of coffee, I think it was Rick, who came up with the idea of a hitchhiking race to Big Bend. Rick and I had been on one of the first expeditions to Big Bend, along with Dan Fults, in the winter of 1970 and I had been there a couple of times in between. The teams were split up to be Glenn and I and Rick and Bill. I don’t know what our reward for this challenge might have been, but just getting there was going to be reward enough.

Houston to Del Rio

It’s been over twenty years since this excursion, and I’ve forgotten a lot of the details. It’s the nature of memory to recall snippets, beginnings, endings, and vague or poignant impressions. I remember being dropped off at the freeway exit near Dairy/Ashford on the west side of Houston, but not much about the rides that got Glenn and I to San Antonio.

The first ride Glenn and I got from San Antonio was in a pickup driven by a Mexican fellow and his buddy. We were standing by the western outskirts of San Antonio, near the fireworks stands. When these fellows pulled up, Glenn and I threw our packs in the back of their pickup and started to climb into the bed. The passenger fellow then motioned for us to get into the cab and, as it was a cold evening, Glenn and I gladly accepted.

The cab was a bit tight with the four of us in there. I was jammed up next to the driver and Glenn was next to me so we were kind of hemmed in between them. We pulled onto the highway, and as we did so, the driver pulled into the right of our two lanes. As he accelerated, he moved across the left lane and into the median, correcting his steering and drifting slowly back onto the road. Glenn groaned. I started to grab the wheel but as he had corrected we thought everything was OK. Not so. Still accelerating, the driver went on to push the envelope of both sides of the road and soon enough Glenn shouted STP. Both of the Mexican guys tried to assure us that everything was "muy bueno", but yet again more swerving, and finally, after some serious insisting by Glenn, they agreed to pull over and let us out.

A night on the side of the road

Our next ride came from a couple of fellows on their way from San Antonio to Pandale. They were working shifts on some oil field out there and gave us a ride past Del Rio. Just past Comstock, they had to turn off of Highway 90 and dropped us off in the middle of nowhere. Here we were, at a crossroads, with a few houses, a gas station, a couple of street lights and some dogs warning the world that a car had dropped off a couple of guys by the highway.

We walked west on the highway for a few miles and of the 3 vehicles that passed us not a one even hesitated a bit on the gas peddle to see who or what we were about. We finally got the idea that no one was going to pick up 2 strange characters out on this lonely stretch of road at 1:30 in the morning. At last we found a flat, not too rocky spot between the highway and a barbed wire fence. Laying out our bedrolls by the fence put us about 30 feet from the edge of the road, but with the sparse traffic and the sore legs... what the heck.

Somewhere around 4:30 or 5:00 in the morning I began dreaming. It was a disturbed dream about the road, and the fact that we were too close and exposed ( maybe it was because I was just out of the back brace that I had depended on while healing from crushed vertebrae). In the dream I had rolled out onto the highway... I was vulnerable, unprepared, irresponsible, confused, and all of a sudden vrooooooom.... an eighteen-wheeler came howling like a demon and zoomed off into that Doppler road whine. I must have jerked myself a full six inches off the ground as I came to. Heart pounding, trying to assess the injuries, grappling to find the zipper on that new sleeping bag, brain rushing with adrenaline confusion.

Breakfast at Marathon

Next morning, it was "cold as a well digger’s ass" by the side of that road. As we fumbled to get our things together, Glenn tried to get his brand new, stiff, cold cowboy boots on. Problem was, his feet had swollen overnight and now he couldn’t get his feet but halfway in. Walking out by the side of the road barefoot was out of the question so Glenn hobbled along as if he had on high heeled shoes. The memory still makes me laugh to remember that awkward gait, knees bent, arms out for balance, stumbling down the road with a backpack on and his thumb out for a ride.

As we pulled into Marathon, we could see Rick and Bill standing down by the railroad crossing on the road that leads to Big Bend. We got out of our ride and walked over to talk with them. Rick and Bill taunted us and hassled Glenn about his goofy looking boots. Finally we all agreed to declare a time-out on the hitch-hiking race and go into the cafe across the highway for some breakfast. The food wasn't great but it tasted great and the cafe was nice and warm.

Marathon to Castolon

After breakfast, Glenn and I let Rick and Bill catch the first ride from the railroad tracks and within 15 minutes, a car pulled up ,they piled in, and they disappeared over the horizon. Three hours later, Glenn and I were still sitting on our packs waiting for a ride from the same spot. After a ride to Panther Junction, we spent another couple of hours waiting by the Gulf station for a ride to Castolon. We finally pulled into Castolon at the old store about sunset.

River Road Ambush

The evening was clear and silent as the desert is known for. As we walked along the old river road, our packs were squeaking and our feet were shushing in the sandy road. The sky was deep blue and it was getting dark but the sky still offered a little glow from over the cliffs in Mexico. Up ahead on the trail we could see a little light swaying back and forth and occasionally shone out into the bushes on the side of the trail.

There is a section of the old river road between Castolon and Rio Vista that often reeks of musk that emanates from the local wild pigs called javelina. Needless to say, during this time of day, when the smell of javelina wafts across the road, it gives one pause.

Being of a devious mind and wanting to get back at Rick or Bill (whoever was coming up the road) for beating us to camp, we spontaneously decided to plot an ambush.

The plan was quickly placed into action. Glenn and I hid ourselves on opposite sides of the road and decided that when we were sure it was Rick or Bill, and when he crossed the line between us we would come out screaming at him. Patiently we waited. As he approached I could hear a simple little tune being whistled in the dark and I could tell it was Rick.

As he crossed our line Glenn and I simultaneously rushed him, screaming bloody murder. Rick let out a woeful bellow and fell to his knees sobbing. It was a sorry situation...

We had the usual good time at Rio Vista over the next few days and all too soon it was time to leave. Glenn and I again let Rick and Bill start first and by the time we got to Marathon we somehow got word that they had been picked up by two beautiful teachers who were going to give them a ride all the way home.

We all had good luck on that trip... There’s was just better than ours.

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Chris Jefferies
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