Dan Murphy and I decided to take a trip to Canyon, Texas during Spring Break in 1971. We didn’t have a car, or money (we had $20 between us) and we really didn’t have a reason to go. I wanted to visit West Texas State University because I had been accepted there and had been approved for financial aid, but had decided, instead, to go to New Mexico Highlands University in Las Vegas, NM. Let’s just say Highlands hadn’t turned out to be anything like I expected, so I was contemplating a transfer. It seemed a logical step to visit the place first so the same thing didn’t happen. Besides, it was Spring Break, we had to do something.
So I mentioned to Murph that I wanted to go to Canyon over break, and he was immediately on board. “We can hitch,” he said. We won’t need much money.” Now, if my parents had any inkling that I was about to embark on a 260 mile hitchhiking expedition I would’ve been killed or worse.
“Isn’t that dangerous?” I lamely said. “What if we get stuck somewhere? What if we don’t get back in time for the start of the semester?”
“I do it all the time,” he said. “Nothing to worry about.” I’d say here that these were famous last words, but they weren’t. There were many more to come.
We started off by walking from the dorms, several miles to the I-25 interchange and stood there for about 15 minutes with our thumbs out before a car stopped.
“Where ya headed, amigos?” the portly Hispanic man said as we approached the open car window. We told him were we were going and he said he could take us as far as the US84 connection since he was headed to Santa Fé. We really didn’t know the route, hadn’t bothered to look at or buy a map, funds were tight, so we agreed and jumped in. We got a lecture about how dangerous it was to hitchhike almost the entire way, a good deal of it in Spanish, which neither of us understood. He pulled over to the side of the road and let us out at the exit for US84..
We decided we were hungry and stopped in the truck stop there to stock up on some provisions. Chips, Twinkies, a couple of soft drinks, and two cans of Vienna Sausages. These would come in really handy later. I tried one while we waited for the next car to stop after we headed out to the shoulder of the road, and almost gagged. If you’ve never had a Vienna Sausage, it’s like eating a raw hot dog that’s been soaking in water for months. Basically, that’s what it is. My traveling companion loved them. He ate the rest of the first can.
We had our thumbs out and got a ride pretty quickly, a college student on his way home to Santa Rosa, who had just pulled out of the same truck stop. He was memorizing his lines for an upcoming play that he was to be in, and we read lines for him all the way to Santa Rosa. The green Impala streaked down US84 in excess of 90 miles an hour, and from my vantage point in the back seat, he wasn’t paying near close enough attention to the road or the oncoming traffic.
He let us out at an I-40 freeway exit, his exit, and told us that we should head west to Amarillo, and then Canyon was a short distance south of there. He said we were probably about a third of the way there. This hitchhiking thing might work. It was approaching twelve o:clock.
We stood on I-40 for three hours alternating holding our thumbs out. No one stopped. Our four-hour trip, our plan to be in Canyon by late afternoon, was disintegrating. It would mean we would need a place to stay. We didn’t have money for that. We had planned to stay in the Sigma Alpha Epsilon house at West Texas State. We were fraternity brothers, assuming they had an SAE chapter at West Texas State, which we didn’t know, and that they had a house. We were a new chapter of SAE at Highlands University and only had a rental house that we used for meetings and parties of course. No one lived there.
“Don’t worry about it,” Murphy said. “We’ll figure something out.” Again, more famous last words.
Just before dusk a car stopped. A beige-colored Lincoln Town Car. The man behind the wheel appeared to be in his early forties, maybe, seemed safe enough, so we got in. Me in the front this time, Murph in the back. “I can take you all the way to Amarillo,” he said.
“How long you been standing out here? You boys have a hard time getting a ride?” he asked.
As a matter of fact, we told he we had, and earlier in the day we had gotten rides pretty quickly.
“You know why?” he turned and asked me directly.
“No,” I managed to say. I didn’t like the way this conversation was headed.
“It’s been on the radio all day,” he continued. “An older couple, man and his wife, picked up a hitchhiker outside of Albuquerque. He pulled a gun on them they say, shot them both, and stole their car. They’re looking for a Lincoln Town Car same color as this the radio says. So I don’t imagine anyone is picking up boys hitchin’ on I40 today. But I’m not worried. You know why?”
I immediately started to believe that 20 was as old as I was going to get. I couldn’t see Murph in the back seat, but I can’t believe that he wasn’t just a little bit uneasy back there. But we both got a lot more uneasy in the next few seconds.
“Because I’ve got this,” he said and pulled what I knew as a 357 Magnum, shiny silver, out from the space between the seat and the door with his left hand, while holding the steering wheel with the other. He held it up so we could both see it and said, “I ain’t worried about any hitchhikers with this gun.” He looked at it rather proudly and then he put it back in the side pocket of the door.
I wanted to say something but I couldn’t form any words, and then my thoughts were interrupted by a shrill voice in the backseat. It sounded shrill anyway to the silence that had befallen us as the car continued speeding down the freeway.
“That’s some gun you’ve got there,” Murph screeched. “I can see why you aren’t afraid to pick up any hitchhikers.”
“Got that right,” the man said. I don’t remember talking about much else the whole way to Amarillo. I’ve probably blocked it out over the years. By the time we got there it was dark. The man with the gun let us out on a downtown street. We found a pay phone and Murphy dialed his mother.
Plan B was to have his mother wire us $200 so we could get a room for the night and bus tickets to Canyon in the morning. I watched Murph talking in the phone booth. He was making a lot of arm gestures, and banged his fist on the glass a couple of times while he talked. Finally he slammed open the door of the booth and walked over to me. He didn’t look happy.
“She’s wiring it to Western Union right now. We should go find one,” he said.
“No,” was all he said. On the corner, across the street, I saw the familiar black and yellow sign of a Western Union. I couldn’t believe it.
“Look over there, Murph. How’s that for luck?”
We walked over to the Western Union and waited three hours, checking periodically with the guy at the counter, to see if the money had shown up yet. When it finally did, we asked for directions to the bus station and a hotel nearby that. Murph got all the directions from the man at the Western Union counter and I just followed along. We headed off to catch the transit bus. As we crossed the street to get to the bus stop, a very tall man, all in black, wearing a tail coat that hadn’t been to a white-tie affair in decades, was standing in the middle of the street in the cross walk. He had a well-worn bible in his hand and was apparently preaching to the oncoming traffic. He was waving that bible around in the air and pointing to the heavens.
As I walked by, he put a gnarled hand on my shoulder, grabbed me and screamed, “DO YOU WANT TO GO TO HELL BOY?” Murph just kept walking across the street. I struggled to get out of his grasp, but he had my jacket pretty good.
“Sure I want to go to hell.” I glared at him. His wrinkled face, with deep worry lines on his forehead, made him look older than he probably was. He had only a few yellowed teeth poking up from his gums. “All my friends will be there.” The man let go and I ran across the rest of the street. Our bus had just pulled up, and Murph was already getting on.
“What was that all about?” he asked.
To Be Continued….