Back in the era of the Beatles and Vietnam War protests, it was typical for every family to own just one car, two vehicles something only the well-to-do families had. In emergencies, like the time I needed seven stitches in my forehead as an infant, or when I broke my wrist as a ten-year-old, mom called on Mrs. Patterson for a ride to the hospital.
In our neighborhood fathers used the car for work, the rest of every family left to fend for themselves to get around – whether walking, on the bus, atop a bike, hitchhiking, or with some friend whose parents could afford an old beater. It was probably one of the reasons I came to become a distance runner, my lifestyle as a teenager perfect for this eventual endeavor.
The first time I hitchhiked on a highway was to Des Moines after my senior year of high school for the 1970 NCAA TF championship held at Drake University. We were dropped off Friday morning at the top of the Iowa City ramp to I-80, my teammate following me down to the interstate proper, both of us dropping backpacks in the grass, pulling a cardboard sign out of my bag that we hoped would attract drivers.
I fashioned the letters “DM” in white athletic tape on the cardboard backing of a yellow tablet, dancing the placard side to side over my head like a carnival barker looking for customers. Ten minutes later a car slowed and pulled onto the shoulder up ahead, both of us sprinting towards the ’64 Impala, nervously glancing through the open passenger window before we climbed in.
I was always surprised drivers stopped to pick us up, but usually the guy was simply bored and wanted a little conversation – our price for the free ride. One hundred twelve miles and two hours later we arrived in Des Moines and were dropped off at 31st Street, walking the six blocks to Drake Stadium engrossed in conversation about the national meet.
Over the two days we watched future Olympians Marty Liquori, Dick Wottle, Eddie Hart, Ken Swenson, Jan Johnson, and Steve Prefontaine turn in performances that awed us - ones that I still remember today. We sat in the rain watching a victory in the steeplechase by a runner appropriately named Sid Sink, later that afternoon a World Record in the 440 yard hurdles by BYU’s Ralph Mann, and finally Steve Prefontaine's collegiate record in the 3-mile.
After the mile relay we walked back to the I-80 ramp at 31st Street with the same sign, on the reverse side of it the letters “IC”. We were picked up by a college student from Sioux City that was going to Iowa City, our driver dropping us off a mile from home, the two hour trip shortened significantly by his lead foot.
Later that same summer I hitchhiked again, this time with my younger brother and his friend Mike for a Saturday all-comers meet at North High School in Des Moines. I was a little concerned we wouldn’t get picked up because there were three of us – but even more so because of another issue.
Mike was a pole vaulter and brought along his 12’ Skypole.
I wasn't very optimistic but held up the same cardboard sign as I had two weeks prior, telling Mike to sit in the grass so drivers wouldn’t notice his presence. He thought I was nuts but deferred to my insistence that it would work. If only I believed the bluster.
It took less than ten minutes for a car to pull onto the shoulder, Bill and I sprinting ahead, Mike trailing awkwardly behind with vaulting pole in hand. Bill jumped in the back seat and I followed, quickly rolling up the window on a towel that we used as a sling. Mike quickly slid the pole through the loop, jumping up front with his arm out the passenger window to hold the front half of the Skypole.
The driver eyeballed us, not know what to say so Mike used his charm.
“I’m a pole vaulter and this is the way we always carry the pole…I swear it’ll work.”
The driver glanced at us in the back seat and we smiled while he shifted the Ford Galaxie into drive, punching the 352 V8 so we could merge into traffic. I was shocked. The three of us glanced at each other on the way, giddy with excitement. We got picked up!
He dropped us off at 6th Avenue in Des Moines and we walked a mile to the track, making bets over what we could get away carrying the next time we hitched. I have no memory of what races I ran or how I performed that day. Only that we got a ride with a vaulting pole!
After the meet Bill and Mike discussed their performances as we walked down the sidewalks towards I-235. But I had other things on my mind. We still had to hitch a ride home.
Enjoy this story? Be sure to check out the rest of the website where you can purchase my books, "A Golden Era" and "A Long Road Ahead" which tell the stories of the high school and college running careers of a father in the 70s and his son in the 2000s.