One summer in the mid-1970s, Tommy and I set off on an adventure with Chilton. If Chilton were still alive, he could tell me what year (month, day) he took me and Tommy to stay with him in eastern Washington where he was working in an orchard and living in a small worker’s shack. I’m going to guess it was 1975 because I was about 10 years old and Tommy was about 8 but it could have been a year or two earlier. In any case, Tommy was pretty young and so was I for that matter.
Chilton didn’t have a car (nor a driver’s license) so he hitched to Seattle to fetch us and we set out—a bit late in the day—with our thumbs stuck out at an entrance to the freeway, standing directly in front of a NO HITCH HIKING sign. In my memory, we are standing at the 45th street onramp to I-5 northbound but that doesn’t make much sense logistically since we actually needed to head south toward I-90 and Snoqualmie Pass. But memory doesn’t always make sense. What I’m sure of is this: We were standing in front of that NO HITCH HIKING sign when a police cruiser pulled up alongside us and the officer beckoned us over to talk to him.
“Do you see that sign?” he asked. In response, Chilton reasoned that he thought the sign meant “no hitchhiking beyond this point” thus justifying standing in front of the sign rather than beyond it.
Tommy leaned nonchalantly on the cruiser, patted the side panel appreciatively, and leaned toward the driver. “Nice car,” he said, attempting to smooth things over.
The police officer looked at Tommy, waited a beat, and then asked Chilton “These your kids?” Chilton nodded while Tommy and I smiled beatifically. Later Chilton told us he wanted to say “No, I kidnapped them,” but restrained himself. The policeman pointed to the sidewalk across from the freeway entrance and suggested we hitch from there instead.
Moments after we stepped to the curb, a man pulled up in a big sedan and offered us a ride, explaining that he’d seen the cop “hassling” us and felt some compassion for our situation. Away we went.
Hitching from one location to another takes much longer than driving directly because you piece together the route in a number of different vehicles and spend considerable time standing on the side of the road with your thumbs sticking out trying to look sweet, kind, tired, and worthy of a ride.
We set out from Seattle in the midday or late morning, which meant that the trip became a two-day affair. We didn’t have much trouble getting rides because many drivers took pity on us and couldn’t pass by two tired and bedraggled kids standing on the side of the road. Later Chilton recalled that one driver even “Laid a sandwich on you kids” reasoning that “you must’ve looked hungry.” I can’t recall what we carried with us on the trip but I can’t imagine we brought much, if anything, to eat or drink.
After nightfall on the first day, our driver pulled off the freeway and let us out at a dark, little-traveled crossroads near a small grocery store that was closed for the night. Chilton led us up the hillside under the freeway overpass and showed us the flat spot at the top that was perfect for sleeping. We must have rolled out sleeping bags, which would mean we carried them, although I don’t remember carrying anything that bulky. What I do remember is the sound of the cars passing overhead, a sense of feeling safe up there, and the general dustiness that comes from lying in the dirt all night.
In the morning we packed up our things, dusted ourselves off as best we could, and walked to the grocery store where Chilton bought a quart of milk for us to share for breakfast. We were young enough that drinking a third of a quart of milk was tough business and Chilton insisted we finish it before heading back out on the road. So Tommy and I took turns upending the carton into our mouths and gulping it down until we really couldn’t fit another drop.
That morning I learned that there were certain rules hitchhikers followed because Chilton broke one of the unwritten rules and then explained to us that he’d done so only because he was travelling with children. When we arrived at the onramp to the freeway that morning, another traveler stood there, with his thumb out, waiting for a ride. Rather than setting up behind the first man—as hitchhiking etiquette dictates—Chilton stood a dozen or so yards in front of him so drivers would see us first and stop for us instead of him. Within a few minutes we had a ride and as we pulled past the man, he grimaced and lifted his middle finger in salute.
Our final destination was an orchard at the top of a hill outside Omak. Our last ride left us in town so that we could pick up groceries and other provisions before making our way, on foot, to the orchard and Chilton’s little cabin. On our way out of town, we swung by the gas station at the bottom of the big hill so that we could use the toilet and steal rolls of toilet paper to take with us to the cabin.
I don’t remember how long our summer adventure lasted—days? weeks? a month?—but I do remember that Chilton stayed mostly sober and he showed us a pretty great time. He took us on walks in and near the orchard, including an arid hillside that was perfect for finding scorpions. He walked us into town every so often, which was pretty fun on the way down the big hill but downright exhausting coming back home.
One day, as we walked into town, I spotted a familiar something on the roadside up ahead and knew immediately what it was: a plastic bag full of weed. “You lucky shit,” Chilton said as I raised it overhead in triumph.
At the end of our visit Chilton took us to the Omak Stampede—the local rodeo that featured the “Suicide Race” in which horses and riders raced down an exceptionally steep hillside, across the Okanogan River, and into the rodeo arena.
I wish we had photos of our own from that summer. I would love to see pictures of us standing on the side of the road hitchhiking, camping out under the overpass, hunting for scorpions, and playing cribbage late into the night.
This picture wasn’t taken on that trip but it’s about the same time period and shows just how cute I could be. Who wouldn’t want to give a ride to family that includes a girl who wears red socks and carries a baseball bat?
Offering: A travel wallet design to hold your passport, credit cards, and odd-sized money.