A World of Trouble or the Making of an Explorer? — Page 2
Story and photos by Bruce Northam



hitchiking across country
© Atlas Green

But hitchhikers forged on, even as the explosion of "no hitchhiking" signs along highway entrance ramps merged with the widespread policy of truckers' insurance being voided if they picked up random riders. But, I managed to feed my hitching habit until the wheels fell off after 9-11. I hitched long distances a few times after that, but it was never the same. I loved that open, trusting America...and I miss it, still.

One memorable sea-to-shining-sea hitchhike was a late 80's month-long odyssey from Los Angeles to New York City that followed a year in Asia. Drinkable tap water and French fries were highlights. No longer experiencing this sort of freedom, I found such rolling rites of passage to be one of the few things that make me pine for my youth.

My long-distance style of hitching relied less on sticking out a thumb and more on wooing gas station customers. By approaching the top guy at a gas station with identification in hand, I'd fib that my car had broken down near the exit and that I was hoping to politely catch a lift from a customer, without hassling anyone. Easy. Then I stood back and picked out my preference of license plate—vital to knowing from where they were coming or going—vehicle, music style, gender, coffee or soda. Later, I'd always come clean about the so-called broken-down car.

Just to prove that I could, in 1997, at 35 years of age, I hitched the U.S. coast-to-coast once again. The next summer, further averting a mini mid-30s slump, I decided to shake things up again by thumbing rides from Maine to Montana via Canada. Both odysseys reconfirmed that most people have a heart and don't want to harm anybody. That hitch well into the no-hitch era was an unintentional public-service dispatch, at least for me and the people who paved my way. The last ride of each day typically ended up turning into a party or an invitation to sleep on their couch—in that land of the free and that home of the brave.

Bruce Northam travel writer

Rites of Passage in the Dead of Night

Migratory behavior starts early. The first sign is typically sneaking out of the house while your parents' sleep. Migratory animals can't help themselves. There is no blueprint for this instinct that's as wired into our survival as hunger is. The urge to travel is like the impulse to laugh: you can't teach it, and you can't take it away. In middle school, I turned sneaking out of my parent's house after midnight into a weekly tradition involving a dozen pals, rain or shine, hot or cold. A suburban twist on roaming out of bounds and another example of the common traveler thrill of being where you're not supposed to be.

We would rotate who initiated the sneak-out, with that guy fleeing his confines and then rounding up the others with a knock on their bedroom windows. Once out, freely into the night, what would we do? Our initial challenge was simply not being detected by cops while on the move. That quickly evolved into pilfering the bakery items delivered to the rear of Garden City's two main street supermarkets as well as running from cops just to initiate a chase. Anything off-limits began landing on the trespassing mischief menu: factories on the edge of town, girlfriends' basements, our school. And then we took it up a notch at a famous golf club.

Garden City has three golf courses, and I began caddying at all of them in middle school. The crown jewel is the Men's Club, founded in 1899. I knew the ins and outs of its caddy yard, where you waited to be paired with golfers, and the adjoining pro shop. In crews of four, we began taking the golf carts out for pre-dawn spins around the course. Within weeks, we began racing the carts everywhere we could, including streets adjacent to the club.

This yearlong hobby cum habit was terminated by a police chase that sent the four of us sprinting in different directions, resulting in one friend becoming unable to make it back home, as the cops were out in force. He slept on a pole-vault crash mat outside the school until the homeroom bell rang. Our reunion that next morning at school was memorable, despite none of us having slept a wink.

Flashback Finale

Two high school jobs, supermarket cashier and busboy, and more so, college summers as a Manhattan horse-drawn carriage driver, were my humanity boot camps. But it seems that my experiences before high school dig deeper into who I later became. Travel is dreaming with open eyes. Don't worry about who is teacher and who is student. A young teen is God's take on hope—they sense the secrets to enjoying life. Their take on what adults might consider mundane can inspire non-surgical facelifts. Kids are unpaid pros at keeping boredom at bay. While happiness can be the adult fulfillment of childhood dreams, children do not dream of money. Put an ear to the ground to listen for that music only kids hear. Day to day, the shrewdest advisers we encounter might not be grownups.

Bruce Northam walking with his father
Bruce and his dad, Basil, on their fourth coast-to-coast walk across Britain

If I could blitz the U.S. with air-dropped leaflets, they would urge everyone to pack a small bag, march outside, wander into a different neighborhood, and ask strangers fun questions. Faithfully beholding this tactic—anywhere and everywhere—turned most of my life into a working vacation.

First, I had to wrestle the establishment to learn a few lessons about freedom.

author as a childMy first income involved petty theft. As an eight-year-old living across the street from Long Island's Hempstead golf course driving range, I was motivated by the pro shops' return policy, which netted a nickel per ball. The pilfering ring began with me coaxing balls through the fence using a long stick. The scheme matured into fence-hopping sprints onto the driving range to load as many balls as possible into the belly of my shirt and then bounding back over the rusted eight-foot chain-link fence using the free arm not securing the loot. Older brother initiations aside, this midday one-armed banditry delivered my earliest adrenaline rushes.

Ball burglary was only a symptom of the recreational terrorism my two older brothers and I routinely enjoyed inside those suburban-liberating golf course fences. We'd camp overnight, buried deep in the courses' leaf piles, sled year-round on any slope, and spend hours clinging to soaring treetops. In an early stride toward independence, I constructed and maintained my own treehouse in a lumbering white pine to spy on a sport I'd never fancy, except as a caddy.

When the dreaded greenskeeper, Tony Matueza, finally captured me red-handed snatching balls on the driving range, he drove me in his supply-laden golf cart onto the street and into my driveway. As we walked up to my front door, his chunky claw still clutching my arm, he threatened, "You're in a world of trouble." After citing abundant crimes to my mother, he remanded me to her custody and left me to ponder a troubled planet.

Skip to now, as the news media continue fanning that world-of-trouble myth (my mom let me off the hook and didn't tell dad), my worldwide search for guidance reconfirmed that we actually reside on a very friendly planet. Tony was wrong.

Don't let blanket travel warnings, the bruising 24-hour news cycle, and other implanted delusions limit your scope of the world. Heed the common sense revealed by unlikely sages in faraway places and just down the road from you. Detour away from ill-advised gloom and the scorn of crotchety pessimists.

Nowadays, sure, sometimes Labradoodle and latte serenity soothes. But more often all the gossip we need is printed around a sunrise. Remember, kids are masters at unearthing hidden-in-plain-sight adventure—a skill withered by time. If you don't know where you're going, any path will lead you there. Hopefully, this pandemic pause allows our imaginations to rewind us toward that sort of mastery and catch up with fleeting moments. The detour is the journey. Dream on. It's never too late to have a happy childhood.



Bruce Northam is a veteran travel writer, author, and explorer. His NYC walking tour—The Undiscovered Lower East Side—will not be undertold.



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Related Features:
Road Trips Through Life - Chris Epting
Tasmania's "New" Ancient Walkabout - Bruce Northam
For Now, Travels in My Mind - James Michael Dorsey
Barbershop Postcards—a True Cultural Travel Selfie - Bruce Northam


See other USA stories from the archives


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