I went to college from 1968 to 1973. While I was at Southwest Texas State University (LBJ’s alma mater), I met a very interesting fellow. His name is Bill. Bill was a Vietnam veteran, using the GI Bill to finalize his education. He was getting his degree in journalism, just as I was. As a Viet vet, he was very conservative and, at the time, I was a little progressive. Yeah, I know. Things change. We had lively discussions. Bill was tall, lanky, lacking in hair (which at the time I did not expect that curse to befall me, too), energetic and outspoken. On many days, Bill would wear to class some portion of the uniform he had in Vietnam.

Every spring break, Bill and I would take a trip. On one trip we drove from San Marcos, Texas to Cheyenne, Wyoming and back. Great fun.

But not near as much fun as one spring break, when Bill and I decided to hitchhike. We had 10 days for the break and we would hitchhike for five days and then return. We decided to head west out of San Marcos to see how far we could get in five days, and what fun we could have along the way.

We got some very interesting lifts. One guy had a truck with wooden paneling in the truck bed. That’s where we rode. He didn’t want anyone in the cab. He dropped us off in Fort Stockton, Texas. Nothing against the people or the location of Fort Stockton, but after getting some sleep behind a store, Bill and I grabbed our sleeping bags and knapsacks to leave. Fort Stockton was a bleak-looking place. A few red lights, wide highways and loads of West Texas sand and tumbleweeds blowing across the landscape. Back then, no Walmarts, just local shops and businesses.

It took an entire day for us to get out of Fort Stockton. We tried every road out of town, INCLUDING the one we had used to enter town. We were getting desperate Bill wore part of his Viet uniform, thinking we would get some sympathy from a West Texas driver. I wore his cap that had some U.S. Army markings on it. ANYTHING to get out of town.

Having fun ... really

Having fun … really

Finally, we caught a ride. When we got into the car, we mentioned that it had been hard finding a ride in Fort Stockton. The guy told us that the movie The Hitchhiker was at the local drive-in and that may have worked against us. “Duh, ya think.” As I recall, that movie had loads of bad incidents where people are killed or maimed as part of the plot. And we were trying to get out of town … by hitchhiking!

On the way out, we took baths in a stream underneath a bridge on the Mescalero Apache Indian Reservation near Cloudcroft, New Mexico. We pitched our sleeping bags in the hay loft of a lumberyard in Ruidoso, New Mexico; and, we had drinks with a prison parolee in a cinderblock bar skirting the road just outside of a very small New Mexico town. He had been released that morning and his first stop, before going home to family, was the bar. He drank a lot and had loads of stories about his life in prison.  We also climbed up and rolled down the sand dunes of White Sands National Monument.

We made it all the way to Tucson. We attended a frat party in Tucson the night before we began our return.

On the way back to San Marcos, we were hitching along a desolate road that cradled the Texas-New Mexico border. It was turning nightfall, we had had only a scarcity of rides (so a lot of walking that day), and we were approaching a very small town that looked like it was just a smidgen of Archer City, Texas as that town was shown by Peter Bogdanovich in The Last Picture Show. It was not too windy, only a few tumbleweeds scooted across the road, but our skin was getting a bit pelted by blowing sand.

We decided that we had better get some rest undisturbed just outside town BEFORE heading in the next morning.

So, we stepped off the road, crossed over a fence and began walking into a field of someone’s farm or ranch. Because we were away from what lights there were in town, the stars were amazing. They looked so bright that it appeared they were only about 25 feet into the sky. Just plain beautiful.

When we felt we had taken enough steps onto the farm or ranch from the road to be safe, we plopped down our sleeping bags and fell asleep very quickly.

In the middle of the night, the earth began to shake — violently, and there was a mysterious roaring. In our sleeping bags, the shaking bounced us up and down roughly. It became very difficult to shed the bags to find out what was going on. An earthquake? A meteor land nearby? What the hell could this possibly be? And, that noise?

It became clear quickly. Once we were awake, we could see the boxcars of a train. Apparently, it was a long train and as it chugged across the farm, we unknowingly were so close to the tracks that we were affected much like being at the epicenter of an earthquake. Because it had been dark when we pulled out our sleeping bags, and because we were so tired, we didn’t check out the surroundings. The tracks were nearby and we didn’t even see them. For the rest of the trip, we hummed Carole King’s  I Felt The Earth Move Under My Feet.

We made it back to San Marcos uneventfully, but, to this day, many years later, I don’t think I have ever been as afraid as I was that night the earth began to move. But, I will cherish the memories of trips such as these forever.