A 13-year old's once in a lifetime odyssey

By D. A. Gougherty |  Travel, especially unorthodox methods, can be a mind-opening experience. Sometimes it opens your mind in real-time or ...

By D. A. Gougherty | 

Travel, especially unorthodox methods, can be a mind-opening experience. Sometimes it opens your mind in real-time or years later.

There was a journey I made 50 years ago this month with two of my four siblings that, at the time, while interesting, quickly faded from my memory. And in all honestly, I have not contemplated its significance that much in the intervening years, but it amazes me today.

The journey I made with my brother Tom, my late sister Patricia, and her boyfriend at the time was a 440-plus mile hitchhiking trip from Marquette, Mich. to Warren Mich. I was 13, Tom was 16, Patricia was a few weeks shy of her 21st birthday, and her boyfriend Ron was probably 20 or 21.   

Let me explain the circumstances that made this a once-in-lifetime trip.

On August 8, 1971, with the knowledge of our parents, Tom, Patricia, and Ron hitchhiked to Marquette in Michigan's Upper Peninsula for a camping trip. Patricia and Ron were students at Northern Michigan University.   

While they hitchhiked, I made my way north with neighbors who, as luck would have it, were visiting their son, who was an airman stationed at K.I. Sawyer U.S. Air Force Base near Marquette.   

Tom did recall one of the lifts they got on the way up from a guy who was drinking and sharing beers. At one point, the guy was ready for another beer, tossed out the can only to discover his window was rowed up.  
We camped on Middle Island which is near Presque Isle Park, Click to enlarge. 

Once we were in Marquette on Monday, we hitchhiked a short distance to Presque Isle Park which was popular with NMU students. From what I can determine, we were on Middle Island which appears to be part of the bigger park area. 

Now the camping trip in itself is a whole other story. Suffice it to say we had to walk through the cold, wavy waters of Lake Superior carrying our supplies above our heads. 

After a couple of days on the island, we hitched hiked back to Marquette. Tom remembers when we were picked up, our driver asked us if we had been camping, noting the strong smell of campfire smoke.

Back in Marquette at Ron’s place, we bummed around for a couple of days which included going on campus and posting a note on a board in the student union looking for a ride downstate. I can’t say for sure, but I suspect Patricia, with the best of intentions, promised my parents we would have a ride back.

On a side note, when discussing the trip with Tom recently, we determined the exact dates. I recalled it was Friday the 13th when a random black cat wandered in front of us in Ron’s place.

After no ride materialized by Friday, August 13, we decided to thumb our way back on Saturday. We embarked around noon. 

While we had several rides between Marquette and Warren, I remember three, and Tom only remembered one. The ride we both recalled was one of the first. 

Not far out of Marquette, this lift came from an old guy, who was probably younger than Tom and I are now. He was driving an orange or red four-door Comet, which was Mercury’s version of the Ford Falcon.

1961 Mercury Comet. 
While driving his Comet about 25 mph along the two-lane State Highway 28, other motorists flew by us in excess of 70 mph - remember these were pre-oil embargo days - honking and making gestures at our driver. Oblivious to the other motorist, our driver told us that when he returned to the Upper Peninsula after serving in WWII, he had not journeyed very far from home.

Curious about visiting Michigan’s iconic Mackinac Bridge, which opened in the late 1950s, our driver told us the day earlier he drove to see the towering suspension bridge but got lost!

Now I can’t recall how far he drove us in that Comet, but it wasn’t to the Mighty Mac. I hope he eventually saw the bridge.

Another driver who picked us up perhaps just before or after crossing the Mackinac Bridge took us to the Midland, Bay City, Saginaw area. This was probably the longest single ride we had, about 175 miles. 

This driver, as I recall, was a courteous, clean-cut mid 30ish white guy in a Chevy Nova or Chevelle. Call it profiling, but given he lived in Midland and was clean-cut in an age of shaggy hair, he reminded me of an engineer, perhaps working for Dow Chemical or General Motors, and the fact he picked up four scruffy thumbers was cool. 

The other lift we got was one of the last and was further downstate near Flint from two guys in their early 20s. Even though I was only 13, having the benefit of four older siblings coming of age in the 1960s, the duo who picked us were stoned.

I can’t say for sure, but it seems they sparked up a joint and don’t recall who partook, other than to say I didn’t. I suspect Patricia would not have let me even if I wanted to try it out. 

These two came from a concert that for years I thought was the traveling show of Jesus Christ Superstar. Alas, that would not have been possible in August 1971, so maybe it was a production of Hair or, given it was around Flint, maybe hometown favorite Grand Funk Railroad. 

I can’t remember our last ride other than once we got within a reasonable distance of Warren, Ron called his family who picked us up and took us to their home. In all, it took about 12 hours which I was told was an excellent time for a party of four hitchhikers. 

The next day our Dad came from Downriver Detroit’s Grosse Ile, where we lived and had recently relocated to pick us up. I honestly can’t say what I thought would happen when our parents found out Patricia took us on what even then would have been considered a risky trip for a 13-year-old, but they didn’t have much to say.

My parents were surprisingly nonchalant about the whole trip. Maybe it is wishful thinking on my part, but I like to think the old man was proud of us, especially Patricia for taking us on an adventure. 

If our parents ever chewed her out, Patricia never told me. And in my heart, I don’t think she caught any heat.

Perhaps my brother Michael who attended Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, as memory serves me, hitched rides home a few times, and that blazed the trail for us. And remember, hitchhiking in the 60s was part of the counter-culture of the day, and who knows, maybe my parents coming of age during the Great Depression thumbed a few times in their youth.   

Over the next few years, I continued to hitch rides around Grosse Ile, which was relatively easy given the community is a self-contained island in the Detroit River where it meets Lake Erie. Once I got my driver’s license a few years later, my hitchhiking days were over, except another shorter trip with Tom on a cold evening in January 1978, but we’ll leave that story for January 2028. 

Upon reflection, I had not given the trip too much thought through the years. I do regret that before Patricia passed away last October, I didn’t talk about it and capture her memories. 

I did ask one of my sons if he was aware of the trip, and he said he recalled hearing about it a few times usually after I consumed a few drinks. Other than that, I can’t remember thinking about it that often through the last 50 years, but upon reflection, this is the most unusual journey I have ever made. 

Without a doubt, it was once in a lifetime adventure that I will never duplicate. If there is a lesson, even if it doesn’t appear so in real-time, the next trip you take might be that once-in-lifetime odyssey.    
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