In June of ’93 my girlfriend and I hitchhiked from Phoenix, Arizona. to Telluride, Colorado. It is almost 500 miles by car and we made it in one day. We had already hooked a ride in a friend’s U-haul because she was moving to Phoenix. Our original destination was the Grand Canyon and we didn’t have a plan after that. We just wanted to see the country. Hitchhiking with a girl is much easier than going solo as a man. We hit the highway and immediately got picked up by a couple in an old recreational vehicle built in the ’70’s. We tossed our oversized backpacks inside and happily answered their questions as they chugged us up the hill towards Flagstaff, AZ. We left the extreme heat and hit the snow at the top of the mountain in just a couple hours.
We were too young and naive to be scared. We welcomed the opportunity to meet new people. The couple in the RV dropped us off somewhere in Colorado and we set out in search of our next ride. Again, it didn’t take long to get picked up. This time it was two women from Mexico who were also going to see the Grand Canyon. They didn’t speak much English and we didn’t speak much Spanish but we got the general idea. The ride was fortuitous but the snowstorm was following us north. We would stop at a pull-off and get out to enjoy the spectacular view until the storm caught us in a white out. We would all pile into the car and race to the next stop and do it again, alternating between sunshine and snow. Finally the two women said they were going back home and dropped us off to fend for ourselves.
We didn’t know what to do. A blizzard on June 1st? We stuck out our thumbs and hoped for the best. Providence arrived in an old AMC Pacer. He was a single man and it looked like he had all of his belongings packed into the hatchback. I took the front seat and Joie sat in the back of the tiny car crowded in with our two packs. The man told us he was going to Telluride and wanted us to go with him. I pulled out my folded paper map (No GPS back then) and was discouraged to see the town was miles away in a box canyon where the highway just ended in the mountains. It would take us forever to hike out in the morning. We didn’t want to get out and look for another ride because the snow had turned to a heavy freezing rain. It was getting dark as I scoured the map for an alternate route.
The storm made the decision for us and we stuck with the man who assured us we would enjoy Telluride and would find good places to camp. As we crested the small hill entering the town the rain and snow stopped. We were surprised to see crowds of people spilling out of the bars into the street, partying at midnight. A banner strung over the road welcomed us to the annual film festival. Our saviour drove us to the end of the small canyon and told us we could set up our tent at a place he vaguely gestured over to our right. And that is what we did. We didn’t know we would be staying the whole summer.
In the morning someone was tapping on our tent. I opened the flap to find a man in a park ranger’s uniform. He told us we couldn’t camp in the middle of the baseball field but it was free to stay in the National Forest just a couple hundred yards away. Embarrassed we packed up and walked to the woods.
Every spot was claimed by someone but we met a small group of people and they invited us to pick a spot with them. Everyone was so nice. We were surprised to meet a couple in a small school bus with their three dogs. They were from Maine which neighbored our home state. There was a woman named Sparrow living n her old Volvo wagon and we met Victor, the crazy self proclaimed Mayor of Telluride.
Over the course of a few weeks we had some unusual experiences. There was a hot air balloon weekend and it started early in the morning. Joie and I were sleeping and heard loud noises in the sky. We hurried out of the tent and saw the brightly colored balloons just over our head. They were hitting the gas hard to fight the down draft of air coming off the mountains and they were losing. We saw the Allmann Brother’s Band perform in the baseball field we camped in the first night. We didn’t have to pay for a ticket, we just sat up on the mountainside.
Two men started camping with our group and they had brought some mushroom tea with them from Louisiana. It was moldy and they kept boiling it down to make a reduction. One day about ten of us drank a cup and ran up the mountain without stopping. These mountains were tall. At the top we saw a great field with small alpine flowers blooming through the snow. We all thought we were having the same hallucination and had to agree that it was real. Then we ran back down the mountain. I think we scared some other more leisurely hikers.
In the National Forest you can only camp in the same spot for two weeks and then you are supposed to move. We drove down to a bigger spot about a mile outside of town. By that time we had at least twenty people in our group. We had a table set up with a gas fired wok. There was a couple there with their baby living in a converted full size school bus. It had a full size stove and oven. We cooked some good meals for a lot of people. Each day we would all go to the store and bring back a piece of the meal and take turns cooking. About twenty more people would show up with their own bowls and spoons at mealtime. They would talk big about peace and love and sharing but they never brought anything to share. They wouldn’t even help clean up after. They just chewed and screwed.
I was the explorer of the group. I would scramble up the mountainside to see what I could find. Once I used someone’s binoculars and spotted a cave high up. I climbed up the broken rock. It took me half the day and when I got up there I saw someone had stocked it with a full size mattress and candles. They were living in it so I left it alone. Another time I found a great cabin abandoned in the middle of the forest. It was well built and I have no idea how anyone got the materials out there. It looked like someone used it part of the year so I left them alone too.
It was funny. When we first started making friend’s, everyone thought I was police because I had a shaved head and I wasn’t smoking weed with them. They tried to hide it from me but they weren’t very good at it. They didn’t know I had done more drugs than all of them. Victor even bought me a tie dye t shirt that said, “Drug Free and Happy to be” on the back. They all loosened up when they knew I drank the tea. I don’t blame them. I looked the part. I had a short hair cut and clean shaven face. Everyone else looked like hippies from the sixties. I never had anyone think I was police before.
I’m not much of a believer in all the mystical shit everyone was into. There was a couple in our group with their daughter. They had left Nashville Tennessee in their van and just started living on the road. The husband carved totems on walking sticks and sold them for extra cash. His wife read Rune stones. She did mine one day and it was weird. I drew three stones from the Crown Royal bag. One each for past, present and future. I did it three times and each time I drew the arrow rune for the present. The arrow rune stands for the flow and when it comes up for the present time it means you are in exactly in the right spot for the exact moment in your life. That is how I felt that summer in the mountains. If we hadn’t been hit by that snowstorm on the first day we never would have ended up in Telluride and making all our new friends.
Our plan was to travel the country but we were having such a good time we stayed in town for three months. Winter came and we hooked a ride with the couple in the big school bus. They brought us all the way to Pennsylvania. There we couldn’t get a ride and we spent half the day under a bridge to stay out of the rain. Finally a man in a nice new car picked us up and drove us all the way to his home in Boston, Massachusetts. His wife made a great dinner for us and he sparked us up. That time I did smoke. Maybe it was the relief of getting back home. He was very nice and drove us forty miles from his house to my mom’s doorstep in the middle of the night.
I think about going back to Telluride but I see online it has changed a lot. It has become a more popular tourist attraction with all the annual festivals they have. I don’t know if they just let you camp out for free anymore. I think you need a lot of money to stay there now. Plus it is a popular ski area. I’m too old to spend the summer in a tent again and I don’t think I’ll find another girlfriend who wants to pick up and hitchhike around the country.
I am tempted to get back into the “flow”. I have never felt like I was so much in the right place at the right time a when I was traveling the country.