In 1970 I traveled across the western half of the country in order to have some fun before being inducted in the U. S. Army. The trip began in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where I was living, and ended in Seattle. I had intended to ride freight trains all the way, but fate made me "go Greyhound" for the first 90 miles.
September, 1970 found me at an unsatisfying stage in my life. College was over with, but it meant nothing to me. My diploma was just a meal ticket in an intimidating world of work that I had not yet entered. For lack of job and money I had moved in with my parents in Milwaukee, Wisconsin after drifting for months in Washington State (where I had gone to school).
All my friends and familiar haunts were in Washington. In Milwaukee I was rudderless and without a goal. The draft was breathing down my neck: it was a certainty that I would be called up for duty, but I didn't know when. Getting a job was next to impossible - in theory I could get hired one day and drafted the next. The only way out of this sad state of affairs was to volunteer for the draft, in effect to schedule a date to be inducted.
Going into the Army was a distasteful idea, so I was determined to have some fun before signing my life away for two years of active duty. "Fun" meant hopping a freight. Why not ride freight trains to Seattle and get inducted there? I wrote to my draft board in Seattle to set it up. The gist of my letter was "I'd like to volunteer for the draft and be inducted in Seattle in mid-October when I will be there on personal business." The board replied, "Why sure, come on down, we'd love to see you on the 19th."
But which route to take? A straight shot across the country would be fast, but I had already done that twice on The Milwaukee Road. New horizons beckoned. A more southerly route seemed like a good idea, so I laid out an itinerary that would take me through Chicago, Denver, Salt Lake City, Reno, Roseville (California), Eugene, and Portland.
One challenge faced me: hiding my intentions and preparations from my parents, who would have a fit if they knew about this in advance. Somehow I managed to conceal from them the gist of my communications with the Selective Service System. I felt bad about deceiving them, but I was a man with a mission that could not be denied.
Preparing for the trip was relatively easy: all I had to do was buy food, pack my gear, and go. There was one other matter to deal with: the side door of the garage squeaked when opened. I planned to use that door on at night when I departed, so the noise had to be eliminated. A few drops of oil on the hinges fixed the problem. After a week of surreptitiously collecting the necessary items, I packed everything into a rucksack and a gym bag. The day before my departure I stashed my gear in the attic of the garage.
It was Monday, October 5, the day of my departure. I planned to leave at 2300: by then my parents would be sound asleep, yet it would be early enough to catch a bus to go downtown. That evening I got my gear down from the garage attic and placed it on the floor where I could get it later without making a disturbance. My parents went to bed. I pretended to go to bed. This deception was easy because they slept on the second floor and I in the basement. My final act was to write a note to my parents, telling them what I was up to.
At 2300 I quietly slipped outside and entered the garage. The side door, recently oiled, didn't make a sound. I got my gear: rucksack, gym bag, and bamboo hiking pole. The bamboo pole was for hiking that I anticipated doing in Washington before entering the Army. Before I knew it I was walking down the short driveway. Then I turned onto the sidewalk and went east along Glendale Avenue under a canopy of tall trees. My destination: a bus stop about six blocks away. It was a great night to be starting an adventure.
As is always the case with a detailed plan, Murphy's Law reared its ugly head: something had gone wrong. I had overlooked a task during my preparations. City buses required exact change, but I had only bills with me. The smallest bill was too big to waste on a bus ride. A brief detour to a gas station was in order. As the man on duty changed my bill, he asked me if I were running away from home, no doubt because at the ripe old age of twenty three I easily passed for a teenager. I joked with him about running away, but thought to myself how my parents would feel when they discovered my absence. During the bus ride downtown, a million anticipatory thoughts raced through my head. Would everything go all right? Would the weather cooperate? Would a bull toss me in jail? Would I get hurt?
Downtown I transferred to a bus that took me to the Milwaukee Road yard, situated in a river valley a few miles southwest of downtown. As I waited for the connection people gave me strange looks: not many people walked around downtown at night with a six-foot-long bamboo pole. The ride to Layton Boulevard was quick. I was full of hope.
The bus dropped me off across the street from the Mitchell Conservatory, whose lighted domes created an otherworldly atmosphere. Two years earlier, on my first cross-country freight train trip, those domes had caught my eye from the river valley below. crossed the street and started down the long wooden stairway leading to the tracks below. What I saw gave me a bad feeling: the yard was almost devoid of freight cars. Switchmen confirmed my worst fear: the last Chicago-bound train of the night had already departed. The next train to Chicago wouldn't leave until mid-day. ["Mid-day" is an educated guess.] Now what?
Hanging around the yard for ten to twelve hours was horrifying. There was nothing to do but "go Greyhound" to Chicago. I trudged back up the long stairway, then ran to catch an approaching bus for a ride back downtown. I boarded with a sweaty back. Taking a bus to downtown Chicago seemed out of place, even disgraceful, but there was no other way to get out of town.
The Greyhound station was a wretched facility, certainly not befitting this adventure. My departure from Milwaukee was supposed to have been a glorious occasion equal in emotion to the departure of wagon trains from Independence, Missouri. But that grand leaving had been reduced to a hum-drum exit from a shabby bus station. The ride to Chicago, though swift and comfortable, was uninspiring.
It was about 0100 on Tuesday when the bus pulled into the bus station in Chicago. This underground facility wasn't much better than the one in Milwaukee. After retrieving my pack and bamboo pole from the bus's luggage compartment, I rode the escalator to street level, where I asked about buses going to Cicero. In Cicero was Clyde Yard, the freight yard of the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy (CB&Q) Railroad. Clyde Yard was my train station for a ride to Denver. The bus going to Cicero ran down Adams Street, four blocks away.
During the walk to Adams Street I paused at an office building to watch a janitor mop the floor of the lobby; his mopping technique in the revolving door was a pleasure to observe. A few minutes later I boarded a city bus.
Westward I rode toward Cicero, a city with a reputation: during Prohibition it was Al Capone's base of operations. In a manner of speaking I was following the advice of John Babsome Lane Soule, who in 1851 used the phrase "Go West, young man..." (That phrase is usually attributed to Horace Greeley, but when he used it he referenced Soule's earlier use.) There were several passengers on the bus, but little conversation. The mood was somber.
At the end of the line in Cicero, I was one of two passengers on the bus; the other was a guy who had fallen asleep. As I got off the bus, the driver walked down the aisle to wake him up. My missing the train in Milwaukee had been a blessing in disguise; riding buses saved me a lot of time and spared me discomfort.