The morning was clear and cold as the sun rose, creating a pink glow on the mountains. I stood on the corner in front of a gas station with my thumb out and all my belongings in an orange frame backpack on the ground next to me. I needed to get to the Denver Airport from Frazer, CO. It was not my idea to hitchhike and I was pissed.
It was August of 1978 when I had finished Geology Field camp in the Black Hills of South Dakota. I had caught a ride with several of my fellow students down to Winter Park, CO. I was visiting my brother on my way to the Denver airport to return to school. Field camp was a pre-requisite for Geology students and this had been a six week college credit class. We had been outside most of the days putting what we learned in the classroom at college into practical application out in the field. More about that later because this story isn’t even about the camp, but about my trip home.
The visit to my brother had been set up far in advance as there were no cell phones or e-mail in those days. We had to really think ahead and plan. I was going to take a bus to where he was living which would have been a long and arduous journey from South Dakota to Colorado. Fortunately some of my new friends were traveling to another part of Colorado and it wasn’t too far out of their way to drop me off on the corner in front of a gas station in Frazer, CO. I had called my brother from pay phones along the way to update him on my journey. It was early in the evening when I arrived in his town. He had given me directions to the restaurant where he worked and I was able to walk there to meet up.
We had a fun couple of days as my brother shared his Colorado life with me, hiking and hanging around the restaurant where he was working. Winter Park was beautiful with the high mountains, fresh Colorado air and quaking aspen trees. I totally loved it and it was a nice break after an intense 6 weeks.
Frazer, CO is really an ideal location in that it is in the mountains but is only a few hours from a major city. The road to Denver winds up steeply over Berthoud Pass and then down to I-70, the main highway across Colorado. The road over the mountain pass has lots of switchbacks which make it so that you have to drive very slowly in order to safely navigate all the curves.
The plan had been for my brother to drive me to the airport on the morning of the third day, leaving early to get me there in plenty of time and so he could get back to work by the evening. The night before we were to head to the Denver Stapleton Airport (a 2 hour journey) he let me know that, “Oops, I just found out I have to work earlier than I thought,” and therefore wouldn’t be able to drive me to Denver. But, “not to worry”, he would drop me off at the same corner where my friends had deposited me a few days earlier and I could hitchhike to the airport. He had hitchhiked there before and it would not be a problem.
Of course, I was aghast. I had never hitchhiked before, I had no idea how to get to the airport, and since I didn’t know how long all this was going to take was nervous about missing my flight. I couldn’t believe he would do this to me. Now, I realize that he was a 20 year old guy at the time and had hitchhiked a lot and didn’t think it would be a problem for me to do it also. I wasn’t very good at voicing concerns in those days thinking that everyone else would be just fine with this scenario so I should just suck it up and do it.
The next morning, after a sleepless night, I was back on the street corner in front of the gas station. Everything I was traveling with was in my orange frame backpack. That meant I was carrying a few changes of clothes, a sleeping bag, various compasses and notebooks, and even a few rock samples. I was wearing what I couldn’t fit in the pack… my hiking boots, pants, flannel shirt and jacket. I looked like a scruffy mountain girl. I had been outdoors hiking and doing science in dirt for 6 weeks, and looked it. In those days I hadn’t been out in the world much and was very naïve, so it was probably a good thing that my clothes were baggy and unkempt. I was nervous but mainly because I was embarking on an unknown experience.
I had to ask my brother how to hitchhike. He coached me to stand in a spot where it was easy for the vehicle to pull over, put my backpack on the ground next to me, stick out my thumb and make eye contact with the drivers. OK.
I was standing there for about 7 minutes before a truck pulled over. It was a huge white tanker truck. There was a slow speed limit where I was standing, because it was in town, so it was easy for the truck driver to pull over and stop right in front of me. I put my backpack on without fastening the shoulder straps and went as fast as I could to the passenger side of the cab. I told him I was going to Denver and he said that so was he. He reached over and helped me hoist my pack in and threw it behind the front seat into what looked liked his sleeping area. He had fashioned a wall behind the driver’s seat with a small opening into a cozy space that would be the back seat. It had a kind of an unmade bed in the space, with shelves for some items.
I don’t remember much about the guy. He was maybe mid- 40’s and 200 lbs, wearing jeans and a dirty t-shirt covering up a little paunch. He was balding a bit and had a slightly pock marked face. He greeted me and we chatted pleasantly for about a half hour about why I was hitchhiking, where I had been and where I was going. I was stiff from fright and was sitting over as far to the right on my seat as I could without appearing rude.
Did I mention that this was a big white tanker truck that was filled with milk? As we started driving the milk would slosh around in the back. We’d go around a sharp switchback to the left and the milk would slosh mightily to the right and cause the truck to feel slightly unstable. It was very loud. Obviously the driver was used to this and did not seem alarmed so I calmed down a little. After about 30 minutes of sloshing down the road and making small talk he reached over and started to fish around in the ashtray. He pulled out a funny looking cigarette and it took me a minute to realize that it was a joint. Of marijuana. And he put it in his mouth. And pulled out a match. And I’m thinking, wait, he’s driving this big humongous truck. Filled with milk. On a steep mountain pass. With all these curves. What the hell?
He lit it up and yessir it sure smelled like marijuana. He took a really deep drag and handed it to me. My brain was saying,” What am I going to do? What am I going to do? I need to be polite and take a small toke” even though I didn’t enjoy smoking because it made me think too much but it seemed like the right thing to do in this situation. I took the joint and one small puff, handed it back and gripped really tightly to the seat. I politely refused it the next few times he passed it over between his tokes as he smoked it down to a nub. His eyes started to get really red and droopy, he slurred his words a bit and started to talk in a very friendly way. I felt just a little stoned from my one puff and my heart rate started going up again. Mainly I was nervous that he was driving this big truck and was really high. It was evident that I wasn’t going to be able to get out. I was scared to ride with him and I was too scared to ask for him to stop and let me out. We were in the middle of nowhere in the mountains and I wouldn’t have felt comfortable getting out right there. I breathed deeply to calm myself and let him talk about places he’d been, answering occasionally with one word through clenched jaws.
After a little while longer, he reached back into his sleeping area with one arm as he kept his eyes on the road. He fumbled around and popped something open and there was the unmistakable sound of a hand moving around in ice. I saw he was reaching back into a cooler. After a couple of seconds of pushing around some ice he pulled out a Coors beer. “Ohmygod, ohmygod, ohmygod,” said my brain. Everything I had been told not to do was happening to me. I was a girl hitchhiking alone. I was with someone who was driving and smoking an illegal substance and now he was drinking, and driving. Did all truck drivers do this???
He popped the top and took a deep swig. He then offered the can to me for a sip as he took his eyes off the road and looked me over. Head to toes. Slowly. He smiled. I pretended not to notice his look and worked on appearing nonchalant. I brought the can up to my mouth and sealed my lips so that no beer went in, faking it. I was in no mood to party. It was evident that I needed to keep my head about me. This moment was an insight into my decision making. I was doing everything I shouldn’t be. I was hitchhiking with an older, stoned, drunk, and increasingly amorous male stranger, but I was on time and I was more afraid of missing my flight and/or getting dropped off in the middle of nowhere. I really didn’t know what to do, but deep down I trusted myself to get out of this safely.
The driver was taking more and more sideways glances at me as he checked me out. I could feel his eyes trying to see through my mountain girl baggy clothes. I was gripping more firmly to the seat as my heartrate was elevating. I was refining my outward appearance of being stoic and carefree.
We sloshed our way loudly down the steep windy road and almost to I-70, the main highway to Denver. He finished his beer and tossed the can into the back. He kept glancing over towards me.
After a few minutes on the highway he smiled, took a deep breath, and asked,” How about I pull over, and you and I hop in the back and make a little love?”
The number of thoughts that went through my head in a very short time was astounding. I had to calm my inner voice that was panicking, “Ohmygod, ohmygod, ohmygod”. First of all, I had no interest in hopping in the back with him. He was old, I didn’t know him and I was not that kind of girl. We were driving down a highway going about 65 miles an hour. I looked out the window at the trees and road zooming by as I decided that I would die if I jumped out of the truck. All my stuff was behind me and it didn’t seem possible that I could grab my backpack and jump out gracefully without him grabbing me anyway. Somehow it seemed important for me to have my backpack with me no matter what. I didn’t see any way out so I opted for the direct route.
I calmed myself with some breaths, sat up straighter and put my shoulders back. I got myself feeling strong, looked him in the eye and as firmly as I could muster without sounding hysterical, I said, “NO!!!”.
I had no idea what his reaction would be. He outweighed me by 80 lbs. He could do anything he wanted.
He nodded, smiled sadly and said “OK, thought I’d ask”. And kept driving. Soon I realized that was the grand finale and after we had gotten to the highway he had stopped looking at me. My heart rate slowly returned to slightly above normal and my body mostly relaxed. We didn’t say another word to each other until he dropped me off at a bus stop to catch a bus the rest of the way to the airport. He wished me luck and drove off.
It took me quite a while to calm down after I got out of that truck. I was shaking all over. I did catch a bus, in less than 30 minutes and got to the airport with plenty of time to spare.
I felt empowered because I had made it to my goal (airport on time) and had been completely challenged. Also, the big stoned, horny driver had responded to a ‘strong me’ saying “no”. And that was an amazing feeling.
My 60 year old self puts myself back in the shoes of my 22 year old self. My younger self did not have the tools to say to the driver early on in the trip that she was uncomfortable and would he please just let her out. I remember feeling powerless to his partying and was terrified to be let out on the mountain pass. There were also no cell phones in those days and not as much traffic, so the mindset of a traveler was much different. I couldn’t just call someone for help. That driver was in a position of power and took advantage of it.
I’ve been reflecting on what we woman have to deal with as we navigate through life. Since the milk truck event, in my life and career I have had many, many more uncomfortable experiences and events I would call harassment. And I have witnessed harassment towards other women. I know that most females who work or adventure, or who have walked down the street for God’s sake, have experienced this at some point in their lives.
One time an older co-worker (married with a daughter my age) with no warning, came up behind me and put a hand over each of my breasts. He pulled me tightly to him so I could feel his whole body against my back and legs. I yelled, squirmed away and turned around with my hand in a fist and my arm cocked to punch him in the face. He backed off right away, though he laughed. Recently, I learned that what he did is called ‘groping’. I can’t even count how many times I have found myself in uncomfortable situations with men since then. In all cases I was able to be strong and tell them to back off. And they all did.
We women are people, who are doing our best to live our lives. Some women, depending on the severity of the abuse or their tolerance level for being in uncomfortable situations can get seriously de-railed from their path by having to deal with this day in and day out.
The positive about all this for me is that by having to rise up and make myself feel powerful in these situations it has actually helped me be a stronger person. I’ve had to raise my personal bar every time and it has helped me to become the best me. What a way to learn that lesson…….