Thumbing Around: Robert W. Norris Writes

By: Robert W. Norris
© July 1, 2001

Thumbing Around: Robert W. Norris Writes

Thumbing Around: Robert W. Norris Writes

Author: Robert W. Norris
Published on: July 1, 2001

I was impressed recently when a draft-dodging ex-hippie dropped by (virtually). Robert W. Norris settled in Japan where he wrote a couple of novels and a novella which interestingly enough is written for students of English as a Second Language in Japan describing how he ended up in their country (a subject many Japanese raise in conversation). It all kind of started back home in the States and involves a little thumbing, of which he has fond memories, so Robert submitted this extract from his book. Given the international readership on the web, it's nice to receive a piece written in internationally accessible English. Enjoy!

THE MANY ROADS TO JAPAN: A Search for Identity (an extract)

John was filled with excitement. The lure of the unknown was out there in the vastness. He was anxious to confront it, to jump into and wallow about in the experiences that awaited him. A new life lay ahead. With him were his life belongings contained in a small, leather backpack: three changes of clothes, a down-filled sleeping bag, a nylon poncho, 0, and a bota bag for drink.

Three quick rides carried him beyond the redwood country to Highway 20, which cut across California to Lake Tahoe. An old rancher in a cattle truck picked him up and took him as far as Sacramento. He waited three hours before a Mexican in a beat-up Chevrolet pulled over. The Mexican chattered nonstop as they caught up with the Mexican's friend, who was hauling a forklift on a flatbed truck to Reno. They plodded behind the truck at 15 miles per hour. The sky was clear with many stars. They inched their way up the mountains. A full moon illuminated the snow blanketing the Sierra pines. Early in the morning they arrived in Reno and parked the car to get a couple hours of sleep. Just after dawn John caught another ride that took him into the desert and let him out when it turned off the main highway.

The Nevada desert stretched out in all directions, a mixture of auburn wasteland, rolling tumbleweeds, and splotches of unmelted snow. In the far distance were the Rockies, their snow-topped peaks barely discernable on the horizon. They looked like a jagged spine. A VW van with a woman and two children on their way to Denver, Colorado stopped.

For the rest of the day they continued through the Nevada wasteland. By nightfall they were partway into the Utah Salt Flats. They pulled to the side of the road on the outskirts of Salt Lake City to sleep.

Morning was a peaceful calm: grey clouds breaking up with traces of sunlight shimmering through them. They proceeded through the Wasatch Mountains, the road slick with snow and ice, across the Continental Divide, and on to the plateaus of Wyoming. A carpet of snow covered the land. The road seemed to continue forever. Occasionally a jackrabbit bounded across the road. Here and there a distant elk would lift its head to scan their movement. At Cheyanne the woman and her two children turned south. It had been a good ride covering two days and three states.

Sticking to hitchhiking as his main mode of travel but once in a while riding a bus when he was stuck too long in one place, John passed across the Great Plains of Nebraska, out of the snow now and through farming towns with red-brick buildings and dirty main-street sidewalks where old folks sat languorously on benches watching the movement of the world. He stopped in Omaha, where he spent two days reading in a public library and walking the streets. He slept in a cheap room one night and the bus depot the next to save a few dollars.

On and on now, another 600 miles to Peoria, Illinois. A rainy night. A three-dollar motel room with plaster walls and a rattling steam heater. A saggy mattress. A six-pack of cheap beer. A newspaper with stories about returning prisoners of war and Watergate. Morning and a bus ticket to Gary, Indiana, where he took a skid-row room for one night. Across the expanse of Indiana, where squares of long, furrowed fields, ready for seed, stretched in all directions. Another ride to Cleveland.

Thoughts of the Kent State shootings filled John's head as he passed through Ohio into Pennsylvania and on toward Buffalo, New York. He spent one night sleeping in a wooded field off the shore of Lake Erie. Early the next morning he walked along the beach, then stopped to watch the whitecaps form. The lake was an immense ocean that disappeared beyond the horizon. Grey clouds covered the sky. The sun struggled to break through. He continued another three miles through pollution, dilapidated ghetto buildings, broken glass, and abandoned cars to downtown Buffalo. He found the bus station and bought a ticket to New York City.

At last there he was: bounding through the door of the Port Authority Bus Terminal. His first impression of New York was an endless forest of skyscrapers that seemed to make the redwoods pale in comparison. He stood transfixed, overwhelmed by the sound of car horns and construction machinery, by the smell of exhaust fumes and Armenian bakeries. The scene was alive with movement. Slowly, he began to walk the sidewalks, mouth agape and mind empty. He found the William Sloane House YMCA on 34th Street and took a room.

For the next week John explored the streets: Greenwich Village, Yankee Stadium, the Empire State Building, the United Nations, Rockefeller Center, Madison Square Garden. He watched double features in afternoon movie theaters for a dollar, then ate at ethnic delicatessens. The entire world seemed to pass him by as he paced the streets--the midget paraplegics, the hipster pimps, the hollow-eyed beggars, the decrepit winos, the Central Park artists, the sophisticated men and women in their business attire.

Finally, he was on Icelandic Air Lines flight 181 on his way to Luxembourg. He was leaving behind the country of his birth, the country he no longer felt a part of, venturing forth with no itinerary, just the hand of fate to guide him. It was as if some divine source were dragging him toward an unknown destination. It was blind obedience to a gut feeling, not unlike his refusal to fight in the Vietnam War.

Editor's Comments

It's nice to find hitching described for the Japanese, a land where thumbing is culturally non-existant, and equally nice to see it described in language available to a broad range of English students. It's also an interesting and very rare phenomenon to see an autobiographic account written in the third person! Took me a little getting used to.

If you'd like to read the whole book, Robert has kindly made it available on-line at:

If you're feeling generous and want to express gratitude for the work presented here, by all means donate some money.