The Block Island Times

Hitchhiking in the ’70s

By J. V. Houlihan, Jr. | Aug 24, 2013

In 1970, I was a college freshman and went on an adventure to Martha’s Vineyard along with my childhood friend Tim, from Pawtucket. We hitched to get to the ferry. Tim and I hitched a lot when we were kids. At age 14, we’d hitchhike to Newport’s Second Beach, rent a surfboard, share it and then hitchhike home. Moreover, hitchhiking around Block Island and Narragansett was standard stuff in those days, so the Vineyard seemed like a natural progression in our coastal adventures. In those days, hitchhiking was a reliable and adventurous mode of travel for the youth of America. It was a practical cheap thrill, and pretty safe.

Route 195 only ran as far as New Bedford in those days. To get to Cape Cod and the Islands, we had to hitchhike through the town and over the bridge to Fairhaven, then onward to Mattapoisett and Wareham. We got to the Bourne Bridge, crossed it, and there was the final stretch into Falmouth. (I remember stopping at the Go Cart track for some yuks ― a blast, actually.) Once we got to Woods Hole, we hopped aboard a ferry. On that first trip to the Vineyard, we met these two guys our age who were hitchhiking west after checking out the island. Toting some serious gear, they were off to Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico and San Francisco. These guys seemed excited about their trip; we novices were impressed.

The MV Naushon tied up at the dock; we boarded and were in Vineyard Haven in an hour. We hitchhiked our way to Oak Bluffs, and Tim and I felt like we were jettisoned back into another era. (It was the same feeling we had on Block Island two years earlier.) We wandered up the main drag of town and then down an alley to the Tabernacle and The Cottages. Seeing this kind of archaic architecture for the first time was something to behold for a couple of young guys. I hate to sound corny, but it seemed magical.

It was May and things were very quiet on the island. Also, the Vineyard, like Block Island, was in a rather depressed state in those years. We scouted around for summer jobs and it was slim pickings; not much was going on at all for summer work that year. However, in a few years, as we all know, that would change for both of these islands ― dramatically.

In Oak Bluffs we met a girl who smoked a pipe. She offered to give a lift to a place called Aquinnah, a.k.a. Gay Head. The girl was a wandering soul who somehow ended up on the Vineyard. She had a long story and a big old Buick with no apparent plans, so we must’ve been a nice distraction. Tim and I scoped out the Aquinnah Lighthouse, while she waited in the car for us. A teenage kid approached us and said he was a Wampanoag Indian. He was a very cordial guy who gave us a little tour of the bluffs, and told us the legend of “Devils Bridge,” a glacial remnant that is also a navigational hazard entering Vineyard Sound. “As legend has it, a Sachem wanted to build a bridge to Kuttyhunk,” he told us.

The pipe-smoking girl wanted to take us by Menemsha Harbor and then to Edgartown. She became a tour guide. “You can camp on South Beach; no cops, it’s cool, and you can skinny dip at Jungle Beach too, it’s pretty laid back there,” she said wheeling down State Road. We looked at our map, and decided we wanted to check out Chappaquiddick after Menemsha Pond. Our tour guide dropped us off at the Chappy Ferry Dock and said, “See ya.” She had to move on.

As I said, it was very quiet on the island, and Edgartown was no exception, but when we got off the Chappy Ferry, there was pure silence; no noise ― none. As we hitchhiked down the main road to a barrier beach accessible by the very narrow Dike Bridge, we saw no car traffic whatsoever. We started humping our gear down the long, quiet road.

Just as we were going to take a rest we heard the roar of a truck heading right at us. I stuck out my thumb and the guy locked up his breaks to a tire-screeching stop. “Hop in,” yelled a wild-looking guy. We tossed our gear in the back of the truck next to some lawn mowers and got into the truck with the guy’s Chesapeake Bay retriever, who sat on my lap on the passenger’s side. “Where you going?” asked the wildman. “Just down to that beach,” we said, as our new tour guide popped the clutch and left 20 feet of rubber on the roadbed. In a staccato manner the driver yelled, “I’m from Nantucket, never been to the mainland, I’m a descendant of the Coffin family. I come over to the Vineyard to cut lawns for some rich people!” Tim and I looked at each other as the truck increased to a scary speed. “Now hold on, and I’ll show you what happened to Kennedy last July.”

Saying this, our tour guide (maniac) down-shifted to second gear and pinned the gas pedal, and we aimed toward the dangerously narrow Dike Bridge. We hit the top of the bridge and I swear all four wheels were airborne. The dog almost fell out the door when it popped open as we hit the ground. We were so jacked on adrenaline we were speechless; the guy was laughing! We got out of the truck and he said that he’d come back and get us later, and then he invited us to a get-together near the Dike Bridge scheduled later that night to watch an eclipse and have some drinks and other stuff. We told the guy, “Thanks anyway, we’re all set.”

A few hours later, we hitchhiked our way back to the town of West Tisbury, and camped with a bunch of college kids we’d just met. All went well at our little party until the torrential rains came. The other kids had real tents; Tim and I had a plastic tarp that we rigged to some trees. We got soaked. Morning came and we decided to blow that clambake and hitchhike to P-Town; a whole other story.

In 1972, while working on Block Island, I met a girl from Arlington, Virginia. That winter, I hitchhiked down to visit her. I’d made a sign saying D.C., and put out my thumb. That same year an article appeared in the New York Times that gave me pause. The article broke down the statistics about people who were busted for hitchhiking on the Jersey Turnpike. Ninety percent had some kind of criminal record; most were on the lamb from the authorities. Needless to say, I was part of a very dangerous demographic. Today, hitchhiking or discharging hitchhikers on the Jersey Turnpike is illegal and more than likely, many states have similar laws.

Regarding my Block Island sweetheart, it must’ve been love. In my humble opinion today, I’d advise the youth of America to take a bus. It’s a jungle out there.

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