I had hitchhiked cross-country before, in 1967-68, when I was eighteen, making a six-month triangle from Washington to Georgia to Pennsylvania and back to Washington, so it was no big deal just from Kansas to Washington, but this time I’d have a scruffy little terrier mix. I picked Omega out from the other pound dogs because he was small and miserable-looking and the other dogs wouldn’t let him get to the food. He was scared of everything, and the first thing he did when he got outside was run under my parked car, and it wasn’t easy coaxing him out. And this dog was to hitchhike with me across several states, riding in countless cars driven by strangers?
Indeed, Omega was frightened at first, but after some long waits on the roadside, he got to where he appreciated rides in cars and lost all fear of the kind drivers. I also had with me a large Kelty backpack and L.L. Bean walking stick which I had to maneuver in and out of the cars.
Out of the whole trip, it’s Colorado I remember. I had with me a canteen, and even water purification tablets if needed, and on some desolate, back-road somewhere in this state, I ran out of water and became terribly thirsty. In my travels, I had asked the driver what the little windmills were for that we’d occasionally see in the distance, usually out in a sparse area. He told me they pump water up out of a well for the livestock. Now I was thirstier than I remember ever having been, there was no traffic on this road, and in the distance I spotted a little windmill, and Omega and I began hiking to it.
We got there to find a pond of water surrounded by cattle. Manure seemed to line the water’s edge and spill into it here and there, but the cattle didn’t care. As we approached the pond, the cattle shied away. While Omega didn’t hesitate to drink from the pond, I took my canteen and filled it with the feces-tainted water, then sat down in the shade of a tiny tree and read the instructions on the bottle of purification tablets. I dropped one tablet into the canteen and waited a very long half-hour, then proceeded to drink the best water I had ever tasted in my life.
Refreshed, we returned to the road and walked on until we came to an old boxcar sitting on an unused train track. It was getting dark, and I lifted Omega into the boxcar, climbed in myself, and we spent the night on the very hard floor.
The next morning showed no improvement in traffic. Omega and I walked. Eventually a pickup truck came along and picked us up. We were traveling northerly when the driver asked where I was going. I mentioned Denver to him, and he said, “You’re lost.” He pointed west, to a highway we could see in the distance across a valley, and said, “That’s where you want to be.”
In a moment, Omega and I were standing again on the desolate road, with no traffic. According to the pickup truck driver, it would be a long, roundabout way to retrace our route southward then go west to the right highway. Really it didn’t seem like such a long way just to walk to the highway overland, through the valley, so we left the road and headed down the hill into the wilderness. Little did I realize that this trek wouldn’t end until the next day!
It was an optical illusion. The highway on the side of the hill across the valley was several miles away, and between us was the Platte River.
On and on I walked, with heavy backpack and walking staff and patient dog trailing, going over and under fallen trees. Finally we came to the river, not knowing it was the Platte until a driver told me the next day. The river was wide, but shallow--too deep, though, for Omega. On the east bank, I took off my hiking boots and socks, stuck my socks into the boots and hung the boots on my pack frame. As Omega sat there, shivering with worry, I stepped into the current and began wading, using my staff to keep my balance on the river bottom.
My plan was to unload all this paraphernalia on the other side, then come back for Omega. I kept looking back to see that the poor little dog was still waiting on the bank. It felt good to reach the other side and unload, and with just the staff, I waded through the Platte River a second time, with Omega becoming happier with each of my steps. Finally I picked up the little guy and traversed the Platte River for the third time.
(Years later, Omega went with me hiking to the peak of Mount Higgins in the Washington Cascades. Along the way, we came to a raging stream deep in a wide crevice that could be crossed only along a fallen log. I didn’t dare walk upright on this mossy, slippery log, so crawled on it, again thinking I would unload my pack on the other side and come back to carry Omega somehow. But when I looked back, I was surprised and impressed to see Omega carefully walking behind me on the log.)
It was dusk when we and our things were finally on the west bank of the Platte, and I decided to set up camp there. For the first and only time during any of my hitchhiking trips, I set up my little tube tent. This is a simple tent, merely a plastic tube, that’s held up by a rope strung from one tree to another. Inside I laid out my Ocate sleeping bag that I got via the Whole Earth Catalog, advertised as “roomy enough for one fat cop or two skinny hippies.” I unfolded my folding, candle lantern, and lit a citronella candle both to give some light to the camp and to help keep mosquitoes away. I then went to the river and brushed my teeth. Later I learned that the water of the Platte River is “filthy,” but no ill effects came from brushing my teeth with it. I also refilled the canteen, using another purification tablet to be safe.
As I sat there into the night, I heard an owl hooting in the woods. I tried to imitate the bird (“hoo hoo hoo-hoo…hoo hoo hoo-hoo-r-r-r-r-r-r-r”), and we “talked” back and forth for some time. Eventually I heard a whoosh-whoosh sound in the distance, getting louder and louder, until a huge owl passed overhead, not ten feet above me. Its large, round eyes reflected the candlelight as it stared at the creature who had the gall to imitate its language.
The wilderness had all kinds of sounds in the night, but I wasn’t the least bit afraid. It was during my first hitchhiking trip years before that I had my closest encounter with God. I was dropped off in the desert in Wyoming, when the driver had to turn onto another road, and no car would come for hours. When one did come, it would speed past. I had never felt so alone. By all rights, I should have felt abandoned, but it was there that I had what I can only refer to as a revelation of God’s presence. There was nothing visual, nothing audio, but absolutely a presence. He reached from the sky and embraced me, and it was so profoundly real that never again have I felt alone. And so many amazing and unexplainable things have benefited me throughout my life, that I have no doubt that this ever-present God is someone who cares for me. It was a pleasant night beside the Platte River in Colorado. I finally crawled into my sleeping bag, tossed my coat over Omega as he lay beside me in the tent, and fell sound asleep.
I woke in the morning, warm and comfortable, and so was surprised to look down and find that the foot of the sleeping bag was covered with snow! It seemed like the snow was an added warm blanket. I got up to see everything white around me, and packed up the supplies, trying to make them as dry as possible. The snow was fresh and flaky and not that wet in the cold weather, so it went well. Omega and I continued on and finally came to the highway well into the morning.
But it wasn’t a highway. It was an interstate freeway! On its several lanes, cars whizzed by from 70 to 80 miles per hour, and Omega and I had to climb over a guardrail to get to it. This was not a good thing. Hitchhiking was/is illegal in Colorado, especially on freeways! And more than one driver warned me that the fine was an immediate $50 or jail if you didn’t have it. I didn’t. So when I stepped onto the shoulder of a busy freeway with a dog beside me and stuck out my thumb, I was thinking that, after that long trek through the Platte River valley, I’d likely be arrested, and my dog impounded.
But the very first car that came stopped for us. The driver was a well-dressed, kind man who loved little scruffy dogs and didn’t want to see us get into any trouble. As we zoomed north toward Denver, I asked him what he did for a living, and he said with a smile, “I’m a defense attorney.”
Life is good. People are good. God is good. Omega lived many years after that, and shared several more adventures with me. And when I finally married Micki Flowers, and my parents and her parents posed with us on our wedding day, Omega managed to get in the picture.
For the complete contents of the Butter Rum Cartoon, click here.