restricted access Going South: 1947
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Going South: 1947

Sixty-odd years ago, having just finished college with a degree in American history and literature, and having nothing particular to occupy me, I thought I would travel about a little and see parts of the U.S.A. that I had read about but never set foot in. Specifically I had in mind the American South, at least as much of it as might be managed over a couple of weeks of hitchhiking on a distinctly limited budget.

My legal residence then was in a transplanted New England village on the north side of Columbus in my home state, Ohio. The first step was a bus ride into the city and to the corner of Broad and High, the very spot where, on "the day the dam broke" (as Thurber tells it), the cry was "Go east!" From midtown Columbus I picked up my first ride on U.S. 33, heading southeast, with the idea of taking in historical sites and landmarks along the way. (This was several years before two developments that, from the 1950s on, complicated any program of purposeful hitchhiking: the interstate highway system with its posted restrictions and inconvenient pick-up points; and the rapidly expanding suburban and strip-business sprawl outside towns and cities of any size where rides of more than a mile or two were few and far between.) My first target, leaving U.S. 33 for local roads, was Blennerhassett Island, where Aaron Burr allegedly hatched his plot for an independent state west of the Mississippi; this was on the Ohio River a short way down from the town of Marietta. Marietta, the first permanent American settlement in the Old Northwest, deserved a brief look-in. It had been named—exactly one year before the outbreak of the French Revolution—for the reigning queen of the new nation's most reliable foreign ally.

Past Marietta and across the Ohio, a short hitch took me to U.S. 50, then the most direct route across West Virginia to the District of Columbia and its monuments and memorials. It was now past sunset and nearly dark, yet it seemed reasonable to catch any ride that stopped for me and count on catnaps through the night. Happily for me the first ride offered was with a young couple aiming to [End Page 580] drive straight through to Washington. "You can sit up front here; she's in back with Bonnie Sue," and so they were, the driver's wife and baby daughter. Bonnie Sue—the name, I thought, was a sure sign that I was now below the Mason-Dixon Line. I couldn't remember, growing up in northern Ohio, knowing any girls with names like that.

Sometime in the middle of the night Bonnie Sue's dad nudged me out of a doze and asked if I would mind taking over the driving, so he could catch some sleep. This I was glad to do; I had gotten a proper Ohio driver's license a month earlier. There was almost no traffic on U.S. 50 through the early morning darkness, though I did regret not stopping at the Nancy Hanks memorial just beyond Hartmansville. It was earliest dawn, a little past four a.m., when we crossed the Potomac into Washington.

Dropped off just beyond the bridge, I walked directly to the Lincoln Memorial and up the steps to read again the familiar, always moving presidential words inscribed in the portico. No one else about—until abruptly I was face to face with a uniformed guard who quickly ushered me off the premises. No interrogation, no search of my carry-all; no one in those far-off times was on the watch for terrorists. It was easy then to walk back across the Potomac and wait on U.S. 1 for the next ride.

A short hitch this time; I disembarked to take in Mt. Vernon before returning to Route 1 and the turnoff at Fredericksburg, where Burnside's delays allowed Lee to fortify his position and inflict grievous losses on the Union army's attempted advance. Then on to Charlottesville, only seventy miles farther. I...