Hitching to the Hoosier Connection


Originally published in The Indianapolis Star Magazine

NEVER HAD I been farther West than Indiana last summer when, with a school companion named Steve Segal I left Indianapolis. We would drive to Seattle and part company there. Then I planned to hitchhike to continue my cross-country trek.

I figured to meet a lot of people, but I didn't anticipate running into too many Hoosiers. I was wrong about that.

In fact, our first stop at Pequot Lakes, a small town at the Canadian border, produced a Hoosier, John Ripma.

John moved to Minnesota last March to become editor and photographer for a weekly paper, . the Country Echo. The publication was in financial trouble and John (a former foreman at a lumber yard in Bloomington) took on the job without any experience. He was succeeding.

"I felt a need for a big change in my life," said John, 29. "I was happy in Bloomington, but I've always had some gypsy in me. After seven years at the lumber yard I was ready to move.

"One day last February I got a letter from a friend telling me about the Country Echo.

I really didn't know the first thing about the newspaper business," he admits. "But I stuck - with it and slowly caught on.

"I have no plans right now to return to Indiana. Indiana took good care of me while I was there. Maybe after I've tried something different for a while I'll head back."

John agreed to show us some of the country and we camped out that night by a lake. The next morning we continued on our trip, passing through the Badlands, viewing Mt. Rushmore and seeing the Black Hills of South Dakota.

NEAR Mt. Rushmore we stopped at a motel, to find that the proprietors were from Demotte. Jill and Pat Warner had taken over the motel in Custer in hopes of "finding a better life." Both had taught in Demotte elementary schools.

"I love Indiana and most of my family still lives there but the move here has definitely fulfilled our hopes," says Jill. "I was afraid to make the move, but my husband was insistent. I'm glad he was.

"The motel is doing well, especially now with all the tourists. Everything here seems young and untouched. Coming out here makes me feel like a modern day pioneer," Jill mused.

The Rockies, which rose in view after a day of driving through Wyoming, were amazing to a person who had known only the flatness of Indiana or the concrete and glass mountains of New

Continued on Pave 38York City. We spent time in Yellowstone, then headed north through Montana, stopped at Glacier National Park, moved into Canada and then moved west again, visiting Vancouver before reaching the end of our motorized trip in Seattle.

Steve headed back to Indiana and I started hitchhiking wherever I wanted to go.

Although my first ride next morning took five hours to get, it took me all the way to San Francisco. There I got in touch with my cousin and we toured the town. We spent a couple of nights in a Zen Center and then I thumbed to the Big Sur.

THERE I met another hitchhiker-from Indiana. Clarence was a drifter who had left Montpelier, his birthplace, a year ago, traveling and working. He said there was "no way" he would return to Indiana.

"Can't complain. Short on money sometimes. But that's the price you pay for being restless," Clarence admitted.

The next. Hoosier, Bert, I met at Malibu Beach at Los Angeles. I gladly accepted a ride with him, putting my pack and its contents, worth about $600 (including camera), in the trunk. Bert was from Terre Haute and said he would drive me to Las Vegas.

In the heart of Los Angeles I got out of the car to buy some dried fruit and nut mix for munching on the road. When I came out of the store, Bert was gone. He left me nothing but my wallet and the shorts I was wearing.

I allowed myself 15 minutes for anger and kicking three parking meters. I would have been in trouble without the kindness of Lefty, 63. Sensing I was in a jam, Lefty offered me his phone and introduced me to a friend who provided shirt, pants and belt. I called a friend nearby to pick me up.

"I came into this world with nothing and I'll be leaving with the same thing. I can't take nothin' with me," Lefty explained.

STILL determined to continue, I spent the next day buying equipment and supplies.

Las Vegas was fascinating for about six hours and then it began to lose its appeal.

I reached the Grand Canyon in one ride. The next day I walked eight miles, delighting in the scenery that was almost too awe-some and spectacular to com-prehend. In the afternoon I got a ride, Texas bound.

I made it to Amarillo, Tex., in a day, was in Denton, Tex., the next day and, after two days there with friends, headed to Austin, now the home of Mary Morando 'and Ted Mecklin, both of Whiting, Ind., by way of Bloomington.

Mary worked as a secretary at the University of Texas. Ted was working part-time as a mechanic and attending engineering classes.

"Sometimes I miss Indiana, but for the most part I'm happy to be here," Ted pointed out. "There were no options there for me. I heard Austin was a good town. Had jobs, cultural atmosphere, good weather."

After some time with my friends, I headed into Arkansas, hitching through that state and Tennessee in three days to the border of Virginia. Two nights people were kind enough to let me stay in their homes. The other night I camped beside the road.

On the fourth day, with only 300 miles to go to Washington, D.C., I hitched a ride with four youths. I put my pack in the trunk and when we stopped for gas, I chipped in $5. When I came out of the restroom they were gone.

A GUY hanging around the station agreed to give chase and we went down the interstate at 90. We didn't catch my "benefactors" but we did find my pack ditched along the roadside.

Outside Washington I stayed with an aunt, then took a bus to the heart of town. D.C. is crackling with life on a weekday and I could feel the hunger and drive of the people. After touring the White House, Capitol and Smithsonian Institution, I visited Tom Jackson.

Jackson, a Hoosier, had moved to Washington in July, 1977, with a law degree from Indiana University. He had joined his brother, Brooks, a Washington resident since 1969 and White House correspondent for the Associated Press.

"This move for me was sort of like jumping into a boiling cauldron and either getting burned alive or making it out as a trans-formed person," said Tom. "Life was simpler for me in Blooming-ton. I pursued my academic goals and practiced meditation (Tom spent six years living in a Yoga Ashram).

"When I came here the pace was faster and jobs tough to find. Things have come together."

"Indiana was boring," said Brooks. "We were raised in Hart-ford City and it wasn't my cup of tea at all. One handy- thing I got from Indiana was my Midwestern standard American accent. Helps me with my job because I'm not identified with any place."

NEXT day I hitchhiked to New York City, the end of my trip, the place where I grew up and the place I saw my last Hoosiers, my family. My mother and herbrothers and sisters (9 in all) are from Indianapolis. They moved to New York when her father was forced to leave Indiana in 1935 because of an asthmatic condition.

When I chose Indiana University to do my pre-medical work, I did so based on the school. Now I think maybe the Hoosier connection was working on me.

After three weeks in New York I flew to Indianapolis, completing both the cycle of my journey and of my family. I know now that Indiana touches nearly every section of the nation and the feeling of being a Hoosier lasts long after all the sights have faded.


  • Philip

    May 30, 2009

    Good story! Some hard lessons as well good times!

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