How Being a Self-Educated Street Intellectual May Have Saved My Life

Ghosts of Highway 20 Revisited

1970: Weeks When Decades Happen

I was 20 years old in 1968, a good year to be 20 years old. Between the spring of 1970 and the spring of 1972 there were weeks when decades happened for me. In the space of one year:

  • I moved out of my parents’ house in Jamaica, Queens to Brooklyn with three other guys who I worked with in a music store me in Times Square.
  • I became a socialist after being given a book from my friend, Bob Bady, one of my music store co-workers, titled Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy.
  • I met Stephanie from Berkeley, California on a train on my way to work and spent two days with her where I grilled her about whether or not it was possible to be a political radical and spiritual at the same time.
  • I was accepted into VISTA and went to a training program in Atlanta, GA. I lasted one week before being convinced by a communist who worked as a trainer with them that VISTA was “all bullshit”.
  • On Stephanie’s open invitation to visit her at her commune, I hitchhiked from Atlanta all the way to Berkeley and stayed in her commune for three weeks. I fell in love with Berkeley, Moe’s books, and San Francisco.
  • I discovered anarchism, specifically Kropotkin’s Revolutionary Pamphlets and the history of socialism.
  • I attended every leftist meeting open to the public, everything from Progressive Labor, to the Socialist Workers Party, the Communist Party and the Situationists, trying to figure out which group was right and where I could fit in.
  • I hitchhiked back from Berkeley to New York. On the way I was busted in Topeka, KS for hitchhiking. My books on Lenin and Che were confiscated by a cop who resembled Barney in Andy Griffith. I didn’t get them back.
  • I asked my parents if I could live with them for nine months while I lived off my wages working night shifts at UPS unloading trucks. My purpose was to set up a reading program for myself in radical history, sociology, anthropology, comparative mythology and psychology. I was reading six hours a day for nine months.
  • During that time, I sought out the well-known anarchist Murray Bookchin, who connected me with the New York radical scene.
  • I volunteered for War Resisters League and became involved with a woman in an open relationship who already had a boyfriend. As Grace Slick says, “why can’t we go on as three?”
  • I left New York in the Spring of 1971 and headed out hitchhiking to the West Coast.
  • Somewhere around Boulder Colorado, I was picked up by 3 freaks in a VW van. After talking with them for about 30 minutes and feeling each other out, one of the guys with long curly hair whirled around and said “You’ve got to come to Seattle, the revolution is going to break out there first. We have the whole place organized.” I listened to him, but continued on to the SF Bay Area, stayed another week with Stephanie and then headed up to Seattle.

This is where the heart of my story begins.

Detour in Corvallis

One of the things I tried to do in hitchhiking was stay off the interstate highways because they bypass the towns where people live. Riding on them gives you no sense of local life. So, in heading up to Seattle I didn’t go on Interstate 5 or even US 101. I stayed on the slower roads. On these roads, if I got stuck I could either find a motel, a park or even the outskirts of a farm to spread out my sleeping bag and conk out.

In those days, there were a lot of freaks on the road, coming and going without any thought-out plans. People would hitchhike together for 50 to 100 miles and then part ways. I was with two other guys on U.S. 20 heading west for the coast. They were headed south for the SF Bay Area and I was headed north for Seattle. During these times, hitchhikers have a sense of which cars are likely to pick you up and which aren’t. VW bugs and VW vans were the most likely to stop. Pickup trucks were often driven by right-wingers, so we had to be prepared to have beer cans or other trash thrown at us as they passed. It was rare that women gave any of us a ride.

To my amazement, a pickup truck slowed down, pulled over and we saw it was a woman driver. The fuck!?! She said she was going to Corvallis, Oregon and she could drive us to town. She invited us to stay on a farm she lived on with her parents. We wound up staying there a week as she showed us around town. I’m sure her father was thrilled. After close to a week the two other guys were itching to get going and leave. Now it was just Holly and me. She said she wanted to leave the farm and wanted to go to Boulder. She said she had some hippie friends there and there were also lots of alternative organizations in the area. She convinced me to go with her. We started out driving in her pickup truck, but it broke down before we ever got out of Corvallis. So, we left the truck behind and began our adventure heading east on highway 20. It never dawned on me that Holly seemed pretty desperate to get out of there. I figured at the time it was because Corvallis was a small town and she wanted to move on and see the world. She used me to help support her leaving. That was fine with me.

Close Call in Eastern Oregon

Our hitchhiking luck on the first day was very bad. We barely got out of the Corvallis city limits, and not till about 7:30 in the evening. It wasn’t until later that I found out that Eastern Oregon is redneck country and it would be difficult to hitch a ride. In retrospect, I am surprised Holly didn’t say anything to me because after all, she lived in the state. Finally, two guys in a pickup truck stopped for us. They looked like some kind of cowhands. As I remember it, we both hesitated to get in the back of the truck because they looked like rednecks. We got in out of desperation since we had no luck hitchhiking all day. The landscape was not the lush forests which are the stereotypes of Oregon, but semi-desert with scrub brush. After driving only two miles, the truck made a left off Highway 20 into some wooded area. Not good.

The two guys went to a cleared area and began building a fire. Holly and I laid our sleeping bags down about 100 yards away, making believe we were turning in early. The voices of the two men got louder and louder as they began drinking. I said to Holly that I would go join them in the hopes of calming things down. I looked all around me, sitting by a raging fire, in the sand, with old, gnarled, leafless trees casting long shadows around us. This was about the scariest setting I had ever been in.

Not soon after I arrived, one of the men passed out dead drunk. Now I was alone with the person whose name I later discovered was John. I don’t know how this began, but we started to talk about books. John must have been about twenty-seven and I was twenty-two. He took it upon himself to tell me about the books he had read. He confided in me how lonely it was to live where he did and not have anyone to talk to about books.  I tried to be very careful about telling him what I had read. Then I threw caution to the wind and mentioned Marx, which looking back was incredibly stupid, given the polarization of the country at the time between freaks and hardhats.

To my amazement, he didn’t bat an eye. He asked me what I had read. He didn’t wait for an answer and proceeded to tell me he read Capital Volume 1. Then he started rattling off other books he told me that I should read. I pulled out my map and scrawled their names along the edges of it by the light of blazing fire: Dostoyevsky, Notes from the Underground; Mark Twain, Letters from the Earth; Fredrich Nietzsche Thus Spoke Zarathustra. It must have been about 11PM when John passed out. I quietly tip-toed back to my sleeping bag. Holly, as you might imagine, was wide-awake. I must have said something like “I think we are alright.” We both fell asleep and were up early the next morning. John and his partner were still dead asleep. We were able to get a ride back to Corvallis. I was never so happy to get on an interstate road.

On to Boulder

We finally made our way to US 40 heading EAST. US 40 is a wonderful road through Colorado with the Rockies in the background. At times US 40 is only two lanes, a real charmer. It must have taken us about 3 days to get to Boulder. We were picked up by other freaks, listened to Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and got high. Only sex was missing in the formulaic “Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll”. This soon changed.

At some point, all the camping out and sleeping in vans got to us. Mercifully we stopped at a small motel right off US 40. At last, a hot shower and a soft bed. Holly wanted to make love. I was hesitant because I was still a virgin, and I was embarrassed to be 22 and still hadn’t gotten laid. Holly was very gentle with me, and it was only after we both came that she asked me about my virginity. It couldn’t have been a better first time.

A Parting of Ways

I don’t remember why we didn’t stay in Boulder, I just remembered it was too much like a college town with hippies everywhere. I wanted a real city. Why Holly went along with this I don’t know, but in those days many of us hippies were process travelers. We cared more about the thrill being on the open road than settling down once we got to our destination.

Now as we got closer to Denver, we met another hitchhiker, Kevin, who was a lot freakier than I was. He scored some LSD and he and Holly started taking it. They offered some to me, but I said no. I’ll never forget the gap that now separated us. Here I was sitting in the grass in a park in Denver reading Malcolm X’s speeches and next to me the two of them are tripping and laughing at me. At the time I couldn’t understand it. Later, once I tripped myself, I would have laughed at myself as well. Holly was more of a free spirit than I was and she and Kevin were growing closer. Kevin and Holly decided to continue east to Washington DC. They invited me to join them. At this point, I was sick of the road. I wanted to give Denver a try. I was fed up with the non-stop intensity and I really was intrigued by the radical bookstores and alternative classes in there. Holly moved on and I never saw her again. I quickly got a job as a page in the Denver Public Library and found a studio apartment for $70 a month. I was so happy to settle down. Now I could read Rosa Luxemburg’s biography in peace. I also met two influential socialists, Pat and Brown.

Still Runin’ Against the Wind

I will be very brief about what happened to me over the next 50 years, because this is not on the main line of my story. Still, some details need to be filled in to properly set the tone for my encounter with Holly early this year. After six months in Denver, I began hitchhiking again. I was following an extremely assertive gal I had fallen for to Florida where she wanted to go to school. That didn’t work out. However, I had made a couple of serious socialist friends while living in Denver.  Pat and Brown had found work and were moving to San Francisco. They really wanted me to move with them. I accepted. Between 1972 and 1989 I settled in San Francisco, living mostly in the Richmond District by Golden Gate Park and also the Mission District. My new partner, Barbara, whom I met in 1979, and I were driven out of the city by the rising rent costs.  We moved to the Fruitvale District in Oakland where we could afford to buy a house and lived there for the next 30 years.

In the mid 1970s I found some radical-left groups to work with. For five years I made an income at a lot of working-class jobs like unloading trucks and driving forklifts. In the late 1970s I began to draw. Eventually I auditioned, and was successfully accepted, into the San Francisco Models’ Guild where I worked as an artist model for 12 years. In the mid 1980s, with the economy slumping, Barbara had a come-to-Jesus meeting with me and told me I was wasting my time reading all these books but having no audience to talk about them. She saw me in action as a teacher and was convinced I should go back to school and get both bachelor’s and master’s degrees and then teach in college. I followed her advice and got both between 1984 and 1986.

From 1988 to 2017, I worked as an adjunct college instructor in community colleges and universities (read in My Love Affair with Books Part II for more). I had written four and a half books in that time, integrating into my writing and teaching all those books I had read on my own so many years ago.  In 2013 Barbara and I started our radical website Socialist Planning Beyond Capitalism. In 2018 we decided we had enough of the fires, heat, congestion and rising prices of the Bay Area and moved to Olympia, WA. I am now an adult education teacher. I continue to pump out articles for our website and we are proud members of the Seattle Atheist Church. Quite settled it sounds like? Not quite.

The Return of Holly and Highway 20 Revisited

On January 6, 2021, I received a private Facebook message from Holly telling me she had been trying to reach me. She reminded me who she was, and I asked her some questions to make sure this wasn’t some kind of scam. It was the Holly I knew 50 years ago. She then referred to “sad things” that happened on the road. I wasn’t sure what she meant by this. She did have a miscarriage soon after we got away from the “cowhands.” I thought she was referring to that. It turned out to be something gruesome. She said she wanted to contact me because I had saved her life, and my own.

Holly said she now had recently contacted COVID and also had a heart condition that may shorten her life. She was contacting all those who helped her throughout her life. She said she had been following my work on Socialist Planning Beyond Capitalism, my writings and interviews without my knowing it. Up to this point, I chalked her tracking me down to the kinds of things people in AA do to “make amends”.  But I still didn’t understand why she insisted I had saved her life. She reminded me of the 2 cowhands who first picked us up in Corvallis, one of whom I talked to about books. She said to me:

I owe my life to you because you were able to talk them into leaving us alone on the desert. One of the two men, when apprehended, told law enforcement about us and that you had a way about you, a New York kind of way, that they respected…and so they did not harm us. You have a gift that saves lives. It’s in your voice, and in your words. Never forget that as we head into the disintegration of capitalism, and environmental collapse.

Ok, this is all very flattering, but what made Holly think these cowhands were more than just drunken cowboys who wanted to harass hippies? I then learned The Oregonian did a five-part documentary about two men who routinely picked up hitchhikers on highway 20 and either killed them, raped them, or did other horrible things. The main perpetrator was John, the cowhand I talked to about books. The link above tells the story that was printed in the Oregonian series.

Holly told me she was interviewed by investigators in the late 70s or early 80s about the possibility that we had encountered them. A cold case investigator contacted her through her parents because a police report had been filed. Her parents gave them her contact info and they asked her about the two men who had given us a ride. Holly then tried to find me to add to the story as “the New York kind of guy” but did not know how.

Holly also told me she moved from “living to run”, to “running to live”, as Bob Seger sang.  She got three degrees, two of them in social work and journalism. She has worked as a social worker and herbalist. She has started a cooperative and worked to set up independent media in the Pacific Northwest. From viewing her Facebook page, I have to stay she is a terrific watercolorist.

In a private Facebook message to Holly a few days ago, I revealed the conversation I had with John over that roaring fire 50 years ago. I told her that I thought it was the temporary camaraderie of two self-educated intellectuals about the books we were reading that saved us more than it was because I was from New York. We are both flabbergasted that the same person who can be moved to their depths by Karl Marx, Mark Twain and Friedrich Nietzsche could do some of the most horrendous acts that you read about in the Oregonian without having a psychotic break.

Reading books independently from any college or work requirement has been a foundation for me for the last 50 years. It’s helped me to write my own books, articles, teach courses and develop documents and vision for our website. It has made me a better, deeper person. But I never would have dreamt that discussing books could have been an activity that might have saved Holly’s and my lives.

• First published at Socialist Planning After Capitalism

Bruce Lerro has taught for 25 years as an adjunct college professor of psychology at Golden Gate University, Dominican University and Diablo Valley College in the San Francisco Bay Area. He has applied a Vygotskian socio-historical perspective to his three books found on Amazon. He is a co-founder, organizer and writer for Socialist Planning Beyond Capitalism. Read other articles by Bruce, or visit Bruce's website.