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Hiding Across America In A VW Bus

by Prentice Mills

In 1973, Mary Ann and I suddenly became very hard to find. It’s hard to know just how many people were actually looking for us, but if any had found us it would have been through sheer, blind luck.

We might have been in Davenport on Monday, South Bend on Tuesday and Buffalo on Thursday night. In fact, we might have been just about anywhere.

All year round, for two years, we traveled coast to coast and border to border in our tan and white VW bus. Eating chili dogs from drive-in restaurants shaped like teepees and bologna sandwiches expertly prepared in the moving bus, we were two kids truly lost in America.

We weren’t hippies, gypsies, commies or crooks. We weren’t affiliated with the Weather Underground or the John Birch Society. We weren’t running from the law, but in a way we were running for our lives.

Never spending more than four or five nights in any town, we traveled by day and by night, sleeping in cut-rate motels and often in our bus in roadside parks. It didn’t matter where we spent our nights, just that we spent them all together.

We managed to make a living, such as it was, peddling old pottery, art and jewelry we picked up along our way—a Victorian dinner gong found in New Orleans, handmade leather purses we stockpiled in Juarez, a Galle vase found at a yard sale in Pittsburgh. And fountain pens. Beautiful old fountain pens and ornate ink bottles.

We once traveled 2000 miles without paying for a drop of gas. We traded those Mexican purses to gas station attendants for fill-ups from Juarez to Minneapolis to Buffalo to Biloxi.

I remember traveling through Nashville in January of ’74 with snow piled high along the roadside as we drove throughout the night. We had come from New Mexico, north to Milwaukee, and were headed south to Birmingham, then further south and west to Louisiana. I remember Mary Ann beside me, asleep in the passenger seat.

When she awoke, somewhere just north of the Alabama line, she told me she’d been dreaming about a house, a real house near the university where she dreamed I’d teach one day when the traveling was done and some peace and order would come into our lives. As she told me every small detail, painting the walls of my mind with the scenery of her dream, I remember thinking how dreams do sometimes come true. Against all odds, Mary Ann was there with me. She was my wife, and my fondest dream had already come true.

We had bolted out of the starting gate positioned at the edge of the grownup world with our feet tangled in ropes and netting over our heads. We stumbled and fell, scraped our knees and bruised our hearts. We were flogged by popular opinion that sought to drive us from the race, and dogged by vicious rumors that resembled no facts.

It wasn’t quite the two of us against the world, but it seemed so often like the world against the two of us. In our VW bus, somewhere in America, it could for that time be just the two of us, sheltered by the vast expanse of hills, mountains, plains, forests and deserts in which we were concealed. So, across America we traveled.

Looking back at that unusual time, a time when we chose an unusual course for an unusual reason, I think how our life together has been a seemingly unending series of unusual times. How it’s really always been just the two of us.

Along the way we had a son. We love him and could not be more proud of the young man we raised together. Some years ago he set out to begin his own journey, leaving us to continue ours. Just the two of us, as before.

In our life together we have been so many things, done so many things, explored so many ideas—none of them standard or ordinary, none of them safe or conservative. Not a single orthodox thought, it sometimes seems, has passed through our minds or motivated our actions in all these years.

How did we do? The results have not been posted. The game is not yet over, nor will it ever be.

I dream of another place and time in which a new and truly extraordinary landscape will stretch out before us in infinite variety. Together Mary Ann and I will approach the edge, pull cautiously forward with our turn signal flashing, then slowly and joyfully pull our old bus onto the road and be on our way again.

Header Photo Credit: Prentice Mills

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