“Thumbing to a Distant Shore” by C.B. Heinemann

            We knew that it was illegal, and more than a little dangerous, to hitchhike across Maryland’s Eastern Shore to the beach. As far as we were concerned, that only made it more of an adventure. 

            To be seventeen in 1971 meant that all the world was a wondrous adventure, and we were still too young to know or care what we might be getting into. Mark was in love with a girl working at the beach, we had the entire summer to ourselves, the sky was a wide splash of glorious blue, the intense July humidity took a break, and the world opened its big, beautiful hand out to us. What else could we do but lie to our parents about what we were doing and take it?

            During the three hours we spent standing near a Beltway exit with our thumbs out, I had time to examine that big beautiful hand and read the lines a bit more closely. We hardly had any money, only brought sleeping bags, raincoats, and sandwiches in our knapsacks, and hadn’t given much thought to where we might stay or, for that matter, what we would eat.

            But when a white Ford Falcon sedan slowed to a stop with a quick honk, all misgivings evaporated. We were on the road!

            The guy who stopped was only a couple of years older than us, and his short-clipped hair and neat appearance gave away that he was in the military.

            “Where you guys going?” he asked cheerily.

            “To the beach. How about you?”


            “Hey, great. You go to the academy?”

            He smiled as he hit the accelerator. “Something like that. I wish I was going to the beach.”

            “Hey, come on with us,” said Mark. “It’ll be fun.”

            “Naw, can’t do it.”

            All three of us were aware that, though we were similar in other ways, we almost certainly sat on opposite sides of the great divide—Vietnam. We didn’t talk about that because it wasn’t necessary. On a beautiful summer day it was more important to have a pleasant ride than get into a pointless argument about the war.

            As he let us out at his exit near the Chesapeake Bay bridge, he said, “You know it’s illegal to hitch on the other side, don’t you?”

            ‘Thanks for the ride, man. And yeah, we know.”

            Our next ride came right in the exhaust of our first—it was a pretty young woman with long red hair driving a yellow Dodge Dart with an enormous German shepherd in the back seat.

            “I’m going as far as Route 404, if that helps.”

            “Thanks, that helps a lot,” Mark said as he climbed in front, his long hair brushing the seat.

            I squeezed uneasily into the back with the dog, who in spite of his frightening appearance, seemed nonplussed by our sudden plunge into his car.

            Mark and the driver chatted up front while the radio blasted out Carol King singing “I Feel The Earth Move” and we crossed the vast, glossy expanse of water from the Maryland mainland to the isolated and slightly mysterious Eastern Shore.

            Most visitors’ knowledge of the Eastern Shore consisted only of the road from the Bay Bridge to whatever beach resort they drove to every year, and few left their route to explore the flat, sparsely populated peninsula shared by three states.  The beach resorts on the Atlantic were crowded all summer long, and the shores of the Chesapeake Bay had long been famous for the watermen who harvested blue craps and oysters in those waters, but the interior was a big blank space to most people. Many towns along the beach route consisted of old clapboard houses, a couple of small shops, and speed traps.

            My family had been among the many who made a yearly migration to the beach through the Eastern Shore, and like most others, we didn’t dawdle along the way. The residents were mostly farmers who were very conservative and didn’t care much for outsiders. Some of the last lynchings of African Americans took place on the Eastern Shore, and it was still known as a place where black people were not welcome. Neither were long-haired hippie types like Mark and me.

            Our driver dropped us at the intersection of routes 50 and 404, which was really more an intersection of endless fields of corn. Only a deserted fruit stand kept us company—we were out in the Eastern Shore countryside entirely on our own. The air was growing uncomfortably humid.

            “I’m starting to feel a little nervous,” I said. “Like the Annapolis guy said, it’s illegal to hitchhike.”

            “It’s cool, man. We’ll just hang out here like we’re waiting for a ride, and only hitch when we see a VW coming.”

            It was as good a plan as any. A well-known truth of hitching was that if you had long hair, people who drove Volkswagens, especially Volkswagen busses, would almost always stop to give you a ride.

            Not many people drove by, and most of them on farm vehicles. I noticed smoke billowing from a nearby field into the summer sky and infusing the air with a familiar aroma. “Mark, am I smelling what I think I’m smelling?”
            “Yes, they must be burning a pot field. I’ve heard that dealers sometimes grow pot in the middle of big cornfields, and the cops burn them when they find them.”

            “Oh, great, and here we are standing around looking like the guilty parties. We’d better get a ride fast or we’ll get ourselves arrested for the pot, too!”

            “Don’t be so paranoid, man.”

            At that moment a pickup truck filled with young guys in crewcuts roared by us. “Fuck you, commie hippies!”

            An unopened can of Budweiser drove full throttle into my stomach and the truck sped away.

            “Holy crap,” I said, buckled over in pain. “He got me good. Let’s get the hell out of here.”

            “On the other hand, they gave us a free beer. That’s what I call a mixed message.”

            I stood up and glared at him. “Yeah, we’re not only longhaired hippies standing out like sore thumbs while we hitchhike illegally, but we’re underage and drinking in public.”

            “Okay, let’s down it.” He opened the can, poured half the contents down his throat, and handed the rest to me. “Come on, here come some weird people. Finish it and put your thumb out.”
            I quickly emptied the can and looked up. A big black convertible with what appeared to be a newly married couple in the back rumbled down the road toward us.

            The car pulled over and the man in the back–who was very short, with wispy blond hair and wearing a black tuxedo–stood up with a bottle of  Dom Perignon champagne in his hand. “Come on, my good fellows! No need to stand on ceremony—come on in!”

            The car was easily wide enough, so we climbed in beside the couple in back. The woman was a pretty blond wearing a tight-fitting cocktail dress and holding a full champagne glass. The driver in front wore a t-shirt and sunglasses, and had very long hair and a thick beard.

            “So where are you going today, boys?” the man asked as he handed us each a fluted glass.

            “We’re trying to get to Rehobeth,” said Mark. “And thanks for the ride—it was getting a little weird out there. How far are you going?”

            “Going? Where are we going? We three are just having a bit of a drive in the country going wherever fate wants to take us, and now fate, in the form of you two fine lads, leads us to Rehobeth!”

            The driver turned up the radio, and we rode along while the late afternoon sun slanted down over the farmlands and marshes along our route.

            Our hosts didn’t offer much information about themselves. The two in formal wear mostly whispered and giggled together while pouring glass after glass of champagne. The driver said nothing, but he also received repeated glasses of champagne. The flat countryside flowed by, oblivious to the intruders.

            By the time we reached Rehobeth Beach, the sun was poking a toe below the horizon, and the driver was having problems keeping the car in its lane. I was anxious to get out before he ran us all into a tree.

            “We’ll say farewell here,” said Mark when we reached the boardwalk. “Are you going to stay here, too?”

            “No, our journey isn’t ready to end for the day,” the man answered as he unsteadily raised his glass to us. “And thank you for your kind companionship.”

            “Are you sure you shouldn’t get a bite to eat?” I asked, concerned that the taciturn driver was becoming increasingly inebriated.

            “We’ll be fine. Fare thee well, my dear friends! Fare thee well!”

            Without further comment they skidded off into the distance while we stood within a few yards of the thundering Atlantic Ocean. The air was dense with that mixture of salt water, tar, and fried food odors that visitors to seaside resorts know so well.

            “Okay,” said Mark. “Let’s get over to where my girlfriend is staying. It’s not far.”

            We hurried along the boardwalk until we reached a wind-worn wooden box of tiny beach apartments, each with its own mini deck. Towels of all sizes and colors dangled from the rails.

            “You’d better wait here,” Mark said as he looked the place over with his hands on his hips. “I’ll go up and see if it’s all right for us to stay here tonight.”

            “You didn’t let her know we were coming?”

            “There’re no phones in these places, so I couldn’t contact her, could I? I’ll just be a minute.”

            He ran up the blistered wood stairs, knocked on one of the doors, and disappeared inside. I put down my pack to watch the green swells and silver caps of the ocean, and feel the iodine rich breezes stroke my skin and fill my lungs with their ancient healing properties. Something in that sound and that smell awakened an aching yearning inside that was so intense I could feel tears begin to fill my eyes, and yet I didn’t know what it was or what exactly I was yearning for.

            I didn’t have much time to muse over my budding existential angst. Mark was back with a face dark with worry. “What happened, man?” I asked in alarm. “You don’t look too good.”

            He tied his hair back into a long ponytail. “She screwed me over, man, and screwed me over good. She’s got some new boyfriend with her. And my ulcers are acting up. I’d better get some pudding or something.”

            “It’s dark now—what’ll we do?”

            He let out a long complaint about his girlfriend, and women in general, sopping with obscenities and anger. At last he shook his head. “We weren’t getting along that well anyway. Maybe this is a good thing. We can stay on the beach tonight—doesn’t look like rain.”

            “Isn’t that illegal?”

            “What have we done today that was legal? We can legally sleep down the beach a little ways past the boardwalk. But I’m not ready to go to sleep right now, are you?”

            “Let’s go see what’s happening, man. Maybe this’ll turn out to be a good thing.”

            Mark patted my arm. “That’s the idea. Let’s check it out.”

            Moments later we joined the crowds filling the boardwalk. It hadn’t changed at all since I was little—the ice cream and french fry shops; the “sundry” shops selling shells, flip-flops, and t-shirts; and endless pizza restaurants. Crowds of people walked along at various paces—families meandering slowly and licking ice cream cones, kids running everywhere, young people about our age checking out the scene. Older people sat on the white two-way wooden benches that lined the boardwalk, watching the parade or staring out at the ocean.

            We stopped in the amusement area where we watched the Ferris Wheel, Teacup, Merry-Go-Round, and other rides, and saw hoards of kids playing pinball machines, Whack-A-Mole, Skittleball, and dozens of similar useless amusements while the ocean hummed in the background. But what claimed our attention were the girls in shorts, usually in pairs, wandering everywhere. The world was alive with possibilities so exciting I could barely stand it.

            “Man, I’ve got to get some pudding,” said Mark at last. “My stomach is killing me.”

            “How does someone your age get an ulcer, anyway?”

            “I’ve told you that it’s stress from my parents’ divorce and everything that’s happened since. That’s what the doctor says.”

            We stopped in a small grocery store and picked up a carton of milk, vanilla pudding, and a red plastic bowl. Mark quickly mixed it up and ate several spoonfuls. “You want some? There’s way more than I can eat. A hell of a lot more.”

            “I don’t care for pudding—I’m going to get some ice cream.”

            He gave me the same mischievous look he gave me when he asked me to come on this trip. “I know, we’ll go around offering people some, just for fun. Maybe we’ll meet some chicks who’ll put us up for the night.”

            “You want to pick up girls by offering them pudding?”

            “We’ll offer everyone some. That way we won’t seem too obvious about it.”

            Mark walked right up to a couple walking arm in arm and offered them a spoonful.

            The man smiled slyly. “Anything in it?”
            “Just pudding. I made too much.”

            The two laughed, but they took some pudding and thanked us. We managed to spend nearly an hour giving little spoonfuls of pudding away on the crowded boardwalk, and I was surprised that most people happily took us up on it. Of course, we offered tastings to many pretty girls our age, who laughed as they took their spoonfuls. “You’re the pudding people,” said one. “I heard about you.”

            “The pudding people? We already have a name around here?”
            “Yeah, you’re famous.”

            When our supply got low we walked up Rehobeth Avenue toward a doughnut shop discussing whether or not we should get more pudding. “We’re the pudding people, after all,” said Mark. “It’s our duty to give out pudding to the people.”

            “That’s our motto—Pudding to the People!”

            As we walked we heard someone singing a James Taylor song and playing the guitar. “Hey, that guy’s good,” said Mark.

            The sound trickled from an open doorway to The Rehobeth Hotel, a narrow brick building squeezed between a hat shop and a drug store. We peered in and saw a guy, slightly older than us, wearing a tweed jacked over a t-shirt, with blond hair falling to his shoulders and over his large green eyes. He sat behind the desk fingerpicking a nylon string guitar. At last he glanced our way. “Come on in,” he said with a slight southern accent. “My name’s Tater. You must be the pudding people.”

            “Nice to meet you, Tater.” I glanced at the red bowl Mark carried. “You’ve heard of us?”

            “Sure.” He smiled, revealing large white teeth. “The pudding people. So what’s your story? Everybody who comes in here has a story.”

            Mark told them how we ended up giving out pudding on the boardwalk late at night. “I guess we’ll find someplace to crash tonight, and then head back home.”

            ‘I’d let you stay here, but the boss will be stopping by tonight. And you know it’s not legal to . . .”

            “Hitchhike on the Eastern Shore, yeah, we know,” said Mark. “We don’t have much choice.”

            Three girls came in wearing t-shirts and jeans cut very short, their long hair glistening in the red neon “No Vacancy” light in the big window that looked out onto the sidewalk. “Hey, the pudding people!” cried one. “We know you!”

            “Hey, hi.” I recognized them without difficulty because we gave them pudding earlier, and they were so cute they made my eyes water.

            “You’re in early,” said Tater. “I guess you’ve got to get up early tomorrow.”

            “Yeah, especially since three people just quit,” said a deeply tanned girl with curly blond hair and intense blue eyes. “More work for us.”

            Tatar gave us a sideways smile. “You guys want to get out of the pudding business and work here?”


            “We need a couple of people to, you know, change sheets, make beds, change the soap, clean the bathrooms. It’s easy work. And the beach is less than a block away.”

            “You mean you’d pay us and everything?”

            “Of course. There’s an apartment in the back where some of the employees live. It’s a little tight, but I think you’ll like it.”

            Mark and I looked at each other. A job at the beach for the summer! I’d never had a job before other than delivering papers and mowing lawns. I felt that my life had inadvertently been led to a dramatic crossroads.

“Hey, I’m up for it. How about you?”
            “Yeah, why not? But I’d better go home first and tell my mom. And get some other things, too, like clothes.”

            Tater smiled and picked out a D chord. “So you’re on?”

            “Yeah,” I said as a ripple of excitement ran through me. “We can make beds and all that, no problem.”

            “Don’t take long. We’ve got people working double shifts, and I’ll have to give you some training. You have to make the beds a certain way..”

            The girls nodded. “The faster the better,” said one girl who was taller than I was, who had dense brown hair, a face full of freckles, and a toothy smile. “And hey, welcome aboard. It’ll be fun.”

            Mark and I paced up and down the boardwalk talking about what we needed to do. Then we walked over the sand where the cold foam of the Atlantic slapped at us from the endless water, and made our way to a spot far from the boardwalk where we spread out our sleeping bags. Mark was asleep in no time, but I lay on my back looking up at the stars and feeling the salt breezes. Out of nowhere my life was about to change. I thought about the girls in the lobby—would one of them be the girl for me?

            The next morning we walked to the road out of town and stuck out our thumbs. As we stood watching cars rush past us I allowed my mind to savor, one by one, the sight of those girls from the lobby—girls who would soon be our co-workers, friends, and maybe something more. To me they were all gorgeous.

            At last a Volkswagen pulled over, and muscular guy with long blond hair waved us in. “Hey, I can get you as far as Denton.”

            “Thanks, man. That’s great.”

            Our driver was a pleasant guy on his way home from a couple of days of surfing at Indian River Inlet, and he listened patiently as Mark chattered away at him about our new jobs at the hotel. So far our trip home was a breeze, and I wondered if the rest of the trip would be as easy.

            He dropped us outside Denton—hitchhiking too close to town would quickly draw the attention of the police. We stood on the road beside a field of vegetables, with a stretch of woods about a hundred yards away. Across the road was a farm from which the harsh smell of pigs assaulted our nostrils.

            “Man, let’s get upwind of the stink,” said Mark.

            One hour passed, and then another. The sun beat at us like a hammer, and the humidity left us drenched in sweat. Few cars passed by, and the longer we stood there, the greater our chances of being seen by the police. “Damn,” Mark muttered. “I wish at least there was some shade around here.”

            It was nearly hour number four when I spotted a police car coming up in the distance behind us. “We’d better find a place to hide,” I said. “A cop is on his way.”

            “Hey man, there’s a VW bus coming up the other way–our way.”

            “What if the cop gets to us first?”
            “I don’t know, man. An air conditioned police station?”

            “Are you crazy? They’ll lock us up.”

            “I doubt that.”

            “We’d better hide before the cops see us.”

            “I think the VW will be here first.”

            “What is this? Some TV show?” I shaded my eyes and watched the police car grow closer. “Let’s go.”

            “Just sit on your pack until they get here. If the cops come first, tell them . . .”

            “Yeah, yeah, we’re waiting for a ride from a friend. Oh, holy crap.”

            My heart flew into overtime as the two vehicles began to converge on us. Just as the VW drew near, Mark put out his thumb. The police car was hurrying closer from the other direction.

            The VW pulled over and the side door slid open. “Check it out,” said Mark. “We hit the jackpot!”

            We clambered in, the police car whizzed by, and our ride hit the gas. I looked around in disbelief—it appeared that we had just been rescued out in the middle of nowhere by eight beautiful girls!

            “Thanks so much,” Mark said, his voice even perkier than usual. “Where are you going?”

            “A party on Kent Island. You can come, if you like.”

            “That’s great, thanks. We can help with gas money.”

            I wondered where he got the idea we had enough to make a difference, but the girl driving shook her head. “We’re fine.”

            Just as the realization that we were living a dream hit me, I was simultaneously hit with another realization—the smell of cheap perfume and nail polish in that van was choking me so badly that I couldn’t talk or even breathe. I could tell by Mark’s unusual silence that he was having the same problem. The girls seemed oblivious. Their faces were sullen and they didn’t look like they were in a mood for conversation.

            As we drove along nobody spoke a word. Even the radio was turned off. The girls didn’t seem much interested in us, and instead focused on doing their nails with that horrible smelling polish, or just staring out the windows. Mark asked where they were from and what the party was all about, but only received an evasive answer from the driver. It seemed better that we keep to ourselves.

            We held on and, after an eternity, we reached Kent Island, which meant we were close to the bridge. “So you guys want to go to the party?”

            “No, we’ll keep going, thanks,” said Mark, to my infinite relief. “We’ve got to get home.”

            They dropped us in the first town and veered off onto a small road. Darkness was beginning to creep over the land. Mark and I looked at each other for a moment before breaking into laughter.

            “I thought I was going to die in there,” said Mark. “I can’t believe we actually turned down going to a party with a van full of chicks. I hope you don’t mind.”

            “They looked good, but, my god, the stench!”

            “It’s a crazy world, man. I think they were prostitutes”

            “Prostitutes? What makes you think that?”
            “They looked pretty hard, they were going to a party, but none of them seemed in a party mood. They were probably hired to go to this party.”

            “Just because they didn’t fall for your charms doesn’t make them prostitutes.”

            We stood out on Route 50 next to a vast saltwater marsh waiting for a car to pass. It seemed like everyone was in for the night.

            “Man, it’s getting late. At least no cops have come by yet.”

            “I hope we don’t have to crash out here—we’ll sink into quicksand in our sleep.”

            A rumble of thunder erupted in the distance.

            “I guess we could walk to the bridge,” said Mark. “Though it’s a hell of a long hike. And then we’d have to walk over it. I don’t think they have a pedestrian lane, and besides, I’ve got a fear of heights.”

            As the first spray of rain swept over us, a pair of dim headlights limped unsteadily closer from the darkness. It swerved, slowed, sped up, swerved, and slowed down again.”

            “Oh, great,” Mark muttered. “This is probably our ride.”

            He wasn’t wrong. The car veered back and forth, nearly stopped, but lunged forward and screeched to a halt. The passenger door squealed open. “Get in, quick, before they get here!” The man’s voice was hoarse and desperate. “We’ve got to go!”

The thunder grew closer and the rain picked up force.
            We had little choice. I crawled into the back while Mark sat up front. He was better at dealing with crazy people.

            “We’ve got to get over the bridge,” the man brayed in a loud voice. “Satan’s slaves are almost upon us! They almost got me, but I escaped.”

            The car lurched and wandered over the road while he sped up, hit the brakes, and sped up again. He began to talk to himself in a low growl. Mark turned to look at me with a flash of fear in his eyes.

            The car shot forward. “We’ve got to get over the bridge before they get us—we can’t fall into their hands—they’re everywhere—nobody can see them, but I do.”

            “Do you live here on the Eastern Shore?” Mark asked. I knew he was trying to calm the man down.

            “I live on a farm with my dad. But now—Satan’s slave army is on the march—we have to get to the other side!”

            He didn’t let up on the accelerator, and in his agitation he steered all over the road, darting left, right, forward, occasionally pressing the brake before once again screeching forward. When we got onto the bridge the dark waters sparkled far below us. I closed my eyes and prayed he wouldn’t drive us over the edge.

            “We’re safe from Satan now, don’t you think?” Mark kept his voice calm. “Maybe we can slow down a little.”

            “I don’t know–maybe you’re with them!”

            I was sure we were goners.

            “If we were we’d have a car, wouldn’t we? We’re trying to get away, too. We just didn’t know it was actually Satan.”

            “Yes, yes. Satan.”

            We were halfway across, and I could see the lights of Annapolis ahead of us. The rain slammed at us and the road.

            “I’ve heard that Satan doesn’t like bridges,” said Mark. “He likes to cross the water by boat.”

            I didn’t know where Mark came up with that story, but it seemed to placate our driver. He finally slowed down.

            “It was Christian of you to pick us up,” Mark continued. “I’m sure we’re all safe now, thanks to you. Where do you go now?”

            The man sighed. “Maybe I’ll just go to sleep for awhile.”

            He began to slow to a stop and my heart once again picked up its frantic rhythm.

            “If you could let us out at the first exit after we get off the bridge, that would be great. It would be safer for you, too.”

            The man didn’t say another word. He drove without further antics to the first exit and slid to a stop. We wasted no time leaping out into the rain. “Thanks, man. Take care of yourself.”

            The car fishtailed back onto the road and was swallowed up by the night.

            “Damn, that was scary,” I said. “You did a good job of keeping him from completely freaking.”

            “This isn’t so much fun, is it? A little too much reality for me.”

            With the unceasing gush of rainwater soaking us, we put out our thumbs. Luckily, we both brought rain parkas, but we were already drenched before we put them on.

            Trucks howled past, splashing fierce waves of road water over us. Mark turned to me, squinting to keep the water out of his eyes. “This really sucks, man,” he shouted over the din. “Next time we hitch, let’s check the weather report.”

            Our situation was dismal. People didn’t like picking up hitchhikers late at night, especially when it was raining. We were virtually invisible to drivers struggling to see the road and worrying about their own safety. Just when we resigned ourselves to a night of complete misery, a familiar white car pulled over, its red brake lights flashing.

            “Hey, it’s that Navy guy, our first ride!” Mark cried “I don’t believe this!”

            We jumped in, gasping thanks to our savior. He looked us over and laughed. “Back already?”

            “Just for a day or two,” said Mark. “We got jobs there. This is amazing, man. What a coincidence!”

            “Looks like your lives are about to change. Maybe you won’t have to hitchhike. My life is changing, too. I’ve got a new assignment.”

            “What is it?”

            He glanced at Mark, and then at me in the rearview mirror. “I can’t tell you. But I’m going to DC tonight, so I’ll just drive you to your homes.”

            “Wow, thanks, man. That’s great.”

            “It looks like all our lives are changing, doesn’t it? I guess that’s what happens when you get to a certain point in life. You’re both probably starting college in the fall, aren’t you?”

            “Yeah, but we don’t want to think about that yet.”

            “Without realizing it, you step from childhood into adulthood. You cross a bridge, as they say, and things change, even if you don’t see it yourself right away. One day you stop depending on your parents and even start helping out other people. ” He settled back into his seat with a long sigh. “Sometimes growing up creeps up on you, like with an assignment you can’t talk about.” He laughed. “Or even a summer job at the beach.”

A graduate of the University of Maryland, C.B. Heinemann’s stories have appeared in Berkeley Review, Florida English, Parhelion Literary Magazine, Press, Outside In Magazine, Danse Macabre, Rathalla Literary Review, Mountain Tales Press, Cigale Literary Review, Writers Who Rock, Biostories, Write Place At the Right Time, Ascent, Storyteller, The Battered Suitcase, Spilt Infinitives, Whistling Shade, Lowestoft Chronicles, Outside In Review, One Million Stories, and Fate. He has also written for The Washington Post, Boston Globe, Philadelphia Inquirer, and Car & Travel. He has also written three novels, The Last Buskers of Summer, Ghosts Behind Walls, and The Weird Little Box,and a collection of short stories, Tales From the Musical Trenches, all with Furka Press.