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Five Directions Press Authors Dish: When I Was 21 (Part 2)

Updated: Nov 15, 2020

Last month we gathered around the virtual water cooler to share stories of what we remember about being twenty-one. Our own Claudia H. Long had such a fascinating story that we gave her the whole floor for “When I Was 21 (Part 2).”

Claudia H. Long: When I was twenty-one, I drove a car six thousand miles, slept under the stars outside the Badlands of South Dakota, was harassed by a policeman in Wyoming, drove from San Francisco to Seattle alone in one day, had my first artichoke, and went to Disneyland. I made a career decision that shaped my life and learned that a bad haircut isn’t the end of the world.

I was young for my class, turning twenty-one in the second semester of my senior year in college, and I was not particularly mature. I had a talent for cooking and a “poetic sensibility,” as my professor noted, that allowed me to come alive in a brief string of powerful words. I’d gone through romantic heartbreak, I was in terrific shape from four seasons of college water-polo, and life felt limitless and unexplored.

I had been accepted into the Ecole Hotelière in Lausanne, Switzerland, for January 1978, but that was eighteen months away, and that seemed like an eternity. It was 1976, and women were not chefs de cuisine; if they were in big restaurant kitchens at all they were limited to the salad and dessert stations, and sexual harassment was a basic element of restaurant kitchen work. The Want Ads for employment were still divided into Help Wanted-Male and Help Wanted-Female, and even when that became illegal by law, it remained the norm.

After graduation I moved into a group house in Washington, DC, with some college-mates, generally good kids doing summer internships with their congressmen or other politicians. I was the only one working in a restaurant. I had gotten a job in DC’s only all-woman restaurant kitchen, and the work was overwhelmingly hard. With no air conditioning, the DC summer and the kitchen heat combined ferociously. We iced cakes in the walk-in refrigerator. I hated the job, but it fed me a meal a day, and I got to cater Elliott Richardson’s garden party and talk to him about politics. (He betrayed no astonishment that a fellow Harvard grad was serving the canapes. To his credit.) And I saved my money.

Every day I marked a bit more of the cross-country route that my friend Ann and I were going to take, to see the USA in the bicentennial year. I would quit the job as soon as I earned and saved enough to get my marker to San Francisco. When I wanted to throw in the towel, often literally, I reminded myself of my map and stuck it out. When the marker hit the West Coast, I gave a week’s notice.

The day after my last day in the kitchen I went to the hairdresser for a haircut, to trim up my unruly hair that had grown to the middle of my back. “To the shoulders,” I said. She cut a big hunk right off at the base of my head, leaving me with a butch cut. “Pixie,” she said. I cried.

My friend Ann and I left in my car with a Mobil card and a tent, in late August. I had failed the road test the first time I took my driver’s exam, and barely passed it the second time, but once I was out of the city and on the open road I found my groove, hovering at sixty-five miles an hour, averaging fifty-five, and watching the truckers’ lights blink me back into my lane. We were on our great adventure.

Ann had waist-long red hair and was six feet tall. I was small and strong and had my “pixie” cut. We were sometimes pegged as a couple, in an era where that was looked at with a range of bemusement, suspicion, and attempts at “tolerance.” We thought it was funny. But I missed my big hair.

In Chicago, we were escorted by the police from where we had parked and were sitting on the hood of the car with our map, drinking sodas. Terrible crimes had been committed in the area that entire week, rapes and murders, and we, unaware, were sitting there like bait. We were put back on the highway with explicit directions to the home of our friend who was going to put us up for a few nights while we saw the city.

In Yellowstone, we arrived without a campsite reservation and “borrowed” the far end of a campsite that belonged to two boys. We gave them beer. They demanded more and threatened to report us to the ranger if we didn’t “give.” We declined and offered to report that they had pot in their tent (they’d offered us; we had declined that too) and we were even. We left early the next morning.

In Wyoming we pulled into a café, which is what they called diners, for lunch. We didn’t notice as we walked in that we were the only females. Like in a bad Western, the diner went silent as we entered, and when we left we were pulled over by the local cop, who grilled us until we called him “Sir.”

But in the Badlands we met two boys who’d been camping in the rainforests of the Northwest. The sky was clearer in the Badlands than anything I’d ever seen. They were so happy to be dry and out of the rain that they were going to dispense with their tent that night. We talked about how risky that would be for us, and they put their sleeping bags down near ours and the four of us slept safely under the stars.

Somewhere under the big sky of Montana I realized that although I loved to cook, I wanted to make a difference in terms of civil rights and I needed to go to law school. In San Francisco we saw the Japanese Tea House, the Golden Gate Bridge, and Muir Woods. And in a call home (this was long, long before cell phones; we called home from payphones every three to four days to check in), Ann learned that she’d gotten a job in Boston. She flew home two days later, leaving me in California.

After many adventures, I was ready to go back to New York. I had one more stop on my agenda, the Grand Canyon, and then I intended to find the most direct route. But I couldn’t do it alone. I went to what predated Craig’s List, the Ride Board at UCLA. Some guy was looking for a ride to Philadelphia. Did I dare risk it? I called him, and he said he was staying with his mother in Santa Monica. I took that to be a good sign. And he had a Jewish last name. So I visited him, met his mother, and said he could share gas and driving. And I had a tent.

The first night I discovered that he didn’t wear underwear. But this was, I emphasized, to be a completely platonic sharing. “I figured, with your haircut,” he said, “but always worth a try.” Resigned, he put on underwear to sleep.

The second day, fifty miles from the Grand Canyon, in the middle of nowhere, he said, “You’re pretty brave to pick up some guy you don’t know and agree to drive cross-country with him.” I said, “You’re Jewish. There are no Jewish mass murderers.” “I’m not Jewish!” he exclaimed. I pulled over. “Out!” He pleaded his case, I gave him a warning, called my dad from a pay phone at Kingman to let him know who I was with, his mother’s name and address, and we continued on our way.

We pulled into Amarillo, Texas, too late to find a campground. It was almost midnight when we found an open field, and the wind had come up strong. I had never been in a full-on Texas windstorm, and hope I never will be again. The Wizard of Oz has nothing on what that wind can do. Exhausted, we tied the tent to the bumper of the car, and got inside. No sooner had we put out our flashlights than the tent began to fill up with crickets. Crickets chirping and jumping, overjoyed to be out of the howling wind. We had a choice. We could sleep sitting up in the car or tough it out. Too tired to move, we pulled our sleeping bags over our heads and went to sleep. The next morning at dawn the crickets were gone, and lifting the tent flap I saw we were in the corner of a Safeway parking lot.

Once back in New York, I got a job in a high school as a teachers’ aide with their burgeoning ESL class. I wasn’t cut out to be a teacher, but I loved my students, who ranged from Vietnamese to Dominicans to Puerto Rican. I was stopped in the hall for passes, my older male students propositioned me, and my Vietnamese student only spoke to ask me repeatedly why she needed to be in school at sixteen. But we all learned together and ended my twenty-first year with a party.

I was now twenty-two. My hair had grown back; I started law school that fall. I’ve driven across the country several times since, but nothing will erase that amazing first freedom, with all of its risks, joys, and the discovery of the open road.

Images: Ford Mercury Capri II (1976) Dave 7, CC BY-SA 2.0; Claudia H. Long.

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