Thumbing A Wrestling Ride.
The late, great, Rick Sanders traveled light and alone.
But not lonely.
He showed up one night in 1972, hitchhiking to Stillwater, Oklahoma with a wrestling singlet, shoes, and a few beers.
He was there for the National Freestyle Championships and shared a dorm room with a high school wrestler.
By then, Portland’s Sanders had won an Olympic silver medal in the ’68 Mexico City Olympics and the first American world championship in ’69.
He was an under the radar super star.
Later in ’72 he’d travel with the U.S. team to the Munich Games and win another silver.
You remember the Munich Olympics for Mark Spitz and his seven golds and the terrorist attack on Israeli athletes.
It was also the coming out party for American wrestling, as if Dan Gable, Wayne Wells, and the Peterson brothers needed introductions.
Rick Sanders knew the international sports drill by then. He got in, got out, and hit the road.
He died hitchhiking Europe. It was a Steve Prefontaine moment and deserves tribute.
Your baby boomer blogger was a high school senior in 1973. With Sanders-like friend Stewart Abbe, we hit the road that summer for the Junior National Championships in Iowa City where we met Dan Gable.
What could go wrong?
Looking back across forty years, it feels like a right of passage, one last roadie for the record.
What were we thinking?
ME: What did you tell your parents?
ABBE: That we’re on the Oregon All-Star Wrestling team headed for Iowa.
ME: You didn’t tell them we’re hitchhiking?
ABBE: They would worry. They think we’re in vans with the team. What did you say?
ME: Same thing, but I told my Dad the truth. He said check in.
ABBE: You told him the truth?
ME: He likes the truth, so yeah.
(My Dad liked the truth, but not as much as I disliked getting caught in a lie. It was a learning process.)
Abbe and I tried picturing ourselves as long haired hippies on a quest of greatness. The real goal was joining the national champion crowd from North Bend High School.
Part of the quest was doing sets of push-ups and squat-thrusts while we waited for rides.
Who picks up sweaty guys off the side of the interstate? Hippie hygiene wasn’t a big deal, and we passed the sniff test.
Neither of us had much road experience so we jumped into every car that stopped.
- Two girls driving to Boise, Idaho? Okay.
ME: One of us should stay awake. We don’t want to end up in some hick killer’s basement.
ABBE: You read too much.
- A young couple on the run.
ME: You guys sure like to drink 7-UP. (The backseat was full of empty cans.)
DRIVER: My girlfriend is fourteen. We’re going to Indiana were we can be married. We heard they don’t have 7-Up there so we’re loading up.
ABBE: Good idea. I’m taking a nap, you all keep talking.
- An old Chrysler Saratoga with eleven people, five in the front, six in the back.
ME: It’s like a rolling phone booth stuffed with crazy college kids.
ABBE: The crazy part is he stopped for a guy with two dogs and got turned down.
ME: They were big dogs.
- A Navy guy in a souped up Ford Falcon.
ABBE: Best. Ride. Ever.
ME: Why do we need to find a drag race after every gas stop?
DRIVER: These Cornhusker hillbillies need to see what a hot car can do. We’re burning rubber all across Nebraska.
Rick Sanders would have been proud. Stewart Abbe spent the whole time cutting weight. We both did enough jump exercises that got more than one Jack in the Box comment.
Our last ride dropped us near Des Moines at night. We thought we’d gone mental, or hallucinating, when bits of light drifted in the air. Shooting stars?
ME: One hit your head. Is it burning?
ABBE: Lightning bugs, man. Relax.
That’s the sort of encouragement you get when you’re with the right people.
After we collected our plaques and all-American labels from Iowa, we headed back to Oregon.
One day we waited and waited. I blamed Abbe.
ME: I’ll get a ride sooner without you. Why don’t you hide until a car stops.
ABBE: No, but you can give it a shot. Or walk up the road and see who stops for who.
I walked about a quarter mile up and looked back at a car pulled over and Abbe getting in.
Stupid pride made me turn and walk. I lost my buddy. I was the reason no one stopped?
I wasn’t crying and feeling sorry for myself when the car and Abbe drove past. It was just some dust in my eye.
ME: (to myself) Now I have to walk across Idaho and Oregon. Alone? Snap out of it. What would Rick Sanders do?
When I looked up, the car with Abbe had pulled over to wait for me.
This time it wasn’t dust in my eye, just happiness.