Mid-way through my third year of college at Syracuse University, my close friend and roommate, David Noonan, announced that he was going to drop out for a while and hitchhike across the country. It didn't really faze me because it was the tail end of the '60s (even though it was late 1971 when he made the announcement), and that's what 21-year-olds were doing back in the day. Turning on -- and dropping out. And I had another selfish reason not to be too concerned. We lived in this really crappy, rundown apartment with our third roommate Joe, and if Noonan left, it meant I got the big bedroom all to myself. Forty years later -- and after a stellar career as novelist, journalist and Newsweek editor -- Noonan has written Attempted Hippie, a witty and wonderful Kindle Single (already on the Thin Reads best-seller list) about his adventures on the road during one of the most tumultuous times in American history. And 40 years later, I'm still not sure why the hell he dropped out of college where the beer was cheap and there party never stopped. (Neither did the snow for most of the year, but that's another story.) So, in my capacity as editor-in-chief of Thin Reads, I decided to email Noonan with some questions to find out more about this "lost" period in his life. (Read full interview here or read other Thin Reads author interviews.)
Thin Reads: Some time during our junior year at Syracuse University you made the momentous decision to drop out of school and hitchhike across the country. I know you never asked what I thought about that decision, but in your memoir you reveal that you didn't seek input from your parents or anyone else that I can tell. What the hell were you thinking? Did you make this radical choice after reading a self-help column by Abbie Hoffman in Ramparts?
First of all, you seem to present yourself in this question as an untapped source of wisdom and insight, but I seem to recall that you were experiencing a bit of an existential crisis of your own at the time. Sure, you managed to make it to class most days, but isn't it true that you were better acquainted with the local bartenders than some of your professors?
As for what I was thinking, well, I'm not sure I was thinking at all. I was being young and reckless and living in the moment. But I was also, in a strange sort of way, being quite grown up about things. The fact is, I made the decision to drop out totally on my own, and it wasn't an easy one. I'm not so sure how smart I was being, but I was definitely being independent.
Why would you want to drop out of college in 1972? We had cheap beer, the music scene was vibrant, we were surrounded by hundreds of smart and beautiful young women, and there were great bars within walking distance of our apartment. And you walked away from this scene to work in a gas station in New Jersey? What gives?
You left out the part about winter in Syracuse, all those short dreary days and long cold nights. We needed sled dogs and snowshoes to get to those bars. And yes, the women were smart and beautiful -- too smart and too beautiful to have anything to do with us.
The truth is, though, I've been asking myself this question for more than 40 years. As you obviously noticed, I don't really answer it in Attempted Hippie, and I'm not sure I can answer it now. Sure, I was worn out from working on the Daily Orange (the Syracuse University college newspaper) and carrying a full course load. Part of it, though, was a genuine desire to rebel, to reject the status quo. And it was relatively easy to make that choice in those days, because so many people were actually living alternative lifestyles. Much more so than today, it seems. There's also a literary connection, and it's not On the Road. This may sound nuts, but from the time I first read it in sixth grade, I was deeply influenced by Joseph Heller's novel Catch-22. I was fascinated by the chaos, and by Yossarian's conviction that everybody in the world was crazy, except him. I considered him -- and still do -- the ultimate anti-establishment character. And I wanted to feel some of that, some of the craziness and some of the freedom that comes from that kind of self-belief.
Just to confirm that this is not a typo in your story. You went on a six-week cross-country hitchhiking trip with $125. That comes to $3 a day. Is that even possible?
A lot of people have asked me about the money thing. First of all, as you know, things were a lot cheaper in those days. A quart of beer was 40 cents! A frozen chicken pot pie was like 45 cents! So $125 was serious cash. I knew I could live on it for at least a month. And remember, when I left I had no idea how long I would be gone. If it turned out I needed more money, I figured I could earn it. I'd started working when I was 14 and worked all through high school and college, caddying, parking cars, washing dishes, making deliveries for the local drug store, and, of course, pumping gas and burying dead people, among other things. So when I headed out on the road, I was armed with a significant arsenal of menial skills. I knew I could get some crappy job if I really needed one.
Also, and this is a bigger idea, young people had a totally different attitude about money in those days. We all needed it and wanted it, but nobody really gave a shit about it. You got it so you could spend it, so you could support your low-budget student lifestyle. Beer, some food, some weed, maybe a new album or a new pair of jeans. Nobody talked about getting rich or any of that kind of thing.
Let's talk about that your younger brother John. You traveled across the country to visit John in Arizona, yet when you arrived after a long and somewhat perilous journey, you discovered that he had already left for San Francisco. But, in your story, you didn't express any anger. Weren't you a wee bit pissed off? And if you weren't, maybe you were more of a laid-back hippie than you thought you were.
Ha! I guess I should have been annoyed. But you knew John, he just wasn't the kind of guy you got mad at. And him not being there made the whole trip more of an adventure, in a way. As I say in the story, he was a born rambler, and if I wanted to hang out with him, I had to become a rambler, too. If I thought of Tucson as a destination, and I did, I soon learned that there is no such thing as a destination. Not in John's world, anyway. It was a good lesson. Still is.
You write that when you got to San Francisco after weeks and weeks on the road, your main activity was -- and let's really focus on this point -- throwing a frisbee in Golden Gate Park. I know I sound like an old fart, but seriously, was this why you dropped out of school?
Yes! Exactly! Man, I am so glad that I got to hang out in San Francisco when it was still a funky town with cheap rents and big apartments full of hippies and their bandannaed dogs. Don't get me wrong, there were some burnouts wandering around the Haight. But there were a lot of cool people as well. The city still had a special feeling, a spirit, you know. Jack London, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and the Beats, the Grateful Dead and the Airplane -- the place had major mojo, and you could feel it. Throwing a frisbee in Golden Gate Park in the spring of 1972 with no plans and no particular place to go is a highlight of my life.
Why didn't you call your older brother Michael to tell him exactly when you and your younger brother John were going to coming to Chicago? What if he wasn't there when you arrived? It seems a bit loosey goosey.
I was more than a bit loosey goosey, it was totally loosey goosey. And since we were hitchhiking, we had no idea when we were going to arrive. Also, we would have had to call him long distance from a phone booth, which would require large amounts of change. And he or one of his law school roommates would have to be there to actually hear the phone ring in the apartment, since there were no answering machines in those days. And by the way, I still have no idea how we managed to hitchhike into the heart of Chicago. When was the last time you saw someone hitchhiking through your Manhattan neighborhood?
Looking back at the magical moment when you captured the counter-culture Zeitgeist by hitchhiking across America with nothing more than a few bucks and your wits, do you think now that you were successful in your attempt to become a hippie?
I think I was, actually. Not permanently, but I had my moments, even with the wrong hair and the wrong glasses. What I learned from John and the other real hippies I met was to relax and let the world come to me, and to take it as it came, one day, one crazy adventure at a time. I treasure those few weeks on the road more than I ever imagined I would. Who knew?