Ross McConnell – Part 2

Ross McConnell in the Painted Desert AZPHOTO CC: MJ Vilardi some rights reserved

UPDATE: Check out the Ross McConnell Gallery Page we just put up. It contains photos I’ve taken of Ross over the years, as well as a few of his original drawings. More added daily! And If you have any McConnell-abilia to add to the gallery, or stories you’d like to share, please send them to me at mj (at) mjville (dot) com.

When Ross asked me to teach a class with him called “Science and Imagination,” I wasn’t sure I was really qualified to teach people science, which, though it fascinates me, was never one of my best subjects. “Don’t sweat it, Little Buddy,” Ross said, “Use your imagination.”

And sure enough, that was the key to what would be a thought provoking course that challenged the old dichotomy between the Arts and Sciences. And we got about a dozen students signed up, not bad for a student-initiated course. Our curriculum and syllabus was approved by the Antioch administration and our first classes went great. We read some mind-bending science fiction, like Olaf Stapleton’s Starmaker. And a recent and controversial book by a new astronomer on the scene, a charismatic guy named Carl Sagan, who, along with a Russian colleague, had written Intelligent Life in the Universe. We took our class to the roof of the Science Building to gaze at Andromeda through the school’s huge telescope.

And, when we found out about an important convention of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), we took our class to San Francisco to attend. A ballsy move, since everyone (including Ross and I) were also taking a full load of classes, and Yellow Springs, Ohio is about 2000 miles from the Saint Francis Hotel on Union Square. Not all of our students got past the initial enthusiasm stage to the “shit, we’re actually doing this” stage, but in the end we had six travelers plus ourselves. One big snag: the day we were to leave in Joe’s van (classic Hippie van complete with hand-painted festoons) I had to work: I was photo editor of The Antioch Record, the weekly paper, and I couldn’t leave for another day and a half until I got my shots in.

Ross took me aside and got real serious. “MJ, you have to go. There is no way you’re not going.” He suggested I hitchhike out to California after my assignments were in. I told him he was crazy. He said if I would do it, he’d let the van go on ahead and hitch with me. I said “Now you think I’m crazy!” Ross grinned.

And three days later he and I hit the road for Cali. Later, fighting off psychopaths and near death in Arizona’s Painted Desert, I pondered the wisdom of our decision. But even later than that, safe in the loving arms of a Berkeley saucer cult (later to be known as Heaven’s Gate) we wolfed down organic rice and munge beans and smiled blissfully, knowing we had made the right choice.

MJ & Ross McConnell, about to be abandoned in a very hot desert PHOTO CC: MJ Vilardi some rights reserved

The first part of our journey had gone surprisingly smoothly. Hard to imagine it now, but there was a time in our nation’s history when lots of people hitchhiked around, and drivers weren’t afraid to give them rides! It wasn’t uncommon to see groups of travelers on interstate ramps holding crude handmade signs declaring their destinations. And a significant number of folks lucky enough to have cars considered it an act of good karma and solidarity to help move longhairs around the country. Nowadays we’re all terrified of Manson-like maniacs; the crazies we encountered in Arizona’s torrid Painted Desert provided a foreshadowing of the paranoia that is now the norm.

A dazed looking guy in an old red beater picked us up and immediately began pressuring us for gas money. Which was kind of against the unwritten rules of hitching etiquette. I mean, if we had the cash we’d be riding the Grey Dog, right? So we resisted, and the guy got real quiet, At the next town we hit he made a beeline for some ghetto blood bank, and turned his blood into gas. I asked him if he felt okay to drive and he said “No problemo, I did this yesterday too.” I traded worried glances with Ross. The driver had looked rather pale to begin with, and now he looked woozy. His driving got worse even as his attitude became downright testy. It was as if he wanted to pick a fight about any subject.

Crazy guy in the desertPHOTO CC: MJ Vilardi some rights reserved

It was a relief when he picked up another hitchhiker (photo above) but the driver gave him a hard time too, demanding gas money and making odd, insulting remarks about the cast on his arm. There was something creepy about this new passenger. The kid seemed to smolder with menace and bad intentions, and kept steering the subject to the Manson slayings and people he would like to “mess up, permanently.” The driver, whether for the sake of caution or just because he was drifting in and out of sleep, turned silent. We all listened with growing apprehension as this dude with the ragged cast got revved and started talking some very weird shit. His harangue grew bellicose and threatening, and when we pulled over for a break, Ross insisted that we let them go on, and wait for another ride. I wasn’t sure it was a good idea, but as we debated it the driver and his crazy new friend drove off.

“Great idea Ross,” I said, “We’re in the middle of a hellish desert with no food, no water and no cars in sight.” The main reason we had no supplies to sustain us: Ross insisted we save the money to buy books. It was a point of great contention, and I pointed out (with all the futile bitterness of someone who’s been proven right by disaster) that our dire circumstances were largely his fault. Hours passed. It got hotter. We were so thirsty I started to wonder if urine…

But as the cruel sun turned red and sank behind the mountains, a station wagon pulled over. “Where ya headed?” the guy asked. When we told him, he flashed a goofy grin, teeth going every which way. “Hell that’s where I’m going! Hop in!”

Stay tuned for Part 3: “Astronomers in Collision”

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