A friend at work recently returned from a trip to California. He had spent an afternoon in the redwoods and had been most impressed by the magical beauty of the place, surely one of the spots the Celts called “thin places”, where the veil between the worlds is translucent. That got me thinking of the afternoon I had spent in the redwood forest, nearly forty years ago. It was in the middle of a long cross-country hitchhiking trip, from Virginia to Arkansas to Minnesota to Washington, then down the coast to California. I spent my redwoods afternoon in the company of a barefoot young woman who had picked me up, one of the two rides in my long history as a thumb gypsy that ended with a goodbye kiss.
Yes, unbelievable as it may seem, forty years ago pretty young women stopped for hitchhikers. So did little old ladies, couples and families. It was not unusual to be taken home by drivers, fed and given a place for the night. True, the typical ride was a solitary male, but these other rides were not unusual.
Which is not to say that travel by thumb was perfectly safe even then. I had a few rides that scared me badly. One of the worst was when I was violating my own hitching code: I was on a freeway and it was after dark. It was in western Massachusetts, around two in the morning, there was a foot of snow on the ground and there were few cars. I didn’t think my sleeping bag would keep me warm, so I was going to hitch all night. A car finally pulled over and I got in. The driver was a huge man and I immediately sensed danger. It is uncanny, but peril is perceived quickly when hitchhiking. Sure enough, he started right in, talking about his homosexual exploits and the gun he had under the seat. The road was deserted and I sincerely worried that I would not survive this ride, but in the end he let me out when I told him to. Apparently terrifying me was a sufficient kick for him.
There were several other scary rides and some very unpleasant experiences. Once in Wyoming- again at night- a pickup truck full of drunken cowboys passed and a beer bottle was hurled at me. When the brake lights lit up and the truck did a U-turn I headed off into the sagebrush. They drove back and forth a while, cursing out threats, but eventually gave up and left. The next morning, my thumb out again, a truck slowed. My relief turned to alarm when I recognized the cowboy hats inside, but they were apologetic: “Sorry about last night. We was drunk”.
But the scary moments were few, while the benign were many. Indeed, as any experienced hitchhiker will tell you the very act of sticking out your thumb renders you wide open to what I now know as grace. You are really putting yourself at the mercy of whatever happens, what I now call divine providence. Especially if you are traveling alone, which after a while was the only way I would hitch. It is much easier to get a ride solo, and hitchhiking can strain a friendship like little else. Further, you can learn a lot about someone -often way too much- by hitchhiking with them. I had a Zen-like, gospel approach to that mode of travel, even before I had a clearly defined faith in anything else. First, no one owes you a ride. Second, never complain about anything; it doesn’t help. Third, never ask a driver for anything. He or she has already given you a gift. Nothing like being stuck on the side of the rode with someone cursing every car that passes, bitching and moaning about the weather or the scarce traffic or the gnats. The very last time I traveled with anyone else it was a hometown friend, someone I thought I knew well. We set out hitchhiking to Maine and I quickly realized that not only was he an impatient whiner, but something of a con man as well: he would try to get drivers to give him cigarettes and money, and would try to talk them into taking us further than their destination. The final straw was when I returned to our campsite on Mount Desert Island to find that he had been in town and had spent all of his money on drugs and junk food, leaving me -who only carried lightweight and nutritious dried fruit and nuts- to support him the rest of the trip, which ended our friendship.
It wasn’t long before I discovered the greatest benefit to solo thumbing: people will open up to a stranger while rolling down the road in a car. Perhaps it is the anonymity of it, perhaps because the driver has to watch the road and the strain of eye contact is reduced, but it is amazing how honest and open people will be with a perfect stranger, whom they will probably never see again. Particularly when one has surrendered to Christ, as I had a year before my afternoon in the redwoods, the hand of the Holy Spirit is evident. There were too many rides to count when I felt that the lives of the driver and I had intersected at the precise time of need. There was the pretty young Christian girl in West Virginia whose uncle had just died of a heroin overdose, the college student in Ohio, going home for the funeral of her father, the confused young man in Washington who had just left the Moonies. Or even one of the scary rides, a young man in Alabama fleeing a murder warrant. He had come from a remarkably violent background. His mother, father and a brother had all died by gunfire, and he had already killed. I realized, talking to him, that he could kill me with no more thought than if he had swatted a fly. I decided that if I was going to die I would die a martyr and go straight to heaven, so I began preaching the gospel to him, which he received meekly.
Today, of course, it is rare to see hitchhikers in the U.S., though I am told they are still common in Europe, which is the last place I hitchhiked, in 1988. The few hitchers you see here look pretty worn down and desperate. I made a vow once, when I was stuck at a turnpike entrance ramp for 12 hours, that I would always pick up hitchhikers, no matter what, a vow I kept for many years, until the late 80s, when I stopped for a series of scary riders. The most memorable was in New England. He looked okay; long haired and carrying a guitar case. He was German, and soon began querying me in a thick accent. Did I think some zings were always wrong? What if zat was just a social convention? Maybe killing someone eez a morally indifferent act? The sun was getting lower in the sky and I came to the fork in the road where our ways parted. As I stopped the car he asked what my plans were for the night. I told him I was going to camp a few miles up the road. Can I camp viz you? No, I don’t think so. “I vill leaf my knife in zah car”. NO I DON’T THINK SO.
I rarely see a hitchhiker today, and I doubt very much if a young woman or a family or an old lady would stop for one. In the 70s the road was full of young people with backpacks, off to see the world. Most of us were harmless, and in spite of the stories I have told here, most of the drivers were benevolent. I reckon that I hitchhiked many tens of thousands of miles and met countless drivers, only a very few of whom were memorably bad. Of course I know it only takes one; Jeffrey Dahmer’s first victim was a hitchhiker, in Ohio in the 70s, around the time I was often traveling the same roads. But over all, unlike today, a young man could stick out his thumb, accept a ride from a stranger, and nearly always have a good experience. Of course it never was a good idea for a young woman to hitchhike, though I knew a few who crossed the country safely by thumb. I am grateful that I lived in an era where this was possible; at one point in the 70s, when I was thoroughly disgusted with America, a cross-country trip on the back roads restored my love of country, meeting good hearted rednecks in Mississippi, solid Midwestern farmers, old WWII veterans and the rest of Old America. As a mode of travel it was free, exhilarating, and a great way to get to know the country in all its local variants.
It is truly a sign of the decline of our culture that I would never recommend hitchhiking the U.S. to my sons. We as a people have grown too scared, and too scary, for that.
An era ended, somewhere in the 80s, when hitchhiking was a relatively safe way to see the country, when it was (again relatively) safe for a pretty young woman to pick up a hitchhiker and give him an innocent goodbye kiss, or for old ladies to bring a stranger home for a meal.
It will probably not be mentioned when some future historian chronicles the Decline and Fall of America, but the loss of hitchhiking as a viable way of travel says more about the loss of trust and solidarity of a culture than mere economic statistics of political facts.