If you had told me a month ago that I would hitchhike from Washington to Minnesota before May ended I would have laughed at you. I would have told you that hitchhiking is dangerous and illegal and I am not going to put myself in those kinds of situations and that, despite having the occasional desire to stick out my thumb on a long walk home, I am not quite the hitchhiking “type.” Turns out I am.
Before I go on I would like to dispel a certain untrue rumor regarding the legality of hitchhiking in the United States. It is not illegal. In some states pedestrians are not allowed on the highways, but hitching by an entrance ramp is 100% legal and hitching in a high visibility location on highways is usually fine as well. The only laws about hitchhiking concern the safety of drivers pulling to the side of the road: as long as there is a shoulder on the highway and the hitchhiker is not standing on a hairpin curve, all is well. So there.
Also before I go on I think you should know that I was planning on hitching in Canada because my sources said it is a bit less sketchy in Canada than in the States. When I hitched up to Canada and the great nation refused to grant me access I decided to stick it to the Canadians by proving that Americans are just as good at taking care of their fellow man, woman, hitchhiker. (This was also actually a very exciting event for me, as the Canadian border patrol literally escorted me down the sidewalk and then warned me that the cameras would “take over” when they relinquished my passport to me and let me walk all by my lonesome the rest of the way to the US border. Evidently somebody thought I was a bit more desperate to get into Canada than I actually was.)
Unless you are willing to count my hitchhiking the .1 miles up my street as a middle school student courtesy of a good humored neighbor, the first time I honest to golly hitchhiked was May 17, 2009. I was in Chemainus on Vancouver Island with the 23-year old nephew, Jesse, of the man, Steve, whom I had only a few hours before paid to take me tandem hang gliding. (It was sweet.) Jesse offered me his couch for the night and we decided to hitchhike the 17 kilometers to his home and build up my hitching resume. We stood on a street corner for a while and watched people pretend they did not see us, shrug apologetically, – sometimes condescendingly – or yell not very friendly – or overly friendly – things out of their windows. It was spectacular. My personal favorite were the few who would slow down as though they were going to give us a ride and then tear off, laughing at their own cleverness. Eventually a blond man, Kerry, picked us up. After introducing ourselves and making small talk for a while Kerry asked if we smoked marijuana (a surprisingly open and frequent practice in all the parts of Canada I visited), and then, sounding slightly panicked, offered to smoke us out. The brusqueness of his question took me off guard and I, laughing, but with just as much nervous speed coloring my voice as had colored his, said that I was fine without. Later I apologized to Jesse, as it occurred to me that maybe he had wanted some and I had denied him that by my quick refusal. Jesse simply noted, “I think he was just lonely, eh?”
Jesse unwittingly summed up very well what seemed to be the most common kind of people who pick up hitchhikers. The people who picked me up were not sleaze balls, they were not rapists, kidnappers or even moderately unkind people. Usually they were just lonely. (The other types I noticed were the people who worried if they didn’t pick me up a creeper would, the ex-hitchhikers who were returning the favors paid to them in the past, the slightly intrigued and the overtly friendly.) Many of my drivers were divorced or experiencing relationship trouble. Others were simply on a long road trip by themselves and wanted a set of ears or a few interesting stories. Several of my drivers took me a few exits further than they were going, simply because they wanted the company or said they knew of an entrance ramp that was a little busier. Having fully expected to turn down creepy rides or jump out of cars that had suddenly become uncomfortable, I found myself pleasantly surprised by everyone who picked me up.
This is not to say that I never felt threatened (and that is not to say that I ever was threatened) as I was constantly aware of my surroundings and tensed, more than once, when my driver would reach for *gasp* a water bottle. As far as I could tell I was never even hit on. In fact, more often than not whenever I would leave a car the driver would look at me seriously and tell me to be careful, that they were worried, that they didn’t want me to get hurt. These people radiated sincerity. They implied, almost plaintively, I know I can’t stop you hitchhiking but not everyone is as good of a human being as I am. Don’t get hurt.
I was fortunate in my hitchhiking. I never spent more than a half hour on a curb (as opposed to the 4-6 hour waits I was warned about), which can be partially attributed to the fact that the few times I was dropped off at an entrance ramp out in the country with very little traffic I would start walking, sometimes illegally, on the highway (it is hitchhiking, after all). Come to think of it, I probably never spent more than an hour walking, either. Many of the rides I got were several hours long, and the ones that were short almost always brought me to a better hitching point than the last.
The range of people who I met was absolutely stunning. There was the Pakistani-Canadian woman who came to the States to fill up with gas and told me about the wedding she was planning for her son. The young couple from Alaska who brought me to the best hitching point ever and gave me what was left of a bottle of tequila when I told them I might be camping out that night. (Don’t worry, Mum, it was only a quarter of a bottle and I gave most of it to the punk rocker hitchhiker friends I made in Bozeman.) The Australian man who pointed out the supporting walls his company built on the sides of the highway in Seattle. The twenty-six year old glass blower who told me about being in the Air Force and his psychopath of an ex-girlfriend. The thirty-one year old trucker who drove me over 600 miles (in North Dakota, thank goodness, I did not want to hitchhike in the extensive nothingness that is North Dakota) and let me drive the truck for a little while. That was thousands of dollars worth of yogurt and cottage cheese under my control, friends. The fifty-year old man who gave me a tour of Wallace, Montana, which featured a manhole cover labeled “the Center of the Universe”, while choking back tears over his current lady troubles. The older woman who brought me to Heather and Chad’s house, never being able to tear herself away from the conversation subject of my personal safety – or the lack thereof – regarding my newfound love of hitchhiking. (Provided I haven’t forgotten any there were eighteen rides total, not all listed here out of consideration for your attention spans.)
Hitchhiking is my new favorite way to travel because of the connections made, the stories, opinions and information shared. The thing that I love most about hitchhiking, though, is the extreme delicacy of the process. Had I not tried to go to Canada first my trip would have been drastically different. If I had woken up at nine instead of eight on the day I met my punk rocker hitchhiking friends, chances are pretty good I would not have met them. If I hadn’t started walking instead of sitting on the curb I would not have had a place to stay my second night of hitching. Hitchhiking is one of those rare activities that forces its participants to realize exactly how much every choice, and the timing of every choice, affects every subsequent event.
See you on the road?