The Circle of Hitchhikers

I almost missed them.  I nearly mistook them for a couple teenagers who were alternative enough to hang out in the sunshine next to a highway instead of on a beach.  Kids are weird sometimes.  It was the clothes that stopped me first.  The layers of dark colored clothing that might have been purchased that color, but were probably just really dirty.  I slowed and the snake bites, the disheveled hair most likely cut by razor blades, and the slightly excessive amount of bags piled around them told me all I needed to know.

I slammed on my brakes and scooted to the shoulder of the road.

“Where are you going?” I called through my window, which was still rolling down.
“White Bear, but every mile counts,” the young man answered, standing and coming closer to my vehicle.
“I’m only going up a couple exits.  I can’t take you far.”
“Every mile counts,” he repeated, smiling.

The phrase was familiar.  I smiled to myself and unlocked all my doors.

In 2009 I was the kid on the side of the road (that story told here) hoping for a ride instead of the adult with places to be who could spare a few minutes to load some stinky teenagers in and out of her car.  One of my rides was a young couple who picked me up in Idaho a few miles before the mountain ranges were going to begin.  The woman told me she was impressed that I traveled alone and I told both of them that people had only been nice so far, which didn’t seem to surprise them at all.  They spent the rest of our miles together reminiscing about when they had hitched and talking about how great it was to be on the other side of the equation now, paying back all the favors they had received in their youth.  When they got to their exit they gave me the remainder of a bottle of tequila from their trunk to “keep me warm”.

I opened the back of my car and shoved a few of my things out of the way to make room for their bags.

“Nice blades,” the young man nodded at my roller blades.  I smiled and thanked him in the faux Minnesotan accent I’ve picked up from my boyfriend and his friends, realizing at the last second that they wouldn’t realize it was fake.  I grinned and wondered what the two of them thought of me, the heavily accented woman in a shiny Prius with light blue roller blades in her trunk and a fancy cheese cake in her front seat. 

Hitchhiking gave me the opportunity to meet people I would never otherwise meet.  I met middle aged men who worried over their broken relationships or the monotony of their jobs.  I met a clean cut young man who had just found out that he and his wife were going to have a baby.  I met a woman who crossed the border from Canada to the United States whenever she was low on gas because it was so much cheaper on the other side.  I met a man who designed underpasses and bridges.  I met that young couple with the stories of their youth and the bottle of tequila.  I met a mom who was on her way back from a music festival.  I met a middle-aged woman who loaded her entire car with hitchhikers and their pets.  Some of them made more significant impressions than others.

Their tiny dog leapt into my lap, a surprise since I hadn’t noticed it on the side of the road.  

“He always wants to drive,” they said.
“My kind of dog.”

I looked over my shoulder once, quickly, and got the four of us on the highway.  It was my first time with more than one passenger in my car.  All three were strangers and one was a dog who wouldn’t stop switching seats.

When I returned to Minnesota after hitchhiking I tried to convince anyone who would listen that they should do the same thing.  I was always met with a rousing chorus of “Stranger Danger!”

Friends and family cited news stories or a recent episode of CSI where hitchhiking ended in a brutal murder or assault or rape or robbery or something.  I understood where they were coming from, but, like them, my fear of hitchhiking was attached to pieces of fiction or celebrity telling the story of how they stopped hitchhiking after years of happy, free travel.

It was only after I had been unplugged from the media for a few months that my social calibration readjusted to the point where I was comfortable hitching.  The media doesn’t have the power to make people do bad things, but it does have the power to make people fear bad things.  Without my crime shows and nightly news broadcasts I was able to see people as they tend to be (which is average) instead of fearing their most dramatic possibilities (as murderers and rapists).  And average is exactly what everyone tended to be.  I found that every person I met was boring, nice, mildly interesting, or mildly annoying.

The worst ride that I had was with a self-important liquor salesman who told me about the crazy parties that he hosts on his super fancy yacht.  I wasn’t impressed by him, nor did I really believe anything he told me.  My obvious boredom with his booze and money soaked stories ticked him off and our clashing of personalities culminated in the very dramatic conclusion of him dropping me off a couple dozen miles earlier than he had originally promised.

If we’re being honest with ourselves, all of us have met some version of that guy in the real world.  He sucks just as much when you’re trapped in a car with him.  He is no more dangerous in a car than he is in a club.

And most people didn’t suck.

Almost every person I rode with gave me something or offered me something on top of the ride.  Sometimes it was just privileged information, like with the heartbroken man who lived in the middle of nowhere or the man who told me about the baby he and his wife were expecting before any of his friends got to hear the news.  Others offered up a warm bed in their homes, access to a hot shower, warm meals, snacks, drugs, booze, money, admittance to the most happening party in town that night, business cards, lectures, stories or advice.  Everyone had something to give on top of the ride they were already giving.

I asked them questions about themselves and their travel plans.  

They were both in their early 20s.  The guy was from this area.  The lady was from Georgia.  They had met in Georgia and were on their way to the West coast, where the lady had never been before. 

I briefly mentioned my experience hitchhiking and felt their perception of me shift ever so slightly.  I think it mostly confused them.  I was a yoga pant wearing, blond lady with roller blades and an expensive cheesecake, goshdarnit.  Could I be their future?  

Our conversation fizzled.  They had been traveling long enough that all of their responses to my curious questions were worn thin.  They were still polite and friendly, but they weren’t bubbling with stories of their trip.

Remembering the exhaustion I sometimes felt in the middle of a series of short rides I turned the music I had been listening to before I picked them up back on.  It was folky and fast.  I felt their perspective shift again.  It was something they would listen to.  Something they might play around campfires.

I had been an iteration of them a few years ago.  There were remnants of it in the stories I told and the music I listened to.  

I could be their future.  

This, I think, is what I like most about hitching.

This, I think, is why I don’t want hitching to die out.

When hitchhiking is something that our culture does across generations, I think it helps us see older and younger generations just a little more clearly.

I like that the people who picked me up were often people who used to hitchhike.

I like that I can be five miles worth of proof in the “People are Good” column of a young adult’s formative experiences with the world.

I like to think that the people who I picked up yesterday will do the same thing some day.

And maybe they’ll be surprised.  Maybe they’ll be surprised by how normal and grown up they look in their shiny new car with the gym bag rolling around in the back.  Maybe they’ll be surprised by how bad these new kids smell.  And maybe they’ll be relieved that the music they were listening to or the brief story they tell might serve as a hint to who they used to be.  And maybe they’ll start to think about the chance that one day they’ll be the ride instead of the rider.

And maybe that cycle of giving and receiving will continue forever.

2009hitchhikereturn

Me with my niece at the tail end of my longest hitching trip.