A hitchhiker’s guide to survival in the great American outback.
I took a day hike twenty miles downriver in the North Fork, Idaho area recently and hitchhiked to get there. Two routine rides going to and coming home. Blue-collar guys driving pickups.
I’ve been without a car for a while, and have previously written about this fact. At any rate, during hiking season I sometimes hitchhike to get around. I’ve been told by many people that this is dangerous, of course. But I’ve been doing it since I was a kid, and the worst experience I ever had was when a mellowly drunk cowboy once picked me up in Wyoming, and swerved all over the road for a few miles going to Cody, thankfully at a very low rate of speed. I didn’t realize he was snockered until I’d climbed in the truck.
The odds of being a victim of tragedy while hitchhiking are slim, especially in the rural West. Being picked up by a Ted Bundy or Charlie Manson would be akin to winning the lottery, and I’ve never won the lottery. Besides, I pray to St. Christopher (the patron saint of travelers) from the shoulder of the road, and I never intentionally hitchhike at night. On the record I will say that I don’t recommend this mode of transportation for young people. Do as I say, not as I do.
I’ve always adhered to certain rules of “road etiquette” while hitchhiking. A firm handshake and self-introduction should dispel feelings of strangeness and suspicion. Since the driver is usually a man (as a rule women don’t stop for men, for obvious reasons, though it’s been my experience that some couples do), the conversation is guy-oriented. A fellow named Mike Wilson picked me up on the way downriver that morning, on the way to his construction job. First, we chatted about the weather (a clear, frosty spring morning), then the current economic climate as related to his livelihood, then the conversation turned to my livelihood (for me, always an opportunity for an improvisational narrative) and its obvious — from Mike’s point of view — rewards (“Why don’t you have a car?”). All this easily led to a discussion of the contemporary American political scene. Mike was just getting warmed up on an anti-Obama/Democratic Party tirade when he dropped me off in North Fork.
I’m a firm believer in using small cardboard signs with black magic marker as opposed to merely sticking my thumb out. This is a psychological ploy that tells the driver: “This guy has a specific destination in mind. He knows where he’s going.” And I always write the return trip destination on the other side. The trick is to make sure you’re displaying the correct side!
Some drivers are so naïve concerning human nature that it’s a wonder that they don’t come to bad ends. Picking someone up is an existential bet to begin with, but why not use common sense? A few years ago, on a three-day road trip from Cody, Wyoming, to Cooke City, Montana, and then on to Red Lodge, Montana, a young California photographer named Glenn took me over Beartooth Pass between Cooke City and Red Lodge. On the pass he twice pulled over to take photos and asked me if I minded the delay. No, I said: I wasn’t in a hurry. The second time he had spied a marmot amongst the rocks. This at 10,000 feet and cold, even in June. So given a choice I stayed in the SUV while Glenn stalked the marmot and snapped pictures. At one point he was at least a hundred yards away, with his camping gear and much expensive camera equipment piled in the back of the SUV, and the keys in the ignition. He had only met me a half-hour before. If I was a bad guy, I could have easily driven away. As I sat and watched him follow the marmot over the icy rocks, I thought: What are some people thinking?
Early in my hitchhiking career as a kid in upstate New York a stray cow once chased me down the road for a hundred yards or so until it tired of the game. I kept looking over my shoulder as the giant black and white Holstein lumberously pursued twenty feet behind. While working on a construction job in Daytona Beach, Florida, in 1974, I thumbed my way to St. Petersburg on a Saturday to attend an evening rock concert. On the way I got caught in one of those Sunshine State monsoons that drops more rain in ten minutes than falls on Idaho all summer. Clothes soaked right through, I sought refuge under a freeway underpass. My next ride was a good old boy native Floridian who smilingly commented as I climbed in: “Well, looks like your mother was right. You don’t have the brains to come in outta the rain.” I somehow knew then that the ride to St. Pete would be safe and enjoyable. Again in the 1970s, a trip to Saranac Lake, New York, to visit friends found me at an Adirondack crossroads and attacked by a suffocating cloud of black flies that sent me running down the road and flailing my arms. My next ride understood my plight and rescued me. Thank God for the kindness of strangers.
My ride back upriver from hiking around North Fork was anti-climactic. A friendly oldtimer in a comfortable pickup, pleasant conversation, country-western music on the radio. The weather remained fair. And the river and the mountains and the trees drifted by, as they have always done on the way home.
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H/T to National Review Online