Tales of a 60-year-old hitchhiker

I thumbed 1,700 miles to discover the open road and myself. Is it time to reconsider a lost American tradition?

Published February 27, 2013 1:00AM (EST)

  (Photo of the author)
(Photo of the author)

I knew they could see me. Families on their way to the lake, truckers hauling loads on deadlines, couples heading for church or breakfast – they all would have found me directly in their line of sight as they screamed into the westbound curve at 70 miles per hour. I imagined that for those 10, maybe 15 seconds, they thought: Is that a person on the shoulder? Where’s his car? What’s he doing? Looking for a ride? Really? Then, whoosh, they were past.

They were coming at the rate of about one vehicle every four seconds. That would be more than 15 per minute. More than 1,000 per hour. Times two, for the time I’d been there. I knew it wasn’t personal, but from where I stood, it was still a lot of rejection. The sun rose higher, its glare and warmth intensifying.

All I’d have to do, I thought, was hop across the median and turn my back on all of this – head east, back to the Twin Cities and home, and never tell anyone I was ever serious about hitchhiking 1,700 miles to visit a friend in Twisp, Wash., a small town in the mountains east of Seattle. I could be home in two hours, and spend my week’s vacation fishing.

It was early on Day Two on the summer road trip I’d been thinking about for several years – an appealing Western road trip, sure, but also an examination of whether the American road even resembled the one I thought I once knew. For beatniks in the ’50s and baby boomers after them, the highway was a cultural Main Street, combining adventure and community, and hitchhiking was a way to join the parade. If you had the time and curiosity, it was as good a way as any to walk off and look for America. But it had been more than 30 years since I’d been out there, and in that time hitchhiking had simply vanished, like phone booths and penny candy. Now seemed like the time to find out where everybody had gone – whether the Me Decades or a generation of ramped-up fear had made that highway commons a different place, and made us a different people – suspicious, driving solo, insulated by our custom music and podcasts.

Also, I had just turned 60. In another year I could be having a hip transplant, or worse. I realized I was in a rare position, as lives go: no elderly parents, no wife, no girlfriend, not even a dog. No disabilities. My two grown daughters seemed to turn pale when I mentioned the trip (the urge to wander being a symptom of Alzheimer’s disease), but they weren’t about to say no. Suddenly, thumbing halfway across the country – farther than I ever had before – had become something I knew I had to do now, before it would be impossible or certainly just crazier. It was something I knew I would deeply regret not doing.

But what was I thinking? Even when thumbing was commonplace, hitchhikers were an object of suspicion, and old ones even more so. Now I could easily be taken for a guy fresh off a 40-year hitch in the penitentiary. A crazy. A deadbeat. And that was even if people understood the meaning of the little sign I was holding, with its one, handwritten word: “West.” So after two hours on the shoulder that morning (and one hour the evening before), I was beginning to have my own doubts. If I’d wanted to celebrate my seniority, why hadn’t I just gone on a cruise or cut back on salt? Twenty-four hours after leaving my Minneapolis home, I was stuck in Albany, Minn., only four rides and 100 miles up the road, and the first 40 had been on a commuter train out of town. Turning back east, to what was close and familiar, suddenly seemed to make sense.

That’s when the big red pickup hauling the enormous horse trailer slowed to a long halt on the entrance ramp shoulder. The driver opened his door and waved to me.

“Where you going?” I asked.

“Bismarck,” he said.

And I was in.

I began hitchhiking to get to high school, as my brother had before me. We lived on a busy street near a traffic signal, so we could simply walk the line of idling cars, books under our arms, asking for rides. We were clean cut and always got to school, which of course got me thinking this was a pretty reliable way to get from place to place.

In time, my hitchhiking horizons broadened. There were trips on college weekends to see my sweetie, or relatives in Chicago, or friends in Sioux City or Saugatuck. Trips to big-city concerts, and once 1,000 miles to an antiwar protest in Washington, D.C. That trip featured a night in jail for my young wife and me in Henry County, Ill. (for walking on the interstate shoulder, though insurrection was implied).

Hitchhikers were a common sight in those days. In fact, there were so many that on busy highways we often had to negotiate who got to stand where, or ask drivers to drop us off farther up the road, where there wasn’t so much competition for the next ride. If a rusty old van came limping over the hill you could often count on it pulling over to absorb everyone into the river of road-trippers. But all kinds of rides were possible. Businessmen in wide, air-conditioned sedans often stopped, looking for someone to keep them awake with conversation or to pepper with questions about us young kids and hair and the war. Guys just out of the service, readjusting, curious about college and girls and driving hot new cars. Sometimes “older” couples with kids about our age. All types, and they’d often tell their secrets, encouraged by the odd intimacy of the front seat, where the hours demand conversation but eye contact is difficult. And then they dropped you off and drove out of your life, leaving you a little closer to your destination, with their stories now in your bag.

Soon, of course, I got my own cars, and kids, and jobs. Getting away required more time management and less whimsy. In the fall of 1979, I thumbed part of the way from Minnesota to New Mexico, and returned cold, late and exhausted. That was the last time I’d hitchhike, until 32 years later.

In that time I don’t believe I saw even a dozen hitchhikers, total, anywhere in the U.S. The aging of the baby boomers, I’m sure, was part of it. So was the growth in vehicle ownership.

In 1965, there were about 47 vehicles on the road in the U.S. for every 100 residents, according to the Federal Highway Administration. In 2007, the number was 84. That’s getting close to one vehicle for every man, woman and child in the country. Meanwhile, one glimpse of a high school parking lot will tell you that kids who once might have been likely to stick their thumbs out on a highway shoulder now don’t lack for personal transportation. And if everybody’s got their own wheels (or a cut-rate airline ticket), who’s left to bum rides?

There are some people — experts, in fact — who view hitchhiking as an environmentally and socially positive thing to do. A solo driver is hauling space that is “a colossal resource that we waste,” according to Alan Pisarski, an international transportation policy analyst and author of “Commuting in America.” And hitchhiking could reduce that waste, he says, with new communications technologies helping people find rides while easing the risks and fear associated with hitchhiking. That’s already been happening in Washington, D.C., and some other large cities, where commuters have developed an informal but website-supported activity called “slugging.” Slugs — the riders — connect with drivers at designated locations, and both get to work more quickly than they otherwise might because the driver qualifies for the high-occupancy vehicle lanes on freeways. Slugging even has its own code of in-the-car etiquette, governing the radio, talking and coffee-drinking. And authorities have winked.

But long-haul hitchhiking, quite a different enterprise from commuting, doesn’t appear to have many practitioners. If you’ve grown up getting rides from your parents, who then gave you your own car, while you also became accustomed to the instant responsiveness of the Internet, or if you’ve had your own wheels for the last 40 years, why would you subject yourself to the uncertainties of unscheduled rides with strangers? Serendipity is just too cute a word for it.

And let’s not ignore the fear factor. It’s a cliché by now: the hitchhiker, kidnapped, cut up and left in a plastic bag on the side of the road. Or, conversely, the hitchhiker who robs and kills the people who picked him up. The 1974 film “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” is still getting mileage out of that one. Meanwhile, Let’s Go Publications, the series of travel books founded in 1960, which grafted the cheap utility of hitchhiking onto the romance of youthful travel, by the 1980s was warning that the practice was dangerous. In 2011, the books got rid of their “thumb” logo altogether.

But how well-placed is that fear of hitchhiking? Some say not very: Most murder victims know their killer. Noted sports statistician Bill James, who has recently turned to crime analysis, says that hitchhikers aren’t any more of a danger to society than any other group of people that might include random predators. Crime didn’t go down when hitchhiking slacked off, he added. And while he says he doesn’t pick up hitchhikers himself, he regards the practice as good for society (apart from his personal safety), by building trust and a sense of community.

When I called the Montana state patrol before I left to ask what was legal and what wasn’t, the woman who answered the phone used the word “dangerous.” When I asked what she meant, she said it’s not that hitchhikers are getting waylaid, it’s just that people standing or walking on the shoulder of the road often get hit. “You’ve got to be totally on your ‘A’ game,” she said.

But the shrewdest insight I found in my preparations came from Elijah Wald, author of “Riding With Strangers/A Hitchhiker’s Journey,” and a lifelong, global hitchhiker. These days, predators aren’t out burning $3.50-per-gallon gas looking for victims, Wald wrote. More likely they’re cruising the Information Highway. And that wasn’t my route.

I’d be joking if I said I knew how to prepare for this trip. I had no idea how long it would take me, and although I planned to fly home, I couldn’t buy a ticket, because I didn’t know when (or how) I’d get from Twisp to the Seattle airport. I didn’t know where I’d be each night. And for some reason — probably years of driving around on my own, and stopping when I wanted to — I was really worried about whether I’d get to the bathroom enough, and how I’d avoid getting hungry. And would I get coffee when I needed it?

I did make one rule for myself: No camping. At my age I deserved a motel room after a long day on the road, even a cheap one. Of course that also meant I wouldn’t have to carry a big load of gear, either. So I packed a borrowed backpack with a couple of changes of clothes, a rain jacket, a laptop and a heavy but otherwise forgettable book. I also packed a foam board that I could break into pieces to make signs, and a big, thick marking pen. My granddaughter had made me a card reading “Good Luck! Have Fun!” which I tucked into my book as my good luck charm. I locked up the house, not knowing exactly when I’d be back or even how far I’d get.

I had told very few people about this. I’d started a blog I would update often on the road; I’d also developed a plan with my kids to text them every time I got picked up, and then again when I got dropped off. I’d thought about shooting pictures of license plates of cars that had pulled over for me and emailing them, but I quickly realized that was the exactly the sort of thing I didn’t want to do: approach would-be rides with suspicion. Good judgment, yes. Suspicion, no. And gratitude, yes.

The pickup driver was John Berger, hauling eight bucking bulls and a pony from a rodeo in Rice Lake, Wis., back to his home in Mandan, N.D.

“You looked like a clean-cut fellow,” he said, when I asked why he’d picked me up.

I’d never ridden with bucking bulls. But hitchhiking trips are full of surprises, and this one was already pushing the limit. The day before, in fact, the second ride of the trip had been (for me) unprecedented: a lift on the back of a motorcycle.

“You gotta be kidding,” I said when Dale, a well-built guy in a tank top with several spikes in his face, pulled over to where I stood on the entrance ramp at Monticello, Minn.

“This’ll work. Just tie that backpack on with those bungees,” he said.

I turned my cap around (seems I hadn’t packed a helmet), and as we leaned into the traffic, Dale asked if I was hungry or thirsty. His church, the Church of the Living Water, just up the road in Clearwater, Minn., was giving away food, water and clothes to anybody who stopped by. I’d just eaten, and I didn’t want to lose time, so I asked him just to drop me at the closest exit. But then: an epiphany. I had no control of time, I realized. No control of anything, really. I didn’t know where I’d be from hour to hour, or whom I’d be riding with. And wasn’t that the point? I could stand at a hot freeway interchange waiting for a ride that might or might not materialize, or I could go to Dale’s church picnic, meet people I would never seek out in my normal life, and then ride farther up the road on the back of his motorcycle to St. Cloud, tacking hard into the wind. I realized I’d have to chuck my usual impatience. And it meant that, even in a small way, I’d have to discover faith. I’d get somewhere. It would take however long it took.

I had to trust that the rides would come.

And they did. By Sunday night, I was in Glendive, Mont., more than 500 miles from Albany, Minn., where I’d thought about turning around that morning. After Berger and his bucking bulls, I got picked up by a National Guard chaplain whose wife was the superintendent of schools in Dickinson, N.D. Then I crossed the high plains of western North Dakota with Terry, a high-speed talker who was wearing a Hawaiian shirt, since he’d spent the day managing his gas well-drilling company’s golf tournament. These were people I should fear?

As the sun set, I had clearly reached the West. Vent flames from natural gas wells — a signature feature of the new industry turning western North Dakota inside out — dotted the vast, treeless landscape like fireflies. Glendive, Mont., which I remembered as a quiet outpost on the range, was now busy with trucks pulling off the highway and men just hanging around in small groups outside the few motels – workers gearing up for another week in the fracking fields or on the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe railroad expansion. I was lucky to get a room. But luck was with me, I now believed.

The next day, Monday, another gas worker, heading from New Town, N.D., to his home in Caldwell, Idaho, for a three-week vacation, hauled me nearly 300 miles to Bozeman, Mont. Berger had been right: Once I got out of Minnesota, the rides would get longer. I quit for the night after one more ride, to Three Forks, Mont., now three days and 1,000 miles from home. More than halfway.

Tuesday morning I stopped for breakfast in a restaurant next to the motel, plopping my pack onto a chair and lying across the top my latest handmade sign, which now read, “Missoula.” The waitress asked why I had the sign.

I explained that I was hitchhiking, and that I wasn’t really going to Missoula, but well beyond that. She wished me luck, and 10 minutes later, as I was paying my bill, slipped me two fresh scones in a bag.

No charge. “In case you get hungry,” she said.

Suddenly I realized that, as I inched my way west, at the mercy of strangers and sun, people were actually looking out for me. “I saw you when I was going the other way, and couldn’t believe you were still here,” several said. A pair of off-duty tribal police officers picked me up in succession, providing a sort of police escort through some otherwise sparsely traveled country. And two drivers, when I asked why they’d picked me up, said God had told them to.

But it was after that breakfast at Three Forks, posted on the shoulder at Milepost 278, that I received a sign from the ancestors. Bored and wandering along the shoulder, checking out the trash and wildflowers as little traffic came by, I thought about taking a picture of the streetlight at the entrance as it curved in graceful isolation against the open, blue sky. And as I approached the base, I noticed a rusted inscription at eye level:

“Rainbow Krystal. 7/1/81. Good Hitching to You All.” Thirty years ago!

Krystal was probably long gone from the road, and maybe even from life. But the connection felt almost alive. Here, at last, was my traveling companion — a vaporous partner, joined through time in the adventure and the tedium, in the youthful dependence on the kindness of strangers, in the gluttonous delight in the scent of hot sage and the chirping of meadowlarks, and in the simple, summery joy of moving on, particularly west. Here was someone who knew the way, who’d stood in this very spot, trying to flag a ride. Times had changed, sure. But even though I was waiting longer for rides than I ever remembered, Krystal might have found the experience familiar: a trip down a vivid receiving line of eccentrics and brooders, protectors and braggarts, seekers and lecturers, actors and emcees. Some were former hitchhikers returning the favor, while others said they thought it might be something they’d try themselves someday. And all of them, for a little while, were neighbors. (And, yes, one was too drunk to be driving.)

Whatever they sought from me — conversation, or the fulfillment of some mission (none asked for money) — I hope I provided. Thank you, Krystal. And to those who follow: Good Hitching to You All!

There wasn’t much traffic late the next afternoon as I walked north through Bridgeport, Wash., about 50 two-lane miles from my primary destination: Twisp, Wash., where my friend had just bought the weekly newspaper. (And you thought my road trip was nutty?) I passed the town’s only motel, boarded up a generation ago, and started wondering if I’d need to sneak under someone’s porch to sleep. I heard several cars approaching, turned, and locked in on a small, blue BMW convertible. “This would be nice,” I thought.

The car slowed. The driver, wearing a plaid shirt and amber glasses, appraised me, then stopped at my feet.

“Hop in. You’re going to Brewster?” he said, reading my sign, indicating the only destination I thought people in the area might recognize.

“Actually, I’m trying to get to Twisp,” I said. The word sounded funny, but the idea was becoming reality.

“I’m going right through Twisp,” he said.

And so the best came last — an easy cruise in a luxury two-seat convertible, winding down the Columbia and up the smaller Methow River as twilight enveloped the mountains. Claude Bannick, the driver, who turned out to be a prominent lumberman in the valley, told me about how he and his late wife had hitchhiked all over Europe. Had I not been so aware of how I’d arrived at this moment, I might have thought the music on the satellite radio — the Grateful Dead — was proof I had returned to another time. But this was clearly now.

Because when we drove into Twisp, there was my pal Don, now a publisher, waiting in front of the Methow Valley News office. I introduced him to Claude, now his neighbor in the valley. These days, it’s all about networking.


I’m pretty sure that’s the last time I’ll hitchhike. I really am too old for that sort of thing; a highway shoulder is a loud, dirty, assaultive place to spend a day. The long waits and doubts can be wearying. Several friends said later they never thought I’d make it, and while I was glad they hadn’t told me that, I could hardly believe it myself.

Was I lucky? Was I ever. Luck has always been part of it, though patience is its partner. It’s possible that in some other week I might have gotten few rides and had to fly home from Billings — or even Fargo. Or it might have rained. Or that deputy sheriff way back at Albany, Minn., might have visited me a second time, asked me if I wasn’t the same guy he’d told to get off the road the night before, and hauled me to the local senior center.

But in 19 rides over 1,700 miles I found that it’s still possible to hitchhike in America, and get where you’re going. Perhaps we’re even on the verge of a renaissance. I’ll leave that to others. But I do believe they’ll find that the American road is still a hospitable place, that our fellow travelers are curious and caring, and that fear will get you nowhere.

By Bill McAuliffe

Bill McAuliffe has been a staff writer at the Minneapolis Star Tribune for 32 years. He lives in Minneapolis. Follow him on Twitter @BillMcMpls.

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