Hitching in America
Life just isn’t the same as it used to be. Kids could run and play in the yard and parents didn’t bat an eye thinking about them being picked up by crazies. If you just started flying commercially in the last six years then you won’t remember when bottles of liquid over 3.4 oz weren’t always bomb threats. Also, as I’ve heard from my countless elders, a person could stand on the side of the road and expect to get a ride from a complete stranger.
I caught the travel bug while studying abroad. Since I desired a “follow your dreams” type of college degree I am insured to only accomplished continued travel by doing it as cheaply as possible. I have experimented with this in a few different ways; either being paid to work somewhere else, road-tripping in a fuel efficient vehicle, hostels, Couchsurfing, etc. As you work your way down the cheap-scale, you find that you’re not really lowering your standards of travel. In all actuality you are experiencing a more organic, fundamental, deeper means of experiencing the world.
Still though, there were means of travel I hadn’t attempted yet. Certain method’s of achieving one’s “A to B” are looked down upon, even feared. I was ready for it. I had seen a friend (well not actually seen, but heard about it from him) utilize his skills of the road across Africa, Central America, and thus far even the West Coast USA. He was still alive, uninjured, and possessed exponentially more stories because of this reinvention of old travel.
It was simple. Elegant. Safer for the environment. It required very little of you financially and could take you great distances. It forced you to travel light, which has many intrinsic benefits. His experience gave me the courage to want to try it. I had a destination in mind and this was the way I wanted to go about getting there. Only thing was…I didn’t want to tell my parents about it.
Let me recall the conversation:
Me: “Hey Dad, I’m taking a trip to Seattle.”
Dad: “Well that sounds good. How are you getting there?”
Me: “Driving with my friend.”
Dad: “Oh, that sounds good. Are you taking his car or yours?”
Me: “Actually we’re not taking either of our cars.”
Dad: “Well, how are you going to get there then?”
Me: “We’re hitch hiking.”
Dad: “What?!? No you’re not. Really? No come on, are you guys flying?”
Me: “No dad. It’s for real.”
After that, the rest was easy. We began our journey here in La Crosse, WI. I won’t get into the details of every stop and ride but let me tell you, there were quite a few entertaining ones. Thankfully none of them ever made me fear for my life. Within two days we’d made our destination of Denver, CO. Total money spent…$0.00. How did we do that you ask? Secrets of the road my friends.
The concept is simple, but there are little things you can do. It’s about knowing your audience, guessing what will make the hundreds of people driving by want you to ride with them. Do I make a sign telling them where I’m going? Is it ok to sit or will they think I’m lazy? Sunglasses or no? Maybe if I play with my phone they’ll think I’m not just a hobo. Is a smile too cheesy? As two guys hitching together will we have better or worse luck than say a single guy, or guy/girl combo? On the road you think about these things and try a variety, but in the end the people that want to stop are the ones that will stop.
We stayed with an old college friend there and soon it was time for my buddy and I to split ways. My journey continued up to Mt. Rainier National Park to visit another friend. Here I volunteered with the Revegetation Crew to pick weeds for the week. I couldn’t come so far without a weekend in Seattle so I broke the thumb out again and made my way up. The weather was beautiful, and as the locals made sure to inform me, not what it’s usually like. Personally I like my unscathed version.
I had a wedding to photograph on the third Saturday of my trip, the end of three weeks. I gave myself five days to return home. It was slow going at first, short distances and staying in houses. Montana is believe it or not, a rather large state. We were slow to cross it, until one morning I was offered a ride with a couple headed all the way to Ohio. Turned out they even changed their direction a little to get me within six miles of my parents home. It was a good, long sixteen hour trek but got me back on time and I was able to enjoy a night out in La Crosse before wedding day.
When it comes down to it, this is really a story about trusting those you don’t know. My eyes were opened once again to the fact that the world, even in America, is not only full of rapists and murderers. When I told people what I was doing I always got mixed reviews, “You’re crazy! Don’t you know how dangerous it is?” Ha, do you? Have you ever tried it? Or sometimes you get, “Wow, that is really amazing. I wish I had the guts to try it.” The majority of the people who picked me up were those who had hitched in their youth. It might have been around the country, maybe every day to and from school. Aside from those who used to hitch, the rest always told me, “I don’t ever pick up hitch hikers. But you looked like a decent guy.”
Somewhere along the line our mentality has changed. Growing up in this new fearful society, I feel like I’m missing something. Media shows us the ugliest of the ugly, missing persons, estranged families, parents that bag up their babies and dispose of them in the river, the list goes on and on. Nobody wants to hear these success stories though, such as crossing America with nothing but a backpack and a camera. At least not as often as the bad stuff. On the road I was inspired to try and change our current mindset. It may take awhile, but it would sure help to have a few more reputable faces out there.
Next time you need groceries in town or a lift to school…stick out your thumb. You might find you like it.
*By strangers I refer to the traveler’s website, “www.couchsurfing.org“, a website that allows you to really get a taste of a place on the cheap. Also, significantly more intimately than from a bed and breakfast or a ritzy hotel.