Hitchhiking, like trainhopping, is an activity that was intertwined with romantic images of independence and adventure in the Beat era and the 60’s, but has since hit upon hard times. It’s unclear which one now has a more sordid image in the mainstream imagination ~ while trainhoppers could be deadbeats and drunks, hitchhikers after all could be serial killers. And hitchhiking is illegal around prison areas because it might facilitate the getaway of escapees; in some states it is illegal everywhere, prison area or otherwise.
Still, there were quite a number of people that picked us up that seemed thrilled to have us. Some wanted to help us out, some wanted to talk, and some were pleased to reminisce about their own meanderings as hitchhikers, back in their hippie days.
While we were trainhopping washouts, we became masters at hitchhiking. We hitchhiked from Northern California up through Oregon and Washington in a single ride ~ spanning 3 days in the same truck, and involving a lot of kim chee, rice, and spicy instant ramen (our friendly truck driver was a Korean social worker, accompanied by a trainee friend that had just arrived from Seoul.) From Montana to South Dakota then to the Midwest and then south to Texas, and then all the way to the East Coast (D.C./Baltimore), all of our transport was through hitchhiking, except for a couple of detours that required cars for a few days (to be explained.)
But we discovered that it doesn’t require Sissy Hankshaw thumbs or an inordinate amount of intelligence to become blackbelts in hitchhiking ~ we clearly had neither. The only special attribute we had was simply that we were women. For two women hitchhiking together, less people are afraid to pick you up. Thus we would get rides with all kinds of people, including couples with infants, who would say that they had never picked anyone else up before but felt they should help us out. Thus in general we would normally get a ride within maybe 20 minutes, provided we were standing in the right place. The only places that we had some difficulty were some small towns in South Dakota, and cities in the East Coast; we could only guess that it was because of the greater level of conservatism and paranoia engrained in those cultures.
So how does one go about hitchhiking? Again, I’m not recommending or not recommending it to anyone, but for ourselves, what we figured out to be the best rules of thumb for thumbing around the country were the following:
(1) The first rule of course, when hitchhiking in the United States, or anywhere in the Galaxy [see the Hitchhiker’s Guide to], is DON’T PANIC;
(2) Make a sign indicating where you’d like to go, in large friendly letters;
(3) Stand on the right road going in the right direction, in a visible spot which also allows space for a car or truck to pull over;
(4) Try to look as (a) non-threatening, (b) friendly, (c) cute, (d) interesting, or (e) pathetic as possible, depending on what you think will work with the target population; and
(5) Take the sign and your thumb and stick it out for all passerbys to see.
Usually a driver that is interested will need a few seconds to look you over, think, and stop. Sometimes they pass you, reconsider, and then come around the block. The usual procedure is that he or she will stop and then talk to you a bit, usually asking you where you’re going, but in truth trying to ascertain if you are going to murder them if they let you into their car, and weighing the potential risk against any possible benefits or good samaritan urges.
Like trainhopping, hitchhiking has online resources, for instance, Hitchwiki.org, a hitchhiker-edited website, and www.digihitch.com.
It is quite interesting to observe the reactions of people when one hangs on the side of the road with backpacks, thumbs, and a sign composed of friendly letters hand-drawn in black magic marker on a piece of office paper taped to a beat-up manila folder. Some people demonstrated a consummate amount of skill in avoiding eye contact, like New Yorkers on the Subway; others scowled at us tremendously like ultra-constipated American Gothics; and one man, who had a hairdo that looked like it involved a toupé and who reminded me of the character in Milk that fires the fatal shots against Harvey, came up to us and said, positively angry, “Do you know how dangerous this is?!” and then walked away (without offering us a ride or anything).
Others, however, laughed and looked amused, with one car in the middle of South Dakota U-turning hurriedly to release two tourists from Virginia who eagerly asked to take a photo of us. And some, of course, actually stopped and gave us rides.
Though we rode most frequently with long distance truck drivers, we also got rides with a plethora of people ~ individuals, couples, families, teenagers. They included artists, musicians, farmers, a preacher, rodeo riders, a nurse, a doctor, a prison guard (female), co-dependents, ex-hippies, ex-hitchhikers, ex-convicts, ex-drug addicts, ex-drug dealers, cancer survivors, a suicide attempt survivor, a white supremacist, immigrants, refugees, migrant workers, truckers, bikers, veterans (Vietnam and Iraq), fast food managers, a fashion designer, a firefighter, a cage fighter, a gang member, a soccer coach (and former player on a national team), a male stripper (and aspiring porn star), and a swinger.
We discovered that the psychologies of people that tend to stop for hitchhikers might be categorized in the following way:
People that are going long distances and don’t want to fall asleep;
People that want to talk to you, or, simply want to hear themselves talk;
People that feel sorry for you, and/or, want to help someone out: these include co-dependents (who seek to have others depend on them in order to increase self-esteem), as well as paranoiacs (who are so worried about the badness of the world, that they feel like they have to rescue you before someone else kills you);
People interested in fringe people, who are often fringe people themselves; and
Would-be serial killers or the like.
We discovered hitchhiking in cargo trucks to be the fastest and cheapest way to travel long distances. Cargo truck drivers can drive 10 or more hours in one day; once we covered 4 states in a single ride. They were perfect modes of transport for cross-country travel because one could find a truck going almost anywhere ~ every town in the U.S. seems to be addicted to imports from other parts of the country or world. One trucker driver told us that the gas price crisis that hit in 2008 was brought under control because truck drivers went on strike ~ they refused to work because they could not make a living when a gallon cost $4; the whole country was paralyzed when the trucks were not moving, and gas companies brought the prices back down to around $2.
In order to get a ride on a cargo truck, the best thing to do is to find the nearest truck stop, make a sign, and stand somewhere that is visible to truckers going in the right direction. There is a vast network of truck stops servicing the world of truckers. Some are like small cities – they have restaurants, laundry, showers some LED shower heads if you are lucky, convenience shops, gift stores, etc. Flying J and Pilot are examples of chains that operate truck stops all over the country; many truckers have memberships to them, and one can get a little book telling you exactly where to find the next one along any freeway in the United States. But when trying to get a ride at a truck stop, one should be somewhere that is not obvious to the store workers or management, because they might call the cops. They might just not like vagranty-looking people, or might be paranoid you’re a hooker. Apparently there is a sex industry that accompanies the trucking industry, and prostitutes tend to work by trolling truck stops and climbing into trucks for sex. Someone told us that truckers call prostitutes “Lot Lizards”, which we thought was kind of mean.
Truck stops are a different universe, where physical reality and rules of normalcy are distorted ~ everything about the trucks, the truckers, and trucking seem to be abnormally large and/or a bit strange (no offense to truckers).
On a ride through Iowa, we happened upon the “World’s Largest Truck Stop” somewhere along the I-80. A garantuan trucker’s Disneyland ~ with attractions including a 300-seat restaurant with a 50-ft. salad bar, one-of-a-kind Truckers’ Warehouse Store, 24 private showers, Dolby Surround Sound movie theater, Driver’s Den, Game Room, Embroidery Center, Barber, Dentist, TA Service Center, Truckomat, CAT Scale (to check weight of the loads), Fuel Center, and Food Court ~ it had its own logo that was emblazened everywhere, including on towering signs around the property; we took a picture under one of them. You could also get souvenirs like postcards, T-shirts, and other paraphenalia with the logo (Joey was so swept away that she sent a bunch of these postcards out to her friends.)
Another time we got dropped off at a truck stop late at night, in which innumerable, mammoth 18-wheelers pulled themselves slowly around in the foggy darkness. Each had heads of fantastic colors, shapes, pipes and antennas, making them uniquely resemble some kind of mythical beast; with the thrumming of idling engines in the air, I felt like a marmot in a lost land of dinosaurs and dragons.
During the course of our journey we spent a lot of time with truckers, and I have to say that I developed a general liking to them. At least the ones that picked us up were for the most part very nice people. We discovered that truckers as a whole are very independent folk that like to travel; some of them encouraged me to get a CDL and join their ranks, because they thought I was of similar temperament. While some Borg-like corporations owed fleets of hundreds of trucks, it is still an industry where an individual could invest and build a successful small business ~ we met a lot of the truckers that owned their own vehicles, or worked in a very small business. They were the ones that had the freedom to pick us up ~ the corporate employees were prohibited. Many truckers were also bikers ~ they had motorcycles (usually 2 or more each), and biked around on long trips on their free time.
Some did fit the stereotype of tattoed, foul-mouthed, racist, sexist, homophobic, gun-toting, conservatives. But for the most part, the ones that picked us up were genuinely generous and gentle, opening up to us at a human level, and being willing to listen and discuss our pink and green views on issues like race, gender, and sexual equality, while patiently accomodating our vegetarianism and obsession with recycling.
How does hitchhiking compare to trainhopping? There are at least three major dimensions where they diverge greatly: speed and convenience, comfort, and sociability.
Relatively speaking, hitchhhiking is a much more efficient endeavor than trainhopping. Unlike trainhopping, you can plan your itinerary by only accepting rides that fit in with it, and while clearly never completely controllable, you can have more of a general sense of when and where you are going to arrive.
Hitchhiking is also worlds more comfortable and safe. With trainhopping, you’re catching a ride either inside a cargo car or outside of one; neither place is made for people, and so consequently don’t have seats, temperature control and the like. That’s not true with hitchhiking (unless you take a ride in the back of a pickup truck.) With hitching, you can usually sit in a cushy seat, with aircon or heating as the case may be, as well as ask to stop to go to the bathroom, purchase food and water, and even listen to music.
18-wheeler trucks also have additional amenities than a regular car ~ the cabins are pretty spacious and can be luxurious (well, at least compared to a freight train) on the inside. It is usually the size and shape of a box about 10 feet on each side. The ones we saw usually had a drivers’ seat with bouncy suspension mechanism, with a similar passenger seat; a dashboard that looked like an old war plane or a space ship; for older trucks, a supersized stickshift that sprouts from the floor, between the two seats; beds in the back (usually a full size bed with a smaller bunk bed on top); and in addition, through shelves and cabinets built around walls and extending to the ceilings, enough room to stash a wide assortment of food, beverages, luggage, and electronics. Most truckers have small refrigerators and microwaves, and some have a full entertainment system including stereo, television and DVD players.
Further, hitchhiking is a different world than trainhopping because it is a much more social activity ~ you have to have people stop for you, and make them feel comfortable before and during the ride. Thus hitchhiking requires some amount of social finesse, because it depends on another person. Trainhopping, on the other hand, is much more independent, and can be exercised as a lone activity in which you only engage with the train. In hitchhiking, you are constantly engaged with the driver; Kerouac called this social requirement “one of the biggest troubles hitchhiking.”
I didn’t mind talking to people but I realized it was quite challenging to try to figure out what to talk about with someone you don’t know for 1 to 50+ hours. It occurred to me that those “geisha manners” that I had scoffed at when my mother had attempted to instill them in me in her efforts to marry me off, might actually be useful when applied toward noble purposes (such as hitchhiking). Geishas, those mysterious Japanese entertainers somewhere between hostesses and prostitutes, were highly trained to be able to entertain and converse with anyone about anything: traditionally they received instruction in music and dance, as well as studied a wide array of topics including literature, politics, economics and currrent events ~ some knowledge was required to be able to discuss, or even listen and sympathize, with the potential client about his cares (he might after all be a high level power player.)
We discovered that being able to converse with people very different from you is indeed a useful skill in life, especially in hitchhiking. Silence freaks many people out, particularly if it comes from a hitchhiker ~ they start wondering if you’re going to serial kill them. A flowing conversation makes the driver more relaxed and comfortable, and keeps him or her awake. We learned also that the happy driver was more willing to try to help us out, and to not drop us off somewhere weird; some people took us much farther than they were initially planning to because we were good listeners and conversationalists.
For 95% of the people we encountered, we genuinely liked talking to them, so we didn’t have to fake anything ~ we bestowed our geisha gifts liberally as grateful recompense for their niceness. The visible gratification this seemed to provide made us aware of the extent to which many people don’t seem to have anyone that really talks or listens to them.
Whether greased by geisha manner, anonymity, or something else, a sort of confessional relationship can arise in the course of hitchhiking. The hitchhiker and the hitchhikee don’t know each other; they will likely never see each other again. They share a few moments in which their worlds intersect, opening up a hallowed dimension in time and space where they can choose to distill and reveal their core essence ~ the passion and pathos, the pride and shame ~ of their brief, mortal life.
One man that picked us in South Dakota chatted with us, and in a short span of time, maybe 15 minutes, we grew to know something about each other. He shared with us that his name was Fred, he grew up in Apache land in Arizona, had become a Marine, and later was an alcoholic for many years, but now was recovering. When asked how it was to be a Marine, he looked at me, but without rancor, said, “Well, I killed a lot of women and children.” I was taken aback, but kept listening. It had been in Vietnam; that’s why he had started drinking. I asked him if he was better now. Yes, he said, he had received a lot of help. At the end of the ride, he told us to be careful and wished us well. He had an extraordinarily tattered cowboy hat that seemed prone to succumbing at any minute to entropy and scattering in pieces off his head, and poignantly hard working hands.
Another man that picked up in Wyoming was clearly curious as to why we were standing in the middle of road. When we told him that we had hitchhiked there from California, he exclaimed, “You girls got balls!!” He seemed invigorated by the idea.
He was probably in his thirties, a quiet man, who we learned lived on a ranch down the road. He had ridden for rodeos in the past. He had recently gone through a divorce; he lived with only his dogs and the cattle, taking care of their every need. He was obviously happy to talk to us, and the contact seemed to be generating a percolating enthusiasm that wanted to brim out of him, but he was clearly out of practice with that language thing and unable to express all he wanted. Yet although he didn’t have the words for it, I felt like he had also given us a confessional, one speaking of loneliness, memory, and longing, but also of hope, energy and renewal.
Originally posted here