My guide to hitchhiking

I passed a hitchhiker the other day when I was out for a run and it got me thinking…

I have a firm belief that everyone should hitchhike in their life. Periodically, even. I think the world would be a better place if we all did.

First, let me address some basic requirements: Hitchhiking is for adults. And I don’t think there’s any real incremental benefit to hitching solo, so for god’s sake, take a friend. Maybe two, but not a crowd. The distance needn’t be epic, but it must be long enough that you wouldn’t be willing to walk it. Or get there another way. If there’s bus fare in your pocket and a back-up plan scheduled in 20 minutes, you might be sticking a thumb out…  but that’s not the hitching I’m talking about here.

Which brings us right to the crux of the matter. Hitchhiking means relinquishing control and trusting your fate to the universe. Not some overdramatic version of fate, but how and when you will get where you want to go. By adulthood, most of us take for granted the very real independence of being able to get ourselves to the next town, or the trailhead, or wherever we need to go. Most likely in our car, but alternately via public transit, bike, friends, etc. Sometimes, though, asking the universe to provide is the best option.

So, you’re hitching. This requires standing along a road and signaling any passing traffic that you need a ride. First, be considerate enough of your potential driver to make sure they will see you as they approach, that there’s someplace for them to safely pull over, and that it’s likely they will be going in the direction you want to go.

There’s no being coy about the fact that you are hitching; you need that one good, kind, generous person to know in no uncertain terms that you need a ride. And to help them decide at a glance if they are going to stop, you want to signal as clearly as possible to each passing car that you are good and pleasant and not at all scary. Experienced hitchers elevate this to an art form; use your imagination.

So you’re standing on the side of the road, and this will very likely be uncomfortable for a number of reasons. Most of us have ideas about the kind of people who hitchhike and you probably don’t fit your own stereotype. So reconcile that while holding out your thumb prominently. Most people will not stop; but most people will judge you and you will clearly see their amusement, confusion, sympathy, or scorn through the windshield as they pass.

Inevitably, there will be times when you have to wait longer than you imagined possible for a ride. Probably while cars stream past, indifferent. You will grow cross and despairing and think horrible things about the occupants of each car with perfectly empty seats clearly going exactly where you need to get. You will be tempted to act out your rage in fantastic and imaginative ways but mostly you will give a friendly wave in the faint hope you might convince them to reconsider for the next hitchhiker they pass. Over and over again, you will put on your friendly face and force yourself to believe that the next car will be the one that will rescue you from the blazing heat radiating off the blacktop and you will be wrong. Until one time, you will be right.

A car will pull over, and you will grab your bag and hustle up to the window for the awkward dance: “ohmygod, thank you so much for stopping!”, “where are you headed?”, and inevitably, “we don’t really have room but if you don’t mind both sharing the one seat, with the dog, and packs on your lap…” (Murphy’s law definitely applies here. If 99 cars pass with empty seats and cargo room, the one that stops will be packed to the gills but willing to warp the laws of physics to squeeze you in.)

And now, it’s game on. You may have thought that hitching was mostly about suffering indignities on the side of the road, but that’s the easy part. This amazing, generous, patient stranger just interrupted their day to rescue you from the side of the road and help you on your way. And all you really have to offer in return is friendly conversation. They might be dirty hippies, conservative fundamentalists, or angry loners. But you are going to try your damnedest to be polite, to return kindness, to not offend, to make them glad they picked you up. You will suddenly be curious and openminded about their choice of music, their life circumstances, their worldview. You will contort your own ideas and opinions to make room for theirs.

This driver is helping you out and therefore, you want to see the good in this person, and you also want them to be endeared to you. Because you are, to some extent, at their mercy now. They could drive recklessly or leave you someplace impossible to navigate on foot or get another ride. Or perhaps they will drive miles out of their way to drop you at your destination, call ahead to arrange your next ride, or feed and shelter you for the night. Both will happen, but mostly you will meet kind and fascinating strangers and have conversations you never imagined with people you would have never had reason to talk to or care about. And you will get where you are going in the process.

The system forces a special kind of humility, and when it works out, it inspires a special confidence in humanity. Which is exactly why more hitchhiking would make the world a better place. So please, do your part and stick your thumb out now and then.

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