Sunday morning traffic screamed past on Interstate 94 in Albany, Minn. — families heading for the lake, truckers facing deadlines, couples heading down the road to breakfast. The sun crept higher, its glare intensifying, along with my sense of the drivers’ indifference. An hour. Two hours.
All I’d have to do was hop across the median and turn my back on all of this — head east, back to the Twin Cities and home, and forget I’d even thought about hitchhiking to visit a friend in Twisp, Wash., 1,500 miles away in the mountains east of Seattle. I could be home in two hours, and spend my week’s vacation fishing.
That’s when the red pickup hauling the enormous horse trailer slowed to a long halt.
“Where you going?” I asked the driver.
“Bismarck,” he said.
I was in. Decades ago I’d been one of thousands of hitchhikers lining the nation’s highways, but in the past 30 years (driving my own vehicles, of course) I probably hadn’t seen even a dozen, anywhere in the United States. I wanted to understand what had changed about the American road I once thought I knew. I’d turned 60, and summer was coming. There was no waiting.
I’d told a select few people I was going — friends who I knew would understand why, at my age, I didn’t just go on a cruise or cut back on salt. And I gave short notice. I told my kids — grown-ups and moms now — who went slightly pale, but knew they couldn’t argue. When people asked if I was afraid, I quoted Elijah Wald, a lifelong global hitchhiker and author who wrote that these days predators aren’t out burning up $3.50-per-gallon gas looking for victims; they’re working the Information Highway.
Then on a Saturday morning in August, I hopped on the Northstar commuter train in downtown Minneapolis with a borrowed backpack and a handmade sign reading “West,” hopped off in Big Lake and headed for the highway.
There are a lot of reasons hitchhikers went the way of the passenger pigeon in America. A dramatic increase in car ownership is one. The aging of baby boomers (like me) is another. The outsized role of crime in the news may be the biggest. But some experts, like Alan Pisarski, a transportation consultant and author of “Commuting in America,” say that hitchhiking could be ready for a renaissance.
The empty space in most cars is “a colossal resource that we waste,” Pisarski has often stated. Social media can be used both to connect and screen drivers and riders, he has pointed out. Indeed, that’s been the case in recent years in Washington, D.C., and several other major cities, where solo rush-hour drivers meet potential passengers to share the commute via the Web.
But long-haul hitchhiking to out-of-the-way places is another matter and doesn’t appear to have many practitioners. It’s still cheap, but in our planned, monitored and measured lives, it remains unreliable. Also, it requires spending long stretches of time with complete strangers in the odd intimacy of the front seat.
Stephen Dubner, co-author of “Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything,” says in an analysis of hitchhiking that Americans’ greatest fear may be the fear of strangers. I wanted to fight that off.
And for six days, over the course of 20 rides covering nearly 1,800 miles, that’s what I did — as did every person who picked me up.
Secret of the white shirt
The driver of that fateful red pickup was John Berger, taking eight bulls and one pony back home to Mandan, N.D., from a rodeo in Rice Lake, Wis.
“You looked like a clean-cut fellow,” Berger told me, when I asked why he’d picked me up. (Good tip from a friend: Wear a white shirt.)
In the air-conditioned comfort of his cab, which he shared with his rat terrier, Spike. Berger told me how his grandfather had bred championship bucking bulls and how he drives thousands of miles each year supplying bulls for rodeos. The 29-year-old also spoke about his other jobs, brokering cattle and selling antiques and cars. Someday, he said, he might like to try hitchhiking himself.
I don’t meet bucking bull brokers every day, even in my job as a newspaper reporter.
Nor do I routinely find myself riding on the back of a motorcycle driven by a burly guy with spikes protruding from his eyebrows.
“You gotta be kidding,” I said when Dale pulled up next to me 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 (seeing as I hadn’t packed a helmet), we leaned into the traffic, and I was off on my first-ever motorcycle ride while hitchhiking.
Next surprise: Dale, who later told me he’d recently gotten out of prison, asked if I was hungry or thirsty. Which is how we ended up at his church picnic, just up the road in Clearwater, Minn., before he brought me onward to St. Cloud.
When I asked Dale why he’d picked me up, he said God had told him to. I’m not what you’d call a man of faith, but that’s what Dale left me with: faith that the rides would come, faith that I’d get somewhere, even if it wasn’t where I’d intended.
And so it went. A National Guard chaplain and psychologist, whose wife was president of the school board in Dickinson, N.D. Workers in the North Dakota fracking fields, one heading all the way home on vacation to Idaho. A circuit-riding pharmacist. Zach, a former Mormon missionary, and Chelsea, college students on their way to visit her parents in Colville, Wash. And, in succession, two off-duty tribal police officers, who helped me cover what I’d thought might be the toughest part of my trip, across more than 150 miles of eastern Washington on two-lane roads. These were people I should fear?
It dawned on me, in fact, that despite the thousands of people who roared by me, these few who picked me up were actually looking out for me. And so were some who weren’t even on the road.
At Three Forks, Mont., the waitress in the bakery slipped me two scones in a bag. “No charge,” she said. “In case you get hungry.”
And a short time later, I heard from the hitchhiking ancestors themselves.
Bored and wandering the shoulder at the entrance to I-90, checking out the trash and wildflowers as little traffic came by, my eyes were drawn to what looked like some rusted scribbling at eye level on a light pole. I walked up close and read: “Rainbow Krystal. 7/1/81. Good Hitching to You All.” A later Google search confirmed my hunch; Krystal had probably been on her way to that year’s Rainbow Gathering in Washington state with thousands of others, many of them with their thumbs out on the shoulders of Western highways. Thirty years later, of course, I was the only hitchhiker to be seen. But the connection with Krystal felt almost alive. And as I was thanking her for the well wishes, another ride pulled up, good for 60 miles to Butte.
By late Wednesday, my ride with one of the tribal officers had ended at the Chief Joseph Dam in Bridgeport, Wash. The sun was dropping toward the rim of some low mountains behind the town, but if I could get to the next junction, I’d be within 40 miles of Twisp. I wouldn’t feel too bad about calling my pal for a ride from there. Close enough, eh?
Last and best
It was quiet as I walked down the main street, past the town’s only motel, boarded up a generation ago, and wondering if I’d need to hide under someone’s porch until morning. Then here came a small, blue Audi convertible. “This would be nice,” I thought.
The car slowed and the driver appraised me, then stopped.
“Hop in. You’re going to Brewster?” he said, reading my sign.
“Actually, I’m trying to get to Twisp,” I said. The word sounded funny coming out of my mouth, but the idea was becoming reality.
“Well, I’m going right through there,” he said.
And so the best came last — an easy cruise with Cloud, a longtime lumber dealer from that very valley, 50 miles down the Columbia and up the smaller Methow River with the top down as evening enveloped the mountains. 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 Don, now a weekly newspaper publisher, waiting in front of the Methow Valley News office. We both laughed as I hopped out of the convertible, in shared disbelief that I’d actually made it.
Two years later, I know I really am too old for that sort of thing. A highway shoulder is a loud, dirty, assaultive place to spend a day. The heat, and the walking, and the rejection can be wearying.
Was I lucky? Was I ever. Luck has always been part of hitchhiking, though patience is its partner.
In a different week I might have gotten only as far as Fargo. But crossing half the United States with 20 gentle and generous people (OK, and one drunk), in luxurious SUVs and dusty little beaters, I found that the American road is still a hospitable place, that my fellow travelers are both thoughtful and eccentric, and that fear will get you nowhere. And that, as always, a white shirt goes a long way.
Bill McAuliffe wrote daily updates on his trip is at http://60West.blogspot.com.