More than 30 years after his last trek, a hitchhiker finds long waits and rich (if cheap) adventures on his way across America.
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.