Nowadays, it almost seems like a lost art. The only folks out thumbing rides are occasional guerilla slackers in search of the underside or lost souls taking a break from holding their “Will Work For Food” signs. As a cultural phenomenon, it is all but extinct.
But back in our day — and our day, for what it’s worth, ran from 1964-1989, a full quarter century of roadside tramping — hitching was a steadier part of the transport options than anything else going. Part of the reason it worked so well was due to the great freak migrations of the Sixties and after (the anti-war, pro-civil rights protesters weren’t called the Movement for nothing), but our most memorable rides were not with fellow hipsters at all. Sure, the around town stuff depended heavily on an implicit long-haired camaraderie that almost guaranteed the second order of business — after “Where you heading?” got settled — was passing a smoldering joint over the back seat, but out on the longer runs you needed to attract a more varied clientele.
This is where my travel partner came in. Two of the keys to catching rides are to appear non-threatening and to hold out the prospect of being convivial company. Having a partner implies sociability — you’re not just an aimless psychotic drifter — and being a mixed couple (best of all possible combinations) both raises the sympathy quotient and reduces the fear factor.
I was blessed to be paired up with my wife Judith, one of the all-time gutsiest women hitchers on the international scene. Jude hitched tens of thousands of miles through rain and heat and border guards and exhaustion, normally in long swirling skirts that caught the passing eye of many a doubtful ride merchant. Jude and I were a teenage marriage gone right. Over the passing years, as our road miles accumulated, we honed our technique to a fine edge — learning to choose just the right hitching spot, devising creative and readable signs (you try lettering in Japanese with a failing magic marker and a wind driving rain in off the Inland Sea), varying our body language to suit local cultural expectations . . .
Mind you, my very first hitch violated most every rule there was, which only goes to show that adaptability and creativeness outweigh all else. I was fourteen and my dad, my brother Roger, and I had finished a canoe trip on the Rum River in Minnesota. How to get back to our car? Dad had the answer: grab a canoe paddle, look river-weary and stand at the take-out point.
A poor location near a bend in the road, no formal sign (though the paddle was its own, most effective symbol) and too many people. Macht nicht, as the Bavarians say. Ten minutes later we had a driver going out of his way to drop us at our car.
While Dad may have inadvertently set my thumb to twitching, it was Jack Kerouac who made it a full-fledged addictive disease. Before I encountered On the Road during my senior year in high school, I’d already hitched scores of times around town — out to the local country club to caddy, up to the Plaza for mischief, to my girlfriend’s house, to and from school (a 25 mile trip each way and replete with city diversions), but I had yet to grasp its value as a long-term, long distance means of adventure.
Jack’s Beat reminiscences set me straight and it was by trying to emulate him that eventually, well up in years, I came to a shocking realization: we had hitched more miles than Jack Kerouac, and in more exotic locations as well. If Jack had his flatbed truck crowd scene and those Mexico City runs to visit William Burroughs, well, we had a five person stint on an Egyptian donkey cart, and a two day run over the high passes of the Karakorams in the Mir of Hunza’s State jeep.
Surely some of these episodes might bear recording. So I’ve decided to look back and — rather than present a longwinded central narrative of our entire hitching life — set out bits and pieces of some of our most intriguing hitchhiking experiences. If travel is about growth and discovery, hitching is a way to kick that into overdrive.
1. Planting a partnership: Minnesota to Miami and back, 1970
“Just married” was the sign we held and that was the truth. In those days my dad was captain of a Windjammer ship in the West Indies and he’d promised us a summer long honeymoon if we could just get to Martinique.
It took us three solid days to Miami, which was not bad, considering we rode with a long-distance truck driver who ran weed from Mexico in his spare tires, and a cluster of freaks en route to the Atlanta Pop Festival. The freaks were genial Kentuckians with lank, unwashed hair and a Ford Fairlane sporting a wide open hole in the floor between the seats. After they’d circulated a Mason jar of something vile but potent, the lazy-eyed fellow in the back with us stuck his booted foot through the hole and onto the road surface while we were still flying down the highway. His scream made the driver swerve, but the smoldering sole he displayed was all the damage done.
We spent hours trying to explain to the others where Martinique might be and at length opted to detour with them to the Festival. Along with 100,000 others, we wallowed in the dirt and at last, exhausted, fell asleep to Jimi Hendrix and dreams of Spanish castle magic. Eventually got a ride down to the docks in Miami where we set off to find passage south. . .
Coming back home, with three months of West Indian adventures under our belt, we spent a dismal night camping along a Georgia swamp, deep under the willows, with a fear of rednecks and alligators in about equal proportions. This roundtrip set Judith’s travel fever on high and our steady success at getting rides from couples convinced me forever as to the value of hitching with a woman partner. 3,500 roadside miles, and a chance to tell our life stories to each other and dream the future into shape . . . this is how lifelong bonds are built. To this day, we never hear The Beatles’ “The Two of Us” (“ . . . on our way back home . . .” seemed to be playing on every radio we passed) without flashing back on that long, winding road home together.
2. Serendipity and farce: Tarragona, Spain to Paris and back, 1972
Judith and I had been teaching English in Spain and used the Easter break to head to Paris. Did well the first day and then found ourselves stuck at a roadside cafe in a sleepy Rhône river village after dark, with little traffic moving in either direction. In the cafe we met two girls (a blonde Frenchwoman and a dark American with untamed curly hair) who offered to let us come with them to find a bed that night. For reasons I can’t recall, they needed somebody to scale a stone wall, climb across a rooftop, and knock on a bedroom window in order to make contact. I complied. We went from shivering on the roadside to sitting around a crackling fireplace over a late supper with the French girl’s sister.
Turned out the two girls lived in Paris and were hitching south to Spain for a holiday. We exchanged keys to each other’s flats and the next day, when we pulled into Paris, we strode up the Rue St. Jacques to our own little room in the heart of the Left Bank.
The return journey had its own tensions. We left Paris on Easter Sunday, needing to be back at our teaching posts by Tuesday morning. What we got was a series of two . . . three . . . four hour waits. After eight hours, we’d still only made fifty kilometers. This long, slow day was salvaged by getting an all-night lift in the back of two electricians’ work van (we even got to stretch out around their gear and cables and sleep on the floor), which dropped us in Nîmes in south central France on a spanking bright morning. But by Monday night we were still stuck in southern France, and starting to worry considerably about losing our jobs.
At a dark roundabout in the foothills of the Pyrenees, again with our spirits at low ebb, a tiny Spanish Seat slid to a halt and a familiar voice — Marti! — called us over. To our shock, the car was loaded with friends of ours from Barcelona. Saved! — or so we thought. Closer perusal showed that there was absolutely no space for us in the car. Marti himself was lying across the laps of four others. Shrugs, apologies . . . what can be done? Nothing. The grim reality of watching their car disappear into the night was mitigated by the still-burning joint of hashish they’d left behind.
That bought about an hour of half-contentment and then, just as we were again despairing, a battered Mercedes jiggled into view and stopped.
We clambered in — “Attention my dog!” — to a yippy, biting terrier scuttling about the floor. I gave it the edge of my boot to chew and started negotiations with the driver.
Turned out he was Syrian, en route to Barcelona with his “new” car — and a trunk full of slapdash quasi-Middle Eastern souvenirs he was intent on placing in shops along the Costa Brava. “Buy my beautiful things,” was the only English sentence he had truly mastered. No surprise, since he recited it to us repeatedly.
Problem was, he had less concept of how to drive than anyone I have ever ridden with. Even on the toll pay autoroute he couldn’t safely go above 25-30 miles per hour and wove constantly from one lane to another. His incessant talking (accompanied by a great deal of arm waving) kept his attention off the road, and between the heavy lorries swooshing past us with horns blasting and the Syrian’s penchant for nudging the edges of the roadway verge, we actually abandoned the ride at the Spanish border and elected to walk three miles to a train depot, in hopes of finding an early morning train.
3. Coldest: Luxembourg to Stockholm, 1974
The dicey thing here was that we’d just flown in from the West Indies on a Freddie Laker Skytrain that doubled as the national airline of Barbados. It was March, and both our clothes and our bodies were still suited to the Caribbean winds, not a long hitch through northern Europe. A chill rain followed us in from the airport past the grey stone houses and arched bridges of Luxembourg City. We were wearing everything we owned and still shivering under the damp north wind.
The first day wasn’t too bad (despite a contretemps with the German police over illicit use of the autobahn), but as darkness fell and the rides dried up, the cold worked itself deep into our bones. Two German boys in a van offered us a ride to Denmark; only after it was too late to turn back did we discover they meant just to the border — and the border of Jutland in western Denmark at that. We were headed for Copenhagen and when they dropped us, we were still as far away from it as we were when they picked us up. After a long, useless spell outside the customs post, we finally walked over the Danish border in pitch blackness and managed one final lorry ride that let us off in a town called (appropriately) Kolding at midnight. Weaving with fatigue, we turned down four rides in the wrong direction before deciding to crash. The only public lodging in town was in a padlocked windmill. No lights and no answer to our desperate knocking. We began trying doors and finally slipped inside an unheated apartment building entryway and slept under the stairs. There was an undersmell of industrial disinfectant and a steady, biting draft that seemed to wiggle down into our sleeping bags. When I reached in the night for the water bottle, a sheen of ice tinkled inside. If we heard footsteps, we just buried our heads deeper in the bags and hoped for sympathy.
Four hours later we were back on the road. The second day was even colder, or maybe we simply never warmed up. The wind seemed to come all the way from the Arctic wastes. It took three ferry rides and several short hops to get us across to Sweden. We danced in place between rides, our shoulder muscles atrophied into tight, hunched postures. By the evening of the second day, standing at a lonely roundabout on the outskirts of Helsingborg, with wisps of snow trickling down and the fields white with glare, our spirits were sorely tried. Then a car slowed, going in the opposite direction, and a hand reached out with a half-empty bottle of wine. “God bless you,” came a voice and then they were gone. Someone cared.
We chugged the remaining wine and enjoyed a fine brief high before — a miracle! A car stopping. A long black Mercedes with a German man at the wheel, going all the way to Stockholm. Six hundred kilometers through the night, with Judith asleep in the back seat and me half-loopy, but trying to entertain the driver. Turned out he loved early rock ‘n’ roll, so we were home free. The guy was an ordinary looking businessman except for his swept-back pompadour quiff and an Elvis keychain dangling from the ignition. He played Eddie Cochran tunes that kept us both going and I can never hear “Milkcow Blues Boogie” or “Race With the Devil” without reliving that night.
4. Longest stretch of time: Sweden to Scotland, 1974
Our longest single continuous hitch ever: four solid days. Hitching was rarely very good in Scandinavia, and always quite good in Britain, so we opted for a long, looping route that island-hopped us across Denmark and on through the Low Countries to the English Channel ferries, rather than tackling the Norwegian coast and an expensive ferry ride across to Newcastle.
The first day started slow. We followed a narrow highway lined with pine trees and woodland lakes that reminded us intensely of Minnesota. Unfortunately, traffic was all but nil. But then: a splashy new car pulled over with a big, blond Dane named Eric Yorke who announced he was going to Copenhagen. Success right off the bat. He proved to be quite a convivial guy, and being in the Nordic lands I could let Jude handle him in the front seat without fear that he’d attack her. By evening, as we were crossing on the ferry to Denmark, it had been determined that we’d spend the night on the town with him and then sleep at his place — his wife and son were out of town.
There was a certain sadness to the Dane. Part of it was his down-turned eyes, which looked mournful even when he was laughing. But we got a deeper glimpse when he had us drop our gear in his son’s room. Eric’s wife was Swedish, and he explained that his son was angry the family couldn’t live there. Tacked around the son’s room were posters of Swedish hockey players and signs that our friend translated, with a half laugh and a shrug — they were all pro-Swede, anti-Dane slogans.
Perhaps I should have been more judicious with Eric’s liberal offerings of extra-strength Danish Elephant beer, but dinner was grand, the night was young, and I only realized too late that I was either going to crash or be sick. I chose the former, and left Judith to her own devices.
All three of us had vicious hangovers in the morning, but we said good-byes to our Danish friend and dutifully set off again on the road. This was a tedious day, punctuated by short rides, slow ferry connections, and uncertain choices of routes. We crossed Denmark, and then the bulk of Germany, only to fetch up at the center of an incredible bustle of autobahns and roundabouts on the outskirts of the industrial Ruhr complex. It was dark, and cold, and the only people that stopped in response to my frantically waving sign pulled over to tell us that we were standing at a spot heading the wrong way. After trying two or three different locales and getting more and more confused, we abandoned the hitch for a few hours and threw down our sleeping bags in a hedge at the center of the maelstrom. This was one of the most uncomfortable nights we ever spent on the road: lit in dreams by passing cars and a constant need to shift directions.
Morning brought a bit more clarity and eventually a ride to Brussels. We had to walk nearly the length of town to get to a useful spot and it was nightfall again when we hit Ostend and the Channel ferries. To avoid paying for the crossing, we managed to hitch our way aboard by finding a willing soul at the last minute who was going just a ways into Kent.
That “just a ways” left us on the southern fringe of Greater London, at three a.m., with a battered orange tent and one handy gorse bush to sleep under. We were too tired to care what the early morning commuters were likely to think.
It took half the next day to cross the metropolitan area by bus and tube and bus again. We fetched up at a well-used hitching post on a northern byway and re-lettered a sign for Edinburgh. Two lorries got us around the famed Doncaster bypass — one driven by an aging Cornishman with a slight stammer who spent his driving time figuring out how many days had passed since Caesar ruled, and exploring hidden tunnels and Roman walls in the Midlands — and just as fatigue was overtaking the last effects of the morning’s tea, a wine-colored Rover dipped onto the verge and scattered gravel as it stopped.
“Och, you’re for Scotland, are you?” The driver’s rich brogue was a giveaway — here was a Scotsman bound for home! Our enthusiasm for his native land inspired a prayerful plea that Dennis Law be fit for the match on Saturday, and aside from a pint or two to celebrate crossing the border before nightfall, that was that. The pubs were still open in Edinburgh, and the lights on the Castle lit the dark rock walls like embers from a fading fire.
Our friend Alan’s hearth awaited. . .
5. Most countries covered: Barcelona to Istanbul, 1974
We’d already been hitching through Europe for several months, and this was our last big push. Once in Istanbul, public transport would be so cheap that we could continue further east without exercising our thumbs.
We began by cruising Barcelona’s American Express office, where would-be drivers advertised their destinations at curbside. These were folks looking for traveling companions, or guides, or just a few extra bucks for gas. We joined a crew of young Americans with a sagging VW van en route to Florence. They were a high-spirited bunch and once they started passing a jug of red wine we barely minded having to lie prone in the back for the duration. I found myself as chief translator. First Spanish, then French, then Italian when the self-professed native speaker couldn’t make herself understood.
Our second day out included a quick spin through Florence and then we had to get back on the road. We trucked it all the way to Trieste, near the Yugoslav border, and pitched our tent on the edge of a city dump near the railhead. The next day took us down the central spine of Yugoslavia, zipping along at warp speed with a flashy young Croat-American from the upscale Detroit suburb of Grosse Pointe. At nightfall we were on the outskirts of Belgrade with nothing but our “Istanbul” sign to mark us out from the gathering shadows.
We were set to give up and look for a secluded sleeping nook when an international lorry steamed to a halt. The driver — a heavyset, mustachioed Turk — greeted us jovially, took our sign and, before we could open our mouths to protest, tossed it out the window. We wouldn’t be needing it anymore, by his reckoning. A ride all the way through to Istanbul! No roadside sleep-out! We were thrilled.
Our truck rumbled on through the night. After one or two awkward occasions where it became obvious that it should be me, rather than Judith, sitting in the middle next to the driver’s stick shift hand, we settled in to sleep till dawn. But . . . no sooner had we gotten into the rhythm of the road than our driver pulled into a makeshift truck stop and disappeared into the bar. He mimed to us that he was looking for a buddy of his who was also driving this route.
We huddled together over the fading warmth of the engine box and waited for what we assumed would be a swift return. However, after a lengthy delay, our driver returned with word that his friend had picked up two female travelers who had agreed to spend the night in the cabs of the respective truck drivers.
We were shown to a nearby camping spot and instructed to be ready at eight the next morning. Cold and only slightly credulous, we had no choice. Up went our little tent and into our cold sleeping bags we crawled. We pulled ourselves awake at 6 a.m. and stumbled outside to see the empty parking lot. Screwed.
The morning passed with us airing our sleeping bags on a deserted stretch of road running to the Bulgarian border. A couple hours of silence and we were mighty happy to take a ride aboard a clattering dump truck into Dimitrovgrad, right on the border. We provided the afternoon’s entertainment for the locals, baking in the sun on a street corner, until a passing VW beetle stopped and the driver — a balding man with olive skin and a distracted air — asked where we were going. He was obviously Turkish so I blurted out “Istanbul!” This somehow was the wrong answer — he started to pull away from the curb. Frantically we stopped him, and by begging and pleading, got him to take us aboard, bound for Istanbul.
Bulgaria was a long succession of crumbling apartment blocks and tired peasants digging in the fields. There was more delay at the Turkish border; our driver was smuggling radios. Eventually, a well-placed honorarium sorted that out and we drove on into the dark.
It was well after midnight when we drove under the walls of Istanbul to be set down at dockside. A long, tired walk through darkened streets in some of the toughest areas in Istanbul took us back to the Sultanahmet district and a dive hotel we’d stayed in some years before. We’d hitched through seven countries during this single run: Spain, France, Monaco, Italy, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, and Turkey.
6. Slowest: Swat to Lahore, Pakistan, 1974
Ordinarily, we’d never have bothered trying to hitchhike through Pakistan. We were traveling 3rd class train and 2nd class bus and neither cost more than pocket change. (The real price one paid was lack of comfort, privacy, or any clear sense of arrival time.)
But one morning we found ourselves at a road junction, down from the mountains of the province of Swat. Baseball fans might note that there was indeed a Sultan of Swat, though the independence of his kingdom and most of his powers had been removed a few years previously by the government of Pakistan.
In any case, we were waiting for a passing bus, when we realized there was no telling when one might come along. We decided to resort to the tried-and-true and began to hitch. In time, a gaudily-painted, claptrap wooden lorry screeched to a halt and a turbaned head poked out to inquire. There was a bit of give-and-take and it was evident that the driver would be expecting a gratuity for the ride, but this seemed no more than fair.
Up close, the driver’s turban was little more than a rag and his smile was loose and droopy. But it was a smile. We hopped aboard and rattled off down the road. The driver’s cab had no glass in the windows, no springs in the seats, and a thick coating of grime and Koranic verses covering the front windshield. Top speed was about 20 mph, but this was rarely maintained. Every passing bullock cart, every bicycle or clustered knot of roadside loiterers had to be swerved past; every hour or so we would pass an open-air chai-stall which functioned as a truck stop of sorts and here our driver would disembark, catch up on the road news, gamble with dice, and savor yet another few cups of tea. On the first occasion we joined him, but when it became apparent that our function was to be that of performing monkeys, we opted for the solitude of the truck cab.
On and on this went: drive, swerve, descend, halt. Stop for police checks and questions, many questions, about what we are doing in the lorry. Drive, swerve, swerve, drive, descend, halt. Stop again for police checks. Get out and be searched. Drive, swerve . . .The journey was perhaps two hundred miles but it took nearly ten hours. By the time we bid a fond adieu to our benefactor we’d been jostled so hard we could hardly stand upright.
7. Most varied intersections of land and people: Nairobi to Kisumu, Kenya, 1979
Running right along the equator, our route took us from the skyscrapers and bustling hooker hotels of Nairobi, through the “White Highlands” and down the escarpment of the Great Rift Valley, out to the edge of Lake Victoria and the heavily Asian town of Kisumu. Segments of the scenery were spectacular, but of almost equal interest was the chance to hear people unload their doubts and opinions about a society still uneasy with its own multi-culturalism.
Our day opened with a ride from an Asian family en route to a picnic. There were already six people in the tiny car and judging from the wife’s comments as we were getting in, the decision to stop had been a unilateral one, by her husband. We tried to overcome the tension by being our usual good listening selves, offering up our own stories only as asked, and were rewarded by a gradual unfolding of the constrictions and fears besetting the Asian community. This was only a few years after their brothers and sisters had been forcibly expelled from neighboring Uganda by Idi Amin and all through East Africa mutterings were running about whether Amin’s strategy might spread.
“We are thinking,” said the husband, “if better to invest more here, or try to procure visa for elsewhere.”
“Canada,” said his wife. “Australia, maybe.”
“Hate to just cut and run.” He sucked at his teeth.
The Asian family took us out through the Nairobi outskirts, past roadside stalls selling woven baskets, sheep pelts and fruit, and dropped us in the middle of the Kikuyu homelands.
Our next ride offered a hard-bitten British-born farmer with an Aussie bush hat and a shockingly sunburned neck. He’d lived most of his life in East Africa, had no intention of leaving and, indeed, appeared quite ill-suited to any sort of European life. Even so, he recognized that if he ever did leave, he’d probably never be able to come back. (“I’m the wrong bloody color for this part of the world, you see.”) As a hitchhiker, one can’t afford to challenge opinions too forcefully and, in any case, one often learns a great deal more about people by simply giving them their head, making appropriate noises and asking gently leading questions. Clearly, he saw little hope of improvement in Kenya, but his tales of ground clearing and backdoor political doings opened doors in our understanding of the ex-pat community. He took us the length of the once European-dominated White Highlands and then, with the road winding and twisting through thickly treed uplands, we rounded a corner to a sign that read: CAUTION YOU ARE NOW ENTERING THE ESCARPMENT.
Below us, with views that seemed to go half the length of Africa, was the edge of the Great Rift Valley. As if cut by a knife, the uplands ended and a vast plain of savannah fell open beneath us. The vegetation thinned out into scrub brush and isolated trees scattered themselves over rust red soil. On we went, past Lake Naivasha, then past Lake Nakuru and its famed pink flamingos. The ex-pat dropped us on the far edge of Nakuru town and rumbled off down a dirt track into the empty distance.
Our day concluded with a long ride in the open back of a pick-up truck driven by two jovial Kikuyu men en route to market. While we talked little, they did stop and share their lunch with us and the rattling ride hunched under umbrellas through the afternoon heat of the savannah made us feel that we were now properly on safari. Flame trees, hut villages clustered around the cattle corral, waving grasslands . . .When they dropped us, as requested, amidst a flutter of saris at the Sikh temple in Kisumu, we truly felt we’d come full circle on the day.
8. Most insightful: Penang Island to Cameron Highlands, Malaysia, 1984
This was one of those hitching days that opens up the inside of a country in ways that can rarely be duplicated. The “stranger on a bus” syndrome implies that people will more readily share intimate details or controversial opinions with somebody they’ll never see again than with anybody who’s part of their daily lives.
Our 200 kilometer trip along the coast and up into the dense Malaysian mountains took only three rides, but those three gave us a cross-section of Malaysian society that would have done a Harris pollster proud. Our first ride, right off the Georgetown ferry, was with a Tamil Indian lawyer. His three-piece suit and clipped British accent were a fine match for Georgetown’s Victorian facades — but his worry was about ascendant Islam changing government laws. Our second ride, along the rubber plantations of the coast, was with a Malay truck driver who saw foreigners exploiting the indigenous population, and our third — a real rarity, an Asian woman traveling alone who was willing to bring us aboard — was with a petite Chinese schoolteacher who talked of ethnic violence and threats from her students.
Collectively, they represented the three main ethnic groups in Malaysia. Their occupations mirrored the stereotypes so often outlined as the backdrop to inter-ethnic tensions and misunderstandings, and the fact that Malaysian society used English as its lingua franca meant that each one could speak both at length and in depth to us. By the time we’d been let off on the twisting hillside run up into the cloud forest, we felt we’d been gifted with a rare chance to dip behind the public posturing and official pronouncements. And I like to think that our questions and silent presence offered a useful outlet to all three of our drivers.
9. Final days: Kyoto to Tokyo, Japan, 1984
Probably our last significant hitching journey. Our flight was leaving Tokyo the next day and we’d managed most of our Japanese travels by thumb — or rather, by sign, as use of the thumb was considered rude. My painstakingly lettered signs in Japanese probably looked like a child’s crayon drawing, but people seemed to appreciate the effort.
Japan is so crowded with people and roads that the hardest part of our hitch was finding our way through the tangle of interchanges and Japanese sign posts to a spot where traffic would clearly be heading in the direction we wanted to go. For a while we were able to stick to tollways, which in Japan are arranged ideally for hitchhikers. Every fifty miles or so, there is a small rest area with gas station, noodle stand and toilets. If you have your driver drop you there, you can not only grab a bite to eat and freshen up, but once ready again for the road you just set up shop at the entrance back onto the highway. Every car has to slow and pass you anyway, and this arrangement not only ensures that they are probably gassed up for a good long distance but that they are given a long opportunity to eyeball you and let the guilt factor settle in. Best of all, hitching at these rest areas is legal.
One of our drivers was a baseball fan (He: “Pete Rose.” Me: “Sadaharu Oh.” He: “Yomiuri Giants.” “Ah, yes — Warren Cromartie.” Jude was less than enthralled.) and our mutual interest convinced me to ride further than necessary with him, which left us in the Japan Alps, on a tiny side road, hours from Tokyo, with our flight time getting ever nearer. Not to worry; a bearded Japanese mountain climber scooped us up and spent the next several hours regaling us with climbing stories in just passable English. He dropped us in the middle of Tokyo — like being let off in mid-town Manhattan — and zipped away. An era had all but ended.
Looking back down that long tunnel of time — all those roadside halts, those impatient hours of silent pleading with the closed, passing faces; all those days and nights of scattered movement, fevered conversations, drivers half-tanked and lusting; lost lonely souls looking for a warm body to share the empty night . . . all those adventurous bends in narrow-shouldered roads, speed burst runs with a thumping pack chasing the halting cars; all those unexpected invitations, gyrations, threats and confessions . . .
Much as I enjoy the comfort of my own car, or having the wherewithal to pay for public transport, I miss the edginess, the exhilaration, the low flying risk of waiting there on the roadside, dependent on the compassion and interest of passersby. There’s nothing like it for running the gamut of human emotions — or for getting into the skin of your fellow man, and woman.
It’s the ultimate wealth redistribution. Instant community sharing and non-forethought bonding. It’s a brief dive into each other’s souls and — on many occasions not even mentioned here — led us into ongoing friendships and blossoming self-discoveries.
So how could it end on a side street in Bemidji, Minnesota, 1989, with the city bus detouring — for no good reason — around me and a classroom of kids awaiting my paltry wisdom on the craft of writing? An unromantic final hitch, to be sure. But I got the ride I needed.
I guess we always did.
* This story was originally published at Outside In and is reprinted here with permission.