Confessions of a Hitchhiker
I loved long distance hitchhiking. It was free, it was fun, and I indulged in it often during the golden years of thumbing, 1968 to 1972, when a lot of ordinary folks hitchhiked and a lot of ordinary folks picked them up. I met many interesting and eccentric people that way and had some wonderful adventures on the road. I had no idea who would pick me up, when a ride would come, or what surprising experience was around the next corner, which was the best part of it all.
I always felt I could handle whatever came along and with one early exception, I was right. Overall, I hitchhiked about 80,000 kms, mostly in North America, with about 11,000 kms in Europe and another 4,000 in West Africa on a wild eight-month journey. In the end I figure I earned my PHD of the road. I got picked up by drunks, stoned fellow hippies, off-duty cops, priests, a guy driving a hearse, Hell’s Angels, gay female strippers, a freshly released mental patient, an Irish government minister, a couple of sweet southern belles, a US sailor on leave in Northern Ireland, a kindly butcher, a horny truck driver, a couple of ugly Americans in Norway, a pair of UN workers in Burkina Faso driving without a windshield, and unfortunately, one car full of sadists in Pennsylvania. Plus lots of people in VW vans and moms who felt obliged to stop because their sons were hitchhiking too.
Back in those days I had incredibly long and thick hair, plus a bushy moustache, which prompted my son Danny, looking at my old passport photo, to observe “I can’t believe anyone stopped for you.” Me either, now that I look at it. He dubbed it “the photo that terrified Charles Manson.”
I nearly always tied my hair back in a pony tail and even stuffed it down the back of my shirt when I was thumbing rides in hard-core redneck country. My shortest ever ride came with an angry Montana cowboy who flipped out when I climbed in and he saw my pony tail a minute later. I was thrilled just to get out of that car alive.
I made a few rules along the way which I have passed on to my male hitchhiking progeny. Rule 1 – Never get in a car with three or more males in it. Way, way too dangerous. Just say – no thanks. Rule 2 – Never accept an offer to spend the night at some driver’s home. It might be all right, of course, but the only time I did it was with a nice, Christian couple. Rule 3 – Never ever get in a car with a drunk driver. I took a lift with a couple of drunks once and after a terrifying experience swore to myself I would never let it happen again. Once, as a greenhorn, I got in a car with four apparently friendly guys who proved to be black-hearted sociopaths, but I survived and learned. And yes, I will tell that story at some point.
Mostly I hitched alone, but a few times friends joined me, usually thumbing from my home in Edmonton in western Canada to my parents’ house in northern New Jersey and back. They loved New York City, the Jersey shore and the Grateful Dead concerts at the Fillmore East, and my mom, bless her, was a wonderful, loving host to all my wacky Canadian friends and her wacky son. In West Africa I thumbed my way from Bamako, Mali to Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, with the notorious Cheap John from Toronto, who was a bit of legend (for all the wrong reasons) on the Hippie Trail in those days. Another time I hitched rides along with a very attractive American female friend from Oslo, Norway, to some place in northern Germany. I couldn’t bring myself to hide in the bushes and pop out when a car stopped for her, but our arrangement worked well. I was her protector and she drew rides very quickly, even though the driver was stuck with a grizzled hippie in the back seat. Otherwise I hitchhiked solo.
I had my own thumbing strategies, which served me well over the years. My motto was ‘always walk while you are hitching,’ unless there is no alternative, like trying to get a ride out of a highway service centre. Simply standing in the same place by yourself is crushingly boring, but even today that is what most people seeking a lift do. I remember one day in France in 1971 when I walked over 20 miles and got about 10 miles worth of rides. By most people’s standards that’s a disastrous day, but I enjoyed it. The walk was lovely, the people who did stop were friendly and when it was time to find a hostel I bought a baguette, some cheese, a few slices of meat, and a small bottle of wine and went to bed with a rosy smile.
I had no timetable to worry about or any job to go back to. Those were the carefree days when you only went back home when you ran out of money. Walking improves your chance of getting a ride because drivers do not perceive you as lazy. There is something about a young traveller striding down the road with a pack on his back and his thumb out that is way more appealing to drivers than guys sitting on their packs or on their butts.
For me, the worst sight on the road was a long lineup of hitchhikers, a common experience on the Trans Canada Highway between Thunder Bay and Sault Saint Marie, Ontario, where up to 40 people heading west with their thumbs out was not uncommon. I would lower my head and walk past them all, continue on for a kilometre or so to get complete separation, and then stick out my thumb as I strolled down the road. I never waited very long for a ride.
One day I was picked up on the Trans Canada Highway near Kenora, Ontario, just east of the Manitoba border, by a guy headed for Toronto. He dropped me off in Thunder Bay (then split into Port Arthur and Fort William) to spend a couple days with an old buddy. I said thanks, started walking and after about 15 minutes crossed the road at a light and came upon two guys lying in a ditch, back from the road. “Forget it man,” one said. “You’ll never get a ride. We’ve been stuck here for three days.” The light changed, I looked up and was astonished to see the driver who had just dropped me off a few minutes earlier, pulling up and stopping. The very first car, and my longest ever ride, 1,860 kms! He couldn’t find his friend and decided to drive on. I hopped in and as we headed off to Toronto I looked back and saw those two guys both racing up to the road, yelling and holding their heads in despair and disbelief. I hope they’re not still waiting for a ride.