I saw an actual hitchhiker a few days ago! A young woman stood on the side of the highway entrance ramp holding a sign that said NORTH. I was in my company van and couldn’t offer a ride, but I rolled down the passenger side window and yelled “Good luck!”
Talking to a friend later, we compared notes on how rare it is to see hitchhikers these days, and yet how much safer the country is today than, say, 40 years ago when I was doing so much of it.
In my hitchhiking days, I compiled 26,000 miles by actual count on long road trips, probably a good 10 to 25 percent more in short trips I didn’t count. Add another 550 for the time I hopped a ride on a freight train from El Paso, Texas to (I think I recall) Yuma, Arizona, and the total could be close to 33,000 miles — the equivalent of 10 or 11 crossings of the United States.
In 15 years or so of hitching, I got only a handful of scary rides, some from drunk people, a couple from really pushy gays, and one from a guy I’m convinced might have killed me if things had worked out differently. I was young, in shape and strong, but overall, I think it was just that the world, even back then, contained a very small percentage of bad people.
Most of the people who picked me up were just lonely on long trips, innately gregarious, or paying back kindnesses from their own lives. The job of a hitchhiker, I soon discovered, is to be good company, to listen to the driver’s tall tales, and sometimes to help keep the guy awake.
Re: Tall tales. I must have heard this story at least 20 times over the years. “Me and my two buddies had just gotten out of the Navy and we were hitching home from San Diego together when this motor home pulled over, with three beautiful women inside headed for a week in Las Vegas.”
I always believed them. To this day, I imagine there’s a big lush motorhome cruising the highways of America, three women in their 70s inside, looking for a trio of sailors standing on the roadside, perpetually headed for a never-to-be-forgotten week in Las Vegas.