One of my students and I hitchhiked to Salt Lake City a few years ago, and on the way back to Colorado we were dropped off in Moab. We started walking up the Colorado River toward the freeway, and since it was summer, the low tourist season, no one was on that road. It was hot, we didn't have water, we didn't have food, and all the flies and mosquitoes were out. We must have walked 15 miles. We were feeling like we were really on our last legs when we happened upon a river-running outfit that was feeding its guests on the riverbank. They said, "Hey, what are you guys doing? Do you happen to be hungry? Thirsty? Because we've got all this extra food and drink here, and we don't know what we're going to do with it."
So we each had about a gallon of lemonade and Coke, and ate three or four hamburgers and lots of cookies, and we felt like we had never appreciated food so much, and never had so much love for humanity. And it never would have happened if we hadn't gotten so hungry and thirsty.
Last summer, after spending a week at an education retreat in Oregon, I decided to hitchhike home to Colorado. I got a ride with some friends to Northern California, and early the next morning, they let me off on the side of the road. I'd looked at a map beforehand, and I'd decided that the only difficult part of the trip would be getting through Reno. Everything before and after would be easy.
I stood there for about four hours before I got my first ride. Then I waited another two hours, and finally a Mexican family picked me up - Mexicans are the only people who pick me up when they have kids in the car - and offered to take me all the way to Reno. What I should have done is stayed outside of the city, and waited until I got a ride going all the way through to the other side. I didn't, and that was my mistake.
When we got to Reno, about two hours before dark, I walked to the freeway, walked past the sign that said no pedestrians, and stood on the ramp with my thumb in the air. I stood there for two hours, and no one even looked at me. And I was tired. So I thought well, I'll break the law even more and go stand right on the freeway, where there are more cars going by. I stood there from dusk to about 1 o'clock in the morning, smiling at all the cars that went by, and no one even slowed down.
Then I thought, maybe I'll hop a freight train. I've hopped trains a few times in my life, so I felt like I knew what I was doing. I went down to the tracks, but the first train that came by was going too fast, and I couldn't get on. I waited around for another three hours, and the next train came, but there were no cars that I could get on.
When it got light, I decided to try hitchhiking again. I walked through town to a different on ramp, and on the way, I passed some other tramps. They said, "You're never going to get a ride. We've been here forever, and no one gets a ride out." Then I watched them hit up cars for money and go buy drinks.
I stood there all morning and most of the afternoon, smiling at cars, and no one slowed down. Then I walked to yet another exit, and I stood there for the rest of the day and most of the night, stood there trying to smile. It was getting hard, but I kept thinking the next car could be the one.
I slept a little bit in the train yard, then got up early in the morning and stood on the freeway again. I stood there for an hour, and again nobody slowed down. And I lost it. Instead of smiling, I just started to cry. For the next hour I stood there with my thumb in the air and tears rolling down my face.
It was a deep cry, a very deep cry, about the loneliness of it. Because not only was I hurting, but most of the people who rode by looked like they were hurting. They looked like they were in a rush, they looked guilty, they looked angry, they flipped me off. I'd been watching that for a long time, and I finally let myself really feel it.
I decided after an hour of that to go buy a train ticket on Amtrak. I walked into the Amtrak station still sobbing - I couldn't stop - and I stood in line, sobbing. I'm not a person who cries in public.
The train only went out once a day, so I was going to have another eight hours in Reno waiting for the train. I went outside - the station is right in downtown Reno, with all the casinos and homeless people - and sat right in the middle of it all, on the street on my backpack, and just cried and cried and cried. And people ignored me.
I was suddenly very aware that all of us were going around so scared, so isolated, that we wouldn't even look at each other. The people on the street who were gambling looked lonely and anxious, and so did the homeless people, and so did the cops.
I called my wife, Merrily, and cried to her on the phone for about an hour, and then I hung up and cried more and more and more. I really didn't stop crying for eight hours. Then I got on the train and sat behind this very desperate mother with four kids, who was taking the train to meet her husband, who'd just gotten work in some other town. I watched their pain all the way across Nevada.
I realized that I'd spent most of my life being stoic. Even the parts of my hitchhiking experiences that felt like surrender still had some of this stoicism, this idea that I was going to always try harder, that I was going to do it on my own. I realized that this approach to life was lonely, and that hitchhiking, in spite of all the good things I've said about it, was lonely and hard. I just felt such pain that we've created a world where tens of thousands of people, each in their own car and each going the same direction, will ride past somebody and not even look because they're scared.
So it broke me a little bit. I'll still go hitchhiking on an ideal road, or with a friend, but I won't hitchhike alone on the freeway. That potential for human connection is still there, but it's getting harder to realize it, because people are more scared than they used to be.
Once when I was driving through Utah, I pulled off to pee at one of those ranch exits where there are no services and the road just heads into the middle of nowhere. When I got out of the car, I noticed a guy standing by the on ramp. If I'd been speeding along on the freeway, I probably wouldn't have stopped to pick him up. He looked like you could smell him from 20 yards away. But I watched him for a while, and he looked harmless enough, so I picked him up and asked him for his story.
It turned out he'd been standing at that exit for a week. He'd set off from San Francisco for Florida three weeks earlier, and he'd only made it to Utah. I thought, oh, man, my experiences are probably nothing compared to this guy's. I mean, I look clean-cut compared to him, like a nice rider. He didn't have a credit card in his pocket, or a wife at home to call. He just had to go through life like that, standing at the ranch exit, being hidden, being ignored.
Dev Carey, a research biologist by training, is a teacher in western Colorado. Michelle Nijhuis is a contributing editor of HCN.