The Last Ride

One hitchhiker's oral history

  • www.codysmart.com

    CODY SMART
 

I don't even remember my first ride. When I was a young teenager, growing up in southern Oregon, my dad and I used to hitchhike back to our car after we'd boated down the Klamath, or the Rogue, or the Umpqua. Hitchhiking wasn't a very large part of my life until I graduated from college, and became an idealist.

I decided to try to go places, go long distances. I liked the environmental aspect of hitchhiking, that it used less gas, and I liked that it was cheap. It also felt like a grand adventure, like a cool thing to do.

So I took a lot of trips. I went from Arizona to Montana to Colorado and back to Arizona, and I went from Colorado to Oregon and back to Colorado. I hitchhiked around Germany, France, Luxembourg and Holland.

I've probably gotten four or five hundred rides in the last 20 years. I think I did get better at hitchhiking as the years went by. But I also kept thinking I was finding the trick of it, and all of a sudden I would be standing on the highway for six hours with nobody picking me up, thinking I wasn't so smart after all.

I did learn the value of picking my rides, of having a conversation before I got into the car and making sure that the person wasn't drunk, and that they were going to stop in a place that would be a good place for hitchhiking. I learned that last lesson the hard way, over and over again.

I don't know if I've ever felt that my life was in danger. Maybe once. The common experience is that someone stops, you open the door, and you start talking to each other. One of my first questions is always, "Why did you pick me up?" Ninety percent of the time the answer is, "Been there, done that." They've been hurting, and they needed help, and somebody helped them.

Usually, my goal is to find out the most interesting thing I can about the person and get them talking about it. I've learned quite a bit about a lot of trades that way. I rode with one guy who told me his whole story about being in Vietnam and getting wounded, and how he'd decided that he didn't want to deal with a society that would do that to a person. When he stopped to pick me up, he didn't let me in at first, not until he'd talked to me for long enough to figure out that I was safe. Then he took me all the places he knew about for free food, and we got free pizza and free donuts.

One driver told me that he had only half a brain. He told me he'd been diagnosed when he was a kid, and told that it was a very dangerous situation, and that the thing to do was not to think. He'd never gone to another doctor for a second opinion, and he'd gone through his life - through 60 years - trying not to think. It was obvious that he thought quite a lot about not thinking, but he felt like he'd succeeded.

It's very rare that anyone wants to know about me. Every now and then somebody does. I had one woman who turned around in her RV and picked me up because she was convinced I was the Messiah. I couldn't get rid of her. I rode with her for a while, but it was too much, because she just kept praying to me, and telling me how the Second Coming had arrived, and that she'd known this was going to happen.

I started out being humble and denying things, but that didn't go anywhere because she'd just say, "Oh, that's just how Jesus is supposed to act." So I finally said, "You're right, and I just had a vision that you must let me off in this next town," and she dropped me off, but not before she tried to get my address so that she could send me money and come to visit me. That was in southern Arizona somewhere. A lot of interesting rides come out of southern Arizona.

My reasons for hitchhiking have changed a lot since I was 22. It's much less about saving gas than it used to be. It's more about the feelings I have when I do it. It's always felt very freeing to me, to surrender to fate. All I can really do is stand there and smile and wait for someone to pick me up.

I remind myself that it doesn't do any good to get mad when they go whizzing by. It doesn't do any good to think, damn, what's wrong with these people, and why aren't they stopping? I've been very stoic. I've thought, I can keep doing this, no matter what happens. I usually feel really good when I hitchhike, even though I'm utterly dependent on people. I feel like most of the people who pick me up have richer lives because of it. That sounds completely egotistical, but it seems like they feel better, because they get to be useful, they get to talk about themselves, and they're thanked profusely for it. So that's my main motivation for hitchhiking now, the human experience of it.

I also see it as an injustice that the world has made it so hard to hitchhike. You can't find a freeway these days that doesn't say pedestrians are illegal. My worst experiences as a hitchhiker have been with the cops. I've been run out of towns, I've been told by a state patrolman that he was going to kick my riffraff ass off his freeway. Just like you have far fewer rights in this country if you're homeless, you have far fewer rights if you don't own a car.

So I hitchhike as a form of activism, because I feel like I'm lucky. I have an education, I'm pretty articulate, and I've got a good network of friends and family. No one's going to get away with throwing me in jail and treating me badly for too long. So I feel like it's a chance to advocate for the people who have to hitchhike and don't have those luxuries.

There's another motivation, too, which is that miracles happen. Every time I've gotten really down and out, every time I've started to feel desperate, something wonderful has happened.

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