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for people who care about the West

The Last Ride

One hitchhiker's oral history


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.

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.