Day Twelve on the road. No one has spat or swore at me. No cars have swerved to hit me, and no cops have hassled me—aside from one in Duluth, the city of anti-pedestrian bridges. I have not met a creep or a thief or a killer. I am clean and well-rested, and although I brought food and back-up money with me, I have not touched any of it.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is hitchhiking.
People tried—and still try—to warn me off. “There’s too many wackos out there.” “Maybe back in the day, but not now.” “You just can’t trust people anymore.”
But I made it from Mount Vernon, Washington, to Alba, Michigan in twelve days and thirty-seven rides, and I have met only good people. I call this project “Traveling on Trust,” and I am still discovering just how much meaning that name carries.
Besides thumbing for rides, I am traveling under two constraints:
1) No interstates
2) No money
The former keeps me off roads where hitchhiking is illegal and, in my opinion, boring. The speed of a freeway comes at the cost of scenery. On the highways—especially the two-lane, meandering routes—you feel the forests and the mountains; you pass through 500-person towns and wait at four-way stops. You experience rural America.
The rule against money keeps me connected to other people. Money offers security—refuge from strangers and unfamiliar situations. As an introvert, I usually like that ability, but it does not allow for learning. Not the kind I’m seeking, anyway.
On this trip, I want to see how others live and experience their cultures on their terms. This means driving through the North Dakota oil fields with people who work there, talking with drop-out “hicks” in rural Montana, riding with farmers, Vietnam veterans, and former meth addicts. Already, just twelve days into this eight-week trip, I have found ideas and assumptions and backgrounds completely unlike my own.
But how, in this day and age, does one hitchhike?
Everyone knows the basic concept: stand on the shoulder with a thumb in the air until a driver pulls over. But that alone will get you glares, pitying glances, and head shakes. Through online research and personal experience, I have discovered a few tricks to effective thumbing, so you, too, can hit the road.
1) Face traffic. A face is harder to ignore than a thumb.
2) Stand in a low-speed zone, such as the edge of town. This gives drivers more time to see you and talk themselves into helping you.
3) Make sure drivers have room to pull over.
4) Have a sign. Make it funny, informative, professional. Anything to distinguish yourself from a bum or just-released inmate.
5) Look trustworthy. To guys with beards, tattoos, or mangy clothing: bummer. This is one of the few times when I don’t mind being mistaken for a high-schooler. Usually when I ask people why they picked me up, they admit, “You just looked honest,” or “You didn’t seem like a creep.” People don’t expect to see a clean, young graduate out thumbing.
If you use those five tricks—and even if you don’t—drivers of all sorts will stop for you. I have been picked up by men with concealed weapons permits and by single mothers with babies in the car. I have ridden with elderly couples and high school kids, with Christians, atheists, universalists, and “spiritualists.” The conversations, as you can imagine, are quite varied, and most are fascinating.
But in all of them, the common denominator is trust. All of my drivers put their trust in a roadside wanderer, and in return, I put my trust in them. Everyone I met has deserved it.
One man commented on my sign: “Trust. That’s a pretty powerful word.”
I couldn’t agree more. By trusting, we open ourselves to new lessons and ideas. By trusting, we embrace the other, discuss and discover instead of argue. And by trusting, we enter another’s life for a few hours and accept them as valuable and God-made, despite whatever vices or flawed history he or she might have.
By trusting, we are better able to love.
I think everyone should try hitchhiking, either as driver or rider. The experience is eye-opening and challenging, and, at the very least, it’s free transportation.
I will continue hitching for the next few weeks, traveling down to New Mexico and then back to Washington State. I have long since given up predicting what I will encounter, and have instead given in wholly to trust. Trust in God, in humanity, and in individual drivers. It’s an exhilarating feeling, and one hell of a way to travel.
NPR called Josh “a modern-day Jack Kerouac” after he wrote about his 7,000-mile, no-money hitchhiking journey through the United States. Since hitchhiking, he’s found homes in the Pacific Northwest, the Episcopal Church, and the post calvin. He builds websites as the director of Branded Look LLC. Josh’s writing has appeared in places such as The Emerson Review, Front Porch Review, and Perspectives.