Sunday, April 26, 2009


"Sweet Hitchhiker" by Creedence Clearwater Revival

If you've ever hitchhiked any distance you've done a lot of standing by the road singing songs. Rides are few and far between, so you entertain yourself. Some people live on the road--drifters, hobos, dharma bums and outriders--and they explore the Great American Highway. They've got wanderlust. Maybe they can't make it in straight society, maybe they're modern day gypsies. Road trips were once seen as rites of passage, important coming-of-age experiences like Indian vision quests, but nowadays it seems that most young people forgo the Kerouac bug for the lock-step of security, career, and life in the Comfort Zone. It's all about viewpoint. If you grow up believing what you're told, you have no reason to "go out there and see for myself." On the other hand...

"Hitchin' a Ride" by Vanity Fare

...some people have the bug. I did. Unimpressive by true vagabond standards, I've still got my bonafides, logging some long runs up and down the West Coast several times, and thumbing through Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Utah, Arizona, California and down into Mexico. I hitched around upstate New York when the leaves were turning. I'm not fooling myself--I'm snug in the Comfort Zone, too, and surprised I was ever foolhardy enough to hitchhike around the country. People say it's too dangerous now, but it was always dangerous. On the road, you surrender to chance, fate, luck, the elements. You have no choice. I got robbed once, got into some bad spots, slept under a bridge when there was snow on the ground. I got thrown into jail in Circleville, Utah, home of the famous Butch Cassady. I like to think we were both in the same jailhouse--at different times, of course. The old bunker jailhouse certainly seemed old enough for the Hole in the Wall Gang.

An old map of the Outlaw Trail

The Wild West is long gone. Nowadays, I want comfort when I travel. I want cozy beds and honey-roasted peanuts and a mini-bar full of expensive Snickers and tiny bottles of good booze. Still, I wouldn't give up my hitching days for anything. Sure it was senseless and foolhardy--you can't put it on a resume, and it doesn't translate well to the status seekers and stay-at-home types, but it provided me with an advanced degree of the spirit. If you want to know your country--your world--you need to get out there and see it firsthand. Hitchhiking is a way to do it on the cheap.

A night in jail in Butch Cassady's hometown. Priceless.

You'll meet some real characters. You might share snacks or travel tips ("If you ever go to Houston..."). Some people never forget their fraternity brothers or army buddies, but I'll never forget Julie with the patchwork jacket from San Diego and Black Bart ("like the outlaw") from Montana, and the crazy Kahlua drinking dude who had just got a divorce and kept singing "Miss You" until we told him to shut the hell up. Or the Navajos in the green Camaro going to the all-Indian rodeo in Tuba City. Or the county sheriff who bought us a stack of pancakes and eggs because the law requires you to feed prisoners. Or "El Cougare," the modern day gunfighter who fought in electronic quick-draws for prize money. Or the country club golfer who bought me a cold beer in the desert outside Page, Arizona, because you had to be a club member to buy a drink at the Pro Shop and it was over a hundred degrees in the shade. Thanks.

"Ridin' Thumb" by King Curtis & the Kingpins

Years later, when you're buried in polite society and you've forgotten most of what you ever learned, you will come across somebody who knows, you can see it in their eyes, and before you know it you're trading old road stories. A song might grab you, too, trigger a memory so it all comes back in a great disorderly rush and you get a flash of the University Avenue onramp in Berkeley, say, or snow falling in the Siskyous and taillights fading in the dusk. You have to laugh. Squeeze your eyes shut and you're back in the wind, bundled up in a pile-lined denim jacket, climbing into a long-haul rig just outside Salt Lake City. Diesel fumes, air brakes, static on the radio.

"How far ya going?"

"Me and Bobby McGee" by Kris Kristofferson


Anonymous said...

Great post. I never hitchiked long distances but I did some local hitching and had a good time. People get more fearful as they get older and so does our society. Take it easy!

Seve Smith said...

There is a different spirit among young people these days, and people are staying home or even living in their parents' basements which is basically staying in the womb--surrounded by snacks and video games and magazines. Why leave?

The result is self-centered, ethnocentric dumbbells who believe virtual "reality" is the same as being there. Bush was an example of the prototype--a guy who had never left the country (other than the Mexican border) until he became president! No wonder his view of the world was so fucked up. It was based on no real experience at all. Foreigners are bad and strange and dangerous.

Stay at home! It's safe!

I'm being facetious. I, too, was a vagabond and backpacked across Europe in my twenties, sleeping in hostels and using a Eurail Pass. Travel is one of the greatest things one can do and far more valuable than my costly education.