Ridin' On Down The Road...

The bus ticket cost 28 dollars, and that was 28 dollars more than I was willing to pay. The goal was to travel from Bellingham to Seattle, it had been months since I’d moved north and I was jonesing for a good “friend fix”. The rideshare boards on Craigslist were filled with offers for trips in every direction except the one I wanted to go.

So, with my choices narrowed down to spending money I didn’t have or hanging around until the next day when a friend was heading south I made up my mind: I was going to try and hitch my way to the Emerald City.

Immediately after making up my mind I went into action: jumping in the cardboard dumpster outside my door, ripping of a good sized piece, uncapping my fine point sharpie and penning the words “SEATTLE, PLEASE” in big, black letters across the expanse of brown cardboard that would serve as my roadside voice. I dawned my backpack, dropped my plant off with a friend and headed on down the road.

Hitching is a strange thing in America, it’s become an anomaly in a country that is obsessed with the idea of “making it on your own” and “relying on no one”. The simple act of standing on the roadside with your thumb out and a smile on your face has become a radical statement. The average American family owns between two and three cars, and that’s a “conservative” estimate at best. It is with this figure in mind that you would think it completely plausible, hell, maybe even easy, to hitch a ride down any of Americas many paved thoroughfares.

But the simple fact that I am recounting a story based around the act of hitching should alert you to the reality that hitching is not the norm in the U.S. This was not always the case. In the not so distant past millions of young, and old, Americans took to the road via the thumb and a smile. This was apparently a time when Americans were either too stupid, too naïve or simply too trusting of their fellow man (and woman) to understand that hitching a ride meant almost certain death, for the hitcher or the unsuspecting person who gave them a ride. At least that’s what Hollywood would have us believe.

It helps to understand that Americans, like people the world over, love a good story. Hollywood, perhaps better than any other capital endeavor, has grasped the fullness of this love. And like any other business that wishes to succeed they have seized upon the few, and somewhat true, stories of hitches gone wrong. There have been entire movies dedicated to the myth of some serial killing hitchhiker with a lust for blood.

And so it is with this cultural meta-narrative of fear flowing just beneath the surface that I stand at the highway on ramp hoping for a ride from someone who can trust me as much as I am willing to trust them.

Many, many cars pass me by, with some of the occupants using hand gestures to communicate that they are only going a small piece up the road. The hand gestures are an act of kindness that I come to appreciate. These people have no obligation to communicate with this roadside freeloader their reasons for passing him by; their kindness carries me through.

After 15 or 20 minutes of advertising my need for a ride middle-aged man in a luxury SUV stops to pick me up. I climb in as he tells me he is only going a few exits down the highway. I thank him for stopping to pick me up and tell him a few exits down the road is closer to my destination than I was just a minute ago. With hum of the highway beneath us this soft-spoken stranger and I talk about the psychology behind hitching. He says he’s picked up many hitchers over the years and many of them have had apparent psychological issues. Living in America has the potential to drive you crazy, and for many it does. He tells me he has to pick up a friend who wants to walk with him and his dogs around a lake. His friend is an attractive young blond woman who is surprised to see a random man sitting in the front seat of her friend’s vehicle.

After brief introductions we are on our way. The driver says he can drop me off at an exit where a popular casino is located assuring me that it shouldn’t be hard to find a ride from there. I thank him as he drops me off at what appears to be a very desolate off ramp. There is the casino in the distance with its flashing light board promising riches within. I find a “good” spot to stand and resume my silent, cardboard request for a ride further south.

Many potential rides zoom past me with no regard; it’s as if I am invisible. I begin to wonder if I am. And then my most unexpected ride of the day stops to pick me up. A white Isuzu Trooper pulls up beside me and the Hispanic driver asks me where I am going. “Seattle”, I respond. She says they (there is also a man and a baby in the vehicle) are only going to Mount Vernon. I graciously accept the ride and climb in the back next to a car seat containing a baby boy. I only mention the drivers ethnicity because this is the first ever “minority” ride I’ve been given. I make small talk with the young driver (she’s only twenty) and her older male passenger (I try to guess the relationship of the two and finally settle on boyfriend/girlfriend). She tells me if she were alone she wouldn’t pick me up. I tell her I completely understand.

I look at the baby who is nursing a bottle and fighting a losing battle with his heavy, sleep laden eyelids. He has only just stopped crying, a tear resting just beneath his left eye attests to this. We ride for a while in silence. Eventually we exit the highway and I once again thank them for their generosity. I go through the same routine: locate the on ramp, find a safe spot to stand, pull out my sign, my thumb and a smile that hopefully conveys the flimsy presumption that I am harmless and trustworthy.

This time it’s a newish V.W. Passat that pulls over. Another middle aged white man is behind the wheel and I wait for him to shift his things from the front seat to the back before I take my offered seat. We head down the highway while exchanging names and occupations. He is heading to Seattle (finally!) to appraise a few pieces of real estate; he can take me wherever I need to go. We chat about the housing market in between business calls (one of which required my rough secretarial skills of scrawling his verbally dictated details of a potential clients contact info on the back of my cardboard sign).

It’s only a few minutes into this final ride that a steady rain begins to fall on the windshield; I am grateful beyond measure. Steve is a kind soul. He tells me about growing up in Seattle, and about eventually moving north with his wife. He offers to drop me off in Fremont (my final destination) and I begin to refuse his kindness but then think better of it and graciously accept. I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect hitch. I step out of his car and onto the cracked city sidewalk only two and a half hours after I began my journey. The 28 dollar bus doesn’t get me here this fast.

It has become more important now, perhaps more than ever, that Americans begin to trust those that surround them. This journey, like so many of my recent journeys, has been a hope restoring and fear dispelling exercise.

I have come to believe that to live in fear is to just stop living altogether.


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