How to hitch hike:
Think like an apostle.
1.) you’re broke
2.) you’re traveling
3.) you’re dependent on others
4.) you can’t carry extra
At first, you won’t feel right. Agriculture has afforded us the luxuries of a stationary lifestyle. We build permanent houses and inter our dead in the ground with monuments meant to be revisited. Unlike the apostles and, incidentally, unlike hunter-gatherers, most people haven’t carried everything they need in a pack. Fewer still have willingly carried less, a line that only the most resourceful, or possibly foolhardy, traveler will cross.
While packing for a recent hitch hiking and backpacking trip to Iceland, I realized my pack’s weight grossly overmatched my ability. I threw out everything that contained sugar in my pack; sugar weighs a shocking amount, relative to its volume and necessity. I ripped the pages of my travel guide out and shoved them in an envelope. I cut my toothbrush in half with a hacksaw in an effort to shave an ounce off the total weight. Then, in a last-ditch effort, I threw out all my food.
Imagine it like this:
It’s 7pm, with the sort of sustained daylight that summer provides, long and leathery and wearying on hard traveling people like you. You slept beside the expressway last night near a rest area parking ground and kept waking up to trucker’s radios and engines and the general hustle and bustle of people not working the 9-to-5. You’re thirsty and tired and want to go to sleep, but you’ve got to get to your friends/show/fantasy out in San Francisco so you stand by the side of the road with your thumb out and road grit in your eyes, begging basically, for a ride. There are places to sleep here, soft hidden places under the wide-open Texas sky and it’s pretty late in the season for tarantulas, but it’s not time to look for a sleeping place yet.
I ditched my food, and trusted I would find some when I was hungry, and that my hunger, like your exhaustion, would not kill me. It was not time to think about food, it was time to move. It might take days to find a ride, it has before, if you’ve not heard it before, let me introduce you to the old hitch hiking axiom, “Hitch hiking is possible anywhere, is you have enough time.” Given the nature of this mode of transportation, you’ll understand that when someone stops, as they eventually do, they might empathize and offer you a free Mc Donald’s cheeseburger. Never ever turn down a free cheeseburger. Even if you aren’t hungry, you’re just telling that person that you recognize their empathy, and the favor they’ve done you.
Connect with them, ask them about themselves, eat their cheeseburger but for gods sake, make them take you past the city. If you get dropped in a city, you’re hoofing it to the end of the city. Remember what I told you about agriculture, that we are a stationary people now? Most accidents occur close to home because most people drive near their home. You, the hitch hiker, need to find the inter city traffic.
Remember- it’s not cars passing; it’s people in cars. People see motion. Don’t sit by the side of the road with your thumb out and expect a sane person to stop. Go behind a gas station and rip a piece of cardboard (that ubiquitous template) off a box and write the general direction you’re going on it. One sign labeled “WEST” took me from New Orléans to Los Angeles. If you have a specific city labeled on your sign, you risk putting people off. They might not be familiar with the city, or want to offer a stranger a 5-hour ride to the city in question. Put your direction out there, make eye contact, smile and convince them to pick you up. Win them over. See if they will take you to all the way.
On the topic of taking rides, know when to turn one down. When a car stops, especially in unpopulated areas or near dark, don’t get right in. Don’t throw your bag in the back seat and then start talking to the driver. Grab your bag, wait for them to roll the window down, look them in the eye and ask them how far they will take you. Make a quick survey of the car for anything questionable. Make sure their destination is a potential catch-out spot. If you are smart, you’d have a road-warrior truck stop atlas, stick to those. The sweet little old lady who wants to drop you off in the middle of nowhere isn’t a good bet, smile politely and wave her off. Long haul truckers are the best rides, but only the owner-operators will stop. Some people will be creepy, so grab your bag, ask to pull over and pee or take a photo and bail, hurt their feelings, you’ll never see them again, and it’s their own damn fault for being creepy. Even when it’s raining. Even when you’re cold. Even when you could use a cheeseburger. Use your mind. Hitch hiking, and any other activity which pushes one out of their comfort zone, necessitates resourcefulness and the sort of acumen that Google maps and Excel spreadsheets have made superfluous in our day-to-day living.
Partly due to matters just covered, hitch hiking is one of the most romanticized means of transportation of our day, probably ranking a close second to train hopping. Kerouac’s “On the Road,” which incidentally, I’ve never read, seems to have firmly established the dusty lone hitcher, thumb out, as an American icon and with most icons, the reality is both more nuanced and less glamorous. For one, hitching is mostly about waiting– waiting for a ride, waiting for the dawn, waiting for your cell phone to pick up service again, waiting waiting waiting. Waiting by the side of the road in the desert, unable to leave the gas station with the bathroom with the really cold water in the faucet, and lying back for a while while your partner hitches, and you look at clouds the way you haven’t since you were very, very small.
For some people, with loads of time and not a lot of cash and a sense of adventure, hitch hiking’s allure is overwhelming. What other means of transportation could bring one into contact with so many people, forcing mental flexibility and the sort of old-world story telling that we’ve lost? What else could get a person across the United States on $150 and provide a life’s worth of beat credibility?
Hitch hiking is an act of retelling as much as it is an act of aggression against the passive experience most of us fall into. Tom Tom GPS devices don’t teach us how to read a face for a lie. They don’t teach us how to read a topographical map or tell a joke, only experience can do that, something outside institution and the 9-5, and this is one of the most redeeming qualities of hitching. It is active, as all of our lives should be.