The first ride was liberating, the adventure door flung wide open-- free transportation, new people and places, and unfiltered exposure to human nature . Remarkable freedom, crashing anyplace I landed: the side of the road, under bridges, in the woods, in people’s yards.
The hitchhiking culture of the 1970s provided the opportunity; a hobo by choice. I had a book, “Hitchhikers Bible,” with all kinds of advice. One trip I traveled with a banjo getting rides even faster, no matter that I was just learning to play.
For many the hitchhiking journey was a rite of passage. My two best friends in high school also hitched west. We read and were fascinated by Jack Kerouac’s “On The Road.”
But times have changed; the age of homeland security and perpetual war has arrived. Signs warn against picking up hitchhikers near prisons, as prisons expand like wildfire.
The legacy of the hobo now lies mainly with those traveling out of necessity-- migrant workers. For house repairs I once hired a man from Mexico who was missing half of one foot due to an injury from hopping a freight train. He’s now picking grapes in California, and paying for his daughter’s college education.
The hitchhiking journey may no longer be popular, but certainly not extinct. Chris McCandless, traveling as Alexander Supertramp, did his trip in 1990-92, finding people just as generous as I did fifteen years earlier. Stories like “Into The Wild” show that accepting a ride from a stranger, or picking up a stranger, isn’t just another risk to be avoided, but a potentially life changing experience.
I haven’t completely retired. Several years ago the bus I was riding broke down in Mexico, where hitchhiking is common, so I decided to hitch instead of waiting. I was relieved to discover that after thirty years my thumb still had the magic touch.
“I have walked 25,000 miles as a penniless pilgrim…. without ever asking for anything, I have been supplied with everything needed for my journey, which shows you how good people really are.” Peace Pilgrim (born Mildred Lisette Norman, 1908-1981)
The best teacher is experience and not through someone's distorted point of view." from "On The Road." by Jack Kerouac (1922-1969)
Between 1975-1977, after graduating from high school, I made three trips to the western U.S. Following are excerpts from my travel journal (summarized and recreated in large part after losing much of the original), starting off with a couple of prior formative experiences.
South Fork New River, Blue Ridge Mtns. N.C.- summer 1972—Did a float trip on the New River in a cheap inflatable rubber raft; the first day with my Father and then alone. The third day I stopped near Jefferson at an old farm house to ask for matches, and ended up staying several days with the Lyalls family, who were quite poor with no car or indoor plumbing but incredibly hospitable. After that break floated downriver four more days finishing in Virginia, where I saw a deer swim across the river just before taking out. Called my Father to come get me— he was on the verge of calling the sheriff’s department since he hadn’t heard from me in a week.
Elkin, N.C.—1973. Hopped a freight train today. All the box cars were closed so a friend and I climbed on top of one. Only complication was my friend’s aunt and uncle spotting us from their back yard by the tracks—we innocently waved. When the train made a stop railroad employees came for us. They were real friendly letting us ride in the engine to the end of the line at North Wilkesboro, and then told us what time to meet them for the trip back to Elkin.
Idaho, summer 1975—Working with the U.S. Forest Service on backcountry patrols in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness Area. Before Idaho I hitched to Yellowstone and Olympic National Parks to visit friends working there. Hitchhiking has been a breeze. Only one bad experience when some drunken men in Washington State found out I was from N.C. and responded, “Out here we kill Tarheels!” I didn’t take them seriously but their driving terrified me and I pleaded to be let out.
Banner Elk, N.C.—Winter 1976. Today I worked my first and last day as a ski-lift operator at Beech Mtn. Resort, which involved standing in an unheated booth all day. Had to shut down the lift down at one point, but never got the return call to restart, so watched helpless skiers swinging on the cold metal seats with artificial snow blowing all over them, for close to an hour. I was lucky I didn’t get fired on the spot, as I had accidentally left the phone off the hook preventing return calls. I’m hitchhiking south tomorrow to Florida and warmer climates. They can keep my wages.
Key West, FL —Hitchhiked straight here from N.C. in only a couple of days, getting long rides, one all night. Last night myself and another traveler were offered a place to stay by this hustler at a bar. His pad turned out to be sleeping under a truck trailer near some discarded fish parts, the three of us lying side by side wedged between the tires.
Belle Glade, FL-- Had my backpack stolen, with my money foolishly stored inside it, by a man who took off when I got out for a bathroom break. An elderly couple at the rest stop gave me a sandwich and ten bucks. I hitched into Belle Glade, the closest town, acquired a blanket, and am sleeping behind a fallen tree beside a convenience store. Bought a cup of coffee at the store with remaining pocket change and chatted with a black youth whose Mother works there. Later he came out to my tree to give me some bags of chips and cookies. The second night here night a rare cold snap hit south Florida, with temperatures in the upper 40s. Couldn’t sleep so walked the streets to stay warm, and was questioned by police. Then disaster hit-- in the darkness I walked right into some sort of sludge pit. Crawled out in shock, covered up to my chest with a coat of wet slime. My salvation turned out to be some motel’s flood lights which I huddled around for warmth and to dry my clothes. A day later I went down to the town center at 5 a.m. where hundreds of mostly Jamaicans and Haitians assembled to take buses to the fields. Got on a bus taking African-Americans to pick green beans. I was so pitiful at this task that my fellow workers threw handfuls of beans into my basket to help fill it. At the lunch break I pulled out my peanut butter sandwich which was covered with ants. I asked the guy sitting sitting next to me if he thought it’d still be ok to eat it. He replied “If you’re hungry enough, you’ll eat anything,” so I did. Finally bit the bullet and called my Father to wire me some cash, then heading to the Southwest.
El Paso, TX— Spent the night at the Salvation Army, my first night in a bed in weeks. Before supper we all had to attend a short chapel service which some slept through. Told there’s work building a bridge in Yuma. Met a drunken hobo by the train tracks who I asked about trains going west but he just rambled on about being a Mason and how the Masons would take care of him wherever he was. Gave up and decided to hitchhike.
Tucson, AZ--Rode into Tucson with a fugitive, returning to turn himself after a drug bust a year ago. We spent the night at his brother’s house, where they threw a big welcome home party. As I was leaving the next morning I asked if he was still going to turn himself in, and he replied, “I don’t know, I’m having too good a time.”
Yuma, AZ.—In downtown Tucson a man who had obviously been drinking approached and offered me a ride if I would drive him towards Las Vegas. He rode in the back seat drinking whiskey and boasting about his skills as a short-change artist. At one stop he tried unsuccessfully to convince a store clerk he had given her a twenty dollar bill instead of the ten. When he passed out cold I decided to drive myself on to Yuma. He woke up just as we arrived, so I pulled over and hopped out before he realized where we were . A man in an old car with “Junior” painted on the side offered me a ride to where I could stay for free, which was the home of an African-American woman named Dorothy, who is Yuma’s saint for the down and out. She lets everyone stay in several travel trailers in her backyard. I’m sharing a little trailer with a guy named Utah who just got out of jail. No luck on the bridge job; weren’t hiring.
Oklahoma, summer 1977— Got stuck for most of the day in a horrible location for hitching. In the heat my frustration boiled over and I started yelling at passing cars; no cussing or words at all, just a loud primal yell. Finally a car pulled over—the man told me after hearing my desperate yelling he had doubled back to pick me up.
Tuba City, AZ.-- Hitchhiked across the Navajo and Hopi reservations with a young Navajo, Robert, who invited me to visit his home. Hitching is real easy here as many locals depend on it. We stayed at his grandparents’ place, who spoke little English. I slept on the ground in a traditional hogan behind the house.
Gallup, N.M .-- Walked into a little roadside carnival where a carny called me over for a free turn at a ring toss game. After several throws I was convinced it was a sure bet to win several hundred dollars if I just kept playing. When it finally struck me that the game was rigged it was too late. I stared into my wallet which led him to point to a sign stating “Don’t Overspend.” I had blown $125 and had $15 left for the trip back to N.C. My luck improved after that—a friendly young couple with a cooler full of food took me all the way to Oklahoma.
Memphis, TN, Aug. 18, 1977-- As my ride approached Memphis traffic suddenly began backing up for miles, it wasn’t rush hour so I asked the driver if he had any idea what happened. He responded, “They’re going to Elvis Presley’s funeral.” It was also the last day of my final cross-country hitchhiking trip.