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Opinion

Guidelines for a successful hitchhiking experience

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February 24, 2011

Sticking your thumb out is a risk more people should take. Not everyone that picks you up is Hunter S. Thompson, floating in the spirals of insanity because he has taken a cornucopia of drugs. Having hitchhiked myself, I now know that New Englanders love donuts and drive terribly. Yet, these extroverted people are hospitable and are more likely to play twenty questions with you rather than storing your rigid body neatly into their chest freezer. For me, the decision to hitchhike was born out of necessity (at the time I was hiking the Appalachian Trail) as I bravely stuck out my thumb for the first time in Pawling, New York.

My virgin hitch, I later found out, was in bad form. With no hitchhiking experience, this lacking skill did not help the part of me that was shy, and so it was that I began to walk forward with my back to traffic and my thumb stuck out. In certain social circles, this way of hitchhiking is considered rude and even bad etiquette. It is proper to face the oncoming vehicle so that both players can see each other’s faces. Before this shameless act, I had refused to debase myself to hitchhiking. Now I found myself being passed by drivers who probably had the same suspicions about me as I had about them.

After several cars, my anxiety began to exfoliate my mind, but to my amazement, a Hummer slowly eased over onto the shoulder 50 feet ahead of me. I did that slow-fast walk; walking fast to both get the ride before they left, and slow-walking to see that the driver has a trusting face. The slow-fast walk is usually associated with someone that needs to go to the bathroom quickly, but doesn’t want to seem too eager.
I peered through the window and saw a woman who looked like she was in her early fifties. She wore an “I’m not crazy” smile and gestured for me to hop in that hulk of an SUV. This might work, I thought to myself as I opened the door.

“Hi I’m Bard, and I was wondering if I could get a ride to the grocery store?”

“Well, Bard, I’m Angela and I would love to bring you to the store. I’m on my way home and can spare the time.”

Bard is my trail name, it’s a name on the Appalachian Trail that you either self-proclaim or is given to you by another hiker and there is no escaping this fate. If you say that your name is just Tim, then your trail name will become JustTim. An alter ego is just something that comes with the role you take when you radically change your life for six months by hiking a trail over 2,200 miles long, or when you get on that stage and start stripping for money.

Angela brought me, as promised, to the grocery store and said she would wait for me until my shopping was done. Although she built up some trust with me up to that point, when she said that she would wait for me, it felt like one of those vague niceties of claiming “we should hangout sometime,” but never specific about it. However, after fifteen minutes of shopping the jet black Hummer was still parked out front. This hitchhike was becoming interesting.

When I got back into the car she gave me a piece of small memo paper with instructions to visit her and her husband at their vacation cabin in Eastport, Maine, in the second week of August after I finished up the trail. She then asked if there was anywhere else I needed to go. I milked that opportunity by having her bring me to the gas station for stove fuel, stopping at a deli for a sandwich that she highly recommended, pulling over so I could say hello to my hiking friends Moonpie and Doozy, and finally to the town park where public camping was permitted.

My first hitchhike was a success, maybe yours will be too.

Christopher Pagels is an alumnus of UW-River Falls.