When my dad was young, hitchhiking was a common way to get around. Not everyone had cars back then, so seeing someone walking along the road with their thumb out was not an unusual sight, and, I suppose, stopping to offer them a ride was the neighbourly thing to do. It was, in short, socially acceptable.
I’m sure you’ll remember when cell phones were just taking hold, and people used to offer their phones to strangers if they needed to make an important call. It was sort of like that. (On second thought, I’m sure you don’t remember, but it’s true; take my word for it.)
Back then, in rural Columbia County, where my dad, and then I, grew up, there were not a lot of people, so if you hitched a ride, the person who picked you up probably knew you. That made it safe. Or, as safe as it could be. By the time I started hitchhiking, there were more people about, and I generally got into a car (or jumped into the back of a pickup truck) driven by strangers. That made it not as socially acceptable, especially for young teenagers, but it still wasn’t unusual, and even girls hitch-hiked, often on their own.
Just in case this activity has fallen completely into obscurity by the time you read this, let me explain what hitchhiking is. You walk along a road, on your way to someplace and, when a car approaches, you hold out your fist with your thumb extended. This is generally done while walking backward, facing the oncoming car. If the driver likes the look of you and has the time and takes pity on your situation, they may stop and offer you a lift. Or not. Mostly not.
I don’t recall when I began hitchhiking, but I was certainly doing it by the time I was 13. It was how I got around, if I was going too far to want to take a bicycle. Mainly, it was to get to the nearby towns of Kinderhook or Valatie, though sometimes I went further afield. I recall, when I was about 15 or 16, hitchhiking on a regular basis to visit a friend in Athens, a town twenty miles away and on the other side of the Hudson River.
Hitchhiking involved a lot of walking, and it wasn’t the sort of travel where you could call someone, tell them you were on your way and offer an estimated time when you might get there. It was free, semi-reliable, and sort of safe, but it did have its downsides.
One of them, of course, was the danger of getting kidnapped and killed. This was more of a problem for girls, but it did, almost, happen to me once.
It was the 26th of January 1971 and I was hitchhiking to Valatie, which was barely five miles from my home (a walkable distance that I did end up walking many times) when a car with four older teenage boys in it stopped to pick me up. I got into the back seat. They asked where I was going and I told them, “Valatie.” Then the boy sitting next to me reached over, locked my door and said, “You’re not going to Valatie.”
The driver asked where Albany was, so I told him to drive north on Rt. 9 (this was before Interstate 90 was built) for twenty miles and he’d be there. He said he’d do that, but if he didn’t find Albany, he’d dump me out. I just shrugged. I knew Albany would be there, and I figured I could hitchhike back. So, we drove north. By the time they got to East Greenbush, however, they got bored with me, and they started talking about just driving down a back road, killing me and dumping my body. I figured I’d heard enough by then. We were driving through a built-up area and not going over 30 mph, so I unlocked my door, opened it, and tried to jump out.
The boy in the back seat grabbed me and I started yelling and thrashing but he pulled me back into the car and I saw all the guys were looking at me with white, shocked faces.
They quickly told me they were fooling, and that they were friends of my sister and that they would take me wherever I wanted to go, but to, please, not try to jump out again. I guess they were worried about being hauled in for kidnapping and murder.
That didn’t put me off hitchhiking, by the way.
On another day, I was hitchhiking to Kinderhook, just three miles from my home. It was a hot, sultry summer day, pleasant for walking, which turned out to be a good thing because there were few cars and none of them picked me up. Then, in the distance, I saw a girl riding a horse. This was not an unusual sight, either, and I thought nothing of it. When she caught up to me and began to pass me, however, I stuck my thumb out as a joke. To my surprise, she stopped. “You in a hurry,” she asked. I told her I wasn’t and climbed up behind her.
She took me all the way to the square in Kinderhook. It was a pleasant ride, and I don’t recall talking much along the way. We just enjoyed the day and the gentle rocking of the horse. I dismounted, thanked her and she rode away. I never even asked her name.
When I became a Jesus Freak, hitchhiking became something of an issue. It wasn’t illegal (in fact, it remains legal in every state—as of this writing—except for Idaho, Nevada, Utah and New Jersey) but the leaders of the cult didn’t approve, and therefore we were not to do it. (This is how you know you are in a cult, when the leader’s word is Law, and you have no choice but to obey.) This, to my annoyance, made it rather difficult for me to get around, so I had to deal with the sin of hitchhiking or the fact of not being able to get anywhere. One day, while on my way to the barn where this cult had their shake-n-bake church, I was feeling so guilty that I laid a fleece.
For the uninitiated, allow me to explain: In the Bible, in Judges 6:33-40, Gideon wishes to know the will of God, so he asks for a sign. The sign was, he would lay a fleece (either a wool garment, or the sheared wool of a sheep) out on the ground all night, and in the morning, if the ground was wet with dew and the fleece was dry, that would be the sign. In our vernacular, whenever we asked God for a sign, it was called “laying a fleece.” (This practice, by the way, was also discouraged.)
At any rate, I was walking along the road, not having any luck, so I said if the next car that came along simply stopped and offered me a ride, I would take it as a sign that God didn’t want me to hitchhike any more. I felt secure with this bargain, as, in all my years of hitchhiking, this had never happened. So, I just kept walking, and when the next car came along, I didn’t pay it any attention. And didn’t it stop, and didn’t the woman driving roll her window down (see Cars) and offer me a ride?
You can take that any way you want. I took it to mean that God had a really wicked sense of humour and continued to hitchhike. I mean, how else was I supposed to get anywhere?
Eventually, I got a car, and put my sinful hitchhiking days behind me.
I didn’t forget the long, lonely walks I took while begging for rides, however, and made a point of picking up every hitchhiker I could. Mostly, they were kids, just like me, who wanted to get from one town to the next. But there were two notable exceptions.
The first was in November 1977, as I was traveling home from working the 4PM to midnight shift at DCJS. It was a cold, rainy night and, near Exit 9, I saw a hitchhiker. Just a flash in my headlights. I didn’t know if it was a kid or an adult or a man or a woman, but I wasn’t going to leave them out there, and I made a promise to myself that I would take them to wherever they were going.
The hitchhiker turned out to be a pretty, 22-year-old woman with a 6-year-old daughter, going to Springfield, Massachusetts. I think, given the situation, the time, and the weather, I would have taken them there, even without the promise I had made to myself. We arrived at 3AM. I spent the night there, in a sort of communal living space, with Peach (the woman I had picked up) and Belle (her identical twin sister) and Terry (Peach’s daughter) and hung out with them until around noon the following day, when I travelled back to New York and went to work. It was a fascinating adventure, much better than my next one.
This one, I don’t recall the date, but it was late at night in a cold season. I picked up a man somewhere and brought him to the Nassau area. I believe it was 1979 or later as I get the impression I was married at the time because the ordeal caused me to think of my wife.
The man, who never gave me his name, was appreciative of the ride, but unsure of where he wanted to go and, as we drove around, he began complimenting me on my altruism. “It’s a good thing you’re doing,” he told me, “picking up strangers and giving them rides, especially when you don’t know anything about them. You never know, I might be planning to kill you.”
He said that last bit in a way that raised the hairs on the back of my neck. We drove around a bit more, and he returned to the theme of him maybe (or maybe not) being a psycho-killer. At one point, I stopped the car somewhere just so I could open the door and check to see if he had a weapon. He asked what I was doing, and I made some excuse. As we drove on, I surreptitiously eased my pocket knife out of my jeans (tip: always carry a pocketknife, preferably the small Swiss-Army variety; they come in very handy) and flicked the blade out. Fortunately, it was in my left-hand pocket, so he didn’t notice what I was doing.
Eventually, I took him up the back road to the services on the New York State Thruway, which were open 24 hours a day. I stopped the car at the end of the lane and basically told him to get out.
He seemed confused and a little miffed at this, but I didn’t care by then. He had never told me where he wanted to go, so I told him he could get something to eat there, and call someone if he needed to. Reluctantly, he left the car, and I drove away as fast as I could.
I have not picked up a hitchhiker since. *
These days, while still legal (in most states) hitchhiking is less prevalent. I haven’t seen any here in Britain and I don’t recall seeing many in the US in the years before I left. I suppose, these days, everyone has a car, or access to one, and if you don’t, well, there are reasons to be suspicious, so picking up a hitchhiker is more dangerous than it used to be. Likewise, hitchhiking itself has become more hazardous, as you are certainly going to be picked up by a stranger who has time on their hands and, perhaps, a different agenda than you.
My advice, therefore, is don’t do it, unless you see a pretty girl on a horse. Then, by all means, see if she’s willing to give you a lift. You won’t get very far very fast, but you will enjoy the ride.
* Actually, I did pick up hitchhikers while I was driving around Ireland in August 2001. I had to; it was the only way I could find where I was going.