Oh, to answer the earlier question: yes, sort of; people at least talk about hitchhiking. I don't see many on the roadsides, but there are websites. The one I looked at was password-protected. I think it would be funny to stand motionless on a highway shoulder, and when a motorist stopped and offered a ride, say, "Ride? Oh, no, thanks. I was just standing here trying to remember my username." I also like to think that hitchhiking, as apparently flooded with free time as it is, is absolutely proof against blogging, or recording of any sort. It would be a titanic solecism, accepting hospitality in close quarters and then beginning to type, or, worse, video.
The friend who conceived and impelled the 1978 Northwest Territories trip (alluded to elsewhere) was, the following spring, being transferred from New Jersey to Louisiana. Naturally, he drove to Ithaca, New York first, to see if I'd like to come along. Road expenses would be paid. As he phrased it, "I can tell them I drank 5 beers, but I can tell them I drank 10." So I said yes, and like that (and yes, for me, graduate school was always "like that") we went. It's a damp gray afternoon in upstate New York followed by sun and shorts at noon in Birmingham AL. Some camping in Panama City FL, and then on to Baton Rouge.
And then back, on my own. I had plotted hitchhiking, but couldn't quite nerve myself. My friend dropped me at the Greyhound station, and shook my hand heartily. In Atlanta, I decided at last that I must rally. Marched from the bus station to the point where I-75 and I-85 cleaved, and there...stuck out my thumb. As with speaking a foreign language (well, Turkish, at least), I had to ask: "Is this supposed to work?" It did. A guy in a Datsun he'd paid $25 for, and for which he'd furnished a $35 alternator, picked me up. He certainly wasn't going to Ithaca, but he was going near Athens, where I knew some people, and though it wasn't quite on his way, he dropped me just a few blocks from them. They were pleased to see me, and put me up in great state.
I wish I could say I was so flown with this golden outcome that I thumbed all the way back home, but no: the next day, I stood timidly by Jefferson GA, then quickly gave up and caught a ride north, into Gainesville, with a guy with a cracked windshield who was proposing to drive to Oklahoma later that day. In Gainesville, I boarded the first of many buses back to Ithaca. But I knew I would be back. Funny how one feels he has failed when he sinks to paying for his transportation rather than stoutly waiting for it to be gifted to him. Well, that's hitchhikers for you!
College Station, 1980
Visiting friends in Houston. I must've just walked over to Highway 6 and solicited. An unsavory fellow picked me up. He got me to Houston expeditiously, no question about that. But he was repellent. At one point he made a grossly lascivious remark, and smiled; I looked directly at a gap between his two front upper teeth, and it was like pornography: it made sex look like something you wouldn't ever do in your life. And as we drove through Prairie View, he made some, ah, uncharitable remarks about the students there, particularly the ones who played football and, if I recall properly, were responsible for the look of his teeth.
All the same, he got, and remains, thought-provoking. He worked in the petroleum industry, about which (I offer this in his defense) nothing can be pretty, and besides stating what may in 2011 still be true, namely that we are not about to run out of petroleum, he reported a conversation with an Egyptian, who asked him why the U.S. kept supporting Israel. "Because they keep beating you guys." At the time, I thought this both unresponsive and graceless, but now I know it to be apt and sharp. About the Middle East nothing can be pretty, but you still have to choose sides, and winners are naturally more attractive than losers. Plus, 91% of Egyptian women of childbearing age have undergone genital mutilation. Come on, is there even a contest here?
Directly before my first big ride, I quit my job in College Station, bussed to Austin with a friend, rented a car at the airport there, and drove around the Southwest for two very pleasant weeks. Coming back to College Station involved depositing the car back in Austin, then - for some reason - hitching. I walked from the airport to US 290, and promptly got moving. The first leg got me to McDade, where I bought a Dr. Pepper at a gas station and was told that hitchhiking was dangerous - the first of only two times I would ever hear this. Then, another run, as far as Highway 21, with a guy who said he was going "to Houston - I guess." I don't think he was nutty. I think I was, for insistently asking "Where y'all going?" Y'all is plural. He was not. But at least I knew then, and now, how to spell it. Few do.
Then the lap to College Station, with a cop - maybe a revenooer. He was coming back from Austin after delivering a sample of illegal hooch to a forensic lab. He worked in College Station, and told me about the Mafia there. He had got his start in law enforcement in Austin itself, though, in 1946: "They handed me a badge and a gun, and said, 'Son, go out and enforce the law.'" I liked him immensely, as I'm sure even his collars did. He was fat, good-fat, confident-fat, drive-a-big-car-fast-and-flawless-fat. He passed two vehicles which had passed me 15 minutes before he showed up. I mentioned this. He asked, "Wanna give 'em the finger?"
At the end of that first big ride - this would be just 12 days after the preceding experience - I shipped my bicycle to my parents' house, then thumbed east. My idea was to revisit my old co-op at Cornell. In late afternoon I caught a ride with a van full of teenagers. Teenage socialists. Yes. They were going to a rally in New York City. I learned the definition of socialism, because they showed me a copy of The Daily Worker: "worker control of the means of production," as I recall. Never controversial when accepting hospitality (because it's impolite), but also never horn-locking with monomaniacs (because I know they aren't paying attention to ME), I let this wash over me, though I might have mentioned, had I wished to continue thumbing in Illinois after dark, that my very experiences in that co-op taught me the central dogma of socialism was wrong. Not many workers have a taste for control. Some people prefer to manage, some people prefer to labor. That's...people for you. About humans, humanists always know the least.
Well, even had a row flared, it would have died down fast: these kids soon fell asleep. The drivers were somewhat older, though not much more temperate. Just dour. At dawn, before the youngsters had fully awakened, I was let off in Pennsylvania, at the junction of I-80 and I-81.
Where I soon caught a ride with a guy from...Beaumont. Sure. This always happens when you hitchhike. He was drunk - actually, drinking. He said his ambition was to die with a drink in one hand and an erection in the other. I know what I thought, but to this day, I cannot recall if I actually said, "Your own, I hope."
A trip to India and Christmas and a driveaway job - Hudson Valley to Houston - later, I was in the last-named town, put up by a stupendously open-handed friend, for whose hospitality I sought to compensate by helping him renovate his house. As this involved prybars, I was supremely qualified. But not to look like I was actually homeless, even though I surely was, I absented myself on many trips, indeed (I see now) a great plurality of my hitchhiking trips. So: I conceived (after a visit by train to Guatemala, and by bus to Vancouver Island) a canoe trip on the Pecos. To the river it was, then. Bus to Ozona, then thumb to the river.
Where, for the first time (the second time reported here), I found my inflatable absurdly unequal to the task of...anything. Well, it floated all right, but didn't get many chances to, what with all the beaver dams. So, I paddled a bit and then, on a dirt road where I waited fully 12 hours, hitched back to the Interstate. The guy who picked me up in the evening, had seen me that morning, and told me he'd said to himself, "What t'hell [pronounced "tee-hell"] is he doin' out there?"
Bivouac alongside I-10, then in the morning catch a ride all the way back to Austin, with a guy in a VW bus. A true hippie. He had been in the Army, and kept saying, "They mess with your mind, man." He illustrated this with the galactically-recognized gesture, index finger twirling near the temple. He said he was going from San Francisco back to Bogalusa (LA, though you should know that by now) to collect hallucinogenic mushrooms. He also said he had worked with musicians in some capacity, and advised anyone else in like capacity to have inch-thick skin. And he spoke of the time, or a time, he had picked up a female hitchhiker and asked her, "Don't you worry about being raped?" She said no, and they had sex. I said I had never met a woman willing in quite that way. He looked me over from head to toe and back, and said, "Can't imagine why not!"
From Austin I think I bussed all the way out to Comstock, there to hitch - still with that damned canoe - to Amistad Reservoir. Hunters from Lubbock delivered me. The paddling on the lake was really very nice. I bivouacked one bright delightful million-miles-from-anybody evening on a Mexican promontory. I was moving upstream, and eventually decided to scale the ramparts and hitch back on US 90. I saw a javelina or similar. Once up top, I hoicked my gear in relays over to the road, at one point losing track both of where I'd left the remainder and where I'd dropped the forward materiel. I was lost, with nothing in my pockets but $65 and a Chap-Stick. But a single ocotillo flower provoked useful memories, and guided me. At last, I vaulted a fence. Guys in a beer truck drove me into Del Rio. Saying nothing, they handed me a can.
I resolved to visit a friend who was working in some oceanographic capacity out of Cameron LA. So I took a Houston city bus - the #10, "Jensen" I think - to the east side of town, and stood alongside I-10. A guy picked me up. He was laconic. Then he proposed what Richard Brautigan called in one of his books an oral outrage. I was so surprised I almost asked, "You know a woman who'll - " Then I thought: well come on, don't you know how to romance someone first? But all I said was "No," and that was that. I caught my next ride with a trucker - another first. At the weigh station I offered to get out, lest my 135 pounds push his rig into a more unfavorable tax bracket; he smiled and said that wasn't necessary. North of Cameron, he let me off. I got a ride with a cop who described Cameron as "a port town with port trash." He got me close, and I walked in. I passed a guy sitting on his stoop. He asked if I was going to Cameron, and when I said yes, he said, "Watch out."
I had no address for my friend, but found the people he was working for. I think I just looked in a phone book. They had a very common Cajun name but I guessed right. Anyway, I had no further business in what really looked a tame place, so around sunset I walked to the west edge of town, or wherever there was a ferry, there to cross and, I suppose, just look for a place on a beach to bivouac. At the time absolutely none of this struck me as strange: I was having, I thought, a very good trip, and felt not at all inconvenienced. I wanted motion and people and events and impressions: I got 'em all. I had planned not a single thing, not even eating, which in point of fact I don't remember doing.
Off the ferry, I started walking, presumably in the direction of Texas, and though I didn't have my thumb out, I was collected by several male youths in a big rumbling car. They drove me close to Holly Beach, where I did camp out, though not before a detour to a dump, where we careered after rats. Their eyes twinkled in the headlights. The boys whooped. I don't think we killed any. The boys never struck me as feral; they struck me as boys. My only worry, which was so small it did not interfere with my sleep, was about all these tire tracks on the beach where I was bedding down.
The next morning I walked into Holly Beach, which, as all southern Louisiana does in the dawn, felt like a loud bar now closed: tobacco, liquor, cool humidity, a gaping silence. Congenial. There was nothing to the town, though, and years later I'd see billboards on I-10 advertising its attractions, which seemed fantastical. Anyway, I hit the road for home, as I thought of it. A guy in a pickup truck got me to Texas, and a bubbly fellow got me into Houston. He said it was his birthday and he was going to take the day off and spend his time at home in his birthday suit. Just at that moment, I saw a bus stop, and exited.
I had decided to go to graduate school in Virginia. The idea was to drop in on it, arrange lodging, then continue to NY and see my parents before returning for the summer quarter. I bought a bus ticket in Houston, but realized way too late that it would not take me on this route. So, I left the bus in a North Carolina dawn, and hitched.
The trip was fast. All I recall of the leg into Virginia was one ride with a young man who'd flunked out of the college I was going to. Partied too much, though I don't recall his using quite that vulgar a word. He said he was now a laborer - that word he did use - and sounded philosophical beyond his years. A budding ascetic.
I met some amusing and intelligent folks at the college, who confirmed my impression that "party" was definitely not the word. Then, back on the road. On I-81 it must have been, I caught a ride 500 miles to my parents' house. Like that. The guy was a musician. He was genial, and I'm pretty sure he was lead in whatever band he was in. Not a singer, though - a keyboardist, which makes being the lead an achievement, since you, like the drummer, are just sitting there. I was amazed when he told me he'd once been beaten up by people who'd picked him up hitchhiking. I guess at 135 pounds, I didn't look too formidable!
After visiting my parents, I thought I would bicycle back to Virginia in time for school. Well, I did ride part of it. I cannot remember why I stopped where I did. In that town was the woman with whom I'd done the southwestern trip, but she was not pleased to see me and I did not stay long. Anyway, I shipped my bicycle onward by bus, and hitchhiked myself. Why didn't I just ride the bus too? Probably to save money. The difference between bike-shipping and me-and-my-bike-shipping was probably no more than $20, but that's the sort of economization I would have practiced, all the time of a young traveling life, and it worked. It really did. As I would say through much of this decade, "I'm not rich - I just have unusual spending priorities."
So, out of nearby Baltimore, I caught a ride with a guy in a van who'd just left his wife that morning. He had beer. I think there was a connection. We drank some. It was about this time that I theorized a strong positive correlation between earliness of roadway hospitality and likelihood that alcohol will be part of that hospitality. I did not drink much - had I even had breakfast? - but it was enough to put me asleep through almost the entire next leg. A guy picked me up on I-81, where I'd been standing in warm sun; he said he actually had passed me, then exited and swung around in order to offer a ride. The next thing I knew, we had arrived. 200 miles, like THAT. I was embarrassed, and it took a lot to make me feel that when I hitchhiked!
Around this time I had realized that I'd been to almost all 50 states, and decided that I should make it my mission to snag 'em all. Kentucky seemed close. I did get there, and back, though that "back" part fails to encompass the broad deep Appalachian tenor of the venture. In both West Virginia and Kentucky I was, for the first, second, and last times, warned by policemen that hitching was illegal. The first one did pick me up anyway, to drop me at an Interstate on-ramp, where the activity was permitted. I caught a ride with a tile salesman. He had ceramic samples on the floor in back. He spoke of wishing to get more college, and he was harried by his work, and for the first time (and way too late) I was truly touched by the time people had been sparing to help me along. He had to stop in Charleston to make a phone call; the trucker in Louisiana had been doing business too when he'd picked me up, and I was aware of it, but here, as I stood waiting by the car in a parking lot, I grasped not just the busyness but the civility of business. This guy was never going to sell me a single tile, but he gave me a totally free ride to Ohio.
Getting back? I must discuss West Virginia in detail. I spent a night on a fire escape in Huntington - well, nothing particularly West Virginian about that. (It would be many many miles and years later, Roraima in 2002 in fact, before I finally looked at myself, having beached my kayak on a sandspit under Equatorial sun, my clothes drenched with sweat, just wandering because that was the only way I knew how to rest, and said: This is so me.) Anyway, I walked ten miles to the Interstate, where, uncharacteristically, I sat on the guardrail while thumbing. I never do that because it seems disrespectful. But it worked. I turned my head to the right, just to crank my stiffening neck, and there was a car! A woman had actually driven in reverse on the freeway in order to pick me up. She thought I was someone she knew. I wasn't. She was nicely dressed and made up - going to work! - and I felt powerfully the need to comb my hair. That was a short ride, followed by a very long one, all the way across the state in fact. A couple returning to Texas. They were heading east in order to do this. Their map was a National Geographic one, of North America, and it looked like a short jog over to Virginia, there to pick up another Interstate. I was so happy to be getting a long-haul ride, I said nothing. And in fact, the roads were so screwy in West Virginia, it almost made sense to do it this way. They themselves were beggars of a sort, actually cadging for free gas and groceries, using their huge sleeping baby to gain sympathy. I may have pitched in a buck or two, but I am certain they never asked me for anything. They never got much in return for their wheedling, but they always got something and it was enough. I think, after all, this says something very positive about the state.
Houston and San Antonio, 1982
I thumbed a lot between these cities, or tried to - hey, the bus cost $16! Once, I was picked up by a well-dressed fellow who didn't talk much. There were shiny bullets all over the back floor, as well as a pair of boots. He was Anglo, but kept the radio on a Spanish-language station the whole way to Columbus. Then he let me off. I quickly caught another ride with a friendly old party who told me (confident that I would agree with him, which I did) that on the road like this, there was never an excuse for not looking tidy - you could always clean yourself up in a gas-station bathroom. At the time I never even thought what I must look like while I hitched - apart from the rail-sitting aspect - but I am sure now that it was TERRIBLE. But I did bathe. The old man also said that he never worried about trouble with hitchhikers: "I can shoot faster than they can!" At no point did I take this as an implicit threat. In all my hitchhiking, I never once felt nervous. Nor do I think I was ever supposed to.
In the opposite direction, I got my second and I guarantee last proposition. For no reason which can be a good one, this particular story deeply impressed the people I told it to. The next year, when we graduate students started giving department seminars, and each of us had a colleague detailed to introduce us, the guy who presented me mentioned this story. I have never been one to seek cachet but I have never been one to seek confusion either, and I am sure that that is what I got. But I made a whole lot of other trouble for myself in graduate school, and this was but one grain of sand in the Vaseline.
San Antonio, 1984
I resolved to visit Ciudad Acuña, it being a border town I had never seen. So I (probably) took a city bus to where US 90 peels off I-410, and commenced supplicating. I got a ride with an old brown guy who told me he'd declined to pick up another brown guy because he (the latter brown guy) was a wetback. Years later I would tell this to a coworker who was appalled; but then she often started sentences with In our culture. People obsessed with culture hardly know which one they are living in - in the present case, the U.S.A., not La-Raza-Landia. Anyway, I got to Hondo, where I wandered off the highway to visit a museum, then wandered back and caught a ride with a...Puerto Rican. You don't meet many. (Before this, which was also before I visited Puerto Rico itself, I had met none. After that trip, I would in all my years meet just two.) This guy worked construction, in a skilled capacity, in San Antonio, and was well pleased with the work and the pay. He had beer. When it got warm, he bought more. Beer. Not ice. I have the recollection he did this more than once, but I am sure neither of us was drinking that fast, and it is not far from Hondo to Del Rio.
Definitely a cross-it-off-your-list trip, though I find over the decades that I am rather gratified to have seen a little of the Dominican Republic. It was ugly but the people were pleasanter than those in Puerto Rico. Some airline had a circuit-flight, New York-San Juan-Santo Domingo-New York, and that appealed to me. Three days in one, three in the other, and also have time for a bus up from NYC to visit Ithaca - yaah! What a deal! The plan-in-detail for P.R. was to land and then start walking. This would work great, years later, in Slovenia, but in this place it was all rather hot and dismal. And crowded - I don't know what the population-density figures were or are, but Puerto Rico, like very few other places not named Calcutta, gave that impression. Anyway, I didn't actually WALK from the airport - I took a city bus. It cost 25 cents, with (uniquely in the U.S.A., in my very considerable experience) no free transfers. Eventually, though, I got to a suitable point south of San Juan, and started walking.
And at one point, a uniquely friendly guy in a car he said was 17 years old gave me a brief lift, to a village where I found, and decided to bivouac on, a baseball diamond. In the near-darkness, I saw the outline of a lone man in the stands. He snarled at me. Just hours in what these citizen-wards grandly call their país, I had apprehended the organic hostility of the place. But Belizeans had been the same, and I had wildly guessed it normal for anyplace in the Caribbean where English was notionally spoken. I expected, and got, no further surliness, that evening. Just an inundating rain. Centerfield was a bad place to be!
Chapada dos Guimarães, 1989
I am counting rides offered without solicitation as hitchhikes, and outside of Chapada dos Guimarães, I got one. I was walking toward the geographical center of South America, and some folks stopped and offered me a ride, which I accepted. And on the way back, a couple of girls in a VW Bug offered me a ride, which I accepted. Their names were Wanda and Sheila. I didn't ask for spellings, but I am sure this was how they did write them. Unlike "John," which in South America is ALWAYS spelled WRONG.
At the "center" itself, a stunning landscape, I found sundews in vast numbers. Of course I did not know the Portuguese word, though by 1995 I would happen across the Afrikaans one: snotblom. I told the girls about these plants that ate insects. I never did learn what the Portuguese was. As I recall, one of them said something in response to my description; I didn't quite catch it; and the girl said, or repeated, "Plantas carnívoras." An echo. But it couldn't have been. My memory, or my filing protocol at the instant of memorization, is or was faulty.
This was a week or two down the line from Tocantins. From Marabá I would go almost all the way by bus back to Rio: Imperatriz-Teresina-Sete Lagoas[that part was on a once-weekly train]-Sobral-Fortaleza-Mossoró-Natal-Recife-Aracajú and the end. Some of the Ceará leg has already been described. But in A-town my response to full buses was to march right out to the highway and stick my thumb out. I had never done this before in Brazil. This was the same route I'd taken on my bicycle in '86, after recovering more or less from the flu. The reunion was not sentimental. I did enjoy the city more this time, as I had the second of only two really good steaks there ever were in Beef-As-Textile-Landia. In any case, I soon gave up and trudged back, and did after all catch a 27-hour through bus to Rio. I should say I did this a lot in my hitchhiking career: just quit.
The one time I ever picked up a hitcher, described elsewhere in Africa. Not in much detail. I would be very surprised if anyone who ever picked me up had, later, much to tell about me. Now that I think of it, I have never heard anyone tell a tale about a guy he'd given a ride to. (I guess I do mean "guy" literally, in light of what I said up above.)
Just after the events of Maputo, I came here, and might have been stuck here. Crossed the border OK. I wasn't a Mozambican migrant miner - I had a line all to myself, which was perforce no line at all. A South African border guard's gaze slanted toward a TV: "That Michael Jackson sure is fookin weird." But Komatipoort itself offered little beyond a motel and deplorably scant train and bus service. So, after breakfast, I headed for the highway and stuck my thumb out, hoping for Johannesburg. Soon, a pickup truck pulled over. A guy I had seen at breakfast said, "Do you want to fly to Johannesburg?" The English language in South Africa had sounded...inexpert, and I wondered if "flying" was some kind of figure of speech. It was not. The guy really meant we could fly. And so we did.
The pickup truck, driven by a motel employee, took us to the local airfield, where a single single-engine plane stood. The pilot was shipping lobsters. We took off. The deal was that I pay the landing fee at our one intermediate stop, which was Nelspruit. About $60. Hell yeah: I had never flown in such a small craft. Somehow, over the noise, and during what was actually a short flight, we did a lot of talking. He had lived in the U.S., and liked it: liked being in a country which made solid things. (South Africa mines, and mines well; but that is different.) He actually married an American girl, but split up when she told him she couldn't face apartheid. He returned to South Africa alone. No rancor. As for me, my only distress was incipient airsickness! But I mastered it. At Johannesburg the pilot's brother drove us to Pretoria, which was fine by me, as I had a day in hand before returning home, and I had wanted to see more of this town, which really is a big village, not like Jo' at all. I recommend the Police Museum. It's...serious enough. That's a good thing for the rest of us to be when the loner the next farmstead over has a psychotic outburst and plenty of ammo.
Getting to Hawaii is not at all difficult, and yet I had long resisted. I never have been one for touristy places. How to "do" Hawaii, then? Well, fly to Hilo, then backpack to Kilauea. Worked out great. Hawaii really is of a piece with the western United States. I liked the broad rangeland and the mountains. And yet...it was all Hawaii, unmistakably. A U.S. mailbox here looked as bizarre as a U.S. mailbox in Puerto Rico, even though U.S. mailboxes unquestionably had business in both. In Hawaii, though, the people had no grumpy alienation or fake nationalism to go with their evident otherness. They just sounded different. I mean almost everybody had a hard-to-place accent. After I hiked past the Wal-Mart, I got rides, though I was prepared to walk the whole way to the national park. One guy was coming back from a beer run, just settling down at home of a Sunday. He spoke of the volcano, and said you always had to be ready to escape. And farther down the road, I walked past a short stout woman who was gathering wild ginger, which in Hawaii grows as tall as bamboo in Texas. Again I wasn't asking, but she offered a lift. It was a tight fit in her SUV. She asked where I worked, and I told her. To my astonishment, she said, "You must be smart!"