Archive for the ‘Hitchhiking’ Category

Sandstorm

Sunday, February 3rd, 2008

In 1976, I was hitchhiking east on I-20 in Texas along with my then wife, Mel, and dog, Osha.  From El Paso at the New Mexico border to the east Texas stateline near Shreveport, Louisiana, the state of  Texas  is an unfathomable 838 miles across.  Put into perspective, that’s the distance from New York City to Georgia.

We were tooling along I-20 east in an old Pontiac Catalina.  Near Pecos, Texas, the wind started to pick up.  The tumbleweed were rolling and bouncing across the highway, taking on an almost surreal life of their own.  As we progressed eastward, the wind really gained velocity, probably up to 40 miles per hour or so.

Knowing our ride would end soon, I pulled out my road atlas to find a suitable location to get out.  There it was – Monahans Sandhills State Park.  It had camping facilities, which also meant bathrooms and showers.  On the map it appeared to be right near the highway.  This would be our destination.

By now the wind was honking, blowing sand almost horizontally across the desert.  It was so intense that the driver put on his headlights and occasionally his windshield wipers.  At Monahans, we bid farewell to our driver and thanked him for the 85 mile ride.

Exiting the car, we were blasted by sand.  Ooooh, it stung!  We leaned forward into the howling wind, backpacks on our backs, and headed off the highway to find the state park.  Poor Osha.  The sand immediately got into her eyes.  I got down on the ground and pulled her head up into my sweatshirt for some relief.  I then found a bandana and tied it across her eyes.  She would have to blindly follow our voices.

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 Twenty minutes later, sand in every nook and cranny in our clothes, skin, hair, and gear, we were in the treeless camping area.  There were three RV’s camping, and no one else in sight. 

We’d never be able to set up our tent in this gale, so we sought shelter in the restrooms.  In the men’s room, I attended to Osha.  Pulling off her improvised blind, I flushed her swollen eyes with water until the sand was gone.  She wagged her tail and licked my face in appreciation, then laid down and looked at me with an expression that said, “What next?”.

After a quick conference with Mel, we decided to spend the night in the ladies’ room.  We thought a guy might get the wrong idea if he came upon us three in the men’s room.  We moved to the ladies room, situated Osha and our backpacks in the corner, then both stripped and jumped into the oversized shower.  We actually began to feel human again as the sand washed from our bodies.

The ladies room door opened.  “What a nice dog”, a woman’s voice said.  After hesitating a bit, she added, “I’ll be waiting out here while you finish your shower.”  Now what?  This camper from one of the RV’s doesn’t realize that it’s not just Mel in the shower.  Will she freak out when she discovers I’m in here, too?

“Ummm … my husband’s in here with me”, Mel said meekly.  “Oh, that’s alright”, she replied.  “I saw you were on foot so you stay in here as long as you like.  It’s nasty outside.” 

After getting dried off and dressed, we apologized profusely to the woman.  She was very understanding, and not bothered a bit by my presence.  After she finished her shower, we had the ladies room to ourselves again.  The wind howled all night, pushing sand through every crack around the doors and windows, but we had a calm, windless sanctuary.

By morning, the sandstorm was over.  Standing by the side of the road with thumbs out, the timeless words of General William Tecumseh Sherman came to mind.  “If I owned Texas and hell, I’d rent out Texas and live in hell!”

- Mountain Man

Proper Planning

Thursday, January 31st, 2008

Going on a long distance hitchhiking trip, at least for me, takes proper planning.  It’s not a spur of the moment thing, although I have met guys on the road who take a few clothes, wrap them up in a blanket, and tie a rope around it.  That’s all they carry.  I guess I like a few more comforts than that.

Let me say first that hitchhiking, which is known as “thumbing” amongst hitchhikers (thumbers), is a young man’s game.  In your 20′s and 30′s, you can endure less comfort.  My last long distance trip was at 43 years old and I found that the ground seemed to be getting harder, the sun hotter, and the bugs nastier.  I also was susceptible to poison ivy and poison oak, which never affected me in my earlier years.

When I go thumbing, I like to take some 3-4 day side trips into the wilderness.  So my planning begins with researching where trails are located in the states I expect to be in.  I take notes, showing where I can get on the trail and where I’ll come out a few days later.  I’ll also make notes about lakes and rivers I might have the opportunity to explore.  I avoid cities.

I use a backpack, one that has the frame inside, not outside, which is too bulky.  In the bottom compartment, I pack a hooded sweatshirt, a raincoat, a pair of jeans, and sandals.  In the top goes 3 tee shirts, 3 pair of socks, 3 underwear, a flannel shirt, a pair of shorts, warm lined gloves, a ski cap, my journal, and a few odds and ends.  In those small outside pockets go things like pens, magic marker, matches, nail clippers, toothbrush, comb, and such.  A quart bottle for water is essential, too.  I attach my sleeping bag and tent to the outside bottom of the pack with bungee cords.

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The object is to carry enough for comfort, without taking unnecessary things.  You’re either going to carry 30 pounds around for a few months, or 50 pounds.  It makes a big difference, especially when you take off up a wilderness trail that climbs a thousand feet or so.  It’s also easier getting in and out of cars with a smaller, lighter load.

My bible is an undersized road atlas.  I always had a book that was close to the size of a piece of paper (8.5″ x 11″), with a map of each state.  They’re not as detailed as a full sized atlas, but they’re very handy.  I usually refer to my atlas at least 10 times a day.

The most important thing you bring is identification.  Let’s face it, now and then a cop is going to stop to check you out.  Having a big, bushy beard drew me my share of police attention.  But my calm, friendly demeanor defused any potential bad experiences.

I was stopped by a county sheriff once in Arkansas.  He pulled up and rolled down his window.  “Get in the back seat,” he ordered with attitude.  “Good morning officer,” I replied with a sweet smile, “Let me get my ID out of this little pocket of my backpack so you can check me out.”  I held up my pack so he could see that I was innocently getting my ID, not a gun or knife, and handed it to him.

“I’m a good guy and I know you’re just doing your job,” I continued in a friendly voice, trying to take control of the encounter.  “I’ll lean my backpack against your car and get in if you’d like” is my first veiled admission that our interaction began with him ordering me into the backseat. 

As he’s running my ID, I’m talking it up so he’ll feel comfortable that I’m not an escaped felon or something.  “I’m coming from Little Rock and heading for a hiking trail near (whatever).  Am I headed in the right direction?”  Now I’ve led the conversation to him being helpful.  He’s pumped up.

Once I passed the ID test, he offered to take me 20 miles to the county line.  “That would be great”, I replied enthusiastically.  He probably already likes me better than his own son-in-law.  We talked during the ride, and he quickly decided I was a real interesting guy, one of a kind.

Shortly before the county line, he radioed the next county’s sheriffs.  “I’m dropping off a guy with a beard at your county line.  He’s hitchhiking.  If you see him, give him a ride.  He’s a good ole boy!”

- Mountain Man

Strange Bedfellows

Wednesday, January 30th, 2008

In June, 1994 I found myself hitchhiking on one of my favorite roads – the Pacific Coast Highway.  I had been hitching around the country since mid-April, and now it was early June.

I got up one morning after sleeping on a beach near San Luis Obispo, California.  A magnificent sunset had concluded my previous day, and now an eerie, yet calmingly invigorating, fog-shrouded morning greeted me.  I packed up my sleeping bag and backpack and headed for the highway.

In the parking lot, I met a woman, with bicycle and guitar case in hand, who had also spent the night on a different part of the beach, unbeknownst to me.  We swapped travel stories for a while, then I got back on the road heading north toward San Francisco.

This was a day of short rides, but the view of the Pacific Ocean from the cliffs was dazzling.  The fog by now lifted, and the end of each ride found me walking to the edge of the cliff to sit and reflect on the beauty of the desolate beaches and pounding waves.  It was also a time to write notes in my journal.

An afternoon ride took me past San Simeon.  The driver, a young guy and his wife, spotted a stretch of beach where elephant seals were basking in the sunlight and we pulled over.  Other cars were also pulled off the highway to watch.  We couldn’t get out of the car fast enough, the sight of the seals getting our adrenaline pumping.  We jumped a fence, then headed across a meadow to the beach.

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We watched the elephant seals, in awe of the brute strength of the 15 or 20 big adult males.  Occasional battles between them took place, but the rest of the herd of 1oo were peacefully lounging.  After a while, the couple was ready to leave.  “Thanks for the ride,” I said, “I think I’ll stay here.”

I sat at the edge of the beach and meadow, my eyes transfixed on this surreal group of animals.  An hour later, I heard a “Hello again”.  It was the woman from the parking lot.  She sat down and we shared the wonderment of this setting.

Several times before her arrival, the highway patrol had cleared the cars from beside the ride.  They were enforcing the “No Stopping or Standing” rules.  The road was narrow there, so they were doing their duty.

I told her of my plans to spend the night with the elephant seals.  She had the same idea, so we went back to the road to fetch her bike and pass it over the fence.

That night we sat on the beach, no more than 50 feet from the 3,000 pound males and 1,200 pound females.  She played her guitar, lulling the beasts with her soft voice and soothing melodies.  The ocean waves pounding rhythmically added to the music’s harmony.  Eventually, we each crawled into our sleeping bags as the symphony and inspiring day came to an end.  But to this day, I can still hear the gentle sounds of that night.

- Mountain Man

Rain, Rain, Go Away

Tuesday, January 29th, 2008

The most frequently asked question I get about hitchhiking is “What do you do if it rains?”.  I suppose my answer is either “Try not to get wet” or “I get wet”.

Actually, I’ve always been pretty lucky when it comes to rain.  It seems like I often arrived in an area at the conclusion of several days of rain.  The ground was saturated and there were puddles everywhere, but the rain was done.  I also had my share of getting into a car for a ride, and just then a deluge comes down.  Of course, I’m cruising down the road high and dry leaving the precipitation behind.

One notable rain event happened in Arkansas in 1994.  I was hitching along a small, rural state highway.  As my ride was coming to an end, I mentioned to the driver that I was torn between finding a bridge to get under, or camping outdoors.  He obligingly dropped me about 500 yards from an old bridge, now abandoned since the highway had been moved.  The rain had stopped and I could see some blue sky.  I made the decision to camp in this inviting field under a tree.

Bad move!  About two hours after dark, the sky opened up and lightning and thunder ruled the skies.  I huddled down in my sleeping bag as I pulled it as close to the center of my small one-man tent as I could.  I knew it wouldn’t be long before the water would begin seeping through the ceiling of the tent.

I was more worried about the lightning.  It was violently crashing nearby and the booms of thunder shook the ground.  With the ground now so wet, a lightning bolt striking the field would surely conduct high voltage through the entire field.

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The lightning continued for what seemed an eternity, but was probably less than an hour.  It was raining so hard that a little stream was now running right under – and through – my tent. My sleeping bag, tent, and everything else not packed tightly inside my backpack was saturated.

Finally, the storm abated.  A little while later, there were even breaks in the clouds where I could see the stars and the sliver of a moon.  I had endured.

When the first light of dawn finally arrived, I was ready to move from the now muddy field.  I quickly packed up, not caring if I put wet, muddy possessions into my backpack.  I could dry them later. 

The clothes I wore were soaking wet and it was only about 50 degrees outside, so I hoped for a quick ride in a warm car.  I got to the road, and the very first vehicle was a guy in a pickup truck and he stopped.  Moments later I was in the cab huddled by the heater.  I was moving west, I was warming!  That’s life on the road.

- Mountain Man

The World’s Best

Monday, January 28th, 2008

Just about everyone thinks that they’re the world’s best at something.  Admit it, don’t you think you’re the world’s best soda guzzler, television show critic, cell phone talker, make-up applicator, pizza eater, belly button lint remover, armchair pro football expert, or something?  Deep down inside, you feel you’re the cream of the crop at something.

I think I’m the world’s best long distance hitchhiker.  Maybe I’m really not.  But since there is no criteria, I will continue to reflect on my abilities and think no one is better.

I have hitchhiked over 20,000 miles in my life, logging enough miles to practically circumnavigate our planet.  But mileage isn’t what made me No.1, it’s what I learned it those miles that helped me refine my craft.  Let me share a few tips.

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When I hitchhike, I always make eye contact with drivers.  And if they pass me by, I just smile and look toward the next vehicle.  I don’t cuss them out or flip ‘em the bird.  My philosophy is that the ride I’m meant to get just hasn’t arrived yet to pick me up.

I always use a sign.  I make them from cardboard, which is always easy to find, and I always carry a magic marker in my backpack.  If I’m in a city, I’ll pick a destination about 50 miles away.  If I’m outside a city or out in the country, I’ll shoot for somewhere 200-300 miles away or more.  The bottom line is that I don’t want a ride that’s just a few miles away, especially if I’m standing in a good spot – one that offers good visibility and ample room for a car to pull over.

So let’s say I’m in Albuquerque, New Mexico heading east and my sign says “El Paso”, the westernmost city in Texas.  If I see a possible prospect checking out my sign, I pull another sign from behind the El Paso one and it says “Please”.  I’m looking for a reaction.  If I get a sympathetic look, I flip that sign over and it reveals the show stopper “Aw C’mon”.  That almost always solicits a smile.  A third of the time, it also gets me a ride.

Once in a car, you have to carry on a good conversation, while also making the driver feel at ease and not threatened that you’re a weirdo or mass murderer or something.  Never reach into your backpack, lest they think you have a gun.

With the right personality and gift for gab, which I have, the driver will open up to you.  In a half hour you both feel as if you’ve been lifelong friends.  More times than I can remember, a 300 mile ride has ended with me staying at their house for a night or two, getting fed the whole time, and even being taken out to meet their friends.  I’ve ended up the center of attention at numerous parties and bars.

My budget when hitchhiking is $4 a day.  Impossible, you think.  Actually not.  People are extremely generous.  They want to feed you, even give you money when you part.  I accept food, but never money.  I’m not in it for money, in fact I usually have hundreds of dollars stashed in my socks.  Four bucks a day can go a long way in a grocery store, especially if you live on fruits, nuts, and vegetables.

I’m into hitchhiking for the thrill, the adrenaline rush, the adventure.  Meeting new people, seeing new places.  Hitchhiking always restores my faith in humanity.  People, for the most part, are decent folks.  That rediscovery makes it all worthwhile.

- Mountain Man

Bubba

Thursday, January 24th, 2008

I was hitchhiking in northern Georgia back in 1976 with my then wife, Mel, and dog, Osha.  Heading north, we got picked up by a 30-something Southern business man, named Drew, in a two-door Ford Galaxie.

A half hour into the ride, after he’d felt us out and decided we were decent folk, Drew offered to take us as far as Kingsport, Tennessee, in the northeast corner of the state.  Further, he proposed that we’d paint two interior rooms in his health spa in exchange for two nights in a motel, free food the whole time, $50, and a ride back to the interstate when we were through.  We liked him, so we agreed.

About 30 miles before Kingsport, he mentioned that he wanted to jump off the interstate to stop and see a friend.  We were fine with that, especially because we were on no particular time schedule.  When hitchhiking, you often gotta go with the flow.

Getting off the highway, he pulled into an Arby’s.  He fed us and himself, plus he bought two big roast beef sandwiches for Osha.  She was in doggie heaven.

We travelled up a bunch of back country roads before coming to an old-style saloon bar.  He said he’d be inside for 10 or 15 minutes and be right back.  So we sat and passed the time, with Mel riding shotgun in the front passenger seat and Osha and me in the back seat.

Out in front of the saloon were a bunch of good old boys, in their 30s and 40′s, looking like they were rode hard and put away wet.  I joked that they were probably all named Bubba and Junior.

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As we conversed, Mel had her head turned toward us in the back seat.  Over her shoulder, I noticed one of the Bubba’s heading toward the car.  I saw that he was sporting a holster and gun, as if he was part of Jesse James’ gang.  He walked between our car and the car next to us.

Suddenly he pulled the passenger door open, drew his gun, and put it to Mel’s head.  She turned her head to see who had opened her door, unaware that it was a gun that was pressed against her head.

Upon seeing her face, Bubba pulled back.  “I’m sorry,” he said apologetically.  “I could only see your long hair.  I thought you were my ex-wife.”  He holstered his gun, stuttering, “I saw you were in Drew’s car.  I thought he had taken up with my ex.  I’m really sorry, maam.”

- Mountain Man

The Mysterious Red Rag

Monday, January 21st, 2008

In 1976, I was hitchhiking east on Interstate 10 from San Diego, California with my then wife and dog.  It was about 85 degrees on this May 1st day.  East of San Diego, we got a ride in the back of a pickup truck from two guys in their 20s.  They would take us over the Alpine Mountains and let us off in Ocotillo Wells, a small desert town. 

By the time we hit the upper elevations of the Alpines, the temperatures had dropped into the 40′s.  Dressed in tee shirts, jeans, and sandals, we were quickly freezing our butts off.  As the truck hauled along at 75 mph, we pulled warmer clothes out of our backpacks and slipped them on.  We were shivering.

Eventually, we dropped out of the mountains and into the desert.  Before we knew it, the thermometer hit 100 degrees.  As we stripped down, I glance into the cab of the pickup truck and noticed it was filling up with smoke.

The driver swerved into the breakdown lane.  The passenger jumped out, then reached back into the cab under his seat.  He pulled out a red rag, like the kind that mechanics use, that had spots of oil on it.  It was smoldering and smoking like crazy.

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He threw the rag onto the side of the highway, stomped out the fire, left the rag, and we got back on our way east.  Soon we would reach Ocotillo Wells and the ride would end. 

Four hours and three rides later, we were in a van with a guy with long hair and a real long beard.  He asked us if it was alright if he got off the highway and went into a small town to buy milk and bread and a few other groceries to take home to his wife.  No problem.

He got off the interstate and headed to the general store.  A few miles later, just as we approached the store, the van began to fill up with smoke.  The driver urgently pulled to the gravel shoulder.  We jumped out of the van and I leaned back into the passenger side and reached under the seat. 

I yanked out a smoldering, red rag.  In fact, it looked like the exact same red rag that caught fire a couple hundred miles ago.  Same oil spots, same everything!  Was it the same red rag that we left by the side of the highway?  Was it deja vu?  I’m not sure, but we all had goose bumps!

- Mountain Man

Never Felt So Alive

Monday, January 21st, 2008

In listening to former soldiers give accounts of their battle experiences in World War II, Vietnam War, etc, I was always struck by a statement that was echoed by many.  “I never felt so alive”, they’d claim.  “I lived every moment.”

I didn’t really understand the meaning behind that sentiment.  Then, in 1976, I undertook my first long distance hitchhiking trip.  It would last  two and a half months, in which time I covered 9,000 miles along with my then wife and dog.

I’m not saying I was shot at (guns were pulled on us three times though), so my comparison is not that life hung in the balance at any moment.  Still, there were similarities.

Hitchhiking makes you vulnerable.  You’re traveling without the security of a vehicle.  You’re susceptible to weirdos, rain and lightning, biting insects, and that desolation feeling after spending four hours or so on a lonely road in the middle of the southwestern desert.

Evey morning when you wake up, you have no idea who you’ll meet that day, how far you’ll travel, and where you end up sleeping that night.  That anticipation is exhilarating, even exciting.

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Your awareness level becomes intensified.  Standing by the side of the road, your eyes lock on every approaching vehicle.  You pick up their “vibes”.  Are they good people, or do they have bad intentions, a certain darkness about their character?  If your senses are hyperactive, you become a good judge.

The relationships you form with folks who give you a ride, though they last only a few hours, are inspiring.  There’s a feeling of “I’ll never see you again”, so they blurt out personal things about their life that they’d never tell a spouse or friend.  You’re a sounding block, an impartial ear.

Long distance hitchhiking isn’t for everyone.  It takes someone who is confident in their abilities and self assured.  But if you’ve got those ingredients and give it a try, you’ll find that you never felt so alive.

- Mountain Man