Friday, December 16, 2005

Have Thumb, Will Travel

When I was in high school, I had a lot of Christian friends, many of whom I met at the New Wine Coffeehouse in Springfield, Missouri. One of them, a frizzy-haired hippie type named Steve Johnson, introduced me to the art of hitchhiking. I was reluctant at first, but when I discovered how ridiculously easy it was to catch a ride, I was hooked.

During my senior year in high school, prior to graduating in 1974, I often hitchhiked to school, usually after missing the school bus. Nevertheless, I sometimes got to school ahead of the bus! (I did have a car in high school, but there were times when it was in the shop, and I needed an affordable alternative to the bus, and to taxi cabs.)

The bus system in Springfield (a town of about 140,000 people) wasn't like it is in a big city like Chicago. Often, even on major routes, the bus would only run once an hour or so. You couldn't just step outside the house, walk to the bus stop and expect that a bus would be there soon. You had to call ahead to ask when a bus was scheduled to arrive at a particular corner, and then plan accordingly. Sometimes, that was just too much of a pain in the behind.

During those years, I sometimes rode my bicycle, but there were times when that wasn't fast enough, and there were other times when the distance I had to travel was too far to make bike travel feasible. Consequently, hitchhiking made it possible for me to lead something resembling a normal life even during times when I didn't have a functioning car of my own.

In 1974, after graduating from high school, I once hitchhiked from Boston, MA to Springfield, MO in 3 days' time. In other words, I averaged 500 miles a day, just by standing at the side of the road and sticking my thumb out. Not too shabby! I even met some really nice people along the way, including a young Christian guy (in East St. Louis, IL) who let me stay in his basement apartment overnight so I wouldn't have to pay for a motel. (It was a Sunday night, so we went to church together. The next morning, he went off to his gig as a door-to-door Bible salesman after dropping me off by the side of the road to resume my trip. It was kind of amusing to see how he prepared for his day of door-to-door sales, by doing a little cheerleader's routine, for lack of a better term, which was designed to "pump him up" for the day ahead.)

When I was in college at the College of the Ozarks (near Branson, Misouri), hitchhiking was just about the only way for me to visit my mother in Springfield (40 miles away), except for times when she drove down to visit me. Branson is O.K. as a tourist town, but it lacks a lot of things Springfield has, so I made that trip a number of times. I also hitchhiked to Kansas City for the annual convention of a group, now defunct, called the Fellowship of Contemporary Christian Ministries. That was a fun trip! I heard (and jammed with) some very talented Christian musicians at that event.

It was illegal to hitchhike on the Interstate highways, but not on the on-ramps, so that's where I stood, whenever possible, in order to catch a ride. Since I generally played by the rules, I was never arrested for hitchhiking, although I was questioned by police officers or highway patrol officers on a few occasions. Usually, they were very nice to me.

For quite a few years, hitchhiking was just what I did whenever I needed to get somewhere and didn't have the means with which to do so otherwise. When I could drive, of course, I drove my own car, but there were times when that wasn't an option. (For example, I had no car during the two years when I was at College of the Ozarks.) Even bus trips cost significant money, compared with the cost of hitching a ride; and in some cases, there were no available bus routes, anyway. (To this day, I don't think that one can travel from Springfield to Branson, or vice versa, via bus, unless it's part of an official "package tour" oriented around the music shows in Branson. That's ridiculous! You shouldn't have to have a car to travel between those two towns.)

Of course, I sometimes got discouraged when hitchhiking. Sometimes I'd have to wait an hour or two before someone would pick me up. (Extending one's thumb for long periods of time, when it's really cold outside, can be a recipe for pain.) But sooner or later, I would almost always get a ride in time to get to my destination on time. Usually, it took more than one ride to get where I was going, since the people with whom I rode would take me part of the way, and I'd then get another ride or two which took me the rest of the way. But there were even times when the people who gave rides to me would go out of their way to take me all the way to my destination!

I lived in Sioux City, IA for one-and-a-half years (1978-1979). During that time, I hitchhiked to Springfield, Missouri (and back again) on at least a couple of occasions to visit with my mother and brother. One of those trips took longer than I expected, and I ended up having to stay at a homeless shelter in Kansas City overnight, before resuming my trip the next day. But that was the only time I ever stayed in such a shelter. More often, I'd arrive in a town, look up several churches in the area, and find one where they were willing to let me sleep in the church overnight, in my sleeping bag.

While living in Sioux City, I also hitchhiked to Omaha, NE during a snow storm, to meet Calvin Miller, the author of "The Singer", "The Song" and "The Finale", as well as numerous other Christian books. (I'd become familiar with his books through The Shepherd Shop, a Christian bookstore in Sioux City.) During that trip, I also visited a local recording studio, where met Chip Davis, the producer and musician responsible for all the Mannheim Steamroller Christmas albums. I had a severe cold by the time I met with Calvin Miller, so he voluntarily gave me money with which to pay for a bus trip back to Sioux City, to keep me from having to hitchhike back to Sioux City in the snow. I was very grateful! (For information about Calvin Miller, visit this web page.)

One time, while hitching through northern Iowa with a fellow student at Western Iowa Tech Community College (where I studied piano tuning and rebuilding), I called a church, only to be told that they were having a youth event at the church that night. The pastor said that I couldn't stay in their church, on account of that event, but they'd be happy to pay for a motel room for the two of us! It was a pretty nice motel, too, complete with a color TV.

My friend on that trip, Jeff Smith, had wanted to keep hitchhiking that night, but I knew better than to try to do so. Even then, no one wanted to pick up hitchhikers after dark, so I'd found that it was best to travel as far as possible during daylight hours, then find a local place to stay before the sun went down. Amazingly, I never once had to sleep at the side of the road during all my hitchhiking adventures!

The trip I took with Jeff was on account of the fact that I'd heard that Francis Schaeffer, a favorite Christian writer of mine, was at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, where he was being treated for cancer. I really wanted to meet him. (I'd heard him speak at Gordon-Conwell Seminary, in Massachusetts, in 1974, and he was an impressive speaker. But I'd never actually spoken with him.) Jeff accompanied me, even though he was into eastern religion, not Christianity. (We often debated one another, in a spirit of friendship, regarding our respective beliefs.) As it turned out, the Mayo Clinic wasn't open during the weekends, when we arrived, but we went to a Christian coffeehouse, where I ended up playing some of my tunes on the guitar. We stayed in a motel in Rochester, MN, where we had frozen pizza for dinner, went to bed, and then hitchhiked back to Sioux City the next day.

Often, when I would tell people about my hitchhiking trips, those who had never traveled that way would react with horror. Wasn't I afraid of being molested or killed by a maniac on the side of some deserted road? Well, frankly, no. The vast majority of people who picked me up were just normal, decent people who wanted some companionship while driving. This was the mid-to-late seventies, of course, so I also got rides from a few people who tried to persuade me to do drugs with them, but I never encountered any real resistance when I declined to do so. I do seem to remember that one guy was so disappointed by my unwillingness to get high with him that he pulled over and told me to get out of the car, but that was an exception.

I've never liked being a passenger in a car which is being driven by a person who's drunk or high, because it's just plain dangerous, but fortunately, I don't recall ever getting a ride from anyone who was clearly impaired enough to pose a serious danger.

I did get picked up, once or twice, by people who made me nervous (such as one group of guys, not far from the College of the Ozarks, who thought it was funny to joke about how fun it would be to shoot me), but those rides ended happily nevertheless. Overall, I would say that such people were no more common, when hitchhiking, than they would be in other social settings. And really, when you think about it, there's not a huge difference between hitchhiking and asking a person you've just met at a party for a ride home because the person with whom you came left early, or wants to leave later than you need to leave.

Life is inherently risky, and at some point, you just have to trust God for your protection. I honestly believe that one reason I had so many trouble-free rides was that I always prayed for God's blessing and protection before I took such a trip.

Younger readers may never experience hitchhiking for themselves, so let me describe what it's like to be a hitchhiker:

Standing by the side of the road, waiting to get a ride, can be a meditative experience. You watch the sun traversing the sky, and you really observe your surroundings in a way that most drivers never experience. You hear the cars driving by, of course, and you get a chance to contemplate the "Doppler effect" which causes the pitch of that sound to change as cars approach you and then drive away. But you also hear the birds, the crickets, and the wind.

You may sing or talk to yourself, or pray to the Lord, in order to keep your spirits up. Sometimes, you may walk in the direction of your destination, just a little bit, to keep from getting bored. But you don't do that very often, because you know that it's pointless. If you're hitching, it's because the distance is far too great to travel on foot. And every second that you're facing forward is a second when you run the risk of missing a great ride. With very rare exceptions, people won't pick up a hitchhiker unless they can see his face. And that thumb has got to be extended!

When you do get a ride, you always approach that car with a big smile on your face and a willingness to talk about whatever the driver wants to talk about, because you know that he wouldn't be picking you up in the first place if he wasn't looking for at least a little bit of conversation. But you also approach that car with a bit of wariness, ready to turn down the ride if things "smell funny". Fortunately, that rarely happens.

Overall, the experience of hitchhiking is like no other, and it can be a source of rich memories.

One thing I found ironic was that when I was hitchhiking, it was almost always those people who had very little to give who were the most generous. Expensive cars which were obviously owned by rich men would almost always pass me by, even though I could see, as they did so, that they were occupied only by their drivers, and had plenty of room for me. But I got lots of rides from people who clearly didn't have much in the way of their own resources. Sometimes, I had to squeeze into cars which were already pretty full of passengers. Sometimes, I got rides in the back of pickup trucks, and I even got rides on the backs of motorcycles on a few occasions. (To this day, I've never learned to ride a motorcycle on my own, but I know how to ride on the back of one, although I'm not all that fond of the experience!)

Occasionally, a driver would ask me to contribute by buying gas, and I tried to oblige when I had the money with which to do so. But it was rarely required. One driver even offered to give me $20, in addition to the ride, and I'd be lying if I said that I turned the offer down! He said that all he asked in return was that I "pay it forward" (an expression which later became the title of a movie).

I sometimes met other hitchhikers during my travels (and also when I was driving my own car, since I would usually pick up hitchhikers when I saw them). The vast majority, in my experience, were just normal people who were trying to get from one place to another in spite of the fact that they didn't have much money. The myth of the psychopathic hitchhiker, promoted by paranoid people such as newspaper columnist Ann Landers, was just that. Undoubtedly, they got their ideas from occasional news stories about crimes committed by hitchhikers. But take almost any demographic group, and you'll probably find that crimes have occasionally been committed by members of that group. In Kansas, the BTK killer was a church deacon, as I recall. Should we now therefore be afraid of associating with church deacons? Of course not. But that was the kind of lame "reasoning" on which most fears related to hitchhiking were based.

But people are often irrational. The effects of a constant barrage of anti-hitchhiking publicity were to create an atmosphere in which a once-viable mode of transportation became increasingly unreliable. Things had already changed significantly by the time when I moved to Illinois in the early nineties. I once made the mistake of trying to hitchhike from a commuter train station in northern Illinois to the home of a person I was staying with at the time. Cars were whizzing by me constantly, but no one would pick me up. (It was hard for me not to feel angry at them for their indifference to my need.) Eventually, I managed to make it back, but not before walking so far that my feet and legs were in extreme pain. Eventually, I approached a nearby house and asked the occupants if they would drive me the rest of the way, because I couldn't afford a cab. Fortunately, they had mercy on me.

That, of course, was about ten years before Sept. 11, 2001. These days, if you hitchhike, you're suspected of being a terrorist, a sexual predator or any number of other scary things. It's still possible to hitchhike successfully in certain regions of the country, but by and large, it is no longer a viable source of transportation.

Or is it?

I just visited (for the Chicago area), and found a "Rides" section where people seeking to give or receive rides could do so by placing free ads. That, it seems to me, is the wave of the future for people who can't afford to make trips they need to make, and for those who dislike the loneliness (and the wastefulness, in terms of gasoline) of driving long distances alone.

The ideal scenario would be a web-based service which would offer the option of pre-ride background checks, both for drivers and riders, so as to minimize the risk of such trips. Of course, that wouldn't be viable for spontaneous, unplanned trips, but at least it would make it possible to travel long distances, with sufficient planning, in a manner somewhat reminiscent of hitchhiking.

Back when I was a frequent hitchhiker, I sometimes found myself in the driver's seat of my own car as well. On those occasions, I almost always pulled over and gave rides to hitchhikers when I saw them. I knew what it was like to need a ride, and I felt that I had no right to expect others to stop for me unless I was willing to stop for other hitchhikers.

I would still do so today, if given the opportunity, but I haven't owned a car in more than a decade, and I've pretty much stayed in Chicago during that time, except for occasional trips I've taken to Missouri, on Greyhound buses and in airplanes. It's very unlikely that I'll ever hitchhike again, not because I've changed, but because the country has changed. But maybe, with web-based ride-sharing options such as the one offered by, I'll get to see my mother a bit more in the future, even if I can't afford to travel in a more conventional manner.

UPDATE: Not long ago, I did a web search on my own name, and I found a link to this blog article at the following site: That site led me to this site: Apparently, the latter site is designed specifically for hooking up would-be riders with those willing to give rides to such people. A very good idea!

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