Thursday, July 5, 2018

Hitchhikers

Today is the 20th anniversary of my first conversation with a hitchhiker.

Lately I've been reading Rocket Boys which describes a time in the mid-20th Century when thumbing a ride around town (or across the country) was a common mode of transportation. Perhaps this early innocence was due in part to the automobile not having been around all that long before then. By the late 20th Century, not only was hitchhiking uncommon, it was considered largely unsafe.

During the summer of 1998, I was doing an internship in Seattle which is at the opposite end of the country from my family and where I grew up in Florida. I still remember arriving that May in a city where I knew no one, and when I closed the door at the place I had arranged to stay, for the first time ever, I had a real feeling of “What have I just done?” That summer is a story for another time, but this post is about my trip to see family I tracked down and visited over the 4th of July weekend that year.

I had some cousins who lived in Yakima, Washington, and I arranged to come visit them and their family for the long weekend. I didn't have a car out there, so I took a Greyhound bus east for the two-hour trip to Yakima. The transition in terrain one sees over that span is worth describing.

For being as far northwest as it is, Seattle does not get particularly cold like other states directly to its east. Part of that is because of the warm water moisture coming in from the Pacific. The Puget Sound area has the Pacific to its west and the Cascade Mountains to its east. The Cascades block moisture from heading east, so that makes for a lot of rain with nowhere to go but down most of the year in Seattle—hence the proliferation of coffee shops and literacy. Demand for power-washing business is abundant.

The roads, however, make it further east than the moisture. I had been told there is a line along the Cascade Range that has trees on one side and desert on the other. That was close. There are actually two lines out there. As we drove up the mountains into the fog/clouds, there was one peak we went over that distinctly marked a transition between the area being full of trees and then trees becoming rather sparse. As we went on further, we crested another peak past which tree coverage virtually disappeared for our descent into the Yakima Valley.

I connected up with my second cousin and met his wife and kids. For the 4th, a couple of his siblings also came to visit, one from Boise (pronounced with an 's,' not a 'z.'). It was neat to see relatives now older that I had known from summer family reunions years earlier. Sunday we went to church. They had a really neat pastor who really enjoyed meeting new people and getting to know them. I think his name was Marc Peterson.

Later that day I took the bus back west. That's when things got interesting.

As I often do when I travel, I strike up a conversation with whoever sits next to me. Usually that's on a plane, but this time it was on a bus. I took the window seat, and another man took the aisle seat next to me.

As it turns out, he had just taken a trip hitchhiking all the way across the country, and for the last leg of his journey had decided to take the bus. This provided me a perfect opportunity to have a relatively risk-free interview with a real hitchhiker to find out what it was like.

One of the first questions I asked him was, “Are hitchhikers as nervous about who is going to pick them up as the people picking them up are?”

“Oh yeah, if not more so.” If anything, they are the more vulnerable party in the situation. It's harder for them to take off and get away than it is for the driver.

Travel time for hitchhikers is measured in days and weeks, not hours.

I don't remember much other detail from the conversation, but I remember coming away with the distinct impression that hitchhikers were not nearly to be feared as they had been made out to be. For me, the potential opportunity to be a blessing by speeding up their journey and to have a chance to share the Gospel outweighs the risk.

Ever since that time on nearly every road trip I've ever taken alone, I've picked up hitchhikers. These experiences have been quite varied. Some people are talkative; others go to sleep. Some people only want to go a short distance, and others could use the lift for hundreds of miles. Usually people aren't going as far as I am, but sometimes they are going farther. I still have the names of a few I've picked up along the way on my gas mileage travel log.

They all have different stories. One guy in North Dakota was leaving his girlfriend and heading to Montana for work. One guy in Tennessee was trying to meet up with some friends who had left him behind. You never know what's going on in these people's lives.

The strangest pick-up experience I've ever had was with a man on a highway entry ramp that was well dressed (clean polo & pants, polished shoes) and had nothing with him but what looked like a professional document folder. In the course of introductions, I used the word “hitchhiker” and that set him off.

“Do I look like a hitchhiker to you?”

He was rather angry, and I came the close to leaving him on the side of the road, but decided on the soft-answer-turning-away-wrath approach, and he eventually calmed down. I never told him I was thinking, “Uh, yeah, you were on the side of the road; yes, you look like a hitchhiker.” I think in his mind when he heard that word he thought I was calling him a bum, and clearly no, hitchhikers are not normally dressed like he was.

On a recent trip to Florida, I was making the 850-mile drive in one day, and I picked up a guy who was trying to make it to Jacksonville. While walking on the road, he had just turned to face the traffic speeding by and put out his arms making an especially clear pleading gesture. I picked him up and found out he had just been praying to God five minutes before that someone would pick him up. It's humbling to realize I was the answer to his prayer.

Usually it's just one person at a time. A couple times I've picked up two at once, with one not going as far as the other. I would never have someone in the back seat only, especially not directly behind me. I often have stuff in the seat behind me anyway.

The only time I remember having someone directly behind me was when I picked up four Appalachian Trail hikers who had finished their trip into town for food and were ready to be back in the sticks for a few weeks. That was one of my shortest pickups ever—just up the hill—and also one of the fullest. I learned hikers take on trail names for their long journey. I don't remember what they were now, but they seemed like names from a fantasy world.

For reasons that extend beyond me, I don't expect I'll be able to keep doing this as consistently forever, but I've thoroughly enjoyed nearly every time I've picked up someone. My mom is no fan of the practice. She now seems to avoid asking if I picked up anyone, but sometimes tells me she felt more led than normal to pray for me on my journey. I don't tell her why that may have been a good idea, but God be praised nonetheless.

One time I practiced reciting my Scripture memory with a hitchhiker, and he told me I should be a preacher. He may be the only person who has ever listened to me do that as long as he did. Usually my car is empty when I do that.

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