The Last Ride: One Hitchhiker’s History

I DON’T EVEN REMEMBER my first ride. When I was a young teenager, growing up in southern Oregon, my dad and I used to hitchhike back to our car after we’d boated down the Klamath, or the Rogue, or the Umpqua. I didn’t hitchhike by myself until I was 17 or 18, and it wasn’t a very large part of my life until I graduated from college. Then I became an idealist.

I decided to try and go places, go long distances. I liked the environmental aspect of hitchhiking, that it used less gas, and I liked that it was cheap, because I normally didn’t have much money. It felt like a sort of activism to me, because I figured that in a world where not everyone had a car, a lot of us would have to live like hitchhikers. It also felt like a grand adventure, like a cool thing to do.

So I took a lot of trips. I went from Arizona to Montana to Colorado and back to Arizona, and I went from Colorado to Oregon and back to Colorado. I spent some time studying in Germany, and I hitchhiked around Germany, France, Luxembourg and Holland.

Ten years ago, Lisa — my girlfriend at the time — and I decided to leave home with $20 in our pockets and go see the world. We walked out the door of our house in Colorado into a January snowstorm, and hitchhiked all the way to southern Arizona. In Needles, California, we met Joe, who was blind and needed someone to drive him and his car home to Mississippi. So we drove him all the way to Mississippi, and didn’t make it back to Colorado for three months. But that’s another story.

I’ve probably gotten four or five hundred rides in the last twenty years, and I’ve gone as far south as Mazatlán and as far north as northern Germany. I think I did get better at hitchhiking as the years went by. But I also kept thinking I was finding the trick of it, and all of a sudden I would be standing on the highways for six hours with nobody picking me up, thinking I wasn’t so smart after all.

I’ve been hassled a lot, I’ve been run out of towns, I’ve been told by a state patrolman that he was going to kick my riff-raff ass off his freeway.

I did learn the value of picking my rides, of having a conversation before I got into the car and making sure that the person was going to be someone I wanted to hang out with, that they weren’t drunk, and that they were going to stop in a place that would be a good place for hitchhiking. I learned that last lesson the hard way, over and over again. I walked all the way from one side of Las Vegas to the other, because you just can’t get a ride in a city.

I don’t know if I’ve ever felt that my life was danger. Maybe once. It helps that I’m a big guy. Probably the scariest experience was when I hitchhiked to Missoula for my sister’s wedding, and got stuck in Pocatello both coming and going. Nobody would pick me up. On the way back, I got desperate enough about it that I accepted a ride I knew I shouldn’t have. It was getting dark, so I just got in the back of a pickup truck that stopped, and it wasn’t long before I realized that the drivers were drinking. I felt really out of control, and then they got off the freeway and started down a side road. I thought oh no, I’m in trouble, and started thinking about what I was going to do if they decided to beat me up. It turned out they were just going to a friend’s house, but that’s the only time I remember being afraid for my life.

Everything else, for the most part, has been great. The common experience is that someone stops, you open the door, and you start talking to each other. One of my first questions is always “Why did you pick me up?” Ninety percent of the time the answer is “Been there, done that.” They’ve been hurting, and they needed help, and somebody helped them.

Several times I’ve corresponded with people who gave me rides. I got Christmas cards from one guy for two or three years, and another sent me a book he’d written on freight-train hopping. I went on a series of dates with a woman who picked me up in Ridgway, Colorado. She was a teacher like me, and we really liked each other. It was just kind of chance that we didn’t have a longer relationship.

When I’m hitchhiking near home, often I’ll get picked up by people I know. For years, I hitchhiked to meetings with the school board, or with the superintendent. I got to know a lot of people that way, people I’d met but didn’t often get a chance to talk to. I liked that. I like being in a small place, in a one-on-one situation, with someone I wouldn’t normally spend time with.

Usually, my goal is to find out the most interesting thing I can about the person and get them talking about it. I’ve learned quite a bit about a lot of trades that way. One time in southern Arizona I was picked up by a pink Cadillac, and the driver was a gay beautician from Southern California. He was a really nice guy, and he spent the next five hours telling me, with considerable enthusiasm, all about his life and being a beautician. He told me what it was like to grow up gay, how he’d told his parents, how he’d decided to become a beautician, and what his definition of beauty was. It was fascinating.

I’ve gotten picked up with several armored trucks that have been converted to homes by paranoid veterans. They just drive around in these trucks and live in them. I rode with one guy who told me his whole story about being in Vietnam and getting wounded, and how he’d decided that he didn’t want to deal with a society that would do that to a person. When he stopped to pick me up, he didn’t let me in at first, not until he’d talked to me for long enough to figure out that I was safe. Then he took me all the places he knew about for free food, and we got free pizza and free donuts. He told me about his relationship with his parents, and how lonely he was, but how he still didn’t think it was worth it to interact with the world.

One driver told me that he had only half a brain. He told me he’d been diagnosed when he was a kid, and told that it was a very dangerous situation, and that the thing to do was not to think. He’d never gone to another doctor for a second opinion, and he’d gone through his life — through 60 years — trying not to think. It was obvious that he thought quite a lot about not thinking, but he felt like he’d succeeded. He was sure he was only alive today because of his ability not to think.

It’s very rare that anyone wants to know about me. Every now and then somebody does. I had one woman who turned around in her RV and picked me up because she was convinced I was the Messiah. I couldn’t get rid of her. I rode with her for a while, but it was too much, because she just kept praying to me, and telling me how the Second Coming had arrived, and that she’d known this was going to happen.

I started out being humble and denying things, but that didn’t go anywhere because she’d just say “Oh, that’s just how Jesus is supposed to act.” So I finally said “You’re right, and I just had a vision that you must let me off in this next town,” and she said “Oh, okay,” and she dropped me off, but not before she tried to get my address so that she could send me money and come to visit me. That was in southern Arizona somewhere. A lot of interesting rides come out of southern Arizona.

MY REASONS for hitchhiking have changed a lot since I was 22. It’s much less about saving gas than it used to be. It’s more about the feelings I have when I do it. It’s always felt very freeing to me, to surrender to fate. All I can really do is stand there and smile and wait for someone to pick me up.

I do this exercise each time a car comes by. I just focus all my attention on totally loving the driver, no matter whether the car picks me up or not. Some of the people who stop have said “You know, I just felt so compelled to stop. I’ve never had anyone look at me like that.” So it helps to get rides, but I don’t really do it for that. I do it because for me, it’s a wonderful, transformative experience. To be out there in the wind and the trash and the dead animals and the dead butterflies and the old beer bottles, to be standing on the side of the road and watching people go by in their isolated cars with their fuzzy dice in the windows — that’s a kind of meditation for me.

I remind myself that it doesn’t do any good to get mad when they go whizzing by. It doesn’t do any good to think, damn, what’s wrong with these people, and why aren’t they stopping? I just focus on the people, and on loving them. I’ve been very stoic about that. I’ve thought, I can keep doing this, no matter what happens.

I usually feel really good when I hitchhike, even though I’m utterly dependent on people. I feel like most of the people who pick me up have richer lives because of it. That sounds completely egotistical, but it just seems like they feel better, because they get to be useful, they get to talk about themselves, and they’re thanked profusely for it.

When Lisa and I hitchhiked for those three months, we were dependent on other people in most ways, but those were maybe the three most giving months of my life. It made me realize that great skills or a great profession or a lot of money aren’t as important as having time, at least in the United States. Time and attention, those are our rarest commodities. By allowing people to help us, and giving back in the ways that we could, we had these short, intense, transformative relationships with people. So that’s my main motivation for hitchhiking now, the human experience of it.

I also see it as an injustice that the world has made it so hard to hitchhike. You can’t find a freeway these days that doesn’t say pedestrians are illegal.

Hitchhiking is illegal in almost every state, and I’m sure that no hitchhiker was asked his or her opinion when those laws were passed. My worst experiences as a hitchhiker have been with the cops. I’ve been hassled a lot, I’ve been run out of towns, I’ve been told by a state patrolman that he was going to kick my riff-raff ass off his freeway. Just like you have far fewer rights in this country if you’re homeless, you have far fewer rights if you don’t own a car.

So I still hitchhike as a form of activism, because I feel like I probably have more ability to hold my own in the face of injustice than most people who hitchhike. I’ve been lucky. I have an education, I’m pretty articulate, and I’ve got a good network of friends and family, so no one’s going to get away with throwing me in jail and treating me badly for too long. I’m less likely to be abused or raped on the road. So I feel like it’s a chance to advocate for the people who have to hitchhike, and don’t have those luxuries.

There’s another motivation too, which is that miracles happen. Every time I’ve gotten really down and out, every time I’ve started to feel desperate, something wonderful has happened. I gave away my last penny, and ten minutes later someone turned around and gave me more than I gave away. I’ve had spectacular, sugar-daddy rides where people have taken me to their house and fed me and clothed me and let me sleep there.

One of my students and I hitchhiked to Salt Lake City a few years ago, and on the way back to Colorado we were dropped off in Moab. We started walking up the Colorado River toward the freeway, and since it was summer, the low tourist season, no one was on that road. It was hot, we didn’t have water, we didn’t have food, and all the flies and mosquitoes were out. We walked and walked and walked, and stood there and stood there and stood there. We must have walked 15 miles. We were feeling like we were really on our last legs, that we were really thirsty and really hungry, when we happened upon a river-running outfit that was feeding its guests on the riverbank. They said “Hey, what are you guys doing? Do you happen to be hungry? Thirsty? Because we’ve got all this extra food and drink here, and we don’t know what we’re going to do with it.”

So we each had about a gallon of lemonade and Coke, and ate three or four hamburgers and lots of cookies, and we felt like we had never appreciated food so much, and never had so much love for humanity. And it never would have happened if we hadn’t gotten so hungry and thirsty.

LAST SUMMER, I spent a week at an education retreat in Oregon, where I hung out with all these people who really valued intimacy, and placed a lot of importance on real discussions and honest friendship. It was like spending seven days at the beach with a massage therapist or something. I softened a lot, became more vulnerable, closer to the surface. Then I decided to hitchhike home to Colorado.

For the next hour I stood there with my thumbs in the air and tears rolling down my face. I bawled and bawled and bawled.

I got a ride with some good friends to Northern California, and early the next morning, they let me off on the side of the road. I’ve had to deal with that sort of shock before, but this time the sense of loneliness was more powerful. But I just started standing there on that little side road, thinking hey, this is the easy part. I’d looked at a map beforehand, and I’d decided that the only difficult part of the trip would be getting through Reno. Everything before and after would be easy.

I stood there for about four hours before I got a ride. Then I waited another two hours, and finally a Mexican family picked me up — Mexicans are the only people who pick me up when they have kids in the car — and offered to take me all the way to Reno. This family told me they knew a really good place for hitchhiking in the city, and that they would drop me off there, so I decided to trust them and ride to Reno. What I should have done is stayed outside of town, and waited until I got a ride going all the way through to the other side. I didn’t, and that was my mistake.

When we got to Reno, about two hours before dark, I walked to the freeway, walked past the sign that said no pedestrians, looked around for cops, and stood on the ramp with my thumb in the air. I stood there for two hours, and no one slowed down, no one even looked at me. And I was tired. So I thought well, I’ll break the law even more and go stand right on the freeway, where there are more cars going by, and a light to stand under. I stood there from dusk to about 1 o’clock in the morning, smiling at all the cars that went by, and no one even slowed down.

Then I thought, maybe I’ll hop a freight train. I’ve hopped trains a few times in my life, so I felt like I knew what I was doing. I went down to the tracks and waited for a train to come by, but the first one was going too fast, and I couldn’t get on. I put down my sleeping bag and slept for about an hour, but I didn’t want to miss the train so I got up. When the next train came I was all ready to jump and then out popped the railroad detective, the railroad dick as the tramps call him. He stood there looking at me, so I didn’t dare jump on, and instead just acted like I wasn’t doing anything. I waited around for another three hours, and the next train came, but there were no cars that I could get on.

When it got light, I decided to try hitchhiking again. I walked through town to a different on ramp, and on the way, I passed some other tramps. They said “You’re never going to get a ride. The only way to get out of here is to go back towards California, then loop north toward Salt Lake. We’ve been here forever, and no one gets a ride out.” Then I watched them hit up cars for money and go buy drinks.

I stood there all morning and most of the afternoon, smiling at cars, and no one slowed down. Then I decided to walk to yet another exit, and I stood there for the rest of the day and most of the night, stood there trying to smile. It was getting hard. I was really hungry, I was really sad, and still, my stoic self was thinking OK, I can do this. I even had money with me, so I knew I could buy myself a ticket out of there anytime, but I kept thinking that I was going to give it my all. I kept thinking the next car could be the one.

I slept a little bit in the train yard, then got up early in the morning and stood on the freeway again. I stood there for an hour, and again nobody slowed down. And I lost it. Instead of smiling, I just started to cry. For the next hour I stood there with my thumbs in the air and tears rolling down my face. I bawled and bawled and bawled.

It was a deep cry, a very deep cry, about the loneliness of it. Because not only was I hurting, but most of the people who rode by looked like they were hurting. They looked like they were in a rush, they looked guilty, they looked angry, they flipped me off. Most just stared stonily ahead. I’d been watching that for a long time, and I finally let myself really feel it.

I decided after an hour of that to go buy a train ticket on Amtrak. I walked into the Amtrak station still sobbing — I couldn’t stop — and I stood in line, sobbing. I’m not a person who cries in public.

The train only went out once a day, so I was going to have another eight hours in Reno waiting for the train. I went outside — the station is right in downtown Reno, with all the casinos and homeless people — and sat right in the middle of it all, on the street on my backpack, and just cried and cried and cried. And people ignored me. I sat there and cried and people acted like they didn’t notice.

But it was this kind of beautiful sadness. I thought I understood what Thich Nhat Hanh means when he talks about feeling sadness for everybody on earth. I was suddenly very aware that all of us were going around so scared, so isolated, that we wouldn’t even look at each other. The people on the street who were gambling looked lonely and anxious, and so did the homeless people, and so did the cops.

I called my wife Merrily and cried to her on phone for about hour, and then I hung up and cried more and more and more. I really didn’t stop crying for eight hours. Then I got on the train and sat behind this overworked, very desperate mother with four kids, who was taking the train to meet her husband, who’d just gotten work in some other town. I watched their pain all the way across Nevada.

I realized that I’d spent most of my life being stoic. Even the parts of my hitchhiking experiences that felt like surrender still had some of this stoicism, this idea that I was going to always try harder, that I was going to do it on my own. I realized that this approach to life was lonely, and that hitchhiking, in spite of all the good things I’ve said about it, was lonely and hard. I just felt such pain that we’ve created a world where tens of thousands of people, each in their own car and each going the same direction, will ride past somebody and not even look because they’re scared.

So it broke me a little bit. I’ll still go hitchhiking on an ideal road, or with a friend, but I won’t hitchhike alone on the freeway. That potential for human connection is still there, but it’s getting harder to realize it, because people are more scared than they used to be. That feeling of complete emptiness and sadness I had in Reno isn’t bad, but I feel like I have enough of it in my life right now. And I’d rather cry with other people than by myself.

ONCE WHEN I was driving through Utah, I pulled off to pee at one of those ranch exits, where there are no services and the road just heads into the middle of nowhere. When I got out of the car, I noticed a guy standing by the on ramp. If I’d been speeding along on the freeway, I probably wouldn’t have stopped to pick him up. He looked like you could smell him from 20 yards away. But I watched him for a while, and he looked harmless enough, so I picked him up and asked him for his story.

It turned out he’d been standing at that exit for a week. He’d set off from San Francisco for Florida three weeks earlier, and he’d only made it to Utah. I thought, oh, man, my experiences are probably nothing compared to this guy’s. I mean, I look clean-cut compared to him, like a nice rider. He didn’t have a credit card in his pocket, or a wife at home to call. He just had to go through life like that, standing at the ranch exit, being hidden, being ignored.  



Michelle Nijhuis (rhymes with “my house”) is currently a project editor at The Atlantic, where she collaborates with other writers on a series called Life Up Close. Her writing also appears in National Geographic, the New York Times Magazine, and the New Yorker’s Elements blog. She is also a longtime contributing editor of High Country News. She has co-edited The Science Writers Handbook: Everything You Need to Know to Pitch, Publish and Prosper in the Digital Age, published by Da Capo Press, and authored The Science Writers Essay Handbook: How to Craft Compelling True Stories in Any Medium.  She also contributes to the award-winning science blog The Last Word on Nothing.

Her reporting has won several national honors, including two AAAS/Kavli Science Journalism Awards, the Walter Sullivan Award for Excellence in Science Journalism, and two finalist nods in the National Academies Communication Awards. Her writing has also been included in four Best American anthologies. She and her husband and daughter live in White Salmon, Washington. Check out Michelle’s website for additional samples of writing.

Dev Carey –educator, systems thinker, and outdoor adventurer — writes on his website, “I earned a Ph.D. in ecology and had fun doing it. Later, I discovered that while chasing butterflies made me happy, education made me passionate, and I’ve been sharing adventures with young people ever since. Some of those adventures have been in traditional classrooms, but mostly we’ve been outside in the world figuring out how to lead a life full of meaningful, wonderful moments.” In 1994 he founded Crawford, Colorado-based Camp Rock, and currently serves as the director of The High Desert Center, a sustainable educational community, located in Paonia, Colorado. The program, which offers gap year programs, is shaped on the answer to this question: How does one help young people find the skills and inspiration to create meaningful lives for themselves within the context of community?