Though the adventure of picking up a stranger with arm extended has virtually vanished in our metropolitan regions, in rural America I occasionally come upon a stranger, thumb in the air, seeking a ride from another stranger, and the adventure lives on.  Out on the range, he tradition of hitching a ride from a stranger continues to endure the passage of time.

   Back roads, State highways, and byways are more interesting. These lesser traveled roads with lower speeds, pass through forgotten towns that provide visual stimuli that is slowly vanishing from our urban environments and structures built decades earlier that are rarely seen by the masses. Back roads provide visual and auditory stimuli that cannot be enjoyed when flying down the Interstate at 80 mph, disengaged from most things other than the traffic around of us and the asphalt under us.  On these back roads, hitchers continue to traverse the landscape. 

   With the high speeds of cars cruising down the Interstate highways, the probability of someone slowing down to pick up a hitchhiker is virtually nonexistent. Those flying down the Interstate have place to go, people to see, and are generally in a hurry; perhaps a car taking a hung-over groom to a wedding for which he is an hour late, with thirty-seven miles to go. Like most of us, I too have places to go and people to see, only I am often uncertain where exactly those places are and who the people are that I might have to see.  Even when I am certain of where I am going, I often take a route that keeps me traveling down two-lane asphalt ribbons.  Hence, I have no urgency to get there as fast as I can.  I might change my destination, perhaps stop in some small town and wander about. Oh yea, it is also illegal to thumb a ride on an Interstate because it is considerably dangerous for the hitcher, and stopping on an interstate is considered a hazard for motorists.

   On these smaller highways and byways, I can alter my destination on a whim, as my fancy strikes me. The name, Montezuma Creek on the highway sign has a nicer ring to it than Blanding, thus I turn off the State Highway 191 onto a smaller byway and check out Montezuma Creek rather than driving directly into Blanding. Taking Highway 162 may create a fifty mile detour, but a name like Montezuma Creek, stimulates the imagination. By next year Montezuma Creek may be abandoned, maybe destroyed by a sagebrush or forest fire, perhaps washed away by a flash flood.  With a decreasing population of 335, Montezuma Creek, I learned, is home to the elementary and secondary schools providing an education to the Navajo living in that region.  Rather than backtracking to Highway 191 when leaving Montezuma Creek, I took another small road to the north, Highway 262, and came upon two herds of wild mustangs at a watering hole. With the opportunity to experience the wild that is virtually gone, I stopped and took some great photos of wild mustangs jousting with on another. When back on the chuck-hole filled road, I followed another small sign that put me on a dirt road and brought me to Hovenweep, six villages of the early Americans, the Anasazi.  I did not encounter any hitchers on that diversion, but I gained an immense amount of knowledge had my curiosity generated by that road sign, Montezuma Creek, not caused me to divert my route.  

   In my youth, I frequently pleaded to the driving public, my arm extended, thumb in the air, asking strangers to pull over and give me a ride to wherever I needed to go. Usually the trips were short, three to twenty miles, but regardless the distance, it was usually a pleasure to ride with a stranger and chat about whatever and discuss topics often unexplored by me.  I was young and learning about life. The rides I hitched served as learning experiences and were usually quite enjoyable and most times, a true learning experience.  The musician, Steve Earl, in one of his well-known songs refers to himself as a "hitchhiking SOB."  So many musicians from during the sixties, seventies and eighties hitched rides to their destinations.  Few do that today!

    While driving through Monument Valley a few years back, I picked up a hitcher relatively close to the entry to the beautiful valley.  He needed a ride home and I agreed to take him to his home, not knowing it was a considerable distance from the part of Monument Valley that tourists see.  With extended conversations I learned much about him, his addiction issues with alcohol, and of his love for living in such a desolate part of the reservation with other members of the Navajo tribe.  Responding to his questions, he learned I had been married several times and anointed me with a Navajo name, which translated into English means Recycle Man.  Upon reaching his small house in the beautiful but extremely desolate part of Monument Valley, he invited me to join him and his family for some whiskey or native Navajo tea.  Considering backtracking to the main part of the valley that I had come to photograph would take at least thirty minutes, I declined his offer.  As we parted ways he offered to find me a wonderful Navajo wife who would help me gain a name other than Recycle Man because, he assured me, I would never leave such a wonderful woman.  That was an experience I never would have enjoyed had I not pulled over and offered that young Navajo man a ride to wherever he was going.  

   Weather is a factor. People are more apt to offer a stranger a lift if it is excruciatingly hot outside, if it is raining, or if it is incredibly cold. In inclement weather, drivers show pity for the less fortunate, for those asking for a lift by standing roadside, arm extended, thumb in the air. Good weather brings fewer drivers to stop and pick up a hitcher, but those who do stop, inevitably engage in conversations about whatever topic may be of interest, even politics. Sometimes these conversations reach a level of intensity that stimulates the drivers to deviate from their planned route to take hitchhikers to their desired destination just to keep the conversation going longer.  Steve Earl, in that same song previously mentioned, talks about hitching a ride from somewhere in Tennessee, all the way to his hometown of Schurtz, Texas.  Rest assured that interesting discussions took place during that ride. There have also been incidents where a driver pulls over, stops the car, and insists the hitcher get out, regardless of where they might be.  These sorts of incidents are generally the result of politics becoming the primary topic of the conversation.  Keep it light and resist politics at all costs, a basic rule of hitching rides.

   When rolling down the road on your journey to wherever, allow yourself extra time so you can avoid the Interstate highways and cruise down older and slower highways, through small towns. Utah Highway 191 which rolls through town like Helper, Price, Bluff and Green River, all interesting enough to warrant a stop.  Along with savoring the beauty offered by these small communities, such back roads provide the opportunity of enjoying rural America before vanishing completely and the opportunity of possibly running across a hitcher, arm extended, thumb in the air.

   Risk? I have not experienced adverse situations while hitching rides during my younger days, or when I have given a ride to a hitcher. But yes, risks do exist.  In the words of Thomas Jefferson and Ernest Hemingway, “There is no reward, without risk.” Take the risk, give the hitcher a ride and learn of things you may have never previously given thought or consideration. Back roads offer rewards that may never again be experienced in our the not-too-distant future, perhaps by 2030. Like a fine wine, our back roads are there to be enjoyed before the last drop drips out of the bottle's neck, before the road is replaced by an Interstate. Ernest Hemingway and Edward Abbey borrowed Jefferson's words and declared: “What reward, without risk!” - for them It was not a question, but part of their lifestyle.  Enjoy your travels at a more leisurely pace, with much better scenery and with the opportunity to give a ride to a less fortunate soul who may introduce you to topics previously unknown.  


Copyright © 2018 Raymond Cannefax

   Rolling down country roads in the not-too-distant past, I would spot individuals, arm extended, thumb in the air, politely and silently standing at the side of the road, asking to be given a lift; a hitcher, hitching a ride to his/her destination.

  I postulate that our Interstate highways, or perhaps our nation’s economic improvements, are responsible for not having seen a hitcher in years. I drive back roads whenever possible, roads where the pace is slower, where the scenery is better, roads with fewer cars. Even on these back roads, the hitcher seems to have slowly melded into America’s past. Occasionally I encounter farm implements which cause my pace slows even more until it is safe to pass. The slower pace allows me more time to enjoy the beauty of America's disregarded countryside. On these back roads, on rare occasions, I still encounter someone with arm extended, thumb in the air.  Almost always, I stop with the intent to provide assistance with that individual's need for transportation and offer them a ride.