Summer Journal: Giving a Lift to Summer’s Travelers

Valley News illustration - Shawn Braley

Valley News illustration - Shawn Braley

For reasons that have never been adequately explained, my father once hitchhiked across Minnesota in the dead of winter, swaddled in a Canadian army jacket with the hood cinched tight around his face.

That was a different time. My father came of age post-Kerouac, when rambling around the country by bumming rides wasn’t merely acceptable, but chic. The dislocation of the Great Depression persisted until 1980 or so. Since then, hitching has quietly diminished, done in by … well, I’m not sure what. Fear? Shame? Horror movies? I used to get rides from friends to and from college, but it never occurred to me to hitchhike. Even the wannabe hippies at college drove their parents’ second-hand Volvos.

When it’s warm out, I see more hitchhikers, and pick them up when I can. Even the footloose, the wanderers miles away from home, seem to have a plan, though. Self-reliance, rather than serendipity, is their guide.

Driving an old farm truck back to the office from Hanover, I picked up an Appalachian Trail through-hiker who needed a ride to West Lebanon for reasons I can’t remember. He heaved his pack and poles into the bed of the truck and folded his wiry frame onto the far end of the bench seat. On the short ride, he talked about the trail. I suppose the AT is an adventure, but if it is not a straight path from Georgia to Maine, it seems a narrow one, compared to the hitchhiking of my father’s generation.

Once, a couple of summers ago, I picked up two young men and their packs in Sharon. I was on my way to work; they needed a ride to White River Junction, where they planned to hop a freight train. They were sunburned, maybe windburned too, and faintly canine, like coyotes in a new range. One was a nurse. They were riding the rails as a vacation from their work lives. I dropped them in the parking lot at the Upper Valley Food Co-op, happy to have a few miles of their adventure rub off on me as I shuffled off to work and out of the sunshine.

Most of the people I’ve picked up are practically neighbors. If I hadn’t pulled over, probably the next driver would have. Once it was the guy who cut the grass next to my son’s preschool. My son said hi to him at least once a day, which was how I got to know him. His truck was in the shop and he needed a ride back to Sharon. No problem.

A recent experience, just a month or six weeks ago, was similar. I had work to do on a weekend and was driving to West Lebanon, and a guy stuck his thumb out on Route 14. He needed a ride to Wal-Mart to put minutes on his phone. He said he planned to buy a bicycle, too, and I considered offering him a ride back. That seemed like too big a commitment.

And years ago, before my son was born, I picked up a hiker, a lean, rangy older man, in Sharon and drove him far up the dirt roads to leave him at his door. He had walked all day, up into Strafford and around the hills, and now it was getting late. I was on my way home and his house, tucked away by itself at the end of a dirt road, wasn’t far out of my way. It was one of those summer evenings when I was more than happy to feel the air blowing in the window for an extra half-hour.

There’s a companionable feeling in driving along with a hitchhiker, a sense of being more open to the world as I go about my appointed rounds. I’m helping someone out, but on a modest scale, and without much fuss or exertion.

The stories about my father’s adventures, both in hitchhiking and picking up hitchhikers, seemed out of proportion even in his day. Did he really pick up a hitchhiker and drive him from central Massachusetts to Maine? He did indeed have a hitchhiker, among several other people, in my mother’s Corvair (the protagonist of Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed) when he spun out and smashed into the front doors of Worcester Boys’ Trade High School.

Maybe this is what has given hitchhiking a bad name. It’s a delicate transaction, letting someone else, a stranger, into your car, or climbing into a stranger’s car. Hitchhiking is legal in nearly all the states, and in many other countries, and has taken on some sophisticated codes of conduct. Catching commuter rides into Washington, D.C. is called “slugging,” for example, and one of its unwritten, but fairly strict rules is that driver and passenger don’t exchange names.

Vermont, according to Hitchwiki, an online resource for hitchhikers, is “arguably the easiest place to hitchhike in the United States.” New Hampshire is also looked on favorably by the hitchhiking community, such as it is.

This despite the horror story of Gary Lee Sampson, who had already killed three people and stolen two cars when he stuck out his thumb in Bridgewater back in 2001. Sampson pulled a knife on the driver, who quickly exited the car and ran off.

When I have needed rides, it has usually been under duress. My then-girlfriend, now-wife and I broke down late at night 20 years ago on Interstate 89 in Waterbury, Vt., on the way to our new apartment in Burlington. It was a summer evening, so we weren’t liable to freeze to death. Still, a married couple pulled over and offered to drop us at the Waterbury exit a few miles away. We gratefully accepted and as we climbed into the car saw their children sleeping in their seats.

I’m as amazed by that today as I was then. And today we’re less trusting still, as far as I can tell. I don’t pick hitchhikers up with my son in the car, for example.

Or am I being overly cautious, and missing an opportunity to show him generosity and to teach him trust? I honestly don’t know. Like I said, it’s a different time.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3219.