Thumbing My Way to Paradise

“It was a warm and beautiful day for hitchhiking.”

Jack Kerouac, On the Road

Very few people hitchhike any more. Many states explicitly forbid it on highways, and as writer Molly Osberg observes, “The hitchhiker has been transformed in the public imagination from an unencumbered youth finding adventure across our vast nation to a crazed and dangerous maniac with a homicidal sneer.” Similarly, many would-be hitchhikers suspect drivers of being potential serial killers. As a result of this détente, hitchhiking has become a distant memory.

Fifty to sixty years ago, however, hitchhiking was a young man’s magic carpet, and the ticket to ride was an outstretched thumb. Hitchhiking most likely began earlier in the 20th century when Depression-era people, homeless and jobless, hitched rides or hopped freights trying to get from out of here to someplace better. Post World War II, hitchhikers became familiar figures on the country’s burgeoning interstate system, most of them young men lured to the romance of the open road by novels like Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. By the 1950s and into the sixties, young people by the thousands were thumbing on roads big and small, heading north, south, east and west.

pablo-3.pngPhoto courtesy of Pablo

I was one of them. From my high school years well into graduate school, hitchhiking was the main way I got around. For those who didn’t have cars—and that was most of us—it was the cheapest way to go. Friends of mine hitchhiked to Florida, to Chicago, to San Francisco.  It was just what you did.  Not a lot of women hitched rides in those days although some did. In the early 1970s, my sister hitchhiked twice to the West Coast and back to New Jersey without incident.  Some people would say she was lucky.

I began hitchhiking as a junior in high school in order to get from my home in New Jersey to the country club where I caddied. I carried a book and my lunch in a bag, and very often all I would do is sit in the caddy yard, read the book and eat the lunch. Those were the slow days when the club members were busy doing something else and the professional caddies who bussed in from New York City got the few golfers that showed up. But no matter how bad the outlook, I’d usually stay all day. Caddying was my job. Sometimes I’d catch a $10 two-bagger late in the afternoon, maybe with a $2 tip, and that made the long stay all the sweeter. Then I’d hitchhike home.

When I went to college at Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1962, I hitchhiked home a few times each year. You couldn’t hitch a ride on the Massachusetts Turnpike itself, but it was legal to walk past the toll booth and thumb from the on ramp. The on ramp was where the roads after the toll booths converged into a single lane, and during the holidays they were crowded with guys hitching home. Hitchhikers and drivers observed a couple of simple rules. When you walked to the on ramp, there were generally others in a long line ahead of you. The main rule for hitchhikers was to walk to the end of the line. Drivers inclined to pick up a hitchhiker would pick up the first guy in line.

Very rarely would I get to New Jersey in one ride. One ride was like hitting a home run. Most of the time it took three or four rides. There were stops along the way in Connecticut, and maybe even a final ride across the George Washington Bridge where I would get out and look for a bus. A few times I took a ride across the Tappan Zee Bridge and ended up on Rt. 17 in New Jersey which took me to Rt. 4, where I could take a bus.

Once, my roommate and I got a ride in a big red 1950s Cadillac, one of the models with the tail fins. It was a convertible and the driver, a big, beefy guy who smoked a cigar, had the top down. My roommate was in the front seat and I was in the back. I sat there with the wind in my face under a hot, June sun for three hours while we flew down the road. By the time I got home, my face was almost as red as the Caddy, and it peeled for the entire week.

Since freshman and sophomores couldn’t have cars on campus, dating was difficult. Most of the time my classmates and I headed off to Boston and its suburbs where there were a bevy of women’s colleges. Somebody would know a girl at Newton College of the Sacred Heart and a couple of us would hitch there for blind dates. Sometimes we’d be lucky and an upperclassman would give us a ride. But most of the time we’d have to hitch from the bottom of the college hill to Rt. 9, the most direct route to Boston. I’d pick up my date and we’d either go to a campus dance or get a ride into Boston to meet with others. After returning the girl to her dormitory, I’d start hitchhiking back to Worcester. Heading west along Rt. 9 late at night and looking out the window of a stranger’s car at the lonely neon signs shining in the darkness was like viewing a series of Edward Hopper oil paintings. One that I remember well read, “Fred’s Eat.”

The system of using on ramps to hitchhike worked fine in Massachusetts, but it got me in trouble once in New York State. In my freshman year, I decided to hitchhike to Toronto during the January semester break to see a girl I liked. The route would take me from the Massachusetts Turnpike to the New York Thruway to Buffalo, and then across the Peace Bridge to Toronto. I thought I could make it in a day. When I started out early in the morning it was about 10 degrees and I had to wait 45 minutes or so for the city to wake up, get their cars started and give me my first ride of the day. After several rides, I got off the Thruway at the Albany exit about lunch time. After paying the toll, my ride let me out and I nonchalantly crossed the road so that I could get onto the on ramp. Blithely walking past the toll booths, waving to the attendants as I went, I positioned myself on the on ramp and stuck out my thumb just as I had that morning in Worcester. Within 10 minutes, a state police car slowed to stop beside me and told me to get in the back seat.

“You can’t hitchhike on the New York State Thruway,” he said.

“But I’m not on the Thruway,” I said, pointing helpfully to the on ramp.

“In New York, that’s part of the Thruway,” he said.

After a short drive, we exited the Thruway and drove down a two-lane country road. “Where are we going?” I asked.

“You have to appear before a judge,” he replied. “That’s where I’m taking you”

A few minutes later we stopped in front of a residence. “This is the judge’s house,” he said as he opened the door and motioned me out of the car.

I followed him to the front door and the two of us waited after he rang the doorbell. It was all very curious to me. I hadn’t expected a house. I had thought we’d be going to the county seat where there’d be a courthouse and a judge in robes.

We walked to the front door and a smiling older woman opened it. “Come in out of the cold,” she said. “So good to see you again.” She used the officer’s name, as if his appearance wasn’t an altogether unusual event, and the two of them exchanged small talk as we shrugged our coats off and hung them in the hallway. “We’re just about ready to have lunch, so you’ll have to join us.” She ushered us into a small dining room that was set for two and added a couple more bowls and plates from a cupboard.

A portly man came into the room drying his hands with a towel and the two men talked together for a few minutes. Finally, the judge roared, “All right, take a seat! Let’s eat.”

We sat down, the judge lowered his head and led a blessing, and we settled our napkins on our laps while the judge’s wife ladled soup into our bowls. The three of them kept up a lively chatter while we slurped soup, and then there were ham and cheese sandwiches and coffee. I answered a few questions tossed my way, but the conversation was mostly geared to their families and a few issues of law and order in the county. I didn’t know what was going to happen to me, but I had to admit I liked being there and being warm.

After we finished lunch, the judge’s wife removed the soup bowls and the plates and disappeared into the kitchen. The judge pushed his chair back a bit and said, “All right, this court is in session. What is this young man accused of, Officer?

“Hitchhiking on the Thruway, your honor,” the officer replied

“Hitchhiking on the Thruway; a terrible thing,” the judge replied. “How do you plead?” he asked me.

After the food and the light chat around the table, the proceedings seemed almost to be taking on the droll air of a comedy routine. I half expected him to wink at me, but I didn’t take any chances of smiling or in some other way suggesting that I didn’t accept the seriousness of my situation.

“I guess I’m guilty, your honor,” I replied

The judge gave me a little lecture on why hitchhiking was dangerous on a highway, and then he said, “Since this is your first time in front of me, I’m going to give you a suspended sentence! This court is adjourned!”

And that was that. We got up from the table and moved to the front door to put on our coats. The judge’s wife reemerged and after final good wishes all around, the trooper and I went back out into the cold.

As we backtracked along the country road, the officer seemed apologetic for delaying my trip, and he wished me good luck getting together with my girl friend. He wouldn’t drive me to the toll booth, he said, but he would leave me off a couple of miles short of it so I could reach it easily. “Don’t go beyond the toll booths!” he shouted as I got out of the car.

I felt good. I was warm and my stomach was full and I was relieved about the light sentence I had received. I quickly picked up a ride to the Thruway entrance where I stuck out my thumb once more and was picked up shortly after. I holed up in a Buffalo YMCA that evening, but the next morning I was on a bus into Toronto.

After college graduation, I went to graduate school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where I continued hitchhiking. From time to time, I took a Trailways or Greyhound bus North, but buses in the late sixties often seemed more dangerous than hitchhiking. They were often occupied by haunted-looking Viet Nam vets loaded up on booze or drugs. Empties sometimes rolled down the aisle, and the vets glared at you with hostility.

Hitching from North Carolina to New Jersey was a day-long business. To drive it took about nine hours; hitchhiking took a bit longer. I didn’t have much of an alternative, and, besides, it was second nature to me by then. I was in this place, I needed to get to that place—stick out a thumb and go. Sometimes I’d get a ride just across the North Carolina-Virginia line before the driver got off the road. What I was hoping for was a home run. Next best was a ride all the way to the other side of DC where 95 picked up again. There were usually a lot of cars going to New Jersey from there and many of them were traveling to the very end of the New Jersey Turnpike near my home. My ride would leave me off at Leonia or Teaneck, and I’d call my father who would come and pick me up for the last ride of the day.

Once, I got a through ride from Virginia to New Jersey with a very silent driver. We hardly said a word all the way. He was content to drive and I was content to look out the window and think about my life of study and wonder when I would start to live and why I was so unhappy. He seemed morose and I guess I was, too. We made a good pair, I thought. I forget where the driver was going in New Jersey, but when we approached his exit he said he’d just rather drive me to my house. And he did. I got out of the car in front of my house and saw our porch light shining in the darkness. It wasn’t a home run, but it was pretty good.

Another time, a driver in a long, black Lincoln picked me up on 95 a little north of DC at about 6:30 pm. It had taken me all day to get there. When I got in his car, he told me he had to get to New York City by 9 pm. Normally that would have been a four-hour drive from there. I should have asked him to let me out immediately, but better sense prevailed—it was a ride! The driver was an artificial flower maker, and we flew down the highway at about 80 mph. He chattered all the way, but I don’t remember much of what we talked about. He seemed to be jacked up on something. We reached the end of the Jersey Turnpike in record time, but it was well after 9 o’clock and I’m not sure he kept his appointment.

In probably the weirdest ride of my hitchhiking years, a car stopped for me on Rt. 85 somewhere in the middle of Virginia. As I about to get into the car, I noticed it was pretty full. There were three other guys, including the driver, in the car. I hesitated for a moment. Normally you’d get rides from a single man driving the car, or maybe two people. (Only once was I picked up by a woman.) An older man seemed to want the company, or they’d remember times when they were young men and hitchhiking themselves, or maybe they thought they’d better get this kid off the road. We’d chat a bit on and off until he’d let me out. But a car full of other men was a danger signal to me, and I usually waved the ride off with a “No thanks!” I did say that to the driver, but the guys in the back seat all motioned me in. They were all hitching, too, they said. So I slid into the back seat, shook hands all around, shared the usual information and then lapsed into silence. We didn’t know each other, and no one was in the mood to carry on a conversation.

I think the driver was going to the D.C. area, but before we got there the driver noticed his temperature gauge was in the danger area and he pulled off the highway. He popped the hood and steam flew. No one had any water with them, but there were a couple of empty soda cans rattling around on the floor, so we picked up the cans and walked to a little muddy trickle of a creek just off the road. We filled the cans with muddy water and brought them back to the driver who poured the contents into the car’s radiator.

We had no sooner gotten back on the road than we were stopped by a state patrolman who said that we were exceeding the speed limit and would the driver please accompany the officer to the station where he would be required to pay a fine. Everything went so fast, the driver didn’t give us much of a chance to get out, so we all went with him. The station was in a nearby town. After we arrived, the driver went in and then came out a few minutes later with an unhappy look on his face. “I don’t have enough money to pay the ticket,” he said. “Can you guys help me out?” We all looked at each other in disbelief and then shook our heads. I had a few bills in my pocket; if I had had any more, I would have taken a bus, that’s how close to the bone I lived in those days. We left him there, poor guy, and made our ways to the closest road. Eventually, we all got separate rides out of the town, and back onto 95.

By my third year at UNC, I met another grad student who lived in Closter, just up the road from Englewood. We tried to figure out where we had met before and it turned out we had both caddied at the same country club in high school. We became good friends. He had a Volkswagon Beetle. For the remainder of my graduate school years, I rode north with him. I never hitchhiked again, at least not in the States. In St. Thomas, where I taught in the Head Start Program for a couple of years in the early seventies, I often hitchhiked to the school where I taught four- and five-year olds. One day a car stopped and I recognized the driver.  He was a guy I knew from Tenafly, a town near Englewood. He couldn’t believe how lucky I was working in paradise—he was on a business trip, I think. Another day, I was picked up by one of my cousins from New York. He was on his honeymoon. We talked about how funny it was that he was honeymooning in the Virgin Islands.



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