Milo Shumpert Appel, Contributor
Every year, countless young travelers set out across their states, countries, or across the world with little more than a smile and the universally recognized “hitchhiker’s thumb.” Some set out to explore the wilderness we call Western civilization at a minimal cost, placing themselves at the mercy of their wit, luck and the compassion of strangers. Others have plenty of places to go, sights to see, but nowhere to stay. They have no homes, no job skills, and their only friends are not in any position to change that for them. One could say some of them want to be as they are, while others have no choice in the matter. Some, at the end of their journeys, will return to the warm beds, hot showers and career opportunities of a normal middle-class American existence. Others will sleep under overpasses or in tents in public parks. They’ll panhandle, shoplift, sell pot or handmade jewelry, Dumpster dive, or play music in the street for their daily bread. There’s also the occasional hitcher whose momentary circumstances force them to do as all the others: walk to the freeway entrance, smile and hold out his thumb.
Hitchhiking can be fun, scary, exciting and most clearly, a cheap way to see the world in which we live. Fundamental rules on the practice can be hard to come by, but travelers’ wisdom is plentiful. Talking to numerous young hitchhikers, vagabonds and traveling gypsies has produced a short list of do’s and don’ts for practicing and aspiring hitchhikers.
Smile – Says Reanna, a young, seasonal hitcher from Los Angeles. But don’t smile too much; it looks creepy. Her companion, Kody, observed that more people were afraid of him as a hitchhiker than he was of any of the people who offered them rides. For the record, Kody does not look shady. Neither does Reanna.
Cleanliness is next to… Showering in college gyms can save you money if you look like a typical student (young and almost clean-cut). Showering in college gyms can get you into a lot of trouble if you look nothing like a student. Don’t try it; your dreadlocks and facial tattoos will be a dead giveaway.
To sign or not to sign? A cardboard sign with a destination written on it should be legible to passing motorists. In the mind of a driver, an illegible sign equals a crazy passenger. Even better? Skip the cardboard sign all together. It makes you look like a bum. Everyone from the employed, established young people just taking a cheap vacation to full-time traveling vagabonds seem to agree on this principle. “The less you look like a street person, the more willing people are to help you,” according to a young man who had been hitchhiking around the Western United States for three years, going in and out of jobs and residences. But forge ahead with a cardboard sign if you already look like a bum. The fact that you are going to the same place as a passing motorist will not make you any less desirable company.
A little patience. Be patient when you’re not getting rides and cautious when you do. A young woman who’d hitched all over the Rocky Mountains and upper Midwest insisted that if you have a bad feeling about a driver, don’t get in the car. Your own safety is not worth someone else’s feelings. If you do take a ride with someone, try to text his or her name and license plate number to a friend. Simply asking to be let out at the next stop, saying a friend will meet you (whether or not it’s true), can be enough to get you out of uncomfortable situations. Still, understand that some people are sinister and you may have to defend yourself — physically or with threats. Having a concealable self- defense device could save your life, or at least help you travel more at ease. However, you must remember that you’re not likely to get many rides with a 12-inch, blood-stained hunting knife dangling from your belt.
Do your research. Make use of the Internet to find rides and places to stay. Libraries are a universal place for Internet access. Craigslist ride shares can help you get where you’re going and sites like couchsurfing.com offer places to stay once you get there. Kody and Reanna once found a place on that site with an open door and no one home. When they woke in the morning there was coffee, tea, eggs and an eighth waiting for them. They never met their host.
Hitchhiking is not, in reality, about defending yourself from the occasional meth head, cult leader or cannibal. Hitchhikers consistently agree that their experiences, though plagued with frustration, cold and hunger, have also been overwhelmingly defined by human compassion. You learn to appreciate the kindness that people are willing to extend to a total stranger and you take that with you wherever you go from there.