Before I owned my first car, I used to hitchhike all over town. (I’ve observed that “used to” has become my most frequent verb tense.) That’s how teens and college students got around back in the day. Not anymore. The world has become too dangerous for a young man to catch rides with strangers. And we don’t even want to talk about young women doing so.
“It isn’t true,” says Elijah Wald in his recent book., Riding with Strangers: Hitchhiking Across America. Wald describes his latest journey from Boston to Seattle, traveling by thumb, adding memories of other hitchhiking treks around the world. He declares that the road is every bit as safe as it was in the heyday of the 60’s and 70’s, the era of highways lined with hippies and soldiers on leave pursuing their preferred (i.e. free) mode of transportation. “Our world is no more dangerous,” Wald writes, “we’re just more afraid.”
He makes me want to go hitchhiking again. I have faded memories of rides caught from age fifteen or so till my senior year of college. My first time in the cab of an 18-wheeler semi; my first offer of a toke (Let the records show that I declined.); the ride when I soon realized my driver was blind, receiving constant detailed instructions from his wife riding shotgun and grown son in the back seat. At the next traffic light, I announced I’d reached my destination and “thanks a lot, folks!” Memories of standing in the rain, needing to be picked up in the next five minutes or I’d miss my calculus final. (I got a ride in time, but would’ve probably made a better grade if I had missed the exam.) Not a single memory of being in danger from my temporary host.
The hitchhiker needs three qualities: a basic faith in the kindness of strangers, an embrace of adventure, and a willingness to change routes. Oh—and a tolerance for boredom and discomfort; it isn’t always easy to stand outside in the weather for an unknown length of time. I’m beginning to think of hitchhiking as an act of faith, which requires the same qualities. I wonder if the early Apostolic Fathers ever thumbed.
This past week I announced my plans to retire. After thirty-two years, in late 2017, I’ll lead my final worship at Pleasant Hill Presbyterian Church. Afterwards, I’ll walk out to Pleasant Hill Road and stick out my thumb.* For the next part of the journey, I’ll depend on the kindness of strangers, an embrace of adventure, and a willingness to change routes. Don’t we all—whether our thumb remains deep in our pocket or beckons to passers-by.
* I don’t intend to become a literal hobo or head cross-country. It’s a metaphor, an old man’s fantasy. Or an old man’s faith.