This article originally appeared in the September 14, 1982 issue of the Boston Phoenix.
When I was in college, I used to hitchhike because I didn’t have a car and because I liked to go home for Christmas and Thanksgiving. Now I hitchhike because the car I have doesn’t run anymore. But there are other reasons, too. Many’s the day that I don’t do anything exciting or encounter anyone new, at least not to talk about. I suppose I could exchange meteorological pleasantries with the person sitting next to me on the T, but talking about the weather bores me. No, to steal a line from E.B. White, I’m one of those people who “eat and run to catch a train and then ride back to eat again,” and what happens between meals is rarely out of the ordinary. In short, life can be damned dull.
So I hitchhike once in a while. It’s an adventure, and it gives me a Kerouacian sense of freedom. There’s the chance to encounter new sorts, because ― unless it’s raining and drivers are moved to pathos seeing you drenched and forlorn ― the reason they stop is to talk.
You learn to judge who’ll stop and who won’t. Rousseau once observed that a society’s real generosity lies among its peasantry. And fliers in World War II were told that if they got shot down behind enemy lines, farmers were the people most likely to help them. Hitching is the same way. It’s always the old truck or the beat-up van or the ’67 bug that pulls over, and not the sleek new Lincoln Continental. Which is fine with me, for those old vehicles and the people who drive them make for strange experiences. The type of driver I like best is the crusty old Maine fisherman who comes jouncing along a side road in a ramshackle short-box pickup piled with traps and offers you a Narragansett and goes shunpiking along at 45 or so. The stories he tells are vignettes that make me feel as though I’ve stepped inside Marshall Dodge’s brain.
Of course, hitchhiking on the turnpike or on the four-lane is different. The characters I like to ride with don’t travel them. So I stand there, sign extended, hoping that the car that signals and stops will contain one of those wild and mysterious women who cruise through the pages of Penthouse Forum. For the most part, though, the types who pick me up are the same ones who poke pamphlets at people in Harvard Square.
I haven’t hitchhiked that much, but already I’ve encountered enough bona fide strangers to fill an Odd Fellows hall. And three Sundays ago, I had a ride that will be hard to top. The driver pulled over in an old van that had been transformed into a camper. His name was Andy, he told me right off the bat, and he asked mine. After living his entire 34 years in the Boston area, he had just decided to chuck it all and move to Maine. “I should have done it years ago,” he said.