Thumbs Up for a Ride Full of Possibility
By David Daniel
My Bostonian mom would have quavered with horror if she’d known of her son’s hitchhiking days — I never stuck out my thumb on a country lane or interstate highway without a tingle in my bones. Would this be the ride: the madman, the killer she’d warned of? Or perhaps the mythic stranger I sometimes dreamed of?
I didn’t tell her because then I would have to reveal how much I was my father’s son, how it was he, a Westerner brought to Boston by the Navy, who’d planted the seeds of thumbing rides each time he’d stopped the family car to pick someone up, and how, as a boy, I admired his bonhomie, that easy rapport he had with strangers: sailors with sea bags (“shipmates” he’d called them), soldiers, working men, and, on occasion, women.
Like the time on a day trip to Cape Cod, our family station wagon already crowded with my mom and brothers and cousins and grandmother, when my father he stopped to offer a lift to a young woman on a remote road — an au pair, it turned out, from Norway. She squeezed into the back seat and conversed excitedly in Norwegian with my grandmother, who had come over from Bergen as a young girl, alone, and, as it happened, had launched herself into a bigger world, too, on trust.
My earliest hitchhikes were the short, simple rides along 3A in my hometown to the beach. In time the range expanded, especially after I got out of the Army in the early ’70s. Most of those later road adventures blur together, as I imagine Walt Whitman’s and Jack Kerouac’s did. Some, however, have found a place in memory.
For instance, the evening my friend Bob T. and I had been out and were on our way back to our apartment when we saw two young women hitching on one of the ramps to the Central Artery — this in a pre-Big Dig Boston. Bob braked his old Falcon to a shivering stop. “Where ya headed?”
“As far as you’re goin’,” one of the women said.
“Our ultimate goal,” the other said,“ is to get home to Cleveland.”
Bob glanced over at me. I shrugged. It was his car, his call. “Jump in,” he said. We made Cleveland late the next day.
Or the time my friend Walker and I, newly discharged vets looking to break up the monotony of winter, set off to hitch to Florida. By late afternoon we’d made Jersey and had our thumbs out on the Turnpike: illegal, as the trooper who picked us up made clear. He dropped us at the next exit with a polite warning to stay off the pike. In the fading winter light, we spied a restaurant. This being the friendly Aquarian Age, we struck up a conversation there with two women just off their shift at Youngs Rubber company. We asked the inevitable question: “What do you do there?”
They laughed. “We make rubbers.”
Wait, seriously? It was true. Youngs Rubber was where Trojans were made. We laughed, too. Thumbing on the turnpike was out, so they offered to drive us to the Greyhound station, and we bought their meal.
On another trip, I was bumming south of Sarasota on the Tamiami Trail. Traffic was sparse. I scorched in the sun for hours before finally two guys in a pickup stopped. Alligator poachers, they made plain, and they soon had to make a brief detour to a little town deep in the swamp. As they went on a dubious errand into a dubious shack of a bar, I debated whether to start hitching again — or wait. Seeing no real alternative, I stayed, and they emerged, and we rode on down to the outskirts of Miami.
Hitchhiking is a relic of a different America. Almost no one does it today. There are fewer reasons to, other options, more perceived dangers.
Still, in rearview I see my dad driving one hard-used automobile or another, in his gray work shirt with his name — Jack — embroidered on a patch over the pocket and a grin as big as his home state of New Mexico, stopping to offer some needful soul a lift. True, my mother’s fears weren’t total phantoms — there were a few dicey times — nor was that shiver I’d experience getting into an unfamiliar car. But the fears were overstated. Instead, what I chose to reckon with was this broader, alternative side of hitching rides, more tender in its humor and human interaction: the enlivened possibility of other worlds one could visit for a time.
This is reprinted from The Boston Globe 9/11/22. David Daniel is on the faculty at UMass, Lowell and is a regular contributor to the blog. A new collection of his stories, Beach Town, will be published by Loom Press later this year.