By Mitch Flynn
The sign we saw last summer on our way to Chautauqua read “Correctional Facility Area: Do Not Pick Up Hitchhikers.”
“Not a problem,” I thought to myself. “Nobody hitchhikes anymore, anyway.” But that wasn’t always the case. Thumbing rides was an everyday part of growing up in the 1960s.
Back then, it wasn’t unusual to see a kid hold out his thumb and quickly get a lift down Main Street. Sure, there was the occasional pervert, drunk or thug to beware of, but it was mostly innocent and sometimes even interesting. There was the freedom of sharing conversation with someone you might never see again. One got to hear one’s fair share of confessions.
In high school, I upped my game by hitching to New York City. I asked my rides to drop me at Thruway rest stops so I could solicit drivers in person. I was well dressed and polite – I figured the odds were better than if I acted surly and wore an orange jumpsuit.
After graduation, with Vietnam in the background and college around the corner, what was a 17-year-old to do but follow Horace Greeley’s advice?
So, pack on my back and sleeping bag inside, I held out my one-word cardboard sign – “West” – and promptly got a ride to Cleveland. So far so good, until the car blew a tire and fishtailed to the shoulder. The day ended with me walking holes in the soles of my beloved leather mukluks and sleeping in a field.
But luck struck the next day. What should pull over but that common carrier of the ’60s counterculture, a Volkswagen bus with Vermont plates.
VW: “Where ya’ headed?” Me: “California.” VW: “That’s where we’re going. Get in, man!” I had hit the hitching jackpot.
So our little band – two hippie guys with shoulder-length hair, a fringe-dressed hippie girl, and me, preppy kid from Buffalo – made our way across the USA.
At a truck stop in Indiana, I went in alone to buy a candy bar. When the patrons glimpsed my fellow travelers through the window, I got a close-up shot of the not-so-silent majority. “Which one’s the girl?” they hooted and hollered and hooted again. I paid for my purchase and left.
In Iowa, I got to sample a macrobiotic diet; in Colorado, I got to learn how to drive a stick shift; and in Utah, I got to try to make heads and tails of the “I Ching.”
Twenty-five hundred miles and a week later, I got dropped off on the Pacific Coast Highway and watched their bus disappear into the fog.
San Diego, San Fernando, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, San Francisco – Spanish saint-names marked my travels up and down the coast for the rest of the summer. Every ride was an adventure.
I saw the redwoods and the Hollywood sign; slept on beaches in Big Sur; and worked for a week in a migrant labor camp where my fellow trabajadores called me a “hee-pee.”
Short of money in Monterey, I chanced to get a ride from a woman who had no hair. When I told her my story, she smiled and said,“God bless you” and pressed a $100 bill into my hand. It was the first time I had met someone dying of cancer.
Returning from our week in Chautauqua and seeing the shock camp and its warning sign again, I conjured up my younger self – thumb out, hopes up, wondering how far the next ride would take me.
I couldn’t help thinking it’s a shame that nobody hitchhikes anymore. But it’s understandable, isn’t it? We’re all prisoners of our times.