By Joe Rector
I’ve been doing a bit of driving to supplement my income. The job entails delivering a new car to one dealer and then returning with another from that lot. It’s a good job; I only wish the drives came at least a couple of times each week. At any rate, during these drives, I’ve noticed more and more folks standing on the side of interstate ramps with their thumbs stuck out. Yep, hitchhiking is still around today, although it’s not quite the same.
Hitching a ride was common practice for teens when I was in high school. Most of us didn’t have cars, so the only way to get from one place to another was to walk or get someone to pick us up along the way. Jim and I walked to the bus stop about a tenth of a mile from home. We’d stand around for a while until we grew bored. Then we’d strike off toward school with our thumbs out. Before long, someone, usually another teen or the parent of a friend, would stop and let us hop in the car.
The reason we chose hitching instead of riding the bus was that we’d taken up smoking, and we couldn’t light up on the bus. Of course, sometimes no one offered us a ride, and we trudged the entire route to school. Even when we did ride to school with someone, we often arrived after our bus had emptied its load of students and left for another route.
On several occasions, I’d stick out my thumb in search of a ride to a girl’s house or to a place where several teens had gathered. Grown-ups didn’t much like seeing teens walk, so before long, a kind, older person would stop and yell, “Hop in.” Some interesting conversations took place during those rides, and I met good people who saw the good in most everyone.
Jim and I left for college at Tennessee Tech, one hundred miles from home. Mother had purchased a Studebaker Lark for us to drive back and forth. The vehicle lasted only a couple of trips before throwing a rod on a trip up the mountain in Monterey. From that point on, the only way home was begging a ride from a Knoxville-bound student or hitching a ride.
Jim was in love, but he couldn’t leave for home until after football games because he was in the band. On occasion, he’d finish marching at the game, go to the room to grab a bag, and hitchhike at midnight. He always seemed to get a ride with someone.
Jim must have learned the art of hitchhiking from our older brother Dal, who stuck out his thumb every weekend for a year so that he could come home to see his future wife Brenda. Mother would sometimes buy a bus ticket back, but even when she didn’t, she’d give Dal a quarter or a dollar so he wasn’t caught without any money on his walk down I-40.
My one and only hitchhiking adventure from TTU to Knoxville came on a weekend in October of my freshman year. I began at the ramp in Cookeville, and for a long time I walked without successfully flagging down a ride. Then, a car sped by me but then abruptly pulled off the side of the road and drove in reverse toward me. Whether or not the driver intended to run me over wasn’t clear, but he stopped, stuck his arm out the window, and waved me up.
The man was in the service, or so he said, and he was driving from Texas to New Jersey. I didn’t care where he was going as long as he let me out in Knoxville. The trip took forever. This guy insisted on finding every place that sold fireworks. He exited any time he saw a sign or thought a stand might be close. His trunk was filled with M-80s, Roman Candles, and other big explosive items. I deduced that he was selling them at huge mark-ups to folks at home or on the base where he was located. That was my last hitchhiking adventure. I left no one back home who pined for me on my way to college. If I couldn’t find someone going to Knoxville, I stayed on campus for the weekend. Some might call me a coward, but I prefer to think of myself as cautious.
These days, the people who stick out thumbs for rides look a bit seedier, and few people want to run the risk of picking up a serial murderer. The days of sticking out thumbs and capturing free rides is over for the most part. Still, it’s a bit sad young folks will miss the opportunity to hitchhike at least one time.
By Joe Rector