How to Hitchhike

Tales from the road: USA

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Manchester, Tennessee to Boulder, Colorado (2000km)

“This is a good spot,” I said to Lauren. The long, straight road that stretched out before us was lined by trees but still had plenty of space either side for vehicles to pull over and stop. A steady succession of vehicles crawled along the road through the still air. Bumper to bumper festival-goers all on their way home.

We paused. The forest had provided us with shade while we had hiked away from the music festival. Neither of us were ready to step out into the 40°C Tennessee heat – our clothes were soaked in sweat and it wasn’t even the afternoon yet. Still, at least our hike had come to its end. We dropped our bags a few metres from the vehicles and drank our water thirstily. A few drivers watched with interest. Not that there was anything else to watch.

I rummaged around for the sign I had made back at the camp-site – a torn piece of cardboard with the letters “COLORADO” written in black bold Sharpie pen. As I held it in my hands I felt the familiar excitement rising in my body – a real adventure was about to begin. “Let’s try to make it all in one trip,” I said. Smelly, dirty, and hung-over, we stood up to face the traffic and held out our thumbs.

Everyone was in a good mood and the traffic was so slow that we were able to talk to people for a few minutes before they passed us. We laughed and joked and swapped stories. Lots of people passed out their leftover festival goodies as gifts to us: chocolate, bottles of water, beer, and a huge watermelon. Every time we saw a Colorado license plate we rushed over and cheered. But the drivers just smiled and shrugged – every vehicle was full. They wanted to pick us up, I could see it. It was just a matter of finding someone who could.

“We’ll have her, but not you!” was the most common joke shouted from car windows as they passed us by, and I laughed every time. “We could take you as far as Nashville,” a few people offered more seriously. One could even take us 400 miles to St. Louis. “Thanks, but we’re going to do it in one trip,” I said, and I believed myself. We were in such a good spot, how could we fail?

An hour and four Colorado license plates later, somebody beckoned us to their window. “Did you know there’s two guys down the road, and they’re hitching to Colorado too?” the driver said. Lauren and I looked at each other. The chance of one vehicle going all the way to Colorado seemed plausible – but two was impossible. “Thanks for telling us,” we said. I reminded myself that our fellow hitchhikers had no way of knowing about us, and no way of knowing that we’d been trying for longer than they had. Nevertheless, our bad luck was frustrating. We put away the sign and decided to accept the next offer to Nashville.

Our rivals, two young guys from Denver, came up the road after a little while in search of a better hitching spot and I called them over. It was midday, but we were all already exhausted from a couple of hours of standing in the sun. We walked away from the road and made ourselves comfortable in the shade of the forest. I sliced the watermelon we had been given and the four of us ate together in the shade of the trees. Our spirits were high despite the fact that none of us had found a ride yet. We talked about the hopes we had for our journey ahead, shared tales of our journeys already travelled, and failed to notice as the traffic steady dwindled. When we finally returned to the road an hour later, almost everyone had finished leaving the festival. The traffic had dried up completely.

No problem. We decided to walk up to the next road together to try to get the non-festival traffic too, and our new friends offered to hitch from further down so that we could get the first ride – an offer I gratefully accepted.

When we reached the next road, however, there was already a queue. Three homeless men were waiting at five metre intervals at the best place for vehicles to stop. I could hardly believe our bad luck. Before that day I had never seen another hitchhiker on the road. At this point we'd seen five – and it was meant to be illegal in Tennessee. We talked to the homeless men for a few minutes before moving on. Suddenly the air felt cooler. I looked up at the sky – there were storm clouds coming.

Our new spot was terrible, a vulnerable position in the middle of an intersection with four lanes of traffic. We couldn't continue up the road without entering the free-way and we couldn't go back without competing with the homeless men. By now the sun had disappeared and Lauren was starting to lose faith that we would find a ride. It had been three and a half hours since we started and a heavy rain seemed inevitable. I was starting to lose faith too.

It had been raining for quite some time when the cop car pulled over beside us. The cop gave us a long stare as he hauled his heavy frame from the vehicle and I began to reflect upon how fragile my permission to travel in the USA really was. But before my panic had the chance to really set in, the cop turned around and disappeared into an office trailer. My confused relief was replaced a few moments later by even more intense panic when I realised that we were hitchhiking directly across from a mobile police station set up for the festival. Lauren and I must look like a miserable pair, I thought, if Tennessee cops are getting more pleasure from watching us suffer than by coming over and arresting us for breaking the law.

Finally, a car stopped – a young guy on his own.

“Where are you going?” I said. I didn’t care, we were going to get in his car anyway.

“Nashville,” he said. Perfect.