Gas was .29 cents a gallon. New Interstate highways ran east-west, north-south. Cars were cheap and plentiful. America was on the move.
Hitch-hiking was a viable lifestyle. You could stick out your thumb and go anywhere in North America for free. You could usually hustle food or the odd night crashed out on a friendly couch. Three days to travel cross country – NY to SF – along I-80. 42 hours from Boulder to Barnstead, New Hampshire was my record.
I was a seasoned pro. I’d thumbed all over the continent, from Kyuquot Sound on Vancouver Island to Key West…San Ysidro to Bar Harbour. Along Interstates, rural back-roads, busy two-lane highways and snowy mountain passes at night. I’d been picked up by sales people, moonshiners, travellers and joyriders. Long rides, short hops, quiet ones and caffeine-fuelled non-stop talkers.
If I was on a camping trip or hitching during winter I carried a top-of-the-line Alpine Design rig with a four-season tent, Eddie Bauer down sleeping bag, small Primus stove and other essential gear. Gave me the option of camping out if the rides were slow on a cold night.
Or I would travel light, just a sleeping bag, groundcloth and a few spare clothes. I’d often look for the dry shelves up underneath overpasses on the Interstates to sleep. They were private, relatively clean and somewhat quiet.
I could cover lots of territory cheaply and easily. I’d criss-cross the Western states, visiting Anasazi ruins and National Parks and Monuments. I had a $10 Golden Eagle Pass that gave me free entry to all the Parks, a bargain. Camping in the Parks was inexpensive and the campgrounds were good places to meet other travellers. I always travelled alone.
I would visit friends, check out events such as concerts, demos or festivals or look for seasonal work. I picked up odd jobs at a logging camp on Vancouver Island, shrimping in Texas and Florida, roustabout on the Colorado oilpatch, harvesting apples in BC. A week here, a month there. Save a bit then move on. Didn’t need much to travel.
Hitch-hiking was illegal on the Interstate highways but legal on the entrance ramps. Usually didn’t get hassled much. But every once in a while I’d get a ticket. Here is part of my collection.
In normal traffic, I’d rarely wait more than a few minutes. At night, along smaller roads or on less-travelled byways the waits could be much longer.
Always made it a point to ask questions, read maps, pick up travel brochures, understand the landscape. Rides were great sources for local knowledge. Heard all about the Lost Peralta Gold Mine in Arizona’s Superstition Mountains from an old time prospector. Said he’d been searching for years. Got the inside scoop on Chaco Canyon from a Navajo elder who had maintained the access road for 30 years on his vintage road grader. Got a racist tirade in Tennessee from a well-dressed bible salesman, I just nodded and smiled. All grist for the mill.
I perfected the art of listening. People open up to a hitch-hiker, especially one who is non-judgemental and can carry a conversation. Drivers will never see you again so they can be quite candid. I heard many secrets. “I just need to tell someone.”
By and large most people were satisfied with their lot. But I heard “I envy you, free to go and do what you please,” more than once. People with cars had responsibilities, owed money, had jobs and families, needed to be somewhere. Hitch-hikers didn’t. To them, I represented freedom.
Indeed, I never felt more liberated than standing on the side of the road, everything I own on my back, totally self-contained. No loose ends. And every ride was an adventure just waiting to happen.
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