|Getting back to the trail!|
On my way home the other day, I passed a hitchhiker on the outskirts of town, and I don’t know why I didn’t pick him up. I pick up most hitchhikers I see, and when I miss one I always feel so guilty. I’ve been there myself plenty of times. But for several reasons I’ve been in a weird mental state for the past few months. My failure to hike the Long Trail this year, moving into a stable living situation, a semi-stable job– I’d like to say I was distracted, but maybe I was just feeling a bit too out of sorts to help out a fellow human.
As a long-distance backpacker, I’ve thumbed rides more often than I can remember. Usually it’s to get from the trail to town or vice versa. Sometimes it’s to get back to the car after a trip that leaves me at a different trailhead. I’ve also picked up more hitchhikers than I can remember, and not always hikers on long-distance trails. I like to keep my ride-karma strong, since I never know when I’ll be sitting at a trailhead for hours, waiting for a car to stop. But one of the best reasons I can think of for hitching a ride or picking someone up is that you stand a good chance of making someone’s day a lot better, either just by an act of kindness or by giving them a good story for later.
My most memorable hitchhiking journey was during a break from my Pacific Crest Trail hike, when I went to the High Sierra Music Festival in Quincy, CA, then had to return to where I’d left off the trail in Mammoth Lakes. It was a 250-mile hitchhike that took all day and five rides, each of which was an adventure in itself. One of the rides was from a man recently released from prison, and we talked about the rampant sprawl in the area– he said after two years in jail, he didn’t even recognize his hometown from all the new road building and development. Another ride came from a guy recovering from a fall off a ski lift where he worked, which had mangled his spine. They were interesting folks, and it gave me a look at a different part of the region rather than just the hikers and hiker towns that the PCT passed by.
The only discouragement I got from the whole experience was in Carson City, as I stood for over an hour with my thumb out on a busy road, when a lady driving the other direction slowed down and rolled her window down to tell me that hitchhiking was illegal in the town. Maybe she thought she was being helpful, but less than half an hour later I had a ride, and no thanks to her. It reminded me of another ride I got while on the Appalachian Trail, when I wanted to go a mile down the road to a burger stand, but instead ended up being ferried all over the county for three hours while my ride brought me to every place he could think of that might be better than the burger stand. That guy gave me one of my most memorable experiences from the Appalachian Trail, and it had nothing to do with hiking.
Why did the discouragement remind me of an unexpectedly long adventure? Because that one discouraging remark altered my mood for the rest of the day. It was a useless remark, and kind of insulting. Her effort didn’t accomplish anything but to scold me. And what did she expect me to do instead? There was no public transportation, and I still had a hundred miles to go. Why else would I be sticking my thumb out other than to get out of the town in the first place? It was so much the opposite of that ride on the AT, when someone had gone so far out of his way to help me out, and in so doing he also had himself a great time. When you have what other people need, you have a lot of power to make them happy or not.
It seems to me that we live in a society where people are so afraid of each other that putting yourself in a confined space with a total stranger scares the crap out of people. I don’t know what people see when they pass a person on the side of the road with his thumb out, but I just see someone who needs a ride. I’ve been there. Maybe you have, too. So I stop and give a ride. Sometimes I’ll go miles out of my way to get the person to where they’re going so they won’t have to wait who knows how long for another ride.
A friend of mine was on his way home from work one day when he saw a pair of hikers with their thumbs out in Crawford Notch. He picked them up, but when he realized they were on their way to Portland, and the sun was already setting, he drove them the whole way. It was two and a half hours out of his way, but he didn’t want the two guys to get stuck on the side of the road at night trying to find a ride. I’ll bet he made a permanent impression on the two hikers, and I know the experience was great for him. As far as I’m concerned, this is one of the few little things a person can do to add a little goodness to the world– just to help a stranger who is in need.
I know that if I’d picked up that hitchhiker the other day, my day would have gone from average and unexciting to much happier, even adventurous, just from the feeling of helping someone out. How often do you see this kind of random generosity among strangers? And how often have you hitchhiked and had a memorable experience because of it? I’m willing to bet most of you who have hitchhiked many times can remember some good stories from the experience.