The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Adventure

I sat drinking coffee and letting my wet feet thaw in the morning sun. I was hiking out of Coyote Gulch in southern Utah and I knew I would have to hitch the long and remote Hole-in-the-Rock Road to get to the town of Escalante. It had been seven days since the last town and, save for a tortilla, I was out of food. Luckily it’s a popular backpacking spot and I noticed four men hiking by above. I quickly packed up. They’re my ticket to town, I thought. As I caught up to them, I learned they were a group of cavers from the East Coast who visit the desert every year to do some canyoneering. Before I had even asked, they offered me a ride. Their cars were parked at a different trailhead and after a couple hours they pulled out their maps and said we had walked past their canyon exit. “No way,” I said. There couldn’t possibly be a way out of here as I stared up at the sheer canyon walls. We backtracked around a bend and sure enough there was one fin of sandstone slanted just enough to scramble up. Once on top, the canyon was invisible in a sea of red sandstone hills, much how I would picture the planet Mars. I kept exclaiming, “Wow! This is so cool!” If I hadn’t needed a ride, I wouldn’t have met these guys and followed them on this much more interesting way out of the canyon. This is one form of hitchhiking on an adventure, getting rides from other hikers right on the trail.

The word “hitchhiking” feels a little taboo, almost illicit. In much of the world, however, hitchhiking is a necessity. If you don’t own a car and need to get somewhere, it’s definitely the easiest and least expensive way to travel. It is also a necessity in thru-hiking and even in long, point-to-point adventure runs, skis, and bikes to get back to town. Things like Uber, or just plain cell-phone service, don’t exist when you’re in the middle of nowhere so a thumb is sometimes your best, and only, option. Despite the fact that hitchhiking has some negative connotations, I’ve had good stories and great experiences come out of it. It’s a bit of the thrill of the unknown on who will pick you up or how long you’ll have to sit there and wait for a ride.

Locals are the ones who have picked me up more often than not, which is great because they provide some pretty useful and interesting insight into my surroundings as well as give me the best advice on where to eat in town. The most comfortable and easiest hitches are at trailheads when you can stop and talk to folks and literally just ask for a ride. Talking to the person for a minute before you get in the car is also a good way to feel more comfortable. Other times, you just start walking down the road and a car pulls over before you’ve even stuck your thumb out.

Pick-up trucks are pretty common and ideal for the hitchhiker, especially in the U.S.’s West and in rural, agricultural areas because one, they are abundant, and two, they are low risk to both the driver and hitchhiker. You just bundle up and hop in the back and watch the world whiz by you. On the Continental Divide Trail (CDT), six of us loaded into the back of one to get to East Glacier, Montana.

One of my favorite hitches was with two other hikers on the CDT when we got a once-in-a-lifetime ride in the bucket of a tractor. It was big enough to carry the three of us and our backpacks the four miles into town.

A close second would have to be the motorcycle. I had to pick up some new shoes that my sister had mailed to me in a nearby town and a guy pulled up and offered. I was hesitant because I’d never been on one before, but the guy was nice and luckily it was much less terrifying than I thought, although a bit cold when you’re just in a t-shirt and running shorts.

As a female, having a woman pick me up is always a relief. Once a lady drove by me when I was on the Hayduke Trail in Utah and flipped a u-turn because she couldn’t bear seeing a female sitting by the side of the road. She wanted to make sure I was safe… and then she gave me a brand-new pair of socks when we got to town.

Of course we can’t forget hitching from rafts in the desert! In the Grand Canyon of Arizona, I’ve enjoyed their bountiful food and bubbly water. And my first time being ferried was on Utah’s San Juan River. I had tried to ford the river, which is doable in the fall, but not during spring runoff. After I’d backed out, some rafts came bobbing down and pulled me in. As I lept out of the boat, I missed the shoreline by a few feet and rolled into the water. Feeling a little embarrassed, I hollered, “Thank you!” I’m not sure if he was trying to redeem my spirit but one guy shouted, “I like your style!” I was kind of flattered and I wondered momentarily if he was single as his boat disappeared into the canyon.

I have also had failed hitchhiking experiences. Once I had to wait overnight in a dust storm at a trailhead before any car was heading back to town. It was pretty miserable and I think all my gear still has sand in it. Another time I was worried about getting hypothermic after being drenched by rain and snow all day, so I walked down the highway in hopes of thumbing a ride. But after an hour or two and not a single car, I phoned a motel in town and they redirected me to the sheriff who picked me up. Hopefully that’s the only time I have to do that. Another time, the distance was too far for me to feel comfortable hitchhiking and after looking up Uber which would have cost $150, I decided a $20 Greyhound bus ride sounded much more appealing. Much to my surprise, I was literally the only person on the bus and the driver even stopped for lunch on the way!

Hitchhiking can produce some funny stories but mostly I think it is interesting because it means that both the driver and the hitchhiker have to trust each other… to trust a complete stranger for that matter. Being in such a vulnerable position can be uncomfortable at first. For me the discomfort has become eye opening. A lot of it comes from confronting privilege as I employ hitchhiking while recreating. Standing alone on the side of the road also makes me acutely aware of my external appearance. As a single, white female, I’ve had many male friends tell me it’s much easier for me to get rides than for them. And when I’ve been out hiking for weeks or running all day, I suddenly realize my dirty outdoor clothes probably deter a lot of folks, but I try to make my backpack obvious as I hope someone will recognize the gear. Sometimes too you can feel much like roadkill when people pull as far away from you as possible. But patience is key with hitchhiking and sometimes you can make a game of it by counting how many cars go by before one stops or which states are on the license plates.

Of course you have to be careful while hitchhiking, that goes nearly without saying, and knowing that the bad stories are only the few that make the news. As with a lot of social interactions, when you open yourself up to the mutual trust involved with something like hitchhiking, it can renew your faith in humanity and in the kindness of strangers.

Call for Comments

  • Leave a comment to share your stories about hitchhiking as well as your thoughts about the mutual trust the experience requires.
  • What other situations in life offer the same sort of adventure and the ability to immediately see the humanness of a stranger?

Photo: Hannah Green

There are 6 comments

  1. rld_7b

    I’ve found hitchhiking both fun and fascinating. It does require mutual respect but also a shared sense of openness – sharing a ride, even if only a few miles, is entering a relationship with a stranger. More often than not, I’ve had a lot in common with my rides (and hitchhikers I’ve picked up) which reinforces our shared humanity. Aside from a great way to facilitate adventure, I wonder if more people hitchhiked, would we be generally less inclined toward us-vs.-them thinking? Fantastic piece; thanks for reminding me of so many fond memories.

  2. Tom

    “I’ve been back and forth, far and wide
    I’ve been hitchhiking, life’s been one long ride
    trying to find where I belong, just trying to find where I belong”

    I hitchhiked extensively during the heyday of this method of travel during the late sixties and seventies. There was no stigma and little insecurity for the youth of that time. After college and a year of teaching during my first summer off I left my home in Dallas and hitched around the western US. I visited thirteen national parks camping, hiking, backpacking and mountain climbing. I actually sold my car before the trip because hitching was the way to go. I climbed in Yosemite, the Grand Teton, Middle and South Tetons, Longs Peak cable route and numerous other routes in CO. I hiked rim to rim to rim in the Grand Canyon and did the Zion traverse before they were so named.

    The next year after leaving my teaching job I hitched with my girlfriend to New York, flew to Paris then hitched around Europe for five months visiting seventeen countries. Again we camped, stayed in youth hostels, hiked, climbed and visited all the major cities to see the museums and sites. Hitching in Europe then was easy and common. There were thousands of youth from all over the world traveling this way around Europe. Even families would pick you up and the parents would question you about the US to expose their children to this cultural knowledge. And buy you lunch.

    I have also experienced hitching while hiking the AT in the mid seventies. I never had a problem and met many fascinating and wonderful people during these trips. I did turn down questionable rides with some people when hitching with my girlfriend.
    I finally found where I belong in the mountains of Colorado

  3. Michael O'Brien

    I’ve had short hitches back to the car from trail runs and long hitches from New Mexico to Alaska. Every type of person picked me up. One of the best ways to travel.

  4. Tony Green

    Great stories and article. Even reading this renews my faith in humanity a little bit. I admire your courage in this day and age. So glad you have had good experiences. Love hearing your stories.

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