Getting Hitched in the USA
I apologise to all those thinking this is a how-to guide on getting a green card in the land of the free and home of the brave, but what ensues is no less valuable. Although many say the glory days of hitchhiking are over thanks to various Hollywood horror flicks and the general deterioration of the world, it remains just as easy. Keep in mind there is nothing glamorous about it: you will be sitting on the side of the road for hours, you will begin to smell like cheese left in the sun for three days and you will repeatedly come to hate the world and everyone in it.
My 2600-mile journey from New York to Yosemite National Park (California) began on a Tuesday with a short train out to New Jersey.
Tip: Getting out of big cities is nigh on impossible – avoid at all costs.
After a quick bite, within half an hour of setting up on the side of the highway, I was approached by red-and-blue lights. I was informed that it is rather illegal to hitchhike in the state of New Jersey and was sent packing. I returned to New York tail between my legs and vowed to try again the next day with a bus out to Pennsylvania.
Tip: Research local laws before departing on your journey. Although hitch-hiking is technically legal in most states, some have a few technical issues with it.
I then set up shop at some traffic lights on the lead-up to the on ramp of the highway I needed to get onto. Three hours of gruelling thumbing later I finally got my first lift, all of 10 miles.
Tip: The most important factor in getting picked up is location. If cars don’t have a good spot to pull over out of the traffic, then people will leave you alone like shrimp at a buffet, no matter how pick-upable you may look
1/260th of my journey down, I began to hit some sort of stride; not waiting more than 10 minutes between lifts. After a couple more very short lifts I found myself Ohio bound.
Tip: Every little bit counts: don’t turn down a lift just because people are only going a few miles. The closer you get to your destination, the more likely people are to be heading there
This gentleman drove me for a good seven hours. We got wildly lost when the main highway was closed and had to take a massive detour. In the end he offered for me to crash on his couch. After a lovely sleep, he made me eggs in the morning and dropped me off back at the highway.
Tip: Your job as hitchhiker doesn’t end when you get into the car. You are co-pilot, navigator and conversationalist. If you do your job properly, you may be offered great rewards.
Day 2 also began slowly, with the only person to stop for me all morning being the fuzz. In all fairness, he was very friendly and basically told me to move on, as hitchhiking on toll roads is not appreciated.
Tip: When it comes to the police, know the law and your rights, but don’t get defensive until you need to be. Even then, don’t be stupid.
Not wanting to push my luck, I took the cop’s advice and opted for a non-tollway route. I waited at least two hours for two very short rides – one who didn’t do any favours for his racial stereotype by offering to teach me how to steal cars to get to Cali faster. While he wasn’t wrong, I felt it would go against the spirit of hitchhiking, and politely declined his generous offer. He then proceeded to drop me off in the most dangerous part of Cleveland.
Sitting on the entry ramp to the freeway for 5 hours, having given up on humanity and resigned to my fate of sleeping in the bushes and having all my stuff, and potentially both of my kidneys, stolen, a car began to pullover. But nay, this human was merely doing the old fakey and immediately sped off after my instant jubilation. This happened again five minutes later. I had never been so low. With my trusting abilities in tatters, I was sceptical when the next car pulled over, but this guy was legit. After informing me I was lucky not to have been victim of a drive-by, he took me to a local bar, bought me a few beers and dinner, and finally proceeded to drive me much further west, well out of his way. He told me tales of his youth: rolling his truck, experimenting with LSD, shooting himself through the heart with a crossbow while doing so, all the usual shenanigans. My faith had been restored as I slept in a cornfield with a terrific buzz on.
Tip: Perseverance. That’s the name of the game. And I’m not talking about Friday nights in the city. You never know when that next terrific lift is just around the corner.
I woke up and had four quick lifts from older gents who all hitchhiked in their youth and who all eerily resembled Mac’s dad from Always Sunny. I was given multiple tips on hitchhiking. The day took a turn when I got into the car with a guy who told me all about his “piece-of-shit ex-wife” who ruined him financially, and his incredible second wife, who recently died of cancer after only five years of marriage. He got a little bit teary, I got a little bit teary, but it was a cool moment being opened up to by a complete stranger like that.
I then got into a car with what could only be described as a sloth of a human being, not only in physical appearance, but also speed of movement and reactions (plus his personal hygiene, one would suspect, was non-existent). He got lost several times, even after asking for directions and consulting the map. In the end I had to take up navigation. He was a feather-foot on the breaks until he was right up the back end of the stopped car ahead, and would have run two reds and crashed if I hadn’t given him sufficient warning of this impending doom. Despite these setbacks, he took me deep into Indiana and dropped me off at Maccas, after which I had to take shelter from a hellish thunderstorm. My $50 tent held up with no leaks – nothing short of miraculous.
Tip: Maccas becomes your haven. Food, water restock, WiFi to update your maps, phone charging, toilets and just the ability to re-evaluate your current situation and life in general.
I was awoken by a man who, while exiting his driveway, became confused by the presence of a tent on his property. To his credit, he was a champion about it, loved the fact that I was Australian and gave me my first lift of the day down the road.
Tip: Take an Aussie flag to wave about instead of a sign. This is not a confirmed tip, but from experience, if there’s one thing Americans love more than their own country, it’s ours and the people from it.
I got three epic lifts after this. The first produced the memorable quote of, “I’m 18 with 42 years’ experience”. The second was a big lift into Illinois, just past Chicago. I had an epic chat with this guy, who was a libertarian, on topics from religion to gun laws. Within 10 minutes of getting to my next hitching spot, I got my third lift from a girl moving to Colorado, and so commenced the biggest lift of the trip. We got out of Illinois, through Iowa and deep into Nebraska.
We then had to find a place to sleep. I was always gonna be sleeping in a field. She found a campground, but after finding it full, checking the cornfield behind it and then having to get the car rescued by some friendly campers after “high-centring” it, she was wired again and drove even further into the night. By the time we got to some random grass on the side of the road, I collapsed out of the car and immediately fell asleep under the stars, sans tent.
We got moving again in the morning and she dropped me off in Wyoming, where she was turning to head south to Boulder, Colorado. I was on a roll, and got picked up within 10 minutes again by a young guy heading to Salt Lake City, having been dumped by his girlfriend 12 days previously. He was rather mopey, but a feed got him into better spirits as I took the wheel of the car for the first time in 8 months. More than 300 miles on the wrong side of the road, most of them in the dark, could have been disastrous, but I goddamn nailed it. And apart from a few interruptions of, “Oh No! She’s just put a picture on Instagram of her and her ex in Florida!” and, “Now there’s another photo of her with her other ex!” it was a pretty enjoyable ride. My superb driving skills were rewarded with a roof to sleep under for the night and a lift out to a good hitching spot the following morning.
Got one short lift and then a reasonable lift from a truck driver who told me this incredible tale of finding meaning late in life with a new step-daughter. Never had my lack-of-faith been tested so much. Then I had to break south into the Nevada desert. I got one lift at about 3pm deep into the desert and was dropped off in literally the middle of nowhere. There was nothing around but sand and a bit of brush. Cars came by every 25 minutes if I was lucky, but I assumed people would see guy-about-to-die-in-desert-if-he-doesn’t-get-a-lift, and I’d get a ride pretty quickly. Not the case.
Tip: Be prepared for rejection. Hitchhiking is a lot like having bipolar. You make eye contact with everyone, making it very personal, and 499/500 drivers will personally reject you. But it’s all worth it for that 1/500 who pulls to the curb and picks you up, giving you a direct injection of elation.
When the sun had almost set, a nice couple turned back to get me, took me to their desert town and threw me a few slices of pizza. I snuck into an organised campsite and stayed on their luscious lawn free of charge. I should have been suspicious of so lush a lawn in the middle of the desert, but expecting no rainfall, I decided against utilising the fly of my tent. While my hunch on precipitation was correct, the lawn, and subsequently my tent, me and everything in it, received a sufficient watering halfway through the night. A serious scramble was made to hastily erect the neglected fly.
The next day, I attempted more desert hitching, with only 300 odd miles to go to Yosemite. After 10 hours, two lifts and 20 miles I was pretty despondent, especially having realised I should’ve just gone across to Reno and come down from there. I resentfully camped on the desert ground by the side of the road.
Tip: The shortest route by car (AKA the one Google Maps tells you) is not necessarily the fastest hitchhiking route; stick to more major roads as much as possible.
Having wasted that day, I made the decision to go down south to try and find a more used road with friendlier, more trusting people utilising it.
Tip: Make plans, but be adaptable. At ALL times you should be thinking of your plan B, whether that be an alternative route or where to bed down for the night.
I got a lift from a guy heading down to Vegas. For someone who’d spent a week out in the 49°C heat of the desert hunting deer and not bagging a single ounce, he was pretty upbeat. I watched my two potential turn-offs fly by as unusable dirt roads (despite being named and numbered highways on the web), so decided I too was Vegas bound.
The only good place to hitch from Vegas was three gruelling miles from the closest water supply and shade, meaning my 3-litre water capacity was mostly empty before I even had the chance to stick out my thumb (not that anyone even noticed it or considered pulling over). I slept by the road again, running low on water.
The next morning I tried again, but it didn’t help that I then ran into another hitchhiker who, at 7am, was already knocking back shots of Jameson like it was water from the fountain of eternal youth. I subsequently conceded my chances and went in search of internet to get things back on track.
Tip: Avoid Nevada like the plague. It is a black hole for hitchhiking.
Just to add to the situation, the first thing I discovered after finding internet is that there had been two confirmed deaths (albeit squirrels) and two confirmed human cases of the plague (yes, the legit 14th-century disease) in Yosemite. Feeling utterly defeated, I decided to bus to Barstow in California, where I had heard people are liberal and therefore likely to pick hitchhikers up. When I arrived at the bus, the driver literally laughed into my face and asked me why I’d possibly want to go somewhere like that, so hot, so full of bears and so prone to forest fires.
As we were leaving, a girl rocked up in tears with no money to catch the bus home. To appease the hitchhiking gods and entice them to look favourably upon me, I paid her fare. And by Merlin’s long, grey, filthy beard, did it work!! After sleeping behind an In-N-Out Burger joint, the next day I was picked up within 10 minutes of thumbing for my first two lifts.
I had to wait a little longer for my third ride of the day with an older guy (imagine Bob Saget in 10 years). Maybe it was because California had been so amazing, maybe it was because I had finally arrived at my destination, but by the end of that lift, you couldn’t wipe the stupid grin off my face.
I then entered Yosemite on foot. The guy at the gate waived my entrance fee (legend) and, with the hitching gods still firing, I was picked up for the final time by the second car to pass me and dropped right at my campsite.
Tip: Respect karma
So why would you want to hitchhike? Well apart from having random, crazy adventures, apart from meeting heaps of people and apart from the fact that it’s super cheap, there’s something incredibly liberating about starting your day and having not the foggiest clue as to what will happen to you or where you’ll end up. But the best thing is how in “the moment” you become. All that matters are your immediate needs, problems and survival: I need to eat, I need water, I need to brush my teeth, I need to find a place to sleep, I need to find another route, I need to get this grade-three diarrhoea out of me without it getting all over my shorts – your standard basics. Everything else just fades away.
My final tally was just a smidge over 3000 miles, 10 days (not including the Jersey debacle), 31 rides, 13 states (accidentally got into Colorado for a little bit) and two days where I didn’t spend a cent.
Tip: You learn the ins and outs of hitchhiking by just getting out there and doing it. You’ll find out which roads are good, and which roads are not. So ignore everything I’ve just told you and just go out and do it.
Cover by Mike Fitzpatrick, inset featuring Billy Hatfield – the man himself.