Hitchin’ a Ride, Hitchin’ a Ride
“A thumb goes up, a car goes by
Oh, won't somebody stop and help a guy?
Hitchin' a ride, hitchin' a ride…”
(Vanity Fair, 1970)
“Some stories might be better left untold” is a rough quote of an old adage that many of us have heard before. After all, we grandparents would not want our kids or grandkids to even think about participating in some of the activities we experienced. Then again, maybe all grandparents weren’t like me back in my day and most have little to fear when recalling stories from the past.
In any event, the story that follows is totally true and no names were changed to protect anyone.
My college roommate, Gene Lakin, and I came up with the ingenious idea of hitchhiking to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina one day in the early spring of 1972. As soon as we finished our finals, we packed our sleeping bags on our shoulders, held our thumbs in the air, and started our trek from the Shippensburg, PA campus toward Interstate 81. From there, we headed south.
I doubt we had forty bucks between us. We didn’t need much money. We were traveling free and our plan was to sleep on the sand when we reached the beach. We packed little food and only two changes of clothes. We were anxious to get started, not worried in the slightest. After successfully hopping a freight train a year earlier to Richmond, Virginia, we were now world-renowned travelers and our attitude was cockier than it should have been. The song, “Hitchin’ a Ride” played over and over again in my mind during the entire trip.
The postcard I sent home from Myrtle Beach (which I still have somewhere tucked away in a scrapbook) stated that it took us 35 different rides to get there. Of course, I beat the postcard, arriving at home myself ahead of the card, which goes to prove that hitchhiking in the 70’s was quicker than the US Postal Service.
From a Virginia State Trooper in a marked car came one offer for a ride. While first thinking we were breaking the law, we soon realized that “hitchin’ a ride” on the interstate was permissible. He immediately recognized that we were from western PA by our dialect and provided some storytelling of his own as we continued south. When he invited us to apply for a position with the force after graduation, we knew we had met a great guy. He took us off I-81 on an exit ramp, wished us well, and we were on our way once again.
Not all of our actions that followed might have been considered to be totally legal, however. The permissive attitude of the times did have its limits and boundaries.
Perhaps sleeping in the grass median between ramps on the beltway might have been frowned upon. Nighttime arrived and rather than hitchhike in the dark, we chose the much safer venue and spent the entire night, in a light drizzle, between hundreds of cars and trucks buzzing close by on the cloverleaf.
A family of six in an old clunker picked us up at 5:00 A.M. the next morning and gave us a rather close and tight ride to a safer area of the road. I remember that although I hadn’t had a shower since the day before, I wasn’t the least bit embarrassed to ride with this family. I doubt any of them had taken a shower in the past week as all eight of us squeezed together during the claustrophobic journey off the cloverleaf.
Another incident that may not have fallen entirely into the legal realm occurred the night we were stranded on a two-lane road in a rural area of North Carolina. Once again, darkness fell and we found ourselves stuck between towns, basically in the middle of nowhere.
An unlocked storage shed with a wooden floor provided that night’s free lodging. Although the owner’s lights went on and off in the house that night, indicating they were indeed home, they had no idea that two vagabonds were using their shed as a refuge.
Up early and out of the dwelling before dawn just may have saved us a night in jail.
Eventually, we did make it to Myrtle Beach, but to our dismay, sleeping on the beach was prohibited and for some reason we didn’t want to consider doing anything dishonest again, so we each chipped in ten bucks and spent one night in a begrimed motel room. At least it did have a shower, complete bathroom, and a small fridge to chill our two bottles of high-class apple wine.
We started back the next day. We had better luck with ride offers heading north as we made the return trip aboard less than a dozen different vehicles. Our longest ride was with two burned-out hippies in an old VW van that took us the whole way from southern Virginia to Chambersburg, PA. One ride later, and we were on campus where our own cars awaited to take us home.
What an experience!
Related to the closing text in the movie Animal House, I found a small similarity. Who would have thought for one second that one of those hitchhikers would have recently retired as public educator with 32 years of teaching experience? And in your wildest dreams, could you guess that the other guy “hitchin’ a ride” recently retired as the Executive Director of Westmoreland County’s Arnold Palmer Airport?
Maybe experiencing life to its fullest and retelling those stories isn’t so bad after all.
Hitchin a ride - Vanity Fair http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TIwnAs4iwaE