Confessions of a college hitchhiker

Lessons learned while riding with strangers

On a recent trip back from the library, my six year-old daughter asked if she could walk back home alone. After some deliberation with Anna, we decided that this would be ok if she took her four year old brother along. I quickly gave them the basics: go directly to our house, don’t talk to strangers, and make sure to look out for each other. What could go wrong?

As they started on the short three or four block walk, I felt nervous and decided to trail them at a distance. I saw them pass a few strangers while excitedly talking and laughing together. It was going well until they stopped unexpectedly and noticed that I had been following them the whole time. I saw their look of surprise turn to distaste and then finally a look that said “what? you don’t trust us?”. I hadn’t let them swim in the waters of freedom even when the risk was fairly small.

As I think about this situation, I was prompted to recall a moment in college when I did something that felt similar. I had been given an assignment to “do something that truly terrified you” and then write a report describing it. My professor for the class, which was titled ESP 490: Creativity & Innovation, was sure that this exercise would unlock secret wells of inventiveness buried deep in our subconscious.

After a quick brainstorm, I narrowed it down to a few options: naked run through the quad, free climbing the local bell tower, and hitchhiking into the next state. I went with hitchhiking simply because it seemed to have the most nuance from a writing perspective: there would potentially be other people involved which brings more interest. I settled on the route, packed a backpack, and gave Anna the plan of what to do if I didn’t call by sundown.

Things started slowly. I decided Walmart seemed like a good place to begin my hike, paused for a quick prayer of protection, and made my way west towards the state border. About 30-40 cars passed and I was wondering if maybe no one would stop. Eventually a small black truck driving in the opposite lane blew past me then pulled a quick U-turn and stopped next to me. The driver rolled the window down and said “where you headed?”. I told him that I was trying to get to a small town over the border and he opened the door for me to get in.

I surveyed the situation in front of me. The man was his late twenties wearing a crusty old baseball cap low over his face. He seemed friendly but not overly talkative. I remember thinking that he looked very vampire-like. As I climbed into the truck, I had to brush away a significant amount of trash including a few silver cans which I hoped weren’t Miller Lite. A lot of questions were running through my mind: who was this person and why were they so willing to seemingly redirect there course to help a hitchhiker? Was this a huge mistake?

After the first few minutes of pleasant conversation (“you live around here?”), the ride was relatively quiet. I remember fidgeting with my phone in my pocket wondering if I should text Anna the truck’s description. It felt like hours passed but eventually we pulled into the small town and he dropped me off at a gas station. I thanked the driver for the ride and he smiled back before pulling away towards the way we came. To this day, I sometimes wonder why he picked me up although the version I like best is that he was just a good samaritan.

I feel like I learned a lot on that trip (plus ended up with a B on the class report). Cliches like don’t judge by appearance and face your fears jumped out of the abstract and became real to me. Without the freedom (and my professor’s prodding) to make that choice, I never would have done it. Obviously hitchhiking to another state and a short jaunt home through the neighborhood aren’t the same thing but the lesson remains: don’t let fear win. The times of greatest growth in my life were always coupled with discomfort and uncertainty.