I only hitchhiked for the first time in August last year, but I instantly fell in love with it. In the twenty or so times I’ve jumped into cars with strangers in Western Europe, the Balkans, and now the US, I’ve sat next to a lot of quirky characters, from a formerly homeless electrician to the CEO of the Luxembourg Stock Exchange. While my hitchhiking journey from Lafayette, Louisiana to San Antonio, Texas this week formed three of the most peculiar days of my life so far, I’ve still never quite gone through something that qualified for ‘bad experience’ status.
On the road from Lafayette to San Antonio, some people left me in their cars alone with the engine running, and half a dozen others made it a point to tell me they had a gun on them. One trucker mistook me for a hooker, lots of others mistook me for a bum, and one man made me ride in the grease-covered back of his pickup truck as we soared down Interstate 10. I made friends with some homeless people while waiting for rides, and made accidental enemies with some others. But still, I never felt unsafe or found myself thinking, “hmm, maybe I shouldn’t do this anymore.”
Here’s a slice of 72 strange hours of my life as a hitchhiker.
From Lafayette to Texas
Sunday morning began like most days of hitchhiking for me, with excitement and hope but also a sort of preemptive tiredness and frustration. I said bye to my particularly cool Couchsurfing host in Lafayette and he dropped me off just on the edge of town, at the last gas station before the interstate, where I hoped a lot of medium- to long-distance traffic would be stopping to fill up their tanks before hitting the highway. Somehow I naïvely thought that I’d make it from there to San Antonio in one good day’s hitchhiking, but it ended up taking three.
The first stretch was relatively unremarkable. A girl named Danielle saw my ‘Lake Charles’ sign and pulled into the gas station to pick me up. She was a couple years older than me, worked as a commercial diver, and was a big fan of the casual racial slur. She had grown up all over Texas, from small towns to big cities, which, according to her, was why she was so “open-minded”.
Danielle set me off in Lake Charles, where an almost comically sweet woman named Belinda picked me up by an interstate on-ramp. From the time I had one foot in her car until I got out, I was “sweety” and “baby” and “hunny” and “darlin”, all in a Texas drawl so thick I thought a couple of times that she was playing it up to tease me. Belinda was a forty-something mother of two — she told me twice that her youngest was 15 and that she had “just three more years to freedom!” — who had periodically up and taken off whenever and wherever her whim whisked her off to, until it whisked her into the teenage decisions that had resulted in kid number one.
About five minutes after inviting me into her car, Belinda pulled into a gas station, left the keys in the ignition and the car running with me in the passenger seat, asked if I needed anything from inside, and told me she’d be right back. She spent a good solid two minutes inside, buying a drink or something, and I didn’t see her even once look out to see if I was still there.
I liked Belinda a lot, and severely missed her after she dropped me off in Orange, Texas, a town I quickly learned to hate.
That time everyone thought I was homeless
If I couldn’t see it on a map I would probably think I had had a psychotic break and imagined Orange, Texas and everyone in it.
At the truck stop where Belinda left me, I had four different people offer me handfuls of loose change or a couple of wadded up one dollar bills. Several people at the gas station outright ignored me when I tried to strike up conversation. I approached one man at the pump with a “Hi sir, how ya doin’ today?” in my best friendly Southern drawl, and he just answered, without looking up from the pump, “I don’t have any change”.
Another man pulled me out to the center of the parking lot, put both hands on my shoulders, closed his eyes, and prayed vociferously for me for about a minute and a half, his Jesuses and Almighties reverberating off the gas pumps and the cars. No one seemed to find it out of place. I didn’t even see anyone look our way.
After a bit of bouncing from freighter to freighter, chatting up truckers and being received with everything from “fuck off” to warm chatter and unsollicited tips, I noticed a man with a red moustache and a frontward-facing camouflage baseball cap sitting on a curb of the parking lot behind a row of trucks. Thinking he was a truck driver, I approached him and said hello. His name was Jim, and he was homeless, “just hangin’ out”, he told me.
After a brief polite chat with Jim I moved on and he started to follow me a bit, sitting down one bench away from me in front of the restaurant portion of the station when I stopped for a break. He was twitchy: he couldn’t keep his hands still, mostly rotating between picking an imaginary speck of lint off his pantleg and swiping at a fly that I couldn’t see in front of his face.
At one point I set down my smaller daypack to walk about five feet away and throw away the peel of the banana I’d just eaten, and I saw his eyes very unsubtly lock on my bag. He was looking at it like the lions on the Discovery Channel look at the limpy gazelle at the back of the pack.
I sat down and shoved my arms and shoulders back through the straps, purposely holding eye contact with Jim while I did. At that point he scooted over closer and remarked, “Keep an eye on those bags, man, you can’t trust anybody out here. They’ll fuckin’ rob you blind.” A few minutes later he offered to watch my bags if I wanted to set them down and walk around a bit.
A few tedious hours later the sun went down and I gave up any hope of finding a ride that night. I crossed the road to the McDonald’s on the other side of the interstate to grab a coffee and some wifi and see what I could figure out for the night. There wasn’t much of a Couchsurfing community around Orange, so even though I posted a dramatic “help I’m stranded” message on the local page, I knew better than to expect anything to come of it. It was full dark, so I set out looking for a place to pitch my tent.
As I was walking around scouting out fields and thickets with “private property” and “no trespassing” signs hung on barbed wire fences, I noticed my fidgety, moustached friend sitting on the edge of the road across the street in front of the truck stop, staring at me. He still had a vaguely predatorial air about him, but more like a scrawny, timid hyena than a lion. I walked up and down a couple different streets looking for a little thicket or a field behind a store, and his head followed me in that impossible way that eyes in a portrait seem to follow you no matter how far away you move or what angle you look at it from.
As I saw more fences and warning signs, I started mentally bouncing back and forth between the images of an angry Texan discovering me squatting on his property and chasing me off with a shotgun or Jim coming to “watch my bags” in the middle of the night while I slept. I explored a little bit more and got out of Jim’s line of vision, but all I found were boggy, muddy fields with more of the foreboding “you’re gonna get shot” signs hung on dilapidated fences around them.
I chickened out and retreated to McDonald’s for wifi reinforcements, now looking to see if I could find an affordable motel in walking distance. The Studio 6 next to the truckstop was $55 a night and close, so I headed there and told the receptionist a bit about my last couple hours while I checked in. When I started describing my charming new friend Jim, she looked up and asked “red moustache, wearing a camo hat?” I told her yes, and she told me he had just been arrested in front of the building twenty minutes before, for harassing his daughter, who apparently lives in the motel.
Me vs. Texas, round two
The next morning I shaved at my motel and put on a fresh, bright green T-shirt and dark jeans before setting out. On my way out I checked with the receptionist whether I looked homeless or not. She voted no.
After an hour or so supressing despair on the street corner with my Houston sign, a guy in a pickup truck pulled over, rolled down his window, told me he was only going a few minutes down the interstate, and asked if I wanted a ride. He could have been holding a machete and chewing on a detached human arm and I probably would have still said yes at that point.
His name was Chad, and he was probably the only hippie in a twenty mile radius of Orange. When I sat down in his car it smelled like I was inside a big bong; he was a super friendly and chatty stoner type. We bonded a little over our shared love of Orange and towns like it, and especially the residents who greet you by refusing to give you change you didn’t ask for and blessing you in parking lots. Chad was just about on empty when he picked me up, so he rolled into the first gas station and pulled what I now call ‘a Belinda’ in my head, leaving me in the car alone with the keys in the ignition.
When he let me out a bit further up the road, he told me I looked just like his wife’s cousin, so he had to have a picture of me with my sign.
After Chad came a youngish guy whose name I forgot. He talked a lot about all his guns and being a badass and how he’s beaten the shit out of anyone who’s ever fucked with him because you don’t fuck with him, you don’t even know, he’ll kick your fucking ass, just don’t fuck with him, he’ll fuck you up.
Then a couple of short five-minute hops, and finally Porfirio came along, who took me to Houston and helped me practice my Spanish on the way. Porfirio missed the spot he had meant to let me out, so he ended up dropping me in the exact center of downtown Houston.
If you don’t know, downtown in a huge city is about the worst place to try to hitchhike, and downtown Houston is extra shit. I booked it trying to get back out to the interstate on foot, but by the time I got there the sun was going down, so I headed back into town.
I ended up in McDonald’s again (I hate McDonald’s, but free wifi + dollar menu = lovin’ it), surrounded by a bunch of cracked out guys who I wished were only skulking around staring at my bags. Instead, one of them told me I was a “punk ass bitch” and then waited outside for me. Eventually I got ahold of Mario, an old Couchsurfing host I’d stayed with my last time in Houston, and he drove 30 minutes across town to come rescue me. Day two was over, still no San Antonio.
How to be desperate and make questionable decisions
Mario dropped me off by the interstate on his way to work the next morning, nice and early, around 7 a.m. I thought this would give me an easy start on the road to San Antonio, but I didn’t know about the frontage roads. The fucking frontage roads.
All through Houston along Interstate 10 runs a ‘frontage road’ on either side of the highway, basically a highway that runs parallel to the interstate for some reason that I’d love to know. The problem is that traffic going from the frontage road onto the interstate turns left, whereas they normally would turn right onto an on-ramp from a perpendicular street. This means there’s nowhere for a hitchhiker to stand or for a car to pull over to pick you up.
Finally around one in the afternoon (and after walking 3.5 miles further out of town with 45 pounds of shit on my back), I got a ride. A young couple actually turned around and came back when they saw my sign and went out of their way to come back and take me to Katy, just outside Houston, just outside the domain of the spiteful frontage roads.
Three short rides later, I caught what was probably the most dangerous (or maybe just stupidest) ride I’ve ever taken. An oldish man in a pickup truck pulled off the road just past me and told me I could ride with him, but that I’d have to sit in the back (presumably because hitchhikers = serial killers), in the bed of the truck.
If Texas were an old man, it would have looked like him: a head with a grey beard, steely blue eyes, and cowboy hat, poking up out of a plaid shirt. In my head I remember him chewing on a piece of grass or something, but I’m 80% sure I made that up. I hesitated for a second, but decided that if I didn’t take his offer this tiny town could easily turn into another Orange, so I sprung in.
The back of the truck was full of random car parts, mostly wheels, and there was grease everywhere, including now on my bags and clothes. I pushed some crap around to root out a spot for myself, propped my shoulders up on my big bag and braced my right foot against the corner where the right side and the tailgate met, then gave him a thumbs up. As we entered the interstate and got up to speed, I had to shift my body around a little more so that I didn’t feel like I would fly out the back of the truck.
Very gradually, as our speed climbed, a euphoric, floating sensation filled me up, and I kept giggling at stupid things like seeing the backs of road signs rushing away from me in the wrong direction or how hard it was to keep my hat from flying away. I spent a couple minutes consciously fighting the urge to take a Disney movie moment and pump my fist in the air and yell “Woohooooo!”
I felt like I’d gone all of a sudden very pleasantly insane. This is probably the feeling that turns people into adrenaline junkies or drug addicts: I was excited and uncomfortable about what I was doing, and the two fed on each other until they became bliss and fear.
Once I got used to the feeling of cruising down Interstate 10 at 70+ miles per hour (120 km/h or so), I realized that if there was anything I’d done until now that could be described as ‘risky’ it wasn’t jumping into cars with strangers, but jumping into the back of a pickup truck on the interstate. This was probably the first time I’d ever even ridden in a car without a seatbelt. I just sailed past silly juvenile risk-taking and jumped right into “hope he doesn’t crash, cuz I’m definitely gonna die!”
I thought about how silly it was that most people worried about getting picked up by a pervert or a murderer, when really the most mundane aspects of hitchhiking were the most deadly, like speeding down the interstate unsecured among easily replaceable car parts as if my smashed-open head would be just as replaceable.
I got out the book I’m reading, a collection of travel essays (gross, pretentious, I know, don’t hate) and started on “460 Days”, a first person narrative about two freelance journalists that get kidnapped in Somalia. Between the excitement of the story and the rush of feeling the air fly past the sides of my head in the back of the truck, I was all adrenaline. Thankfully, the driver was pretty considerate; he stayed in the right-hand lane the whole time, kept a pretty moderate pace, and hit few potholes.
The odd roads that lead to San Antonio
Truck Man had me hop out at the intersection of I-10 and the ring that goes around the outside of San Antonio, highway 1604.
From there I was lucky to catch a ride with a feuding middle-aged couple named Jesse and Pearl who were arguing whether a business card that said “I <3 Jesse” was in Pearl’s sister’s handwriting or not and what time the scrap yard closed. Their truck was loaded down with washing machines, rusty bicycles, a defunct water heater, a push lawn mower, and other random scraps of metal hanging off and falling from the top and sides of the truck. We made it to the scrap yard on time and I helped them unload the contraband, then commiserated when they only got $109 for it all.
A bus ride later I was inside yet another McDonald’s, devouring delicious carcinogens and using the wifi to shoot off distress flares to the San Antonio Couchsurfing community, and I was quickly rescued by the family of musicians I’m now staying with. I met them at a local music venue where their son was performing, and the bartender gave me a free beer because she said I looked like I needed it.
I guess this series of little anecdotes doesn’t appear to amount to an endorsement of hitchhiking as the most sensible way to pass one’s time or reach a destination, but actually I sort of mean it to be. The only time I felt a little unsafe was in the back of the truck, and I ended up there entirely of my own volition and desperation. At least half of the people I rode with referenced having guns somewhere in their vehicle (because Texas), but it seemed to be more a way of telling me not to try anything funny than actually threatening me. People trusted me alone in their cars or offered to buy me meals, asked me for my email address, or gave me their home address so I could send them a postcard.
You don’t have to hitchhike to travel on a budget: in the US and a few European countries you’ve got Megabus. Europe has great discount airlines (I’ve flown to both Poland and the UK from Holland for less than 30 euros each), Latin America has its famous chicken buses, and many parts of the world have ride sharing platforms like BlaBlaCar or Zimride. But while there are other options, you shouldn’t let pop culture and horror movies scare you out of it: hitchhiking is more or less just as safe as any other mode of transportation. Most people out there just simply don’t want to murder you.
I choose to hitchhike for the same reason I Couchsurf: it gives you a chance to meet local people you wouldn’t otherwise meet. Sure, the small subset of humanity that picks up hitchhikers is an eccentric one, maybe not representative of any local population. But if nothing else, meeting them makes for some great stories.