Have Thumb, Will Travel

Tim Cotton

Tim Cotton | Feb 09, 2017

“My mother told me never to do this.”

C. Thomas Howell delivered that line with a nervous smile in the opening scene to the 1986 movie, The Hitcher. Picking up a rain-soaked passenger on a desert highway would never make your mother happy. However, if we sat through the entire movie, we found out that in the end Howell was just fine.

Oh, he was tired of running for his life, but he lived.

Tip #1: It's fine to be choosy about when and where to pick up hitchhikers.

What happened to hitching a ride with strangers? I did it. I never felt I was in danger. I didn’t keep my mother informed of my methods. I would just show up at home and if she asked how I got there, I would tell her I got a ride. It was factual, just not specific.

If you grew up in the sixties or seventies, you might have tried to thumb for a ride at least once or twice. Is it possible that we felt less fear in those times, or were we just stupid? Maybe we were just trying to get somewhere on the cheap.

There was no twenty-four hour-a-day news cycle, so is possible that we were just less inclined to hear about issues or abductions in the places we had never been. I knew plenty of friends who would thumb for rides and they always seemed to show up sooner or later.

Tip #2: When traveling with a companion, practice synchronizing your poses.

If I had first seen C. Thomas Howell tricked into eating a deep fried distal phalanges out of a tray of french fries, I might never have stuck out any one of my fingers in an attempt to get a ride from a motorist.

John Ryder (Rutger Hauer) was not a good-natured passenger. He was a stone cold killer. However, he did allow the driver to stay alive at many points in the film where he could have easily killed him.  Maybe it’s safer than we think--at least if you're the hitchhiker.

In that film, all of the mayhem and murder was caused by the hitchhiker. Come to think of it, all of the scenes of mechanically aided dismemberment from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre were committed by the hitcher and his family and not the driver.

Picking up a person that is already sporting bloodstains on his face after a hard day at the slaughterhouse should be a harbinger that the night ahead will not end well.

Tip # 3: If you suspect that you are actually in a movie, do not hitchhike, and do not stop for hitchhikers. 

In my time, thumbing was done out of necessity, not for adventure. When the car was inoperable, I wanted to get home for dinner.

It crossed my mind that it was possible to meet the love of my life while thumbing my way home from soccer practice, but it didn't happen. Sure, there was hope that a fourteen-year-old boy would find his soulmate on the open road. But even I could surmise that once I told her that I was trying to get home to my parents' house for macaroni and cheese night, I would lose her to someone who would need more than second helpings to be satisfied in life.

My father had done more than his fair share of ride sharing by way of the thumb. In the 1950s he found it to be a most excellent way to travel. Being broke, with no driver’s license, and no hope of getting one, made it necessary. Additionally, it was the only way to travel the 20 miles to see my mother.

Now that I see it in black and white print, it is clear to me that I am the direct and long-term result of successful hitchhiking. I am more than qualified to share my feelings on the topic.

Tip # 4: Always stand, or better yet, walk in the direction of your destination.

The only advice my father ever gave me about hitchhiking was that I should never sit on a guardrail or curb. His claim was that motorists would take more interest in giving a ride to a man if he was walking toward his goal while sticking out his thumb. His theory was that if a person was serious about getting to a destination, he would at least commit to the cause and keep walking.

Dad’s advice was always emphasized as we travelled around New England. He looked for standers and sitters and would point them out to our whole family. He would look in the rearview at my sisters and me and explain why the person on the side of the road was still on the side of the road. Slothfulness and no desire to get anywhere anytime soon. It stuck with me.

Dad gave no quarter (or a ride) to a man that might have walked all day and possibly needed to rest for a few minutes. If he or she really wanted to be taken seriously, he or she would keep moving. I believed it and did what Dad said. Typically, I would make it the six miles home without getting a ride.

Tip #5: Unless you are a stock photo model, a roller bag is a very poor choice for hitchhiking luggage. 

Hitchhiking seems to have stumbled in popularity. I think the stories of a few bad situations were widely publicized and the pool of potential hitchhikers shrunk due to safety concerns and the fact that the number of double income homes were on the rise. With more access to automobiles, fewer drifters needed to freeload.

Of course there are dangers.  I was once picked up by a man in a pickup truck who was in the process of pounding down a few “road sodas.” Maybe the alcohol paved the way for him to drop his guard enough to pick up a kid with his thumb out. As the driver, he could see I was no threat. My only luggage was a faded Converse gym bag that was clearly holding only dirty gym shorts and possibly a civics book. More than likely, there was no civics book, and my grades reflected this. There definitely was no machete. I was always kind of a rule follower.

Tip #6: It's advisable to leave your weaponry collection at home when thumbing for a ride.

There were probably a number of Mainers who would crack open a beer after they left the office or the mill. I am not condoning this behavior, but the man drove quite well and dropped me off in the exact spot that I selected. I was a little concerned about it at the time, but I only saw the beer after entering the cab of the truck. I buckled up, which was a rare occurrence in that era.

During the summer months in New England, we still see the practice of dusty individuals standing at an intersection and trying to beckon a ride. Signs, written on tattered cardboard torn from the top of emptied Corona cases, are a common way to notify pleasant motorists that you need to get somewhere. Specific locations scribbled in Sharpie are a billboard to like-minded travelers.

I think that folks feel better picking up a person who has a specific destination in mind. Writing the words, "anywhere," " south," or "north" just seems arbitrary and gives no indication of purpose. It gives off a vibe similar to that of just sitting and waiting. "Bar Harbor," "Machias," "Kennebunkport," or "Masardis" seems more focused.

Tip #7: The passing motorist may be more likely to trust a hitchhiker with a specific destination in mind.

Points for creativity are instantly awarded by the sound of brake pads on rusty rotors and the red glow of brake lights from the back of a single-cab Chevy. Most summer-thumbers are carrying a large backpack covered by a black Hefty trash bag. Travelers are typically are clad with dirty cargo shorts, a tee shirt, and well-broken-in hiking boots. Some have a dog.

The back of a pickup is fully acceptable and a welcome sight to the weary dog-bound traveler. Cool breezes and empty beer cans are the perfect traveling companions on the way to and from the coast of Maine. I guess what I am saying is that some Mainers still pick up hitchhikers.

Tip #8: A cute dog or two may boost your chances with pickup owners. (Mike Baird/Flickr)

Most Maine-based pickup truck operators are well armed to ward off the likes of a John Ryder or even a Leatherface. As a matter of fact, if you are hitchhiking and carrying a chainsaw where I reside, you are far more likely to get picked up. I can attest that the majority of Mainers will pick you up just to engage in kindly chat or to watch you slide around in the truck box.

A ride is a ride but even the modern day driver has to look out for shenanigans.

Being kind has its downside. It can be expensive. Last month a male motorist in Bangor picked up a female hitchhiker only to find his debit card missing soon after she exited the vehicle. Again, this data leads me to believe that the driver of the car is far more likely to be the victim of a crime than the other way around. Keeping your wallet in the cupholder should be avoided when giving rides to strangers. He also had his personal identification number with the card and she clipped him for at least two hundred dollars within minutes of exiting his vehicle. We never found her.

I have picked up hitchhikers while on duty. In Maine it is illegal to hitchhike at night. The law was probably passed in the interest of safety for backroad travelers. Streetlights are few and far between here. One misstep on our narrow shouldered roads is a recipe for a severely injured or deceased hitchhiker. I have never met a cop who wrote the summons though.

I would typically pick up hitchhikers and give them a ride to a more appropriate intersection to speed up their trip. Of course I would inform them of the law, but I knew that once I drove away it was more likely than not they would continue using their thumbs.

Tip #9: When a police officer reminds you about the laws regarding hitchhiking, it is considered polite to at least wait until his or her back is turned before sticking your thumb out again.

I would have no problem walking outside right now and trying my luck at hitchhiking. I think trusting drivers are few and far between so I would be prepared to walk a little. If you are a lone lady traveler, I would say don’t do it. There is truth to the adage of strength in numbers and a traveling companion would make it a safer prospect.

If you are an adventuresome soul, hungry to meet new people and you would like to experience all the open road promises, you are probably going to make that decision on your own and my advice has been dismissed by many.

My dad didn’t put as eloquently as James Taylor did, but they both were pretty much saying the same thing. Put your thumb out, but keep on walking. A ride is never guaranteed.

Pappy’s come to rambling on,

stumbling down drunk on the farm.

And the walking man walks.

Doesn’t know nothing at all.

Any other man stops and talks

But the walking man walks on by, walk on by.

Do you pick up hitchhikers? Feel free to share a horrifying story in the comments.

Get the Car Talk Newsletter

Got a question about your car?

Ask Someone Who Owns One