Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Joe Omundson

A quick hitch to Durango

I had been planning to hitchhike to Durango on Friday all week. I was going there to visit my friend Dan, and it just so happened that there was going to be a big party at the place where he'd been staying. When Friday came, I wasn't entirely sure if I wanted to hitchhike after all; I thought maybe I'd do something around Moab during the day and drive there in the evening instead of hitching. But driving would require me to spend my last $20 on diesel, and my car insurance had expired a couple days before, so it made more sense to leave my car at home. Late morning came and I halfheartedly put things into my backpack and decided to at least give hitching a try.

I walked to Main St. & 300 S and noticed a wide shoulder. I decided to hitch from there instead of walking to the edge of town. It was just after noon so I had maybe 6 hours of daylight to work with (I don't hitch at night). In theory, covering a 3-hour drive in 6 hours of hitchhiking is reasonable to expect, but it's always more stressful when there's pressure to get somewhere in a limited time.

I felt silly standing on the curb downtown, like I was being judged for soliciting a free ride. Even though nobody at all was obligated to help me, I felt like I was being a burden on anyone who saw me. In my mind, everyone was thinking "who is this guy to stand there and ask me for a ride? Why should I trust him? Entitled asshole!" This discouraged me, and after waiting 45 minutes I started to think maybe it made more sense to take my car after all. I didn't particularly feel like making it halfway there, missing the party, and camping in a cow pasture in 20 degree weather for no reason.

I thought: I'll give it another half hour, until 1:30. If I don't have a ride by then I'll walk back home.

With maybe 10 minutes to spare, an RV drove to the curb and stopped. I wasn't entirely sure if they were stopping for me or if they were just pulling over to let their dog out for a minute, but the middle aged woman who got out asked me where I was going, and when I told her Durango she said "Us too! You can hop in." So I did.

It was a Texas couple returning home from a summer trip across the western states. Their RV was modern and tidy, and it pulled an SUV. I sat down on the couch and we rolled south out of Moab, watching the snow-capped La Sal mountain range pass by. Within minutes I was served a plate of cold cuts, cheese, veggies, and crackers. A friendly poodle dog curled up against me. This was my first time getting picked up by an RV. Not bad!

It was amazing luck that they were going straight to my destination. We turned east at Monticello and drove into Colorado. Sometimes I chatted with the couple, sometimes they did their own thing and I relaxed on the couch. More snowy mountains passed by the windows of the RV. We drove through the self-proclaimed pinto bean capital of the world. After a few hours we got to Durango, and they went out of their way to take me straight to where my friend was staying. Door-to-door service.

I walked up the driveway and found Dan doing some chores outside. The property is on a hillside in a valley lined with cliffs. Various buildings were scattered around the property, and I got a quick tour of a verdant greenhouse. A woodburning contraption provided the greenhouse with warmth. I was shown a small shack with a bed where I was welcome to spend the night -- a pleasant surprise, as I had been planning to pitch a tent. On one side of the property was a big old house which was slated for destruction. This was the motivation for the party: one last get together to celebrate the old house being torn down and a new one being built in its place.

I spent some time catching up with Dan and helping get the house ready for the party. People didn't start arriving until after dark, but eventually there were about 100 guests on the property. Dan told me I should meet a friend of his named Chuck who was really into hitchhiking. In the back of the house a bonfire warmed some of the crowd, and inside a bluegrass/jam band set up their gear in a corner of the living room. Throughout the night, the band played a tight and seamless musical journey; people danced and painted on the walls, leaving sobriety and inhibition behind.

I'm eternally awkward in party situations, and I only knew one person in the entire crowd, so I didn't stay up late. The shack was warmer overnight than I expected. Another friend of Dan's slept on the floor.

In the morning I went back up to the house and hung out with some of the people who were around. The owner of the property cooked breakfast. I checked out the results of the demolition party; the walls were covered in paint, and some were smashed in. Finally at around noon, the guy who had slept on the floor next to me was heading back into Durango and I rode with him. Before I left, though -- this being Colorado -- I scored a couple handfuls of some grade B buds to take home.

I was dropped off on the highway just west of Durango. I got a ride in 10 minutes. I hadn't had a chance to meet Dan's friend Chuck at the party, but he was in the car that stopped to pick me up! He and his friend drove me about half an hour west to the town where they live. It was cool to have a chance to talk to another hitchhiker because there don't seem to be many of us.

From here I got two more rides back to Moab. The first guy who picked me up, after maybe an hour wait, was a middle aged mountain climbing guide who lives in Durango. When I got in his car and said "thanks so much for stopping to pick me up", he replied "thanks for hitchhiking! One less engine on the road." I'd say maybe 10% of the people who pick me up are on a similar wavelength in terms of personality, social views, and life interests. He was one of them. He took me to Cortez. Something funny we saw was a dispensary on top of a hill with an enormous green-cross flag, one of the biggest flags I've seen anywhere.

For my last ride on this trip I got picked up by a truck driver, another first. Just like with the RV, I wasn't entirely sure if he was stopping for me or not, so I was a bit nervous about climbing up and opening the door. Generally, drivers who are working for a bigger company aren't allowed to pick up hitchhikers, so the only ones who will give you a ride are people who own their own trucks. This guy was driving through Moab on his way to SLC. He was silent for the first 15 minutes or so and I started to think it would stay that way the whole time, but then he started talking: about his dysfunctional third marriage; his belief in aliens and UFOs; his story of getting the truck. It was so interesting because here is this guy whose interactions with his kids and wife (and women in general) were deeply saddening, and his logic about aliens raised my eyebrows quite a few times, and yet he's the one who was generous enough to stop and give me a ride and be vulnerable about his life. We humans are such a crazy mix of strengths and weaknesses, ugly and beautiful!

I said goodbye and jumped out of the truck when he was stopped at a light in Moab. Just 4 blocks to walk to get home. I laughed to myself, as I always do, about the magic of what had just happened. Without spending a single dime I got a fancy ride straight to my friend's house 3 hours away, was provided food, beer, weed, and a bed, saw a cool live music performance, and made it back home the next day. I wondered: how much would most people expect to pay for those experiences? How amazing is it that they can be found for free, if you're willing to be flexible and take a chance? Why don't more people try this?

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December 9, 2016 at 10:04 AM delete

I enjoy reading about your hitchhiking adventures. It makes me feel good about the world and the generosity of people in it. And, I think it takes a certain amount of courage, trust, and bravery to do this sort of thing. It overcomes fear of each other and I think that is beautiful and awesome!! We need more of it in the world. But please don’t think that the way you take trips is a possibility for all Americans (or humans) in the world.

To address the last question in your post: One thing to remember is that hitchhiking is not as safe for females as it is for males. Females carry a lot more risk in this sort of situation. As you walk down the road or sit on the curb, you can be fairly certain and confident that you will not be catcalled, harassed, or propositioned for sexual favors. You can be fairly certain (not 100%!) that you will not be physically overpowered and made to do things you do not want to do. You can be fairly certain that people are not eyeing you and wondering what you look like naked, or what you would be willing to do naked, for a ride or money or food or a place to stay. You can be fairly certain that when you set boundaries with other people, they will be respected, and not seen as a challenge to overcome. Hell, you can be pretty certain that no one is going to grab you by the pussy as you make your way in the world.

While hitchhiking may be safe for some females in town, with lots of people out and about, once you get out of town and don’t have a direct ride to where you are going, you are in an extremely vulnerable position. And predators could easily take advantage of that. As women, we learn from a very tender age to minimize our risk. Even the mere idea of hitchhiking, makes every fiber in my body scream “UNSAFE, UNSAFE, UNSAFE!!!!!” The story of the party you went to makes me cringe (when I think of myself in that situation). Sounds like you didn’t know every person at the party. You drank, smoked weed, and slept in an unlocked place. If you were a female at that party and got pretty messed up, can you guarantee you wouldn’t have been taken advantage of?

Another thing to consider is that you are white and this sort of adventure is much easier and less risky for you. Because you are not a person of color you are much less likely to have the police called on you, less likely to be the victim of a hate crime, less likely to have people to think you might be a “bad hombre”. You are more likely to be picked up and identified as “safe” due to the color of your skin. I know there are no scientific studies…. but I am pretty confident that a white male hitchhiker is more likely to be picked up than a black male hitchhiker or a Hispanic male hitchhiker. In addition, I imagine if someone is LGBTQIA, there are also many risks to hitchhiking unless you can confidently hide it. But why should you have to or want to?

Another aspect of hitchhiking is trust. If you are a person who has been abused or mistreated by the people you love, it may be very difficult, if not impossible to trust perfect strangers to respect you. I think a fairly stable childhood gives you a greater ability to trust strangers and overcome fear.

Those are my thoughts. Understand that this is not to make anyone feel guilty, but more about increasing awareness of what it is like to be marginalized in our society. Sorry about the Trump references…. I can’t help it. They just felt so relevant :/.

Joe Omundson
December 9, 2016 at 11:41 AM delete

Hey Ginny,

Thanks for your comment. You make a lot of great points!

When I was hitchhiking on the PCT I looked up some statistics for the state of California. Indeed, female hitchhikers were about 5x as likely to suffer a physical or sexual assault as males. So I acknowledge that it safer for me than for a woman. And that it is easier for me than a person of color who might be viewed more suspiciously. For the purposes of hitchhiking alone, being a white male is very convenient for me. Single females get rides much faster, but I imagine a significant percentage of those rides might be from lonely guys hoping to get lucky.

I have met women who have hitched 1000+ rides solo and not come across many problems. So I don't think it is impossible for those who are determined to try. But I do think they assume more risk, and have to be much more vigilant than I do.

No, I can't guarantee I wouldn't have been taken advantage of at the party if I were a female; I didn't see anything happening that seemed concerning, but that doesn't mean it couldn't have happened. It didn't seem like a rape-culture-y type of crowd (it was more like rich Colorado / burning man style) but yeah, I acknowledge that if I went as a female I would have had a different set of concerns. My friend who I went to see there is one of the most safe, gentle, non-sexist guys I know, so I had some trust that the crowd he would party with wouldn't be so bad.

With my last question I certainly don't mean to ask "why would anyone be afraid to try this?", because there are a lot of valid reasons for other people to be more afraid of it than I am. There are many factors that conspire to give me the privilege of feeling relatively safe when I hitchhike. But after reading your comment I can see how my last question comes across as being pretty blind to my own privilege.

Still, there are a lot of privileged stable white guys who would not consider hitchhiking and I guess that's what I find surprising. There are a lot of intersections/factors at play, and the ones you bring up are big, but I feel like even when you equalize for those factors, a tiny percentage of eligible hitchhikers ever try it. I guess what I'm getting at is, there's still an interesting cultural bias against traveling for free via other people's cars vs. paying for conventional forms of travel for reasons other than personal safety. Because people try risky things all the time. There's a lot of fear of other people out there though.