First Place | Nonfiction Writing Contest

54th New Millennium Award for Nonfiction

Patrick Wilkins of Halifax, Vermont for “Without a Hitch”

Wilkins will receive $1,000 and publication both online and in print.


Without a Hitch
Patrick Wilkins

I first hitchhiked in the fall of 2004.  Amherst, Massachusetts.  I can’t remember where the idea came from, exactly.  I didn’t need a ride.  There were public busses running close to twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, ferrying tens of thousands of students between four colleges, a university, and all points in-between.  Nor was I a reckless thrill-seeker.  Yes, I had participated in my fair share of adrenaline-inducing activities––snowboarding, bmx jumping, and the like––but one particularly concussive crash landing on my head was enough to cure me of that urge for good.  On the whole I was a quiet young man largely stuck inside his own mind.  And like many a mind reared in the middle of Massachusetts––the conservative region colloquially styled Central-Mass––mine was cynical, fatalistic, skeptical of strangers, and stamped with the unofficial motto of Worcester County:  “What are you lookin’ at?”

But Amherst was in Western-Mass, and Western-Mass was not Central-Mass.  Less than an hour from my childhood home, it was like a foreign land.  Litter was scarce.  Storefronts were occupied.  I could have accidentally emigrated to Canada for all I knew.  So one day, instead of taking the bus back from class, I decided––on a whim––to conduct an experiment.  I stepped to the side of a fairly major road, took a deep breath, and stuck out my thumb.  Five minutes later, someone hit their blinker and pulled onto the shoulder.  My pulse quickened.  As the car rolled to a stop I flashed through some worse-case scenarios––violent criminal at large, inebriated teenager, really, really old person.  The window glided down to reveal a middle-aged woman.  She could have been a close friend of my mom.  She took me to the center of town.  The next day, I stepped to the side of a fairly major road again.  Another five minutes, another middle-aged woman, another ride to town.  I had always suspected it, but now I had proof: Some people were nice.

Ridgecrest, California.  2009.  Just east of and several thousand feet below the sharply rising flank of the Sierra Nevada mountains.  Desert morning sunlight strikes our eyes.  My wife, Meggie, and I––having just bailed out of a long hike in the wilderness––are attempting to bypass late-season storms in the highest elevations.  There is only one way around.  This is the road.  The warming air brings out the scent of sagebrush mixed with blacktop.  Thirty minutes pass.  A couple hundred cars pass.  A drop in the bucket.  We smile at strangers and we mean it.  Now, from the east, a silver car silently approaches, perceptibly slowing, blinker blinking.  As the grill comes into focus I can’t believe what I am seeing.  A mirage, perhaps.  Not a piss-yellow Gremlin, not a bumper-less Edsel––no hand-crank Model T nor Conestoga Wagon this, but a BMW.  A freshly-minted Beemer.  Simply unprecedented.  The meticulously crafted, German-engineered luxury sedan swerves off the pavement and into the dirt at the feet of these two disheveled vagabonds, these itinerant twenty-somethings with their permanently stained clothing and weatherworn faces.  As is our custom, my attractive, blond-haired, blue-eyed, quick-smiling partner takes the lead.  That way, the driver is less likely to suddenly mash the accelerator at the sight of the six-foot-tall bearded man with the unkempt hair.

Down slides the passenger window.

“Hello!” says Meggie, “Are you headed west?”

The response is inaudible from my camouflaged position amongst the roadside trash and desiccated weeds, but my wife nods, laughs, and opens the rear door.  The interior thus revealed is immaculate––leather the consistency and color of cream, not a speck of dirt to speak of.  It’s a sight made all the more striking by the fact that we have just spent several weeks walking across the Mojave Desert, sitting amongst the burs and the cow shit, sleeping in an undersized backpacking tent that did next to nothing to keep out the incessant winds and swirling dusts.  The driving dusts.  The accumulating dusts.  Even our toothbrushes are coated with the stuff.  My wife balks.

“Are you sure this is okay?  I feel like we’re going to ruin your car.”

Without missing a beat, the smartly dressed driver segues from a business transaction on his cellphone to these dirty strangers on the side of the road and back again.  “Don’t sweat it,” he says with a quick grin.  “It’s a rental.”

And so, we don’t.

Gliding west, the BMW follows the straight, flat southern boundary of the five-hundred-thousand-acre China Lake Naval Weapons Center.  Along this chainlink line in the sand, the City of Ridgecrest, expanding north, has reached its limit.  To our left flashes block after block of homes and businesses, to our right, nothing but sand and scrub running to the end of perspective, and straight ahead, the tectonic uplift that is our ultimate destination grows more immense by the mile.  The interior of the car is aggressively cooled and absurdly quiet––an air-conditioned casket on wheels.

Over his shoulder, the driver says, “I could take you all the way to LA.  I’m going nonstop.”

In tired times like these, there is more than a little temptation to just say the hell with it and let the traffic take you where it wants you to go.  But where we want to go is three hundred miles north, and LA is south.

“We’re trying to make it to Tahoe.”

He nods with a smile and pulls onto the shoulder of the Route 395 overpass.  We thank him and retake our stance among the trash and the weeds.  The Beemer zips onto the southern ramp, disappears, and in the strengthening heat of the late-morning sun, we aim our thumbs the other way.

Back home, people do not hesitate to tell me if they think what we’re doing is dangerous, and I don’t disagree.  It’s a calculated risk.  No matter how many times I hitch, I still get nervous.  (Although, to be fair, I’m the type of person who gets nervous when a traffic light turns yellow.)  “Then why do you keep doing it?” they ask, incredulous.  I could make all sorts of arguments about the social benefits, or the environmental impact, but in my experience, fear tends to disregard reason.  I could tell them that animals have been giving other animals rides for something like 320 million years.  I could tell them that oxpecker birds ride giraffes, rhinos, and zebras, removing and eating any ticks they find.  Then they could tell me that oxpeckers also peck wounds open and drink their host’s blood.  I could tell them that some species of larval shrimp ride jellyfish, surfing to catch their prey.  Then they could tell me that if the shrimp run out of food, they eat the jellyfish as well.  I could tell them that remora fish––which feed on their host’s external parasites––have evolved built-in suction cups on their heads for the exclusive purpose of attaching to large marine animals.  Then they could tell me that manta rays have been seen awkwardly schlepping as many as two dozen, thirty-inch-long remoras at once––on their skin, inside their mouths, inside their anuses.

A vehicle slows within minutes.  For the second time this morning, I can’t believe what I am seeing.  A mirage, perhaps.  It skids to a stop in the dirt, rear-end jutting obliquely into the road.  I read the passenger side door:  “California Highway Patrol.”  The words, white on gold, trace the edge of a circular, starlike badge.  The officer, after turning on his flashing red-and-blues, approaches on foot.  With dark hair expertly coiffed, light-brown skin, and bright white teeth, he instantly calls to mind Erik Estrada, of the hit 1970s cop show, CHiPs.  Arms crossed against his chest, he looks back and forth between the two of us.  “Do you happen to know why I pulled myself over just now?”

His aviators blind us with reflected sunlight.

“We were just trying to get a ride north,” pleads the less threatening perp.  “Should we not be doing that here?”

He uncrosses his arms and sticks both thumbs in his belt.  “I stopped because this is a dangerous place to be in the middle of the day.”

“Sorry, officer,” she continues.  “We didn’t know we weren’t supposed to hitch on this road.”

Looking off into the distance, he clears his throat.  “What I mean, is that it gets awfully hot out here in the desert.  People don’t realize how quickly dehydration can set in.”  He pivots back towards us.  “Do you folks have enough water?”

We both nod in the affirmative.

“Alright,” he says and walks back to his cruiser.  “You take care of yourselves now.”  Turning off the flashing lights, he speeds to the horizon.

By the intersection of the Pacific Crest Trail and Highway 299 outside Burney Falls, California, Meggie and I once hitched––cold, exhausted, and thoroughly soaked––in the spray of fast moving traffic following a prolonged and powerful thunderstorm.  Visions of heating-ducts danced through our heads.  After nearly an hour with no luck, the daylight was fading fast, and our hopes along with it.  Then, just as the sun finished slipping out of sight, a large, shiny pickup truck aimed for the gravel.  A man emerged and beckoned us over.  We thanked him profusely and jumped in the back.  Two additional hikers then tiptoed out of the forest, and he waved them in as well.  While they were climbing up and over the tailgate, another hiker shouted from the trees:  “How about two more?”

“Why not?” he said.  Ready to go, he went to close his door.  More hikers emerged.

“Any chance––”

“If you can make it work, have at it.”

Eight of us, along with our eight backpacks, shoved ourselves into the damp, steel bed––like sardines in a tin can, like remoras in a manta ray’s anus.

Thumbs out.  Past us whips a silver Mercedes without acknowledgement.  Past us whips a white Ford.  Past us whips a black Toyota Sienna minivan with seventy cubic-feet of interior space––highest in its class.  Past us whips a Kawasaki crotch-rocket.  The rider gives a friendly wave, off the hook on a technicality.  One time, thumbing in the Cascades of Oregon, a big diesel dually roared by with a fifth-wheel camper in tow, “Hitchhiker” emblazoned in three-foot-tall, royal-blue cursive across the entirety of its white fiberglass body.  Not so much as a toot of the horn.

It takes forty-five minutes for five hundred additional cars to pass at cruising speed.  That’s an average of one every six seconds.  Ten rejections per minute.  Note the slight revving of the engine, the subtle dodging swerve, the averted gaze.  There are approximately 268,800,000 passenger vehicles registered in the United States.  According to recent surveys, the average number of people per car trip is 1.22.  Assuming an average capacity of four passengers, that leaves 2.78 empty seats per vehicle, or, 747,264,000 empty seats.  (Three-quarters of a billion empty seats.)  That’s the equivalent of thirteen and a half million empty Greyhound buses, nine hundred thousand empty Amtrak trains, seven hundred thousand empty 747s.  Not that I’m counting.  And nor should I be, for––as I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit––I too pass hitchhikers far more often than I pick them up.  Call me crazy, but some of those six-foot-tall bearded men with unkempt hair give me the creeps.

“When you ride ALONE, you ride with Hitler!”––US government poster, 1943.

We keep our thumbs out as eighteen wheels downshift onto the northbound ramp, even though a big rig has never offered us a ride.  Accelerating up 395, the truck emits a foul brown cloud that sinks, drifts, and gradually envelops us.  We wave it away from our faces, already nostalgic for the cool touch of German leather.

“Then why do you keep doing it?” they reiterate, incredulous.  I would like to say that hitchhiking restores my faith in humanity, but I am not a man of faith, and I never fully trusted humanity in the first place.  This is most likely because I learned early on––as so many of us do––that some people, were not nice.  Faced with this simple truth, we all develop our own strategies.  Some kids play the class clown.  Some kids discover drugs and promptly slide down the slippery slope to tie-dye.  Some kids hunt smaller kids for sport and punch away their feelings.  I was an escape artist––and I was good.  I sidestepped altercations on the playground.  I vanished into the forest as tempers flared at home.  I once ditched an overnight high school field trip, navigated several blocks of unfamiliar city streets, snuck into a hotel, and watched television in bed.  Another time, during a mandatory concert rehearsal in college, I noticed a hidden door beside the stage, waited for a particularly loud crescendo, ducked behind the bleachers, and burst out of the building mid-song.  I went to parties so I could leave.  I took jobs so I could quit.  After graduation, I got a job team-driving used cars between dealerships in different northeastern states.  During the first leg of my first shift, the other driver seemed a bit off, so when he pulled up to a stop sign, I jumped out of the car and never looked back.

If there was an escape hatch, I pushed it.  If there was an emergency eject lever, I pulled it.  I was like a finely-tuned instrument.  The Steinway Grand of avoidance.  The Martin of the back-door cut.  The Stradivarius of giving ‘em the slip.  Every string was in perfect relation to every other.  The only problem was, I never had a tuning fork in the first place, so, although I was precisely balanced, it was a balance without reference, like a house meticulously constructed and squared at a slant.  I had no level.  There was nowhere to lie down and rest.  Simply put, I was high-strung.  I arrived in this world at the feet of two fully-formed strangers, one of whom was intoxicated much of the time, and violent at any moment.  Normal.  Baseline.  Tuning begins on day one.  And over the years those strings wound tighter and tighter, until they could pick up the smallest vibration, until at the slightest hint of discord, I was gone––flat-out––through the door.

Sometimes it seems my entire adult life has been one long attempt at recalibration, at correlating the readings of this instrument of mine with the standard.  The longer I live, however, the more I suspect there may be no standard, but that we are like one enormous swarm of mismatched instruments, a cacophonous orchestra seven-billion strong.  There is no middle C.  There is no A 440.  And onward we go, trying to tune others out, trying to convince others to tune themselves to us.  You know, the American way––every person a featured soloist in their own mind.  Americans don’t need help.  And even if we did––which we don’t––we wouldn’t ask for it.

But it doesn’t take an advanced degree in Jungian Analysis to see that it’s a bad strategy.  The evidence is writ large on the faces of our fellow citizens.  So, as a young adult, I decided to try something different.  I decided to ask.  It sounds easy enough, except for the fact that if I want to engage with a stranger and I have another option––literally any other option––I will choose the other option.  Perhaps that was what ultimately spurred me, in the fall of 2004, in Western-Mass, to step to the side of a fairly major road.  Perhaps a question had ridden, unbidden, into my mind:  What happens when there is no other option?

Meggie and I first hitched in the West in the summer of 2007.  An overnight train brought us as far as Dunsmuir, California, a small town nestled between densely forested hills of evergreen.  The Pacific Crest Trail, our final destination, was another ten miles south, in Castella, beneath a cluster of towering granite spires known as Castle Crags.  From the train depot, we headed vaguely south and west through the dim, sleepy streets.  The sky was brightening but sunlight had yet to touch the town.  At the far end of the main strip we reached an entrance to the interstate.  The highway was elevated.  We could hear the constant din of traffic we could not see.  Out went our thumbs.  We stood there for I can’t remember how long, attempting to conjure up cars out of thin air––a practice in futility if ever there was one.  The onramp was, and remained, utterly deserted.  Finally, we gave up, walked to a nearby gas station, bought some muffins, and lingered by the edge of the parking lot eating breakfast.

A pickup truck soon pulled in.  We chewed as we watched the door open to reveal a middle-aged man in steel-toed boots, red flannel tucked into his jeans.  Short-cropped hair––beneath a nondescript baseball hat––showed mostly pepper with a hint of salt.  He inserted a nozzle into his truck and walked to the store.  We continued chewing. 

A few minutes later, the man returned and engaged the handle of the pump.

Meggie approached his truck from the other side.  “Excuse me,” she said with an innocent smile.

The man looked up.

“We’re trying to get to Castella.”

He nodded.

“Is there any chance you’re going that way?”

He jiggled the handle.  “Sorry.  I’m headed north.”

“I see,” said Meggie.

The gas flowed quietly.  We could hear the distant hum of the highway––all those empty seats.  Suddenly, the pump stopped with a loud click.  He pulled the trigger a few times and returned the hose to its holster.  “Castella?” he said, leaning against the bed of the truck.

“The Pacific Crest Trail.”

He shook his head.  “You’re gonna have a hell of a time getting a ride from here.  There ain’t much traffic coming out of this town this time of day.”


He slid his wallet into the back pocket of his jeans.  “You’d have better luck almost anywhere else.”

“Do you know of somewhere better within walking distance?”


“Okay,” said Meggie.  “Thanks anyway.”  She walked back to the edge of the parking lot.  We continued chewing our muffins.

“I’d help you if I was going south,” he said, twisting the gas cap.

Meggie nodded.

“But I’m not going south,” he continued.

“It’s fine,” said Meggie.  “I’m sure someone will come along.”

“I’m headed north.”

He circled the truck, opened the driver-side door, and hesitated, staring into the middle distance.  The tops of the surrounding conifers burned yellow in the sunrise light.  Turning, he looked at Meggie, looked at me, and exhaled deeply.  “Alright,” he said, shaking his head.  “Alright.  Throw your stuff in the back.”

And we were off.

We hitched in Big Bear, California.  We hitched in Oakridge, Oregon.  In Mojave, we caught a ride from a fighter jet test pilot who steered smooth and steady.  In Etna, California, we caught a ride from a woman with coke-bottle glasses who drove like she was test-piloting a fighter jet.

We hitched in Onion Valley.  We hitched in Independence.  In the Cascades of central Oregon, a young female counselor from a Christian youth camp extolled the virtues of the mountain sunshine at eighty-seven miles-per-hour while we silently prayed for our lives.  Wrightwood, Belden, Ashland.  Idyllwild, Cascade Locks, Stevens Pass.  One time, on a cycling trip, we ran out of shoulder on a busy mountain highway.  Out went our thumbs, and up pulled a van.  “We have bikes,” we said.  “No problem,” said the driver, an artist who worked in steel.  Her van was empty of sculpture at the moment.  In went the bikes, on went the trip.

Little by little, the strings were loosening, the tension lessening.

Back in daily life––the intervening months and years when I had other options––all the old habits would eventually return.  Inexorably, the positive glow of humanity would fade.  The visceral sense of connection became theoretical, the theoretical memorial, and soon enough, I would find my mind dredging up the same old muddied thoughts about how other people were the worst.  That’s how I knew it was time to stash the car keys in a drawer, throw a pack over one shoulder, shove some trail runners on my feet, and head for parts unknown.  No matter where we went, no matter how long it took, if we asked for help, someone would stop, and if they offered a ride, we would take it.

And now, in the strengthening heat of the California desert, a twenty-year-old Buick in two shades of brown shudders out of the smoke.  It reminds me of a dented Jetta––windshield spiderwebbed with cracks––we once hitched to Tehachapi Pass.  It calls to mind an old couch we rode out of Trout Lake, Washington, inside the bed of a pickup.  It evokes a sagging minivan in southern Oregon––filled to capacity with seven kids plus luggage––in which the driver insisted two of his children sit on the floor so we could have the seats.  The Buick squeaks to a stop.  The engine goes quiet.  We approach the passenger window.

“You lookin’ for a ride?” says a somewhat spherical, middle-aged woman in an ill-fitting t-shirt and sweatpants.  Her tone is flat, her voice a harsh rasp, her weathered face without expression.  Wavy brown hair hangs wildly dispersed––as though she has just been driving with her head out the window.

“Yes,” Meggie answers with a smile.

“How far you meanin’ to go?”


The woman shakes her head.  “I’m only goin’ to Bishop.”

“Bishop would be fine,” says Meggie.

She squints.  “You just said you were goin’ to Tahoe.”

“Sometimes we have to combine multiple rides,” I interject.

Her eyes fix on me.  “You take rides from strangers often, do ya?”

“Just to get back and forth from the trail.”

She squints again.  “And you don’t got any guns?”

We shake our heads.

She mutters something to herself and coughs.  “What about drugs?  You carrying drugs?”

“No,” says Meggie, “we don’t have any drugs.”

“I can’t have nobody in here with no drugs.”

“No drugs,” I repeat.

She stares through the windshield, her eyes narrowed, as if scanning the horizon.  “Any knives?”

“One Swiss Army knife,” says Meggie.

“I don’t want nobody in here with no weapons neither.”

“It’s small,” says Meggie.  “We use it for cooking.”

The woman thinks for a moment.  “How small?”

According to the FBI, the violent crime rate in the US has fallen by fifty percent over the last twenty-five years.  The property crime rate––which includes things like burglary and motor vehicle theft––has declined by half as well.  Nevertheless, Gallup surveys indicate that the perception of the frequency of crime has been on the rise for at least fifteen years.  Somewhere in that ever-widening gap between fact and opinion is where the rubber meets the road.  Usually, in the moment, all you have to go on is your gut.

“How small’s the knife?”

In Germany, Austria, and Belgium, designated hitchhiking benches––Mitfahrbänke––can be found in rural areas, where public transportation is in short supply.  In Poland, hitchhiking has been legal since 1957.  Until the late 1970s, Poles could purchase special Akcja Autostop booklets from travel agencies.  While flagging down rides they would tear coupons from the booklets and present them to drivers, who could then accumulate and exchange the coupons for prizes.  In the Netherlands, mitfahrbänke are known as liftershalte or liftplaats.  Just look for the blue signs with the big thumbs.  In Israel they are called trempiyadas.  In the United States they aren’t called anything, because in the United States they don’t exist.  Instead, American signs say things like, “Hitchhiking Strictly Prohibited.”  Even more common are signs that warn by implication:  “Do Not Pick Up Hitchhikers.  Prison Facilities In The Area.”  For the less astute driver, the most recent iteration plainly states, “Hitchhikers May Be Escaping Prisoners.”

Diamond Lake, in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon, is nowhere near any prison facilities, so far as I know.  That didn’t stop a retired couple in their soft-top Jeep from nervously interrogating Meggie and me in the summer of 2007––after we were already in the back seat and rolling down the road.  “You’re not going to kill us, are you?” the woman yelled through the wind over her shoulder.  “I can’t believe we’re doing this.  My kids will never believe we’re doing this.”  She turned to her husband.  “They’re not going to believe it, are they?”  He steered and said nothing.  She forced a laugh.  “I mean, you’re not going to kill us, are you?”

Eight years later, a woman turned around on a fast and busy highway to take us twenty miles out of her way.  “My relatives keep warning me not to pick up hitchhikers anymore,” she said with a grin, “so now I don’t tell them about it.”  Unprompted, she then proceeded to list, with much cheerfulness and in great detail, what must have been every violent crime ever committed on or near the roadways of California.  After waiting patiently outside the Mojave post office while we retrieved a package, she drove us to the far side of town, recounted all the mass murderers she had forgotten to mention, and dropped us off at a motel with a smile and a parting wave.

The woman in the Buick tries––without success––to clear the rasp from her throat.  “I don’t like picking up no hitchhikers,” she says.

Several cars drive past.  The sound is like breaking surf.

   “So, you want me to take you to Bishop, do ya?”

Meggie and I exchange a quick glance.

“I ain’t goin’ to Tahoe.  I’m only goin’ to Bishop.”

“Right,” I say.

She coughs violently into her fist.  “Are you gettin’ in or what?  I don’t like hitchhikers.”

Nobody moves.

Shortly after my daughter turned three, she began insisting that Meggie and I introduce her to strangers.  In grocery stores and banks, at toll booth plazas, on city streets––it didn’t matter where.  I once brought her along to the municipal dump, and she wanted to meet the gruff, older gentleman who sits inside a tiny wooden shack beside the garbage scale.  Reluctantly, I rolled down the window, gave an introduction, and the man suddenly transformed from a stone-faced curmudgeon into a manifestation of pure joy, with a lilt in his voice and a big smile on his face.  “I have three grandkids of my own!” he said with delight.

A few weeks later, at the local food co-op, she asked me why I hadn’t struck up a conversation with a man browsing apples.  “I didn’t know him,” I told her.  She frowned, pitying me with her eyes.  “But I want to meet him,” she said.  I wheeled her through the breads and cheeses.  “If we see him again, I’ll introduce you,” I said.  For a while, she was uncharacteristically quiet, perhaps mulling it over.  Halfway through dry goods, she restated her case.  “I want to meet that man.”

“I know,” I replied.  “Like I said before, if we see him again, you can meet him.”  By the time we had reached the far end of the store, she was on the verge of tears.  “I want to meet him,” she implored, her voice trembling.  “Why can’t I meet him?”  Fearing a public tantrum of any proportions, I scanned my surroundings and promptly intercepted the man by the dairy case.

“Nice to meet you!” he said, smiling.  “My name’s Tim.”

“Tim,” my daughter repeated to herself, laughing as we headed for the checkout.  “That’s a nice name!”

Stern looking ladies at the library suddenly seem like old friends.  Matter-of-fact men in the hardware stores brighten in an instant.

“Patrick,” says my daughter, who never calls me dad, “could you tell them my name?”  And so I do, and I find myself––temporarily––living in a world of overtly friendly people.

Now that she’s four, the impulse to meet new people has, if anything, only grown stronger.  On a recent trip to visit family in Colorado, we spent a late afternoon on a popular snowshoeing trail in Rocky Mountain National Park.  The path wove its way up a lightly-forested saddle, with intermittent views of pink, snow-draped ridges to both sides.  We were late to the park, climbing the slope as everyone else was coming back down.

“Tell them my name, Patrick.”

“Patrick, tell them what my name is.”

“Meggie!  Patrick!  Tell them my name.  Ask them what their name is.”

David, Rebecca, Susan, Caroline, Brian, Hector, Zadie, Isabelle.  On a one-mile out-and-back we ended up having brief yet surprisingly intimate conversations with just shy of forty complete strangers.  It was like a wilderness receiving line for a family reunion of relatives we never knew we had.

I don’t possess such powers.  Even if I were to somehow muster up the courage to engage with that many people of my own accord, nobody, upon seeing a random man in his late-thirties, would break into an unabashed smile and exclaim, “How wonderful it is to meet you!”  But my four-year-old daughter waves her tiny hand, and suddenly, out of nowhere appears a window directly into other people’s happiness.  It’s like magic.

Inspired, I’ve tried waving my hand too.  And let me tell you, it doesn’t have the same effect.  I am not a four-year-old.  I am not a kitten or a puppy.  But I still can’t help wondering what it would be like to navigate the world like that, what it would be like to trust the intentions of strangers, to assume the best instead of the worst.  Yes, an unfamiliar middle-aged man enthusiastically waving mostly elicits double takes and confused stares.  But I have found, through rigorous experimentation, that under certain circumstances, in the presence of the proper conditions, if I curl back four of my fingers and wave just the thumb, perhaps one person in a hundred will give me the benefit of the doubt.  Then it’s up to me to return the favor.

Consider, for instance, the following scenario:  You have been hitching between a sleepy trailer park and a highway without success for nearly two hours.  Every twenty minutes or so, a single car screams past going eighty.  The temperature has reached the nineties and there is no shade.  Out of the vast quiet, a vehicle cranks, backfires, and dies.  The sun continues to climb.  The vehicle cranks again and dies, just as quickly.  Silence prevails.  A full minute passes.  The vehicle cranks a third time and keeps on cranking, like a skipping record.  Suddenly, it growls to life.  The engine surges.  You turn around to see an old, rusted out pickup beside a doublewide.  A profusion of exhaust pours from its tailpipe, gradually shading from black to gray to white.  It backfires once more, and starts slowly rolling along the street, directly towards you.  You lift your thumb, and the truck eases to a stop by the curb at your feet.  Looking through the open, passenger side window, you see a shirtless man, about thirty, with dark sunglasses, blond shoulder-length hair, a bottle in his right hand.  He smiles and asks which way you’re headed.  “East,” you reply.  “Good deal,” he says.  He takes a long pull from the bottle and lets out a little laugh.  “That’s where I’m going too.”

Do you take the ride?

Going with your gut means trusting your body knows something your brain does not.  My brain, when left to its own devices, defaults to something approximating a multi-car pileup, in which converging streams of contradictory thoughts and emotions collide in a flurry of anxious confusion.  In this mental milieu, strangers are like land-mines––dangerous explosives awaiting one false step.  (Hitchhikers May Be Escaping Prisoners.)  The way to survive is to look out for number one and let others do the same.  You do not pick up, or accept rides from, strangers––especially shirtless ones.

The rusted out truck was in Onyx, California––population 475––on the west side of the mountains.  The speed limit there, on Highway 178, was sixty-five.  The shirtless driver, pressing pedal vaguely toward metal, topped out around thirty, as I can attest, having sat straddling the gearbox with the instrument cluster in my sights.  That was either as fast as his truck went, or as fast as he wanted to go.

“Those are some big backpacks,” he said.  “You goin’ to the mountains?”

“Yeah,” said Meggie, leaning forward from the passenger seat.  “You can drop us right at the top of the pass.”

“Sweet.”  He wedged the bottle into the crotch of his jeans, bent down to the floor, and rummaged through a substantial accumulation of paper wrappers, plastic containers, dirty laundry, scratch tickets, and old shoes.  The truck slowed to twenty and veered onto the shoulder.  “Here we go,” he said, sitting back upright, jerking the wheel to the left, and dropping a book in my lap.

Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada was printed in gold across a faded, dark-green cover.  I flipped a few pages and noticed the year of publication:  1935.

“Have you hiked the trail?” I asked.

“Nah,” he said.  “I’ve been readin’ that a little bit at a time, y’ know?”

I nodded.  He took another swig.  There appeared to be no label on the bottle.  Noticing my sideways glance, he held it up.

“Root beer!” he said with a grin.


Liquid to lips, and the bottle went back to his crotch.

“The cops never figure it out.”

“Figure what out?”

He laughed.  “Right!  Hey––you seen any wild animals?”

“A couple of rattlesnakes,” said Meggie.


“Some coyotes,” she continued.

“A bobcat,” I added.

“A bobcat, like a wild cat?  Shit!  I’ve always wanted to see one of those.”

The truck shuttered and creaked over the bumps in the road.

“Are you from around here?” I asked.

“Me?  Nah.  LA.  I’m visiting my old man.”

“Where does he live?” I asked.

He took a quick drink.  “You know how to keep bears out of your meat?”

“We’re vegetarians,” said Meggie.

“Here’s what you do.”  He was now gesticulating with the bottle.  “You gotta always make sure to camp by some water—like a creek, y’ know?  Then, when it’s startin’ to get dark, bang on all your pots and pans like hell!  Let ‘em know you’re there, right?”

“Right,” I said.

He peered over the top of his sunglasses and smiled. “Then, you bury your meat under the water.”


“You bury it under the water!  Grab some rocks from the creek and bury it.”  He tilted the bottle forward, as if toasting the road ahead.  “They’ll never find it.”

We rolled on in silence for some time, letting the information sink in.

“They can’t smell it, man.”

The desert sun slowly drifts past it’s apex in the California sky.

“You ain’t gettin’ in?  Is that it?”  The woman in the Buick tugs at her t-shirt.  “It’s supposed to hit a hundred and five today.  You prepared for that?”

Gut check.  How many of our daily decisions are dictated by fear?  How many opportunities for connection do we miss when we pass people by, when we look the other way?  I, for one, am sick of it.  I’m sick of taking other people as a threat.  I’m sick of navigating the world on defense.

A furrow develops in her brow.  “You think I give rides to strangers?  Chrissake.”

I want to bury the meat of my fear under water, where no one will ever find it again.

She clears her throat.  “Are you gettin’ in, or what?  I ain’t got all day.”

In over a decade of hitchhiking, we have never refused a ride.  I look at Meggie.  She looks at me.  Our feet stay put.

“It’s your funeral.”

The Buick lurches down the ramp, shrinks out of view, and it occurs to me that sometimes, going with your gut means taking the bus.


Patrick Wilkins lives on a small farm in Halifax, Vermont, with his wife and young daughter. His essays have appeared in Northern Woodlands Magazine and the Pacific Crest Trail Communicator.
Without a Hitch © 2023 Patrick Wilkins 
• • • Thanks for Reading • • •
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11 thoughts on “”

  1. I love reading about these experiences. It feels like the hitching (story) discovers and uncovers more about the author’s way of growing by way of his meeting people around him than any other story I’ve read in a long time! Beautifully crafted, too. Thank you so much.

  2. Outstanding! Vulnerable, thoughtful, revealing, insightful, interesting, educational. Well done. Congratulations!! Especially found the “surprise“ ending deserving of your first place win:)

  3. Richard Stoltzman

    My God, it’s almost 4:30pm and I’ve read this whole story and haven’t practiced my clarinet since 2! Well, maybe I just needed to stop for a while and listen to pure words of poetry. Thanks for stopping to pick me up. Richieproud

  4. Patrick! What a honor and thrill to read “Hitch.” And because we’ve seen Meggie, you, and now with Sylvia, your story comes even more alive. Beautiful descriptive writing. Thank you. Liz

  5. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this story. Each person is described so well that it leaves the reader with the feeling that they are present at that moment. Beyond the story itself, the writing is masterful. The author is truly a wonderful storyteller. Well done!!

  6. Beautiful, glorious storytelling! Your writing is wonderful, Patrick. I laughed, cried and identified as you took me along on your journeys interweaving your life, your family, and our natural world so skillfully into your experience. I’m excited to talk about it with Jim, once he reads your story and someday with you all!

  7. Loved it. I will be posting excerpts in Ellie J. Anderson’s Literature on Facebook. That’s where I post fine writing that I want to keep in a place where I can find it easily. So, many thanks.

  8. Kathie Seedroff’s comments resonate with me! Your voice is genuine. Your insights, touching. There is much to reflect on here! I’m so glad I carved out a quiet moment to appreciate this important work! Thank you!

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