VOX POPULI: Traveling by thumb

VOX POPULI • BY ED LEVY

Back in the late 60s and most of the 70s, I hitchhiked all across the U.S. and Canada and across much of Europe. It was a great way to see the country and the world and to do more mundane things like getting to classes at College Park. I could be stuck by the side of the road for hours (as I poetically said at the time “People drive by, look at me and say no f***ing way),” but eventually the next ride would come along.

It was also the only way possible for me since my parents never owned a car, and I didn’t yet own one. In fact, my parents just left Baltimore four times during the first 25 years of their marriage, so as economists say, there was a lot of “pent-up demand” on my part. It wasn’t until years later that my Dad told me he regularly hitchhiked from Baltimore to the Civilian Conservation Corps site in Frederick in the 1930s, so on top of my older brother hitching across country before me; I was pre-wired to hit the road.

We would have denied it vehemently in those days, but it was a more innocent time and especially a safer time to hitchhike. I probably wouldn’t be hitchhiking if I was 20-something today, and clearly I would have much less company along the roadside. My parents didn’t approve, but they also didn’t forbid me to go. In the days before cellphones and e-mail, I would call them every week or so collect and ask for myself, and then say, “Tell Ed that I’m in Kansas City and everything is OK.”

Just as people say that you remember your days on vacation more than you remember your days at work, I remember my days traveling much more than my days in college classes. I’ll always have a soft spot for Ann Arbor, Michigan, since in 1971, I stuck out my thumb and for the first and only time, both of the first two cars stopped.

Heading into Madison, Wisconsin, the driver asked my friend and I where we would be staying, and we admitted that we didn’t know. He said “then you’ll be staying at our place,” and the next day when we wanted to go to the Arboretum, he insisted we use his bicycles. That kind of welcome was not unusual back then. Later in the trip, we were dropped off in a Montana state park beside Flathead Lake one night, passing a sign saying that camping costs $1 per night per vehicle. When the Montana ranger woke us up at 6 AM, we helpfully pointed out that we had no vehicle to which he replied “Boy, this here’s Montana,” and we paid up.

Our tent surrounded by a herd of VW buses

There were various rules to navigate around such as the Washington state law forbidding hitchhiking on freeway ramps (the best place to seek long rides). The law said you couldn’t hitchhike (i.e. stick out your thumb), but had nothing to say about standing on the ramp and smiling at oncoming traffic. The camaraderie with fellow hitchers and townspeople was great too, and we might step out of the sun to have a beer with some new friends after all writing our names on the guardrail. Once I was stuck in rural Canada for several hours, and the lady in the house on the hill sent her four year-old down to me with a sandwich and a drink.

I slept under bridges some nights, lulled to sleep by traffic on the Interstate, was invited home by some of the people who picked me up, and sometimes slept 50 paces into the woods alongside a highway ramp.

In late spring 1973 after my first year of college, I hitched up to Quebec and Atlantic Canada, where I was surprised to find that it still got below freezing at night. Late one night, a policeman told me that I should go to the Hotel de Ville where I could stay overnight. Walking on my way there, I was thinking how nice it was that a small town hotel would let me stay for free until I learned that Hotel de Ville is French for City Hall and the accommodations were in an empty jail cell! No trouble leaving in the morning, though, and I learned that this was standard practice at the time. Over the next week, I did a comparative study of Hotels de Ville/City Halls in Quebec, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Nova Scotia.

In the recession year of 1974, far from discouraging hitchhiking, the Canadian government set up youth hostels in each town along the Trans-Canada Highway where you could get a bed and two meals for 25 cents – probably cheaper than staying home. I got a 2000 mile ride from Dawson Creek, BC, to Anchorage with a man that I had virtually nothing in common with. We drove mostly in silence, and only Canadian high-brow public radio stations were broadcasting to the Alaska Highway (and only for 10 minutes before and after the largest of towns). Still the quiet ride was a much better experience than being stuck beside the road.

The author at 20 years old in Alaska

On the same trip, I hitched to Yellowknife in Canada’s Northwest Territories along a stretch of road where each driver did a double-take, shocked to see anyone in such an uninhabited place. I got more mosquito bites than ever before or after, but still have the story to tell.

I visited a college friend in Northern California later that trip, and her Mom offered to launder my clothes which had only been washed in rivers that summer. She went away to get some more clothes to make a full load, and opened the washing machine to see that the water had already turned dark black. I didn’t think she would want to mix her laundry with mine, so I offered that the machine already looked full to me, and she agreed.

When I graduated college in 1976, I started to save for the trip of my dreams – an extended hitchhiking trip around Europe. At the same time, I was falling in love with Debbie who I would marry a few years later. This created a conflict, however, and one day I said to Debbie “I’ve been planning this trip to Europe and I love being with you and don’t know what to do.” Without missing a beat, she said “I’m coming too,” and we set off for six months in 19 countries. Debbie ultimately said that after sharing a tent together for six months, it was a good sign that we got along fine.

Musical performance in Marrakesh's Djemaa-el-Fna central square

Hitching worked in the richer European countries – especially where people our age owned cars, but we had to rely on buses and trains in places like Spain and Poland. We had great picnics in Parisian parks, saw the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna with a roomful of paintings by Breughel – my favorite painter, and took mopeds into the interior of the Greek island of Naxos. We also were almost thrown off a Polish train when a Polish border guard demanded a bribe of more U.S. currency than we had until the amount was negotiated down by a fellow passenger, and when using my high school French to ask directions got the answer that the man “didn’t speak that language; did I know any French?” We’ve been back to some of these places since, but they look different when we have more money to spend but less time to visit.

I literally have hundreds of more stories I could tell, but I’ll stop here. My hitchhiking days were a great experience for me at a great time to be alive. Few of the bad things that could have happened did, and I got to see a lot of places I wouldn’t otherwise have seen and meet a lot of people I wouldn’t have met.

About the Author

Edward Levy
Ed is a native of Bawlmer, Merlin, who has 'temporarily' lived in the DC area since the mid-70s, including the last 31 years in Silver Spring and Takoma Park. Interested in travel, politics, public policy, and just about everything else. Enjoys writing for this great progressive community-focused paper.

1 Comment on "VOX POPULI: Traveling by thumb"

  1. Great article! My how the times have changed from when hitching was safe and common. Oh the 70’s, wish I could have been there.

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