I know how to pack for a long trip–semesters abroad, fifty-mile hikes through the backcountry, three solo weeks across Europe. I can whittle a month’s supply of clothes down to a carry-on suitcase. I can survive a week in the wild with nothing but the gear on my back.
But packing for this trip is different. More challenging, and much more important. At first, it felt like backpacking. I have a weight limit–everything I bring, I have to carry. And again like backpacking, I need gear to sleep outside during a chilly Rocky Mountain night or a downpouring Midwest thunderstorm. So I have a tent, sleeping pad, sleeping bag. I have an ultra-light camp stove made from a cat food can, and I have more lightweight dry-fit clothes than most people own in their lifetimes. Unlike backpacking, though, I need more electronics than just a camera. Phone and charger, iPad and keyboard. They add weight, but on-the-go writing requires them.
Add to that a wrinkle-free dress shirt, microfiber towel, and a superloaded shaving kit, and I’ve left my standard hiking pack list far behind. Because on this trip, appearances matter. Think of all the grimy, smelly hitchhikers you’ve passed. Dreadlocks, stains, dirt, cigarettes. With a little deodorant, toothpaste, and hair wax, I’m already an anomaly. On one hitchhiking stint last summer, a trucker broke his company’s rule against passengers because I “actually looked decent.” For most of my rides, I’ll have just a few seconds to stand out as a clean, respectable passenger, and although I’ll pay for it in weight, I aim to make the most of that precious time. For that reason, too, I’ve made a sign. Not your run-of-the-mill Sharpie on cardboard sign, but a durable thing made with housepaint and sailcloth.
And I am, more so than on any other trip, packing to save my life. Three quarts of water for parched stretches of sunblasted asphalt. Non-perishables for when I can’t find a dumpster or work for a meal. Taking a page from Blue Highways–hardtack, so I’ll, always have something I can eat. And, for the hoped-against crises, pepper spray.
I do not expect to need it. When I tell people about this trip, many respond with their own hitchhiking stories, usually from “back when it was safe.” One of my elementary teachers went from Florida to Washington with no problems, and a family friend safely hitched from Boston to Seattle on $1.35 when he was sixteen.
But I did hear their “bad” stories, too. A coworker spent a very uncomfortable drive with a man who talked about his rider’s “skinny white legs” and leered throughout the drive. A friend of a friend found himself prisoner to a masturbating middle-aged man who refused to stop the 60-mph car until he finished. Another rode with a drunk and an open wine bottle as the car drifted in and out of neighboring lanes. And in New Zealand, it is “common practice” for drivers to speed off right after a hitchhiker throws his or her pack in the trunk.
But those stories are the exceptions, the ones that are told because they get more gasps and wide eyes than the “everything was fine and I met some nice people” stories. The guy who rode with the drunk always commuted by thumb whenever he visited his out-of-state girlfriend, but the drunk was his only life-threatening driver. His other stories, like the man who picked him up one rain-soaked night, are the kind that remind you of virtue and make faith a little more real. That driver, coming just in time for my friend to make his interview the next morning, said, “God woke me up tonight and told me I’d find you here, and that I’m supposed to drive you all the way to your doorstep.”
Still, drivers are only one variable. I cannot plan where I will sleep, how quickly I will find rides. I will face boredom and loneliness and hunger. I have fifty pounds of supplies for the next two months–one backpack to get me through uncertainty–and I know that it is not nearly enough. I am trusting in the goodness of people. And even for an introvert and a planner, it is a very exciting feeling.