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A sheriff’s truck pulled into the nearby lot, and a cop got out. He was young, with short, military-style hair.

“Hello!” I put my thumb down and rolled up my sign. “How’re you?”
He nodded. “You’re technically hitchhiking, which is illegal in Kansas.”

I stepped away from the curb. “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize.” I smiled at his sunglasses.

“I won’t charge you or anything, but we have a system around here to shuttle transients along.” He didn’t smile. “I’ll drive you to the county line and pass you off to the next sheriff. He’ll drive you through his county and pass you off, and so on, until we get you wherever you’re going.”

Convenient, had my goal been a place instead of an experience. “I know hitchhiking’s illegal on the interstates,” I ventured, “or if I’m obstructing traffic, but from what I read, I thought this was legal.”
“Well, it’s kind of a gray area. We won’t do anything about it, but we like to keep transients off the roads.”

On the topic of hitchhiking, Kansas law simply states: Code 8-1538 (a) No person shall stand in a roadway for the purpose of soliciting a ride. A roadway, legally, means the part of a road meant for regular driving. The roadway only stretches from one white line, across the yellow centerline, to the other white line. Shoulders and sidewalks and roadside gravel are fair game for ride solicitation.

But I smiled and nodded.

“Where are you headed?” the cop asked.

“Norton.”

“What’s in Norton?”

“I’ve got an interview there.”

“What’s the job?”

“Actually, it’s about this trip.” I pulled a card from my wallet. “I’m hitchhiking around the country, and their newspaper wants to interview me.”

He glanced the card and handed it back without reading it. “Well, we can get you to Norton.” He motioned toward his truck. “You can throw your pack in the back.”

My first sheriff shuttle

My first sheriff shuttle

I rode shotgun, but before he turned the key, the cop asked for my ID. “You have any warrants I should know about before I call this in?”

“None that I know of.”

He radioed in my license number and found a clean record.

“We might as well officially introduce,” I said, after he returned my ID. “I’m Josh deLacy.” I offered my hand and he shook it.

“Mike Perrie.”

As we drove through Jewell County, I asked about Mike’s background. Six years in law enforcement, including his time in the Navy. Kansas’ heat doesn’t bother him, nor do small towns. He fishes and hunts, and he resents the tourists who shot all of Kansas’ trophy bucks. But his biggest pet peeve, as an officer, is when kids text while talking to him.

“I was raised to respect elders and authority,” he explained. “If someone’s respectful to me, I’ll be respectful back. But if someone’s rude and arguing, things won’t go well between us.”

We stopped at the Jewell-Smith county line. “I’ll be nice and wait until the other sheriff comes,” Mike said. “I’ve got good air conditioning.”

He waited ten minutes, and then an older, heavier cop arrived.

“Where’d you find him?” the new sheriff asked Mike. “The penitentiary?”
Instead of referencing degrees and GPAs, I shook Mike’s hand and wished him well, and I transferred myself into the new truck.

“James Dean,” the sheriff introduced. I checked his name tag before I believed him. “Nice to have a transient who doesn’t smell. Usually they haven’t showered in a couple days.”

I warmed up the resurrected movie star by listening to his job complaints (budget meetings, the department’s lack of a secretary, problems with the part-timers) before I asked what I really wanted to know: “Hitchhiking isn’t illegal here, is it?”

“No, we just like to keep transients moving. Few years ago, one hitchhiker broke into a house and shot a few folks, so people around here get nervous when they see a transient. They call in, and we just pick him up and shuttle him through the state.”

“How many do you get?”

“This is a slow year. We’ve just had a couple, before you. Usually we’ll get one a week or so, but if there’s a disaster or something, we’ll get more, like with the fires in Colorado or those tornados in Joplin.”

“People looking for a new place to live?”

“Mostly people looking for work. There’s a lot of construction after a disaster. Course, lots of people always say they’re going to Colorado for work.”

“But really going for pot?”

“Exactly.”

We talked about speeding tickets for the rest of the drive. James Dean dropped me off at the county line and turned around, and I was left to wait for my next ride.

He showed up a few minutes later, in a car, this time. I put my pack in the backseat.

“Do you have any weapons on your person?” Deputy Webb Conrad asked. Only one other driver–and no other cop–ever asked if I was armed.
Some have told me they were armed, and one even let me hold his loaded .38 pistol, but no one else asked about my capability for harm. Or they realized that if I did intend to harm them, asking about it wouldn’t do any good.

“I’ve got a knife and pepper spray.”

“Could you put those in the backseat?” He ran my ID. “It’s nice to see someone who’s not the usual hitchhiker. I’ve never ran into anyone doing it just because before.” A few miles out, he said, “I should’ve asked if you wanted a ride with me.”

“I could have said no?”

“Sure. You’re free to hitch on these roads.”

Kansas sunset

Kansas sunset

With just half an hour until sunset, I decided guaranteed rides all the way to Norton was not such a bad option. Besides, the cop was answering all my questions about northwest Kansas crime.

The answer: there’s not much.

Speeding, petty theft, drunk driving, and drug abuse. A large elderly population makes prescription pills the worst drug problem; often, someone will report a break-in but not notice a theft until the next day, when checking the medicine cabinet. Meth use is growing again, but ever since a major bust campaign several years ago, labs are almost nonexistent, at least to law enforcement’s knowledge.

The cop talked about his experiences with death, too. His first assignment was a head-on collision between a Ford Explorer and a semi truck, and after that one, he says he can handle any accident scene. He managed to find himself covering nearly all the area’s vehicular deaths for a while, which gave him the nickname “Deputy Death” and enough experience to get used to bodies twitching and making sounds. “You get numb,” he said. “I can laugh about it now. You have to.”

At dusk, I switched into Sheriff Larry Land’s car, and he drove me into Norton. He radioed the town police and got their permission for me to camp at the fairgrounds.

“You can hitchhike out of here after your interview,” he said. “If someone calls in, I’ll just pick you up and move you along.”

So far, Mike Perrie is the only cop who has stopped me from hitchhiking, but his interference was more help than hassle. More often, when I see a cop, I wave, and he or she waves back and keeps driving. Before Kansas, a few officers stopped, either to run my ID, or ask if I need help, or just to find out what I’m doing, but then they wished me luck and moved along.

“That’s really cool!” one sheriff said, after I explained my trip. “That’s so cool what you’re doing.” He gave me his card and cell phone number if I ran into trouble or needed anything.

So, to answer a question I often receive: Hitchhiking is not illegal. There are illegal ways to hitchhike (depending on the state, interstates and on-ramps are often off-limits, and standing in the roadway is always a no-go), but in general, the law allows it.

That allowance is good. For most hitchhikers, a fine or jail time is counter-productive. Down on their luck, traveling the only way they can afford, punishment would only drive most hitchhikers further into poverty. Toward crime, or welfare, or helplessness. A hitchhiking ban, without any cop-shuttle alternative, would keep the downtrodden from doing exactly what they ought: taking initiative and pursuing self-improvement.

Take, for example:

A broke forty-some ex-felon, unable to find a stable job with his criminal record, thumbing to a week-long construction gig on the other side of the state. A homeless father and his formerly drug-addicted son, searching for job opportunity and a place without a familiar drug culture. A young mother squatting on a generous landowner’s property, hitchhiking to and from the grocery story once a week.

All these cases are real. I met the first man in North Dakota, and I learned about the others from drivers who had picked them up. Outside of television, the Kansas killer is the only murderous hitchhiker I’ve heard of. Most hitchhikers are simply–and harmlessly–trying to take care of themselves in the only way they can.

As for the rare few who hitchhike to learn, any law that prohibits well-intentioned empathy is a law I will proudly break. In a world of racial, economic, and geographic divides, hitchhiking lets you personally meet and understand the other sides–and that, more than any official regulation or restriction, promotes a respectful, healthy society.

So I support Kansas’ hitchhiking law–or rather, its lack–and I support anyone who hitchhikes as a means of self-improvement. I only hope that the practice remains legal; and if not, I hope law enforcement models itself after Mike Perrie, who recognizes the purpose, not the letter, of the law.