In eleven rides, I made it through Washington state, and in eleven rides, I learned who will pick up a hitchhiker.
My trip officially began on June 20th, during a rainy afternoon in Mount Vernon. I had bussed down from Bellingham, and, finding myself in the middle of a small city with no nearby highways, I covered my pack with a poncho and walked. Residential urban areas are not good for hitching. People notice you–they stare, act shocked, smile, wave–but they don’t stop. One driver in a military uniform did pull over, but only to apologize. “I’d give you a ride, but my house is right by that stop sign.”
Not until I had trekked a few miles through suburbs did I find a willing driver going farther than the next block. Not much farther, but after our introductions and some brief conversation, he offered to pass his house and take me all the way to the start of Highway 20, the road I would follow through the rest of Washington. As we drove, he told me about his car: a customized Volkswagen Rabbit powered by vegetable oil. He finds waste vegetable oil, filters it, and gets more than 40 miles to the gallon.
From there on, rides were easier to come by. Highway 20 doesn’t have many competing roads, so when drivers stopped, we were always going the same direction: east. I quickly figured out the best places to stand: near a wide shoulder or turn-out, in a low-speed area, after a stoplight, by a long and straight stretch of road. The first gives drivers a place to pull over; the second and third and fourth give them time to see that I’m not the normal hitchhiker.
Most people do not expect me. Well-groomed, smiling, clean. “Some of those other guys look like they’ve been rolling in the mud,” one driver said. Several times, I’ve been told I remind people of a friend, or a son, or a past version of themselves. And almost always, the driver comments on honesty. “You just look like I can trust you, man.”
I knew I would be placing my trust in strangers on this trip, relying on first impressions and snap-judgements to accept or deny rides, but I was unprepared for just how much trust I would receive. After reading other hitchhiking narratives, I expected to ride almost exclusively with men, and usually by men who had done some thumbing themselves.
But of those eleven Washington rides, four were from women. One woman was alone, and the other three were with children–a baby, in two cases, and a four-year-old and a five-year-old in the other. A girl my age passed me near Okanogan, on her way to visit her parents. “If he’s still there when I go back, I’m picking him up,” she told them. Half an hour later, I met Rachel and her son, Charles, for her first experience with a hitchhiker and a five-mile ride to the next town. We’re now friends on Facebook.
As I made my way across the state, I rode with a “mostly retired” couple coming home from a doctor’s appointment; two thirty-somes, a joint, and two bowls; a mid-twenties real estate appraiser who told me about his church; a middle-aged agricultural engineer about to go backpacking. I was picked up by a self-labeled hippie who ran security for an Occupy Seattle camp and now worked as a website developer and blogger, and later by a Vietnam vet with a log cabin house and a four-square-mile tree farm.
Those who gave me rides defied patterns in age and gender, in economic status and political ideology. Some are hitchhikers themselves, others are totally inexperienced. Many are Christians, some oppose all religion, and a few hold to other faiths. I have observed only one commonality in those who stopped for an atypical hitchhiker: they are all deserved trust. They were generous, they were honest, and they were good people.