Before selling my soul to the Computer Science god and enjoying all the privileges an elite education could provide, I was a reckless hitchhiker. For 9 months, I hitchhiked across Africa. Hitchhiking was also my main mode of transportation in Israel and South America. The highlight of my existence was when I was featured on the list of “fantastic hitchhikers” by the Lonely Planet author Anick-Marie Bouchard.
I didn’t hitchhike at all during my time at Stanford, except that one time when I hitchhiked with the police in Mexico and a couple of times that I hitchhiked in Cuba. I never hitchhiked in the US because I didn’t have to. I was lazy, always in a hurry, and regular means of transportation seemed so much more convenient. I was also discouraged by my friend James Garth who tried hitchhiking once and had to give up after 2 days because all he could get during those 2 days was a 10-mile ride.
Like they say, you can take the monkey out of the jungle but you can’t take the jungle out of the monkey. I missed hitchhiking. I missed the unexpectedness, the adrenaline rush, the kindness of strangers. After graduation, with a bit of time to spare and health insurance that hasn’t expired, I decided to hitchhike.
It started out innocent enough. I wanted to visit Grand Canyon but I didn’t drive and tour buses sounded super boring, the obvious solution was to hitchhike from Flagstaff. It was a perfect place to hitchhike. The city is small enough so I could easily walk to the main road out of the city to hitchhike. It is rural enough for people to want to help out a stranger. It is a major tourist destination so if somebody is going there, they are probably tourists, which means they are possibly not sketchy. The distance is so doable for a day.
I left the house a bit late because I had a conference call in the morning. When I got on the main road, the weather was so nice and the view was so beautiful I forgot that I needed to get somewhere. I was just walking, breathing, and eating chicharrones.
Getting a ride was easy, but getting a ride to Grand Canyon was more difficult than I thought. Most people who stopped for me only traveled a few miles down the road. Two minutes after I stuck out my thumb, a guy driving a mobile home stopped for me, but he was driving to a place I never heard of so I didn’t take it. The next person was a New York girl with a giant dog who drove me a few miles down and dropped me at a gas station. She said she hitchhiked sometimes when her car ran out of gas. There, a few cars asked where I was going but nobody seemed to be heading in my direction. Then the shop owner offered to take me a few miles further down the road because he thought it would be easier to get a ride to Grand Canyon from there. He was a Hopi and it was his family shop. His nephew saw me and told him: “Uncle, there’s a little girl walking in the middle of nowhere. We need to help her.”
The place where he dropped off was indeed on the way. However, it was pretty quiet. I had been waiting for almost an hour but only a couple of cars passed by. I realized that I must have started way too late — all the people who wanted to see Grand Canyon that day might have already left hours before. Oh well, there was nothing I could do about it so I kept on walking.
Then a Brazillian guy in a convertible stopped for me. It was pretty lit driving around Grand Canyon on a sunny day with the wind in your hair. Thiago, the driver, insisted that I didn’t have to return his favor but I got him lunch anyway. When at Grand Canyon, a group of old ladies from Maine (or Minnesota?) was very excited to hear about our journey. In their head, they were probably rehearsing the romantic fantasy in which a damsel in distress rescued by the prince charming and they lived happily ever after. When I informed them that I was in a committed relationship, they shook their heads and insisted that we posed for a picture so they could show it to their grandkids back home.
Since Thiago was on his way to Utah, he dropped me in Cameron. I immediately got a ride with a truck driver who was donning a “Vietnam veteran” hat. It didn’t take me long to find out that he spent two years in Vietnam as a helicopter gunner. I asked if he was scared. He said yeah, people were trying to kill him all the time. I told him that he was probably trying to kill them too. I mean, he was literally the gunner. He said sadly: “Yeah. Everyone was trying to kill everyone.” He had never been back to Vietnam and didn’t intend to. When he found out that I was from northern Vietnam, he seemed bewildered. He kept shaking his head: “I’ll be damned.”
The Vietnam veteran dropped me just out of town. Since my phone was dead from taking way too many photos at the canyon, I had no idea where I was or where I was staying. I went to the gas station asking if anybody had a USB-C charger but apparently USB-C hadn’t arrived in Flagstaff yet. Then a man driving a van asked me if I needed help. I told him that my host’s place was next to a Bashas supermarket. He said he could give me a ride there because it was on his way, but when I was there it looked nothing like the place I was staying.
“It must be the other Bashas,” I told him.
“There’s more than one Bashas in Flagstaff?” He seemed to be even more confused than I was.
He looked it up and realized there was indeed another Bashas. Luckily, it wasn’t only a few miles from this Bashas so he dropped me there as well.
Encouraged by that day’s result, the next day I decided to hitchhike the 384 miles from Flagstaff to Santa Fe, New Mexico. However, it wasn’t all sunshine and roses. I got a good ride. A Navajo man from Winslow, when realizing I had never heard of Winslow, decided to play me the Eagles’ song “Take it easy”. The song went like this:
“Lighten up while you still can
don’t even try to understand
Just find a place to make your stand
and take it easy
Well, I’m a standing on a corner
in Winslow, Arizona
and such a fine sight to see”
This little town just off the old Route 66 was so proud of the song that they built a “standing on a corner” statue. My driver insisted to give me a tour of the town, which took about 10 minutes. My first impression that a lot of houses there could have used some attention. However, as I stood on a corner, I found it to be a charming little town.
My next ride was an 8000-ton truck and the driver was about half its weight (okay Chip, don’t be mean). He was huge and loved talking about food. He accepted my offering of chocolate and lit up when I told him that I had chicharrones for breakfast yesterday. He talked about his love for Carl’s Jr, Chester fried chicken, deep fried pork fat. He showed me his rock grinder and his automatic knife. He played with the knife and told me not to be scared, he only played with the knife so he didn’t get bored driving. Too late, I was already scared. He also kept asking if I wanted to take a shower because there was a shower the next truck stop. I thought he was weird, but I didn’t think of him as dangerous.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t say the same thing about my last ride that day. The driver was skinny with a rodent-like face, pointed ears, and little hair. He wore a pair of jeans twice his size and drove a pick-up truck that could have been vital in the second world war. I said if he was on the way to Santa Fe, he said yes. But as soon as he picked me up, he immediately turned around.
“Mm, where are you going?”
He said somewhere. I look it up on the map. It wasn’t on the way to Santa Fe.
“Don’t worry. I’ll take you to Santa Fe.”
But he kept driving further and further away from Santa Fe. God bless Google Maps. It could have saved my life.
“Can you just drop me somewhere so I can actually get to Santa Fe? The highway to Santa Fe is in the opposite direction.”
“I don’t want you to get on the highway,” he said.
He kept on driving.
“I don’t want to trouble you. I can get to Santa Fe by myself.” I tried not to sound too alarmed in case that’d trigger him. Who knows what kind of mental illness he had.
He smiled, nodded, and kept on driving.
“Can you please drop me?”
“Why don’t you let me help you?”
“You’ve already helped me enough. Let me go please.”
“Let me take you to Santa Fe.”
“You’re not going to Santa Fe.”
He had on that creepy smile like he was thinking of a joke somebody told him at breakfast. I started freaking out.
“I’m calling 911 right now.”
At that, he stopped the car and let me go.
I was positively shaken by that time. It was getting dark. Not wanting to push my luck, I ordered a Lyft to the train station and took the train from Albuquerque to Santa Fe.
And that was the end of my hitchhiking career in the US. I’ve hitchhiked in no less than a dozen countries, and statistically speaking, the US has given me the most unease. Strange country.