August 13th, 2013
I’ll never get a ride out of here… Every time I go to ask a trucker for one, somebody else beats me to it. There’s a lot of us here at the rest stop. I hate having to compete with others. It makes me feel like I’m desperate, but I’m not desperate, I just want to get home and I don’t know when or if I’ll get there.
A truck pulls in and I walk at a fast pace toward the parking spot it’s heading to. I’m going to be the first to ask this one before they get bombarded by the other hitchers. I see one out of the corner of my eye getting the same idea as me. I increase my pace and so does he. Another hitcher pops out of the bushes and is a bit ahead of us. Another comes from behind at a full run. The next thing I know, everybody is running toward this unsuspecting big rig truck driver who will probably not want to take anybody with him anyway. I realize that I am running too. Its like I’m not even thinking, I’m a starving animal hunting for food and I hate this. This is so stupid but at this point there’s no way out, no buses, no trains. I’m depending on someone to get me out of here and get me home.
The next thing I know some of the hitchhikers turn around and start running toward me. Unshaven hobos with bags over their backs and angry scowls on their faces. I turn and run. What has this rat race come to? Is this a hitching territorial dispute? I’m scared. I run toward the far end parking lot and more hitchhikers pop out from behind cars and come after me. Before I know it I’m surrounded.
What have I gotten myself into? I should never have chosen to hitchhike. I have the money, I could’ve taken a bus or train. I feel an arm grab my shoulder…
Everything is really bright.
“Sir, you can’t be here.”
“You’re not allowed to sleep here. Pack your things up.”
“uhh… OK” I look around at the scene and my eyes adjust. I’m in the grass island in the middle of the parking lot. A few trucks are parked, some cars, people walking back and forth from the bathrooms. No sign of any hitchhikers, I feel a bit delirious having almost no sleep last night. I get up, pack my sleeping bag and check the place out. I arrived here last night after 10 miles of walking down the freeway. I was sketched out by some creeper in the night and never quite fully fell asleep, at least not until that dream.
I didn’t realize how scared I was to hitchhike. I’ve done this hundreds of times, just not in America. I don’t see why it should be so different but maybe I listen too much to the projected fears of other people.
Once I brush my teeth and make myself look the least bum-like as possible I begin asking drivers for rides. Now my salesman hat comes on and I do my best to portray a safe, clean and educated student traveler innocently looking for a ride home. There is really an art to hitchhiking and the approach and presentation are a couple important aspects of the art. The way you approach people is important, the look you give them and your body language. Something I do is approach the potential hitchee in a way that gives them power in the situation. Non-threatening and in a way that lets them know you will respect their wishes to leave them alone if asked. My feet walk toward them, determined and confident while my body language shows that I’m not going to be long. The pointer finger raised just enough to communicate an inquiry and allow for personal space. People don’t want to feel overpowered by having their space invaded but they are wary of someone who looks unconfident or nervous.
The next part is the smile. You have to show a smile but not a big fake one that looks like you’re hiding something behind it. After that is the actual words you choose. You can’t have a set choice of words to say but you at least need to start with a basic outline. To the point, quick introduction, what you’re doing and asking directly for the ride. It is important to first read the body language of each person you approach, some are in a hurry, some don’t look like they want to be asked anything, some are open and looking for a conversation. The words and speed of delivery change for everyone.
Some people will say no, no matter what and some will say yes, no matter what but all the effort is for the ones who are on the fence. Every bit of thought and work gone into the process of hitchhiking changes the outcome of how fast you get somewhere and the kind of rides you get. It’s a fun challenge that takes thought and skill.
It’s been almost two hours now and challenging would definitely be the word to describe my time. I’ve forgotten how discouraging it can feel to be rejected over and over. I must have asked 100 people already and not only have they all said “no” but they have been so standoffish and disgusted with me. People are looking at me here as if I’m the scum of the earth. It feels terrible to be judged.
There’s one lady here who I’ve sort of made friends with in the last two hours. She is doing what is called “flying”, meaning that she “flies” a cardboard sign asking for money. She’s been nice and encouraging to me. We’re both here, homeless and asking people for something so we have a common bond. She lives out of her car and drives here a few times a week to ask for money. She sits with a depressed look and the sign reads “homeless, anything helps, God bless”. She was a housewife for years, raising five children and is now divorced. She has no skills or work experience and can’t find a job so she “flies”. Her kids sometimes let her stay with them on cold winter days but she is a burden. I don’t really know if that is the full picture but it is pretty sad either way. Surprisingly though, she makes between 100-200$ per day. That was about what I was making working two jobs last year. It seems a bit unfair but I can’t complain, I’d rather work for my money.
I manage to maintain hope in the face of rejection and finally somebody agrees to take me. A salesman and father named Eric was an “on-the-fencer” who said I looked trustworthy and that I was somebody who had worked before. He’s a really cool guy who has a fascination for travel but family and career take priority in his life. We talked about selling, family, aspirations, working for your money, the attitude that some of the fliers or other hitchhikers have where they feel they are owed something. We covered a lot in the hour long ride.
He drops me off at another rest stop and the process of planned out presentation and a series of rejections repeats. I meet a new “flier” here and get to know him a little. A cool and likable guy around 40 with a fake story about his truck breaking down and needing money for parts. Some lady gives him blueberries and he gives them over to me complaining that he’d rather have a rib-eye steak with mashed potatoes. I found it amusing how much of a chooser this beggar was and was happy to get a box of blueberries out of it.
The rejections for some reason have been getting more harsh. People must think I am begging for money like the other guy. Or maybe I’ve over-analyzed how to charm people and look like a weirdo. Many times the only words I can get out are the beginning of an “excuse me” before seeing a palm in my face or hearing the word “NO!” or “Not interested!”. This is something I only rarely experienced in Europe but it seems to be so common here. I think people are generally more afraid here. I’m sure it has something to do with watching a lot of news and TV shows. I can’t get angry at afraid people so I treat them back with respect and a smile. Hitchhiking here is a great test for my patience and ability to stay hopeful. The beauty is that it always works out. I’ve never tried to hitch somewhere and not made it, just slower sometimes and faster others. It’s a good challenge that prepares me for other parts of life and a great lesson of how powerful hope can be.
I need to think like this while I’m here. I’ve seen myself become afraid of not finding a riding and getting stuck. I’m alone and all I can depend on is attitude. I may not yet be able to control fear in my sleep but I’ll do what I can in overcoming it when I’m awake.