The Hitchhiker

How many of you have ever picked up a hitchhiker?  Responded to the universal sign of right thumb out, side of road, facing traffic, right shoulder?  Hitchhiking is a social phenomenon that has become far less prevalent in the past few decades.  I don’t know why nor have I fully investigated its demise but you just don’t see hitchhikers with the frequency you did when we were kids.  In 1982 my pals and I left a Colorado ski trip and headed home.  They on a greyhound bus, me hitchhiking – I beat them home to NY by a full day!!  I was a pro at the hitchhiking game.  Clean cut, smile, eye contact, wag the thumb!!  Dems were da days.  The demise of hitchhiking may have to do with social indifference or ax murderers or something.  Back in the 60’s and 70’s my family picked up many a hitchhiker on our memorable trips out west.  4 kids, luggage, pillows, cooler of Dad’s Genesee Cream Ale (consumed copiously along the way), dog, Mom’s basket of egg salad, but we always found room for the hitchhiker.  And we always heard good stories.  A returning veteran, a hapless hippie, a runaway kid, a roving gypsy, all interstate characters worthy of help.  Never an ax murderer.  As an adult I will typically pick up someone hitching near a broken down car or bike, a signal that either the cell is dead, or the poor soul has no one to call.  One eyed, blood soaked, ax wielding, maniac hitchhikers I try to pass up.  Though even a person looking like that could be worthy of a good story, and after all, without a story, what do you have?

Hitchhiking is a mode of free transportation that has been around since before internal combustion.  Nowadays, it’s been vilified by Hollywood and outlawed by most state legislatures.  It is in fact illegal in Georgia (O.C.G.A. 40-6-97) to hitchhike. Its unpopularity is one more step towards the 2nd fall of Rome.  Too busy, too risky, to regulated, for us to give a shit anymore about those less fortunate.  Too many decapitating psychopaths I guess.  Leave it to the crazies to spoil a good thing.  The FBI says about 11 people a year are killed by hitchhikers on US roads.  Not bad odds.  We’ve got 62,000,000 cars and 320,000,000 people so chances of being decapitated as a host driver are pretty slim.

On many occasions I have picked up hitchhikers in my car or truck.  Well, never with one of my kids or wife on board, and always only if the “creepy” meter didn’t tilt past the “nutty” or “moderately bonkers” level.  Almost always, as said hitchhiker has stood at a disabled car or bike.  Once in a while, you’ll see a scrappy looking guy, sometimes with a dog, straggly hair, dirty coat, thumb out, at an interstate entrance ramp.  Probably not a great idea.  Dogs do sometimes carry fleas!  Humans sometimes do carry butcher knives!   Plus, for no other reason, people generally smell as they look.  I did pick up a normal looking guy a couple years ago, no backpack, no dog, no ax but the smell would have knocked a buzzard off a shitpile.  I realized this after my passenger door slammed shut, I, stuck in a gas chamber of body odor.  I lasted about five miles and had to let him off at the next gas station.  Took me all day of driving, windows down, to get the rotten farty cabbage smell out of my car.  Lesson learned, stick to the ‘smell like ya look’ rule.

This brings me to the question at hand.  Have you ever picked up a hitchhiker on your bike?  Seems a bit odd, but who amongst us hasn’t passed some person in need of a lift while motoring along with an empty passenger seat right behind you?  I’m not talking about Daisy Duke in halter top, she does not hitchhike, doesn’t need to.  Bike passenger riding, sometimes vulgarly referred to as riding “bitch”, is typically the province of the girlfriend or the wife.  Two dudes on a bike always a cultural faux pas.  I have saddled up a hitchhiker on the bike several times in my life.  Not just at a rally or a fundraising ride.  I mean out and about solo on the bike heading to work, or tooling around on a weekend.  I can recall two memorable occasions where I picked up yielded to the ‘thumb’.  The first was on a long distance ride in Italy where I piloted an early 70’s Suzuki Titan.  I and my riding partner Uwe rode the southern Italian coastline between Salerno and Termini and picked up two plump Italian girls on their way to ‘Holiday’ on the island of Capri.  We thought it funny at first.  We spoke no Italian and they no English.  All fun and games until gravity at the hill climbs slowed us drastically.  I remember cringing as the 500 cc bike lumbered under the strain of my 200 pounds and my passenger’s – well, it would be impolite to guess.  Though the soft backrest was a welcome departure from days of solo riding, slower speeds notwithstanding.  We departed after a long day.  Our chivalry bolstered.  The double Italian cheek peck (and a story) our payment.  I can still see them giggling and waving as we rode off.  So much for the biker credo of ‘gas, grass, or ass’.

My last “bike” hitchhiker was in fact of the 21st century.  A solo ride, evoking one of those moods where Bob Seger songs convince you that you are someone you are not.  A guy had broken down on the shoulder of I-85 in South Carolina so I pulled over to help.  His bike had a flat and we couldn’t fix it.  I offered a ride to the next exit in as deep a voice as I could muster.  I offered the ‘passenger’ pad and he hesitated obviously mulling over his limited choices.  We arrived 20 miles later, two up, at a QT off the exit. Of COURSE, the station had a group of fellow riders gassing up that stared and snickered.  We both laughed and shrugged it off.   He called a wrecker, and then his wife and we bought some coffee, shook hands and parted ways – masculinity intact!!

Give it a try sometime.  A hitchhiker is like a dance partner.  Just a longer song.  They’re pressed right up against you.  It’s personal for sure.  Remember though, if the ax murderer slits your throat, he’s sealed his demise too!  Biker hitchhiking has a built in safety net.  So give your fellow road warrior a helping hand and pull on over.  Swallow the pride and pick up a hitchhiker on your bike.  Just remember, Jack Nicolson rode on the back of Peter Fonda’s “Captain America” and both looked quirky cool in doing so.  Have I ever ridden ‘backseat’? – Perhaps, but if I had, I wouldn’t admit it to you.  I’m not Peter Fonda and I’m sure as hell not Jack Nicholson.  Although if you’ll recall, they BOTH died in that movie!!  Nonetheless, I’m always looking for a good story from the front seat, or the back, it makes no difference.

Well, signing off for now.  Remember, ride hard, ride safe, and in the end, make sure you ride home.

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