I was on my way back to the bachelor pad after a city council meeting recently when I passed a young man hitchhiking.
He was northbound and I was southbound. Even had we been traveling in the same direction, I would not have stopped to pick him up, and that made me sad.
There was a time when I would have gladly stopped to pick up hitchhikers, and often did. In my youth, I relied on hitchhiking as a primary mode of transportation, and I appreciated the generosity of those who gave me rides.
I was not quite as debonair then as I am now. The fact is, I looked a bit rough, and it’s not surprising that some people accelerated rather than stopping to pick me up.
Hitchhiking was an important part of my early education, as well. I had read Steinbeck, London, Kerouac, and Hunter Thompson when I was quite young, and I was keen to get out on the road and meet some people. Encountering real-life characters is crucial training for a budding writer.
One Saturday night when I was 16, I was standing along a freeway entrance ramp when a trio of travelers in a big old car stopped to pick me up.
They had all been riding in the front seat, but when they stopped, one of them hopped into the back with me.
There were two women and one ancient guy. I never did work out how they were all related. They revealed they were on their way from a certain reservation to Superior for an evening of bar hopping.
Superior had not been my original destination, but it seemed as good a place as any to spend a Saturday night, so I went along for the ride.
My seatmate said her name was Jaimie. The stray light coming through the windows revealed that she was draped in some sort of white fake fur, and was wearing far too much makeup for my taste. Sitting next to her, I was enveloped in a cloud of fragrance rich in jasmine and musk.
With the innocence of a 16-year-old, I asked her what she did.
“I sell,” she said simply, leaving the statement hanging in the air, and giving me a direct look that made it clear she was not talking about cosmetics or office supplies.
“That’s cool,” I replied, always a consummate conversationalist. Then, as now, I wasn’t inclined to judge people.
We chatted about this and that, and presently we pulled up in front of a grim-looking bar in a seedy district of Superior.
The interior was dim and reeked of broken dreams and the passage of time. Despite the fact it was a Saturday, we were the only people in the place.
The woman who had been driving banged on the bar and hollered, inquiring if anyone was there.
Eventually, there was the sound of someone stirring above, and footsteps could be heard descending the creaky stairs behind the bar. A tired-looking woman appeared. She seemed to know my companions. They exchanged greetings, and a brief discussion ensued, after which we piled back into the car and headed to another bar. It was brighter, louder, and fairly crowded.
We ordered a round of drinks, and my friends went through an archway into a back room where a game of pool was underway. I drifted around exploring the scenery while country music blasted from a jukebox.
I ordered another beer, and propped myself against a wall where I could watch both rooms.
Later, it appeared that my fellow travelers were getting into a heated discussion with some of the locals. The atmosphere began to feel ominous.
Jaimie slipped away from the group, and discretely whispered in my ear, “You need to go now. There may be some trouble, and it wouldn’t be good for you to be seen with us.” She gave me a smile, squeezed my arm, and pushed me gently toward the door before returning to where her friend was engaged in a loud exchange with a red-faced guy holding a pool cue.
I considered her advice, decided it was good, and made my exit.
I walked through the brisk December air, looking at neon lights reflected in the snow until I came to a main road where I put out my thumb and began my journey back toward Duluth.
Those were simpler times. Although most people now, like most people then, are basically good, the world has changed.
There have always been risks. Even back when I was hitchhiking, I was adept at quickly scanning potential rides to determine whether they seemed safe. I did the same when I was considering picking up hitchhikers. One can’t judge a book by its cover, but one can get a vibe.
Today, however, with the increasing prevalence of meth and other scary drugs, the rules have changed, and it just isn’t safe to hitch rides or pick up hitchhikers anymore.
That’s sad, because chance encounters with strangers can be educational.
Stepping out of our comfort zone and spending time with people whose backgrounds are different from our own can be enlightening and expand our worldview.
It’s unfortunate that hitchhiking is no longer a safe option, because although the streets can be gritty and dangerous, one can learn more about people by spending time with them in a confined space than one ever could on the screen of some electronic device, which seems to be where many people choose to have their adventures today.