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An upside of hitchhiking: a way of connecting us

Roland Klein, on vacation to the U.S. from Germany, holds out his arm in the familiar request for a hitch at the entrance to the New Jersey Turnpike near New Brunswick, June 24, 1971.
File photo
/
Associated Press
Roland Klein, on vacation to the U.S. from Germany, holds out his arm in the familiar request for a hitch at the entrance to the New Jersey Turnpike near New Brunswick, June 24, 1971.

I hitched my first ride in New Zealand and was immediately hooked. I heard it was safe. Being on the other side of the planet, I felt more free to do what I pleased.

And, boy, did it please. I loved being untethered from bus routes and time schedules, like I was riding some endless wave.

In Virginia Woolf’s novel, "The Waves," Woolf seemingly passes a baton from speaker to speaker as she gives each of the six characters a voice to reveal their perspectives and inner thoughts, while never talking to each other.

Some days hitching I would get six rides in a row from drivers who never spoke to each other. Going car to car, I felt I was that baton being passed driver to driver, as each revealed a bit of themselves. In one day, I heard stories from a welder, a nurse, an engineer and a lighthouse keeper. Each seemed as glad to give me their view of the world as they were to give me a ride.

Once, arriving in Malmo, Sweden, I wanted a change from seeing the world through the window of a train.

"You can always hitch," the tourist office agent said. It was like she’d handed me a free ticket to the country, a way to hear its stories firsthand.

My grandfather was originally from Sweden. I never learned many details of his life, but hitching up the country’s spine, I got to know the details of a whole new generation as I moved car to car.

Many times people picked me up because they were hitchers. It wasn’t me they were interested in so much, but what I represented: the joy of travel.

“I brought home a hitcher,” one driver shouted with great pleasure as we pulled into his yard. He’d hitched up the coast of California once. Giving me a lift brought back memories of a trip he’d loved.

While getting into the cars of strangers may be risky, I like to think of it as a way of connecting us.

So when I see the hitcher at the trailhead, I stop and give him a lift. It’s a way to keep the wave of storytelling and listening moving forward, to keep passing on that baton.

Commentator Susan Johnson is a senior lecturer at UMass Amherst.

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