The Hitching Post

Hood R Bridge and Mt Final

Another Roadside Attraction

A few years back, I was on an assignment in the Columbia River Gorge.  This remarkable stretch of the West’s largest river cuts through the Cascade Range which separates the arid golden east from the deep green, rain-soaked west.  On either side of the gorge, the earth rises up on rusty basalt walls to thickly timbered foothills, upland orchards, wind generators, and snow-covered volcanoes. Over the centuries, this river route has been a passageway for native tribes, the early fur trappers, explorers, the wagon-wheeled pioneers, and finally yielding to rails, highways, wheat barges, craft brewmasters and kiteboarders.

I was driving home after a day’s work and picked up a forlorn young man, maybe in his thirties, standing by the road at the north entrance of the Hood River Toll Bridge.  This structure is the only route across the wide Columbia for miles in either direction.  The vintage steel crossing allowed barely enough width for two lanes, and there was no allowance for pedestrian or non-motorized crossing.

Which is what this poor confused hitchhiker found out the hard way just before he got in my van and took a seat. He had been on his way to Portland to visit his sick mother and was holding a small pack in one hand and his $175 citation in the other.  In his pocket was the fifty dollars that he hoped would get him a return bus ride if he managed to travel the seventy miles one way with his thumb.

It had taken him all of three minutes walking on the drawbridge to earn his ticket and a ride to the Washington side where I found him.  The trooper didn’t even have the courtesy to take him across.  But since he now was in debt, he cancelled his journey and asked me to drive him to a nearby junction from where he could walk home.  I handed him a twenty, we smiled and shrugged at each other, and he stepped out.  Been there.  Lesson learned.

Our minds, trained by our nature and our past and our culture, face an array of choices with every interpersonal connection.  Circumstance, judgment, safety, intrusion, ignorance, mistrust, compassion…  That’s a big menu to sort through when you take the challenge of ‘loving thy neighbor’.  As perplexing  as these emotional plays can be, we should know that in any moment an upward shift in consciousness can make each encounter a wholehearted lesson if you relax into it.  The choice is always there to pause and transcend making it something it is not.

Hitchhiking helped teach me one thing no matter which side of the door you are on.  That would be the value and expediency of making eye contact.  With every human whenever practical.  “I see the you that sees me.  ”Simple and efficient, it may be the best way I know to keep in control of our rarely reliable ego-selves.  Songwriter John Prine had it right when he advised:  “Don’t pass them by and stare, as if you didn’t care.  Say, ‘hello in there…’”

A Shoulder To Try On

Hitching a ride — trading shoe leather for the chance to sit next to a complete stranger holding a steering wheel — was quite common in this country until fairly recently.  Beyond being practical and environmentally sensible, hitching a ride is a statement of self-reliance, a declaration of independence, and an adventuresome art form.

Jim Croce Hitching Text Border FINAL.jpg

In the nineteen seventy-somethings, among us twenty-somethings, thumbing around was accepted, understood, and in many cases, necessary.  It was not a terribly worrisome enterprise back in the day, and for a guy who didn’t own a car until he was 23, I was willing to run the risk.

I was in a hurry to get back to Seattle one Monday morning for a midterm exam and chatting with a driver who took me from Fairhaven to Everett where he dropped me off on the shoulder of Interstate 5. After mentioning my schooling and the two and a half years yet to go, he kindly wished me luck.  As I got out, he offered, “That sounds like a tough row to hoe.”  So far so good, I thought.

Just 25 minutes later a policeman coaxed me out from behind a shrub where I was hiding and proceeded to cite me for ‘Pedestrian On The Freeway.’  I saw him down the road just as he saw me hightail it.  Driving me off the interchange with my hard-earned ticket, we engaged in conversation.  I explained once again my current situation, to which he commented as I got out, “Well, good for you, that’s a tough row to hoe.”

Yessir, getting tougher all the time.

Thumb in Air.  (Tongue in Cheek.)

One sweet spring Friday afternoon, I was standing on the side of State Road 9 north of Arlington, Washington.  Passing cars were infrequent and indifferent in spite of my beaming smile and clean-cut grad student persona.  A newer huge four-door Buick slowed to the shoulder.

A  pleasant, well-dressed woman leaned over the passenger seat to crank down the window and asked me where I was bound.  What luck to find she was headed to Bellingham and was more than happy to share her front seat.  I would make it for the start of all the weekend parties on Maple and Indian Streets after all!

As we rolled north and got to know each other, she introduced me to her two attractive high school-aged daughters in the back seat who had initially escaped my notice.  They were on spring break and on their way to take a tour of Western Washington University.  I knew I was outnumbered three women to one vulnerable preppy kid they found on the road.

This was of course years before cell phones and 911, but they didn’t look too treacherous, so I sat back and enjoyed the ride.  On reflection I can see that as rather unusual by today’s standards.  I didn’t make this up.  Well, it might have been an Oldsmobile.  Could be none of us cared to assume that suspicion was an option.

Life is funny like that.  Who are the bad guys?  Who are the good guys?  You don’t really know, do you?  No, you don’t.  None of us know.  But it’s just as easy to start with believing the best in the other.  And ourselves.  And what if there really were no bad guys at all?

Released On Good Behavior

Several months later, my school lab partner Rob let on that he was leaving after class on Friday to visit his girlfriend across the state in Pullman.  November is a dark time to be out on the open road, but I invited myself a lift to see if I could scare up some old college pals in Spokane 80 miles north.

Night had fallen well before we got to Whitman County, and while shaking my hand as if he might never see me again, Rob dropped me off at the highway junction in Colfax, a sleepy town on the Palouse River that was damp and deserted at 9:30 on Friday night.  I located the best streetlight and waited with my little sign in the chilly air just as the rain began to fall.

The old pickup truck looked like it stood an even chance of making it the 75 miles north, even with its one headlight and dragging muffler, so I climbed in the cab.  My host had recently been paroled out of the penitentiary in Walla Walla and was understandably curious about life on the outside.

I did my best to answer his questions.  As the miles went on, the conversation lagged and I found myself wondering what he was thinking I was thinking he was thinking.  And so it went until we arrived noisily under the late night lights of downtown Spokane.  I’ve a recollection of his asking if I had a place to stay somewhere as if he were hoping to find a free place to crash.

Somehow talking my way out of sharing the rest of my night with a possible cattle rustler or serial stabber, I invited him to pull over.  I gave him a few bucks for gas and stepped out into the rainy streets well short of my destination.

One of my students gave me a small card some years ago.  I still have it, and yesterday I put it in my wallet.  It reads, “If you think you know what’s going on, you’re probably full of shit.”  That’s what it said.

Study Questions:

  • What states does the Columbia River flow through?
  • When did the 911 emergency system become nationwide? Who was the first woman to call and report her cat was throwing up?
  • The old term “tough row to hoe” is used. Was the author really hoeing rows at school?  Are there also easy rows to hoe?
  • Who the hell is John Prine?

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