Friday, October 22nd, 1993 https://adamkhan.net/rambles/a-call-to-thumbs
t was the end of my first and last year of college at Deep Springs and I desperately wanted to get away from the place. But as I stood trying to thumb a ride on California’s practically deserted Highway 168, I realized that I’d forgotten my harmonica. Reluctantly I trudged in the hot desert back to that smallest, most isolated all-male college of 26 students in the United States. I figured I could wait twenty minutes before starting to hitchhike across America.
When I finally did hit the road it was a godsend. Sitting back in that first red Suzuki jeep, with unknown highways and untold thousands of white stripes ahead of me, God it was a relief. Let me tell you: if things difficult are piling up inside your head — and things difficult can plague University of Chicago students as much as Deep Springers — then my advice is to hit the road. Using your thumb.
Is that crazy? For haven’t you been told ever since you can remember that hitch-hiking, getting into a stranger’s car, is one of those things that just isn’t done? If so, it might be a parental no-no that’s worth reconsidering. First, hitching loosens you up and lays you back. During the school year all the schedule-juggling, meeting-attending, and chasing behind everything that’s got to be done can slowly fry your nerves into crinkled rashers — even if you’re relatively free of things difficult. But when you hitch you stand by the side of the road and just let people know you’d like a ride. It’s out of your hands, and that knowledge is therapeutic. It’s like in drama rehearsals where you close your eyes and allow yourself to fall backwards into a crowd of your fellow cast-members. You realize that struggling isn’t always the most effective way, that sticking your thumb out and jumping up and down desperately isn’t going to get you any more rides than sticking your thumb out. No, you don’t have to battle everything.
Hitching makes the tendrils of fate more obvious. It’s in your face that you can’t know where, with whom, and in what state you’ll be by the evening. When I left Deep Springs I had no idea that two days later I’d be sharing a quiet breakfast in New Mexico with Glen, a big taciturn trucker with either a strong Tennessee accent or a speech impediment, I was never sure. Okay, having breakfast with the gruff old geezer was not overtly thrilling, but it was so, well, unlikely. Of all the vehicles that passed me the day before, his was the one that stopped. The way your life is fated to unfold is completely unpredictable, and hitching reminds you of that.
Paradoxically, you also see how much control you have. You can choose on a whim to get off the highway in the middle of the desert, stop in a town that takes your fancy, or even change your route or destination. In Childress, Texas I decided to avoid the freeways and make my way south to San Antonio through Abilene. I didn’t get very far along the one-lane country backroads, but what an unforgettable hour I spent kicking around back-country Texas, swigging on a cold beer passed out the window of a passing Chevrolet.
But I admit: there can be problems. One evening I got a ride from a guy who established his bona fides early by talking about his honeymoon, which he and his wife happened to have spent in my country of birth, Scotland. He was wearing rainbow-colored suspenders, which perhaps should have warned me he’s a bit kooky, but I wear them myself. When he casually brought up his surprise that during the honeymoon she wanted to see a pornographic movie, I changed the subject to Oklahoma freeways. But after a while, no matter how hard I tried to steer the conversation away from pornography, an awkward non-sequitor brought us back to pornos and the problem of maintaining erection in front of movie cameras. We passed a tree and I told him I’d get off there, thanks. A bit of a hairy situation, but not exactly mortal danger.
Beyond calming you down, hitching teaches you a lot about your country. It brings you face-to-face with other subcultures, and because these reflect and distort the country’s values in a different way than your own, then what is common to them both, the country’s core values, are thrown into sharp relief. Take truckers. There’s a whole lot of them out there, but if you don’t live that life you can easily miss the subculture’s very existence, despite the number of trucks on the road and the profusion of accompanying service industries. Truckers spend most of their waking lives in their cabs, often taking their wives or kids along with them as they cross the country. Unlike most Americans, their main investment is their vehicle. These miniature homes contain televisions, VCRs, microwave ovens, even waterbeds. As subcultures go it seems a bit tawdry — CB talk on channel 19 is abysmal, marred by reverb gadgets that render incomprehensible speech even more so — but the heroic image these guys have created out of their profession provides a fascinating peek at Americans’ values. Truckers, it seems to me, see themselves as tireless self-made men striking out into unknown territory all by themselves, defying the radar-traps of authority in order to provide an economic backbone to the country. There’s puritanism, individualism, and rebellion all in there.
And riding with truckers is good because it gives you a taste of what it actually means when you buy lettuce in Hyde Park that was grown somewhere in California. It’s an amazing way for different parts of the country to get to know each other, to form a stronger national community. The roads have taken away a lot of the sense of community in the United States; people now work miles away from their homes, and as a result don’t even know who their neighbors are. Time for the roads to give something back.