When I was younger, I used to hitchhike with some friends. We didn't have a car and public transportation was just unreliable. Of course, back then, it was a small town, no real crime, and people were pretty much friendly, or at least polite. The area was very much isolated, no big cities nearby. I was always grateful for rides from strangers, and when I got my first car, I didn't hesitate to offer a hitchhiker a ride if it was not out of my way.
I didn't mind picking up hitchhikers. I suppose it's because I know what a great feeling it is to finally catch a ride, especially on a hot summer day when everyone else just passes you by. It's such a big relief!
Seeing hitchhikers reminded me of my younger days when I was adventurous; the world seemed like such an exciting place, always something better and amazing on the horizon; I just needed to get there and see it for myself.
I remember my friends and I trying to catch a ride after school. We didn't have a school bus in high school. And the public buses weren't always on time, and very few drove by our school. It was long walk home, made miserable by the bright afternoon sun burning down on us. The black tar road radiated scorching heat, its surface looked like shimmering water on a hot clear day. But it was the horrible humidity that was the worst! Hot, heavy, sweltering air just sucking the energy out of you! Sweat soaking your clothes, dripping off your body, still not enough to cool you down.
Every time we heard a car behind us, we stuck our thumbs out, hoping some kind soul would take pity on us and drop us off at the main road just a few miles up ahead. And it was usually a pick up truck that stopped, much to our joy, and we would all thank our driver, jump in the back and enjoy the wind blowing in our faces, cooling us down for a few miles til we got to the main street. There, you had a better chance at catching the buses, as there were many more that went down that street. But usually, we'd take our bus fare money, buy soda or ice cream, sit under a shady tree and laugh and consumed our sweet, refreshing snacks before walking the rest of the way home.
I remember going to many out of town parties by hitchhiking. Sometimes, we'd head out to a far away beach. It was a lot of fun making new friends and hanging out with new people. Then after the party was over, we'd try to find a ride back into town; or we'd just wait til morning to try to hitch a ride back home. But sometimes on a clear, cool moonlit night, we'd start walking home, hoping to catch a ride from the rare car driving by so late. We talked, we joked, we laughed on the long walk on the lonely, deserted road.
I was so young and full of hope, so naive and trusting. It never occurred to me that something bad might happen. I believed that people were basically good and helpful. In some ways, I still believe that. But that innocence and carefree attitude came to an end when I first drove across state lines and into Texas. I was a few years out of high school, having had a full time job while thinking about what to do with my life. I decided to go to college and Texas was where I thought I ought to go.
After a few days of checking out the campus, meeting some new people, and enjoying the environment, I figured, this was it. This was where I was going to go to college. I was excited when I got in the car and started the two days drive back to the East Coast where I'd stay until school started. It was my first car; it was a very old car. It didn't have any A/C, so I had to drive with the window cracked open. The radio didn't always work, but the tape player did; so I bought a few cassettes to listen to on the long drive, singing along some of my favorite songs and dancing to some of the tunes.
I was on a high, feeling upbeat. Life was good, and I looked forward to the positive, exciting changes I was making in my life. Then as I got near a big city, I saw a sign. It was a strange sign! I didn't know it then, but this sign would change everything.
It was the first sign of that nature that I had ever seen in my life. It had never occurred to me that prisoners would escape and hitchhike!
An hour later, I was driving on a long stretch of interstate, very few cars as far as I could see. I was nearing an intersection, when I saw the familiar the silhouette of a hitchhiker, arm out with the thumb up, hoping for a ride. I automatically started to slow down, ready to pull over to give a fellow hitchhiker a ride. As I got closer to the hitchhiker, his features became clearer; he was an older fellow, scruffy beard, ill fitting clothes, and a dusty bag by his feet.
Suddenly, that sign flashed in my head. I was afraid, imagining the worst. What if this guy was an escaped prisoner? What if he was going to do something awful, like steal my car and go on a crime spree? I panicked, and picked up speed, confused by the sudden fear of hitchhikers that had gripped me. I drove on for a few minutes before I manged to calm myself down. What was wrong with me? I never had a problem picking up hitchhikers before. So why was I frightened now? Damn you, Texas and your road signs!
I started feeling terrible for abandoning the hitchhiker. I was a horrible person. How could I turn my back on someone in need? I was that person once, hoping for a ride to a better place, an escape from the harsh sun. I saw an exit for a nearby town and took it. I saw a gas station and a fast food place. The town was just a few miles further down the smaller road. I figured, I'll just go back to the intersection and pick up that hitchhiker. So, with my fear in check, I turned around and drove back to where I saw the hitchhiker.
He was still there when I returned to the intersection. Once again, I slowed down, ready to pull over and offer the man a ride. But suddenly, that stupid sign flashed in my head again! And once more, I had visions of escaped prisoners and my imagination ran wild with horrible things that could happen to me. I sped up again, for the second time abandoning the hitchhiker! If he wasn't pissed off before, he sure was mad now! I hoped he wasn't some crazy serial killer, and I worried he might've gotten my license plate number and maybe come after me for revenge!
Hours later, I was at a rest stop, thinking about what had happened to me. Why was I suddenly afraid of hitchhikers? Had I really been that naive? I wasn't sure what was going on. But from that day on, every time I saw a hitchhiker, I thought about that stupid sign.
Still, over the years since, I've stopped and picked up a few hitchhikers. A few I ignored. I tell myself that it's an instinct thing. If a hitchhiker gives me an uneasy feeling, then I don't stop. I still feel bad sometimes for passing them up, but I rationalize that it's better safe than sorry. Sometimes I wonder if that means that I'm older now, if I've grown more cynical and less trusting. Sometimes I wonder if it's a sign that I've gotten wiser.
I still get nostalgic for the old days when I was carefree, hanging out with friends, trying to catch a ride to the places we wanted to go. Back then, I used to think that once I got a car, things would be so much better, much more fun. Now I know better. It's the company I keep that makes life enjoyable. It was never about getting a ride; life is about having fun with friends on the journey, no matter what the destination.